Rutger the talespinner sat hunched on a filthy scrap of cloth in the meager shadow of an abandoned shanty that leaned at a frightening angle. The hovel’s list created the only shade to be found at noon in Indiss, and in the month of Sunharrow, the height of summer, a shred of shadow in Indiss was more precious than anything.
Except ale. Rutger’s throat felt rough; he was parched. So when the gang of young toughs (at least, they thought they were) came swaggering along, Rutger extended a hand, rasping, “Copper…copper…a few coins for an old man…” The gang stopped, and the leader, a pale-faced wag whose voice had barely dropped, smirked at him.
“Sure, old man, we got coppers for ya. But you have to work for em.”
“Yeah!” piped in a scrawny girl with filthy red hair. “We want a story!”
Rutger sighed. “Alright, alright.” He swallowed a few times to wet his parched throat. “Hunker down about me and you’ll get your story. I’ll tell you about the old times, when the Devilkin ruled this land and fought the Scathelings until they had all killed each other and only the good folk of Pelor were…”
The lead boy spit. “Boring. We’ve heard that one a thousand times.” He’d produced a shiny pair of copper Sheafs, no doubt filched from a rich merchant’s purse last evening, and was dancing them across the backs of his knuckles. Rutger swallowed – he could almost taste the bitter ale waiting for him in Tarkwel’s Taphouse. He needed those Sheafs.
“Okay, then,” he began again. “You want excitement? Tales of adventure and death?”
The youths nodded, leaned in close.
“Then I’ll tell ye about the War of the Seven Cowls. About the Faceless Lady, who could be anywhere, anyone; and about the Ebon Cowl, the only one known to have thwarted her and lived.”
His audience glanced about nervously at the mention of the Lady. He had them now. He might even get a silver Crescent out of this, if one of them had one to give.
“It was 21, no, 22 years ago that the future Queen and her companions returned Prince Benedict from his long exile. In those days, there was only one Guild that mattered here in Indiss – the Seven Cowls. They were assassins, but they also dabbled in…well, everything! Their hands reached even into the shining palaces of Pelaurios. It was no coincidence that the capital had no Guild of its own. The Cowls were crime in the Sunlands.”
Rutger sighed, his rheumy eyes far away. "I was a Bravo with the Guild in those days. I had women and jewels; I drank the best wines out of golden cups. " Oblivious to the snickers of his audience, the old talespinner continued. "But then the Legion arose in Pelaurios. It was in the year that Benedict inherited the throne from old Angrohans. They drove our agents out of the capital and hunted any who practiced the assassin’s art to death. Whoever she was, their leader hated hired killers.
“And her! Rumors swirled around her. She was said to have no face by some who had met her. Others claimed she was the Queen in disguise, or the Queen’s half-elf compatriot using powerful sorcery to hide her identity. It really doesn’t matter. Once her Legion had a stranglehold on crime in the capital, they came at the Cowls.
Rutger paused in his telling, his throat suddenly dry again. How to tell them that he had seen her? Or at least, he thought he had, that the strange creature who came for the Azure Cowl that awful night had to have been her, for even through the smoke and the flames, he could not possibly have imagined the melting, the awful swirling, of her facial features…and what had been a rather plain human woman was suddenly Otiere, the Azure’s favored concubine. He dropped his knives then, fled the burning mansion and took shelter in a bottle of liquor and the anonymity of a storytelling beggar’s life. But sometimes, he wondered when – not if, but when – she would come for him.
“Forget it, Utred,” the scrawny girl whined, tugging at the leader’s sleeve. “He’s forgotten where he is, the old drunk!”
“Leave off, Brida. Hey, Talespinner! I want to hear the rest!”
“Eh? The Cowls! Yes, they came for the Cowls. It was nine or ten years ago when they found the Argent Cowl, all purple and swollen from the poison that he’d been fed. He was a poisoner, you see, but nobody made that connection then. We just figured a rival had done for him – it wouldn’t have been the first time something like that happened. But even before an heir could take up the Argent, just days later, the Scarlet Cowl was stabbed to death in broad daylight by a score of swirling, flying blades that dropped lifeless to the dirt along with her – and she was the best knife-fighter anywhere .
“Now, some of us figured it was one of the Cowls angling for supremacy, but me, I had a hunch it was something else. So, when we caught some Halfling creeping about in the Azure Cowl’s big house, we figured we’d put the screws to him and get the knowledge out of his head.” Rutger hung his head. “But we didn’t get a damned thing. He wouldn’t talk…and me and the boys were pretty rough on him. He died before dawn. After that, it was as if war had been declared. There were ambushes, fires, knifings, poison, strange sorcery…Why, my pal Ulrich got killed by some creepy elf who pulled his nightmares right out of his head and showed them to him. He shrieked like all the Devils of all the Hells had their claws in him and dropped stone dead. The sight of it turned my hair white.”
“What did they look like? The nightmares,” a tiny lad with sunken eyes squeaked.
Rutger gulped. "I can’t rightly say. But I remember, they had…they had…
“They had teeth.”
The Sheafs weren’t dancing on Utred’s fingers anymore. Like the rest of his gang, he was leaning in to hear every word, his hands clenched into excited, meaty fists.
“But the worst came three nights later. I was part of the Azure’s crew, a firebug. We killed however we wanted, but we burned the evidence afterward. It was his trademark. Anyhow, we woke that night to the smell of smoke and the sound of screams and splintering wood and roaring flames. Everything was a nightmare of chaos and death. I tried to find the Cowl, but I was, well, I was prevented.”
“By what?” Brida whispered.
“By her. By the Faceless Lady. She had come, I think, to avenge her friend, the Halfling we’d killed. And avenge him she did. The Azure Cowl burned that night, as did most of his crew. The rest of us, the handful that survived, fled into the night and never looked back.”
Utred snorted. “You never saw the Lady. You’re a liar and a drunken old fool.” He tossed the Sheafs into the dirt. “Come on, let’s get out of here before we catch his stink from him.”
Rutger scowled after them, but he scrabbled quickly after the copper coins and began to haul himself to his feet.
“What about the Ebon Cowl?”
The talespinner turned suddenly. “Eh? What do you want?”
It was Brida, the filthy red-haired girl. “You said you would tell us about the Ebon Cowl. I want to hear.”
Rutger nodded slowly. “He thwarted her, you see. She came for him, with all of her resources, all of her power…and he escaped. The Lady lost a lot of her people that night, and the Ebon, he got away. And he’s still out there, somewhere in the city, with his most loyal lieutenants around him, watching and waiting. When the time is right, he’ll step from the shadows and rebuild the Guild, and crush the upstart Legion in Pelaurios, and all of this street warfare and random murder will finally stop. He’ll bring order back to Indiss.”
Brida smiled. “Thank you for the story. Here,” she fished in a hidden pouch and pulled a tarnished silver Crescent, handed it to him.
Rutger reached for it, then, “no,” he said, shaking his head firmly. “You get yourself a bath and some clean clothes with that. You need it more than I do.”
She clutched it close, nodded brusquely, and scampered off. Rutger watched her until she disappeared down a narrow alleyway. She would make a fine storyteller someday. If she managed to survive childhood on the streets of Indiss.
Turning slowly, the talespinner set out for Tarkwel’s, already tasting the bitter ale. It would be a good day, after all.