The ox bellowed and strained against the harness as a stick cracked across its back. Another crack and it staggered to the side, colliding with a waggon wheel and snapping a spoke. A whip cracked over its head and it let out another roar as it tried to get away from the lashing pain but it was stuck. Nobody was going anywhere, at least not in a hurry.
For the better part of two days, a line of waggons and hand-pulled carts had wound their way up from the valley floor to the high pass and the eastern gate. It was a ritual repeated every autumn as the lands surrounding the hidden valley brought their finest wares hoping to buy another year of peace. The people entrusted with the task knew the price of failure but still bridled under the mocking gaze of the soldiers on the wall. They laughed and hurled abuse as the drivers fell to bickering amongst themselves desperate to free their waggons from the melee.
In the space before the massive gate, drivers shouted and jostled for space, scraping wheels against the steep walls. A short driver shot up in his seat, screaming as he lashed out with a whip at a pair of shaggy horses blocking his path. It quickly broke into a fight with both the men trading blows from their seats. It was chaos but for the guards, it was sport and a few bet on which of the drivers would come to blows.
Torches sprung to life along the exposed trail, sputtering in the cold wind falling on them from the snowy peaks. The last of the lengthy line of waggons was finally in sight of the gates, the end of a journey that for some had lasted a thousand leagues and seen them cross deserts. Slaves did the work of unloading while the drivers ordered them about from atop the waggons, aware that setting one foot inside the Dragon Kingdom, even by accident, meant death.
Rell took a drink from the flask as he watched from his lofty spot, far removed from the tumult. He brushed his chin and let his grey eyes drift over the scene, observing the differences among the clothing and the snatches of words he could hear. His own clothes were plain if threadbare, a woollen shirt, untucked over brown britches. Tendrils of steam radiated from him as the sweat cooled in the chill wind.
He counted the waggons still to unload, at least a dozen in the narrow pass and many more lining up behind the cliff wall. A groan escaped his lips and he stretched his back, working at the knot that had formed during his labours. The sun was dipping low soon to vanish behind the peaks, plunging the valley into darkness. The rate they were going, they would still be up at the sorting house counting sacks of grain when the stars came out. Rell was tired and bored, a usual state, but today was worse since he was unable to sneak away. Normally he would find a corner in his father's shop and take a nap or pretend he was on an errand and vanish down the pub but today there were too many eyes watching him and he'd been forced to do his share of the work. He was an apprentice and as such required to offer his services during the tithe at one of the three gates that controlled access to the valley. The southern was the quietest, but Rell never managed to swing that gate.
The tithe comprised a little of everything that the subjugated lands produced, textiles and pottery, cheeses and wines, grains, and metals. A selection of the best that each land produced, given in tribute to the people that ruled the high valley. Among the goods delivered were also human cargo, hundreds of men and women forced into slavery and marched up into the mountains. Most were taken in war, but some were put in chains by their own people. Too poor to bribe an official or too much of an outsider to count on the group's protection.
It was these same slaves that did the bulk of the work that day and performed the manual labour in the kingdom. They climbed aboard the waggons and lifted the sacks and the bolts of cloth, all while working under the gaze of their masters and in some cases their former countrymen. Chains rattled as a steady stream of them passed through the gate, dropping the goods off in the storehouse before going back to the waggons.
Rell watched them as they worked, interested in where they had come from. A tall man caught his attention, straight-backed. A recent addition, Rell thought, not yet resigned to his life. Rell had been raised in a household that owned slaves, but it sat uncomfortably with him. To trust that fear alone would keep someone from attacking you when you slept or from poisoning the food as they brought it to the table, was not something that Rell ever grew accustomed to. Much better to pay for someone's loyalty than demand it at the end of a whip.
He studied the man with interest, noting the urgent way he moved his head, searching for a face he recognised or a sympathetic ear. Rell leaned out over the stone wall to get a better look. A chain ran from the slave's neck to a manacle around his left ankle, hobbling him enough to stop him from running away. He wore a thin shirt that did little to protect him from the cold. The slave caught the eye of a small man crouched on the back of a waggon and wrapped in a green cloak. Two workers struggled with a large wooden chest while the man ordered them to be carefull. Rell switched his attention and wondered where he had come from. He would have loved to have talked to the stranger, to any of the drivers, but as they were forbidden entry to the kingdom so was Rell to leave. The guards that watched the gate would have stopped either of them if they tried to pass through the gate.
The waggoner shifted uncomfortably and scowled as slave approached him waving him off and ignoring the outstretched hand but the slave wan't about to give up and attempted to give a letter to him. The driver struggled with him but froze when he saw Rell watching from the battlements. He shoved the slave away before cursing loudly in a language alien to Rell. The waggoner then stared up at Rell to see what punishment was to befall him. He couldn't flee, not with his waggon stuck in the line as it was. The slave followed his gaze, panic gripping him when he realised one of his masters had been watching him, and he hid his hand behind his back. Rell watched him dispassionately and mused over what he had seen. A spy perhaps, attempting to pass information back to his king? Or was it a husband or a son desperately trying to get word to his family? Rell was at least thirty yards away, but he could see the fear in the slave's eyes and maybe something more. Pleading? Rell returned the slave's gaze and then nodded towards the waggoner, they both looked surprised by Rell's clemency and when the slave passed the slip of parchment over, they both looked to the gate, expecting the guards to come swarming out.
The two slaves appeared from the rear of the waggon carrying the chest between them and the waggoner, slipping the paper into a pocket under his cloak, jumped up onto the driver's seat and focused on the two horses before him. The slave spared Rell a last look before returning to his work.
“You’ll catch a death standing out here like that,” Barris boomed as he emerged from the stairwell. “Thought you might want this.”
“It’s too damn warm in there, I had to get some air.” Rell took the proffered coat gratefully and draped it over his shoulders letting it hang open so that the cold air could reach his chest.
Barris rested his meaty forearms on the wall and started counting the waggons. He let out a deep groan when he realised just how many there were left to process. He was a bear of a man, with wild black hair and a beard that must have been a hazard around the forge where he toiled. He was only a year older than Rell's nineteen, but the blacksmith's apprentice had an air of solid dependability about him that most would say Rell lacked.
“It’s a good haul so far, but the grain is of poor quality.” Barris held his hand out for the water flask, Rell passed it and nodded to the gathering below.
“Do you think they look up at us with envy or hatred?” Rell watched his friend closely as he took a deep swig.
Barris wiped his mouth with the back of his hand frowning at the procession of waggons. “I think, if I were them, that I would look up with both. It's better to be behind the wall than stuck outside and any of them given a chance would gladly swap places.” Barris corked the skin bladder and hung it from a hook by the door. “Are you thinking of trading places?”
“Rell go out into the world?” a skinny young man said from the stairwell. “I wondered where you two were hiding. I just had to recount the tithe from Messen, the sneaky bastards tried to pass off some jars full of sand as the genuine thing.”
“Good you caught it, couldn't let them get away with trying to dodge the tithe.” Rell's words brought a frown from both his friends.
“Every bloody time with you.” Tanis shuffled past Barris and stood with his back to the wall. The city was hidden behind a curve in the road, but from there he could see the spines of the volcano that spread out across the valley they called home. His eyes lingered on a set of stone buildings that made up the monastery, pale blocks against the black rock of the cliff. They clung to the steep sides, one building above the other, connected by a single road cut through the sharp rock and lined with pennants fluttering from poles. The throng of people gathered at the gate to the largest of the monastery buildings were barely discernible at that distance but Tanis could make out a group coming forward onto the road. “When will you learn that it doesn't matter how much you complain about this duty, you can't get out of it? Besides,” Tanis gestured for his friends to lean in close, “I’ve made us a deal.”
“What have you done?” Barris said in a tired voice.
“Only what we agreed in the pub,” Tanis said as if that was explanation enough. Barris’ frown grew even deeper. “I’ve put aside a little something that we can sell later.”
“When did we talk about this?” Rell asked slipping his arms into his coat.
“Last night, in the pub, you were on your second to last drink and Barris was off having a piss.”
“Oh, that.” Rell didn't have the slightest memory of any conversation about stealing from the tithe. “And remind me what do I have to do for my share?”
“Well, nothing, but...”
“But...” Rell echoed.
“We agreed that while the plan isn't actually illegal, it might get us in trouble and that the three of us would share any blame and thereby lessen any punishment.”
“You mean my family name will give this the air of a sanctioned deal,” Rell said as he came round to Tanis’s plan.
“Exactly. But there’s no need to worry since Master Actus already caught me.” Tanis stared intently at the monastery and the group of tiny figures emerging from the far gate. They were running down the steps, jostling each other for position.
“He caught you?” Barris thundered and Tanis brought his hand up quickly, trying to hush the bear of a man before anyone looked over. The guards were only a few yards away and weren’t against pushing apprentices from the wall.
“He did, but that's a good thing, turns out quite a few apprentices take from the tithe and as long as it's not too much and he gets a cut he’s more than happy to turn a blind eye. The way he sees it none of us gets paid to be here so why not pay ourselves for all our hard work.”
“Hmmm, so too whom are we selling these goods?” Barris asked Tanis.
“Well, you and I will take them to this old guy I know. We can get it after the work's done,” Tanis said.
“What will I be doing?” Rell asked a bit annoyed at being excluded. “Is this a secret friend of yours?”
“You can come if you want to, but I thought you’d be busy watching your sister join the ranks of the dragon riders.”
Rell nodded along and then it hit him. “That's now, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes.” Tanis pointed to the monastery and the runners that were winding their way down the steep paths. “They left a minute ago.”
“Oh, Gods no, I thought I had time.” Rell stepped to the edge of the walkway, the drop to the yard below was over a dozen feet. He spared a glance at the crates and barrels still to be processed.
“Go, we’ll cover for you,” Tanis said waving for his friend to leave.
“It’s not like you do any actual work anyway,” Barris said and then gave a deep chuckle. He folded his arms across his thick chest. “Go and see our Ariella win.”
Rell nodded and then turned and ran past the guards on the wall. He spared the column of waggons a quick glance before skipping down the stairs and dashing past the slaves lumbering under their burdens. Heads turned as he sprinted away, envious of his freedom.
“If only he could work as fast as he runs from it,” Tanis said as Rell sped down the road.