Dreamers Do Lie Chapter 3 – Port Blalt

Dreamers Do Lie Chapter 3 – Port Blalt

Port Blalt may have been larger than the clan’s camp, but it was no sturdier. As wood was too valuable a resource to waste, most of the town’s structures had been cobbled together from loose stone. Those ramshackle foundations were covered by the same hide and canvas the clan used for tents. A smattering of rough fire pits glowed at irregular intervals among the sheds and stalls.

The lackluster huddle of buildings stood well back from the riverbank, probably so no errant tide could sow chaos among the population. A series of rickety docks sat astride the river. Dingy vessels made the crossing from one side to the other. The poor souls assigned to unload cargo lashed themselves to metal stakes not far from shore. Arimand couldn’t tell if the sailors took similar precautions.

It was difficult to determine the port’s regular population, so choked was it with visiting clans. Eselt drove his people until well after nightfall before choosing a satisfactory campground far enough from the other clans their borders were unlikely to mix. Yet no one complained as they unpacked and assembled the tents, speaking instead with subdued anticipation. Arimand wouldn’t call the atmosphere festive but anything less than oppressive marked a difference.

Even at this hour, Blalt bustled with activity. No sooner had they finished raising their camp than did a swarm of locals invade. They brought food with them, distributing servings among the clansfolk as they filtered toward the central fire. Just as Arimand purchased his first night among the Vorilia with news of the war, the clan repaid the citizens of Blalt with news they carried from abroad.

Arimand hadn’t thought about much beyond the clan’s daily routine. He assumed Hell’s outer ring would be the same everywhere; the same mindless drudgery, the same endless misery. But when it came time for the port occupants to share their tidings, they grew restless.

“There’s talk of demons,” murmured an aged man with a bent back. Echoing murmurs carried the news through the crowd.

“Everyone’s heard those stories,” Eselt grumbled. “They go down into the city sometimes. People claim you can hear the screams from the outskirts when they drag the foul ones into the prisons.”

The old man shook his head. “These are on our side of the border.”

That got Eselt’s attention. “What do they want in the badlands?” he demanded.

“Can’t be certain,” a withered old woman replied. “They carried some poor sods into the city. Scaled the walls and tossed them down. But no one wants to stray close enough to learn more.”

Eselt grunted. “There’s always trouble on the border. There’s a lot of land between there and here.”

The anxious murmurs of the port inhabitants suggested they didn’t share Eselt’s confidence. The flickering firelight illuminated many grim faces.

“Suppose that depends whether they find what they’re looking for.” The hunchback old man shrugged awkwardly.

The exchange left a palpable anxiety in the air that didn’t dissipate when the villagers began to drift back to their homes. Many of the clansfolk lingered longer around the fire than usual, pursuing topics of personal interest with the animated locals. Eselt had questions for new arrivals. Kimuli sought fertile hunting grounds. Sulard seemed to be on a quest to make everyone laugh.

Since there was no cleaning to do, Arimand sat beside the fire, knees folded in front of him, chin resting on one palm, watching the fading flurry of activity. Most of the topics up for discussion didn’t interest him, but there was no reason not to let the words wash over his ears. If information served as currency in Hell, any tidbit might eventually prove useful.

Eselt fidgeted more as the night went on. He often glanced over his shoulder toward his tent and muttered under his breath. Whenever an errant villager wandered too close, he rose and chased them away, pacing like an agitated sentry.

Arimand understood his apprehension. The badland’s inhabitants might have no reason to fear demonic invaders, but Eselt certainly did. Arimand’s eyes strayed toward the tent the stout man protected. Could the demons be looking for the woman within?

Curiosity compelled him to stay until the howling wind had driven everyone else to shelter. Until Eselt settled next to him with a sound halfway between a grunt and a sigh.

“Something on your mind, Commander?”

Arimand met the clan leader’s gaze. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”

Eselt arched one shaggy eyebrow until it disappeared beneath his bangs. “What keeps you out so late, Arimand?”

His eyes drifted toward the tent again. “Dwenba told me about the young woman you’re hiding.”

“She told you about Lady Kaylie?” The unbridled hostility in Eselt’s growl made Arimand shiver.

“I asked. You get to recognize people’s faces quickly when you’ve commanded an army under constant threat of infiltration. I saw a stranger and wondered about her. Was she not supposed to tell me?”

A soft rumble issued from Eselt’s throat. “There’s no telling Dwenba what she can and can’t do. I suppose you’d find out sooner or later.”

It was difficult to keep a secret in quarters as close as these. That this one had taken so long to uncover was a testament to Eselt’s choice of companions. Arimand watched the campfire’s flames jump and dance for several seconds before he spoke again. “I understand why you want to protect her, though I’m not sure I believe what Dwenba does.”

“Might be better if you don’t. Might keep you from sticking your nose where it don’t belong.”

Arimand lifted both hands, palms facing the smaller man. “I’m not trying to interfere. I just want to understand. How could an innocent soul end up here?”

Eselt didn’t answer. They sat a long time in silence.

Arimand was about to excuse himself when the clan leader drew a deep breath. “I’ve been dead a long time. I’ve never seen or heard of anything like Lady Kaylie before. And demons in Ethilirotha? You could go a hundred years down here before you heard that again.”

“I wondered,” Arimand admitted, his voice barely more than a whisper, “if it might have something to do with her.”

“It’s nothing you need to worry about. You just do what I tell you to do.”

Never mind those demons would destroy them all if they came looking for the so-called innocent woman. “Look, I understand. I spent time among spies. They taught me how to look at things differently.” He drew a deep breath and held it, preparing to enter dangerous waters. “I noticed your shrewd questions tonight. You aren’t just interested in the war above. You’re looking for an exit.”

“So what if I am?” Fire blazed in Eselt’s eyes and Arimand instinctively shrunk away.

“It’s a noble cause, trying to save a lost soul. Dwenba thinks Kaylie’s lucky you found her before anyone else. If you are looking for an exit, I think she’s right.”

Eselt clenched his fists, the sinister tilt of his jaw making it look as though he wanted to tear Arimand’s head from his neck. “What would you know?”

“I know it’s why I went to war. To protect innocents, I mean. Territory skirmishes are one thing, but what happened in Corvala was wicked. They didn’t know what was happening until the food began to rot in the fields. By then, the sickness had already spread. If the rumors are true, they couldn’t even tell the water had gone foul. How do you fight an enemy like that? I couldn’t stand the thought of that curse spreading to Onroth. I was terrified I’d have to watch my family wither and die.”

Eselt furrowed his shaggy brow into a grimace of skepticism. “You had a family?”

“Everyone has some kind of family.” Arimand tried not to sound insulted; he didn’t give the impression of a family-oriented man. “My mother’s still alive, as far as I know. And two brothers, though they’ve probably been drafted by now. And a sister, happily married. Probably with a litter of kids since the last time I saw her.”

The noise Eselt made in answer may have been meant as an apology. Arimand decided to treat it that way. “I figured someone had to do something to keep them all safe and happy. To find whatever twisted mage crafted that curse and prevent them ever weaving another such spell. Even if it meant killing men who were just following orders. Or sneaking behind enemy lines to assassinate their generals.”

A bitter smile split Arimand’s lips. “Listen to me waxing eloquent about the reasons I’m damned. Maybe it was never as noble as I thought. Maybe I was just feeding another emperor’s rabid desire for expansion. But I do understand wanting to protect something greater than me. Right or wrong, I convinced myself I did that every time I marched into battle.”

“You may fancy yourself a noble hero, Commander,” Eselt sneered the title, “but I’ve heard every yarn a man your age can spin. What’s it matter if I’m looking for an exit?” His eyes narrowed to slits. “You know of one?”

Arimand swallowed hard and tried to ignore the sweat coating his palms. “Soldiers work hard to ignore the stories surrounding death. How would a man like me know something like that?”

“How does anyone learn about the outlandish? They ask the right questions. Every myth has a shred of truth if you dig deep enough.” Eselt sounded frustrated. How long had this innocent soul been in his care?

“People with that kind of knowledge can’t just pass it along through casual conversation.” Arimand chose his words carefully. “Especially in Hell. Any secret is dangerous. But the secret to salvation for the damned?” He shook his head.

“If you don’t have useful information, mind your own damned business.” Eselt’s roar echoed through the night.

Arimand expected the entire camp to come running. Two heartbeats passed. Not a single tent flap stirred. Eselt remained beside him, casting daggers with his eyes.

“I’m not sure I can.” His heartbeat nearly drowned the words. Eselt could so easily send him away. Even if he did prove a match for the man, what greeting would await him come morning?

Eselt slid to his feet. Arimand flinched.

“You’d best get yourself to sleep. Let me worry about solving the impossible problems.”

“But I want to help,” Arimand blurted. He half-expected Eselt’s fist to descend over his head.

The short man loomed over him, suddenly larger than life. “What help can you offer if you don’t know a way out?”

“Maybe if I talked to her I could get a better idea-“

Eselt barked a laugh. “That’s what this has been about? Trying to get close to the lady? So you can mislead her? Try to take her for yourself?”

“And go where?”

“You know what I meant!”

Arimand’s face burned in the chill night. “How can I prove my good intentions?” As the clan leader opened his mouth, Arimand held up one hand to stall the response he expected. “I don’t have an exit to give you, but maybe I can offer the lady something else. She looks Corvalan. I could offer news of her homeland to ease her suffering.”

“I think you’d better keep your distance, noble hero,” Eselt sneered, jabbing a finger against Arimand’s chest. “You go near that tent, and you’ll learn quick how I discipline the errant members of my clan.”

Arimand expected a tirade, a lengthy list of threats in case he dared to disobey. When Eselt straightened without speaking another word, Arimand bowed his head. “As you wish.”

The clan leader’s gaze rested heavy on his shoulders as he slunk away from the dying fire. The weight accompanied him to his tent though, when he turned, he saw no sign of Eselt.

Neither the howl of the wind nor the icy claws of the draft bothered him that night. As Arimand lay huddled in his crowded tent, he recalled instead the blaze in Eselt’s eyes when the man told him off. His intentions didn’t matter. He had misspoken. Badly.


Arimand woke with a start. His tent was empty. If not for the reassuring shade cast by the canvas, he might have believed the clan left him behind. He stretched into the open space. A thin strip of light ringed his haven. The chill winds had dissipated. Warmth soothed his sore muscles, offering the first hint of relief since his arrival.

He didn’t allow himself to linger long. He expected Eselt’s watchful gaze to fall upon his shoulders the moment he revealed himself, but he saw no sign of the man. The camp was all but deserted. Sentries had been set to keep watch. No doubt the duty would shift throughout the day.

Across the barren strip that separated the port from the camp, Blalt teemed with activity. Much as the town’s inhabitants had swelled their ranks the evening before, Clan Vorilia now filled the port’s flimsy market squares. Recalling Kimuli’s comment about trade, Arimand guessed the clan had been granted a day to tend their personal desires.

With no destination in mind, and no idea what he’d find, Arimand wandered the market’s crooked streets, noting the teetering stands and their wares. Despite its decrepit nature, Blalt’s market wasn’t much different than those Arimand’s family had frequented in his youth; the kind farmers set up on the outskirts of town during harvest season or craftsman held to sell their excesses when they wanted to make way for new wares. Customers held up whatever object they wished to purchase while they argued with the vendor over its true value. Others stood in the path discussing the displays without ever approaching any stands.

There was little organization among the stalls; tool sellers set up next to food stands, flanked by the meager stalls of craftsmen. Little grew in the lifeless soil of the badlands, but the locals had a fair amount of stunted carrots and misshapen radishes to sell. Several crude cages housed small, squirrel-like creatures and something that bore only passing resemblance to chickens. He saw a few rabbit-deer but none larger than a house cat. Perhaps the locals bred them.

The tools and weapons were shabby, worn and often damaged. Metal seemed to make its way to Hell regularly, but the damned lacked the tools to work it. Arimand didn’t want to contemplate several centuries of wear on his fine blade. Most of the non-consumable items must have been traded by their original owners, probably in exchange for food or water.

The locals offered other services in which Arimand had no interest – and not just because the brothels looked ready to topple over. Hell’s resources were too rare to waste on a few hours of passing pleasure. Not that he faulted the long-dead for seeking an escape. He had only his armor and weapons to trade, both of which seemed unwise with stories of demons roaming the land. Nor did he want to risk his luck on the games of chance. He moved on.

For a time, he watched dockworkers unload cargo from the latest ship to make port. It was both a time-consuming and disturbing process. Every time a man came into contact with water from the river, he began to foam at the mouth. Hurling expletives at passersby, he would claw and thrash to escape his bonds. Some of their attempted attacks came dangerously close to succeeding, the chains snapping the mad men away moments before they reached their targets. Each man could only move a few crates before he succumbed to the water’s effects and could only be coaxed back to work when the magic wore off.

On his way back to camp, a familiar voice cut through the crowd. Arimand caught Dwenba mid-rant. For once, the object of her ire wasn’t one of his fellow clan members. She wanted to purchase a pair of the chicken-like creatures, and it seemed she already had a price in mind. Arimand watched with growing amusement as her negotiations drove the vendor to wind his fingers into the remains of his grey hair and tug until the strands stood on end.

Arimand covered his mouth to hide his laughter when Dwenba lifted a small crate containing excess bones the clan hadn’t yet found a use for. The stall owner counted them twice before he grudgingly agreed to let Dwenba depart with her chosen cage.

“Let me take care of that,” Arimand volunteered as she swung her burden from the counter.

“Aren’t you a dear?” Smiling, Dwenba set the cage on the ground. “Today is supposed to be a day of rest,” she chided as he scooped it up and followed her through the crowd.

“Why Dwenba, are you scolding me for working when you never stop?”

“Did I say dear?” Dwenba paused to cast a mock-stern glance over her shoulder. “I meant scamp.”

Arimand chuckled. “I haven’t anything to trade and your haggling benefits us all. I could learn a thing or five watching you work.”

“You do something long enough, you learn the ins and outs.” Dwenba shrugged. “You were a soldier, can’t you negotiate?”

“On the battlefield, maybe. But the army supply masters provided my legion with everything we needed. I don’t know the first thing about market transactions.”

“You sound like Eselt.” She clicked her tongue. “He hasn’t learned that yelling at something won’t always make it give way. The first, and most important, thing is that every vendor in every market is trying to take advantage of you, Arimand. They set the first price so outrageously high that you’ll settle for another absurd price by the end.”

“Sounds about right.”

“You have to know what everything is worth. In Hell, nothing comes with a quality guarantee. Take these chicks.” She indicated the cage. “We might get a couple of eggs out of them, if we’re lucky. But they might just as soon fall over dead tomorrow, and then all we’ve got is a little bit of meat, bones and what might pass as feathers.”

“So you haggle to the lowest expectation?”

“Yes, but you have to be clever about it. The merchant isn’t going to part with goods if the offer isn’t somehow favorable. Excesses are rare, but they don’t do you much good if you can’t turn them into something useful. You must always be willing to walk away.”

“That merchant looked ready to leap in the river.”

They entered the large tent where the clan kept its stores. Arimand set the cage atop a pile of crates. Three women sat nearby counting items from various open boxes and marking their tallies on a piece of worn hide with stubby charcoal sticks.

Dwenba barked a laugh. “He didn’t anticipate my experience with Hell’s creatures. Ava, pass me that crate of extras. I’ve a mind where to take them.”

“I’ll get it.” Arimand rushed to relieve Ava of the burden.

For the rest of the afternoon, he trailed Dwenba through the market, noting her manner and body language while she haggled. She focused on food, turning the clan’s precious surpluses into provisions for the next leg of their journey. A spool of thread earned her a bucket of root vegetables. Small strips of hide gained her a jar of salt. She walked away from several deals, sometimes settling for items of lower quality in greater quantity.

Arimand hauled all her acquisitions back to the storage tent. When her negotiations hit a snag, he volunteered to fetch items she left behind. On his way, he scanned the stalls for better deals using the instructions she gave him. Twice she complimented his sharp eyes for spotting opportunities she missed.

It was strangely enjoyable. The heavy lifting didn’t bother him, despite the oppressive heat. Dwenba had turned haggling into an art, each performance delightful to behold, and she gave him tips after every encounter.

When they finished, Arimand slumped onto an overturned crate outside the supply tent, ready to welcome the chill night winds. Despite the sweat and fatigue, his spirits were high. It was possible to build some sort of life here. It would always be difficult, and might never mean anything, but his eternity would be far from empty.

A chill ran up his spine. He turned, familiar dread settling in the pit of his stomach. Eselt stood on the outskirts of camp, peering at him through narrowed eyes. The weight of his gaze remained even after Dwenba returned to resume their interrupted discussion.

As night fell, life returned to the camp. Men gathered by the fire while the women prepared dinner. Children flitted back and forth, distributing portions. Dwenba barred Arimand from cleaning duty, insisting he take some time to rest. He decided to retire early, knowing the lazy mornings and easy workloads wouldn’t last.

He was halfway to his tent when Eselt intercepted him, arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t have anyone with him, but he probably didn’t need extra muscle.

Arimand kept his arms at his sides and his expression as blank as he could manage. “Have I done something wrong, Chief?”

“Just the opposite, it seems.” The clan leader’s voice was low and gruff.

“That displeases you?”

“I’ve been in Hell a long time and I’ve never met a man like you down here.”

“Didn’t the other members of the clan work hard to earn their place?”

“Is that what you’re doing? Earning your place every day?”

“I certainly don’t want to lose it.”

“So you sought Dwenba in the market to make up for your behavior last night.”

“I didn’t seek her,” Arimand protested. “I happened upon her and she looked as though she could use some help.”

“What made Dwenba worthy of the favor?”

“What do you mean? Dwenba works harder than anyone in this camp. She keeps us fed and clothed, and keeps our shelters from disintegrating. If I still commanded an army, I’d want her in charge of my stores. Besides, she’s good company.”

Eselt’s lips twisted. “You do have keen eyes.”

Arimand blinked. “You followed us?”

“I may have seen a thing or two. If the damned measured wealth in riches, old Dwenba would be worth her weight in gold. I don’t want anyone to lure her away.”

“Slim chance of that,” Arimand muttered.

Eselt arched an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Having spent the day watching her haggle, I don’t think you have much to worry about.”

The clan leader’s dour expression finally softened. “You still want to help Lady Kaylie?”

Arimand hesitated. “If I can. I know a lot about what happened in Corvala. Maybe more than you’ve already heard.”

“Why not pass it on to me?”

“I will, if you’d like.” When Eselt didn’t respond he added, “It may be presumptuous, but I find it easier to offer solutions to problems I understand.”

Eselt cleared his throat. “I mentioned your offer to Lady Kaylie over dinner. She’d like to take you up on it.”

Arimand’s breath caught in his throat. Before he could answer, Eselt took a menacing step forward and rose to the tips of his toes to glare in Arimand’s face.

“If you so much as think about misleading her, I’ll have your head on a pike.”

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