For anyone who likes to arrive late to the party, like @TomTheBeliever's sprog.
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7
Brick bones of the new cathedral jutted from uneven walls. Labourers scurried up scaffold towers to deliver stone meat for masons to pack around them. It was, Vitus thought, like watching beetles devour a carcass in reverse. The scale of the building was vast and the industry employed in raising it almost as impressive. If he had not witnessed the building of the Coliseum so many hundreds of years ago it would have been a marvel to behold. Instead the view through the grimy glass barely tempered his annoyance.
He turned back to where Hasper sat, picking his nose, at the long bench. The lank haired elf studied what he extracted nonchalantly and, finding it acceptable, popped it in his mouth. Vitus winced, but before he could raise an insult the door to the low ceilinged room was booted open.
A tall man wrapped in a mud-splattered grey cloak strode imperiously in.
"Well?" Vitus asked. "Did you find her?"
"Oh yes." Replied the newcomer, shaking his head in dismay.
A rosie-faced, plump woman half Vitus's height almost fell into the room with a whooping laugh.
"Watsh the shtep." She chuckled to the slim woman following her.
Closing the door behind her and pulling back her hood, Hasper's sister Elnin muttered,
"You're joking." Vitus managed. "Pissed already? What the hell Mergen?"
The proud, muddy wizard shrugged,
"She found some local wine merchant down on the river. The old gods alone know how she managed to get in to the warehouse."
Old gods be damned, Vitus thought, the drunken dwarf had got in the same way she got in everywhere. She was the best lock-breaker he had met since the trade had been invented, at least when she was sober she was. He bent down to try and look the thief in her bleary eyes,
"Laima." He snapped his fingers and her head rocked back as she frowned with concentration. "Can you work?"
"Wok? Shure. I can wok." She slurred, wiggling her fingers in front of her. Then her eyes rolled back and she fell sideways, smacking into the wall and sliding down it until she lay slumped, the plaster pulling one cheek up in a drooling smile.
Elnin sat down with her brother and got out a pack of cards. Hasper crowed in delight and wriggled to attention on the other side, his eyes gleaming with greed,
"Half your cut?" He asked his sister.
"It'll be half your cut bonehead."
"Cocksure nes pa? As the locals say. Deal, oh sister mine."
Vitus turned in a circle, impotent fists squeezing the air as he fought his frustration.
"It'll be nobody's sodding cut if we don't get this idiot back on her feet." He spat.
Mergen pushed past the Roman and crossed to the pack he travelled with,
"I think I can whip something up to put her stumpy legs back under her. Not sure how long it will last though. Any sign of the knights yet?"
Vitus looked doubtfully at the snoring body of the dwarf and shook his head.
"Not yet. They'll be here soon though, they're holding up the work on the crypt. The Bishop won't let anyone near it until they've moved all the relics."
Mergen began unpacking vials and pouches and glanced up at the scene of construction beyond the tiny window,
"That'll get on the foreman's nerves then. Amazing really, he's the first French builder I've ever seen who actually sticks to a timetable. Gods that place is going to be monstrous when it's finished."
Vitus snorted and started lifting Laima into a more acceptable position.
"The original Bishop was one of your lot wasn't he?" Mergen continued. "Some early Christian type. Burnt to death or what have you."
Laima was heavy, even when not filled with lead of the drunk, and Vitus could only manage another grunt in reply. He remembered Saturnius though, a bald man with wide, zealous eyes. A mob had tied him to a sacrificial bull and dragged him down the Tolosa – Toulouse's main thoroughfare. Vitus had still been young in his new life, only a few centuries after Mergen had cursed him. He had watched it happen. He let go of Laima and stood, she slid back down the wall into an even more crooked pose.
"He was a Roman citizen all right, they made him a Saint. That thing out there is named after him actually, Saint Sernin. Funnily enough I last saw him on the very road we're supposed to be on our way to now. Not far from the bridge. Last saw him alive that is."
The old wizard was busily stirring together a mixture of acrid smelling herbs in a small brass cup. Hasper slapped a card down with an Elvish curse and his sister chuckled. He snatched the pack from her and began to shuffle as if he could murder his bad luck out of it.
"Don't worry Vitus." Mergen reassured him. "We'll be there in plenty of time I'm sure, and this little concoction should make sure Laima can do her job. This morning was just a minor setback; from here it will be smooth seas. You'll see."
The assertion alone was enough to knot Vitus's stomach with dread. Ancient, venerable and wise Mergen may have been, but he was also stupidly optimistic and phenomenally arrogant.
Mergen turned, a false look of hurt on his craggy face.
"Always with you it's Carcassonne. Nobody could have seen that coming."
I did, the Roman thought. Not to mention the two dozen archers around the courtyard, you arcane nitwit. He let his expression carry the thought rather than his words but Mergen smiled blithely back,
"Get her up then. It's high time we were underway. You two," he snapped at the elves, who paused to look over, "get yourselves over to the bridge and get the cart ready, we can catch you up."
The pair nodded and Hasper laid another card quickly. It was followed by a string of Elvish in which Vitus could make out something about goats and unlikely positions. The insult did nothing to dent his sister's smile as she collected up the cards. Vitus doubled over again and prepared to drag the sack of dwarfish snores upright a second time.
Upsetting a cartload of timber on a bridge was not, Vitus thought, very original. He had to admit though that the Elvish twins, their hoods hiding the long points of their ears, had done a competent job of making it look like a real accident. From the steps down to the river he could see them on the far side, fussing around the agitated horse and arguing loudly in what he hoped passers-by thought was a Germanic tongue. The animal was bucking fitfully because of the salve Mergen had smeared on its genitals.
Laima leant forward on his shoulder again, her heavy breath stinking in his ear.
"What we after again?" She asked for the third time since they had herded her across the city from the new born cathedral. Vitus pushed her back and sat a little further away on the step.
"Round reliquary. Dark wood inlaid with lapis. It should be in the largest chest." He forced out patiently.
"No, no. I get that." The dwarf waved a hand in front of her. "I mean, what's in it?"
"Depends who you talk to." Vitus answered, leaning back to check the other way down the long road. "Christians think it's some kind of bone of one of the Apostles. Back in my day it was supposed to be part of a horn from the Greek Minotaur. It's a healing charm."
"What is it really then?" asked the swaying footpad thickly.
"Dragon's tooth. Stolen from an Elvish Queen in the Thracian forests, one of Mergen’s old girlfriends.”
The drunk dwarf snorted derisively, “I don’t know what they see in him, he won’t even grow a proper beard.”
“Those side whiskers of his are well beyond anything the likes of Hasper could manage. That must be pretty butch by their standards. Point is, its time to return the tooth to its rightful owner.”
A gurgled laugh came from the dwarf,
"Oh yeah. Just returning lost property. That one never gets old Vitus." She wiped a tear from her eye. "I'd imagine Mergen's just doing it for the good will too."
"The Queen’s got some bit of magical claptrap he wants to get his hand on no doubt, but frankly I don't give a toss why he's doing it. Or you for that matter."
He checked the road again and saw in the distance a set of horseman preceding a covered wagon. He whistled down to the river where Mergen looked up from a book in the waiting boat. They exchanged nods and both men stood to ready themselves.
"Gold. Pretty straightforward. Mergen's giving us enough gold to get drunk for a month."
"It won't last you a week then, and Hasper will have lost his to Elnin before that. Mergen's got the measure of you three." He tightened the belt that held his gladius. Laima let out another chuckle and lent against the wall of the steps to steady her rise to her feet,
"He's got the measure of you too, I'd say."
Vitus did not answer, but withdrew out of sight of the clattering procession of armoured men. The pair waited, backs against the sandstone, as the staccato hammering of hoof beats grew louder. The former centurion closed his eyes and concentrated on the sounds. Once, he would not have been able to tell if there were two or ten mounted riders, but it was amazing the skills you learnt during the boredom of immortality. He even knew how to balance an egg on its pointed end these days. As the creaking protest of the cart replaced the sounds of the horse’s shoes he lent up toward Laima,
"Six mounted men, all in full chain and plate. One more driving the cart team and one rider following."
The dwarf belched in acknowledgement and Vitus shook his head. They could hear the reins of the horses being brought up short now as the caravan reached the twin's roadblock. The stentorian voice of the commanding knight rang out, demanding passage over the huffing annoyance of his men's steeds.
He nudged Laima up the steps until they could see the road. The rear guard was looking around the locked wagon to the commotion ahead, unconcerned with his allotted duty. Vitus did not blame him. Busy merchants trotted between the buildings of Toulouse's main road behind the sentry, running the gauntlet of noisy stall holders trying to separate them from their coins. You would have to be an idiot to attack a group of armed horsemen in the middle of a city on a hot summer's day.
Laima, closed one eye and studied the street with wine born myopia. As chaotic as it was, its inhabitants were oblivious or uncaring about the caravan on the bridge. She gestured Vitus past and he flexed his knees a little before sprinting out from the steps and up behind the knight who was watching his commander berate some foreign idiots.
Vitus had vaulted on to the horse of the surprised knight before he could turn enough to see him out of the slit in his helmet. The same helmet that Vitus popped into the air with both hands to expose the startled face of a teenage boy. It had not even clattered to the ground before Vitus punched the youngster's temple and knocked him as unconscious as the dwarf had been only an hour before. Jove the world has gone backwards, thought Vitus absently, what had ever happened to chinstraps? Soothing the horse, he hooked his legs around the knights and pulled them out of the stirrups, then he let the adolescent knight gently down to the ground below. At least he had meant it to be gentle, the weight of his armour pulled the youth out of Vitus's grip and he smacked down the last few feet onto the waiting Laima.
The two of them looked furtively about, but their subdued ambush seemed to have gone unnoticed by the citizenry. Vitus swung back down from the horse and pulled the knight off of the wobbling dwarf. He jerked his head at the back of the locked cart meaningfully and Laima put her hands out as if she was on a ship's deck until she steadied. Then she tip toed with sniggering exaggeration across to the door. Vitus ground his teeth at her fooling and dragged his victim into the shade of the steps to check he was not seriously hurt. He had no compunction against violence; he understood its place in life. As a good Roman he had believed that the aggressive tendencies of men should be focussed and expressed rather than doused with the cold water of reason. As a soldier he had killed more than a few youngsters like this one, but he did not like ending people's lives needlessly.
He assured himself the boy was well and sighed, happy in his compassion. Then the youngster's eyes flicked open and without thinking Vitus smashed a fist into his face, breaking his nose and knocking him back into the arms of Hypnos. He looked down at the blood, up at the sky in despair and dropped the lad heavily on the steps so he could creep back to the road.
Several of the knights had dismounted and were now helping clear the timber to one side. Vitus could see Elnin doing her best to be weak and feminine. Considering she could have tossed any of the armoured men over the parapet of the bridge it was quite a convincing act. Happy that all was going to plan he ran to the unlocked door of the wagon and climbed in to its dark, stifling interior. Laima was in there, working a set of picks into the lock of the largest trunk among a dozen or so in the treasure wagon. She had to stop to wipe thick beads of sweat from her eyebrows, blinking back the salt water that had slipped past them and shaking her head. There were, of course, no windows in the cart and the French summer was cooking the closeted bones of the saints it carried. It was his turn to lean in to her ear,
"How long?" he whispered.
"Not too sodding long I hope." She muttered back. "It's like an Arabian whore's gusset in here."
The dwarf shuddered with a suppressed hiccup and bent back to work. The lock was an impressive, geometric affair: multiple bolts running into its central mechanism. Vitus drew back and concentrated on the sounds outside. As far as he could tell, the rear sentry had not been missed and all activity was still centred on clearing the bridge. He rubbed his chin, a dozen other plans he could have implemented charging through his mind, too late to be of use now.
A quiet click and a deep breath turned his attention back to Laima. She twisted the central mechanism and the bolts slid cleanly out. Crowding forward, Vitus helped her raise the oak lid. Inside a beautiful carved casket lay packed in straw, the blue stones around its base lustrous in the cart's half-light. Laima's shoulders dropped and as Vitus reached across her to withdraw the reliquary she let out a massive sickening belch with visible relief. His eyes widened and his hands clutched at their prize as all the noise outside the cart ceased.
"Shit. I don't feel too good," the sweating dwarf managed.
Vitus hauled out the wooden box and shoved Laima toward the rear as armour rattled quickly to the back of the cart. The door tore open and they found themselves facing half a dozen knights, their helmetless leader's eyes wide with outrage. Vitus noted that nobody had drawn a weapon yet. From the fury on the commander’s face it was clear he could barely believe their audacity at trying to rob him. His surprise and disgust at the act was only seconds later trumped by his surprise and disgust when a drunken dwarf, two feet from his face, vomited on him with noisy gusto.
Vitus had spent several centuries actively trying to stay out of trouble. He had tried living in a hermitage and a wilderness. He had tried being a teacher and a stable hand. But whatever vocation he chose and wherever he hid, trouble was never to be denied. He had come to appreciate that it was a disease that afflicted life. You could, through isolation, timidity or simple inaction escape the disease for decades, which for many could be a lifetime. In the end though, nature or circumstance would throw drunken dwarf vomit into the heavily armed face of your fate and you would be infected again. It was a matter of inevitable odds. It had happened to him so often that his instincts for dealing with it were hardwired reactions. That meant there was no surprising the centurion in the way these men standing before him were. He burst out of the cart, dragging Laima with one hand and wrapping the box under his free arm. Before the bile soaked commander had cleared the viscous liquid from his eyes Vitus had already shouldered two of his men out of the way and was breaking for the steps.
He heard swords scrape from their scabbards behind him as he made to jump over the body of the young man on the stairs. He leapt up and was suddenly jerked back mid-flight. He crashed to the ground and looked around to see one of the men had grabbed Laima's foot and was using her to haul them back into reach of his friend's swords. Laima was coughing more vomit on to her grubby dress and kicking weakly. Vitus tightened his grip and started to get up. There was a thud as an arrow sank into the stonework above the dwarf, between the two wrestling men. Everyone looked back to the far side of the bridge to see Elnin standing on the wall, notching another black shaft to her bow. The knight let go of Laima and shrank back for the cover of the cart. Released, Vitus and the dwarf tumbled down the rest of the stairs in a tangle of limbs. Dazed at the bottom, he looked up to see Mergen standing in the boat and beyond him Hasper shouting with glee as he jumped off the bridge into the waters,
"Don't sit around you fool, get in the boat." The wizard admonished. Vitus was dimly aware of the foul smell of Laima's liquid breakfast as he struggled up against his body's protests. A whizzing noise told him that Elnin was keeping the knights pinned down and he hobbled over to the small dingy, almost throwing the dwarf in to the prow ahead of him.
The wizard shouted to their Elven archer, signalling for her to join her brother and she loosed a last arrow before doing so. Then he shoved an oar at Vitus and pushed away from the quayside with his own. A battle cry rolled down to them as the knights, ungainly in their plate greaves, tried to rush down the stairs after them. Vitus managed a smile as the front two completed their descent in the same manner as he had, forming a metal barricade for their companions. Hasper reached the side of the boat and hauled himself in. The rocking as he did so summoned a loud groan from Laima, who was promptly sick over the side. Hasper laughed openly at her and then seemed to remember his sister, rushing to toss the stern line out to her. The two oarsmen pulled with practised unity as if it was their life's work, which at one point it actually had been, and the boat moved into the river currents. Angry French curses spat from the commander of the knights and Mergen, on the bench next to Vitus, began to grin.
"They won't be swimming after us in that get up." He risked a mocking wave. "Où est votre bataeu?" He shouted happily.
One of the angry knights threw a knife at them and it splashed into the water on Mergen's side, raising another laugh from the old man even as he heaved strongly at the oar. They began to get up speed as Hasper dragged his sister in like a hooked fish, hand over hand. Vitus shook his head and tried to ignore the stench on his vest. He shot an angry sideways glance at the wizard.
"Well," Mergen countered with a grin. "It wasn't as bad as Carcassonne."