Sunday, March 4, 2012

Handmaidens of Petra: Merchant's Square, continued

The four girls and the young man huddled around a small table in the corner of the kitchens at the Hook and Hatchet. As loud and crowded as the common room was, the kitchens were even louder. Extra serving boys and scullery maids dodged back and forth around the usual staff, all of them directed by the head chef, at the top of his lungs.
“Fiala,” her father said, looking down at them, “this is not a charity house. I cannot have you bringing in strays that will eat me out of business.”
“I’m small!” Petra said. “I don’t eat much!”
“Dishes,” the innkeeper said. “This strapping young buck probably eats three times what you do.”
“I can work, goodman, to pay off anything I incur,” the young man said, around a mouthful of bread.
“Those are not the hands of a serving boy,” Fiala’s father said. “And you don’t much have the look of the working class about you.”
“Horses,” the young man said. “You have a stable. Many of these men staying here are knights. Their mounts will need a certain measure of care above what the normal draft horse might get. I happen to be familiar with just that sort of thing.”
The innkeeper nodded after a moment’s thought. “Don’t talk very much like the working class, either. Very well. And you,” he said, shifting his glare towards Jasna. “You will help here in the kitchens.”
Jasna sat up straighter. “I can help Anya and Fiala at the tables--”
“No. Your fingers will go nowhere near the common room floor. When you finish your meal, there is a mop and a broom waiting for you.”
The girl sat back, sulking. “Why do I always get stuck with sweeping?”
 At the sounds of shouting and breaking crockery, Jasna was suddenly very glad to be away from the common room, sweeping up after the midmorning baking.
When the rapping at the wide delivery door went unanswered by any of the cooks, who huddled against the swinging doors into the common room, apparently placing bets, Jasna slid the bolt clear, and peeked out.
“Hullo, Jasna.”
“Brynne!” Jasna heaved the door open, stepping out to give the taller girl a hug.
Brynne coughed at the puff of flour that sprang up between them, patting the younger girl’s back.
“That sounds like quite a row,” she said. “If we hurry, we can get these barrels rolled in and--”
“You just leave setting things down to the Town Guards,” Katarin said, from her place at the back of the delivery wagon. “Although, they may need my help once the dust settles in there.”
“If I can’t have fun, you can’t either,” Brynne said. “Your Maga said no weaving without her present.”
Katarin stuck her tongue out, and the brewer’s daughter returned the sentiment.
“Those barrels are as big as we are,” Jasna said.
“It’s cake and pie,” Brynne told her. “We just lower these two beams.” She drew a long thick plank of wood from a slot along the bottom of the wagon, and then another, creating a long, gently angled ramp from the wagon’s deck to the cobblestones of the alleyway. “And then use the ropes up there to ease the barrels down. Katarin and I have been doing it ourselves all morning.”
“I’ve had to heal her blisters twice,” Katarin said.
Jasna raised an eyebrow. “No weaving?”
Brynne scowled, and made a show of pulling on a pair of heavy gloves.
The draft horses gave winnies, and cantered to one side as a man crashed headlong into the side of the delivery wagon. The girls screamed, and nearly lost control of the barrel they were inching down the makeshift ramp.
The man gave a shout of his own, though it was somewhat reedy, as he pushed himself away from the side of the wagon. He groaned, his fingers purpling. He clutched a big leather box to his chest.
“What’s this thing doing here?”
“You think the beer just rolls itself on over to the taproom?” Brynne asked.
“There wasn’t supposed to be a delivery today. This alleyway was supposed to be empty! Brefrick said we would be alone.” The man felt at his nose, wincing.
“He… may be detained,” Jasna said, glancing over at the open kitchen door. The brawl had quieted down, but she heard Arthos deep voice, inside.
“Maybe we can help you?” Katarin offered.
The man’s watering eyes widened. “Did Brefrick give you my payment?”
From up the street, there came a distant shout. The man looked back, hissing as he turned his neck too quickly. He leapt into the alley, inching along the wall between the cart and the building across from the inn.
Another shout went up from the far side of the alleyway, the gap crowded with three or four shadowed figures.
“There he is!”
The man by the wall froze, eyes darting one way then the other.
The group of men from up the street grew closer. They were dressed in breastplates and scarlet cloaks.
“Whatever trouble you’re in, sir, don’t worry, it looks like more guards are on the way,” Katarin said.
Brynne was busy watching the other group of men. Two strode up the alley towards them, hands on unbound sword hilts. Two more blocked the escape, holding crossbows loosely in their grips.
Jasna squinted at the guardsmen. She recognized most of them by sight, and none of these mens’ gait looked familiar to her. The old priest had made her spend weeks watching the various different patrol routs. This alleyway was not on a normal route, and there were too many men in the group for a regular foot patrol. Brown hair hung from beneath two of the helms, and another sported a patchy beard. Guardsmen in Threshold all wore their hair in the Thyatian military cut, and were either clean-shaven, or wore the short, well-tended beard in the style of the Emperor. There was no in-between. The two men in the lead closed hands over hilts. Sword hilts. Town guardsmen were armed with long, stout clubs, not swords.
“Give us the book, Gregor,” one of the ‘guards’ snarled.
“Hand those filthy Halavites the book and it will be the last thing you do, Gregor.” This from one of the men coming down the alleyway. His voice had a distinctly Glantrian lilt.
The man, Gregor, sidled a step further up the alley, just out of reach of the guardsmen beginning to crowd closer to the wagon.
“We will pay you double whatever the knight promised you,” the Glantrian said.
“Dead men spend no coin,” the guard growled. “Give us the book and we’ll actually let you live.”
The man glanced back and forth between the groups menacing him.
“Jasna! Jasna, they sent me to check on you and-- eep!”
Petra stopped short at the kitchen doorway stoop, eyes wide as she took in the scene. She sucked in a deep breath, but before she could voice a scream, one of the Glantrians reached out, grabbing a handful of the girl’s hair, dragging her from the doorway on tiptoes, a gloved hand clamping over her mouth.
“Pull!” Brynne yelled.
Without thinking, Jasna and Katarin heaved at the ropes the’d been using to guide the barrel down to the street.
Brynne let her line go.
The barrel pivoted, the beer sloshing it further off balance, and it turned as it rolled down the ramp, right towards the two Glantrian men.
They shouted, leaping aside as the barrel crashed into the wall. Though it wasn’t going fast enough to break the wood, several of the seams split, and the beer began to bubble away from the bottom of the barrel, washing over the cobblestones in a yellowish, sudsy wave.
The man holding Petra let the girl go, and she leapt towards the wagon, scrambling underneath it with a squeak.
Several of the guardsmen had lunged, and were struggling with Gregor, pulling at his arms and sleeve to get him to release the leather box.
A sharp crack-twang sounded from the far side of the alley, and Gregor screamed, suddenly releasing the box as a black-shafted bolt shattered against the wall near his head.
The guards stumbled backwards, the box suddenly freed, and it tumbled over their grasping hands.
“Close your eyes!” Katarin shouted, and Jasna and Brynne flung their arms over their eyes as a surge of wind howled down upon the alleyway. Winds buffeted the girls from all directions at once, and the air was filled with the flapping of loose papers and the surprised cries of guards, Glantrians, and girls alike.
There was another snap-crack of a boltsting as Katarin’s gust of wind died down, and one of the guards screamed.
Jasna looked up over her sleeve, to see the Glantrian snatch the leather box from the guardsman, and take off running up the alleyway.
Brynne made to leap down after the man, but Jasna hauled at her arm.
“They have crossbows! Do you want to be a pincushion?”
Katarin did not hesitate, but climbed awkwardly over the side of the cart, her long white gown snagging on the slats.
“Stop!” she called, as the other guards made to drag the wounded man away. “Do not move him!”
One of the guards reached for his sword.
“If you want your friend to die, then by all means, keep going,” Katarin said. “Draw your sword, if you think you can strike me down before I make the wind into a blade of my own.”
The four other men glanced uneasily at each other.
“Nobody will die here today, if you step back and let me work.”
Once the boltmen turned away from the alley, Jasna sprang from the back of the wagon, barely missing the growing flood of paper-strewn beer, charging down the alleyway after the man with the book.
Commotion in the direction of the inn yard left little doubt which way the men had gone, and she sprinted around the corner, only to skid to a halt, pressing herself against the wooden fence as the men raced by on horseback.
She peeked around the corner, to see the young man picking himself up, brushing dust and hay from his tunic. She dashed into the yard.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Those men stole three horses under my care!”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” the girl asked. She grabbed the reins of the last horse still in the yard, a big broad white thing still decked out in the Order of Griffon blue and white. She hauled on the reins, but the horse did not budge. “Come on you stupid horse! They’re getting away!”
The young man took the reins from the girl. “It’s a trained warhorse, it’s not going anywhere without it’s master.” He swung up into the saddle with practiced ease.
Jasna frowned up at him. “You are definitely not a Knight of the Griffon,” she said, hands on her hips. “And that means you are going to steal this horse.”“And that means you are going to steal this horse.”
"You were going to steal it!"
Jasna pointed at the open gate. "'Extenuating circumstances.' The longer we talk, the further away they get!"
"You will stay here. Those men were armed. It's too dangerous." The young man snapped the reins, catching the horse’s ear as he did so.
“Hey!” Jasna cried, as the horse began to trot from the inn yard. "I could tell you a few things about 'dangerous!'" She jogged after, bounding up a short stack of bales, to leap astride the horse, nearly pulling the young man from the saddle as she locked her arms around his waist to keep from falling off herself.
“What are you doing?” he gasped.
“A theft like this is a Class 3 crime!” she shouted, as the horse began to pick up speed.
“You’re going to turn me in?”
“Turn you in? I’m going to help you! Now hurry up, they’re getting away!”

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