1 On The Streets of Five Fingers (part 1)
The rays of the dawning sun turned the rain-sodden streets to liquid gold, the wet flagstones glistening brightly. Blinking against the glare, Matthias Warlock made his way slowly back to his lodgings. The night had been long and difficult. Following the battle in the churchyard, he had stripped the two bodies of whatever he could find that might have been valuable and then headed straight to the house of an apothecary he knew, just off the Serpent’s Way. There he traded much of the ‘loot’ for two healing draughts, which he had consumed without delay. With his wounds now healed for the most part, he returned to his rooms he kept above the training hall of the Corvis’ Knight Dueling Academy.
The Academy building was the largest in its ward, with a stone walled hall occupying the ground floor, and then two levels, built of wood, above. In the upper levels were lodgings for Academy members in good standing, a private training area for advanced students, the Master’s rooms and, it was rumoured, a substantial armoury. The Academy had been founded nearly a century previously by a veteran of the Cygnar army. How he had come by the wealth he expended in the construction of the impressive school was still the subject of some speculation.
Swiftly climbing the Academy’s stone steps, Matthias ducked his head under his collar to avoid the heavy droplets of water falling from the eaves high above. Once inside the door, he straightened his knee length robe and kicked the water and mud from his boots. Arrayed around the walls were racks of training weapons, some of wood, others of iron. Against the back wall was a shrine to Ascendant Markus, patron of soldiers and guards; students were expected to pay homage before every class. In the middle of the training floor two young men drilled with quarterstaves. It was unusual for the Academy to be so empty at this time.
Matthias was struck by the mighty figure of an ogrun male standing at the foot of the stairs. The ogrun was easily eight and half feet in height and heavily muscled. He leaned indolently against a stout warcleaver, but there was an alert look in his dark eyes. Though probably not expecting trouble, he was clearly ready for it. Sparing him a sideways glance, Matthias climbed the stairs. As he made his way down the hallway, the gunmage heard voices coming from behind the door to his rooms, which was ajar. It occurred to him that the Academy’s bursar might be clearing out his belongings, having long threatened to do just such a thing. He burst in to confront the old coot.
Instead he found a woman dressed in leather armour, studded with iron and dyed a deep scarlet. The armour was cut to resemble a ladies’ corset, with the woman’s cleavage fashionably displayed, and had been clearly tailored to suit her hair, which was pinned high in a font of fiery curls. It was her thin face that drew Matthias eyes, however. She had the high cheekbones, emerald green eyes and point tipped ears that were characteristic of the people of Ios. Down the left side of her face was a long scar, possibly from a sword stroke, which drew the eyes but did little to mar her graceful features.
Reacting to the woman’s elven heritage, Matthias instinctively drew his magelock and pointed it at her face, fearful that she was a sister to the magehunter he had fought in the churchyard in the night. He was completely surprised when the elven woman threw down herself, drawing a brace of elegant, gilded pistols from holsters that Matthias had not at first noticed. Scanning from the woman’s gunbelts up her body to the two guns in his face, he smiled.
Matthias’ attention was drawn by the sound of steel scraping free from a scabbard. Glancing sideways he saw a second woman, who had been standing out of sight behind the door. Like her companion she was also armoured, but hers was a steel breastplate, with greaves and gauntlets. Her hair was shoulder length, the colour of ebony and she held a fine hand-and-a-half blade, with competence and confidence. Most striking of all though was her beautiful face, with dark eyes beneath fine arched eyebrows. Her skin was the colour of cream. While the elven woman was striking, the scar notwithstanding, her human companion was stunning in appearance.
“Put up your weapon, sir,” said the woman with the sword. Matthias shrugged and withdrew his pistol. The elf in red held her guns on him a moment more and then withdrew them too, returning them to their holsters.
“Nice pair,” Matthias said.
“Excuse me?” she asked, looking up suddenly and clearly offended.
“Your pistols,” explained Matthias with a nod. “Fine workmanship.” The woman’s offense appeared to ease.
“Now,” continued the gunmage. “Would you two ladies mind telling me why you are waiting here in my rooms? I assume it is not to ambush me, since you’ve surrendered your opportunity for that.”
“We are seeking a man called the Warlock,” said the redhead. “Are you he?”
“It depends why you are looking.”
“Do not try us, sir,” rebuked the swordswoman.
“Would you stop calling me sir; it is like being back in the army!” snapped Matthias, the long night at his back wearing his patience thin. “Now please, I have returned here to rest after a long and unpleasant night. Do me the courtesy of stating your business clearly.”
He pushed past the swordswoman and through the door to his bedroom. Walking over to the battered old side table he pulled his robe over his head, leaving himself naked to the waist. Instead of a belt, he wore a sash of burgundy coloured cloth. The sash was wound about his middle several times and the two ends hung at one side. There was embroidery, in black and white stitching, on each end. Matthias plunged his hands into the washbasin on the side table, scooping up the water and splashing his face and chest. He rubbed himself clean and then toweled off the water with a cloth left for the purpose.
Outside his bedroom door, the two women continued their conversation, as if he were no longer present.
“This barbarian is the one you wish to hire?” asked the dark haired one. “I cannot believe it.”
“I don’t know,” answered the red head. “He has a certain appeal.”
“Do not be lascivious!”
Matthias rubbed his fingers through the short, ash-blonde hairs on top of his scalp and then down the lone braid that hung from the back of his head. When he was done, he pulled his robe back on. Then he emerged from his bedroom.
“Ladies, allow me to stop you there,” he said. “I am not a mercenary for hire and I am not currently accepting new students, so whatever purpose you sought me for, I am afraid that I am unlikely to accept. I am sorry if your journey has been a long one but…”
“You haven’t even heard our proposal,” protested the pistoleer.
“True,” said Matthias with a shrug. He was about to usher them out and take his rest, when there was a knock at the door. “Enter,” he called.
A young boy poked his head through the door, a page of the Academy. This one was an urchin named Brent, rescued from the squalor of a beggar’s life by the Master of the Academy.
“Beg pardon, master Matthias,” he said seriously, tugging at his forelock. “Gosling boys ‘s in the street, callin’ you out.”
“Are they indeed. Thank you Brent. Please go tell the Master that I am out the front speaking with them, would you?”
“Yes master,” said the boy with a nod, but he stood staring at the two beautiful armoured women in the room.
“Run along, Brent!” commanded the Warlock as he headed to the chest against the wall behind the door. With his reverie broken, Brent the page rushed off down the hall.
“Gosling boys?” asked the elf.
“Gosling Street Runners actually,” replied Matthias, reaching into the chest and producing a pair of hand axes with spikes projecting from parts, like the heads of a halberd.
“Katrena’s hooks?” asked the dark haired warrior rhetorically, recognising the weapon.
“Can’t you tell them to wait till you’re finished with us?” the elven woman asked, clearly somewhat peeved at the interruption to her business proposal. “They called upon you second.”
“They are not paying me that kind of call,” Mathias said with a half smile. “I tell you what ladies…what are your names?”
“I am Viridian Swift,” said the elf. “My companion is Honour Pendragon.” The woman named Honour scowled that her name had been revealed without her permission, but said nothing.
“Well then, Lady Viridian; Lady Honour,” Matthias said bowing slightly to each one in turn. “If you will please excuse me, this is business that may not wait. If, at its end, I am still here, I would count it a signal honour for you to accompany me to breakfast at the pie shop on the corner; Harris’s it is called.”
“If you are still here?” Honour asked, plainly unsure of his meaning, but Matthias had already left the room. The two women followed him as he walked with a confident gait with the twin axes held in his left hand. He descended the stairs, slipping easily past the ogrun waiting at the bottom. As the two women rushed up behind him, the ogrun looked to them for direction. Honour shook her head, while Viridian also slipped past the armed giant-kin.
As he headed to the door, Matthias paused momentarily to raise both axes in salute to the shrine of Ascendant Markus, out of respect for the traditions of the Academy rather than a belief that Markus might actually bless him. Then he turned and stepped out onto the wet street. A crowd had gathered, standing back several dozen paces from the Academy’s entrance. Standing on the cobblestones, in the middle of the ring created by the spectators, were four individuals. Two were skinny men, barely more than youths, rough-shaven and shirtless, with rough woollen knickerbockers and runner’s slippers; each carried a quarterstaff. Another was a much burlier man with a bushy, black moustache. He wore a long, leather blacksmith’s apron and wielded a heavy sledgehammer. The last figure was almost finely dressed, at least in comparison to his comrades. He wore doeskin breeches and elegant leather boots, though these were badly scuffed. Over a developing paunch he wore a purple silk blouse. Like the hammer wielder, he also had a bushy moustache, though his was well trained and greying. He carried a rapier, scabbarded and hung from a broad leather baldric. On his head was a leather hat with a turned up brim on one side that sported a rosette of dyed goose down; gosling feathers. All four were members of the Gosling Street Runners, a gang of street thieves and stand-over men that dressed their activities in the pretence of being bearers and messengers. The aging dandy was the gang’s leader, Oily Hermes Forstaff.
“There you is, Warlock,” declared Hermes loudly when Matthias appeared. “I come from two of my boys who breathed their last ‘afore dawn, you bloody dog!”
“Would these be the two fools who crossed me at Catskinner’s Alley last eve?” asked Matthias in an equally loud voice. With the many events of the preceding night, the two street thugs from the start of the evening seemed a distant memory.
“Don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that Warlock, but I know it was you what done for ‘em!”
“I do for all thieves stupid enough to try me, Hermes; you know that!” declared Matthias. Hermes hand went involuntarily to a scar hidden beneath his blouse. Two years previously a bullet from Matthias’ gun had nearly slain him; even the best healers could not remove scar.
“You bastard!” spat the man with the hammer. Oily Hermes put his hand on the man’s shoulder and then drew his rapier.
“We’ve got grievance, gunmage. We come to take the blood what’s owed to brothers.”
There was a moment’s pause. Behind him, Matthias heard Honour, Viridian and their ogrun companion as they stood in the entranceway, looking out through the door.
“No guns?” he asked.
“No guns!” said Oily Hermes.
“Right!” Matthias undid his gunbelt and dropped it onto the steps. He scanned his eyes around at the spectators, addressing them directly. “You here are all witnesses. I fought alone; the Corvis’ Knights were never part of this. When the greencoats ask, that is what you will tell them.”
Taking one axe in each hand, Matthias walked down the steps and onto the street. The crowd murmured in excitement as the four Goslings fanned out to surround him. Matthias ignored the other three and walked straight for Oily Hermes. The gang members had almost no time to get close to the gunmage before Matthias’ confident stride carried him straight into melee with their rapier wielding leader. Hermes lunged with his rapier, but Matthias was ready. He struck the blade away with one axe and stabbed with the end point of the other. Hermes desperately put his hand in the way, trying to deflect the axe. Instead the point pierced his palm and he cried out in pain, staggering backwards. Blood sprayed onto his silk shirt.
There was a loud crack as one of the staff armed men struck Matthias on the back. Matthias grunted and then staggered sideways as the other staff wielder tried to knock his feet out from under him. He managed to keep his feet, however, and quickly charged back at the attacker, his right hand axe raised over his head. The young man raised his staff to block the strike, but this only made him more open to the left hand axe, which Matthias drove point first into the young man’s stomach. The ganger doubled over, dropping the staff, and then the right axe fell, staving in his skull.
The man with the hammer and the second staff wielder looked to each other, uncertain whether to proceed.
“Don’t just stand there, have at him!” cried Oily Hermes.
The hammer man lunged forward, barrelling into Matthias, who staggered backwards, feet slipping on the wet flagstones. He went down on one knee, which saved him, as the quarterstaff arced through the air above his head. Sidestepping the quarterstaff that had missed Matthias, the burly man swung the hammer above his head and brought it crashing downwards. Defending with both axes, the gunmage tried to stop the assault, but the heavy weapon had enough power to continue some way on its course, falling into Matthias’ shoulder. The struck arm sagged under the pressure, seemingly broken, but when the hammer wielder tried to draw his weapon back for another stroke, he found that Matthias had it trapped between the hooks of the two axe heads. The man shifted his grip to try again, but Matthias was ready and when his grip was weakest, he found the haft twisted from his hands. Even as the heavy iron head thudded to the cobbles, Matthias spun himself backwards, keeping low and swung his back leg in a clean arc that tripped the now disarmed man. Not rising from his crouch, Matthias axe rose and fell upon the man’s right hand, severing fingers and tendons. The man gasped in pain, but to his credit did not cry out.
The second staff man thought to charge while Matthias was down, but before he even brought his weapon to bear, the gunmage threw his right hand axe, striking in the sternum and dropping the runner dead on the spot. Matthias transferred his remaining axe to his right hand and began to stalk towards Oily Hermes, who stood cursing in pain and trying to staunch the wound in his hand. As the gunmage approached, Hermes could make out a growing bruise on his face. The downward hammer blow had struck not only his shoulder, but also cracked his cheekbone and jaw on the way past; the ugly swelling was quickly turning a purple and black. Before Matthias could close the distance between them Hermes looked upward, as if perhaps about to pray, and nodded.
There was the loud crack of a rifle’s retort, and Matthias was knocked from his feet, spun about like a kite in the wind. There was a burning pain in his side, and his sight darkened. As he struggled to rise, he heard Oily Hermes’ voice almost crack as the gang leader screamed out, “Again! Shoot him again! Finish him!”
Two more shots rang out over the crowded street, and Matthias’ collapsed into the rising darkness.
Following the final two shots, there was a cry from the second story window where Oily Hermes’ sniper was hiding. The gang leader turned to see his man fall from the window to the streets with a noise like a falling sack of grain. Hermes looked around the street to see a red headed elf in red leather standing on the steps of the Academy, two pistols smoking in her hands. Hermes screamed with inarticulate frustration and lunged forward, thinking to finish off the downed Matthias Warlock with his rapier.
Before he could reach the unconscious man however, he was confronted by a huge, muscled ogrun with a warcleaver. The heavy blade was pointed directly at Oily Hermes’ chest and it was clear that he would never close with the ogrun before the huge blade cut him down. Looking from the ogrun’s stern gaze back to the Academy entrance, Hermes observed a second armoured woman behind the elf, wielding a battle blade. The elven woman was herself in the process of reloading her pistols.
“You poxy bitches can’t watch over ‘im all the time,” he shouted, waving his fist. “He’ll get his!”
“Clear off, or you’ll get yours!” declared the elf. To emphasise her words, the ogrun stepped forward menacingly. From down the street, as if to finally make up Oily Hermes’ mind for him, there was the piercing sound of a brass whistle; the greencoats were coming. Oily Hermes turned and pushed his way through the crowd, leaving his underlings to face the law without him.
Matthias came to, his eyes blinking in the cold morning sunshine. Before his vision could clear though, he heard the murmuring of a calm and serious voice offering prayers to Morrow. For a single moment he wondered if he were still a monk, his life since leaving the temple no more than a dream from which he was now awakening.
Then he felt the pains, the various wounds that wrapped him in a burning grip like a gauntlet, redhot, fresh from the forge. As the prayers continued, the pains began to recede. Slowly the piercing glare began to fade to less painful morning light. Clouds sailed across the sun; one of the clouds resolved into face of a celestial beauty. As the wound in his face was healed by her ministrations, Matthias realised that it was Honour’s face he could see. She was kneeling over him where he had fallen in the street.
“Can you hear me?” she asked. He nodded, and then a puzzled expression came over his face.
“I was sure he said, ‘No guns’,” he said with a smile.
2 On the Streets of Five Fingers (part 2)
The horse trough’s icy water turned vaguely pink as Matthias Warlock plunged his head beneath the surface, washing away the blood from his recent street battle. The elven gunfighter Viridian Swift, and the lady warrior Honour Pendragon stood by at the entrance to Harris’s Ale & Pie shop, along with their anonymous ogrun companion. Matthias sluiced off the excess water with his hands and then bent to recover his paired axes. The two Katrena’s hooks were even more bloody than he had been, but he did not wash them. Instead, he hailed a washerwoman as she passed with her basket of clothes. He offered the bent woman two galleons for one of the cleaned blouses in the basket. The woman accepted the sliver coins readily and handed over a shirt of course cotton fabric. The gunmage carefully wrapped the still bloody axes in the shirt so that none of the blood was on the outside of the wrapping and then motioned to his companions that they should repair to the pie shop.
The inside of Harris’s was beneath the level of the street, patrons having to descend a flight stairs to find themselves among tables and benches and the mingled scents of simple cooking and rich Ordic tobacco. Glass windows at street level allowed some of the morning’s light to filter through above the patrons’ heads. Two serving wenches danced adroitly between customers with large trays perched upon their hips, maintaining a steady circulation of full tankards of ale and pastry cases stuffed with pork, lamb and onions.
Matthias lead the others down the stairs and across the eatery to an empty table. Few of the other patrons cared to notice the two women with him and even the ogrun warrior bringing up the rear raised little attention from the jaded patrons of Harris’s. The waitress glided up to ask if they would like to eat or only to drink. A golden royal from Matthias purse bought pie and ale for all. The wench skipped away to fetch their order, sparing a moment to glance jealously at the two warrior women seated with the gunmage.
“I must thank you for your aid,” began Matthias as the serving wench vanished into the kitchen behind the bar. “Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
“I served, with the Cygnar pistoleers, 1st regiment,” answered Viridian with a knowing look.
“Indeed,” said Matthias. “The King’s own?”
“So what is this business you wish to discuss?” the gunmage asked with a strange smile.
“You know Prelate Marsendat, don’t you?” asked Viridian.
“Aye…though it’s been several years since he and I last spoke. Last I heard he had been commissioned by the Church to preach in Corvis.”
“He died in Corvis,” announced Honour, flatly.
“The recent troubles, no doubt,” Matthias said. “A great loss to the Church and to Cygnar.”
“Yes,” agreed Viridian. “It is a great loss to us as well. It is because of his death that we are forced to seek you.” Silence followed this cryptic statement, as Matthias searched the faces of the two women.
“No,” he said at last, as if they had asked him a question. He looked over his shoulder to see if the girl was bringing their ales.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” asked Viridian, looking puzzled.
“I mean, ‘No, I am not going to take you to that island’,” answered Matthias.
“You must! You are the only one living who knows the way!” blurted Honour, her patrician demeanor lapsing momentarily. The Warlock leaned in suddenly, fixing her eyes with an intense stare.
“Marsendat and I were shipwrecked on that island with nearly thirty others and we two alone escaped with our lives!”
“Morrow spared you for a reason,” said Honour. “Even a heretic such as you could see that!” Matthias glared at her but said nothing.
“Look, just hear us out, would you,” said Viridian quickly, trying to cover her companion’s ill chosen words. “I mean, as a brother veteran; there’s the honour of the swan between us, right.” Matthias chuckled and shook his head. Viridian and Honour looked at each other in concerned surprise. “How can you refuse?”
“There are three ways that I can refuse,” explained Matthias. “First, Marsendat and I swore an oath to Morrow never to reveal the island’s location; I may be a heretic but that doesn’t make me an oathbreaker. Second, it is precisely because of the events on that island that I was put out of the Order of Keepers, so you understand I have no love for the place; and finally, I’m not impressed by third rate con artists trying to play upon my loyalties.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Viridian. The ogrun who had otherwise stayed silent, growled at the gunmage’s insults. Before anything could happen though, Matthias thrust his right arm across the table and pulled the sleeve up to the shoulder. On the muscle of his upper arm was a tattoo of a crown over crossed pistols.
“Second Pistoleers are the King’s Regiment. It’s the Homeland Loyalists who’re the First!”
“I thought you served with the First,” said Viridian.
“I could not, I am Scharde,” explained the Warlock with a sneer. “Loyalists are all native born. They would not have taken me; neither would they you, like as not.” Viridian looked away, ashamed by having her ruse so easily torn away. From the moment she had opened her mouth about service with Cygnar, Matthias had known she was a liar.
The gunmage stood to leave, pulling down his sleeve as he did so. With desperate speed, Honour reached out her gloved hand and grabbed his arm. All pretence of superiority left her and her eyes implored the angry gunmage to hear her.
“We are desperate and have no other hope,” she pleaded. “I would not normally try to play upon a service done, but we could easily have left you to the mercies of that treacherous dandy and his sniper ambush. You owe us your life!”
“Mayhaps,” agreed Matthias reluctantly. “But that is a small debt, I assure you.”
“We have a comrade, a beloved friend, trapped upon that island. The Prelate described you as a man of honour and loyalty. You would never have left your comrades to die; help us to show the same loyalty to ours!”
Listening to Honour’s words, Matthias wondered churlishly if she would be easier to ignore if she were not so achingly beautiful. Even begging, she was as fine a woman as had ever deigned to speak to him.
“The Prelate would never have told you these things about me,” he protested.
“He didn’t have to,” agreed Viridian, reaching into her belt and producing sheets of fine paper.
Neither vellum nor rough parchment, the paper was fine and expensive. Taking it from her hand, Matthias unfolded the sheets, noting as he did so that the folds were well worn and feathery at the edges; these sheets had been folded and unfolded, read and re-read many times. The pages were topped with the seal of the Church of Morrow and the sign of the Exarch of Caspia on the bottom. They were copies of high level church correspondence. Just holding them in his hands gave Matthias a chill, for these two women and their ogrun bodyguard were clearly more important and influential than he had imagined. He sank back down on the chair as he began to read the report detailed on the pages.
“Marsendat made that report soon after you both returned,” explained Honour. “He credits you with his survival.” Matthias shook his head in good natured disbelief.
“You would not believe it,” he said, a wry smile twisting his lips. “I keep my oath to Morrow and get expelled as a heretic; Marsendat breaks his oath and gets promoted to Prelate.”
“Our friend was with an expedition that was following Marsendat’s report,” Viridian said, ignoring Matthias’ comments about the dead Prelate. “They have been gone for too long and no divinations of the Church can obtain any word of them.”
The words on the page and the two women’s story was much to absorb in one sitting. Matthias looked up at the windows, trying to order his thoughts, when a flash of green cloth in the streets outside caught his attention.
“Speaking of reports,” he said. “Did no greencoats turn up to see what was going on while I was unconscious.”
“Only one,” said Viridian, a strange smile playing across her face.
“It appears that I owe you for that too, then,” said Matthias, his eyes tracking movement past the windows. A number of green clad legs were visible from where he was seated.
“No debt there,” said Honour with pride. Her ogrun companion chuckled deeply, like gravel rattling and echoing in a large wine barrel. “We saw the little weasel off.”
“We saw him off,” Honour repeated “The corrupt worm was demanding a bribe to prevent your arrest. I cuffed him for a cur and then Dokor chased him away with the butt of his cleaver.”
“Are you touched in the head?” Matthias asked, slapping his forehead in disbelief. The numbers of green clad individuals in the windows was rapidly growing and they were moving towards the pie shop’s front door. “Paying the fine is how things are done. You can’t just give the law a kick in the bum!”
“He was corrupt,” Honour protested. “I will willingly face trial for my actions; no magistrate will convict me. My actions were perfectly just.”
“This isn’t Caspia, woman! There are no magistrates or courts here, not for commoners or foreigners. The greencoats keep order, not justice. You pay the fine and tug the forelock and are thankful when they go their way!”
The door to the pie shop swung open and four greencoated lawmen with chain coats and short barrelled muskets smartly took up position on the stairs. Honour was taken aback by the Warlock’s rebuke and Dokor the ogrun growled ominously. Conversation dropped to nothing as the clack of the musket hammers being drawn back echoed through the shop. There was a loud clattering thunk as the serving wench nearly dropped their order onto the table with surprise. From the top of the stairs an authoritative but unseen voice called out; “Matthias Warlock and companions, you are under arrest for the crime of violence against an officer of the law. Come quietly or we will shoot.”
Honour Pendragon spat a curse, but the words were lost as chaos suddenly erupted in the pie shop. Patrons and serving wenches bolted, scattering chairs and tables in desperation to flee the line of fire. Perhaps unnerved by the crowd or perhaps simply apathetic, the musketmen on the stairs fired their first volley. Members of the crowd fell wounded while two younger men in uniform quickly darted down the stairs and replaced the empty carbines with freshly loaded muskets. As the marksmen took aim again, Matthias wrenched up the table, flinging it onto its side and diving behind it for cover. Viridian, Dokor and Honour swiftly joined him, crouching behind the heavy wood.
“They didn’t even give us a chance to surrender,” protested Viridian, both her pistols drawn and ready.
“Welcome to the Five Fingers,” quipped Matthias as the next volley of musket fire struck splinters from the table.
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