Fantasy Fiction posted May 21, 2022 Chapters: 1 -2- 3... 


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The Companions begin their investigation

A chapter in the book A Penny for you Fought

Carmen All Ye Faithful

by Fleedleflump

The author has placed a warning on this post for language.



Background
The Companions, a group of misfit mercenaries in the town of Pennylast, has been contracted by the local watch to find the killers of a poor family killed with supernatural means.
I strolled into the bright morning, letting my door close behind me as I adjusted the straps of my armour. It fit better now, and I hoped I was imagining the slight stickiness on the inside padding.

"So you're telling me," laughed Smiff when he saw me, "this used to be so big on the knockers, fings fell inside while you was fighting." He chuckled again and it was a warm, enticing sound.

"Uh once saw a wee dwarf fall in," said Harry, his beard bouncing with barely suppressed laughter. "When the lad emerged, he wees clean shaved!" His voice sounded like an arthritic bellows. He barely managed to squeeze the last two words out before collapsing in giggles.

Lindon grinned. "When she turned around in a fight, she'd take out more enemies with her chest than those dirks she wears."

I could feel the heat filling my cheeks. "My tits are neither hairy with stolen face fluff, nor lethal weapons used to slap foes into submission." I put my hands firmly on my hips. "If I was a guy, would you joke about me slapping people with my big, flappy nob?"

They all responded with horrified, hurt expressions.

I turned to look at my rented rooms, ostensibly to check I'd closed my door properly, while I let the irritation flow away. Home was a terraced building just slightly wider than its door. The entry opened into a kitchen with a rudimentary hearth. Upstairs was a table and chair, and up once more was a cot that filled the room. Out back was a privy shed shared by the terrace. I smiled to myself. Don't think I'm complaining - the place was waterproof and easy enough to keep warm. In Pennylast, those two things are considered luxury considerations. It's true to say, I was better off than many.

"Uh dunne know how te answer that, lass," said Harry, his face caught between humour and affront. "Uh'll be thinking o' flappy willies all day, nae."

"If it was Terence," said Lindon, expression straight, "I've actually seen him kill people with his man-boobs."

Smiff cocked his head to one side. "I once choked a-"

I held my hand up to cut him off. "Nope. I do not need to hear that story. Sorry I asked. And speaking of Terence, where is the huge git?"

On cue, our barbarian strolled into view from down the street. He was busy sucking glistening fingers while a portly she-dwarf in an apron trotted to keep up, shouting at his back. Every now and then, Terence turned and pointed at his sheriff's badge ... I almost wish I could retract that sentence.

I flicked a coin to Harry. "Go pay the lady, will you?"

"How's ye know she's a lady dwarf?"

"It's a sisterhood thing - just go, okay? I haven't forgiven you for the beardy boobs comment yet." I turned to our watchman liaison. "Smiff, have you decided who we should talk to yet?"

He nodded. "The dock workers' union."

"Erm," said Lindon. "I hate to break it to you, old chap, but Pennylast is landlocked. We don't have any dock workers."

"Trust me - if there's trouble and revolt, it'll be the dock workers behind it. It's always the dock workers. Pennylast just 'as a different version. They load carts instead of ships but the prints ... pricksickle ... err, the idea's the same, awright?"

He looked about to carry on but something behind me caused his eyes to widen. Wearing the expression of a hobbit about to be flattened by a runaway wagon, he yelled one word in a voice no hobbit's ever possessed:

"Duck."

Before I could process what he'd said, Smiff launched himself at my mid-section. Instinct took over and I jerked my knee up into his oncoming face. He crashed into me, carrying us both to the floor, and something yanked at my hair as I fell.

As the dust cloud settled around me, I found myself winded on my back, an unconscious policeman on top of me. I might have thought about the potential for a joke in that sentence if there wasn't a crossbow bolt buried in the ground nearby, a neat lock of my hair wafting in the breeze from its feathers like a claimed scalp. An air of menace floated on the breeze and the world was deathly silent.

"Oh, that's not good," said Lindon.

*****

I rapped my knuckles on the solid timber door, wincing slightly at the impacts. It was one of those people-sized doors embedded in a cart-sized door. If I wasn't still annoyed about being shot at, I might have found it a funny image - especially if a dwarf was doing the knocking. Knots wrestled like oily bodybuilders in my tummy as I thought about my hair wafting from a feather. There's nothing like helplessness to stoke rage.

"What I don't understand," said Lindon, "is why it's called the Carman's guild when they're all just carters."

"Ye daft jessie!" shouted Harry. "Uh Carter drives carts, uh Carman transports goods."

I turned to raise an eyebrow at the dwarf. "A fine detail for a getaway carter to be worried about."

"Uh coulda bin a carman." He crossed his arms. "Uh didne have the reet family."

"More like the right beard," I muttered, turning to knock again. A thought flashed into my head, of that crossbow bolt buried in my head, its feathers bright like a mortal fascinator. The heat of Harry's affront throbbed at my back but I couldn't feel apologetic at the moment.

Smiff tapped me on the shoulder and I glanced his way, ignoring the small twinge of guilt at the swollen, purple eye I'd given him.

"Watch it, love," he murmured. "I know what yor finking, but don't take it out on yor boys."

I tutted. "Don't pretend you know what's running through my head, Smiff."

"If not for me," he smiled, "it'd be a small shaft of wood."

"Well, I'm sure you're the expert on small shafts of wood."

He grinned broadly. "Jus' remember - I'm a copper, and you lot are hard cases. Between us, we'll find out who shot at you an' avenge that poor family. I got techniques, ya know."

"I have a few techniques of my own."

The door finally opened and I was presented with a short man wearing an expression like I'd just pissed in his ale barrel. "What?"

I dragged him out by his collar, drawing a dirk and pinning him against the wider door, a point poised over his face. "Who shot at me?"

"Help!" he wriggled, but I held him with the strength of I'M REALLY PISSED OFF RIGHT NOW.

"Who shot at me, you little pissant? Start talking, or this knife'll be the last prick you ever feel."

He was banging the door with his fists. "Get off me, you crazy bint."

I leaned in slowly, so he'd understand - I had plenty of time to kill him if I wanted to. "Some filthy bastards murdered a poor family near here. Worse, they took a pop at me. I want to know who, and I have it on good authority you can tell me."

I could hear footsteps rushing out through the door but I kept my focus on his struggling form. He was still looking defiant. "So? I'm just a guy, what can I tell you?"

"You're not just a guy - you're the guy I'm holding at knife point who definitely knows something." I inched my dirk closer so the point touched his cheek.

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry, alright? I'm sorry your friends got killed and I'm sorry someone shot at you, but it wasn't me."

The shuffling around me had gone quiet, which was ominous, but I hadn't finished working through my anger yet. "Who was it, then?"

In the following silence, he simply smiled at me.

"Err, Roz?" Lindon's voice sounded shaky, so I looked around.

The companions and Smiff had arranged themselves in a defensive semi-circle against my back, weapons half-drawn. Outside them was an intimidating ring of swarthy guys wielding crowbars. When I looked, they started slapping the weapons rhythmically against palms in perfect unison - this was not a situation they were uncomfortable with. No words were exchanged, but one of them caught my eye deliberately and raised his eyebrows. Either he fancied me, or he was making a point.

You know my thoughts on melee combat, right? It's messy, random, and a worse idea than garlic sandwiches before a first date. I knew my boys could handle this bunch of carmen, but they weren't wimps and I didn't need to risk anybody. Besides, I'd worked out some of my anger on the unfortunate door answerer. If they all thought I was a bit unhinged, that might help us get some answers.

I let a grin flash across my face and winked at the guy who caught my eye.

"Sorry," I said to my captive, letting him go. "I thought you were somebody hard enough to be my suspect."

"I can be hard," he muttered in hurt tones as he returned to his colleagues. I resisted the temptation to kick his retreating arse.

"Shiny," said the carman I'd shared looks with. At his lead, they all stopped slapping their weapons. "Now, how can we help you folks?"

"You know you don't need the ess there," said Lindon. "Folk is already plural."

"Is he for real right now?" The leader's eyebrows rose again - for his only facial hair, they really were quite expressive.

I elbowed Lindon gently in the ribs. "Don't mind the elf. He talks when he's ... Well, when he's breathing, but there's no point taking offence." I looked round my merry band of protectors. "Thanks for having my back, chaps, but let's show willing and sheathe the weaponry."

They all did as I suggested, even if Terence did so with a scowl on his face.

I approached the owner of the eyebrows and proffered a hand. "I'm Rozlyn. I lead this bunch of misfits and we were hoping to ask your group some questions."

"It's the bloody Fuzz," muttered one of the carmen, slapping his crowbar.

Smiff shuffled audibly behind me. "The Watch ain't your enemy, mate."

"Besides," I smiled. "We're not Watch. We're ..."

"Consultants," supplied Harry.

The guy's eyebrows twisted in suspicion like caterpillars with stomach ache. "You got a funny way of introducing yourselves. I don't think I like your interviewing style."

I never blinked. "Well, I don't like being shot at in the street, so you'll have to forgive a little aggression on my part."

We matched gazes for a while until he relented and grinned. "Come in, then. We'll fix you people with a cuppa and see if we can't help."

Despite suspicious glances flying in both directions, our groups managed to file into the union headquarters without any fists (or crowbars) flying. The walls were rough but solid brick, shaped to create stalls for wagons, backed onto goods corridors. Above, fluted glass panels swept upwards in an iron ribcage to form an elongated dome roof. This might be a working building, but it was built with purpose, no expense spared. Eyebrows took us to the back of the space, where iron steps took us to a suspended office. Most of the carmen drifted away into various positions, presumably resuming the tasks they'd been at before the call to arms.

Before long, we were sitting round a solid oak table, he flanked by the two most swarthy crowbar-wielders and me by a comedy troupe of mixed purpose. We all nursed cups of sweetened herbal tisane. I had to admit, it was the tastiest hot drink I'd ever encountered. I gave Lindon a nod and he nodded back while Smiff looked on with questioning eyes.

"This is good stuff," I said, sipping from my cup.

Eyebrows smiled. "There are certain advantages to transporting all the goods in a market town."

"Aye," muttered Harry. "The pay's a pittance but the perks are a blessing."

"My name's Carman Dennis," said our host, finally freeing me from referring to him by facial hair. He spread his hands to encompass the bustling building. "Here, we protect the interests of good, honest transport workers in Pennylast."

I smiled. "By drinking posh tisane and threatening to beat up women in the street?"

"By ensuring each worker receives fair rates for services and work is always available."

Lindon shifted in his seat. "What if somebody wants to go it alone - run a transport business without joining your guild?"

"All the major contracts go through us, so they'd have trouble finding work. The union's for the protection of everyone." He shrugged. "That only works if everyone pays."

"Shakedown," said Smiff quietly.

One of the bodyguards growled. That's not an exaggeration - he actually growled like a threatened cat.

I smacked a hand down on the table and smiled inwardly when several of the others jumped. "We're not here for politics. We're here for that poor family. So, Dennis. Since you stopped me questioning your lackey downstairs, perhaps you can help us. An innocent family was murdered in their home over on Belly Row. I'm told your organisation may be able to shed some light on what happened."

He looked at me intently for a few moments before answering. When he did, there was no hint of expression on his face. "Sometimes, there's a natural order to things."

I glanced at Terence and he bashed a fist on the table. His teacup skittered away like startled prey and the timber surface creak quietly in protest.

"It's a testament to your very expensive table that we're not all wearing tisane shoes," I said quietly. "But Terence is nothing if not persistent, so I'm sure he'd be happy to give it another try."

Dennis scowled and his eyebrows knitted together like randy rodents. "It's a brave man - or woman - who threatens us in our own headquarters." His two guards squeezed their fists demonstratively.

Without hesitating, I turned to Terence and nodded again. He raised a fist over his head.

"Stop!"

I held up a hand and my barbarian companion paused, fist still brandished.

"Listen here," I said to Dennis. "I've been threatened by demons, attacked by a dragon and once - memorably - forced to defend myself from a possessed pleasure toy. That was a close call. So, if you think I'm afraid of a self-aggrandising administrator with a couple of crowbars, you're going to be very sorely disappointed."

"Okay, okay." His eyes were angry but he wasn't stupid enough to keep pushing it. "I'll tell you what I know." I waved my hand dismissively and Terence lowered his. "There's a town regeneration scheme going on at the moment. That's a fancy way of saying they shuffle all the inconvenient folks into slums and make way for posh buildings what benefit them lot at the expense of everyone else. Belly Row's right in the middle of the new development area. All the house owners are under pressure to sell up and move out."

"You're saying the town planners killed them because they didn't want to sell?"

He blinked. "No. I'm telling you they were killed because they did sell. They broke the solidarity of Belly Row. That's not a betrayal the rest can forgive. It undermines their argument about offer values being too low. Real people stick together."

"Are you saying you bankrolled this killing?"

"No, of course not. We're not in the business of knocking folks off." He must have seen the sceptic in my expression. "I'm serious! Think about it - dead men don't pay dues." He shrugged. "I'm just saying you got to understand. People grew up in those homes and they'll fight hard and dirty to keep them. The Millers broke ranks, and they paid for it."

I stared into his eyes for a while but saw no inch of give. "You talk a friendly talk, Mr Dennis, but I think you've got an anvil for a soul and more hammers than a dwarven blacksmith convention. I will get justice for those poor people, and if my search brings me back here, you'll need more than a few crowbars to protect you."

He smiled, and his eyebrows smiled with him. "I look forward to our next meeting."





Many thanks for reading. Chapter 1 was posted anonymously as it was a contest entry. Now that's over, I've added it to this book and re-promoted it in case you want to read it first.

Characters

The Companions - A group of mercenaries who take odd jobs for cash. Used to be the wrong side of the law and now aren't so sure.

Rozlyn - Leader of The Companions. Sarcastic and doesn't take crap.

Harry - Dwarven getaway carter (of old). Scottish accent. Only recently grew a beard. Been with Rozlyn the longest.

Lindon - Elven wizard, kind of useless, often randy.

Terence - Huge barbarian. Generally oblivious. Handy in a barny.

Smiff - Cockney Watch Deputy. We don't trust him yet.
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