An origin story in the Comstock Chronicles
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Now for this week’s chapter of The Fire Drake…
CHAPTER 4 – LAMBSWELL
Bartley Westrimus placed the fingers of his gloved hand on the black rock surrounding him. He hated coming to the ghost-infested land of the Black Waste. However, the wights knew better than to bother him unless they wanted to end their miserable experience.
Passing beneath the onyx spires, Bartley took a swig of his preferred drink of malted barley. This drink had earned him the nickname of “Barley Breath” from his quarry, but it didn’t bother him enough to want to give up the liquor. What did the brat know, anyway.
Mist hung heavy around him like a drape, proving the wights had been here recently. Their penetrating cold hung in the air like a poisonous vapor, chilling Bartley to his bones. However, he wasn’t about to use his fire gift. It didn’t do to attract unwanted attention in the Black Waste.
The soldier rubbed his gloved fingers together. As he spread his fingers again, soot residue coated their surface. A naive fire user had given in to the heat when the air grew too cold.
Bartley took off his glove and touched the soot covered stone. Pulling his palm back, red sparks blazed to life in the shape of a dragon. The mark of the Protector of Ballitus, of Azroth Phoenix.
He curled his lip. Judging by the amount of soot on the rocks, the boy lived to run away. No one else carried the mark of the fire drake.
Why the Guardian of Fire had gifted this boy with such magic was beyond him. And now, his king had ordered him to find the brat.
“You’re mine, you little roach.”
Azroth slunk along the dry grass as he skirted past by the edge of the military city of Illium on Ballitus’s northern border. The yellow spindly sticks clung to his clothes as he crawled along on his belly. He’d waited until dark was entirely upon the landscape before trying to cross the no-man’s-land. If he got caught by Ballitus soldiers, they’d torture him, then ship him back to Veridon with hands held out waiting for a prize from their king. He wasn’t sure what to expect from the Tellidine soldiers.
Though not officially at war, Ballitus soldiers frequently stirred up trouble along their northern border. They’d cross over the eight-foot wall that divided the two countries and visit the northern towns and cities of Tellidus, causing as much trouble as possible.
The Tellidines responded by first beating them, then tossing them out of their cities. For those who went too far, they were hung from the ramparts as examples to others daring to cross the no-man’s land. It did nothing to curb the hostilities, however, as Ballitus had no civilian cities on this side of the Black Waste.
The grass stuck to his torn and dirty jacket, making Azroth itch. While traveling through the ruins of Liteya, the original capital of the Comstock Empire, Azroth had encountered wraiths and jinn. The jinni who’d taken up residence in the Topaz Palace did not take kindly to being disturbed. Azroth barely made it out, just as he had with the wights.
Once the Ballitus garrison lay behind him, Azroth broke into a run. He sprinted until his lungs beat on his chest for air. The moment he slid across the wall that divided Ballitus from Tellidus, however, Azroth slid to a stop. His Firespark dimmed as he set foot on the Tellidus side, and he shivered from the cold. A deep consciousness seemed aware of him. A coyote yipped in the distance, causing Azroth to jump.
He must be imagining it. No one could see him in the tall yellow grass that spread throughout the no-man’s-land, especially in the dark.
Azroth dropped to his belly again as he neared the Tellidus soldiers’ garrison. No one appeared to be on watch as he drew closer to the walls, but he wouldn’t take any chances. The boy hugged the ground until the Tellidine military city was well behind him. Dawn was on the rise and he shivered as the fall air of the north chilled his bones. Wesley hadn’t mentioned how much colder it was up here.
A city rose in the distance as the sun crested the eastern mountains. Azroth reached into the satchel Hanzi had given to him for a piece of dried meat. His hand came out empty. Peering inside the cloth bag, he turned it upside down to see if there were any scraps he’d missed. The heads of cheat grass were all he got.
His stomach rumbled loudly in protest, causing him to clutch his middle. Despite the abuse he’d received at Nero’s hand, Azroth had never experienced genuine hunger the way it gnawed at his belly now. He must have eaten his last piece of dried meat before crossing the no-man’s-land.
Azroth shivered again as a stiff wind whipped around him like it was trying to snuff out his fire. He clutched at his gift, trying to stave off the cold biting his face. The wind retaliated by blowing harder and knocking him sideways.
He was getting the impression the land of Tellidus didn’t like fire. Everything about him felt unwelcome. However, each time he checked the compass, it continued to point him in this direction. Azroth paused before the gate guarding the city before him. The name “Lambswell” was etched into the center the arch.
Azroth clutched his empty satchel. What if they threw him out? His clothes from the nomads seemed similar to what others around him were wearing. Yet, he couldn’t shake the fear that they’d see through him. That they’d see he was a murderer, and the son of a hostile king in a foreign land.
Morning shoppers entered, breaking around him like water on a boulder. The stones of the wall throughout the no-man’s-land were just rocks stacked on top of one another with a smear of cement. The stonework of this city’s walls, however, stood at an impressive height and was carved with edges that looked sharp enough to cut.
In contrast, graceful arches and spires rising above the buildings and entrances left him in awe of how smooth they appeared. That was, until someone pushed him from behind, nearly shoving him to the ground.
“Get moving, boy. You’re blocking the road,” grumbled a man holding the rope of a giant ox. The brown monstrosity pulled a cart heavily laden with goods wearing a doleful expression that stated today was no different from any other day.
An idea struck Azroth, getting an appreciative growl from his stomach.
“Are you a merchant?” Azroth moved to the side to allow the man pass.
“So what if I am?” the man challenged as he lumbered by. “A Balli like you couldn’t afford anything I sell.”
Azroth had no idea what a Balli was. “I’d help you unload your cart if you have some food to spare,” he said, jogging to keep up.
“I don’t take on strays, especially not ones that sound like they’re from across the wall,” the man said and sped up the pace of his ox.
Azroth pursed his lips. He didn’t speak differently, did he? As he listened to the gathering crowd moving inside the gate, however, he heard subtle differences in the way they spoke to one another. It was softer, less on the tips of their tongues, and they drew certain words out that he usually said with a clipped tone. The boy tried to mimic their speech patterns, but couldn’t get his mouth to work right.
His stomach growled, again. It was time to find food. Azroth entered the city and found himself gaping at what he saw. The cream colored stone used to construct this city glittered with flecks that sparkled in the sunlight.
Somebody brushed by him, and he turned to see a boy of about fifteen staring at his hand with a grumpy expression. Azroth watched him curiously. The boy narrowed his eyes as he caught Azroth staring.
Not wanting to get into trouble and cause a scene, Azroth shuffled his feet down a street filled with enticing smells and away from the boy’s piercing glare. Glancing back to make sure the boy had moved on, Azroth pressed forward to the market place. However, he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was following him.
Azroth stopped in front of a merchant’s stall where a woman was setting up a display of cheeses. His stomach urged his hand forward as the woman turned her back.
He could swipe one of the small cheese rounds and make a run for it. It wouldn’t be any different from when he’d nicked food from the kitchens at Veridon castle. He was confident he could run faster than she could. However, the food in the kitchens at the castle was already his. This woman might rely on the money she earned from her cheeses.
“Excuse me,” Azroth said.
The woman turned around and eyed him shrewdly. “Yes? What do you want? Have you lost your parents?”
The question stung as flashes of Wesley on the stone bench lurched before his vision.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Azroth said.
The woman put her hands on her hips and peered around as though expecting a surprise attack. “Well, get on with it then.”
After another prod from his stomach, Azroth stumbled on. “I was wondering if I… if I helped you set up your display, if you’d pay me with some of your cheese. My food ran out.”
The woman’s stern expression softened. “If you’re earnest, I’d appreciate the help. Go to the cistern pump on near the gate and clean the grim off your hands. Then you can help me.”
A smile cracked Azroth’s face. “I’ll be right back.”
He ran to the cistern she’d indicated and scrubbed his hands as fast as possible, removing a week’s worth of dirt he didn’t realize he’d been carrying. Once done, Azroth raced between market goers to return to the woman. The thought of hearty cheeses on his tongue made him salivate.
Just as he was about to turn the last corner, a hand grabbed his jacket and yanked him into a dark side street. His head met the sparkling stone wall, and stars exploded in his vision.
“What does a rat like you think you’re doing on my turf?” a gruff voice said in Azroth’s ear.
The point of a knife poked through the coarse fabric of his jacket, pricking his skin.
Azroth brought his eyes up to meet the young man who’d bumped into him earlier. Anger welled up within. The cheese woman was waiting for him with food, and this street urchin was preventing his return.
“I think you need to look in the mirror and decide who the rat really is,” Azroth spat.
Red sparks danced on the tips of his fingers, but he allowed them to dissipate as the promise he’d made to himself returned.
I won’t hurt another person.
The knife’s point pressed harder on Azroth’s skin, and the desire to reach for his fire gift increased.
I won’t hurt another person, he repeated to himself.
Azroth waited for the boy to get on with it, but he hesitated. A disgusted grimace touched the corners of Azroth’s mouth. If this boy was going to kill him, he would’ve already done so. Why did he hesitate? He appeared to be no stranger with a knife.
Then it dawned on Azroth. He wants something. He’d seen his father toy with his victims often enough to recognize the posture.
Azroth extinguished the fire within.
“You better watch yourself, vermin. I own this side of the city.”
Azroth raised an eyebrow. “They’re allowing gits to run this city? No wonder anyone can walk through the gates.”
“Your accent sounds deeper than the common Tellidine, even for these parts. What’s a Balli doing here?” the boy asked, looking him up and down.
“I’m here to eat. And the woman with the cheese stand has promised me food if I help her.”
“Is that so?” The pressure on the knife at Azroth’s middle decreased, as did the forearm pressing into his neck. “You convinced old Marjorie to allow you to work for food?”
“If that’s her name, then yes.” Azroth clenched his teeth as a loud growl emanated from his stomach.
The boy leaned back, stroking his hairless chin. “If you can convince one of the hardest merchants in Lambswell to allow you to work for food, you must have a silver tongue.”
Azroth remained silent. He needed to get back to the cheese stand. It was growing late and he might miss his opportunity.
“Can I go now?” Azroth asked impatiently as the boy continued to study him.
The boy hitched a greasy smile on his face. “Course you can. Just meet me back here at the day’s end.”
“Why would I do that?” Azroth countered.
“Because if you really are a Balli, you’ll never find a place to sleep tonight except in someone’s doorway. You’ll either get yourself thrown in the bricks for loitering, or tossed into the no-man’s-land in view of your people’s soldiers, letting them take you back to wherever it was you came from.”
A glint flared to life in the boy’s eye when Azroth squirmed beneath his scrutiny.
Azroth pushed past the boy, doing his best to hide the worry the words had caused. He hadn’t even thought about finding a place to sleep. All he’d wanted was food.
Making his way back to the cheese stand, Azroth spent the next several hours with the woman keeping her cheese table stocked and being as helpful as his twelve-year-old self could be. The woman would periodically cut a slice of cheese and hand it to him with a hunk of bread, and Azroth savored every bite.
When all the cheese was sold, the woman, whom he learned was indeed called Marjorie, turned to him and said, “Hold out your hand.”
Azroth did as instructed, expecting a final gift of cheese and bread.
Instead, Marjorie placed ten copper coins into his palm. Azroth’s eyes grew wide.
“I’ve watched you all day,” she said. “You never once attempted to steal from me, and you provided some much-needed help keeping my stand stocked while I haggled with customers. I’ll pay you more if you come back tomorrow and help me again.”
Marjorie brushed her brown flyaway hair out of her eyes.
Gratitude swelled in Azroth’s chest. More food, and more money. Maybe he could make it here after all. And once he made enough, he could travel to the capital and see for himself if Wesley’s description of the king of Tellidus was right.
Then maybe, he could return and find Imogen and bring her here. Azroth wondered what she was doing, and if she was OK. He wished he could see her.
“I’ll be here,” Azroth promised. “Thank you.”
With a full belly and the promise of a job in his new home, Azroth asked for directions to the nearest inn. The cream stone walls of the impressive inn met him with double wooden doors. The roof’s wooden shingles fit snugly, while graceful beams supported the second story.
Clutching his coins inside his pocket, Azroth strode inside and up to the counter.
“I’d like a room, please,” Azroth said when it was his turn.
The man leaned over the polished wood to leer at him. “Where are your parents?”
Azroth didn’t have the lie quick enough to respond.
The man leaned back with a sneer. “How do you expect to pay for a room, young man?”
“I have ten coppers,” Azroth said.
The innkeeper laughed derisively. “Ten coppers? Oi! Leo!”
A man with short-cropped hair and a beard who’d been leaning on the bar strode forward. His burly build rippled with muscles. While brown eyes narrowed in on Azroth and his dirty clothes.
“This young man says he’d like a room for ten coppers,” the inn keeper said, barely hiding his mirth when Leo got within earshot.
The brawny man chuckled as he raised an eyebrow. “We must give him the royal treatment, then.”
The man called Leo grabbed Azroth by the scruff of his neck, steered him toward the door, and chucked Azroth out into the streets.
“Come back when you have real money,” Leo called before slamming the door of the inn shut.
Azroth, flipped over and red sparks shone on his fingers.
“Yeah, I’ll come back. And I’ll burn down your fancy inn when I do,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck.
The boy from the side street was leaning against the building opposite with a smug expression.
Azroth ignored him and brushed himself off, heading farther into the heart of the city. There had to be an inn somewhere that would accept his money. Or at least offer a place to sleep that wasn’t on the streets.
However, Azroth quickly discovered that not everyone was as generous as Marjorie. After being thrown out into the streets for the fifth time, the smug boy reached out a hand to lift Azroth from the dusty road.
“Are you ready to accept my help?” he asked.
“I don’t even know your name,” Azroth said angrily, dusting off his jacket and trousers. “Why would I accept help from you?”
“The name is Gabe, and after being thrown out of an inn for the fifth time, I thought you might be running out of options. Plus, you’re getting dangerously close to Riddick’s end of town, and he’s not as forgiving of trespassers as I am.”
“Who’s Riddick?” Azroth asked.
Gabe smirked. “He’s the boss of the north half of Lambswell.”
“Why are you trying to help me? What do you want?” Azroth asked shrewdly.
“To be transparent, I want your skills and will offer payment for services rendered. It just may not always be with coins.”
Gabe casually flicked the dark hair out of his eyes.
“What’s your name, Balli?” Gabe asked as he leaned against the side of a building again.
“Fen,” Azroth said, using the shortened name Hanzi had given him.
He feared to use the full name of “Fennix” as it was too close to “Phoenix,” but Fen should allow him to avoid connection with his surname and the terror it instilled.
“Well, Fen, what do you say?” Gabe waited for an answer.
“What do you want me to do?” Azroth asked, still unsure if he wanted to trust this boy. “Slit people’s throats while their backs are turned?”
Gabe waved the comment away. “Your job would be much simpler. All I want you to do is keep buttering up old Marjorie, share some of your coins, and you’ve got food and a place to stay.”
“You won’t require me to do more than that?” Azroth said.
“Come on,” Gabe said, swinging an arm around Azroth’s bony shoulders. “Let me show you your new home.”
Gabe led Azroth to the outskirts of Lambswell near the wall. The buildings in this part of the city were primarily constructed of wood, and Azroth’s fingers twitched. So many things to burn. His mind lit up as he considered the blaze he’d have at his disposal if he allowed his gift to run wild. The fire drake he conjured would purr with delight at so much food.
Easy, now, he warned himself.
The red spark on his fingers longed to be put to use. But his gift would only hurt the people who dwelled in these towering matchsticks. Also, he’d made a promise to himself.
Gabe pushed a piece of drying laundry hanging low out of the way for Azroth.
“We’re here.” Gabe eyed the three-storied, ramshackle building with the pride of a king over his castle. “Welcome to the Haggis.”
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