The Chiddari Contract
The battle’s almost over. The thought filled Maros with a shameful sense of triumph as he glared at his final challenge. Across the clearing, the cottage’s shuttered windows returned his gaze with prodigious disinterest.
“Just another hundred yards. Get on with it,” he admonished himself. He stabbed his crutches into the dirt, and a jolt of pain lanced up his leg. Gritting his teeth, he lurched into the clearing. Slowly, the distance to the cottage shrank, with Maros grunting and cursing the whole way.
“Should’a sent a runner,” he muttered. A year ago, I could’ve run this in a quarter of the time and still been ready for a fight at the end. Now? He barked a wry laugh. Dripping like a spitted pig.
With a loping stride, he reached his target and stifled a roar of jubilation. His face was a mask of sweat, beads dripping to the sun-drenched dirt to be consumed under the noon sun. Composing himself at the door, he cast a sideways glance to the far edge of the crescent-shaped hamlet where a middle-aged woman was busy pegging out her linen and eyeing him over the sheets. He switched his gaze to two young girls in the centre of the clearing. Sensing Maros’s scrutiny, they ceased their game of hop-rings and stared at him with undisguised horror. He flashed them a wide grin, and they bolted away into the surrounding forest.
He shook his head. Folk in the hamlet of Balen rarely left their quaint little microcosm and weren’t accustomed to seeing anything out of the ordinary. The woman no doubt regarded him as a freak of nature or, worse, a gods-cursed creature to be pitied. The gammy leg didn’t help matters. If they had ever heard the name Maros the Mountain, they would not recognise the exhausted human-jotunn at the cottage door as the man from those whispered tales. His reputation belonged to the past. These days he was scarcely more than an oversized quill-scratcher.
He wiped a forearm across his brow and rapped his knuckles upon the door. The muffled sounds of dragging feet drifted from within and the door clicked open to reveal a gaunt, elderly woman. Her dewy eyes lifted to regard him, a mask of austerity plastered over her wrinkles. She looked him up and down, frowning at his crutches and sweat-soaked vest.
“I presume the commotion I heard out here was you?” she said. “One would presume an ox was being slaughtered. What on Verragos were you doing?”
“I…” Stifling a sigh, Maros waved a feeble gesture behind him to the woodland trail. Well done. Show the frail old lady how you were traversing a flat, open area. That’s sure to impress her.
“Hmph,” No matter. I must say, I haven’t seen one of you in decades.”
He frowned. “One of me what? A man? A cripple?”
“A halfblood.” Her rheumy eyes narrowed to slits. “Well then, what do you want? I don’t have all day.”
“I, ah…” He cleared his throat. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. The name’s Maros, Official of the Alder’s Folly Freeblades. Might I be speaking with Cela, ah…” Rummaging into his vest pocket, he withdrew a sweaty sheet of paper and brought it to his face. “Cela Chiddari?”
“You might at that. Official, you say? Not accustomed to memorising family titles though, are you? Hm. Well, since they’ve sent me the man at the top, I suppose I should feel honoured.”
The man at the top sent himself, you aged fruitcake. Maros forced a congenial smile. “I’m sure the pleasure is all mine.”
“Then allow me to thank you for responding to my summons. As you can see, I’m in no fit state to be traipsing all the way to the Folly.”
Summons? His smile faltered. “I don’t tend to do house calls in person, but when I read your note from the courier I was prepared to make an exception.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Cela peered around the door at her neighbour across the crescent. “You had better step inside, young man,” she muttered, shuffling into the gloomy cottage. “Our discussion is not for prying ears.”
Maros leaned lower on his crutches and squeezed through the threshold. He heeled the door shut and squinted as the room was plunged into darkness. A few thin slivers of daylight knifed between closed shutters, and the musty stench of age wafted into his nostrils. He swallowed a cough and watched the old woman lower her skeletal frame into an armchair beside the empty hearth. As she shifted to sit upright, he imagined her toppling to the rug in a heap of dusty bones.
“Take a seat, freeblade.” She waved a hand around the room. “Whichever is best for you.”
Maros scanned the dark lumps of furniture for a suitable sturdy perch and limped across to a bench on the opposite side of the hearth. He eased himself down, stifling a sigh as the aches in his leg receded.
“I hear you’ve been keeping Alderby’s tavern ticking over in his stead,” Cela said conversationally.
“Running a guild and a tavern. Quite the workload.”
“Nothing I can’t handle. Truth is, it was a boon when old Alderby passed so soon after my… accident.” Maros rested his hand on his knee. “Sad, though. The place was never without one or other Alderby at the helm.”
“So I gather. Well, enough chitter-chatter.” Cela’s eyes were glints in the shadows. A tight smile sliced her wizened features. “To business.”
“To business indeed. The bounty you’ve offered is enough to raise even the Brancosi Bank’s eyebrows a touch. No offence, lady, but I’m looking at this cottage and thinking I don’t see five hundred silvers’ worth of property here.”
“I dare say you’d be right if I was offering my house. You’ll be getting coin, freeblade, rest assured. My savings will do me little good now unless you acquire that which belongs in Chiddari hands.”
“Yes,” Maros said carefully. “How is it that you hold a family title when they fell into disuse centuries ago?”
Cela issued a reedy laugh and ticked a finger at him. “Questions, questions, halfblood. Shall we stick to the matter at hand?”
“Fair enough. Other than the reward amount, your note was vague at best—”
“For good reason. You appreciate the sensitivity of information, I’m sure.”
“Then, please, tell me what you need of the guild and I’ll see if we can accommodate.”
“My family’s heirloom has been lost to us for many generations.” Cela regarded him intently. “Lost, and yet I know of its precise location. It resides in a graveyard dating back to a time when the dead were still buried intact.”
“Those places are all sunken beneath the wilderness. There’s scarcely a trace of the old kingdoms left.”
Cela’s tight smile returned. “Except, that is, for one place.”
“Now listen here. If you’re implying what I think you’re implying, then you’re asking me to send freeblades into Death’s Head territory.”
“I’m not asking. I’m offering you a contract for a considerable reward. If you don’t want the job, I can look to less reputable sellswords…” She shifted in her chair and eyed him askance.
This is likely a fool’s errand, he thought. But for a bounty of that size… “I should warn you that the guild deals in real issues, not in legends. There’s only one burial ground that was never purged. If that’s where you’re talking about, then let’s stop bandying words. Where exactly is this heirloom?”
Cela sighed. “In a crypt within the Gardens of the Dead, in Lachyla, the Blighted City.”
The last pretence of formality slipped from Maros as he roared a hearty laugh. “I knew it! Let me get this straight. You want my lads and lasses to cross a vast region that’s been devoid of gods and men for centuries. You expect them to risk their lives scouring a cursed city’s boneyard in search of some trinket your ancestors left behind to rust in a crypt?” He snorted. “Lady, either you’ve lost your mind, or…”
Cela glared at him in stony silence.
Or you’re serious. He shook his head and cast the floorboards a bemused smile. “Alright, what exactly does this heirloom look like?”
“It’s a gemstone.”
“You’ll have to give me more than that. Whoever takes the job needs to know what they’re looking for.”
“I’ve never seen it, have I? All I know is it’s banded with burial runes, and larger than your average gemstone. They will find it at the tomb of my most ancient ancestor.”
“And who might that be?”
“I have no idea,” Cela said curtly. “Do you know your lineage, halfblood?”
“Fine,” Maros sighed. “A stone of unknown description, at a tomb of unknown name. Do you realise how large that boneyard’s reputed to be? They could search the place for days and still not find your stone. You’ll have to give me something better or it’s no deal.”
“Oh, I will.” Cela reached to the table beside her and picked up a folded square of vellum. “It’s only a rough copy, but it’s accurate enough.”
“What is it?”
“A map of the Gardens of the Dead.”
Maros repressed a chuckle. “Where on Verragos would you have gotten hold of that?”
“More irrelevant questions, freeblade. You have all the information I can give. Make your decision.”
He looked at her levelly and considered the ramifications. What happened in Lachyla was the catalyst for the dead being burned nowadays. The city, and its graveyard, were more steeped in myth and superstition than anywhere else on Himaera. But who really knows what’s down there at the arse-end of the Deadlands? Maybe the legend’s true, maybe not. Either way, securing such a bounty would be a great boon to someone. Plus, my own modest cut wouldn’t go amiss. Not to mention the reputation that’d put the guild back on the map. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s cut to it. Show me the dari.”
Cela reached into the neckline of her blouse and withdrew a thin chain. She gave the rectangular pendant on the end several twists, then passed him the lower half; its interior had been fashioned into a key. She pointed to an ironwood stump in the corner of the room, upon which a squat coffer was securely bolted. “Open it,” she said.
Maros heaved himself from the bench. He unlocked the coffer and loosed a whistle at the neatly piled silvers.
“Five hundred in total, as promised, and not a copper among them.” The old woman issued a rattling sigh. “I fear there may be very little time to waste, so tell me now – will you accept?”
Maros licked his dry lips and glanced sidelong at her. “Lachyla, you say. Well. I guess it is only a legend…”
Cela Chiddari smiled. The murky light deepened the hollows of her face and, for a moment, she resembled the death’s head symbol itself. “That’s the spirit, freeblade,” she crooned. “Such bravado. Congratulations, the job is yours. Now, find me my heirloom.”
If you enjoyed this first scene…
The Blighted City is available on Amazon here in kindle and paperback formats.
An epic fantasy novel for adults and mature teens.
© 2018 Scott Kaelen
The Blighted City