Ledram proudly marched through the frigid streets of Ravensport. Though he had left his sword at the city gates, he still possessed the imposing aura of a career killer. Children fled as they fell under his cyclopean stare, and even the city watch gave the sellsword a wide berth.
It was mostly for show, of course. Led knew well that appearances meant much in his line of work. In order to maintain his reputation as the Lead Man, he had to act the part. The coldest of killers always got the best jobs, and when said killer was backed by a fancy title the pay improved noticeably.
And pay was the first thing on Led’s mind. The winter had been unusually brutal, with great sheets of frost smothering the isle of Anwex. Rivers that flowed for decades were seized up with ice, and all over the kingdom tales came of homes that had crumbled under the press of snow. Wayward vagabonds where found frozen solid on the choked roads, looking as though they died mid step. Even the sun hid away from the frost, thick clouds darkening Anwex for months on end.
Trapped within winter’s frigid grip, the people of Anwex found an eerie peace. Beast and bandit alike holed up in caves and hollows, awaiting the thaw to begin their predations anew. Trade had all but ceased, no merchant fool enough to challenge winter’s absolute power over the island.
Through the wicked freeze Led had sheltered in a favoured Tavern, The Emperor’s Daughter, trading stories and drinks with fellow patrons. Despite the frost, deep stores had been prepared by the paranoid innkeeper, crates of half-frozen apples and barrels of brined fish stacked in the hundreds. Charcoal, imported from the kilns of Rendsheim, warded off the worst of the chill, and spiced booze chased away the last of the cold. In good spirits folk played dice and sang the winter away, the tone at odds with the hell outside.
Though the time at the inn was highly enjoyable, Ledram’s forced hiatus had left him with naught but two crowns to rub together. Between food, game, and pleasurable company, he had squandered the meagre savings he had put together.
As soon as the snow had begun to melt, Ledram made his way to Ravensport in search of employment. The small city had been good to him in the past, and its streets always held work for a contract killer.
The sellsword paced up and down the aisles of the grand market, still sluggish from the cold in his bones, in search for some caravan master or disgruntled landowner. He would even take work aboard a passing vessel, though he loathed the thought of travelling by sea.
As he strolled past a particularly large crate, he noted the strange holes punched into the side. He stopped for a moment, leaning towards the openings. An unusually fragrant stink oozed from the wooden box, a mix of spice, burnt meat and dung. Odd, but hardly the strangest thing the sellsword had smelled.
Shrugging, he went to take a step away, when a horrid gurgling emanated from the box. Then, without warning, it began to vibrate dramatically, its occupant ramming itself against the walls. Crackling and rattling, the crate bounced from side to side, phlegm filled bubbling growing louder from within.
“Provoke the beast one more time, and I’ll lock you in the crate with it!”
The threat came from the other side of the stall, and a familiar, if somewhat bloated, face peered through the fabric.
“Tors?” Led exclaimed, shocked by the reappearance of his colleague. “By my ancestors, what are you doing here?”
“Led?” Tors hummed, before a toothy grin broke his flabby face. “Ancestors, I thought I’d never see you again!” Stepping from the canvas, he tossed a chunk of rancid meat through an opening in the crate, which quieted the beast.
Tors looked the sellsword up and down. “You look awful. Is that the same padded jacket as the one you wore to Telucia?”
“Same jacket, same chainmail, same everything.”
“Huh,” Tors huffed, “well, at least you kept the eye.” He gestured to Led’s left socket, filled by a silver sphere.
“Its good to keep your burial fund with you,” the sellsword replied, tapping the prosthetic. “Looks like your not wanting for money.”
Tors chuckled, patting his noticeable gut that strained his crimson tunic. “Made a few contacts in Telucia, found some very profitable work importing… exotic creatures.”
Ledram raised an eyebrow. “For?”
Tors shrugged. “Ostensibly? The Baron’s menagerie.”
Tors glanced from side to side, before waddling towards Led. “Are you familiar with the favoured Telucian pastime?”
“Not in the slightest,” Led answered flatly.
“Blood sport,” Tors grinned, “man versus beast in mortal combat, hundreds of spectators cheering for gore as the two test one another in a duel of strength and skill.”
“Sounds fun,” Ledram scoffed. “So this little bastard is headed for Telucia?”
“Well, not quite. He’s actually fresh of the boat from Telucia, some cave dwelling… well, beetle would be a good description.”
“Why would you bring…” Led’s eye went wide. “You didn’t.”
Tors sheepishly rubbed his hands together. “Well Led, you know I’ve always been a believer in cultural exchange-“
“What your doing,” Led hissed, “is exceptionally illegal. Drawn and quartered illegal. Struck from the ancestral records illegal.”
“For the organizers, yes, but nothing says it’s illegal to partake in such events.” Tors’ eyes darted about nervously. “Besides, there’s a bit more too it than that.”
“I’m sure you’ll enlighten me.”
Tors exhaled. “Telucian fashion is all the rage amongst the nobility on the island, exotic silks, strange foods, foreign whores, it’s all a status symbol to them. And status symbols, in particular those of distant shores, tend to fetch high prices.”
Led crossed his arms and nodded. This sounded suspiciously like one of his friends ill-fated proposals.
“Now what’s more exotic than the sport of another culture? The fact that staged fights are illegal makes it all the more alluring. Forbidden fruit, if you will?”
Led didn’t reply.
“Now I’d be a fool to risk my neck without some assurances, guarantees of anonymity for me and my client.” Tors rifled through his tunic, producing a robust sheet of paper. “This is a manifest. These crates are to be delivered to the Baron’s hunting lodge, and I’m not to be questioned at the gate.”
“And that makes it less illegal?”
“Technically no, but I doubt the Baron would want any of this out as common knowledge. No one covers up less-than-legal work like the nobility.” The portly man put his hands on his hips. “And I mean really, who’s the victim in this crime?”
“I’d say all the maimed fighters, the ones still alive to tell the tale at least. Fighting beasts is no easy feat, and I’m sure as shit not about to encourage folk to do so for coin. Imagine a kid wanting to make a name for himself in the arena. He’d be gored before he could get his guard up.”
“No need to worry for the combatants, the fights are all rigged. Each beastie gets a hunk of meat laced with poison, messes with their balance. Makes the human combatant look like a hero of old as they dodge blow after blow.”
“And if they don’t dodge?”
Tors shook his head. “You can’t live your life going on “what-ifs”, my friend. You got to take risks, or you’ll never get anywhere.”
“Don’t believe me?” Tors sternly stated. “Let me guess, your still tracking down werewolves, risking your life for thirty crowns a head?”
“I can make you double that a night,” Tors proudly proclaimed.
“No,” Led stated coldly, “I barely survived our last venture.”
“You may be down an eye, my friend, but you’ve gained a legend. You’d be surprised as to how many of the Baron’s court have heard of the Lead Man, the sellsword who single-handily slew a hundred Telucian rebels in one night.”
“Okay, they may be a bit exaggerating, but a good story is a good story. And you, my friend, have a great story. Just on name alone you could make triple what a normal fighter would.”
The cyclops snorted.
“Look, Led, I know I’ve made a few miscalculations in the past,” Tors wrung his hands together, “but mother said I always had an eye for opportunity, and I’m far too caring to let an old friend miss out on a good thing. Just join me for dinner at the Baron’s estate. No obligations, no contracts, just a nice meal and a chance to rub elbows with the upper class.”
Ledram thought a moment. Tors would no doubt work every angle possible to get the one-eyed sellsword to partake in his scheme. And as much as he hated to admit it, it was a tempting offer, a chance to ply his trade without wandering the roads of Anwex.
Looking skyward, Led exhaled. “Fine.”
Tors clapped his meaty hands together, a familiar, victorious grin crossing his face. “Excellent! You won’t be disappointed.” His brow furrowed, before adding, “though you’re a bit… ripe.” Tors produced two Telucian jacks from a pouch on his belt, then tossed them to Led. “Wash up at the bath-house and meet me here after noon. And don’t tarry, the Baron dislikes tardiness.”