Excerpty goodness: Below

Having already posted an excerpt from Below, which was the first chapter, it occurred to me that the fourth chapter is actually rather well suited for this purpose. It came up in a discussion of stupid characters, and I remembered how in the original novella, Gareth was ridiculously impulsive at the beginning, and killed someone to set an example. It’s one of the villain clichés I hate most, but I still fell for it. Even worse, the very same story established later on that Gareth hates to waste his assets. This was incongruous.

So here’s what that part of the story looks like in the novel. This is the fourth chapter, Gareth’s introduction, following a botched wagon robbery. Here’s what you need to know: The four highwaymen are Brenish, Naman, Tibs, and their leader Harry. They just screwed up a job. Brenish and Gareth are both obsessed with the ruins, experts in its lore. Being also a liar of great prowess, Brenish has also been given a fake treasure map to sell; he has a reputation for never swindling adventurers and always offering them good advice. At first he wanted to leverage the map to fund an expedition of his own, but Naman—the only other person who knows about the map being a forgery—talked him out of it. The new plan was for Brenish to find buyers over the winter while working a proper job in the city, so that he could pay part of the bride price demanded by his love’s father before it was too late. After the robbery went sour, all of those plans have fallen through and Brenish has snapped from hopelessness.

Okay, one other thing: For their banditry, Harry invented a character called “Alfie” whose role is played by different people and in different ways on each job. The men sometimes wear fake scarves and other disguise gear, and always disguise their voices. No consistent descriptions, therefore, have ever surfaced.


Colin St. James was the son of a wealthy, unscrupulous financier. He traveled often from his riverside estate in Ilyenis to the cities where he grew and maintained his many political connections. His only heir was a spoiled yet clever boy, who learned his father’s ways eagerly yet, by any means possible, borrowed, stole, or purchased books of deep lore. The boy stood in earshot of both Colin’s dealings and the fireside tales of travelers—the wizard Visak included—who had seen the Elder Kingdom with their own eyes. As the boy grew into a man he thirsted ever more for both power and knowledge alike, and seldom was his thirst denied.

When Colin passed, Gareth St. James took the reins of his empire and sustained it ruthlessly. But unlike his father and grandfather, who viewed the estate in Ilyenis as a summer home only, Gareth expanded it. He traveled less often, though often enough to keep his lines of influence secure. Gareth was known in Northhill, Acherton, and especially nearby Eswell. He tightened his grip on Ilyenis, driving out two competing bosses with less stomach, or wit, than he. The village was the center of his power and the center of his focus. For his favorite place in the world was the high brick tower, the pinnacle of his grandfather’s mansion, where in fair weather he would often look far across the nearby fields, to the grass-grown hillock in which stood Asaph’s Gate.

Gareth had never gone to the ruins himself, except, it was said, to stand at the Gate as a child and listen to his voice echo back from below. He always had the good sense to keep his head above ground. But his heart, as anyone who knew him would readily say and he himself did not deny, had gone Fell long ago.

His office was decorated with weapons of every description, a naked display of power that was never lost on his visitors—especially not the four failed highwaymen who stood before him. Brenish knew, from seeing Gareth perform once in a duel, that he knew how to use every single one of those weapons. When Gareth wasn’t reading about the ruins or the creatures that dwelt there, he honed his combat skills. He was at least a match for the best of his men, perhaps even the best in the city.

Four of his henchmen stood at hand, silently, as he ate his midday meal. He made the thieves wait for him, from start to finish, before he would speak to any of them. But at last he set down his utensils, stood up, and walked around his desk to face his fruitless hirelings. While not tall, he was physically imposing merely for his girth: the result of his incessant training. His dark brown hair was always neat, his mustache and short beard always perfectly trimmed; all were flecked with gray. His face was deceptively kind, as if he were a creature of the deep that wore a pleasant visage until it bit the head off its prey without warning.

“Gentlemen,” he said, as if he meant it. His voice was one of unquestioned command. “I’m disappointed.”

Disappointment was Gareth’s most dangerous mood. Enraged, he might try to calm himself down, and respond in a way that was rather reasonable. Bemused, he showed mercy. Sad, he put problems aside. Happy, he was everyone’s best friend, a giver of gifts and a speaker of kind words. Envy he kept to himself; none had ever seen it in him. But disappointed, he was crueler than any beast that walked the abandoned paths of the Elder Kingdom that he knew—from tales and books alone—so well. A smart man would rather die trying than disappoint Gareth St. James.

He paced before each man individually, looking them all in the eye. Brenish had been subject to that treatment on several occasions, but this time he was unfazed. He felt calm. Death meant nothing now. Gareth lingered an extra moment on his face, but moved on.

Gareth, finished with his inspection, stood back and spread his hands. He acted as though he expected one of them to speak, but they all knew better.

“Explanations?” he said.

“The first wagon was the decoy,” Harry said. Brenish doubted he believed that anymore; Tibs was an excellent tracker, and Harry was enough of a hunter himself to see the difference in the ruts. Harry tried to sell it as best he could, but he lacked Brenish’s gift. It might work well enough, if he didn’t expect Tibs to crack like a bad wheel.

Gareth acted like this was news to him; Jase had practically raced to deliver their explanation the moment they arrived on the grounds. Now Jase stood smugly to one side, watching them squirm.

“You were told otherwise,” said Gareth.

Harry, who had been standing at attention like the others, relaxed and turned his head to meet Gareth’s eye. “I know,” he said slowly.

If Gareth was bothered by Harry’s attitude, he didn’t show it. He smiled and laughed under his breath in an amused same-old-Harry way. His tone was less of a dressing down than the correction of a simple but well-meaning nephew. He was thirty-two; Harry had a few more years on him. “Funny, isn’t it? How these misunderstandings happen.”

“I laughed myself poor,” Harry said, completely deadpan.

Gareth laughed again, but genuinely; he was caught off guard by the remark and it tickled his humor. The laugh cut short sharply.

“The second wagon was the decoy, just as you were told.”

“We found nothing but straw and refuse. And a mouse.”

“Then why, Harry, did the first wagon arrive safely in the city with a load of coins?” Gareth clasped his hands together earnestly. Like prayer, Brenish thought. He wondered if Gareth really did pray, and if so to what. Whatever was listening to him, it seemed to be working out so far.

“Word came an hour before you got here,” Gareth added. “Did you think I wouldn’t hear about it?”

“That’s why we came to tell you,” Harry said.

“The first wagon carried the gold, Harry.”

“That’s because when it got there, it was the first wagon. The second wagon came through while we were still detaining the first. Your source didn’t know that.”

Gareth shook his head gravely. “He did. He said that the first wagon to arrive was the decoy. When the other wagon arrived, the drivers were badly shaken up. They had been waylaid by bandits on the road, they said: Alfie and his men. But it was their wagon that had the gold.”

“I tell you it was crates of garbage.”

Gareth’s eyes flashed anger now. He turned to strike. The blow would be delivered in words, but whatever he said would be as deadly as anything hanging from his wall. Brenish intervened before Gareth could finish taking a breath.

“It’s my fault,” Brenish said.

Gareth froze, surprised out of his fury, like a man about to kick down a door only to see it was open the whole time. Something like wicked mirth played on his lips. There was some anger at the interruption, but more curiosity than anything else. What wild story would Brenish try to tell off the cuff to get them all out of this? How far would he be willing to believe it? If the story was entertaining enough, would he be willing to let a part of this go? Similar things had worked before.

“I checked the boxes,” Brenish said. “I did find nothing but refuse, as Harry said. And the mouse. I showed him one of the boxes. If they had a hidden compartment, I missed it.”

Half truths were Brenish’s specialty. Gareth saw as much. He stopped and gave the thief another good long look in the eye. Brenish returned his gaze and held it, unwavering.

Gareth stepped back again and frowned, almost in concern. “What’s got into you?” he said.

“It’s my mistake.”

Brenish could hear Naman breathing beside him, and in each breath a silent, desperate plea to shut up. He didn’t take his eyes off of Gareth, but in the corner of his eye he saw Gareth’s man Bob shift a bit, reacting to some other tension in the room.

“Nay,” said Gareth, slowly. “Nay, I don’t think you can take all the blame. Much though you seem to want to.” He seemed perplexed, unseated by the idea that whatever gambit Brenish had thrown at him, it wasn’t one he had been prepared to accept. “You didn’t check all the crates, did you?”

“Nay. Checking each one would have dragged on too long. I gave up the search and told the others it was empty. I was sure it was the decoy.”

Gareth turned to one of his henchmen, off to Brenish’s right. “Think he’s being completely honest with me, Raden?”

Brenish glanced in time to see the big man shrug his massive shoulders. “It’s Brenish.”

But Gareth only looked back at the thief again. “I’m not so sure of that, today.” He paused in thought, then walked back behind his desk and sat. “No matter. The blame rests at least as much on Harry. My instructions were clear. Contents of the first wagon to be delivered.”

“We were unprepared to bring back a hundred worthless cases of straw,” said Harry.

“Opening each one and finding just the ones with gold would have been sufficient. It was a simple trick. You of all people should have seen through it.”

“If I may, sir,” said Brenish, “that’s more my area.”

Gareth ignored him. “I’m at a loss. Tell me what I should do, Harry, because I can’t simply let this go unanswered. I have friends who know I had something to do with this. Today I’m a laughingstock.

“The guild’s friendship means a lot to me; I’m loath to simply have you all killed. I might make an example, but you know how I hate waste. And that Alfie fiction of yours, Harry, was a masterstroke of ingenuity. I need a man like you working the road. I need the rest of your team almost as much. I just need it done competently. You understand my dilemma.”

Brenish was surprised by Gareth’s honesty; it was incredibly frank of him. It was easy to forget, under the whip-crack changes in the man’s mood or his casual meanness, that he could be charming and self-effacing. Yet even Brenish knew political gain required no less.

“Let’s get down to figures. That wagon contained 2,700p. That’s a lot of money I should have received, that I never did. What is that split four ways, Jase?”

“675p,” Jase said without hesitation. Brenish looked his way. Jase was good with figures, but he had probably calculated that the minute he learned of their debacle. The tall, glorified clerk wore a self-satisfied smirk above his black goatee. Brenish always wanted to compare Jase to a weasel, but truth be told he was handsome in an irritatingly all-too-natural way that made ladies swoon. A pretty weasel, then.

“That’s not round enough,” said Gareth.

“700.”

“That’s better.”

“Less our cut, of course,” said Harry. Gareth plainly didn’t like him speaking up to say it, but he pressed on anyway. “Less the cut we would have had, had the gold been delivered. That would be…”

“375,” said Tibs, quietly. Harry took forever with numbers.

“375p. Had we found the gold, that’s what you would have got. Split four ways.”

Gareth sneered as if this was the stupidest notion ever suggested in history. “Nay,” he said, his indignation expressed in a high, nasal note of derision. “700. Each.”

Harry knew better than to argue further. “All right,” he said. “I understand.”

“I don’t think you do, Harry. I don’t think you understand at all. Did I not use the word ‘laughingstock’? I did, didn’t I, Turk?”

“Aye, boss,” said Turk. He was behind the thieves; Brenish couldn’t see him. Turk was a man of few words and fewer expressions; he knew there wasn’t much to miss.

“And an extra…” Harry began.

“325,” said Tibs.

“…325, from each of us, should compensate for that. It’s almost double.”

Naman finally broke posture and gave Harry a long-suffering look. Harry seemed to know it was a mistake the minute that left his mouth.

“Now that’s an idea,” said Gareth. “That’s what I like about you, Harry. You’re the brains of this operation; I’ve always said so. Double. That’s a nice word. How much would that be, Jase?”

“1,400.”

“Why, so it is. That’s almost as much as I would have made from the entire venture. Each. That’s a good way to make recompense, don’t you think?” Jase nodded back to him. “I like that. Well done, Harry. Well done indeed. You’ve solved my dilemma. And we can all be friends again.”

“We’ll never be able to pay that back,” said Naman. “It’ll take years.”

Gareth put a hand to his mouth, mockingly. “Oh. Oh, you’re quite right, Naman. It probably will take years. But I think I’m going to do something kind for you fellows, since you’ve all gone out of your way to try and make this right. I’ll let you pay it back over time. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. You can pay me as you go along. No less than, oh, 200p a year. And only a tithe of the balance each year, for usury. You can save up an extra 200p a year. That’s a fair deal, isn’t it?”

The thieves didn’t dare say anything else. Gareth was just warming up.

“But I forgot: Brenish, you still owe me a considerable sum. About 100p, wasn’t it?”

“83, sir,” said Brenish. But it may as well be an even hundred, he thought. It may as well be a million.

“Yes, that’s right. But it is at a higher rate. So I’ll fold 100 into what you owe, and we can call it an even… 1,500.”

The tragedy of it all was that Gareth actually was being more than fair, at least concerning the existing debt. A tithe was a manageable rate. But 1,500p was well beyond what he would have expected Cirawyn’s father to demand of him come spring.

“Of course,” Gareth said, “if the elusive Alfie and his boys want to get a bit more creative, I’m sure that debt will be paid off much faster. A few pay wagons come through in winter. And there are other roads and cities. Why should a man as talented as that limit himself to a small area? I know I’ll have bigger jobs to come, and I know that in the future, they’ll be done right.”

Harry nodded in defeat. Gareth seemed pleased with himself, more than Brenish had seen in a long time. It was wise to take advantage of a mood like that. And he knew he had only one hope left.

“Sir,” said Brenish, “as long as I’m in your debt, may I ask one thing?”

Naman stared, in total disbelief. The look on Gareth’s face was similar, but painted with gaudy splashes of curiosity. No child had ever stared at a traveling acrobat before the climax of the act in such wonder, waiting to see what could possibly top everything he had already seen.

“I’m listening,” Gareth said, his smile wide and merry.

Brenish looked him in the eye. “You own me now. It will take years to pay that back, and I’m yours. But I can be of even greater value to you. Send me to cities to do your bidding and put my skills to good use. Let me track down lore for you; you know I’m good at finding it. But I beg you, lend me 800p more, on top of that debt, to use before the month is out. All the longer I’ll be yours, and I will be loyal.”

Gareth was nearly beside himself with silent laughter. It was clear to see he could hardly believe the thief’s audacity, first for claiming all the blame and then for asking a favor. How could he deny someone who made him feel such pure joy? His sides shook until he held them, and then the merriment found his voice, seized it, and bellowed out in great deep braying puffs. When he finally mastered himself, he wiped away a tear.

“I knew something got into you,” he said. “I haven’t laughed so hard in a mighty long time. I’ll make it 100, for your gall.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Brenish, “but I need 800. I am quite serious.”

“Nay,” said Gareth. “Nay, I won’t give you 800p. If I did that you’d flee the village. You might even elude me for a long time, if the guild aided you. You’re not worth that kind of trouble.”

“I was already planning to leave for the winter. I needed to save as much money as I could before spring. That’s hopeless now. I’m begging you, Gareth. If you won’t give me the money, then pay it for me. Pay 800p, or less if he’ll accept it, and leave me on the hook for the whole sum. Leave me on the hook for a thousand. I don’t care. I’m your man, and I’ll honor my debt, and when you’ve paid that sum you’ll understand why I’ll never flee.”

Gareth was quite taken aback by Brenish’s apparent earnestness. Not that he hadn’t seen such things before: Brenish layered his deceptions like dozens of onion skins over a horse puck, with artistry unequaled south of the mountains. All Brenish could hope was that even knowing that, Gareth would accept this sincere offer at face value, and give him a chance to prove himself. That same artistry could be put to work in Gareth’s favor, and he obviously knew it.

“This is madness, Brenish,” said Naman, before Gareth could even make up his mind. “We’ll find another way.”

“There is no other way, and I’m out of time.”

“You have till spring. We’ll find an investor by then. I’m sure of it.”

Brenish gave him an ugly look for broaching the topic at all, and wasn’t sure how much he meant it. If Naman was trying to give him an opening, it wasn’t one he had intended to take. Not with Gareth, who saw right through him.

“All right,” said Gareth. “This has been a merry show so far. I’ll bite. An investor for what?”

“Not important,” said Brenish. “I have some other things lined up. Maybe they’ll work out, maybe not, but not quick enough. Even if they do, I’m still your man for a good long time. If an extra thousand isn’t enough, just name your price.”

Not this way, Brenish,” Naman hissed. “It’s not worth it.”

“If you want my favor, Brenish,” said Gareth, “you’ll answer my question.”

Brenish hesitated. He didn’t know what Naman was up to, bringing the subject out into the open, but it couldn’t end well for any of them. “It’s just a—”

“He has Visak’s map,” said Naman. “He wants to line up investors through the guild.”

“Nay, I don’t,” said Brenish. “You were right, it’s a stupid risk.” He turned to Gareth, tears beginning to stream from so much pleading. “I still need the guild’s help, but just to sell it. That’s all.”

“And you think I’m dumb enough to buy it off you, is that it?” said Gareth.

“Nay. Nay, you’re the last person I would expect to buy it—especially from me.”

“I don’t even buy that you have it,” said Jase.

“’Tis a long story,” Brenish said. He mustered his courage, all his skill. “I was in the city in June, you remember. Guild business. I stayed in the old inn where Visak used to tell his stories. You remember the one?” He looked at Gareth. “Howlett’s Horsehead.”

“Of course.”

“Howlett’s son, he doesn’t keep it as tidy. He’s not lettered, either. Those books in his back room were just gathering dust. Thought if I could swap ’em out for blanks, make ’em just as dusty, he’d never know the difference.”

“And?” Gareth’s eyebrow went up. Brenish had him on the hook.

“I never made the swap. When I looked at the books to see if they were even worth it, I found a paper tucked between the pages of a big volume. I think, maybe Visak knew people would try to find it in his home. ’Twasn’t safe there. But old Howlett, he wasn’t lettered either. The books were just for show. Remember he used to keep them up on the mantel? I think Visak just stuck it in there one day when no one was looking. That’s why he always went back there. Had to keep an eye on it, in case anyone went after his gold.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I don’t believe me,” said Brenish. “I spent the rest of the summer trying to find anything I could to verify it. I remember what the old man’s hand looked like. I couldn’t prove it was the real map, but I studied it.” Which he had, but only for a few days. “I think it’s real.”

“And you thought you could sell it? Even with the guild’s help, no one will believe that story.”

“That’s why I was gonna go myself. I had a plan. I was gonna get an investor or two so I could get supplies and hire some men to come with me. It’d be hard to find someone to buy it outright from a crook like me. If I put my own life on it, they might go in for a stake. But Naman talked me out of it. He was worried I’d gone Fell. And he’s right; it’s too risky.”

“Do you mean to tell me,” said Gareth, “that you just begged me for 800p just so you could spend it on equipment and go into the ruins? A dead man’s not gonna pay me back.”

“I gave up on that, Gareth. I swear to God, it wasn’t for that. 800 isn’t enough anyway for that plan. That’s why I said you can pay the man I’d give it to. You’d see for yourself what I needed, and you’d be satisfied that I’d work off my debt. And even if I can sell that map instead of using it myself, if that gave me the money to pay you off, I’d still work for you. I’ll stay with you for three years, guaranteed. Three years, Gareth.”

Gareth shared a look with Jase, the kind that asked what he should do with a man this crazy. Jase went right on smirking.

“Where is this map now?” said Gareth. “I’d like to have a look.”

“I’m not trying to sell it to you. I just want to borrow enough for—” He stopped, choked off his words.

“Suppose I might be interested. If it is real, I’d feel plenty stupid for letting it slip through my fingers, even if you were the one selling it. Besides, you asked me for a loan on top of a loan, and a generous one at that. I’m gonna need some collateral.”

“Does that mean it’s a yea?”

“It means nothing, yet. I’ve half a mind to kill you for trying to sell me that story.”

“If the loan’s off the table then go ahead,” Brenish said, his voice coming out in racked gasps. “There’s nothing for me here.”

Gareth got out of his chair and went to Bob, holding out a hand for a sword. Bob drew his blade and handed it by the hilt to his boss. It was always hard to tell what Bob was thinking or how he would react in any given situation; he was a good enough man as Gareth’s henchmen went, but loyal to a fault. Gareth accepted the weapon and carried it over to the thieves, holding the honed and polished iron up to Brenish’s throat. Brenish didn’t flinch.

“I’ve truly never seen this in you, Brenish. I don’t like dealing with the unexpected, when it comes to people. You’ve always been slippery to trust, but you were an open book till now. What do you need that 800p for, anyway?”

“I know,” said Turk.

Gareth looked over Brenish’s shoulder to his unkempt thug. “You think he’s being straight with me?”

“’Bout the loan.” The voice shrugged for him. Brenish couldn’t see the man’s shoulders behind him, but he knew Turk enough to guess they probably never moved. He was wooden as an apple cart.

A slow smile crossed Gareth’s face. “I’ll consider it, Brenish. I may even do you better than that. I guess that depends on whether I like what I see.”

Brenish felt a little relief at that, but he saw something else in Gareth’s eyes besides the man’s usual glee at playing with the lives of others. There was more there than just a good laugh at Brenish’s expense. It was a light, an old hunger stoked to life: monsters, lost treasures, and ancient cities cut into the bedrock. The sight of it in Gareth’s face made him ill. Was that what Naman had talked him out of? Had he looked like that?

Gareth was taken. All those days spent in his tower, staring at the Gate from afar. The books, and the weapons. His need was greater than his distrust.

“I think I’ll have a look at that map, if you please.”

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About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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