Jourd’Muerta, 5th Trinnia
It was a loud booming sound that woke the tavernkeeper from her sleep. It shook the very walls of the tavern, and she fell out of bed still half in dreams.
Is the very earth shaking? she thought, rising and stumbling across her room to the hidden ladder that led to the roof of the tavern. Still in the peplos she’d worn the day before, for she’d collapsed, exhausted, in her bed without bothering to change at a quarter to midnight, she slipped and fell against the ladder, banging her shin.
Cursing as she reached the roof, she gazed upon her city, trying to locate what had befallen it.
Atherton was in flames. There, at the South Gate – there was no more gate, and the walls beside it had crumbled and been destroyed. Along the top of the wall that enclosed the city sentries ran, shouting, crossbows at the ready. She watched a man running to the West Gate, and a few moments later the alarm bell rang. The sound of fighting and the smell of burning flesh reached her ears and nose.
She covered her face with the sleeve of her peplos and hurried back into the tavern, moving quicker than a cat now. She rushed through the building and woke her patrons and employees.
Blearily Patrick, the boy she’d taken on to help her when Ghia had left, asked what the noise and fuss was about.
“We’re under attack – get the patrons to the hidden room. I’ll join you soon.” Patrick stared at her in shock, but before she could shake him from it one of her patrons grabbed him by the arm. She didn’t know the customer’s name – he was an old tar who’d stayed at her tavern for nigh on a month now.
“Cannae ye see we’re in danger, son? Heed the dama’s words,” the man said, and led Patrick off to get the rest of the patrons to safety.
Kasandra could have kissed him, but she had other things to think of. She changed into her more sensible breeches and jerkin with a speed that would have impressed a bellica and stamped on her boots hurriedly. She’d tie them properly later. From the hidden compartment in her wall she grabbed her crossbow and bolts and slung them over her shoulder. Into a rucksack she packed the books her family had been entrusted with for generations and a few other family heirlooms. She could hear the sounds of fighting getting closer as she ran down the stairs and down into the cellar. There was no time to bolt the door – and it wouldn’t matter anyway.
In the cellar she noticed the trap door closed, but the stone still beside it. Quickly she righted it and then moved to stand in the shadow under the stairs, her crossbow at the ready.
It was not long before she heard the sound of her door being broken down and heavy booted feet running through the tavern. They receded, going upstairs. She stood still and waited. A few minutes passed, then she heard them come back downstairs and travel over the taproom slowly, inspecting. They came behind the bar; she heard them go into the kitchen. She didn’t move. They came to the cellar door and kicked it open. Dust and light flew into the room and settled. Kasandra watched booted feet come down the stairs, a quiet deliberation in the steps.
When the feet reached the bottom and stepped to the side she could see they belonged to a man – young, as she judged such things – in a soldier’s grey and brown rags. He was tall as she, with a permanent sneer to his face as he surveyed the cellar. His eyes inspected the floor carefully, and when he didn’t see the trapdoor Kasandra silently let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. He moved to the shelves then and started shoving off her jars of preserves and sundries with such carelessness she winced. The light from upstairs glinted off the two, long, curved blades he wore at his belt.
Kasandra held the crossbow at her gut, barely daring to breathe. The man finished his inspection that yielded nothing, then turned his attention to under the stairs, eyes narrowing. As he stalked menacingly towards where she hid, she saw he wore a soldier’s jacket with a strange insignia on it that she couldn’t place, though it was hauntingly familiar. A dagger and rose motif?
He stopped at the edge of the darkness and glared into it, and Kasandra feared he might come in. Instead he drew one of his blades and held it just to the side. Gripped in fear, she desperately wanted to close her eyes, but knew it would not make him go away. Instead she forced her orbs to stay on him as he slowly raised the blade up, through the darkness she was standing in.
The edge of the cutlass passed beside the crossbow she held, and she was sure it was only a hairsbreadth away. Up, up, up it traveled until he stopped, the point of the blade not an inch from her eye.
Kasandra moved her finger over the trigger.
The man made no change to his facial expression. I know he knows, he can hear my heart beating. I’m sure of it! – but took a step back, drawing his blade arm back to make a quick thrust.
“Jason!” a yell came down the stairs and the man jumped, almost dropping his blade.
“What?” he roared, his hand shaking, making the light dance on the the metal of his cutlass.
“His Lordship wants to know if you’re done sticking your dick in the preserve jars,” the voice said with a crude laugh.
Jason snarled and sheathed his sword, glaring at the cellar that held naught to his eyes but broken glass and sticky foodstuffs pasting themselves to the stone. His eyes flickered up the stairs, hatred dancing in them. “Asshole,” he muttered, then – with one last glare at the cellar – pounded up the wooden slats angrily, shaking dust onto the shaking tavernkeeper who hid in the shadows.
Only when the footsteps receded completely did Kasandra dare to breathe deeply again and slide her finger off the trigger of her crossbow. In another few minutes, she could will herself to move, shaking the fear from her limbs with effort. She disarmed the weapon she held and swung it back over her shoulders, then moved forward to the trapdoor.
There was a trick to getting it to swing down, which she’d not yet taught to Patrick. She moved it down now, and – with a last, sad look at her destroyed food stores – moved down the ladder that resided under the door. When she was sticking halfway out of the hole still, she pulled the stone close to her. A few steps more down and she could fit it back in place above her, then close and lock the trapdoor from the inside.
It was pitch dark under the cellar. Gingerly she tested the ground with her feet; when she was satisfied she’d safely navigated the ladder, she turned and moved down the passageway, hand trailing against the rough wall.
Where the passage joined the sewers there was some small amount of light, for there were torches spaced far apart. She saw Patrick and the patrons from her tavern waited there for her, families huddled together for warmth and comfort.
The man who had helped Patrick clear the tavern waited stoically beside the shivering boy, looking down the passage for her return. When she stepped into the bit of light he nodded at her respectfully.
“Glad ta see ye live, Dama.”
“So am I,” she said a bit shakily.
He extended a scarred arm and his hand. “Dagon. Formerly o’ a Harbourtown merc ship under Cap’n Meriweather, and then Bellica Anala’s Honour Guard fer a short while.”
She shook his hand gratefully. “Wish you’d told me that before. I would have recruited you up there.” She laughed, but it was too shrill, too manic. She stopped abruptly.
“Fer which I apologise. Can ye tell me a mite about the invaders?” His eyes held a wary compassion. Briefly Kasandra explained the soldier’s dress and two blades to the sailor, who only nodded, looking grim. “It’d be as I thought, then.” Before he could finish another patron cut in, voice shrill.
“As you thought? When were you going to tell us? Who’s invading us?” The woman had a small child with her, her daughter, who clung to her mother’s pants, looking scared.
“Mt. Voco’d be,” Dagon said, his voice quiet.
This did not calm the woman, and though Kasandra felt fear settle into her stomach she worked hard to keep everyone calm, telling them they were safe now.
“Safe! Lord Exsil Vis will find us down here sooner or later,” a man shouted, and panic nearly broke out.
“No,” Kasandra said, and it was only when they all quieted that she realised she’d shouted. “No,” she said a bit quieter. “I have a safe place to take us. Follow me.”
Patrick, coming out of his shock, assured them that she told the truth, and reluctantly they followed her as she took off down the sewers, navigating the road she knew so well.
She went to call in a favour with the Queen of Thieves.