If it the three traveling through the Fyrnwald got along famously, the same could not be said of Sedrick and Eos. Two opposite personalities, both cautious and distrusting of others, both used to leading, they often clashed; they argued about everything.
“I’m telling you, dear, we should split up, so we can cover more ground,” Eos said through clenched teeth.
Sedrick rolled his eyes. “Calling me ‘dear’ doesn’t do much to convince everyone we are a happy couple visiting the capital together, especially if you keep snarling at me. And certainly not if we separate. What kind of man would let his beloved wander the markets alone?”
“Well then let’s get on with it!”
“It shouldn’t be too hard to find an eastern artifact in Tamworth – the king appreciates fine wares. There are sure to be merchants selling something that fits the description. It won’t take long, so you might as well enjoy it.” Sedrick tried to be patient with his companion. He smiled amicably, hoping to disarm her by responding kindly. He received an eye roll for his efforts.
They entered the capital city through the west gate. Eos was used to larger cities, but Sedrick boggled at all the sights and smells that greeted him, and the ostentatious buildings. Everywhere he saw the people of Anglorum, but there were many foreigners traveling throughout the city – they spoke in unfamiliar languages and looked nothing like the people of his home town.
Eos sighed. “Well, what exactly are we looking for?”
“The hermit wasn’t terribly specific, unfortunately. He said to look for some religious object of the Easterman, black with a gold engraving. I would assume it isn’t terribly large, if it is something used in worship by individuals. But it has to be large enough to contain within it some other element.”
“Makes sense. Something smaller like a medallion would probably leave little behind once the exterior was melted down.”
The city was laid out in a somewhat circular design, like a wheel with several spokes leading to Tamworth keep in the center, and its monastery beside. Eos turned toward a street that seemed promising and started walking. “I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat while we search.”
The road she selected appeared to have been a good choice – there were many food vendors with fresh fruit, meat, and other exotic delicacies for sale.
“This looks interesting.” She said to Sedrick as she approached the closest stall. Then, of the vendor she asked, “What is this fruit?”
“This, pretty lady, is a fig. It is sweet and delicious, a staple in my home country.” The fig merchant replied with a thick accent, holding one out for her to examine.
“It looks very nice. I’ll take two.”
“Ah, pretty lady, I make you a deal. You buy three, and I will give four. You can share with your husband. He will enjoy the soft flesh of the fruit too.” He smiled winningly and winked.
“Uh, yes, for my husband. Very well, I will buy three.” Eos handed over the coins and picked up four of the dark purple fruit. She handed two to Sedrick who eyed the unfamiliar produce suspiciously.
“Please, taste, tell me if you like,” said the man.
Eos bit into the soft, dark skin, exposing its bright red interior. Her eyes lit up when she tasted the sweetness and the unusual texture of the fruit. The crimson juice dripped down her chin. She wiped it off, rather indelicately, with the corner of her dark cloak. “It’s delicious!”
The little man clapped his hands together, pleased to have another satisfied customer. “Excellent! When you want more, you come back and see old Behrooz, hmm?”
“Of course. Thank you, Behrooz,” replied Sedrick, uncertain of the way the unusual name felt on her tongue.
The two dragon riders ate the remaining figs as they walked through the market. The raven-haired woman attracted the attention of visitors to the capital; though she was wearing her cloak, it was obvious that she wore breeches instead of a dress. This simply was not done in Anglorum.
When they came to the traders’ row they realized there were far more merchants than anticipated. They scanned the street ahead of them and tried to see past the milling crowd. There were tradesmen hawking traditional wares: cloth, leather, pottery, trinkets and the like. There was even a shop entirely devoted to selling hats. In addition to the vendors selling local goods and everyday wares, there were also traders selling exotic spices, tapestries and rugs from the east, and other things the dragon riders couldn’t even begin to describe. The street was long and narrow, with booths situated on either side, facing each other.
“Looks like you were right,” Sedrick said.
Eos raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“We might have to split up. There are too many for us to visit them each together and finish by nightfall.” Eos smiled smugly. Sedrick added, “But we need to stay close. We don’t know who may be after us. I’ll start on the left, you start on the right, and we’ll work our way down the row. We need to stay within sight of each other, and not get separated.”
The Thulian nodded her agreement and the two parted ways, Sedrick taking the stalls on the north side, Eos the south. The first few booths Eos came to contained items that were interesting, but not relevant to their search. There was a booth selling spices and herbs (she quickly purchased some rare ones for her sister), one selling elaborate tapestries and various textiles, and one merchant that sold perfumes and oils.
Sedrick and Eos worked their way quickly through the row of merchants, until Eos was distracted by a shady-looking man selling exquisite blades. She picked one up and tested the balance, deftly flipping it in the air and catching it. She spent more than a few minutes trying out various throwing knives and daggers before she selected several fine weapons and purchased them.
The next trader’s booth was more promising – it was run by a bearded Easterman with a deep azure turban and flowing robes. On display he had dozens of unusual objects; pots, urns, medallions, statuettes of horses, figurines of strange creatures, and other items, all for sale.
“Can I help the lady find something?” The man asked. He had a kindly demeanor and spoke with the slight accent of someone who has spent years learning the languages of his customers.
“No, thank you. I’m just looking for now.” The Easterman nodded graciously and became engrossed in conversation with another customer.
Eos scanned the rows of trinkets, her eyes finally resting on an ornately carved box. It was round and about the size of a man’s fists when held togeher. She picked it up to examine it more closely. It was smooth to the touch, quite heavy, and on top was carved the image of two intertwined serpents, each eating the tail of the other. The snakes were gilt with gold filigree. It appeared to have a seam splitting the top from the bottom, as though it should open, but there was no hinge and Eos could not figure out how to open it.
“Sir, what is this?” She held the box out in front of him.
“That is an ornamental sunduq, made of obsidian. The black rock is prized for its durability and smooth shine when polished, and the gold is the purest in all the land.”
“It’s lovely. How much is it?”
The kind Easterman told her the amount – more than Eos was willing to pay without first consulting her partner. “Thank you, I will return.” She replaced the artifact gently on the table and left to find Sedrick. By this time, he was already quite a bit farther down the merchants’ row. It took her several minutes to catch up. She told him of her find and they agreed it was close to the description Rhith had given. They returned to the Easterman’s booth. Eos looked for the black box, but it was not where she left it.
“Excuse me,” said Sedrick. “The box my, uh, wife was looking at, we would like to buy it.”
“I am very sorry, but someone has just purchased it. I have many other fine wares in which you may be interested.” He gestured across his table of baubles and trinkets.
Before the pirate captain’s temper could flare, Sedrick placed a calming hand on her arm and asked, “The man who bought it, what did he look like?”
“He was a tall man, regal in bearing. He spoke my native tongue. I believe he was dressed in brown.” The old merchant lowered his voice to a whisper, “He greatly resembled… Qatal Aleazim. When someone who appears to be an assassin wants to buy your wares, you do not refuse.”
Eos sighed in exasperation. “Are there any like it for sale anywhere else?” She clenched her fists, frustrated that they had come so close to their goal, only to have it snatched from their reach.
“There is another who sells items similar, though mine are superior in quality. Are you sure there is nothing else that will interest you?”
Sedrick could tell the man was loath to lose a sale to another vendor (especially one whose quality he considered lesser) so he tried a different tack. “This brooch is lovely. My…our daughter would love this for her cloak for her coming of age ceremony. I’ll take it…and the directions to the one who has the other black box.” It was a simple silver pin crafted in the shape of an acorn. The Easterman smiled brightly. “Thank you, sir. I am certain she will be most pleased with the gift. The man you seek has a stall at the very end of Merchant’s Row.” He pointed in the direction as he pocketed the coins Sedrick had given him.
“Thank you, you have been very helpful.”
The bearded man bowed in thanks. “Salaam Alaikum, travelers.”
The two riders passed quickly through the crowded street without calling undue attention to themselves. As they walked through the milling shoppers and past the vendors hawking their wares, they thought they caught a glimpse of a man following them – a man in brown. They increased their pace. Sedrick took Eos’ hand so they would be less likely to be separated. Normally, she would have protested, but the sight of the renowned assassin caused her breath to catch, and she remembered what the old man at the inn had said about the assassin only being seen when he wants to be seen. This was an unfamiliar feeling for her. She swallowed nervously and reached for her new knives with her free hand, resisting every urge to turn and confront their pursuer.
The shop they were seeking was indeed the last on Merchant’s Row. It butted up against a wall as though it had been stuffed there at the last minute and set up in a hurry. This part of the market was much more dreary, and there were fewer shoppers passing this way, so the vendor was alone.
The companions laid eyes on the black box at the same time and spoke in unison. “We’d like to buy that.” They briefly locked eyes.
Their sudden appearance and exclamation startled the short, stout vendor. He had a thick moustache and wore a flat, droopy hat. His appearance was strikingly different from that of the Easterman vendor, Behrooz.
“Ey! ‘Ello! No need to scare me, eh? Maurizio will sell-a what you wants.” He told them the price – which was much more reasonable than what Behrooz had asked – and they agreed. The foreign man picked up the black and gold object as though he thought it might bite him. He carefully wrapped it in protective cloths and placed it in a wool sack painted with a large letter M.
The man squinted at them, examining them closely like he might when appraising an item for purchase. “What makes-a you wanna buy the black box, eh?”
Sedrick fumbled around for an answer – they had not prepared for this part of the deception.
Eos covered for him, “My husband’s father, he is a wealthy man and he wants to impress a guest with a rare and valuable gift.”
“Ah, your guest is an alchemist, then?”
“What makes you say that?” Sedrick asked, raising an eyebrow.
The round man shrugged. “It is bellisimo, beautiful, but it does no open. And that symbol,” he put a finger to the side of his nose, knowingly, “is of the old alchemists who live far, far away. Strange, is-a very strange men.”
The two riders glanced at each other, each silently wondering whether there was any connection to the object and the alchemist Nithard Cyning had hired to “help”.
“No,” Sedrick replied slowly, “I do not think he is an alchemist, but, uh…”
“He collects objects, from throughout the land,” Eos supplied.
“Ah. That makes-a some sense. Be careful, eh? You can no tell what might happen with something like that, eh?”
The two thanked the man and left to find somewhere to stay the night. As they walked they speculated on what the connection might be between the object, the hermit, the assassin, and Maurus Bur Adil. There was no sign of the man who had been following them earlier.
“We should tell Alisdair, he would want to know of this immediately,” Sedrick said.
“Agreed. I’ll talk to Miniog, you find us something to eat. I’m starving.” Eos reached out with her mind to her dearest friend and told him everything that had happened in Merchants’ Row. She received confirmation from her bladed dragon that Alisdair had understood the information, and that he also could find no explanation for the connection. She relayed this information to Sedrick as they came upon the inn.
The Mug and Mermaid was larger and more modern than The Weeping Weevil had been. From the open windows they could smell the scent of fresh meat and vegetables cooking. They salivated, anticipating the hot meal they would soon enjoy. The travelers were famished, having eaten nothing but a few figs that morning. Inside the tavern it was well-lit and swept clean. The establishment was clearly one of the most popular in town, and it gave the appearance of being prosperous and well-liked. The barkeep who greeted them was a round man with a balding head and a thick, yellow mustache.
“An how can I help you fine folk this afternoon? The house special today is our famous beef stew, and honey cakes, hot from the oven just now.”
“Yes, thank you. My wife and I will have a table and some of your fine-smelling stew.”
They went through the usual pleasantries, telling the fabricated story of why they were in the capital, and asking about its inhabitants and the local sights. Their host was effusive in his praise of the king and of life in Tamworth.
“Will you and yer wife be wanting a room this evening?” the innkeeper asked.
Sedrick answered, “We will want two–”
Eos quietly stomped on his foot. “—stay just one night. This seems like such a wonderful place, and we really can’t see it all in one day, so we certainly want a room.” She smiled sweetly, pretending to be a cheerful young wife on a holiday to the capital with her husband.
“A room for the lovebirds! Yer stew will be right up.” The innkeeper slapped the table with one beefy hand and left to tell a serving maid to bring their supper.
Sedrick glowered at his companion. “What did you do that for?” He demanded.
“We’re a happy couple, Sedrick, remember?” Eos hissed under her breath. “If we are being followed by that man it will look suspicious if we rent two separate rooms.”
The rider blushed, and stammered, “I…thanks… that could have been a serious mistake.”
“Yes, it could have, but that’s why you have me here, to help.” She replied smugly.
“You can have the bed. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
It was Eos’ turn to be surprised. She was used to being treated as one of the men (after all, she was a dragon rider and captain of a sailing vessel) and alternatively as a hunk of meat to be drooled over. She had expected to flip a coin for the sole bed in the room. This simple act of decency from a fighting man took her aback. She didn’t know what to say, and after a few heartbeats replied, “I appreciate that. I truly do.”
“Don’t mention it. Ever.”
Eos awoke sprawled out in the rather large bed in their room at The Mug and Mermaid. The chamber was nearly twice as large as the one she had shared with her sister and Siri at The Weeping Weevil in Wealdhame. It was nicely furnished and included a small table, chairs, and a long window bench, which Sedrick was currently stretched out upon.
While the pirate captain was used to the bawdy comments of the sailors (which were rarely said directly to her, particularly since she was the daughter of the king and captain of a ship), the deferential treatment and respect Sedrick had shown her was new. It wasn’t that people were disrespectful, but such consideration without excessive adulation was not as expected from a commoner. Maybe she was wrong about him.
The morning light streamed through the open window on the second-story of the large inn and it was nearly fully light out by the time Sedrick awoke. Eos was already prepared for the return to their dragons and had braided her long tresses to keep them neat and out of the way. The plait pulled her hair from her face, giving her a more severe and exotic look, especially when combined with her high cheekbones and sharp nose.
“Morning, sleepy.” Eos tossed a pillow playfully at him. “It’s about time you were up. We need to pick up some supplies and get back to Miniog and Nax.
The dragon rider groaned and ran his fingers through his hair. “I must have…” he yawned, “really needed to sleep.”
“Apparently so,” she smirked. “But I need to eat. That stew was delicious and filling, but not that filling. I’ll go see what’s on the breakfast menu for this morning.”
Eos strapped on her knife belts, sheathed her sword, and went down for breakfast. She neglected to wear her cloak.
The dining area was filled with the inn’s patrons as well as other travelers seeking nourishment. She turned a few heads as she moved through the room, which was not surprising, given her striking features and unique dress. She found a place in line at the bar and waited her turn.
The bartender, skilled at his trade, barely hesitated when greeting the Thulian woman. “Good mornin’ miss, what can I get for you?”
Eos, remembering she was supposed to be a cheerful wife, flashed him a charming smile and asked sweetly, “Have you biscuits and honey? Maybe something warm to drink, for me and my husband. The stew last night was delicious.”
The bartender beamed. “I know just the thing!” He headed back to the kitchen, absently pulling at his yellow mustache.
While the bartender was gone, a greasy-looking man approached her. “Hey there, princess,” he said, not realizing the irony of his statement. Eos attempted to ignore him. He persisted, not taking the hint. “What’s a pretty thing like you doing here alone?” He looked her up and down approvingly, as a man might appraise a horse.
Eos replied evenly, “Thank you. You’re too kind. I’m not here alone. I’m traveling with my family…and my husband.”
The man sidled closer to her left side. “Izzat so? Where is your husband? With another woman?” He licked his lips salaciously. Eos restrained the urge to throttle the slimy man.
At that moment the bartender returned. He nearly dropped the tray of steaming food as shouted at the man leering at his new customer. “Nagaem! Leave the woman alone! She’s married, and she clearly doesn’t appreciate your advances.”
“I don’t need your help,” Eos replied through gritted teeth, her eyes never leaving the man’s face.
“I’m sure you don’t, miss, but I do not tolerate this kind of behavior toward my customers.” The innkeeper was indignant. “Now behave yourself, Nagaem, or I’ll have to do something about it.” He shook a sausage-like finger at the man, who was a regular customer and known for flirting with the ladies. Whether they flirted back was another question entirely.
“Aw, come on,” muttered Nagaem, inching closer to the gorgeous woman. “She doesn’t mind, do ya, sugarplum?” He reached out to stroke her thick braid with one hand.
Eos suddenly withdrew a knife from her belt and stabbed it expertly between the webbing of Nagaem’s left hand, which he had foolishly placed on the bar counter in front of her. Having trained with knives for many years, she knew exactly where to stab to immobilize and cause pain without maiming.
The man shrieked, “My hand! She’s cut my hand!”
Eos pressed the dagger firmly into the wood beneath the countertop, damaging its finish. “Don’t. Touch. Me.” She snarled, pressing the knife with every word. Nobody touched Eos Talorc, Princess of Thule, without her permission.
“N-n-no, miss. I’m sorry!”
“Do you know who I am?” growled Eos. “I am—”
“My wife!” Sedrick appeared at her side. “Now, sweetheart, you don’t want your mother to see you with blood stains on your new blouse, do you?”
The Thulian realized now that the tavern was completely silent. All eyes were watching the spectacle of their conversation, tense, ready to take cover if a fight should break out. Sedrick was not a large man, but he was well-muscled and his bearing was that of someone who could handle himself in a scuffle. Wisely, no one dared challenge the rider.
Eos forced herself to take a deep breath. “Thanks for reminding me, darling.” She removed the knife from Nagaem’s hand, glaring at him as she did so. He clutched the bleeding appendage to himself, staunching the flow of blood with a handkerchief.
“Here’s your cloak, dear,” Sedrick said. He draped it over the woman’s shoulders as she grabbed their breakfast and paid the bartender. The dragon rider put his arm around Eos protectively and escorted her from the inn. This time she did not protest.
“What were you thinking!” Sedrick practically yelled once he and Eos were a significant distance from the Mug and Mermaid.
She was silent, cowed, a rare occurrence in her life. She had almost given them away. If Sedrick hadn’t walked in when he did…I don’t know what might have happened, she thought miserably.
“Not only did you forget your cloak, but you created a scene and attracted the attention of the entire tavern!” Sedrick threw his hands up.
“Look, I’m sorry, all right?” Eos mumbled. In a rare show of vulnerability, she added, “I’m not used to having to sneak and be under cover, I’m used to slashing and killing whatever gets in my way, or having Miniog do it for me.” She shrugged.
Sedrick’s tone softened, and he sighed. “I know, I know…I just hope your actions won’t have negative consequences. If someone were to recognize us…”
She looked down at her hands, as though they held the answers. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t like that,” she said softly. She shrugged, unable to explain what she was feeling. Sedrick reached out and took her hand. She lifted her head toward him, gazing into his hazel eyes.
“Eos, we were all created the way we are, and for a reason. Some parts of our personality may need smoothing, but who we are at the core is exactly who we are meant to be. Your natural and impulsive response may someday save someone, in a way that your sister’s tender healing arts may not.” He smiled reassuringly.
She smiled back, a sweet rarity. If anyone else had seen the tender scene, they would have believed the ruse the two riders had intended them to believe. Eos blushed.
Suddenly feeling awkward and far too vulnerable, she pulled her hand away from Sedrick’s and searched for a distraction.
“Wait a minute…this is not the right way,” she said, the beautiful smile of a moment ago replaced with a look of irritation. She realized they had turned down the wrong side street when leaving the inn.
Ever the realist, Sedrick replied, “Nothing to worry about, it’s just a wrong turn. It won’t take long to get back to the west gate and to Miniog and Nax.”
The area of Tamworth where they found themselves was the most disreputable part they had yet encountered. The buildings lining the streets were old and crumbling; they appeared to have been abandoned. The houses made of wood rotted with decay, and those of stone brick were not maintained well, and rough vegetation grew out of any crack it could find. There was nobody on the street, which was odd for midmorning in the largest city of Anglorum.
“Something doesn’t feel right,” Sedrick said, his hand moving toward the hilt of his sword. “Be alert.”
The pair slowly turned around, keeping an eye on their backs, and began retracing their steps. The air was still and quiet, except for the distant din of the market a few streets over. The dragon riders made it to the end of the lane, when a tall man appeared from an alleyway to block their path. He was garbed in dark, finely-made clothes, and his face was concealed. Sedrick tightened his grip on his sword, and Eos surreptitiously reached for her knives.
“You must come with me,” he said in a thickly accented voice.
“We are fine where we are, thanks.” Sedrick replied.
“Not you, her.” He gestured toward Eos with his scimitar. “There is no choice, come or die.”
Eos and Sedrick made eye contact, somehow wordlessly agreeing on what they were to do.
Sedrick made a big show of drawing his sword from its scabbard, distracting the man. He spoke loudly, drawing attention to himself, “I challenge you to a duel, to defend the honor of this fair maid!”
Feigning distress, Eos stepped away from the dueling men and covered her face with one hand as though she could not bear to watch. With her other hand she readied her throwing knives. Sedrick and the man took up fighting stances.
The masked man instinctively grabbed his neck, reacting to the searing pain. He pulled his hand away, covered in blood, and then crumpled to the ground as the dark liquid seeped through his already dark robes.
“Good aim,” Sedrick said, his expression grim. He raised an eyebrow as he scrutinized the man’s appearance, prodding the body with a booted foot. He bent over to get a closer look at a clasp in the man’s cloak. “This man wears the symbol of a slaver.” The clasp was wrought in gold; two diamonds overlapping in the center.
“Are you going to stand there all day with your mouth hanging open? Let’s GO!” Eos said emphatically.
The two strode toward the Western gate, Sedrick with his sword still unsheathed. Eos pulled her hood up to cover her face. As they moved through the streets they noticed men lurking in the shadows of the city, clothed similarly to the slaver they had just killed. They men attempted to blend in with the growing crowd, but they were still observed by their prey.
“Why would they be following us?” Eos swiveled her head from side to side, taking stock of their surroundings.
“I don’t know. Maybe someone sent them after us. Or they could just be seeking a unique prize to take to their master.”
Eos gave him a piercing glare.
Sedrick sighed, “You did catch the attention of some unsavory sorts at the inn.”
Eos ignored the jab. “Keep moving. They’re getting closer.” Knowing it would likely come down to close-range combat, she withdrew her dirk and concealed it beneath her cloak. She removed her hood, no longer caring if she was seen; she wanted to be alert and aware of her surroundings, which she could not do while hooded.
They were mere yards from the Western gate when they were swiftly surrounded by the dark-clothed slavers, seven in all. They were garbed less finely than the man who had confronted them minutes before, but their intent was clear.
Miniog, we need your help! And Thurnaxus! Eos cried out with her mind.
By now the citizens of Tamworth had taken notice of the exotic woman and her companion, and the uniformed men surrounding them. People pointed and whispered, and a crowd began to form. Someone yelled “Fight!” and nearby shopkeepers hastily hid their wares, closing up shop as even more people gathered to watch.
Eos dropped her cloak and took up a fighting stance – Sedrick did the same. The crowd stepped back a several paces.
“Who sent you!” she challenged.
The nearest man leered at her, “It is of no consequence, there is none who will not pay a high price for you.” Some of the other men chuckled, eying her shapely form.
“Rich men would pay their weight in gold to have such a fierce goddess by their side,” said another. More sickening laughter followed. People in the crowed chuckled nervously, and their number grew.
Sedrick and Eos were back-to-back now, swords raised. Sedrick whispered frantically, “I can only take about three. I might be able to keep four occupied, can you take the other three?”
“At this close range, maybe. But, I called for–”
A deafening roar echoed across the city.
“…Miniog.” Eos finished, satisfied.
The deep red dragon landed on the top of the city’s wide wall, her talons causing the edges to crumble. Chaos ensued as the crowd fled for cover. She stretched out her neck and let forth a deafening cry accompanied by a burst of flame, sending a wave of heat over the city. The slavers blanched, frozen with fear.
The riders took advantage of the distraction and attacked the mercenaries, swiftly dispatching two and engaging three more. Miniog landed amongst them and grabbed the nearest man in her mouth. The sickening crunch of bones drove the remaining slavers to action – they dropped their swords and fled, shrieking madly. One slipped in his own vomit, and was soon incinerated by the unrelenting flame of Miniog Cwerthin.
Eos wiped her brow and retrieved her cloak as Sedrick cleaned his blood-stained sword on a tuft of grass. “Thank you, my dear Miniog, you have saved our lives again.” She put her forehead to her dragon’s, sharing her gratitude.
No man shall harm my friend. Miniog purred in satisfaction at a job well done. But we must not waste time. Something is wrong with the brown one.
Alarm suddenly crossed Eos’ face. The Thulian clambered up the back of her dragon and called to Sedrick, “Get on! We must go now…there’s something wrong with Nax!”
Behind them they left the smoldering remains of the slavers. Eos glanced back to the city where people frantically attempted to put out fires, but one man among them remained deathly still as he stared at the departing riders: Qatal Aleazim.