You’d think I would know better. After all, I’m no greenhorn, fresh from some Deepwoods thicket. I was brought up in the hovels of Hive, where I needed eyes in the back of my head, and later in the Hive Militia, I fought alongside some of the roughest cut-throats and brigands you could wish to meet. Which makes it all the more painful to confess what happened to me on board the sky tavern, Varis Lodd.
I suppose it’s what comes of spending so long in a peaceful backwater like the Farrow Lake. Life there is tough, but we settlers look out for one another, and cheats and scoundrels are soon unmasked. It’s why I love it there. And it’s why I’m heading for Great Glade now, seeking military help against the mire-prealers, so our idyllic haven might be preserved.
But the years spent among good honest folk meant that I dropped my guard, and now the whole venture might fail. If it does, how can I face the Roost Marshal, or Alcestia, or Forden, or any of the others who put their trust in me again?
I’m fairly moderate by nature. I like a tot of woodgrog, but I hold it well, and I’m not a brawler… My one weakness is gambling. And in particular, carrillon.
Carillon’s a bit like splinters. You collect pairs or runs of numbered chips. The difference is that betted money is placed on one side of a set of scales against a stakeweight. When the coins outbalance the weight, the scales tip and a bell rings. Then the game stops and the players have to show their hands. It’s a game of skill and judgement, and the excitement that builds up as the stake increases, getting closer and closer to tipping point. I love this game, and lost many a week’s wages in the gambling dens of Hive in the old days…
Anyway, for the first three days of our trip, I kept away from the gambling tavern. Then, to my shame, on the fourth day, when we were within spitting distance of Great Glade, the temptation proved too much. While Luggins and Threnodesse went for their evening meal, I snuck off to the tavern in the depths of the mighty skyship.
From the moment I took my seat at the carrillon table, everything went my way. I’d never had such luck. I doubled my initial stake, then doubled it again. By the time I left, I had more than ten times the amount I’d started out with. My new found wealth made me walk tall. It also made me a target for the flight thieves.
Every sky tavern has them. Ruffians and cut-throats they are, who sneak aboard, and rob and fleece hapless gamblers who win big at the tables and attract their attention. And I must admit, heady with my success, I let down my guard.
Walking along the lower deck back to our small cabin, I paused to take in the moonlit view. We’d passed over Hive the previous day, and I knew we must be close to the Midwood Marshes. My head was spinning with memories of the battle I had fought in, down there so long ago, when all at once there was an arm round my neck, a blade at my throat, and a gruff voice growling in my ear.
‘Hand it over. All of it. And don’t try nuffin’ stupid.’ I felt the rail press into my back. ‘One false move and there could be a nasty accident. Understand?’
Oh, I understood all right. This brigand was about to cut my throat, and if that happened, the delegation to the Great Glade council would fail. That’s why, despite the flathead’s warning, I did try something…
I elbowed him hard in the gut, twisting my head away from the blade of the knife as I did so. I spun round and, raising one bunched fist protectively, punched him hard in the face with the other. It was then that I saw he was not alone. He had two accomplices – grubby-looking flathead goblins in shabby rain cloaks and battered hats.
The one I’d punched rubbed his cheek and grinned toothlessly. The next moment, all three attacked. Two seized my arms and twisted them behind my back, then the first one thumped me once, twice, three times in the stomach. I’d have collapsed if I wasn’t being held up. Then they grabbed me, hoiked me upside down and began shaking me hard. My winnings jangled down onto the deck, dozens of gold coins. When the jangling stopped, I waited to be dropped. Instead, they hefted me towards the balustrade.
My heart hammered. They’d got my money. Now they aimed to pitch me overboard, and there was nothing I could do to stop them. I’d failed. The mission had failed…
All at once, there was a colossal lurch and I was hurtling across the deck. I hit the boards hard, and looked up to see the massive brogtroll, Luggins, with his meaty hands gripped round the necks of two of my attackers. With a loud grunt, he slammed their heads together. There was a crack and a crunch, and they collapsed in a heap. At the same moment, Threnodesse stepped from the shadows. Her heavy staff came down hard on the third flathead’s skull, and he collapsed on top of the others.
‘I… I…’ I blustered, climbing to my feet. ‘It…’
You don’t need to explain, Hedgethorn, came Threnodesse’s calm voice inside my head. We’re here to see that you reach Great Glade safely.
‘Let’s get rid of these bodies,’ Luggins grunted, and proceeded to drag two of the unconscious goblins along the deck by their collars. And while the waif collected up my winnings, I dragged the third one after him. We came to the row of viewing-baskets and Luggins chucked the flatheads unceremoniously inside. Then, seizing the rope, he winched the basket down towards the forest below. When the rope came to an end, he drew his knife and cut it, and I heard the basket drop down into the trees. ‘They’re gonna wake up with mighty sore heads!’ Luggins said, and chuckled.
I nodded gravely. Thanks to him and Threnodesse, our mission was still on track. What I didn’t know then, was that Quove Lentis – the shiftless High Professor of Flight – would pose a far greater threat to our success than any sky tavern thief, and I would need to take the biggest gamble of my life…