The Coat Thief
She walked into the Black Guard H.Q. in the middle of the day, shooting a very brief smile at the guard on the door. Eyes like gemstones; hair like a seam of gold in old man Dondakan's mine. She wore a great bear-skin coat dyed purple and red, but she didn't walk like someone who could afford that coat.
She moved in spurts, like a badly-oiled machine jumping and catching.
She spurted over to me, and caught. "Commander Veldaban?"
I nodded. Most people don't need to ask who I am.
"Commander, I need your help." There was alcohol on her breath, and I reckoned that was where her confidence was coming from. "My brother's gone missing," she said. "He was in Keldagrim East, on his way to the cart station."
I sat down, gestured for her to do the same. She perched on the edge of the chair for a moment as if she wasn't sure it could take her weight, then she pushed herself back and crossed one leg over the other.
"You got a name?" I asked.
"Hilda," she said.
"Tell me what happened, Hilda."
"He was walking down by the palace south wall," she said. "I waited for him at the cart station but he never showed."
I frowned. "What was he doing by the palace south wall? That's not the best way to the cart station."
A brief look of panic flashed across her face, but she managed to turn it into innocent surprise.
"It's not?" She fluttered the lashes over her gemstone eyes and adjusted the coat to reveal a little more leg.
I ignored that. "Where were you heading, on the carts?" I asked.
She was flustered for another moment, but this time she came back confrontational. "Why does it matter?"
"It matters," I said, "because I don't like being lied to."
The door opened noisily. Another woman was standing in the entrance, all up-turned nose and diamond earrings. "Commander Veldaban!" she bellowed. Then she spotted Hilda and shrieked like a factory steam-whistle. "My coat! That girl stole my coat!"
The newcomer was gesticulating in the doorway, but her path inside was blocked for the moment by a throng of Black Guards. Hilda leaned forward and hissed, "I need your help, Commander. Would you really have talked to me if I'd looked like I was from East?"
"Of course I would," I said.
Hilda stood up and gave me a disdainful look. "Really?"
I knew she was right. I'd have talked to her if she'd got to me, but she wouldn't have got that far looking like she was from Keldagrim East. I made a decision.
Hilda was taking off the coat. I stood and helped her out of it, and then took it to the lady at the door. "This young lady found your coat and was turning it in," I said.
"She stole it!" the woman squealed. "I was in the market, and I had it under my arm and she just snatched it."
I gave her my most patronizing smile while patting the coat into her hand. "Please, ma'am. Are you saying she stole your coat and then brought it here, when she knew you'd be coming here to report the theft?"
"But--of course she stole it! She's just a--a petty thief from Keldagrim East." The lady kept staring at Hilda as if the very sight of her was offensive, but now that she had the coat in her hand her anger was dissolving. I made some reassuring noises and manoeuvred her out of the door.
Hilda was sitting down again, glaring at me as if she didn't know I'd done her a favour. I reached out a hand. "You'd better show me where you last saw your brother."
She kept on glaring at me, but she took my hand.
I hadn't been to Keldagrim East for years, not properly, not off the main through-fares between the palace and the cart station and the riverboat. I'd patrolled East when I was a beat guard, but the head of the Keldagrim Black Guard mostly stays in the H.Q. in Keldagrim West.
The noise and the smell hit me as soon as we crossed the bridge. People are packed pretty close together in East. The large buildings are all factories and workshops. The people mostly live in the natural enclaves in the cavern's walls, huddled around little fire pits and with blankets strung up for privacy. The cavern roof is low and the light from the factories' furnaces shines off it hellishly. The industrial smoke and the dust from the mines choke up the air.
Hilda seemed to transform as we joined the throng. In West her confidence had been forced, with an awkward skittishness always showing through. Here in East, her confidence was effortless.
She took me south around the outside of the palace. The palace stands in the middle of the city, straddling the river. You can see it from anywhere, but it's more imposing when viewed from East. In front of the entrance on the West side there's a garden, but the East door opens straight onto the bare cavern floor. The wall towered over us, great blocks of dark stone and iron buttresses, with little warm windows from which the company leaders could look out at their factories and workers. I'd been up there with the company leaders dozens of times. It looked a bit different from down here.
Hilda led me to a place around the south of the palace, where a little street led down to the river in between the palace wall and a row of little iron shacks. One of the shacks was half-built, with a heap of short iron poles standing at the side of the street. The statue was visible, standing on its island in the river: old King Alvis with his head replaced by one of the company leaders.
"This is the place," said Hilda. She had stopped glaring at me, but there was still a prideful resentment in her voice; she was asking for my help, but she was too proud to beg for it. "He'd been laid off at the Blast Furnace," she said. "He was doing odd jobs, and--"
I shut her up with a raised hand, and ignored her annoyed look. There was one other figure in the street, leaning against the palace wall. It had spotted my uniform and was acting strangely.
He was a bulky man draped in heavy sheets that obscured his face, with only a scraggy red beard showing. He moved away from the wall as if startled when he saw me. When he noticed I was looking at him he started to run, up towards where Hilda and I stood. There was no way out of the street at the other end; it looked like he was trying to get past us and escape into the city.
If someone thinks I've got a reason to chase them then I probably have, even if I don't know what it is yet. I drew my warhammer and moved to intercept. "Stop! Black Guard!" He didn't react to my shout.
I misjudged the man's movements and stepped the wrong way as he darted between Hilda and me. Hilda was faster. She lunged at the man's feet, trying to trip him.
He was heavier than she'd thought. They both went sprawling, crashing into the heap of iron poles and sending them ringing across the street. He ended on top of her, making some snarling sound, more like an animal than a dwarf. He wasn't getting up; he was raising a fist, and as the sheet fell aside I saw a metal gauntlet.
I ran and swung the warhammer around, striking the top of his head. It rebounded with a muffled clang, and the rags fell away to reveal a tin-pot helmet. I'd stunned him, and he rolled sideways groggily as Hilda scrambled out from under him.
I planted a boot on his chest. He struggled, trying to knock me aside. He was snarling louder now, white flecks of spittle clinging to his beard, and as he moved his head his eyes seemed to flash from the holes in his helmet. They were red like a furnace, seeming to shine with their own light, unnatural.
"I'm placing you under arrest," I said, digging my foot in for emphasis. He kept writhing, like he couldn't hear me. I clipped my warhammer back to my belt and grabbed one of his flailing hands. With my left hand I reached for a rope from my belt to bind him.
Even after the concussion he was freakishly strong. He pulled me aside, roaring triumphantly, and began climbing to his feet. I reached for the hammer but I didn't have time to draw it again as the man raised a gauntleted fist--
There was a metallic thud and he fell forward. Hilda was standing behind him, panting furiously, an iron pole in her hands. There was a vicious shine in her eyes.
That second blow to the head had been too much for him. He was unconscious. Hilda bent forward to look as I rolled him onto his back and lifted off the helmet.
"What is it?" asked Hilda, amazed and revolted.
He was like no dwarf I'd ever seen in Keldagrim. His skin was dark red and had a rough texture, and it seemed to glow from within like lava. Even unconscious, his face was locked in a grimace of rage. He smelled of sulphur and radiated unmistakable heat.
The heat was growing stronger. I stepped back, and Hilda did the same. The dwarf's skin glowed brighter and brighter red and then began to disintegrate, crumbling in on itself like wood curling up in a fire. In less than a minute he was gone, leaving only a few bones and some scorched armour fragments in a thinning cloud of black smoke.
"Great Guthix," said Hilda. She raised a hand to her mouth as if she were about to gag. She didn't, but she started walking away, not looking at the remains. I went after her. Her hands were shaking. Mine were too.
"Are you alright?" I asked.
"Great Guthix," she said again. She took my hand. "I need a drink."
"I'll buy you one."
She took me to a bar called the Laughing Miner. There was a man smelling of beer, swaying in the street next to it, wearing a sandwich board and trying to entice people inside. He didn't seem to be having much luck. The inside was empty except for a couple of miners hunched over bowls of stew. The walls were bare stone, with just a couple of grimy paintings: snow-capped mountains and blue skies. They didn't add colour to the place so much as underline its greyness.
When the barmaid saw me coming in, she surreptitiously kicked shut a cellar door, sending a big white cat stalking archly away. I pretended I hadn't noticed. I'm not the kind of Black Guard commander to start a futile crack-down on gambling dens, especially when it looks like they're the only fun people are getting.
All the bar sold was beer by the pint and stew by the bowl. I got a beer each for me and Hilda. Hilda grabbed her drink as soon as I set it down, and took a deep swig. She closed her eyes for a moment and her hands stopped shaking. "What was that?" she asked. "I've never seen anyone who looks like that."
"I have," I said. "But not in the city. That was a chaos dwarf."
She gave me a quizzical look, head to one side.
"They worship Zamorak, the chaos god," I said. "But they're not really dwarves any more. They're changed, not natural. No one knows why." I took a sip of the beer. It was unexceptional stuff. "There are groups of them living in caves across the world, and in the Wilderness. They've been increasing in numbers these last few years. No one knows why that is, either."
She sipped slowly. "That's a lot of things for the head of the city guard not to know."
"Before today, I didn't need to know. I've never seen one in the city before."
I took a gulp of the beer. When I put the glass down, I found Hilda's fingers wriggling themselves into mine. She had her head bowed, looking up at me through those eyelashes. "I guess you saved my life," she said.
"Please," I said. "You don't need to flirt with me to make me help you."
She squeezed my hand. "I know."
When I got back to H.Q., Lieutenant Brae told me to go straight up to Supreme Commander Bisi's office. The old man was behind his desk, surrounded by stacks of paper, a spot of light wobbling on his bald head as he worked. He glanced at me across the top of a report and then pointedly finished reading it before gesturing me to his desk.
"Supreme Commander," I said, "we've got a problem in East. I may need more guards to--"
He cut me off by slamming a stack of paper onto the desk top. "Commander Veldaban, where do you think you've been?"
"I went to East. I was investigating a missing person report."
"You're head of the Keldagrim Guard," said Bisi. "You only show your face personally in high-profile cases. Otherwise, you stay here to coordinate. You can't go traipsing off to investigate every disturbance in East."
"I was..." I began, but something about the way he'd spoken made me stop. "High profile cases like what?" I asked.
"There's been a report filed against you. The wife of one of the company leaders. She says she saw her coat being stolen and you let the thief go."
"That coat was returned," I said.
"There was some money missing from the pockets."
I kept my face impassive.
Bisi sighed. "So, what was it you found in East?"
"A chaos dwarf."
"A chaos dwarf." Bisi put the report onto a stack and frowned at me across the expanse of polished stone. "So where is this chaos dwarf? Did it get away?"
"We subdued it," I said, "but it vanished."
"It must have been a magic effect. It just burned up."
Bisi's frown was deepening. "Have you been drinking, Veldaban?"
I gritted my teeth before replying. "Yes, sir."
Bisi was on his feet in an instant. His face was red, and the white hairs of his beard stood out like sparks in a forge. "You go off to East with no warning, and then you come back smelling of alcohol and talking about chaos dwarves? Chaos dwarves who conveniently vanish before you can produce proof?"
There was no talking back to the Supreme Commander when he was in that mood, but I tried anyway.
"There's still a problem in East. One missing person, maybe more."
"For Guthix's sake, Veldaban, no one cares what happens in East!"
Lieutenant Brae was waiting by the bottom of the stairs. She's my deputy, a wide-eyed kid with a lot of promise, but right now it's just promise. She was sitting a little too nonchalantly as she sorted through reports. When I appeared she looked up as if I didn't know she'd been listening in. "What was that about?" she asked.
I walked her away from the stairs, keeping my voice low. "I want you to reassign some guards," I said. "We need better crime reporting in East. We can't expect people to come all the way here to file reports. I want you to pick half a dozen guards and station them in East to collect reports."
Brae was already jotting it down on her little pad. "What do you expect to find?" she asked.
"Missing persons," I said. "Missing--or vanishing."
It was shift-changing time, and in the distance I could hear factory whistles sounding. The Laughing Miner's advertising man was shouting something merry and incoherent.
I found Hilda standing against the palace wall, between two of the iron buttresses, wrapped in a threadbare shawl. "You came back," she said.
I slipped into the alcove with her. There was just room for the two of us. "You thought I wouldn't?" I asked.
"I never know what to think."
I had brought a hip-flask of whiskey from Keldagrim West. I offered it to her and she took a swig, silently.
"You stole money from that lady's coat," I said. "You should have told me that."
"It bought me a bowl of stew," she said. She took another long pull from the flask. "So am I in trouble, officer?"
She pushed the flask back into my hand, not looking at me. "If the Black Guard won't help me, why are you here?"
I raised the flask and felt the fire in my veins, invigorating. "The Black Guard won't help you," I said, "but I will."
Author: John A
Released: September 2009