the methods and means of procrastination

A Rock and a Hard Place 4
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A Rock & A Hard Place

Chapter 3
Chapter 4
4:1 In Confidence
4:2 Recall
4:3 Street Theater
Chapter 5

4:1 In Confidence

"Why us?"

At the final call and response of prayers sounded, Hakem had hustled them into the chamber behind the dais. In hushed tones he had related that he had a missing house guest at his family's estate, an errant steward, and no one to resolve the two. This was the favor he was requesting. The document turned out to be a letter of resignation from the afore mentioned stewart, stating the he could not continue in his current capacity. Or so they were told. Not one of the three had found it legible, being written in the local dialect.

"My guest is a northerner, here under the protection of a trade agreement like yourselves," Hakem motioned to indicate Wayland's ring, "He has been at my family home for some time working on a project for my father. My father has recently passed away. He is no longer there to calm the servants. The project, ah, is offensive to their beliefs. They find it blasphemous," Hakem gave a small shrug, "northerners would not have this limitation."

Silas looked like he was going to argue this point, but Delver spoke first. "What type of project would that be, your eminence?"

"I can not say," The silence lengthened. The emir looked around at his guests whose features had gone still as stone. After a few moments he admitted, "Weaponry. Magicks used during the north's campaign."

"So, Hakem was looking to rain down a little fire and brimstone locally," Wayland thought to himself. The war of the north had been particularly nasty in respect to magic.

"I must find out what has happened, quickly and quietly, but I can't leave without raising attention," the emir glanced towards the audience room. The staff was being to circulate in the room they had vacated. "Do this for me and I will be indebted to you."

"And if we don't you throw us to the dogs of the Grand Sultan?" Silas retorted.

"I am not your enemy here, Servant. I am offering to shield you from the Grand Sultan's ire. Work with me and he never has to know. We can all benefit. I will open up this city for you. Exclusive trade rights, government endorsement, partnership, name your boon."

Silas glared at the maghrebian. "A cathedral," Silas said, "in the center of Quahabat and an apology for insulting the Hand of His Most Holy Way."

Wayland whistled internally. Silas was playing hardball. Well, so be it. "With of course, the afore mentioned exclusive trade rights, partnerships, cetera, cetera," Wayland chimed in. He gave the silent Hakem a slick smile, bordering on a sneer.

The emir studied them both. He did not move, but Wayland sensed the man was desperate. He's sneer became wider. Hakem exhaled. "You ask much, and it will not be easy," again the index finger punctuated his words, "But it is worth the price, to have my guest returned safely."

He held out his right hand to Silas. Silas gave a tight smile and clasp the offered hand. The deal was struck.


4:2 Recall

Fete was in a state of repose. Nadah had put him there when he became too agitated to continue. She pondered what he had told her.

Fete's convoy had followed the same trade route Nadah's caravan had traveled weeks earlier. There were many such caravans staged for travel at the foot of the northern mountains. Like Nadah, Fete had been part of the first wave. Fete's unit had accompanied a high member of the Way and a zatane diplomat. They were deep in the desert when things went awry. The convoy lost the road.

"How does that happen, Fete? How do trained solders lose a clearly marked road?" All the boy could do was shrug and look helpless. "hyper-natural misdirection," Nadah thought internally as Fete continued his slow, halting monalogue.

Somehow both solders and emissaries had strayed from the designated route and wandered off into the wasteland stretching to all horizons. The party realized they were lost as the sun lowered to the horizon. To avoid travel after sunset, the convoy made camp near an outcrop of rocks, the only landmark visible. Fete assured Nadah that they had set up a watch and picket, thought this did not help in the long run.

If it were at all possible, Fete's account became even more obscure as he described the events of that first night. He remembered being startled awake by a brilliant white light and a loud pop. Someone was cursing. He blinked painfully as he got to his feet. The light had been shot upward by the prior. Fete remembered the man standing as if he were a statue, arms raised with a trail of light leading from his fingers up into the night sky. Fete also had time to see his comrades, his commander, the diplomat and his squire all frozen in that lucid moment. The cursing ceased with the light. The convoy looked at each other trying to figure out who gave the alert. Fete saw a man named Strong stumble. As the light above them began to sputter out, Fete swore he saw a dark claw reach over Strong's shoulder and then a form grapple onto his back. Then all was black. Strong's screams were mingled with a sound that was thoroughly not human. The warm, mid-morning glow of the tent did not seem to chase away the shadows haunting Fete's deep blue eyes. He had the look of remembered terror.

The darkness was palpable. Fete wildly strained his eyes and ears to detect movement near him, both in his tale and seated in the tent. He began to creep in the direction of the fire coals, his only navigational point. Someone had let the fire burn down to ashes. Nadah thought this was also suspect, but didn't interrupt the recount. A scream sounded to Fete's right. He thought it might be the squire. He felt a slight breeze as something sped past him. He slashed at it with his blade but gained no purchase.

The starry sky was again broken by a flare shot from the priest's hands. This time Fete was ready and shaded his eyes when he saw the prior's hands redden, encasing the light. He caught the quick movement of the thing that had passed him. He took advantage of the light and raced after it. It was heading for the prior in the center of camp.

"What was it Fete? What did you see?" Fete just shuck his head. Unable to utter a sound beyond a strained grunt. With difficulty he tried to described what the thing did.

With Fete on it's heels, the creature leaped at the prior with a great screech. Man and beast fell to the ground. With out thinking, Fete swung his sword to hack at the thing's back but the creature paid him no mind. It certainly wasn't his sword that caused the thing to give a great yelp and jumped away from the prior. Sergeant Hodge appeared beside the thing as it landed in a heap not far away. In the fading light Fete saw the prior arching his hands at the creature from his place on the ground, his lips moving. Fete remembered moving closer to the priest. They were all then swallowed again by the night.

Sergeant Hodge voice called out, ordering his men to stay where they were. Fete, now close to the coals of the fire, bent and pick up a bit of bark and tried to coax it to flame in the coals. Close to his left he could hear the priest muttering still. He broke off and ask Fete to help him to his feet. Fete sheathed his sword and lent an arm, continuing to work on his fire brand. He helped the older man to his feet. His efforts were rewarded as the bark began to give off a small flame. In its minimal light, he could just make out the figure of Sergeant Hodge, hacking at the thing on the ground. To the sergeant the prior yelled, "Sergeant Hodge, use your medallion."

Fete saw Sergeant Hodge lean over the creature, hand extended. The creature gave a great cry and leaped for him as the metal made contact. The creature sprinted off into the night, leaving the sergeant spattering its retreat with expletives. It had swiped his side as it passed they found out later.

They were missing four men, including the diplomat. The squire was still living. The prior demanded they move to the far outcrop, where he immediately sat down muttering to himself until sun up. Hodge had the men build another fire, though most of their fuel had bolted with their mounts. He said they would search for them at daybreak. It was left unsaid that they would also look for the wounded or dead.

No one contradicted his orders. No one slept either.


4:3 Street Theater

It was a small door for such a large wall. A fine rain of sand gently wafted down on the three men as they exited to the street. The solemn boy bowed to them, then closed the door stepping back into the shadow. There was no door handle on this side, only a wooden frame. Wayland turned back to his comrades.

The three men fell into step as they traversed the small streets to the inn. Each seemed wrapped in his own thoughts. Delver in particular seemed pleased to be reunited with his weapons, especially his dagger. Wayland's eye caught the movement of the dwarf's hand continually straying to its hilt.

They had not come away empty-handed. With a few quick notes from the emir the three now had chits of credit with all the major suppliers in the area, provisionally. This did not mean they could buy the town. It did mean however, the would be able to purchase a good deal more than what they would need for the two day trip to Hakem's estates. "All on the city's tab to boot," Wayland thought gleefully. He openly smiled as he began to catalog belongings that would need to be replace "due to excessive wear."

Wayland enjoyed being back out in the light. The sun was fully risen now. The noise and dust of the streets was picking up from the dull mutterings of morning. Most business took place in the morning and in the afternoon here in Quahabet, in between prayers and the heat of the day. The three of them didn't make a dent in the whirls and eddies of street theater as they passed. In doorways and around corners, old men haggled, religious ghazi patrolled the crowd, women carrying baskets on this hips passed trading gossip, musicians and lunatics squatted by the road side for alms, peppered by the passing of street urchins. Wayland felt this was the real Quahabat. No matter how grand the king, a city's wealth is measured by the lives of his peasantry.

"Of course, there is always a downside to peasants," Wayland thought as he became aware of a slight tugging at his purse strings. Quickly he snatched the small wrist and whipped around, holding the pick-pocketing arm up at an uncomfortable angle. He found himself staring at the page that had served him tea not more than an hour ago. This time the boy was dressed in rags instead of the fine attire of the palace but his face was unmistakable. "What are you doing? Here?!" Wayland sputtered.

The boy quickly shook his head and opened his mouth to reveal his lack of a tongue. The mute stared pleadingly up at his extended arm and tugged a bit at Wayland's grip. Stranger and stranger. After a moment, Wayland thoughtfully released the page's wrist.

The boy took the opportunity to reach back into his rags to reveal a cloth-wrapped package. He offered it to Wayland, his gaze unwavering. Wayland took the package and secreted it away inside his shirt with a slight bow of his head. Wayland glanced around to see if any of the ghazi had noticed their little knot in the flow of people around them. Free from his gaze, the boy bolted off into the crowd. Thinking Wayland had been robbed, Delver made as if to chase the child, but Wayland stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. With a brief nod he motioned to the ghazi across the street. The man seemed to have sensed the movement of the fast moving urchin, but had not connected it with the would-be mark. Yet. Wayland quickly turned his back to the holy police of Quahabat and made his way leisurely to the inn. He hoped to whatever gods were out there his companions followed suit.


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