Chapter 14 - Melkar (P1) - Golden Dragon Retreat
Part 1 - Golden Dragon Retreat
The constant bumping and jolting of the wagon caused by the smallest of stones made it difficult to consider it a pleasant way to travel.
As they approached Melkar, the number of abandoned crop fields they passed by had increased, the houses, once inhabited, now slowly decaying.
The man sitting next to her gave her a cunning smile and signaled her keep quiet. She had dismounted her horse a few miles back and now accompanied the wine seller, traveling on the slow, torturous wagon. The rancid smell exuding from the man, combined with the heavy scent of the wine, made her feel dizzy and somewhat sick. But the sight of the gates of the city of Melkar growing closer made everything bearable.
Her horse had been tied to the back of the wagon, its saddle covered with old, filthy blankets, their color long gone, lost beneath the accumulated layers of dirt. The man had given her his traveling cloak, gray and half ripped, telling her to cover her head and wrap it around her face, in order to hide her features as much as possible. And Allana wondered to what extent the stench surrounding her didn’t come from that old piece of dirty, darkened fabric.
Finally they reached the city gates, and two men wearing full armor and wielding long spears approached them, forcing the wine seller’s small wagon to a halt. It only took her one look to identify them as belonging to that same group she had found in the Silver Forest. And although the wine merchant had previously alerted her to that fact, she couldn’t help hold her breath when one of the men came a little closer, questioning her traveling companion.
“Greetings, wine merchant! We were beginning to miss you this week,” said the soldier who had approached them, his voice harsh and rough.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” the man at her side humbly replied, barely raising his gaze. “I hope I find you all in fine health ...”
“As always, merchant, as always. And how’s the business?”
The merchant raised his gaze, knowing all too well what was expected of him, and put a smile on his face adopting an expression somewhat dramatic.
“It has its ups and downs, sir ... And here I am, with this heavy cart, so hard to unload with me being an old man and all,” he said mournfully and then looked at the soldier as if and idea had just occurred to him. “But maybe. .. that is, if it’s not too much work ... maybe your excellencies could help lighten my load? Let’s say … two barrels? Let us call it an offer of goodwill … and you’d be doing this old man a favor. What say you?”
Allana remained quiet and alert, caught between admiration and contempt, watching as that farce was willingly played by both parties, which in the end only served as an excuse for the guards to hold on to two wine barrels for free.
“We will be happy to help you, merchant ...! After all, we’re here to serve the people of Melkar right? the guard said, motioning two other men who quickly begun unloading the barrels.
Only then did the soldier’s eyes lingered on the merchant’s strange and unusual company. “And the lady? First time I see her ....”
“Yes, sir ... I bring her to see the physician ... You see, my son is finally old enough to get married and my wife made this arrangement, but the girl does not seem very healthy ... She has those small bugs all over her hair and she’s always coughing ...” he added in a whisper, leaning slightly forward, and the soldier took two steps back at the sound of the word ‘cough’. “So I decided to bring her with me. Don’t want my son marrying an unhealthy woman. And then there’s that other matter, you know ...? One can no longer trust these young girls,” he went on, again with that unfortunate expression.
“I see ... But from what you say I doubt you need worry about that second matter. No man in his right mind would bed a woman like that!”
The wine merchant seemed to ponder on the guard’s words and ended up smiling, although his eyes showed only a deep ignorance and a profound lack of intelligence.
“Well, right you are, my lord!” he said, showing his rotten, yellow teeth, and the guard took another two steps back. He verified that his men had completed their task and that the barrels were safely being stored inside the guard post and took a deep breath.
“You may go, then,” he said in a commanding voice that revealed his desire to see them both as far as away as possible, and the merchant nodded with a smile on his lips.
“Thank you, kind sir! Until next time!” he uttered back, waving his cane and putting the wagon back in motion, and Allana watched with relief as the tall columns that flanked the gate were slowly left behind.
The merchant’s smile died instantly, his eyes recovering their cunning glow, and his expression became serious.
“Thieves! I hope you choke to death on my fine wine!!” he whispered almost inaudibly and Allana couldn’t help feeling sympathy for the poor man. He had probably worked all year to make that wine, the only thing able to guarantee that the needs of his household would be seen to, only to be forced to give it away without any kind of compensation. “But there you go, missy! The first part of our agreement is fulfilled. Now a place to stay. I suppose the Golden Dragon Retreat is more or less what you are looking for ...”
“I want a place where a traveler new in town would choose to stay ...”
“Then you have the right place. Almost all travelers go there ... Except those with money or influential connections that allow them to stay in one of the houses near the city center!”
“No. I rather stay in this ... Golden Dragon.”
The man nodded and led the small wagon through narrow streets made of stone. Here and there she could see busy people going about their daily lives, but they all carried a heavy air about them, they’re expressions tired. With heads lowered and eyes cast down, they moved quickly, as if trying to escape an invisible threat. They rarely exchanged greeting and, when they did the words were uttered in whispers, making the entire city fall into that almost murmured melody that came very close to a complete silence. That city had nothing to do with Mithir, or even Everlyn. Once inside those walls it was almost as if a heavy weight was slowly dragging its inhabitants towards a deep darkness. Above all it was clearly a place where the people lived in fear and oppression.
As the streets grew increasingly narrow and dark, the sounds of cheering voices and laughter cut the air, sounding more like a scream of defiance, contrasting with that heavy atmosphere. In there the houses had no windows facing the street and the doors were boarded with old planks of wood, like tombs forever sealed.
In the corners, where the shadows ruled, she could detect small movements and eyes glowing in the dark. Once or twice Allana was even able to distinguish the form of a rodent almost the size of a rabbit.
On the street corners skinny women with gray faces and a half torn dresses advanced to the light at the sound of the crackling wood wheels. Their pained expressions forever lost, immersed in the nightmare that surrounded them ... meaningless lives of empty souls, offering to the occasional passer-by the only thing they really possessed – their bodies.
From time to time the cry of a child overpowered the increasingly loud laughter. They reached her like echoes coming from those closed doors, those sealed tombs, reminding her of faceless images … and a deep pain that she couldn’t explain … a gaze of darkness … She shook her head, forcing herself to return to the present, and took a deep breath, thanking the smell of the wine that prevented her from feeling more keenly the foul stench that filled the air.
She stopped herself from even imagining the conditions those children must lived in, their mothers probably amongst the women she saw outside, lost amidst the darkness, sharing the corners of the streets with the rats and rotting filth.
Finally a golden light bathed her face and, in that narrow street that the sunlight would never reach, that source of light was like the dawn after a winter night.
She raised her head and saw a building with bright windows. Above the door hang a sign with a golden Dragon painted on it, although the wood was slightly cracked, the paint looking old and chipped. The sound of laughter, now almost deafening, came from the inside the establishment and, in the mournful silence that infected the whole city, it echoed aggressively for another two or three blocks.
“Here you are! The Golden Dragon Retreat! But I advise you to be careful in there. Most customers are men and the ladies are either the likes you’ve seen around or traveling very well accompanied and well ... aren’t exactly ... well ...”
“ I understand! You need not worry,” Allana replied, staring up at the sign and took a deep breath. She would wait here. They may even have arrived before her ...! The thought alone was enough to make a smile brighten her tired face. To see Elian again ... and everyone else, Denar, Elipson ... But what if she couldn’t find them? What if they had already followed the road towards the Ice Mountains?
“Well, my second task in completed. I think it’s time to finalize our arrangement.” She looked at the man sitting beside her and gave him a genuine smile.
Searching under her tunic she produced the bundled pieces of jewelry and the merchant’s eyes glowed anxiously. He quickly untied his pouch from his belt and handed it to the girl.
“It’s all I have!”
Allana accepted it and gave him the treasures she’d brought from Mithir. Untying the merchant’s pouch she quickly assessed its content. It wasn’t much, she thought ... but it would surly be enough to pay for her expenses for a few days. The man, on the other hand, quickly put the wrapped golden pieces away and, with a bright smile, held the reins of his mule, as if he were anxious to get away from that place as soon as possible.
“There! Deal closed!” she told him, closing her new pouch and tying it to her belt near her sword. Getting rid of the merchant’s cloak, she jumped from the wagon and untied her horse.
The man gazed at her for a few seconds, looking slightly apprehensive. But then he seemed to remember that that strange girl had wanted to secretly get into a town she didn’t even know, and that the motives behind such endeavors normally meant a lot of trouble. And so he turned his gaze towards the dark street ahead and hit the hindquarters of his mule with his cane, putting the wagon in motion again, driving away without a single glance back, as if he’d never even met her in the first place.
Allana held her horse by the reins and took a deep breath looking once more at the picture of that small Dragon. It was almost ironic. A Dragon, the same thing that had caused all that mess, the main reason that had led the Knights to leave on that quest, that had pulled her and Elian apart … And yet …
Melkar! She’d reached Melkar all on her own!, she thought, smiling pridefully as she guided her mount towards the porch where other horses patiently awaited their masters.
“Now be a good boy and behave. I promise to come back and take care of you,” she whispered near its pointy ears, caressing its forehead, and swung her only bag over one shoulder, walking towards the door. She had to push it hard in order for it to open and the smoke that filled the air inside made her cough.
It was a relatively big room. Inside there were long, wooden tables, surrounded by ten to twelve chairs each. At a corner was a fireplace, which Allana quickly identified as the source of all that smoke. On the left side there was a counter, where a potbellied man, his greasy hair stuck to his forehead, took note of the guests’ orders. Like the wine merchant had told her, there were men everywhere. Men with hard expressions, dirty faces and cold eyes. Others, too drunk to even stand, laughed and sang out loud. There were women too, women like the ones she’d see outside, but these were laughing, her cheeks pink from the warmth and alcohol, looking like dolls at the mercy of the cruel, unscrupulous hands of the men paying for their favors.
She took a deep breath for courage and walked to the counter with firm, decided steps, standing on tiptoes to be able to place her elbows on the polished, stained wooden surface. The man at her side immediately looked at her from head to toe, his dark eyes curious. Allana ignored him, trying to captivate the potbellied man’s attention who, wiping his hands on his dirty apron, almost ran from one side to another, trying to comply with his costumers’ requests.
“Excuse me! Hello! Hey! I’m talking to you!” she tried, raising her voice so she could be heard over the noise of the crowd but he didn’t seem to even notice her.
“Hey, kid! What are you doing in a place like this? Are you lost or what?” the man at her side asked and Allana gave him a cold glare, choosing to ignore his question, trying to capture the fat innkeeper’s attention. The man at her side took a deep breath, sounding bored, and lightly shook his head. “You may as well stand there all night, trying to make yourself heard … Wanna see how it’s done?” he asked and, the moment the innkeeper walked by him, he grabbed him by the collar of his tunic and, in a quick movement, pulled him down, against the counter. The innkeeper groaned in pain and looked at him with fear in his eyes, holding his breath as he was forced to lean forward, their noses almost touching. All around her voices were suddenly silenced, although the sound of laughter could still be heard from the other side of the room. “Are you deaf or what, man? The girl wants a room!” he said in a whisper, although his voice was cold and hard, and the innkeeper’s round cheeks blushed violent as he stammered.
“Yyyes … of course, my lord … forgive me …”
Allana looked at the man standing beside her with renewed attention. He was still relatively young and was all dressed in black, like the Knights of Mithir, although his ways could never hold the class or distinction of a Knight.
The man didn’t reply, releasing the innkeeper’s clothes and, turning around, walked away, wrapping himself in a black cloak lined in red. Everyone went silent as he walked by, fear living in their eyes, until he finally left the establishment.
The innkeeper sighed in relief and lowered his gaze to look at her for the first time, a malicious smile taking over his face.
“I want a room!” she declared, trying to sound tough, and a man a few steps away laughed out loud.
“Honey! You can have mine, if you want. There’s more than enough space.”
She ignored his coarse comment and focused on the fat man on the other side of the counter.
“Listen here, kid. This is no place for a child like you. Just do yourself a favor and go home.”
The man at her side gulped the rest of his beer and gave her a lecherous one over. In a sudden movement he caught hold of her hood and pulled it back, uncovering her blond hair and revealing her child-like face. And yet he was immediately frozen in place, his smile withering away. Allana looked coldly at him and poked his ribs with the tip of the dagger she held in one hand.
“Touch me again and you’re a dead man …” she whispered and the man raised both hands in the air, regretting his unthought actions, slowly stepping back without a word.
Allana exhibited her dagger, spinning it between her fingers with one hand, and glared at the innkeeper, trying to look as threatening as she could.
“And? Do you still think this kid should go home? Or do you need me to pick your ears clean until you’re able to hear that a I want a room?”
‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ surrounded her, more from amusement at the sight of that small frail-looking girl trying to intimidate such a big man, and the innkeeper grabbed a key from a key-holder nailed on the wall behind him, throwing it on the counter.
“Second floor, eighth door,” he told her dryly and Allana quickly grabbed the key and walked away, followed by the other men’s gazes.
She quickly found the stairs and she couldn’t help feeling relieved when the sounds from the common room became muffled by the distance.
The corridor she turned too was narrow and windowless, making it dim and stuffy, the only light coming from the few old looking lamps hanging from rusty nails stuck to the walls. Still she couldn’t help feeling safer surrounded by all those shadows than downstairs amongst all those rough-looking men.
She stopped in front of the eighth door and turned the key.
Outside the sun had already set and the sky quickly grew darker. The room was small and the straw mattress had visible bumps. Next to her was a wooden table, over which a candle stump had been placed. A tree legged stool at a corner completed the room’s furniture. On one of the other corners was the ‘bathroom’ comprised of a chamber pot, a basin, a small round wooden tub that she’d have difficulty fitting into, and a couple of jars filled with clean water.
Allana sighed and, closing and locking the door, dropped her bag on the bed. She quickly untied her cloak, her new pouch and her sword’s belt, washing her hands. The water was freezing cold and shiver climbed up her spine. But she’d been on the road for five days and was in dire need of a bath.
Gathering the few cockroaches that had elected her small bathtub as their home, she took off her clothes and climbed inside, kneeling on the hard bottom, grabbing one of the jars to pour it over her head.
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