BEGGAR’S BELIEF



BEGGAR’S BELIEF, by Jon Byrne

My real name is Ingo Delk, but those who are acquainted to me, and I mean acquainted as I have no friends, call me either Ur Tansdoki, or Doki for short, which in Massamic means ‘The Unsmiling One’. The name is apt, for in the world I inhabit there are few reasons to smile and less to laugh. Hope does not exist for one such as me. For I am a lowly beggar.

Begging has been my life for as long as I remember, some thirty odd years at least, although I’m unsure of my age so I cannot be sure. It is the only world I’ve ever known. I have endured the blistering heat of Massamic summers, the bitter snows of winter when even the street dogs roll over and freeze to death, and the relentless rains that fill most of the time in between. Our climate is not a kind one, but I have endured everything that the great Kushna, may his light always guide us, has seen fit to send us. And never once have I left this great city of ours.

During my time I have probably sat and begged on every single cobblestone that makes up this pit of filth we call Pozanak. The artisans of every quarter know me well, from the goldsmiths and tailors of Chobaan Street and Praag looking down their long noses as if I’m less than the dirt under their nails, the vendors and petty cloth merchants in the bustle of Pozan Cholka, grudgingly giving the odd copper kron as if shamed by their proximity to the Grand Temple, to the poor and desperate in the fish markets of Kohan, haggling over rotten food next to even more decrepit buildings, ever eager for a new way to put one over on their fellows. Everyone knows me and I know everyone, for what it’s worth. All their little schemes and fiddles, every crafty way they use to get ahead. Usually at someone else’s expense.

You wonder why I never left. Of course, I could have gone to the greater, richer cities of the south when I was younger, but what was the point? There the rich would still be rich and the poor just as poor. We have a saying here in Massam; a hungry man is still hungry regardless of the view from his window. Anyway, better to stay among your own, I always say. The back of my hand is like a stranger compared to my knowledge of this city.

So I’m a survivor. Some years were better than others, some were harder, but I never starved, even if hunger was a permanent friend. And I was no thief either, not if there was any chance of being caught. That game is for fools. You only have to go to the Bastion to see what happens to the poor wretches too desperate to keep their hands out of other peoples’ pockets. Hung out for the crows they are – at least those bloody birds eat well. They say that human eyeballs are a delicacy in Samil.

My favourite place, at least since the flood of four years ago, was by the well in Malla Cholka, next to the market. There was good reason for this; the university and Monastery of Water just north of the square guaranteed a regular flow of people, always a good thing. Every caravan that entered the city from the northeast would pass me by and some of the outlanders were easy for a kron or two, sometimes the odd piece of silver. It’s amazing how the sight of me could induce coins out of the pockets of the stupid farmer boys, newly arrived in the city to make their fortunes. Of course, they gave out of guilt. No one gives for any reason other than pity and guilt. People are always the same.

The pilgrims were the best; all dressed in black on their way to the holy places in the south or east. One way or another I’ve done well out of the Kushnamic Faith, as if giving the likes of me the odd copper could guarantee them a place at Kushna’s Table, or the Plane of the Nine Gods. Poor deluded fools. Kushna didn’t care about the likes of us, no one did. That had always been my opinion. That was until I met the Porrisan woman.

***

It was just another cold autumn day, late in Dericorad, surprisingly dry for a change, with the full onslaught of winter only a month or so away. I was sitting in my usual place, with my back against the stonework of the well, alms bowl laid out on the cobbles before me. It was always important to keep everyone around in sight. I learnt that years ago when I was attacked from behind by a group of older urchins and the few coppers I had managed to amass stolen. Of course, it also afforded me a good view of Malla Gate where I could observe everyone who entered the city. The usual people were in the square, old Blind Nedric only some ten feet from where I sat. Not that he was really blind, but I was one of the few who knew his little secret. Across were some of the younger beggars, Antek and Udo, little thieves the pair of them. I haven’t forgotten the insults they threw at me last summer, though surely they think I have. I’m just biding my time. They’ll get what’s coming to them, believe me. Beyond the square directly next to the gate were several members of the Sennal Street gang, slumming it with us real beggars. Scum the lot of them, but dangerous all the same.

As usual the City Watch were making a nuisance of themselves. They were always trouble, using the shafts of the halberds they carried to beat us beggars whenever they got the chance. A month ago they killed Tom the Cripple, beat him to death they did, just because he stole a loaf of bread. While I think of it, that’s another reason to get even with that Udo. I heard he was the one that informed on him. Anyway, the Watch commander for this quarter is Captain Hogar – Black Hogar we beggars call him, for surely that’s the colour of his heart. A meaner bastard you are unlikely to find anywhere. Little did I know then how soon our paths would cross.

The first sight I got of the Porrisan woman was when she appeared through the crowds like an angel among lepers. Even from a distance and despite the loose black robes she wore her beauty was obvious. I was spellbound from the start – a face like hers is uncommon enough amid the filth, the grime and the diseased of this city. Mine was not the only head she turned. But as time moved on, it was her compassion that proved to be the most beautiful thing about her.

When she approached me I noticed even Blind Ned’s jaw drop. Her hair was as black as the robes she wore, and her skin as smooth as the marble statues of the Grand Temple. Up close, I noticed that she wasn’t as perfect as she had first appeared – her mouth was a little too wide and she had a large mole just below her right eye, but she emanated health and vitality. Around her neck was a silver amulet with an entwined leaf design that struck me as both simple and graceful, the thin strands intricately coiling together to cradle a large grey-coloured stone. Over one shoulder she carried a small bag decorated with several red, triangular buttons, of a type I had not seen before. She paused above me for a moment with a gentle smile before kneeling down. “Greetings, good sir,” she said. “My name is Derelin and I am a Sister of Geden.”

I’d never heard of her order and my stunned disbelief must have been obvious.

“We are not part of the Kushnamic faith, but we sometimes work closely with it. The aim of my order is to help people like you. I can heal that lame arm of yours. I will be here in Pozanak for some weeks and I will visit you here every day. If you need help, anytime day or night, I can be found at the Hospice of Tor Sabin in Tavlok Street.”

It was obvious from her dialect that she was not Massamic, although she spoke the language well enough. I could only nod in reply as she reached into her bag and gave me an oatmeal cake and a lump of beef sausage. Before I knew it she was gone, repeating her message to Ned before disappearing into the crowd as if she hadn’t existed.

Never have I met anyone, and that includes the so-called healers of the Kushnamic Temple, who has ever shown more than a passing concern to the plight of people like me. We are cursed, kicked, beaten and abused by all. Even stray dogs are shown more humanity. And never before in my entire life has anyone addressed me as ‘Good sir’.

I could only stare at the food she gave me in disbelief. For a few minutes I was even oblivious to the haggling of the stallholders and the incessant babble of the crowd around me. Then the doubts set in. What nonsense was this? How could she possibly help the likes of me? Could she breathe life back into the limp appendage that was my right arm? Of course not. What a fool I must be to raise my hopes that she could do anything. She was no different than any of the others who showed a brief snatch of charity to atone for a lifetime of selfishness. I knew her words were as empty as my stomach.

The sound of the arrival of the Watch snatched me away. A four-man patrol, led by Black Hogar himself, was moving slowly through the mass of people. Tall and barrel-chested Hogar struck a formidable figure in his dark blue tabard, emblazoned with the city’s coat of arms, a crown above an eagle against a red and white background. His obvious power and strength was marred only by his ruddy complexion, indicating his penchant for kaadi firewater – a common enough vice in this country.

When he saw me his beard bristled in anger. “Doki, you crippled piece of vermin. Where’d you get that piece of meat? Been thievin’ have you?”

“I’ve just been given it,” I answered, careful to keep the insolence out of my tone. I knew that with any excuse he would gladly beat me, or have someone else do it for him.

“Stole it more like, you lying piece of dirt. Don’t think I haven’t got my eye on you; on all of you cripples and diseased scum. One day the Vermideans will give us the order to clean up these streets, and that day can’t come soon enough for me.”

I wisely kept my mouth shut and my gaze averted.

“Look at the captain when he’s talking to you,” one of the guards said. I think it was Borstelek, but I couldn’t say for sure. He dug me in the ribs with the butt of his halberd.

Hogar kicked the lump of meat from my hand. “I’ll really give you a reason not to smile in a minute. Listen to me and listen good. Immediately after Tamis prayer the Vermidean governor will be passing through the square on his way north to Rimbol. It offends his gentle nature to see you scum begging here, so he won’t see you. Is that understood?”

I nodded. What else could I do?

“Spread the word. If any of you are here it’ll go bad for you. Remember what happened to Tom the Cripple!”

We all remember what happened to poor Tom. There was no chance of his words going unheeded. Come midday prayer, Malla Cholka would be clear of us all. Suddenly there seemed something very appealing about the docks of Kohan.

***

Sister Derelin was true to her word. Every day, regardless of the weather, she appeared in the square. And every day she brought food, always accompanied by an open ear and a kind word. After a week, even I had to admit that my earlier misgivings appeared to be unfounded. She seemed to genuinely care about the poor and destitute in a way I’d never seen before, and she had a manner of talking to people that immediately soothed their fears and relaxed years of suspicion and mistrust. However, she spoke not a word about my arm and I was reluctant to bring the matter up again. After all, I had been maimed all my life and knew no better. Anyway, it was just a fool’s belief that she could do something. Maybe her words on that first occasion was only my hopeful imagination. I’ve always said hope is for fools.

Nevertheless, everyone looked forward to her daily visits. It didn’t take her very long to build up quite a reputation, not just with us beggars in Malla Cholka, but all across the city. Hordes of street urchins followed in her wake, skipping and laughing, their grime encrusted faces lit up with grins. I have never seen anything like it in all my thirty years on the streets. It seemed she charmed almost everyone. I swear that even the mangy pack of dogs that plague the square grew quieter after her arrival.

She seemed unaware of the effect she had on those around her. I would watch, along with others, as she moved through the crowds, not seeing the looks of awe and adoration her presence inspired. Remarkably she even learnt the names of all the beggars, as if we were worthy human beings and not the discarded flotsam of this diseased city. It was on the seventh day since her first appearance that she stood over me again and repeated the words that would change my life.

“I can heal your arm, Doki. Come to the hospice on Tavlok Street and I will show you. Trust me.”

Again I was thrown into turmoil. She left me with hope and doubt tumbling through my mind in equal measure. What did I have to lose? If I took up her offer and it proved as fruitless as I suspected, I was no worse off than before. But if that was true, why was I hesitating?

I wanted to believe her, but the real truth was I was scared – scared of the continual disappointment I’d known all my life being repeated. It dawned on me that in her short time here she had instilled something in my heart that I was reluctant to lose. My heart wanted to believe her, but my head dismissed it all as false hope. If her promise proved as empty as my alms bowl the disillusionment would be too great to bear. I would never trust another soul as long as I lived.

In the meantime, the life of the city carried on as usual: there was a large fire in a warehouse in Kohan that was almost certainly arson, a massed brawl between labourers and students near the university that cost the lives of two, and when several mutilated corpses turned up dumped in the gutter, rumours of a gang of demon-worshipers operating deep beneath the city began to circulate causing a wave of consternation. And all the time this conflict between my head and heart lingered. On at least three occasions I decided to make the trip, only to change my mind within a few minutes. One afternoon I even stood outside the hospice for hours, watching the other fools waiting, hoping to see her. But reason always overcame emotion and I returned to my sleeping pitch in a side street behind Ral Zika’s blacksmith shop, cursing my own stupidity in letting myself believe her promises.

Next day it was pouring with rain. Instead of taking up my usual place in Malla Cholka I stayed under my improvised shelter, feeling a deep sadness as the water dripped steadily down my back. It is not often I take a day off from begging. The streets were almost empty. The weather must have dissuaded all but the hardy, willing to brave the elements, or those with no other choice. It was mid-morning when I saw Jeri.

Jeri is one of the older beggars that normally lingers around the big tree at Ranlok Mol. He is a half-wit, due mainly to his inability to talk and an inane smile that would do credit to any of the broken minds incarcerated in Osk Infirmary. In over fifty years spent on the streets no one has heard him utter anything that can vaguely be described as a word.

So it was with complete disbelief that I stared at him, dancing up the street as if he’d found a fortune of gold, singing a vulgar boatman’s ditty. He pranced up to me, showering me with water as he jumped into a puddle next to where I sat. He howled in delight, his lone yellow tooth shining in the emptiness of his mouth. “I can speak!” he yelled. “I can speak!”

The look on my face must have encouraged him. He squatted down next to me. “Doki! She cured me,” he said, by way of explanation.

“Who?” I asked, but as soon as I’d spoken the words I knew.

“That outlander women. Her magic cured me!”

I continued to stare, unsure of what to say.

Bored by my lack of enthusiasm, Jeri came to his feet and carried on, cavorting up the street leaving me to ponder his words alone.

The shock I felt was overwhelming. She wasn’t lying. She really could perform miracles of healing. At that moment my mind was made up. What else did I have to lose?

***

Despite my newfound decisiveness I was still nervous when I walked through the door of the hospice, feeling the welcome heat even as I recoiled from the sickly sweet smell of excrement and death. The place was packed with the sick, and the blue clothed Water monks were having problems attending to everyone’s needs.

“What do you want?” a harassed monk of middle years with a thin face asked. “We have no food today.”

“I want to see the woman.”

The monk sighed. “Everyone wants to see the woman. She is exhausted and has no time for you now. Come back tomorrow.”

I shrugged. What more could I have expected? I turned to leave. At the door I paused hearing a woman’s voice behind me. “Doki!”

It was Sister Derelin. My stomach jumped as I turned and recognised her. If I’d ever been in love with anyone in my life, I think it was then.

“So you want me to look at your arm,” she said. “I hoped you would come.”

I nodded.

“I’ll see what I can do, follow me.”

I complied mutely, following her as she threaded her way through the mass of sick and dying. The monk frowned and muttered something under his breath, but she said nothing more. She led me through a door, away from the throng of people and down a narrow passage with filthy whitewashed walls.

“I’m afraid we have to go outside,” she said, pausing to open the door that led into an interior courtyard. Outside the rain hammered down on the bare earth of a neglected garden. “It is necessary for a small ceremony.”

I watched in the cover of an arched cloister as Sister Derelin stepped out into the garden and produced something that looked like a seed from her robes. I couldn’t take my eyes from her. She began chanting an incantation. The words got lost in the sound of the downpour. She knelt down, her dark hair plastered to her face by the rain. With a quick scoop of earth she buried the seed in the soft mud, before abruptly standing, throwing her arms wide, all the time continuing her chant. The stone in the amulet around her neck suddenly came alive, shining a brilliant purple. I stared in awe.

Doubts raced through my mind. Did I really want to meddle in this magic for the sake of an arm I had grown used to living without? I admit I was terrified and considered leaving. I could slip back through the door behind me while her attention was on whatever spell she was conjuring, but my legs refused to move. I could only watch in wonder as she looked directly into my eyes as if understanding my misgivings and smiled.

“Do not be afraid,” she said, rejoining me. The amulet pulsed with life, throwing a purple shadow across her unblemished face. She raised her hands and touched my arm.

The feeling of pure energy flowing through my crippled limb was like nothing I’d experienced. I recoiled from the shock of it, but she did not relent her grip. She drew me closer while the power of the amulet sent more waves of healing through me. It lasted less than a couple of minutes, but felt like an hour before she gently released my arm and smiled again in compassion.

“You will need several more treatments. Your arm has been damaged so long it will require more than one healing. But we have made a beginning.”

My arm continued to tingle, but as the power receded I felt life for the first time. I gasped out loud as I was able to flex my fingers, feeling the blood flowing through to my hand. It was still terribly weak and I could do little more than bend my arm at the elbow. I would certainly not be able to use it in anything like a normal way, not yet at least. But it hardly mattered. It was no longer dead.

Tears welled in my eyes as I looked at her again. She continued to smile and nodded. “It would be easier if you were at my retreat in Tad Goran in Porrisa, then we could heal you in good time. But no matter. Come back next week and I will heal you further. Now I must rest.”

Without another word she turned and walked the length of the cloister, disappearing through a door at the end. A moment later two monks dressed in brown robes appeared through an archway opposite, both wearing hoods that obscured their eyes. There was something vaguely familiar about the way one of them walked, but I thought no more of it, walking back through the door in which I’d entered. I weaved my way through the infirmary and out into the street.

For a moment I paused, looking at my arm again. I could not believe what she had done. Despite my arm still being crippled she had proved that she really could heal it. I felt hope surge through me. Her magic had given me a belief for the first time in my life, a belief that the future could be better than the past. Maybe one day I would even be able to work like a normal person. My spirit felt purged.

The rain streamed down my face but I barely noticed its raw coldness. I walked past the wall of the hospice on my way back to my flimsy cover. At the corner, I heard a door slam and looked into an adjacent alleyway. Two figures dressed in brown robes emerged from a side door of the hospice, one of them carrying what looked like a heavy sack. They were the same Earth monks I’d seen in the garden. Something nagged at the back of my mind but I still didn’t know what it was. There was something not right about either of them. Then it came to me. What would Earth monks be doing in a hospice run by a Water monastery?

I’ve always considered it unwise to meddle in other people’s affairs and for good reason, but I was curious and did something I would never have dreamed of doing normally. I decided to walk down the alleyway. Whether it was my new found feeling of hope that Sister Derelin had instilled in me I do not know, but I knew my action was dangerous. There was no knowing who could be lurking around. The two monks had disappeared around the next corner and I quickly reached the door from which they had emerged. Something amid the filth on the ground caught my eye and I knelt down to examine what it was. A triangular red button.

Of course, I recognised it immediately. I’d only seen buttons like that once in my life – on the bag owned by Sister Derelin.

There was some devilry afoot here. I felt a deep sense of apprehension as I dropped it in my pocket and hastened after the two brothers.

I caught sight of them again in the next street, striding away quickly, only to disappear into another alleyway opposite. This was certainly very strange. Monks didn’t normally skulk around in alleys. And what could they be carrying in the sack? More importantly did I really want to know? My head told me to forget them and return to my shelter, but I couldn’t drag myself away. Somehow it concerned Sister Derelin. I knew it. The sack certainly looked heavy enough to contain a human. I followed them.

They paused by a wooden door in a derelict clapboard house halfway down the alley. I watched from the corner as the first man carrying the sack disappeared. The second monk looking around furtively before following his companion. I caught a glimpse of the man’s face as he glanced in my direction and thank Kushna he did not see me. It was Black Hogar.

I ducked back around the corner my heart thumping like the gong at prayer time. What would the captain of the Malla Gate Watch be doing dressed as a monk?

My courage nearly deserted me then. If Black Hogar was involved in whatever was happening then it was definitely best not to know. I hesitated in a storm of indecision before looking at my partly healed arm again. A picture of Sister Derelin’s benevolent face jumped into my mind. If there was any chance that she could be in the sack, how could I just walk away? Not after everything she had done for me.

I waited a few minutes in case they re-emerged and when they didn’t, I took tentative steps down the alley. The building looked deserted and I paused at the door, mumbling prayers of protection under my breath. I put my ear to the rough wood and listened, but I could hear nothing apart from the rain streaming off the eaves of the roof. In trepidation I tried the handle and to my surprise, it swung open. I stepped inside.

It was indeed deserted; the reek of damp animal dung confirming that it had been vacant for some time. Rats scurried away and water washed down the stone walls, as I carefully picked my way through broken furniture. A door in the wall led down to the cellar and I could just make out the glow of a torch. Black Hogar and his companion were downstairs.

My doubts about getting involved returned, but I thrust them from my mind, listening as voices drifted up the stairway. There were at least three people whispering rapidly, but as I approached the top of the stairs I recognised one as the unmistakable bass tone of Black Hogar. “Is everyone else already here?” he said.

“Yes, they are waiting for you. Do you have the woman?”

“Of course. It proved easier than expected. She will make a worthy sacrifice to Zangeshi. Stay here and keep guard. The ceremony must not be disturbed.”

I reeled back at the words, stunned as the full impact sunk in. Zangeshi demon-cultists. The rumours were true then. They were going to offer Sister Derelin to their repulsive god. What could I do to stop them?

Speed was essential but alone I had no chance. I had to get help – and quickly. Being careful not to make a sound I retraced my footsteps back out the door and into the alley. When I saw a young street urchin of about twelve nosing around the refuse in the street, his snotty nose making it look as though he wore a yellow moustache, I knew what I had to do.

I approached him and he looked at me warily. “Something very bad is about to happen,” I said. “You must get help.”

The boy just looked at me blankly.

“Go to the Hospice on Tavlok Street. Tell the monks that Sister Derelin has been kidnapped and is being held in this house.”

“Kidnapped? You mean the outlander woman…?”

“Yes. Tell the monks there to summon Temple soldiers. This is important – Temple soldiers not the City Watch!”

“Why?”

I fumbled in my pocket for a copper kron to give him. “I cannot explain now. Just do as I say and I will give you another copper when you return.”

He shook his head. “If the outlander woman needs help then I don’t want your money. But they won’t believe me?”

Without thinking I gave him the triangular red button. “Give them this, it’s all I have. But you must convince them and they must come quickly.”

He nodded and turned, running in the direction of the hospice.

I had to trust that he would do as I’d asked. I also knew I had to go back. But what could I do to prevent what was about to happen? With shaking legs I returned to the abandoned building and taking care to make as little noise as possible resumed my place at the top of the stairs. I could hear no further voices from below. Never before had I been more frightened.

I was in a dilemma. If indeed, there was one man keeping guard then how could I get past him to follow Black Hogar and his companion? Overwhelming him before he could give the alarm to the others was highly unlikely – certainly considering I only had one effective arm. More likely he would win, and I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to kill me to prevent knowledge of their demon-worship getting out.

A diversion, that was my only chance. Something to lure the guard upstairs so I could slip past him unseen. While different ideas tossed through my mind, none of them particularly attractive, my decision was made for me as two faces peered through the partly boarded up windows. They saw me and ducked out of sight.

I crept across the room and poked my head through the slats. Two boys backed away from the window. I think they were boys anyway; one of them was so covered with dirt it was hard to tell. “Come here,” I whispered. “I need your help.”

They looked at me as warily as the other boy had. The older one spoke first. “What’s this about the outlander woman being kidnapped?”

“That’s why I need your help. Look, we haven’t much time. I need someone to act as a diversion. Do you think you can do that?”

“You’re The Unsmiling One,” the older urchin said. “My brother says you’re bad. Why should we listen to you?”

“Because we haven’t got time to argue. If you want to save the life of the outlander woman then you have to help now.”

I could see him considering what I’d said, but still he looked reluctant. I had to say something to convince him. “Look, if you know her –”

“Course, everyone knows her. My brother says he’s in love –”

“Good,” I interrupted. “Then he will be angry with you if you don’t help. Now it is important to do what I say.” I explained what I wanted them to do. When the older boy realised it involved no personal danger he half-heartedly agreed.

I looked around the room and found a place behind a stack of mouldy wood only a few yards from the top of the stairs. I signalled to the boy and hid.

Both urchins began hammering on the wood boards and hollering at the tops of their voices.

It was a few tense moments before I heard a curse from below and then steps on the wood stairs. My heart was hammering so loudly I was sure he would hear as he appeared through the door. The two urchins continued their noise, although far less enthusiastically with the guard’s appearance.

“Get away you little brats,” the man growled. “You have no business here. Clear off or there’ll be trouble!”

I peeked over the stack of old wood. He stood with his back to me barely three yards away. He seemed undecided as to what to do. Thank Kushna the urchins continued their shouting, otherwise I’m sure he would have ignored them and gone back downstairs. Instead, he took several paces towards the outside door, shouting again at them to go.

I saw my chance and took it. Holding my breath, I emerged from my hiding place and quietly slipped through the door and crept down the stairs. Emerging into a long cellar with a low ceiling, I saw another door across the room and almost ran in my haste to get through it before the man returned. It was unlocked.

The door opened into the wall of a narrow sewer that stank worse than the fish market. I closed it behind me as gently as possible, gagging at the smell. Two torches burning from rusty sconces in the wall illuminated a channel of water clogged with refuse that ran down the middle of the passage. A raised walkway, constructed of stone ran alongside and it was on this I walked, as carefully as possible, keeping my hands away from the slime that coated the side of the tunnel. After a dozen or so yards I came to a low archway set in the crumbling stonework. The low flicker of torchlight glowed beyond. I heard the sound of chanting, the low words drifting through the open arch like smoke on the wind. The ceremony had begun.

Keeping close to the shadows I crept through the first room and paused at the doorway that opened into a large hall. The sight that met me nearly caused my heart to stop.

Sister Derelin lay tied to a stone slab that stood raised above the floor of the chamber. Around her in a circle were grouped a dozen figures hooded in white robes, each one holding a burning torch that fluttered and hissed in the bad air. She appeared to be unconscious. She lay unmoving, with thick ropes tied to her wrists and ankles forcing her arms and legs apart. Standing above her I could see Black Hogar.

I watched mesmerised from the shadows for a few minutes as the figures continued their chanting. A strong incense with a metallic smell I couldn’t place wafted through the darkness, mingling with the stench of excrement. Through the smoke that engulfed the central plinth, I saw Black Hogar circle Sister Derelin three times, muttering words in a language I’d never heard before, whilst tracing patterns in the air with his fingers. All of a sudden he stopped and produced a long thin dagger from his robes. He held it high above his head.

I charged into the room, colliding into the back of the nearest cultist with my shoulder and sending him sprawling to the ground. For a moment, everyone stared open-mouthed and I had only an instant to take full advantage of their surprise. I grabbed at the cultist’s fallen torch. I had no idea what I was doing. My mind was only consumed on halting this loathsome ceremony and saving the life of Sister Derelin. What would follow was anyone’s guess – my own death as likely as not. But Black Hogar hesitated for a fraction, the dagger still raised as he stared in shock at me.

I ran at him, swinging the flaming torch before me as I closed the few yards between us. Despite his superior size and strength, he took several paces backwards, away from the plinth, the dagger still poised in his hand. I seized my advantage, thrusting the torch at him. He backed away further.

Just in time I caught the glimpse of another man as he lunged at me from behind. As I ducked, he careered over me, falling heavily onto the stone floor. It was Borstelek from the Malla Gate Watch. I shoved the flame in his face and he screamed. It was a piteous wail that broke the silence. The smell of burnt flesh and hair filled the hall as I swung the torch in warning for the others to keep back.

“Kill him you fools!” Black Hogar shouted, raising his dagger, but taking no step forward himself. Two more cultists, both of them brandishing torches, approached me warily.

I moved backwards slowly, always keeping the flaming brand between me and my immediate enemies, until my back grazed the stone plinth. Then they attacked. The first man thrust his torch at me and I felt its searing pain against my chest. My tunic was smouldering, but I ignored it as I kicked out clumsily, hearing the man grunt as my foot met his stomach. He fell to the floor just as the second man, a thin faced boy half my age, charged in, waving his torch at my head. In desperation I threw myself at him, my head colliding with his chest. He crashed backwards and I fell on top of him. The impact knocked the air from both of our lungs. We grappled, but with one arm I was severely disadvantaged. Wildly he clawed at my face with his nails and despite our struggle, I heard yelling behind me.

Suddenly the room was full of children. Everything was in chaos and loud shouts filled the hall. The young man beneath me twisted and squirmed and managed to break my hold. He smashed me in the nose with his fist and my world burst with pain. I rolled off him, holding my face with my good hand. Around me I could hear the mayhem continue. Tears and blood obscured my vision.

A few seconds later, when I could finally open my eyes again, the hall was now full of people. I saw the black uniforms of the Temple guard running everywhere. Some of the cultists were putting up a fight, swinging their flaming torches in desperation as the soldiers closed in. Street urchins of all ages dashed everywhere, I saw three attacking the youth I’d just fought. One of the boys, he couldn’t have been older than ten, whacked him around the head with a piece of wood. The young man fell to the ground and didn’t move.

Black Hogar gave a roar of anger, stabbing at the Temple guard who confronted him as he looked for a means of escape. For a second his way was clear and he took his chance, sprinting towards the open archway. As he ran past I tried to kick out and trip him, but two children suddenly appeared in the way and I pulled my foot back rather than strike them. Hogar barged the children out of his path, sending them spinning across the floor, pausing briefly to slice at another guard who appeared in front of him. I came to my feet as the guard dropped to the floor, blood gushing from a wound in his neck. This gained me a few seconds and when Hogar bolted for the entrance again I raced to head him off.

All the anger built up over years of maltreatment and abuse erupted inside me and spurred me on as I lashed out without thinking with my bad arm, catching him across the chest and knocking him off balance. My arm exploded in agony but Hogar, to my surprise, went down, falling and cracking his head against the stone of the plinth. Within a second two Temple guards were on him, hauling him to his feet. Everywhere the remaining cultists were throwing down their arms and yielding. The fight was over. I sighed in deep relief. Sister Derelin was safe.

The hall rapidly cleared as the Temple Guards led the cultists away. An officer was shouting at the urchins who scampered away like rats. They disappeared as abruptly as they had arrived. The officer approached me and helped me to my feet. “You must be the man who sent us the message.”

I nodded weakly, my arm felt like it was on fire.

“You did very well, but you’ll need to go to the infirmary to tend your wounds.” He produced a seal and gave it to me. “Go to the Grand Temple and show them this, you will get the help you need. I will need to talk to you afterwards. Ask for Captain Engel. Do you need an escort?”

I shook my head.

“As you wish. Then I will speak with you later.”

Two guardsmen untied Sister Derelin and carried her away. Within a few moments the hall was empty. I followed behind, retracing my steps through the first room and back into the sewer, picking my way out of the building to head to the infirmary.

***

The next few days after my escape passed in a whirlwind. It seemed that my actions had earned me a certain level of fame, at least on the street, where I was shown a respect I could never have achieved normally. The Grand Temple dealt with my wounds and the burning pain in my arm had now reduced to a dull ache. I was even given a bag of silver as a reward for stopping the demonkin. But nothing compared to the smile and gratitude I received from Sister Derelin after she recovered from her ordeal. It was like seeing the sun for the first time. She thanked me with all her heart before telling me she was leaving.

“Will you come with me?” she asked. “In Tad Goran the sisters can completely heal your arm.”

What could I say to that? She had changed my life in just the few weeks I’d known her I would have followed her to the gates of the Abyss. I agreed at once.

We left the next morning, with over thirty people, all of them beggars, most of them cripples like me, leaving in the belief that she would heal them. I now knew that belief was true. Outside the city gates I paused and looked back. Pozanak held nothing for me now. My whole life and everything I’d been was contained within those walls. What a miserable existence it had been. An existence without friends, without faith, without dreams or expectation. Sister Derelin had given me something special, even more important than the prospect of a new right arm. She had given me hope, something I’d never possessed. A hope that the future would prove brighter than the past. A hope that I too, could trust again.

I looked at Sister Derelin leading her small group of ragged followers away. She seemed unflustered by all the attention. She smiled at everyone in her compassionate way and led Blind Nedric by the arm. But all the time there was something strange about the scene. Then it dawned on me. Of course, Nedric wasn’t blind. I chuckled to myself, before suddenly stopping in surprise. I was laughing.

It seemed that my old name, the Unsmiling One, would no longer be suitable.

THE END

 

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Jon Byrne left his home near London at the end of last century to travel overland to Asia and set up a hotel in India.  It was here that he spent a lot of time developing a fantasy world which has been the backdrop of all his fiction to date.  Since then he has moved to Berlin where he now lives with his German wife and young daughter.  “Beggar’s Belief” is his second short story to be published, his first “Taking the Bait” was published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly # 18. 


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