(You should probably read Dragon's Wish first.)
The pair of dragons circled the hilltop from dawn, snaking through the air, their scales of gold and silver brilliant in the morning light, long-feathered wings like mere impressions from the corner of one's eye. Then as the sun rose through treetops, fog tumbled down the slopes in waves, muffling the breath of the forest. Only the nearby brook babbled on, countered by the clattering of wheels on hard ground.
A short man with square shoulders strained against the shafts of a laden handcart, while a teen still growing his first beard helped push it up the winding road. They both had sandals on, and tunics that were once red. Next to them, a woman with thick arms kept the load steady, an off-white dress with blue trim in contrast to her skin.
Shifting mists revealed a grassy clearing where the road flattened somewhat. Among tall herbs, someone lay unmoving: a mountain of a man, dirty and sunburned, next to an orc woman with muscles taut under her green skin. Both were armed; the travelers pushed the implements of death away before bending down to rummage through the bundles the strange people carried. Only the teenager stayed with the cart, watching warily. After a while he stopped jumping at every noise, and that's when he felt something cold under his chin.
The young man holding a curved dagger against his throat can't have been much older, with sandy hair and pale skin. He spoke quietly but clearly, in the traders' tongue.
"Tell your parents to leave my friends alone."
All the teen could manage was a garbled squeak. His parents looked back, and that's when the orc and her companion sprung to their feet, turning the tables in an instant.
"Please!" begged the woman, the tip of a spear held against her chest. "We didn't know. Thought you were..."
"And? That's how you treat the dead around here?" asked the orc through her tusks, gripping her weapon lightly.
"We're desperate," pleaded the man, held in a headlock by his much bigger opponent.
"Times are hard," agreed the giant from behind him. "Someone could rob you any time."
"Please," repeated the woman. "We don't have much."
"And we do?" retorted the orc. She balanced her spear in the crook of one arm to gather her meager possessions. The giant also let go of his opponent and backed away, going for his battle ax and round shield.
The teenager felt the blade withdraw from his throat, then a shove made him stumble forward. He stood there, afraid to turn around.
"Are you going into town?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Maybe," the young blonde man answered him.
"Please give this to Aerie, at the tavern." He rummaged into a satchel and withdrew a little charm carved in bone, with colorful accents painted on. "We left in a hurry."
The hand that reached for it was delicate, like that of a priest or scholar, thin wrist still bearing the mark of shackles. "I will. You have my word."
"Good work back there, squirt," said the orc, turning to look at the sandy-haired youth; the top of his head didn't quite reach to her shoulders. "You're getting the hang of this."
He pulled at the sleeves of his tattered gray robe. "I hate myself for doing that."
"As well you should," she told him with a serious face. "But it was the right thing."
"Bah," said the giant, "They deserved worse."
He slowed down, allowing his companions to catch up. The huge man was between them in height, with shoulders broad as the two of them together. A loincloth held by a leather belt was the bulk of his clothing. "So, which way now?"
The orc stopped to survey the landscape, leaning on her spear. She had a short skirt made of animal pelts, a woolen breast band, and more scars than he did.
"Into town, right?" asked the young man, pointing downhill. Further that way, the trees thinned out with every new bend in the inclined road. "I kind of promised."
The giant patted his shoulder. "So you did, boy. Stupid, but honorable."
"Very well." The orc rolled her eyed and exhaled loudly. "But once we're there? Talk fast, and run faster."
Her large companion started walking again. "Relax, Green. Far as anyone knows, we're washed-out fighters looking for work."
"I'm no fighter," the youth pointed out.
"One would be fooled." The orc grinned widely, showing lots and lots of sharp yellow teeth.
The sun was shining again by the time they reached the first houses. The smell of manure gradually replaced that of pine needles. Chickens ambled about, clucking quietly; from behind fences, dogs barked at them, wagging curly tails. Somewhere, a fire burned. Naked children pointed and laughed, while women paused in their work to watch them pass, but nobody challenged the three until a group of men sitting by the roadside, around a grid of lines scratched into the ground, who seemed to squabble over the placement of some pebbles.
"Well met, travelers," one of them called, waving. He got up and walked onto the road, followed by the others. They were of various ages, but with the same weathered faces, wearing simple chitons and headwraps.
"You looking for trouble?" another asked suspiciously. He spoke the traders' tongue with a thick local accent.
"We're looking for work," answered the giant, trying to look friendly. It wasn't easy.
The first local nodded knowingly. "Came to join the hunt, then?"
The three looked at each other in confusion. "What hunt?"
"To catch all those bandits. Afraid you missed it. Word came a couple days ago that the king's men got them."
"All of them?!" asked the orc.
"Every last one," confirmed the man. "Even that orc who was riding with them. Uh, no offense, ma'am."
She shrugged. "None taken. May we walk into town? We have coin, and empty bellies."
The locals parted. "As you wish. The inn's right past that bend."
Sunlight flowed from the skies, and sparrows chirped in the bushes under late-flowering trees.
"Did you hear that, Green?" the young man whispered excitedly as the road went on. "Dragons carried your wish to heavens. You're free to start over!"
"Even better," she smiled. "You can go home. We both got our wishes after all."
"Mine will have to wait," said the giant, weighing a few coins dejectedly. "Oh, there's the inn. I can't wait to take a long hot bath."
It was hard to miss the long three-story house forming two sides of a square, with an outbuilding at the center of the yard and a tavern in the opposite corner. Sturdy walls completed the structure, while a generous gate opened in the middle.
The courtyard felt cramped as they stood inside said gate, looking around. A few horse lengths away, a well-fed woman argued with a pair of donkeys and their irate owner. In the end she seemed to give him an ultimatum, and walked over to greet the new guests. Her long pleated dress was dyed a deep yellow to go with her light brown skin; locks of hair escaped a big fancy headwrap.
"My name is Orsa the innkeeper," she stated bluntly, "And who might you be?"
The giant stood straight. "I am Baerg, son of Royk".
"Yeşim," added the orc, "but friends calls me Green."
"And I'm Codrin," said the young man.
Orsa waved her hand around. "Welcome to the House of Roses. It's two silver eagles a day for the three of you. One big room, and food aplenty."
"That's robbery." Yeşim leaned forward, snarling, then calmed down and rummaged in her purse. "We'll take it."
"Yeah, yeah." The innkeeper took her money and examined the coins carefully. "One more thing."
She stepped in front of the giant and poked a finger at his chest. "You're not staying at my inn smelling like that."
"Figured as much," said Baerg. He started for the gate. "I'll be at the public bath."
"I could have fixed one for you!" called Orsa, but he was out of earshot. "Men..."
"Doubt you have a tub big enough anyway," pointed out Yeşim, "but I'll take it."
"You washed this morning, at the river," Codrin reminded her.
"You haven't. Come on, squirt, let's make a pretty boy out of you."
Orsa quirked an eyebrow. "The baths are over there. I'll send a servant to help."
Baerg looked different when he came back, neatly trimmed hair and beard framing his face in luscious waves the color of chestnuts. His still-damp loincloth was now clean, and he'd found a length of string to keep that mane out of his eyes.
Codrin waved to him from afar. The young man was sitting on a pile of wooden logs, helping Yeşim tie her long black hair into complicated knots with a linen strip.
"You took your sweet time," the orc teased Baerg.
"As if you two are done," countered the giant. He was in a much sunnier disposition.
"Almost." The youth ran a hand through his translucent stubble. "I should find a razor to borrow."
"You could let your beard grow," suggested Baerg. "As is the way of grown men."
The young man hesitated. "Do I have to? It doesn't feel right."
"Leave the boy in peace," said the woman mildly. She got up and stretched. "To each his own."
"True." The giant smiled. "You're looking good, Yeşim."
"What happened to 'green brute'?" she asked with a smirk.
"I, ah... sorry," he stammered. "Sorry."
She waved a hand. "I've heard worse. Come on, let's have a drink, and food."
The tavern was crowded with patrons of every description, more than could possibly stay at the inn. Well-dressed merchants. Wandering performers. Functionaries. At the far end, some fauns were having a party, pulling in humans from nearby tables with the magic rhythm of flutes and drums. Delicious smells drifted from downstairs; outside the windows, a carob tree swayed in the wind.
A serving maid helped them find room in a circle of cushions, with few others.
"Aerie!" she called over the crowd. "Food for our guests!"
She left in a hurry to deal with other patrons, soon to be replaced by another, smiling girl who brought them roast vegetables, flat bread and a side of lamb. She took one look at the giant, and returned with a second plate of cheese and fruits.
"On the house," she said. "But drinks cost extra. What will you have?"
"Mead all around," boomed Baerg. He looked at Codrin and added regretfully. "But not too strong."
She followed his gaze and smiled more broadly. "Very well, sir. Anything else?"
"Aerie, wait." Codrin reached into a little pouch and came up with the teenager's bone charm. He handed it to the girl. "I believe this belongs to you."
She opened her mouth wide and glanced around quickly before snatching the gift and hiding it in her cleavage. "So you met him!? No, don't tell me now, we'd both get into trouble. Meet me later."
The amphora she brought them was tall and wide, and the cups were of fine quality.
Lunch was almost over. Baerg gestured amply, telling a tale of past heroism to the few patrons nearby, when he bumped into someone. It was another orc, ponderously making his way through. The green-skinned man was the same size and shape as the giant, wearing a fur-lined leather skirt with matching bracelets on the wrists and ankles.
"Hey," he said with a snarl, "watch your hands, human."
"Watch where you're going," countered Baerg. "This place is kind of small for the both of us."
"Oh, really!" The orc eyed him more carefully. "Let's see who's stronger."
He waved his rival over to an upright barrel, while Yeşim placed a comforting hand on the arm of a very alarmed Codrin, but the two men simply placed their elbows on the flat surface and locked hands. The crowd cheered.
Bets flew as the orc brought his weight and muscle to bear, going for a quick victory, yet the human gritted his teeth and held. A big push, and he almost turned the tables, but it was clear his opponent was superior in raw power. Baerg however just wouldn't be defeated. He came close a couple more times, then his resilience paid off, and the orc's wrist finally hit the rim of the barrel.
"Good match!" he roared, patting the victor's shoulder with the other hand. "Next round is on me. What will you have?"
"Lemon water," Yeşim said quickly, "before you two start fighting for real. We've all had enough booze."
The other orc laughed heartily as he sat down with them. "Wise words, woman. So be it. My name is Meşe, what about yours?"
A new jug was sitting between them by the time introductions were made.
"So, are you three family?" inquired Meşe.
"Do we look like family?" Codrin returned the question, giving him a weird look.
Meşe looked equally puzzled for a moment. "Oh, right, you humans think it's all about blood ties. That is not the orc way."
More words were said while the cups emptied, but the young man had gone quiet.
The room was nice and clean, with a view to the stream that flowed behind the inn. It was also smaller than they'd been promised, and there were only two bedrolls.
"We'll make do," said Yeşim. "I have my fur cloak."
Baerg looked around slowly, hands on his hips. Someone had stashed their weapons in a corner, after wrapping the blades in rags. "We can share. Where's Codrin?"
From the door, she placed a finger on her lips and waved him over. At the far end of the gallery, Aerie was dragging the young man up the stairs, towards a spare room.
"That settles it," said the giant with a big smile, and dragged both bedrolls together to a corner out of the sun. "One is too small for me."
Without a word, Yeşim closed the door and started unrolling her cloak.
"Wait." Baerg patted the bedroll next to him. "I meant it. We can share."
"What do you have in mind?" she asked without turning around.
He shrugged. "Lie down together. Talk. Sleep, maybe."
They stretched on the enlarged bedding together and simply watched the ceiling in silence for a while. Then he asked, "Do you like the boy?"
"It's not what you think. I'm only trying to give him something that was taken from me far too early."
"A mother?" he asked. When she said nothing, he continued. "What happened?"
"They sold me off to a passing caravan when I was still a child. That's not what you think either. It was a famine. I'd have starved to death, and my parents with me."
Baerg turned to face her. "The games gods play. Is it really better this way, Green?"
She gave him a serious look. "I would have rather died in my mother's arms. But then I wouldn't be here to tell the story."
It was his turn to say nothing. "What about your family, Baerg?"
He started staring at the ceiling again. "My father was chieftain of the Daoi, a mountain tribe. I was raised to take his place one day. There are no hot baths or soft beds where I grew up. Not for men."
"But that's not why you left home," Yeşim ventured a guess, "was it now?"
"No. An usurper took my father's place, with bribes and treachery. I barely escaped with my life. Ought to go back one day and reclaim my legacy." He sighed. "One day..."
In another corner of the inn, Aerie closed the door of a little room littered with broken baskets and coils of rope. There was dust in the corners, but the mattress on the floor was clean.
"What are we doing here?" asked Codrin, looking around uncertainly.
"Hiding from the midday heat for a couple of hours," the girl explained. She sprawled on the mattress and patted the empty spot next to her. "So, did you meet him?"
He sat down hesitantly. "Yes. On the road out of town, to the south. They seemed to be in a hurry."
"Good riddance. They were bad news. Well, not him," she added wistfully.
"His parents tried to rob us," he said bluntly.
She changed the subject. "What were you doing up there in the hills anyway?"
"We-ell... it's a long story. And I don't want to talk about it," he added in a hurry.
Aerie took his hand, running a finger on his wrist. "Codrin, be honest with me. Are you a runaway?"
"No! ...My master led us to the top, but never came back down. Dead, for all I know."
That earned him a peck on the cheek. "Don't worry, I won't tell."
"What about you, Aerie? Are you, well, free? Not that it matters to me."
The girl giggled. "More or less. I help around, and Orsa lets me ply my trade here."
He looked at her and blinked. "What trade do you mean?"
"Haven't you guessed already?" She stroked his hair. "Oh! Your ears have little points. I never noticed before. Are you of the fae, Codrin?"
"A quarter, on my father's side. But we're mortal, if that's what you mean."
"Codrin of the forest," she said dreamily. "How mysterious. Codrin cel Tainic."
"You speak Thramic!" he exclaimed, and launched into breathless whispering.
Aerie laughed. "Not that well. I just travel that way every summer with caravans. A girl like me is always welcome to tag along."
"Oh." He deflated a little. "So, you give people a good time for their money?"
She nodded happily. "Uh-huh! But you did me a big favor, so you get a good price."
"I don't have any money," he told her. "Let's just rest."
The heat had abated by the time they met in the courtyard again, but the flagstones still burned. Not far from the gate were parked a couple of carts that hadn't been there before, laden with amphorae the size of a grown man and covered baskets. Stable hands busied themselves unhitching the mules, while two kids strained against a wooden door that turned out to lead down a ramp into the cellar, and women milled about trying to set up a tent of sorts. In the middle of it all, Orsa shouted commands, looking more annoyed by the moment.
"How goes business, ma'am?" asked Yeşim. She was somewhat better at sounding amiable.
"What does it look like?" retorted their host. "I have all this stuff to unload in the sun because someone doesn't know the roads around here, and two sick men."
"Perhaps we can help," Baerg said slowly, glancing at his companions. They nodded.
Orsa pondered the offer. "If you will handle them with care. These are no training dummies. Everything goes down there. Daphne will show you where to put each item."
"What do I do?" asked Codrin. The smallest amphora weighed more than he did.
"You know how to read and write? Good. Keep the inventory." Orsa handed him a wax tablet and stylus.
They formed a human chain, first to unload the carts proper, then to carry the supplies down the ramp and into the maze of earthen corridors below the inn, made even more confusing by the dance of torchlight. One could tell who was an old hand by how surely they found their way around that small taste of the underworld.
Somewhere deep inside, Daphne stood besides Yeşim and Baerg with a torch. She was the girl who had first greeted them at the tavern.
"How many are left?" she asked, while they settled one of the large amphorae in a wall recess made to size.
"That was the last one," Yeşim told her, breathing heavily. She started for the exit, Baerg in tow, while Daphne brought up the rear, only calling out now and then when the orc's sense of direction failed her.
"You two go ahead," she said when they were in view of the ramp, peeking into a side corridor. "I want to check something out."
They stood outside the tunnel, squinting in the daylight. Shadows were longer now, and the air was cool enough under the tent. They sat in the back of a cart with other helpers, while one of the kids brought fresh water in a skin.
"Your payment," said Orsa, returning to Yeşim a silver coin with an eagle-like design. "Where's Daphne?"
Baerg pointed at the cellar entrance. "She stayed behind. Said she wanted to check something."
"It's taking her a while," noted Codrin. "Should I go see what she's..."
A scream echoed from beneath the earth. Everyone was halfway down the ramp before they knew it.
"Daphne! Daphne? Someone bring a fresh torch," Orsa whispered urgently.
There was no time. The girl stumbled out of the dark empty-handed and collapsed in their arms, bleeding from three or four parallel gashes on her midriff.
"Carry her out. Gently!" commanded Orsa. She pointed at the children: "You two, run and get the healer."
"She'll bleed out by then," said Yeşim, setting down her burden in the shadow. She looked at Baerg. "Help me out."
He merely nodded and set to work tearing long strips of cloth from the already ripped dress, then applied pressure while she bandaged the wound. A little water from the skin was enough to clean the place somewhat.
"Who did this?" asked the innkeeper. "Who else was down there with her?"
"Everyone is accounted for," Codrin pointed out. "Those look like claw marks to me."
"Bring torches," Orsa told one of the stable hands. She waved at the other. "Watch the cellar door."
Baerg patted Codrin's back. "And you bring my ax, boy. Leave the shield. I barely fit through those holes by myself."
The new torches were there when the young man came back. He handed Yeşim her dagger, too. She turned to Orsa. "How do we do this?"
"You tell me, you're the fighting woman," replied the innkeeper, holding a cleaver awkwardly.
"We go in pairs," Baerg answered instead. "One blade, one torch, back to back. Don't let each other out of sight."
It wasn't so easy in the depths, between the smoke and flickering flames. Echoes bounced around confusingly; every little one made them jump.
"Look!" called Aerie, pointing at a discarded torch that had gone out in the mean time. "This must be Daphne's."
Orsa backtracked ponderously, while the girl bent down to pick up the length of wood, her own source of light wavering.
"Watch out!" the woman shouted, and rushed over just as Aerie screamed in pain.
The serving maid was shaking like a leaf as two more torches approached, cradling her arm. Blood dripped through her fingers.
"Who was it?" asked Yeşim, trying to pierce the darkness with eyes that shone in the orange light. "Did you see?"
Aerie shook her head. "It was as if darkness itself lashed out at me."
"It went that way," indicated the innkeeper. Yeşim picked up the girl's dropped torch and rushed ahead, followed by her companions.
Codrin muttered something feverishly in-between gasping for air. His torch wavered.
"What did you say?" puffed the giant, not far ahead. The young man just shook his head. "Never mind."
There it was, spilling out of a niche where the corridor bent at a right angle: a shadow with fangs and fiery eyes, cast by empty air, with too many limbs that each ended in sharp claws. Then part of it unpeeled from the wall and tried to envelop Yeşim. She stabbed it once, twice, thrice but only managed to give it small cuts that healed right away. A strip of darkness reached over her torch and struck; she parried, but slipped and fell on her knees. Then Baerg stood over her, swinging his ax. The creature shrieked and slithered away, dragging a half-severed limb.
"I knew it!" exclaimed Codrin, and gave chase.
"Wait for us, boy!" called Baerg. He helped Yeşim up. "Are you well?"
"Yes," she said, and went after the young man, but he had already stopped outside of a small room, more like a dead end that had been enlarged... and emptied. All over its walls and ceiling thrashed the animated dark, hissing and snarling.
"Everyone, stand back!" Codrin shouted over his shoulder, "And cover your eyes."
"Do as he says!" ordered Orsa as the young man started reciting a short stanza. His torch burst into a dazzling light show, as if a piece of the sun had found its way in, flooding every crevice. Darkness roared, then wailed, then cried, and in the end melted away.
Codrin's torch had burned out, and his ragged breath was the only sound underground.
"That was a living shadow, wasn't it," said Baerg. The young man coughed. "A wee one."
"What's a living shadow?" asked Yeşim.
"What was it doing in my cellar?" added the innkeeper.
They retraced their steps tiredly. Not far from where Daphne had dropped her torch, an amphora lay on its side, with its lid in pieces nearby, but not a drop of liquid had spilled on the ground.
Orsa's personal quarters were sparsely decorated, with airy curtains for privacy, cross-legged chairs and braziers in every corner. She sat on a cushioned, carpeted dais, looking gravely at the three companions, while the maid poured wine.
"How's your arm, Aerie?" inquired the host.
The girl glanced down at her bandage. "It was but a scratch, Mistress."
"We got off lightly thanks to our most resourceful guests," agreed Orsa. "However that leaves us with a problem."
"Someone wishes you harm," Baerg stated the obvious. "Do you know who it might be?"
"I have a few enemies," admitted the host, "but powerful sorcerers? I'm a humble innkeeper."
"Then that amphora was supposed to reach someone else," suggested Yeşim.
Codrin raised a finger. "That's right! Earlier Daphne told me this shipment was meant for a local merchant, only you made a deal with him."
"That would be Ol'Takis," confirmed Orsa. "Crooked like a shepherd's cane, sure. Not the sort to deal in sorcery though."
"Nor do I wish to," declared Baerg. "Blades can only take your blood, not your soul."
"Me either," Orsa assured him, "but we're already involved. Word will get out. Whoever is behind this will know what happened."
Yeşim looked none too happy. "How can we help, ma'am?"
Orsa set her cup down and unrolled a sheet of papyrus on a nearby table, on which she proceeded to pen a letter. They sat and sipped wine.
"There," she said at length, looking from Yeşim to Baerg and back. "Now, I require the services of your scribe, if you can do without him for a few weeks. My money's good."
The giant looked puzzled. "But Codrin doesn't belong to us."
"Codrin is free," confirmed Yesim.
"Indeed?" The host seemed taken aback, but only briefly. "In that case, young man, I have a quest for you."
He sat straight, setting the cup down. Orsa leaned forward, hands on her hips.
"There's a caravan leaving in a few days, bound north along the seaboard for Hestron. You will go with it, and deliver this letter to Vorgal the Shrewd in Thramos along the way. Think you can find him?"
"Chief archivist at the merchants' guild, Ma'am? Certainly. I studied in Thramos."
"Good boy." She also handed him a small pouch, and a second roll of papyrus. "I can't pay much upfront, but with this writ you can claim the difference from the money changers' booth at the grand market."
"What do we do in the mean time?" asked Yeşim. The orc helped Codrin put it all away.
"What do you think? Go with him as bodyguards." Orsa gave them a meaningful look. "The roads can be dangerous. There are all kinds of people."
Baerg and Yeşim looked at each other. "We'll do that, ma'am. You can count on us."
"Very good. Now if you'll excuse me, I should go check how Daphne is doing. Please join me; she'll be happy to see you."
The road meandered gently through tall grasses, broken up now and then by small trees that seemed permanently wind-swept. Shadows of clouds drifted across the wavy plateau, driven by a stiff breeze. Through that landscape passed a long procession of camels, pack mules and the occasional horse cart, weary people trundling along their beasts of burden. Another bend in the road, and the ground fell on their right, revealing a vast space. The sea stretched all along the eastern horizon, mighty waves crashing without pause against the beach at the bottom of a cliff. Beneath them lurked a maze of sandbanks and deep dark holes.
"Aerie, look!" exclaimed Codrin, pointing. "Never thought I'd see these shores again."
"You're still far from home," she pointed out, but stopped and hugged around his waist. He draped an arm over her shoulders protectively.
"I know," he said, "But it feels that much closer now. And you're with me."
A few paces away, Yeşim leaned on her spear and filled her lungs with the salty air.
"Is this it?" she asked Baerg, turning slightly.
"Oh, no," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Our journey is only beginning. Let us see the boy home safely first."
"Then what? What does this world hold for the likes of you and me?"
He leaned over to whisper in her ear. "I know where Cranon hid that gold he didn't want us to know about."
The rest of the caravan was already moving on. They all hurried to catch up together.
Felix Pleşoianu, 2023-04-14