Chapter 8: Saendar
Gilmir woke. Again. This time he did not think he had slept for long. For some reason, he felt better. Perhaps a purpose, an objective, was what he had needed. Something obtainable in the near future. Rising, he turned towards the wall. Shark had been right; the fungus on the wall was dead. Gilmir chose to ignore the matter and focused on the hidden door. His fingers searched for the edges. It did not take long—the door was a crude one. After finding the outline, it took a few beats to find the bump serving as a handle. He slid the handle, and the door started to tremble and move. A narrow passage opened up. Gilmir stepped inside and closed the door behind him. It was dark, completely dark, and the going was slow. One thousand five hundred and twenty-five steps later, he came to a door outlined by daylight seeping through the cracks. He pushed it open and stepped out.
Closing his eyes, he turned towards the sun. Falling stars! It was nice to feel the sun on his face. He was out. He was out! For the first time in two and a half years, he was free. Had he not been so weak, he would have danced. Something he had not done since his youth back home in Darieth. Before he started his service. Back when his life had some element of fun and joy. Or innocence. His new life would be more like that. Simple, joyful. Free. If he could just survive these first days. Regain his strength. Some semblance of his strength, at least. Now, he was frail as a kitten. An easy target. Prey. He opened his eyes.
Great trees surrounded him. He was standing in a small grove, and sunlight filtered through branches and leaves. Birds sang, leaves rustled, and to his right ran a stream. His mouth was dry as autumn leaves and still tasted like human waste. He walked towards the water. After an arduous walk of a hundred feet, he fell to his knees by the bank, submerged his face and drank.
Afterwards, he bathed and washed his ragged clothes. His long hair was a mess, with lumps that had to be cut out as soon as he found something sharp. His black silken shirt was in tatters. The soft leather vest frayed, and his linen trousers had more holes in them than an orcish battle plan. His shoes were long gone, the same with his leather greaves. However, better than nothing and now cleaner than they had been for ages, he put the clothes back on.
Gilmir started down a path heading in the direction of the city. Soon the path joined with a larger one, and within a mark, he stepped out on one of the main roads. Already exhausted, he was on the verge of giving up before he got to the outskirts. The part that had given the city its name. Hundreds of rickety buildings clung to each other like drunken human teenagers. He heard horses approaching but could not spare the energy to turn. After a few more beats, someone shouted.
‘Move! Out of the way!’
Gilmir lifted his gaze, trying to find who was blocking the path of the riders.
‘Hey you, beggar, move! Are you deaf or something!’
Realising that the human rider was talking to him, Gilmir bit back a retort and stepped to the side. The two riders did not spare him another glance. They were clearing the path for a caravan of some sort. Behind them came four heavily armoured guards riding two and two. Following them were large, decorated wagons. A bored-looking crossbowman sat beside the driver. From inside the cart, Gilmir heard cheering, the clinks of glasses, and laughter. This was one of Voan’s caravans, bringing in nobles from other cities to watch the games. Rich people paying good money to watch less fortunate people being hurt or killed. An explicit picture of human nature, if there ever was one.
Dark thoughts on the subject of human nature accompanied Gilmir as he closed the distance to the city. He set his target on getting past the new parts of the town and getting into the city proper. As soon as he passed under the old city gate, he slumped to the ground. Halfway crawling, he moved to put his back against the wall. If he could just live to execute the plan. If he could stay alive for another day, he would make it. For the next couple of hours, he spent his time asking people passing by if they knew a halfling called Fox. Few bothered to answer, and no one recognised the description.
He wondered if he had the strength to get up and move to another location, when he noticed a small, bald man walking towards him with the practised steps of a veteran drunk. The man had only a stump for a right arm and held a bottle in his left hand. He slid to the ground beside Gilmir and passed him the bottle.
‘Wine? You look thirsty.’
Gilmir took the bottle and drank. The wine was warm and sour. He had to stop himself from drinking it all. The old man was probably stingy about his wine. Gilmir handed the bottle back.
‘You’re welcome. I’m Saendar, who are you?’
Gilmir turned and studied the man. Saendar pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and spat it on the ground. Then he drank. He looked the part of the town drunkard.
‘I am Darieth,’ said Gilmir.
The old man nodded but said nothing. He held the bottle out for Gilmir once more. Gilmir took it and drank. Less this time. After passing the bottle back, he asked, “Have you heard of a halfling called Fox?’
‘Fox?’ Saendar took another swig. ‘No, there is no halfling with that name here.’
‘How do you know?’
Gilmir was spent, hungry, in pain and really annoyed with the fact that he seemed destined to die the same day he escaped the dungeons. With the prospect of getting the tool so close, he needed to get his life back together. That nobody could help him with the easy task of finding a halfling in a human town intensified his annoyance. His desperation.
‘Why would a human drunkard know anything worth knowing?’ Gilmir turned away. He would have liked to stand up and leave, but he did not have the energy.
‘Don’t be so quick to dismiss people you don’t know. One day you will stumble upon your equal, and not even recognise it.’
‘One day, perhaps, but this day all I see is the town drunkard.’
’Really? Is that all?’
’Of course not. I see an old man, who has lost his self-worth years ago, along with his sword arm. In all likelihood an ex-soldier. Now he walks around feeling sorry for himself, and when the sorrow gets too pronounced, he tries to bury it with drink. Every day at about mid-morning, that is. And, when his spirit lifts a shade, and he wants more, he seeks out people who are even worse off, so he can feel better about himself. Sharing, though he has little to share, makes him more generous than the most benevolent king. Drinking in every tavern in town, he knows a lot of people, and more know him. Or they know of him. Because no one knows the things that matter. Which means they actually do not care. Nevertheless, he thinks this knowledge makes him so important, and he talks about the town like he owns it. Trying every mark of every hour to find some way to convince himself that he still has some value as a human, even though he is as worthless as a soldier without his sword arm. That is the sorry creature I see before me, old man.’
Saendar rose and looked like he was going to walk away without saying another word. Then he turned.
‘You are right,’ he nodded like in deep thought, ‘although I am disappointed in the lack of sophistication in your description. A town drunkard could do better.’
‘I would have thought a high-born elf would be better trained,’ Saendar said and turned his back towards Gilmir.
Gilmir shook his head, ready to dismiss the man and all he had said when an alarm in his head started ringing. Loud and intense. Why had the man marked him as a high-born? That was strange. That was … dangerous.
‘What do you mean?’ Gilmir said before Saendar had taken more than a few steps. The old man turned again. His eyes hinted at a smile that did not reach his lips.
‘I mean,’ said Saendar, ‘that I am disappointed. You are clearly not in your best shape, but I expected more. You look like a beggar. Ragged clothes, thin and sickly. You have recently taken a bath and washed your clothes. Your pale skin reveals you haven’t seen the sun for months. You have had much to eat. Where have you been? My guess, in prison. You couldn’t have gone far in your condition. The dungeons here in town? Few are kept there for long. Years? Why? Did they think someone would pay for your ransom? Which means you are important. And you wrinkled your nose after tasting my wine. The first decent thing you’ve had to drink in months? Years? Used to drinking wine of different quality altogether, I would guess. But why did nobody pay your ransom? Because they didn’t want to acknowledge you. You were not worth it. Not even to your family? So, a third son, a fourth? A bastard? Trained to be a spy? An assassin? On a mission that went wrong.’ The old man studied Gilmir before he continued.
‘And you gave me a false name. Elves are seldom named after places in my experience, and last time I checked, Darieth was a small elven city. You lied out of habit but did a sloppy job of it. Perhaps you didn’t think it necessary. Maybe you are exhausted, in pain and close to giving up. Your clothes are of quality, although only rags now, you used to carry two swords—one short and one long—and you are still alive. Which all fits the bill of a highly trained elven agent of some sort. Fallen far, but still. However, your sloppy analysis, your careless lying, your ignorant neglect of a potential ally when you are in dire need of one, suggest something else entirely. So perhaps I am wrong.’ Saendar shrugged.
Gilmir stared at the man. Speechless.
’There is a halfling down by the Bits Arena, which could’ve been the one giving you the name ‘Fox’. Good luck getting your life back together, and count your blessings that you didn’t offend this old drunkard.’
Saendar walked off with measured steps. Leaving the almost empty wine bottle at Gilmir’s side.