The ball cracked off the stones not far from his head, spitting stone chips in all directions. Gelgur flung himself over a heap of refuse after it, skidding chin-down onto bare cobbles and flinging his arms and legs wide, getting as low as he could—and then sliding to a stop and holding himself still.
As he fought to make his breathing shallow and quiet, a second shot whanged off something discarded and metal in the refuse not far away. Then a third sang past, sailing the length of the narrow alley to smack into distant stone at its far end.
Someone had overheard the Ironmaster's orders, all right.
Someone who had a pistol, and knew how to fire it. A good workaday Gunworks sidearm, one of hundreds of nigh-identical long-barreled flintlock "roaring-maws," the older and heavier war-pistols almost every elder of Alkenstar had handled, or still owned. And which could easily hit a scrambling rat the length of an alley away, given a clear shot.
Not that matters were anywhere close to "clear" here, yet. Smoke was still swirling, as dust and the smaller, lighter particles of the blast-rain sighed down. No one would be taking clear shots at anything near here. Yet.
Gelgur kept still, trying to breathe as silently as possible. His chin hurt, and one of his elbows, but pain had been an old friend for years now, thanks to several-times-broken legs and a shoulder that refused to heal around the cluster of three balls still buried in it. Those balls were the heart of a maze of crisscrossing bullet-holes that had torn through him in a few burning breaths of agony, that had left one arm and shoulder nigh-shredded...
He'd told Kordroun the truth. He was too old to be doing this.
He had some assets, of course. The badge, two small metal flasks of icewine—one a weak and sour vintage, the other the most potent fire he'd yet tasted—and a knife with a dash-skull pommel riding in its sheath in his right boot. None of which made it anywhere near prudent to stand up and challenge—or even make much noise fleeing, no matter how fast he went—someone with a service pistol, firing down an alley too narrow to miss anyone in it for long.
It wasn't near enough to nightfall for either Gelgur or the shooter to dare wait for darkness—and the shieldmarshal patrols—to try to cloak what they did. That blast would bring someone to investigate; there were distant shouts already. Whoever was trying to kill him wouldn't have much longer to gun him down.
A door banged open somewhere ahead, and Gelgur's would-be slayer fired again, the ball cracking off the unseen door and causing a startled, profane shout.
Another door crashed open, toppling over a rusty metal rack in the narrow alley and causing a deafening clatter.
Gelgur used the din to scrabble across the bare patch and around behind a splayed heap of brown-rusted sheathing-plates, so he was facing back the way he'd come, and had some cover.
He peered out through the rusted brown tangle into the drifting smoke, seeking the shooter who wanted him dead.
Someone was in the narrow alley and moving toward him, he could see that much. An upright shape—a man, or a tall woman—in the eddying smoke and dust.
Then the unpredictable smoke rolled aside, just for an instant, and Gelgur found himself peering at a gun with its tamping-rod still down the barrel. Above it was a face he knew, glaring in his direction: High Shieldmarshal Ansel Kordroun. Looking as unruffled as if the blast that had hurled the still-settling dust had never happened.
Their eyes met. Kordroun snatched out the rod and aimed the long-barreled weapon right at Gelgur—and the smoke rolled back between them like a blinding gray shield.
Gelgur flung himself back and aside, not caring how much noise he made.
The gun roared.
Its ball splanged off the rusted plates and sang past Gelgur's ear. Kordroun started tramping nearer through the refuse, and Gelgur whispered out fierce curses as silently as he knew how.
Someone fired in his direction from the far end of the alley, where Gelgur had started from. The shot cracked off the alley wall near Kordroun, causing him to crouch down hastily.
"Gelgur?" Kordroun called, his voice sounding farther away than it should be. "Are you—?"
Gelgur kept silent, lying right where he was in the stinking refuse, very much wanting a gun.
Well, no. He'd never been all that good a shot.
Make it six or so grenades. One to toss right in Kordroun's face, and the second about three strides beyond, so that if the man survived the first blast and fled, he'd run right into the second. Yes.
That would be good, right about now. Then Bors Gelgur could forget all about foolhardy investigations, and spend the contents of his heavy new purse on icewine.
Except for the little matter of his no longer having a home, thanks to a bomb thrown by someone who was still out there and wanted him dead.
The more distant shooter was at it again, another shot ringing off something metal and causing a sudden churning din in the nearby refuse as someone—Kordroun, presumably—decided the alley was no longer healthy to inhabit, and took himself elsewhere, fast.
Not past Gelgur, though the din had ended. Which meant the man had climbed one of the alley walls or opened a door.
Hmm. Climbing wasn't something high shieldmarshals were known for, but opening doors closed to others, now...
From a distance, starting right outside what had been Gelgur's front—and only—door not all that long ago, came the unmistakable sounds of someone wading cautiously through the alley refuse, heading closer.
Gelgur stayed where he was, not knowing what else to do. He was still lying sprawled, feigning death or insensibility, when the someone he'd been hearing stepped cautiously out of the thinning smoke with a drawn gun in hand—a marshal's revolver, one of the smaller, newer ones—and came over to him.
It was Kordroun—a wild-haired Kordroun, with blast-blackening all over his face and the soot and grit of a Gunworks street coating his armor and breeches. No pristine looks, no long-barreled commoner's weapon in hand or belt, and his armor scarred from a good bounce or two on hard cobbles. A Kordroun who'd been caught in the edges of the blast that had almost caught Gelgur.
He was wearing a worried frown as he bent down, reaching out...
Were there two Kordrouns? Did the man have a double Gelgur had never known about, or was someone impersonating him?
This was Ansel Kordroun, all right, right down to the faint reek of his sweat. If Gelgur hadn't seen the face of the man shooting at him...
Yet if Kordroun wanted him dead, why wasn't he emptying his revolver into Gelgur's face right now?
Blasts and bombards, wouldn't it have been easier to just do the shooting back in the room? No one would have cared, after all. Any investigating gunmarshal—if one even bothered—would never suspect a shieldmarshal.
Besides, there'd been the distinct sound of his window breaking, just before the blast—and Kordroun had been with him, not outside the wall with the window, in the right place to hurl a bomb.
Wouldn't it have been easier for the high shieldmarshal to bring a bomb into Gelgur's room, perhaps tucked into the purse, and then depart in a hurry? Or at least run and get himself well away, to let the bomb pulp one man rather than two?
"I'm alive," Gelgur said roughly. "Was that you, shooting at me?"
Kordroun's frown sharpened.
"No. I shot at whoever was trying to kill you. I don't think I hit him, but he got a door open fast after my second shot—I don't know how, seeing as it has no handle on our side, just a heavy plate. I don't think he wanted to get caught between us."
He was still reaching down a hand to haul Gelgur up. Trying not to hesitate, Gelgur took it. "You know it was a he?"
Kordroun frowned. "No, I didn't see him well enough. I just..." He shrugged.
Gelgur nodded. Marshals of Alkenstar had to assume a lot of things, and sooner or later, doing so became a habit. "What now? Got any icewine?"
Kordroun's frown became a scowl. "No," he said shortly.
Fresh shouts arose at the far end of the alley. The high shieldmarshal jerked his head in their direction. "Let's be gone from here before marshals come crowding around. I'd rather we weren't..."
Gelgur gave him a smile as bitter as he felt. "Seen together?"
"Let's go," Kordroun snapped, grabbing at Gelgur's arm.
Gelgur let himself be hastened away. Behind them rose the din of several men hurrying down the alley toward them.
Kordroun started to really hurry, and it took all Bors's breath just to keep up.
Along a street, down another alley, through a door, along a passage and through another door, into darkness. Then up a dank stair by feel, through another door, and along one of the many enclosed flying bridges that joined building to building above the settlement's streets. Then down again and along several darkened hallways, in a building that echoed with emptiness and the faint scuttling of rats.
"Where're we—?" he panted, as Kordroun stopped so suddenly in front of a half-seen door that Gelgur blundered into him.
The shieldmarshal turned and muttered into Gelgur's ear, "Gunhunter."
The door opened into more darkness, but anyone familiar with the Gunworks could tell by the sound their boots made as they strode along the passage beyond that it was another enclosed bridge, taking them over another street into yet another building.
One that stank of recent paint, hot oil, and forgework. They descended an enclosed stair, and at every step the crashes and clangs of nearby work grew louder. Sounds that were punctuated at regular intervals with deep, ponderous impacts that were more felt than heard. The stamping mill.
They went through a door at the bottom of the stair, past two guards who snapped to attention as Kordroun stepped between them, and out into a dark alley roofed in squealing, oil-dripping, gigantic toothed cogs, where they were met by the full, familiar, nigh-deafening noise of steady forgehammer crashings, overlaid with irregular metallic clatterings as things were dropped or raked out in haste for sorting or cooling. Gelgur knew immediately where they were, just as anyone living near the Gunworks would: the "metals in" rooms.
The cobbles underfoot were slick with oil from the cogs turning endlessly overhead. Sparing them not a glance, Kordroun led Gelgur to the left, out into a wider street whose roof was a maze of pipes and enclosed bridges thrusting out of the Works walls to run at various angles into the walls of buildings across the street. That was the seldom-seen, ever-changing rear of the main factory, where assembled weapons were oiled, fitted with grips, and "finished"—a building that sprouted new steampipes and drive-chains every month.
They turned another corner, leaving some of the din behind, and on their right was an alleyway spilling out light and steam. The billowing curls held pleasant cooking odors and a whiff of scorched pans and burnt food.
The Gunworks kitchens?
As they went closer, a shot rang out from somewhere above and behind them, spinning Kordroun around and spilling him into a cursing heap at Gelgur's feet.
Gelgur flung himself down and clawed at the high shieldmarshal, trying to drag him against the wall, but Kordroun kicked free, his revolver out as he peered up into the darkness.
When the second shot came, he fired back instantly—and nodded in grim satisfaction at the shrill, high scream that followed, a despairing wail that ended in a grisly crunching. The cogs started squealing more loudly, and blood pattered down to the cobbles.
As the cogs returned to their usual clatterings, Kordroun staggered to his feet, shaking off Gelgur's helping hands.
"I'll live," he snapped. "Armor caught it. Come. Before another gunman tries his luck."
He stepped into the alley that held the light and curling steam of the kitchens, and Gelgur followed.
The next shot out of the darkness found only empty cobbles.
Coming Next Week: Introductions and incredulity in Chapter Three of Ed Greenwood's "Guns of Alkenstar."
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood is one of the most famous RPG designers of all time. In addition to his game work, with such notable setting products as the Volo's Guides, Forgotten Realms Campaign Set, and City of Splendors, he's also written more than twenty Forgotten Realms novels (many dealing with his signature character, Elminster) and ten independent novels, the most recent of which is Falconfar.
Art by Colby Stevenson.