Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Plinth

The Heroes of Fannen-Dar, Chapter 5

The population of Fannen-Dar was booming. Despite the wide diversity the town could boast (if anyone were to listen), more and more children were being born each month. Of course, this was mostly happening to the commoners, as the nobility could hardly be bothered to listen to the town crier, much less reproduce. And since the nobility took up a whole quarter of the town, with another half being used for places of business or worship, the living quarters for this exponentially expanding population were somewhat cramped.

It showed the most in the South-East quarter, commonly known as the Columns. Due to the need for more living space, but because of the limits of the town wall, the peasants built upwards. Houses were stacked on other houses, held up by support beams interconnecting the stacks like string cheese. The tips of chimneys protruded from the tops of the Columns, one for each house in the stack, creating a tableau that, if viewed from above, was reminiscent of a bed of needles. Most of the old Columns had access to the upper buildings by stairways inside, and these were often inhabited by extended families who liked to stay in touch. As people became more mistrustful of one another, it showed in the architecture; the newer additions had to be reached from the outside by rickety spiraling staircases or, for the really poor, ladders.

As Robin followed Gwynt through the streets of the Columns, she felt the gaze of a hundred unseen urchins giving them the once over to see if they were friend or foe, or possibly rich. Since nobody jumped out to mug them, Robin figured they struck an appropriately misfortunate impression. Gwynt seemed oblivious to the watching eyes and chatted with Robin over his shoulder.

“I can't wait to introduce to you everyone!” he said. “You're going to love it, Anzo is the best leader we could ask for...” A window several stories above on one of the Columns opened, and a harsh voice called down.

“What's all this ruckus?” The wrinkled man looked down at Robin and Gwynt and snarled. “Robin, I thought we told you not to come back here!”

“Hello, Old Man Scruthers,” Robin muttered.

“Speak up!” he yelled back. “Don't be gossiping about me when I'm right up here!” He spat, and the glob of saliva took a few seconds before it finally splashed on the ground several feet away from Robin.

Robin looked up at Scruthers. The man was so poor he could only afford a room high in one of the Columns. He couldn't handle the ladder, and the rumor was that he hadn't been out of his house in thirty years. His neighbors delivered food and other bare necessities to him in exchange for his predictions of the weather, based on the feelings he got in his old bones.

“We don't want none of your bad luck rubbing off on us!” Old Man Scruthers continued. Robin looked down at her feet. She knew it was a sentiment shared by most who knew her in the Columns. She had tried to move in after being rejected by every gang she volunteered for, but she couldn't pay with money, and no one wanted to hire her due to her suspicious background. Even the most misfortunate in the town thought she would bring them down further.

Robin moved towards Gwynt, who had stopped and was watching the conversation with a look of mild fascination. “Come on,” she said while Scruthers snapped another retort and slammed his window shut. “What were you saying about your boss?”

Gwynt smiled and continued. “He's got the whole gang running like cogwork. Almost every task we could ever need is assigned to at least one member, but we're missing just one. We still need a thief.” They took a few more corners through the narrow streets of the Columns. “I'm the assassin, of course, since I know the most about poisons and potions.” Gwynt suddenly stopped walking, and since his stride was more like a spasmodic sneak, Robin stumbled into him. He caught her in his arms, and Robin felt the tips of pins press against her. She quickly put five feet between them. Gwynt smiled to see that she was standing on her own, as if it were a great accomplishment.

He then raised his arms towards the heavens. Robin realized that he wasn't praying, but indicating the building they had come to. It was the tallest in the Columns, stretching into the sky for almost a dozen stories. Sunlight bathed the top floor, where the wood was just a bit less splintered, the windows a bit less dusty, and the chimney smoke a bit less smoggy.

“We have arrived,” Gwynt said formally.

“You live all the way up there?” Robin asked in awe.

Gwynt laughed. “There?” he said. “No! This way.” He stepped around the side of the building, away from the foot of the staircase that wound around the stack. He bent over and opened a trapdoor jutting out from the wall of the Column. He began climbing down a ladder.

Robin realized that she was about to enter a dark cellar with a stranger whom she had only just met less than an hour ago, and who had already attempted to kill her. She was very well aware of the advice often given to young women about young men, and especially young alfar (the alfar live for more than three times the length of humans, so alfar in their thirties are mentally only just reaching that special age when their bodies start to change).

However, Robin also knew a lot of gangs in Fannen-Dar. She had tried to join most of them, after all. She couldn't name every leader or remember exactly where their territorial boundaries were, but she had come to recognize all their names. Never in all her life living in this town had she heard of a gang called Bedlam. The idea of a new, or better yet secret gang made her incredibly curious.

Also, never in all her life had she been invited to join any sort of organization. She wasn't about to pass up this opportunity just because it might get her killed. She followed Gwynt through the cellar door, down the ladder shaft.

The room she found herself in was no more than ten feet on a single side. Wooden beams held back the soil that formed the walls, which were stained with rainwater and pockmarked with rabbit holes. One corner of the room was taken up by a small cauldron and alchemical supplies, including brass vials and a dusty alembic. Something green was dripping out of the alembic's spout, leaving a sizzling puddle on the ground. Gwynt took off his cloak and hung it up on a splinter of wood next to a looking glass in that corner.

The back of the room was dominated by a long table, strewn with tattered scrolls and parchments. A single quill sat in an iron ink well with streaks of dried ink crusted down its sides. A chair draped in a large fur pelt sat behind the table, facing away from the entrance. Gwynt stepped up to the table and waved Robin to join him.

“Anzo,” he said, “I've really done it this time. I've found us a new member.”

The chair slid back slowly, and a hulking figure stood up from it. The first thing Robin saw was his hair. It was matted and brown, almost like fur, coming out of his head like knots came off the sails of a ship. There was no mistaking that the man had ogre blood. He turned around, and the second thing Robin saw was his smile.

It was somehow larger than his face, and lopsided. It let out an enormous laugh. Not one of mockery like Robin was used to, though, but one that came from somewhere deep in the half-ogre's belly.

“Welcome to the Plinth!” he boomed. “Top-secret headquarters of Bedlam!”

“Bottom-secret, really,” Gwynt added. Anzo nodded solemnly.

“A new member, at last! This is just what we needed,” Anzo said to Robin. He tried to sit back down, but the chair was still facing the wall. After bumping into its back, he muscled it to face front. Robin noticed a small footstool behind it before Anzo finished adjusting and sat back down. “I see you've already met Gwyntmarwolaeth. My name is Anzo, and I am the founder and leader of Bedlam.”

Robin cleared her throat. “I'm Robin, and it's very great to meet you. I didn't expect such a warm welcome from a group who're named after the legendary city where people were supposedly slaughtered by the thousands in a single night.”

Anzo laughed again. “Very true,” he said. “We're nothing if not good to our members. Even prospective members.”

“Prospective?” Gwynt said. “I thought you said I could recruit anyone I could get my hands on?”

“I did say that, Gwyntmarwolaeth, and now you will shut up!” Anzo turned back to Robin and smiled. “However, everyone must go through a test before becoming a fully fledged member.”

Gwynt gasped. “Not the Sewers Course?”

“The very same.”

“But Anzo! Not even Hudtan could make it through without...you know...”

“Yes, yes, but the test is necessary.” Anzo looked back at Robin. “If you are willing to take the risk?”

Robin gulped, but wasn't about to back out. She wasn't about to be able to hide her nervousness either. “Yugh.”

“Good! Now, you should probably meet the rest of the gang...”

“Hold on,” Robin said after shaking off her shivers. “You want me to meet the whole gang? You don't just have some secret pass phrase to help identify each other?”

Anzo stared back at her blankly. “That...” he said, “...would be so cool!” He clapped and stood up laughing. “What a brilliant idea! Secret pass phrases! We'd be even more mysterious than we already are. What do you think of that, Hudtan?”

A person suddenly emerged from a shadowy corner, causing Robin to let out a short shout and take a step backwards. She was a dark elf, sporting the same pointed ears and thin frame as elves generally had, but with dark gray, almost black skin, solid white eyes, and streaked violet and azure hair. She had a scowl where her mouth should be.

“I think many things, boss man,” she said out of the corner of her mouth. The room seemed to grow quiet save her voice, even though no one but her spoke. “More goes on in my head than you could possibly comprehend. And each thought is as distinct as a full moon on a haunting night. My mind is as sharp as the blades with which I cut down my foes.”

“Yes, but what do you specifically think about Robin's idea?”

Hudtan's jaw slid sideways. “What idea?”

Anzo waved his hand. “We'll do an official briefing later, when I've had time to come up with some ideas.” He then smiled back and forth between Robin and Hudtan. “Robin, meet Hudtan, the brains behind our best schemes. Hudtan,” he said as she was licking her lips in Robin's direction, “if you hadn't been listening, I'm thinking of allowing Robin here to join up.”

“Hm,” Hudtan said. “That leaves many more things to think about.” She raised a finger, which after wandering around the room, found its way onto her cheek as she slunk back into her corner. The room was quiet for another few moments as Hudtan continued to stare at Robin.

“Yes!” Anzo said, breaking Robin out of a daydream that involved her running like hell. “That's that! I'm sure you'd like to know more about the history of our great order...”

“Uh,” Robin said, “sorry to interrupt before you get, um, all into that, but, didn't you want me to meet the rest of the gang?”

Anzo nodded. “I did! That is what I wanted, and I always get what I want. I wanted that for you, and you got it. So, moving on...”

“Bedlam is three people?”

“Three and a half,” Gwynt chirped. “Anzo always counts for extra in case of ties in voting.”

“But there's three of you. There would never be any ties.”

“Well. Just in case we ever had an even number.”

“And he said he always gets his way.”

“Yes, he does. Voting is pretty much just a formality.”

“We're very keen on formalities here,” Anzo said. “It helps keep things running efficiently, smoothly, and with much butter. Ah, Gwynt, remind me to go to the market for that tomorrow.”

“Absolutely, Anzo.”

Anzo took the quill from its place in the ink well and reached for a piece of parchment. He started talking to Robin while he wrote. “Make yourself comfortable, young lady. You've got a big day tomorrow with the Sewer Course and all.”

“It's okay if I sleep here?” Robin asked. “Before I become a member?”

“Yes,” Anzo said, and Robin noticed that he was only scribbling random lines across the page in front of him. “We like to keep things informal around here.”

Robin chose not to remind him of his previous comment on formality. “You're not even worried that I might steal something and just leave in the middle of the night?”

“I would just promote you right then and there, Robin!” Anzo said, with his big, sideways grin.

Robin nodded. She was surrounded by insanity. But craziness was better than pneumonia.

“Where should I sleep?” she asked.

Anzo pointed up. Robin looked and saw three cloth hammocks hanging from the ceiling. She looked back down at Anzo. “There's only three,” she said.

Anzo's smile wavered slightly. “I don't think Hudtan would mind sharing. Isn't that right, Hudtan?”

Robin turned around towards Hudtan's corner to see her licking the flat of a dagger and staring back. Robin blinked. Hudtan didn't. Nor did she stop licking the dagger. Robin turned back to Anzo.

“I'll just take the floor.”

After the others had climbed into their hammocks, which involved Anzo gently lifting them there and then jumping into his, Robin laid out Gwynt's cloak that he had offered her and made herself as comfortable as she could on the lumpy wooden floorboards. She tried to ignore the large gaps between each board and the worms which were surely wriggling beneath them. She kept her thoughts away also from the poisons, knives, and heavy bodies all posed to easily fall over and end her. She couldn't think about her old home, which was now a pile of rubble, or the complete insanity that her day had included, or the debt she owed to the most powerful man within fifty miles.


All she could think about was that she had her first chance at belonging to a criminal organization. She would finally be able to call herself a thief. She went to sleep with a smile plastered to her face. If Bedlam was insane, it was right where she belonged.