Siege

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The Round was one of the older buildings on the street, having gone through many permutations. Warehouse to market to tavern to theatre to brothel. These days it liked to put a little bit of everything into the mix. Squaring his shoulders, uncomfortable under the warmth of the evening's air, Roldan pushed open the doors and crossed the threshold, taking in the shape of the entrance corridor, then the bar area with its balconied first floor, and overly-elaborate chandeliers hanging from creaking wooden beams.

The lack of security was notable. He was observed as he entered, both by lingerers outside and by those lounging inside, but none thought to stop him or search him - which was fortunate, given the weapons and armour he wore beneath the thin cloak. They had presumed he was a customer, which was fair on such a pleasant evening. The bar was full of men he assumed were not paid-up members of the Stagehands, but visiting patrons. The women, on the other hand, all belonged here, one way or another, though they weren't all working girls - some looked meaner and more capable than the burliest of the men. A guitar was being strummed gently in one corner.

Roldan made his way slowly, casually, to the bar, where he leaned forwards on one arm. The barman wandered over, grunting an acknowledgement. "Whatd'youwant?" he slurred.

"What's on offer tonight?" Roldan replied, casting his gaze into the centre of the room. The cushions and seats were draped with scantily clad women and hopeful - or rich - men. It left a bad taste in Roldan's mouth but he maintained a convincing facade.

"We got anything you want," the barman said, gesticulating vaguely. "Not just what's on display. Got a whole range upstairs."

Splintering glass signalled a fireball's arrival into the room, as it spun end-over-end past the bar area, splashing down onto the wooden floor in a shower of sparks. There was a weighted pause as everyone followed the sparking, rippling path with their eyes, the only sounds the tinkling of glass and the roar of fire as it consumed the improvised projectile. Then there was a scream from the cushioned area, and the main doors smashed open to welcome a huge, bearded, broad-shouldered man and his ungentlemanly entourage, all moving at a fast clip.

"Lock it down!" the bearded man roared. Roldan had been out of the Treydolain game for a while but there was no mistaking Boris Stanfler, leader of the Stagehands. Better known as Stamper, a name he did his best to earn.

As the crew got to work sliding barriers across doorways and thick metal plates across windows, Roldan was already moving in the direction of the fireball. It had left a blackened, sooty trail across the floor and had come to rest near the musician, who was sat gaping like an imbecile. Roldan pushed the man off his stool and away from the fire, then wrenched a thick rug out from under a low table. Bunching it up in both hands, he dove onto the still-flaming fireball, smothering it entirely. Tendrils of flame flicked out from under the edges of the rug for a moment, then the crackling subsided, replaced with a treacly smell and drifting, dirty smoke. Roldan stood back from the rug and brushed himself down.

"Don't move that," he ordered the musician, who had got to his feet. "It could still reignite."

Roldan felt a tight grip on his shoulder and was spun round into the face of Stamper. "You!" the man shouted through his beard. "We owe you! Fast thinking, my friend. You are?"

"Roldan."

"That's a fine name. What does it mean?"

Roldan shrugged. "It means I get the job done."

"Good enough for me. I'm Stamper." He grinned. "But you probably already knew that."

Turning to the clients and other gang members frozen in terror and surprise in the bar area, Stamper stretched out his arms. "I apologise for this inconvenience," he said. "We are experiencing a small conflagration outside The Round. Needless to say, this evening will be on the house, just once we've settled a few scores."

"Secure!" came a shout from a side room. More shouts of confirmation came from all around the bar.

Winking at Roldan, Stamper raised his face defiantly towards the ceiling. "This place is a fortress," he declared. "Let them try and come."

While three of the gang shifted a huge, heavy cabinet in front of the main doors, Stamper rallied his troops with a mixture of orders and inspirational declarations of resistance and victory.

Roldan stayed back, near the edges of the room, analysing the situation. He'd expected something like this would occur, though perhaps not quite as rapidly and abruptly. It was likely that the building was already surrounded, which meant he would need to move quickly to identify the escaped prisoner, whom he was sure must be among the group. This was where Pienya's superior knowledge of the territory would have been useful - she would most likely be able to recognise the regular members of Stamper's crew, immediately ruling out half the room. Roldan had no such insight.

There was a scream and a shout from above, somewhere beyond the balconied first floor. Stamper and a contingent of his crew raced up the broad stairs. Roldan regarded the remainder as surreptitiously as he could, given the circumstances. They all looked to be in their late-twenties or older and considerably battle-hardened. None fit the description of the prisoner.

More shouts from upstairs, and then someone - possibly one of Stamper's - came spinning backwards, over the balcony rail, down onto the hard wooden floor, neck twisting awkwardly as he landed. A couple of the gang members who had remained in the bar swore then started towards the stairs. Roldan followed and they noticed him halfway up looking at him aggressively, weapons drawn.

"I can help," Roldan said, "and it sounds like you need it." He nodded towards the noise of fighting.

The two men looked at each other, shrugged, then all three of them raced up the stairs. Roldan followed them along the balcony, then through a doorway into a long dining or meeting room with a table running its entire length. Skylights were set at intervals, one of which was smashed, glass scattered across the table and floor.

Stamper and the others were occupied with holding back an invasion from a rival gang who had entered via the skylight and were now attacking with a vicious combination of maces and improvised weapons constructed from chains, nail-lined wooden planks and other such unpredictable pain-givers.

One of the two who Roldan had accompanied was immediately felled by a flung dagger. Ignoring his fate, Roldan moved into the room, walking rather than running, always calculating, and reached beneath his cloak to withdraw a short sword. He had already absorbed the positions and basic fighting styles of those in the room, noting their postures, speeds, reflexes. The rival gang had kindly identified themselves with both tattoos and coloured bandannas, making for easy targets.

He cut two down before they knew he was even in the room. They were untrained, being schooled only in street fighting. He might have been a little rusty, but there was a lifetime of combat experience powering his arm and his motion. Roldan Stryke was unconcerned with show and frills; his approach was one of practicality and efficiency, and of keeping the encounter as short as possible.

"Tarn, watch out!" came a shouted warning, and Roldan glanced across the room to see a short, thin man shove a young boy bodily away from an incoming blow. The thinner man took the full force of the swung mace, which sent him flying backwards into the wall, where he lay with a bloodied, crushed chest.

The boy leapt up and scrambled to where the man lay, clearly mortally injured. The boy was about the right age. He was dressed differently to the others and didn't bear any of the usual marks of being a member of the Stagehands, or any of the other gangs. It had to be him.

Roldan Stryke had his mark.

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