Waiting Game Sample Chapter I
The Dragon’s Den
The Dragon’s Den was a place few men would be caught dead, a place even fewer would be caught alive. The smell of blood on leather or steel was quite familiar to the tavern. The companies of rogues assembled this particular night were no strangers to death and murder, many of them mercenaries and thieves. It was a season when one struggled to keep his steel clean. Drunken laughter roared through the seedy low-beamed common room. Rough looking men sat huddled around circular wooden tables, nursing clay mugs of cold malted ale. A hearty fire burned in the bricked hearth and hot-liquored breaths steamed the frosted windowpanes in the late winter months.
Brigands stole anxious glances over their shoulders at the farthest corner of the room. There, in the deepest shadow that pulled on the collective unease, sat a figure hooded in thick black cloaks. The hooded figure leaned back in his chair, his feet kicked up on a table, but no shadow betrayed his uncommonly dark and delicate features. Only his solid glowing yellow eyes pierced the darkness like torches burning in the night. The tables immediately around him sat vacant, forming a solemn court where no man dared trespass.
The figure’s hood was pulled low over his brow. His glowing gaze took another broad sweep over the dark, dank tavern. Travelers looked away. The locals didn’t even raise an eyebrow. The rare few who foolishly ventured a glance beheld a living, breathing shadow. It was hard to distinguish where the shadows ended and he began. When the shadows stirred one could hear the unmistakable creak of worn leather. Whispers and murmurs ghosted through the hazy smoke-filled darkness bearing but one name, “Shade.”
Shade’s slender black gloved hand reached out from the shadows and grabbed hold of a faded steel goblet.
A reverent lull cut through the air. The men trembled as they watched him trace his nimble fingers around the rim. The firelight flared and revealed a thin straight nose, a mouth with set solemn lips and a pair of high-pronounced cheekbones. His skin was dark and smooth like onyx stone. A Dark Elf. A foreigner to these lands and yet he held every breath, every pounding heart in mid-beat.
Shade smirked. He sat up and brought the goblet to his lips. His cloak fell open. His soft black leathers had been embroidered with silver crescent moons and leaves. His chest bore the crest of a gleaming eye hovering over a black deciduous tree. The flames dancing in the hearth revealed the glint of daggers, dozens of them, tucked away in the many sheaths sown into his dark armor. The Dark Elf paused just before he took a sip. He locked eyes with a man at a far table.
The man’s eyes went wide. He had looked up at the wrong time. He was thick, burly, and bearded…probably Durnish and a blacksmith judging by his size. He froze over as if he had just locked eyes with a ghost.
Shade glared darkly.
The Durnishman shuddered and turned away. He was a thick-skinned, but honest sort, who trembled at the very sight of those cold callous blades. Certainly, they had tasted the blood of countless victims. Shade’s trade dealt with weapons as well—not the rugged pounding out of blades, but the soft and delicate art of running cold steel through warm flesh. He was an assassin of the Unseen Order. An order of a far off land breathed only in hushed whispers out West.
Shade took another drink from his goblet. His eyes continued searching for more wandering glances. Only one pair of eyes dared meet his own…the innkeeper, Gordwin, at the bar. A silent exchange passed between them.
Gordwin was a broad bald man, a retired soldier, with a coarse whiskered face and a sobering scowl. He owned The Dragon’s Den and he kept it well. He was quite capable of keeping order even among the less than reputable clientele. His scarred war-hardened nature had proven enough, on most occasions, but when that didn’t work, he had Shade.
Gordwin nodded to the far end of the bar.
Shade heard the sound of glass shattering.
A group of ruffians shouted and shook their mugs in a drunken ruckus. Shards of clay mugs and crockery lay scattered across the floorboards. A tall black-bearded Brigorian man with an eye patch led the rabble. Moose furs hung from his broad shoulders. He wore a heavy battleaxe strapped to his back. Gordwin refused to serve them and so the black-bearded man had thrown several mugs over the bar. He had shattered several bottles of Gordwin’s valuable booze.
Shade got up. Silence filled the air. Only the rowdy group roared on in a liquored stupor.
The locals lowered their heads and kept their noses to their drinks.
“Try not to draw so much blood this time.” Gordwin crossed his arms as Shade passed. “I grow tired of scrubbing my floors.”
Shade squinted his eyes into razor thin narrow slits. He reached the rabble of clueless drunken ruffians.
“You’ve broken my reverie,” his voice rang clear and sharp, like the ring of steel.
The Brigorian glanced lazily over his shoulder to see the tall shadow behind him. “Bugger off, Dark Elf,” he growled back, “this is Doljinaar and I’ll do as I please.”
Shade tapped the man hard on the shoulder.
Annoyed, the man threw Shade a scowl. He slid off his barstool and turned to face the Dark Elf fully. The Brigorian was big. He rose a full head above Shade and was broad as he was tall. The man was even hairier than an average Brigorian, if that were possible, and he stank of old sweat and reeked of alcohol.
“Watch it, Bearus,” said a blonde-goateed Terramothian, one of his friends. He, more than his drinking buddy, keenly estimated the Dark Elf.
Bearus looked Shade up and down. “I said bugger off, or I’ll break more’n’ your bloody reverie, Welf!”
The blonde cringed at the word. Onlookers looked nervously over their shoulders. There was no greater insult to an Elf.
Shade glared ice daggers at Bearus and his friends.
“I’m not sitting around here to get knifed on your account!” The Terramothian trembled under Shade’s cold dead glare. He got up and left.
“There is wisdom amongst brigands after all,” Shade mused.
“I’m not afraid of you, Welf!” Bearus poked the assassin’s shoulder. “Your kind is just a bunch of tricksters and thieves. I should do us all a favor and wring your black neck!” He cracked his knuckles. The other two ruffians got up behind him and loosened their swords from their hilts.
Bearus growled like an animal and reared for an attack. He swung at Shade who ducked in an astonishing display of speed.
The assassin threw a powerful and calculated punch to his nose in retaliation. The crunch of cartilage was sickening. He could have knocked the bone back into the man’s brain and killed him, but he didn’t. He caught one of the other ruffians in a roundhouse kick and in the same fluid motion swept the legs of the last man.
Blood streamed from Bearus’ nose.
Shade seized the Brigorian by the collar and threw him out into the cold winter night before he had the time to bleed on Gordwin’s floors.
Bearus collapsed in the gray slush mud road and stained the snowmelt red with his blood. His moans beckoned the limping, wincing friends who remained. They hung their heads like whipped dogs and headed out into the cold. The frigid winds of the Ice Marshes howled fiercely through the door.
Shade slammed the door shut. He dusted the few stray snowflakes off his leather tunic and turned around. The onlookers looked down at their drinks. Though the terror of his presence was almost overpowering, many of the locals came here to drink because of the renowned assassin. He drew in as much business as he beat away. In a way, he provided a measure of entertainment and protection for the locals. Bloody barroom brawls were far too common in Jile’s many other disreputable taverns and at least here the Dark Elf provided a sliver of law and order.
Gordwin nodded his thanks.
They had an arrangement. Gordwin gave Shade a permanent room at the inn and in exchange the assassin kept the local rabble in line. It was more than just a convenient living arrangement. After all, Shade could really disappear anywhere, but Gordwin had connections, connections that kept Shade aptly informed of interested parties who sought out his asylum in the Ice Marshes. The bald innkeeper gave Shade a chance to lower his guard and provided a home to the shadowy outlander—if ever a smoky, ale-stained, whore-frequented tavern could be called one.
The assassin returned to his seat and men breathed more freely again.
Gordwin arrived bearing a pitcher of aged Farian Wine. Farian Wine came from the warmer northern lands and was one of the finest wines in the entire kingdom. Of course, it was not as good as the Dark Oliverian Wines back home in his own black country, but he appreciated the gesture nonetheless. Gordwin topped Shade’s goblet off. He left the pitcher free of charge. The innkeeper turned, threw a few more logs into the brick hearth and stoked the flames.
The Dark Elf returned to his thoughts, enveloped in shadows once again. He grew tired of keeping the local ruffians in line and wondered when his next job would walk through the door. It had been two long months since his last real mark and he was itching for a challenge.
Shade pulled a small cloth pouch out of his belt pocket. He loosened the string. He unwrapped a large chunk of dried gray swamp clay. He broke off a chunk and crumpled it, letting the particles slip through his fingers and drop into his goblet. The clay sunk to the bottom of the blood red liquid. He raised the glass and swigged the entire muddy goblet down. He grimaced as the last of the grimy, squishy liquid worked its way down his throat.
A man watched him from an assumedly safe distance half in shock and half in disgust. Shade’s eyes flashed the man’s direction. The man averted his gaze.
The inn door flew open and a Shamite man wrapped in fine golden linens stepped inside followed by two bodyguards, Derves from the looks of them. The Shamite removed his cloak and tossed it to the shorter bodyguard who dusted it off and folded it neatly over his arm. The Shamite’s neck, wrists and fingers were adorned with gold bracelets and rings crusted with precious stones. His gold earrings had been linked to his nose piercings by an over-abundance of gold chains. Even his blonde hair was sprinkled with gold dust. His face was frozen in a smug, self-approving grin which also glowed like solid gold.
The two Dervish bodyguards wore royal purple turbans and colorful belted tunics sewn with bronze plates. The Shamite must have paid them well. Even their hooded scarlet capes could have been worn by princes. They had fierce black mustaches and keener black eyes. He regarded the two Derves coolly. They surveyed the inn with an astute watchfulness until they settled on Shade. He noticed as their shoulders stiffened and their moustaches lowered; they knew who he was. Derves were rumored to be extremely fast with the blade. Shade smiled to himself. He knew they could never be fast enough.
The Shamite turned and walked directly towards Shade, much to his surprise.
The tavern died down to a low murmur.
The Shamite stopped just in front of the table. He was flanked by his guards. He grinned brazenly and nodded, “You must be Shade.”
Shade said nothing.
The Shamite cleared his throat and tried again, “I’ve traveled far and wide in search of the world renowned Dark Elven Assassin.”
“And so you’ve found me.” Shade kept his eyes steady. He shifted in his seat and deftly loosened a blade at his side. He crossed his arms, a finger still on his hilt.
The two Derves jerked slightly.
“May I sit?”
The Shamite snapped his fingers.
One of the Derves quickly pulled the chair out for him.
“When I heard I could find you in Jile, I was surprised. A man of your caliber should not reside in such…a place as this.” The Shamite looked around disgusted. After a brief and dismayed regard of the inn his face once again settled into a smug blindingly obnoxious grin.
“But I’m not a man, and your opinions are irrelevant. What do you want?”
“I have a job for you,” the Shamite grinned.
Shade looked away. “Get out.”
“A pound and a quarter of bloodstone pieces just to hear me out.”
“Two and a half pounds.”
The man tossed two pouches onto the table. The assassin didn’t touch them; he simply turned his yellow gaze back to the Shamite.
“Your reputation is impressive to say the least. The respect you command…”
“You’re paying a lot to stroke my ego. Let’s get to the point, yes? Who are you?”
He took a more serious tone, “If you don’t mind I’d like to keep my identity secret.”
“Either you tell me your name or you leave.”
“Surely, you don’t need to know all the details.”
Shade raised his eyebrow.
“Very well,” he conceded, “I am Malgarius, headmaster of High Councilor Prognos. I manage all of his domestic and occupational affairs while he is away at the Grand Forum, and how do I put this delicately?” He steepled his fingers. “I solve any local or national crises that might infringe upon my master’s estates.”
“By High Councilor Prognos, you mean Vizier Prognos, adviser to the king in all matters of intelligence. The King’s Eye.”
“You know something of our spies,” Malgarius mused, “yes that is his official title. I assure you my master’s eyes are always fixed on issues of national sovereignty, threats homegrown and threats abroad, and for a while now he has had his eyes fixed on you.”
Gordwin hurried over to serve their new customer, seeing that Shade had allowed the man to sit without planting a dagger in his chest. The innkeeper set down a tarnished bronze goblet set with six green emeralds, a chalice kept for so rare an occasion it had permanently lost its shine. He appeared to be a little embarrassed, but the fierce leathery mask of a soldier returned to his face bearing a slight scowl to let the Shamite know he would not tolerate any flack on the matter.
Malgarius barely noticed.
“Would your guest care for a drink, Shade? On the house, of course.”
Shade nodded toward the bottle of Farian Wine knowing the man was a Shamite and would drink nothing less. The Dark Elf would never drink the entire bottle anyway. Temperance was one of his best kept virtues.
“Care for some wine, good sir?” Gordwin asked gruffly, managing a rough, but adequate etiquette that grated against his gristly nature. Shade hid his amusement. “This is my finest bottle of rich Farian Wine, aged on the rack thirty good years, or do you fancy another drink?”
“It will have to do,” the Shamite sighed.
Gordwin looked visibly relieved as he poured the glass. He left the bottle, bowed and backed away.
Shade waited for the innkeeper to return to the bar. He sat back relaxed, a slight grin dancing at the corners of his lips. He took another sip of wine. He kept eyeing the guards. A trickle of sweat ran down the short Derve’s brows. The other man already stank of sweat and damp armor. The Dark Elf regarded the Shamite. “So, what’s wrong, Shamite? Your councilman’s chair not big enough for him? He got his eyes on someone else’s seat?”
“Quite the contrary,” the Shamite leaned back and took a sip. He held his goblet in a lax, gingerly manner. He replied almost too casually, “This is about keeping his seat.” His posture was nearly as relaxed as Shade. The man was either very arrogant or very stupid.
“Let’s just say Doljinaarian diplomacy works far too slowly without the sovereign command of the king, as you and I both know King Magnus’s time is consumed fighting the Syssrah at Daggerport leaving his council to rule in his stead.”
Shade stared hard at Malgarius. “I’m waiting to hear your point.”
Malgarius put his goblet down and resteepled his fingers. “I think you would be most impressed with Vizier Prognos. He is a man of kingly qualities and commanding authority. His wisdom crouches on the hem of Thanedom. Surely, you would welcome the aid of such a powerful man to guarantee the protection of your long ignored asylum in these swamplands.”
“I don’t need anyone’s protection.”
“I had expected you would say that, understand that it’s by Prognos’ graces you go unmolested in these lands.”
Shade leaned in and growled darkly, “Then perhaps I should pay your master a visit—to express my…thanks…for his graciousness. Or maybe I could send him my thanks through you.” In half a breath he held a dagger to Malgarius’ throat.
The Derves’ hands flew to their hilts.
Malgarius waved them off.
Shade whispered, “I’ll let you try again.”
The Shamite swallowed hard, the smug expression all but gone, “It appears I may have misspoken.”
Shade leaned back and removed the blade.
The Shamite closed his eyes and struggled to regain his composure.
Shade smirked at the Derves.
The room was thick with tension. The tall Dervish guard’s hand trembled wildly on his hilt. The other man rattled ever louder in his armor.
“Most of my master’s estates are in Kurn,” Malgarius’ voice shook and he slowly reopened his eyes, “it is growing increasingly difficult to protect his interests, as you undoubtedly know. The Kurn sewers have become infested by a plague of night mortals,” the Shamite paused and smoothed over his words, “I pray you understand I do not list your civilized people in this category. Nay, Dark Elves have a great history of culture, lore and learning. I speak only of those bloodthirsty night races, whom by their own brutal savagery, prove themselves to be monsters.”
“We have known about this Kurn pestilence for some time. The sewers have deteriorated into a vast and intricate criminal underworld so deadly that not even the legions of mighty Doljinaar dare enter. Over the centuries warring clans of night mortals segregated by race have overrun the sewers. Each clan is ruled by crimelords who, up until now, have always squabbled amongst themselves. In the past the authorities have always left this evil to brood in the festering, stinking pits where it belongs, but we can no longer afford to ignore it. The refuse of night mortals now threaten to seep from the sewers and spill out onto the very streets of Kurn. If this happens my master will lose all that he owns.”
“You speak of Warlord Lewd,” said Shade, “the Sewer King as men call him.”
“Forgive me.” Malgarius nodded graciously. “I forget you are as likely familiar with Kurn’s underground passages as I am with her brightly paved streets.”
“You wish me to strike Warlord Lewd?”
“Yes,” the Shamite’s lips snaked into a crooked grin, “strike Lewd and the refuse of the sewers will turn inward and devour themselves once again.”
Shade considered it. The job suited him. He could crumble the power of the underworld with one bold stroke.
“I dare say, this Warlord Lewd is nearly as infamous as you. They say he is not an identifiable member of any known race. He is called Troll due to his hideous appearance, but he is a very charismatic leader. His appeal transcends the boundaries of race since he is not easily fingered to be any one of them.” Malgarius paused and threw back the meager remains of his drink. He wiped his chin, in a momentarily uncouth manner, but the moment suited him. A trickle of wine dribbled down his chin like blood. The Shamite finished, “It is that transcendent gift we wish to deprive him of. If you are willing to take this mark you may name your own price.”
“The weight of his head in bloodstone.”
“You would make me an enemy of the entire Kurn underground,” said Shade in wry amusement, “hunted to the very ends of the kingdom.”
Malgarius grinned back at him. He poured Shade another glass of wine. He leaned back in his seat and raised a toast. “A very, very rich enemy…”