The fresh air was blown back with a blast, the musty, unmistakable smell of a pub replacing it. There was no doubt. This was the place.
I walked to the bar and ordered some water, before sitting down at a table opposite a giant.
He was huge, at least seven foot, with long hair covering his right eye, and the other eye having heavy bruising.
“Which one’s worse?” I joked.
“Left-hander,” he replied, as if that explained everything.
“Oh,” I nodded, pretending I understood. Who was left-hander? Did it simply mean someone who was left handed? Or was that someone’s name? They must have hit him pretty bad to be worse than his left eye. But then again, no one had been looking at us when we mentioned the name. Or maybe he was so scary he…“Stop scaring yourself silly,” I said aloud.
The giant laughed, raising his hands into the air. I pretended to laugh, not sure what was so funny.
The giant stopped laughing and slammed his fists down on the table.
“Left-hander is dangerous,” he growled. “Don’t be fooled.”
Then he got up and left, leaving the musty air behind him.
“I feel like some fresh air,” I said aloud, standing up, buttoning my jacket and waving away the water the barman had brought me.
“You better pay for this,” he growled.
“Bring me my coat,” I ordered.
“What did you say?” the barman asked, turning around.
“I’m just coming over to pay my bill,” I replied nervously, I needed to stop treating everyone as though I was still at home.
I tossed a few coins to the bar tender before making my way towards the door. I didn’t want to stay in this dirty place longer than I had to, and the giant had told me more than I had expected about the gang. The giant was a member of a smuggling ring that bought illegal drugs from far off lands back to our coast. I had been following him for days, trying to remain inconspicuous so I could get away unscathed. Left-hander was a new comer into my inquiries. None of my contacts had mentioned him, none of the conversations I had eavesdropped on had included him. Who was he?
Just as I was about to step outside a man pulled me aside. He was positioned just behind the door, in the darkest place possible. I couldn’t see his face and I was surprised to find his voice was remarkably like a woman’s.
“Be careful,” he said, his voice soft. “You must tread lightly where you can. One false step and you will fall through the floor boards.”
“Why do you tell me this?” I asked, trying to avoid the intense gaze of the bar tender.
“Because I am your friend,” he replied. “I am here to help.”
And with that he disappeared, leaving me confused and annoyed. I swear his voice was that of a woman’s, so soft and exotically accented, from somewhere I had not been before. But how could a woman have got in a pub?
As I walked down the street I thought long and hard about what he had said, and every time I repeated his words, the more I convinced myself it must have been a man. Maybe I was going deaf and had not heard properly? Maybe he had put the voice on purposely?
I turned down the main street towards the wharf, nodding my head occasionally to people I knew. I had contacts all over the country, and they all knew me by sight. I stopped to chat with one of them, who told me that the giant had been seen going into an alley not far from where I was.
“While I was at the pub,” I said. “I heard someone mention Left-hander.”
The man stiffened. People in the street averted their gaze, looking away as if I was some kind of infection to be ignored.
“Do not say that name,” the man said, anger showing in his face. He lowered his voice and looked around cautiously. “But if you must know, find the drunkard who lives alone at the edge of the village. He may know what you want to find out.”
I nodded and left, pondering the villagers reaction. They had been much more adverse to the name than the people in the pub. Although, nearly everyone in the pub had been drunk and was beyond caring. I cut across a few streets to where my informant had said the giant had been seen. The alley was one I had made my way along many times, the cobblestones always devoid of feet until nightfall, when it was busier than Main Street in summer. The smugglers market in Grounder was the busiest market in all of Frenell. People came from all over to buy goods, and the market was the basis of my investigation. The King wished to get rid of it, and get rid of it as fast as possible. Half his guards woke in the morning delirious from drug use, and Taheat was thinking about invading. On the other side of the country, Erren was preparing for war on Giblett and expected Frenell to back them up, leaving us with no soldiers to fight Taheat except ones who could barely think for themselves because of the smugglers market in Grounder. Who knew a tiny little town by the sea could cause so much havoc.
Other smaller alleyways came off this one, the biggest of those which was always holding a gang fight. Today was no exception, but I was surprised to find the giant in amongst the fray. I stopped, watching as the giant took a blow to the chest. The giant returned the hit with a punch that sent the man flying. The giant laughed and went to finish off another man, smaller than the last and incredibly slim. He was dressed completely in black, the hood of his cape covering his face.
“You won’t last forever,” he taunted, his voice soft and exotically accented. The person from the pub.
The giant laughed and prepared himself for the punch. I disappeared round the corner, breathing hard and feeling strangely protective. I heard them hit the wall and closed my eyes, opening them again to see the giant walk off, laughing to himself. I slipped into the small alley, and saw the person perched on the top of a building, and for the first time I saw their face. It was definitely a girl’s face, a girl of about my age. Her skin was as pale as a ghosts and her huge brown, almost purple, eyes told of her exotic beauty. Her dark brown plait fluttered in the breeze, reaching just past her waist. When she saw me she jumped down, landing as lithely as a cat. She pulled her hood back over her face as I approached. We stood there, eyeing each other in silence.
“Thomas,” I said quietly.
“Tom,” she corrected, as if she teaching me my name.
I took a step closer. She grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back, leaving me wincing in pain and wondering what on earth was going on.
“I told you to tread lightly, to watch your step,” she whispered, staggering backwards as I tried to push her away, but she held firm. “You haven’t been doing a good job. You have fallen once, but I have caught you. Next time I may not be there.”
I panted, trying to pull my arm from her grip.
“You’re hurting me,” I said, my breath laboured.
“And it will hurt more if I let you fall,” she replied, her accent making it hard to understand her words. She twisted my arm further before letting go.
I turned, but she was already gone, running along the rooftops, her cape flying in the breeze. She jumped off, her cape flaring out in a breath-taking display, before she disappeared from view.
I stood there for a while, thinking. Who was she? What was she doing here? Why was she supposedly helping me? And finally, what did she want?
I sighed and began walking off, back towards the Main Street. None of those questions were answerable at the moment. I spotted the giant sauntering away, almost out of sight. I followed him from a distance, almost loosing him a couple of times as he turned down unexpected streets. When I got an idea of where he was going, I took a couple of side alleys, until I arrived at the small town square. There was a crowd gathered and I edged my way to the front, slipping between the bodies.
I reached the front to find the girl from the pub standing on a wooden platform. The giant was standing beside her, still laughing, as she pulled back her hood. As she spoke the crowd fell silent.
“War may come upon this nation!” she yelled, her voice strong. “A war that we will probably loose.”
I shook my head while others in the crowd booed. Putting it that bluntly would just make people angry.
“Have any of you been to the capital?” she demanded, eyes glinting dangerously.
The crowd was once again silent.
“If you had you would be disappointed!” she continued. “The delirious, drug-ridden state of the guards only makes our position worse. Maybe with a full army we could win this war, but we don’t have one. And do you know why?”
There was a chorus of no’s and many people shook their heads.
“Because of your market!” she exclaimed. “Your drug market is thriving! People come from all over the country to buy you goods. Everyone has some. It’s the done thing. But should it be? No!”
This time her remarks were met with a mixed reaction.
“Any of you heard of Left-hander?” she asked.
The crowd gasped, looking around in fright. I had been right all along. Left-hander was dangerous.
“Well Left-hander is standing right before you,” she said, laughing at her own wit.
The giant? Really?
“I am Left-hander!” she shouted, her head raised proud.
What! Most of the crowd had the same reaction as me, staring at her in shock.
“I am Left-hander, and I am ready to lead us to war against Taheat!” she yelled. “The only way to defeat them is to catch them by surprise and whip our soldiers back in to shape.”
There were murmurs of assent from within the crowd, the most were still in shock from her earlier revelation. She was Left-hander? How could she beat up the giant?
“And why would you be qualified to do this?” one man yelled, braver than the rest.
Left-hander motioned to the giant.
“Look what I did to his face,” she replied.
There were a few incredulous laughs from the audience. She motioned for the man who had asked to step forward, and he did so, walking up to the platform. The giant lifted him up so his face was inches from hers. All I saw was the man falling off the platform and land on his back, apparently stone dead. There were a few angry mutterings from the crowd, but she held up a hand for silence. The man’s eyes fluttered open and he slowly sat up. He looked around sheepishly and then stood before rejoining his family. His wife was laughing, but he silenced her with a glare. His children were harder to stop, but he managed it with a few harsh words.
Left-hander continued, “Unless we want to be overtaken by Taheat, women must learn to fight!”
Most of the men went to leave, but found the streets blocked by soldiers wearing the capitals colours. I stared at them in confusion. How could she have got that kind of power? Soldiers all the way from the capital!
“We have barely any soldiers as it is, and women are much more agile than men,” she said. “Although they may not be as powerful, they can make up for it in their speed.”
I stepped closer to the platform, away from the crowd. She met my gaze with a fierce glare and nodded for me to get back in the crowd. I kept my ground.
“Who are you?” I asked, loud enough for all to here. “Who are you really?”
Her smouldering gaze softened slightly, but it was still fierce. She leant down, and spoke so no one but me could here.
“I will talk to you later,” she replied, cocking an eyebrow at me tauntingly. “But for now, you wait. I will see you in the pub.”
I nodded and stepped back, watching her intently. I had a date.
“For now, you go back to work,” she ordered, then amended herself. “Well, all work but the market. That is finished, done.”
One man marched to the front of the crowd, his hands in fists and his face red.
“What do you think kept me alive all these years you foreign scoundrel,” he growled, watching her face flush in anger. “It was not my day time job, no, that barely earned me dinner. It was my trade at the market, the night market. You know nothing, nothing about how this town works!”
“No, but I do,” his wife said, stepping forward. “And you know what? Those drugs can easily be turned into medicine, to help people rather than ruin them. Medicine makes a lot more money than drugs, you know that.” She looked about in surprise. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before.”
“You’re free to go now,” Left-hander called, watching as smiles spread through the crowd. “Guards, retreat.”
As the crowd filtered out of the square I caught her eye. She nodded and I began to walk off to the pub. It was not far away. As I walked I thought about the market. Medicine, as the woman had said, got a lot more money than any drug did. There would be no empty stomachs this winter.
There were a few people inside the pub, but most tables were deserted. I found one at the back of the room where the light level was very low. The bar-tender eyed me warningly as I sat down. He obviously remembered me well.
It wasn’t long before a dark, slim figure, cloak pulled over their face, took a seat opposite me.
“I like your choice,” she said.
I nodded. The bar-tender came over and offered us something to drink, but we both refused. When he’d gone she slowly pulled back her hood. Her brown eyes glinted dangerously and her brown plait trailed down her chest. I sat back, studying her thoughtfully. Suddenly a knife appeared in her hand and I jumped, startled. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.
“You are not ready for war,” she said quietly, her brown eyes stern. “You are not ready for much at all.”
I frowned, not sure whether it was an insult or not. I decided it wasn’t and crossed my arms, trying to figure out what she meant. She smiled mischievously and I realised I had been wrong. It was an insult.
I coughed, trying to hide my embarrassment.
“Just ask your questions,” she said, leaning forward with her elbows in the table.
“Well,” I replied, slightly flustered. I stopped and took a deep breath. “All I want to know,” I said, getting to the crux of the matter. “Is who you are.”
“As I said earlier,” she said. “You are not ready for that.” I began to protest, but she interrupted. “I can, however, tell you my name.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Why couldn’t you have told me earlier?” I asked, watching amusement play across her face.
“Because you could have used me,” she replied. “I’m still not sure whether I can trust you.”
“You can’t,” I said, shaking my head. “You can’t trust a spy.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Is that what you do?” she asked.
I nodded, smiling.
“Are going to tell me, or not,” I asked.
“Myriad,” she said, studying me carefully.
“Myriad,” I repeated incredulously. “But, that’s,” I paused. “That’s a word.”
“Not where I come from,” she replied. She stood. “I think it’s time we left.”
“We?” I asked, standing as well.
“I haven’t finished talking yet,” she said.
They left, walking down the street arm in arm. I was surprised she’d let me. Her cloak had been removed and underneath I was also surprised to see a black, flowing dress.
“What are you dressed up for?” I asked as we walked, going no where in particular.
“You,” she replied. I stared at her. “Not really,” she laughed. “I was wearing it for my speech, but I decided it was too girly.”
“Not for me obviously,” I said dryly.
She raised an eyebrow.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“You’re asking me?” I exclaimed. “I thought you were in charge!”
“I’ve decided to sit back for a bit,” she replied. “Let the men do some work.”
I smiled and pulled her to a stop.
“What?” she asked, eyeing me curiously.
I leant in and kissed her. It was totally spur of the moment, neither of us were expecting it. I stepped back and looked at her expectantly, waiting for her reaction. It wasn’t far away. Her fist slammed into my cheek, sending me to the ground. I lay winded on my back, looking up at her.
She smiled apologetically.
“You just fell through the floorboards.”