Ash to Ash

   Hob-nailed boots clattered on cobblestone, the noise bouncing off the walls of the alley. Tors bit his lip, rewarded with the tang of blood. The thief was pressed flat against the tightly knit stones of a hovel, hidden behind a crumbling support pillar. With a trained ear he estimated at least six guards, moving fast and very pissed. Bloody unsporting, Tors thought as he deposited a small bag into his ash grey cloak. His hand then moved to his waist, the weight of his jagged dagger giving him some reassurance.
   A half dozen guardsmen, clad in rusted chainmail and pale aketons thundered past, plumes of ash stirred up with each step. Crossbows and billhooks glinted in the smog choked light, each ready to end Tors’ life should the opportunity present itself. 
   Tors had no intention of presenting such an opportunity; once the guards had passed, he broke down the alley his pursuers came down. Shimmering puddles of creosote splashed in the gutter as the thief hugged the far wall, ever wary of more watchmen. He drew his hood up as he neared the corner, hoping to blend in once he had entered the streets.
   “Drop ‘im!” a harsh, rasping voice cried. Tors pushed himself round the corner, crossbow bolts flying past and embedding themselves in the side of a cart. The motley crowd assembled on Blacklung Road panicked as the thief shouldered his way down the street, six guards at his heels. Portly merchants and gaunt beggars moved aside as the thief shouldered his way through the crowd.
   Tors spotted a side street to his left, and grabbed the fattest individual he could find. The thief used the grotesque gentleman as an anchor, slowing his speed and turning him rapidly. The flabbergasted man barked insults at his attacker, before he was shoved to the side by a burly, crossbow-toting guard.
  Tors felt his sides throb, his soot flecked lungs straining to keep the poisoned air flowing through him. He tasted copper, and his vision began to narrow. His pace slowed, but the clatter of a bolt striking the stone behind him put a fire in his chest. He turned off onto another major road, another bolt clipping his billowing cloak. “They’re better shots than befor,” he wheezed as he bolted past run down houses. To his left was a wide, putrid canal, oil and waste mixing in with acidic rainwater and dead rats. Ahead was the great walls of the city, and the gates.
   Tors mulled his options over. He could either stay on course and approach the guarded gates, or brave the toxic miasma of the sewers. He cursed. Burn it all to cinder how did I get turned around?!



   His options limited, and with the guards soon rounding the corner, the thief elected to dive into the vile concoction in the drains to his side. He took a deep breath of rancid air, screwed his dark eyes shut, and plunged feet first into the muck. 

  Tors made no splash. He swiftly sunk beneath the tar stained waves, and his skinned burned at the lapping sewage. But for all its vileness, the sludge was far more forgiving than the city guard.

   Tors knew that if he opened his eyes, the caustic ooze would be the last thing he saw. He elected to stay under as long as his lungs would allow, hoping that when he surfaced the soldiers would have passed.
 His lungs ached, threatening to take a toxic breath on their own accord. The thief pushed off the cracked stone of the canal, desperate for air. His head broke the surface, viscous ooze sloughing off of him. He placed one hand on the side of the canal, and the other he used to clean off his coated face. His nose clear, Tors took a deep, desperate breath. The stench forced his lunch up, but he suppressed his urge to wretch.

 Gobs of filth were wiped from his eyes, plopping into the mire below. The pale light stung as bad as the fumes from the sewage, but Tors had escaped. He chuckled as he pulled himself free from the sludge, an exhausted exaltation filling him.

   He basked on the edge of the putrid river, taking a moment to properly catch his breath. A quick glance confirmed that he was alone on this horrid streets, fresh boot-prints dotting the ash leading to the gates. Free of prying eyes he took a moment to confirm his prize still hung from his belt. Many small copper coins jingled in the leather pouch, and Tors sighed. “By all that burns I’m glad I don’t have to dive back in for this…” he mused. The pouch would keep him fed and housed for well over a week, with enough left over to clean his soiled clothes.
   His rest was interrupted by a distant clamour. Harsh voices barked orders, audible over a chorus of boots. Tors was hard pressed to guess the number of boots, but it was enough to make the hair stand on the back of his head. 
   The thief stumbled to his feet, shoes slick with waste and limbs waterlogged. He scrambled on all fours, sliding towards the steps of a partly collapsed home. The windows were boarded, as was the door, but a pile of rubble next to the entrance provided Tors with enough cover to avoid detection. Smells gonna give me away, he thought, his nose flaring. 
   He threw himself behind the pile, crashing onto loose stones and rotted timbers. He brought his legs in, curling up tight and covering himself in his rancid cloak. As he donned the hood, he spotted the trail of slime and ash-prints that led to his hidey-hole. “Burn it all to cinder!” he hissed, and he pushed himself from the wall. Another sharp call drove him back; the guards were already on his street. All this for stealing twelve Embers? he questioned, the bag of coins heavy in his hand.
   Tors was tempted to toss the pouch into the sewage, to abandon the gold with the hope to pass as just another beggar. He doubted the guards had his face memorized, and he certainly smelled the part. But try as he might the coin would not leave his hands. It was hard work acquiring the money; he had stalked his target for a half hour before finally swooping in, and was halfway down the road when the blubbery noble noticed her pouch missing. The ruckus she raised was unbelievable, a bloated finger pointed directly at Tors.
   The thief deposited the bag within the deepest recesses of his cloak, in a secret pocket that he could dump should the need arise. If he died, he died twelve Embers richer. He drew himself into a tighter ball, appearing as if he had fallen asleep. In his head he wound a plausible if fantastical yarn on how he had stumbled into the sewage.
   He was refining the details of the story when the clatter of boots caught up to him. At least two dozen by his reckoning, moving at… A leisurely march? The guards had slowed their pace, travelling at a fast, drilled walk. Cocky bastards. Tors bit his lip. Think they got me cornered. I’ll show them cornered. He grabbed his wicked dagger, knuckles white as he clenched the rough bindings of the hilt. Death in battle was preferable to the long, drawn out demise he would suffer in the city’s prisons.

   He mumbled a number of curt apologies; anyone he felt he had wronged in his long, lecherous career. Merchants, paupers, cripples, anyone who needed the coin as much as he, if not more. Nobles can suck-

  His final crude thought was cut short by a harsh call. It was muffled, but Tors assumed they were orders. He coiled up, ready to spring in a flash of steel. From under the hood of his cloak he could make out the dull sheen of steel, and bright red aketons.
  There was something wrong with the procession. It was too orderly; they marched in rows of four, shoulder to shoulder in full uniform. Tors sneered under his hood, eyeing each as they passed. Soldiers. 
  Murderers on the Duke’s payroll. His grip on his dagger tightened, nails threatening to tear into his palm.

  Thirty in total passed, including an officer clad in a rich surcoat. Tors resisted the urge to spit, the will to live stronger than his hatred for soldiers. An itch rode his spine along a jagged scar, the result of a billhook scraping his ribs. His life was nearly cut short over a brass locket, lifted from a porcine brat at the market.

  It was not his only scar. For all the vileness of the city watch, Tors found the soldiers of the city far more cruel. To them life was a currency to be weighed against gold, a barter that was severely one-sided. Enough of Tors’ friends had found themselves playthings to the protectors of Rendsheim, their fleeting lives punctuated by heartless beatings and twisted curses. On more than one occasion the thief had taken revenge on the low-browed monsters, his blade finding a home in supple flesh.
  But today it seemed his dagger would go un-bloodied. The soldiers had passed Tors without so much as a glance. They continued towards the square by the gates in drilled unison, purpose in their pace. It was enough to give Tors pause. He began to question if he was their original prey.

  Not one to ponder, Tors lifted himself from his corner. His dagger back in his belt, the thief peered round the rubble and up the street. It was clear, save for prints in the ash. Nodding, Tors waited a moment before shadowing the soldiers as they made for the gates. In his experience, soldiers would patrol with gaps between groups, spaced evenly. This made the safest position behind the first patrol, at least until he could find safe ground.

  Tors adopted a slow, limping gait, hunching himself and bringing his shoulders in. To the untrained eye, the thief was little more than an aged beggar, hobbling to his next stoop. At all times he kept his head forwards, any glance backwards potentially betraying his guilty nature. He suppressed his fear, keeping the urge to sprint away buried as deep as possible. 

  The thief ducked down an alley as he approached the square, satisfied he had put enough distance between himself and his crime. Once in the shadows, he stretched his frame out, and removed his rancid hood. He took several deep breaths, the smell of ash far preferable to shit and oil. Smiling, he continued down the alley.
   It was then Tors heard something odd; a dry, old voice speaking at great length. The speaker was echoed by a crowd, cheers and hisses interrupting the orator. Tors was intrigued, and stalked towards the square. The voice became clear.

  “…which is why his Royal Sir, Duke Rudolph has imposed a city wide conscription.”
   Tors froze. Conscription had been commonplace in times past, but it had been a decade since the Duke last called for a city wide press-gang. The thief huddled behind a stack of crates as a cry went up, and the sound of hobnailed boots reached him.
   “Bastards were heading for the square,” he hissed. He spat to his side, sickened by the lack of humanity on display. It was then Tors deeply regretted letting the soldiers past unmolested. Had he drawn their attention, forced them into a chase, it might have left enough of an opening for some of the poor sods in the square to make a break for it.
   Tors pushed the thought aside, his dire situation holding his full attention. The streets would be crawling with goons in short order, and the thief intended to make good his escape. He sidled down the wall as he drew a mental map. He went over every fence and safehouse he was welcome in. The closest was on Blacklung Road, which sat in the shadow of the walls of the city. Tors dismissed this in short order, the route being too obvious.

    The next closest was across the square, tucked behind a charcoal warehouse. This would bring Tors straight to the Duke’s thugs. Not ideal. The third, however, held some promise; nestled in the loft of an abandoned butcher’s, it was a ways off. But it was more or less a clear shot, across the rancid canal Tors had braved earlier.

   His options limited, Tors elected to take his chances with the butcher’s loft. Pushing himself off the wall, he broke into a soft jog back to that vile river of shit. His ears perked up, tuning out the clamour of the square and alert for any sound that may betray an adversary. Ash softened the footsteps, but Tors knew the telltale jingle of armoured thugs all too well.

   The thief found himself on the abandoned stretch of road that bordered the sewer. The footsteps had already received a fresh sprinkling of ash, courtesy of the city’s charcoal pits. No new prints had appeared, leading Tors to assume the first unit that passed him had no backup. 

   The thief plotted the shortest route across the stinking canal to the aged buildings beyond. The nearest bridge was a half mile north, across open ground. The canal itself, however, was just narrow enough to be jumped. At least that was Tors hope; he had already braved the waters once that day.

   Tors looked up and down the length of the road. Both sides of the canal were clear, as was the alley directly across from the thief. Inhaling deeply, he broke into an all out sprint. Thundering towards the edge of the canal, he prepared to leap. 
   Like a spring he shot forward, his back foot gripping the edge of the paving stones. The far edge approached the thief rapidly, along with the gut-wrenching realization that he would fall short. Panicking, Tors leaned forward, hoping to land on his hands as well as his front foot.

   With a splash and a thud, most of Tors made it over the canal. His back leg sunk into the putrid mire, and his knee flew into the edge of the canal. With a grotesque crack, Tors felt something inside his leg break. Stone dug deep into flesh, grinding against the shards of bone beneath before being ripped away. Crimson stained the ash as Tors rolled forward, his hands grasping at his leg.

   “FUCK!” he bellowed, blood oozing between his fingers. His vision darkened, and all he could smell was copper. 
    He ground his teeth as he pulled his hand back, taking in the damage. He was greeted by a pearlescent sheen, pieces of bone protruding through ruined skin and shredded cloth. His knee had shattered on impact.
   “Fuck fuck fuck…” Tors mumbled to himself, doing all he could to keep himself conscious. “I’m done. I’m fucking done!” An injury like this would lose him his leg, if not his life. In one leap, his odds at survival fell to nil. Even should he survive the wicked wound he would crippled for life.
   His survival instinct kicked in, a flow of adrenaline numbing the pain and silencing his self pity. The drive to live washed away all other thoughts, urging him to cling to whatever pathetic existence awaited the thief. “Better a cripple than a corpse,” he hissed as he forced himself onto his good leg.  

  Every motion sent daggers of agony through the shattered ruin of his knee. The leg would no longer bend, forcing Tors to hobble with the abused limb dragging against the cobblestone. His teeth cracked as he clenched his jaw.

   Got to get to the safehouse. Got to get to the… Tors cursed. The safehouse was on the second floor, accessible only by rope. “Burn it all to cinder,” he barked. He had no idea how he’d manage to get up, let alone down. He mulled over his option. The next nearest safehouse was a mile away. 
   Tors huffed, forcing himself to continue on his previous path. He hoped beyond hope a fellow thief had opted to hide in the same spot. And that said thief would help him rather than rob him blind and leave him for dead. All for twelve bloody embers. Tors recalled the notion of honour among thieves. Were it not for his ragged knee, he would have chuckled.

  The alley was tantalizingly close now. Tors focused on the task at hand, the long hobble ahead of him pushed to the back of his mind. He just had to make it to the alley. Just had to…

   A twang stung his ears, followed by an impact on his back. The new pain in his chest eclipsed even that of his tortured leg, digging through his body and nicking his heart. The thief screamed, his call cut short as his lung collapsed. Tors struggled for breath, tumbling forward and landing on his good knee. The ruined leg snapped, twisting limply to the side.
  The thief looked down, spotting a glint of steel on his grey robes. Dumbly he picked at the object, trying to pluck it from his clothes. The steel stuck firm, a crimson stain spreading over the fabric.
  Tors’ heart raced, each beat scraping the organ against the intruding object. I’ve been shot… Tors raised an eyebrow, his mind clouding. I’ve been shot? No, no, why would I be… A bubble rose in the thief’s throat. He coughed, splattering black, arterial blood over the ash coated cobblestones.
  The thief fell forward, his eyes stuck wide. His mind pushed his body to escape, a task he was unable to fulfill. Tors felt himself slipping away, his body going numb and his breath failing. The last thing he heard was a shouted compliment to his executioner. 

   Fucking….Soldiers….

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