The wind was blowing straight up the Coldwell, and carrying a fine mist that soaked everything it touched. Tethered to the pier by a single line, the barge shook as irregular waves battered the hull. The deck hands, overburdened with cargo, had no time to steady the gangway for the few passengers boarding. Some of these hardy travelers threaded the bucking plank with relative ease. Others were not as practiced. One such person had almost reached the relative safety of the deck when a random wave struck the bow and nearly toppled her into the murky water below. A burly figure already on the deck seized her upflung hand and steadied her, bringing her aboard.
“Careful there, missy,” the man said as he helped the slight woman aboard. “The water’s treacherous today. Fall in and you’d be hard to find later.”
“Thank you, sir,” she replied. With one hand she pushed back her gray hood just enough to reveal her face while with the other she cradled a leather case. “Your kindness to a stranger speaks well of you.”
“Not all travelers in Dargon would be kind to a stranger,” he replied, leading her to the small shed that server as a cabin on the barge. “The city is not always a friendly place.” He gave her an appraising glance. “Many people see danger where there is none, and miss the trouble right in front of them.”
“I have only been to Dargon once before,” she replied, looking around the tiny room, noting the sparse furnishings and the few other passengers. “It seemed a kind enough place then.”
“Begging your pardon, miss,” the man replied, pushing back his own hood to uncover a graying pate, “there’s plenty of good people in Dargon, to be sure, but there’s plenty to watch out for as well.” He moved closer to the small stove that heated the cabin, holding his hands out to catch some heat. “Many people come to Dargon every year who are never seen again. It pays to be careful.”
A heavy thud rattled the cabin as something large struck the outside wall, tossing a few hot embers out of the stove onto the floor. From outside came the bellow of a cow, followed by the bellow of the deck hands as they tried to corral the stubborn animal towards its place on the deck. Seeing the red coals smoking on the wooden floor, the man stepped on each carefully, extinguishing them.
“Can’t have that now, can we,” he said. “Fire on a ship is terrible thing.”
“You seem to be a handy fellow to have around,” the woman replied. “Do you know a lot about how to travel these treacherous waters?”
“Oh, I’ve been around,” he replied. He rubbed his furrowed brow, tracing a rough scar from his hairline to his temple. “Seen my share of dangers, and been my share of danger too.” He nodded. “Me and my mates, we’ve had a knock or two, learning our way around. We’ve made our own space now, though.” He nodded thoughtfully, almost to himself. He turned back to her. She was looking out the single oil-cloth window, which was open. He eyed her slender form, her neat travel cloak, the finely tooled leather case, and the golden broach pinned to her shoulder. “You passing through, or do you have business in Dargon?”
“I have business in the city. How far away are we?” she asked.
“Not far,” he replied. “It would be a full day’s journey, if you could walk it. Taking a barge is much faster. Right now the river is high. We’ll be there very shortly.” With that, he took a seat on one of the wooden benches.
The deck hands had finished hauling aboard the gangplank. The cold mist had changed to cold rain, and the wind had picked up. The deck hands were practiced, and they worked their poles and oars hard as they pushed the vessel through the ice-laden waters. The barge slipped free of the pier on the western shore of the Coldwell and started the journey to the city. The woman stood silently and watched out the window, holding her case against her chest. When the wind changed direction, and the rain started to come in, she closed the shutters, but stayed at the window, looking through the slats. From outside came the chant of the oarsmen as they rowed the flat vessel out into the center of the great river, where the current would carry them downstream to their destination. For a long while no one in the cabin spoke. Finally the man got up and went to the stove to warm himself. That done, he joined her at the window.
“Are you traveling to meet family?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, “not family. An … old acquaintance.” She smiled slightly. “He spent some time in our city.” She glanced back at the man. “I doubt you’d know him. He is not originally from Dargon.”
“He’s going to show you the sights, I assume?”
“Not really,” she replied. “He has called me here for other business.”
“A shame,” he said. “A young thing like you would have a grand time in the old town, or even in the Old Town, if you get my drift.” He chuckled a moment at his own joke. “If you tire of his company and want to see the city, I’m sure my mates and I could show you a thing or two. You don’t want to be wandering the city loose, a small thing like you, to be sure.”
“No, miss.” He smiled broadly, but his eyebrows knit together. “A lass alone in the city can come to many a bad end.”
“Is it really that dangerous?” she asked, turning toward him. The dancing firelight reflected from her wide, luminous, hazel eyes.
“Yes, miss,” he replied, momentarily swallowed by those eyes. “Oh, yes. Even something as simple as where to get some food can trip you up. Why, when I first came to Dargon I was sick for a whole sennight because I ate some fish stew a man sold me off his cart. Nearly threw my whole guts out, I did, if you’ll pardon the language.”
“Bad food?” she asked, pulling back just a bit.
“Very bad, if you don’t know where to go,” he said. “And bad drink, too. If you’re lucky it’s just watered, but I’ve seen men chunder from one sip of bad mead, if it’s not just plain spiked.” He nodded at her quizzical look. “Oh, yes, there’d be those who would do that. Drop a drop in a man’s beer, wait for him to roll over, then rob him, or sell him even. Sailors wake up in irons on someone else’s ship, far from port, and sometimes never come home.”
“Who would do that?” she asked, her voice low and smooth.
“Slavers, or pirates, or worse,” he said. “Not all the gods worshiped in Dargon are bearers of light,” he said, raising his arms to the heavens and shaking them theatrically. “Strange rites are practiced in some temples in Dargon.”
“I think you’re trying to scare me,” she said, a slight smile on her lips. “Those are just silly superstitions.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I’ve seen strange things. I just …” Before he could finish, the barge jumped as it struck something hard. The man was thrown back and fell onto one of the wooden benches that lined the walls of the cabin. She steadied herself against the window sill, still clutching her case. Outside came shouts from the deck hands. Both of them regained their balance and looked back out again. The barge was now in the midst of the river. All around them the muddy water danced and leaped as waves crashed against each other. The bow of the barge seemed to have taken root and sprouted, for branches overhung the sides of the boat. A tree, washed into the river upstream, had fetched up against the ship and was trapped there by the current. Several deck hands raced over and began to push with their poles. They soon had the boat freed from the snag, but now the barge was turning, moving sideways down the river. Not far ahead the river grew even more restless as rapids surrounded the shipping channel.
“This could be exciting,” the man muttered. The two travelers watched, transfixed, as the crew struggled to reorient the boat for a safe passage. On either side, standing waves higher than the deck rose up where the engorged river roared over underwater boulders. The deck began to roll and heave.
“You might have had a better time of it if you’d walked, missy,” the man said, gripping the window sill. “This might turn into a very cold ride.”
“Do many ships sink on the Coldwell?” she asked.
“Dozens, every year,” he said. “And it’s worse at sea. We lost an entire fleet just this year. Terrible that was. They say it was a curse, hit the whole city.” He paused as the barge crested a large rill and crashed back down. He paused a moment before continuing. “There were fires, floods, mad horses crashing about, and worse of all the causeway crashed right into the river, sinking a barge just like this one, full of people. Lots and lots of people died.”
“Yes, miss. Not as bad as a few years ago, when those Bennies came in and laid siege …” He paused again, watching another tree sweep by in the river. “Laid siege to the whole city. I was new in town back then, and hardly knew anyone. We all ended up in the keep during the battle. Lots of people died then, too.”
“Why would anyone live in such a dangerous city?” she asked.
“Well, it’s safer than in the countryside, I hear,” he replied.
The river was beginning to open out before them. On the sides of the river fields were replacing forest, and houses could now be seen. In the distance, through the mist, dark shapes loomed. The crew yelled and hollered and worked their oars and pushed the barge out of the center of the river. The dark shapes resolved slowly into cliffs lined with dark walls and great homes, to the west, and many houses to the east. The pair watched silently as the barge was rowed out of the current and into shallower waters near the shore.
“What a smoky city this is,” she said, sniffing the air.
“Smells like home,” he said, slapping his belly.
“Smells like other things, too,” she said, wrinkling her nose and frowning. “Less pleasant things.”
“Just don’t stand under any windows in the morning, is all I say,” he replied and moved out of the cabin. She followed. Together they watched the crew row them in to the pier. There was a flurry of activity as the barge was lashed in. As soon as the gangway was set the two headed ashore. The man bounded up and across the gangway. She followed, slower. Once on the dock, she set her leather case on a piling and carefully opened a small panel in the side. He watched, bemused, as a black bird emerged from inside. It chirped at her, and she pursed her lips and made small sounds to it. It hopped on her hand, and cocked its head as she whispered to it and stroked its head. Suddenly, in a flash of black wings, it took off, flying off into the mist.
“Hey!” the man yelled. “You let it get away!”
“She’ll come back,” the woman said. “She always has.”
“Clever bird,” he said. “Let’s hope the Duke doesn’t have his hawks out today.” He looked around at the crew unloading the cargo and the stevedores coming to collect it. “So I expect you’ll be meeting him here then?”
“Here, or there,” she replied. “We have no set place or time.”
“Well, take care. As I said, it can be a dangerous place.” He started to walk down the dock towards shore, then stopped for a moment. “If you need a place to stay, there’s a place up the street that’s good. I can show it to you, if you want.”
She inclined her head to one side and studied him. He stood, expectantly. Finally she nodded. “All right.”
She followed him down the pier and up the road, carrying the case with her. She watched the people as they passed, each on their own errands.
“They don’t seem terribly dangerous to me,” she said after a while.
“Who?” he asked.
“All these people. They all seem quite ordinary.”
“Most of them are. It’s the odd one or two you have to watch out for. You never know where the real dangers are.”
She followed him to a large, well-lit inn. He pointed inside.
“Go to the man at the bar, ask for room eleven. Tell him Burl sent you. He’ll know.” He nodded and walked off. She watched him go, then turned into the inn. As instructed, she hailed the barkeep. He looked at her oddly after her request, then nodded and took her coin. He handed her a key and motioned her to follow. They passed down a long corridor decorated with tapestries and shields. Odors of cooking food and fermented beverages came to her nose as they went. Overhead, candles flickered behind glass enclosures, and they passed rooms of people dining. At the end of the corridor there was a door. The barkeep lit a stubby candle off one of the many lining the hall, handed it to her, pointed at that door, then turned and went back.
She unlocked the door and opened it. There were stone steps leading down to another door. She descended, closing the first door behind her. She opened the second door and passed inside. The room on the other side was dark. A fire burned very fitfully in a grate, casting little light and less heat. Gone were the aromas of food and beer, replaced by a dank musty odor. She walked towards the light, stopping when she was right before the grate. She turned back, and saw that she was not alone in the room.
“Who is there?” she asked.
“Gone so long you’ve forgotten me?” a familiar voice answered. A figure approached from the dark. It was the man from the barge.
“Me,” he said. “Welcome to my home.”
“This is your safe place?” she asked sharply.
“Oh,” he said, “I feel very safe here. This is where my mates and I live these days. It’s not much, but the guard doesn’t come around here.”
“The town guard. We’d rather not deal with them much, these days.”
“She’s a little one,” another man said from the darkness. “Where’d you find her?”
“She came in on the barge with me, alone,” the man replied.
“Alone,” she repeated. “I came in with you. I came here with you.”
“Yes,” he said, “with me. Nice and handy, that. Convenient.”
Three other figures emerged from the dark. The four men stood, considering her.
“I like that broach. Let’s see her face,” one said, and stepped towards her. He reached out a thick arm for her hood. He immediately snatched it back, bleeding, from where she stood, now holding a bloody blade.
“I’ll not have any of that,” she said sternly.
“Girly,” her errant guide said, “the doors are closed, and no one else is coming in here. You might not want to make this hard. There are four of us and only one of you.” The other three moved to the sides, hands out, encircling.
“And one of me,” said a voice behind them. The four men spun to face the sound. The fire flared up, lighting the dingy abode and revealing a lone figure standing in the corner. In one hand he held a naked sword. The other arm was held aloft. On it perched a black bird, and in the hand a palm-sized disc swirled with color and light. The four thugs seemed transfixed by the sight, their arms and weapons slowly lowering. For a long moment there was silence. Then, one by one, each of the brutes lowered themselves to the floor and curled up in sleep.
The woman lowered her dagger as the tall newcomer stepped between the now motionless bodies. “Well met, wizard,” she said. “For once I am glad to see you.” She wiped her dagger on one man’s shirt and slipped the weapon back into its sheath. She watched as he lowered his arm with the black bird until she could reach it. Taking the creature, she returned it to its travel case.
“I hope the journey was otherwise pleasant,” he said, looking at the sleeping thugs. “I apologize for the poor welcome. Your servant,” he indicated the bird in the case, “brought me here, and I recognized this one,” he pointed at the gang leader. “I slipped in after him, in the dark. Still, I’m a bit surprised to find you in such … low company.”
“He seemed amusing at the time.” She looked around the room, her lip curling in distaste. “I remember now why I do not often come here. How can you stand to live in such squalor?”
“Not all of Dargon is like this. I take it the charm served its purpose?”
“So it would seem,” she said. “Its effect weighs on me, though. Take it off.” She pushed back her cowl, loosing a wave of silver hair to flow across her shoulders. The tall man closed his eyes and hummed softly. He reached out and touched a fingertip to the broach. As he did, the woman’s features changed subtly. Her skin, already fine and smooth, grew luminous beneath unblinking eyes that grew deeper and older – much, much older. She sighed with relief as her true, alien form asserted itself.
“That is better,” she said, finally. “I can only hope that you have better accommodations waiting elsewhere.”
“I do. This way.” He led her aside to where a crude door pierced the wall. Together they passed though to an alley. Turning back they gazed at the place, which was nothing more than a barn built behind the inn. The tall man paused, turning back to face the hovel. “This building is a hazard, so poorly built. Why, the roof could fall in at any moment.” He raised his hand, held it for a moment, then closed it as if gripping something hard in his hand. His arm trembled for a moment, then twisted suddenly. As he did so, there came a loud crack from within the ramshackle building. The roof folded, and the walls collapsed inward, crushing down until it was just a pile of rubble.
The petite Eelail shook her head. “The way you wallow in that … glamor … sets my teeth on edge,” she said. “Anarr, why do you torture yourself with it? What do you hope to accomplish?”
“You know what I seek,” he started, but she interrupted.
“Did you learn nothing from your time among us?” she asked. “Did you gain no wisdom from our company?”
“Forgive me my forgetfulness of your kind teachings,” Anarr replied. “It was difficult to hear my elvish tutors over the clanking of my elvish chains.”
The two fixed each other with unyielding gaze, his hand tight on the handle of his sword, her hand tight on the handle of her dagger. It was she who finally spoke.
“It would seem you are finally having your revenge,” she said, releasing her dagger. “Swirl your magics as you wish. You seem to have some facility with it, as uncouth as it is. Just be careful you don’t … lose yourself. That could be truly dangerous.” She sighed. “Now, take me to your home.” She looked around at the dark walls and the mists beyond, her lip curling slightly. “We will complete this transaction and then I will be gone. I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to. I’m afraid if I stay I may catch something.”
Anarr nodded, and together they walked off into the mists.