I couldn’t tell you what time it was when I woke up. The clock by the side of my bed had been busted for months. All I knew was, I felt like complete hell. My clothes were stuck to my body like a crust and when I sat up it was all I could do not to scream. It’d been a long time since I had the kind of money for doctor’s bills – and that hadn’t changed, even with expenses from House Amandil – so I staggered my way to the bathroom and started cleaning myself up as best I could. I had no new holes in me, far as I could tell, but a few of my ribs were probably cracked. That was no big deal: they’d heal up just fine so long as I didn’t make a habit of this kind of thing. Only problem was, I had a bad feeling I wouldn’t get much choice about that with whatever it was I’d gotten myself into. My ankle hurt, and I figured I might have sprained it, but I hadn’t exactly been quick on my feet for the last five years. Finally, I looked at my reflection in my cracked, dirty mirror, and I didn’t like what I saw. Oh, I knew about the eye, still swollen and bloodshot when I prised it open to take a look, and of course my lip was busted and my jaw was a little out of shape. No surprises there. What took me aback for a second was how old and run down I seemed to be all of a sudden. I guess, when I look back, I hadn’t really paid much attention to my face for a long, long time. For years, I’d dragged myself out of bed, filled my gut with enough whiskey to take the edge off the morning sun and sloped off to the office. How often did I sit here, just staring into my own eyes, trying to make sense of what I’d become? When I last saw myself – properly saw myself – I was a young man. In my head, that’s who I still was. A broad-shouldered Northman, long black hair, eyes like frozen fire. But looking back at me this morning (or whenever the hell it was) was an old man with more grey then black on top, a covering of silvery stubble on his crooked jaw, creases down his face, a nose bent out of shape too many times and, there in the eyes, the look of a man who’d seen way too much. They say the streets of New Atlas will age you: I couldn’t name too many folks who’d walked them as long as me, and something about the place had crept into my bones a long time ago. My family had emigrated to the city recently enough that I grew up thinking the mountains of the North were just around the corner, but the only home I’d ever known was New Atlas and the thought occurred, not for the first time, that man was not meant to live this way.
I wasn’t given to maudlin thoughts though. I picked myself up, and decided it was time I took a bath and made myself look halfway presentable. My hand was shaking as I turned the tap and tried to will the water to turn from tepid to hot, and I wondered when I’d last had a drink. It was in the office, right before Orodreth had come calling and started me on this crazy journey. And I hadn’t even finished that. When was that? Two days ago? Three? It depended how long I’d been asleep. I was aching for something strong to make me forget, but I pushed down the thought. I didn’t need it right now – I still needed that clear head, and I’d never been one of those guys who’d functioned better with a few drinks in him. I was a Northman: I just got violent. I soaked my battered body in lukewarm water for as long as I could stand it, then dried myself off with a grubby towel and tried to find something that would make me look like the respectable private investigator I liked to think I still was. I shaved, and slicked back my hair into a tail, but it didn’t change the broken look in my eyes. At least some of the swelling had gone down.
I stepped out onto the street. It was another muggy, dirty day. Overcast skies meant it was impossible to figure out the time. Whatever the actual hour was, I needed breakfast. My instinct was to head straight for a bar, and I found my feet taking me in that direction without my brain having any input at all, so I put the brakes on and made myself turn ’round and go to a coffee shop I knew instead. It was still early enough for breakfast, it turned out, though Crom only knew what day I was on now. I got a big cup of coffee and ordered enough pancakes for four men. “And you just cover those sumbitches with maple syrup, y’hear?” I told the dryad waitress. She was a willowy one, with pale skin that turned green-yellow at her fingertips, around her eyes, towards the edge of her scalp. She had to wear an uncomfortable looking net to keep her mossy hair from getting in the food. Drayds’ hair is part of their bodies, and they can’t just cut it like we can. She had a friendly smile though, and bright blue-green eyes. I demolished the pancakes in less than ten minutes and got two refills for my coffee. At that point, I started to feel someway towards being human again and my thoughts turned towards just what the heck I was going to do next.
I sat there at a corner booth, sipping coffee so hot you could have used it to lay asphalt, staring out the window at the start-stop traffic, trying to piece together the events of the previous evening, or previous-previous evening as the case may be. What I knew was this: the elves told me someone killed Nienna Amandil. I’d had no reason to disbelieve them, and they even showed me a body. It was pretty convincing, as bodies went, and I’d seen a few in my time. The body was surrounded by orc glyphs drawn in her blood, which naturally led them (and me) to suspect orcs. But Bran Stonecutter thought the idea of orcs getting into the Amandil Building through a dwarf door was ridiculous, and I had to agree. But, he hadn’t met Orca Khan, which I now had. Orca Khan was smart. Orca Khan could learn drwavish if he put his mind to it, I had no doubt. But, the other thing I doubted was that he was the killer. What reason would he have had to lie to me when I was a prisoner in his own secret city? He could have just killed me and the whole problem would have gone away. No one in New Atlas would have missed me, or even notice I’d gone. I was pretty disposable like that. So, what I had to do here was unpick some of my assumptions. What was it my dad always said about assumptions? Oh yeah: they’re godsdamn dumb, kid. He never was much for words, my old man, but he had a way of getting his point across. I got out a napkin and asked the dryad waitress if she had a pencil I could borrow. I’m not an educated man, but I spent enough time in school that I still turn to writing to put down any complicated ideas crowding out my thick head. I wrote a big number one and circled it.
Okay. One. Assumption number one was this: that orcs killed Nienna. The only evidence for that was the glyphs. I’d been thinking Orca Khan might not be the exact orc responsible – that one or a few of his enemies might be framing him – but he’d said none of the ones dumb enough to have done that were still alive. I believed him. He had a lot of orcs down there and you don’t get to be head honcho of a secret underground city without knocking off a few of your rivals. But the more I turned it around, the less that guess made sense. There would be easier ways to dethrone Khan if that was the plan – why involve elves at all? If they even knew about Khan’s city in the sewers, there was no way you could bank on them sending any kind of force down there to destroy it. Elves were rich and powerful, but there weren’t that many of them in New Atlas these days. Even in my grandpa’s day, they’d been dwindling. It was a plan that would never have worked, and that put it back in the category of stupid. So, not orcs. Someone besides orcs trying to frame Khan? Well, who but them even knew he existed? I’d never heard of him before the other day, but that was from a dwarf. Dwarves then? But they needed orcs. Like elves, they weren’t that numerous. Maybe they were worried about the city down there and had discovered it? Were they trying to set the elves and the orcs against each other? No, that made no sense either: dwarves had nothing to gain from a war in their own tunnels.
I mentally put all that to one side for a moment and drew a line underneath my scrawlings, then wrote a big two and circled that as well. Assumption number two: orcs were dumb. This would undermine my conclusions regarding assumption one, but that was the whole idea here, right? Stonecutter told me orcs could never break into the Amandil Building, but I thought Khan could have done it. But he wouldn’t do it alone, and who would trust a band of orcs not to just rage out of control in a fancy building like that? But, why was I so hung up on a dwarf door anyway? There must be other ways to get into a big building. Back entrances for the staff. Would the elves hire an orc to do some work? What if this wasn’t some conspiracy, but a random killing from an angry young orc with too much hate in him? It made a kind of sense: an orc employed to help out with some construction work, or maybe haul away trash, resenting his wealthy masters, finally snaps and goes after a pretty elf girl. But, he’d have to get all the way up the tower to find her in the winter garden. Unless it happened elsewhere? That was a thought. I tapped the end of the pencil against my chin, thinking about what other things I’d just taken for granted. What if this was something altogether more innocent – in a manner of speaking? What if the elves were hiding something shameful, such as an heiress with a kink for interspecies liaisons? You know what they say about these rich folk and the games they play. They’re not like us. Maybe she was caught doing something she shouldn’t with an orc workman, and they killed her as punishment? And him, no doubt. Then they spread-eagled her corpse in the winter garden and…no…that was dumb as heck. I was guilty of making even more assumptions now! I’d invented some disgruntled orc kid who seduced a haughty elf princess and the idea seemed so lurid and controversial that I couldn’t resist fleshing it out into something the newspapers would just eat up. It was all crap though. What kind of a private dick did I think I was?
I went back to basics. Assumption zero. The big one. The first rule of being a detective is to remember that no one is above suspicion, not even the guy who hires you. Assumption zero was that Nienna had been murdered at all, and her body was the one I’d been shown. I didn’t actually have a lick of evidence for that, but I had an idea of who could help me to get some.
How many gnome families called Redcap live in Jonastown? Or New Atlas as a whole for that matter? Pick up a phonebook sometime, give the relevant pages a read. There’s a lot of ’em. It’s got to be the most popular gnome name around. I gave up almost as soon as I’d begun. I wasn’t going to find Poppy Redcap, the gnome cop or whatever she was who could tell so much about a person just from their blood. I could have just gone back to the station, a bunch of posies in my hand, try to get her to talk to me and help me out. “Hey, Poppy, I’m the beaten up old guy they fished out of the North River the other day, covered in orc blood. Wanna help me prove my crazy hunch that the most powerful elf family in New Atlas is up to some sort of possibly criminal conspiracy?” Somehow, I didn’t think that would work. But I had to find some way to talk to her, ’cause I figured she was my ticket to the only lead I had.
I didn’t walk into the station where she worked, halfway down East 21st Street, nearly opposite the Grand Temple of Lugh, but I did hang around, acting inconspicuous. It’s amazing I’m capable of going unnoticed, big as I am, but I’ve had a lot of practice. When I was a kid, the main thing was being noticed as often as possible, which was how you made your name on the streets. But you grow up and you learn the hard lesson that there’s always a bigger name out there, and when he busts your ass for the last time, you figure sometimes it pays to keep quiet now and then. You want to be a private dick, you got to learn how to let your shoulders slump, keep your head down, not draw any attention to yourself. For me, it was easy: I just did the exact opposite of the crap I used to do when I was a dumb kid. I figured Poppy worked in the lab, so she’d keep regular hours, not like a beat cop. I was hanging out near the station, loitering with a newspaper just before five pm, having finally figured out what the time was, and this time my little assumption was right. She walked out of the station right on time and headed down the street. She had a coat and hat on, despite how warm it was, and she kept a pretty low profile. I guess she’d learned to do that the same as I had. She was smaller than almost anyone else. I bet the reason she’d got into the job she had was because she’d been mugged one too many times, or maybe someone in her family had gotten hurt. I followed her, keeping my distance. She was headed for the nearest station, and it was a long ride to Jonastown, but I didn’t feel like riding the whole way with her, just to strike up a conversation so I pick up my pace some.
She was smart. As she turned onto 3rd Avenue, she turned her head just a bit to confirm the suspicion she already had that she was being followed. I tried to keep my head down. I’d lost my fedora during my jaunt into the sewers, and I guess I was more distinctive than I thought. We got halfway towards the intersection of East 23rd Street when she did something stupid and turned into a dark alley. I knew she’d never have done that if she thought she was being followed, so I figured she was calling my bluff. That meant she didn’t think of me as a threat. That was interesting. I checked no one was looking my way and ducked into the alley after her. It was an alley like any other – garbage everywhere, graffiti on the walls, smoke and smells coming from vents on the back sides of kitchens, fire escape ladder on one side. The only thing I hadn’t been expecting was for there to be no sign of Poppy. “What the hell?” I growled to myself. Then something hit me on the head. I looked down stupidly at it as it bounced of my thick skull and down to the floor: it was a can. I looked up, and saw where Poppy had got to. She was standing on the fire escape, another can in her hand, ready to throw. I hadn’t noticed she’d hauled the ladder up so I couldn’t follow her, not that I was in any shape to go climbing up ladders that day. “Why are you following me?” she asked.
I stepped back and squinted up at her. She was as pretty as I remembered, and I got that funny, guilty feeling again. It was hard to think of gnomes as adults sometimes, but she was probably older than I was. She looked mighty angry too, which only made her seem cuter. I had a real thing for tough girls. “Hey, Poppy,” was all I could think to say.
“Why are you following me, Ulrichson?”
“You can call me Ragnar.”
“Answer the damn question, you big lummox!”
“I wanna ask you something.”
“I’m here. Ask me.”
She shook her little head. “Nu uh. I’ve fallen for that before.”
“What, so you gonna throw cans at me all night? Let’s get a drink.”
She frowned at me. “What the heck for? You a weirdo or what? I’m a gnome, in case you ain’t noticed.”
I held my hands up defensively. “No, I ain’t a weirdo. I only wanna talk business.”
“What kinda business?” She was holding the can up, ready to throw it.
“Your kinda business, Poppy. I got a job for you.”
“I already have a job. I’m a cop. Well…sorta…”
“This is strictly extra-curricular.”
“I don’t get paid for extra-curricular, Ulrichson.”
“Would it help if I told you the future of New Atlas might depend on you doing this favour for me?”
She lowered the can a little bit. “Is this about the orc blood on your coat?”
“And about you takin’ a swim in the North River?”
“I seen your record. You ain’t good news.”
“You know anyone in this city who is?”
“My mom wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
I chuckled at that. “I seen gnome moms do things you wouldn’t believe when they thought their families might be in trouble. When I was a kid, some dame about your size from Jonastown, she pinned a guy bigger’n I was up against a wall ’cause he stole her boy’s lunch money.”
“Yeah, okay,” Poppy said, “maybe you’re right.”
I held out my hands. “You got my word as a Northman my intentions ain’t nothin’ but honourable. If you’ve seen my record, you know I ain’t a crook. I was a dumb kid, but I’m a decent man, I like to think. I just wanna talk about a couple things that have been goin’ on. I think you got knowledge I need.”
She looked down at me, and seemed to make up her mind. “All right,” she finally said, “but I got tricks up my sleeve, so don’t you try nothin’ funny, mister. You know gnomes got access to stuff humans don’t understand.” She was right about that. Gnomes had the monopoly on alchemy in New Atlas – even dwarves had to go to them for anything more complicated, chemically speaking, than a match. I didn’t want to think about what a mess she might be able to make of me if I gave her a reason to hurt me. She made me stand well back as she climbed down, then walk ahead of her.
“Where we goin’?” I asked.
“Won’t your mom be worried if you don’t come home?”
“You think every gnome girl lives with her mom?”
“I ain’t know many gnome girls.”
“Yeah, I figured.”
It was a pretty normal bar. Not a cop bar, I noticed. I wasn’t exactly clear on whether Poppy was really a cop or not. There was supposedly room for all species in the NAPD, but the fact of the matter was that you had to have the right combination of smarts and size that was only generally present in humans to make a halfway decent beat cop. Poppy obviously had useful skills, but she wasn’t going to be much good in a streetfight. Though I guessed her chemicals could give her a kind of edge. Poppy got herself a bottle of beer, and my mouth was already forming the words ‘double whiskey’ before I stopped myself and got a soda instead. Poppy raised her eyebrows as we took a seat. “You don’t drink?”
“Not at the moment, no.”
“I thought all Northmen drank.”
“We ain’t all the same.”
“Well I guess I ain’t know many Northmen either,” she shrugged, sipping her beer.
“Poppy,” I said, getting right to the point, “you told me yesterday…”
“It was the day before yesterday.”
I winced. A whole day lost. Who knew what had happened while I was sleeping off my rough night? “You told me,” I went on, “that you could tell a lot from someone’s blood.”
“You can,” she nodded.
“Age? Sex? Species?”
“All that stuff, yeah, if you know how.”
“Could you teach me?”
“Teach you what?”
“How to know how.”
She shook her head. “It’s gnome stuff.”
“Uh huh. Well, sorta. The science has a lot of applications folks don’t realise. Police work is just the start.”
I was a detective, so I was interested, but I had work to do. “Okay, so could you test some blood if I brought it to you?”
“Test it for what?”
“All that stuff.”
She looked a little uncomfortable. “Well, yeah, but I’m a cop…”
“A kinda cop,” she said, defensively, “an’ I can’t just test any blood. I’d have to know where it came from.”
“That’s the problem – it’s dangerous.”
“Knowing where it comes from. Where it will come from. I don’t actually have it yet.”
“This all sounds kinda illegal.”
I waggled my hand. “Kinda illegal, yeah. Kinda is the word. Look, I think somethin’ pretty big is happenin’, Poppy. Somethin’ that could cause big problems in this city, an’ soon.”
“So go to McKinley.” She took a big gulp from her bottle, watching me over it as she did so.
“That might make it worse.”
“You ain’t givin’ me much to go on here, Ulrichson. I got no reason to trust you.”
“All right.” I ran a hand across my freshly-shaven jaw. Cards on the table time. “There’s a murder. A big one.”
“It took place in the Amandil Building, let’s leave it at that.”
Her eyes went wide. “The elf place. But…”
“You can’t tell McKinley. If the cops get involved, it’ll burst this city open like an overripe fruit.” That was a bit of an exaggeration, but I was starting to think not by much. “Someone important was killed, and orcs are the main suspects.”
“But how did they…”
“I’m way ahead of you, hun’,” I interrupted, “how do you think I ended up in the North River, covered in blood? I think there’s some kinda conspiracy goin’ on. An’ I think if I know more about the alleged victim, that will really help out my investigation.”
Poppy stared down at her beer. “I dunno if I can keep this to myself,” she said. “If a murder’s taken place, we got to know about that. Keepin’ it secret is obstructing the course of justice.”
“Yeah, I know that. An’ as soon as I know where to point ’em, I’ll tell your bosses. But until then, they’ll just make things worse. Can you imagine it, cop cars roaring up to the fanciest building in New Atlas? Reporters everywhere? How long until word that orcs are implicated gets out, and what happens then?”
“Blood on the streets,” Poppy said.
“Damn right. You said you saw my record?”
“Some of it.”
“You know about what happened five years ago?”
She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Some. I got the gist.”
“Yeah. I bet. Well, I guess you know enough to know I got no reason to be protectin’ orcs, right?”
“I guess not.”
“They took everythin’ away from me. If New Atlas was knee-deep in their filthy blood, it wouldn’t be enough to wash away the hate I got inside me.”
“So why look out for ’em now?”
“‘Cause, at the end of the day, I didn’t become a private detective to catch the wrong guy. I got a belief in justice, Crom help me.”
Penny swirled her beer around in its bottle, not looking at me. “You shoulda been a cop.”
“When I was a kid, the cops in this city were just another gang. They ain’t got a monopoly on justice.”
“It’s better now.”
“Not by much.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she admitted. “The murder, in the Amandil Building? When did it happen?”
I shrugged. “Three days ago? Maybe four? Why, does it matter?”
“It matters. I need a good sample to work with.”
“So you’ll help me out?”
“Bring me the blood, I’ll test it. But can you even get to the cadaver?”
That was a good question. The body was there when I was in the winter garden, but that was days ago, and they must have moved it by now and cleaned the place up. There might not be any blood. “How much blood do you need?”
“Would just a bit from a stain be enough?”
She thought about it. “Might be, if it’s collected in the right way.”
“You’d need certain tools.”
“Can you give them to me?”
To her credit, she did consider it, and looked about to suggest a couple different things before stopping herself. “I could write some instructions. I could…no…that won’t…well…okay. If it’s three, four days old, just a blood stain on a hard surface…I really need to be there.”
“When you collect the sample. I need to be there, probably do it myself.”
“We just moved this favour up a notch.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“We’re talking some pretty criminal activity here. Breakin’ an’ enterin’, that kinda thing.”
“Ugh…” She covered her eyes with her hand. “what am I doin’? Look, this all sounds pretty serious, an’ I guess I’m like you. I wanna do what’s right.”
“I ain’t want to get you into trouble.”
“Is the trouble I’m gonna be in worse than the trouble we’ll all be in when…what was it you said? When the city bursts like overripe fruit?”
I smile crookedly. “Somethin’ like that. An’ I dunno. Maybe. All I know is, the answer to all this is in the blood, an’ you’re the only one I know who knows what questions to ask it.”
“Yeah, all right.” She drained the last of her beer and stood up. “You gotta call me when you know what’s goin’ on, okay?”
“I don’t have your number…”
“I’m in the book.”
“Yeah, you an’ a hundred other Poppy Redcaps…”
“Oh, right.” She grabbed a napkin and took a pencil from her bag to scribble down her number. As she handed it over, she looked at me. “Can I ask you somethin’?”
“What was her name?”
I swallowed. “Whose?”
“Gloria,” I said, “she was called Gloria.”
“You miss her?”
“I miss who I was before she died. I miss the life we had, the life we were gonna have. Her, I can’t even think about no more. I don’t even remember what she looked like. Made myself forget.”
“That’s a heavy burden you’re carryin’, Ragnar. When you gonna let it go?”
When I never have to look at another orc slopin’ around the streets, my brain screamed, when they’re gone from this city for good. Then I can start living again. But that was a part of me I pushed down every single day, the part of me that still thought I had the mountain wind in my hair and a broadsword hilt in my hand. The part that wanted to kneel to an elf lord and kill and die for something bigger than I was. It was a part all of us carried inside us in some way, a part we weren’t supposed to have brought with us to New Atlas, something in our blood. But here we were, threatening to give in to our worser natures and tear the city apart. Someone wanted that, I realised. Someone wanted blood, not just in the literal sense.
“Well?” Poppy was looking at me, still waiting on me to answer.
“I dunno,” I said weakly, “sometime soon, I hope.”
“Me too. Call me, all right?”
She gave me one last look which I wasn’t sure how to take, and left the bar. I took my time finishing my soda, then went to find the next person to help me with this crazy plan I was only just starting to cook up.
Harl Ironsmith was a lot easier to find. Dwarf neighbourhoods were more insular than most, and I knew where the Ironsmiths lived. I knocked on his door, and he took me out back, where his family had a little yard. No one thought it was suspicious – dwarves were always conducting business. “I take it from the look of you you went searching for Orca Khan?” he asked me.
“How’d it go, or is that a stupid question?”
“It was kinda mixed. I’m alive.”
“More’n I expected, if I’m honest.” He was smoking and looking out over the factory chimneys that dominated the dwarf neighbourhoods in the Lower East Side. I’d waved away his offer of a cigarette, as my busted ribs were making it tough to breathe and I thought I’d be at risk of coughing up a damn lung. I was starting to feel like I was becoming some kind of religious nut, although followers of Crom didn’t do religion that way – the more smoking the drinking the better, as far as our god was concerned.
“Did you know what I’d find down there?”
“I had an inklin’.”
“You might’ve warned me.”
He eyeballed me. “I didn’t expect you to go down there alone.”
“How’d you know I did?”
“‘Cause if you’d had a buddy with you, he’d’ve hauled your ass outta trouble, an’ you’d still be able to see outta that eye.”
“Yeah, well. What happened happened. An’ Orca Khan has more orcs down there than anyone knows.”
“We know,” Ironsmith said, dropping his cigarette and stubbing it out with his heavy boot.
“You ever think of tellin’ anyone?”
“They got a right to be here. They work, they pay rent.”
“Not down in the sewers they don’t.”
“Hm,” was all he said to that. “What’s it to the elves though?”
“You tell me.”
“If I knew. I’d be tellin’ the authorities.”
“Would you? Or would it be none of their business? What was all that you said about pullin’ your heads out of your asses?”
“Things are gettin’ dangerous now. War drums in the deep.”
“Don’t I know it. That’s why I need your help.”
“I already helped you.”
I grabbed his shoulders turned him to face me. Dwarves are tough little bastards, but I was half again as tall as him, and a lot stronger. He looked shocked. “Don’t back out on me now, Ironsmith. If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be blunderin’ around lookin’ for an orc that knew how to use a dwarf door.”
“Well what do you want from me? I told you all I know. Orca Khan didn’t kill anyone, you know that too now, so what else is there to say? Go back to your damn elf employers, tell them you know they’re up to somethin’.”
“They’ll kill me the second they realise I’m a step ahead of them. That’s why I need to be two steps.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“I need to get into the Amandil Building. There is a dwarf door, right?”
“An’ you can open it?”
“I’m a dwarf, ain’t I?”
“Why me though?”
I held up two fingers. “One, you started all this for me. You put your damn neck on the line, knowin’ full well what you were gettin’ involved in. Two, you’re the only dwarf I can think of who might help me. Or should I go to Stonecutter?”
Ironsmith pulled himself free. “All right, all right. But there’s something big happenin’ here.”
“All the more reason to help me stop it.”
“You’re gonna get me killed…”
“The way I see it, whoever’s behind all this wants to get us all killed.” I was getting bored of making the same damn argument, but I was starting to believe it might really be true. I couldn’t see any consequence of this whole situation except open war between elves and orcs. The only thing I needed to figure out was who was behind it, and the answer was in the Amandil Building.
“So what’s the plan?” Ironsmith asked.
“Tomorrow night, you take us underground, through the tunnels, and into the Amandil Building.”
“Yeah. I finally found a buddy.”
“He gonna haul your ass out of trouble this time?”
“I don’t think she’s much for haulin’ but yeah, in a manner of speakin’. Meet me outside your lodge at midnight tomorrow.” He nodded, and I left him in the dark there.
My little trip down the sewers had made me think I had the measure of the tunnels that ran underneath New Atlas, but I was wrong. The oldest access tunnels, the ones you could only get into through the secret dwarf doors, were a totally different species from the municipal network. These were built a long time ago, for dwarves. Poppy was just fine, although she wasn’t as comfortable underground as Ironsmith. Gnomes and dwarves were similar, at least to human eyes, but Ironsmith had gotten a little uncomfortable when I’d introduced them. Poppy wasn’t much better. I think maybe the two species are too similar – both short, both good with their hands, both with their secret ways. I don’t know if they’ve ever fought any wars, but the two of them didn’t talk, they just spoke to me, which made the trip through the darkness even more uncomfortable. Ironsmith had a dwarf torch, a better one than I’d bought the other day, and he led the way. We’d entered the passage through a door I couldn’t see in the wall of a regular access tunnel beneath the dwarf lodge and inside it was a confusing network of tunnels that I had to stoop to walk through. There were carvings in dwarvish all over the walls and, every time we came to an intersection, Ironsmith paused, looked at the script, and picked what I hoped was a right way.
“How does he knew where to go?” Poppy asked me from behind.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way, Harl?” I said.
“So it’s just like followin’ a map?”
He turned to me as we came to another junction. “Not exactly. The runes ain’t just say ‘Amandir Building: this way’, but if you know how the words work, it’s easy.”
“How do they work?” Poppy said, looking at me.
“How do they work?” I repeated to Ironsmith.
“Remember how Stonecutter told you we don’t draw plans like pictures?”
I scratched my head – not easy in a passageway not much bigger than I was – and said, “Okay.”
It seemed like a long time before we reached our destination. I shouldn’t have been surprised: we were walking halfway across New Atlas. I guess we could have started somewhere closer, but when I said that, Ironsmith told me it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. “Did you think we were takin’ a direct route?” he asked with a small smile. I began to see why the dwarves were so sure an orc couldn’t have gotten in this way. In either case, my back and my hip were in agony by the time we came to a halt in front of what, to me, looked like a bare wall. There was one dwarf rune at the top near the ceiling. “This is it,” Ironsmith said.
“We’re at the Amandil Building?” Poppy asked me.
“Yes, the Amandil Building,” Ironsmith snapped. “This’ll bring you out into a basement.”
“You ain’t comin’ with us?”
Ironsmith went quiet. “Well…”
“Another person to watch our backs would be pretty welcome.”
He looked at me, then he looked at Poppy. “You owe me big time, Northman,” he said.
Ironsmith coughed as he squared up to the door and Poppy and I turned our backs politely. I don’t know what he did, but when we turned back, the wall was an open doorway. On the other side it was pitch black. Ironsmith shone his torch around, and we saw the usual mess of junk you’d expect to find in a basement. “What do you know?” Poppy said, “Elves’re just like the rest of us.”
“Trust me, they ain’t,” I told her. We crept into the basement, and I took the opportunity to straighten up, my back cracking loudly as I stretched out. Now Ironsmith handed the torch to me and I took the lead. The basement had a door, which led into another basement, and another, and then we finally found some stairs. “Will you know where you’re goin’?” I asked Ironsmith.
“How would I? I never been here before.”
“Yeah, but Stonecutter told me all dwarf-built buildings are the same on the inside.”
“There’s a bit of truth to that,” he acknowledged, “but they’ll have changed stuff.”
“We need to get to the top, pretty much.”
“All the way to the top?” Poppy asked.
“More or less.”
“Okay,” Ironsmith said, combing his beard through with his fingers, something I noticed he did when he was nervous, “there should be a set of back stairs.”
“Won’t we run into, you know, servants or something?”
Ironsmith shrugged. “Maybe. It’s three in the morning by my reckonin’ though. We ought to be okay.”
“I can silence any problems,” I said.
“An’ I got my tricks too,” Poppy added.
“Well. We’ll see.” Ironsmith didn’t sound convinced.
We went up the basement stairs and came out into an ordinary looking corridor, lit by dim electric lights. I handed the torch back to Ironsmith and he switched it off then tucked it into his belt. We crept out and shut the door behind us. “Which way?” I asked in a low hiss.
“Right,” Ironsmith said.
“Okay.” We headed down the corridor. Unlike the parts of the building I’d seen before, this bit was pretty plain, even a little shabby. I guessed this was where the help spent most of their time. I felt more comfortable here than I had upstairs in the art gallery room. We had a couple near misses as we worked our way up. Ironsmith was right about the stairs – they were dimly-lit and went all the way up the building’s spine. Halfway up, we were just passing by a door, trying to walk as quietly as possible, when it flew open. Poppy nearly screamed, but I clamped a big hand over her mouth and dragged her out the way as a big gnoll in a doorman’s uniform shouldered through. I couldn’t tell you if was the same one I saw the other day down on street level, but he gave us the same stupid look.
“Delivery,” Ironsmith said quickly. The gnoll didn’t show any sign he understood. Ironsmith reached for the only interesting thing he was carrying, his torch. “This. We’re deliverin’ this.”
The gnoll stared at it and, thinking quick, I took it and switched it on. The big lug was instantly captivated by the light, following it with big, wide eyes. I hurled the torch down the stairs and he went after it, chasing it down the steps as it clattered downwards. “Great – now gettin’ back’s gonna be fun,” Ironsmith said.
“You know the way.”
“I was thinkin’ of you, actually.” He started back up the stairs, and I realised I still had my hand pressed over Poppy’s face. I let her go with an apologetic smile. She looked up at me with a weird expression, then rearranged her coat primly and followed the dwarf.
The rest of the journey was pretty uneventuful, except our hearts were in our mouths the whole darn way. We didn’t see no more gnolls though, or anyone else for that matter. At last, we reached the top – there were no more stairs. “Okay,” Ironsmith said, stopping at the door, “we’re leavin’ servants quarters now, an’ everythin’ beyond this door is gonna be elf-built. Think you know the way?”
“Yeah,” I lied, “let’s go.”
He opened the door and everything was dark. I went out first, trying to get my bearings. It took me a couple seconds, but my eyes adjusted and I saw where I was. The narrow windows up high, the big vaulted ceiling and, of course, all the glass sculptures in a hundred different shapes. Poppy stared around her. “It’s beautiful,” she breathed.
Ironsmith grunted. “Good craftsmanship. A little ostentatious.”
“We ain’t here to look at rich people stuff,” I told them both. “This way.” The door to the winter garden was locked this time, but I rattled it a bit and managed to force it open. Sometimes being a big guy helps. It was as cold as I remembered out there on the terrace. None of the mugginess down on the streets ever seemed to touch it, and I guess that was just the wind or something. As I’d figured, the body was long gone, but I could see the place where it’d been.
Poppy looked around. “Where was it?” she whispered.
I pointed to the middle of the garden, between the four twisted trees. “There. She was there.”
Poppy walked up and got out a satchel. She knelt down as she took out a little metal tool and a tiny glass. Ironsmith was finally interested in what she was doing, and he craned his neck past me, trying not to make it too obvious. Poppy was scraping gently at a darker patch on the stone, then putting whatever she picked up with her tool into the glass. “There’s not much to work with,” she said, mostly to herself.
“Is it enough?”
“I hope so.”
I looked around, checking to see if we were still safe. It was only then that I remembered the garden was overlooked on three sides. I stepped back and looked up. There were lights on in the windows and I froze. We were in full view. “Damn,” I hissed. How had I forgotten that? I remembered what Orodreth had told me: when Nienna was murdered, no one had been awake. What time was that supposed to have been? “Poppy, you got enough?”
“You got enough of what you need?”
“Just a little more…”
“We ain’t got the time, girl!” I said, trying to keep my voice down.
“What?” She looked up at me.
I jerked my thumb up at the windows. “We gotta get outta here.”
Ironsmith was already at the door back into the gallery room. “I think I hear someone comin’,” he said.
“Just a second,” Poppy murmured.
“No!” I grabbed her arm roughly and hauled her to her feet. She yelped and tried to tuck away her equipment. “Time’s up, hun’.”
“Ragnar,” Ironsmith was whispering, loud as he dared, “I see elves. In the room.”
“Between us and the door?”
“Not yet. It’s a big room.” I leaned past him and saw the tall shapes of two robed figures, moving through the sculptures. I took out my gun. “Are you crazy?!” Ironsmith said, and the elves turned at the sound of his voice.
“You got a better idea?” I asked.
“You’re gonna just shoot them?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Poppy leaned around us now. “We gotta run,” she said.
“They’re elves,” Ironsmith snarled, “I’m a dwarf. Not so fast. An’ Ulrichson has a game leg. They’ll catch us the second they see us.”
“Let’s make sure they don’t then,” she said. “Stand back. An’ close your eyes.”
“What?” I asked. “Why do…”
“Just do it!” She stepped through the door and into the big room. I saw her reach into her satchel again and pull something else out. I finally figured I should do as she said, but even with my eyes closed, I could see the flash of light. “Now!” I heard her shout. Ironsmith and I stumbled into each other and then Poppy said, “You can open your eyes now.” From the sound of her voice she was already halfway across the room. We did as we were told and sprinted after her as fast as we could, which didn’t look the most graceful thing you can imagine. She was already at the door and she held it open for us. I couldn’t see the two elves.
“What happened?” I asked her as we near enough tumbled down the stairs.
“Just set off a little flash powder, that’s all.”
“What happened to the elves?”
“Permanently?” Ironsmith asked, sounding shocked.
“Probably not.” They didn’t seem so distant with each other now, in all the excitement. “But the sculptures didn’t help.”
“Huh?” I didn’t follow her.
“All that glass,” she explained, “I only had enough powder for a small flash, but it got reflected all over the room. It was so pretty,” she added wistfully.
“Well lucky for us it did,” I said.
“We need to get back to the basement quick,” Ironsmith suggested, “their guards are gonna be everywhere in a couple minutes.”
“Right.” Game leg or not, old and battered as I was, I gave a pretty good account of myself as we raced down the stairs. Lucky the elves didn’t know we were with a dwarf. They must’ve been guarding the main doors, hoping to catch us there. Instead, we slipped into the basement and back through the dwarf door and into the darkness for the long walk home. Hopefully I’d have the answers I needed at the end of this.