Read Dragon Choir Online

Authors: Benjamin Descovich

Tags: #romance, #fantasy, #magic, #gods, #ships, #war, #dragon, #pirates, #monsters, #swords and scorcery

Dragon Choir (7 page)

BOOK: Dragon Choir
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Ash it! Not my bloody drink!”

The guards
looked straight at the bush, which Elrin hid behind.


That you Minni?” The struck guard squinted into the shadows,
shielding his eyes from the lamp that hung by the door. “Quit
pissing around. Come and have an ale with us before you swallow the
damn sea!”

After a quick
translation, Elrin dashed off behind the roadhouse to avoid any
deeper scrutiny. Knowing the Jandan language would serve him well
on the coast. His father had taught him many tongues of trade
important to Calimska, though Jandan was his boyhood favourite, it
was so different from the languages west of the range, flavoured by
the exotic empires far across the Salroc Sea. It had come naturally
to him under his father’s tutelage and while Kleith did his best
after his father left, Elrin never trusted the Herder’s
pronunciation of the clipped toneless language. They couldn’t
afford a proper tutor, so Elrin practised on Jandan traders
whenever they came to market. Amongst folk this side of the range
his Calimskan accent would stand out, so he would say as little as
possible, have an ale and let his ears adjust to the local
cadence.

The back door
was left open and a heavy man with a greasy beard and a filthy
apron lent against the wall beside it, smoking a pipe. When the
cook finished his puff and walked into the darkness to pass water
in the bushes, Elrin crept through the open door and into a small
kitchen.

It stank of
rendered fat and wood smoke hung in the air. A cast iron stove held
a lonely skillet frying a joint of lamb. His stomach groaned. The
corner of the room was piled with dirty pots, pans and plates.
Beside this, great vats of dishes stagnated amongst floating
islands of lard in a slosh of dirty water. It was enough to put him
off the idea of ordering a meal.

Elrin pushed
through a swinging door into the taproom. A short crowded bar was
wedged in the near corner and at the far end of the room an
impromptu company of local musicians had coalesced. They played a
fine tune considering the ragged state of their instruments,
singing along in weathered harmony; rough and cheerful. Patrons
crowded together sharing bench seats and resting their ale on
stained timber. Several tables were occupied by dice games; shine
and shell flowed back and forth with good-natured cheering and
jeering. Local farmers and labourers, fishermen and traders shared
jokes and recounted exaggerations of the day’s events.

There was not
a Calimskan in sight, no one would recognise him here. He was free
to relax and make merry, to celebrate his escape and new
beginnings.

As he scanned
the room for a place to sit, Elrin’s throat clenched. In a dim
corner alone at a table a woman sat staring at him with a look of
interest akin to a cat examining a sparrow. It was the dark-eyed
woman from Calimska. She smiled and he blushed; confused and
abashed. She was intoxicating, filling him with equal parts fear
and desire. What was she doing here? She helped him once; perhaps
she would again.

He made his
way to her table through the crowd and took up a seat, removing his
cowl.

Elrin
whispered in his best Jandan. “Are you following me?”

Minni laughed.
“Should I be? Who are you anyway?”


I’m Elrin.”


That’s it? You shiners have longer titles than that.” Minni
smirked, holding back another laugh. “Oh, I see. Keeping your ink
up your sleeve. You must be in trouble.”


I’m just Elrin, my father didn’t—” Elrin was annoyed at
himself. He was no good at keeping his secrets close. “Why should I
say? Who are you?”


Minella, Minni, Witch, Wench, Reik, Jandan Spy. Your pick is
as good as another’s.”


Are you really a witch and a spy? I don’t want to get mixed
up in anything.”


Too late for that; seems you’re the politics of the day,
Elrin No Name.” Minni handed Elrin a notice. “Picked this off the
wall on the way in. Know anything about it?”

It was a dead
letter, scrawled first in Calimskan then translated into Jandan.
Elrin shook his head in disbelief. “Why do I have a dead letter
against me? These are lies. I’m not a spy, nor am I a poacher.”


A killer?”


I suppose I am.” Elrin avoided her accusing eyes. “But, he
was trying to kill me. A whole bunch of them were.”


So you ran?”


I had to. No ink, no justice.”


So you’re anti-guild then. You wanted the Guildmaster
dead.”


No.”


You just happen to quote the anti-guild mantra.”


You’ve got it all wrong. I was just a messenger. Not
officially, I never got a guild tattoo, but that’s not the point.
Look, I overheard something I shouldn’t have, something about my
father and something about the power of gods. The Guildmaster had
his guards try to kill me. I got away, thanks to you. But, this
bounty, I’ll have to ... now I don’t know what to do. How do I
outrun that?”


How about you start by pulling that cowl over your face.”
Minni eased her expression. “I tore this from the board out front,
doubt any here could read much anyway, but it only takes one and
word will spread. I’ve never seen a bounty so rich, with land and
title to boot. It’s got the Jandans all flustered, sending riders
and birds like it was the return of their Lord. Every bounty hunter
in Jando will be out to bag your bones.”

Elrin followed
her advice, covering his face and sinking down into his seat. The
charges on the dead letter were as preposterous as the bounty was
exorbitant; the Guildmaster must be desperate to keep his
conversation a secret. If only Elrin could understand what they
were on about he might find some leverage.

The front door
swung open and knocked against the wall. Three hard faced men,
heavily slung with weapons, muscled in. They scanned the room.
Their leader, a bearded man, spoke to the barkeep while the other
two questioned a table of sailors.

Minni knocked
Elrin’s foot under the table. “The wolves are hungry. It’s time to
head off, before they catch your scent.”


You go. You’re not safe with me.” Elrin tapped the dead
letter. “Not with this.”

The bearded
bounty hunter tossed a purse onto the bar. The barman tested the
weight and peeked inside before nodding toward Elrin and Minni. The
bearded man glared at them, spitting a gob of tobacco onto the
floor. A lingering strand of spittle stuck to his wiry red beard.
He called to his men and pointed across the room to their
table.


Too late now.” Elrin got up from the table, put on his
satchel and grabbed Minni’s hand. “We’ve got to leave.”

Minni shook
free of his grip. “You go. I’ll be fine.”


No, I got you into this.” Elrin grabbed Minni’s hand again
and this time she obliged.

They ran out
through the kitchen.


Into the forest, quick!” Elrin urged Minni to run ahead. He
knocked the skillet off the stove then ran out behind
her.

The bearded
man crashed through the door and slipped on the oil. His two
companions kept their footing and took chase.

Once outside,
the bounty hunters fired their crossbows. A bolt whizzed passed
Elrin’s ear, spurring his legs to run with everything they had.

Minni was too
fast; he couldn’t keep up as she dodged through the trees. It
wasn’t long before he lost her in the shadows. He pressed up
against a trunk, silhouettes ran through the bush all around him,
making no more than a gentle rustle as they flew past. How many
bounty hunters were there? The Jandan soldiers must have joined the
hunt. With the size of the bounty, Elrin imagined the whole
roadhouse would be after him. Even if the patrons split it, they’d
all have more shine than they would ever knew what to do with.

Searching the
shadows of the forest for a place to hide, Elrin crept behind the
wide trunk of a fallen tree. Guilt crouched down beside him, silent
and knowing. He had lost Minni in the chase. She was on her own
against all those men. The Reik ran so fast, perhaps she was a
local and knew the forest well enough to make her escape. She must
have known which way to go; if only he’d managed to keep up with
her.

A man’s cry
for help was cut short and someone ran towards him. Elrin couldn’t
figure out how far away they were. The forest confused his ears,
dampening and spreading sounds around him. He was used to the
clatter of the city streets. Men calling their wares, hooves on the
cobbles, hammer on nail and anvil. Here it was a cacophony of
nature. Crickets played a vigorous melody against the call of night
birds and the cool night breeze stirred the trees to rustle and
sway. Twigs snapped and cracked in all directions. Were there
people in the forest or just forest animals?

Elrin glanced
over the log and was shocked to find the bearded bounty hunter
standing beside his hiding place. The man had his back to Elrin and
was peering into the shadows cast by the moon, hooking his neck
left and right at every call of the night birds in the forest. How
did he get so close without making a sound? Elrin lowered his head
behind the log and waited.


Minni!” The bearded man’s voice boomed into the
night.

His voice
startled Elrin. It was so close now. Elrin kept still and breathed
as little as possible. He didn’t dare lift his head to look.


Let’s talk about this. We can make a deal.”

The bounty
hunter’s guile went unanswered. Gentle footsteps pressed the forest
floor, disturbing fallen leaves and brittle twigs. Birds called
nearby.


Just a little misunderstanding. A quarter’ll do.”

There was
honking in the distance, accompanied by an owl hooting from further
away.

The whiz of a
bolt letting fly pierced the night, followed by a cry to arms.
Duelling swords clashed. There was a thump on the forest floor.

The bearded
man leapt over Elrin’s log. The young Calimskan sprang to his feet,
drawing the dagger, expecting to face off against the man. Instead,
he watched the bounty hunter flee deeper into the forest.

At once
relieved and shocked, Elrin kept still; waiting, listening for
footfalls. The woodland was quiet except for night birds calling,
so he crept back in the direction he imagined the road would be,
paranoid about the noise he made. The forest floor made such a
racket, no matter the care he took with each slow step. He hadn’t
gone far when he came across the body of one of the bounty hunters
slumped over a log. Elrin spun around, ready for a trap, though
nothing sprang from the shadows.

He knelt and
touched the patch of darkness around the body; blood, thick and
sticky. The bounty hunter must be dead. He threw a stick at the
body just in case. The body didn’t move, so Elrin took a closer
inspection. It was shameful for him to take from the departed, but
at least he was dressed for the job in the herder disguise.

With great
care Elrin rolled the man off the stump and onto his back. The dead
man’s clothes were soiled with blood and entrails bulged from his
side between a gap in the cuirass. His weapons had already been
taken, so Elrin removed his pauldrons, bracers, and greaves. He
examined how they were attached before trying them on. He had never
had his own armour, but was taught to assist his father to dress
with far more complex pieces than these.

The dim light
of the moon and the blood made it difficult to manipulate the
buckles and fixings. Most of the armour appeared in good condition.
A strap was severed on the cuirass where the fatal blow had fallen,
and the bounty hunter’s belt hung together by a sliver of leather.
Elrin kept his cowl on, but removed his grey robes and laid them
beside the dead body using them to wipe the blood off the armour
before fitting himself with the serviceable pieces.

He bowed his
head.


Nathis, take this soul to shelter,” he said, remembering the
simple words recited by herders when they collected the dead.
Priest or not, it wouldn’t be right to take from the dead and not
ask Nathis to herd him to his maker.

The armour was
an imperfect fit, though it would suffice. Elrin searched for some
money. A loose leather thong held a small pouch around his neck.
Inside were small bones; Elrin shivered. Finger bones.

The young man
wished for the gold, silver, silk and spice of Calimska; not that
he had much of that pass into his own hands. Still, a copper tab or
two in your pocket was better than a bag of body parts. He would
have to get used to trading in bones and shell on the coast and
remember there was no protection from dragons outside Calimska with
the season closing in. There were a lot of things to get used
to.

The remains of
a bandolier lay to the side with a severed strap. Two pouches were
empty, but the remaining pouch had an onion and two small rounds of
hard cheese. Elrin wiped his hands on his vest and sunk his teeth
into one of the rounds. It was salty, but he made short work of it,
spitting out the rind as he ate. The remaining cheese and the onion
were rationed into his satchel for later. Elrin didn’t like the
idea of eating a raw onion, though it would be better than
starving. It might be of use to a ship’s broth if he got
passage.

As he covered
the dead man with the grey robes a shiver coiled up his spine. All
at once he felt as though he was being watched. He stared into the
shadows, but saw no one. The feeling remained; eyes were there
somewhere, watching. Elrin took off into the forest; he did not
want to be dead beside the fallen bounty hunter. He jogged back
towards the roadhouse, following the faint roll of distant
conversation drifting out into the evening. Once he had the
roadhouse in view, he skirted around the edge of the forest,
remaining hidden.

BOOK: Dragon Choir
6.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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