Redoubt 2 – Metropolis

Greetings all. So, it’s probably not going to be called Redoubt 2 but Metropolis is the working title. Whilst I wait for some feedback for The Enemy Of All That’s Good,I started thinking about the oft requested sequel to Redoubt. I got thinking about it and come up with the idea for Metropolis. Thank you to Andrew Ruddick for enduring my endless grilling about the story – he helped me immensely in fleshing out a working concept. Obviously this isn’t a direct sequel as Redoubt was pretty much stand alone – but we will get to meet some familiar faces. I thought, as a spur to me, I’d post up a new chapter, once a month for you all to read, critique and comment on  – say anything you like – I can always ignore it 😉  In all seriousness, I appreciate any and all comments and the time you take to make them. The chapters may be a little rough and ready but as always, it’s a work in progress!

What’s Metropolis about? Well, I think the best way to describe it is a sword and sorcery Escape From New York. No, Snake isn’t in it but a couple of the characters might remind you of him 🙂

So, without further ado…

Metropolis

Chapter One.

It was the middle of the night. There was a loud knock on the door. In three years there had never been a loud knock on the door in the middle of the night.  Jon Forge stared at the door with one open eye and a scowl on his face.  The knock happened again.

“Shit.”

Forge pulled the blanket off and swung his feet onto the floor. He stood up and walked stiffly away from his cot towards the source of the noise. He stopped by the door and picked up the wood-axe resting against the frame.

“What?”

“That Forge?”

“Yeah.” The voice sounded familiar.

“You gonna let me in?”

“You gonna give me a reason why I should?”

“Captain Jon Forge, you might be retired but I can still get your ass kicked back into service.”

Yeah, that voice was very familiar.

“You got company?” he asked.

“Two men. They’re with the horses. I want to talk to you alone.”

“Right.”

Forge stepped to one side and reached for the bracing bar one handed. In the other he held the axe to the side and horizontal so he could get a good swing going.

“You gonna put whatever you are holding down before I walk in?”

Forge scowled again.

“Right.”

He lowered the axe and opened the door. Before him stood a well-built man, wearing fine riding leathers, what looked like a black cloak. Black gloves rested casually against the pommel of his sword. The cloak’s hood was pulled forward yet the face was still indistinct in the darkness. But Forge knew it anyway. Features that were so craggy they could have been chiselled from granite, a well-kept beard, long turned grey and blue eyes that were as soulful as they were cold.

“General,” he acknowledged.

“Captain,” said General McKracken, late of the Ashkent Army.

The General stepped through the doorway and into Forge’s one-room cottage.

“It’s a bit dark in here,” said McKracken.

“It’s the middle of the night.”

“Jon, put a light on, would you?”

“Right.”

Forge went to the stove, there was still a small red glow emanating from the remaining pieces of charred wood sat among the ash. He reached for a thin reed taper, touched it to one of those chunks and blew gently.  The wood flared brightly and the taper caught flame. He withdrew it, cupped a hand around the flickering light and lifted it towards a candle resting on the shelf behind the stove. The flame transferred easily to the wick and the room lost a little of its gloom.  Forge snuffed out the taper and laid it on the shelf next to the candle. He picked that up and took it over to his small table that sat opposite the stove. McKracken had already made himself comfortable on one of the two chairs, his cloak draped over his legs, the gloves placed on the table.

Forge took the other chair and sat back. He scratched the crotch of his woollen undergarments. He didn’t like wearing them but winter had only just passed and the nights were still cold. And he wasn’t getting any damned younger. He blew air out through his nose and studied the General. The General looked right back. Forge hadn’t seen the man for years, not since he’d retired from the army.

“Heard you quit,” said Forge.

“You might say that. But a man like me finds it hard to let go.”

Right. McKracken had turned his sniping and rib-digging of the ruling council into his life-mission, no doubt the powers that be thought pensioning him off might stop that. Fucking idiots.

“Speaking of which,” said McKracken. “How’s civilian life working out for you?”

“It’s quiet,” Forge shrugged. “I like that.”

“Sure you do.” McKracken pointed at a bottle that was sharing the table with the candle and a crude leather tankard. The light reflected off the glass, its bottom half almost black thanks to the red wine it still contained.

“You drinking that?”

“It’s the middle of the night,” said Forge.

McKracken grunted, reached over and helped himself to the tankard and the wine.

He took a gulp and made a face.

“Doesn’t your pension pay for better than this shit?”

Forge took the tankard out of McKracken’s hand and threw back a generous mouthful.

“I don’t get a general’s pension, Sir.”

McKracken rubbed a hand across his chin, smiling ruefully.

“Fair enough. What about business? Somebody actually paying for your crap?”

“Axeheads always need sharpening, arrowheads need replacing. I get by, but I’ll never be a proper smith. “

“Still, Forge’s Forge. I can’t decide whether it’s clever or sad.”

Neither can I. Forge put down the tankard and leaned in.

“General, let’s cut to it, shall we?”

McKracken nodded, he leaned in close too. Forge could see the flickering light, reflected in his pupils. The first warmth he’d ever seen from the man.

“I left my command two years ago. Strange as it may seem, I’d grown tired of the constant travel and nights spent in a tent sleeping on a bloody cot. Looking at your face, I think maybe it’s not so strange. Fact of the matter was I needed a change, but like I said, it’s hard to let go. I’ve been keeping  busy; working on the fringes, getting involved in some of the more…delicate…operations of government.”

Forge nodded. The spy service. The council called it the Diplomatic Corps. He knew better. It was where all the dirty work was done. Bribery, extortion and assassination; it was where conflicts were started, avoided and ended. Everyone forgot that the military played a part, at least war-fighting was cleaner. Usually.

He sat back and folded his arms. The General made a face and followed suit

“I’m not directly involved, I don’t handle agents. I tend to act as a third party, a go-to man when something needs to be done outside normal channels. It doesn’t happen that often and don’t make that face, Forge. I’ve been engaged by the Executive Member of the Corps, directly. That means this is important. It means that the Corps don’t trust their own people to handle this.”

Forge experienced a mild sensation of interest.  It was unusual to hear of anything which the Ashkent Council couldn’t deal with directly. They were masters at politics and business alike.

“Have you ever been to Karnak Karnassus, Forge?”

“No, can’t say I have. Don’t think we’ve ever been at war with them. Heard plenty though. Dav sent me a letter a while back – said he was getting posted out there to our embassy.” Major Dav Jenkins, one of the few friends he had left, the man had come through for him when it looked like the game was over.

“I don’t doubt it.  Karnak Karnassus is the largest of the Free Cities, and that’s not doing it justice. The place is huge. It has more souls living in its walls than have some middling-sized countries I could name. It would take some effort to hold it, and there’s plenty who have tried in the past and plenty who would like to try now. It sits on a huge wedge of rock between two rivers, controls a vast part of the trade routes from the East to the Jedah Sea. It also surrounded by a half dozen Free cities all jealous of its status.”

“They must feel a little out on a limb.”

“That’s not the half of it. Karnak has high walls and the will to defend them. It likes its independence. But the real way it keeps the peace is not through its strong defences; it’s through mediation. Their rulers decided that the best way to keep safe was by a policy of divide and conquer. Or in other words, they set themselves up as the arbitrators for all disputes, disagreements, arguments, agitations and conflicts. Karnak became the place to settle scores, placate friends and turn enemies into even better allies. And you know what? They all bought into it, every damn nation, city state, kingdom and tribe with delusions of grandeur. Karnak is home to embassies, envoys, deputations and consulates from every single country you and I have heard of and a good dozen we haven’t. And it’s not just governments that use the place; all the major trading concerns have offices there. If you want to talk, if you want something agreed or you want to avoid going to all the expense of a war, then you can go to Karnak.”

“It would’ve been nice if we’d used it more often then, it might have meant a few less battles me and my lads would’ve had to have fought,” said Forge.

“We did, we do. You wouldn’t have known just have much gets done and sorted before the Army got called in. Fighting is always a last resort,” replied McKracken.

“Then it scares the crap out of me to think it could’ve been worse.”

The General picked up the tankard and took another sip.

“I knew and it scared the crap out of me on a daily basis. Now, the thing about Karnak, and what gives them the edge is that all negotiation is handled in one place, a special constructed palace. And within it resides a room where all the threats and violence, all the deals and the dirty secrets can be aired without anyone knowing about it. A magically shielded room, called The Chamber, no-one gets in without an invite. What goes on in there stays in there and between whoever’s been doing the talking. Now, I said arbitration, so there needs to be someone who can listen to it all then devise a means of charting a way through the dispute,”

“The Paternal,” said Forge.

Mckracken slapped his hand on the table.

“That’s right, The Paternal. A man who knows more about the plans, schemes and strategies of governments than even the finest spy ring, including ours. Makes him the most important and well-protected individual within a thousand miles. There are any number of folks who’d love to have him as much as they’d like to hold Karnak. The thing about the Paternal, and what makes him so popular with everyone, is that he is completely objective, incorruptible and utterly discrete. He never discusses what he knows outside of the Chamber and carefully selects what he says within it.”

“Powerful man.”

“He’s a prisoner. It’s the price he pays for his knowledge. The Paternal is selected from among the relatives of the ruling council and sits for five years. He and his family are moved into the Paternal’s palace and treated like Emperors, or very well looked after hostages. They want for nothing. Yet the Paternal can never leave. And when the five years is up, he is put down, his secrets taken to the grave. His family are given a handsome payoff and moved out the palace to make way for the next bunch.”

“Can’t imagine there are many who want the job.”

“You’d be surprised. There are any number of families who are happy to send a son to take the position.  Makes them important in the local scene. And who wouldn’t want to live like a King for five years, plenty would trade their lives for that. Even so, they are still a prisoner, and there is a force dedicated to protecting and guarding him. He is never allowed outside his walls, will never walk free. You get to my age you appreciate the little things like fresh air.”

“Won’t argue with you there,” Forge ran a hand through his own, rather less well-kept beard. “So what happened? Someone try to kill him?”

“If they had, I wouldn’t be here, “ McKracken sighed heavily. Forge caught a glimpse of the old man under that iron exterior. That’ll be me soon enough. “A week ago a message was passed to Councilman Trajan, a long standing member of the Ashkent ruling body, and also the Executive Officer of the Diplomatic Corps.  A day later he called me in. A day after that I came looking for you. The message had come a long way and had been exchanged by a number of hands. It would take an age to trace it and if what it says is true, there wouldn’t be much point anyway.  The message was for Ashkent and for Trajan. It said three things. Firstly that the man who originated the message was dead, that there was a traitor buried deep within the Ashkent government and only one man could tell us who it was.  In exchange for that information we have to guarantee safe passage and protection for him. That man is The Paternal.”

“Shit.” Forge didn’t need to hear any more to know where this was going. He had no link to the man, no knowledge of Karnak. He was just a simple soldier, and that was the problem. “Why in the sweet seven hells do you want to be telling me that?”

“Because, you are like me, Forge. You’re retired, no longer beholden to the Ashkent government or military. You are a free agent, able to go wherever you want whenever you wish. Granted there are places you shouldn’t go but that’s not the point is it?”

Damn, was that a twinkle in his eye?

“I’ll make this simple. We want to know who the traitor is. So we get The Paternal out.”

“You got sorcerers, can’t they find that out for you?”

“Normally, yes. They form part of our normal security protocols. Fact of the matter is, we can’t afford to let on we know. They might try to commit suicide, and we don’t want them dead until we’ve found out what they’ve shared.  There’s still a chance we can turn this to our favour.”

Politics. It was enough to make a grown man spit.

“Fact of the matter is, anyone that deep in the organisation is probably protected against magical interference. This has to be done the old way, by being smarter.”

“Then that rules me out. “

“Don’t sound so optimistic. We get The Paternal, we get more than the just our traitor, we get everyone.  We get everything. It’ll screw over our enemies and make sure our allies keep playing nice. Only for a short while, but it’ll be fun.”

Fun…

“This mission doesn’t exist. You and I never had this conversation, but the result is this: you are going to Karnak Karnassus and you are going to get The Paternal out of the city and bring him to me.”

“Bollocks.”

McKracken stared hard at Forge. Forge starred right back. There was no way he was going to let McKracken win this pissing contest; he had no power over Forge anymore.

“I thought you might say that. It still stands, you do this.”

“Why?”

“Because I can trust you. Because you don’t want to do it. Because you are a godsdamn stubborn son-of-a-bitch when you put your mind to it.”

“And I’m expendable?”

“That too. You can be traced back to Ashkent if they put you under the knife, specifically they’ll trace you back to me. And they can’t touch me. All they know is I’m a retired general. I don’t make policy. They can never prove it was the government that sanctioned this.”

“General. That all you got? If so, I’ll kindly ask you to leave. I’m tired and I got more important things to do.”

“No, that’s not all I got. I know you won’t do this for Ashkent. When you rode into Shifter you did that for your friend, just to avenge him. You shouldn’t have come back.”

“I had help.”

“That you did. This time it’s not so different.”

“Really?”

“Jon. Who do you think sent that message in the first place, who died to get it out.”

No.

“Major Dav Jenkins wasn’t just a military representative. He was working for the Corps.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry, Forge. “

“How did he die?”

“He was found with his throat cut in an alleyway near to the embassy. That’s all I know. Who did it? Could’ve been anyone, but The Paternal reached out to him and somehow he got the message out before he was caught. That, considering the security apparatus around The Paternal, is a major feat.”

Forge wasn’t listening anymore.  Dav was, had been, his oldest friend. They had joined the army at the same time, worked their way through the ranks. But Dav was the smart one, the one who realised that you get to a certain age, you shouldn’t be out in the front lines anymore. And now he was dead, doing his duty until the end. That’s how they all died, everyone he cared about, fought with and bled with. And here I am. Still alive. How does that work? Because I got out you idiot.

General McKracken stood up and threw his cloak about his shoulders.

“I won’t see you again before you leave.  Head for Dunbar – there will be a ship waiting for you, it’s called the Crimson Shore.  The Captain will give you everything you need to know. You set out in the morning you’ll be there in four days. Unless you buy a horse.”

Forge stay sat, he kept his arms tightly folded. If he didn’t he was liable to stand up and strangle McKracken.

“Why would you think I’m going do anything? Dav’s already dead. Nothing I can do about it.”

McKracken didn’t miss a beat; he finished adjusting his cloak and started to pull on his gloves, right hand first.

“You’ll do it. Because you’ll finish what your friend started. Because you owe it to him. And because you are a stubborn bastard who’d die trying rather than give up. You think it was Dav who sanctioned that little jaunt into Shifter years ago? I knew what you were up to and I approved. I know what you are capable of, Forge”

McKracken finished putting his left hand glove on and stepped towards the door. He hesitated for a moment and Forge watched him fish around at his waist. He turned back to Forge and threw a small pouch onto the table. It landed with a solid ‘clunk’.

“Consider this an advance. Get yourself a horse, anything else you need for the trip. There will be more when you get back. I know you don’t want money, but put it this way. You get The Paternal back to us, that pension of yours will look a damn sight healthier.” McKracken looked around the cottage. “And you can get yourself a better place, employ an apprentice or something.” He turned, walked to the door and opened it.  A gentle gust of wind blew into the room, causing the candle flame to gutter and die. Forge looked at the general, a black figure silhouetted against the faint glow of the night.

“I came to you Forge because as I’ve already said, I trust you. Do this for Dav, do it for Ashkent. In the long run, you might save some lives.”

McKracken closed the door and Forge was blanketed by darkness. He sat there for a long while. He felt angry, used and manipulated. I haven’t said yes to anything but that doesn’t really matter. That bastard knew. As soon as he mentioned Dav, he knew.

He reached out and found the pouch. He lifted it up, tested the weight, felt for the coins inside. It was heavy, the discs felt thick. Gold pieces. Hells, he could run now with this, get across the border and start again. He could. But he wouldn’t.

Forge left the pouch on the table and groped his way back to his bed. It was tired and it was still the middle of the fucking night.

 

Chapter Two.

Forge emerged into the sunlight a couple of hours after dawn. He squinted as he gazed at the sun, a haze obscuring the worst of its power. The ground was covered in a light frost and felt hard beneath his feet. He lifted the backpack onto his shoulders, slipping his arms through the straps. His sword was wrapped in cloth and held in place against the centre of the pack to keep the weight distributed equally. His hand-axe was tucked into his belt on the right hand side, on his left, his knife sat in a leather scabbard. Over it he wore a long leather jacket, it was mostly dark brown but patches were mottled black and green. A pocket on the inside of the jacket held the pouch and most of the gold McKracken had given him. The rest were hidden in the lining of his boots.  It paid to have a back-up and whilst a good thief might pick his pocket, he’d go down swinging before any bastard took his boots.

He stood by the door, trying to get used to the weight that was settling onto his back. It had been a long time since he’d had to hump so much shit, yet the familiarity of it rolled back the years. Here he was, just about to march off on another mission. It was like he hadn’t been away. That made him angry. What had been the point? He’d retired for a reason.  He wasn’t supposed to be going back to this.  He’d know more than one old soldier tell him that you could never let it go, once a soldier always a soldier. He’d never really believed them, he’d tell himself that it was their problem not his, when the time came, he could turn his back, walk away and never stop to look behind.  He even thought that he’d made it. But you carried your sins with you. The villagers were civil enough, though they treated him with a wary respect. He was yet to feel part of the community. He was the crazy soldier who lived at the top of the hill. They probably weren’t wrong. Forge reached out and closed the door and worked out what to do. There was a chain round the back he could wrap round the handle and he had a padlock somewhere.

“Fuck it.”

He turned the lock, pocketed the key and stepped off the porch, the wood creaking quietly as it took his weight. All his tools were inside the workshed abutting the main building. The furnace and anvil were still sat under the covered awning behind the cottage, if anybody fancied taking the anvil, good luck to them, the thing weighed a ton and wasn’t worth the effort. He turned around and inspected his little kingdom.  Nothing more than a small clearing on a hilltop, bodily hewn out of the surrounding trees, a tiny hovel that was crumbling around him and a business that wasn’t even close to being successful. But it was his. Woe betide anyone who wanted to mess with that.

He walked along the path that led out of his clearing and off the hilltop. He glanced at the bent and stiffened grass that marked the presence of the horses and riders from last night.  Three sets of hoof prints just like McKracken had said. He made his way along the trail listening to the sound of birds busily singing away. A squirrel bounded across his path.  He skirted round a pile of horseshit.

The trees thinned out and he emerged into the shallow valley that held the village of Smallbourne. Two dozen houses clustered around a central square and a mill which sat on the far side of a solid wooden bridge. There were another score of families that lived close enough to call this place their home.  Folk were up and about their business. A few acknowledge his presence with a curt nod or brisk “good morning”. He responded in kind. He wandered past the local inn. The yard looked empty, no one was staying, or at least had already left. He liked the inn; they brewed their beer locally and made half decent scrumpy. He stopped at the barn next to the inn. A wagon was parked outside and two young lads were lifting sacks off the back and carrying them inside.

“Morning, Jon. Going somewhere?” asked a man emerging from the shadows of the barn. He was balding, with thick grey and black mutton chops and had hands the size of Forge’s anvil. He wore a think woollen jumper and had a leather apron wrapped around his stomach, which did nothing to hide the bulge.

“Red,” responded Forge.

Red followed his arms and studied Forge.  Red was the inn’s owner and probably Forge’s only real friend in Smallboure. Not a bad choice. If you had to make friends with someone, make sure it’s the man who pulls pints.  Red was also ex-military. He got it.

“You’re packing an arsenal, Jon. And I know you don’t like hunting.  So tell me you ain’t decided to re-enlist.”

“Like shit I have,” replied Forge. He’d have to keep telling himself that, just to give a sense of perspective.  “I got an errand. Might be gone a while.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You still got that old nag of yours?”

Red ran a hand over his head and frowned.

“Yeah, she’s out back.”

“Need to borrow her.”

“Right. Where’s she going?”

“Taking her to the coast.”

“You bringing her back?”

“Probably not.”

“Then you can’t have her.”

Forge chewed the inside of his cheek and cocked his head.

“Let’s put it this way. I only need her to take me there, then I’m getting on a boat.”

Red looked at him, his face neutral. The two lads had stopped work and were watching the exchange. Forge shot them a glance then raised his eyebrows. Red got the message.

“You two, bugger off. Don’t go far, you’re not done yet,” he ordered.

They ran off past Forge and into the inn’s yard.

“You were saying,” said Red.

“I don’t know when I’ll be back. I have to leave her there.” Forge remembered what he was packing and shook his head. Don’t be an idiot. “Wait up, Red.” He fished into his jacket and pulled out the pouch. He opened it and produced two of the gold pieces. Red’s face was a mixture of surprise and interest. “You get this for the hire of the horse. I’ll pay for stabling while I’m gone. Then I bring her back.”

“Hells, Jon. I don’t get to see gold around these parts. These will help with my retirement pot.” He held his hand out and Forge dropped the coins into the proffered palm.

“I thought you were already retired,” Forge said.

“Nah,” said Red, examining the gold. “This is for when I really retire. There’ll come a point when I won’t want to run this place anymore, then all I’ll want to do is sit down and eat and drink myself to death.”

Not a bad way to go. When the time comes.

“That mean I can have her then?”

Red smiled.

“Sure you can. Anything to help a friend out.”

Forge scowled at him.

“I get a saddle, right?”

Red laughed, “You want a saddle too?”

“Yes. A saddle. I’m not riding the bitch bareback.”

Red slapped him hard on the shoulder then more gently guided him into the barn

“You know, Jon, living up the hill all by yourself isn’t helping with your social skills.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

Ten minutes later Forge climbed onto the bay mare and settled himself. The saddle was worn, the leather cracked. The horse was at least twelve years old. No galloping from this one. At least he knew the shoes were in good nick. He’d made them barely a month ago.

Red finished tying of the backpack and stood back.

“There you go. All done. You got anything to eat?”

Forge had packed some bread and a piece of cheese. It’s all he’d had in.

“Not really.”

“Thought not. I put some ham and a flagon of beer in your saddlebags. Don’t say I never look after you.”

“I won’t.”

Red offered his hand to Forge.

“Keep safe. Since you came here my profits went up by half. I can’t lose my best customer.”

Forge took Red’s hand and squeezed it. “My heart is pumping purple piss. Look, will you keep an eye on my place?”

“Sure.”

Forge nodded and released his grip.

“Thanks, Red.”

He took the reins and squeezed the horse’s flanks.

“Hey, Jon,” Red called after him. “You gonna be okay?”

Forge smiled.

“I’ll be back smellin’ of roses.”

He heard Red snort.

Who am I trying to kid?