As Trevin stepped into the seedy tavern at Drywell, his hand instinctively slid toward his dagger. Not that he was daft enough to challenge the three well-muscled strangers who had cornered his younger brother. Nor did Dwin look as if he wanted to be rescued. He laughed like a madman, his dark curls matted to his forehead, his hands around a mug. One of the three men pushed another mug his way.
A stringy-haired tavern maid sidled up to Trevin. He shook his head and watched her swish away. Maybe he was the mad one, tracking Dwin to Drywell when he should be at Redcliff preparing for the banquet being given in his honor that night. He fought the urge to throttle his little brother. Melaia’s name blurted from Dwin’s mouth. His shoulders bounced as he chuckled.
“Dwin!” barked Trevin, striding to the table. His brother spewed barley beer, guffawing as if “Dwin” were the funniest name he had ever heard. The three strangers eyed Trevin with expressions ranging from amusement to disdain. They appeared to be his age, maybe a few years older. One had a crooked nose. Another was wiry, and a scar ran across his temple. The third wore a close-cut beard, dark as charred wood. A crimson band spanned his forehead and disappeared beneath wavy locks.
At first Trevin thought they might be malevolent angels, but he sensed no aura, pure or impure. By their appearance they were Dregmoorian. Raiders and refugees entered Camrithia from the Dregmoors these days, but the men sitting with Dwin fit neither description. They were too richly dressed. Merchants? Or spies passing themselves off as merchants?
Dwin saluted Trevin with his mug. “My eshteemed brother,” he slurred. Trevin deliberately moved his hand away from his dagger. “Let’s go, Dwin.”
“I was just getting shhtarted.” Dwin grinned.
“It’s time you finished,” said Trevin.
“I believe the young man wishes to stay,” said the Dregmoorian with wavy hair. His eyes were as black as stag beetles. “Join us.” He signaled to the tavern maid. “More beer!”
Trevin was tempted. The midsummer day was warm, he was sweaty, and the stone-walled tavern was cool. But he didn’t want to drink with Dregmoorians. Besides, he hoped to get to the great hall early and perhaps spend some time with Melaia before the banquet started. He relished the thought of seeing her dressed in her royal best. Even in her priestess’s garb, she was beautiful, but seeing her in a gown stole his breath and rushed his pulse.
Trevin started for the door. “Let’s go, Dwin.”
Dwin stood, wobbling, and the three Dregmoorians smugly rose to let him out. If they were spies, Trevin could only guess what information they had floated out of Dwin, who would say anything to keep the drinks coming and the air jovial.
Dwin swayed toward Trevin. “I musht show you the gash pits. Gash spits. Pit spits.” He doubled over in laughter. “Gashpitspits.”
“Show me, then.” Trevin offered a hand to his brother, who shook it off and weaved toward the door. Benches scraped back up to the table behind him as the Dregmoorians returned to their drinks.
“Gash pits. Spits,” murmured Dwin, stepping outside. He squinted in the bright afternoon light, then pointed to a path leading through the woods. “That way.”
“Show me the pits another time,” said Trevin. “Where’s your mount?” He eyed the tethered horses that stood beside his borrowed roan. The three finely groomed and blanketed mounts no doubt belonged to the Dregmoorians.
“Follow me.” Dwin wove down the path.
“At the gash pits. They stink. You’ll see.” He giggled. “No, you’ll smell.” He pinched his nose and weaved ahead.
Trevin followed him to a clearing, barren except for Dwin’s gray donkey, Persephone, and the dry well from which the village took its name. He frowned at the well. Steam writhed out of it, along with a burbling sound.
“Obviously no longer dry,” he muttered.
“You think the town’ll change its name?” asked Dwin. “Mistwell. Fogwell. Hellwell.” He chortled.
Trevin peered over the crumbling rim of rock into the well. At the bottom of the shaft, a dun-colored muck belched bubbles of hot vapor, its stench not unlike eggs gone to rot. “You’re right,” he murmured. “It’s gash.” The stuff was touted as a drink to restore youth, but it was dangerous. He had seen gashdrunks, youthful but foggy eyed and dull minded, dying from their addiction to it.
“Over here.” Dwin crouched beyond the well. Muck oozed from a rift in the ground, and steam curled into the air.
“Looks like the Under-Realm is vomiting its own bile,” said Trevin. Already a greenish hue, Dwin turned away and lost his stomachful of beer. Trevin shook his head in disgust and knelt to examine the rift, which was as wide as his thumb. Its length he couldn’t judge, for it snaked into the woods east of the clearing.
“It’s a landgash, Dwin. Lord Beker sent a dispatch about them, but I thought landgashes were closer to the Dregmoors. The blight must be growing worse.” Killing crops and parching rivers, the blight that had started in the
Dregmoors was slowly creeping across Camrithia. Stinking rifts would not help matters.
Hoofbeats sounded behind them. Trevin rose. Dwin turned, lost his balance, and sat hard on his rump.
The three Dregmoorians reined their mounts to a halt four paces away, followed by a tan wolf dog with one black leg and gray eyes. At the edge of the clearing, Dwin’s donkey backed into the shadows, pulling her tethering rope taut, her ears laid back.
The man with wavy hair and the crimson band across his forehead, clearly their leader, nodded at Dwin. “You said you’re a friend of the court and can get us into Redcliff. Or was that a child’s boast?”
“It doesn’t always pay to listen to my brother,” said Trevin.
“It could pay today.” The man rattled a coin purse at his belt. “We’re looking for a forerunner. Someone to ease the way.”
“You’re best advised to go back to where you came from,” said Trevin.
The man with the crooked nose flexed his hand around the handle of his sheathed dagger. “I fancy your tongue as a souvenir, comely boy.” He turned to their leader. “What do you think, Varic? We could add that to our gifts for Redcliff.”
“Not today, Hesel.” Varic laughed. “I wish to impress the princess, and I hear Camrithian ladies turn their heads at the sight of blood.”
Trevin clenched his jaw. Why did this jackal wish to impress Melaia? “Let’s try again.” Varic eyed Dwin and fingered the free end of his waist sash, a fine silver mesh. “You promised to introduce us at Redcliff. Do you mean to go back on your word?”
Dwin rose, pale.
Trevin folded his arms. “What’s your business at Redcliff?”
“Are you the gatekeeper?” asked Varic. “The constable?”
“He’s a dung digger.” The wiry one wrinkled his nose. “Can’t you smell him?”
“Ah, Fornian, always a good judge of character.” Varic grinned at Trevin.
“Ever tried gash?” He tossed a gourd ladle at Trevin’s feet. “Drink some. It’s free.”
Gash merchants, Trevin thought as he picked up the gourd. No doubt they had an eye on the profit to be made from newfound rifts and a tavern nearby. He turned the gourd in his hands, admiring the delicate black designs etched into it. “If you and your friends drink gash, you’ve less wit than your dog.”
Varic narrowed his eyes and pointed at the ladle. “Drink up.”
“We always let guests go first.” Trevin tossed the gourd back to Varic. Startled by the gourd’s return, Varic was slow to the catch. It struck his knuckles with a loud crack. “Scum,” he snarled.
The wolf dog bared its teeth. Hesel and Fornian dismounted and drew their daggers.
Trevin tensed. He had expected Varic to catch the ladle and respond to the sarcasm with a few choice words. Trevin shot Dwin a glare, warning him to keep quiet. Dwin’s tongue could be sharper than his own. As long as the daggers were not aimed his direction or Dwin’s, the threats were just bravado. Let the bullies strut and swagger, and they’d be on their way.
Trevin drew his own blade but kept the tip up, unmenacing, warily watching the Dregmoorians’ movements.
“A cripple’s grip,” Hesel crowed. “The dung digger is missing a finger.” Varic rubbed his knuckles, his stare boring into Trevin. “Which one?” “Little one.”
“He can handle a dagger better than you,” said Dwin.
Trevin groaned inwardly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fornian edge closer to Dwin. Trevin hoped his brother had his knife with him—and that he was sober enough to use it.
“What’s your name, dung digger?” Varic leaned forward in his saddle, studying Trevin. “Where do you come from? How did you lose your finger?” Trevin glared. “You tell me your business, and I may tell you mine.”
“My business?” Varic gave a sharp laugh. “We hear your king is short of royal defenders—comains, I believe you call them—so we’ve come to help clean up the Camrithian countryside. I think we’ll start by giving a couple of dung diggers a much-needed bath. Nice and warm—in gash. Off with your sandals, boys.”
Trevin seethed. Now twenty-one, he had lost his boyhood long ago. Daggers, swords, fists—one-on-one he would take this jackal. His muscles burned with coiled energy. He locked eyes with Hesel, who pointed his dagger at Trevin’s feet.
“I’ll have your sandals, boy,” said Hesel.
Trevin raised his dagger. “And I’ll have your crooked nose.”
Each eased into a fighter’s stance, assessing the other. Trevin knew he had the advantage of height and reach, but Hesel was all muscle and would be a goring bull if he found an opening. Fornian’s dagger was a concern as well.
Trevin glanced at Dwin, who clutched his knife but still looked unsteady on his feet.
Swift as a snake, Hesel struck, slashing toward Trevin’s face and growling, “Your nose, lowlife.”
Trevin ducked and cut toward Hesel’s shins.
Hesel dodged, and their daggers met with a clang.
Back and forth they attacked and parried, Trevin trying to prevent Hesel from slipping in close enough to lunge at him. At the same time, he tried to keep track of Fornian and Dwin, who circled each other warily but had not engaged.
Trevin evaded a cut and struck back, scoring Hesel’s left arm. Hesel lashed out in retaliation. As Trevin jumped back, he saw Dwin twist away from Fornian, throwing the wiry man off balance.
Fornian stumbled, Varic whistled, and the wolf dog charged Dwin.
Trevin swerved from Hesel and dived in front of his brother.
At Varic’s sharp command, the dog froze, his fangs a handbreadth from Trevin’s wrist. Fornian bounded up and knocked away Dwin’s knife, and Hesel grabbed Trevin’s dagger.
“You want into Redcliff, I’ll get you in,” said Dwin.
“You will not,” Trevin huffed.
The dog growled.
“Get up!” snapped Varic.
Trevin edged away from the dog and stood, panting.
Hesel pointed his dagger at Trevin’s feet. “I’ll have your sandals.”
Trevin removed his sandals. At least Hesel wasn’t demanding his nose.
“Tunic too,” ordered Varic as the wolf dog ambled back to his side.
At sword point Trevin stripped to his leggings.
Varic motioned to Trevin. “Into the well.”
“You’re mad,” said Trevin. Hesel prodded him toward the steaming pit.
“Salaciously sane,” said Varic. “In fact, I feel like doing you a favor. You lack balance. Make his hands match, Hesel. A small finger is just the token I need to impress a certain lady.”
“But you said Camrithian ladies shrink back at blood,” said Dwin.
Varic grinned. “I was not speaking of a Camrithian lady. Shall we have a finger, Hesel?”
As Hesel swaggered toward him, Trevin grabbed the man’s wrist and knocked his dagger hand on the ragged edge of the well, sending the blade tumbling into the darkness. Before Hesel could recover, Trevin hooked his leg behind the man’s knees. The brawny Dregmoorian hit the ground, and Trevin laid into him, fast and furious. Hesel was strong, but Trevin was enraged. He punched and pummeled, twisted and turned until he had Hesel pinned. Varic applauded. Panting, Trevin looked up to see the wolf dog crouched, poised to leap at him, and Fornian holding his dagger at Dwin’s throat.
“I would recruit you for my guard, dung digger,” said Varic, “but you have more courage than common sense. One word from me, my dog is on you, and your brother will be something the countryfolk gawk at for years to come.” He stroked his mesh sash. “But I’ll be fair. You release my man, and I’ll release your brother.”
Trevin slowly loosed his grip on Hesel and stood, his back to the well, watching Fornian. He wanted to tell Dwin to take the blasted devils to Redcliff and be done with their bullying, but the oath he would take on the morrow loomed over him. A comain—pledged to defend king and kingdom—dared not provide a way for no-goods like these to enter the royal city. Hesel rose, wiping his bloody mouth. But Fornian kept his dagger at Dwin’s throat.
Trevin flexed his fists and growled, “Release my brother.”
“Now!” commanded Varic. The wolf dog shot toward Trevin.
Fangs rushing toward him, the well at his back, Trevin didn’t hesitate.
Before the dog could leap, Trevin grabbed the sharp, crumbling ledge of the well and hurdled over it, hoping to find the inner wall with the balls of his feet. As the mongrel clawed at the ledge, he lowered himself, grabbing at chinks in the stone, trying to hug the wall, but it was slick with slime. Before he could gain a hold, he slid within an arm’s length of the bubbling ooze.
Trevin heard Varic’s whistle and Dwin’s strained voice talking fast. He wedged his feet and hands in the widest cracks he could find and felt his way around until he straddled the well. His eyes stung from the steam, and he swallowed to keep from retching at the stench.
Hesel peered down, one eye swollen. “How long can you hold on, dung digger?”
Dirt and rocks, leaves and sticks showered down on him. Trevin turned his head, closed his eyes, and clenched his teeth. Moments later hoofbeats faded into the woods.
Trevin listened for Dwin, then called to him. No answer. He shook the dirt and twigs from his hair and studied the shaft above him. He had scaled walls before but with hooks, never barehanded. The crevices that pocked the sides of the well might serve as handholds if they were not too slick. He reached up and grabbed a protruding rock with his right hand.
As the rock touched the place where his small finger was missing, a mist descended over his mind. Within the mist stood the cloaked figure that haunted his terror-dreams. Never had he fallen into his dream in the daytime.
Gripping the rock, he fought back the image, ignored the flashing pain in his hand, and swallowed his screams.
A stinging sensation on his feet pulled him from the dream and brought him fully back to the danger of his situation. Hot muck spat on him with each thick belch of gash below.
“Climb,” Trevin muttered to himself. “Climb or boil.”