Brandon Piper woke up naked in an ale-fuelled daze, unsure whether he was still drunk or if he had transitioned over into the hangover. Sitting up, he groaned and massaged his temples. His head was pounding, and his eyes stung. He sniffed the air to take a measure of his surroundings. The room smelled of sweat and shame, and the bed he lay in was creaky and uncomfortable, which meant he was probably in a whorehouse. Somewhere off in the distance, a bell was ringing.
He was a twenty-four-year-old man with a scruffy shock of red hair. When he grinned, his green eyes, which were often described by others as luminous, flared with him. Many years of swinging a sword had resulted in his thin body sporting strong arm muscles. At six foot-two, he was dangerously close to being lanky, and quite often loomed over most people he interacted with, usually without realising it.
Hearing light footsteps nearby, he rubbed sleep out of his eyes and painfully raised his head. Standing at the edge of the bed was the whore he must have rented out the previous evening. She had dirty blonde hair and was smothered in freckles. Not beautiful by any means, he thought, but she’s certainly cute. She wore a tight dress that was cut short at the thighs, showing off pale skinny legs. He groaned – a whore of her calibre must have cost him at least fifteen merts, and money was something he was running out of.
Brandon had not had a commission in well over a month and a half. He was a bounty hunter for an organisation known as the Black Hawks, specialising in tracking and capturing criminals. However, as winter drew in, the work dried up, and the dregs were swallowed up by the more vicious companies – the ones composed merely of sellswords like the Stonecrafters, who would kill a child for a loaf of bread. Brandon was disgusted by those sort of people – he may not have been the most honourable man himself, but he favoured tracking down and apprehending criminals only. It was the hangman's business to claim the life of a criminal, not his. The taking of another life was something he only considered as self-defence. It was difficult to keep integrity as a bounty hunter these days.
“Ah, so you’re awake at last,” said the girl in a clipped voice. “I was wondering when you’d recover from the drink, Redhead.”
“Redhead?” echoed Brandon. “What the hell happened last night?”
The whore smiled, revealing buck teeth behind her wet lips. “You stumbled in drunk late last night and demanded someone fuck you. The coin you gave was good enough but you passed out halfway through. To be honest, I thought it was a bit rude.”
Brandon yawned. “Why? You got paid. Surely if I fell asleep, that’s like getting the money and not even doing the job properly.” The whore raised her eyebrows, so Brandon added guiltily: “Okay, sorry, that was rude. What’s your name?”
“Rosey. With a ‘y’ at the end, not an ‘ie’. People are always getting it mixed up.”
“Well, Rosey with a ‘y’, I would be immensely grateful if you could finish me off. I apologise for falling asleep last night. Seems only fair to both of us that the full motion is carried through.” Okay, so I passed out drunk… nothing new there. But it’s a travesty I paid for a whore and didn’t even enjoy her pleasure, he thought.
“What makes you think I’m going to do that?” asked Rosey, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips.
Brandon was momentarily lost for words. “But… but I paid for you, didn’t I?” he eventually managed to say.
“You paid for my company last night,” stated Rosey. “You said nothing about this morning. If you want another round of me, it’ll be another seventeen merts, and try not to fall asleep this time.”
“Seventeen merts?!” exclaimed Brandon. “Shit, I don’t think I have ten left to my name.”
“Well then get the fuck out before I call Mister Gillen,” said the girl.
Brandon sighed. There was little point kicking up a fuss in a brothel, particularly when he was to blame for passing out in the first place. Instead, he crawled off the bed and hastily threw his clothes back on. “Thanks, Rosey with a ‘y’,” he said sarcastically. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Come back anytime you fancy a nap, Redhead,” she said, grinning devilishly.
Brandon thought about throwing her back an insult, but decided against it. He made his way out of the room and took a cursory glance around the brothel, taking note of the overweight man in fine purple robes. He was fairly sure the man was the proprietor of the establishment. Mister Gillen, more than likely. Judging by his clothes and the size of his belly, he must have made a good few merts over the years. If the bounty hunting business ever dried up for Brandon, perhaps he could open a whorehouse. He chuckled at the thought as he exited the building, the overweight man in purple shouting out in a gravelly voice: “Good day, sir!”
The biting air struck Brandon in the face like a bucket of ice cold water. The snow must have fallen heavy in the capital last night, he guessed as he looked around the empty streets. Over a foot of snow had settled thick over the cobbled ground of Goldoak, the royal capital of Cantaria. Goldoak was reportedly founded over a thousand years ago by the First Arrivals on the continent of Lennon. Their leader, a great warrior by the name of Volos Fyedragon, erected a small stone stronghold someway inland to mark the foundations of a new country. Over the centuries, the castle grew and the city of Goldoak expanded around it. When Brandon was growing up in Ramslocke, he heard that the streets themselves were paved with gold. He was grossly disappointed when he first arrived in Goldoak at the age of sixteen – they were anything but. The only truly colourful part of the city was the palace itself – a looming titan of the most beautiful architecture in the kingdom, if not all of Arlanon. Brandon and the other common-folk had to put up with the dreary grey cobblestones.
It was a ten-minute walk from the brothel in the East Sector back to the Black Hawks headquarters in the South Sector. The East Sector was of ill repute, playing host to the most violent of taverns and filthiest whorehouses in the city. Half of all crime in Goldoak took place there. Brandon often wondered what drew him to the East Sector, but after six or seven ales he lost the ability to care. Attempting to recall the events of the night before, Brandon drew nothing but blank thoughts. He and Tarq must have drank the night, like they usually did when business was slow. No, that can’t be right, he thought. Tarq is away on an assignment by the eastern shore, the lucky bastard. That means I must’ve been drinking alone. Father would be so proud.
The streets were mostly deserted today, seemingly on account of the snows. Only the odd desperate merchant here and there had taken to their stalls to brave the morning winds. A young woman in a white robe that could have blended in with the snows was standing on a street corner, preaching to the empty air.
“For it is said in the Scriptures, the Twin Gods are merciful and generous during dark times, if only we repent for all the sins we commit!” she shouted into the winds. “Seek out the light and–”
“Isn’t it ‘merciful and compassionate’?” said Brandon as he passed her.
She gave him a startled look, and then her cheeks turned red with embarrassment. “Oh, of – of course,” she stammered. “Merciful and compassionate! Are you part of the church, sir?”
Brandon laughed. “Hell no. I was just raised on all this godly bullshit.” He tapped the side of his head and gave her a wry smile. “All those Scriptures are hammered into my mind.”
The young priestess bit her lip and furrowed her brow. “So why correct me if you don’t believe?”
“If you’re going to spout nonsense to your fictional godly couple in the sky, at least get it right,” said Brandon, already tired of the conversation. “Otherwise you’ll look like an arse.”
The priestess lowered her hood. “I shall pray for you tonight, sir.”
“No need,” said Brandon as he walked off. “I’ll be just fine without your prayers.”
He stopped off at Dunbar’s Castle for a bowl of bacon slosh. It was as far away from being a castle as possible – merely an old wooden stall that was slowly falling apart. It was run by a man called Matt Dunbar, an ugly, diminutive looking man who sold what he claimed to be bacon, but Brandon (and many others) privately thought it was actually dog meat. Dunbar himself had spent three years in the cells underneath Goldoak palace for thieving, or so legend had it. Brandon never quite believed it himself.
“Morning, Dunbar,” said Brandon, approaching the stand. “The usual, please.”
“Right you are, Mister Piper,” said Dunbar, tipping some of the slosh into a bowl and exchanging it for a mert.
“Bit quiet today, isn’t it?” said Brandon airily as he slurped down his breakfast.
Dunbar nodded. “You know what they say; it would be a bad omen to stay outside too long on such a grim day as this. Still, doesn’t stop me. A man’s got to make a living somehow, right?”
“What do you mean, a grim day?” asked Brandon through a mouthful of food. Maybe the cockteasing whore was a warning sign for the dark day ahead, he thought.
“Surely you heard the bells from the palace today?” asked Dunbar, looking slightly bemused.
Brandon shrugged. “I heard some bells this morning when I woke up. What’s happened?”
“They’ve been ringing all morning. The King is dead.”
Brandon could not feign surprise, yet it was the last thing he expected to wake up today. He choked on the last bit of ‘bacon’ and said: “What killed him?”
“Some guard, or so the city criers suggest.”
“Regicide, eh? Terrible behaviour. So who rules now? The cripple or the fool?” asked Brandon, only mildly interested.
Dunbar glanced around nervously. “Keep your voice down, you never know who might be listening.”
“I don’t care who’s listening,” grinned Brandon. “A man should be able to say what he likes.”
“Good luck with that idea,” replied Dunbar slowly. “I don’t know who rules now, though as Prince William is older, he’d be my guess.”
“Doesn’t really affect us lot though, does it?” said Brandon through a mouthful of food, staring at the palace in the distance. During his eight years of living in the capital, Brandon had seen the king a grand total of four times. Three were during parades through the city, for which Brandon was always drunk for. The fourth time was when he was passing by the capital’s temple, and the king had been exiting the building. He remembered the king being a very tall man, even taller than Brandon. That was about as far as his memory stretched when it came to his royal leader. “Kings come and go, and the common people keep their heads down and carry on,” he continued. “Forever the same. Thanks for the food, Dunbar.”
The vendor nodded his head. “See you tomorrow, Piper.”
“As always,” said Brandon, trundling off back home through the snow.
Brandon shivered and breathed a frosty sigh of relief as he entered the Black Hawks headquarters. It had been his home for the past eight years and had a pleasant comforting feeling to it. Each hunter was given a small room of their own to sleep, and there was a large common room upstairs where they ate and drank. The front hall was decorated like a tavern, with a bar near the entrance. The barman, Kirk, a wiry man with dark hair and dark skin from a kingdom far south of Cantaria, was whom outsiders approached to commission a bounty hunter. He knew every Black Hawk personally, and made recommendations to customers based on who he thought would suit each job the best. He would then take the commission to Joan Lynch, the leader of the Black Hawks, to finalise the deal. Kirk was often referred to, by many within and outside of the company, as the ‘Middle Hawk’.
He was also not overly fond of Brandon. Possibly because Brandon drank deep and frequented brothels all over the city. Kirk liked to see the Black Hawks as a proper establishment with good etiquette, and he often accused Brandon of ruining the company’s image.
The Middle Hawk called out across the hall. “OI! Brandon!”
Shaking the snow out of his hair, Brandon made his way across the room, nodding brief greetings to a few of his fellow hunters. In contrast to the streets outside, the atmosphere in the headquarters was a lot livelier as everyone rose for their breakfast. It seemed the Black Hawks did not believe in omens.
“What’s up, Kirk?” asked Brandon as he reached the bar.
“Rough night?” asked Kirk, eyeing him from head to toe.
“What makes you think that?”
“You look like shit and stink of booze.”
Brandon laughed. “Ever the charmer. Did you actually want something, or did you just call me over to insult me?”
The Middle Hawk shook his head. “Not just that. I’m here to make your day. You’ve got a commission – a very special commission. Quite how, I might never be sure, but the commissioner was adamant that it was you they were after.”
That perked up Brandon’s interest. “A commission? Seriously? And there I was thinking this winter was going to be the death of me. What is it?”
Kirk’s eyes flickered around the hall. “I can’t discuss it here. You’re going to need to meet with the Chief.”
“What’s Lynch’s mood like today?”
Joan Lynch was renowned for her violent mood swings. One day she was the nicest lady one could hope to meet, smiling cheerily as she sent her hunters out on dangerous work, the next day having temper tantrums over the smallest thing, shouting at no-one in particular until she was red in the face. Despite being five-foot-two at most, everyone in the Black Hawks was terrified of her in those moods.
“You’re in luck, she seems fairly happy today. Which is odd, considering the King just died.”
It was rumoured that Joan Lynch was the daughter of a very powerful lord from Cantaria’s neighbouring kingdom, Bokrath. Some say she ran away to escape life from the glamour of noble courts, in exchange for living a life of the bounty hunter. Other rumours suggested that she was the last surviving member of a band of outlaws that once upon a time menaced King Theo Alderman of Bokrath. Either way, it was a fact that Lynch had been running the Black Hawks for the past eighteen years, and had built it from the ground up into the most elite bounty hunter company in Cantaria.
Lynch was fast approaching sixty, and her age was beginning to show. Her dark hair had streaks of grey, which reminded Brandon of a badger every time he looked at Lynch. However, her brown eyes were sharp and focused, as if her irises bore into one’s very soul.
“Good morning, chief,” said Brandon after knocking on the door and entering. “I hear you have a commission for me.”
Lynch scanned him briefly. “Piper. I see you’ve been out on the town again,” she commented shrewdly. “I trust you didn’t embarrass our organisation too much.”
“No more than usual.” Brandon often felt that Lynch was the prototypical mother figure to his men, constantly nagging her boys yet remaining fiercely protective of all of them. “Still, with nothing and no-one to track, what else is there to do?”
“Hopefully you’ve sobered up, is all I can say. I also want you to have a bath, you smell like you’ve been in a whorehouse.”
“I take it my commissioner is a respectable person?” enquired Brandon.
Lynch chuckled quietly. “The very highest. I trust you’ve heard the news this morning?”
“The King is dead, yeah. Dunbar told me. What killed him; a pox?”
“A blade, as it would happen.”
That took Brandon aback. So Dunbar was right, the King was murdered. He could begin to see where this was going. “And this commission is from…”
“The Royal Court themselves.” A brief smile flickered on Lynch’s face. “They believe you know the man who killed the King. He is a knight from your hometown. Sir Richard Henley of Ramslocke.”