Ed Greenwood: The Mercenaries

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Ed Greenwood The Mercenaries
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Ed Greenwood

The Mercenaries


Seven wet and bitter figures loomed up over him as he crouched in the grass, but the little man kept as still as a stone. Before him lay the curve of the Great Sea, its waves lapping fiercely at the coast of the Utter East.

The night breeze still smelt of burning wood and men, but at least the screams had stopped. As oily smoke bid the last stars from view, the flames dancing amid the rocks below found the precious smoke powder deep in the hold of the Kissing Shark and flared up in fresh fury, spitting spars and embers high into the air.

The seven pirates who'd swum out of the wreck on Skelder's Rocks watched in grim silence as the night exploded. Trailing flames, fragments of the ship hurtled high into the air above the wave-scoured rocks- only to plunge, hissing, back into the sea again.

On the cliffs, the seven turned away. They'd seen their shipmates die; watching them roast was an additional thrill none of the pirates wanted to taste on this darkest of nights.

"Redbeard will pay for this," one of them muttered, as they stumbled off through the tall, dew-slick grass together.

Behind them the sea shook, and a fierce ball of flames rose up into the sky with slow, ponderous fury. The watcher eyed those retreating backs narrowly, but none of the seven flinched or bothered to look back. His mouth tightened into a mirthless smile. Well. It was no mistake that the old ballad claimed all true pirates found their deaths through fire, sea, or sword.

He rose, like a silent shadow, and slipped away. Unheeded, dying flames danced red and glimmering above the wreck-and one by one, the stars came out again.

Chapter 1

A Night at the Masques

Red flames danced and curled like hungry serpents, hissing as some fool tossed the dregs of his tankard their way. They spat and threw smoke and then blazed up again in the smoky hearth that dominated one end of the taproom. The infamous Tavern of the Masques was crowded to the very walls this night, for it was the favorite refuge of the lawless wolves of the sea who called Tharkar their home port.

The city was a place of tight shutters and few torches, nestled in the mountains where Ulgarth and Parsanic meet and together run down into rocky, treacherous seas. Had a sober man been outside in the damp, dark night to raise a lantern and peer at the signboard above the main doors, he'd have seen the words Donder's Dancing Masques on a swirling banner carved beneath four linked black masques-but he'd have found no one in all Tharkar who still remembered Donder. The Masques was where nearly everyone in town came to drink and wench and boast and squabble-or they cowered well clear of it, especially on nights when ships without lamps or charter-papers came in.

Four such ships were creaking at the wharves of Tharkar this night, and not far away, the sprawling bulk of the tavern, in its field of tallgrass, was bulging with thirsty, sweating, heartily belligerent pirates. Inside the heat was intense, the tumult of roaring voices was deafening, and even the burly, battle-scarred guards at the doors and weapon-check rooms looked a little overwhelmed. They'd be calling in the Daggers before this night was through.

A guest had to shoulder and shove to travel three paces, and the doors of the kitchens stood open to let out the steam. The only clothing the cooks wore was tied around their brows, to keep stinging sweat from streaming into their eyes. One man silently watched those glistening bodies wrestle food over drums of hot spiced fat and wine-sluiced chopping boards. He sniffed the air. Around him the pungent, competing reeks of a dozen pipe-mixes mingled with the smells of sizzling stuffed boar, roast almonds, mushrooms fried in herbed butter, stagshead soup, and fowl doused in wine.

The sailors were ravenous. Seaports were the only places some could get more than drink, thin soup, and gnaw-fists of hardbread or salted fish. Right now most of them were doing their level best to take aboard all their guts could hold-and often more-before the club-wielding "lammers" of the house dragged or frog-i marched them out into the dark, cool fields, where they'd be left to lie snoring or moaning until morning.

The copper-topped bar was a crowded forest of tankards and strange bottles from distant, exotic ports, their vintners and brewers either unknown or legendary. More than a few beverages had been so doctored with dyes and sugar-powders by gentle hands behind the bar that their makers wouldn't have recognized them. It didn't matter; the guests were thirsty, and anything that could be opened and poured down a throat would serve. Tankards were being taken out to the tables in crates to avoid spillage in the crowd of laughing, shouting men-and the burly men carrying them were already looking wet and weary.

Ladies who wore only thin leather strips strung with tiny chiming bells swung platters of food from table to table with practiced ease, slapping at some sailors and stopping to dance or bestow kisses when coins were stuffed into their leg-bags. One of them didn't have to slap; she wore only the reeking, draped seaweed of a priestess of Umberlee, goddess of the sea-and men carefully left her alone.

She slipped through the tumult like a dark shadow, as pirates laughed and told wild stories and slapped each other and the tables with mirth-and in one dark corner by the fire a fat little man sat alone at a table. In the reflective surface of a brightly polished tankard, he watched it all. The heat thrown off by the hearth kept most of the weaving pirates from lingering in his corner. From time to time his dark, glistening eyes went to a door nearby, but mostly he looked around the room, keeping his head lowered so his jet black hair hooded his searching gaze, and listened.

The tall tankard sat untasted before him. From time to time, when no one seemed to be looking, he emptied it into a corner. He smilingly held it out- with a handful of silver bits-to be filled anew each time the tall, tanned wine-wench sauntered by. They exchanged wordless smiles at her every visit. She'd taken her measure of his milk-white skin, dark eyes, and a certain air of calm danger that hovered about him. A pity he's so fat, she thought. Otherwise, he just might be worth an evening…

She glanced again at his fine-fingered, almost delicate hands, where they rested on knee and tabletop, sighed inwardly, and went on down the room, avoiding the hairy, groping hands-and hooks-of more boisterous patrons.

As the little man watched her go, the faintest of smiles touched his hps. If this had been another night, he might have been interested

… but just now he was hunting men.

The right men, to be precise; or women, if he could find them strong enough. He needed a few folk to aid him in a mission, folk good at skulking and swordplay. Pirates. He only needed a few-an expendable few- but they had to be the right few.

The sailors at a nearby table had been drinking steadily since dusk, and were beginning-one by one-to slip down senseless in their chairs. Soon the lammers would spot them and sling them out the door beside him, and the table would have new occupants.

Tankards thumped down on another table, hard by, and the watcher raised his own empty jack to his mouth to cover the slight turn of his head that would afford him the best listening he could get. Somewhere, someone dropped a dish with a battlelike clatter-and somewhere nearer, a very drunken pirate lifted his voice in tuneless song. Through it all the fat man listened without seeming to do so.

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