The War of Blood and Iron – Chapter 12

“Are you certain this is wise?” Jhellen fretted. He walked alongside Dronkhar and kept staring at the ornate tower as if it was about to sprout horns and wings. “The enchanters are some of the most secretive mystics—”

“Mystics who are just as interested in protecting the kingdom as you are,” Dronkhar interjected, frustration spilling over. “Earth’s mercy, boy. Afraid you’ll be turned into a toad just for asking some questions?”

Jhellen frowned, and his face reddened. “Of course not. I only mean that the enchanters are under no obligation to even speak with a common soldier, much less answer his questions.”

Dronkhar halted in his tracks and pinned Jhellen with a hard stare. “Here’s a lesson for you. In order to get an important job done, you have to do things that others don’t expect, appreciate, or have any desire to do. You want to be a good soldier like your father? Get used to the notion.” He held Jhellen’s gaze until the young man looked suitably abashed, then resumed his march toward the causeway leading to the tower entrance. “And enough with that common nonsense,” he added. “Someone willing to die for their duty could hardly be called common. Bloody rare, more likely.”

A pair of tall, broad-shouldered men in umber robes stood guard at the base of the causeway. They watched impassively as Dronkhar and Jhellen approached. “The tower is closed to all visitors,” one said without looking at them.

“We have business with Melekar,” Dronkhar stated flatly, as indifferent to them as they to him. “Stand aside.”

“Melekar is in council,” the other warden intoned, also staring forward. “He will not see you. Seek your own kind.”

Dronkhar muttered something under his breath, but there was no point to further dealings with the wardens. With a grunt he turned on his heel and marched back toward the keep. Jhellen trailed after him. “What was it that you called them?”

A faint flush crept over Dronkhar’s cheeks, and he chastised himself for the reaction. “It’s just a sohntar term.”

“Which means what, exactly?”

Dronkhar sighed. “It’s a curse for… recalcitrant humans.”

Jhellen peered over his shoulder at the wardens. “I think I know the type. What was the word?”

“Shiznoh.”

Jhellen mouthed the word as if committing it to memory. Dronkhar quickly changed the subject. “Based on what the warden said, I’m guessing that the sohntar have their own quarter in Delnoth? If the enchanters won’t talk, perhaps they will.”

“The sohntar quarter is down near the market district. But what would they know about the raid?”

“Maybe nothing, but we need information from somewhere. And sohntar have a way of being unnoticed in the strangest of places.”

They passed through the gates leading into the city. Because he had been born and raised in Delnoth, Jhellen took the lead from there, guiding Dronkhar past grand estates, common dwellings, and the bustling streets of the market district. Whether above or under the earth, the crush and press of city folk seemed much the same. Unlike his home however, Dronkhar couldn’t see over the crowd unless he jumped.

Thankfully, the sohntar quarter was not far from the markets, built flush against the southeastern wall of the city. The stores and houses were built directly into the foundation and fashioned in much the same style as any sohntar city. Stone and brick arches stretched between the buildings to give the streets a tunnel-like feel.

Dronkhar and Jhellen spent the better part of afternoon talking up the local populace—Earthsmiths mostly, with a few Deepdelver clan officials who represented the miners the king had commissioned for materials. Rumors of the Dar’Gol attack against the king had already spread throughout the streets, and the general consensus was that the Dar’Gol spelled ill news for everyone, not just for Cealia, if the incursions weren’t blunted soon. As to how the attack had just appeared, there were plenty of theories, but very few facts.

Through the course of the discussions, one name continued to surface. Pilner. A human trader of questionable repute who acted as facilitator for clients seeking shady goods. He had been seen around the sohntar warehouses of late, and had recently posted some unusual jobs for unloading cargo shipments late at night.

“Where we can find him?” Dronkhar asked the third sohntar shopkeeper to mention his name.

“He conducts business out of the Wilted Rose. Seedy human tavern. They won’t be too cordial to an enlisted man,” he said, eyeing Jhellen’s uniform.

“Can you do something to remedy that?”

The merchant nodded grimly. “My grandmother was from the Bloodfire, and I lost family to the Upheaval. You have my aid.” Within minutes Jhellen was completely transformed into a menacing-looking ruffian. His uniform was traded for a pair of leather breeches and a worn brigandine breastplate, the sling swapped from white cloth to black, with a crooked splint added for good measure. The shopkeeper eyed Dronkhar for a moment. “You already look the part of a mercenary.”

Dronkhar grinned back at him. “Because I am.”

Satisfied, the merchant told them where to find the Wilted Rose.

“Remember what I said,” Dronkhar instructed in a low voice as they entered the rundown bar. “Keep quiet, stay close and look unfriendly.”

Jhellen gave him a sour look. “I feel like a common knave,” he muttered.

“Like I told you… you aren’t a common anything.”

Luck was with them. The barkeep pointed out Pilner at a small table near the back of the common room. Despite his reputation, Pilner looked remarkably respectable. Long dark hair pulled back in a tie framed a face that seemed too clean for this part of town. He was focused on a ledger, squinting so intently at a line of figures in the dim light that he didn’t notice the two figures approaching his table.

“Pilner?” Dronkhar grunted.

The man looked up at them and set down his ledger. Dronkhar could feel his gaze appraising them both like pigs at market. “Ah, another mighty sohntar come to respond to my postings?” he inquired.

“We’re looking for work, yes.” Dronkhar pulled over a chair and sat down, motioning for Jhellen to do the same. “We hear that you are in the acquisition business.”

Pilner peered at him shrewdly. “I assure you, I only have need of strong arms to unload my shipments.”

“One wouldn’t want to waste… workers… of our ability on manual labor,” Dronkhar replied, monitoring Pilner’s expression carefully. To drive the point home, he drew one of his axes and laid it on the table.

Without taking his eyes off Dronkhar, Pilner slid his ledger underneath his cloak and shifted his weight as if to prepare for a dash. “I am unsure of what you feel I can do for you, master sohntar.”

Dronkhar gave a harsh laugh. “It’s not what you can do for us, it’s what we can do for your employer. My business is with whoever you’re procuring these goods for. Someone like you would only work for a powerful person, and powerful people have a strong need for… the things that we do.” He nodded at Jhellen who answered with a grunt.

“That would be quite impossible,” Pilner replied, narrowing his eyes. “I have a reputation for discretion. I think this discussion is conclu—”

Jhellen sprang from his chair and grabbed Pilner by the throat faster than Dronkhar could blink. Though one handed at the moment, he was strong enough to cow Pilner into submission. “We’ll tell you when our discussion is concluded,” he growled in a tone that sounded like he’d been gargling gravel. Dronkhar drew his other axe, which a sohntar butcher had covered with a thin layer of ox blood, and laid it on the table. Pilner’s eyes widened, and he looked like he might faint.

“Please, I-I never deal in names! He came to me a week ago, always with his hood up. He placed dozens of orders for rare and valuable goods.”

“I’m certain that you can remember something that could direct us to him,” Dronkhar asked. He pulled a whetstone from a belt pouch and ran it over the clean axe’s edge, filling their corner of the tavern with the sound of grating steel.

Pilner’s eyes bulged, and he shook his head. “He always wore the same type of robe and cloak. Dark brown, like the enchanters, and he had a badge that marked him for access to the keep.” His eyes darted to the side, and the fearful mien vanished as a smile spread across his face. Behind, Dronkhar sensed the approach of several hostile figures. “Unfortunately for you, he pays well to keep his business secret.”

“All right, lad, let him go.” Dronkhar laid a hand on Jhellen’s outstretched arm, feeling the muscles trembling like a taut bowstring. Jhellen gave Pilner’s neck a last wring and released him.

Together they turned to face their would-be assailants.