The blackened walls
seemed even more overpowering as they approached. They towered at
least a hundred feet in height, and they appeared to lean outward slightly,
being wider at the top than at the bottom.
Surely any other structure would have overbalanced and toppled, thought Gwydion, looking at them in amazement, but these held firm and seemed sturdy and strong. As he got closer, he could see that the black stones which made the walls were cleverly worked together to make the whole strong and solid. He had never before seen such workmanship.
"What terrors must they have here," he murmured aloud, "that they must build such walls to keep them out?"
Brianna gave him a meaningful glance. "What makes you think they were built to keep anything out?"
He fell silent.
The gate to Ribcage was a massive structure, seemingly tall and narrow from a distance, but as they neared, Gwydion saw it was actually wide enough at the bottom for four horses to ride through abreast. Looking upwards at the towering heights, he wondered again at the scale of it. Around the gate the stone of the walls had been carved so that the gate resembled a toothy maw set in a frozen inhuman face. The drawbridge, which extended out over a shallow moat of turgid green water, was rendered as a gigantic tongue. Whether the face was supposed to be screaming in fear and pain or crying in rage, Gwydion could not tell. Either way, it was unsettling.
"That's pleasant," Gwydion murmured under his breath.
Brianna let a half smile touch her lips. "They've got a certain style here. Watch it, though. They're sensitive about their 'art'."
There were four men with the bored expressions of professional soldiers stationed just inside the gate. Each was armored in jet-black plate mail, and each wore a crimson cloak. Three of them wore helmets, while the fourth and largest man went bareheaded. All were lounging in the shade there, one leaning against the wall of the gatehouse, and two others squatting to cast dice, apparently whiling away the hours in gambling. The largest and ugliest man, however, was staring at them with an unfriendly expression.
"Keep your gold handy," Brianna said under her breath as they approached. "We may need it for bribing."
"Hold!" barked the big man as they stepped onto the sturdy wooden planks of the drawbridge. "What have we here? Two scrawny rats hoping to make their way into our fair city?" He barked a laugh and turned to the men behind him. "What shall we do with them, then?" he asked mockingly. "Impale them on the wall and feed them to the crows, or duck them into the moat and feed the muck dwellers?" His attitude, to Gwydion's mind, was that of a bully strutting before his pack of followers and hangdogs.
The other men laughed coarsely at the big man's comment. "The moat!" the man who had been leaning on the wall threw in eagerly. "The moat, I say!"
"What, then?" said one of the men who were dicing, looking up from his game, "shall we pass up an opportunity for profit when it presents itself?" He gave Gwydion and Brianna a crooked smile. "Why not put collars around their necks and sell them for slaves?" he ventured. "The girl would fetch a fair price in the pleasure market, I'd wager, and the boy looks like he's got a good strong back."
Gwydion bristled at this, but Brianna laid a calming hand on his forearm. "They mean to give us trouble," she said. "I had hoped to pass unchallenged, but we'll manage, if you can keep still." She raised her voice. "We mean to pass, as is our right as citizens."
The man who had kept silent until then snorted a laugh. "Ho!" he said, looking at the big man. "Vespos, your wench has spirit!"
The big man had returned his angry gaze to them. He looked uncertain whether Brianna had challenged him or not, but seemed resolved to maintain his dominace in front of his men. "Citizens?" he scoffed. "No citizens travel the Outlands afoot, in such such small numbers. Only vagrants and cross-traders."
"I am no vagrant," said Brianna coolly, "and no thief either. I am Lady Ordu, free citizen of Ribcage, and I travel as I choose."
He sneered at her. "A noble now! What proof have you?"
She reached into a small pocket and produced a red piece of vellum paper. Gwydion saw only a flash of it as she presented it to the big man, but it had flowing writing on it and some sort of golden seal. "Is this proof enough for you, sergeant?"
The big man took the slip of paper reluctantly, and made a great show of examining it. Gwydion was fairly certain the man was holding it upside down. After a few minutes of peering at it suspiciously he called out to one of the men behind him. "Trev!" he barked. "Get over here!"
The skinny soldier who had been leaning on the wall hurried over.
The big man shoved the slip of paper at him. "What do you make of this?"
The smaller man took the paper, coughed once, turning away just enough so that he could turn the paper right side up without the bigger man seeing, and looked it over quickly. He whistled. "According to this, she's got the right to come and go as she pleases, as a loyal servant of lord Paracs himself. She's not to be hindered and her comings and going are to be kept quiet."
The bigger man grunted. "That's what I thought it said. Probably fake, right?"
The second man shook his head. "I doubt it. There's Paracs's seal, right there, big as life. Difficult to fake something like this."
Brianna nodded. "I trust you are satisfied now, sergeant?"
The big man squinted at her, unconvinced. "This only accounts for you," he said, gesturing towards Gwydion. "What about him?"
"He's with me," she said frostily, taking the red slip back and restoring it to her pocket "and that's all you need know. Now stand aside."
The big man stared at them both for a moment, then grumbled and stood aside. "I still say she's giving us the peel," he griped.
"Leave it be, Vespos," advised the skinny soldier. "She travels in high circles if she's one of Paracs' personal servants. Meddle, and you might end up in the dead book."
Brianna pretended not to hear as she passed, entering the city at a stately pace with Gwydion a pace behind.
As they passed from the gate into a small thoroughfare lined on either side with tall buildings. Some were shops, others were houses, but all seemed to loom at an angle over the narrow street. Surprisingly, there were relatively few other pedestrians. Those that passed them scurried by with hardly and upwards glance, intent upon their tasks. Those that did take note of the two spared them only a baleful and challenging glance before hurrying on. Merchants and shopkeepers did not call out, decrying their wares, but rather peered sullenly from shop windows at them.
"Friendly people," muttered Gwydion.
Brianna gave a noncommittal grunt. "Life ain't easy in Ribcage, but it is cheap. It breeds a hard person, living here."
"Who's lord Paracs, by the way?"
"He's the basher that owns this place. Or the one who has the most power, anyway."
He looked at her. "You never mentioned him before. Or that you worked for him."
She shrugged. "I don't."
"What about Lady Ordu? And all the rest that was on that red paper?"
"There is no Lady Ordu. I made that pass up myself. It's all fake, even the seal. It usually does the trick, though, since Paracs has got everyone here so afraid of him."
"I see," said Gwydion. "And what if this Paracs finds out you've been faking his seal? Isn't that a little dangerous?"
"Very dangerous. If I ever get caught, I suppose he'd make an example of me. It wouldn't be a pretty death. I don't usually worry about it, though. I only use it in emergencies, and most of the soldiers can't read anyway." She chuckled ruefully. "Still, it gave me a start when that second soldier took the slip and looked it over, and I realized he was actually reading it. I thought I was scragged for sure. It's a good thing that nearly all of Paracs's men are stupid, whether they're literate or not."
The street gradually grew more crowded, until they were actually jostled by other passerbys and found themselves threading through the throng. Now and again they would catch sight of a patrol of crimson-caped soldiers, and Brianna would take pains to steer well clear of them. Each patrol was made up of at least four soldiers who swaggared arrogantly through the press, who bullied those they passed and made rude comments, and a small space seemed to open around them as they made their way.
They entered a small square, the center of which was dominated by a massive fountain, the base of which was filled with stagnant black water. Stretching up from the water was a twisted mass of black metal which had been shaped in places to resemble screaming faces, flailing limbs, and various unrecognizable but equally unsettling images.
"More art?" ventured Gwydion.
Brianna nodded absently. She was busy scanning the square as if trying to find her bearings. Her eyes alighted on a small run-down blacksmith shop with a sign with a crooked horshoe that hung slightly askew, and she gave a satisfied nod. "That direction," she murmured, and set off again.
Gwydion had no choice but to follow.
Avoiding the main thoroughfares which branched off the square, Brianna instead led him into a narrow, winding alleyway, lined on both sides by high and unforgiving walls of black stone.
Brianna looked back at him when he hesitated.
"Why this way?" he asked.
"Soldiers," she said. "Ribcage is crawling with them. This way we can avoid most of them."
He was a little surprised by her logic. "Are you certain its safe?"
She laughed. "In Ribcage nothing is safe. But it's generally safer to avoid the soldiers. They're not much on protecting citizens here. We'll run into cutthoats, murderers, and cross-traders, sure, but this way at least they'll be honest cutthroats, murderers, and cross-traders."
They ventured on. As she had predicted, they saw less soldiers, though once they veered off into a side alley to avoid a patrol of soldiers who were making their way in the opposite direction. Apparently, Ribcage had enough soldiers to cover nearly all of the city, even the lowest parts, like this.
The few others they passed were even rougher looking than those Gwydion had seen in the main thoroughfares, and he kept alert for possible attacks. Mostly they huddled in ones and twos, engaged in nothing in particular, and stared with hard glittering eyes as Gwydion and Brianna passed, as if searching for any sign of weakness, any excuse to beset the two.
Once, as they passed by a small hole which had been worn into the left-hand wall in a particularly narrow section of the alley, Gwydion was certain they would have to defend themselves from assault. The hole itself looked no more menacing than any of the rest of this evil place, simply a jagged opening beyond which lay an inky darkness, with a few blackened stones and some loose dirt at its base, but as Gwydion and Brianna neared, three wiry-looking men with scarred faces emerged from it. The men sauntered out, swaggering a little, their hard eyes on the two travelers, and took position facing them. Two of the men had their hands of the hilts of the shortswords they wore at their sides, and the third had unsheathed his dagger and was playing with it menacingly.
At first Gwydion thought it would be impossible to pass by them, as narrow as the way was, but Brianna ignored them completely and swept through, as if their presence meant no more to her than an annoyance. Gwydion followed, his eyes locked with theirs, alert for attack, but the men said and did nothing as they passed.
They were through in a moment, but Gwydion still felt their hard eyes on his back.
"Don't look back," cautioned Brianna. "Project an aura of strength and they won't bother us."
Gwydion's muscles were tense, but he forced himself to follow her advice. At any moment he expected to hear the ringing of steel as the men drew their blades and attempted to take them from behind, but nothing happened, and a few paces further they had turned down yet another side passage and the men had fallen out of sight behind them.
They continued on in this manner for some time, winding and threading their way through the narrow and twisting alleys. In most places they saw no-one at all. In others, there were signs of human habitation.
In one place along the way there were three doorways lining the wall; door-less portals that led into darkened hovels. Overhead were strung lines between the two walls, from which dirty and ragged laundry dangled. A couple of smudged, dirty children stared mournfully out at them from one of the doorways as they passed, and an old woman emerged briefly from another, muttering to herself. She dumped a bucket of waste into the gutter, spared Gwydion and Brianna a hard glance, and disappeared back into the doorway from which she had come. The third doorway was quiet and empty, save for a little rubbish that spilled out into the street. From it wafted the gagging smell of rotting meat, as if the corpse of something long dead moldered within.
Brianna led on. The area they entered next was the narrowest section yet, crisscrossed with tunnels and side passages, and they were forced to walk single file as they threaded their way through the maze-like warren. There were no other people here. A fortunate thing, Gwydion thought, considering they would be hard pressed to get by anyone going the opposite direction.
After a time, the way widened out a bit more, and the path they were following ended in a 'T' intersection. Undaunted, Brianna swung to the right, only to jerk back around the corner with a muttered curse.
"What's wrong?" asked Gwydion, peering around the corner. Down the way, posted at an archway which spanned the narrow street, were three men in banded armor, armed with shortswords. Though each was dressed differently, in armor that looked to have been assembled piecemeal, each wore a lavender scarf bound around his left arm at the elbow.
"Guardsmen of House Ivlium," she said. "Don't let them see you."
Obediently he pulled back. "Who are they?"
"There's five major houses in Ribcage," explained Brianna, "each vying for control of the city. Nominally Paracs is in charge, because he's got the most power, but each family holds a part of the city as its own, which they jealously guard and patrol. Exactly which parts of the city they hold shifts as the Houses skirmish with each other. That," - she gestured towards the archway where the three men stood - "didn't use to be Ivlium territitory, but I guess it is now. We've got to think of a way to get by them."
"Why not use your pass from Lord Paracs?" Gwydion suggested.
She shook her head. "House Ivlium isn't exactly on friendly terms with Lord Paracs. They'd love the opportunity to take out a few of Paracs's men, especially if they thought there was a chance they wouldn't get caught. That pass, if they believed it in the first place, would be a death warrant for us."
Gwydion looked again. "Why not let me handle it," he said, reaching back to touch the hilt of Tylith-senshai. "There's only three of them."
Brianna snorted. "Much as I admire your confidence, paladin, your intelligence leaves something to be desired. You think you're good enough with to handle three?" She shrugged. "Maybe you could, but you won't be facing just them. Could you handle thirty? Ivlium guardsmen are never more than shouting distance from reinforcements. No, no, it won't answer. There has to be another way. Now shut up and let me think."
A giggle sounded from behind them, and Gwydion whirled.
Sitting with his back propped against the opposite wall was a boy with tousled hair and a patch over his left eye. He grinned up at them. "Your lady speaks true, mighty one," he said. "Of choices you have but two: Run and cut," - he gestured to where the guardsmen were stationed - "or cut and run."
"Where did you come from?" asked Gwydion, in some surprise. The boy had not been there a moment ago.
The boy did not immediately answer, but only giggled again, and began mumbling a tune under his breath. In his wiry hands had appeared a pair of dice, and these he bounced on his palm. "Ah, information," he said. "That is something else. I think perhaps it is not where I came from that might interest you, oh no, but rather where you seek to go."
Brianna eyed the boy suspiciously. "And where do we seek to go?"
The boy shrugged. "If you do not know, than how shall I?" he asked. "But if make up your mind, perhaps I can tell you how to get there."
Brianna considered him for a moment, then dug into a pocket and produced a silver piece. "We want to get past those guardsmen," she said, flipping it to the boy, who caught it deftly and flipped it back.
"That request I cannot do," he said with a laugh, "though should you confide your destination true, it may still be that I can help you."
Gwydion chuckled. "He speaks in riddles."
Brianna turned angrily away. "Ignore him, then. He's little more than a nuisance. I don't know what I was thinking of. It would have only been wasted money. Small chance that he would know who Dima was anyway, much less be able to find her."
"Dima!" the boy cried, and laughed again. "Dima, keeper and seeker of mystical portals! Know her well, do I! Well, too, does Lord Paracs know her, and seek her he does, but finds her not. Will you succeed where he has failed?"
Brianna turned back to him. "What do you mean? You know Dima?"
He nodded. "I know her and she knows me, so you will see. Though if you want Dima, instead of slicings and dicings," - he gestured again to the Ivlium guardsmen - "you should seek dicings and slicings."
"He speaks nonsense," said Gwydion.
"No," said Brianna, considering, "I think not."
Gwydion shook his head. "Slicings and dicings? Dicings and slicings? What difference can there be?"
The boy said nothing, continuing to regard them with a clever smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
Brianna looked at the dice the boy was now spinning on his palm. "Gambling," she said at last. "He speaks of gambling."
"Oh clever lady!" cried the boy, clapping his hands in delight. "Truly my wit bows to yours."
"Gambling?" asked Gwydion. "I can see how dicing might fit that, but slicing?"
"Cards, oh mighty one," chuckled the boy. "Truly you are fortunate to have such a clever lady for a companion."
Brianna nodded. "Maybe," she said doubtfully, "but your riddle leaves me as puzzled as before. What has gambling to do with Dima?"
"Better to ask what Dima has to do with gambling," the boy shot back.
Brianna shook her head. "Nothing," she said at last, shrugging, "unless... you're talking about the Game, aren't you!"
The boy nodded enthusiastically. "Clever, clever!"
"What's the Game?" asked Gwydion.
"Gambling is legal in Ribcage," Brianna explained, "in fact it's even encouraged. But the only places you're supposed to do it are at fully licensed gambling houses. There's about seven of them altogether in the city, each run and controlled by one of the Five Families. Theoretically, anyone could own a gambling establishment, but in reality the taxes, laws, and licenses that are required make that impossible for anyone but one of the great Houses. So there's a lot of places in the city where illegal gambling goes on. The Game is the biggest of these, and the one that's been around the oldest."
"I still don't see," he said. "What does that have to do with this... Dima person?"
"I'm coming to that," she snapped. "Lord Paracs, as you might imagine, is not fond of the idea of any enterprise thriving which isn't paying him taxes. He spends a great amount of time trying to track down the Game and shut it down. The reason he hasn't been able to do so is that the Game moves from place to place. No-one knows who runs it, and if Paracs's men start to get too close, it simply closes up shop and moves somewhere else. Dima's pretty much the same way."
"Who is this Dima, exactly?" asked Gwydion. "A friend of yours?"
Brianna gave a half shrug. "More of an acquaintance. She's a native of Ribcage, and people here don't make friends. But I've dealt with her in the past, and we're on good terms. That doesn't mean she wouldn't sell me out if she thought she could make a profit, but I don't think she'd do us a bad term just for spite. Regardless, she's our ticket to Sigil, so we don't have a choice."
Gwydion looked back at the boy, considering what he had said. "And Lord Paracs is after this Dima person too?"
Brianna nodded. "Lord Paracs is jealous of his portals. See, Ribcage is the closest burg to Baator - the Nine Hells, for you - and there's a portal to the first layer here the Paracs keeps under lock and key, walled away somewhere in his Citadel. He's also got a portal that leads to Sigil. While supposedly his portal is open to public use by anyone who can pay, in reality the only folks who can actually afford Paracs fees are the wealthiest merchants, and members of the Five Families. And even then the paperwork that has to be filled out is enormous, and the waiting list to use the portal is months long, so that's not an option for us."
"But this Dima can get us to Sigil another way?" guessed Gwydion.
"Clever, clever, mighty one," said the boy.
"Officially," Brianna continued, "there's supposed to be only one portal to Sigil in the city - Paracs. But Dima makes a healthy living by transporting people who don't have the time or money to use Paracs's portal to and from Sigil."
"Paracs, I take it," said Gwydion, "doesn't appreciate having his business undercut."
"Now you're getting it," said Brianna. "He knows Dima exists, and his people are always on the lookout for her, so she's constantly in hiding, and like the Game, she has to move from place to place when the authorities get too close."
"But how can she move around like that," asked Gwydion, "if she's in the business of using a portal to transport people to Sigil? The portal can't move, can it?"
"Why not? It can and it does."
"It's a portable portal, of course," said Brianna, in the impatient tone someone might use when explaining to an idiot that rocks are hard. She turned back to the boy and flipped him the silver piece again. "You can lead us to Dima?"
The boy grinned. "I can," he said, "if you can follow."
* * *
The boy set off at
once, moving at a quick pace, never looking back to see if they followed,
and they had to scramble to keep up. He doubled back in the direction
they had come, then took a different side fork.
After a right, a left, and another left, they emerged on a fairly crowded street. Now it became even more difficult to keep up with the boy as he ducked through the throng, and if left to himself Gwydion was certain he would have lost the boy.
Brianna, however, seemed to have no trouble keeping sight of the lad, and so Gwydion contented himself with keeping up with her. It was difficult enough to do.
They crossed the busy street, continued along its length on the far side, and turned left at the first corner.
The boy paused there, waiting for them to catch up. This second street was even broader than the first, and lined on either side with pedestrians. The center of the street was mostly clear, except for a few people crossing quickly here and there, and Gwydion soon saw why.
A troop of ten soldiers bearing the black and crimson colors of Lords Paracs cantered by on horseback, followed a moment later by a gigantic black wagon pulled by two enormous black stallions and driven by a hooded man. The wagon itself was a gigantic cage of iron, filled with men and women who were chained in such a way that they were forced to stand. Some moaned and pleaded, others shouted angrily at the staring crowd, and still others said nothing, staring off blankly into the distance, seeing nothing.
The crowd around Gwydion roared its disapproval as the people in the cage passed, and a woman to his right flung a piece of garbage at them, cursing vulgarly.
This seemed to spark a surge of anger from the crowd, and a moment later a barrage of garbage, debris, and spittle rained down on the unfortunates within the cage.
"Who are they?" Gwydion asked, leaning over and speaking into her ear to be heard over the cursing of the crowd around them.
"Paracs's enemies," she answered, "convicted of crimes against the people of Ribcage. Murderers, rapists, that sort of thing. Some of them probably are guilty of the crimes, but most are just political prisoners which Paracs finds convenient to remove. This," - she gestured at the broad road the wagon had passed on - "is Gallow Way. About twice a day he has a group like this carted down to the square at the end of the road for execution."
Gwydion looked again at the wagon, surprised. There were at least twenty men and women there. "Twice a day?" he asked in amazement. "And the wagon-cage always has that many in it?"
"Sometimes more," she said.
He was about to ask something else, but the boy with the eyepatch had suddenly darted out into the street, and they were obliged to follow.
They crossed behind the wagon after it had trundled by, making it to the other side and fighting their way through the press of people on the opposite side.
The boy had veered to the right, and they pushed their way through the throng, following. A human-like creature with greenish-skin, tusks, and a pig-like snout suddenly brushed by Gwydion, and he stared in amazement. When he turned again, the boy had vanished. Brianna had halted, and for a moment Gwydion feared she might also have lost sight of the boy.
Then she started forward again, making her way to the corner. She looked back once at him to make certain he followed, and turned left.
The path the boy led them on was swift, but slightly erratic. From time to time he would cross a street, only to cross back again farther down the way, and although Gwydion was fairly certain they weren't traveling in circles, he was also equally convinced the boy wasn't taking them the shortest way.
Still, they made good time. If the way was crowded, the boy slipped deftly through, and seemed to find pockets and openings in the throng as he went. He seemed also to have a sixth sense about Paracs's soldiers, and more than once he veered to the side just as one of their roving patrols came through. Twice he neatly bypassed
Eventually they passed out of the more populated part of the city and into a section non too different from that in which they had first encountered the boy. The alleys were wider here, and better maintained, and the walls to the buildings didn't seem quite as high or forbidding, but there were fewer and fewer people about, until at last they found themselves walking abandoned streets.
The boy murmured and mumbled unceasingly to himself as he went, and from time to time Gwydion would catch snatches of a faint tune the boy was humming. The tune was familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.
Gwydion was beginning to wonder how much farther it could be, when suddenly the boy halted before a small doorway set into a battered wall. "There, there," he said, pointing. "Within, within."
"Good enough," said Brianna crisply. "Lead on."
The boy's grin slipped away for the first time, and he shook his head vehemently. "No, no," he said. "no, no. Into there I dare not go. Else a chain is round my throat. Not friendly to me, no, no. No, no."
"Don't babble," said Brianna.
"Perhaps he means another riddle," ventured Gwydion.
Brianna gave a curt nod. "Right." She stepped forward, seized the boy by the ear, and dragged him forward. "I'm not in the mood for riddles."
The boy yelped in pain and tried to wriggle away, but her grip was firm.
Gwydion was surprised. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"We're in Ribcage, paladin," she said to him. "This isn't a pretty city. Things work differently here." She gestured to the darkened doorway. "We go through that, and there's no telling what's waiting on the other side. Maybe it's a dozen bashers with clubs, ready to crush anyone's skull that comes through, just waiting on us. After we're in the dead book, they rifle through our pockets, take our valuables, and give the boy a share. Then he," - she gave the boy a vigorous shake - "goes off to find another pair of cutters who look clueless and lead them back here. I've seen it before."
"No, no!" protested the boy. "Clever lady has mistaken noble intentions for nefarious deeds!"
"Brianna," said Gwydion, "the boy has done us no harm. Perhaps-"
"What's on the other side of that doorway?" asked Brianna, giving the boy another vigorous shake.
"Nothing, nothing," said the boy, yelping again. "No harm for you; only harm for me! Chainings and unpleasantness, and beyond that the Game and Dima, she who you seek!"
"Brianna-" started Gwydion.
She cut him off. "Trust me on this, paladin. I know Ribcage better than you." She started forward, pushing the boy ahead of her. "The boy goes first. If anyone on the other side tries anything, he gets it first." She looked back at him. "Unlimber your sword. You may have need of it."
Gwydion drew Tylith-senshai. He may have been inclined to believe the boy's intentions were good, but it was never wise to be unprepared.
"Wait, wait!" cried the boy as Brianna hustled him forward.
She halted. "What is it, then?" she asked. "You have something to tell us, before we go through?"
"You," he said, indicating Gwydion, "mighty warrior of codes. You must swear to protect me."
"Me?" asked Gwydion, a little surprised.
"Promise, promise!" insisted the boy. "Your oath of honor would I take, for you would not break."
Gwydion exchanged glances with Brianna. She shrugged. "I don't see what harm it would do," she said.
"Given," said Gwydion. "Good enough?"
"Good enough for me," said Brianna, hauling the boy forward before he could answer, "so it'll have to be good enough for him. Come on."
Brianna halted at the foot of the doorway and looked back at him to see if he were ready. After his nod, stepped through briskly, shoving the youth before her. Gwydion braced himself and followed her into darkness and sweltering heat.
* * *
For a moment his eyes
had difficulty adjusting to the dim light. The room within was broad
and wide, and lit only by a few guttering candles. It was lined with
rows of narrow wooden tables, each of which had some large iron machinery
on it, all of which was in use and clattering loudly. Some of the
mechinisms he recognized - many were not unlike the looms of his homeworld.
Others were of curious designs he was unfamiliar with, but from what he
could see, they were all for the working of cloth.
Operating the machines were children, most dirty and dressed in rags. With horror, he saw that they were chained to their workstations. A few looked up at them, blinking as the light from the doorway fell on their eyes, but most huddled over their workstations, keeping their eyes averted.
"What kind of place is this?" asked Gwydion in dismay.
"One of the shops that produces cloth for Paracs's soldiers," said Brianna, looking around warily, still braced for attack. After a moment she released her hold on the boy. "Looks like it wasn't a trap after all."
"Yes, yes," said the boy, rubbing his ear, "it is as I said. No danger for you. Only for me."
"This is some kind of factory - operated by children?" asked Gwydion. He had not released his hold on his sword; if anything his knuckles had whitened as his grip tightened.
Brianna nodded. "There are several of them throughout the city. Paladin," she added in warning, catching sight of his expression, "I read your face. There is nothing you can do for them."
"Are they to be kept in chains as slaves?" he asked. "They are children!"
"They are children," she agreed. "They are the children of those who Paracs has deemed disloyal, and sent to execution. Theirs is a kinder fate than that of their parents. I warn you - leave well enough alone."
His jaw muscles clenched in defiance. "Should I stand by, then, and do nothing?"
"What would you do?" she asked him. "Strike off their chains, proclaim them free?" She shook her head. "Foolishness. Do that, and in minutes this place would be swarming with soldiers. This is a legal business, under the protection of Lord Paracs, and he will tolerate no interference with it by outsiders. Any children you freed would be rounded up and returned to their chains. Some he would probably have executed as an example, and the rest would be beaten in punishment. You would make their fate even harder, and our lives would be forfeit for nothing. The only thing you would accomplish would be our deaths." She gave him a hard look. "What of your quest then?"
Gwydion clenched his teeth in frustration. "You are right," he conceded after a moment, turning his eyes away and sheathing his sword angrily. "Take me from this place before I do something unwise."
"Come, come," said the boy nervously, still rubbing his ear. "Quicker done is less danger for me."
He scampered forward, making his way along one wall of the room. Though Gwydion could see the boy was anxious to go swiftly, he also noticed the boy didn't let himself get too far ahead of them, as if he feared to stray too far from his protection.
The boy led them to a second doorway, beyond which lay yet another room filled with laboring children. He had gone no more than a few paces before he jerked back in fear.
"There, there!" he whispered, pointing across the room, "the Game lies beyond. But cruel Thaslyn lies between, lurking and waiting!"
Gwydion looked. At the far side of the room, a burly bare-chested man bearing a small whip threaded his way through the tables, overseeing the work that was being done by the children. His head was shaven, save for a greasy topknot that fell down his back, and both his head and upper torso were covered with tattoos.
He looked up a moment later, spotted Gwydion and Brianna standing in the doorway, and headed toward them. He grinned as he approached, exposing a set of blackened and cracked teeth.
"Probably he'll want a bribe," muttered Brianna. She sighed. "I don't like to reward child slavers, but there's no help for it, if we want to get where we're going."
The boy, terrified at the sight of the bare-chested man, flung himself behind Gwydion, trembling violently. "Remember your oath, mighty one!" he cried.
"Have no fear, " said Gwydion grimly. "That much at least I can do."
"Well, well!" boomed the man as he approached. "What's this? A gentleman and his lady, visiting my humble abode? But why? This is no haven for such as you... unless, of course, you're seeking a chance to game?"
"Perhaps we are," said Brianna.
"Well, well!" the man said. "Then perhaps we can do business, you and I!" His smile melted away at the sight of the boy huddled behind Gwydion. "No brats!" he scowled. "They're not allowed! Management said to keep 'em out, and I promised I'd do it. You can take your whore and go elsewhere. Unless..." he mused, "unless perhaps you've brought the lad in payment." His greasy smile returned. "Yes, that would do quite nicely, I think." He chuckled. "I can always use one more."
The boy shrank back, trembling. "Your oath!" he moaned.
Gwydion stepped forward, seized the man by his throat, and swept his feet from beneath him.
The man gave a startled cry as he toppled backward, his arms flailing at the unexpected attack. The back of his head connected solidly with the edge of the table behind him with a cracking sound.
The blow stunned him momentarily, and Gwydion, who had kept his grip on the man, used this pause in the man's struggling to lift him up and slam him down again.
Again the man's head struck the table, and this time his eyes rolled back in his skull and his body went limp. Gwydion dropped him to the floor with disgust. The child who had been chained to the workstation had shrunk to the side and was staring at Gwydion wide-eyed as if she feared he might strike her next.
"Fool!" cried Brianna. "What have you done?"
"Saved us the price of a bribe," said Gwydion matter-of-factly, "and given a child slaver the payment he deserved."
"Slavery is legal in Ribcage!" said Brianna. "Now it's only a matter of time before Paracs will be after us!"
"Then we'll have to be gone by then," said Gwydion.
The boy with eyepatch was peeking around Gwydion's side. Gingerly he poked at the fallen man the toe of his boot. "Is he dead, mighty one?"
Gwydion shook his head, seeing the rise and fall of the man's chest. "No, though he richly deserves to be." He turned to the boy. "Come, we must go from here. Show us the way to Dima."
The boy nodded and turned toward a heavy wooden door set in the far wall.
"And what of Paracs's men?" asked Brianna. "What will we do about them?"
Gwydion gestured at the fallen man. "He'll be out for hours yet." He looked about the room. The weaving machines had all fallen quiet, and all of the children who had been working them were on their feet, regarding him quietly. It made him feel odd to have all those eyes on him. "It will be some time before anyone finds him. I doubt the children will call for help on his behalf."
"Don't be a fool," said Brianna. "They'll be the first to give the alarm. Paracs's men will come in here and offer one of them a chance of freedom in exchange for a description of us, and they'll fight among themselves for the chance to tell. That's if he's the only overseer here, which I doubt. You've put our necks into a noose."
"We'll just have to move quick then," he answered, already at the heavy door. "Done is done." He tried the handle. "Locked." He turned back to Brianna. "Search him. See if there's a key."
"No key," said the boy, shaking his head. "Knock three times."
"What, no riddles?" asked Gwydion.
The boy grinned. "No time for riddles, oathgiver."
"Won't there be a password?" asked Brianna, reaching them.
Again the boy shook his head. "Ask only for the one you seek," he said. "No password is necessary for friends of Dima."
Gwydion nodded, then gave three slow knocks.
They waited a moment. Nothing happened.
"Wonderful!" said Brianna. "What do we do now?"
Gwydion frowned, and reached to knock again, but the door opened abruptly, and he found himself facing the point of a crossbow bolt.
"What's the password, berk?" demanded a rough voice from within. "Answer quick or say goodbye to mortality."
Gwydion's mouth had gone dry. "We're... we're friends of Dima," he said slowly, wondering if he could seize the haft of the crossbow and deflect the angle of fire before the man on the other end could trigger it.
There was a pause, and slowly the crossbow lowered. "Right, then," said the man, gesturing them forward, "get in then."
Gwydion glanced at Brianna, who shrugged. Together they entered a darkened hallway, the boy trailing behind.
The man who had been holding the crossbow shut the door behind them, then turned and glared at the boy. "Who's the brat?" he demanded.
"A friend," said Gwydion defensively. "He goes with us."
The man shrugged. "Suit yourself, doesn't matter to me none." He was a short fellow, probably not over five feet in height, and proportioned much like an overripe apple. He wore a vest of bristling fur, and a foul smell emanated from him. He looked them over once and scowled. "Well, there ain't much to you, is there? No accounting for Dima's taste, I s'pose." He shook his head and muttered something under his breath. "Well, you coming or not?" he asked, and without waiting for an answer, he waddled off.
* * *
They followed him down
the length of the darkened hallway to where it emerged into a large, brightly
lit room, and Gwydion stared in amazement.
Until now, he hadn't really given the Game much thought. If he had thought of it at all, he had pictured something on the order of a small but busy tavern with a few tables for dicing and cards, surrounded by small numbers of sullen men and women, quietly gambling. What he was confronted with now was far different.
This chamber was more spacious than either of the two factory-rooms they had passed through, with high ceilings supported by graceful arches and slender columns. Nearly every inch of the walls, floor, and ceiling was gilded with brightly glittering metals, and painted in places on the walls and ceiling were bizarre but colorful pictures that he couldn't make sense of.
Overhead hung three gigantic glittering chandeliers, all turning slowly. Each piece of glass in them was tinted a different color, and as they moved they cast hundreds of different colored light beams which raced crazily across the floor and walls, adding to the sense of chaos.
Everywhere he looked, Gwydion saw gambling. The room was filled to bursting with men and women of all ages, most dressed in finery and all crowded around the massive tables which stretched from one side of the chamber to the other. There were games of cards, games of dice, and other, more exotic games which he had never seen before. The noise level was high. Here a couple of women laughed drunkenly among themselves, hefting goblets of wine; there a man shouted angrily, waving his fist threateningly at a dealer; and over it all was the constant clatter of gold being exchanged. The general roar of the throng made it nearly impossible to pick out any specific conversation, but here and there he caught the excited shout of a winner or the moan of a loser.
There was music being played somewhere in the room, though it was so filled that Gwydion could not see its source, and here and there a woman danced on a table in various states of undress, slowly undulating to the rythm. Threading their way through the crowd were other women, also scantily dressed, bearing pitchers of ale and wine.
"This is the Game?" he asked.
Brianna shrugged. "Some of it, anyway. There's a couple of other rooms. It's not as large as the official gaming houses, of course. But, since it's illegal, it offers many vices that the bigger houses can't. Which," she added a moment later, "is really saying something here. The folk of Ribcage take their vices seriously, and there aren't many that Paracs doesn't allow."
"Come on, come on," said the man gruffly when he saw Gwydion had halted. "That's not for you. The Game is members only. It ain't allowed to outsiders. This way."
Gwydion managed to pull his attention away from the strange sights and sounds, and turned to follow the stout man, who led them up a wide set of stairs and onto a balcony overlooking the gambling.
It was quieter up here, though the dull roar of the crowds below still persisted. There was a smoke-like haze which floated in the air here, accompanied by a sickly sweet scent, and as Gwydion looked about he saw they were not alone. Men and women lounged on cushions and couches which were scattered about, sipping at wine and occasionally drawing an inhalation of acrid smoke from one of the many pipes which were being passed around. Some spoke to each other in low tones, others merely laying placid, staring glassy-eyed at nothing.
"What's wrong with them?" asked Gwydion.
Brianna gave a disgusted look. "Lotus addicts. A slow way to slip into oblivion."
"Keep moving," warned the gruff man. "Over here."
He led the way to another doorway, this one strung with beads which hung down and formed a makeshift door. "Through here," he said, leading them in.
Within was a waiting chamber, dimly lit with flickering lamps. The walls were lined with bizarre artwork, and the few low tables bore strange statuettes. Heavy, plush rugs and pillows lined the floor, and a second doorway lay at the far end of the room, hung with beads as well. A heavy scent of incense filled the air. "Wait here," ordered the man, and he disappeared into the second beaded door.
Gwydion waited a few moments, looking about him. "This is a strange place," he murmured, touching one of the many figurines which were scattered about and wondering what it was supposed to be.
The boy, meanwhile, had plopped down onto the pillows on the floor. Rifling through his pockets, he produced an apple, and began crunching into it happily.
Gwydion lifted the figurine he had chosen and turned it in the light, trying to make sense of it. It looked like a tarantula, except where the head and furry pincers of a tarantula should be there was instead a smooth, elongated neck, atop which rested the glittering eyes and sharp jagged teeth of some eel-like creature. He wondered whether it was supposed to be symbolic, or whether it might actually be patterned after a real creature. Either way, it was a repulsive looking thing. He set it aside and started to reach for another.
"Well, Brianna," came a sultry voice from behind him. "You certainly have taste in men. What a beautiful thing he is!"