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The second gate Cedric passed was closed as well.
He continued around the wall, the soft, hollow clanks of his plate mail providing a mournful sort of song that mixed with the muffled sounds of the city. His eyes strayed about the waving prairie, shrouded by heavy gray rain clouds. There was a slight movement in the grass, and his hand eased toward his sword hilt. But it did not come again, and he walked onward.
As he rounded a bend to the northern side of the city, he found a gate open in the wall. It was the smallest he had seen so far, and seemed to have been designed to be closed quickly and easily. There had once been a road leading away from it, but it had grown over with the stringy grass of the plains. There were no travelers to be seen entering or leaving.
As Cedric passed beyond the wall, his first impression was the same as that which he'd had of the other cities: it was densely overpopulated. The citizens laughed and joked and haggled good naturedly, but there was also a great deal of conflict. Shady characters lurked in the shadows of deepening twilight, and many people of all descriptions shouted at each other. Most eyed his worn armor and sword with anxiety.
Though he was low on coin, Cedric passed the first inn out of hand. A sign over the door named it the Good Fortune; a carving roughly showed a pair of dice atop what he supposed was meant to be gold. Shouts were audible through the stained walls, which were undoubtedly thin, and as he passed by he heard the crash of breaking glass. The thought of spending the night in a hovel like the Good Fortune did not appeal to him.
Three streets down, he came upon another, the Dragon's Fire. A well-painted sign depicted a green-scaled dragon belching flame after taking a draught from a mug of something. Despite its subject, Cedric could not help but smile. A drink like that would serve to warm him up enough. A glance through a window showed the inn's average patrons: the men sitting at the tables were heavily armored to the last, and most sported visible weapons. He removed his leathery hand from the dust-coated window and pushed open the door. He would fit in fairly well here.
Cedric approached the bar, brushing the grime of travel from his heavy cape. The barkeep was a tall, well-muscled man, gone too gray for whatever occupation he might once have pursued. He set down the glass he was toweling and leaned forward on the polished counter top. "Afternoon, sir. What can I do ye fer?"
"How much for a night's lodging?"
"Seven gold crowns, sir." Seeing Cedric frown, he continued, "I know it's expensive, sir, but times're hard. The miners of Volohn to the south've all fled the mines."
"I understand. Do you accept Maying coins?"
"Maying crowns?" The innkeeper's eyes widened a bit. "Of course, of course, sir. Five Maying crowns will do nicely."
Cedric was somewhat relieved. He untied the pouch from the back of his belt, where it lay hidden by his cape, and counted them out. "Will another coin buy me breakfast in the morning?"
"Yes sir, and ye'll get some drinks b'sides. Not much Maying gold around these days."
"So I understand. I'd prefer that you did not spread it around."
"Yes, sir. Some questionable people about nowadays. Room four on the second floor is empty, I think."
"Very good. I'd like a mug of what the dragon on the sign is having," Cedric said, waving toward the door.
The barkeep chuckled, his eyes crinkling pleasantly. "Yes, sir. A Dragonsbreath. Named the whole inn after it, I did! Best drink in Estwood!" As he began mixing liquids from unmarked bottles, Cedric made his way to a table near the edge of the room. He took the opportunity to examine his surroundings.
Sitting two tables away, a young man was loudly telling the tale of how he'd slain a wyvern several days earlier. His breastplate, however, was suspiciously free of blemishes, and his cloak was unstained and whole. Nevertheless, he was young, fair, and charming, and drew a good bit of attention from the ladies, which was probably what he was aiming for.
At another table, two grizzled soldiers were hunched over near each other, fervently discussing the location of a fabled treasure hoard in a tone that was louder than they realized. Their voices were heavy with greed, hunger, and expectation. Just two more days, they said.
After a time, a wary barmaid brought Cedric his Dragonsbreath. She dodged tipsy travelers and kept her cautious eyes everywhere without spilling a drop. Her gaze was hard and spoke of having had enough foolishness. Many of the patrons made a special point of paying no attention to her. Cedric made a note of this and gave her only a polite nod.
As he continued to survey the room, he took a sip of his drink. There was a burst of pain and he nearly dropped the clay mug. It truly felt as if fire were coursing through his throat - for a moment. The chill that had begun to seep in outside was banished promptly. For the first time in days, he began to relax.
"AEre, what're you doin'?" A large man in dingy chain mail collapsed into a chair across from Cedric. His question seemed to be more rhetorical than an actual inquiry. He reeked of alcohol and was obviously a bit sozzled. "Good evening." He watched the other man carefully.
The brute chuckled loudly. "'Elluva drink, ain't it?" He banged the table with a sizable fist, causing Cedric's mug to jump a bit. "Bar-wench! 'Nother Dragonsbreath!" The serving girl, across the room, only glared at him and continued what she was doing. The drunk did not seem to notice.
"So," he said, leaning close enough for Cedric to smell his acrid breath, "So, so. So what's the word? You some kinda hero or somethin'? Found any secret gold caches? You c'n trust me."
Cedric drank carefully. "I've nothing to tell."
"Yeah, I know that. I know. ACause -" and he leaned still closer, as if to tell some great secret "there's nothin' out there! 'S'all gone. 'S'all gone."
"Whaddya mean? You find somethin' valuable?"
"Not yet. But they say the warriors of the past left their weapons to be rediscovered."
"Bah! I's foolishness. 'S'just a lej - a legend."
Cedric smiled secretively. "Some legends never die."
"Dare's no magic weapons out dare, mishter. Yur crazy." The large man's speech degenerated into incomprehensible muttering as he slid out of the chair and stumbled away.
Cedric remained alone at the table for a few minutes, sipping his drink and pondering what he'd seen recently. It seemed that the citizens of Estwood, at least, had lost faith in any salvation from the creatures that prowled the growing wilderness. Such pessimism seemed to be common throughout the land. In one sense, then, the forces of the Night had already won. If the people themselves had no hope, what chance did anyone have of uniting them against their enemies?
After a few moments, a second individual sat in the recently vacated seat across from Cedric. He was lean and sun-bronzed, clad in a thick leather jerkin. A dagger was tied to his belt. His dark hair had been pulled back and tied, and his eyes glinted with intelligence. "Good evening," he said quietly.
"I overheard your conversation with that man. Tell me, do you truly believe the old stories? That one of Kralda's line will one day take up his ancestral sword against the Dragons?"
"Oh, yes. Wholeheartedly."
The man's brows knitted. "But how can you be so sure? What evidence is there? No one has even claimed to be of Kralda's line for hundreds of years! Most think he never even existed."
"Is that what you believe?"
"I - no. I believe there was a man named Kralda, and he was likely a great warrior. But, as for the rest ... "
"Tell me, sir, do you speak Wal-ense? Or, rather, can you read it?"
The man seemed a bit surprised by the question. "Yes, actually. I'm a bit of a scholar, you see. When I can afford to be."
Cedric reached for a cord around his neck and withdrew a disk-shaped amulet of leather from beneath his armor. "Then perhaps you will be interested in this." He tossed the talisman across the table.
The man picked it up and inspected the toolings on it carefully. After a moment, his eyes widened, and he turned it over, examining it. "Do you realize what this says?" he asked. His tone was near a whisper.
"Oh, yes, my good man. I'm quite fluent in Old Walense, as a matter of fact. ASikoh Drakkat ek lathas; mi atho attat."'
The man stared blankly at the disk. "AWhere there are Dragons, so I am also,"' he quoted breathlessly. "Where did you find this?"
"I did not find it. It is mine, sir, as it was my father's before me and his before him. I am the man whose existence you question. I am Cedric Donelf, Cedric of the One Name. I am the descendant of Kralda."
The man spluttered for a moment. "I - I find this difficult to believe. If you are the descendant of Kralda, what are you doing in Estwood? Why have you not take up your ancestor's sword and driven the Dragons from our realms?"
"AThere is time in all things, and all things in their own time.' An old saying my father was fond of. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps even Kralda's descendant would know little of the location of such a fabled artifact? Many centuries have passed, and the Sword was not hidden lightly. I am well-versed in the legends of old, but there are many things that remain hidden from me still. I am, sir, only a man."
"This," replied the man, holding up the engraved disk, "is ... very impressive. But it will take more than an ancient piece of leather to prove yourself a legend."
Cedric accepted the medallion and dropped it back over his head, tucked it into his armor.
"Rest assured, my actions will prove me in time. ATi lattit haf delano Drakath zenos kat.' AMy sword flies on Dragons' wings."' He emptied the mug and set it down loudly as he stood up. "And now, sir, if you will excuse me, the day has been long. Good night." Armor glinting in the lamplight, he turned from the table and made his way into the shadows. 1