The wheezing, middle-aged fat man carried a small wooden crate down the moss-covered stone quay. In the afternoon glare of the two suns reflecting off the water, refugees were debarking from a ship. The fat man set the crate down in the middle of the quay, climbed on top of it and straightened his thigh length, red leather vest. In combination with the short sword belted at his waist, his clothing was recognizable as a uniform of sorts.
The first of the refugees stopped as the fat man held his hands outstretched over his head, regaining his breath. Behind him, where the stones of the quay ran into street paving, stood a collection of tables laden with fruit, vegetables, crocks of butter, honey, loaves of bread, jugs and cups.
Beyond the quay and tables stood the rest of Midport. The town was built atop and among the ruins of an ancient city, often using the old greenish stones for new structures. Broken walls and towers lay tumbled down hillsides and cliffs, parts of the stonework fallen beneath the waters of the harbor, evidence of some past cataclysm. On a clear day such as this, weed-covered remnants of the older city were visible in the depths.
“Greetings. My name is Sergeant Lugwort,” the fat man began.
The people gathered before him, dazed by the sunlight, promise of food and splendor of Midport. Or just numb and exhausted. It varied from group to group and Lugwort had seen examples of all. The Sergeant had long since stopped asking why he always drew welcome duty. This lot looked much the worse for the journey. Probably rough seas.
Someone in the back yelled out, “Louder!”
Lugwort cleared his throat, spat and continued.
“You are here because you lost. You lost a war, a city, a woman, a title, a profession, something. You’re here because the bitch-goddess Fate turned her face away from you. Otherwise you’d all be fat and happy back wherever it is you come from. You lost, but it don’t mean you’ll always lose. Your past is behind you. Leave it there.”
More of the refugees were now listening. Some, eager to take offense, were angry. But they were still listening.
“Don’t get into trouble in Midport, the city proper nor the outlying farms. Penalties is harsh. Ain’t no magistrate, just a mean soldier like me what’s gonna decide your punishment. Cause trouble and it’s easiest to kill you. Lots of folk landing here. You’re nothing special til you prove otherwise.”
Lugwort paused to gauge the effect of his words on the crowd. No threats of murder so far. This was a friendly group.
“Don’t even think about being a city guard. There’s plenty of us already for this small island. We been with the Duke Hobart since the beginning. Our word is solid with his lordship. He ain’t interested in more guards save the Watch Below. Those men among you who is too stubborn to listen to me, who was a soldier or a guard in the past and want to be again, you have one choice: sewer rat. There’s always things creeping up into the sewers, crypts and tunnels what needs cleaning out. That would be your job. Do it well enough, long enough, and you might get to wear the Duke’s uniform.”
Sergeant Lugwort hooked his thumbs into his red leather vest and rocked on his heels, obviously pleased with his vaunted status as a city guard.
“Those of you listening, and having some wits about you, has got two choices: apprentice or explorer. Plenty of folk on this island need help. Don’t none of it pay well, but you’ll not starve. A few years down the road you might even be able to go into business or get a farm for yourself. Some have. Exploring across the strait pays much better. Or kills you. Ain’t no thieving or begging in Midport.”
Lugwort unleashed his best effort at intimidation on the crowd. Few of the people seemed threatened. The sergeant was used to the lack of respect. In truth, he seldom enforced any laws himself. He made a point of searching out the tough looking men in the crowd.
“Across the strait is the big island. Desolation Isle.”
Lugwort pointed to a small building beyond the tables of food. Its foundation and two of the walls were old greenish stone, the rest of the building was barely weathered wood, shoddily constructed.
“That shed holds a fine assortment of armor and weapons. Much of it’s still good. Some is crap. Choice of that gear along with a week’s rations are free for the taking if you’re of a mind to head across the strait and do some exploring. The Duke pays well for maps and new information about Desolation Isle. But don’t be thinking too smart. Every bit of information is checked with stories from other explorers. Get cute and we’ll know it.” He winked knowingly at the rougher looking men.
“If you go exploring, there’s no shortage of boats what will take you across in the morning, lay off and pick you up by nightfall. Don’t get caught in the old city ruins across the strait after dark. You won’t survive. If some of your folk die within five miles of them ruins, haul ’em back. Some that wasn’t was seen again walking around as they shouldn’t have been. If you don’t want to haul ’em back, burn their bodies good.”
Lugwort dropped his stern demeanor, adopting a jovial smile and tone while rubbing his hands together.
“Go across the strait, stay out a few days, find something interesting, and you’ll be welcomed back. Free week in a barracks, a real surgeon such as you need, two hots and a cot. That’s the reward even if you come back empty handed. Survive a second trip and you’ll be welcomed in the Widow’s Hall. It beats shit out of a barracks. There’s a merchant there, fat bastard, but trustworthy. He’ll pay a fair price for what you might find out there in the wild. It’s safe to leave gold and gear with him or the Widow.”
Sergeant Lugwort pulled himself to upright attention, displaying a hint of the soldier from his youth.
“Tonight there’s food and beer courtesy of the Duke. Then four more days of free food and a bed in a barracks. After that, you best get to work on a future. Now go fill your belly, courtesy of the Duke. Welcome to Desolation Isle.”
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