Aylan awoke to the familiar shaking and rattling of wooden cart wheels on a rocky road. He noticed with little surprise that he was bound hand and foot. The bonds themselves were different this time, however. They were wrought of heavy metals, as cold as iron but seemingly heavier. He struggled against their weight, attempting to pull himself into a sitting position.
The pain that wracked him as he attempted this was too much to bear. Every fiber in his body screamed out for mercy, pleading with him to lie back down on the splintery cart bed. Aylan dimly considered that the experience could be compared to bathing ones self in a bath of acid and drying off with a steel wool brush.
Only seconds later Aylan slumped back to the dusty brown wood of the cart bed, defeated. He hurt too badly, and the thick manacles circling his appendages only grew heavier with his efforts.
“I hear you thumping around back there, boy,” called a voice from the lead direction of the cart. “Don’t hurt yourself.”
Aylan thought about responding. After a moments reflection, he did not bother. He just laid there sullenly, staring at the wall of the cart bed, absorbing each bump in the road painfully.
“You know, I hate to keep you back there, boy, but Gramm said you were not be trusted.”
“And you can’t fault an old man for heeding a fair warning, can you?”
Aylan sighed. He tried to rasp out a sarcastic response, but found himself croaking “water please” through dried lips.
The cart rolled to a not entirely ungentle stop. Shortly, the face of a smiling old man appeared over the edge of a cart. He was waving a waterskin proudly.
“Well, I guess it will be hard for you to drink like that. Aprisi!” The old man shouted and snapped his fingers, nodding at Aylan.
The shackles instantly grew lighter. Aylan sighed in relief and struggled to a sitting position, leaning heavily against the side of the cart. He reached for the waterskin slowly, the irons on his hands still carrying a significant amount of weight.
Aylan was quickly convinced that this was the best water he had ever tasted. It swam down his throat like a smooth summer wine, soothing his sore throat and flooding cool relief throughout his entire body. The water was gone in what seemed felt like seconds to Aylan.
“You might want to breathe,” warned the old man.
Aylan drained the last of it on his tongue desperately before handing the empty skin over to the old man.
“I’m Pann.” The old man took the skin with his left hand, and extended his right.
“So you are.” Aylan did not accept the hand.
“You’re welcome for the water,” said Pan, his eyes crinkling up as if he found something humorous.
Aylan held his shackled hands up and shrugged.
“All right then,” Pan said. “Thump around if you need anything else.” He turned to head toward the front of the cart.
“Wait!” Aylan said, holding up a finger.
“What is going on here?”
“Gramm has sent me on an errand. I’m to deliver you to another friend of his near Rhothalyn.”
Aylan looked puzzled. The name did not ring a bell. “Is Rhothalyn a small town? Can you name any towns or cities around it?” Aylan was intimately familiar with the geography of Tel’Aran, having had a particularly difficult class with a particularly difficult professor on the subject.
“Indeed. It’s just past Dugal and a little north of Gorlund. From here, we will run into a bit before we would arrive in Sothleen.”
“Your pulling my leg.”
“Certainly not.” The old man feigned offense.
“Those are not places in Tel’Aran.”
“Certainly they were.”
Aylan fell silent, his brow furrowed.
“Of course, it’s not Tel’Aran anymore. It’s been split.”
Aylan raised an eyebrow, confused.
Pann rolled his eyes. “We are south of the wall.”
Aylan grimaced, and then looked about the landscape cautiously.
“It’s daylight, the monsters don’t come out until dark,” the old man stated, an answer to Aylan’s unspoken question. Aylan nodded solemnly, his eyes narrowing as he scanned the wood line.
“Now that time I was pulling your leg,” laughed Pann. “You had better ride up front with me. I’ll want to hear your stories of what is supposed to be south of wall, and then I’ll tell you how much, if any, is true.”
“No shackles?” Aylan asked hopefully.
Pann shook his head. “Your are stuck with those until Gramm meets up with us, nothing I can do about that.”
A few minutes later, Aylan lowered himself down as gently as possible into the passenger seat of the cart’s open top cab. His shackles were chafing, and his chest burn with the fire of the sun, but the water and the promise of conversation were doing wonders for improving his disposition.
“You don’t sound like an evil dreadlord,” Pann said glancing over at Aylan. “You don’t much look the part either.”
Aylan shrugged again. “You don’t look like an man who would aid in kidnapping a prince.”
“Is that what you are? A prince of what, might I ask?”
“Odd that Gramm found you in Sarys, preparing to become a dreadlord. Is that what princes of Tel’Aran do these days? Has the loss of Yser’s magic caused your people to fall so far?”
“I’m not absolutely sure what the dreadlord bit was about, honestly. I was kidnapped and brought there. I would dearly love answers myself. I’m not even sure what it means to be a dreadlord.”
“It seems you’ve gotten a taste. But since you seem to still be the person you were before the ritual, and not a puppet of your creator, you may have evaded the worst part.”
“You are saying I would be possessed?”
“More or less. I am not the expert, however. That’s why I am hauling you around, to find someone who is an expert.”
“And why isn’t the dragonslayer seeing to this himself?”
“Gramm? He hates company. He could have flown you there himself, but he swore the temptation to drop you from the top of a mountain would be too great. He believed it would be best if I got you there, and he would meet us for the… decision. Not to mention he has other business to attend to.”
“Decision?” Aylan did not like how Pann struggled with the word.
“You seem like you have pulled through fine, no need to worry about it. Keep talking like the annoying, entitled young man you are, and everything will be fine.” Pann turned his head from the road and looked at Aylan sadly. “Start to turn, though… Well, there won’t be much I can do for you then.”
“Tell me about the land below Yser’s Wall,” Aylan requested, changing the subject.
Pann brightened. He flashed a smile across his leathery, sun beaten face. “Well, we do have plenty of time. Let’s see, where shall I start…”