This is something that I put online for International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, and which I figured I'd spread around. It's a short novel which is probably closest to sword and sorcery than...
Circle fights were very different than actual combat. No weapons are used in fighter's circles, and all the fights are one on one. In addition, in the circle, keeping the crowd entertained was almost as important as winning. There wasn't really any point in actually watching the circle fights, but the fighting pits were the place to find the sort of people she was looking for. She had already hired more than a dozen men that morning.
This one had won his fight; he was wearing the black weighted handkerchief that had been thrown into the ring to end the fight through his belt - the traditional token of the victor. The necklace of fingertip shaped bruises that he wore on his neck showed that it hadn't been an easy victory. He was certainly big, maybe six and a half feet tall or so, with massive, sloping shoulders, and the fat-over-muscle build of a bear in autumn.
He didn't look like someone who specialized in circle fighting. He was shrugging an embroidered vest back on, over his leathers, and from the way the vest moved, Cassia guessed that it was lined with metal scales, or something similar. The two swords he wore at his left hip were short, blades maybe two feet long, but judging by the sheaths, they were butcher cleaver wide, and thick. The vest and the leathers had a number of carefully mended tears and rips, and the boiled leather grips of the sword were worn near smooth. A veteran, military or otherwise. But low enough on cash to work for the eight pennies of a victory in the pits.
There wasn't any need to have watched him fight to know that this was just the sort of person she was looking for.
The streets were crowded, but when Cassia waved him over, the man had no trouble noticing her attempt to get his attention. As he ambled towards her, she got her first clear look at his face. Wide, flat features, grey eyes set back in his face. That he had thick shock of black hair and an equally black beard had been obvious, even from a distance. Close up, that hair was darker than dark, almost a blue black. Not from any ethnic group that she recognized, but that was hardly surprising. Riend was a frontier, and, in addition to the admixture of Caladorian and Aurian that made up the elemental stock of the island, a motley collection of human flotsam and jetsam would constantly wash up on its shores, particularly on the streets of Caniphor, its most important port, largest city, and capital of the only real government on the isle.
"You want work?" She asked, in Aurian. Despite the fact that the empire had fallen centuries ago, Aurian tended to be the best bet for communicating with foreigners; even if they couldn't speak it well, they could usually make out enough to get simple ideas across.
"Possibly," he replied, in the same language. "At what rate are you hiring?"
"Thirty silver pennies for signing on, sixty more a day, guarantee of at least a week's worth of work."
The man considered, looking thoughtfully at the crowds around him. "Five gold marks for the next ten minutes, with further negotiations after," he replied quietly, in good Ereind, without looking at Cassia.
"What?" It was simply a bizarre price. Most craftsmen couldn't expect to make that in a year.
"Consider the two men standing by the fishmonger's stall, that skinny fellow just coming out of the arena, and the two men heading towards us." Cassia took note of each in turn. There was nothing specific about any of them, but the man was right; they weren't just passerby. Perhaps it was in the way they carried themselves, a certain hardness of their features. They were killers, and she was nicely boxed in. She could go back into the vintaeum, but it was crowded and dark in there; if there was someone waiting inside for her, the odds that she'd get a knife in her before she got to the back door weren't favorable.
She muttered a curse. She'd have to take the fight she could see. Five on two was bad, but five on one wasn't survivable, if they were even halfway competent. "Five in gold, then, damn you."
He nodded. "Beronal Mantar, by the way."
His name, she guessed. "Cassia Th. . . ."
Beronal didn't wait to finish introductions. He grabbed the bottle from Cassia's table, and flung it at the first of the two people heading toward them. He moved far faster than Cassia would have expected, given his size, and the two heading in their direction didn't expect him to be moving towards them at all. The wine bottle exploded against the forehead of one of them, in a shower of broken glass. Beronal was moving almost as soon as he released the bottle, headed toward that pair, swords coming out. Cassia started off almost at the same instant--over the table, rapier out from over her shoulder, and a long flat run toward the man coming out of arena.
She just had to get past him and take off. If she was any judge of fighting men, Beronal was good; even if the men he was fighting with were better, it'd take them a few seconds to get past him. Which meant that this man was all that stood between her and freedom, and all that stood between her and avoiding a five mark debt. He was tall, taller than Beronal even, but thin. His blade was drawn; one of the extremely long point swords called antennae, which his height would give him a terrific advantage with, assuming that he was any good with swords at all.
He was good with the sword, which was bad, and he fought defensively, which was worse. All he had to do was hold her, and problems would multiply, even if Beronal won his fight, and even if there were only the five people after them.
There was the muffled crunch of sword on bone behind her. Beronal was the only one she had seen with a weapon that would hit like that, so he had probably taken at least one of those two men out. The initial confusion was fading fast, and passerby were becoming aware of what was going on. Violence on the street wasn't exactly uncommon in Caniphor, and very few people were interested in getting involved in fights that weren't theirs. Besides, the Duke's men were usually extremely efficient in tracking down and dealing with the parties involved in fights that got lethal, and judging by the sound of that last hit, this was already one of those.
The people who had started to notice what was happening were already bolting. In a few seconds there would be outright panic and a stampede, and though there was nothing subtle about her fight, people who were spooked might well manage to avoid noticing even unsubtle things. She attacked again, and again her opponent moved out of range. She faked a stumble on the follow through, and finally he attacked.
He was fast and accurate, and scored a hit, a glancing shot off her thigh. Another inch of difference, and he'd have hit an artery. It was worth it; on her recovery, she managed to turn things so that her back was now to safety.
She didn't get away clean; he was still there, and he was unharmed. If she turned to run, the man would kill her, no question about it. If she got a foot or two more worth of distance, she'd be away, and he knew it. So now he attacked, and attacked hard.
There was a shout and another hideous crunch of collapsing bone, and the expected panic materialized. People started running away from where she assumed Beronal was, without paying much attention toward where they were running. A short, heavy-bodied Kleshite merchant stumbled into her opponent's back, and she took her opportunity with a single fluid lunge. Off balance, the tall man couldn't get entirely out of the way - though she didn't hit the heart, the sword hit his shoulder solidly, spinning him halfway around with the impact.
Before she could pull the sword out and leave, the man's other hand found her throat, pushed her head up and back, as his sword clattered to the cobblestones. Damn; she was too eager to finish, and hadn't been watching the rest of his body. Too tight a focus. She let go of her sword as he turned her and pulled down; had she tried to hold on to the sword her arm would have been dislocated with that fall. She pulled the dagger from his sleeve, tried to strike at the hand pinning her throat. Almost by accident she blocked the dagger that he had drawn with his blood-slicked right hand. Quickly she followed the block with a strike and then another. Both hit, cut hard and deep. She shoved him off her, recovered her sword. He wasn't dead, but with cuts like that at forearm and wrist he wasn't going to stay alive for very long.
Ahead of her, the street was clear. There was an abandoned fruit stand, a few curious onlookers staring from the high arched windows of the buildings nearby, or from around corners. She tensed, ready to dart through the crowds, get away. Up, two steps, building speed. "Ware!" shouted Beronal. There wasn't any time to decide, but he didn't sound like a man upset about losing his fee. Without any further thought she dropped, slid underneath the fruit cart. As she landed there were a pair of thunderous roars, so close together that they almost blended into one. A gouge was cut out of the wall behind her, and a fallen apple next to the cart exploded. The smell of sulfur was thick in the air. Possibly magic, but more probably firelocks.
Firearms of any sort were not particularly common in Riend. The hunters and trappers who worked the interior tended to have enough skill with bows not to need them, and the cost of the things was far from low. And they were notoriously touchy, needing more care and maintenance than a dozen bows would. Which didn't mean they were anything less than deadly.
Two shots, one from the side, and one from above. She turned around, took stock of the situation as best she could from under the fruit cart. The two men who had been standing by the fishmonger had drawn carbines; one was holding his at the ready while the other was reloading. In all probability, the same was happening above. Beronal was crouched behind a rain barrel, blood on his arms, out of the direct line of fire between her and the men by the fishmonger's, but fairly close to the men shooting at her from above. The blasts repeated, slightly further apart this time, and the cart rocked with the impact, pulverized bits of apple dropping from above. This wasn't good; she needed to be getting away, fast, but if she moved out from under the cart, one of the gunners was bound to hit her. Awkwardly, she sheathed her rapier; there wasn't that much room under the cart, but when she came out, she couldn't afford to be dragging a sword. She also needed a distraction.
Beronal had apparently reached the same conclusion. Right after the second shot fired, he was up, catching the edge of the roof behind him with a twisting leap. It was a powerful jump, and it took him to the lip of the roof behind them, right below where the gunners had taken up their positions. The man with the readied carbine fired and missed, just below Beronal. Cassia would have missed too - that jump had a speed and power that bordered on the simian.
Cassia could hear the warning creak of the eaves as they took Beronal's weight. As he tried to pull himself up, the creaking became a cracking, and the edge of the roof was pulled down, bringing Beronal, a load of wood, plaster, and tile roofing, and a pair of startled gunners down into the street. It was going to have to do; she was up and running. Toward the gunners, rather than away from them; people were more likely to miss a charging enemy than a fleeing one.
It worked, at least partly. The first of the gunners to get a shot off took his at Beronal. Cassia couldn't tell if it had hit or missed, just a general idea of the direction in which it was aimed. The other one wasn't fooled. He poured the primer into the pan, and drew a careful bead on Cassia. She yelled, pulled a throwing knife from her belt, flung it. It wasn't a killing weapon, not hardly, but a knife in the eye often made it difficult to focus properly on aiming.
The first knife missed, high, but the gunner flinched, didn't fire. She launched a second knife a split second after the first, and that scored a hit, grazed across his forehead. He blinked, and blinked again, tried to shake the blood from his eyes. Cassia flung herself prone just as he was about to fire, and he shot at where she had been, rather than where she was. She was up again, fast, and headed for the other one, who was jamming the ball down the barrel.
The gunner who had shot at Beronal dropped his carbine, and drew a short stabbing sword, moving to intercept her. The rapier would slow her down, but dagger against sword was not a good bet. She drew the rapier as she charged. This time, she had the range on her opponent, but she needed this to be over fast. There was a shot from where Beronal had brought the edge of the roof down, and the man fell. Either Beronal had won, and was a good shot, or one of the gunners was still alive and a bad one. Either way, good enough.
The other brought his carbine around, ramrod still in the barrel, trying to get the shot off. She did a beat and an attack, as though it was a sword. The gun was knocked off line, and she caught the gunner square in the throat.
Beronal was on her side of the street by the time she was done. Without any pause for conversation or instructions, she started running toward the docks. Behind them, one of the people who had tried to kill them was vomiting loudly, probably dying. The guard would be coming up soon, and it wouldn't do to be found at the scene of that carnage.
It was some time before Cassia was confident enough that they'd evaded pursuit that she could stop running. There had been a few times when they were close enough that they were actually able to hear the guardsman running by, but through luck and skill, she managed to get them past without being seen.
The blood and gore that spattered their clothing was a bit problematic. It was the sort of thing that passerby would note, even out on the frontier, which meant that guardsmen would be able to pick up their trail, once they slowed down enough to start asking people questions. When Cassia decided that they had a large enough lead to take few minutes break, she stopped by a full rain barrel, and they had a quick douse; it was the sort of thing that was bound to upset whoever it was that owned the barrel, but either they weren't watching, or they decided not to interfere with the blood spattered people using their water.
"So. I'm guessing that thirty and sixty is not going to be the price we agree on," said Cassia to Beronal, handing over the five marks she had promised. There was nothing wrong with bargaining, but it would be pointless to go through the whole elaborate ritual.
Beronal splashed water across his face, cleaning off some of the blood, and he grinned at her. It was a surprisingly boyish grin, from as grim a fighter as he had turned out to be. "Call it a hundred and fifty up front, and a mark a day."
A mark was a hundred and twenty silver pennies. Beronal was asking for a hell of a lot. "You've got your signing bonus," she said, passing over the five marks she had promised. "How about just the mark a day?"
"One fifty for the first day," replied Beronal. "Up front."
"Agreed," she said. He was worth it, and as things were going, in a week's time she'd either be rich enough to laugh off a seven mark debt, or she would be dead. Either way, it wasn't as though she had much to lose.
"My swords are yours," he said, and she counted out the mark and thirty. Then they got back to their washing. They weren't trying for clean, just for not particularly noticeable, but it still wasn't an easy task. Particularly not for Beronal, whose style of fighting seemed to leave him as bloody as a butcher's apprentice.
Once they had gotten the worst of the blood and muck off, Cassia led Beronal down toward the docks. That's where she had been sending the other fighters she had hired that morning. It was clear that he had questions about the attempt to kill them, but he was sensible enough not to try discussing it out in the street. Once she got down to the docks district, she started to feel a bit more comfortable. She didn't relax completely. As usual, instead of approaching her safe house directly, she led Beronal down a nearby blind alley first. There was a hole in the wall at its end, and she scanned the warehouse she had converted carefully.
Everything seemed in order. There was a drunk, in a pile of filthy clothes and surrounded by flies near the door. That was normal enough for the neighborhood. Then there was a gang of sailors lounging outside a tavern further down toward the water; it would be an hour or two before the proprietor woke and opened up, so that was also normal enough. None of the prearranged signs indicating trouble had been left, and she was about ready to tell Beronal that everything was okay when she recognized the drunk.
Then she turned, pushed past a plainly surprised Beronal, and started running. Earlier, when they had been running from the mess outside the arena, Cassia had been running carefully, picking routes based on any number of subtle cues, doing her best to avoid problems. Now, she didn't care about that. Beronal was running too, trying to keep up with her, but she barely noticed that. Earlier, she hadn't wanted to push too hard; she didn't want to waste too much energy, or leave Beronal behind. Now, she care about that, or, indeed, about anything. She just ran.
Cassia was a tall and muscular woman, surprising in someone with clearly Aurian facial features, and her legs ate up the miles of cobblestones. When she had finally stopped running, they were in a residential neighborhood right up against the walls of Caniphor. Though the green men had been driven back two years ago, the walls were still well manned, and protected by spells -- that was as far as she could get. She put her hands on her knees, and tried to get her breath and some measure of sanity back.
Somewhat surprisingly, it wasn't all that long before Beronal came puffing up behind her. He was taller than Cassia, and his legs were longer than hers, but he did not have what would be called a runner's build. While it was clear that there was muscle behind it, Beronal was not exactly free of body fat. It was a remarkable achievement for him to have kept pace with her for the length of the city.
"What's going on?" he asked, and she had to admit to herself that he had a right to an answer.
"My father has gone a good deal further than I would have expected," she said.
"My last name is Thear; you started a fight before I could finish my introductions."
"Oh. Oh, you're. . ." Beronal trailed off, and Cassia mentally finished his sentence. That Cassia Thear.
Skifter Thear had come from Auria to Riend thirty years ago, and had made for himself a criminal empire. It was neither as large nor as powerful as the families on the continent, but it was the only such organization in Riend, and it was neither small nor harmless.
"He's called the guard in," said Cassia, when Beronal appeared ready to ask a question. "There was a senior guardsman in disguise by my safe house; I happened to recognize him. If there hadn't already been a raid before I ran, there was one soon after. I can't but conclude that all the allies that I've managed to gather are either dead or captured."
"So what now?" asked Beronal.
She gave a short, barking laugh. "We die," she replied. "Look, this is more than you bargained for, I know, but it's also not what I'd expected. That my father would call the guards in isn't something that even entered my mind; we'd never have done that, no matter how much we wanted someone taken. It's inviting our own destruction. And to be fair, you must have known that I wouldn't be paying that much if everything was aboveboard."
She was going to say more, but it was clear that Beronal wasn't listening. His lips were pursed, and his wide spaced grey eyes were staring vacantly at nothing. And why not, thought Cassia. It wasn't as though she had been saying anything particularly helpful. If he wanted to react to the news of his death by going sort of catatonic, what difference would it make?
He started talking, cutting through her rather morbid thoughts. "Our first priority will be getting out of the city. Given that your father has alerted the authorities about you, it seems likely that they know exactly who they are dealing with, and are putting a fairly high priority on your capture. Therefore, I think it wise to try and get out of Caniphor as soon as possible."
Cassia shook her head, squinted at Beronal. It wasn't the sort of speech that she had expected him to make, nor the style in which she would have expected him to make it. "All true, and also impossible," she replied. "The guards-"
Beronal cut her off. "There will be thorough inspections of those going in and out of the city. I have a plan that should get us through the gate. Once out, we will have to worry about tracking, both magical and otherwise, but I have some ideas as to how to avoid that as well."
Cassia didn't have much confidence that Beronal actually had a plan despite the way his diction differed from most pit fighters. There wasn't that much traffic going out of Caniphor by land; fur and lumber agents, mostly, with a few small freeholders who had made a voyage to the town scattered among them. Empty farmer's carts, and farmers, headed to the small patch of cleared land on the Thaal River plain. Some small traders. It would be difficult to hide among them, and going over the wall seemed even less likely to work.
The best way into or out of Caniphor was through the docks, but those would be crawling with the guard. If they waited long enough for the hunt to die down there, the guard wizard would have a trace on them. And then they'd be good and caught. They'd brought someone new in to take over the duties of the Duke's Wizard that year, replacing old Ironedge. White Marris, or something to that effect. By all accounts, he was a better wizard than the Duchy of Riend had any right to expect. Picking up the trail of a pair of people, when he had bodies of people that they killed, and items that they had handled, was not something that was going to take him more than two, maybe three days.
What Beronal probably had planned was some way of turning her over to her father. He could try that, for all that it was worth to him. Before her father had turned against her, she would have assumed that someone trying something like that would probably succeed in getting away clean, if he managed to get her to Skifter. Now, she was certain that wouldn't do Beronal any good. Skifter would kill her, and then he would kill Beronal. And that was all assuming that Beronal would be able to turn her over. He was welcome to try. He may have been good in a fight, and he had been exhibiting signs of reasonable intelligence, but he was welcome to try and double-cross Cassia Thear, daughter of Skifter Thear.
He must have read some of that in her face, because he said, "No, this isn't an attempt to turn you over to the Duke or your father. Regardless of the justifications I can provide, the Duke will not let the fact that I've killed his soldiers be overlooked."
"The Duke's soldiers?"
"Firelocks aren't assassin's weapons. The ones with firelocks were using rifled carbines and short sabers. Those were mounted scouts. Elite troops, good weapons, but not really the sort of people I'd use to kill someone on a street corner, if I were your father."
Cassia considered what he had said. It made sense. It hadn't been as professional a job as she would have expected from her father. She had assumed that his recent habit of eliminating various high-ranking lieutenants might have had something to do with that - it would be hard for him to get good help after a purge of that sort. But it wasn't that the people who tried to kill them were incompetent. It was that they were, well, wrongly competent. It fit with them being soldiers. This wasn't good news, but it did indicate that Beronal was playing things straight with her.
"What we don't have much of," said Beronal, "is time. I need to see the Dexans."
"The Dexans?" She knew who the Dexans were; a clannish people of indeterminate origin. They had spread across the globe, and made their living by trading wherever they went. The men were the only ones usually seen outside their warrens. They were almost all entirely bald, and they tended to wear large mustaches. There were three Dexan warrens in Caniphor, and one other out in the backcountry.
What she wanted to know was why Beronal needed to see the Dexans, but if he had wanted to tell her, he probably would have. "Yes. Them," he said. "They'll help us, if everything goes well," he said.
Cassia thought about trying to find out more, and decided against. This was not a conversation that she enjoyed having out in the open, even if it was in a fairly deserted neighborhood. And, like it or not, the sand was definitely running out of the hourglass. The market where they had wiped that platoon of scouts out would have filled up with city guards shortly after they left, and those people would be already be working on finding them. The city guard was good at that sort of thing. Fast, too. The guards down on the docks wouldn't have been idle, either.
There was a Dexan clan-house somewhere nearby . . . she took a few seconds to get her bearings, and set off at a quick trot. If Beronal wanted to be mysterious, that was fine. Didn't mean that he'd get out of running a bit more -- as he said, they didn't have a lot of time.