Author: Joel Cox
Content Advisory: Moderate Violence, Mild Language, Some Adult Themes
Even upon the floating mountain of Ropolz, Autumn Fenborn felt grounded. All her life she had fought with tooth and claw for meager survival in the lower city of the cultural metropolis, floating from beggar to prostitute to thief to mercenary. She knew the ways of the lower city like the back of her hand and whenever people from the lower or upper city on Ropolz needed someone from the outside to do a job for them, they were often pointed toward Autumn. But Mistress Fenborn, as she was called, had one rule: The poor must gain from the expense of the rich. Killing and stealing did not injure her conscience, but only the rich and powerful were her victims. Maybe they were good once, but for all Autumn cared, power corrupts even the best of heart.
Casually, she threw her knife in the air and caught the blade, looking closely at her face in the reflection. Her rich, black hair and clear, blue eyes displayed her youthful beauty which had survived the hard years of her adolescence, and it was her greatest weapon. She flipped Signa, her knife, and grabbed its handle, putting it back into its polished black sheath.
She sat quietly with her feet resting on a wooden table in the corner of the Lion’s Maw Tavern and looked at the masses of drunken patrons either gambling away their savings or squabbling amongst each other; in other words, potential buyers. Autumn scanned the crowd constantly, observing any people that looked like they weren’t here to drink or gamble and had a large wallet. Her eyes fell on a cloaked figure that sat at a table at the opposite end of the commons room. The figure was alone and seemed disinterested in the evening’s events. Taking her feet off the table, Autumn got up and made her way through the sweaty, stinking masses toward the hooded personage sitting by itself.
Her low-cut shirt attracted the attention of a few quite intoxicated men that, mistaking her for a barmaid, thrust themselves at her with cries of “hold on, sweetheart” and “come here, beautiful”. One of the men reached for Autumn’s chest and she grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. “Don’t try it, hun,” she said, shoving him forward. The other men quickly withdrew. Unhindered, she made her way to the table and looked down at the hooded person, who through the commotion had remained still and silent. “What do you need, honey?”
She was startled by the voice of man who sounded urgent and enraged, starkly contrasting his stoic figure. “My family has starved to death and that karfing fool needs to pay!”
“Who needs to pay?”
“The rich mudgh, Tarin Matton!” the man said angrily without moving or looking at Autumn. “He sent me away without a word after 20 years. 20 years! The karfing fool!”
“Listen, sonny, I only accept work if I kno-”
“The amulet,” the man interrupted. “The amulet that controls the automatons that defend his estate.”
“All his enemies and rivals couldn’t be stopped from attacking his precious home if he lost it. Someone needs to get it from him. I would pay a high price, yes.”
“What could you give me? I don’t work for cheap.” Autumn was eager to end this conversation. Though not one to be easily scared, she felt uneasy around the man in the dark cloak.
“All that I’ve learned and seen over my years of service in the Matton house about the rich folk of Ropolz and their lives and families. All the things said behind closed doors where servants are disregarded though their ears remain open. All this could be yours.”
This was the first time the cloaked man had addressed Autumn directly, and it startled her. She quickly collected herself, knowing that this information could prove invaluable for her future endeavors. “How do you suggest I get this amulet?” Autumn asked.
“A father loves his son and will do anything to protect him,” the man said.
Easy enough, Autumn thought. The classic kidnap and bargain routine.
“I can do that, hun,” Autumn said. She got up and left but before she was out of earshot she heard the man mutter: “Good. This is good. Matton shouldn’t have taken his artificer for granted. His precious automatons won’t work without me. Now, he will taste some of the pain I felt.”
* * *
Tarin Matton, one of the rich and powerful of Astine. He represented the Matton family in the city government. When it came to rich and powerful men, he was high up on the list. Autumn felt gleeful at the thought of all the information the hooded man could give, someone who had seen and heard as much as he had in the service of the Matton family. Now, the only issue was how to get the amulet her new employer desired. She knew she had to capture Tarin Matton’s son and ransom him, but how could she accomplish this? She had spent only a short time in the Upper City in her years as a mercenary, but the Matton estate wouldn’t be too hard to find.
Finding the estate might not have been a problem, but getting into the estate? That was a different question. As with all the rich who want to protect themselves from judgement, Matton had a private security force that guarded his house so Autumn could not get in by force. In fact, finding any way to sneak in would prove incredibly difficult. Autumn considered her options as she viewed the estate from a distance. If I can’t get in, she thought, then I’ll just have to wait for the Matton son to come to me.
Upon asking around, it had proven easy to find Connor Matton’s favorite tavern. Autumn did not have to wait long before her prey came along.
* * *
“Evening, sir, quite a cold night, isn’t it?” Autumn stood in the shadows of the alleyway between two taverns on the fringes of the upper city watching Connor Matton, son of Tarin Matton, stumble along. He stood about six feet high and looked to be about 18 years old.
“Huh,” Connor said in a tone with a hint of a tipsy slur. “whas that?”
“It’s me, sir,” Autumn murmured meekly. “A young lady who needs a man to keep her warm.”
“What’re you doin’ out ‘ere alone?”
Autumn stepped out of the shadows in front of the young man. She was wearing a full length dress that revealed much of her upper body. Connor gaped at her and then put on a stupid smile. This will be easy, Autumn thought.
“Come with me, gorgeous, I can get you warm.” Connor grabbed her around the waist and led the way out of the alleyway. He led her down a series of streets with closed shops and only the occasional pedestrian and prostitute. As Autumn eyed her surroundings, she noticed that the houses and building around her began to look nicer as she progressed into the upper city. Columns rose to hold up vast roofs that displayed sculpted images barely visible by the light of torches and lanterns on the front of the houses. These houses looked more like temples to vain gods than homely abodes. Only after walking a few miles did Autumn grasp how large the upper city was and how much space each estate took up. Not only houses, but vast lawns and gardens stretched for acres up the east side of the mountain.
Autumn had spent the night before pouring over maps and diagrams of the upper city and she knew her way around. She needed the allured Connor to get near one of the city gates and then she could knock him out and get him into the lower city past some of the less than competent guards. Even though she was used to defending herself against men, she wasn’t used to carrying them over long distances, so she needed Connor to walk most of the way on his own. Without warning, Connor turned off the main road and headed down a smaller street with fewer houses and dimmer lighting. Autumn made sure to stay calm and said in a sweet voice to Connor, “come on sweetie, let’s go this way.”
Though outwardly she seemed calm, she had started to panic inside. Three miles separated them from the city barrier and no amount of adrenaline or strength would allow her to carry Connor that far.
Connor stopped abruptly. “Time to see was unner that dress,” he said with a smirk.
Autumn let him take hold of her dress and then she grabbed his arm and threw him to the ground with a swift movement. He squirmed and tried to get out of her hold but she unsheathed her knife and hit him in the head with the butt end.
“Time for plan B,” she whispered angrily. Spotting a small house that looked like some sort of cottage off to her left next to one of the mansions, she dragged her prey out of the light of the torches on the side of the road. Quickly digging under the fence, she got Connor to the cottage with much grunting and cursing. No light illuminated the interior of the cottage, which Autumn figured must be a servant house. She dumped Connor on the doorstep while she took some of her tools and made quick work of the lock. Inside, it was cold and Autumn shivered as she stood on the dirt floor trying to decipher the layout of the servant abode. The room was small with two beds in the upper right corner from the door. A small stove stood in the other corner with a table and two rickety wooden chairs set beside it.
Autumn picked up Connor’s arms and dragged him onto the floor, shoving him against the stove for good measure. “You would have caused a lot less trouble by just going the right way, honey,” Autumn sighed, her hands on her hips. “Well, we’ll just have to make do. Flexibility is my specialty.”
* * *
“To Tarin Matton: by now you have realized that your son has not returned from his night of debauchery and you are no doubt concerned and curious about his safety and whereabouts. I can assure you sir the little man is safe for now but I have no qualms with changing that if my demands are not met. Please, without any of your karfing guards or bastard sons following you, come to the Lion’s Maw Tavern in the lower city. There, give your family’s amulet to the bartender. Once this is done, stay in the Tavern and I will give you instructions to find your son’s location. Don’t try and switch it out or bring any back-up. I will know. If you do this by sunset today, your son’s life will be spared. If not, then the rich scum will have his blood on your hands. And in case you don’t believe that I have him in custody, he has your family mark behind his left ear and a burn mark on his chest.”
Autumn felt satisfied with her ransom: she had stuck the note to his estate’s main gate, and now all that was left was placing her captive in a proper hidden spot. She felt more vulnerable every moment spent in the upper city. Unsheathing her knife, she walked over to the unconscious Connor, heaped on the ground in the same position she had left him in the night before. One hard kick to his side and Connor got up groggily, clutching his head and the spot where Autumn’s foot had contacted his body. “Time to get up, hun,” Autumn said in a mock sweet tone. “We’ve got quite a distance to walk and I need you to do exactly as I say or you won’t be doing anything ever again, you get me?”
“Yes ma’am,” Connor replied quietly.
She grabbed his arm, forced him up on his feet, and drew a small dagger from a sheath on her leg. Discretely, she placed the dagger against Connor’s back so as to discourage him from struggling or trying to get away. “Now let’s go.”
The two left the servant’s house and made their way back to the main road they veered off of last night. Not wanting to attract the attention of the passers-by, Autumn put a scarf around her neck to cover herself. She led Connor on the very edge of the main road, which remained dim in the early morning. At the end of the road was the border between the upper and the lower cities. Autumn led Connor along the border for a quarter of a mile before stopping at a spot with no guards nearby. With one hand still holding the dagger against Connor’s back, she felt the block right in front of her until she found a niche which she pressed with her hand, revealing a small doorway in the wall. Mistress Fenborn shoved Connor through the doorway and followed after him.
Finally, Autumn was in familiar territory once again. She took Connor down the narrow, smelly roads of the lower city. Secrecy was now more crucial than it had been in the upper city. If any bounty hunter or criminal boss found out that Tarin Matton’s son was traversing the streets of the lower city, they would no doubt try and capture or kill him. Matton was known for having many connections of his own and the death of his son would soon reach his ears. If that happened, not only would the deal be off but a bounty would be placed on Autumn’s head, and that bounty would not be small. None can escape the wrath of a father who has lost his son.
* * *
As the noon sun shone over the mountain, Autumn and Connor reached Autumn’s home, a small house near the center of the lower city of Ropolz surrounded by the city slums. Her house was small yet comfortable. Rugs covered her hardwood floor and brightly colored paintings adorned her walls. A single, metal framed bed lay in the corner under a lone barred window that produced all the light in the abode. A colorful embroidered stool stood next to a small wooden table with patterns and designs intricately carved into it. In the corner furthest from the door a small washing basin hung from the ceiling, suspended by three metal chains. Many of the decorations were new and expensive but luckily Autumn’s clients usually paid well. Keeping her dagger pressed against Connor’s back, Autumn grabbed some rope that was hanging on a hook on the wall and told Connor to sit next to the bed. With the rope, she tied his body and arms to the bed and she tied his legs together.
After securing Connor firmly, Autumn went to the basin and washed her face and arms. When she looked back she saw a mixed expression of fear and disgust on the face of her captive. “What is it?” she said, abruptly breaking the silence. “My house not up to your prissy, rich-boy standards, hun? Are you used to rooms the size of the entire lower city with innocent maids that serve your every whim and who’ll sleep with you whenever you’re feelin horny?”
Anger and resilience flashed on Connor’s face and Autumn saw his fear slip for a moment. “What is your issue with me?!” He asked furiously. “Why did you take me and why does my father’s wealth enrage you so much?”
“You’re sweet-tongued after the drink has worn off, ey? Well it won’t get you far around here. You and your like think you can talk and buy your way out of whatever situation. Well not here you can’t.”
“Rich pigs, honey!” Autumn yelled. “Greed and snobbery may have given you the upper hand in life but they don’t earn respect among the honest folk down ‘ere. At least we starve honestly. You glut off of food you bought with money you stole from all the folks that earn their keep straight. And you sit in your pretty palaces, eating off of gold platters and drinking from silver chalices, while the rest of us starve! No good ever came from a rich man’s pocket that wasn’t undone by years of scum and villainy. But at least now I can cause one of your kind the pain and misery you have caused me and my kin.”
“When have I or my father wronged you? We pay our servants fairly and give to the poor when opportunities to do so arise. I had never seen you before yesterday and my father has never made others miserable purposefully. What have we done to you?”
“It’s not just you, it’s your karfing kind!” Autumn shouted. “You stomp others into the ground and laugh as they chew on the filth and mire from your shoes. Those servants you pay so kindly, do they live in your house?! Do they eat from your table?! Or do you forget about them whenever they are not in your sight? My mother slaved for one of your kind and they threw her out to die! Your people didn’t even notice her body on the street! You filthy piece of mudgh,” she added the insult as an afterthought.
“Look, woman, it wasn’t my family that threw your mother out-”
“That’s not the point.” Autumn snapped. Her chest heaved up and down as her ire subsided. “You built the lower city on the backs of those lesser than you,” she whispered in a quaking voice. “On the backs of people like me…hu-.”
Thunk went the arrow into Connor’s chest and a burst of air fluttered against Autumn. “Death to the karfing Mattons!” yelled a voice from outside of the window and Autumn looked just in time to see a figure with a bow running down the street and out of sight.
No! Autumn thought. How could they have found us? She analyzed the path they had taken that morning. Every turn and side street they had taken after passing the border. Every precaution taken to prevent anyone seeing Connor Matton. How were we found? She stood there dumbfounded for a few seconds with the wind blowing through the shattered window. Connor’s corpse lay unflinching, a look of shock frozen on his dead face.
Snapping out of her trance, Autumn collected herself. “It doesn’t matter,” she said aloud. “The trade will go on. Tarin doesn’t know ‘bout anything. I can still get the amulet and finish the job. I don’t need Connor. He’s scum. He…he deserved it.”
She remained still, justifying his death in her mind until she was satisfied that the rich pig had had it coming to him, and resolved that she would get the amulet without him. Father-dear would just be in for a surprise when he found out. Autumn cut the corpse’s bonds and heaved it up, dragging it out the door and down the street. In a pile of refuse in the alley she dumped the body. Making sure that her knife was at her side and that her dagger was safely in its place on her leg, Autumn strode down the street toward the Lion’s Maw.
* * *
Autumn sat by her table in the corner with her feet perched upon it. She scanned the crowded tavern, looking for any signs of irregularity in the demographics of the crowd. No one caught her eye among the gamblers, drinkers, and whores. But, as her eyes searched over the debauched masses, her gaze once again halted on a hooded figure sitting still at a gambling table near the opposite end of the room. Nothing seemed different about this figure from the last time Autumn had visited the Lion’s Maw. His posture was the same, his cloak was the same, and he sat at the same table. Reluctantly, she vacated her table and made her way through the sea of people toward the hooded man on the table in the corner.
“I got the kid,” Autumn said after reaching the man’s table. “Tarin should be here by sunset.”
“Really?” The man said and his voice was smooth and calm, not mirth-filled as Autumn expected. “Because my sources say you had him and then you offed him before you came here.”
“I didn’t kill him!” Autumn snarled. “Whoever your sources are, they lied to you. Some mudgh followed me from the barrier and shot him when I wasn’t looking.”
“Tsk, tsk, Mistress Fenborn,” the man chided. “How are we going to exchange the boy for the amulet if he is rat food?”
“Matton doesn’t know his son was offed. I figure we just don’t tell him and get the amulet ‘fore he finds out.”
“And what then?” retorted the man. “What do you think he’ll do once he discovers his precious son is dead? Do you forget that I lived in that house and that I saw firsthand how much he cares for his son? His revenge will not be light but it will be swift.”
“But…but the amulet-,” Autumn stuttered.
“He doesn’t need his house to pay people to find you or and me and kill us, you fool!” The man’s voice shook. “He already would have come after us for taking his amulet and now his son is dead. No. You won’t escape his wrath. No matter of cleverness or dusting your tracks will keep him off your back.”
“He’ll come after you as well.”
“No he won’t. I’ll be long gone before he can get to me. You, on the other hand. He will hunt you and find you and kill you.”
“Most people want to do that,” Autumn replied. “I’m not scared of one more.”
And besides, he deserved it, she thought.
* * *
Autumn knew the hooded man was right. Matton’s fury would be directed at her. Any moment now, he would walk through the door into the Lion’s Maw Tavern and Autumn would face a decision: Get out and hope that Matton wouldn’t have the means of finding her; tell him the truth and kill him before he can kill her; or give him false information about the whereabouts of his son and hope to whatever gods were out there that he falls for the bluff.
She sunk into the seat by the hooded man and waited for what seemed like hours. Not the noise or the bumbling people around her caused her to move and she sat, still as the grave. Suddenly, a sound louder than any of the others boomed across the tavern, effectively freezing everyone in place.
“Where is my son?!” Tarin Matton roared, his hand gripping a war-hammer. One of the many ornamental shields that adorned the wall was lying on the ground, heavily dented with a hammer-shaped indentation. The crowd gazed at him, confused. “I have the amulet,” he said, glowering at the bartender who cowered but said nothing. The six foot tall form of Tarin Matton resembled that of his son, but Tarin’s appearance was both older and more menacing. Ripped muscles showed through his sleeves, and his torso was covered in a decorative golden chestplate encrusted with jewels. He carried his war-hammer, too heavy for Autumn to even lift, like it weighed nothing. He walked toward the bar.
Ripping the amulet from his neck, he slammed it onto the bar causing the bartender to jolt. “You have what you wanted,” Tarin yelled toward the crowd at no one in particular. “Now tell me where my son is.”
“He’s dead,” Autumn said bluntly. She hadn’t made a decision. She had just blurted it out.
Tarin turned to Autumn, an expression of shock and horror on his face. “You lie!”
“I am telling you the truth. He is lying in the alley behind the Rabid Boar Tavern three streets down from here.”
“NO!” Tarin shouted in dismay and he ran out the door in the direction of the Rabid Boar. Autumn got up and followed him. She didn’t know what had come over her. Why had she told him the truth? This and a million more questions went in and out of her mind as she ran after Tarin. Autumn stopped. On the ground, heaving as he wept, Tarin Matton held the body of his son in his arms. Bite marks from rats and other street vermin were visible on his arms and legs though otherwise he looked unchanged from when Autumn had last seen him. Tarin roared indiscernible sounds in his misery as his tears fell onto Connor’s face. Autumn Fenborn looked on, her expression blank.
Without the amulet to protect his house, Tarin Matton’s enemies and rivals would quickly seize the opportunity, and his home and everything and everyone inside it would be in danger. But Matton did not care. Tarin cried like a child for his dead son, and not even the end of the world could wrench him from that place.
Autumn ran. She left the parent grieving over his lost child in the alleyway and sprinted away. She went until her feet collapsed beneath her and she knelt on the ground breathing hard. That man is human like me, she thought. His love and hate are the same as mine. His cares and worries are as human as mine. And his loss is as real as that of any parent. His riches cannot cloud his humanity in this moment. But what am I? I who steal from the rich to help the poor. I who stole his son from him and watched him die. My rags do not condone the evil I have done. In this moment, Tarin Matton, you are the innocent one.