Tantaerra hastily transferred her hands to just the bottom edge of the crate-lid as she backed away—and the first slashing blows fell on it, numbingly hard.
A few splinters flew, but the swift dark swords were sharp, and the arms that drove them very strong. Steel sliced deep and caught, binding in the wood.
The silent slayer shook its swords to free them. Tantaerra let go of the lid before she was shaken dizzy and darted around behind the huge stack of crates. Time to enact her clever plan.
She ran right up the reaching pole and kicked out hard against the cellar wall, slamming her back against the big stack of shield crates. She hit hard, readying herself to leap clear of the avalanche as the crates overbalanced and came down on top of her attacker.
Yet the big stack of shield-crates wavered not an inch.
Tantaerra cursed foully, then cursed even harder as she felt swords biting into the far sides of the crates she was now clinging to. The manyswords thing was hacking and hewing crates as high as it could reach, cleaving wood that was a lot older and damper than the lid it had just flung aside; its blades were through one crate-side already.
Tantaerra climbed wood that shuddered and groaned at each sword-blow, and was a crate higher when a sudden cacophony of sliding metal announced the riven crate was abruptly spilling all of its shields.
Spilling them right onto the head of the manyswords monster, or automaton, or golem, or whatever it was. The thing came staggering into view around the edge of the stack. By then, Tantaerra was atop the uppermost crate and holding onto one of the cellar ceiling beams, sneezing out dust.
The manyswords thing regained its balance and determination, and charged back at the stack, hewing at the next crate down.
Sparks and shrieks flew as metal struck metal, and all too soon the deluge of rusting shields emptying out of a half-destroyed crate rang out again—but this time, the weight of two full crates stacked atop the two now-empty ones was too much, and Tantaerra's perch groaned, toppled, and came down on the thing of swords with a thunderous roar.
Tantaerra rode the ponderous fall almost to the cellar floor, but sprang free at the last moment to land in a dead run up the stairs.
She halted halfway up, listening as the crash rebounded off the walls, ready to continue running at the slightest stirring in the shield pile. Yet no new sounds interrupted the fading echoes.
She turned and moved cautiously down again, halting two steps from the bottom, peering into the cellar's half-light.
Nothing was moving but eddying dust. Swords lay still here and there on the floor, and a few corners of the cage-like apparition that had been their wielder could be seen protruding from under a great heap of shattered crates and flakes of rust.
Stairs creaked as the Master moved down into the basement. "Is it dead?" he asked.
"Well and truly crushed," she responded.
He shook his head, and they crossed the cellar together to peer at the fallen swords and shields, then examined the coffin-like crate lying open and unscathed. The lid had borne the "Hroalund Only" directive; the solid box was well used and empty, and bore no other markings save the usual chalked street-carters' mark that meant "delivery fee paid."
Tantaerra looked again at the label on the lid. Although its lettering was different than the label on the crate of gorgets they'd received from Galdrake and Sarpent, the labels and glue were the same.
"Someone wants you dead," she told her master grimly, tugging the rag from her face.
He looked angry, but said only, "I believe we both know who."
"So what happens now?"
"I go and do the work they've hired me for," the Master told her, his words flat and hard. "Argulk Hroalund doesn't run from threats."
"Argulk Hroalund can't run, these days," Tantaerra replied. "From anything."
The Master of the House of Blades gave her a scowl that lightened slowly into a chuckle and a nod. "You have the right of it, little one. And I see from your face that you have an idea." He started for the stairs, and added over his shoulder, "Your ideas have never led me astray thus far, so..."
When she reached the head of the stair, he was holding out his belt-flask.
"Drink," he ordered. "You've earned it. Then talk."
It was hot and cramped inside the box, even wearing only light gauzy silks. Tantaerra had taken the hood off, and resolved to stay that way until Hroalund was actually opening the catches. She wore a smoke suit: tight-fitting breeches, slippers, a jerkin, and a full-head hood, all mottled gray to make the wearer hard to see in mist, shadow, or dim surroundings. It was identical to the sort favored by Molthuni scouts and sneak-thieves of all lands, and she was surprised they'd been able to find one small enough to fit her—once the arms and legs were doubled back on themselves, that is. Sometimes it proved useful to work in a shop that sold war-gear.
Useful, but not precisely comfortable. She was bumping and rumbling along on the House of Blades' freight cart, in a box that had only two tiny air-holes where nails had gone "missing" (thanks to the Master's prybar), and huddled on a bed of coiled cords inside a frame that held a tray of the Master's smaller tools just above her nose. Her carrybag was across her legs, reassuringly heavy. The traps Master Argulk Hroalund installed were almost always activated by trip-cords or wires, and his working gear also included many pulleys, hooks, ring-catches, hinged treadles, and the like. So the cart held no less than six boxes—because Garldrake and Sarpent could afford the best, and wanted it.
The holes were too small for Tantaerra to see the splendid carved sign that proclaimed "Garldrake and Sarpent/Arms and Armor For All," but as she was carried through its doors—double doors!—she could tell that it was brighter and roomier than the House of Blades.
She did catch a glimpse of the fabled polished copper ceiling. The Master had spoken scornfully of that particular addition to the main showroom of what was increasingly his chief rival in Canorate. Sheets of copper that were polished nightly, there to make everything grander and brighter, reflecting everything on display and showing the counter staff what patrons were up to in every back corner and aisle. Ornamental pillars and moldings had been added everywhere, and doors turned into tall archways, to make the premises appear much grander.
The prices had soared, of course, but unlike the Master, Garldrake and Sarpent were happy to charge extra for their fancy show room. And it had worked—not only had they retained most of their patrons, they had gained some new ones; foolish nobles who judged a smith on the beauty of his store rather than the quality of his steel.
Where the House of Blades was crammed with knives, knives, and more knives, Garldrake and Sarpent had lots of empty space, and lone suits of armor standing on their own in gleaming displays. The shop still carried far more wares than the Master did, but most of them were on shelves filling room after room opening off the showroom.
You could do that, the Master had said a trifle enviously, if you'd taken over the next-door shops on both sides, and had coin enough to swallow more. Over the last eight years, Garldrake and Sarpent had gone from strength to strength, buying out many—no, most, by now—competitors. They were the purveyors of armor and weaponry to Molthuni of wealth and discernment.
And welcome to it, she'd often heard the Master say, but from time to time he'd sounded wistful while saying it. The rest of the time, he sounded merely bitter.
"Well, well, Master Hroalund! I am most pleased to see you!"
To Tantaerra, Loryn Garldrake sounded more astonished than pleased. That confirmed her suspicions: that the manyswords thing in the coffin had been expected to kill him, and this prearranged hiring to outfit their store with traps was an alibi—for who would kill the best trap-fitter before he did his work for you?
"Welcome, welcome!" Garldrake went on, more heartily. "And you've brought all your, ah, fixings and fittings, I see! Can you have it all done today, d'you think?"
Loryn Garldrake was one of those who could melt butter on his tongue, jovially and heartily. Probably until the instant he thought you were crossing him, and then—watch out.
"I fear not," the Master replied gently. "I could if you closed your doors, but your partner was most firm that the shop—"
"Ah, pray pardon—the establishment should stay open, and that one room at a time would be curtained off as I worked. Here's the chart we agreed upon; please let me know if there are any changes you'd like, or..."
"No, no," Garldrake spoke slowly, his voice sharp and shrewd. No doubt he was studying the chart. "No, this is all in order. You're the best, Master Hroalund, and the best is what we want. You'll start at the back, then?"
"My lads will carry your boxes through. Six, aren't there?"
"Six and my little satchel, here," the Master replied agreeably. "My thanks. The curtains? Ah, good, good..."
A few bumpy moments later, Tantaerra felt her box being set down. With care, thank the gods.
"No, leave them closed, thank you," the Master said firmly. "I'll open them as I need them. Until then, less clutter, and easier to move if a patron needs something I'm in front of. Thank you."
There were murmurs from Garldrake's shop workers, booted feet shuffling away, and then the familiar clinks and clanks of the Master getting out tools and starting to hum softly to himself.
Though Garldrake and Sarpent ran to nothing so common as a shop-bell to announce the front doors opening, Tantaerra didn't have to see to know the shop was busy. The hubbub of many voices never stopped, not a few of the nearest inquiring what was behind the curtains. Hastening feet fetched things from nearby shelves on more occasions than she could count. It made the pace in the House of Blades seem one step from the grave, by comparison.
Abruptly the catches on her hiding place were thrown back. She only just had time to tug on her hood before the Master was dragging her out by an elbow and murmuring, "Now."
After the dimness of the box, the light even in this back room seemed nigh-blinding, but she was out in it for barely long enough to snatch two quick breaths before being plunged into darkness again—dustier and faintly moldy darkness this time, with a cool draft.
The Master had bundled her into the Garldrake and Sarpent dumbwaiter—or rather, atop the box that traveled up and down the shaft on furry-with-dust but well-oiled cables. Easily done by hauling on cables and thrusting a foot down into the box, when all one needed was enough space for a lithe halfling to pop through. Tantaerra checked that her carrybag was leashed securely to her wrist; it was heavy with trap-guns, triplines, and cork-guarded darts coated with poison that brought swift and deep slumber to those they stung.
She was here to spend the night, peering and hearing as she stayed unseen. Riding the top of the dumbwaiter, or climbing its ropes to get higher, the better to spy.
Being discovered would bring almost certain death, because the Master had a pretty fair idea of what Garldrake and Sarpent were up to: cheating the rulers of Molthune by providing inferior armor and weaponry—like those gorgets—and undercutting competitors' prices, driving said rivals into business failure or forcing them to sell out to Garldrake and Sarpent. No doubt they knew that Master Hroalund would never willingly hand over his shop, and had decided it would be easier to acquire his share of the market after his untimely death.
They had to know they'd be found out eventually, but obviously planned to make their fortunes first, and probably buy merchant ships and buildings in the heart of bustling cities in other lands, so they could leave Molthune in haste and still keep some wealth. Or perhaps they'd simply quietly pay off the injured parties whenever their shoddy quality was discovered—and in the meantime, grow to dominate Molthune's arms and armor trade, and heap up coins as high as they could.
A fine plan in theory. Yet if Tantaerra could discover evidence of it, Hroalund could easily use that knowledge to expose them—or perhaps simply hold it over them, using it to secure his own safety.
Safety—and more than a little gold, if Tantaerra had her way. For anything that threatened Master Hroalund also threatened his slave. And no one threatened Tantaerra and got away cheaply...
Like Tantaerra the plucky halfling? Read more of her adventures in the new Pathfinder Tales novel The Wizard's Mask, coming soon!
Coming Next Week: Darts in the dark in the final chapter of Ed Greenwood's "A Matter of Knives"!
As the creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood is one of the most famous RPG designers of all time, with a veritable dragon's hoard of game setting products under his belt. In the Pathfinder universe, he's the author of the new novel The Wizard's Mask (also featuring Tantaerra) and the short web fiction story "Guns of Alkenstar." In addition, he's written more than twenty Forgotten Realms novels (many dealing with his signature character, Elminster) and ten independent novels.
Illustration by Mariana Gomez