The Smugglers' Journal – Chapter 6

"Whoa… Friends…"

"Quiet!"

"Hey, what –"

"Shut your maul. Das hurt nichts!"

Yan tried to raise his axe. Three crossbows swung round to face him.

"Put it down, dämlack."

"Sigmar bewahren sie uns! Do what they say!" said Jakob, trembling badly.

Yan stared at the weapons. His people did not use bows for hunting or war. He had never seen one used. But he had heard stories from the old men of the tribe. And he had seen the scars these weapons could leave. Very slowly, Yan placed the axe on the ground.

"Up gegen die wand"

Yan didn't understand. He turned to Jakob for an explanation. The young man, normally pale, was now an unpleasant green. He was shaking badly.

"D-didn't you understand?" he asked in a low voice "Get up gegen die wand!"

"Hey! Sind sie zuhörend?"

One of the men waved his crossbow under Yan's nose. Jakob began talking very fast, using many words that Yan did not understand. After a moment's thought, the man with the crossbow stepped back. Jakob took Yan by the shoulders and turned him to face him.

"Listen!" he said in a loud, clear voice

"You"

He pointed to Yan.

"Go"

He pointed over to the other side of the yard.

"Stand – By – The - Wand"

"What?" said Yan.

"Wand…" Jakob clicked his fingers "Err… Strong… Ziegelstein… Side… House?"

"Vaegg?" suggested Yan.

"Yes! Vaegg! Wall!" said Jakob pointing frantically at the opposite side of the yard.

As he crossed the yard Yan glanced round, taking in everything, searching for anything he could use. The yard was cobblestone, surrounded on four sides by high brick walls. The roof was slate. There were windows on the second and first floors and two doors. An archway on the opposite side of the yard led out into the road. The gate was closed.

It had been late when they had entered this village (it had a Southern name that Yan could not pronounce). Yan had wanted to pass through. He had been anxious to press on, with the Southerner city not ten miles to the west. Besides, he did not feel comfortable with sleeping in a southern bed. But Jakob had insisted that they stop. For some reason that Yan still could not understand, the Southerner disliked sleeping in the open and had spent the last week complaining loudly about it. Besides that, they were both concerned for Franz. He had been looking worse and worse as they travelled south.

The gate of the coaching inn, the only one in the village, had been opened by two men. Too late had Yan noticed the figures crouched in the shadows beneath the archway.

There were six in all. They were Southeners, like Jakob.

"They are too scrawny to be warriors" Yan thought "But they use bows, like cowards, and that makes them dangerous."

Their attire was plain and travel worn. The two who had opened the gate wore broad brimmed hats, pulled low to conceal their faces. As well as a crossbow, each one carried a short, straight-bladed sword at his belt.

Yan was now standing against the north wall of the yard, Jakob on his right and Franz at the end. Jakob was obviously trying to control his shaking limbs. But it was Franz who was drawing the most attention. Bent nearly double at the waist, hands clutched to his temples, he was groaning as if wounded.

"What's wrong with him?" one of the men asked Jakob. He was a half-starved creature with a forked beard and one ear. Jakob shook his head and began talking to the man very fast, using many Reik words that Yan could not understand. The one-eared man shrugged and began questioning Jakob. Yan caught the words 'book' and 'hurt'. Jakob shook his head. He seemed to be protesting very strongly.

"What they want?" Yan asked Jakob.

"They want the book" Jakob replied under his breath "They say they won't hurt us if we give it to them."

"They work for smugglers?" asked Yan. Jakob turned a deeper shade of green.

"Shhh!" he hissed. The one-eared man gave a wicked grin and pushed his crossbow against Jakob's chest.

"So! Don't know nothin' about it, eh?" he said with a broken-toothed leer.

"You know," he continued "I denken I should kill you and take it sowieso"

Yan bridled at the threat. He made to move towards the one-eared man, but was blocked by another man with a crossbow.

It was at this moment that the chimney exploded.

Bricks showered the yard. Some of the men screamed and ran for cover in the archway. Yan glanced up. Thick, purple clouds were gathering above the inn. Thin streaks of lightning danced in the folds of cloud.

Franz was now on his knees, his groans turning to screams of pain. The one-eared man turned from Jakob and tried to drag Franz upright. With a throat-tearing cry, Franz threw his arms out to protect himself and incinerated the one-eared man. The blast of fire rolled across the yard like an avalanche. It engulfed two of the men and forced the remaining three to leap aside.

"He-e-e-lp!" screeched Franz, turning to Jakob. Smoke was pouring from the sleeves of his smock. Little red-eyed faces leered out of the smoke, cackling in voices Yan couldn't hear.

"What? What do you want?" shouted Jakob, backing away across the yard.

"'Root! Give… give me the 'root!"

Jakob tore open his doublet and cast the oilskin package at the wizard's feet. Franz dropped down, ripped it open and crammed the wyrdroot into his mouth with both hands. As he curled up into a foetal position on the cobbles, the purple clouds rolled away. The smoke evaporated. The faces vanished. It had all happened in less than thirty seconds.

Yan scanned the yard again. There was no trace of the one-eared man. Two of his companions were blackened corpses, while the remaining three were just regaining their feet.

Stepping easily through the rubble of the chimney pot that now covered the yard, Yan scooped up his two-handed axe and made for the closest man. The man turned too late, his crossbow hanging limp from one hand. Yan stepped past the man, fetching him a heavy blow to the head with the butt of his axe as he went.

The second man, near the centre of the yard, had accidentally fired his crossbow in the act of diving for cover and was now forced to draw his short sword. Yan, knowing that to swing and miss against such an opponent was fatal, instead used his axe like a quarterstaff and used his superior size to throw his opponent to the floor.

He had just raised the axe for the killing blow, when he heard Jacob's shout. A third man had emerged from the archway, a loaded crossbow in his hand. It was too late for Yan to dodge. The crossbowmen had just sighted along his weapon when Jakob hurled a lump of brick at him. His aim was poor and he only struck the man's ankle, but it was enough to upset his aim. The bolt shot past Yan's left ear and clattered off the stone wall ahead of him. The man cursed and rounded on Jakob, his sword already in his hand. Jakob, using the wall beside him as a prop, staggered to his feet and drew his cutlass.

Yan would have quite liked to watch the Southerner fight, but he had his own battle to fight. The first man was nearly on his feet, and the second was in the act of crawling away to retrieve his sword. Yan stepped forward and delivered a sharp kick to the second man's ribs. There was a satisfying 'crack' of breaking ribs and the man rolled onto his back. Yan, placing one foot on the man's chest to keep him still, brought the axe down to sever his head from his body. The first man was now on his feet, his sword drawn. Yan's blow had shaken him so badly that his first thrust went so wildly astray than Yan simply stepped round him. He then proceeded to sever the man's collarbone right down to his belt with one neat cut.

Only Jakob's man now remained. Yan turned to watch the Southerner with the critical eye of an expert. He found that Jakob fought surprisingly well for such a stringy young man. His footwork in particular was impressive; avoiding all the rubble, which consistently unbalanced his opponent. The scholar deflected his opponent's blows well enough, but appeared unwilling or unable to press any kind of offence. The only way Jakob was likely to win, Yan realised, was if his opponent dropped dead of boredom.

Yan stepped forward to intervene. The man panicked, unsure of how to tackle two foes at once. In his panic he let his guard down and Jakob, thrashing blindly at him, caught him across the face with the flat of his cutlass. The man dropped his sword and fell back against the wall. Yan's first blow with the butt of the axe brought him to his knees. The second, to the back of the head, broke his neck.

"T-thanks." Jakob panted between breaths, slipping his cutlass back into his belt.

Yan ignored the thanks and turned to survey the carnage. One of the attackers had disappeared completely and two were little more than blackened corpses. Three more corpses lay scattered across the courtyard in pools of their own gore.

A brief flicker of white caught Yan's eye on the assailant whom he had cut in half. Giving the mutilated man a cursory glance Yan noticed that the flicker of white was not part of the mans attire.

"Hey, are you listening to me?" again, Jakob called out. Again, Yan ignored him.

Closing on the corpse, Yan gave a sharp tug on the white material and to his surprise; it came away with a slight 'sucking' sound. It was a piece of parchment badly stained with blood.

"What is it?" Jakob said as he peered over the Norscan's broad shoulder.

Yan thrust the piece of parchment at the scholar. "Read."

Jakob took one look at the bloodied parchment in the Norscan's hand and shook his head vigorously. "No way, I'm not touching that! Why don't you read it?"

Yan gave Jakob a flat stare.

The scholar mouthed a silent 'oh' and took the parchment from Yan, being careful to avoid the blooded areas, and preceded to read aloud:

"… Burghomeisters of Marienburg will pay a sum of no less than 1,000 gold crowns for the recovery of the Log Book for the vessel The Swallow"

"That the book you carry, no?" said Yan.

"Well… yes" said Jakob, slowly "But… why? What's in this book that's so valuable?"

Yan shrugged. Jakob had tried to explain the Southerners' laws to him, but he had quickly become lost. Norscan law was based on custom and the will of the chief. The only trial Yan knew of was a 'trial by combat'. The only evidence a man needed was a strong arm and a will to use it.

"Whoa… what happened here?"

Yan and Jakob turned round. Franz was gazing at the courtyard with a perplexed expression.

"Eww" he said, dipping his toe in a pool of blood "Y'know friends, you really should just pay the bill the next time"

"Shut up" snapped Jakob. He was now gingerly trying to wipe the blood off the rest of the parchment. Unfortunately the blood had weakened parchment and it tore.

"Brilliant(!)" said Jakob bitterly, stuffing the surviving parchment into his bag "What am I going to do now?"

"They offer… gold for book?" asked Yan, his brow furrowed.

"Yes. That's what the notice said," said Jakob.

"Well… why not give them book and get gold?"

"Because… it doesn't make sense," said Jakob. Yan shrugged. This Southerner always tried to make things more complicated than they needed to be.

"What sense to make? They want book. We have book. They no smugglers. Simple"

"Alright… but I'm still not sure," Jakob said cautiously.

X X X X X X X X X X X X

The city of Marienburg is perhaps the safest city in the Old World. Its natural defences present an even greater obstacle than the towering cliffs of Middenheim. Bordered to the north by the sea, she is surrounded on three sides by the Cursed Marshes. These vast, fog-choked wetlands make a landward invasion near impossible. The only safe passage across the Marshes is on a great causeway running east to west, across the Marshes and straight through the city. Built during the golden age of dwarf craftsmanship, it is a feat of engineering unparalleled in the world of men. Raised on a bank of earth and stone, it carries the road above the choking vapours of the Marshes and safely into Marienburg. In its day it would have been flagged with white stone and lined with statues of exquisite beauty. But those days are long gone. The road is now cracked and overgrown. The few statues that remain lie forgotten by the roadside.

Travellers on the Middenheim Road, running west into Marienburg, are rare. The Cursed Marshes are well named. People are likely to go miles out of their way to catch a riverboat north, rather than risk crossing the causeway. Only the brave, the poor or the desperate take that road.

Jakob definitely fell into the third category. He wasn't afraid of what lurked in the fog beyond the roadside; all his terror was reserved for the threadbare wizard ambling along beside him. The knowledge that the sleepy young man could unleash such power was unnerving, to say the least. Even though nothing even remotely strange had happened since they left the inn the previous night, Jakob was still on edge. To his immense irritation, Yan seemed perfectly unconcerned about either the wizard or the bounty hunters. He just strode on, staring straight ahead with a purposeful look on his face.

"It's alright for him" Jakob grumbled to himself "He's a 'heap big mighty warrior'. He's probably used to this sort of thing. The sooner I get rid of this poxy book and back to my research the better."

"What?" said Yan, looking round.

"Nothing" Jakob snapped, not turning to look at the Norscan.

They met few travellers on the road. They were mainly hardy types from the Wasteland; trappers, peddlers and the like. Jacob went cold every time they passed someone. Visions of crossbows and hidden daggers loomed large in his mind's eye. Yan didn't seem to notice them. Franz waved, smiling vaguely. Nobody responded.

They reached the Westenpoort Gate early in the afternoon, having stopped for a brief rest a few miles from the city. Partly because of Marienburg's superb location and partly because of their own greed, the ruling Council of Burghomeisters spend very little on maintaining the city's defenses. The brown stone walls of the city are in a poor state. Whole areas of the battlements have crumbled away, to be replaced with ramshackle wooden constructs that shake violently in the wind and frequently collapse.

When the three travellers arrived, they found the Westenpoort Gate open and flanked by two militiamen. Despite their neglect of the walls, the Burghomeisters take especial care that the city militia, who serve as watchmen, soldiers and personal bodyguard, are well equipped. These two were no exception, looking splendid in their gleaming breastplates and green and black tunics. The halberds at their side looked sharp and well used. The militiaman on Jakob's left stepped forward and lowered his halberd at the approaching travellers.

"State your business," he said in a rather bored voice.

"I'm… we're here to see the city council" Jakob said. The militiaman was looking at him very strangely all of a sudden. Behind him, his companion had disappeared through the Westenpoort Gate.

"I'm afraid you'll have to… wait here," said the militiaman. He seemed decidedly uneasy now.

"What happen?" asked Yan. The Norscan was staring at the tip of the militiaman's halberd as if it had personally offended him.

"He says we have to wait here" said Jacob in the slow, deliberate voice he used when talking to Yan.

"Why?"

"Because he's the one with the halberd"

"I have axe"

"He has lots of halberds," said Jakob, looking over the militiaman's shoulder. The militiaman's companion had returned with a patrol of two dozen halberdiers. At their head was an officer. He had gold trim on his breastplate and a green plume on his helmet.

"Are you Jakob Brustgewicht?" he asked.

"I… am" said Jakob, uneasily. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Yan's grip tightening on the axe.

"In that case, I arrest you in the name of the Council of Burghomeisters" the officer said. He made a sign and six halbediers stepped forward to restrain the travellers.

"Arrest?!" shouted Jakob as the two halbediers seized his arms "Why? What have I done?!"

The officer reached inside his tunic and produced a notice. It was a complete copy of the one Yan had taken from the bounty hunter's body. It read:

"Let it be know that The Council of Burghomeisters of Marienburg will pay a sum of no less than 1,000 Gold Crowns for the recovery of the Log Book for the vessel The Swallow and a further 500 Gold Crowns for the capture of the thieves Jackob Brustgewicht of Altdorf and the Northman Yan, Dead or Alive."