Dralin - Sample Chapter
“Hello, pretty little miss. Would you like to see the sights of Dralin?” the hawkish guardsman asked with a leering grin. He brushed a few flakes of lightly falling autumn snow from his shoulder-length brown hair. A polished chain shirt peeked out from underneath the collar of a black and brown tunic that was standard issue uniform for the City Guard, while a long sword waited in its sheath at his waist for the opportunity to commit malice. Sheela stepped back in apprehension. Everyone in Dralin was to be feared, even many of the guards from what she had been told.
“No thank you, Sir,” she responded firmly. Just because she was a plain farmer’s daughter didn’t mean she was a fool. Her stomach knotted in dread when the guardsman took a step forward and put a powerful hand on her shoulder, which menaced rather than comforted her. The smile he must have thought was charming came across as sinister.
“Come now, lass. My shift is nearly over and the sun is about to set. I’ll take good care of you and keep you warm on this cold evening.” He tried to slide his arm around her shoulder, but she spun away off the sidewalk and into the roadway. “Hey! Don’t be like that!” the man exclaimed in surprise.
Sheela had to stop and straighten suddenly to avoid being run over by a passing wagon. Its wheels splashed muddy water from the cobbled road onto the worn dress she had run away from home in. It was hard to tell that it had once been warm yellow with sturdy threads. A year of hard work in the fields and weeks of walking dirt roads had taken the color out to leave a drab, torn garment barely hanging onto her shoulders.
She felt the guard’s hand on her shoulder again, gripping firmly. “Careful. Those wagon drivers won’t hesitate to run you over.” He pulled her back onto the sidewalk where she managed to twist out of his grip again. There were too many people around to simply run, plus she really did want to go into the city so she moved a few steps away and stood with as much resolve as she could muster.
He held up his hands and yielded. “Whatever. Go learn about the city on your own. We’ll probably find your body in a gutter after you’ve been thrown out of a brothel somewhere.” The look of snarling contempt on his face as he spit on the ground at her feet stunned her. Sheela couldn’t help the tears that began to well up in her eyes.
With a stomp of her bare foot, she drove the tears back. After everything she had been through, harsh words wouldn’t drive her to despair. The guard turned in disgust and traipsed back to the large guardhouse that bordered the crowded highway leading into the main city.
Sheela held her chin up as she looked at the people and wagons passing by. She was on the sidewalk to the right of the highway leading into Dralin from the east. It was her hope to ask one of the guards for a safe place to go and she had seen one that looked like he might be helpful, but the leering guard had intercepted her instead.
The enormous city before her was daunting and goosebumps appeared on her arm when she thought about the stories she had heard of it. Snow drifting down heralded that winter would be starting early. Sheela wiped some off her eyelashes and turned to leave. Heading away into the cold emptiness of unknown roads scared her too. She had come too far to turn back, but fear of going on made her freeze in her tracks.
“Are you alright?” a strong, deep voice asked from behind her. Sheela slowly turned around and looked up into the brilliant blue eyes of a tall, young guardsman. His nose had been broken at some point and the tip was aimed a little to the left, but he was handsome in spite of that. “I’m sorry if Tobe bothered you. He’s good with a sword, but not so much with people.”
An aura of safety about the man drew Sheela to him. He was the guard she had originally been heading to talk to before the one named Tobe had intercepted her. Still, in Dralin it wasn’t safe to trust anyone too easily. “I’m hoping to find someplace safe, but I don’t have any money,” Sheela answered tentatively. She had survived the trip to Dralin by sleeping in haystacks and by stealing a little food wherever she could: a detail she was ashamed of.
The guard let out a long breath, puffing out his cheeks while he ran fingers through wavy black hair that fell to his shoulders in what seemed to be a fashion with all the guards. She studied his face. Black stubble covered a strong jaw and chin. His skin was browned from being in the sun, but wasn’t dark. He spoke deliberately in warm tones that seemed to shield her from the cold air. “Dralin is a bad place not to have any money . . .” he paused, “It’s a bad place even if you do have money,” he finished with a half-hearted chuckle.
A small laugh escaped Sheela’s cracked lips, but her future was too uncertain for true mirth and her expression became serious once more. “I’m a good worker and very quiet. I don’t need much,” she persisted earnestly. “I know the city is dangerous. I only want a chance.”
He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment, and then nodded. “Alright. I’m off duty in a few minutes. I know of an innkeeper that has an opening and he owes me a favor.” It was clear the guardsman was making a large concession. “Name’s Frath by the way.” He held out a muscular hand.
She took the hand and smiled shyly. “Mine’s Sheela.” Frath’s grip was firm, but gentle, holding her hand safely rather than crushing it. His smile warmed her skin and made some of the fear go away. Sheela’s heart raced in her chest a little bit. It was an unusual feeling for her because she normally found men intimidating.
“Sheela . . . I like that name.” Frath pointed toward an empty bench on the far side of the guardhouse. “Sit over there until I’m finished, and then I’ll take you to the inn.” He rejoined the rest of the guards while she walked over and sat.
The bench was damp from the scattered snowflakes that melted as soon as they landed on anything. Sheela’s dress was already wet and dirty anyway, so sitting on the bench didn’t bother her. It felt good to get off of her feet for a short time and she rubbed the cold ache out of them. Many of the people traveling by wore shoes and Sheela thought perhaps she might someday own a pair.
Sounds of the city surrounded her as she watched people passing in a mad rush to finish their tasks before nightfall. Wagon drivers yelled above the clopping of their horse’s hooves, which clattered sharply over the humming drone of thousands of voices talking incessantly about whatever matters might be important to them at the time.
Endless buildings obscured a ruddy sunset that lit the bottoms of patchy clouds on the western horizon. Rays of light burst through the smog and snow to cast a dirty orange radiance over everything. Exotic scents came from many of the wagons that had traveled from such places as Mayncal, Brindlyn, and the Iynath Empire. They mixed in with the odors of livestock, unwashed bodies, cooking food and smells Sheela couldn’t begin to identify.
The assault on her senses was overwhelming, making her dizzy and lightheaded. Taking deep breaths didn’t help because each one brought something new. The odors, both pleasant and unpleasant, were so heavy that she could taste them on her tongue.
“Are you alright, Sheela?” Frath asked, concern filling his voice. She looked up. He was taller than any of the other guards, easily six feet three inches. His hand rested comfortably on the hilt of a long, sheathed sword. Judging from his broad chest and strong hands, he was likely a very dangerous man in spite of his youthful face.
For some reason, Sheela trusted him more than any of the thousands of people she had passed along the highway and entering into the city. Perhaps because of that trust, she croaked out a hoarse whisper: “I’m scared . . . I’m so scared.” It was the first time she had shown weakness to anyone since running away. No matter how frightened she had been at any point, Sheela had held her chin up and kept a brave face.
Frath gripped her shoulder comfortingly. He didn’t speak any words, conveying understanding and calm through his eyes instead. Sheela smiled briefly and stood. “I’m ready. You won’t get in trouble for helping me, will you?” she asked worriedly.
“No. Not at all,” he assured her, putting his arm out for her to hold onto. She gripped it with both hands as one would the railing of a ship in a storm. Frath surrendered the arm willingly as they began walking deeper into the city. “What do you know of Dralin?” he asked, slowing his pace to match her shorter steps.
“It’s the most dangerous city in the world and everyone here dies a terrible death.” That was the gist of what she had been told about it by the few people she had met while growing up and along the journey she had just made. If there was anything they all agreed upon, that was it.
Frath barked a short laugh. “Yeah, there’s some truth to that, but it’s possible to survive.” His expression became grave. “I don’t know why you came here, but I’ve seen a lot of young ladies disappear when they arrive. It’s worse if you don’t have family or friends, and I’m guessing you don’t have that here? . . .” he trailed off questioningly.
Sheela shook her head and looked at the inns that lined the road. They were enormous three and four level buildings with stables that stretched out behind them for blocks. “Is one of these the inn you’re taking me to?” She gestured to the nearest, which had a painting of a yellow wagon on a large wooden sign in front.
“No. It’s closer to the middle of the city. It’ll take about an hour to get there. You don’t want to work at any of these. They’re mean places, meant for travelers.” To emphasize his point, a group of men tumbled outside one of the doors in the middle of a scuffle. Frath stopped for a moment to watch, keeping himself protectively between Sheela and the brawling men. “They’re just a bunch of drunks fighting. As long as there’re no weapons drawn, I don’t need to worry about it.”
“Why do people fight like that?” Sheela asked in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Frath shrugged. “I don’t understand a lot of things either. There aren’t any answers in Dralin. Your best choice is to head somewhere else. If you insist on staying, then it’s best to keep your head down, find a safe place to live, and stay there.” He stopped and took Sheela by the arms. “If you’re willing to leave this forsaken city, I’ll spend the night getting you to safety.”
There weren’t any other places in the world that were truly safe for a young runaway woman. She had thought about escaping in a different direction, but no other city was as fascinating as Dralin was rumored to be with its mage’s towers, shifting streets and grand parks. Sheela looked Frath in the eye and answered defiantly. “I know that I’ll likely die, end up a prostitute on the streets or maybe even become one of the Deformed, but I don’t care.”
Frath nodded slowly and let her take his arm again as they continued walking. “You’re not going to meet that fate if I have anything to say about it,” he vowed quietly.
“Why are you helping me?” Sheela asked suddenly. “Out of all the girls who walk past you every day, why me?”
He didn’t answer right away. “Well . . . I don’t know. I saw you look at me before Tobe intercepted you. Then you stood up to him and held your chin high. There’s a fire in you that most don’t have and I don’t want to see it snuffed out by the evil in this city.”
She squeezed his arm thankfully. “You’re the only person I’ve passed who didn’t seem hard and mean. Everywhere I look, people are too busy to pay attention to me. The few that have noticed me have a look in their eyes that’s hungry like a carnivorous fairy.” She held up her right arm so he could see the scar from where one had bitten her a few years earlier. Some of the muscles in it never healed properly and she still didn’t have full use of the pinky in that hand.
“Oh, that’s a nasty bite. I’ve only seen them in the Zoo District. Scary things: carnivorous fairies,” Frath agreed. “I’m glad we found each other. The inn I’m taking you to is called the Shining Shield Inn. The innkeeper, Albert, nearly got killed by some thugs about a year ago and I was able to help him. He owes me a favor, but I didn’t do it for that reason. I helped him because he was in trouble.”
“I think it’s wonderful. How many thugs were there?”
“How many? . . . There were ten, but Albert’s pretty tough and can hold his own in a fight. I didn’t really do much.” Frath blushed in embarrassment and turned away as he answered. She got the feeling he was being modest.
“Thank you for helping me.” Sheela smiled at him gratefully. He was sacrificing a favor that could have benefited him. It occurred to her to wonder what he would want in return.
As if reading her mind, he answered the unspoken question. “You’re welcome. The only thing I ask is that you do a good job for him. Other than that, I don’t expect anything, alright?”
She nodded. “I’m a good worker and I’ll work really hard.” The nodding made her a little dizzy and she leaned on his arm.
“You look pale . . . When’s the last time you had food?” he asked intuitively, stopping to peer into her frail brown eyes. Sheela lowered her head, not wanting him to see how desperately she wanted something to eat. In the last two days all she had was a half-chewed apple and some old leaves of lettuce. Frath lifted her chin. “You’re lucky to be alive right now. If you want to survive, you have to take care of yourself.”
He took her down a side street to the right. There was still a lot of traffic, but nothing like the highway that had been getting more and more crowded the further they went into the city. After passing a couple more streets, he turned left into a noisy, open marketplace.
“This is the East Bazaar. You can find just about anything here,” Frath shouted above the drone of voices as he shifted his arm around her shoulder, drawing her close. “Don’t ever come here alone because it’s also a popular place for thieves and other criminals. If anyone pulls on you, hang on to me. It’s real easy for a woman to disappear even when in the company of a guardsman.”
The warning sent a chill up Sheela’s spine as she held onto him, trying to avoid the crush of bodies moving around them. The growing darkness was making people seem more threatening. A lamplighter used a wick at the tip of a long pole to light oil lanterns on tall posts, but the glow did little to illuminate the throngs below. Meanwhile, merchants were setting out lit candles and hanging lanterns so customers could see their wares better. There was no sign of business slowing even with the coming night.
Frath shoved through the crowd more easily than most. A few men turned to protest, but stopped when they saw how tall he was and that he was wearing a guard’s uniform. Sheela felt tugging on her arm twice, but she held onto Frath for dear life and he kept her secure. He wasn’t just tall; he was broad in the chest. She could feel his chain shirt underneath the tunic, but wished she could feel him instead.
“Let me have two draddlies,” Frath said to a food vendor in a wooden shack. Sheela watched as the man put some meat and cheese between two pieces of bread slathered with some sort of sauce. Frath put his mouth next to her ear. “These are wonderful. It’s meat, cheese and bread all together. They’re popular in the country of Eddland to the north of here and have been spreading all over the world.”
“That’ll be four coppers,” the vendor told Frath, who removed his arm from Sheela’s shoulders in order to grab a pouch hidden in his tunic. Four coppers was a lot of money to Sheela who had never had any coins in her life. Frath took the coppers out and handed them to the vendor.
Sheela suddenly felt someone grab her arms and pull her away. As she tried to scream, a hand clamped over her mouth. With desperation, she caught Frath’s belt, but the hands pulling her were much stronger and she couldn’t hold on. Terror filled Sheela’s heart and eyes as she watched Frath turn in what seemed to be slow motion.
Then time became normal; his arm shot forward, grabbed the hand over her mouth and yanked. The motion pulled her and her attacker forward. Frath sidestepped her and pulled the arm down and around, spinning its owner. He pulled it behind the man’s back and up. Sheela turned just as Frath broke the man’s shoulder with a sickening crunch. The darkly dressed kidnapper screamed in agony as his arm dropped limply to his side. When Frath punched him in the back of the head with a powerful fist, the scream stopped abruptly and the man collapsed to the ground.
The immediate area became silent as shocked bystanders created an open circle around them. Frath slowly turned and stared them all down. The circle grew larger as many of the people prudently chose to leave. Sheela stared at the hard face of her protector and the bared teeth that looked as though they could rend flesh. Instead of frightening her, it made her feel protected as she rushed desperately into the safety of his arms.
Frath led her back to the food vendor who quickly handed over the draddlies and even added an order of baked chips made from cornmeal. Sheela took the draddly he handed her and they walked off with his arm around her shoulder, leaving the thwarted kidnapper unconscious on the ground.
A few minutes later, he led her to a bench in a small park. Brick paths meandered through leaf strewn grassy areas. The trees were still partially resplendent with autumn colors that had been falling to the ground. More of the lanterns on tall poles had been lit to provide light for anyone out for a stroll at night. The last of the daylight was disappearing in the west and the snow had stopped. Two ponds had ducks that would soon be flying further south for the winter.
“The parks of Dralin have almost no crime,” Frath told her as they sat. Sheela moved as close as possible to his warmth and security without actually sitting on his lap. The feelings that were in her mind and body felt unfamiliar to her and she didn’t understand them. What she did know was that it was nice to be close to the handsome guardsman. His voice was smooth and seemed to caress her skin, which was another sensation she didn’t understand.
“You’re not eating . . .” he observed with concern. She jumped at the words and took a fast bite. The burst of flavor in her mouth overwhelmed her. It had been so long since she had eaten anything substantial that she hardly knew how to handle it. In a moment, she was chewing as rapidly as possible, trying to finish in case it might escape.
Once he was certain Sheela was going to eat, Frath continued speaking between bites of his own draddly. “I’m sorry about what happened in the bazaar. Slavers and kidnappers have been getting bolder lately and more people have been disappearing than usual. I can’t believe one would be so stupid as to try to steal you from my protection though.”
Sheela studied his handsome face, noticing unease in the set of his jaw. A thin scar ran from chin to cheek and she resisted an urge to run her fingers along it. “Are we safe here?” she asked worriedly.
“The City Guard patrols all the parks,” he told her, pointing at a unit of six guards walking between the ponds. “But even the various criminal guilds help protect the parks. They’re safe havens for almost everyone.”
“Almost?” Sheela asked around a mouthful of food. She held a hand underneath her chin to prevent any crumbs from escaping.
“The Deformed aren’t allowed in the parks. They try to sleep here, but their taint would corrupt the parks too.” Frath popped one of the chips in his mouth. They were nearly gone between the two of them.
“What exactly are the Deformed?” Sheela asked. “From what I’ve heard, magic corrupts them or something?”
“Something like that,” Frath confirmed. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that magic leaves residue after it’s cast. There are more wizards in Dralin than anywhere else in the world. There are also potion makers, priests and just about anything else to do with magic.” He frowned, his thick eyebrows lowering over sad eyes. “The residue gathers in streets and sewers. The Deformed are generally homeless people who sleep in polluted alleys. The magical waste corrupts their bodies and minds, twisting them into deformed versions of people.
They’re dangerous and nobody knows what to do with them.”
“Why don’t they clean up the magical residue?” Sheela asked. Her draddly was finished and she took the last chip when Frath offered it to her.
“Because the High Council runs the city. They don’t care about the welfare of the people. Dralin is also the richest and most powerful city in the world and they buy off or kill anyone who complains too loudly.” The set of his jaw showed anger at the careless disregard for the safety of the citizens he was sworn to protect.
Sheela put a comforting hand on his thigh, enjoying the feel of his leg through his trousers. “It seems foolish. I heard that this is one of the only cities in the world without a wall surrounding it. Is that because it’s so powerful?
Frath nodded. “That and it would be useless because the city keeps growing. By the time they finished a wall, more houses would be built outside of it. At this point, it would be impossible to defend any wall that surrounded the city anyway.”
“Oh . . . why?” Sheela asked. Her only education had been about taking care of chores on a farm. The concept of defending a city seemed awesome to her.
“It would take all of the soldiers in Altordan’s army to man it. Even then, a concentrated attack in any direction would be too hard to defend against.” Frath sounded as if he knew what he was talking about so she just nodded in agreement. He saw circles of exhaustion under her vulnerable eyes. “Let’s get you to the inn.” Frath took her hand and together they left the park.
A little less than an hour later, they were in a much quieter part of the city where the buildings were larger and older. More of the high lanterns had been lit and many of the buildings were adorned with lanterns to illuminate front steps. Sheela looked in awe at the stone buildings with their tiled roofs and green lawns, wondering how many coins it would take to buy one of them.
“This part of the city is hundreds of years old,” Frath said. “A lot of wealthy merchants and some of the old noble families reside here. There’s not a lot of crime and the buildings are beautiful to look at. I like coming here.” He gestured to one on the left that had small cherub statues underneath the eaves. The windows had glass in them, unlike most houses that had window openings covered with leather, furs or wooden shutters.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Sheela admitted, gawking at the ornate etching in one thick wooden door. “It’s more magnificent than I imagined.” An armed guard sitting at the bottom of a stone railing nodded to Frath, acknowledging the presence of a city guardsman. Sheela had noticed that many of the buildings in this part of the city had guards.
“Here we are.” Frath pointed to a large, four-level building just past the next street. The front of it took up the entire block and she could see a tall stone wall extended along the side street for a long distance. The inns along the highway had been more massive, but nowhere near as elegant. Next to the main walkway to the entrance was a large stone sign with a picture of a shining shield and letters that Sheela didn’t understand because she had never learned to read.
Frath led her up the stone steps to a landing with four marble columns. There were two sharply uniformed guards who appeared very capable to Sheela’s uneducated eye. At the door was a finely dressed man in colorful red leggings that matched the color of the two guards’ tabards. He also wore a lacy white shirt and a long red jacket.
The butler gave a sharp nod to Frath, but took in Sheela’s poor dress and dirty appearance with disdain. Frath spoke to him. “I’d like to speak to Albert, please. He’ll see me.” The man didn’t look happy, but he led them inside.
The butler had them wait in a corner just inside the door while Albert finished talking to a customer. Sheela looked around the common room in amazement. It was clean and warm, with wooden walls painted mellow green. Tapestries of magnificent battle scenes covered most of the walls.
The Shining Shield Inn catered to knights visiting Dralin as well as other nobles. A few of the men were dressed in their armor, all polished and well cared for. Others wore elegant clothing unlike anything Sheela had ever seen or even imagined. Most wore fine swords on their belts. Sitting with the men were squires and servants that helped the inn staff to take care of the knights. Noble ladies were at many of the tables, drinking wine and holding dignified conversations.
“Hello, Frath. It’s good to see you.” Albert was a burly man built like a tree. Frath had told her that he was a former knight who lost his sword arm in battle. Upon seeing Sheela, Albert frowned in disapproval. “Why have you brought this vagabond into my establishment?”
“Hello, Albert. This is Sheela and she just arrived in Dralin. I heard that you need a new girl to clean rooms and help out in the kitchen.” Frath spoke quickly with determination. He kept a hand on Sheela’s back for moral support. “I see a lot of people pass by every day and their faces all blur together. I’d like to help a lot of them, but there’s not much a simple guard like me can do.”
“You’re not a simple guard, Frath. You’re a good man with the heart of a knight.” Albert put his lone hand on Frath’s arm in a gesture of respect. Then he looked Sheela up and down. “She’s small and terribly skinny, but I can see spirit in the way she stands straight and looks me in the eye. We’ll have to get her something decent to wear.” He motioned for a pretty blonde woman, who had just finished delivering food to a table, to come over.
“Tonya, this is Sheela. Try to find something for her to wear, get her some food and put her in the room in corner of the basement. She’s small enough to fit in it.”
Frath let out a barely perceptible sigh of relief. “Thank you, Albert. May I come to visit her on occasion?” His arm moved back over her shoulders as though he suddenly didn’t want to let go.
Albert raised an eyebrow, but nodded without saying anything. One of the customers called and he left to take care of him, giving Frath one more clap on the arm. With an encouraging smile, Tonya held out a hand and wiggled her fingers for Sheela to go with her. Frath smiled encouragingly and gave Sheela a giant hug, which she returned fiercely. As Tonya led her to the basement stairs in the back of the common room, she looked over her shoulder. Frath was watching her with a smile on his face. She smiled back happily as she walked down the steps.