Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
Endrell slumped back against the wall. “I guess it doesn’t matter—I’m dead anyway. I’ll tell ye what I know. But ye have to promise me one thing first. Ye must save my wife and son. Druknor has spies everywhere, and I’m sure he knows I was captured. My wife and son are probably at Hwīt Rock. That’s where the outlanders take all their bounties. They hold their captured fugitives there. I need ye to go get them—ye must save them.”
“Perhaps,” said Sela. “Once we hear what you have to say.”
“No!” Endrell shouted, “Ye must promise beforehand! They need safe harbor!”
“You are in no position to make demands!” she said angrily.
“My wife and son are innocent!” he barked, neck veins bulging. “Neither of ‘em is involved in this mess! I don’t care what ye do to me, but you’ve got to save ‘em, or I ain’t tellin’ ye nothin, ye can do what ye will!” He sat back, his fists clenched in his lap.
Sela frowned. “All right,” she agreed, nodding slowly. “I’ll help them if I can.”
“Take the oath. I want to hear it with my own ears. My son’s name is Marron and my wife’s name is Pinda.”
Sela sighed. “Fine.” She reached up and touched the dragon stone at her throat. “On my honor, by my stone, I swear to help your wife and son, Marron and Pinda.” A glowing spark flared up. “Satisfied?”
Endrell nodded and sat back. “What did ye want t’ know?”
“Who hired you?” asked Sela.
“Druknor. He handed me the money ‘isself.”
“Druknor Theoric? The constable of Sut-Burr?” she asked, somewhat surprised. She knew about Druknor. He was a bit of a crook, but he had never given them any major problems.
“Yep, that’s him. He paid me to carry the vial through the Deaths Sands and into Parthos.”
“I haven’t heard anything from Druknor in years. Why would he risk his position smuggling something so dangerous?”
Endrell shrugged. “There must ‘ave been some profit in it for ‘im, I guess. I wasn’t paid to ask questions, and nobody told me what the oil was for. They just told me where to deliver it.”
“What were you told to do with the vial when you got here?”
“I was supposed to leave it at the cathedral, on the first level of the city. I was meant to wrap it up in colored parchment, like a prayer scroll, and leave it at the altar, disguised as an offering to the goddess.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Sela caught Tallin’s worried gaze. They were both thinking the same thing—if the cathedral priests were complicit in the smuggling, it was bad news indeed. The priests operated with almost as much freedom and impunity as the dragon riders, and it would be devastating for the citizenry’s morale if any of them were found guilty of high treason. “How much did Druknor pay you to smuggle the kudu?” she asked.
“Fifty silver crowns—half when I left and half on delivery.”
Tallin whistled softly. “That’s a princely sum—more than a journeyman earns in a year.”
“Yes, I was thinking the same thing. Fifty crowns is a small fortune,” said Sela.
Endrell shrugged. “I wouldn’t ‘ave risked such a dangerous journey for less.”
Sela sat back, a bit puzzled. Druknor’s fortress was a little thing, a mere speck on the northern horizon. It seemed inconceivable that he could be behind this. “How can Druknor possibly afford to pay so much?”
Endrell grunted. “Are ye serious?”
When Sela did not respond, Endrell snorted with disdain. “Ye really have no idea what’s happening in the north, do ye? Druknor said as much, and I thought him a braggart, but he spoke truly then. Ye people are fools.”
“Calm yourself,” said Sela quietly. She didn’t appreciate Endrell’s tone, but the man was speaking freely now, and she allowed him to continue.
“Druknor’s smart. He keeps quiet and doesn’t ruffle any feathers, so everybody leaves him alone,” said Endrell. “He’s very good at using his connections to his advantage, and he bribes everybody. He’s the biggest slaver on the continent. He’s just gotten better at hidin’ his routes. He smuggles people and goods right up through the Frigid Waste, even in winter. A lot of the slaves die on the route, but he don’t care.”
“I see. So Druknor's a slaver and a smuggler?”
“Yes, and he's smugglin' more than ever. He never
’—he just got smarter. Druknor smuggles everything. Balborite glass, silks, poison, slaves, gemstones—anything that makes a profit. It’s freezing in Sut-Burr most of the year, and the roads are in terrible shape. Druknor keeps ‘em that way on purpose. Nobody likes how cold it is up there, so he just goes on doin’ whatever he likes.”
“How does he do it?” asked Sela. “How does he transport goods and slaves through the Frigid Waste?”
“Those precious sled dogs of his. There are more dogs than people in Sut-Burr. Druknor breeds ‘em, and he’s got dozens. Everyone is expendable to him, except those damn dogs. He likes ‘em more than people.” Endrell paused to wipe his nose on his sleeve.
“Miklagard is near the Frigid Waste. How come the High Council never mentioned anything about this? I’ve never heard anything about Druknor’s smuggling from them. They must have noticed something.”
Endrell scratched his stubbly chin for a moment. “Well, rumor is that Druknor’s paid off the High Council, so they turn a blind eye to his shenanigans up north. Not sure if there’s any truth to it, and I’ve never been to Miklagard myself, but Druknor can afford to bribe just about anybody. Always has. Ye may think he’s just some little nobody, but in the Frigid Waste, he’s a king.”
“I see. Tell me about the other smugglers—how many of you were hired to transport kudu oil into Parthos?”
“Not sure how many were hired altogether, but there were five men in our group. We weren’t allowed to talk with each other while we were inside the keep, but I saw ‘em waitin’ there, like me, so I figured we were all there for the same job. Druknor talked to me first and gave me the money. Then, an old man handed me a leather pouch with a drawstring. He never told me what it was, but I knew as soon as I opened it. I got one vial, but I saw dozens more in that room. Druknor has a little stockpile. The old man gave me a map, told me what to do, then sent me back outside to wait with the others.”
“Did all of you travel together?”
“We left Sut-Burr at the same time, but separated pretty early on. As soon as the road cleared, we went our separate ways. I started with carthorses, three were on horseback, and one was on foot.”
Tallin spoke up from the shadows. “On foot? Only a fool dares to cross the Death Sands on foot.”
Endrell shrugged. “He was an outlander, so I didn’t ask any questions. They’re liable to gut ye for lookin’ at ‘em sideways. Anyhow, I don’t know how he fared against the sands, but he was bloody confident in ‘isself.”
“Which route did you take?” asked Sela.
“I chose the spice road overland. Took longer, but it’s safer. I wasn’t robbed, although a few ruffians tested my mettle. I’m not a young man anymore, but I’m still handy with an axe. I put ‘em back in their place.” Endrell smiled smugly, then continued his story. “I traded my carthorses for camels at the desert border and crossed using a dune map. I tried to follow along with another caravan, but left them midway through. I moved as fast as I could—Druknor promised me five extra crowns if I made it to Parthos before the new moon, but I got delayed. One of my beasts got sick and died. I tried to rest for a few days so she could recover, but once she was down, she never got back up again. I couldn’t save her. It slowed me up a bit.”
“Did a vial break inside the animal?” asked Sela. “Tell us the truth.”
“Naw, naw… nothin’ like that. Orandi fungus dropped her right after I bought her. I got a great bargain, and I should ‘ave known it was too good to be true. She was already infected when the merchant sold her to me. The sores were underneath her belly. I just didn’t check her well enough.”
“Why did you take this job?” asked Sela. “Was it just the money?”
Endrell shook his head. “I didn’t have any other choice. I did it to save my wife. Pinda’s sick—she’s got wastin’ sickness. She ain’t got much time left. There’s a special healer in Mallowgate who said he could save ‘er, but his healin’ potion costs a lot o’ money. My son can’t do nothin’ for her—he’s simple—he almost drowned ‘isself when he was a tot and he’s not quite right in his head.”
Sela understood. It was a common story. There were always unscrupulous healers who claimed to have a cure for the wasting sickness. A well-crafted potion could extend a person’s life by a few months, or maybe even a year, but in the end, it was hopeless. If Endrell’s wife had the sickness, she would be dead soon. People get desperate when their loved ones are dying and will grasp at anything that gives them a shred of hope.
“Thank you, Endrell. That’s all I needed to know,” She rose from her chair.
“But what about me?” Endrell sat up, suddenly anxious. “And what about my family?”
“The dragon riders will take care of it,” Sela replied evenly.
“But when? I need to know! I didn’t finish the contract! I have to pay Druknor back—with interest. If he can’t get the money out of me, he’ll just kill Pinda and Marron instead. You’ve got to help them!”
Sela frowned. “We shall, Endrell. I have given you my word.” She turned to leave.
“Wait—stop!” Endrell cried. “Are ye leavin’ to go get them now? I need to know! I’m desperate! You need to help them!”
said Tallin, emerging from the shadows, his mouth set in a grim line. He reached forward and grabbed the old man by the shoulder.
“You have brought this calamity upon
, old man. Know your place
Tallin spat the last word through gritted teeth.
Endrell flinched as if he had been burned. The insult deflated him, and he sat down.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me before I go?” asked Sela. Tallin had already opened the door so she could exit.
“Please… there’s no way I can pay Druknor back. The money’s already spent. He’ll have a bounty on my head. Druknor’s bounty hunters will be waiting for me to pay it! If I don’t pay, they’ll kill my family, and then come after me.”
“Druknor can’t harm you while you’re in our custody. And we will do our best to save your family.”
The man gulped. “What happens now?”
“Your punishment will be decided by the king. He’s not overly fond of traitors, though, so I doubt you’ll be enjoying your sentence. Your family is another matter. I took an oath, so we’ll search for them, but if Druknor’s as bad as you describe, they’re probably dead already. This interrogation is over. Thank you for your cooperation.” Sela tossed Endrell the pouch of smokeleaf, then turned and left.
Endrell hung his head. He knew Sela was right. Tallin nodded at the guardsman, jerking his thumb at the door. The heavy curtains closed, and the silent guard returned to his post outside the door. As Sela and Tallin walked away, they heard the old man sobbing.
The following morning, Tallin found Sela on the rooftop, staring off into the desert. Except for the palace sentries, she was alone, sipping tea from her favorite mug. He walked over and stood beside her at the rampart
’s edge. The sky was an electric shade of pink. It had rained a little the night before, and the air was still moist, the early morning breeze blessedly cool. Sela’s brown hair was loose, twirling around her face like a veil.
“You’re up early,” he said.
Sela nodded, not taking her eyes off the horizon. “I woke before dawn to watch the sunrise. The air smells so clean. Look at all those colors—it’s so lovely out here.” As if on cue, a pair of amethyst-colored dragonflies flew past them, locked in a feverish embrace, a final mating before the summer months arrived. “I don’t get to enjoy the desert scenery as much I’d like to.”
“Nor do I,” said Tallin quietly.
Sela looked down at her cup. The tea had cooled, and she swirled it around absently. “Do you believe the prisoner?”
“I’m not sure whether to believe him or not. His story is certainly plausible. Right now there’s no reason not to believe him—but then again, we shouldn’t forget that he’s a criminal.”
“I agree. A certain amount of skepticism is good, but I suspect he’s telling the truth.” She paused before continuing. “Tallin, I must tell you... Brinsop and I discovered a blood raven in the desert.”
“That’s an ill-fated omen. Was it carrying a scroll?”
"Yes.” Sela nodded. “I captured it alive and decoded the message. There wasn’t much information on the scroll, but I discovered that there’s a bounty on your head. The kudu oil was meant for you and Duskeye, to poison you both.”
“I see,” murmured Tallin. “This isn’t the first time someone has tried to kill me, and it won’t be the last.”
“It was a Balborite messenger for sure. Their assassins have made several attempts on your life, so I’m not surprised that they would make another. But how is Druknor involved in this? Coupled with the prisoner’s confession, this all implicates him, but I can’t fathom why he would be involved. Is he targeting you specifically? What motive could Druknor possibly have to kill you? It doesn’t make any sense.”