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Fires in the Night

Alcázar

At noon, the thief, the champion, and the knight met in the same place as before. Yawning a few times, Jawad pointed at the table. “Dress yourself,” he told Brand. “Get rid of all your shiny metal bits.”

“My sword stays,” he replied curtly. “But I have brought leather strips to cover the hilt and pommel.”

“You’re not entirely fresh in the net.” Jawad smiled sardonically.

“As I mentioned, this will not be my first nightly raid.” Removing his chain shirt, Brand donned a dark leather tunic in its place.

“You have a plan, master?” asked Majid. He had already dressed himself in colours similar to Jawad.

“Several, in fact, but we should only need one. If I recall, you are a strong swimmer, right?”

“I am,” Majid nodded.

“And given your background, I assume you’re good with horses,” Jawad added, aimed at Brand.

“Indeed.”

“Very good. I hate the beasts myself, but there’s no denying they make for a speedy escape. You can both rest easy – I’ll do all the hard parts,” Jawad smiled.

“Even so, would you care to enlighten us?” asked Brand, who was not smiling.

“Of course. You’ll have a task fitting your gifts,” Jawad declared. “You’ll be waiting with the horses for our escape. I assume that’s within your capabilities.” Brand’s face twitched, but he did not respond. “I’ll sneak inside and set the sails aflame.”

“And my part?” asked Majid.

“Getting in will be easy enough, but once those flames start burning, I’ll need a distraction to escape.”

“My task, I assume. How?”

Jawad nodded. “The best distraction from a fire is a bigger one. You’ll start one by the harbour south of the wharf, giving me the opportunity to escape north.”

“We cannot set the whole city on fire!” Brand protested. “The loss of life is unthinkable!”

“We won’t burn down the city,” Jawad said dismissively. “There are warehouses by the pier, which will serve our purpose nicely. The wall will keep it from spreading to the city, and there’s plenty of water nearby to put the fire out.”

Brand stared at the rogue. “Is that the truth or simply what you think I wish to hear?”

“If the latter, I’m hardly going to admit it, am I,” Jawad replied with annoyance. “Destroying the sails is your idea, Harun.” He spoke the name with a sneer. “I’m the one actually making it possible.”

“You need not be concerned,” Majid told Brand. “It’ll be me setting the fire. I will not do it if there is any chance that it could spread to the city. On my honour,” he swore.

Brand’s eyes moved back and forth between the two. “I wouldn’t trust such words from him,” he declared, “but I will trust yours. Very well.”

“If you are done insulting me,” Jawad remarked dryly, “I’d like to finish.” Hearing no objections, he continued. “Once you’ve created a distraction, jump into the sea and swim north. I’ll set my own fire once yours has dragged the guards away and make my own way north as well. We’ll meet up further along the coastline, where you wait with horses.” He nodded towards Brand. “We ride through the night, putting distance between ourselves and the harbour, and enter the city through the northern gate tomorrow morning.”

“I suppose that sounds simple enough,” Brand granted.

“I’ll do my part,” Majid claimed.

“We should get to it. Harun,” Jawad spoke, smiling as he pronounced the name, “we’ll go with you and procure the horses. Once you’re sent on your way, Majid and I will go to the harbour, spending a pleasant day before tonight’s work.”

“Is it safe to leave our belongings here? I don’t wish to return and find my armour gone.” Brand nodded towards his chain shirt lying on the table.

Jawad laughed. “Trust me, those who know of this place, also know better.”

“Let’s be on our way, then,” Brand declared.

“After you, Harun,” Jawad smirked.

~~~~

Once Brand had been sent on his way with horses, Jawad and Majid made their way to the eastern docks. They did not seem to have any aim in mind, walking and talking casually. Majid’s demeanour only grew serious for a short moment when they approached a specific warehouse while Jawad mumbled a few instructions to him; for his part, Jawad was smiling and laughing without interruption.

They spent the rest of the afternoon with a meal, watching the ships and sailors of the docks. Every now and then, a galley would return from patrolling the seas, elegantly gliding into the harbour; once close enough, the oars would pull in, ropes would be thrown onto the pier, and the ship would be moored. While the sailors took care of these details, a contingent of mamluks would disembark, marching with perfect discipline to their barracks in the city.

After a while, the same story would play out, only in reverse. A company of mamluks would appear, marching through the gate to embark a galley. The sailors would unmoor the ship and set it into motion. Once free from the harbour, the oars would come out, pulled by numerous slaves, and the ship would sail east or south in search of pirates.

As the day waned, Jawad finished his evening tea. “Time for me to leave,” he declared. “Make sure you wait. I can’t move until it’s completely dark, and I’ll need an hour at least before I’m ready.”

Majid gave a nod. “I shall, master. See you on the other side.”

Jawad smiled. “See you there.”

He emptied his cup and left. In the dying light of the day, he strolled around the harbour, watching the hojon. With weary steps, they trod through the docks, making their way back to Almudaina before the gates were locked for the night. The guards kept sharp watch, making sure none broke away. Jawad patted his pockets, feeling the small alchemical flasks inside. With a deep breath, Jawad turned his back on the hojon and his attention towards the wharf.

~~~~

As night fell, nothing seemed out of the ordinary on the eastern docks. There was the usual noise and traffic of sailors seeking drink and entertainment along with the sounds and shouts of the locals offering either. The many galleys meant plenty of soldiers traversed the harbour as well. Even if not on duty or patrolling, their presence had a calming effect on the worst excesses, and brawls were rare; or at least, they were less frequent than on the western docks.

When the night sky had the same colour as his clothes, Jawad crept into position. Following the same method as last, he moved undetected deeper into the wharf, staying hidden as needed. As he already knew exactly where to go, he reached his destination faster compared to last time. Similarly, he was already acquainted with the lock on the storage door; within moments, it opened up.

He did not enter; as the building had no windows, it would be impossible to see when Majid had done his part. Instead, Jawad remained hidden outside, occasionally stretching his limbs or neck in his hiding spot.

Time passed, as did the guards. Each time, Jawad moved a little further into the shadows between the city wall and the storage; each time, the watchers continued without suspecting anything. None of them ever checked the locks on any of the buildings; they had never had reason to do so before.

The calm atmosphere was shattered without warning. Flames rose against the air to the south, sending grey smoke towards the sky. Voices crying out in alarm were carried by the wind. Panicked, the guards ran southwards. Waiting a while, Jawad crept around the storage building to enter it quickly. From his pockets, he withdrew the flacons purchased from the alchemist. He opened them one after the other and poured their contents onto the sailcloth. A loud hiss ensued, followed by flames. Wasting no further time, Jawad got out. He left the door open, allowing air to feed the greedy fire, and hurried away northwards.

~~~~

After Jawad left him, Majid remained a while at the tavern, having another cup. His brusque countenance and the short sword by his side dissuaded any from approaching him, letting him drink his tea in peace. When it was dark and the tavern became crowded with other patrons, Majid finally rose to his feet and left. He walked aimlessly around the harbour, waiting while more and more stars appeared on the firmament. Once the night sky was full of lights, he changed direction, moving with purpose.

He reached the small warehouse that Jawad had pointed out to him earlier. It lay secluded to some extent with the city wall to one side and open road to the other. Choosing the former side, Majid stepped in between stone and wood. From one pocket, he withdrew a jar and let it pour onto the warehouse wall. The smell revealed it to be lamp oil.

Jawad had reserved the alchemical aid for himself; Majid had only ordinary flint to start a fire with. He began striking the stone, trying to cause a spark, when a voice called out. “What’s going on down there?” Majid glanced up and saw a guard on the city wall, staring back at him. “Hey, what are you doing?” the guard asked. Majid’s response was to strike the flint more frantically. “Stop!” yelled the watchman. “Men, down there! A thief!”

At last, the sparks caught the lamp oil. Fire burst forth, devouring the soaked wood. It illuminated Majid’s face, showing his relief that quickly turned to fear. Alerted by the guards on the walls, others were running towards his position, shouting and drawing more attention.

Setting into a sprint, Majid fled the scene. As soon as he came into the open, he was spotted by the approaching watchmen.

“Fire, fire!” some yelled.

“Over there, he’s running!” came another.

His despair obvious, Majid ran across the streets, seeking to hide among the other buildings of the district. While most people in the vicinity moved towards the fire, many of the guards would not be deterred, and they set after him in pursuit.

The further Majid ran, the more he became trapped. Each time he reached a new street, he found people advancing on him. He slipped between buildings, jumped over barrels and toppled them behind him, changed directions, and did anything else he could to escape his pursuers. None of it availed him.

Finally, he reached edge of the harbour; only the sea lay ahead him. He ran along its length, attracting further attention, shouts, and vile gestures as he pushed people aside. When the way ahead was barred by spears, he turned to run down one of the piers. Reaching its end, he jumped into the waters without hesitation.

“He’s jumped! He’s in the water! Get some boats!” With powerful strokes, Majid swam north-east; behind him, boats were lowered from the nearest galleys with guards and mamluks at the oars. Against the night sky, the fire raged on.

~~~~

Further up the shore, where the sand turned to rocks, Brand waited with three horses. They were all of dark colours and tied to a tree; as for Brand, he stood upon an outcropping, giving him a vantage point of the bay and its coastline. Above his head, the moon traversed the sky as the only marker of time.

Tranquillity was finally broken deep into the night. Even from afar, he could see the flames devouring the warehouse, but little else. The wharf was close enough that he could hear the outcry in response; as the moon appeared from behind a cloud, its light allowed him to discern figures in the distance, running about.

Crouched on the rock, tension gripped his body. His hands were balled into fists, and his eyes constantly scouted the horizon. Yet despite being ready to spring into action, all he did was wait as assigned.

“Harun,” Jawad called out, sending a start through the other man, whose hand was already on his sword hilt as he spun around. “Only me,” Jawad grinned. “All done. And my horse is ready, I see.”

“You torched the sailcloth?”

“I did. Not with a torch, but same result.”

“Good. We need only wait for Majid then.”

An expression ran across Jawad’s face. “Not for long.”

Brand frowned. “This was your plan.”

“And it was a good one,” Jawad defended himself. “We hit our mark as intended. It’s on Majid’s shoulders now to make his escape. We can’t hang around forever.”

Brand looked down with disdain on the shorter man. “So you’re ready to abandon him? Your own man, who is only in a trouble because he ensured your escape?”

“We all had our part to do,” Jawad replied curtly. “Seeing as your task involved no danger at all, you shouldn’t be quick to judge. I did all the hard work here.”

“That does not mean we abandon one of our companions to his fate!”

Jawad gave an overbearing sigh. “I thought you were a knight. Have you never ordered men into battle, to their death?”

Brand clenched his jaw. “That is a different matter.”

“In your eyes, I’m sure it is.”

They were interrupted by shouts in the distance. Torches carried by men were moving up the beach along the wharf. Lights could also be seen out at sea, illuminating small boats.

“What is happening,” Brand mumbled.

“He’s being pursued,” Jawad declared with the confidence of a rogue familiar with such circumstances. “They’re spreading out along the beach, making sure he can’t swim ashore without being caught.”

“Then we have to help him.”

Jawad gave his companion an incredulous look. “There’s dozens of armed men down there.”

“I am not arguing that we should fight them all, simply that we must help him escape them.”

“Friend, I’ve been a thief twice as long as you’ve been alive, I wager. I’ve escaped certain death more than once, and I can tell you, there’s no escaping from that beach.”

“Perhaps not for a thief. Fortunately for Majid, I am a knight.”

Jawad made a throat sound resembling choked laughter. “Be my guest. As for me, I believe one of those horses is waiting to take me away from here.” He turned around, walking over to untie one of them. “Bloody beast,” he mumbled, getting into the saddle without his usual grace. As Brand stared on the beach, the Prince of Cats rode away.

~~~~

Majid swam for his life. Boats were nearby, staying alert for the sound of his movements, forcing him to swim under the water. Each time he came up for air, he looked around to gain his bearings; every time, the sight of soldiers on the beach awaited him. He had no recourse but to take another deep breath and dive once more.

Being forced underwater had caused him significant delay; it had taken him near an hour to clear the harbour and come this far up the coast, and he had still not passed the wharf. At this speed, it would take him far longer to swim past the beach and reach the rocks with Brand and the horses.

Majid swam onwards. Each stroke brought him a little closer. He continued the process that had brought him this far – deep breaths of air and a quick look to determine his course followed by a long stretch under the water. Breathe, swim.

His luck did not last. Swimming in the dark underwater, the boats were as invisible to him as he was to them. Coming up for air, he found himself right next to his pursuers. He dove as soon as he realised this, but a spear had already been thrust against him. It pierced his leather tunic and gave him a wound.

He swam onwards, but soon, his strokes came with less fervour. He had already spent much of his strength swimming along a curved path, since being blind underwater kept him from swimming in a straight line. The next time he surfaced, forced by his need to breathe, his eyes darted between two places. Ahead in the dark lay the rocky coast and his escape; to his left was the sandy beach and his capture. Treading waters, Majid faced the inevitable conclusion forced by his loss of strength. After greedy breathing, he dove and swam left.

His new course had the advantage of leaving the boats behind; they continued northwards in their search, giving him a little more room. Approaching the beach, this advantage disappeared. He dove once more, avoiding the careful gazes from the watchmen ashore. This also lasted only a short while; when his swimming strokes touched the seafloor, Majid abandoned his subterfuge. Rising to his feet, shivering from the cold with a bloody shoulder and a short sword by his side, he began to run.

His speed was slow at first, trying to sprint through water that reached his knees. When he had come far enough that it receded to his ankles, he was also discovered. “I see him! Over here!” came the shout. Muttering a curse, Majid saw the guards gathering, trying to close spears and keep him from escaping.

Majid was a champion of the sands. He had more training with the short sword in his hand than all his opponents put together. But they wielded spears, they were not exhausted, and they could encircle him from all sides. Using their reach, they jabbed at him constantly. Majid could do nothing but parry their attacks and turn the spearheads aside with his blade; each time he might consider advancing on one enemy, he was forced to protect himself from another.

The sound of a galloping horse made Majid spin around, ready to defend against another foe. It was not needed. Making his horse rear, Brand used its hooves to knock one guard to the ground while his blade slashed another. Grabbing the reins with his sword hand, Brand turned his horse around to extend his free arm towards Majid. “Hurry!”

Grabbing hold of Majid, Brand swung him onto the back of his horse and kicked his heels in. The beast did as commanded, setting into a swift trot.

The spears wielded by the guards were not javelins, but they served well enough at close range. Several came flying through the air. Struck, the horse tumbled to the ground, forcing the same fate upon its riders. Drawing swords, the guards did not hesitate; before Brand could recover from the fall, the tip of a blade was pressed against his throat. To his side, he saw the same happen to his companion.

“We surrender,” Majid declared hoarsely. With triumphant grins, the guards collected their weapons. Soon, they began their return to the city along with their two prisoners.

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Quill

Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.

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