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TORTAIN: THE SINS OF A CITY

Chapter One

The growling shook through his body, sounding like a feral dog guarding its last meal, his discomfort was growing as waves of nauseous rolling set to agitate his empty stomach.

Drystan’s fingers continued to knead his temples in small repeating circles disturbing medium length waves of dark brown hair. His face had begun to tense into a grimace, deepening lines formed from long days and responsibilities rather than age. His body continued to protest for food, it was frustrating how easily and demandingly it had adjusted to the breakfast meal, though such thoughts were quickly replaced with how increasingly infuriated he was with Amadan. This new model of mechanical loom was meant to increase his factories output three times over. Only one week since receiving them however, and despite two earlier visits from Amadan, half of the machines were doing nothing more than taking up space and he was beginning to feel he had been misled with their effectiveness. They hadn’t been cheap, though he had learned early on that for a common born to truly succeed in the enterprise of money risks had to be taken.

The wooden clacking from the still functioning machines, made a consistent staccato that echoed through the hall, serving to drown out the sounds from the outside street and creep into a thought filled mind.

Drystan slowly roused from his ponderings, his hands idly gathering the ledgers and notes that were spread on the supervisor’s desk he had borrowed. Standing up and stretching he took prideful note of the building which represented much of his accomplishments over the past decade. Rows of mechanical looms and other contraptions of the trade filled the large wood and brick building, leaving it a cramped fit and necessitating a very small area for amenities. Drystan had three such buildings throughout the city though this was the best of them, each kept enough staff to keep the machines running day and night through two shifts. Because of this, he had been able to acquire some very profitable contracts and more than a little sway within the Union of Concerned Interests.

The textiles industry had treated Drystan well and he was determined to stay at the very top of it at least within Tortain, if his business could only survive these constant delays.

His thoughts returned to consume him, twisting darkly at this morning’s frustrations which he voiced to Brawley this buildings supervisor “This morning has already cost me time and money” Brawley watched him silently very used to Drystan’s needs to talk at someone from time to time “Add to this that I am already late to the coffee house”. Beyond the complaints of his stomach for his regular morning coffee and pastry, his real concern was that he would not get there before Faolan had left and if that was the case he would need to wait till the following day to hear news from the north. Reminding him yet again that delays cost money.

From an entryway at the far end of the building and with confident purpose strode a blond man made of lean war forged muscle and sinew, bearing a covered axe slung over his shoulder. His clothes were well kept and practical though neither they nor his thick beard showed any knowledge of current tastes. “You’re not going to be happy” the newcomer shouted across the room in a thick accent “I couldn’t find Amadan, his wife says he left the city on business and that he won’t be back for at least four days”.

Seeing the familiar face of his personal guard Calder, Drystan’s hopes surged at the expectation that his problems were about to be at an end, before they were quickly snuffed out as soon as the man spoke.

Throwing his arms in the air Drystan’s frustration turned to anger as he yelled through gritted teeth. His outburst spent he took several seconds taking deep breaths through his nose while looking into the distance pondering a solution. Eventually he spoke. “Fine, there is nothing I can do about this till then and I have already wasted enough of today” signalling to Calder that they would be leaving, Drystan turned to Brawley who was standing nearby “Have the faulty machines moved to the store house and bring out the old machines to replace them, I can’t afford to upset Lord Caedmon by being late with his order” turning to face the workers and loudly clearing his throat Drystan shouted out “I know it will be difficult but if we can still make this week’s order in time I will reward each of you with an extra days pay”. Walking swiftly past Calder who quickly fell into step behind him, Drystan headed for the door calling back to Brawley “I will be back in two days to check the progress” before he stepped out into the street.

The light outside was sharp and blinding compared to that provided by the few small windows inside the factory, a worn but well maintained road of compacted dirt ran directly past the building. At this time of the day the roads were dominated by wagon traffic, draftsmen unloading materials for a variety of crafters, traveling merchants picking up local specialities to sell in other cities or towns, even a pair of gong farmers loading barrels into their wagon as others steer well clear of them.

Squinting before raising his hand to shield himself from the glare he waited for his eyes to adjust. Drystan paused his stride impatiently for a wagon to pass, not wanting to challenge the agitated animals pulling it for a position on the road, he had no intention of making his day any worse by getting trampled. Stepping out onto the packed earth and picking up a brisk determined pace, he travelled inwards towards the central triangle of the city, often being forced to alter his course, around various parked wagons and choosing to move to the other side of the street to avoid the overpowering stench of one.

Calder spoke from behind him “You scowl too much, things could be much worse you know, you could be one of them hauling soil barrels”.

Drystan’s face broke into a carefree smile, “If it would fix my problems I happily would, though I hope it won’t come to that, what about you Calder if there was no soldiers work, or if it paid better would you be over there?”

“Gods no, it’s too damned dangerous to be messing with human filth, too easy to catch some ungodly pox and be cold by morning” Calder spoke making a sign to warn off misfortune.

Drystan was stunned into silence for a moment before bursting into laughter, “Your kind will happily spend decades on the battlefield but you’re scared of a cesspit!”  

“Laugh it up, laugh it up” Calder groaned, though the corners of his mouth showed he was amused “Not all contracts are battlefields, take working for you, I am barely more than a glorified assistant”.

“Oh you think you’re a “glorified” assistant” Drystan teased fondly.

As they continued to walk, other factories and warehouses flanked the road sharing a similar plain design, functional and without much flair with one rare exception, a new and particularly elaborate carved and painted sign. The street was also scattered with other smaller buildings, mostly shops, food stalls or craftsmen that would be considered annoying in the more central areas of the city such as smiths and farriers the sounds of their trade filling the street.

Passing it Drystan briefly pondered the new sign, appreciating its craftsmanship and considering one for his own businesses, before quickly dismissing the thought as an expensive vanity, it was for the same reason that he did not own a private carriage, instead choosing to  lease one from the Union when needs necessitated. A waft of onions and meat being cooked caught Drystan’s attention, he noticed as usual for most of the food stalls it was too early to be cooking, though some had their ingredients on display to lure people back for later in the day, including troughs of live eels and fish from the local rivers. The offending smell however had come for a large iron pot containing the early stages of a pork stew that would cook throughout the day gaining poignancy.

His stomach was now in open riot and only his already increasing lateness and the importance of his meeting was able to keep him trudging forward. He continued his conversation with Calder to take his mind off the food, being forced to almost shout over the sharp metallic retort of the tradesmen. “It sounds like you would like some more action in your work”. Frustratingly Calder didn’t have to raise his voice, years of warfare had taught him to speak in a way that cut through the din of industry surrounding him,

“Don’t get me wrong I don’t mind the work nor lack of a constant fear of death but it doesn’t make much for stories when I return home”.

“It does make it more likely you will return though, if you really want something to hit I could send you to ambush Amadan on his way home, one less bastard in the world”. Drystan spoke in a clearly joking fashion, though the thought of it did amuse him more than a little. Calder shrugged smiling

“If that’s what you want, though as my employer it’s you the priests will drag away in the night” Drystan shuddered.

“Perhaps not then I am perfectly fine not experiencing that”, Drystan paused in his stride his voice lowering “Have you seen it happen before?”

Calder responded quietly himself clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken “No though I have heard it a few times that’s enough for me”. Drystan began walking again, this time staying close enough to Calder that he didn’t need to raise his voice.

“I saw it once at a banquet for the Flint festival, they demanded entry, announcing who they had been sent for and the sin that he committed,” Drystan’s eyes cautiously scanned the people nearby before continuing “Walking through the room the people parted before them, Lord Domnal a plump composed peacock of a man confidently telling them there had been some mistake, then just like that they seized him and the lead one pronounced him a sinner, suddenly he wasn’t a noble any longer, not even a man, and like that they dragged him out of the building, as he approached the door all of his composure and bluster was lost, his arguments turned to pleading then to wails, he tore his clothes and lost his wig fighting to be free of their grasp, his face turned bright red and panicked he gripped that door frame like a wild animal with a strength I couldn’t imagine possible from such a man, shrieking desperately before one of them struck him in the back of the head and he vanished into the night, the echoes of his pathetic sobbing  was all that remained”.

As they followed the curve of the road a man could be heard calling out passages from one of the lessons of the god Jakkar. The earthy voice was coming from a middle aged man in the brown and yellow of a Jakkaran priest. He was working with some local men constructing an expansion to a market his voice carrying easily “Jakkar is the god of protection in all senses, if you cry out begging to him ‘Jakkar! Without a well we will die save us!’ He will not answer because that would do you harm in the long run and weaken you, however if you ask him, ‘Jakkar help me to build this well’ and you pick up your shovel and dig he will guide your strikes, he will strengthen your arms and as long as your will holds he will make sure your body endures the task”.

The Priests voice gave Drystan a start, making him uneasy to continue the conversation, it was a common wives tale that when you spoke of a person behind their back they got goose flesh, right now he was wondering if the same could be said of the gods. As far as priests went Drystan felt those of Jakkar were a good bunch, helping where they could and happy to spare some elbow grease for just about anyone who would help themselves, though talk like that always sounded to him like the gods didn’t do all that much, but were still happy to claim responsibility for the achievements of men, not that he would ever put voice to such thoughts.

The dirt road connected on to a larger paved one and over the space of a handful of buildings the atmosphere quickly changed. The shops and houses becoming more ornate in their construction, incorporating expensive woods, coloured bricks and large windows in elaborate designs. Some of the more ostentatious buildings such as the city houses of nobility even used carved limestone in their construction to truly stand out.

Entering the more affluent area of the city Drystan became excited, the coffee house was not far now, and with a little bit of luck Faolan would still be there, he hoped. His own home was not too far from here either and also served as the office for his business. Because of this it was one of the few areas he had let slip his rule on expensive vanity, though even this was a case of smart business. He often hosted clients there both current and perspective and seeing such evident wealth helped them to feel at ease with their own investments, confident in his abilities.

The wide street was not empty but it was far from busy, the occasional carriage rolled past though they were far less frequent than the wagons from the industrial ring of the city. There were also a lot more people walking around at this time of the day, many in a leisurely fashion. From up ahead a mass of loud voices could be heard in unison in a strangely excited manner.

With the lack of traffic Drystan began to pick up his pace, easily able to weave between the people on the street. Hearing the raised voices he turned to face Calder “Were there games scheduled for today?” he asked curiously, his guard responded with a noncommittal shrug, as such Drystan dismissed the noise though it stayed as an irritating itch at the edge of his thoughts.

The people here were like night and day compared to those he had passed in the industrial ring, most wearing well-made brightly coloured clothing and strong fragrant perfumes, they spoke clearly and in a church educated manner, walking confidently and with a sense of entitlement.

Unconsciously checking the state of his own clothing, satisfied nothing was amiss he continued on. He considered himself lucky that he had been afforded the opportunity to be educated it was not a cheap enterprise to have a child taught by the Jakkaran priests, also it deprived their families a set of hands while they were there. At the time his family did not have the deep pockets that he had since earned them, but they had been very successful merchants and his father had high hopes for an educated son. This provided him with the opportunity to learn a number of skills including penmanship, mathematics, theology and most importantly, though it wasn’t a lesson networking. During lessons it did not matter what you were outside, there you were a student and this had served to help Drystan forge important relationships that he found were beneficial to this day.

Some people on the street however stood out like a noble working the fields, such as the town watch, drawn from soldiers tithed from the city councillors, these were noble’s men at arms, militia, foreign mercenaries and even the occasional arcanist. Somewhat strangely though there was also a large annoyingly loud and unkempt group.

Keeping a steady pace, Drystan offered the watchmen a cursory glance. It had for a time been a curious game for him, to try and identify if any of the ones he saw were mercenaries from the Unions tithes for his own council seat, currently this game was interrupted by the large group milling on a side road. Squinting to try and make them out Drystan quickly decided that based on their clothing and agitation it appeared they were lost, but even as he passed the street the itch at the edge of his thoughts turned into an insistent tug.

Much like their appearance the purposes of the buildings here differed far from those of the industrial ring. There were many more stores here, offering a staggering variety of items, from the latest fashionable attire, to stores selling spices from as far away as the Meng’Shen empire. If one looked close enough they could even find a lounge selling the cure all properties of the poppy sap. Finally instead of food stalls there were restaurants and Coffee houses. In fact the one he was headed to could be seen only some three hundred feet or so away, surrounded by another loud and agitated looking group.

Like himself Drystan knew Faolan would likely have a busy day ahead of him and did not like to be delayed or forced to repeat himself for new people. Quickly considering a gift from one of the nearby stores to sweeten the busy man’s mood, Drystan quickly discarded the idea worrying that, that would mean he might miss the man entirely, choosing not to risk it he decided he could just as easily easy offer a way to make it up to him at a later date, he just needed to think of something suitable. Drystan chose to ignore the vague sound of someone behind him calling out his name, whatever they wanted it could wait. He could see the coffee house ahead and his mind was drawing a blank as to what might take Faolan’s fancy.

Even with his thoughts largely occupied Drystan began to wonder what in the god’s names was happening in front of the coffee house. There was a group similar to the one he had passed earlier and on closer inspection they were clearly from the less affluent rings of the city. For two such groups to be in the central triangle was absurd, surely it must be another idiotic prank by that fool Kaden, regardless they were blocking the road, he began fuming. The tugging at the edge of his consciousness turned to a scream, something was very wrong.

A hand suddenly gripped Drystan’s shoulder from behind its fingers digging in painfully and bringing him to an abrupt halt, this in turn caused him to stumble, the unexpected shock clearing his head of his single mindedness to reach the coffee house. The noise from ahead became suddenly clear, the scene before him coming into sharp focus. The voices of people angrily shouting and screaming in panic were punctuated with the harsh sounds of breaking glass and that of splintering wood.

His Instinctive wrenching as he tried to be free of the hand gripping him, made it difficult for Drystan to stand. Once on his feet he turned vehemently on his attacker, only to face Calder. His guard was paying him no notice looking past him with hard set eyes focused into a squint his stance and body tense. It suddenly registered that something was very wrong, the sounds around him came together making a horrifying kind of sense, as Drystan turned back to face the gathered crowd his annoyance at them fled, to be replaced with a very real concern for his own safety.

The scene ahead was one of madness. The group was far larger than he had first given credit, there were at least a couple hundred of them. They moved slowly down the street in his direction, their only hesitation being a small group of town guards, their weapons still sheathed but clearly visible. The mob outnumbered the guards many times over, however none of them wanted to be the first to approach the armed and trained men. It was looking like the situation might be calming, even as the more inflamed were still breaking windows, tearing down signs and grabbing anything they could, their progress down the street was crawling to a stop, doubt showing on many of their faces.

Drystan’s Eyes went wide with panic, flashing left and right, as he started piecing together what was happening, his breathing steadily quickening. He had heard from others in the Union, of the riots that had been happening in the poorer rings of the city, greedy agitators who had destroyed businesses and robbed homes because they coveted things that they had no will to earn for themselves. Some had claimed this behaviour had been brought on by the shortages of certain foods and that they were simply desperate and doing what they had to, to survive. Drystan felt the fact that they were here in the inner city proved that horribly wrong. If stealing was really their only option, food could be found anywhere in the city, if they were choosing to rob the inner rings, let alone the triangle for more expensive items this could only be greed. While tense and edging backwards he slowly began to catch his breath and relax as the mob slowed and then stopped, watching thankfully as their fury seemed to be spent.

A young noble, clearly flustered and unhappy with the guards lack of action, pulled out an ornate wheel lock pistol pointing it at the mass of people and  shouting loudly at the guards “What are you standing there for, do your job and get rid of them or may the gods condemn you to darkness ”. His shouting and threats drew the crowd’s anger and attention and they started to move again spitting expletives at the noble threatening them. The young noble losing his composure and panicking fired his pistol into the crowd, the weapons loud crack silencing and stunning the street for what seemed like minutes.

The silence was broken as a women towards the front of the mob dropped to the ground her eye socket a ruined mess. Suddenly the mass of people exploded forward like a burst dam, crushing the woman’s body in a tidal surge of desperation and fury, quickly overwhelming and trampling the guards and young noble, continuing unabated down the street towards Drystan.

Drystan’s leg’s wouldn’t move which he found curious, he looking down at them wondering, why they weren’t moving, they had moved earlier, in fact try as he might he could not recall any other time that his legs had not moved when he wanted them to. The ground began to shake and this too Drystan pondered with a detached curiosity, had it always done that, had he just missed it because he hadn’t been looking down and onwards his thoughts plummeted taking him very far away.

The pain in his shoulder tightened and his legs were suddenly moving again. Drystan watched his feet dragging backwards and to the side through the doorway of a store, before feeling himself falling and hitting a hard wooden floor, the impact of which snapped him from his shock induced thoughts bringing him back to reality. Above him Calder was facing away towards the closed door taking his axe off his shoulder but not removing the cover.

Looking around the room his wits starting to return Drystan recognised the store he was in as Evander’s emporium a spice boutique, rarely one to prepare meals it was hardly the place he pictured himself spending his last moments. Thinking of the angry mob outside he began taking stock of his surrounding the shelves and tables were covered with small wax sealed packages and scales nothing that would make a good weapon to defend himself from the mob outside. Nearby Evander the old owner of the store must have had a similar idea because he had flipped one of his tables over sending its contents flying and was in the process of kicking off one of the heavy legs to use as a club.

Getting to his feet Drystan walked over to the old man and the table taking a make ship club for himself, Evander gave a weak appreciative smile. Drystan knew how the man felt, the club in his hand was helping him to stay calm and giving him some confidence but he was very aware that when the time came it would likely do very little against the crazed mob.

Nearby a women was trying to calm her young boy in the corner, his breath erratic with terror. Drystan didn’t recognise them though at this time it didn’t so much matter. He walked over to the boy before kneeling down to give him some words of reassurance “Good thinking boy, bringing your mother back here to keep her safe, that was very brave of you”. The young boy nodded struggling to swallow “We are going to make sure that nobody gets inside, you stay here and make sure she is ok”.

“Yes sir” the boy whispered glad to have a reason to be far away from the front of the store.

The mass of people had reached the store they were using as refuge, the windows smashed inwards pelting them with pieces of glass and frame. The door flew open loudly  as the lock smashed free of the splintering door, Calder quickly lunged forward slamming it shut and bracing himself against it determined to make it hold, his body tensing and jolting with each impact. From outside the store people began crawling through the medium sized windows ignoring the cuts the remaining glass was giving them.

Drystan was Watching out the window clutching his make shift club as the crazed mass off people reached the store, there was so many of them and the way they moved was more akin to a force of nature than a group of people. He barely managed to mutter “Oh gods above” before they crashed into the store, turning slightly and raising his arm to protect his face from glass and splinters that sprayed across him. Looking up his throat caught as he saw the door wide open before Calder braced it shut. Drystan didn’t have time to worry about Calder as his attention was drawn to the wild eyed men climbing through the windows in front of him. He started thrusting the table leg like a short awkward spear, targeting anyone who dared to try coming through the windows. The shop keeper joined his defence shouting a loud plea “Jakkar please help me to defend myself and my livelihood”, and despite his earlier qualms with such notions, Drystan with nothing to lose, didn’t hesitate to shout his own.

As the rioters stopped trying to get in through the windows in search for easier entries and stores, the people inside were given a view of the chaos on the street. People swarmed in every direction continuing to smash windows and knock down doors. Once inside they were taking everything they possibly could, including the clothes and jewellery they tore off of screaming storekeepers, customers and even one another, brutally beating anyone resisting or otherwise.

Drystan couldn’t help but stare in shocked silence at the scene before him, his jaw hung limply, this wasn’t how he had ever pictured a riot, they didn’t act like vile sinners or even soldiers at war. Before him he could not see a shred of humanity only a terrifying tide of savagery.

As the rest of the door started splintering, Calder decided it wouldn’t hold any longer, quickly stepping back and away while bringing up his left arm defensively to protect his chest and face, he  raised the still covered axe above and behind his head. Calder stood blocking the path further into the store. The door collapsed inwards sending the first two people through stumbling to the floor to be trampled by a third, a large bear of a man who rushed in screaming, Calder brought his arm down fast and sharp, the flat of his axe connecting with the side of the man’s head with the sickening crunch of breaking bone laying him flat. The next person through the door received a savage back hand blow to his jaw knocking him back into the crowd and sending a spray of teeth clattering against the wall. Calder bellowed loudly spit flying from his mouth challenging more to come through, his body clenched and tense his eyes turned wild.

Drystan’s eyes snapped to the collapsing door, this is it, he thought watching a huge screaming man launch himself at Calder before folding to the floor, his bodyguard dispatched another before bellowing like a great beast. Drystan couldn’t help but stare in amazement at his friend, wishing if only he had a dozen more like him they might have made it through this.

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