Clark Gillian

The Devious Dragon and the Fall of the Emperor


Chapter 6.
The Emperor's Cellar.

The damp cobblestones glistened under the full moon, casting long shadows from the hulking City of Bridges. A shiver ran down Bard's spine, not just from the chilly drizzle, but from an unseen pull towards the grand belfry. Its clock tower, adorned with intricate gargoyles, seemed to whisper secrets in the wind.

"Lost in thought again, Bard?" rasped the Knight of Spears, their voice muffled by the thick wool hood. Their gloved hand grasped the hilt of their sword, ever vigilant. They had little trust for this city, especially with soldiers patrolling every corner, seeking any hint of rebellion.

The Bard, lost in his own world, held up a finger to his lips. His dark robe almost blended with the night, but the Knight spotted a speck of moisture trickling down. "What are you doing?" they hissed, frustration edging their voice. "Remember the cellars, Bard. Do you want another taste of their hospitality?"

A flicker of defiance flashed in the Bard's eyes, quickly masked by a wry smile. He lowered his finger, the hint of salt lingering on his tongue. "The wind… it has changed," he murmured, his voice barely audible above the clattering carriages.

The Knight sighed, pulling their cloak tighter. "No need to be a wind whisperer, Bard. We both know the city stifles any breath of freedom."

Bard nodded, a spark of rebellion flickering in his gaze. He retrieved his pipe, the worn wood offering a familiar comfort. As they continued their trek, the Knight's eyes darted nervously, searching for any sign of danger. The Bard, however, seemed unfazed, drawn by an unseen force towards the looming belfry, his secrets as shrouded as the city's moonlit shadows.


The wind howled through the cracks of the ancient inn, its mournful song barely audible over the Knight's rhythmic slurping of the hot soup. The stew, despite its unappetizing appearance, was a welcome warmth in their frost-bitten limbs. The Bard, however, remained untouched by the meager meal, his hooded figure a silent silhouette against the flickering firelight. His gaze, sharp as polished obsidian, was fixed on the bustling market square outside, illuminated by the pale moon.

Weeks of relentless pursuit had etched lines of worry on the Knight's face. They were fugitives, their names whispered with fear and contempt in the shadows. Every creak of the floorboard, every murmur from the patrons sent shivers down their spine. Yet, the Bard seemed oblivious to the danger, his attention consumed by something unseen.

He tore a small piece of meat from his plate and placed it on the windowsill. A ginger cat, skinny and wary, emerged from the alleyway, drawn by the irresistible scent. The Knight watched, his brow furrowed in confusion. Why waste precious food on a stray when their own bellies rumbled?

But the Bard ignored his unspoken question. He clicked his tongue softly, stroking the cat with a tenderness that surprised the Knight. The feline, its initial fear melting away, purred contentedly, nuzzling against the Bard's outstretched hand. It spoke, not in words, but in the subtle shifts of its body, the flick of its tail, the rhythmic rumble in its throat. The Bard listened.

Suddenly, the innkeeper, a hulking man with a face like weathered leather, loomed over them. "This ain't a petting zoo," he barked, snatching the plates away with a rough clatter. His eyes, cold and calculating, darted from the cat to the Bard, lingering on the hooded figure with suspicion.

The Knight instinctively reached for his spear, his heart pounding in his chest. Was the Bard's strange behavior attracting unwanted attention? But the Bard merely smiled, a cryptic message conveyed in the glint of his dark eyes. The cat, as if understanding, let out a low meow and vanished into the night.

The Knight slammed his tankard down, the meager ale barely making a dent in his thirst – or his anxiety. The Bard, oblivious to his companion's despair, drained his own cup and grinned, revealing a glint of defiance in his dark eyes.

"See?" he chuckled, his voice laced with an edge that sent shivers down the Knight's spine. "You barely touched your food. Waste not, want not, eh?"

The Knight ignored him, his gaze darting across the room. Every face seemed etched with suspicion, every whisper fueled by fear. Singing about the imprisoned Emperor here was akin to dancing with vipers. Yet, the Bard seemed determined to court disaster.

With a theatrical flourish, he flung open his robe, revealing a vibrant tapestry of colors beneath. A hush fell over the room as he drew out a small harp, its polished wood gleaming in the firelight. The Knight sank lower in his seat, shame burning his cheeks.

"My esteemed patrons," the Bard announced, his voice ringing with forced cheer, "allow me to regale you with a tale! A ballad of injustice, of a fallen king, and the valiant souls who fight for his return!"

His words hung heavy in the air, met with a chorus of disapproval. The innkeeper, his face pale and beads of sweat forming on his brow, sputtered, "No such songs here, bard! Only lighthearted tunes, ones that won't stir trouble."

The Bard's smile widened, taking on a mischievous glint. "Trouble, you say? But surely a tale of hope and rebellion would resonate with hearts yearning for freedom, wouldn't it?"

A tense silence ensued, broken only by the nervous coughs of the patrons. The Knight held his breath, his hand instinctively reaching for the hilt of his sword. The air crackled with anticipation, the line between courage and recklessness dangerously thin.

Suddenly, a gruff voice cut through the tension. "Wrong tavern, friends," it rasped. A cloaked figure emerged from the shadows, their eyes twinkling with knowing amusement. "For songs of liberty and defiance, seek the rooster with four feathers, perched atop the house with eleven stairs, beyond the bridge guarded by the high priest's statue."

The Knight's hand shot towards his spear as the cloaked figure vanished, but the Bard was already striding towards the exit. Panic tightened the Knight's chest. Singing about the Emperor was folly, even here, where whispers of dissent lingered under the surface.

"Bard, wait!" he hissed, but his words were drowned out by the rising anger of the patrons. Their faces, contorted in a mix of fear and disapproval, fueled the Bard's defiance.

"You call yourselves free?" he bellowed, his voice echoing through the smoke-filled room. "Free to obey those who stole your freedom? Free to listen to voices that dictate your every thought?"

His laughter, tinged with bitterness, sparked a flame of resentment in the crowd. Murmurs grew louder, punctuated by angry shouts. The innkeeper, his face drained of color, pleaded for silence, but it was too late. The genie was out of the bottle.

Suddenly, the heavy thud of boots on cobblestones resonated outside. Two figures, clad in the glint of polished steel, materialized at the doorway. With swords drawn, they scanned the room, their eyes settling on the Bard and the Knight.

"Troublemakers, eh?" one snarled, a cruel smile twisting his lips.

The Knight's hand tightened around his spear. Fear flickered in his eyes, but it was quickly replaced by a fierce determination. His lips stretched into a grim smile, mirroring the cold steel in his gaze.

"Been itching for a fight," he growled, brandishing his spear. The Bard, staff held high, stood beside him, a defiant glint in his dark eyes.

The clash was swift and brutal. The soldiers, skilled but overconfident, charged forward, their swords flashing in the flickering candlelight. The Knight, a whirlwind of steel and focused rage, parried their blows with the practiced ease of a seasoned warrior. His spear danced, deflecting strikes, finding openings.

One soldier, his face contorted in a snarl, lunged from the side, seeking a cheap shot. The Knight, anticipating the move, spun on his heel, his spear tip finding its mark with a sickening thud. The soldier roared in pain, his sword clattering to the ground.

With a swift kick, the Knight sent him sprawling into the inn, leaving the other soldier alone and vulnerable. Their blades met in a shower of sparks, the clang of metal echoing through the tense silence. The Knight pressed his advantage, his muscles screaming in protest, but his will unyielding.

In a final, desperate move, the soldier attempted a feint, but the Knight saw through it. His spear shot forward, finding its mark with a satisfying thunk. The soldier stumbled back, clutching his wounded arm, defeat etched on his face.

The tavern door was wide open, the night beckoning, promising freedom or further peril. The Knight and the Bard, their breaths ragged, exchanged a silent glance. There was no time for hesitation. With a final defiant roar, they charged out into the darkness, the soldiers' frustrated shouts fading behind them.

The soldier curled into a whimpering ball, a broken doll discarded between overturned tables. His companion, stunned and disarmed, gaped at the Knight, their words dissolving into a trembling breath. "We…" he stammered, but the Knight's icy reply cut him short.

"We don't make trouble," he said, his voice a chilling counterpoint to his earlier declaration about changing winds. "We finish it." The ominous weight of his words hung heavy in the air, leaving room for unsettling interpretations. Was it a mere warning, or a glimpse into their true purpose?

Panic twisted the innkeeper's face. He slammed the door shut with a resounding thud, his hoarse commands demanding silence from the bewildered patrons. Windows were hastily slammed shut, nervous whispers replacing the raucous cheer. The Knight and the Bard, unfazed by the pandemonium they'd unleashed, moved with unwavering purpose.

"Bridge, high priest statue," the Knight muttered, wiping away the crimson stain blooming on his spear. "Eleven steps, rooster with four feathers."

The Bard, eyebrow raised, tilted his head. "Specific, aren't we?"

The Knight shrugged, his expression an inscrutable mask. "What are you waiting for?"

A muffled cheer escaped the sealed door as they passed the whimpering soldier. It was quickly quashed by the innkeeper's frantic shrieks, leaving behind an uncomfortable silence. The Knight and the Bard exchanged a silent glance, the weight of their actions momentarily settling upon them.

Guided by the Knight's cryptic instructions, they descended into a warm, dimly lit room. Laughter and music spilled into the air, weaving a tapestry of merrymaking with men and women dancing, singing, and exchanging spirited toasts. Above the doorway, a gleaming golden crown announced their arrival at the "Emperor's Cellar."

Intrigue washed over the Bard. He tapped his pipe thoughtfully, a spark of curiosity flickering in his eyes.

"They might have something good to put in my pipe here, indeed."