Chapter 6

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Rell leaned on the barrel top and stared at the empty street while absentmindedly chewing a lump of meat. The pie shop was a regular stop for Rell, especially when he’d been drinking the night before. A greasy meat pie, provenance unknown, and a tankard of spiced ale was the perfect cure for a hangover or at least Rell thought so. He took a sip from his cup and let the spices play over his tongue. He was slowly feeling more human, but it would take more than a pie to repair the damage from the night before.

He’d arrived late at the shop and then been so useless that his uncle Victor had given him a stack of letters and sent him on a tour of the merchant's district. Each folded parchment had the name of one of his father’s business associates on it and it was up to Rell to hand it directly to the named person. He never read the letters nor gave any thought as to what they said. He had no interest in what his father and uncles got up to and involved himself in the family business as little as he could. Others might have seen the delivery job as below them, but Rell liked to get out of the shop and since no one was watching him nor overly concerned that he returned he could stay out for hours at a time.

The slip of paper in his hand had a stain on it, possibly beer or pie juice, Rell wasn’t sure. It blurred the address of the baker but not enough to make it illegible. He’d found it in his pocket while standing in the yard of a nobleman's house and recalled the disturbing encounter with Vern the night before. His groan had drawn stares from the stable hands and Rell had left hastily before they chased him out with brooms.

A quick walk and Rell had found himself at the pie shop, a place he always found conducive to thinking. The pie was tasty enough and filled the void in the pit of his stomach, but it wasn’t bringing him any closer to a decision. He’d taken the last bite and a swig of his ale to wash it down when someone placed a mug down on the barrel. Rell glanced up to nod hello only to choke on the last bit of gristle.

“Sabler?” Rell blurted coughing up his food. He spat on the cobbles and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve before shaking the hand of his childhood friend. Sabler’s grip was like iron and matched the hardness of his scarred face. Rell couldn’t help but stare at the long cut running from behind the man’s left ear and across his nose underlining ice blue eyes.

“I thought I saw you from the road,” Sabler spoke so softly that Rell had to lean in close to hear him over the sounds of the kitchen.

“I haven’t seen you since we were ten,” Rell picked his mug up and then set it down again. “You just vanished one night. I thought you'd been eaten by a mountain troll.”

Rell tried not to frown but the change in his friend was obvious. A decade had passed changing the shy child into something much harder. Rell felt uneasy as he studied the row of small throwing knives jutting out of a chest bandolier. The sword at his hip wasn’t unusual but the runic script on the leather scabbard was.

“My family left abruptly. I don’t remember much about that night, except for the long road down the mountain. I’ve never seen the stars so bright again.”

“Oh.” Rell took a drink to cover his surprise. There was only ever one reason anyone fled the city under cover of darkness and that was to escape the council. “I looked for you, but I didn’t think you’d left the city like that. I just thought your family had...I don’t know. It’s good to see you again.”

“I was looking for you, Rell,” Sabler said without warmth. He lifted his mug to his lips but didn’t drink, just held it there for a moment before setting the mug back down. Rell gave him a puzzled look noticing an odd stillness that hadn’t been present in the boy. The young Sabler had fidgeted and been full of nervous energy but the man before him was stoic and controlled.

“Oh, I’ve been here all along,” Rell said and Sabler glanced at the counter and the stack of slowly cooling pies. “Not here, here. In the city. What about you, where have you been, what have you been doing? I doubt you spent the past decade just sitting under a rock, or did you?”

“I have been fighting.” 

“That's it, just fighting?”

"What have you been doing, Rell?”

“Drinking mostly.” Rell took another sip and Sabler did the same but for the second time, Rell was sure none passed his lips. "Do you not like the ale?"

“It's fine.” Sabler plucked the slip of paper out from under Rell's mug. “Who is this person?”

“No one, not really.” Sabler handed it back but didn’t say anything, just kept his cold unblinking eyes fixed on Rell’s. “Just someone that I’m supposed to go and see.”

“Then you should keep your appointment. I shall accompany you.” Sabler stepped away from the barrel and touched the hilt of his sword. His clothing was of a different cut to that worn in the city and made of a lighter fabric that Rell imagined would be more suited to the jungles in the south.

“There’s really no need. I wasn’t sure I was even going to go. It was a favour I was doing for someone but since I’m not that keen on the person I decided not do it.”

Sabler stood motionless, staring at Rell who in turn shifted uncomfortably. Rell made a show of finishing his drink, hoping that Sabler would take the hint but when he reached the bottom of the mug the soldier was still waiting.

“Okay then, but it’s not really that big of a thing, I just need to collect some money from this man and then I’ll be on my way.”

“Is this what you do for work?”

“Collections? Gods no, I work in my father’s shop.” Rell saw the first flicker of interest from Sabler.

“Is your father still a powerful man?”

“In a way, I guess. If you're intent on coming along then let’s get going. Unless of course, you would rather just meet up later at an inn?” Rell asked hopefully but Sabler simply turned and strode into the street, leaving Rell with no choice but to follow.

 

“I don't need any help with this. I’m just calling by to remind this man about some money he owes.”

“The baker.”

“Yes, the baker,” Rell said as he trudged through the snow. It was late afternoon and the clouds had rolled in once again to disgorge their burdens. Rell felt miserable and for the past ten minutes of walking he'd turned around more than once intending to find Vern and tell him to do his own dirty work, but Sabler had been there every time, his quiet menace acting on Rell’s resolve. Rell was unsure whether he found the soldier’s presence reassuring or the empty eyes threatening.

“I have nothing else to do,” Sabler said. He wore no hat despite the cold wind and snow whipping across the street.

“Come on then, it should be along here somewhere.”

They were walking through one of the many crevices that cut through the valley. Rather than leave them empty the early settlers had made their homes in the sheltered caves and later built streets and bridges to fill the gaps. It was warmer down below but the air was fetid and gases from the volcano seeped through creating pockets of noxious fumes that could build up and explode without warning. Rell offered a prayer to the god Gorphin that they hold off on setting fire to the place while he was there.

They descended the stone steps only to be confronted by a wall of washing and a sour trio of women looking up from their baskets.

"You look lost," one of the women said as she clipped a long threadbare sock onto a line. "Don't get many lost-looking folk down here. Most strangers have the sense to go elsewhere."

"I'm not lost," Rell said defensively and waved his little scrap of paper around.

"He certainly looks it," a voice said from behind a sheet.

"That's just how I look." Rell brushed the snow off his greatcoat and realised his buttons were out of order.

"Who's he looking for?" a third voice asked.

"Hasn't said," the first woman answered. She looked Rell over but averted her gaze when she spotted Sabler standing to the side. "No offence meant, sirs."

"None taken." Rell straightened up a little and tucked the slip of paper away. "I'm looking for the baker. Does he live on this row?"

"You'll be wanting the house next to the bakehouse, that being where the baker lives since it's his bakehouse," the voice behind the sheet said.

"Right." Rell stared along the row of houses built into the cliff face with finished stone as the front wall, a few had slate roofs and chimney stacks but only one building stood alone. It was small and square with a chimney twice as large as its neighbours.

"He's not there but his poor wife should be," the first woman said. "You'll hear the baby before you reach the door."

Rell nodded his thanks and brushed past the wet sheets. The street was quiet but as they needed the end house a baby could be heard crying. Its wail came from behind a flimsy door. A shuttered window gave only glimpses of a dark room beyond and Rell stepped back unsure whether to knock or leave and not look back. Sabler made the decision for him and wrapped his knuckles on the door before stepping to the side.

The door snapped open and a haggard woman stuck her face in the gap. "What do you want? If it's a loaf you're after I haven't got any."

"Hello," Rell stuttered taken aback by the woman's sudden appearance.

“Get on with it. Not all of us have the time to stand around looking gormless.”

“Is your husband here?” Rell had to raise his voice to be heard over the baby's screaming. "Is your child hurt?"

"She just sounds like she is." The woman gripped the door ready to slam it shut. “What do you want with my husband?”

“Well, it’s... a sensitive matter.” Rell went to rest a hand on the doorpost but changed his mind and thrust it into his pocket where he found the cork from a wine bottle. "Erm...I met..."

“Spit it out.” The woman was about to say something more, but Sabler shoved the door open knocking her backwards.

“Sabler, you can’t just do that,” Rell said darting inside as Sabler made a quick tour of the room, pushing doors open and checking a small window at the back. "I'm so sorry for this."

"You were taking too long," Sabler said as swapped places with Rell by the front door.

"You can't just barge in here, I don't care who you are," the woman said before rushing into the small room with the crying baby. Rell gave the room the once over and tried not to grimace at the poverty on display. At least four people slept in the small parlour and the back room had another bed. A sullen boy caught his eye from a spot on the floor and Rell took a surprised step back. The boy chewed a wooden spoon and scowled at him.

“He’ll be back in a while. He only popped to the pub,” the woman said cradling the baby on her shoulder. "You'll likely find him there."

“Look I’ll just come out and say it. I’m here to collect his debt.” Rell rushed the words and then took a deep breath. Sabler stood near the shuttered window keeping an eye on the street.

“Oh, that bastard! He swore he didn’t owe nothing.” The baby started crying again while the boy stuck to chewing his spoon.

“Well, he does but if he pays up then all will be good.” Rell tried to sound cheerful, but the smile must have come off as menacing because the woman took a step away and turned so that he could see the baby's red face.

"Do we look like we can pay?"

The front door opened and a heavy-set man stumbled in, kicking the door shut with a practised kick. He failed to notice Sabler and didn’t clock Rell until he was halfway into the room and shrugging out of his coat.

“Who are you then?” The baker slurred his words and furrowed his brow as he looked Rell up and down. “Whatever you’re selling, we ain’t buying.”

“I am here on behalf of Vern.” Rell coughed and tried to put a bit of force behind his voice. “Your debts are due and it’s time to pay up.”

“I don’t owe Vern no money.” The baker laughed and gave Rell a dismissive wave, but when Sabler emerged from the shadows he held up his hands. “I owe a little but not enough to go breaking bones over. It doesn’t matter though since I ain’t got none.”

“You did a collection this morning?” the wife shouted as her husband sat down at the table.

“You know how much I have to pay for firewood now. The oven hardly makes any money as it is.” The baker bowed his head and rubbed at the bald spot with a pudgy hand.

Rell regretted stepping foot inside the house, he regretted a whole line of action going back before that day. The boy removed the spoon from his mouth revealing teeth marks along its length.

“Oh, damn the gods. I’ll tell him I couldn't find you,” Rell said but when he turned to leave he found Sabler staring at him from the door.

“It won’t work,” Sabler said.

“Why not?” Rell asked. “Are you going to tell him?”

“I have no interest in this.”

“What then, it’s not as if he followed us.”

Sabler glanced at the shuttered window and then at the baker.

“Did you see someone?” Rell darted to the window and peered out through the gap. The street was quiet except for the washerwomen standing at the corner. They chatted among themselves but glanced over as Rell pulled his head back. “Of course he’d follow me. This is a trap, but I can’t do it, I can’t hurt this man.”

The baker recoiled and his wife took a step forward putting herself between her family and the strangers.

“We may have been, but it doesn't matter. Without this man’s money, you will still have to pay." Sabler rested a hand on the pommel of his sword. "When you accepted the job, you took on his debt.”

“I didn't agree to that.” Rell stared at Sabler and then switched to the baker’s wife. The hopeful look she gave him was like a knife to the gut. “Did I?”

“What do you think will happen when you return empty-handed? He will just tell you to keep trying and what will you do next time?”

“Well, if you’re so bloody smart why don't you tell me what to do?” Rell snapped. His hangover was resurfacing, and the pie wasn’t sitting too well.

“I buy their debt. What is it that you owe?” Sabler asked the man.

“Two crowns and three shillings,” the wife answered quickly but when the husband groaned, she turned to glare at him. “No, don't you say it.”

“I’m sorry, my love, but he kept adding to it.”

“Then how much do you owe Vern?” Rell balled his fists, angry at the wretch of a man sitting hunched over, too scared to tell the truth.

“Eight crowns,” the baker said quietly with his face hidden in his hands.

“You bastard,” the woman screamed and raised her fists to strike him, but Rell held her back.

“You can hit him once I’ve left,” Rell said, and the woman cursed but stepped away.

“How did you manage that?” Rell asked but then shook his head. “No, don’t answer, I know how he does it.” Rell sidled up to Sabler. “You really think Vern would just increase my debt like that? Not that it makes much difference with what I owe.”

“He’s done worse,” the wife interjected. “Our Brie was left with three kids when her husband died, had to look after herself and that bastard Vern said that she had to pay her dead man’s debt. She refused and they broke her eldest’s arm. She paid what she could, and they took the rest.” She looked up at Rell, her face set in a grim determination. “They ain’t taking from me.”

“The offer is still there, Rell. I loan you the eight, maybe ten if you want to buy favour with Vern,” Sabler said.

“Why would you do that?” Rell gave him a puzzled look but his childhood friend was unreadable.

“Because I can, I have my plunder and because you knew me once.”

Rell looked out of the window for a moment hoping for a solution. What he wanted was to be back at the pie shop listening to Mrs Mutton berate her husband for using too much salt not stuck in some pitiful hovel with a family's future in his hands.

“I beg you, sir. I’ll pay you what I owe instead,” the baker said and Rell spun around pointing a finger at him.

“You wretch. It’s not just you that you put in danger but your family, your children. At least I don’t have any mouths but my own to feed. If you’ve got any sense, you’ll give your money to your suffering wife from now on.”

“Does that mean you’ll do it?” the wife asked hopefully.

Rell approached Sabler and held his hand out. “If you're happy to loan me the ten then I'll take it. I’ll pay you as soon as I can.” Sabler shook his hand and Rell tried not to wince at the man’s freezing touch. The soldier pulled a coin purse from inside his thin coat and tossed it to Rell without looking at it.

Rell tipped the coins into his palm and studied the strange stamps on them. "These aren't from the valley."

"They spend the same," Sabler said.

Rell slipped them back into the purse but kept two out.

"For us?" the woman said as Rell handed them over. "Thank you, sir."

“Keep it away from him,” Rell said and gave the baker as hard a stare as he could manage. The whole affair was turning his stomach and it was all he could do not to belch.

“I'm the earner,” the husband said but Rell turned on him, his face contorted in sudden anger.

“You have a wife and child you snivelling bastard. Do right by them or I’ll find out.”

“Thank you,” the woman said and grasped Rell’s hand.

“Come on, we’ve got a long walk back,” Rell said ushering Sabler out the door and leaving the unhappy house to consider its good fortune.


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