Ragnar Ulrichson, still bearing the scars from his private war to save New Atlas, is called in to deal with a routine botched burglary. Maybe he’s getting soft in his old age, or maybe something about the injured kid he finds in an alley reminds him of another scrawny kid in New Atlas a long time ago, but Ragnar takes a risk and puts his trust in the last kind of creature he’s inclined to go out on a limb for. The private detective-cum-barbarian hero knows he’s doing the right thing, but will this act of charity draw the attention of some old enemies?
It’s funny the stuff you remember from being a kid. I’ll be damned if I can remember the names of any of my teachers, or half the other kids I went to school with. I remember we had a dog, but I ain’t even remember what colour he was. Or if he was even a he. It’s been so long that all I got is shapes and impressions of some things. Maybe that’s normal, or maybe it’s all the crap I put my body through the last couple decades. I used to run the streets of New Atlas in a gang, like every other Northern boy I knew, and I got more’n a few bumps and bruises that I guess knocked a few brain cells outta place. Then there was the booze. They say that kills ’em too and when you knock back the amount of rotgut I have in my time, well, I guess I only got myself to blame if my memory ain’t what it used to be. Then there’s everything else. You don’t get into being a private dick for the health benefits, if you catch my drift. I’ve had fistfights, run-ins with Beor Q. Law, even been a shot a time or two. Then there was the poisoning last year. That left a mark, and not just on the outside. So maybe I can be forgiven for having to gloss over some details of my past these days. But some things, I remember like I was watching them on a movie screen. I ain’t know who’d pay a dime to see a movie of my life, but anyway, that’s how it is in my head.
I’m with my grandpa, back in the apartment I grew up in. Tiny place. I had three brothers, then there was my mom and my dad and my grandpa and we lived our whole dang lives in two little rooms. Crazy to think of it now, but that’s how it was back then. Northmen were right at the bottom of the heap back in those days. My pop and his pop both worked on the docks, hauling crates back and forth all day. No contracts, no unions in those days, just day work. They scraped together enough and, if you believe their stories, they made it all honestly. Looking back, I’m sure their hands weren’t exactly clean but, in this town, whose are? I might be a private detective, but mine sure as Hel ain’t. Anyhow, my grandpa’s knees ended up shot, so he couldn’t work no more so he spent most of his time looking after us kids while my mom went out to work waiting tables and cleaning up after the rich folks. I know a lotta people had it a lot worse than us but, let me tell you, those days weren’t easy for any of us. But I’m digressing here. I do that sometimes these days – like I say, a lotta bumps to the noggin and so forth. So my gramps would look after us, and he’d tell us stories. He came to New Atlas from the North, so he told us all about how life used to be back in the mountains. He’d tell us about our ancestors, about Wulfang and Jarl Richter and all the rest of ’em. He’d tell us about elves and dwarves and orcs. He filled our heads with all the garbage – ‘valley thinking’ as a good friend of mine would put it – that we’d take out into our lives without ever questioning. He sent us out onto the streets of New Atlas as young, angry men thinking we oughta be carrying broadswords and wearing loincloths. What kind of stuff is that to tell an impressionable kid, huh?
But I remember this one story he told. It wasn’t about no one in particular, just a general story about the old days. It was about the oathquest. He explained it to us like this: back in ancient times, when the North was still wild, when the Dark Prince was living up in his castle and wyrms and giants roamed the valleys, life was a constant struggle. If you didn’t get eaten up by some monster, or killed by orcs, it’d be the cold or some other clan that’d get you. And the only thing that held the Northmen together was a shared sense of…of…something. I guess you’d call it pride. ‘Cause, when you don’t got nothing to your name, you’ve at least got that. You got your honour, your integrity and, most of all, your word. Oaths bound us together, see. We swore oaths for damn near everything the way my grandpa told it, but the one big oath that made a boy into a man was the one when he swore to avenge a death, or rescue someone from his tribe or, well I guess pretty much anything that meant having to get all your closest buddies together, gear up and go off on some dang crazy adventure. Slay a dragon, steal some stupid trinket from a temple, rescue some broad, whatever. And when you wanted to do that, you swore an oath to never turn back and not to return until you’d completed whatever dumb task you’d set yourself. And they called it an oathquest, naturally. A lotta Northmen died on these quests, I guess, because the way he talked about it made it sound like a real big deal. If a man swore that oath, and then came back without achieving his goal and not so filled with holes you could use him to strain spaghetti, his whole tribe would turn on him and finish the job themselves. Like I say, it was kind of a rough place to live. Even as a kid, I remember thinking it was dumb as Hel. A man either does a thing or he ain’t. Why you gotta swear some oath? If you say a thing, you do your damndest to make it happen. It wasn’t ’till I was a lot older that I realised that was kinda the whole point.
I’d been thinking about my past a lot lately. Time was I tried to blot it out with the sauce, tried to forget the young, strong man I used to be before I got this bullet stuck in my leg but a few things had happened in the last year or so that changed a lotta stuff. See, first I accidentally made everyone think I was some kinda hero. Then this dragon showed up, so naturally they turned to me and, well, I ain’t wanna go into it too much so let’s just the problem sorta went away. Then some new gang tried to move in a take over the city – that’s when I got poisoned – and I guess I was the only one around who could figure out a way to fix things. Someone mighta tried to crown me King of New Atlas along the way too, but I ain’t like to talk about that. On the way to doing all that I made a couple new friends, got an orc boss thrown in the slammer and then busted him out and went out with a pretty gnome girl a time or two. If I got one regret about all of that craziness, it’s her. Not us going out – just only doing it a time or two. But things got in the way. It ain’t ever easy trying to juggle a dame with orcs and dragons and damn drow coming outta the woodwork and trying to smash your city to pieces. I guess what I’m saying is I got a lot to think about. And one thing’s for certain, this whole town knows who Ragnar Ulrichson is now, for better or worse.
So I was at my desk, going through some old files, trying to make my expenses make some sense. There was an accountant downstairs who was a pal of mine and he handled my books, but I was never so good at keeping records, so he had his work cut out for him. I admit I had a bottle of whiskey open. I’ve got better. I was on the wagon for a little while back there, then I fell off hard one Yueltide and near enough ended up dead. I like to think I got it under control now, but I oughta quit – I know that. Anyway, I’m just having a quiet drink by the light of the lamp in my office, squinting at all these numbers, scratching my head with the end of my pencil. Like I said, I went to school, got a proper education under my belt, so I’m comfortable writing down my thoughts like some snooty uptown fella, despite looking like a big lug, but Hel if I can make any sense of all this, and my eyes ain’t so good as they used to be, so I put down the book and took a sip of my drink. It was better stuff than I’d gotten used to. I had a steady income now, see, ’cause of my connections. New Atlas was dirtier than ever after the drow mafia ripped it to pieces and there was only so much patching back together me and my pals could do, but ironically that made my life even better. Non-humans ain’t trust the cops in this city, with good reason, so they come to me. I ain’t charge much because it don’t feel right taking from those that have almost nothing, but they got a sense of fair play too, mostly, so they help me out. I get a whole bunch of gifts, like this particular bottle as it happened. I was just thinking about all that, and about my caseload, when the phone started to ring. The last thing I needed was another case, but I had my honour, which is the point I guess I’ve been trying to make, so I knew if someone needed my help, I’d make time to do it. I picked up the handset.
“Ulrichson,” I said.
“Hey, Ragnar, it’s Harl,” said the gruff voice on the other end.
I smiled. Harl Ironsmith was the good buddy I mentioned, a dwarf who was involved in all kinds of business concerns, if you catch my drift. He was honest, ’cause he was a dwarf, but he had some pretty useful connections who weren’t quite so scrupulous. “What’s the good word, pal?” I asked him.
“Ain’t no good word tonight, Ragnar,” he said.
His tone made me sit up in my chair. “Everythin’ okay?”
“Yeah, I just heard there was a break in at the temple on Rex.”
“The big one? You kiddin’ me?”
“Would I be on the dang phone now if I was?”
“So call the cops.”
“Are you kiddin’ me?”
That made me smirk. He had a good point. No cop in this city would get involved in dwarf business these days, and even if someone’d broken into a temple to Crom – technically my god, as well as the dwarves’ – they’d work pretty hard not to have to investigate too closely. Chances are it was just kids anyhow, and hardly worth their time in a city this crooked. “When did it happen?”
“I just got the call about it myself. The Matriarch said she heard noises an’ she found a smashed window. She called me right away.”
Ironsmith paused on the other end of the line. “She knows I got connections…”
“Right, an’ I’m one of ’em. Just my damn luck. Look, tell your lady to sit tight an’ I’ll get up there soon as I can. It’s pretty early to be tryin’ a robbery though…”
“It’s past midnight, Ragnar.”
I glanced out the window. “It is? Why the heck am I still at work?”
“Beats me. I tried your apartment first, thinkin’ I was gonna wake you up. You forget to go home or somethin’?”
I rubbed my head, feeling a little worried all of a sudden, but I laughed it off for Harl. “Heh, I guess so. I’m gonna get a cab up to Rex right now. If these jerks are still on the scene, we’ll put the fear of Crom into ’em sure enough.”
“What makes you think I’m comin’?”
“You think I’m gonna speak to some dwarf Matriarch? She’ll be askin’ me when I last made a sacrifice an’ we’ll both get embarrassed. Be there or I’ll come haul your ass out of that yard you pretend to work in myself.” I slammed the phone down and grabbed my jacket.
The temple was dark when the cab pulled up. I threw some bills at the driver and hobbled out fast as I could. I was in the heart of New Atlas and I’ve been reliably informed this is the city that ain’t never sleep, but it was pretty quiet all around. These days people stayed home in the evening, and I guess it was a weekday. But the main reason was crime. Since the mafia, as these drow scum called themselves, moved in, the crime rate had gone sky high. They were nasty bastards, tricky and sly, and they had their fingers in a whole lotta unpleasant pies if you catch my drift. Racketeering, money laundering, drugs, the works. Gambling too. Used to be they had to run their crooked joints in hidden basements and the back rooms of their bars but they got pull with the Mayor’s office after what happened before and a few laws got relaxed recently. Well, relaxed ain’t exactly the word – more limp like a fish that’s just been boned. So now there’s a big casino just finished uptown. Big ugly building covered in lights that you can see from miles around, even with all the smog. The city I knew was slowly being pulled down, block by block.
Anyway, I wasn’t here to deal with drow, or that’s what I thought as I crossed the road. When I got to the temple though, I saw some fresh graffiti – a black spider – and I knew it was gonna be a long night. Ironsmith was already there waiting for me. Crom knows how he beat me there since he had to come all the way from the docks on the North River, but then he is a dwarf and they got their secret ways and such. He led me into the temple. There were just a couple braziers lit near the altar, burning low so’s you couldn’t see nothing from outside hardly. This was a dwarf temple and, while we might pray to the same god, there were a few important differences. For one thing this place looked just like the inside of a dwarf lodge to me: all stone and big square columns, axes and hammers hung up on the walls. Crom ain’t a subtle god, but our skalds at least ain’t carry weapons around the place. Still, it did feel familiar. The big statue over the altar was a little shorter and broader than the Crom I knew from when I was a kid, but he was still a familiar face, if not a very happy looking one – hey, we all got our cultural baggage, right? Crom ain’t a cheerful god. I put my fist across my chest reflexively. The oath of loyalty. That’s how we pay our respects in the North, or so I got taught anyway.
“So what’s the story here, Harl?” I asked, turning to my buddy.
“Let me get the Matriarch…”
He didn’t have to do that, ’cause right then she came stumping out of a side door. She was as wide as she was tall, with those curled sidelocks some traditional dwarves wear in her grey hair. Broad had a face like an avalanche – I ain’t mean ugly, just angry as heck – and this dang great hammer in her hand. “Why did you need me to deal with this?” I asked Ironsmith in a low voice.
“I’m forbidden to take up arms except in defence of my own life or the life of a member of my congregation,” the dwarf woman explained. She had good ears, apparently, or maybe I’m louder than I figure.
I pointed at the hammer. “So what’s that, ma’am?”
“This?” She looked at the huge, blocky mallet like she’d just noticed she was holding it. “A badge of office. I know humans worship Crom in his aspect as a sheep herder…”
“Shepherd,” I corrected automatically. “Subtle difference.”
“…but dwarves prefer to think of him as a smith. Hence this.” She held the hammer towards me slightly.
“So that ain’t a weapon?”
“Badge of office,” she repeated. “Subtle difference.” Her face didn’t move, but there was a little twinkle in her eyes and I decided I liked this fierce old lady for some reason.
“I’m Ragnar Ulrichson, ma’am. My friend said there was some sorta break in?”
“I know who you are, child. I’m Matriarch Helga Stormgate, if you didn’t know. But yes, a break in.” She was already leading the way out the main room and we followed her like the well-raised young men we were. In a side room filled with slabs of stone carved with dwarf runes I couldn’t read, she stopped and pointed to one ornate window. It was broken, there was glass on the floor and brick sitting in the middle of it. Not hard to figure it out. She pointed. “See?”
“I see, ma’am. An’ I understand your heard somethin’?”
“It sounded like voices.”
“Uh huh. See anybody?” I knelt down to look at the brick. I picked it up and turned it over. It was just a regular brick.
“A couple of shadows. It was dark. I think they heard me coming and ran away.”
I glanced up. “There’s blood on that glass,” I said, nodding towards the broken window. “I guess they wriggled out pretty fast.”
Ironsmith and Stormgate both peered at the glass. “Well what do you know,” Ironsmith said. “How’d you spot that, Ragnar?”
The truth was that ever since the drow poisoned me last year, I had this weird thing where shadows lingered around the edge of my vision. Now you’d think that’d make it harder to see in the dark, but actually I’d gotten so used to it that I barely noticed when it got dark now. Might’ve been why I accidentally worked so late that night, at least in part. Anyway, point was I had pretty good night vision these days. “Just detective’s intuition,” I told them though as I stood up and walked to the window. “Shadows did you say?”
“Yes,” Stormgate replied, “but it was dark, like I said.”
“Uh huh. What did the voices sound like?”
“Not that I noticed.”
I looked at the blood on the window. It was just blood. I knew someone who could study it for me if I needed that done, but I didn’t think it’d come to that tonight, since I had a good idea of who was responsible for this. “My guess,” I said, still looking out the hole in the window to a dark alleyway on the other side, “is someone figured there’d be somethin’ worth stealin’ in here.”
“Everythin’ in here’s made of iron an’ nailed down,” Ironsmith laughed. “It’s a dwarf temple.”
“Right. But someone didn’t know that. So they’re new to the city, maybe, not too smart. Probably just kids.”
“Are you saying you won’t help us?” Stormgate asked.
I turned around. “When did you see these shadows, ma’am?”
“About half an hour ago.”
“Well they won’t have gotten far then, especially if one of ’em’s bleedin’.” I pointed over my shoulder with my thumb. “There a door out into that alley, ma’am? I ain’t much like the idea of crawlin’ through a broken window, not at my age.”
I left Ironsmith back in the temple, ostensibly to guard the Matriarch, although with that hammer I ain’t think she needed it much. The truth was that Ironsmith was more of a thinker than a fighter – not that I hadn’t seen him keep a cool head in the past when the bullets were flying – and not the kinda guy who’d be happy scrambling up fire escapes and sprinting across rooftops. Although, to be honest, with my hip and everything else, I wasn’t either. But screw it, I was the private dick here and they didn’t put up much of an argument. I was sure it was just some kids anyway, although the graffiti I’d spotted on the wall and Helga’s description of the shadows did make me think there might be something more dangerous out there. But why would the dark elf mob break into a temple so clumsily? As I scouted about the alley, the thought did work its way into my thick skull that it could be some kinda trap, since I wasn’t exactly the Mafiatrix’s favourite person – that’s what the drow called their leader, a dame named Lilith or, as I’d known her before she revealed herself and everything went to shit, Lily. She’d poisoned me in an alleyway just like this one, but I didn’t think she’d try the same trick twice. I knelt down and looked real close at the ground outside the broken window. There was a little bit of flickering light from the brazier coming through and it was messing up my night vision so I cupped a hand across my eyes and squinted some. I could see it there: drops of dark blood in a distinct trail down the alley, leading away from the entrance to the street.
Checking my revolver was loose enough in my belt that I could whip it out and make a real scary noise if things got hairy, I followed the trail. The alley wound its way behind the tall buildings, blocking out what little light there was. It was pretty much totally dark, but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. I had a fix on that trail of blood and like a dang hound, I was on it. The alley came to a junction and I looked both ways. The trail had stopped, there was just a battered dumpster and overflowing bags of garbage on my left. I looked up and saw someone standing on the fire escape above my head. I tell you, these damn fire escapes are more trouble than they’re worth, just ’cause of the kinda lowlifes who hang out in alleys like this using them as ways of fleeing the scenes of crimes. Whoever it was up there was sure I couldn’t see him, ’cause he just stood there, looking down at me. I wandered around a little, like I was lost, then stepped into the deeper shadows to my right, where the alley narrowed and disappeared off into the depths of the city. My pal on the escape shifted a little, trying to spot me. As I stared at his silhouette, I started to make out some details. His pale hair, his eyes glowing dull red. He was a drow all right. I once spent a crazy night battling these assholes across New Atlas, leading a war on the streets I called home, so there ain’t exactly a whole lotta love lost between me and their kind, but I’d learned the hard way that shooting first and asking questions later ain’t the best strategy anywhere in life. For one thing, most of the time once you’ve stopped shooting, there ain’t enough left to ask no questions to. I decided to play it cool, trying to be a decent PI for once in my damn life. The guy was getting real impatient. I could see him moving nervously, looking around. Every now and then he glanced down at the pile of trash below him. I was certain he was just a kid, and even if he wasn’t drow, he’d be able to outrun me no problem. That didn’t leave me with a whole bunch of options, but I had a funny feeling about something so I eased my pistol out of my belt and took aim at the level of the fire escape above the shadow-kid’s head.
Sparks flew as the bullet ricocheted off the metal. The figure ducked down and looked around wildly. I thought he might be about to stand his ground, or maybe show a little loyalty, but he was determined to disappoint me and he scrambled up the ladder as fast as his skinny legs could carry him. I shot once more, just to speed him on his way, then watched him scramble up the building and flee into the night. Damn coward. The drow I’d fought would never have run like that. For one thing, they’d be armed. Which all but confirmed my theory. These weren’t made men, members of the mafia, they were just street punks.
I retraced my steps back to the dumpster, where the trail of blood had ended, and crouched down. “You okay, kid?” I asked the shadows.
Something moved in between the garbage bags, and I could just make out a lean, dark feral-looking face peering out. “You shot me,” a voice croaked.
“Son, if one of my bullets hit you, you’d have to be the unluckiest sonofabitch in this whole damn city.”
“I’m bleedin’!” he insisted.
“Yeah, from the window in the temple.” I pointed back along the alley with my gun. I looked up at the narrow strip of dark sky overhead between the glowering, blank faces of the buildings on either side. “Your buddy high-tailed it. Some friend.”
“There wasn’t no one else…”
“C’mon, kid – who d’you think I was shootin’ at?”
He looked at me. His eyes had that same red glow all drow seemed to share. “How come you can see in the dark?”
“I spent too much of my life in places like this,” I said, which was true enough. “Look, I figure you cut yourself pretty bad, an’ you’re all alone here. You gonna play smart or you gonna be smart?” I held out my hand.
“Who the heck are you, mister?” the drow asked.
“My name’s Ragnar.”
“You a cop?”
“Nah, just a gumshoe.”
“A private dick?”
“For what it’s worth. Surprised you ain’t heard of me.” My hand was still out and, after a second, he took it and I hauled him up out of the trash and to his feet. He stumbled against the wall and I steadied him carefully. He was a scrawny thing, all skin and bone, with shabby clothes and white hair tied into a greasy tail. One of his pants legs was ripped and his leg was a whole mess of sticky blood. No wonder he was a little unsteady on his feet. “C’mon, kid, what’s your story? Why you breakin’ into a dwarf temple? Ain’t you got no sense at all?” He mumbled something I didn’t hear. “Huh?” I asked.
“I said it ain’t none of your damn business, pal!”
In another life I might’ve beaten some respect into him, but I guess I was getting soft in my old age and, Hel, he looked so damn pathetic. I put my gun away so he’d know I wasn’t really serious about hurting him and grabbed him his dirty collar. I pulled him a little closer and pointed a finger right in his face. “Listen, kid, I got a call from a good friend of mine says someone’s breakin’ into a temple. Now, I know that ain’t your god in there, but even in Svartheim they know about respectin’ holy places, right? An’ who’s stupid enough to try to rob dwarves? They ain’t leave all their gold just lyin’ around the place, y’know. What were you tryin’ to do, make off with a damn suit of armour? Huh?”
“You ain’t know what it’s like,” he said.
I shook him. “What kinda answer is that? What ain’t I know?”
“You think it’s easy bein’ drow in this city, mister?”
“Don’t give me that. None of you were here before last year. You didn’t grow up on these streets. You ain’t like New Atlas? Go back to Svartheim.”
He laughed at that. “Go back? You think we’re all mafia men who can call the shots, do what we like? Look at me – you see a pinstripe suit an’ a fedora? You see a violin case?”
“I see a street punk…”
“Exactly! An’ how do punks become made men, huh? Rippin’ off convenience stores? Muggin’ old ladies?”
I let him go and he slumped back against the wall. “So you an’ your pal were just tryin’ to make a name for yourselves, is that it? Was it murder, or just a little breakin’ an’ enterin’?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Difference is, if it’s a little youthful mischief, I’m gonna stay inclined to help you out, but if you were plannin’ to leave that temple with someone else’s blood on your clothes…well, let’s just say that changes things. So which was it?”
“We just wanted some gold…” he said, looking away.
I grabbed him by the jaw and turned him to face me. Crom help him, but the kid was terrified. I could see it in his eyes. The drow I’d met didn’t fear nothing, but this fella really was just some poor nobody. “Truth now, son,” I said, my voice low. “They say the real test of a man is when he finds out who is in the dark, with no one around to watch. Well, we’re in the dark now, an’ it’s just you an’ me. Two street punks, like knuckleheads from small times, bein’ honest with one another. Did you come here for money or blood?”
“J…just money…I…I swear…”
I stared into his eyes. They looked frightened and hungry, but I thought he was telling the truth. I let him go again. “All right, kid. I believe you. You just made a mistake. It happens, an’ no one got hurt.” I looked down at his leg. “Not too seriously anyway.”
“So…you gonna let me go…?”
I smiled at that. “Is that what you think?” I reached out and grabbed one of his pointed ears. He struggled for a second, but he soon got it through his head I was at least twice his size and I figured he’d had a life of being pushed around by people bigger’n badder than he was. It was sorta sad how resigned he was once I started hauling him back down the alleyway towards the temple. “This is how it’s gonna go, kid. We gonna go back an’ you gonna apologise. Then I’m gonna get you to a doctor to patch you up, then you gonna work off the damage you done to that fancy window, understand?”
“Y…you gonna give me a job…?”
“A job?” I thought about it. “You can think of it that way, I guess. Look, what’s your name?”
“Zrit? What the heck kinda name is that?”
“What the heck kinda name is Ragnar?”
I let go of his ear and let him straighten up. “You’re all right, kid,” I told him, “but don’t forget I coulda shot you just now. C’mon.” I led him to the temple to do the right thing.
Ironsmith fingered his beard thoughtfully as he considered my suggestion. “So…lemme get this straight…”
I rolled my eyes at him. “Don’t gimme your wise-ass attitude, Harl. I’m just givin’ the kid a chance.”
“He’s a drow. You forget about last year already?”
I tugged my collar open a little way, showed him the dark marks still left on my skin from the Black Lotus I’d been dosed with, the same poison that had left the shadows on my vision and damn near turned my insides into Cimmerian cheese. “Like I could ever do that, pal…”
“Crom does teach forgiveness,” Stormgate said, though she didn’t sound too convinced. We were in the same room as before with all the stone tablets. There was an ordinary-looking office off to one side which is where I’d left Zrit with a bowl full of hot water so he could clean up his leg some.
“He does?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She waved a hand. “It’s towards the back somewhere.”
“Right,” I grinned. I stepped to the door to the office and closed it gently so Zrit wouldn’t overhear us. “Look, I know I’m takin’ a chance here, but he didn’t mean no harm. He’s just another down-an’-out tryin’ to make his way in this town. All he knows is crime – the heck d’you expect him to do?”
“He still broke into a temple,” Ironsmith said.
“I know, but you wanna call the cops? Send him to jail? How long d’you figure he’d last in The Crypts? Lotta orcs in there, lotta humans remember what the drow did…”
“C’mon, the mob’d cut a deal for him.”
“For that guy?” I nodded towards the door. “He ain’t with the mafia. He’s cannon fodder. An’ take it from someone who’s ancestors got the same deal, that ain’t no fun.”
“I think you see a little of yourself in that kid,” Stormgate smiled. “Is that right?”
“Maybe I do, ma’am. Time was, I was runnin’ through alleys, bleedin’ all over the floor an’, yeah, I’ll admit it – I broke into a couple places I shouldn’t have. I wish someone woulda helped me up outta the garbage in those days.”
“You turned out okay,” Ironsmith pointed out.
“Eventually. Took a bullet an’ a dead fiancé to get me there though.”
“You can’t just take in every stray that crosses your path…”
“Look, I ain’t askin’ you to adopt the damn kid, just give him a chance to make up for the damage he did. Maybe he’ll cut an’ run at the first opportunity – if he does, so what? Not like we were ever gonna do more’n shake him up a bit anyway.”
Ironsmith was playing with his beard again like he always did when he was thinking. “What if his friends come back?”
“He ain’t got no friends, Harl, that’s the whole problem.”
“I can put him to work,” Stormgate said. “Not many dwarves come to temple so often as they ought,” and here she gave Ironsmith a significant look, “and we always need a helping hand around the place. We’ve got rooms upstairs for the Novices too. He can have a bunk, so long as he doesn’t cause any mischief.”
“Ma’am,” I told her, “you got my personal guarantee he won’t be no bother at all.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Mr Ulrichson.”
I opened the door to the office and stepped through. Zrit was still in there – it was an interior room with no windows – but now he was sitting at the desk. He’d rolled his pants leg right up and the bowl of water on the floor was stained red. I could see the cut was a pretty nasty one. We’d need to find a doctor soon, or at least someone who knew how to sew. I looked him over. In the light and not bleeding out all over the floor he looked a bit less pathetic, but he was still a skinny little runt. Like all drow, his skin was almost jet black, including the palms of his hands which I happened to notice ’cause he was leafing through a book that’d been on the desk. Stormgate had quite the library – there were shelves of books all along the walls – which didn’t surprise me since I knew dwarves were real fond of words. He was squinting at the pages as he flicked through. It was in common, but he didn’t show no sign of understanding what he was reading. I leaned over and plucked it out of his hands. It was a pretty dry volume about history, and not the fun kind with wars and monsters, just boring stuff about trade deals and marriages, the kinda stuff only a dwarf would be interested in. “Can you read?” I asked him.
He had enough pride left in him to sit a little straighter in his chair. “I ain’t never needed to…”
“Sure.” I tossed the book down on the desk and pointed around the room. “You in luck, son – looks like you couldn’t ask for a better teacher.”
He actually looked a little scared and scratched at his greasy hair nervously. In the light from the office’s lamps I could see it was more beige than white, but I wasn’t sure if that was just ’cause he hadn’t washed it a while. He woulda been a good looking boy if he’d ever eaten a square meal in his life and stood up straight, but right now he was half-starved and feral. “Look, mister…”
“I told you my name was Ragnar. An’ I spoke to the Matriarch. She says you can stay here for a little while an’ pay back what you owe for that busted window.”
“Uh…see…it ain’t that I ain’t appreciate you haulin’ me outta that trash an’ lettin’ me clean myself up, mist…uh…Ragnar. S’just…I think maybe I oughta be on my way now an’…”
He was starting to stand up, but I leant across the table and forced him back down. “Let’s me an’ you have an understandin’ here, Zrit,” I said in my least friendly voice, “I ain’t offerin’ you a choice, or an opportunity. You leave, I’m callin’ the cops, understand?” It was a bluff, and he probably guessed that, but I was banking on him knowing just little enough about me to not know which way this was going. I didn’t wanna hurt him, but there was nothing wrong with instilling a healthy fear of the North in the kid. “You know The Crypts, downtown? The big jailhouse?”
“Uh huh,” he said weakly.
“Yeah. That’s where they send all the mobsters.”
“But I ain’t…”
“You think a court cares about semantics?” He looked at me blankly. “Details, kid. Subtle differences an’ so forth. We gotta get you some book learnin’ right away.” I finally let go of his shoulder and pulled another chair over so we sat on opposite sides of the desk. “Now, what’s your story, kid? You got folks? A place to live, what?”
“I figured that. You from Svartheim though, right? Came over with the other drow when the mob moved in?”
He nodded. “They told us there’d be work in New Atlas.”
“I bet they did. But what they really wanted was cannon fodder, right? Drow bodies to make up numbers. You lived on the streets back home?”
“So you’re just some punk they rounded up, loaded into a van an’ dumped here.”
“Pretty much.” Zrit looked pretty forlorn about having his life summed up that succinctly.
“They give you a place to live?”
“A bunk in a place near the river.”
“I think I know it. How many to a bed?”
“Three,” he said with a nasty snarl in his voice.
“Yeah, an’ all the hot food you can steal, right?” Another nod. I leant back and folded my arms. “Not much of a life, even for someone that grew up without a roof over his head. Those two out there,” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder, “they think I see some of myself in you.”
“Do you?” he asked.
“Maybe. Difference is though, I had folks around me growin’ up who taught me right from wrong. I went off the rails for a while, sure, but in the end it all goes back to a decent upbringin’. Maybe if you’d had some better role models aside from mobsters, you an’ I wouldn’t be havin’ this conversation right now.”
“It’s Svartheim,” he said with a shrug, “mobsters is all there is.”
“Yeah, well you in New Atlas now, an’ even if your pals in the mafia didn’t know it, they weren’t lyin’ about opportunities.”
Zrit gave me a sly grin. “I thought you said this wasn’t an opportunity.”
I shook my head ruefully. “I knew you were smart, kid.” I stood up with a wince and then laid out how it’d go. “The Matriarch – you call her ‘ma’am’ or ‘Mrs Stormgate’, understand? – she’s bein’ kind enough to look after you until we can figure out what to do with you. You gonna stay here, with the Novices upstairs.”
“Novices?” He looked a little wary about that.
“Sorta like…apprentice Matriarchs.”
“You mean…girls?” His red eyes seemed to brighten a bit.
“Dwarf girls. With dwarf daddies back home who ain’t gonna like the sound of you one little bit, so try to keep this run of actin’ smart goin’, all right? Mrs Stormgate got some jobs you can do around the place.”
“What kinda jobs?”
“Helpin’ fix that window you an’ your buddy broke for a start. Then just keepin’ the place neat an’ tidy I guess.”
“Yeah. See, I told you this wasn’t no kinda opportunity. We’ll get a doctor to come check out your leg for you. It looks nasty, but not too deep to me. I think you’ll fix up just fine, especially once we get some food in you.”
Now his eyes really did light up. “Food?”
I held up a hand. “Dwarf food. I hope you like it stodgy, son.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You’ll find out.” I went to leave, but then turned back. “Listen, kid, it might not seem like it, but I got a reputation, an’ that guy out there you saw is a good buddy of mine. I’ve vouched for you, you know what that means?”
“Yeah, it’s what happens in the mob when you get initiated. A made man vouches for you.”
“This ain’t like that,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s more like…an oath. I guess since we’re in a temple of Crom, that’s appropriate. I told my friends I was responsible for you. You run out on them, you’re betrayin’ me, understand? I took an oath for you.”
“That’s exactly how it is in the mob,” Zrit said.
“Maybe. But we were doin’ it in the North first.” I levelled my finger at him. “You got a chance to turn your life around here, kid. Don’t mess it up.”
“All right, Ragnar,” he said.
I nodded and walked out of the office. I must’ve been crazy to put so much faith in a no good street punk, and a drow to boot, but Ironsmith and Stormgate were right that he reminded me of me. You grow up in the shadow of an ideal, of a symbol of strength you don’t fully understand, it moulds you. I was lucky; I got something worthwhile to believe in. As I walked out into the main chamber of the temple, I glanced up at the statue of Crom with his hammer. It was dumb as heck, really. I wasn’t a prayin’ man in the slightest, but my word had always been my oath. I wanted this kid to be okay. I had to give him a chance like I’d had. But, somehow, I knew there’d be repercussions for the oath I’d sworn on his behalf today. No one crossed the drow mafia if they could help it, but doing it twice was damn near suicide.