Wergild: Chapter Seven: Passage
Chapter Seven of a complete Eberron Novel: Ashnalla catches up the Tef and Murias in the city of Passage.
Chapter 7: Passage
Murias leaned against the deck rail, staring at the wake of the ship, as he looked aft. Tef leaned against the rail to his left.
“So, where are you really going?” the priest asked.
Tef looked at him with surprise.
“What makes you think I’m not really going to Xandrar?”
“I don’t do well with telling lies. I can’t control my voice well enough to be subtle, but I know a lie when I hear one. I believe you have troubles. I’ve stuck my sword in a few of them, but I don’t think you’re being level with me.”
Tef tilted his head sideways, a gesture that could be taken as an admission of guilt.
“So, let’s start off with where you’re going.”
Tef sighed heavily, and leaned back, hanging on the rail of the ship with his hands, a somewhat childlike display.
“I’m headed for the goblin lands.”
“Because I know something, and I have to tell someone what I know.”
“What is it you know?”
Tef locked eyes with the priest.
“Three years ago, Lord Regent Ekhenas d’Orien arranged for the castle Otharaunt to be attacked by hobgoblin mercenaries, then took his own men to kill off the invaders. He had the lord and lady of the castle slain, and sent the surviving hobgoblins into lives of slavery.”
“You can prove this?” Murias asked.
“I think so. His ledgers show a date and an unnamed expenditure. If the hobgoblins have a copy of the contract somewhere, and I’m sure the Blademarks provided them with one, then I have proof. With that, I could get someone to force him out of Castle Otharaunt. Maybe he’d be blackballed, and disgraced. Maybe the royalty of Aundair would string him up. Hopefully, they would.”
“So, you just plan to wander Darguun at random, asking around for any hobgoblin that happens to know this d’Orien?”
“Not at all. Their capital city of Rhukaan Draal is my destination, where house Deneith have their representatives.”
“And where do you fit in this picture?”
“I was the traitor inside the Castle Otharaunt who allowed it all to transpire.”
At this, Murias fell silent. Of course, it would take something powerful to push a youth to such extremes. Such guilt certainly seemed to be enough.
“You’ll probably be punished right alongside him,” Murias mused.
“I expect I will,” Tef said somberly.
The pair fell silent for a moment.
“How do you plan to get to Rhukaan Draal?” Murias finally asked.
“I can catch a ride on the lightning rail in Passage, and take that as far as Sterngate,”
“What’s so funny,” Tef asked heatedly.
“The Lightning Rail is run by house Orien. Good luck boarding one, particularly without papers.”
Tef cursed under his breath.
The pair stood, staring out over the stern of the Swift Sea. Murias smiled.
“How’s your calligraphy, lad?”
Ashnalla finally held something of an advantage. Her arrival in Varna, at the mouth of lake Galifar, was ahead of the Swift Sea, thanks to the coaches of house Orien. Moreover, she now knew where her quarry was, and while one was a changeling, the other was a human, a priest of particularly striking characteristics. She would not lose them this time. She was an almost infinitely patient hunter.
She looked out on the expanse of Lake Galifar to her south. Calling Galifar a lake failed to make the proper impression. At its widest, it stretched over six hundred miles from east to west. Despite the fact that it was a freshwater body, it was nearly an inland sea, having its own varieties of shark and other large, more sinister aquatic beasts. It was by far the largest lake on the continent. Its waters were a deep blue-black once you progressed more than a hundred yards offshore. It was such a mighty lake that coasters could not cross her safely. Only truly seaworthy vessels dared travel beyond sight of her shores.
Ashnalla’s wait at the docks of Varna would be much shorter than her wait in Wyr. She sat cross-legged on the ground, with her back propped against a stone warehouse. Her cloak was pulled around her. The morning slid into afternoon, and she stood to stretch. She stared north downriver, watching ships come and go. Her eyes fixed on the white sails of an approaching ship.
The vessel flew the house Lyrandar pennant from the top of its main mast. Ashnalla waited patiently. Finally she was able to read the neatly painted letters ‘Swift Sea’ on the plaque which adorned the bow of the ship.
The ship moved smoothly into dock, and she walked to the pier where its crew were casting lines and readying the gangplank.
Cranes were already swinging out over the dock, and the quartermaster walked off ship first, setting up a small table and coffer atop it. He opened a ledger, and started scanning lines.
“Excuse me,” Ashnalla said to the half-orc.
“Got a lot to do, miss. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll be more than happy to accommodate you,” he said dismissively.
Ashnalla strolled a few yards down the pier, and sat atop a large wooden support post, bound in weathered rope. She could wait. The changeling couldn’t get by her wolf undetected. Porters rolled tun barrels away from the ship, and carried crates and sacks of other items away. Several sailors received their pay from the quartermaster and wandered into the small city. Ashnalla doubted very much that the men would see the fine stables or menagerie of the city, but thought they would undoubtedly meet local women, and tavern owners.
The quartermaster shouted toward the end of the dock, where working men loitered.
“I’m in need of six marines. Six good swordsmen. Come on. No fighting men among ya?”
Ashnalla hopped off her post, and sprang up to him, presenting her papers of identification. The opportunity presented itself, and she intended to capitalize.
The quartermaster looked her up and down.
“Well, I see you don’t need no equipment for the task,” he said gruffly. “Pay is two silver a day, plus food.”
“I’m a commander. Six silver a day and I’m worth every scrap of it. Put me against your best man, if you doubt it,” Ashnalla insisted.
A short line had formed up behind her. The quartermaster glanced over her shoulder.
“Any of the rest of you want to take on this one?” he offered.
The stout fighting men sized her up and declined, dropping their eyes.
“Alright, you five, make your marks in the ledger and get on board. You two stay here,” he said, indicating Ashnalla and another swordsman.
Bandar, quartermaster of the Swift Sea trudged aboard, and climbed the stair to the helm. He threw a crisp salute.
“What is it, Bandar?” Darnathus asked.
“Sir, I picked up five more marines. Looking at a sixth, but she’s asking for six silver a day. I thought you might want to talk to her personally.”
Darnathus d’Lyrandar nodded and climbed down to the main deck. He locked eyes on the shifter as he crossed the gangplank.
“Bandar says you think you’re worth command pay. What makes you think that?”
Ashnalla bowed at the waist.
“Five years defending the Western boarder of the Eldeen Reaches makes me think that, sir,” she said, without a pause.
She withdrew a cold iron tipped arrow and held it for the captain’s examination.
“If you’re a demon hunter, why are you on this side of the Reaches?”
“Fighting demons doesn’t come cheap. I need to make some money to reprovision myself.”
“Put an arrow into the yard of yonder ship from here, and you have a job, shifter.”
Ashnalla stared at the ship the captain pointed at, two hundred feet away. She drew a shaft and released, falling under the mark by a few inches.
“Not bad, but not a hit.”
“Your quartermaster said you’re looking for a marine, not an archer,” she returned.
The captain eyed her, stepped back, and drew his long sword.
“Well then, let’s see how well you fight with a blade.”
Ashnalla drew her longsword in her right hand, and a short sword in her left. The captain thrust before her shorter blade cleared the scabbard. She sidestepped, and his blade only caught the thick leather of her tunic. She lunged with the short sword, twisting her wrist to lock the long tines of the cross guard against the blade of the captain’s sword, and wrenched the weapon from his grip. She swept the longsword up to cover him. Satisfied with her performance, she stepped back, and put her shortsword away. She swept her long blade’s tip under the sword she’d knocked from the captain’s hand. She lifted the sword, presenting it back to the captain.
“Better than me by a fair shake,” he said.
“To be fair, it was a lucky shot,” she said, smiling at the captain.
“Nonsense. I’m not so proud that I can’t admit being bested in fair sword play. I’m a captain, not a master fencer. You have your command,” he said, stepping aside to allow her onboard. “How long do you think you’ll want to stay with us?”
“I can’t say, sir. Time will tell. I may depart at Passage, or I may stay on for some time, depending on how the position strikes my fancy.”
“As you will. Be sure to talk with Bandar and arrange some sword lessons for the new men. Get them sized up, and figure out what they need to be good fighting men. And pick a second, just in case you drop dead.”
The captain returned to the helm. She followed after, the wolf at her heel.
“Is the wolf coming with you?”
“Where I go, the wolf goes.”
“Meat for it comes out of your pay.”
“Bandar will get you settled once we’re under way. What’s your name, shifter?”
“Ashnalla Heath, sir.”
“Ashnalla. I’ll call you shifter. Do you mind?”
She smiled wryly, “No, sir.”
Murias leaned over Tef’s shoulder, looking at the forged documents.
“They look perfect to me.”
“Yes. Me too,” Tef acknowledged, “but I don’t know what inspectors are looking for, exactly.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter too much, I think. If we don’t draw attention to ourselves, there shouldn’t be any problem."
A soft knock sounded on their cabin door. Tef froze for a moment, then slid the papers into his backpack. Murias watched, then slid the deadbolt on the door, opening it just a hair. The new marine Ashnalla stood outside their cabin.
Captain’s informed me that you’re traveling at least as far as Passage. If you intend to disembark and return to the ship, I’d like to offer my services for the duration of your time in the city. I’ve heard you came aboard a little banged up.”
Murias bowed his head slightly.
“I appreciate the offer, but we’ll be all right. Thank you.”
The hours passed, and Tef found himself on the bow of the Swift Sea, watching as the city of Passage grew near. The port was crowded with small local fishing vessels, trading ships, and all manner of water traffic. The city sat on the eastern shore of Lake Galifar. It was by far the greatest city on the lake, home to tens of thousands, and unfortunately for Tef, the seat of power for house Orien. He hoped to use their very strength against them though.
Passage was the beginning of the lightning rail line, operated by the Orien family, the greatest marvel of their age. It would allow him to travel at great speed to the south.
After the Swift Sea came into port, Tef and Murias gathered their belongings, and walked to the gangplank. Ashnalla watched them depart. She followed on their heels, stopping next to Bandar.
“Can I get my pay?” she asked, hastily.
“Sign there,” Bandar said, indicating his ledger. He opened his coffer and counted out her small stack of silver. “Are you going to be back before we sail?”
“I might, but don’t hold the ship up on my account,” she said, stalking off.
“We don’t hold the ship up on no one’s account,” he said, more to himself that to the departing shifter.
Murias led Tef away from the ship. The docks were teeming with fishermen, dock workers, and less savory types. Murias kept a sharp eye out for anyone who might be moving toward them. His eyes darted nervously about. Even in his home town of Wyr, brigands had accosted him. In this large, strange town, his nerves were all on edge. The mix of unfamiliar sights and sounds only added to his apprehension.
Murias stared in wonder at the huge structure that made up the lightning rail station. He’d seen palaces that were less impressive. Gray granite was exquisitely crafted into a stone structure of magnificent beauty. High arches gave the place a breezy feeling. The roof was finished in red clay shingles, and the high vaulted ceilings inside the station were finished in mosaic tiles of brilliant hues. Marble floors were laid in geometric designs, and as Murias wandered through the great complex, a white marble fountain with a statue of a unicorn came into view. The priest struggled to keep from jostling strangers as his neck craned around to see all of the splendor.
The jewel in the crown of the station was the great magical contraption, the lightning rail coach itself. He had conjured images in his own mind of the lightning rail, where it was little different from normal wagons, strung together with metal couplings. And in some aspects that was accurate, except he had missed the scope of the size of each individual cart by an order of magnitude. Seeing them now, he suspected each might fit a gross of passengers, or carry cargo equal to a larger coaster. The carts also had no wheels, and simply floated in the air, occasionally crackling electricity between protrusions on the bottom, and the ground. The front of the contrivance was a huge iron monstrosity; the likes of which Murias had never seen. It was layers of metal plates in a rather cylindrical form, flattened on the bottom, with a rather spherical structure in its midst, which glowed blue, and again crackled with energy. Murias had been told that these creations worked by entrapping powerful elementals, and he suspected the glowing blue area was where the elemental resided.
Men in formal service attire stood on short platforms with megaphones, shouting the names of destinations. In the echoing chaos of the station, his ear picked up a shout of ‘All Points South’.
He turned and tugged the cloak of the youth with him, pointing Tef in the right direction. The pair approached the platform warily. As Murias stood near the edge of the platform, he could see a line of massive stones imbedded in the ground. Each was traced with arcane writing. Faint sparks danced over their surfaces. Murias understood them to be the conduit for the lightning rail.
Tef tapped his shoulder plates, and the priest turned.
“I think we need boarding passes. Over there,” Tef pointed.
The pair made their way to the waiting attendant.
“How much for passage to Sterngate?” Tef asked.
The attendant consulted a list on the desk before him, lifted a thin wooden rod, and flicked beads on an adding device.
“Six hundred and twelve gold, sir,” the attendant said without a flinch. His eyes lifted, fixed for a moment on Murias, and returned to Tef.
“Is there any way to decrease the cost?”
The attendant, a thin but relatively regal looking human turned his attention to Murias.
“Are you an ordained clergy of the Sovereign Host?”
“I am,” Murias confirmed, sliding his traveling papers across the desk for the attendant to examine.
“If you give me a minute, I’ll see what might be arranged,” the attendant said pleasantly.
He stood, and moved off toward a row of doors. Once Tef was certain the attendant was out of earshot, he turned to Murias.
“Unless they come down to a hundred each, there’s no way I can afford this.”
“Don’t worry. The Sovereign Host will provide a way, if it’s meant to be.”
Tef shook his head, seriously doubting the ability of the Host to aid in matters of commerce.
A minute slid by, and Tef watched the people moving through the station. He should have taken notice of the class of people here, all very well to do.
“Maybe we’d be better off trying to hire on as escort for a wagon train. It wouldn’t be as fast, but we’d get there, and with a lot more coin in our purse,” Tef suggested.
“You’ve had days aboard the Swift Sea to think about this, and you’re just now starting to consider traveling by roads? Anyway, that would subject us to house Orien men at every waypoint, and every inn. Once we’re on the rail, we’ll be clear to Sterngate.”
Tef sighed, shrugged off his pack, and began digging for his coins.
“How can anyone afford six hundred gold? You could buy a wagon, a team of horses, and hire a teamster to drive you around the whole continent for that.”
Tef sat up realizing that perhaps hiring a driver wasn’t such a bad idea. They could hide in the back of the wagon, and get there in their own good time. Certainly, Lord d’Orien couldn’t search every wagon in every town across the whole continent.
Tef was about to vocalize his idea when he spotted the house Orien officer approaching. Tef couldn’t be sure if the man was the controller of the lightning rail coach, or if he had some administrative function, but the uniform marked him as a fairly high ranking individual.
“I am Sergeant Andatir d’Orien. I understand you’re looking for passage to Sterngate,” he said, smiling cordially. “If you’ll come with me, I’ll see what I can do.”
The wrinkles in his face were deeply etches, and his hair and mustache were sprinkled generously with white hair among the raven black.
He led the pair into a quiet waiting area, away from the main station.
“If I may see your papers,” Andatir asked of Murias.
Murias produced them. The sergeant studied them for a minute.
“I’m willing to allow you passage for two hundred gold each. If that’s not satisfactory, then I might be able to arrange a less opulent transport, if you don’t mind staying on a cargo cart. For that, I would be willing to allow passage at seventy-five gold each.”
“Thank you, sir. We accept,” Tef announced.
Murias threw him a glance which Tef couldn’t decipher.
“Very well then,” Andatir said, handing Murias his papers, “Let’s see to your boarding passes.”
The pair followed him back to the main area of the station. Upon immerging back at the southbound platform, both were instantly aware that the din from the crowds was gone, and the platform empty. Tef hesitated, turning to look back at the corridor they’d immerged from. Against the wall behind him were ten crossbowmen in heavy armor. He froze. Murias turned as well, exhaled heavily, and reached for his sword. As he did, the doors of the lightning rail car rolled open on tracks, and ten more crossbowmen stood with weapons trained on the pair. Sergeant Andatir d’Orien walked quickly out of the path of crossfire.
From the narrow corridor they’d just exited, footfalls echoed. Ashnalla immerged accompanied by her wolf. Its claws clacked softly on the marble.
“Sorry to cut your trip short,” she said smugly.
“What’s this about, Ashnalla?” Murias barked.
“Not about you, priest, that’s for sure. I’m after your friend. Tef, is it now? Or would you prefer I call you Lady ir’Othar? Does it matter to a changeling?”
Murias looked from the huntress to his companion.
Lord Ekhenas d’Orien sat at his comfortable chair in front of his desk, and picked up his pile of morning dispatches. He separated the correspondences into small stacks. One was sent via house Sivis’ message service. Ekhenas broke the wax seal and read the message rapidly.
“Returning with prey in hand. Taking land route. Will send further word from Fairhaven. Expect next dispatch tomorrow. – Heath”
Ekhenas exhaled in relief. The troublesome changeling had disturbed him to the point of causing stomach pains. He continued with the rest of his correspondence, which stretched on for an hour.
His last dispatch was one which had come the long route from Sharn in the far south of Breland. It reported the loss of one slave galley in the Straits of Shargon. The dispatch listed six slaves which were officially considered part of Lord d’Orien’s properties. He sighed slightly, and opened his slave ledger, making note of each individual, noting their status as dead, and moving to the next. Last on the list was one hobgoblin slave named Orgok. He checked several sections of the book, unable to find the name listed in any of the purchases, then closed the ledger. Obviously, someone had gotten some information wrong. He didn’t own any such slave.
Out of curiosity, he opened the ledger to a single page, containing only twelve names, and scanned the list. Sure enough, among the twelve names on the page, one remained that had not been marked as deceased; ‘Orgok’, third name on the list. In a smooth hand, Ekhenas noted ‘deceased’ beside the name.
He blew gently on the drying ink, thinking about the happy little finality. A voice inside the dark recesses of his mind had bothered him for years about the remnants of the hobgoblins used for the assault on Otharaunt, but his pragmatic side couldn’t let him simply kill them when they could be put to work for house Orien. Now, the matter was finally over, once and for all.