Fantasy Fiction posted June 8, 2021 Chapters:  ...47 48 -49- 50... 


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The Stoneseekers Discover the Gitano Crimeboss

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

A Gruesome Development

by duaneculbertson


A narrow passage lay behind the area where the guards had been. The route looked as if it had been hammered through the rock. No taller than the height of a man. Wolf pushed past, turning his body sideways, the cramped confines difficult to negotiate in places. The meandering path went on for about thirty feet or so. One by one, the others followed Wolf’s example. Demelza held back, electing to go last.

On the other side, Wolf offered his hand to each as they emerged from the passage. Virriel and Sigfried were the thinnest and moved without difficulty. Ketri and Ralf struggled in places. Wolf helped all four Stoneseekers through the opening, then waited. And waited. And waited. He furrowed his brow, his face adopting a look of concern.

                “Dem, what’s the hold up?” he asked.

                “I don’t think I can do this,” she called, a wavering quality entering her voice.

                “Of course, you can, Dem. The others made it.”

                “The others aren’t as wide as me.”

                “Look, it’s not more than a few yards. The passage is not straight, but it’s not difficult. You can do it.” He heard the grinding of metal on rock as she moved forward. Then nothing.

                “I’m stuck,” the dwarf cried. He could hear her grunting and panting. “I can’t move!" she yelled. "Wolf, I can’t move!” Panic crept into her voice.

                “You’re going to be fine, Dem. The rock’s soft; it will yield to you. And if it doesn’t, the rock still cleaves easily. Look, just stay calm. I’m coming to you.” Wolf moved four paces into the tunnel and turned a corner. He saw where she was trapped, her breastplate wedged between two rocks.

                “Help me!” she screamed. “I need to get out now!”

                “Stay calm. Focus on your breathing. Take deep, regular breaths. In … and out. Breathe with me.” Wolf walked her through some simple breathing exercises. Meanwhile, he grabbed hold of her padded blue gambeson beneath her chain mail tunic.

               "Seyd’sbeard! With all this armor, girl, it's no wonder you can't move -- you weigh as much as a moose!” The comment was meant as a joke, but he saw only fear in her eyes. In fact, her eyes had dilated to such an extent that he could no longer tell what color they were. It made him sad. He knew she was barely keeping herself together, balancing on a knife’s edge between composure and madness.


Wolf pulled with all his might. A grating sound filled the air as she came barreling into him, knocking him over and landing on top of him. Once again the two were face to face like they were the other morning.

                “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Wolf jested.

Demelza swallowed hard. She rose to her feet, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. Then she abruptly pulled away and did not make eye contact. “Thank you,” she grumbled. “Sorry for slowing us down.”

               "You, You did nothing of the sort," Wolf stammered. "No appology necessary."


Sigfried grinned from around the corner. It was unclear how long he had been watching. “If you two are done ‘getting acquainted’ perhaps you could join us. There’s something interesting I want to show you."

Demelza followed the boy out of the passage, but Wolf remained a moment longer to reflect upon what had just occurred. His lips still burned where she had kissed him, her kiss communicating a confusing tangle of emotions, expressed all at once. Wolf felt mostly relief at having resolved the situation, but Demelza had left something with him as well, a passionate longing. She had managed to awaken something in his loins he had not expected, rekindling feelings he had worked so hard to suppress over the past year. Given his circumstances, he could do without such emotions. Images from his accidental viewing of Demelza’s naked body the other night came unbidden to torture his thoughts, and, in an ironic twist, he found himself taking deep breaths to calm himself.

Searching for an antidote to the lust poisoning his thoughts, he reached into his vest and withdrew the locket bearing Atelka’s picture. Opening it, he took a few moments to regard her pretty face, calming him considerably. He was about to return it to his pocket when he had a better idea. A fine silver chain looped through the locket; the delicate piece of jewelry was meant to be worn by a woman, but that did not matter; he tucked it beneath his shirt where no one would notice. The change in positioning of the charm made him feel better. He felt the precious relic against his skin and derived some comfort from its presence.

               “Wolf? Wolf are you there? What’s wrong?” It was Virriel.

               “Nothing. Just tying my boot,” he replied, pushing his way along the last stretch of the rock passage.


The Stoneseekers congregated atop an immense cavern. Light poured into the giant space from above, leading Wolf to hypothesize that they were inside a ceynote.


Sigfried pointed excitedly to Wolf who followed his line of sight. Below, dozens of people milled about, engaging in different activities. A large man stood amidst the action. Hands akimbo, he faced away, and Wolf imagined him to be the overseer. Large boulders obscured their position about a stone’s throw from the action. The dwarves were too short to see over the barrier. This annoyed Ketri who bristled with impatience, but Demelza seemed too distracted by her own thoughts to express any interest in what was happening.

                “What do you see?” Ketri hissed.

                “A loading area,” Wolf whispered.

                People hustled, walking to and fro. One man rolled a barrel up a plank to a raised platform, while another supervised from below. Goods sprouted from a storage hold. A block-and-tackle crane moved heavy items, while two men downstream tied up smaller  packages, making neat, easy-to-carry bundles.

                Sigfried peered over Wolf’s shoulder. “Looks like they’re moving.”

                “Yes,” Wolf agreed. “I don’t like it.” He could think of no logical reason for their behavior. The Gitano had just eliminated their most powerful rival. Why would they hasten their departure? ... Unless something had scared them. Wolf did not like that conclusion, and it did not bode well for their mission. A scared enemy was a dangerous enemy, and this development would only further complicate their recovery efforts.

            
Unexpectedly, the large man turned and beckoned to them. “You there! Come down! How many are you?” He addressed them in Vulgarate with a Romaanian accent.

Wolf froze, speechless. His brain raced for a possible explanation. He must be expecting some kind of local help, else he would have not addressed them in Vulgarate.

Sigfried arrived at the same conclusion. “He thinks we’re someone else. Mercenaries?”

“Laborers …” Wolf muttered. “He’s probably the head foreman, since no one else is taking notice of our sudden appearance.”

Wolf spoke calmly. “There are six of us. We’re here to help, but we’d like to speak with the Chief." Although projecting a sense of calm, his clenched fists betrayed his anxiety to the rest of the group. Regardless of the outcome of this conversation, Wolf's body prepared for battle.

                 “No one talks to the Chief!” the man bellowed. “The Chief will talk to you when and if he feels like it. Now get to work!” His tone suggested there would be no further discussion, so Wolf led his team down the hill to join the other workers. He found it strange that the overseer could ignore the obvious fact that he was looking at a group of well-armed mercenaries. Why would he mistake them for common laborers? Wolf even carried flecks of dried blood on his shirt.

The sense of urgency permeating the air and penetrating all it touched must be responsible. They were in the middle of something important, and, under these circumstances, the foreman saw only what he wanted to see: people who could help him complete his task and achieve his objectives.

Perhaps the guards had been told to expect laborers as well. The thought saddened him. If he had known this, those guards need not have died. Perhaps Virriel was right; there are alternatives if one has patience and time and knows where to look.


                Two old Romaanians looked up from packing a crate and smiled at them.

                “Lift goods from cellar with wench,” spoke the man in stilted Vulgarate.

                “Winch.” Sigfried corrected. “I mean, I suppose we could try using Ketri for this purpose, but I don’t think that would work too well."

Ralf howled at the joke, and Ketri’s eyes flashed fire. Fortunately, neither Ralf nor Sigfried were within her reach, as the dwarf stood on the far side of Wolf who provided an unintentional physical barrier.

                “Winch,” continued the man. “Pack crates. Push down ramp.”

                Wolf glanced into the cellar. It was now only half full, and he wondered how empty it had been at the start of the evening.

As they worked, Ralf explained what the men were doing.

               “This man is a forger. He weighs the contents of each crate before adding false documents and affixing the forged imperial seal. From my travels, I know a smattering of Romaanian. I overheard someone saying these goods have to be shipped out before dawn.”

               “What’s so special about dawn,” Demelza asked.

               “I dunno,” Ralf shrugged. “It’s just their timetable. Maybe they rented a boat.”

Wolf hammered nails into a crate before sliding it down to the next station. He noticed most boxes contained tobacco or wine, but he thought he could smell traces of opum buried deep within others. In his early days as a roadwarden, he targeted the opum trade specifically, and had acquired many skills. He learned to detect the drug in low concentrations, even when masked by stronger aromas. As he prepared the crates, he had to resist the urge to tear out the false bottoms and act upon his observations.

Old habits really are hard to break.

Wolf thought of the comment made earlier by both Ralf and Archenon. He had lost track of the time a while back. Was it a new day yet? He checked his chronometer, but discovered it had been broken earlier in the scuffle with the guards. The gears of the delicate timing mechanism had been warped. Wolf swore. It was a rare item; perhaps it could be repaired. Perhaps not. At least, Wolf knew it was late evening. The sun had set long ago, and the moonbeams were now acting almost like a second sun. Torches lined the walkways, but few people would need them to negotiate their way thanks to the moonlight illuminating the cenote.

The foreman swore at them for pausing in their labors, something he did often. He assaulted their ears with Romaanian curses, pacing back and forth all the while. Wolf looked at the other workers; none were motivated by the his abusive behavior. Ironically, the idiot’s actions led to an obvious decrease in productivity. And the two old Romaanians spat in the foreman’s direction, making eloquent hand gestures at him whenever he was not looking. Eventually, the foreman left to pursue other duties.

Sigfried shot Virriel and Wolf an exasperated look that seemed to say: “How long do we have to put up with this nonsense?” Wolf responded with some sententious piece of wisdom about patience, which the boy did his best to ignore.


Somewhere a bell sounded, and, like conditioned animals, the workers took their break. The Stoneseekers followed their lead. Wolf sat upon the crate he had been packing. The others sat upon the ground. A group of Romaanian men shared a bottle of brandy amongst themselves. They saw Sigfried watching and offered him a pass. The young man took a swig and smiled his thanks before returning the bottle. Wolf saw his face brighten, perhaps entertaining the idea that these people were not as bad as he’d once thought.

Wolf glanced around before attracting his team’s attention. He was nervous. He had no plan other than to search Antonio Gitano’s quarters. Maybe that’s all they needed at the moment.

Wolf guessed this rest break must be a long one, as the loading bay thinned considerably. Where previously a dozen Romaanians toiled, now only four remained.

                “It’s time to move,” Wolf said. “Remember to act like we belong here.”

                “We do belong here,” Sigfried quipped. “I expect to be paid!”

                “Me too!” chimed Ralf.

                 Wolf half smiled. “Follow me.”

They wandered through another clearing until reaching a large courtyard. In ages past, the locale teemed with valuable minerals. But the quarry had since been stripped bare. Now its only value lay in serving as a base of operations for a foreign gang. Moonlight penetrated in places, spilling in from natural sinkholes in the vaulted earth much like the cenote. Dozens of bracketed torches lined the cavern walls, augmenting the light from the moon.


A large building lay ahead. Long and rectangular, it had been crudely constructed, giving the impression of impermanence. Wolf thought it must be the housing for the workers. A small cottage crafted from finer materials stood on the right. It seemed like the kind of dwelling fit for an outlaw chief.

A massive man with rounded shoulders and an impassive expression stood with his back to a filigreed, oak door. He eyed the strangers.

                “This is what we’re looking for,” Wolf whispered. “I’ll do the talking.”      

When they were within a dozen paces, the man addressed them in Vulgarate. “What do you want?”

               “We wish to speak with the Chief,” Wolf replied in Romaanian.

               “Who are you?” asked the man, this time replying in his native language.

                "I am his cousin, Muerto. Announce me.” 

               “Antonio has no cousin, Muerto. And if he did, he would not look like you.”

The words alarmed Wolf, yet he kept his cool. 

               “I grew up in Provence. I’ve only seen him once when I was a boy. Please announce me, so that I may have the reunion the two of us have long discussed in our frequent correspondence."

Wolf bluffed the entire story, improvising as he went. His farce seemed to work. The large man appeared to consider Wolf’s story; however, he did not alter his posture any.

               “Antonio is occupied with important matters,” he replied. “Even if you are his cousin, I'm afraid you’ll have to wait. He gave me explicit orders to admit no one."

               “Perhaps this will change your mind,” Wolf said. He opened his hand to reveal a sesterce. The guard took the coin.

               "Perhaps it would, were it followed by another."

Wolf tossed him a second sesterce. "Wait here," grunted the large man. He turned and entered the cottage.

Wolf looked at his crew. They met his gaze with approving smiles. Virriel nodded. “Nice work,” she whispered.


A heartbeat later a blood-curdling cry of anguish shattered the silence. They all rushed into the cottage. A body lay near the entrance. Wolf jumped over it, but Demelza slipped in a pool of blood. The bodyguard was in the adjacent bedchamber, sobbing over the body of a large Romaanian whose silken finery was sopping with blood.

Antonio Gitano’s throat had been cut, the red gash becoming a second smile below his chin. Wolf found it visually ironic, almost as if the assassin had left the violation to express his contempt for the failed efforts of the bodyguard.

Wolf scanned the area. The bedsheets dripped blood, but some had already dried upon the floor – therefore the death was not recent. And with no signs of a struggle, he imagined the man had been killed while sleeping.


More disturbing than the death of the Romanian chief was the other corpse in the antechamber. Wolf returned from the bedroom to examine this body more carefully. He looked upon a thin, delicate man, well-dressed and of modest age.

               “His heart has been skillfully removed,” Wolf gasped. “I’ve seen this kind of thing before.” Beads of sweat gathered upon his brow. He needed fresh air. Before leaving, he turned and saw Ralf ransacking a desk. He nodded approvingly, though he feared the stone was taken by the person who committed these vile acts.

Wolf paced the length of the small porch in front of the house, fighting to master his emotions. This grim discovery reminded him of the mutilated corpses he had found while patrolling the roads of the Empire. Sometimes he would find them in gulches. Other times in swamps. Once, he even found one stashed in a tree. Always the bodies lacked major organs. He knew not if they were eaten or retained for some evil purpose. A shudder shook his frame. He was not sure if it was the horrible crime itself or its dark implications which filled him with the most dread. Of one thing he was certain: this mutilation was not natural - there was no way the terrible wound was the result of a simple murder.

A hand touched Wolf’s shoulder, making him jump. It was Virriel.

               “Beard of Seydor!” Wolf swore.

               “Why would anyone do that?” she asked.

               “I don’t know, Virriel,” Wolf replied, shaking his head sadly. “Must have taken a lot of work to remove the heart like that. Who would go to all that trouble, and why? The villain must have known what he was doing too, because  …” Wolf’s voice trailed off.

The cries of the bodyguard must have attracted the attention of the foreman. The implacable man had been making his rounds and now looked in their direction. He approached the two standing in front of the Chief’s cottage. Wolf tried to stall him, but he was having none of it. Donning an annoyed, perplexed expression upon his mean face, he growled and pushed past them to investigate.

Virriel looked at Wolf with fear in her eyes, but he had nothing to offer. He knew you couldn’t plan for every contingency. Sometimes you just had to let things happen then deal with the consequnces the best you can.

The foreman burst from the cottage. His screams tore through the nocturnal silence. He ran with wringing hands held high, his face a mask of pain and disbelief. Wolf dove at his legs, but the man broke free, resuming his panicked flight.

               “Help! Help! Antonio is dead! They have murdered him!”

Wolf and Virriel exchanged frightened glances.

               “Time to go," Wolf said.  

 


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