• The Condemned Woman’s Tale

  • The Pit Fight

  • The Pit Fight

    As night leaks slowly through the streets, filling cellars and attics with unnerving darkness, reducing the pets and pests and livestock to mere noises, First Settle is restless. Even those exhausted by battle are having feverish dreams or being kept awake by the moans of maimed warriors whose wounds are being washed and wrapped by their families. In the upper levels near the Meeting House of the Sons of First Settle, by the screams of Kinless being bled for the victory wine or tortured in the dank, forbidden cells beneath the palace. Some houseowners of the lower levels who cannot sleep are sawing, bending, nailing wood, grunting as they replace the burnt straw on their roofs or rehanging their doors. The smithy fires are still crackling, logs popping and sending out sprays of brilliant red sparks. Three men are striding through the steep street leading from the barrack-house of the Citizen Guard, where volunteers are being sworn in to replace those professional lawkeepers who fell in the day’s battle. Cloaked in black cloth and armed as though walking back to the front, they eye the houses suspiciously. One is smoking, and has only one eye, his companions are a well-built but poorly attired warrior from the lower streets and a thin man with a rodent’s quick ears and cruel eyes.
    Kavek to be joining the Citizen Guard tonight. There’s often good meat and mead at the end of a night with the Citizen Guard. He’d rather be paid in coin or furniture or something else more durable than a chicken and a skin of wine, but with the Kinless crawling around the shore like carrion dogs, anything bright or valuable enough to catch their squinting, yellowish eyes is locked away in the vaults beneath the palace, or has been towed out to sea on boats with armed guards keeping Citizen Guard fore and aft. With him are Jel, who has killed horsed men in armour with only a sling and a pile of pebbles, and Vaun, who knows some simple magic and can persuade people to do his bidding by looking into their eyes and commanding them to do it. He is also adept at picking locks, which tempts Kavek to think he is wasting his evenings with the Citizen Guard and would be more gainfully employed by The Sanctuary, though he wouldn’t say so without a lot of wine inside his belly. Vaun stops suddenly and silently, as he does most things, his ratty nose lifting into the air.
    “Smell that, lads?”
    “Fire? Smoke?” offers Kavek, who can only smell his rather worn leather breeks and the leaf smouldering in Jel’s clay pipe.
    “No, good stew and rich lights and herb bread. Someone’s been filling their kitchen from The Sanctuary up this street.”
    Onto the scent like a dog, Vaun quickened his pace, yet his boots remain quiet. He has perfected the technique used by footpads of rolling his feet from heel to toe, using the edges of his bootsoles and avoiding the dull clops his companions are making. Their clumsiness means that the three will be overheard despite his efforts, but after years of moving like a thief he does it naturally. He stops suddenly by a door, flattening himself against the wall beneath the upper window of a modest house split into two levels by the sheerness of the street. The window is closed, but laughter and the chatter of several children can be heard within.
    “Jel, get round the back, stop them coming up through the windows. And don’t forget they’re Settlers, they could be wounded, they could have young ones in there. But don’t forget, they could be armed as well.”
    “Vaun, most Settlers with a warhammer, spear and shield aren’t as well armed as I am with a bit of flint or a piece of glass.”
    “So, don’t forget they could be harmless. This looks like the Tornveldt’s place, if I remember it right, and he has children in the house.”
    Jel turns into the darkness between this house and the next. Vaun remains against the wall, puts a gloved hand on the handle of his bludgeon. Kavek raps on the door.
    “Citizen Guard, open the door!”
    A clatter of overturned pans and the voices within fall silent.
    “You must open the door! You’re not in any danger.”
    A small, white face appears at the window, sees the men at the door and flinches as Vaun’s quick hand shoots up and grabs the child’s ear, prompting him to let out a screech. The door opens and a slightly older child comes out of the house, shouting.
    “Leave him alone, we ain’t done nothing wrong!”
    Kavek has his foot in the door, scoops an arm across the child’s chest and pulls him back into the house. Vaun releases the child and follows them in, closing the door behind him. Two boys stand before them in nightshawls, trembling with fear.
    “It’s oFay, boys, no-one’s going to hurt you. What’s in the pot?”
    Kavek gestures to the blackened cauldron hanging over the fire, from which the rich and salty aromas are steaming. The boys looked nervously at one another, the younger one standing behind his brother.
    “Just old meat.”
    “Smells like victory rations to me. Any tongue in there, child? Spices?”
    “Just old meat.”
    “You know the best cuts are being kept in salt. You don’t want yours to be the only house in First Settle not putting on a feast when we drive away the Kinless, do you? Where are your parents? Do they know you’ve got a good pot on? Are they about to become rich?”
    “Yes!”
    Kavek looks at the younger child, who suddenly loses the last colour from his cheeks and darts behind his brother.
    “How are they going to manage that, in the middle of the night? Is you father Tornveldt, who can stop a horse with a longknife?”
    “He is,” says the older boy, “and we are proud to be his sons.”
    “Good answer, boy, ye bide your manners, but you don’t like telling the truth. Where is Tornveldt and your mother?”
    “I can’t say.” The older boy’s voice is unsteady. Kavek scours the room. There are no weapons in the house, and this fairly near the lower levels.
    “Does Tornveldt, how can fight with horses, not keep a weapon in his house to defend his sons?”
    The boy’s eyes drop to the floor.
    “They’ve gone to a fight, haven’t they?” asks Vaun, his voice smooth and oily – what he reckons to pass for soothing, Kavek reckons.
    “They’re just out for a walk. Everyone carries weapons at night in these streets,” offers the boy, “because of the Kinless.” Having found his excuse, he looks Vaun and Kavek in the eyes.
    “No-one goes abroad at night unless they have somewhere to go,” retorts Kavek, “not when there’s fighting still to be done. There could be Kinless just out there, wounded and desperate, after the shelter of your house or to take you hostage and effect their escape! Suppose they’d been separated from their mates on the shore and found their way up here?”
    “They’ve gone to a fight, haven’t they, boy?” asks Vaun.
    The boys give themselves away with downcast glances, the older one quickly takes control of himself.
    “We’re not scared. My father and mother are good fighters, they’ll come back with a huge purse of winnings and we’ll be eating victory rations every night. We’ll move our dwelling nearer the palace of the Sons of First Settle, and men like you will be watching outside our gates and we don’t need them to guard us at night, I can take a Kinless down with my practice sword and blind him with a pan of hot broth – oh!”
    The boy’s speech is cut short with a rather high shriek as he catches sight of the gaunt one-eyed man who has managed to slither in through a window at the back of the house. The boy nudges his brother toward the two men of the Citizen Guard and measures his distance from the fireplace as best he can while keeping his stare fixed on the intruder.
    “You’d better hold this one back, Kavek,” he growls “I don’t want to lose the other eye.”

    “Nervous, lass?”
    “Tornveldt, we’ll be fine. The dockhands said they won’t pitch new fighters against non-humans. The crowd is there to make wagers, not watch a murder. The Sanctuary won’t carry off much coin if everyone in the room can predict the outcome of a duel. You’re one of the best wrestlers in First Settle. Even if we use weapons tonight, we’ll be fine. We’ll take the purse and be back with our boys before dawn, hear me.”
    “Maybe you’re right. I get nervous. I worry about you as well. I know you can handle yourself, but what if we were wounded? How are we to explain ourselves to the neighbours if we can’t turn out to fight along with them when next the Kinless are racing up our street?”
    “You worry too much. The lower streets are rife with sea-fever and people getting filthy blood on them from cleaning bad wounds. If something happens to one of us, we’ll say we were blood-wounded with Kinless poisoned blades or arrows on the shore, seeing off a scouting skiff. Hear me, if we take this purse, we’ll move to the higher streets, get a place right under the palace, and when you live up there, your neighbours don’t enquire about your business all day. You don’t get anyone landing an arrow’s flight from your door in the dead of night, neither. Now, come on - let’s jog the last bit and loosen up our legs for the fight!”
    “Aye. You’re some wife, Annan. Wait for me!”

    “Let’s go outside, lads. You boys stay in, and don’t answer the door to anyone else until you hear my voice or your father coming home. You hear me?”
    The boys nod and the bolts are thrown as the guardsmen step back into the street. It’s humid, there’s a very light rain, more of a warm mist, on the air. Kavek turns to his companions, assuming the command, which is not his by office, but rarely contested by the others. Kavek is the veteran of too many patrols, and they like him. He’s slow to draw his sword, but when it’s out he uses it with blinding quickness.
    “We’d better go after them and bring them back, lads.”
    “Why, Kavek?” asks Jel, “It’s their own business. Their boys are safe. Let them go and fight. If Tornveldt’s as good as you reckon he is, he’ll probably batter a couple of alehouse thugs The Sanctuary have got in to look tough and impress the gamblers, and be back by morning with enough coin to give his family a better life.”
    “And if they don’t? Suppose they’re surprised and Tornveldt is crippled? It’s one man down from this district when we meet the Kinless, tomorrow or soon afterward, on the shore. They might win and not make it back – you think the Sanctuary are going to let a fisherman who’s reasonably quick with a longknife just walk off with a sack of their monies? And if they come back wealthy and glowing from a good fight, how long will it be before they’ve spent everything in their excitement and want to go back for more? They might get off with it the first time, but if the crowd are used to them, they’ll be standing toe to toe with a spell-flinger, a giant…or each other. The Sanctuary are a wicked folk and they’d pit a man against his wife if it struck them as funny, and put them both to the sword if they refused to fight.”
    “So we’re going to march into a meet of The Sancturay, one that’s guaranteed to be full of drunken, armed Settlers who don’t want to be caught bearing weapons in a private house. Don’t you think we should go and fetch about a hundred more men?”
    “If we find Tornveldt and his wife on the way, we’ll stop them if we can. If they make it to Grimhollow before us, they’re on their own and we wait for them to emerge. At least we might see them home safe with their winnings if they do survive.”
    Vaun spits a chewed piece of some hot root he picked up from Tornveldt’s pot.
    “So, Kavek – we’re to let them fight, then guard them back with their illegal winnings. If we carry on carrying out our duties like thieves, we’re not going to find ourselves guarding the palaces of the Sons of First Settle any time soon, you know.”
    “Aye, but hear me. We’re no relations of anyone that lives in the palace, not one of us has a cellar full of preserved meat, gold or weapon bonds, so we’ll not get there anyway. Let’s see if we can’t just save a couple of shield-bearers for the next battle against the Kinless? Come – if we run the roofs and get to the main street soon we can beat them down there. They’ll be winding through the houses to shake off their neighbours or anyone following them.”
    Kavek leaps toward the wall of the house, and lands with cat-like eveness on a rain butt. He hunkers down, jumps straight up, and his fingers find the gutter which is nailed around the rim of the roof of Tornveldt’s house. Breath whistles through his teeth as he pulls himself up and onto the roof. Through the window, Vaun sees the boys start as footsteps cross the ceiling of their home. Kavek doesn’t wait, but sprints off across the roof, building speed to vault to the next house, and within seconds the others are racing after his cape as it flickers into the night like a black flame.

    During the day, all kinds of Settlers skirt the edges of the Grimhollow. It lies on the Eastern edge of First Settle, and various trawlers move their catch past its edge on the way to the great brine tanks where fish, shell creatures and the strangely transluscent meat of the writhing, suckered things that lurk in pools and underwater caves around the shore is stored. Further up there are the smokehouses where the flesh is dried for winter goods or soldier’s rations, and among them are two taverns, known as The Gambler and The Imp, in which the hardier trawlermen sup toxic brews of fermented oats, thickened with vegetable wax and heavily spiced to cover their bitter taste. Occasionally young men from the higher streets of the city will come down on a dare for someone’s manhood ceremonies or before they are joined to their wife, and more often than not a few of them will keel over from drinking and have their pockets emptied by the regulars, before being escorted up the main street by the Citizen Guard, who charge for the rescue whatever has been overlooked by the inn-crawlers.
    There is a tangle of slum dwelling, where those too affected by drink or magic squat in hovels full of mouldy food scraps and drink bottles of yeasty concoctions made in customised stills, or brewed in buckets, and fought over. These small houses invariably let in the rain, which drenches the furniture, and it’s not uncommon to see large slick toadstools growing from bedsheets or hearth-rugs, the rotten window-sills are stuffed with shards of glass and rusted nails that sit in rows like broken teeth to catch unwary hands and deter those creatures so low they loot from those with almost nothing. The bearded, rag-clad inhabitants curse and quarrel through the night and sleep through the day, while gangs of thin children roam through the streets and dwellings like jackals, smashing any panes of glass or drinking bowls they find unbroken, stealing any scraps of fish or bottles of brew that aren’t tucked inside the owner’s coat. Small fires are started in the winter in some of the houses, and a mutually suspicious camaraderie develops between those who have no-one else to keep them warm at night. Sometimes the suspicion will boil over, tempers will crack, usually because one of those driven insane with magic is keeping the drinkers awake past dawn, or because one of their number is suspected of hoarding drink. On such occasions, the Citizen Guard are rarely involved, the body is usually wrapped in its coat and dragged onto the beach for the gulls and wild dogs.
    Past this stinking place, where waste is heaped in the streets and the cobbles and wooden walkways are treacherous with sewage, fungus and rot, there is a winding street that passes between a band of hovels left empty. Run-down but free of clutter, with daubings in tar, blood, paint, shit and older, less distinct old stains that blaspheme against the tribes and deny the fathers, these places mark the boundaries of The Grimhollow. Having eluded the roaming gangs, or maybe not seemed rich or slow enough to catch their interest, Tornveldt falters momentarily beneath the mouldering balconies of these deThornd old houses.
    “By the fathers, lass – look at the walls!”
    The two stand close together, taking in the scratched curses and wondering what men could be so damned that they would abandon the Fathers in this way.
    “Should we have come down here, Tornveldt?”
    “Don’t let these put you off, Annan! That is why they’ve been put there. Curses against the fathers only harm them that write them, you should know that, lass!”
    “Aye, we’ve nearly got there. Which way were you told from here?”
    “Into there.”
    Tornveldt points at a pipe, nearly a man’s height in span, with a tongue of foul-smelling green lolling out of the darkness.
    “It’s one of the storm chutes that bring the water through the cliffs and stop floods from splitting the rock and shifting the streets above. I guess it’s not much comfort if you live along the lowest streets on this side, but then perhaps you can’t be comforted much if you live there anyways.”
    Tornveldt smiles at his wife. Her mouth is a pinched, grey slit, but she steps in front of him, heaves herself up into the pipe, and leans down to offer him a hand up.
    He grips her hand and soon they are both stooped in the pipe. There is a runnel of thick, trickling liquid on the ground which they instinctively avoid stepping in. Tornveldt reaches into his pocket and pulls out his matches and a miner’s light, a stub of candle protected from draughts with rough squares of glass held on an iron saucer with a thumb-hole. Soon, its feeble, sputtering light is making the shadows jump and loom, and showing the blackish slime covering the sides of the pipe.
    “Shortly through here, there should be a gap in the rock. The Grimhollow is one of the caves that the wreckers and smugglers used before First Settle became prosperous.”
    “And before we had the Citizen Guard. They wouldn’t follow anyone down here, though, would they?”
    “Why would they? They’d get better pay keeping us out of the palace and have an easier night locking up mercenaries who’ve spent their killing-fees on beer, they wouldn’t pick their way through all this, especially not with The Sanctuary so close.”

    “Wait.” Vaun motions with his hand. Kavek and Jel come to a halt, instinctively crouching and looking behind them.
    “What is it?”
    “We’re getting close to them. What do we do now? They’ve gone into the Grimhollow. If we follow them into the slums we’ll attract a crowd, someone will warn The Sanctuary and we’ll be fishfood by dawn. It’s too late to stop them now. Can we hide somewhere and wait for them? Get a drink, maybe…?”
    Kavek is about to admonish Vaun for thinking of his thirst, but Jel interrupts in his rough whisper.
    “There is a way we can go unnoticed and see whether they make it, without getting spotted ourselves. There’s a couple of old escape routes the smugglers found, chimneys leading from the caves that they widened by hand. They’re old, but I think I can find them. Stay crouched, though. We really don’t want anyone in the low streets to think we’re there to spy on them.”
    Jel lopes off between two houses, followed by Kavek and Vaun, who draw their longknives.

    In the pipes, the air grows warm and the reek of woodsmoke, tobacco, and spiced food frying gets stronger, seeping through cracks and vents in the rock. The sound of many voices, low, rumbling drunken voices, grows louder until suddenly Annan stops so suddenly that Tornveldt almost walks into her back.
    “Look! There must be hundreds of people down there.”
    Steps lead from a rough, rusty gap cut into the pipe, winding down to the floor of a massive cave. The floor appears to be sandy in some places, and the sound of the sea echoes up from some hidden source. Stalls are set up around the walls of the cave, selling weaponry, piles of fried cakes and grisly trophies from previous fights. Some men appear to simply have a table of tokens in front of them, and Annan reckons these must be the men who set the wagers and pay the prize purses. At each of these coin-tables, massive men with thick, scarred flesh stand on either side of the seated gamblers, occasionally stretching a long arm to knock away some petty thief or child with their club-like fists. In the middle is the main pit, and there are two smaller pits further away from where Annan and Tornveldt have come in. Tornveldt grits his teeth at the dark spills of blood on the dirt floor of the pit, which is currently empty.
    On three sides of the pit, men and women are peering over the edge, coins are being swapped, stolen and held gloatingly in front of people’s faces. Most of the people here have obviously come in dark hoods and shawls to hide their identities from any suspicious neighbours, but the heat in the cavern has meant that most of them have tipped back their hoods and many of the men have tied theirs around their waists. Jostling and shoving ripples through the crowd, but a wooden rail gives those peering over the lip of the pit a barrier to steady themselves against. One side has a natural dais of raised rock, but is quite empty.
    “According to the trawler who told me about this place,” Tornveldt whispers, “It’s a custom of the fights that anyone from the crowd who falls in has to take on the next fighter. Hence no-one’s climbing under the barrier for a better view.”
    “Better view of what? The pit’s empty.”
    “Ssh! Wait!” Tornveldt is clearly growing excited, his anxieties gone now they can see the forbidden arena. He points, and Annan squints at the pit, fifty feet below them. Now she can make out, in one corner, two men, only as tall as children, but burly and covered in hair, almost motionless in the sand. They are locked in some kind of wrestling grip, and they are clearly an exact match for one another, as their movements are slow and short, even though she can now see the coating of sweat and sand on their backs and limbs and the thick ropes of muscle on their limbs taut with exertion.
    “Gnomes…they can fight for hours, can’t they?”
    Suddenly, one of them falters for a moment, loses his grip on the greasy shoulders of the other fighter. The gnome on the floor seizes the moment and swings a tight little fist which catches the other under the chin with an audible crack, which unbalances him further. While he’s dazed, the other wriggles from underneath him, gets to his knees and delivers another sound punch to the head. He waits to see if his foe will recover, but the other has crumpled to the floor and now lies in the awkward splay of one who is knocked unconcious. A cheer ripples around the edge of the pit, as the gnome jigs around the square, shaking his fist in the air and shouting gleefully.
    Tornveldt and Annan turn to face each other.
    “Let’s see this through, then,” she says.

    In a room behind one of the larger coin-tables, a bloated creature in a worn, stained gown, gazing at his reflection in a large, badly silvered mirror. Leaning against the wall is a man forced to stoop by the low ceiling in the cave, peering from beneath the brim of a wide hat with two slim throwing blades tucked into the band.
    “Who’s in tonight?”
    “A few gnomes. The Sint brothers. No-one new.”
    “Did you go into First Settle? You went to a few taverns?”
    “Squase, you told me to go. I went. You can’t be surprised that they don’t want to come down here. There’s a reputation, an atmosphere.”
    “Haven’t they got any balls at all? I thought there was some kind of squabble on at the moment? Aren’t they used to getting things stuck in them by now?”
    “There’s some kind of problem with Kinless, aye. The Guard have probably told them to stay indoors at night.”
    “Well we’d better lock away the wine and the brandy then, because if they’re doing what the Guard tell them, they’ll piss themselves if a gang of cutlass-wielding thieves run ashore and start causing mischief. You didn’t go to the right places, I’m sure. I’m in a foul mood now. My hips hurt, my head hurts, there’s nothing decent to eat, and you can’t carry out one simple instruction and get some snivelling urchins to come and get killed in the pit while I eat my supper.”
    “I told you, people are scared of coming here. I thought that was the idea behind the curses and burning the odd drunk?”
    “Don’t have an answer for everything, droning on all night. My head’s bad enough as it is. Help me up, I’ll watch the Sint brothers kill someone while I get drunk.”

    The steps are treacherous, water is clinging to the walls of the cave and thin dark lichens coat the sides of the steps. Annan slips forward and dislodges a rock. A couple of men spin round in the crowd, and make their way to the foot of the steps.
    “I guess we’re in now, lass,” says Tornveldt, keeping his voice steady. They keep going down, tapping their weapon hilts instinctively with the heels of their hands.
    The two spectators are wearing leather aprons and greaves nicked by several cuts, one of the men is has a bandage around a forearm with a circular dark stain seeping through.
    “What’s your business here? This is a private meet. Who are you?”
    “I am Tornveldt, I can stop a horse with a knife.”
    “And you?”
    “I am Annan, who has two sons who I taught to fight.”
    “And what business do you have down here? It’s two coins to bet on each fight.”
    Tornveldt glances at the pit. The victor is bickering with one of the spectators, the other gnome is being dragged out of the pit by a couple of men in black smocks.
    “We’re here to meet your fighters and put coin on ourselves.”
    The two men glance a sneer at each other.
    “In that case, come down. Vek, tell Squase we’ve a couple from the town who want to knock down a couple of gnomes and collect a purse.”

    On a high ledge, the three men of the Citizen Guard settle.
    “Shit, there they are. Do we really want to watch?” whispers Jel.
    “We’re here now. Might as well see if anyone else has come down here. We might need to pay a few visits in the morning, warn a few folk off” replies Kavek.
    They watch as Tornveldt and Annan follow the Sanctuary thug towards the pit. There is some discussion with a man holding a purse. He is hunched forward, and flanked by two taller men. The townsfolk and the two guards eye each other cautiously.
    Tornveldt lifts his tunic, shows them a dagger strapped to his belt, draws his knife and shows a couple of rather deft swishes. The crowd parts as he makes his way to the lip of the pit. The bent purse-carrier shakes his head slowly, then makes his way to the edge to watch as Tornveldt leaps in and lands in an even-footed crouch, steadies himself and stands, his hands swaying by his sides. He ripples his shoulders, flexes his arms behind him, rolls his neck to loosen the muscles. An obese man leaning heavily on a cane slowly makes his way to the side of the pit which is free of spectators. A thin man with a hat pulled over his brow drags a large wooden chair over for him and he slumps onto it clumsily. Kavek squints at the squat figure.
    “That’s Squase. I’m not surprised he’s here. He loves to watch this kind of thing.”
    “He should come to the shore one dawn when the longboats are mooring,” mutters Vaun.
    “He only likes to watch. If he so much as lifted a blade, I reckon his heart would burst, hear me?”
    “Aye. You know him?”
    “He barely leaves this place. He runs The Gambler and The Imp, controls the stills in the wrecked houses. He likes it here.”
    “Here? It smells foul, the walls are damp, there wouldn’t be any light, even in the day.”
    “He sees it as the underside, the balance to the palace. He sees himself as the dark reflection of the Sons of First Settle. ‘As above, so below’.”
    Raised voices rumble through the crowd.
    “They’re going to start it,” says Vaun, nodding at the pit. Below them, a figure roughly four feet in height swings nimbly into the pit, eyeing Tornveldt. His fists are wrapped in rough cloth and his beard is tied in two forked tails behind his neck.
    The purplish swelling around his left eye suggests that this is not his first bout of the night. The Guards tense silently. Annan clenches a fist and shakes it once at Tornveldt in a sign of solidarity. There is a flurry of hand-over-hand changing of coins. Squase raises a pink hand and the fighters draw fists in front of their faces, elbows crooked out to protect their ribs. Squase’s hand falls.

    Tornveldt watches his opponent sway from side to side and then suddenly the gnome pitches forward and a tight fist hits Tornveldt in the stomach like a stone. He loses his breath and can only turn away from the following blow, a right-handed swing which catches him in the side just above the hip, a shock of burning pain that flares across his back. He spins with it, as the gnome puts his back foot forward heavily to retain his balance. Tornveldt flicks his boot at the gnome’s knee, and unsteadies him, then makes the most of his reach and smashes a fist on the back of the smaller one’s head.
    A moment’s pause as they draw breath and separate. Neither wants to finish too quickly, better to build the crowd rather than bore them and end up facing someone in full armour or have angry wager-sellers flinging darts at you. Tornveldt engages again with a jab at the gnome’s forehead. It’s only a glancing blow, but the gnome instinctively brings his fists up to protect his face, and Tornveldt stoops to push a fist into his belly. The little man steps back, his face reddened, his breath heavy. Tornveldt drives a knee into his face, and feels the bone against the gnome’s teeth. His opponent staggers back, and Tornveldt can see a thin string of blood and drool on his chin. He moves forward, but the gnome drops to the floor and rolls to the side of the pit, quickly regaining his feet and raising his fists once again. The crowd are becoming more lively now, yelling encouragement and curses at the fighters. The gnome stops weaving about, and reaches behind him, pulling a crude dagger from the belt-ring at his back. Holding the dull blade out in front of him, he stalks forward warily.
    Tornveldt brings his longknife from its scabbard in a smooth motion, not taking his eyes from the gnome’s. They pace in a circle around the room as the crowd grows quiet, watching them intently. Squase leans forward, slowly dipping his hand into a bag of fried roots. The Citizen Guards watch silently fifty feet above the pit. Annan holds her lower lip still between her teeth, resting a hand on the hilt of her own fighting knife.
    The gnome lunges.
    Dropping forward onto his leading leg, he flicks his blade towards Tornveldt’s belly, but the taller man is too quick. He brings his forearm into the way, and the blade skims across his leather sleeve. A line of blood appears swiftly, running to Tornveldt’s knuckles, falling in fat drops from his fingers. He sets his face and flicks the blood at the gnome in a gesture of defiance. He stands defensively, his longknife held out before his chest to parry any blow to his upper body.
    The gnome ducks to one side, tries to push his knife under Tornveldt’s elbow and into his ribs, but his blow fails to meet its mark and Tornveldt clubs his opponent on the forehead with the handle of his blade. The gnome rocks on his feet, dazed.

  • Notes

{"cards":[{"_id":"3ea73ac8f1ebfbdd5f00000f","treeId":"3ea73aaef1ebfbdd5f00000d","seq":1,"position":1,"parentId":null,"content":"The Condemned Woman's Tale"},{"_id":"3ea7485cf1ebfbdd5f000014","treeId":"3ea73aaef1ebfbdd5f00000d","seq":1,"position":1,"parentId":"3ea73ac8f1ebfbdd5f00000f","content":""},{"_id":"3ea7411ef1ebfbdd5f000011","treeId":"3ea73aaef1ebfbdd5f00000d","seq":1,"position":2,"parentId":null,"content":"The Pit Fight"},{"_id":"3ea741b7f1ebfbdd5f000012","treeId":"3ea73aaef1ebfbdd5f00000d","seq":1,"position":1,"parentId":"3ea7411ef1ebfbdd5f000011","content":"The Pit Fight\n\nAs night leaks slowly through the streets, filling cellars and attics with unnerving darkness, reducing the pets and pests and livestock to mere noises, First Settle is restless. Even those exhausted by battle are having feverish dreams or being kept awake by the moans of maimed warriors whose wounds are being washed and wrapped by their families. In the upper levels near the Meeting House of the Sons of First Settle, by the screams of Kinless being bled for the victory wine or tortured in the dank, forbidden cells beneath the palace. Some houseowners of the lower levels who cannot sleep are sawing, bending, nailing wood, grunting as they replace the burnt straw on their roofs or rehanging their doors. The smithy fires are still crackling, logs popping and sending out sprays of brilliant red sparks. Three men are striding through the steep street leading from the barrack-house of the Citizen Guard, where volunteers are being sworn in to replace those professional lawkeepers who fell in the day’s battle. Cloaked in black cloth and armed as though walking back to the front, they eye the houses suspiciously. One is smoking, and has only one eye, his companions are a well-built but poorly attired warrior from the lower streets and a thin man with a rodent’s quick ears and cruel eyes.\nKavek to be joining the Citizen Guard tonight. There’s often good meat and mead at the end of a night with the Citizen Guard. He’d rather be paid in coin or furniture or something else more durable than a chicken and a skin of wine, but with the Kinless crawling around the shore like carrion dogs, anything bright or valuable enough to catch their squinting, yellowish eyes is locked away in the vaults beneath the palace, or has been towed out to sea on boats with armed guards keeping Citizen Guard fore and aft. With him are Jel, who has killed horsed men in armour with only a sling and a pile of pebbles, and Vaun, who knows some simple magic and can persuade people to do his bidding by looking into their eyes and commanding them to do it. He is also adept at picking locks, which tempts Kavek to think he is wasting his evenings with the Citizen Guard and would be more gainfully employed by The Sanctuary, though he wouldn’t say so without a lot of wine inside his belly. Vaun stops suddenly and silently, as he does most things, his ratty nose lifting into the air.\n“Smell that, lads?”\n“Fire? Smoke?” offers Kavek, who can only smell his rather worn leather breeks and the leaf smouldering in Jel’s clay pipe.\n“No, good stew and rich lights and herb bread. Someone’s been filling their kitchen from The Sanctuary up this street.”\nOnto the scent like a dog, Vaun quickened his pace, yet his boots remain quiet. He has perfected the technique used by footpads of rolling his feet from heel to toe, using the edges of his bootsoles and avoiding the dull clops his companions are making. Their clumsiness means that the three will be overheard despite his efforts, but after years of moving like a thief he does it naturally. He stops suddenly by a door, flattening himself against the wall beneath the upper window of a modest house split into two levels by the sheerness of the street. The window is closed, but laughter and the chatter of several children can be heard within.\n“Jel, get round the back, stop them coming up through the windows. And don’t forget they’re Settlers, they could be wounded, they could have young ones in there. But don’t forget, they could be armed as well.”\n“Vaun, most Settlers with a warhammer, spear and shield aren’t as well armed as I am with a bit of flint or a piece of glass.”\n“So, don’t forget they could be harmless. This looks like the Tornveldt’s place, if I remember it right, and he has children in the house.”\nJel turns into the darkness between this house and the next. Vaun remains against the wall, puts a gloved hand on the handle of his bludgeon. Kavek raps on the door.\n“Citizen Guard, open the door!”\nA clatter of overturned pans and the voices within fall silent.\n“You must open the door! You’re not in any danger.”\nA small, white face appears at the window, sees the men at the door and flinches as Vaun’s quick hand shoots up and grabs the child’s ear, prompting him to let out a screech. The door opens and a slightly older child comes out of the house, shouting.\n“Leave him alone, we ain’t done nothing wrong!”\nKavek has his foot in the door, scoops an arm across the child’s chest and pulls him back into the house. Vaun releases the child and follows them in, closing the door behind him. Two boys stand before them in nightshawls, trembling with fear.\n“It’s oFay, boys, no-one’s going to hurt you. What’s in the pot?”\nKavek gestures to the blackened cauldron hanging over the fire, from which the rich and salty aromas are steaming. The boys looked nervously at one another, the younger one standing behind his brother.\n“Just old meat.”\n“Smells like victory rations to me. Any tongue in there, child? Spices?”\n“Just old meat.”\n“You know the best cuts are being kept in salt. You don’t want yours to be the only house in First Settle not putting on a feast when we drive away the Kinless, do you? Where are your parents? Do they know you’ve got a good pot on? Are they about to become rich?”\n“Yes!”\nKavek looks at the younger child, who suddenly loses the last colour from his cheeks and darts behind his brother.\n“How are they going to manage that, in the middle of the night? Is you father Tornveldt, who can stop a horse with a longknife?”\n“He is,” says the older boy, “and we are proud to be his sons.”\n“Good answer, boy, ye bide your manners, but you don’t like telling the truth. Where is Tornveldt and your mother?”\n“I can’t say.” The older boy’s voice is unsteady. Kavek scours the room. There are no weapons in the house, and this fairly near the lower levels.\n“Does Tornveldt, how can fight with horses, not keep a weapon in his house to defend his sons?”\nThe boy’s eyes drop to the floor.\n“They’ve gone to a fight, haven’t they?” asks Vaun, his voice smooth and oily – what he reckons to pass for soothing, Kavek reckons.\n“They’re just out for a walk. Everyone carries weapons at night in these streets,” offers the boy, “because of the Kinless.” Having found his excuse, he looks Vaun and Kavek in the eyes.\n“No-one goes abroad at night unless they have somewhere to go,” retorts Kavek, “not when there’s fighting still to be done. There could be Kinless just out there, wounded and desperate, after the shelter of your house or to take you hostage and effect their escape! Suppose they’d been separated from their mates on the shore and found their way up here?”\n“They’ve gone to a fight, haven’t they, boy?” asks Vaun.\nThe boys give themselves away with downcast glances, the older one quickly takes control of himself.\n“We’re not scared. My father and mother are good fighters, they’ll come back with a huge purse of winnings and we’ll be eating victory rations every night. We’ll move our dwelling nearer the palace of the Sons of First Settle, and men like you will be watching outside our gates and we don’t need them to guard us at night, I can take a Kinless down with my practice sword and blind him with a pan of hot broth – oh!”\nThe boy’s speech is cut short with a rather high shriek as he catches sight of the gaunt one-eyed man who has managed to slither in through a window at the back of the house. The boy nudges his brother toward the two men of the Citizen Guard and measures his distance from the fireplace as best he can while keeping his stare fixed on the intruder.\n“You’d better hold this one back, Kavek,” he growls “I don’t want to lose the other eye.”\n\n“Nervous, lass?”\n“Tornveldt, we’ll be fine. The dockhands said they won’t pitch new fighters against non-humans. The crowd is there to make wagers, not watch a murder. The Sanctuary won’t carry off much coin if everyone in the room can predict the outcome of a duel. You’re one of the best wrestlers in First Settle. Even if we use weapons tonight, we’ll be fine. We’ll take the purse and be back with our boys before dawn, hear me.”\n“Maybe you’re right. I get nervous. I worry about you as well. I know you can handle yourself, but what if we were wounded? How are we to explain ourselves to the neighbours if we can’t turn out to fight along with them when next the Kinless are racing up our street?”\n“You worry too much. The lower streets are rife with sea-fever and people getting filthy blood on them from cleaning bad wounds. If something happens to one of us, we’ll say we were blood-wounded with Kinless poisoned blades or arrows on the shore, seeing off a scouting skiff. Hear me, if we take this purse, we’ll move to the higher streets, get a place right under the palace, and when you live up there, your neighbours don’t enquire about your business all day. You don’t get anyone landing an arrow’s flight from your door in the dead of night, neither. Now, come on - let’s jog the last bit and loosen up our legs for the fight!”\n“Aye. You’re some wife, Annan. Wait for me!”\n\n“Let’s go outside, lads. You boys stay in, and don’t answer the door to anyone else until you hear my voice or your father coming home. You hear me?”\nThe boys nod and the bolts are thrown as the guardsmen step back into the street. It’s humid, there’s a very light rain, more of a warm mist, on the air. Kavek turns to his companions, assuming the command, which is not his by office, but rarely contested by the others. Kavek is the veteran of too many patrols, and they like him. He’s slow to draw his sword, but when it’s out he uses it with blinding quickness.\n“We’d better go after them and bring them back, lads.”\n“Why, Kavek?” asks Jel, “It’s their own business. Their boys are safe. Let them go and fight. If Tornveldt’s as good as you reckon he is, he’ll probably batter a couple of alehouse thugs The Sanctuary have got in to look tough and impress the gamblers, and be back by morning with enough coin to give his family a better life.”\n“And if they don’t? Suppose they’re surprised and Tornveldt is crippled? It’s one man down from this district when we meet the Kinless, tomorrow or soon afterward, on the shore. They might win and not make it back – you think the Sanctuary are going to let a fisherman who’s reasonably quick with a longknife just walk off with a sack of their monies? And if they come back wealthy and glowing from a good fight, how long will it be before they’ve spent everything in their excitement and want to go back for more? They might get off with it the first time, but if the crowd are used to them, they’ll be standing toe to toe with a spell-flinger, a giant...or each other. The Sanctuary are a wicked folk and they’d pit a man against his wife if it struck them as funny, and put them both to the sword if they refused to fight.”\n“So we’re going to march into a meet of The Sancturay, one that’s guaranteed to be full of drunken, armed Settlers who don’t want to be caught bearing weapons in a private house. Don’t you think we should go and fetch about a hundred more men?”\n“If we find Tornveldt and his wife on the way, we’ll stop them if we can. If they make it to Grimhollow before us, they’re on their own and we wait for them to emerge. At least we might see them home safe with their winnings if they do survive.”\nVaun spits a chewed piece of some hot root he picked up from Tornveldt’s pot.\n“So, Kavek – we’re to let them fight, then guard them back with their illegal winnings. If we carry on carrying out our duties like thieves, we’re not going to find ourselves guarding the palaces of the Sons of First Settle any time soon, you know.”\n“Aye, but hear me. We’re no relations of anyone that lives in the palace, not one of us has a cellar full of preserved meat, gold or weapon bonds, so we’ll not get there anyway. Let’s see if we can’t just save a couple of shield-bearers for the next battle against the Kinless? Come – if we run the roofs and get to the main street soon we can beat them down there. They’ll be winding through the houses to shake off their neighbours or anyone following them.”\nKavek leaps toward the wall of the house, and lands with cat-like eveness on a rain butt. He hunkers down, jumps straight up, and his fingers find the gutter which is nailed around the rim of the roof of Tornveldt’s house. Breath whistles through his teeth as he pulls himself up and onto the roof. Through the window, Vaun sees the boys start as footsteps cross the ceiling of their home. Kavek doesn’t wait, but sprints off across the roof, building speed to vault to the next house, and within seconds the others are racing after his cape as it flickers into the night like a black flame.\n\nDuring the day, all kinds of Settlers skirt the edges of the Grimhollow. It lies on the Eastern edge of First Settle, and various trawlers move their catch past its edge on the way to the great brine tanks where fish, shell creatures and the strangely transluscent meat of the writhing, suckered things that lurk in pools and underwater caves around the shore is stored. Further up there are the smokehouses where the flesh is dried for winter goods or soldier’s rations, and among them are two taverns, known as The Gambler and The Imp, in which the hardier trawlermen sup toxic brews of fermented oats, thickened with vegetable wax and heavily spiced to cover their bitter taste. Occasionally young men from the higher streets of the city will come down on a dare for someone’s manhood ceremonies or before they are joined to their wife, and more often than not a few of them will keel over from drinking and have their pockets emptied by the regulars, before being escorted up the main street by the Citizen Guard, who charge for the rescue whatever has been overlooked by the inn-crawlers.\nThere is a tangle of slum dwelling, where those too affected by drink or magic squat in hovels full of mouldy food scraps and drink bottles of yeasty concoctions made in customised stills, or brewed in buckets, and fought over. These small houses invariably let in the rain, which drenches the furniture, and it’s not uncommon to see large slick toadstools growing from bedsheets or hearth-rugs, the rotten window-sills are stuffed with shards of glass and rusted nails that sit in rows like broken teeth to catch unwary hands and deter those creatures so low they loot from those with almost nothing. The bearded, rag-clad inhabitants curse and quarrel through the night and sleep through the day, while gangs of thin children roam through the streets and dwellings like jackals, smashing any panes of glass or drinking bowls they find unbroken, stealing any scraps of fish or bottles of brew that aren’t tucked inside the owner’s coat. Small fires are started in the winter in some of the houses, and a mutually suspicious camaraderie develops between those who have no-one else to keep them warm at night. Sometimes the suspicion will boil over, tempers will crack, usually because one of those driven insane with magic is keeping the drinkers awake past dawn, or because one of their number is suspected of hoarding drink. On such occasions, the Citizen Guard are rarely involved, the body is usually wrapped in its coat and dragged onto the beach for the gulls and wild dogs.\nPast this stinking place, where waste is heaped in the streets and the cobbles and wooden walkways are treacherous with sewage, fungus and rot, there is a winding street that passes between a band of hovels left empty. Run-down but free of clutter, with daubings in tar, blood, paint, shit and older, less distinct old stains that blaspheme against the tribes and deny the fathers, these places mark the boundaries of The Grimhollow. Having eluded the roaming gangs, or maybe not seemed rich or slow enough to catch their interest, Tornveldt falters momentarily beneath the mouldering balconies of these deThornd old houses.\n“By the fathers, lass – look at the walls!”\nThe two stand close together, taking in the scratched curses and wondering what men could be so damned that they would abandon the Fathers in this way.\n“Should we have come down here, Tornveldt?”\n“Don’t let these put you off, Annan! That is why they’ve been put there. Curses against the fathers only harm them that write them, you should know that, lass!”\n“Aye, we’ve nearly got there. Which way were you told from here?”\n“Into there.”\nTornveldt points at a pipe, nearly a man’s height in span, with a tongue of foul-smelling green lolling out of the darkness.\n“It’s one of the storm chutes that bring the water through the cliffs and stop floods from splitting the rock and shifting the streets above. I guess it’s not much comfort if you live along the lowest streets on this side, but then perhaps you can’t be comforted much if you live there anyways.”\nTornveldt smiles at his wife. Her mouth is a pinched, grey slit, but she steps in front of him, heaves herself up into the pipe, and leans down to offer him a hand up.\nHe grips her hand and soon they are both stooped in the pipe. There is a runnel of thick, trickling liquid on the ground which they instinctively avoid stepping in. Tornveldt reaches into his pocket and pulls out his matches and a miner’s light, a stub of candle protected from draughts with rough squares of glass held on an iron saucer with a thumb-hole. Soon, its feeble, sputtering light is making the shadows jump and loom, and showing the blackish slime covering the sides of the pipe.\n“Shortly through here, there should be a gap in the rock. The Grimhollow is one of the caves that the wreckers and smugglers used before First Settle became prosperous.”\n“And before we had the Citizen Guard. They wouldn’t follow anyone down here, though, would they?”\n“Why would they? They’d get better pay keeping us out of the palace and have an easier night locking up mercenaries who’ve spent their killing-fees on beer, they wouldn’t pick their way through all this, especially not with The Sanctuary so close.”\n\n“Wait.” Vaun motions with his hand. Kavek and Jel come to a halt, instinctively crouching and looking behind them.\n“What is it?”\n“We’re getting close to them. What do we do now? They’ve gone into the Grimhollow. If we follow them into the slums we’ll attract a crowd, someone will warn The Sanctuary and we’ll be fishfood by dawn. It’s too late to stop them now. Can we hide somewhere and wait for them? Get a drink, maybe…?”\nKavek is about to admonish Vaun for thinking of his thirst, but Jel interrupts in his rough whisper.\n“There is a way we can go unnoticed and see whether they make it, without getting spotted ourselves. There’s a couple of old escape routes the smugglers found, chimneys leading from the caves that they widened by hand. They’re old, but I think I can find them. Stay crouched, though. We really don’t want anyone in the low streets to think we’re there to spy on them.”\nJel lopes off between two houses, followed by Kavek and Vaun, who draw their longknives.\n\nIn the pipes, the air grows warm and the reek of woodsmoke, tobacco, and spiced food frying gets stronger, seeping through cracks and vents in the rock. The sound of many voices, low, rumbling drunken voices, grows louder until suddenly Annan stops so suddenly that Tornveldt almost walks into her back.\n“Look! There must be hundreds of people down there.”\nSteps lead from a rough, rusty gap cut into the pipe, winding down to the floor of a massive cave. The floor appears to be sandy in some places, and the sound of the sea echoes up from some hidden source. Stalls are set up around the walls of the cave, selling weaponry, piles of fried cakes and grisly trophies from previous fights. Some men appear to simply have a table of tokens in front of them, and Annan reckons these must be the men who set the wagers and pay the prize purses. At each of these coin-tables, massive men with thick, scarred flesh stand on either side of the seated gamblers, occasionally stretching a long arm to knock away some petty thief or child with their club-like fists. In the middle is the main pit, and there are two smaller pits further away from where Annan and Tornveldt have come in. Tornveldt grits his teeth at the dark spills of blood on the dirt floor of the pit, which is currently empty.\nOn three sides of the pit, men and women are peering over the edge, coins are being swapped, stolen and held gloatingly in front of people’s faces. Most of the people here have obviously come in dark hoods and shawls to hide their identities from any suspicious neighbours, but the heat in the cavern has meant that most of them have tipped back their hoods and many of the men have tied theirs around their waists. Jostling and shoving ripples through the crowd, but a wooden rail gives those peering over the lip of the pit a barrier to steady themselves against. One side has a natural dais of raised rock, but is quite empty.\n“According to the trawler who told me about this place,” Tornveldt whispers, “It’s a custom of the fights that anyone from the crowd who falls in has to take on the next fighter. Hence no-one’s climbing under the barrier for a better view.”\n“Better view of what? The pit’s empty.”\n“Ssh! Wait!” Tornveldt is clearly growing excited, his anxieties gone now they can see the forbidden arena. He points, and Annan squints at the pit, fifty feet below them. Now she can make out, in one corner, two men, only as tall as children, but burly and covered in hair, almost motionless in the sand. They are locked in some kind of wrestling grip, and they are clearly an exact match for one another, as their movements are slow and short, even though she can now see the coating of sweat and sand on their backs and limbs and the thick ropes of muscle on their limbs taut with exertion.\n“Gnomes…they can fight for hours, can’t they?”\nSuddenly, one of them falters for a moment, loses his grip on the greasy shoulders of the other fighter. The gnome on the floor seizes the moment and swings a tight little fist which catches the other under the chin with an audible crack, which unbalances him further. While he’s dazed, the other wriggles from underneath him, gets to his knees and delivers another sound punch to the head. He waits to see if his foe will recover, but the other has crumpled to the floor and now lies in the awkward splay of one who is knocked unconcious. A cheer ripples around the edge of the pit, as the gnome jigs around the square, shaking his fist in the air and shouting gleefully.\nTornveldt and Annan turn to face each other.\n“Let’s see this through, then,” she says.\n\nIn a room behind one of the larger coin-tables, a bloated creature in a worn, stained gown, gazing at his reflection in a large, badly silvered mirror. Leaning against the wall is a man forced to stoop by the low ceiling in the cave, peering from beneath the brim of a wide hat with two slim throwing blades tucked into the band.\n“Who’s in tonight?”\n“A few gnomes. The Sint brothers. No-one new.”\n“Did you go into First Settle? You went to a few taverns?”\n“Squase, you told me to go. I went. You can’t be surprised that they don’t want to come down here. There’s a reputation, an atmosphere.”\n“Haven’t they got any balls at all? I thought there was some kind of squabble on at the moment? Aren’t they used to getting things stuck in them by now?”\n“There’s some kind of problem with Kinless, aye. The Guard have probably told them to stay indoors at night.”\n“Well we’d better lock away the wine and the brandy then, because if they’re doing what the Guard tell them, they’ll piss themselves if a gang of cutlass-wielding thieves run ashore and start causing mischief. You didn’t go to the right places, I’m sure. I’m in a foul mood now. My hips hurt, my head hurts, there’s nothing decent to eat, and you can’t carry out one simple instruction and get some snivelling urchins to come and get killed in the pit while I eat my supper.”\n“I told you, people are scared of coming here. I thought that was the idea behind the curses and burning the odd drunk?”\n“Don’t have an answer for everything, droning on all night. My head’s bad enough as it is. Help me up, I’ll watch the Sint brothers kill someone while I get drunk.”\n\nThe steps are treacherous, water is clinging to the walls of the cave and thin dark lichens coat the sides of the steps. Annan slips forward and dislodges a rock. A couple of men spin round in the crowd, and make their way to the foot of the steps.\n“I guess we’re in now, lass,” says Tornveldt, keeping his voice steady. They keep going down, tapping their weapon hilts instinctively with the heels of their hands.\nThe two spectators are wearing leather aprons and greaves nicked by several cuts, one of the men is has a bandage around a forearm with a circular dark stain seeping through.\n“What’s your business here? This is a private meet. Who are you?”\n“I am Tornveldt, I can stop a horse with a knife.”\n“And you?”\n“I am Annan, who has two sons who I taught to fight.”\n“And what business do you have down here? It’s two coins to bet on each fight.”\nTornveldt glances at the pit. The victor is bickering with one of the spectators, the other gnome is being dragged out of the pit by a couple of men in black smocks.\n“We’re here to meet your fighters and put coin on ourselves.”\nThe two men glance a sneer at each other.\n“In that case, come down. Vek, tell Squase we’ve a couple from the town who want to knock down a couple of gnomes and collect a purse.”\n\nOn a high ledge, the three men of the Citizen Guard settle.\n“Shit, there they are. Do we really want to watch?” whispers Jel.\n“We’re here now. Might as well see if anyone else has come down here. We might need to pay a few visits in the morning, warn a few folk off” replies Kavek.\nThey watch as Tornveldt and Annan follow the Sanctuary thug towards the pit. There is some discussion with a man holding a purse. He is hunched forward, and flanked by two taller men. The townsfolk and the two guards eye each other cautiously.\nTornveldt lifts his tunic, shows them a dagger strapped to his belt, draws his knife and shows a couple of rather deft swishes. The crowd parts as he makes his way to the lip of the pit. The bent purse-carrier shakes his head slowly, then makes his way to the edge to watch as Tornveldt leaps in and lands in an even-footed crouch, steadies himself and stands, his hands swaying by his sides. He ripples his shoulders, flexes his arms behind him, rolls his neck to loosen the muscles. An obese man leaning heavily on a cane slowly makes his way to the side of the pit which is free of spectators. A thin man with a hat pulled over his brow drags a large wooden chair over for him and he slumps onto it clumsily. Kavek squints at the squat figure.\n“That’s Squase. I’m not surprised he’s here. He loves to watch this kind of thing.”\n“He should come to the shore one dawn when the longboats are mooring,” mutters Vaun.\n“He only likes to watch. If he so much as lifted a blade, I reckon his heart would burst, hear me?”\n“Aye. You know him?”\n“He barely leaves this place. He runs The Gambler and The Imp, controls the stills in the wrecked houses. He likes it here.”\n“Here? It smells foul, the walls are damp, there wouldn’t be any light, even in the day.”\n“He sees it as the underside, the balance to the palace. He sees himself as the dark reflection of the Sons of First Settle. ‘As above, so below’.”\nRaised voices rumble through the crowd.\n“They’re going to start it,” says Vaun, nodding at the pit. Below them, a figure roughly four feet in height swings nimbly into the pit, eyeing Tornveldt. His fists are wrapped in rough cloth and his beard is tied in two forked tails behind his neck.\nThe purplish swelling around his left eye suggests that this is not his first bout of the night. The Guards tense silently. Annan clenches a fist and shakes it once at Tornveldt in a sign of solidarity. There is a flurry of hand-over-hand changing of coins. Squase raises a pink hand and the fighters draw fists in front of their faces, elbows crooked out to protect their ribs. Squase’s hand falls.\n\nTornveldt watches his opponent sway from side to side and then suddenly the gnome pitches forward and a tight fist hits Tornveldt in the stomach like a stone. He loses his breath and can only turn away from the following blow, a right-handed swing which catches him in the side just above the hip, a shock of burning pain that flares across his back. He spins with it, as the gnome puts his back foot forward heavily to retain his balance. Tornveldt flicks his boot at the gnome’s knee, and unsteadies him, then makes the most of his reach and smashes a fist on the back of the smaller one’s head.\nA moment’s pause as they draw breath and separate. Neither wants to finish too quickly, better to build the crowd rather than bore them and end up facing someone in full armour or have angry wager-sellers flinging darts at you. Tornveldt engages again with a jab at the gnome’s forehead. It’s only a glancing blow, but the gnome instinctively brings his fists up to protect his face, and Tornveldt stoops to push a fist into his belly. The little man steps back, his face reddened, his breath heavy. Tornveldt drives a knee into his face, and feels the bone against the gnome’s teeth. His opponent staggers back, and Tornveldt can see a thin string of blood and drool on his chin. He moves forward, but the gnome drops to the floor and rolls to the side of the pit, quickly regaining his feet and raising his fists once again. The crowd are becoming more lively now, yelling encouragement and curses at the fighters. The gnome stops weaving about, and reaches behind him, pulling a crude dagger from the belt-ring at his back. Holding the dull blade out in front of him, he stalks forward warily.\nTornveldt brings his longknife from its scabbard in a smooth motion, not taking his eyes from the gnome’s. They pace in a circle around the room as the crowd grows quiet, watching them intently. Squase leans forward, slowly dipping his hand into a bag of fried roots. The Citizen Guards watch silently fifty feet above the pit. Annan holds her lower lip still between her teeth, resting a hand on the hilt of her own fighting knife.\nThe gnome lunges.\nDropping forward onto his leading leg, he flicks his blade towards Tornveldt’s belly, but the taller man is too quick. He brings his forearm into the way, and the blade skims across his leather sleeve. A line of blood appears swiftly, running to Tornveldt’s knuckles, falling in fat drops from his fingers. He sets his face and flicks the blood at the gnome in a gesture of defiance. He stands defensively, his longknife held out before his chest to parry any blow to his upper body.\nThe gnome ducks to one side, tries to push his knife under Tornveldt’s elbow and into his ribs, but his blow fails to meet its mark and Tornveldt clubs his opponent on the forehead with the handle of his blade. The gnome rocks on his feet, dazed.\n"},{"_id":"3ea747e3f1ebfbdd5f000013","treeId":"3ea73aaef1ebfbdd5f00000d","seq":1,"position":1,"parentId":"3ea741b7f1ebfbdd5f000012","content":"Notes"}],"tree":{"_id":"3ea73aaef1ebfbdd5f00000d","name":"Drwd","publicUrl":"drwd"}}