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Authors: William King

4 City of Strife (10 page)

BOOK: 4 City of Strife
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“Best place to eat,” Jan said. He stood on the steps, rubbing his hands together, a small hungry figure. Kormak nodded for him to follow and the boy smiled and scampered down the steps.

Inside they took a table in a corner, far from the fire, and so not crowded. Kormak placed an order for bread and beef and beer.

“You got people?” Kormak asked as the boy hungrily stuffed bread into his mouth.

Jan shook his head. “Ma went down with the lung rot, two years ago. I did my best to look after the babies but the cold took them last winter.” He looked guilty about that for a moment, glanced around and said, “You?”

“All dead,” Kormak said. “A long time ago.”

“Plague?” That and hunger were the two most common reasons for death, a fact that was quite clearly well known to Jan.

“Killed.” The boy looked shocked for a moment then curious.

“Your whole family?” Kormak nodded. It had been his entire village, but there seemed no sense in telling the boy that.

“You’re not a Sunlander are you?”

“That’s observant of you,” said Kormak.

“Where you from?”


“I heard the clan wars are bad up there. The losers get eaten.”

Kormak laughed. “That’s how I got to be so big and tough.”

Jan looked shocked. He was taking things seriously. “You don’t look like a cannibal,” he said at last, very quietly, so that no one could overhear.

“What do cannibals look like?” Jan glanced at the door now, as if he was wondering whether Kormak was simply fattening him up before slaughtering him.

“You’re joking, right?”

Kormak nodded. “I prefer bread and beef stew these days.”

The boy stared hard at him again then obviously decided to change the subject. “Where did you learn to fight?”

“On battlefields,” said Kormak. It was partially true. It would not do to say he had been trained in the Fighter’s Court at Mount Aethelas. He doubted the boy would have understood that anyway. The place was a legend to many people and not a particularly pleasant one.

“You fought for lords and prelates and stuff.” He stuffed some more bread into his mouth, scooping up beef and gravy with it.


“You going to fight for the Oldbergs?”

“If they pay well enough.”

“They’re the richest merchants in Taurea.”

“In my experience, merchants don’t get rich by giving away money.”

“That’s the truth,” said Jan ruefully.

“Why do you wear their colours?”

The boy looked embarrassed. “Everybody wears them.”

Kormak shook his head. “I’ve seen plenty of people in the streets who don’t.”

“Okay, let’s say, everybody my age who lives around here wears them?”


“Because it’s the easiest way to pick up a bit of work. You show up at the yards, or if someone is looking for a messenger or if there’s day work to be done. The work goes to those with the colours first.”

“Providing they are the right colours.”

“Of course,” said the boy, as if the point were too obvious to even mention, which from his point of view, Kormak supposed it was. “You show up at the Krugman’s yards wearing gold and all you’ll get is a beating. Same if you show up in grey at an Oldberg business.”

“You get paid to spy as well,” said Kormak. The question hung in the air for a moment. At first the boy grinned as if he was part of a great conspiracy and proud of it, and then one of the implications of what was being asked sunk in.

“I would not spy on you, sir,” he said. “Not after you saved me from Bors and his lads.”

“But you did take word of what I did to somebody who works for the Oldbergs.”

“Of course, I mentioned it. Why would I not?” He gave a rueful grin. “Unless, of course, you did not want me to. If you’d said I would not have but word would have got back anyway. One way or another the two great houses always know what’s going on in this city.”

“I suppose it’s their business.”

“That’s a good a way of putting it, sir. Everything that happens in Vermstadt and a long way beyond is their business.”

Kormak ordered more food. The boy looked as if he could use it. He’d had enough himself. He never liked to eat or drink too much. It slowed him down. He glanced around and noticed that there were others looking at him sidelong. He supposed not too many men carrying swords were seen in this place, not as customers anyway. He met the gaze of everyone who looked at him until they looked away. There were some hard-looking men in here and he did not want to have to maim or kill anyone who followed him out looking to rob him.

Many of them looked more worried than they normally would have. There was fear in the faces of men who did not usually show fear, and a nervousness in the manner of those who left, as if they were scared to step out of the warmth of the tavern into the night. A goodly number of them looked as if they were settling down for the night and not just because they wanted a long drinking session.

“A lot of frightened people in here tonight,” Kormak said quietly. Jan raised his eyes from his plate, glanced around, twisted his face into a look of defiant bravado and then just as suddenly deflated.

“It’s the full moon, sir. People disappear, sir, and are never seen again. No one knows who will be next or why. Some say it’s the Krugmans and their wicked magic, that they are unleashing demons into the darkness, that the Silent Man summons them or is one of them.” Kormak looked at him steadily. Jan had never been slow to dish dirt on the Krugmans before, seemed to be prepared to lay any number of sins at their door.

“Some say . . .” Kormak said. “But . . .”

“But some of their folk disappear too, sir. Of course, it might just be mistakes and I don’t imagine demons care much about whose side folks are on. Even the toughest are scared to go wandering at night during the full moon.”

“You scared to go out at night?” Kormak asked.

“Me, sir? No, sir.” It was quite clear that he was.

“Where do you sleep anyway?”

“I got a nook in the city wall. Old Joseph lets me lie down there as long as I bring him some food.”

Kormak knew how it was. There were arches and supports in the city walls where folk had taken shelter. There were lean-tos made from bits of wood that folk occupied and where the Watch let them stay. On a winter night like tonight it would be bitterly cold. A few that laid themselves down would never get up tomorrow. There were always a few found frozen. “Then best order a loaf of bread to take to him. When you finish, I’ll walk you there.”

“There’s no need for that, sir.” Jan looked grateful nonetheless. Kormak thought it sad how cheaply the boy’s loyalty could be bought.

“I would not want to have saved you from Bors and his boys just for you to vanish in the night.”

“It’s yourself you should worry about, sir.”

“I can look after myself,” said Kormak.

“That I do not doubt,” Jan said. “That I do not doubt.”

They emerged into the cold winter night. The temperature had dropped still further and the snow had stopped falling. A muddy path ran away from the tavern door, and out into the alleys of the Maze.

There were few people abroad and even fewer lights. The white face of the full moon glittered through a gap in the clouds. They strode towards where the walls loomed gigantically in the near distance. Jan threaded his way through the Maze from memory, moving as easily as a mole in its burrow, not needing sight to find his way home. Kormak let his sight adjust to the darkness. Rats scuttled through the middens near them. Kormak eyed them warily.

Jan started to sing a song about a scamp and a merchant’s daughter. He was not very good but it kept his spirits up. They passed the lighted doorway of a grog shop. A few sodden customers waited within, mingling with a few painted girls. Everybody looked up as they passed. Kormak could not help but remember the last time he had been here. It had been summer and this part of the city had been riotous with night life. Now it was as quiet as at the height of the Festival of the Dead.

“These disappearances, they always happen in the Maze?” Kormak asked. He wondered whether he was going to have to spend the night patrolling the alleys. It would not be the first time he had done such a thing.

“Never heard of them happening anywhere else, sir,” said Jan. “If they did the City Fathers might do something about them.” There was not even any bitterness in his tone, just a resigned appreciation of the way things had always been and always would be. It made sense though. If the disappearances happened in the wealthier parts of the city, questions would be asked. In the Maze, poor people died anyway, and nobody cared all that much.

A long terrified scream rang out through the night.

Kormak followed the echoes quickly but cautiously, aware that sometimes screams for help were used to lure the unwary into back alleys where they could become victims themselves. After a moments consideration Jan followed him, probably more because he did not want to be left alone than because he had an urge to get closer to the source of the noise.

Kormak found himself in a small open square with a well in the centre. Near it was a painted woman, standing over a blood-spattered body. Her mouth was open and a long wail of terror emerged. Her eyes were wide and crazed. Kormak glanced around and saw nothing but empty alley mouths with icicles drooping from the eaves overhead. He bent over the corpse.

It had belonged to a man, warmly dressed and obviously not too badly off. There were rings still on his fingers and a purse still on his belt. He had a yellow scarf tied around his upper arm. An Oldberg man then. His face was pale and his mouth was open in a rictus of horror. His belly was open and the smell of faeces and blood assaulted Kormak’s nostrils.

Looking closely he could see the chest cavity was a mess, muscles had been ripped, part of a lung flopped. Kormak reached inside the shambles and found exactly what he had been expecting. The heart was missing. Something had reached in through the torn stomach, under the ribs and pulled it free.

Something with claws had done this. It looked like the rumours of there being a monster loose in Maze were true.

He glanced around. Jan was busy being sick into a rubbish pile. The eyes of rats glittered down out of the darkness. Kormak felt as if they were watching him. He walked over to the screaming woman. He slapped her in the face and she stared at him.

“Did you see what did this?” Kormak asked. Her mouth opened and shut but nothing but vague muttering sounds came out. Kormak drew back his hand again.

“Did you see anything?” The woman nodded. Kormak glanced around once more.


“It . . . it was bending over the body. It was the Beast.”

“A dog?”

“No. It had hands like a man. It looked like a man.”

“You just said it looked like a beast.”

“It looked like a cross between man and beast. It had huge jaws, and huge claws and red eyes that burned . . .”

There were some who would have put this down to hysteria but Kormak had seen such things in the past.

“Did it look like a wolf or a dog.”

“It had an animal’s head and it was covered in brownish fur. It tore out his heart and then it started to gorge on it.”

“Yet it left you alone,” Kormak said.

“It started to move towards me but then it heard your steps coming down here and it left.”


“It leapt. It sprang up onto the roof and it ran away.”

Kormak looked up. Even the lowest hanging roofs were so high he would have had to leap to catch the guttering. “You sure it leapt. It did not climb.”

“It leapt. It was a demon,” she said. “A demon.”

Kormak went back over to the body. When he looked closely he could see paw marks in the snow. They were too big to belong to any dog, and they were the wrong shape. They were humanoid but there was the suggestion of claw marks as well.

Jan moved over towards Kormak but the Guardian beckoned him to stay where he was. He did not want anyone messing up the tracks till he could study them. He could not help but wonder whether the demon was still up there watching him. Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw cowled figures moving on the edge of the square. There was something furtive about their movements that made him wary. One of them seemed to be raising something, a weapon perhaps.

Even as he did so, Kormak heard more footsteps arriving and the whirling rattles of city watchmen. The robed figures ducked back into the alley mouth. Kormak caught the glow of a lantern. A group of armed men appeared. At their head was Sergeant Altman. He looked at Kormak.

“You again,” he said. “Why does that not surprise me?”

Chapter Ten


“Yuri hears a scream, and summons the boys to investigate and lo and behold, we find you standing over the corpse of a grey scarf,” said Altman. “What are the chances?”

“It’s a yellow scarf and I did not kill him,” said Kormak, stepping away from the body.

“He’s not wearing Krugman colours?”

Kormak held up his hands to tell the watch men to keep their distance. The watchmen looked at him with annoyance. They did not like being told what to do.

“You come closer, Sergeant. Carefully,” Kormak said. Altman looked at him suspiciously, as if he half expected Kormak to attack him.

“Take a look at these,” Kormak said. “I don’t want a crowd messing them up.”

The Sergeant came closer and he shone a lamp on the body and he noticed the tracks Kormak indicated too. His face went white. Some of the watchmen backed away, muttering prayers to the Holy Sun.

“What in the name of the Shadow is doing this?” Altman asked.

“You’ve seen something like this before?”

Altman nodded. “Last full moon. Heart ripped out. Tracks like some huge animal next to the body. Always vanish after a few strides as if the thing had disappeared.”

“Any footprints? Like human footprints? Near where the tracks vanished.”

Altman’s eyes widened as he understood the implication of what was being asked. There might well have been the spoor of bare feet if a were-creature had transformed back into its human form near the spot. “No one’s ever noticed them,” he said, as if considering his words very carefully. “But that does not mean they were not there.”

BOOK: 4 City of Strife
4.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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