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  1. Thanking the guard for allowing him through, Marden Veniso touched his heels to the stallion between his legs, spurring it on through the western gateway of Tear. He looked travel worn, the broad rimmed hat and cloak he wore marked by travel. He had travelled from Far Madding to Illian before arriving in Tear, hoping the Aes Sedai would think he would flee north to Kandor which he knew so well. He was sure he'd been seen, yet no one had made a move on him yet, save for a trio of brigands who had thought to lighten his purse but had ended up fattening it instead. The winter hadn't helped him in the slightest either, the game had been poor as Marden travelled through the wilds, the heavy snows almost burying him on several occasions. Even now, the sky was a bleak grey above, light snowflakes falling on the cobblestones to be trodden underfoot by his steed. Leaning forward in his horse, as if he were about to fall out of the saddle, Marden made his way slowly through the town, looking for an inn. Eventually, one came into sight, though Marden couldn't make out the name of the place from the defaced sign that swung over its door. Riding around the side to the stables, Marden slipped out of the saddle gently onto the straw strewn stones, his boots striking the ground solidly. He'd managed to put on a bit of weight since he'd won free of Far Madding, though his ribs still showed. Seeing the stable boy, Marden called the lad over and handed him the reins. As the boy led the stallion away, Marden reached for his money pouch and looked inside, he didn't have much left. Taking out one of the few silvers he had, he walked over to the boy and placed the silver in his palm, asking him to take especially good care of the horse. Slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder, Marden strode into the common room, his face lacking anything resembling emotion. Walking to the bar, Marden looked at the obese innkeeper that was talking to one of his patrons. Waiting for a moment, Marden dropped his saddlebags with an audible thud on the bar. He didn't dignify the innkeeper's scowl with a reaction as the man waddled over to him. "How much for a room? Couldn't be more than a copper a night in this place." Marden made use of the Andoran accent, last thing he needed was word getting around of a Kandoran in Tear that wasn't a merchant. "Bloody lout. It'll be an Andoran crown from you, and if you cause any trouble the bouncers will throw you out regardless." The innkeeper didn't seem too impressed with him, but Marden hadn't come to the inn just to sample the man's personality. "Them?" Marden looked to the pair of thugs at the door, cudgels in hand and short swords at their sides. "They couldn't handle a rat without its teeth let alone me. If this is all the security you have I'm only paying two silvers and be glad for that generosity." "Look, I don't know how things are done in Andor these days, but this is how things are in Tear. Five silvers, or get out and don't waste my time." Marden reached for his pouch and tossed it to the innkeeper, it was all he had left. "And my meals had better be for free, or I'll be wanting those silvers back." Ignoring the innkeeper's response, Marden took the key to his room from the innkeeper and grabbed the man's fingers, pulling him close as he spoke. "And if I find anything missing when I come back, I will know who to look for, do we understand each other?" Getting a quick response from the innkeeper, Marden let go of the man and turned about as he picked up his saddlebags, ignoring the pair of bouncers who watched him carefully. Making his way up the stairs to where the rooms were, Marden tried a few doors till he found the room that was his. Stepping inside, Marden threw his saddlebags to the floor at the foot of the bed. He knew he’d been ripped off, but this sort of inn was one where people went when they didn’t want to be found so the innkeeper could get away with his extortion. Shutting the door, he pulled his boots off and laid down on the bed. Hard as a rock, but that wasn’t a problem for him as he relaxed for the first time since he’d left Illian. He’d stayed in Illian for a week, which had been far too long in Marden’s estimation but he’d had no choice. The sores were only becoming worse outside and he’d needed treatment. Spending a week in the care of a wisdom hadn’t been pleasant, he had been reminded all too much of Nela Sedai, except that the wisdom hadn’t been nearly so condescending. That and she’d actually done a good job, the sores that hadn’t been gone were well on their way by the time he’d left. And the wisdom, Sarie, had been generous, giving him some poultices for free to use while on the road. She’d bought his story of becoming lost in the wilds and nearly dying out in the snows, his starved form giving his story some weight. While it didn’t quite explain the sores, Marden hadn’t needed to, he’d just feigned ignorance instead. As much as Marden wanted to nap, he knew he didn’t have the luxury available for now. He was out of money and he needed to make some one way or another, and considering his current means, Marden had little doubt it would be less than legal. Pulling his boots on once more, he stretched before standing and making his way to the door. Making his way out onto the streets, Marden made his way towards the Merchant’s Quarter, his cloak trailing him in his wake. It took some time and directions from a few people, but soon the merchant stalls came into view. Finding himself a vantage point near a fruit shop, Marden settled where he was and watched the flow of the markets. It took a couple of hours, probably because Marden missed it at first, but he soon saw a pattern. A group of men would pass through the street every half hour. Not grouped together, but it was the same faces, same clothes, all of them with weapons of various sorts from short swords to cudgels. The way the merchants looked at them as they passed, Marden knew exactly what was going on. Someone had set up a nice protection racket, and Marden had a pretty good idea of what he was going to do. The sky was beginning to darken when Marden saw what he was looking for. As the group wandered through the streets, a short fellow in a red tunic went from stall to stall, collecting the daily payment, a percentage of the day’s profit. Marden didn’t move where he was from the wall as he watched from under the brim of his hat, as if dozing. The group took their time, but they soon worked their way through the street, leaving a disgusted group of merchants in their wake. Marden knew there was nothing they could do, and the thugs were probably paying off the local city watch to leave them alone. Pushing off the wall, Marden walked down the street with his cloak wrapped around him. He followed them for a good twenty minutes before they were done, which made Marden whether he was asking for more trouble than this was worth. There were only eight of them, which meant for this large a street there had to be more, yet Marden knew he had few choices. He could always just kill one of the merchants, but there was no point. They wouldn’t have nearly as much money as the group he followed, and the group would try to kill him for killing one of their clients so either way he’d have to fight them. Watching as they slipped into an alleyway, Marden quickly made after them. They had noticed him shadowing them, so they were there with weapons drawn when he stepped into the street. Marden simply parted his cloak and pulled a small crossbow he’d stolen from a bowyer in Caemlyn from his belt and pointed it at the one in the red tunic. “Today’s earnings, now.†“There are eight of us and one of you, even if you kill one of us, that leaves seven of us.†â€I don’t have time for this.†Squeezing the trigger, Marden frowned as the bolt buried itself in the man’s forehead, he’d been aiming for the chest. Tossing the crossbow to one side, he drew a short sword he’d picked up in his travels with his right as his left hand sprouted a dagger as if by magic in a murderer’s grip. These thugs didn’t have the training or battle experience that Marden had, and ever since he’d left Far Madding and the absence of saidin had returned, he’d lost any fear of harm to himself that he’d once held. Parrying as he stepped forward into the first thug, Marden’s dagger buried itself in the side of the man’s neck before ripping free, sending a shower of hot blood through the air onto the snow underfoot as the man grasped at his neck, his life seeping away. Lizard in the Thornbush claimed the next two that came forward, leaving one to drown in his own blood and the other clutching his mangled manhood. The next two came more cautiously, working together as the other two attempted to move around the side. Rushing in, Marden parried to the left as he spun and ducked under the Arc of the Moon, Low Wind Rising cleaving through the man’s side in response as he spun about. As the newest corpse fell into one of the other thugs, Marden stepped forward as he knelt underneath the Courtier Taps his Fan, burying his dagger in the man’s bowels. Standing and ripping the dagger up in one smooth motion, Marden jumped back from the corpse, pulling his dagger clear as he leapt clear from the Hummingbird Kisses the Honeyrose. Fear was clear on the faces of the last two, and they were wary as they stepped forward. Letting them attack, the Falling Leaf swept aside their attacks, allowing Marden to step in and swipe with his dagger, finding the throat of the man on the left. Taking a few steps to avoid the blood shower and the attack launched by the sole survivour, Marden stepped in again, exchanging a few blows to back the man into the wall. Catching the desperate blow, the Courtier Taps his Fan was undone as the Grapevine Twines, a thrust with the dagger ending it as it found the man’s heart, splitting it in twain. Stepping back as the man fell, Marden kicked the corpse over and placing a boot on the man’s stomach, ripped the dagger free. It had been a short and bloody fight, and it more than anything, it annoyed Marden, his time could have been spent better. Wiping his blades on the corpse, Marden dropped them as he wiped his hands in the snow. It was then that a stinging sensation ran through his dagger hand, some of the blood was his. One of the bastards had managed to slice the back of his hand open, he’d have to clean it out properly later. Taking his cloak off next, Marden was surprised at how little blood had landed on it. Rubbing it through the snow, Marden flicked it a few times in the air then turned it inside out before putting it back on. Sheathing his weapons, Marden didn’t take long to loot the corpses. They’d all had a few coins on them, and the protection money had a number of fat gold crowns in it, not a bad haul overall. Collecting his crossbow, Marden placed it inside his cloak before stepping out into the street. No sign of the City Watch, though no doubt they’d appear before long. Making his way back to the inn proved difficult, especially since he didn’t know the name of the place and couldn’t ask for directions, but he eventually found the place. Buying a small bottle of spirits at the bar, Marden kept his left hand out of sight as he made his way up to his room with the small bottle in hand. Throwing his cloak onto the bed along with his sword belt and the crossbow, Marden realised that the innkeeper had finally had a water barrel and bowl brought up to his room. Dipping the bowl in the barrel, Marden sat down on the floor, placing the bowl on his left as he let his hand soak. Uncorking the bottle with his teeth, he spat the cork onto the floor and poured some of the spirits into the crimson water in the bowl. Wincing, he proceeded to put the bottle down and sort through his saddle bags with his free hand until he came across the poultices that Sarie had given him. It took a moment to pick the right one, but soon enough he was rubbing the poultice into the wound. Looking through the saddlebags for a spare tunic, Marden pulled it out and taking his knife, cut a long section out of it. Throwing the contents of the bowl into a corner of the room, he took the bottle and poured most of it into the bowl. Placing the strip of cloth in the bowl with it to soak, he took a swig of the bottle before pouring the last drops into the wound over the poultice. Putting the bottle beside him, Marden pulled the strip out and wound it carefully around his hand between his thumb and forefinger. He’d still be able to hold a dagger in it but he wouldn’t be nearly as nimble with it for awhile. Throwing the bowl’s contents into the corner again, he left the bowl sitting near the barrel as he stood up. He hadn’t eaten all day save for an apple he stole while he was in the markets and the smells coming from downstairs were getting to him. Putting his swordbelt back on, Marden reloaded the crossbow before clipping it to his belt, then shrugged his cloak back on. Stepping outside, Marden placed the bottle behind the door before shutting it. If anyone went into his room, they’d knock the bottle over, and the innkeeper would regret letting thieves into his room. Making his way downstairs, Marden went to the bar to the innkeeper. The innkeeper was his usual sour self but the innkeeper disappeared into the kitchen sure enough to fetch him his meal. Heading to a table where he could place his back against the wall, Marden looked through the patrons. All of them looked at least slightly dodgy, and all of them were armed in some form or another. Marden had been right in the choice he’d made, no one was going to look for him here, it would be too much trouble. Marden didn’t bother to thank the innkeeper as the man dropped the plate before him. Attacking the meal before him, Marden polished it off within minutes and soon had the innkeeper fetching him a second serving, and some Tairen Ale while he was at it. The second serving he took his time with as he allowed himself to relax slightly, but not too much as he watched everyone inside as people left and others entered. Marden’s eyes narrowed as a man entered the inn, something at the back of his mind trying to free itself yet stuck there. The man was lean, a calmness seemed to exude from him that wasn't unfamiliar, yet for the life of him he couldn't place it. Taller than himself, the man had a cleanshaven face and mousey brown hair would have reached his shoulders if not for the leather thong that held it in place. As the man talked with the bartender, Marden found himself confused and nervous. He knew this man from somewhere, yet after a year in Far Madding, a lot of his memory was blurred or lost, who was this man? Had he fought in Dramon Calgar’s army? Was he an agent of Tar Valon? Maybe a Warder or Tower Guard, he certainly had the height to have dangerous reach should he be a fighter. Something persisted in the back of his mind yet he shunted it aside, he wasn’t about to take chances. Keeping his head down, Marden returned to his meal, not wanting to give himself away. Watching the man from underneath the brim of his hat, it wasn’t long before Marden became aware that he was under scrutiny. He was sure the man was watching him, he must have noticed Marden’s glances, that or he’d been sent to watch him, or to kill. While he kept a blank façade, inside Marden was fighting the urge to run. The more minutes that passed, the greater the urge. He had to restrain himself from reaching for the crossbow, it would give him away to everyone inside, and more than that, there was a twinge of doubt in him. It was something at the back of his mind, and it only agitated him further, there was something he wasn’t remembering, or seeing. Standing from his meal, Marden made his way to the front doors with a quick stride, barging into someone stepping inside and putting them on their arse as he began walking as quickly as possible down the street. He could feel eyes on his back but he didn’t stop, the possibilities running through his mind as he walked under the crescent moon. It was then that it struck him, one of the alleys he’d passed through to get to the inn. Taking a left, Marden proceeded to walk for a good ten minutes, catching glimpses of the man shadowing him out of the corner of his eyes as he turned down different streets and alleys. It was with relief that Marden found the alley he’d remembered from his earlier wandering. Turning into the alley, Marden caught a glimpse of his shadow, the man was keeping a good distance, trying to hide himself. Seeing the door ajar as he remembered it, Marden shoved the door open, making sure to let the door smack against the wall as he turned and hid himself in the shadows opposite the door. The light as poor as it was, one couldn’t see into them and with the noise he’d made, he doubted the stalker would notice. Sure enough, the footsteps quickened as Marden took his crossbow out from beneath his cloak. The stranger walked towards the door as Marden took aim, right in the back, the finger wrapped itself around the trigger as the man stepped inside the doorw- Marden froze as a loud screech emerged from the doorway and the man stumbled back, a cat upon his chest, trying to rake at the man’s face as it hissed. It jogged something else in the back of his memory, something about cats and himself, something that had happened in the past. Something was familiar about this, and Marden found himself filled with doubt. Shoving it aside, Marden made a compromise as he put the crossbow down. Drawing his dagger with his right hand, Marden snuck up behind the man as the stalker finally got a hold of it and threw it away from himself. As the cat ran away, Marden slipped his left hand underneath the man’s chin and pulled it back while his dagger placed itself along the throat. Snarling, Marden’s tone was desperate yet filled with anger as he hissed, his false accent discarded as his Kandori lilt became clear. “Who are you? Why are you following me? Who do you serve? By the Creator answer me true or I’ll slit your throat here and leave you for the scavengers to pick at.†Marden Veniso Loyal to the Dragon, Dramon Calgar
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