Renegade Scene 2

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Renegade's Door

283 SC, fifteen days earlier, Mystic Springs in the Fertile Plains

The stars glowered sullenly overhead. Theirs was the only light cast in the long, conspiratorial hours between moonset and sunrise. Mikel avoided even their faint glimmer as he waited in the shadows outside a run down hostel in a run down quarter of the otherwise thriving Doormaker city of Mystic Springs. Like most of the master planned city, the building had originally been built of mage wrought native stone. But time and neglect had chipped away at the hostel’s youthful facade, leaving her tired, water stained, and dirt grimed. The hiss of the tormented oil lamp over the hostel door played a curious counterpoint to the low symphony of sounds from the city. At this hour of the night Mystic Springs slumbered like a stray dog in a dark alley, with one eye open and watchful.

Mikel focused his attention on an imaginary door frame, gilt in silver like an ornate bird cage. In his mind’s eye, it hung suspended in space on a shimmering curtain of air. Closing his eyes, he imagined the cage door opening. Airy streamers of silver escaped through the crack. He breathed them all in, drawing them down into a hollow in the center of his chest. He felt energized as he exhaled new streamers back out into the night air. The sounds of the city brightened and crystallized around him. Water lapped gently against the hulls of industrial barges, the only traffic still plying the city’s canals. Mugs clinked against bar planks. Snores pressed against closed doors. Laughter mingled with lust and darker emotions that spilled through open windows, coloring the air with faint sounds that magery carried to Mikel. The very air was his to command for as long as he held the silver gilt door in his mind open. Everything the air touched was within his reach. The night was alive to his ears. He listened intently, searching for a pattern, for the tap of wandering feet.

The guttering oil lamp over the door was the only light near the hostel. He didn’t bother to look at the slip of paper that had brought him here, tucked away in his tunic pocket. There was not enough light to read it again, but he had memorized the contents.

new target: long range overlanders, northern loop

objective: embed, observe, report

access: driver recruiting

end message

Not that anyone else who looked at the paper would see those cryptic words. They would see a tangled scrawl of illegible symbols. Seasonturns of training with the encrypted battle script had made deciphering the code second nature to him. Now he was here at the Drover’s Den, a place where wagon teamsters stayed between caravan jobs. Mikel had stayed at the Den a few times before, when his assignments brought him to Mystic Springs. It was an anonymous sort of place, with the constant turnover in residency. As long as you paid your bill promptly, no one asked questions. People minded their own business, which made it perfect for Mikel’s line of work.

Shuffling footsteps reached Mikel’s searching ears, reminding him of the job at hand. He concentrated on the footsteps, filtering out the rest of the symphony of night sounds. Mikel tucked himself further back into the shadows opposite the hostel door as the approaching figure came into view. He blew invisible silvery wisps of elemental power to swirl around the new arrival. His zephyrs pulled even the faintest smells and sounds back to him through the intervening darkness. Mikel heard the man humming a tuneless song to himself. He smelled the unmistakable hint of ale on his breath, and heard the slightest shuffle in his step. As he stepped into a splash of light from a neighboring lamp, Mikel got a look at the teamster’s face.

“…dum de dum de dum dum doom… lay me down under night’s dark gown… dum de de dum dum doh… ’cause I’m gone by the morn’s first glow, oh gone by morn’s first glow…”

Jared was an altogether unremarkable young man. His dark skin was typical of those born in the northern central plains, close to the border with the Great Desert. He was sturdily built without being massive, and neither tall nor short. He wore  a plain linen tunic and dark breeches, and he was ever so slightly intoxicated. In short, he was exactly what Mikel was looking for.

If it weren’t for his boots, he could have been any of a million faceless laborers living in the poorer parts of cities all over the Fertile Plains. In a place where well crafted shoes were a luxury, most laborers wore moccasins of plainly sewn leather. Like Mikel’s, Jared’s knee length boots of reinforced lizard hide were something more. They revealed him as a man who wrangled the giant lizard draft teams used to haul cargo wagons. The sand lizards were irritable on the best of days, and their own scaly hides were about the only material that held up well against their temper. A wagon teamster without lizard hide boots was about as useful as a healer without herbs.

Jared’s unsteady, shambling pace had brought him to the hostel’s doorstep. He stood in the flickering light of the oil lamp, with one foot on the bottom stair. The moment had arrived. Mikel drew his streamers of elemental air power back into his chest as he slipped a tube out of his belt. He removed the stopper, carefully tipping a dart into his gloved palm. Crafted to his custom specifications from the stinger of a common wasp, the fragile dart was no longer than the width of his little finger. He re-stoppered the tube and replaced it in the hidden pouch at his belt. Then, holding the palm of his gloved hand in front of his lips, he exhaled the faintest puff of breath. Light the air current was, it still lifted the tiny dart off his palm. Focusing his will, Mikel sent the feathered stinger soaring across the narrow alley on an invisible silver streamer of elemental air power. It flew straight to Jared’s exposed neck, just puncturing the skin.

“son of a…” Jared slapped the back of his neck with the palm of his hand, crushing the tiny dart into a small smear of blood in his hand. Perfect.

“flamed buggers… hate em”

Mikel closed the doorway in his mind, dispersing the last of the silvery streamers into the night air, as he watched Jared resume his interrupted climb up the hostel stairs. The previous unsteadiness in his step was growing  as Mikel watched.  He stepped out of the shadows and approached the hostel from the direction that Jared had come, not bothering to conceal his steps. He reached the door the same time as Jared.

“Oh… ish jush you… Mika, er Nigel… er wait…”

“Rough night Jared?”

“Who… me? Nahhh…”

“Better get you inside. Come on.”

Mikel half dragged the increasingly disoriented Jared up the steps into the hostel. When the young man collapsed against him in a fit of giggles, Mikel was forced to sling Jared over his shoulder. He dropped the teamster in an unceremonious heap on the narrow cot in his room and turned to go.

“Wait, I remembered… Mikel… Thash it! You’re a real friend, man…” His voice trailed off into unintelligible mumbles as Mikel turned back toward him.

“Yeah. That’s me all right. A real friend. Just get some sleep. You can thank me later.” Mikel closed the door as he backed out of Jared’s room, making sure the latch caught. He looked up and down the dimly lit hallway for other observers, but saw no one. Everyone minded their own business, as usual. Mikel stepped to the door across the hall and slid it open silently. He entered the darkened room and closed the door behind him with an almost inaudible click.

Faint star light filtered in through the uncurtained, dingy window. He saw a narrow cot with a stained, thin blanket. There was a single shelf with an empty washbasin and a candle that had been burnt down almost to the nub. An open bag of travel gear was spread out untidily across the foot of his cot. A leather wrapped goad stood propped next to the door. Everything was just as he had left it.

He spent the next hour repacking all of his equipment, preparing for a quick departure. Then he settled himself on the cot on top of the blanket and closed his eyes. He got only a few hours of rest before his eyes flew open. The sun had not risen yet. He had heard footsteps in the hallway, mounting the stairs toward the second floor. A moment later, a fist pounded on a door, not his. He heard muffled voices.

“Jared! Flame it boy you better be ready!”

Mikel rose quietly. He shouldered his pack and took his goad in his hand. The pounding on the door across the hallway continued unabated. Mikel nearly bumped into the broad shouldered man doing the pounding as he backed out of his own door. The gray haired Soren was a former teamster, but now worked permanently for the local chapter of the Merchants Guild. He was the local hiring foreman, responsible for connecting available teamsters with merchants in need of drivers. Unfortunately, he was also held responsible when a driver didn’t show up for an assignment, and he took that responsibility very seriously.

“I don’t think you’ll be seeing him much before noon Soren.”

“What? Don’t tell me he was out drinking!”

Mikel shrugged. “Can’t say much about that. Got in late last night. Wasn’t walking straight.”

“Cinder’s breath! I knew he looked like trouble.”

“He’s not a bad kid, just green.”

“Oh he’ll be green when I’m through with him all right…

“What was he up for?”

“An ember cursing big wagon train that’s what! Those Nadori Merchants will have me tanned if I don’t come up with a sixth qualified long range teamster flaming quick. Curse that Jared! Get up you lazy…” Soren’s fist pounded on the plank door with every word.

“Even if you could wake him, I doubt he’d be in any shape to drive today.”

Soren’s shoulders slumped dejectedly, but he finally stopped pounding on the door. “Suppose you’re right at that…”

Mikel waited patiently for the ember of an idea to flare to life in the foreman’s head.

At last Soren squinted sidelong at Mikel. “What’s your gig son? You in the market?”

Mikel shrugged again. “Might be. Just finished up an overlander from north of Thayer into Riverton. Thought I’d rest up here for a day or so.”

“How far north have you been?”

Mikel rubbed the faint trace of stubble on his chin, and looked toward the ceiling as if trying to remember. “Been to Starseekers a time or two.”

Soren began to smile. “Ever driven a six drake team?”

Mikel shrugged again. “Sure. Handled eight once, but there were two drivers on that rig.”

Soren draped an arm over Mikel’s shoulder as the two walked out of the hostel. Jared’s absence was all but forgotten. The foreman outlined the details of the wagon train that would be headed north shortly after sun-up. A wagon train that had just found itself a new teamster.

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