Authors: John H. Carroll
Tags: #despair, #dragon, #shadow, #wizard, #swords and sorcery, #indie author, #forlorn
Published by John H. Carroll at
Copyright 2011 John H. Carroll
Cover Copyright 2011 John H. Carroll
Cover photography by Tracy Carroll
This book is dedicated to my mother who gave
me a good childhood and always accepted me for who I was.
“Hello, pretty little miss. Would you like
to see the sights of Dralin?” the hawkish Guardsman asked with a
leering grin. He brushed a few flakes of lightly falling autumn
snow from his shoulder-length brown hair. A polished chain shirt
peeked out from underneath the collar of a standard-issue black and
brown tunic, while a long sword waited in its sheath at his waist
for the opportunity to commit malice. Sheela stepped back in
apprehension. Everyone in Dralin was to be feared, even many of the
guards from what she had been told.
“No thank you, Sir,” she responded firmly.
Just because she was a plain farmer’s daughter didn’t mean she was
a fool. Her stomach knotted in dread when the guardsman took a step
forward and put a powerful hand on her shoulder, which menaced
rather than comforted her. The smile he must have thought was
charming came across as sinister.
“Come now, lass. My shift is nearly over and
the sun is about to set. I’ll take good care of you and keep you
warm on this cold evening.” He tried to slide his arm around her
shoulder, but she spun away off the sidewalk and into the roadway.
“Hey! Don’t be like that!” the man exclaimed in surprise.
Sheela had to stop and straighten suddenly
to avoid a passing wagon. Its wheels splashed muddy water from the
cobbled road onto the worn dress she had run away from home in. It
was hard to tell that it had once been warm yellow with sturdy
threads. A year of hard work in the fields and weeks of walking
dirt roads had taken the color out to leave a drab, torn garment
barely hanging onto her shoulders.
She felt the guard’s hand on her shoulder
again, gripping firmly. “Careful. Those wagon drivers won’t
hesitate to run you over.” He pulled her back onto the sidewalk
where she managed to twist out of his grip again. There were too
many people around to simply run and she really did want to go into
the city yet, so she moved a few steps away and stood with as much
resolve as she could muster.
He held up his hands and yielded. “Whatever.
Go learn about the city on your own. We’ll probably find your body
in a gutter after you’ve been thrown out of a brothel somewhere.”
The look of snarling contempt on his face as he spit on the ground
at her feet stunned her. Sheela couldn’t help the tears that began
to well up in her eyes.
With a stomp of her bare foot, she drove the
tears back. After everything she had been through, harsh words
wouldn’t drive her to despair. The guard turned in disgust and
traipsed back to the large guardhouse that bordered the crowded
highway leading into the main city.
Sheela held her chin up as she looked at the
people and wagons passing by. She was on the sidewalk to the right
of the highway leading into Dralin from the east. It was her hope
to ask one of the guards for a safe place to go and she had seen
one that looked like he might be helpful, but the leering guard had
intercepted her instead.
The enormous city before her was daunting
and goosebumps appeared on her arm when she thought about the
stories she had heard of it. Snow drifting down heralded that
winter would be starting early. Sheela wiped some off her eyelashes
and turned to leave. Heading away into the cold emptiness of
unknown roads scared her too. She had come too far to turn back,
but fear of going on made her freeze in her tracks.
“Are you alright?” a strong, deep voice
asked from behind her. Sheela slowly turned around and looked up
into the brilliant blue eyes of a tall, young guardsman. His nose
had been broken at some point and the tip aimed a little to the
left, but he was handsome in spite of that. “I’m sorry if Tobe
bothered you. He’s good with a sword, but not so much with
An aura of safety about the man drew Sheela
to him. He was the guard she had originally been heading to talk to
before the one named Tobe had intercepted her. Still, in Dralin it
wasn’t safe to trust anyone too easily. “I’m hoping to find
someplace safe, but I don’t have any money,” Sheela answered
tentatively. She had survived the trip to Dralin by sleeping in
haystacks and by stealing a little food wherever she could, a fact
that shamed her.
The guard let out a long breath, puffing out
his cheeks while he ran fingers through wavy black hair that fell
to his shoulders in what seemed to be a fashion with all the
guards. She studied his face. Black stubble covered a strong jaw
and chin. His skin was browned from being in the sun, but wasn’t
dark. He spoke deliberately in warm tones that seemed to shield her
from the cold air. “Dralin is a bad place not to have any money . .
.” he paused, “It’s a bad place even if you do have money,” he
finished with a half-hearted chuckle.
A small laugh escaped Sheela’s cracked lips,
but her future was too uncertain for true mirth and her expression
became serious once more. “I’m a good worker and very quiet. I
don’t need much,” she persisted earnestly. “I know the city is
dangerous. I only want a chance.”
He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment,
and then nodded. “Alright. I’m off duty in a few minutes. I know of
an innkeeper that has an opening and he owes me a favor.” It was
clear the guardsman was making a large concession. “Name’s Frath by
the way.” He held out a muscular hand.
She took the hand and smiled shyly. “Mine’s
Sheela.” Frath’s grip was firm, but gentle, holding her hand safely
rather than crushing it. His smile warmed her skin and made some of
the fear go away. Sheela’s heart raced in her chest a little bit.
It was an unusual feeling for her because she normally found men
“Sheela . . . I like that name.” Frath
pointed toward an empty bench on the far side of the guardhouse.
“Sit over there until I’m finished, and then I’ll take you to the
inn.” He rejoined the rest of the guards while she walked over and
The bench was damp from the scattered
snowflakes that melted as soon as they landed on anything. Sheela’s
dress was already wet and dirty anyway, so sitting on the bench
didn’t bother her. It felt good to get off her feet for a short
time and she rubbed the cold ache out of them. Many of the people
traveling by wore shoes and Sheela thought that perhaps she might
someday own a pair.
Sounds of the city surrounded her as she
watched people passing in a mad rush to finish their tasks before
nightfall. Wagon drivers yelled above the clopping of their horse’s
hooves, which clattered sharply over the humming drone of thousands
of voices talking incessantly about whatever matters might be
important to them at the time.
Endless buildings obscured a ruddy sunset
that lit the bottoms of patchy clouds on the western horizon. Rays
of light burst through the smog and snow to cast a dirty orange
radiance over everything. Exotic scents came from many of the
wagons that had traveled from such places as Mayncal, Brindlyn, and
the Iynath Empire. They mixed in with the odors of livestock,
unwashed bodies, cooking food and smells Sheela couldn’t begin to
The assault on her senses was overwhelming,
making her dizzy and lightheaded. Taking deep breaths didn’t help
because each one brought something new. The odors, both pleasant
and unpleasant, were so heavy that she could taste them on her
“Are you alright, Sheela?” Frath asked,
concern filling his voice. She looked up. He was taller than the
other Guards, easily six feet three inches. His hand rested
comfortably on the hilt of a long, sheathed sword. Judging from his
broad chest and strong hands, he was likely a very dangerous man in
spite of his youthful face.
For some reason, Sheela trusted him more
than she trusted any of the thousands of people she had passed
along the highway and entering into the city. Perhaps because of
that trust, she croaked out a hoarse whisper, “I’m scared . . . I’m
scared.” It was the first time she had shown weakness to
anyone since running away. No matter how frightened she had been at
any point, Sheela had held her chin up and kept a brave face.
Frath gripped her shoulder comfortingly. He
didn’t speak any words, conveying understanding and calm through
his eyes instead. Sheela smiled briefly and stood. “I’m ready. You
won’t get in trouble for helping me, will you?” she asked
“No. Not at all,” he assured her, putting
his arm out for her to hold onto. She gripped it with both hands as
one would the railing of a ship in a storm. Frath surrendered the
arm willingly as they began walking deeper into the city. “What do
you know of Dralin?” he asked, slowing his pace to match her
“It’s the most dangerous city in the world
and everyone here dies a terrible death.” That was the gist of what
she knew. If there was anything people agreed upon, that was
Frath barked a short laugh. “Yeah, there’s
some truth to that, but it’s possible to survive.” His expression
became grave. “I don’t know why you came here, but I’ve seen a lot
of young ladies disappear when they arrive. It’s worse if you don’t
have family or friends, and I’m guessing you don’t have that here?
. . .” he trailed off questioningly.
Sheela shook her head and looked at the inns
that lined the road. They were enormous three and four level
buildings with stables that stretched out behind them for blocks.
“Is one of these the inn you’re taking me to?” She gestured to the
nearest, which had a painting of a yellow wagon on a large wooden
sign in front.
“No. It’s closer to the middle of the city.
It’ll take about an hour to get there. You don’t want to work at
any of these. They’re mean places, meant for travelers.” To
emphasize his point, a group of men tumbled outside one of the
doors in the middle of a scuffle. Frath stopped for a moment to
watch, keeping himself protectively between Sheela and the brawling
men. “They’re just a bunch of drunks fighting. As long as there’re
no weapons drawn, I don’t need to worry about it.”
“Why do people fight like that?” Sheela
asked in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
Frath shrugged. “I don’t understand a lot of
things either. There aren’t any answers in Dralin. Your best choice
is to head somewhere else. If you insist on staying, then it’s best
to keep your head down, find a safe place to live, and stay there.”
He stopped and took Sheela by the arms. “If you’re willing to leave
this forsaken city, I’ll spend the night getting you to
no places safe for a young
runaway woman. She had thought about escaping in a different
direction, but no other city was as fascinating as Dralin with its
mage’s towers, shifting streets and grand parks. Sheela looked
Frath in the eye and answered defiantly. “I know that I’ll likely
die, end up a prostitute on the streets or maybe even become one of
the Deformed, but I don’t care.”
Frath nodded slowly and let her take his arm
again as they continued walking. “You’re not going to meet that
fate if I have anything to say about it,” he vowed quietly.
“Why are you helping me?” Sheela asked
suddenly. “Out of all the girls who walk past you every day, why
He didn’t answer right away. “Well . . . I
don’t know. I saw you look at me before Tobe intercepted you. Then
you stood up to him and held your chin high. There’s a fire in you
that most don’t have and I don’t want to see it snuffed out by the
evil in this city.”