The city gates of Denneg awaited him like the gaping mouth of some terrible beast. Trinius felt his heart pounding in his throat as he approached them. This wasn’t even the main gate – only the imperial highways led to the main gate - but it was still well-protected, with flanking towers on either side and a portcullis to reinforce the wooden gates. Denneg had clearly increased its fortune since Trinius was last here. He’d only seen the city once, but that was years ago. The walls had since expanded and the gruff mercenary soldiers of old had been replaced by a professional militia with mail armour and matching red tunics that bore the crossed swords crest of Denneg. Predictably, the two guards posted by the gate moved to stop him.
“Halt, elf, state your name and business. Denneg is home to many fine traders, and we don’t want any crooks here,” the elder of the two guards said.
“I assure you, I’m not a crook, I’m just a mere traveler,” Trinius said, raising his hands in a gesture of innocence. “My name is Trinius Leafblade.”
“Oh? Then what brings you to Denneg? You don’t look like you have coin to spend,” the guard, whom Trinius decided to refer to as ‘the grumpy one’ said.
“I was hoping to find one of my friends here. We were traveling together when we were attacked by a group of thugs and got separated. I figured she may have made for the city. At least, I hope she did. Did she pass by here? It would’ve been only recently.”
“A lot of people pass by here,” the grumpy one shrugged. “Can’t expect me to remember every face.”
“She would’ve been alone, in a hurry, and she may have mentioned someone chasing her, because I don’t think those thugs-” Trinius continued, but the younger guard interrupted him. He looked at his companion doubtfully.
“Just now a woman did pass by here claiming she was being followed. She even demanded to speak to Captain Keran about it. But she didn’t mention any-”
“So she’s here? She’s alive? That’s wonderful news! Oh, she must’ve thought I was dead!” Trinius exclaimed, his words very much in conflict with what he felt inside.
“Wait,” the elder guard said, raising one hand to keep him at bay. “What is her name?”
“Alana,” Trinius said without second thought, hoping the Setani wasn’t going by a different name to cover her tracks.
“And what did the thugs look like? There are many bandits in this area, we may know some of them,” the younger guard continued.
“Well, they didn’t seem like common bandits. I’ll describe them carefully, so you’ll know them when you see them,” Trinius said, rubbing the back of his neck as if he were trying to remember something very hard. “One of them, the leader I think, is taller and more muscular than any man I’ve ever seen. He’s bald, with a closely cropped beard, and is dark of skin. He has many scars on his chest. When he attacked us he was wearing a large shoulder pad over his right shoulder and a belt with a large buckle to protect his midsection, but little armour apart from that. He was armed with a rough sword that looked like a giant saw and he also carried a crude shield. The other one was an elf, about my size, with blonde hair which she wore in a ponytail and bangs that frame her face. She carries a longsword and was wearing a green gambeson over mail armour, as well as leather greaves and vambraces. She’s likely to be in a bad mood,” Trinius said.
“That matches the description the woman gave us,” the young guard said, and Trinius held back a sigh of relief. It was clear Alana had spoken to these guards, but he hoped they hadn’t been corrupted. The grumpy one’s eyes narrowed.
“I find it difficult to believe that she would mention her pursuers, but not someone she was traveling with. Why were these thugs after you in the first place?”
“I have no idea, but I’m guessing they may have some history with her. If she didn’t even tell you, it must be something secret. I only met her on the road a few days ago, and she welcomed my company, maybe because she was looking for protection. I don’t think she expected me to, but I want to find her again, because I’m looking for answers… and though she hasn’t been entirely honest with me, I don’t want those thugs to get her, either,” Trinius said.
“Sounds believable enough,” the young guard shrugged.
Reluctantly, the grumpy one made way. As Trinius tried to get past him, however, the guard suddenly grabbed him by the shirt, stopping him.
“One more question. What does she look like, your friend?”
An alarm bell started ringing in Trinius’ head. He was an excellent liar, but if he couldn’t give a description of Alana, all of his lies would have been for nought. The guard gripped his shirt more tightly when he failed to answer, and Trinius’ hand instinctively went down to the Everdawn dagger.
“Auburn curls,” he suddenly heard himself say. “Bronze skin, high cheekbones. She’s quite tall for a woman, and she has bright green eyes, the kind you’ll never forget.”
“I think our dark elf here has another motive for finding her,” the younger guard laughed. The elder guard merely scowled.
“Now can you tell me her whereabouts?” Trinius asked, no longer hiding his irritation with the guard.
“I recommended the Three Swords inn to her,” the younger guard said.
The grumpy one let go of him and stared back out across the road. “I suggest you go look for her there, or take your business to Captain Keran. As long as you can’t tell us why these thugs are after you we can’t really help you. We’ll stop them, of course, but we’ll have to hear their side of the story first. I’m warning you though, the captain doesn’t want any trouble in this city. The guard’s first duty here is preserving the peace, not solving outlanders’ troubles for them.”
“Unless you’re a rich merchant,” the younger guard chuckled.
“Which you’re not,” the grumpy one growled. “I suggest you go find your friend. We’ll keep an eye on those thugs, and if they cause any trouble the captain will sort all of this out. Maybe it’d be best if you and your friend go to him until we’ve resolved the situation. You’ll find him in the center of town, at the guardhouse on the marketplace. The Three Swords inn is in the last alley on your right before you reach the market.”
“Thanks a lot,” Trinius said, grateful that he could finally be on his way. He still wasn’t sure what had just happened, and felt wobbly on his legs as he followed the road into the town. How could he have described Alana so thoroughly without ever seeing her? No one could be this lucky. The Three Swords inn where Alana had been sent was exactly the same place Trinius was supposed to find the Keepers’ spy. He could hardly believe that was a coincidence. And why did he feel like the name of this ‘Captain Keran’ should somehow ring a bell?
Trinius contemplated going to the guards and telling them everything, but quickly forgot about it. His people weren’t very well-regarded, so the guards of the human-dominated city of Denneg were unlikely to care about his troubles. Moreover, he wasn’t too sure he believed everything he’d learned and been through today himself, so why should they? For now, sticking to the plan and going to the Three Swords inn seemed like the safest bet. He might recognize Alana if she was indeed there, but she didn’t know him, and if he found this Brandon, he’d at least have some form of ally inside the city. Felana’s promise still rang in his ears. “If you run, we’ll find you, don’t doubt it. And don’t think you’ll be safe inside the city if you try to double cross us. One way or another, we’ll find our way in.” If there was one thing he didn’t doubt it was that he was completely outmatched by Felana and Wolf. Crossing them seemed to be a really bad idea, but whichever side he chose, he was going to end up in trouble, that much was inevitable.
Trinius had been so caught up in his thoughts that he had barely been paying attention to where he was going, and he nearly bumped into a fat human who was swaying on his legs.
“Oi! Watch where yer goin'... Dark elf scum!” the human said, pushing Trinius, who had less trouble staying on his feet than the obviously drunk man seemed to.
“I apologize,” Trinius said, hurrying past the guy before things could escalate further. Only now did he truly take in the sight of the city. This was a quiet part of the town: no doubt beyond the main gate and more towards the center the city was bustling with activity. Denneg was rich, and even in this part of the city the houses were made of white brick and timber, with red tiles and small chimneys on the roofs. Most houses in this district only had one floor however. Most residents of this particular area weren’t wealthy enough to afford servants, so they also didn't need a second floor to house them. As one got closer to the center of town the houses gradually grew bigger. The paved streets were very clean, and apart from the drunk there were only few people about: during the day almost everyone was off to work in the fields or at the many guild- or workhouses that sustained Denneg’s wealth. Denneg had a quite efficient educational system, too, so children were gone during most of the day, which meant both parents could go to work. Save for one grey cat that looked at him warily from a rooftop there were no animals about either: Denneg was very proud of its safety and cleanliness, and having animals run around freely was strictly prohibited. The only animals that were allowed to run around inside the city walls were cats, because they killed a lot of rodents, and watchdogs, but even the dogs were restricted to certain centers and usually closely watched by their owners.
Despite its impressive wealth, safety and cleanliness, the city didn't feel very welcoming to Trinius. The people he did encounter shot him distrustful glances, but that wasn’t what made Trinius uncomfortable. He had the eerie feeling he was being followed. As he snuck a glance over his shoulder he caught a glimpse of a red uniform disappearing in between two houses.
Drats, they’re already keeping an eye on me, they must have been corrupted! Trinius thought, his heartbeat once again rising. How many people did Alana control, and how far did her control go? He wanted to believe the guards wouldn’t have even let him in if they were truly under her control, but somehow that did little to ease his tension. Trinius tried to quicken up his pace, which became more difficult as he came closer to the market center and had to push through denser crowds that weren't exactly in a hurry to go anywhere. He was happy to finally be able to dive into the side alley, where he found the Three Swords inn almost directly in front of him. The sign was clear enough: two swords that crossed each other diagonally with a third one set in the middle.
Trinius quickly entered. The tavern was a rather broad building. There were tables on both left and right, standing against the walls, and each table had four chairs. Those on the far side were far enough from the first side to allow people some privacy, and each section was separated from the one behind it with wooden screens filled with intricate carvings or simple paintings. From what he saw Trinius was convinced this was a place that catered mostly to traveling merchants, which would explain why it was so empty right now. There was plenty of room at the counter in the middle of the bar for those who wanted more social contact, but there were only a couple of customers sitting there right now, and there were even fewer at the tables. He ordered water, both because he only had a few coppers left and because alcohol had a rather debilitating effect on him, which he didn’t find unpleasant per say, but it would certainly not be to his benefit right now.
The bartender nearly turned his nose up at Trinius’ money, a collection of outdated imperial coins and coppers from the city states, of which sadly none bore the crossed sword insigna of Denneg. “You’ll pay double with those for nearly everything here in the city,” the bartender warned him as he took two coppers. Trinius had heard about how Denneg was trying to boost its own economy by making their own coins more valuable than outsider money. He suspected them of simply taking the foreign coins and melting them to make more of ‘their’ coins, and silently wished this plan would backfire on the greedy bastards at some point.
Trinius found a cosy spot opposite the stairs that lead up to the inn’s no doubt luxurious rooms. He saw a stout servant girl struggle up the stairs with a pot of hot water, which meant some of the rooms, at least, must have been occupied, though it was an odd time for a bath. The bartender had disappeared into the door on the other side of the counter, which led to the kitchen. Trinius wondered if the bartender could be the spy he’d been told to find. With his ample stomach, bald head and relatively old age he didn’t look like much of a spy, but perhaps that was the whole point of being one, and as a bartender he did have the opportunity to pick up on a lot of conversations inconspicuously.
Trinius quietly slid the Everdawn dagger into plain view. No one would think much of an exposed sidearm even in an establishment such as this, except someone who knew about the special nature of the weapon, which should be no one save for Brandon. As long as he didn’t draw it, the glow it emitted at the rain-guard was so faint it probably wouldn’t catch the eye of anyone who wasn’t paying any special attention to it. Trinius didn’t feel like taking any more initiative than he already had though, aware anyone he encountered might already be under Alana’s control. He kept an eye on the stairway and the door; if he saw anyone enter or descend that looked like it could be Alana he’d have to hide the dagger again, because there was a good chance she’d already seen it if she’d helped her mercenaries against Hegan. There was nothing else to do, so Trinius tried to appear as relaxed as possible while keeping his eyes peeled. He was still glancing about warily, waiting for something to happen, when the bartender suddenly returned from the kitchen with a plate of beef stew and a loaf of bread, and put it on his table.
“I didn’t order this,” Trinius said, confused.
“Don’t worry, you won’t have to pay for it with that outlander money. It’s already been paid for. The lady from room six sends her regards. She said she was expecting you, and will be with you shortly,” the bartender said, much more friendly than before.
“That’s not possible,” Trinius said, alarmed. As he tried to get up the bartender put a hand on his shoulder and held him down with surprising strength. Trinius may as well have been trying to push back against a mountain collapsing on top of him.
“I think you should sit, and eat,” the bartender insisted.
Oh no, Trinius thought, suddenly realizing that all of the patrons were looking at him. If he tried to leave, they would no doubt stop him, and who wouldn’t believe that a dark elf had been caught trying to steal and had subsequently been mobbed by angry attendants, especially in an establishment like this?
“Fine, then,” Trinius said softly, looking down at the plate. He took a piece of bread and a spoon and ate, be it reluctantly. The food was no doubt delicious, and he was very hungry, but right now it tasted like ashes in his mouth. The bartender smiled approvingly and left, leaving Trinius to his food. The patrons kept their eyes on him however, and Trinius didn’t think he’d be able to slip past them, nor did he want to kill them to force his way out if they had indeed been corrupted. He was just about finished when he heard soft footsteps coming down the stairs, and a woman in a bright green dress appeared in the doorway.
Alana, Trinius thought as the woman smiled and walked confidently towards him. She looked just as he’d described her to the guards, and though he’d never seen her in person, he felt like he’d already known her for a very long time. Without introduction she sat down across from him, crossing her legs and folding her hands together. She smelled of perfumes and oils, the kind rich folk often used in their baths. Alana gave him an intense look, her bright green eyes seemingly drawing him in, and then she smiled.
“You are no Keeper,” she finally said.
Trinius saw no point in answering that. He simply shook his head. If it was just the dagger that had given him away, he’d be a fool to reveal he knew anything else about it.
“So, why are you carrying that?” she said, extending one slender finger towards the Everdawn dagger on his hip. She clearly knew more than she was letting on, but he couldn’t guess the extent to which she had already read his intentions, or worse, his mind.
“I… found it with some dead people, back in the forest. I thought it looked pretty valuable,” Trinius said.
Alana laughed heartily. She seemed quite amused.
“I thought for sure the Keepers would be able to get it back after my last mercenary fell and I had to leave it there, but it seems I got lucky,” she smiled.
“Why didn’t you just take it yourself if you were so interested in it?” Trinius asked, feigning ignorance.
“I couldn’t stand to touch it,” Alana said. Then her eyes narrowed a little. “As you are well aware.”
So she knows that I know, Trinius thought, feeling desperate and confused.
Alana smiled and looked into his eyes, then reached over to touch his arm. Her skin was still warm from the bath, but nevertheless her touch sent shivers down his spine.
“I’m sorry if I’ve made you uncomfortable, but I have to be very careful myself. You’ve seen what kind of people I’m up against,” she said softly. “I’m aware this must be difficult on you. You picked up that dagger and got caught up in all of this against your will.”
“How do you know?” Trinius asked, looking back into her bright green eyes, whose irises danced like flames.
Alana pulled back her arm and chuckled.
“I heard everything you said at the gate. You’re a very clever little liar, but you couldn’t have known that I’d already touched the guard with my spell. You were looking for me under false pretenses, and the descriptions you gave made clear that you had already met the Keepers. When I saw you were carrying that dagger it was easy to put two and two together. Wolf and Felana would’ve never let you live if you hadn’t agreed to work with them.”
“Saw?” Trinius asked, looking at the barkeeper, who was keeping a close eye on the door. He felt both fascinated and scared. “You mean you were… inside those men’s heads?”
“More or less. I can pick up their conversations and determine their actions to a certain degree, but there are limits to how many people I can influence at a time, and how much control I can exert. However, I can choose to give up control whenever I wish. My helpers are never permanently affected. Since the guards are already on the lookout for the Keepers regardless, I no longer have to control them.”
“I see, and that made it easier for you to take control of these people…” Trinius said, looking out across the bar. They were no longer looking at him, but he was certain Alana was in control of all of the people here.
“Why are you telling me all this?” he asked. It would’ve been easy for her to just kill him and let someone take the dagger off of him.
“Because I, at least, am trying to be honest with you,” Alana said. “The Keepers underestimated what I could do, or they didn’t tell you because they thought you’d chicken out if you knew. They should’ve prepared you better before risking your life. It goes to show how much they value it. To them you’re just a tool.”
On that, at least, Trinius could agree. It was all becoming clear to him now.
“So you wanted me to come here,” he said.
Alana nodded, looking at the dagger on his hip. “You… and the thing you carry.”
The bartender had come from behind his counter and was holding a large bag open in front of him.
“I’m offering you a way out. Put the dagger in the bag, and this good man here will make sure that it is never found again. Without it, the Keepers are harmless to me,” Alana said with an idle gesture.
“Harmless? Perhaps to you, but they’ll certainly kill me if I betray them!” Trinius said, Felana’s promise ringing in his ears.
Alana raised an eyebrow. “What right do they have to demand loyalty of you? They won’t do anything to you… Not if I kill them first. And without the dagger… Do you follow?”
Trinius hesitated, looking at the bag. If he dropped the dagger in there, and Alana remained true to her word, all his troubles would be over. No one could hold him accountable for stepping out of such a mess, not when he’d only gotten involved due to a stroke of bad luck. But what if Wolf and Felana were right? Could he really allow something like Setaneism to fester? Could he bear their deaths on his conscience if they were truly fighting for the greater good? Could he betray Wolf, who’d taken a huge risk by allowing him to live? Would Alana even allow him to live, considering what he already knew? Alana reached out to touch his arm again. Her intense eyes bored deeply into his. It was impossible to look away from her. All the world seemed to consist of nothing but her eyes, and the curve of her lips as she spoke to him.
“They dragged you into this. They’ll kill you if you don’t do exactly as they told you, and afterwards they’ll undoubtedly attempt to recruit you. I’m asking nothing of you. I’m offering to save you from their paws,” she said.
Her words were strangely appealing, but Trinius still hesitated. What he'd seen of her power was far too sinister.
“I saw those creatures you sent against the Keepers…” he panted.
“A necessary step for me to defend myself. Don’t let your eyes deceive you. Power is simply that, a tool that can be turned to either good or evil. The way it appears is irrelevant to what it can achieve. Have you seen the sword that brute Wolf carries? It’s ugly, but it gets the job done, and in the hands of another it could be turned to a just cause. The elf who was with him may be prettier for it, and her weapon more elegant, but she would’ve used it to kill you, an innocent, just as well.”
Trinius noticed his breathing was getting more and more heavy. “They wouldn’t be trying to kill you… without a reason.”
“They are merely jealous of my power. They want it all to themselves, all the knowledge they have on it. That’s why they hunt me. Help me, and I'll be more grateful than they'd ever be. I’m not like them. I will share what I’ve learned, if only you help me. In time, my power will be able to create beautiful things, as well, if that’s what you want. Please, give me the dagger.”
It was becoming more and more difficult to resist Alana’s offer. When her lips parted and he saw her smile, his hand went down to the dagger almost involuntarily. Just as he was about to draw and surrender it, however, he felt new strength in him, and a desire to defy this manipulative sorceress. The world returned to normal.
“No,” he heard himself say. “I don’t think I can.”
“In that case,” Alana sighed, pulling away from him. “You force my hand.”
Before Trinius could react the bartender pulled the bag he’d been holding open over his head and pulled it close, trying to strangle him. Trinius instinctively shouted for help, even though he knew he would receive none here. He feared his head would be ripped from his shoulders as the bartender pulled him off his chair and started hauling him over the ground. Trinius’ fingers grasped at his throat as he tried to get the bag off his head. He heard the sound of splintering wood, and then there was noise all around him. He heard shouting and the sound of breaking glass and splintering wood. Suddenly the hands were no longer on him. Trinius ripped the bag off his head and immediately kicked out at the back of the bartender’s legs, before he even saw what was going on. The bartender collapsed, with Felana still latched onto him. His heart skipped a beat. The Keepers had come! Trinius jumped up to see one of the patrons sprawled out on the ground, and Wolf struggling with two men who normally should have been no match for someone his size. To his surprise, both Felana and Wolf were completely unarmed. Trinius wanted to go help Wolf, but the warrior shook his head at him, nudging his head in the direction of Alana, who had simply risen from her table and was regarding the fight with an eerie calm.
“No! Get her!” Wolf shouted.
“Use the dagger!” Felana said as she struggled with the bartender, who had one arm wrapped around her neck.
Alana’s eyes turned towards him as Trinius reached for the dagger… and then a score of guardsmen burst into the inn.
“Stop, in the name of the city guard!”
Within seconds the inn was filled with guardsmen in red uniforms who wasted no time breaking up the fight. Moments after the guards had entered Trinius had at least three swords pointed at him. Seeing no benefit in fighting the guards, he calmly surrendered. Felana and Wolf did so as well, for more guards were still entering the inn. Finally a guardsman in heavy armour and a feathered helmet entered. He looked pretty young to be a leader, but it was clearly what he was, for the other guardsmen – those that weren’t too busy keeping their eyes on their captives - looked at him expectantly. The officer looked over his captives with what seemed to Trinius like a tired and somewat disappointed look, like he couldn’t believe people still had the nerve to break the law even after the city had gone through the trouble of replacing the shady mercenaries of old with such fancy-looking city guards.
“I am Captain Keran, and you’re all under arrest,” the captain said softly, only just loud enough for them to hear, before turning to his men. “Take everyone to the court room. I want this settled as quickly as possible.”
Wolf no longer struggled, so Trinius didn’t either, but Felana was fighting like a raptor that had been driven into a corner. It took four guards to keep her under control. As he was dragged outside Trinius saw Alana through the ranks of the guards. She was smiling.