Wind howled down the street, driving the snow into Velvet’s face and forcing her to lower her head even further.
She shivered and pulled her coat around her, trying to hold on to the little warmth that lingered from the shop. Her hat was wedged down about her ears, but it didn‘t stop her long black hair whipping about her face in the wind. Damn Gregor, that lecherous pig! If it had been Grettle on duty she would have slept in the backroom instead of trying to make her way home, but with him… with him she would‘ve had to barricade the door and remain awake all night.
“Never mind!“ Velvet berated herself. “Concentrate on getting home, or Gregor will be the least of your worries.“
Taking heart from her own advice she forged ahead, up Long Street. The lamps were either blanketed by the snowstorm or, more likely, hadn‘t been lit at all. Who could blame the lighters for not wanting to go out in this weather?
Stumbling on she noticed a turning ahead, next to Frog Tavern. Small Dragon Alley. Dare she? Surely there would be no one down there on a night like this. If she took the short cut, it would take half the time.
A particularly vicious gust of wind made her decision for her. Clenching her teeth, the young woman turned right, and made best speed towards the small lane. Surely no one would be out in this weather.
There was an instant change once she was in the alley. The worst of the wind was cut off, giving immediate relief. Of course, the snowdrifts covered the debris scattered on the ground, making the footing more treacherous, but Velvet took the trade as a good one. She moved quickly. The twilight was fading into full night.
A movement off to her side attracted her attention. She looked around, startled, and she reached to her belt and the small blade secured there.
“Now my pretty, there be no need for that.”
A rough, deep and somehow greasy voice growled in her ear, whilst a large gloved hand gripped her arm with a strength there was no way she could match. She felt the person move up behind her.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” Velvet wailed.
“I’m sure we can make things pleasant, just don’t panic,” said the voice, full of menace.
Velvet ignored his advice and panicked, screaming and struggling to get free of her assailant’s grip. He responded by giving her a clout around the head that knocked her into the snow and made her see stars.
“Now then,” the shadow of her attacker said, looming over her. “I’m going to...”
What he was going to do she never found out. Another, even larger shadow, loomed over them both. There was a sudden movement and the attacker disappeared. A brief sound, a dull, wet crunch, and another voice cut through the storm like a knife through tender meat.
“Come,” the shadow said, “before his friends arrive.”
Her rescuer held out a hand. It was clad in a white leather glove. She took it and was immediately pulled upwards and forward, which caused her to stumble again.
Saying nothing more, the man lifted her up and threw her across his broad shoulders. Velvet felt his robes against her skin. They were made of the softest fur she’d ever felt.
Her view of the alley was confused. The snow, her upside-down position and the blow she had taken all combined to addle her thoughts.
She remembered the man’s jouncing gait and his footsteps crunching through the drifts. Once she thought there was a brief shout, but by then it was all fading away…
~ * ~
“Are you awake?” The voice was crackly, as if the speaker’s mouth was filled with gravel. It had a strange accent, too.
Velvet moaned and opened her eyes.
“Ah ah! No need for that now!” A hand waved above her, threatening to fall and stifle the scream that was rising within. “I’m a friend. I work for the master.”
“Who… what are you?” Velvet asked. She struggled to sit upright on the bed she found herself on, as she took in the speaker.
The creature grinned, exposing a set of wicked looking teeth. He was short, about half Velvet’s height, she estimated, and had a stocky body covered with short, dark orange fur. He was naked except for a pair of raggedy pants around his waist. His head was half human, half animal like, with stubby ears not unlike a dog’s. Wide and surprisingly blue eyes gave away an intelligence though, and Velvet found herself being studied in turn.
“I’m Nurn. I’m a Grey, though you won’t find any of my kin around here. Not just now anyway.” He smiled, a surprisingly likeable expression. “How are you? The boss seemed to think you were shaken up a little bit.”
“I’m okay I think,” she replied, trying not to remember what had almost happened to her. “Where am I?” She looked around the small room, which was rather dingy, and furnished with cheap looking furniture. She still had all her clothes on, with the exception of her coat, scarf, hat and shoes. Something of a relief.
“Some inn.” Nurn shrugged. “I don’t really care for it, horrible food, but Lord says we’re trying to keep a low profile.”
“Lord. Is that who rescued me?”
“Yes, he does that sometimes.” The Grey stood up and scuttled over to a small table, where he filled a glass with some kind of clear liquid from a dark bottle. Turning back to her he held it out. “Here, drink this.”
She hesitated, but then chided herself for being foolish. If he, or they, had wanted to hurt her they’d had plenty of opportunity already. She accepted the glass and took a cautious sip. The liquid seemed to thaw her insides, chasing the last of the cold from her body. She took a deeper draught and relaxed slightly.
“So,” she asked again. “Who’s this Lord person exactly?”
“My boss. The Lord of All,” replied Nurn.
“All of what?”
Velvet frowned and leaned back. “You’re not being very clear,” she said.
“Really?” Nurn replied, a picture of innocence. “I thought I was being the essence of clarity.”
“Is ‘All’ the name of a city or country or something? I’ve never heard of it, though you don’t exactly look like you’re from around here.”
Nurn nodded slowly. “You’d be surprised,” he said. “Actually, I wasn’t born all that far away from here, relatively speaking.” He pulled himself onto the bed and sat on the edge. “I’ll tell you a secret.” He looked left and right quickly. “We’re a little bit lost.”
“Now that I believe,” said Velvet.
“We’re trying to find a way back,” Nurn said, kicking his legs idly against the side of the bunk.
“You must be a long way from home then.” Velvet took another sip of the drink.
“Oh, you have no idea,” sighed the Grey. He looked up at her. “I don’t suppose you know of a wizard called Rumpold do you? He seems to be rather elusive.”
“Glad you find it funny, I was only asking.” Nurn sniffed.
“No, I’m sorry, I wasn’t laughing at you,” Velvet said, waving a hand at him. “I was laughing at the irony. Actually I do know Rumpold, at least in passing. A fat man, long grey beard? Not that that description doesn’t describe half the wizards in the city of course.”
Nurn raised a pair of shaggy eyebrows expressively. “You know him? Really? Well, All be praised. Where does he live? Can you lead us to him?”
Velvet nodded. “I work in a shop that sells magical supplies. Old Rumpold is one of our customers. I’ve delivered stuff to his house before, so I can lead you to him easily enough.” She paused a moment. “Wait a minute, you’re not going to hurt him are you? He’s a bit of a grouch, though not as bad as some wizards, but I wouldn’t want to see him hurt.”
“No, no, we have no intention of harming him. In fact we need his help. He has some information which we think could lead us home.” He stood up and looked out of the rooms’ single grimy window. “How long is it going to keep snowing? Surely there’s enough by now. Why don’t the City Elders stop it?”
“I don’t think they care that much, even if stopping it was in their power. The City Councillors are no doubt snug in their mansions.”
Nurn scratched his chin with a bristling noise. “It doesn’t seem like a very efficient arrangement.”
“No doubt.” Velvet drained the drink and put the empty glass on the small desk next to the bed.
A silence fell over the room, though it was a comfortable one. The strange Grey creature seemed mesmerized by the snow outside, and she lay back, strangely comfortable all of a sudden.
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