| Some people in Dunlago,
having already witnessed the coming of a strange tall old man and his wolf,
had begun to wonder what was happening to their city when they saw creatures
of legend disembarking from the ship “Hope”. Not to mention that the very
ship had become the source of many a tale in the taverns and inns of the
harbour. Numnir and his thirty dwarves were getting off the boat with wobbly
legs as they walked on a solid surface for the first time after their long
sea voyage. Quite a few bystanders asked what children were doing on a
ship. They were answered by more attentive onlookers that children did
not sport beards nor armour, nor did they casually carry loads over seventy
pounds on their backs and still managed to have their hands full with other
Numnir greeted the Captain before leaving last, reminding him to be ready for embarkation again in a week’s time. The Flint Dragon took the lead and signaled his companions to follow him. They had some distance to walk before they reached the Blue Mermaid, but they were in no hurry. The Dwarves were even more curious of their new surroundings than the citizens were of these alien creatures.
Master Turgas and Ekan were on their way back to their inn.
-“Thinking of it,” started Turgas, “you were dead lucky with your bluff at the Court. My impression is that if Dravan had not panicked, he might have got off scot-free!”
”True…but two facts were in our favour: firstly, Dravan is such a horned liar that it had become a second nature and that is where he got careless. Secondly, his henchmen were not up to his evil standards, if I may say so. Moreover, I had the feeling the Judge had been on our side from the beginning, but he needed a tangible justification to nab those criminals. In the end it was the Judge who scared them into submission!”
They finally reached the Blue Mermaid.
A big smile lit up Jonas’ face.
-“Master Turgas! We have a visitor!”
-“Really? Are you trying to tell me you also possess the powers of a visionary?”
Ekan laughed the suggestion away.
-“Certainly not! I was expecting a person dear to me! I have just noticed the signs of his coming!”
-“You never mentioned that you knew any citizens in Dunlago before! May I inquire who your friend is?”
-“Of course! He is more than a friend, actually. He is my mentor!”
It certainly would not do to tell the innkeeper that Glamrun was his father, considering the total lack of physical resemblance.
-“Well, that explains a few things like your quick learning as well as your reading and writing abilities. I’ve never believed that a country lad could be so learned and intelligent. Still, you could have mentioned it before!”
-“You would not have employed me, then! I really wanted to be hired into your establishment, Master Turgas! I have my own reasons for not wanting to mix with the gentry of this town.”
-“Because more clever people than me would have found out!” Turgas acidly replied.
Ekan had started teaching Mareeva her letters and had not hidden the fact.Actually, Turgas himself and many of the servants had felt the urge to learn under such a gentle and patient teacher. His daughter could be seen every day practicing, either in the garden where she wrote and drew in the dirt, or inside the inn, when it was too hot, scrabbling with a piece of charcoal on any bit of cloth or parchment she could put her hands on. Ekan had finally chosen a square piece of wood plank, painted it black and obtained some chalk for her new hobby.
-“Master Turgas, you are making a mistake here. You are certainly more intelligent and sharp than you give yourself credit. You also have rare qualities and a sense of fairness that alone would put a lot of so-called nobles to shame, believe me!”
Turgas harrumphed noncommittally.
They climbed the stairs leading to the terrace, crossed the latter and entered inside the lounge. The ravenous Old Dragon and Wolf had gulped down the whole food in an instant. Glamrun was presently enjoying his beer, while Wise One was resting, her eyes closed. But her pricked ears belied her alertness.
-“Your son looks like a fine member of his species, Ancient One!”
-“Well, if you saw him in his true dragon self, you would be even more impressed!”
Ekan interrupted their comments in mind speech:
-“Wise One! Well met! Words are not enough to describe my joy meeting you! Father, hail to you! It is such a pleasure to see you in your human guise! But you would please me even more if you spared me from undeserved compliments!”
Wise One could not help taking a jibe at Glamrun:
-“Ekan, it’s a trait from fathers to always exaggerate their offspring’s’ qualities as this is a convenient way to congratulate oneself! But I must admit from a female point of view you deserve your sire’s admiration!”
-“Don’t you think we should switch back to normal speech quickly!”
The Black Dragon turned to the innkeeper.
-“Master Turgas, let me introduce my mentor. Mentor, this is Master Turgas, the owner of this tavern and inn who has accepted to hire me and was so kind as to let my daughter stay with me!”
The innkeeper felt slightly uncomfortable at the grand praise.
-“Mentor, good day to you! I’m afraid it is the other way round. I deem myself lucky for the day Jonas and his dear daughter came to my humble establishment. Had it not been for them, this place would probably have closed! Would you and your companion grace us with your company?”
-“This is a most welcome suggestion. As we need some rest after this long walk, we would not mind staying for a few days!”
-“A long walk?” The day was getting a bit too much for the poor innkeeper. “Do you mean to say you have walked all the way from the far north?”
-“Yes indeed, but do not worry, we took our time and stopped many times on the way!”
Turgas shook his head in disbelief and gave up.
-“Shall I show you to your rooms and check if the baths are ready?”
-“That would be very nice of you, but pardon my ingratitude, I would very much like to meet Jonas’ daughter first!”
-“Of course!” Ekan answered and went to fetch Mareeva.
Turgas took the opportunity:
-“Mentor, may I ask you: is your companion truly a wolf? I cannot recall ever seeing one or anyone mentioning such a sight in Dunlago.”
-“She is a wolf indeed. She is actually very clever, a bit too much to my liking, and she is the reason why we walked all the way. She has little liking for ships and the like!”
The Wolf sniggered in her mind speech:
-“Here we go again! Ancient One, would you mind not using me for your aggrandizement?”
-“Aggrandizement! What a difficult word to use! Wise One, do you really think wolves have a liking for such an abstract notion as culture?”
Upon seeing Ekan back with a little girl, Glamrun ceased his bantering. “Here comes my granddaughter!”
Ekan led the child by the hand to the newcomers.
-“Mentor, this is Mareeva, my little daughter. Mareeva, this is Mentor, my teacher and his companion. She is a wolf, but do not be afraid, she is very nice and she likes children!”
Mareeva looked at the tall old man with round eyes, but remembered her manners in time and made a small bow in greetings. But her eyes were already on the wolf.
Ekan, understanding her feelings encouraged her:
-“Mareeva, go and meet the wolf. She is waiting for you!”
The little girl moved shyly to the beast and kneeled down in front of the strange animal. The two looked at each other for a while. Some kind of recognition seemed to occur as Mareeva unhesitatingly stretched her hand to caress the head between the eyes. The wolf licked her hand in response. A small cry of joy came out of the Ekan’s daughter:
-“She likes me! Father, she likes me!”
Wise One slowly rolled on her side, showing her breast for Mareeva’s hand that began patting and stroking in earnest.
-“How unseemly of you, Wise One! Aren’t you ashamed of frolicking with a small human after your complaints at their adults not so long ago?” Glamrun teased the Wolf.
Wise One haughtily answered:
-“Ancient One, you will never understand. One never gets bored with children!”
Ekan chose to speak.
-“Mentor, shall I show you your quarters while your companion looks after my daughter?”
The innkeeper replied for Glamrun.
-“It’s alright, Jonas. I shall take care of that! Master, if you please?”
-“Thank you so much, innkeeper! See you later, Jonas, and make sure that wolf of mine does not spoil your daughter!”
Turgas and Glamrun had not been gone a minute when a tremor suddenly ran through the building. The staff looked at each other with worry evident on their faces. Ekan just smiled and left the kitchen. Mareeva was still playing with the wolf as if nothing had happened. The Black Dragon went out of the lounge onto the terrace where quite a sight welcomed him. Five perfect rows of six neat piles made of backpacks, various baggage and armour, each piled in front of a dwarf as if a very special army had surged out of nowhere with an extraordinary discipline and order. Ekan knew of no army, especially in Dunlago, capable of such a drill, but he cared little about it as he saw his brother Numnir whose laughing face stood in contrast with the seriousness of his troops. As a sizeable crowd of curious bystanders was forming, the Black Dragon judged that the quicker he could get all those new arrivals inside, the better for the general peace. He went directly to his kin.
-“Hail, Ironfoot Well met! Dwarves of the Kingdom Under The Mountains, greetings! Please, all of you come inside. All that work must have made you thirsty and hungry.”
What could have been interpreted as a slip of the tongue did not register with the dwarves who had no wish to discuss why their leader knew that black giant and why the two of them were shaking hands as if they had not met for quite a long time.
Ekan told Numnir in mind speech:
”Brother, let’s get your dwarves inside quickly! Too many unusual things have already happened the last two days. Turgas is going to kill me when he realizes he has welcomed thirty and one guests out of nowhere, and to tell the truth, I have had my fill of explaining things!”
-“Can we leave our accouterments outside for the moment? Is it safe enough?” replied Nunmir.
-“I don’t believe that Dunlago people are interested in Dwarven armour, and considering your proficiency with knots, I doubt any thief will have enough time to try to unpack them!”
Numnir turned to his troops:
-“Alright, everybody in, and make yourselves at ease! It is about time we enjoyed a drink!”
The Dwarves did not need any more encouragement and promptly filed inside the inn and seated themselves at various tables. Ekan had the staff run with jugs full of beer for all the Dwarves. Later he thought he would bring a keg inside the lounge for his new guests to serve themselves. He also had ham, cheese and bread served while he heated stew of which there was barely enough to feed the whole troop. He shall have to spend the whole rest of the day preparing dinner for that crowd and more eventual customers. They were bound to get busy until late, as word would quickly spread about their outlandish guests.
Turgas did actually experience some problems in recovering from his shock when he came downstairs into a lounge full of customers of the most peculiar kind. As he noticed service was aptly conducted, he went straight to the kitchen to provide help that was obviously in great need!
-“Jonas, don’t tell me who they are and what they are here for! You’ll inform me tomorrow, right? Now, where can I help?” Pausing for a second, “and by the way, who’s going to pay for all that?”
“I think your money is coming right now!”
As a matter of fact, Numnir was standing at the kitchen door waiting for the innkeeper’s attention.
-“Master Turgas, good day to you and my thanks for the great welcome!”
The innkeeper threw a look at Ekan in questioning look.
The black giant just smiled.
-“As I understand that thirty-one guests for the next eight days will require a lot of food, drink and service, I would like to pay right now, or at least hand an ample enough advance on our total bill. How much do we owe you, innkeeper?”
Turgas scratched his head. This was a lot of accounting at a pinch.
-“Master Turgas, I think one weight of gold per guest should be enough.”
-“Jonas, that’s too much! You know what such money can buy?”
-“I do know, Master Turgas. But I also know that Dwarves’ appetites and thirsts have nothing to compare to those of humans. Believe me, this is a fair price!”
-“What do you say, Mister…?”
-“Ironfoot! Pardon my lack of manners! Yes, I think this is a fair price!”
Unfastening a pouch from his belt, he handed it over to the innkeeper.
-“Please, take your due!”
Turgas, wondering whether his honesty was being tested, nonetheless took the offered purse without any comment, opened it and took the thirty and one weights of gold out of it before returning the pouch to the big giant.
-“Thank you Mister Ironfoot! Now we have two problems: first, I would be careful about carrying so much money around!”
The hard smile on Ironfoot’s face was enough proof to convince him that he would not have to reiterate that piece of advice.
-“The other problem is: where am I going to keep all that money myself?”
Looking at Ekan, he came to a sudden decision:
-“Jonas, may I entrust you with it? In any case, somebody will have to wake up early tomorrow morning and go to the harbour and market to replenish our stocks!”
-“Leave it to me, Master Turgas!” said Ekan as he took the gold and lodged it inside his cummerbund. “I don’t think anybody will try to take it from where it is presently stashed!”
The three of them burst into laughter. The innkeeper continued:
-“Fine! Now I shall see about our guests’ accommodations. Luckily we have no sleeping guests today! It will be a tight fit, though! Mister Ironfoot, could you please follow me?”
Umatar was visiting another tribe when she received Dargelblad’s summons. The Golden Dragon had flown to different gathering locations with the various families and clans roaming on the Steppes. Boy and Apprentice had accompanied her from her very first flight. That particular adventure had been both frightening and exhilarating for the two humans. At the beginning they were solely thinking to hold tight for fear of falling to their death until Umatar convinced them she would never let them topple off her back. They had realized for sure she possessed more magic they would ever come to imagine, but humans were not supposed to fly, even less on a dragon’s back! They had made a rule to move at night, only when nobody could notice them, and to land far enough from each camp or community so as to have the Tribesmen and Shamen wonder how possibly they could have covered such distances in so incredibly little time. So, every morning saw them arriving on foot at a different spot upsetting sentinels into a frenzy of errands to announce them. Umatar knew they were expected to come some time as the Tribesmen had their own ways of communication over long distances through smoke signals and drums. Every evening before departing she made clear where her next destination would be. But she still managed to surprise all the Tribes she paid visit to the following day at dawn. In this way, she commanded immediate respect and attention. At some moment during their travels their party had been given the name of They-Who-Come-With-The-Sun. She certainly did not feel inclined to contradict anybody, as the truth would have surely proved a greater shock to those superstitious folks.
Dargelblad had asked Umatar to fly and join him as soon as possible at a location where the Elf Forest ended about fifty miles from the Western Seas shore. So the three of them landed just before dawn at the extremity of the Forest where it rapidly thinned to leave the place to vast pastures to the north and to a barren sort of mesa to the west. Umatar knew her brother had posted sentinels all along the rim of the wood for the sole purpose to mark her small group. The three of them were sitting around a small fire when a dozen elves led by a tall white-haired individual appeared out of the trees.
Umatar just sat quietly, showing no concern whatsoever.
The elves finally reached them.
-“Hail, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons!” Dargelblad greeted her.
-“Hail, Wilfred of the Elves! Well met!” She answered with a grin. She could see that her brother’s companions were taken aback not only by her familiarity but also by her obvious knowledge of their leader.
One elf stepped forward from the group.
”Captain Wilfred! How can you allow such casual behaviour from someone obviously a mere savage!”
-“At ease, Lieutenant Sighel! How many times did I tell you that we Elves are not the only creatures living on this land! Our Forest is but a mere fraction of a vast world inhabited by so many peoples that they would take only a few days to overwhelm us completely, magic or not, if you were stupid enough to provoke their anger! This mere savage here happens to be the single most feared person in all the Steppes of Alymndes! What would you say if you had to face her wrath with all the Tribesmen at her back? Moreover, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons happens to be very dear to me! Would you try my ire, too?”
Before leaving Queen Ellana, Dargelblad had been made Captain of the Elves, a title that gave him absolute powers on all military aspects of the Forest, and the Silver Dragon had used that authority to the full. He had made a particular point to request Sighel, the Elf who had insulted him upon his arrival in the Forest, as his own Lieutenant, effectively elevating the stiff courtier to second-in-command. In a single stroke, Dargelblad had silenced the whole court once for all, and at the same time taught the realities of the outside world through one of their most obnoxious members.
True to say, Sighel had taken to his new responsibilities with alacrity, but still had difficulties getting rid of his deeply ingrained prejudices and to admit that his people were not the only significant inhabitants of this world. Dargelblad had also chosen him for his rare qualities of devotion and stolidity required by his new status.
Umatar had a good look at the target of her brother’s scolding. Shaping that Elf’s mind would certainly take a lot of work, but if the Silver Dragon succeeded with the education of that particular individual, he would have the entire Elf nation following him, especially in the light of Queen Ellana’s special attentions towards her brother.
She smiled at the miffed elf.
-”Do not worry, Lieutenant Sighel! I certainly do not plan to fight the Elves of the Forest and do not take umbrage at my dear friend Wilfred’s words! Believe me, he is being harsh to you only because he is so devoted to your people and their welfare! If he has chosen you as his personal Lieutenant, I’m sure you have the qualities to deserve such a high position!”
The Elf met the Golden Dragon’s eyes. Umatar kept smiling. Something must have struck a chord inside Sighel, as he suddenly fell on one knee and bowed his head.
-“Mylady, I’m appealing to your pardon and clemency for the foolish words I dared profess at your person, but I shall bear my deserved punishment as you see fit!”
-“Lieutenant Sighel! Stand up, would you? This lesson in humility is enough a punishment for me! Now why do you not all sit down and have a rest while Wilfred and I have a talk! I believe my two companions are very keen to make your acquaintance! They certainly have a lot of questions if you would be so kind to answer them!”
The Golden Dragon stood up without any further words and walked away followed by Dargelblad, leaving a nonplussed Lieutenant rooted to the same place until he realized everybody around him had sat down and started a tentative conversation. With a deep sigh he dropped himself on the ground but still kept his eyes on the strange wild woman.
-“Sister, you understand you have just been given as close to a love declaration as an Elf might ever dare? Asked Dargelblad in mind speech.
-“So what, brother? Any female should be flattered by a male’s attention, especially when his intentions are true!”
-“The only problem is that Elves fall in love only once. If their feelings are shared, they are betrothed for life. A refusal will mean an eternal life of pining and bitterness!”
-“You should know, dear Brother, shouldn’t you?”
Dargelblad rolled his eyes and chose not to answer.
Umatar, taking the cue from the Silver Dragon’s silent reproach, changed tack.
-“Alright! Now, why did you call me here in such a hurry?”
-“I asked you to come in person as you have to judge this part of the land for yourself. We soon will have to organize a plan of defense. The land from here stretches over a whole plateau of barren shale and sandstone till the very shores of the Western Seas along the mountains. This part of the country shall be quite difficult for anybody to move on or to defend. I am very certain we shall encounter, too soon for my own comfort, an attack on our lands from the sea and around the Fire Mountains. The only place where the enemy can disembark in force and organized fashion will be at the point where the beach lining the Steppes meets the barren rock plateau. This is open land and nearly fifty miles from our Forest. This is too far from our own security and we do not have enough fighters on hand to effectively stop or even contain invaders on such a vast surface. If we allow our future foes to encroach on the Steppes, cutting us from the shore, they shall find pastures that will provide them with sustenance and from where they will be impossible to throw back to the sea! If we let them establish any kind of stronghold away from the beach, we shall have to commit too many forces to dislodge them and weaken other parts of our line of defense!”
-“How could they build any kind of fortification so near the sea? Practically no trees grow in this area!”
-“You forget that shale and sandstone can easily be cut out and used to build walls!”
-“So we have to cut the access to the plateau and prevent them from building anything of consequence. If they come by sea, we shall not be able to stop them on the sea itself. Therefore we shall have to allow them to land.”
-“But if they come off their boats, we want them all on land. We can’t afford any of them to go back and provoke a bigger invasion. If none of them return to their lands south of the Fire Mountains, the enemy will assume for some time they have succeeded and will concentrate their attacks on the only two other weak points of Alymndes, namely the Pass and the Eastern shores.”
-“Which means we shall have to design a plan to drag them all away from the shore and exterminate them inland while we make sure none of their boats have any chance to flee and go back for help!” finished Umatar.
A couple of days had passed since the Dwarves’ arrival when Ekan took the innkeeper aside.
-“Master Turgas, the inn is full and the dwarves and my Mentor shall stay at least for the next few days. We are refusing guests. May I suggest this is time we visit Dravan’s establishment and see what we can do about it?
-“ You are right. We can’t hold up any longer. Especially when we have to deal with Dravan’s former employees. Let’s go!”
Since the Green Anchor was located in the next block of buildings, they reached it soon enough. Some people were sitting or standing idly at the entrance. Ekan recognized Dravan’s staff. As nobody had come yet to take over, they had nothing to do but wait there. Their hard faces did not bode much good, but the two men ignored them and entered the tavern.
Turgas had a look around the place. The longer he stayed inside, the more disgusted he grew.
-“What are we going to do with that hovel, Jonas? Nobody will come to eat or drink in such a hole! It reeks like hell! I can see cockroaches everywhere! I dare not enter the kitchen if there is one!”
Ekan was thinking silently, his human face showing a rare frown. Suddenly, his white teeth appeared in a large grin.
-“What bright idea has come through your head this time, Jonas? Enlighten me before I decide to give this place away to the first person foolish enough to want it!”
Ekan was tapping his fingers on his cheek and making small pointing gestures with his other hand.
-“Master Turgas, I think I have struck a great notion. Let’s see what you think of it?”
-“Say away!” a more and more impatient innkeeper grunted.
-“I know that ten out of the thirty dwarves Ironfoot has brought will stay in Dunlago and will be looking for a large building. Now I’m sure this place is big enough to lodge them upstairs and hold enough space for them set shop on the ground floor. This will involve a lot of refurbishing and repair. But the walls and floors are sound. Why not offer them right away the rent of the whole building, look after their rooms and provide them with their meals, but ask them to do all the restoration as payment for as long as needed? We not only take care of our problem, but also provide a solid base for their trade. Dwarves might have lived underground until now, but they are builders and craftsmen. They will feel in your debt, and since they will attract a lot of people in our street, all kinds of business will follow, for here and the Mermaid! We could also ask them to build staff quarters at the back where the families of your deceased cooks can move in permanently. Our guests can come to the Blue Mermaid for all their meals where they shall also meet potential customers. What do you think of that for a start?”
The innkeeper had been listening very carefully indeed, realizing that Jonas was fast becoming more and more invaluable in so many aspects that he would have to rethink his whole life and business very soon.
-Jonas, what shall I call you? My general manager? You are coming up with so many ideas in so little time that I might as well leave you with the running of the business! The more I think about it, the better solution it seems to me!”
Ekan raised his hand.
-“Master Turgas, I’m just making the suggestions! You are the one who makes the decisions! Cooking is my pleasure, and I would request that you keep me in the kitchen. You are very busy managing your establishment and have little time for niceties and future projects. But if we can find good staff, then both of us shall be able to spend more time on exploring more ways to improve your business!”
-“Talking of staff, what are we going to do with that bunch?” answered Turgas pointing at the entrance of the tavern.
-“Well, we cannot afford to lose any personnel, whatever their antecedents or past behaviour. We have to use them!”
Turgas’ dubious face was enough proof that he did not share Ekan’s opinion.
The black giant continued:
-“Master Turgas, shall I take care of it?”
-“You might as well, since you seem to have a better chance to strike fear into them than I am!”
-“Do not worry, Master Turgas! Fear is not the best method! Fairness is!”
Ekan moved to the entrance and called in his no-nonsense voice:
-“All of you! Come inside!”
Six sullen men and two slattern women, all of obviously loose morals silently filed in, dragging their feet. Ekan understood Master Turgas’ distaste at these creatures, but he could be stubborn too when he thought he was doing the right thing.
The Black Dragon began:
-“You should know by now what befell of your former master and that the court has decided the ownership of this establishment to be rewarded to the owner of the Blue Mermaid as repair and compensation for the crimes committed against him and his people. Since you were not held responsible for Dravan’s deeds, you are either free to leave or work for us. To be honest, your work will be hard, but you shall be treated fairly and paid the same wages as the rest of the staff. You shall be fed and clothed. Later, when proper quarters are built, you shall be lodged as well. Your first work shall be to clean and help rebuild this building. You will be placed on a six-moon probation, at the end of which we shall decide through mutual agreement whether you stay with us or not. There are rules to be respected, I’m afraid. No stealing, no arguments within the staff, and orders to be obeyed to the letter. All complaints are to be made directly to Master Turgas. Any breach of the rules will mean immediate sacking. What do you have to say to Master Turgas’ offer?”
One of the men, an obvious bully, sneered back:
-“I don’t care for that kind of slavery! You can stuff yourselves with your charity! I’m leaving and you will hear from me as sure as my name is Gardan!”
Ekan replied in an icy voice:
-“Fine with us, Gardan! But before you make yourself scarce, know that I have marked you! Cause any trouble in any part of this street and I shall take care of you personally! Is that clear?”
The thug looked at the black man for a while. Ekan could read fury in his eyes. He shall have to check on him later. The man finally left, but not before he had made an obscene gesture and spat on the floor. The Black Dragon ignored him and turned to the other five individuals.
-“What about you, then?”
One of the women stepped forward.
-“I shall stay. I have nothing to lose and you are giving me the chance of an honourable life!”
The other woman came by the side of her companion.
The three other men looked at each other for a while until the oldest of them answered:
-“We shall stay, too. You are being fair to us, which is one thing I shall never say about our former employer. We shall work as you proposed and try our best!”
The man seemed honest enough. Master Turgas asked:
-“What’s your name?”
-“Nazrat, Master Turgas!”
-“Well, Nazrat, as you seem to be the most experienced of your lot, I’ll put you in charge of organizing the cleaning and scrubbing of this place. Start right away! I shall send someone to tell you when it is time for your meal. Until then, work well, and you shall have nothing to fear from me!”
The innkeeper and his cook went out.
-“Good idea from you, master Turgas, to let them sort themselves on their own.” said Ekan. “This way, you shall know soon enough if they are being serious at changing their lives. Next, we have to talk to Ironfoot and his Dwarves!”
-“Right! I hope they will accept your notion!”
-“Have no worry, Master Turgas! There is one more thing to take care of, though.”
-“What did we forget, then?” replied Turgas with an exaggerated sigh.
-“Don’t we have to organize that meeting with all the other business owners along this street?”
-“I see. While we are at it, why don’t we visit them all right away and invite them to that meeting of yours, let’s say tomorrow afternoon after lunch. They’re not going to appreciate bypassing their nap, but this is the only time we’re sure to gather them all!”
-“Very good idea, indeed! I’ll tell you what: as beer will not do that early in the afternoon, shall we serve them coffee and small cakes? There is that recipe I wish to try!”
The two of them spent all the rest of the afternoon calling on the different businesses in their streets. Some owners readily agreed while others had to be gently persuaded. But at the end of the day, all accepted and promised to come at the Blue Mermaid the next afternoon.
After the evening meal, when all non-resident guests had left, Ekan discussed their project with Ironfoot and the other Dwarves around some dark ale. The Dwarves actually proved extremely interested by the proposition and could not wait to have a look at their potential new home.
The following morning, all the Dwarves were up early and insisted to see the Green Anchor before breakfast. So Ekan guided them as even those bound for other lands wished to participate in the venture. They found themselves standing in front of the Green Anchor whose sign had already been discarded. Early passersby wondered what those children were doing near the disreputable establishment at this hour of the day. The Dwarves began to walk around the former inn, commenting on the shape, pawing pillars and beams, knocking and listening to walls until they finally entered the edifice. Ekan noticed that the lounge had been scrubbed clean and made a note of the good work. Seeing that the Dwarves had grown oblivious to his presence, engrossed as they were with their survey, the Black Dragon left them after reminding Numnir he expected everybody for breakfast in a couple of hours. He had work to do in the kitchen.
When breakfast time came he still had to send a message to his brother to bring his reluctant troops into the lounge. Ekan joined Numnir as the Dwarves were finishing their repast.
-“How did things go?” asked Ekan in mind speech.
-“Quite well, actually. Although a human house is a first experience for all of them, they appreciate the concept of living above their workplace, or shop as you call it! The walls, ceilings and floors are sound and will need little repair or shoring up. The place needs a good cleaning, but the humans you are putting in charge are doing a fine job. As we do not need the kitchen, bar or pantry, we are going to transform them for our needs. On the other hand, the privies are a total mess. So, if we can get the authorization from Master Turgas, we shall devise new commodities as an outer facilities complex. Dwarves are very proficient at tackling that thorny problem. Devising privies underground in their mountains require very special skills indeed!”
Ekan remembered Amrel’s last comments on Beaucastel.
-“Talking of privies, I dare say your Darwes are coming in the nick of time. Our dear sister is thinking of rehauling, actually creating, a whole sewer and wells system in the city of Beaucastel where you are bound to next. I can predict your people will have work for years to come! I very much doubt you shall have to pay rent in Beaulieu, if my hunch is correct. If you can balance the care of that pressing matter with selling your crafts and skills, your Dwarves are bound in fact to become not only indispensable, but also very rich!”
-“Well, well, that certainly will please our King no end, and by the same token, get out Dwarves out of their mountains. I can tell you I certainly had a hard time extracting those thirty out of their underground dens! The only reason I managed to convince that particular lot is mainly because they are comparatively young, curious and impatient to escape from their various clans’ rules and obligations. Although Dwarves never forget their roots, I have the impression that we are contributing to the creation of a new brand, namely Outworld Dwarves!”
-“I dearly hope your assumption proves true, as we will need different skills from them someday; but not too soon, if we are lucky!”
-“Which brings us to a topic I wanted to broach with you!” interrupted Glamrun who was coming down from his upstairs room. The Wolf was nowhere to be seen, although Ekan was sure she had been staying close to Mareeva as had become her habit.
-“Good morning, my sons!” greeted the Old Wyrm in the same mind speech.
The two young dragons politely waited for their father to continue. The Old Dragon settled himself at the same table by the wall that had become his favourite seat in the lounge. He made a point to eat his meals late so as to have more opportunities to talk to his children. Whoever saw the three of them could have never imagined they were communicating in two ways simultaneously. What people heard was nonsensical small talk. More than a visitor wondered what those three so different beings might have in common, despite the night before when Glamrun had provided some kind of explanation for the first time.
The Old Dragon was enjoying a fine ale late at night at his usual place with Wise One seemingly half-asleep under the table. Mareeva had been long gone to bed, and for once the Wolf felt more sociable and had decided to join Ancient One and observe all the strange bipeds moving around and drinking for no reason.
A middle-aged man, a regular customer at the Blue Mermaid had approached the table with a jug of beer in his hand.
-“Good evening, Sir! Do you mind if I join you?” he asked politely.
-“You are most welcome, Sir! Please sit down!” genially replied the Old Wyrm, pulling a chair for the man to sit on.
-“That’s very kind of you, indeed! May I have the pleasure to offer you a drink, then?”
Glamrun understood that for all his genuinely friendly demeanour, his interlocutor was probably trying to pry some information about his person. But he did not mind.
-“I shall be grateful if you could provide me with another ale, as I have just finished mine!”
The man made a sign to a servant who came with the drink and put it on the table in front of Glamrun who asked:
-“With whom do I have the honour to talk?”
-“Sorry, my name is Shahzad. I own a spices and food store on this street. Jonas, the new chef, is a regular customer of mine and I enjoy a drink here most evenings before striking bed! May I inquire about your name?”
-“Sure. People call me Mentor, although I’ve had quite a few names in my long life. Others call me Storyteller, Vagabond or Stranger!”
Shahzad had the grace to laugh at the evident refusal to divulge too much personal information. Looking at Wise One, he asked:
-“Mentor, I have been most intrigued by your companion. Is it what people in other lands call a wolf?”
-“Absolutely right. You shan’t see any other one for a long time in this city, as wolves live in the cold country of the North. Look at her fur, and you will understand why her kind usually do not venture in your hot lands!”
-“Very unusual, indeed! I’ve heard all kinds of tales about wolves! Are they dangerous?”
-“Quite so if you attack or corner them. You shall find that none of your dogs are any match for them. Moreover, since they usually move about in packs, you would need a small army to stand a chance. But know that wolves will never purposely assault or chase humans, except to defend their territories or protect their own!”
-“Then, how come one lone wolf, moreover a female as you seem to infer, find herself in the company of a human so far away from her land of origin?”
-“Well, this is a long story, but if you want to hear it, I shall be glad to oblige!”
A few more drinkers had come near the table and seeing that Glamrun obviously did not mind, brought their chairs and stools and informally sat down around the table to listen, albeit still keeping a safe distance from Wise One. The Wolf remarked in mind speech:
-“Making use of me again, aren’t we?”
-“Just socializing, Wise One, just socializing! Humans like a talk for the sake of enjoying a good story. You cannot fault them for that?”
-“And what about drinking all that strange stuff when you are not thirsty?”
-“Wise One, you rightly pointed out some time ago that I would never understand your behaviour towards children. I’m not asking you to comprehend my attitude towards adult humans!” replied Glamrun. “And you had better help me tell a convincing story about how we came together!”
The story did take some time to invent and relate, but quite a few customers came back home very happy that night and were sure to repeat the tale to their friends and neighbours the next day, mentioning that a very peculiar kind of storyteller had come to town.
Glamrun stopped musing and addressed his sons:
-“Tonight, actually early in the morning, we shall have to conduct a survey of the land. I have already contacted your sisters and brother. We first shall join Amrel and then move to where Dargelblad and Umatar presently stay!”
-“In a single night?” inquired Numnir.
-“Yes. Remember that we can teleport anywhere if we have a precise picture of the place we want to move to. Since Dargelblad has surveyed the whole width of Alymndes, we should be able to check the three main areas of our concern in a couple of hours!”
The task, for all its simplicity, still struck the young dragon as he had yet to fully realize the enormity of their powers.
Early in the afternoon, one hour or so after the last of the lunch guests had left, various innkeepers, taverners and shop owners arrived at the Blue Mermaid and sat down at the tables especially arranged for the occasion by Turgas.
Ekan and the servants had already served the tables with small metal mugs, as was the tradition in Dunlago. The Black Dragon thought that one day he should introduce cups made of china to incite women customers to order the favourite hot drink of the citizens of Dunlago. He did not agree with tradition that allowed men only to indulge in drinking coffee outside their homes. All the tables were set with pots of sugar and small spoons and large trays piled with biscuits and cakes Ekan had just concocted from recipes garnered from the female servants of the house. Fresh mint leaves and dried ginger powder were also available for the guests to use according to their liking. Observing the reactions of their visitors of the day, he realized he had discovered a new business possibility for the Blue Mermaid. The wide awning-covered verandah on the outside could definitely be devised as an afternoon gathering place where they could induce new patrons looking for an informal meeting spot away from the bustle of the street, but still within walking distance of the main activities of this part of town. If they could persuade couples and traders to patronize the Blue Mermaid for that particular purpose, they should be able to start a very profitable trend indeed. Turgas would scream they would have to find more staff, but Ekan did not worry. Soon or later, they would have to deal with an embarrassment of choice when receiving job applications.
For the moment Turgas was happy to welcome each visitor with a word of greeting and a solid shake of hands before guiding everyone to a table or chair. Soon the servants came with pots of hot coffee and filled the mugs before leaving the pots on the tables for refilling and discreetly departing form the lounge. Ekan was the only staff present with Turgas. After he had decided that all his guests were comfortable and ready to listen, Turgas moved to a spot where he could be clearly seen and heard by all and addressed his audience:
-“Dear Gentlemen! Greetings and my profound thanks for answering my summons! I sincerely hope this unusual meeting does not interfere too much with your respective businesses! I shall go straight to the point: we are gathered here to discuss ways and measures to make this street of ours a better place to live and conduct business. I understand that tradition until now had been judged sufficient for everybody, but recent events of the most unfortunate nature has convinced me we ought to at least come to an understanding to how life should be in our neighbourhood!”
As far as Ekan could tell, that was the longest ever speech that Turgas had ventured into, and the stress was beginning to show.
A middle-aged black man, remarkable for his very wide girth and perfectly trimmed white moustache and goatee raised his hand.
The innkeeper invited him to talk:
-“Dear Master Qaisar, if you please?”
Qaisar, a fairly successful cloth merchant and one of the most respected individuals living in the area asked:
-“ Dear Master Turgas, I strongly agree with your suggestion and I personally welcome the change, but how do you plan to proceed? The lot of us are not especially known for our benign characters or diplomatic skills, if I may say so!”
Quite a few smiles around him showed a lot of guests agreed with him.
-“Dear Master Qaisar, I’m not known either for my good temper!” A remark that brought laughs from his colleagues, “and I have already made the longest speech in my life,” which provoked more hilarity, “so, if you do not mind, I would ask you to listen to my employee Jonas here, who knows a lot about organizing things. May I remind you that, when he came with his dear little daughter to be hired at whatever job I could offer him, I could not have imagined he would save and reorganize my business, as well as convince the Judge of our innocence in the dreadful crime I’m sure you all have heard about! But I’m digressing! Jonas, please!”
Ekan stepped forward and after a slight bow of his head, he spoke:
-“Honourable citizens of Dunlago, greetings! What I wish to explain is the proposal of a system that already exists in the Realm of Beaulieu. There, in each city and across the Realm, traders and craftsmen have formed associations not only to protect their businesses, but also to coordinate any complaints or requests to the authorities, to recommend itinerant craftsmen, and to regulate prices and so on. These associations are called Guilds. Guilds may cover only one single occupation or a whole area, regardless of variety. There are many advantages I shall explain soon. What could be done in our street is creating a guild covering all the trades and businesses under one representative Guild. Although this is new to Dunlago, such a Guild could be registered officially with the Court and Judge as well as with the Palace. We could agree on some sort of tax to be paid annually to the Court and Palace to get recognition. Such a tax could be divided between each business. The advantages are multiple: the State receiving a stipend will feel obliged to ascertain the official protection of your trades by increasing the City Guard and giving them the necessary authority in this area. The street becoming safer will attract customers from all over the city and elsewhere. Unwanted individuals shall be discouraged to interfere with your businesses. Since we have direct access to the harbour, merchants and ship owners will have an additional incentive to conduct trade with you all and shall provide better-quality products. Lack of staff is an endemic problem to the neighbourhood. But with an organized structure, better workers and servants will also be interested in moving to our street. Dear Gentlemen, do you still follow me?”
Ekan’s audience had grown really quiet. Only the sound of mugs being carefully put on the tables could be heard. The different guests started to exchange meaningful glances. As he knew the concept would take some time to sink in, the Black Dragon patiently waited. He suddenly had the feeling of being a teacher or mentor in front of very adult students. He would have to be careful there. He did not fancy the idea of assuming too much responsibility. Not yet, in any case. A raised hand spared him from repeating himself. A grizzled old man to whom he had noticed the audience gave a certain amount of respect spoke:
-“Good man Jonas, my name is Raisal and my trade is pottery. I must admit your notion is very new to us, but that I am personally extremely tempted to try it. There are too many advantages to ignore. But could you be kind enough to explain how to operate the whole system, especially when it will come to register our Guild, as you call it, with the authorities you mentioned?”
-“Thank you Citizen Raisal. First, organizing yourselves should not be too difficult. Draw a charter stating the rules of your Guild. Once this is done, elect a representative or chairman and a committee of at least three senior citizens to look after the archives, the financial accounts and the registrations and business listings. The chairman can be re-elected every year. The committee responsibilities should be assumed by different citizens every six moons to get all members acquainted with the day-to-day running of the Guild in the case of an emergency. Devise a simple emblem to add to your signs outside your premises, but have this emblem registered with the Judge first who should not only have the authority to introduce it to our rulers, but also advise us on legal matters. Once this is all done, hold a regular meeting, let’s say at least once a moon, to keep your members acknowledged and discuss eventual amendments or possible improvements. This might sound like a lot of bureaucratic hassle, but once used to it, I’m certain all things should proceed smoothly. After all, if the citizens of Beaulieu can do it, you certainly can do it better!”
The last comment drew some sniggering remarks. Dunlago people had always considered themselves more civilized than the uncouth inhabitants of Beaucastel. By playing on this, Ekan found a sly but easy way to convince his audience, although he knew the future would be bound to change a lot of prejudices among all the Races of Alymndes.
Turgas decided the moment had come to adjourn the meeting.
-“Dear Gentlemen! We all have work to do, so I propose we close this first gathering here and now. Let us think about Jonas’ notion and shall we say we meet same time, same place in exactly a week? By then, we should be able to know if the Guild is agreeable to everybody!”
Ekan was certainly glad the innkeeper was taking charge again.
He knew the project was in good hands by now. All else should follow naturally. He also felt pretty sure that the week was bound to be busy at nights. All those traders, businessmen and craftsmen would be busy discussing their common venture around a drink and what better place than the Blue Mermaid? He would have to advise Turgas to take a couple of nights off, and visit the other taverns and inns in their street. He owed it to them after all.
That night, the next early morning to be more precise, as they had to consider the difference of time with the West, Glamrun, Numnir and Ekan had translocated themselves a few miles from Dunlago on a small dune away from unwanted eyes. They had been waiting for Amrel to choose her own spot at a convenient distance from Beaucastel. Soon they felt Amrel’s mind probe and greeted her in unison.
-“Hail, Father! Hail, Brothers! What a joy to feel your minds again! At long last, we are going to fly altogether again!”
Glamrun and his siblings basked for a while in their mutual love and fierce pleasure to be reunited until the Old Wyrm intervened.
-“Alright, children! We shall have plenty of time to enjoy each other’s company! Amrel, could you show us where you are?”
Amrel was hovering above a forested hill within a few minutes flight from Beaulieu. The ramparts of the city were clearly visible even at night. The other three dragons had no problem teleporting over the wood above which she was presently flying.
-“Let’s get away from there immediately! One dragon could be mistaken for a large bird at night, but four of us shall surely become a very conspicuous sight!”
While they distanced themselves from Beaulieu, they sent their thoughts to Dargelblad and Umatar who had chosen their landing near the very last volcano of the Fire Mountains. The dark cone was spewing smoke and lava that flowed into the sea sending impressive geysers in the air. Glamrun was still trying after all these years to figure out why Alymndes had been completely cut in two from sea to ocean by an uninterrupted chain of volcanoes except for one single place at the Pass. That particular location had brought him dark premonitions for some time. He would have to survey it thoroughly sooner or later.
The four dragons landed on the beach where Dargelblad and Umatar were expecting them. For a while they felt content enjoying each other’s presence, fully communing with their kin for the first time since they had left the Iron Crags and the River Blue Valley.
Glamrun shook himself free from the immense delight of the reunion first.
-“Dargelblad, you told us you expected danger to come first from this area when you checked the borders of Alymndes.”
-“Yes, but it’s more a feeling than a certainty. Even so, I can feel in my bones evil gathering not far from here. But how can we make certain without having to cross the Fire Mountains and the fog behind?”
-“That should not be a problem!” cut in Umatar. “Why don’t we soar as high as possible and look down. I doubt that fog extends so far that we cannot see the whole land on the other side!”
-“That’s a good enough suggestion to me. We have nothing to lose by trying it. But make sure not to get caught in those draughts caused by the heat of the volcanoes!”
So, they did soar up, carefully avoiding the treacherous turbulences from air upheavals engendered by the sudden variations of temperature at ground level. It took them some time, as they dared not cross the line of the Fire Mountains, not only because of the pending natural dangers, but also because of the unknown evil lurking behind the fiery barrier.
They finally reached a height that allowed them to distinguish the features of the unknown land from a safe distance.
Indeed, a murky mass of fog lay over a very wide area for what must be over a dozen miles south of the Fire Mountains. Not much of a distance for a flying dragon, but probably an eternity for human legs before reaching the hellish inferno of the volcanoes A very effective obstacle from both sides.
To the south and the east, the dragons could distinguish a few lights, probably fires from villages or cities, a proof that land was inhabited. At one point, on the western shore, just where the fog abruptly ceased, they noticed a large concentration of lights.
-“There must be lots of people or whatever creatures gathered there!” exclaimed Amrel. “What might they be doing at such a late hour?”
-“This could explain Dargelblad’s premonitions.” commented her father. “It is evident that so many people gathered in one location next a no man’s land does not bode any good!”
-“Shall we investigate a bit further? Why don’t we go around the land by flying over the ocean and see for ourselves?” proposed Umatar.
The Old Dragon restrained her.
-“I fear this would not be a good idea as whatever lives behind the Fire Mountains will know we are coming as soon as we will have turned around the last volcano! I do not want to risk making ourselves known more than we might already be! We have obtained the information that something is afoot in this particular area, so we ought to get ready for it! Let’s go down and have a rest before we move to the other two sites of concern!”
After a short pause, Glamrun asked Dargelblad to show a clear picture of the Pass. Upon Numnir’s advice, they chose to land on top of a cliff overlooking the chasm at its narrowest and with the best vantage. The mountain or whatever had previously stood there seemed to have suddenly sunk there due to some unknown cataclysm of inconceivable proportions. Both sides of the precipice were flanked with smooth, almost perpendicular cliffs of hard basalt. The bottom was littered with rocks and debris of all kinds. The fog prevented the dragons to see the opening to the south. The chasm continued in a straight line till Beaulieu lands where the mountain tapered off in a gentle slope. They could feel no presence from their elevated position.
-“What do you think, Numnir?” asked Glamrun to the Flint Dragon who was lost in his observation.
Numnir quietly answered:
-“My hunch is when things come to a crunch, this is where we will face the main forces of whatever evil is bound on destroying Alymndes if our Mother’s predictions prove right. But this should not come before a long time. They will have to dig a road out of all those rocks at the bottom, first of all. Before that, they will try to divert our attention, and as Dargelblad rightly said, we shall have to repulse assaults conducted around both extremities of the Fire Mountains. Were I the enemy, I would try to land an army on the Western Shores to keep the Tribes and Elves out of the equation, and who knows, enslave them later. Next, I should commit at least one third of my forces and attack the shores of Beaulieu and even on the lands of the Races of the Sea and the Desert to pin down as many foes as possible. Only then, would I proceed in the Pass. And if my hunch is still right, the enemy will invade that particular area when that damn fog moves inside the Pass to hide their movements!”
-“Where do you propose to stage our defenses to stop them in that case?” asked a concerned Amrel.
-“Let’s proceed in order, shall we? The width of the land, even here at its narrowest, is so much that I doubt they shall be able to coordinate their efforts for a silmutaneous invasion. But since we never know, we should survey the land from an altitude like we have just done in the West and proceed to the East and repeat the operation!"
-“I shall do it right away!” interrupted Umatar. Without listening to her concerned kin, she soared high into the night sky and looked south. There was nothing there. Only lands in the dark as far as the horizon. The other dragons could see through her eyes and reckoned nothing would come from that direction for a long while. After consulting with Dargelblad, they all teleported to the Eastern Shore where no real activity could be discerned, although the coast was apparently inhabited.
-“All that survey seems a bit damn short to me. We shall have to conduct a more thorough one as soon as possible. We will divide the work. Dargelblad and Umatar, you keep an eye on the Western Shores and you had better think of how to annihilate an enemy raid right now! Amrel and Ekan, you look after the East and think ways to fight off intruders from the sea. We do not even want them to land there. That would prove too disastrous. Now, about the Pass, I…”
-“Father, meaning no irreverence, but mountains and rocks are my field, if I may afford the pun!”
Glamrun was about to retort but thought better of it. Numnir was far too intelligent and methodical to ignore.
The Flint Dragon continued:
-“Father, we need you to coordinate all our efforts. Moreover, trouble could also come in our own midst. Remember Dargelblad and the Queen’s brother incident? What about that outbreak of the plague right in the middle of Beaucastel? Where is the next seed of disaster going to be sown?”
-“You are right, Numnir! I’m afraid we shall have a lot of investigation to conduct in our own lands as well. What do you propose to do with the Pass?”
-“I do not see the point of closing it midway and risk our forces getting isolated on top of the cliffs or down at the bottom. No, we choose our own location as near as to our lands as possible. But before that, we shall look after the top of the cliffs in front of us and build up a few traps to slow them down on the way when they move in. I’m confident we can make it a killing field!”
-“You already think of killing in cold blood before we have faced any enemy yet!” Amrel almost screamed.
Numnir turned to her sister. His dragon’s eyes turned cold.
-“Do we have a choice, Sister? If war occurs, it will come to us. We are only defending ourselves. We are not going to their lands to kill them. They will come to us.”
-“How do you know that?”
(Chapter 13: Trades and Crafts)