Sunday, June 7, 2009

Heroes... Chapter Four - "Melbourn"

In a huge, well-appointed room in High Town, one man sat in a high-backed calf-leather-and-teak chair to enjoy the finer things life had to offer. His boots rested on a low stool in front of him, and a heavy book rested in his lap. On a small table next to him sat a nearly-empty decanter of sherry, a nearly-full glass, a tall white Willem candle in a silver candlestick, and a glass ashtray. Over the back of the chair he had casually tossed a long black cloak. As he listened to the cedar wood crackling and popping in the fireplace, he reached out and upended an ivory pipe over the ashtray. He discharged burnt tobacco into the receptacle and propped the pipe against the rim. He reached for the sherry and tossed it back, as if it was whiskey. Sighing, he set the empty glass on the table.

He refilled the pipe with tobacco from a pouch in his own vest, using a long match to transfer fire from the candle. He took a long draw and began reading again. Idly listening to the deeply seasoned wood in the fire, he read each page, line by line, his finger tracing his progress. After some time, he stood and stretched. Something in his back cracked. A slight groan escaped.

He eyed the crystal decanter. He took it and poured out the last remaining drops of sherry. Ivory pipe dangling from his lips, he crossed the room to a huge teakwood desk and slipped the book into an open leather bag sitting atop it. He closed the bag, and wrapped the pipe in a dark cloth. The pipe went into a vest pocket; the bag he slung over his shoulder. Returning to the chair, he donned his cloak and fastened it with a burnished silver clasp.

Dressed all in black, except for a long-sleeved royal blue shirt under his leather vest, he was short and wiry. His almond-shaped eyes were blue flecked with silver. Long, copper-brown hair was tied back with black and blue ribbons, revealing a face of sharp angles. His ears were elongated, but not so pointed as Dunbar Stormglow’s.

He was mal sidhe, a lesser elf.

Picking up the last glass of sherry, he began to wander the room. Four oil paintings hung on one dark hardwood wall. Two were worth more money than most merchants could make in a year. The other two were worth a bit more than that. On the next wall, an inset bookshelf displayed nearly one hundred bound volumes, along with dozens of rolled parchment scrolls. Next to the shelf, a mounted bear’s head growled defiantly. The silver of the fur matched the silver of the bearskin rug in front of the fireplace in the third wall.

The last wall held only the doorway and a charcoal drawing of a stunning young woman. Judging by the age of the work, she had likely passed on many years ago. Melbourn smiled at her. The door next to her was closed, but not locked.

Wandering back to the paintings, he stopped in front of his favorite. It was oil on canvas in a cherry frame, three feet by four. It was a deiscape, the artist’s rendition of the gods as he saw them. In this particular work, the male gods were portrayed as sharp, angular swaths of color, mostly in blue, purple, and green. The goddesses were shown as swirls of red, yellow, and orange. Even the darker, crueler gods were included, in angry shades of indigo and reddish-orange. Here and there, streaks of black and white intertwined them all, both separating the gods and bringing them together in a divine confluence. The mal sidhe, Melbourn, sighed.

He flicked his hand and a sharp knife appeared in it. With four quick slashes, he separated the painting from its frame. He carried the cut canvas to the desk and laid it out. Using a thin scrap of cloth to protect it, he rolled it up and slipped it into a birch scroll-tube tied to his bag. Leaving the tube uncapped, he crossed the room to the door and the charcoal drawing. Four more slashes, and he had removed it from its frame. He was only beginning to roll it up when the door flew open. An explosion of jaunty dance music preceded two men who had burst in. Melbourn cried out, as if surprised. He jumped back two steps and waved the knife.

The man in the middle of the doorway was handsome and well built, but going to seed, as did many men his age. His hair was still thick and curly, which made him stand apart from most nobility. He was dressed for a night at the ball, which was expected. His face, rimed with thick brown whiskers drifting to white, showed shock, surprise, and anger, all in the space of a few seconds.

“What?” he sputtered before bellowing, “Guards!”

Melbourn leapt toward him, shoving him aside with his free hand. Cleitus Barrendon was thrown back into the second man. Melbourn dashed past them and into the hallway. He spun and waved the rolled-up drawing at Lord Barrendon.

“What a lovely woman! My thanks, m’lord!”

He turned and ran along the main hallway of the second floor of Barrendon House, toward the intersection where the Grand Staircase coming up met the less-grand staircase going up. The way in was the way out, and that was on the third floor. As he approached the stairs, guards below announced their presence with angry shouts. Melbourn shifted the rolled-up drawing to his left hand, reached into his vest, and pulled out a thick bag. He yanked it open and upended it at the top of the Grand Staircase. As a combination of steel balls and iron caltrops chingled and clattered down the marble stairs, he raced to the third floor and turned right, toward the open door which led to the sole bedroom with an open-air porch.

The door was closed.

He slammed into it, bouncing away. He grabbed the handle – locked. He had picks, but they would take too long. Hearing a noise behind him, he spun and tried to duck. A quarterstaff smashed him in the jaw. He fell and tumbled aside. As the guard came for him, he snarled and slammed his fist into the man’s crotch. The guard howled and doubled over. Dropping the drawing, Melbourn leapt up and yanked the staff from his hands. He spun it, smashing the man first in the chin, then in the sternum, then in the side. The first blow brought the guard back up. The second one sent him back, toward the stairs. The third one sent him down the stairs. Melbourn watched him fall before turning and slamming the end of the staff into the door lock. It didn’t open. It wasn’t as if he had expected it to, but it would have been nice. He tried a second time. It appeared that the gods expected him to entertain them tonight.

He grabbed the drawing off the floor and ran down the first few stairs. The two noblemen were halfway up the flight and moving toward him. Barrendon carried a rapier; the other was holding a saber. Melbourn’s eyes widened and he grinned; these two were brave.

He flung the drawing past Barrendon. The lord turned to grab at, lost his balance, and stumbled. Melbourn threw the staff at the other nobleman. It banged into him. He fell aside, grabbing at his head. Melbourn leapt down the stairs, putting a hand on Barrendon’s back, shoving him away. The lord stumbled and fell down the last few stairs. Melbourn snatched the drawing from the stairs and ran to the second-floor landing. The guards that had avoided most of the spiked caltrops and steel marbles were nearly to the top. He grabbed a marble from the top step and flung it at the nearest guard. The steel ball smacked him in the forehead. The guard reached for his head as he collapsed.

Melbourn threw the drawing again, to the bottom of the stairs. He grabbed up two more marbles and threw them at guards coming toward him. He spun as he heard Barrendon coming at him. Without time to grab another weapon, Melbourn launched himself down the stairs, dancing as his feet found the empty spaces between the caltrops and the marbles. He angled his course toward the rail and away from the lurching guards with bleeding feet and banged knees. From the rail he could slide down…

Two of the guards had gotten to the railing, between him and the ground floor. Apparently the gods weren’t yet entertained. He spat his favorite sidhe invective and vaulted over the rail. He bent his knees and fell forward. Hands and knees slapped the stone floor. He jumped up, waved his hands to cool the sting in them, and raced for the front of the stairs. He glanced up and saw one of the guards lean out over the railing, sword in hand. Still running, Melbourn dropped to his knees and leaned back. His soft linen trousers resisted little on the polished stone floor. He slid under the guard’s swung blade and past the front of the Grand Staircase. He snatched up the rolled-up drawing as he passed and regained his feet. There was only one decision to make now. One choice led straight out the front door and past the footmen, men-at-arms, and bodyguards that belonged to the hundreds of noblemen and women who were attending Barrendon’s Ball. The second choice led him right past those hundreds of noblemen and women. Melbourn grinned and informed the gods that the entertainment was moving to a new level. He ran away from the front door and toward the music.

The doors to Barrendon’s Great Hall – at least he assumed it was a Great Hall; the nobles always had one – stood ajar and the music’s volume grew. As he ran toward it, he grabbed the birch scroll-case and slid the picture inside. He capped it and let it go, to bounce against his back next to the bag. He ran through the doors, yanking a masque from a table as he passed. He jogged inside and slipped on the ivory face with gaping smile and long nose.

The music at Barrendon’s Ball was loud and constant, which was his preference. Unlike most places he had been, the nobles of Harbordown eschewed the tightly-controlled, overly mannered dances that most members of Quality around the world preferred. Instead, the local rulers listened to much the same music as their lessers – loud, danceable tunes to please both ears and body. Barrendon’s Ball was no exception.

Melbourn glanced back and saw guards moving into the entryway. He glided away from the door, moving between the wallflowers and those who were at least thinking about dancing. As was custom, the men wore masques and the women went bare-faced. Both sorts glanced toward him as he passed. He ignored them and watched the musicians onstage. In front of a huge bay window, a bassist played a complex, repeating melody that intertwined with the polyrhythmic beats from the two hand drummers and the one kettle player. Two fiddlers stood together playing a melody shared with a flutist on the opposite side of the stage. A trio of female singers sang and chanted in a language that Melbourn couldn’t identify. It was in perfect 4/4 time, and it was ripe for a dance.

He glanced back again and saw the guards moving along the walls, glancing at men as they passed; they were looking for lurkers, not dancers. It was time to let the music work its magic on him. His feet and hips began to move first, then his shoulders and head. He let his feet take him onto the dance floor, out of the eyelines of the guards and into the eyelines of the city’s nobility. Dancing and swaying, he crossed the floor toward the back of the Hall, passing joined couples, temporary pairs, and happy singles. As he left the floor and entered again into the no man’s land of non-dancers, he sped up and aimed himself at the open doors and the courtyard outside. As he moved into the last line of wallflowers, he saw a quartet of hard-looking guards appear from outside. They blocked the door. He swore under the painted smile. Someone had called for reinforcements. Melbourn took a sharp left turn and found himself face to face with a line of young women. His eyebrow rose under the masque as he saw them turn as one and look at him.

They likely thought him one of their own – a young man perhaps, his hair dyed wild behind the masque, dressed common for shock value. He eyed the line of fresh, young scions of power and decided to pluck the lone brunette from the hedge of blondes. He danced and slid directly at her, presenting his hand as he approached. The dark-haired girl blushed, looked away, and glanced back at him from under dark brows. Melbourn waved his fingers toward her in the same way he would call a man to a fight. She took his hand, smiling, as he spun her to him, body to body, and spun her away toward the floor.

They danced together toward the stage, where the younger people had gathered. Their hands were connected, fingers twined, and he let her back toward the others, letting her think she led him. She wore her hair unbound; the black curls flying with each turn and spin. He turned as he danced, glancing around for the guardsmen and another way out, but keeping much of his gaze on her, as he knew would be expected. She was pretty in a young, slim way – a bit too willowy for his tastes. Her hips were still the hips of a girl, not yet a woman. She smiled easily for a noblewoman, a fact of which he did approve. He spied a few people looking toward them through plaster eye holes, but saw no recognition, no looks of anxiety or caution. He had already found his way out, but for a few moments more he enjoyed himself completely.

When he heard the melody change and crescendo, he knew the dance was over. He pulled the girl to him – they were nearly the same height – and spun her away. She turned and came back to him. He spun her up again into his arms and dipped her on the last note. She smiled up at him as applause began, held only by his one arm. She reached up and raised his masque from his chin. He smiled. She gasped before she grinned; there were no sidhe nobles in Harbordown. He leaned down and met her mouth coming up. As chastely as his nature allowed, he kissed the young girl and brought her back to vertical. He pulled free his hands, stepped back, and bowed. As he stood, he lowered the masque and let her see the smile in the corners of his eyes. He turned and ran, leaping onto the stage as the guards ran past the girl.

Melbourn grabbed one of the musicians’ stools, spun, and threw. It hit the first guard to the stage in the chest, knocking him back and away from the edge. Musicians began to move away as he kicked an abandoned hand drum into the face of another angry guard. It broke across his nose, dropping him to his knees. The bassist began to move toward him. Melbourn swiveled and grabbed another stool. He raised it and threw it in the musician’s direction. The bassist dove aside as the heavy wood stool shattered the two-story bay window behind the stage, sending shards of glass raining down into the back of the gallery and the grass below. The musicians scattered, carrying their instruments with them. He started to run, but heard a guard coming at him. Melbourn reached out and plucked a fiddle from the hand of a passing musician. He raised it like a club.

“Don’t!” The musician yelled. “It’s a Najel!”

Melbourn flipped the instrument over and saw the maker’s mark burned into the back of the fiddle body. Tossing the fiddle back to its owner, he dodged a blow from the guard’s cudgel. He dropped to his knees and grabbed the guard’s ankles. He yanked, sending the guard onto his back. Turning, he tucked the scroll case and bag to his side and leapt through the open window-way. He dropped several feet to the ground and slid down a short hill to the manor wall. Ignoring the orders to stop, he scaled the wall and dropped to the road beyond. Laughing to himself, he ran down the street and into the night.

He assumed the gods were now well-entertained.

Continue with Chapter Five - "Harbordown by Day"

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