4: When Chamber Pots Fly
Rory spun as the shout shattered the air, her eye catching a glimpse of black cloth fluttering across the rooftops as angry mutters rippled through the crowd. The procession had stopped, the Caselen entourage taking up formation, and she found herself facing a wall of mounted knights. Feeling the tension rise another few notches, she went to take a step back, sensing that it would be safer in the backstreets. A soft squeak escaped from between her lips as the man behind her grabbed by the shoulder and squeezed it firmly. He was dark-eyed with straw-coloured hair. A long crescent scar slashed across his temple, and his arms were muscled and corded like a knight or a blacksmith. Something in the way he held himself that reminded the girl of Isaac.
"Stand fast, boy. Don't let your resolve waver," he murmured in her ear. The men around them muttered in accord.
Rory swallowed and faced forward again. There was a darkness clouding their faces and it frightened her. She'd seen it before, in the eyes of the Duke whenever she mentioned his brother's usurpation of the throne. Rage. Cold, relentless rage. She bit the inside of her cheek. There were Royal Guardsmen posted all along the road, it wouldn't be long before word reached the Emperor that someone had attacked the Caselen delegates. When that happened more guards would be sent out to quell the "disturbance." She hoped to the gods that they would send someone with diplomacy to confront these commoners.
As if on cue, a horn sounded from the south, announcing the arrival of the Royal Guard. An angry buzz rippled through the crowd as a squad of black and blue clad soldiers marched up the North Road and fanned out around the Caselen entourage. The man behind Rory let out a low growl as their captain pushed his forward to address to the throng of angry commoners before him. "Sir Stenman," he glowered, eyes narrowing as he watched the Guard-Captain's squire hurry over with a crate for his master to stand on, "…noble-born scum."
Rory frowned as the knight batted the boy away and stepped up onto the makeshift platform. Stenman. That name sounded awfully familiar. It wasn't until he removed his helmet to reveal a weathered face crowned with a mane of black, greying hair that she remembered where she'd seen him before. Stenman Garren. If she recalled correctly he used to be captain of the men-at-arms at her stepfather's fiefdom. Last time she'd met him, he had been a commoner just like every other man here. When had he become a knight?
"Commoners!" roared Stenman, rubbing his thumb over the pommel of his sword. "What is the meaning of this disturbance?"
"What disturbance?" yelled a voice from the crowd. "We ain't done nothin' wrong, ya steel blockhead!"
Stenman glared, eyes sweeping the crowd in a futile effort to identify the speaker in the angry mob before him. He gestured to the mess on the roof of the Caselen carriage. "Assaulting the foreign delegate is a disturbance! A disturbance worthy of being called treason for endangering the peace of our nation!" he bellowed, ignoring the indignant cries from the innocents in the crowd.
Rory stared at him in utter disbelief. These people were one wrong move away from a riot and he was provoking them. Madness!
"You are breaking royal decree!" continued Stenman. "Violating the law against gatherings and congregations is a crime worthy of the stocks! But I am a kind soul," – the man behind Rory snorted – "return to your homes now and I shall forget this… incident. In the name of the Emperor, disperse now or I—"
Whatever Stenman intended to do, Rory and the commoners of Lower Aurel never found out. His order was ended with the sound of smashing pottery as a second chamber pot flew through the air and knocked the knight from his stand. Rory looked up, the cloaked figure was back on the rooftops and he had returned with friends.
"We serve no Emperor!" bellowed the rebel, pumping his fist into the air. "We serve only the King!"
Stenman wiped a gloved hand through his filthy hair and rounded on his men. "ARREST THE REBELS!" he roared, spittle flying through the air. He unsheathed his sword and pointed it at the crowd. "ARREST THEM ALL!"
All hell broke loose.
The Guardsmen drew their weapons and broke rank, charging as the crowd surged forward from both sides and overran them. The world blurred and spun as Rory was shoved from all sides. Commoners armed themselves with whatever they could find. Sticks. Stones. Sharpened nails. Some even managed to produce daggers and clubs as they waded through the fighting, almost as if they'd been expecting trouble.
Lost in the bedlam Rory pushed against the tide. Heartbeat drumming in her ears, mouth dry with terror, she searched the mayhem for a way out. More horns sounded loud and clear over the chaos, announcing the arrival of reinforcements. But there was no time to dwell on the thought. All around her men shouted as they bludgeoned and stabbed. Women and children cried and screamed. Panicked horses whinnied and shrieked. Hundreds of voices clashed in a meaningless chorus of noise.
The end of a Guardsman's baton clipped her elbow, and a sharp shove sent her sprawling. Hair in her face and caught in her mouth she hit the ground hard. She forced herself back onto her hands and knees and froze, eyes wide with fear. Above her reared the thrashing hooves of a panicked Caselen steed, its rider nowhere in sight.
Her brain was screaming for her to move – to get out of the way.
But she couldn't. She was frozen, rooted to the spot. Enthralled by fear.
A hand reached out and seized the girl by the collar of her shirt, dragging her out of harm's way as the stallion's hooves smashed down in the spot where she had been frozen a moment ago. With a firm yank she was lifted to her feet then shoved aside as her saviour moved to block a guardsman's baton with a pair of long daggers. She recognised the man from before, the one that had told her to stand fast.
"Don't just stand there, boy!" he yelled, eyes wide with frenzy. "Fight back! Fight for freedom! Let these bastards see your resolve!"
He was right; it was dangerous to just stand there. Rory fled through the masses, moving in the direction she guessed would lead into the alleyways.
She ran nose-first into a wall of a steel. Reeling back in pain, she glared at the offender through watering eyes. "Get out of the way!" she yelled, and then realised that she was facing a knight in full plate. She took a step back.
"Careful, miss. That had to hurt." Moving swiftly, he grabbed her by the arm and yanked her out of harm's way as two brawlers charged towards them. Sword at the ready, he brought them both down.
Miss? thought Rory. Panicking, she put her hands to her head only to find them tangled in long locks of hair. Gods curse it all; she'd lost her cap when she'd fallen down.
The knight grabbed her close and led her through the crowd. She followed obediently, keeping her head down to avoid looking at the man's face. If he was a knight, then he was the son of a noble house and there was every chance that they'd met him before. Rory didn't even want to know what her stepfather would do her if word reached his ears that she'd been caught in a commoner's riot. She studied the coat-of-arms painted onto the man's breastplate and cross-referenced the image in her mind: a bronze pair crossed spears on a field of emerald green - that was the seal of the Southern Fens. Burning it into her mind, Rory made a mental note to avoid any and all nobles from the region.
Driving a path through the crowd he ushered her into an alcove made by an upturned cart and a wall where a frightened young woman and two little boys cowered, and removed his helmet to address them. The woman gave the knight a small nod of acknowledgement. Apparently he'd also pulled her and the two boys out of the fray. Such displays of chivalry were rare in these days, particularly towards the common folk.
Feeling slightly less manic now that she was out of the thick of the mob, Rory took the time to study the man who had saved her. He was young, not much older than Rory herself, but his hazel eyes were calm and calculating despite the pandemonium around them. His dark brown hair rebelled against gravity, sticking up out of his head at all angles, and despite of the gravity of the situation, Rory couldn't help but think that if the man had were to given a token animal, it would have be a hedgehog. A very large, heavily muscled hedgehog, but a hedgehog all the same.
She stifled a giggle and quickly moved her gaze to her feet as he looked her way. She closed her eyes, waiting for him to recognise her but all he said was, "Wait here. I'll come and get you when it's safe to run home." And with that he disappeared back into the madness.
"Strange cove, that one." A heavy hand clapped Rory on the shoulder and she let out an embarrassingly loud, girly shriek. The woman and children sharing her shelter spun in alarm.
"Isaac!" yelled Rory furiously, whirling around to glare at the grinning man.
"That's how ye scream? Ain't no way anyone'll believe yer a man if you go around shriekin' like that."
"Well forgive me for being a little wound up at the moment," snapped Rory. "In case you didn't notice, there is a riot out there!"
"Aye, I can see that," said Isaac, looking straight at her and then shaking his head with a sigh. "Should've known somethin' was a-gonna go wrong."
"What's that supposed to mean? I didn't cause this!"
"Never said you did, lass."
"Then why are you giving me the stink-eye?" demanded Rory. Isaac raised an eyebrow at her and she threw her hands up in defeat. "Never mind! How'd you find me?"
Isaac winked and tapped his nose. "Trick of the trade."
"Oh? And what trade might that be?"
She scowled as the man shook his head at her. "I think we've got more pressin' matters at hand, lass. How's about we get ye out of here, hmm?"
"And how do you suppose we do that?" Rory demanded. "Unless you can fly, I see no way out of here except going back into the mob."
To Rory's annoyance Isaac just laughed at her. Somehow it didn't surprise her that the blond man was as eerily calm as the knight who had rescued her. "Actually, Lady, I was gonna suggest we take the roofs, but if ye want ta fly—" He flapped his hands in imitation of wings. "—go ahead and try."
"I didn't mean –"
"I know, I know. Just makin' a joke at yer ladyship's expense. Come on, I'll give y' a boost." Rory froze as he stepped behind her and placed his hands just below her ribcage. "Tarry-ho!"
Rory let out a yelp that was half-surprise and half-pain as Isaac lifted her into the air. "Mother of – Isaac! What do you think you're doing?"
"Would ye just shut up and pull yerself up? Pardon me sayin' but ye weigh a wee bit more than I'm used t' carryin' – ouch!" He stumbled back and glared upwards as Rory's foot caught him in the face. "Oi, what was that for?"
Rory pulled a face at him and retorted, "Accident. Now, would ye just shut up and git up here, Isaac?"
"Accident, my eye," Isaac muttered as he climbed on top of the upturned cart and leapt across onto the roof. Standing up straight, he surveyed the area.
The riot was spreading, spilling out from the buildings along the North Road to the adjacent blocks. He could see Lowtowners running out of houses in the distance with makeshift weapons to join in the fighting. He shook his head. All this because of some idiot with a chamber pot.
Dodging a thrown rock, he turned south to check the Northern Archway into Hightown. Another two squads of Royal Guardsmen were on their way to 'quell' the fighting. He pursed his lips as they marched through the great arch and the gates were sealed behind them. The nobility didn't want the riff-raff getting into their district. "Not good," he muttered under his breath.
"What's not good?" asked Rory craning her neck to see whatever it was that had Isaac worried.
He grabbed her shoulders and spun her around to face the east. "Nothin' ye need t' worry 'bout, yer ladyship. Come on, follow me."
Picking the safest and easiest route he knew, Isaac moved across the rooftops as quickly as he could with Rory following behind. To her credit, she didn't complain or argue with him – although that may have been because she was trying so damn hard not to fall behind or off the roofs. There was the occasional breathless 'Are we there yet?' but otherwise she was silent.
Rory gasped, resting her hands on her knees when Isaac finally came to a halt in an area that the riot had yet to reach. The shouts and screams were behind them, but not by much. It wouldn't be long before the mob caught up with them at the pace they were going. "By the gods, Isaac. Where – are you – taking – me?" the girl wheezed, struggling to catch her breath. He turned as if to reply, then stepped right off the edge of the building and vanished.
"Isaac!" screamed Rory, racing over to where he'd disappeared. "Oh my goodness! Isaac, are you alright?"
The blond man laughed at her panic and grinned up at her from the alleyway two storeys down. "No need t' shout. No one's ever gonna believe that yer a man if ye keep shriekin' like that." He beckoned to her. "Now what are ye waitin' for, lass? Jump down!"
"You want me to what?"
Isaac flicked his fingers at her. "Jump. I promise I won't let ye smash into the ground. Or don't ye trust me?"
Rory looked down at him and swallowed hard. She'd met the man twice. Did she trust him?
Great Mother, I must be insane... she thought as she squeezed her eyes shut and jumped. Fighting the urge to scream, she waited for the bone-crushing impact that would come when she hit the ground. But it didn't. Opening her eyes, she found Isaac looking down at her with a crooked grin on his face. "Caught ye," he said with a wink.
She opened her mouth to snap a retort, only to receive a mouthful of dirty handkerchief for her troubles. "No time fer yer questions, Lady. I don' want anyone followin' where we're going."
Too busy gagging and spitting out the dry wad of cotton, the noblewoman was unable to protest as Isaac hefted her onto his shoulder and walked off down the lane. Mulling over what he'd said, Rory decided that she didn't quite trust Isaac as much as she thought she did.
It felt like they'd been walking for hours when Isaac finally dropped Rory none-too-gently onto the floor of yet another filthy alleyway.
"May I speak now?" Rory asked sullenly.
"No," said Isaac brusquely, crouching to poke at the dirt-caked flagstones.
"Not now, Lady Aurora!"
"You don't have to—"
Rory slammed her mouth shut as Isaac turned to glare at her. "Do ye want me t' put another gag in? I promise ye, it won't be clean like that last one!"
"If you can call that clean," muttered Rory. Nevertheless, she kept her mouth shut.
A moment later Isaac let out a triumphant crow. Curious, Rory peered over the man's shoulder as he brushed away the mud encrusted on a perfectly carved square of stone paved in amongst the path's uneven flagstones.
"That doesn't lead into the sewers, does it?" asked the noblewoman, wrinkling her nose at the thought.
Isaac raised an eyebrow at the question but didn't answer. Instead he busied himself with rifling through a hidden pocket in his tunic, letting out another small exclamation when he found what he was looking for; a collection of thin, carefully shaped, metal rods. Scanning the square slab with his keen blue eyes, he located a small slit. Aware that Rory was watching his movements over his shoulder, her breath gently tickling his ear, he selected one of the rods and inserted it into the stone then selected another one and slipped it in as well.
"Are those lockpicks? Those are lockpicks, aren't they?" whispered Rory. They turned to face each other, her brown eyes locking onto his blue ones. "Isaac," she said seriously, "are you a thief?"
He ignored the question and turned his attention back to the lock. There was a soft click and he sat back on his heels, a crooked grin on his face. With a careful look around him Isaac once more dug his fingers between the stones and pulled, his face contorting with exertion as the square lifted out of the ground.
Rory blinked. "That... is a trapdoor."
"Fancy that, I hadn't realised," snorted Isaac, looking at the trapdoor and then at Rory with feigned-disbelief. "Now, Yer Ladyship, if ye don't mind, could ye jump in a-fore my arms fall out o' their sockets?"
"You want me, to go in there?"
"Aye, now go!"
With a sharp kick to her derrière, Rory found herself almost tumbling head-first into the darkness. But instead of falling unendingly she found herself on her hands and knees in a crawlspace. Above her Isaac grunted, a wordless order for the girl to get out of the way so he could join her in the pit. She collected herself and scrambled out of the way as he descended feet-first into a crouch, the trapdoor slamming shut above their heads. She heard Isaac rustling around in the darkness, then the familiar scrape and click of tumblers being put back into place. "Now what?" whispered Rory, feeling rather small and cramped in the gloomy space.
Isaac laughed in response, the sound bouncing off the walls and reverberating around the noblewoman's head, making it seem louder than it actually was.
"What?" demanded Rory, turning around and cursing as she smacked her head into a dirt wall. "Why are you laughing at me?"
Isaac snorted and pointed overhead. "Well Lady Aurora, this is a tunnel." Then he remembered that she couldn't see him. "Let it be noted that I be lookin' at ye with derision and a-thinkin' that yer noble education's been a-going to waste, aye? Tunnels ye know, usually a-lead somewhere." He felt around in the dark for Rory, ignoring her screech of surprise as he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and guided her hand to his foot. "Now, ye keep a hold on me ankle. Don't want Yer Ladyship gettin' lost down here, now, do we?"
"Yes, yes. Be quiet and start moving. I'm feeling slightly claustrophobic."
"Now, now. No need t' be rude, lass." Rory let out a small yelp and felt her arm lurch forward as Isaac started to move off into the darkness. Hastily, she followed suit. She was eager to get out of the tunnel and a lot more eager to keep her arm in its socket.
"I'll admit," commented Isaac as they crawled, "not my fav'rite way to travel, but it beats bein' hauled off by the Guard."
"Seeing as you have those lock picks, I imagine you must use these all the time," grumbled the girl.
"What did I just say 'bout bein' rude? Noblewoman or not, ye keep a-talkin' back, an' I'll leave you here."
She snapped her mouth shut.
Moving slowly but steadily they journeyed in silence, the tunnel floor sloping down ever so slightly so that eventually both Rory and Isaac could walk without cracking their heads on the ceiling. Trailing behind Isaac and musing on the fact that she could see red and green lights when she closed her eyes, Rory didn't see the tunnel suddenly rise. With a yelp, she tripped over the craggy ground and landed on top of Isaac.
"Sorry, I didn't see—"
"S'alright, lass," replied Isaac, dismissing her apology with a wave of his hand. "We're here anyway."
'Here' was a dirty little man-made cavern, lit by the glow of a single oil lantern hanging from a hook in the ceiling. Rotting oak boards paved the ground and walls, and there was a rickety old chair leaning against the opposite wall. While she was glad that were finally out of the blinding darkness of the tunnel, Rory didn't feel that this was much of an improvement. As far as she could tell, this room was a dead end.
"And where is 'here' exactly?"
To her annoyance, Isaac chose not to reply. Rory scowled, he'd been doing a lot of that today. She flinched when he suddenly caught her eye, an odd look flitting across his face. Then suddenly he looked away. He seemed uncertain, conflicted.
He glanced back at her and sighed in resignation. Muttering something above having no choice under his breath, he crossed over to the far wall and began to examine in the same way he had with the flagstones. A section of wood gave way beneath his fingers, sliding back to reveal a corridor. The sour smell of ale drifted through the door, accompanied by the sounds of music and laughter. Wherever they were, it was well out of range of the riot – at least for now.
Rory moved to step into the next room, but Isaac held her back. "What?" she asked him, trying unsuccessfully to mimic his favourite one-eyebrow expression.
Isaac ran his hand through his hair, opening and closing his mouth several times before he managed to get anything out. "Look... try not t' say too much. If ye need t' say anything, do it like ye do when yer mimickin' me, a'right?"
"A'right, Yer Lordship," replied Rory, pulling a face and went for the doorway again, but Isaac had yet to let go of her shirt. She looked down at the hand attached to her and then at its owner's face. "Really, Isaac? What are you so worked up about?"
"I mean it, Rory. Truth be told, I shouldn'tve brought ye here. When the riot broke out I thought it'd be a'right but..." Isaac paused and stared distractedly at the space above the noblewoman's head. After a moment he blinked and he glanced back at Rory. "Oi, where's yer cap?"
The girl winced. She'd forgotten about that. "I thought you'd realised earlier. I – um – fell down and lost it..."
"Trickster's dice, girl! What're we gonna do if yer recognised?"
Rory shrugged. "Hope no one will realise?"
"Don't be smart with me, Lady. Do you have any idea—"
Something in her snapped. "No, Isaac," she shouted, "I don't! I have absolutely no idea what's going on! I've been a good girl and let you drag me around all day without kicking up much of a fuss, but I've had just about enough of your holier-than-thou attitude, and if you don't start answering my questions I am going to scream!" Breathless, Rory matched Isaac's glare with one of her own. "I need answers."
The man sighed. "Fine."
"I mean it! I am going to—" She paused and blinked. "Wait... fine?"
"That's what I said, ain't it? Fine."
"That's it? Fine?" repeated Rory dubiously.
"Would y'stop that? What're ye, a parrot?" Isaac shook his head. "This place, we call it the Commoner's Court."
"Never heard of it."
"Course ye haven't," said Isaac, letting a crooked grin spread across his face in spite of himself. "That's a-cause you nobles call it the Thieves' Guild."