Stumbling through the Swordcoast
Vul strides down the narrow city street. The lit torches set in the walls give off a greasy smoke and a dank, burning smell, but the steel caps of his boots kick away the ash and his expression is so stern that no smoke would dare burn his eyes or singe his swift breathing. The few people standing in the shadows after curfew shrink back against the walls; here and there, neat patches of nailed wood show where the structures have rotted completely through and been repaired.
“Oi! Watch it!” says a voice down at knee-level as a Halfling nearly walks right into him. Vul bows with a sarcastic flourish and the Halfling, muttering, disappears down an alleyway.
He steps over a puddle of dark water, and turns the corner into another passage. His pockets jingle with the spoils of the day, and he wants to get to the goblins’ pawn shop before they turn in for the night – undetected, if at all possible. For this purpose he wears dark brown, almost black, of tough dwarven cloth for practicality’s sake, and a long-sleeved, hooded coat that stretches out over his hands to reveal only the very tips of his fingers. Over the sleeves are a dozen rough-hewn copper bangles, greening with age and lack of care, and bent to his shape from years of wearing.
Vul’s first teacher – the cutpurse Krill – once told him that trouble sought him out. He has seen nothing to disprove this theory and, once again, it finds him. A thief falls from the roof of the tunnel to fasten both hands around his neck. Vul is tired after his long day of pickpocketing, or this cut-rate thug would not have been able to get near him at all. The boy holds a knife. His face is young – he is twelve, maybe? Thirteen? He is inexperienced, holding his knife wrongly, and it is quick work to take it away from him. Shouts in the streets tell Vul that he is not the only one who has been ambushed. A gang raid.
He stiffens the fingers of his hand into an unyielding blade of flesh, and chops the boy in the neck. He feels the ridged bones of the throat give way and hears the gurgling that means he has cut off the thief’s windpipe. He steps back and watches as the boy clutches his throat and falls to the ground, and as the pink lung-blood bubbles up at the edge of his lips. He is trying to say something, but Vul is already pulling on his leather gloves and does not look at him. When the boy is finally dead, Vul checks him for knives – just one, in the boot. Amateur.
Moving swiftly away, he steps on something in the darkness. This in itself is not unusual: there are all kinds of things in the narrow passages, some dead and some alive. What makes him stop and look is the sound that follows the crunch of his boot: a yelp. A torch flares into life and he sees a hand, raised as if to shield from a blow. The hand is bruised; Vul can see clearly the imprint of his boot on the fingers. He is about to move on when the hand closes around his ankle.
“Help … me.”
The words are spoken through dry lips. The life is seeping away from this one: Vul can tell.
It is another boy. His face is pale, bluish, with a petal of shadow under each eye and a thumbprint-sized hollow in each cheek. He looks scared. A slice through his leather jacket; a wound like a pair of black lips opening to a pulp of blood and flesh. Torture – probably by the same gang that accosted Vul. He crouches beside the boy, interested. It is a beautiful job, this knifework, and he admires its craftsmanship. He presses his gloved fingers to the opening of the wound and feels the familiar warm pulse of blood at his fingertips. He can feel it even through the thickest leather. A talent, of sorts.
“Help me,” the boy says again.
“No.” Vul stands.
He holds out a coin. Vul takes it, already slick with blood, from the thief’s white fingers, and raises his eyebrows.
“Help me. Please.”
Vul pockets the coin. He kneels, and the boy’s ragged breathing becomes softer as he realises that Vul is going to stay, even if only for a moment.
“Here.” Vul pulls his makeshift field dressing from his pouch and presses it to the wound. He is rough, and the boy winces.
“Now you won’t bleed to death,” says Vul. He stands up again. Shouts echo down the dark corridor.
Vul turns, surprised. “Of course.”
The boy’s eyes are very dark. “I gave you my last coin.”
Vul stares at him. “You have a weapon,” he says. “There is a dressing on your wound. That is more than you have a right to expect.”
He splashes through the dark puddles. Behind him, the boy appears to fade as the light recedes, until he is nothing more than the glint of eyes and blade in the darkness.
In the city, you help no one but yourself.