The Key to the Coward’s Spell

By Alex Bledsoe

Nursing an injured arm while on the job searching for a missing kid is bad enough for sword jockey Eddie LaCrosse. But when he discovers a smuggling ring rumored to be protected by powerful magic, he seeks out old friends and new to lend a hand. A tale set in Alex Bledsoe’s popular medieval noir world.

Please be warned that this story deals with difficult content and themes involving children.

“That’s it,” Jane Argo insisted. As always, her girlish voice contrasted with her height, her broad shoulders, and her aggressively strong but no less feminine physique. She was a woman and a half, no matter how you sliced her. And if you tried to slice her, you better not miss, because she would most definitely slice you back. Which is exactly why I brought her with me.

The building she indicated was almost aggressively nondescript. In the darkness, squeezed between an inn and one of the hundreds of waterfront whorehouses, it could’ve been any tavern in any seaside town. We stood in the doorway of a closed blacksmith shop across the street and waited to get a look at the clientele. So far, there was none.

“No one’s gone in or out the whole time we’ve been here,” I said.

“But it’s open,” she pointed out. Lamp glow did shine from the windows, and a lantern beside the hanging sign made sure we could read the name: Mom’s.

“I guess I’ll go in, then,” she said.

“No, I will. You stay here and watch.”

She indicated my right arm in its sling. “And you’ll fight your way out how?”

“I’m just going to talk.”

“This guy has a serious reputation. Suppose he decides to chitchat with swords?”

“You forget how charming I am.”

“No, I know exactly how charming you are. That’s what worries me.”

I’d brought Jane along precisely because, with my arm out of commission, I couldn’t really put up much of a fight. But it was still my case, and I wasn’t getting crucial information secondhand, even from someone I trusted as much as I did her. “I promise I’ll scream if I need you.”

“By the time you scream, you may not need me anymore.”

“I’ll have to take that chance.”

I crossed the deserted street and Jane faded back into the shadows.

Cheban was a huge city-state located on a bay where two rivers met the ocean and thus was a vast commercial hub for all kinds of merchandise. Like any place where a lot of gold changed hands, the criminal element thrived here; even my old gangster friend Gordon Marantz had a few tentacles entwined around town. But the people I sought were worse than simple criminals. And the man who might help me find them, who supposedly hung out in this tavern, was no mere informant.

The painted image of a cheery, round woman offering a bowl of soup decorated the tavern door. Given what Jane told me about the place, I suspected that anyone who came in there looking for an actual meal would pay for it in the privy for the next few days. This was a tavern in the same way a dungeon was a walk-in closet.

A bell rang over the door as I entered. I tried to appear casual while thoroughly on my guard, nodding at the older woman behind the counter and looking around in what I hoped appeared to be mild curiosity. The place was empty save for one man seated alone at a table in a back corner. The carefully placed oil lamps kept him in a pool of darkness so you could neither see his face nor tell if he was watching you. But the precautions alone said he had to be the man I sought.

I sauntered over, hoping that the hairs on the back of my neck would do their usual job and warn me if I was about to be ambushed. I stopped a respectable distance away. I had a dagger in my sling and hoped I could wield it successfully with my left hand if the need arose. I said, “I’m looking for Moon.”

“Why are you looking here?” the man in the corner said. No emotion, just flat words that gave nothing away.

“Where else would I look?”

He did not reply for a long time. He did nothing for a long time. He’d mastered the art of waiting until the other person got too nervous or anxious to keep silent. The problem was, so had I. So, we looked at each other while the oil lamps sputtered and someone moved around in what I assumed was the kitchen.

At last, he pushed the chair opposite him with his foot so that it slid away from the table. I sat down. He said, “What do you think Moon can do for you?”

“I’m looking for a missing child. A seven-year-old boy.”

“So? Why should some rich guy’s son matter to Moon?”

“He’s not a rich guy’s son. He’s the son of a blacksmith.”

“Are you the blacksmith?”


“Then why do you care?”

“Because it’s my job.”

“The blacksmith hired you?”

I nodded. Of course, by “hired,” I meant “offered to beg on his knees while my girlfriend comforted his sobbing wife,” but that wasn’t important right now.

He took a very deliberate drink from his tankard, a gesture I was certain was a signal. If possible, I became even more alert.

“Who are you?” he said.

“Eddie LaCrosse. I’m a private sword jockey from Neceda, and,” I repeated with just a hint of added emphasis, “I’m looking for Moon.”

“You still haven’t told me why Moon should care.”

“Two reasons. One, I can pay him for his talents.”

He snorted. “What ‘talents’ do you think he has?”

“He puts things together. I’ve got a few pieces but not enough to make the whole picture.”

“What’s the other reason?”

I leaned my good elbow on the table. He didn’t move away or react at all. “I know how Moon feels about people who hurt children.”

“Yeah? And who told you that?”

“More than one person. Umber Kale. Harry Lockett. Jane Argo.” I chuckled. “Even Gordon Marantz.”

He moved with smooth deliberation to light the lamp on his table. As my eyes followed his hands, as I’m sure he intended, I felt a presence behind me. I hadn’t heard it approach, but it was definitely there now, making the air between us heavier, close enough to kill me any number of ways.

The light finally showed me his face. It was lean and sharp, the face of someone who’d turned deprivation into a source of strength. His eyes never left me.

I said, “Who’s behind me?”

“My friend.”

I turned very slightly and said, “Nice to meet you.”

“He doesn’t speak,” Moon said.

“If he can move like that, he probably doesn’t need to. Does he have a name?”

“He’s known as Sham the Hushed.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’ve heard of you, LaCrosse. You returned the baby prince of Arentia to the king and queen. You found Black Edward Tew after twenty years. And you’ve been on the bad side of Gordon Marantz for longer than anyone should’ve been. You must be tough, even with a bad arm.”

“I’m not tough.”

“Neither am I.”

Another of those long silences passed. We weren’t trying to outwait each other now, just each deciding what our next move should be. Mine depended on his.

A woman appeared beside the table, bearing two tankards. She put one down in front of each of us. I looked up at her; it took a moment, but I saw that despite her entirely feminine way of moving, she was, under it all, really a man dressed as a woman. But even as I thought it, I knew that was wrong; in a world where a goddess could hide in plain sight as a mortal queen, who was I to say what was real? She was what she said she was, and so she was a woman, full stop.

“This is my sister, Camina,” the man across from me said. “If she brings the ale, it’s safe to drink.”

“Is it safe to look behind me?”

The man nodded.

I turned enough to see a giant of a man, his arms folded across his huge chest. He had dark skin and a shaved head. He met my gaze but did not change his placid, noncommittal expression. These were all pros and weren’t going to make any slipups.

“There’s a woman across the street,” Camina said to the man.

“She’s with me,” I said.

She looked at me skeptically. “She’s taller than you.”

“And she’s tougher than me, which is why I brought her along.”

“Is she a sword jockey too?” Moon asked.

“She is. She’s one of your references: Jane Argo. So, if anything happens to me, she’ll be along to balance the scales.”

“What’s going to happen to you?”

“At the moment, I’m waiting for you to tell me.”

“I’ll leave you gentlemen to your man talk,” Camina said, and winked at me as she left; I winked back, and she laughed.

“So,” the man said as he sipped his soup. “Let’s pretend that I’m Moon. You tell me about your problem, and I’ll pass it on to him. If he can help, and if he wants to help, he’ll be in touch.”

“The boy’s name is Auko Kiff. He was taken in the middle of the night. A convoy of traders from Cheban had just come through town, and Auko’s mother told me one of them, a white-haired woman, had taken a real interest in the boy, talking to him and giving him candy. I caught up with the convoy, but there was no sign of the woman or the boy. They did leave someone behind in case they were followed, and we had an altercation.” I indicated my injured arm.

“What happened?”

What had happened was that the guy was so vicious, and so strong, that I barely got away alive. As it was, he’d delivered a stinging slash to my arm that cut the muscle and required a row of stitches from the moon priestesses at their hospital outside Neceda. They recommended I take it easy for a month. “He made a few good points, but ultimately he lost the argument.”

“Too bad. He probably could have told you everything you want to know.”

“Yeah, too bad. But I did get this.”

Slowly, aware of the big man behind me and the seated one within striking distance in front of me, I brought out a small yellow jewel, about the size of my palm. It shone in the lamplight.

“Well, look at that,” the man said.

“You recognize it?”

“You don’t?”

I saw no reason to bluff. “No. It was the only thing on him that I couldn’t place.”

“Do you believe in spells, Mr. LaCrosse? Magic?”

I thought about all the things I’d seen—a dragon, a shapeshifting sorceress, a couple of ghosts, a monster desperate for friendship, even a stray goddess—and said, “I’m open to being persuaded.”

“You ever heard of the Coward’s Spell?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a spell that’s laid around a location, usually a building. Anyone trying to enter it is overwhelmed by fear. It’s said to be very, very powerful, so much so that it can defend against whole armies. Of course, to cast it is pretty complicated and requires a laundry list of things that aren’t easy to find.” He nodded at the jewel. “And that is a key. If you carry that, it can’t hurt you.”

“So, who would go to so much trouble, and what are they trying to protect?”

“Their business. Selling kids for sex.”

He stated it with such a casual tone that it took a beat for me to realize what he’d actually said. It had been one of my own working theories, of course, but there was also the possibility that the boy had been meant for slave labor, or even to fill the void of a childless couple with the money to arrange things like this. “You sound awfully certain.”

“Moon would be.”

“So, tell me about the white-haired woman.”

“She’s an entrepreneur. Her name is Elizabeth Gozel. She gets a request for a particular sort of child, then goes out and finds him or her, usually from out-of-the-way places.”

“Like Neceda.” The town I now called home.

“Is that in Muscodia?”

“It is. You’ve heard of it?”

Before answering, he took another drink. “Gozel gathers and maintains her inventory here, then, when she has an order, ships them out for distribution.”

“Inventory being children.”

“Occasionally adult women. But mostly kids.”

“And they’re kept behind a Coward’s Spell.”

“That’s what they say.”

Revulsion and anger almost choked my voice. “I’ve come to the right man, apparently.”

“Moon is the right man. I’m just the messenger.”

“So, where would Moon tell me to look?”

“What’s more important to you: finding the boy or stopping the trade?”

“I’m working for the boy’s parents, so their priority is mine. But I wouldn’t mind it if there’s a way to do both.”

“You take her down, someone else will come up in her place.”

“Still seems like a worthwhile thing to do.”

He drank some more ale, his expression never changing. I wondered what had brought him to this place; had his life been laced with tragedy, or had it been one defining moment of horror, like mine? He was smart, cautious, and absolutely unflappable; he’d also surrounded himself with people who shared those qualities. I’d walked into a well-oiled machine, one that knew how to take something, evaluate it, and then decide whether to work with it, spit it out, or grind it to pieces.

He put down the spoon, wiped his hands on his tunic, then said, “I’m Moon.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I sort of figured.”

The house wouldn’t attract anyone’s notice. It was one of dozens of similar dwellings, all packed together in the oldest part of Cheban. They leaned toward each other, arching over the narrow stone streets, many with boarded-up windows and missing doors. Only a few showed any light, and our target wasn’t one of them.

The only thing that gave it away, in fact, was the man standing in the doorway. He moved every so often but never stepped into the open. If you passed him, you’d think he was just an intoxicated bum looking for shelter. Only if you watched the house for hours, like we did, would you realize he was a guard.

“That place is locked up tighter than a new virgin in an old whorehouse,” Jane said. “Only one way in, and that way guarded. Look, all the windows are barred. And the roof’s got spikes.”

Earlier that evening, we’d scouted the alley behind it as well but found it blocked with the collapsed remnants of the much larger house that backed up to it. If there was a path through the rubble, we didn’t see it.

I hadn’t told Jane about the Coward’s Spell, so I asked, “Go see if you can spot any way in.”

She nodded, accepting that my bad arm would make it difficult for me. She climbed the collapsed stone nimbly and silently, her years at sea shimmying up ropes and sails making it second nature.

And then she stopped.

For a moment, I thought she’d been spotted by someone inside, but then she practically scurried back down. When she got back to me, she was pale and wide-eyed.

“What happened to you?” I asked.

“I saw a rat,” she said breathlessly.

“You’re afraid of rats?”

“You got a problem with that?”

“You lived on ships for years; rats should be—”

“Just shut up, will you?”

She pushed past me, and I winced as she deliberately rammed her elbow into my bad arm. Was this the Coward’s Spell at work? The best way to check was to give her the key and send her back, but for some reason, I decided not to. I’d tell her about it later—I didn’t want her thinking she’d freaked out on her own—but for now, I wanted my secret weapon to remain secret.

Now we sat in the attic of a boarding house across the street. The landlady clearly thought we were using it for a clandestine affair, but that was okay: both Jane’s husband and my girlfriend knew that our relationship was strictly platonic, and they were the only ones who counted.

“Do you really think that’s the right house?” Jane mused. “I mean, we only have Moon’s word for it. What if he’s setting us up?”

“We either trust him or we don’t,” I said.

We took turns watching out the window while the other slept for a couple of hours. It was my turn to nap when Jane shook me awake and said softly, “The show’s starting.”

I followed her to the window. A carriage was parked in the street, blocking our view of the door. It was elaborate and curtained, so we couldn’t see inside it. The driver wore a uniform with a high-plumed hat, and a guard stood on the running board. After something or someone came out of the house, they drove off at a leisurely, discreet pace.

“Think they’ve got cargo in there?” Jane whispered.

“They could. It would make sense to move them in the middle of the night.”

“One of us should follow them. And you can’t ride very well with that arm.”


Her eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute, you agreed to that way too fast. You also can’t go breaking in there without me.”

“Who said anything about that?”

“No one has to tell a flying fish to jump, either. They just do it.”

“Look, it’s one guard, and I can take care of him.”

“One guard that we know of. As I recall, one guard made you show up at my office, going, ‘Pleeeeease, Jane, come with me and save my ass.’”

“You’re wasting time. You’ll lose them.”

“No, I won’t. I know exactly where they’re going.”

“Oh, yeah? Where?”

“It’s a goddamn port city, Eddie. They’re moving cargo, so they’re going to the docks.”

“You, being an ex-pirate, would know that area much better than me. Gosh, I’m glad you’re here.”

She glared. “Don’t think you outsmarted me, LaCrosse,” she grumbled, grabbing her sword and cloak. She swirled out of the room in a huff. I resumed watching the house across the street.

If Moon’s information was correct, the place was a chamber of genteel horrors, where orphans from the streets and children snatched from distant villages were used in ways I didn’t even want to think about, as training for their final destinations. He was unsure how many kids might be inside: anywhere from a couple to possibly a dozen or more. Their arrivals and departures were carefully ignored by paid-off constabulary. It was the kind of grubby open secret that all big cities nursed; only, this one was worse than mere gambling or adult prostitution. If he was right and I was right, somewhere in there was a wide-eyed little boy from Neceda who I’d known since he was a baby.

I couldn’t let myself get angry, though. Anger made you sloppy, and I had enough handicaps with my sword arm out of commission. Besides, these people weren’t angry: they operated a business, and if I wanted to take them down and get Auko back safely, I had to be as cool and methodical as they were.

In my wayward youth, I’d been a mercenary, and I still knew how to kill people quickly and efficiently. I tried not to; my conscience, numbed and atrophied for all those years, had regrown since I became a sword jockey. But sometimes, that skill set came in handy, as it did when I stood in the alley beside our boarding house and used a small collapsible crossbow to take out the guard with a bolt through the neck, effectively silencing any last cry of warning. Even left-handed, I was a pretty good shot.

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