Calipula, Capital City of Lacorum The Evening Prior to Departure
The heat of the day breaks with the setting sun. Fat and orange, the sphere hangs low and heavy over the waters of the Phobos as the river creeps lazily through the heart of the city. Its mercurial surface blazes by the sun’s dying light. Along the riverside docks, ships crowd the wharfs to unload cargos of fish and trade; packed like pigs to the trough while their masts sway together in an undulating forest of timbers and rope. In the onset of twilight, the white stucco walls of residences and shops burn golden. Between them the shadows stretch, and the bustle begins; a second wind of activity brought about by the cool of the evening.
In the city’s eastern quarter, the colored lanterns of the Promenade are lit in anticipation of merchants making their nightly push. Not produce sellers or fish mongers, who dominate the daytime streets. The evening markets are exclusive to exotic fare, intended for the curious and discerning customer. Animal handlers from Goshe mingle with silk traders out of Karak amid clouds of exotic incense, while local wine merchants argue with vintners all the way from far off Edom over who can produce the better vintage.
A wooden dais rises from the heart of the market, a long rectangular thing with five posts crowning the top. These posts are spaced roughly six feet apart, worn and weathered, and utterly unadorned, except for an iron ring attached to each that hangs six feet above the platform’s floor. In the days when Lycinea ruled Calipula, this would have been where the Masters sold their slaves. Lacorum is a nation of free peoples, however. There are no slaves to be sold anymore. But the dais remains, as it has for over one hundred years, a reminder to what Calipula has left behind.
As the low lying mist comes creeping from the river over the cobbles, music filters through the air from the windows and doors of taverns to either side of the Phobos. Voices ring amidst raucous laughter, joined by the percussion of drums, the trill of flutes, and the twinkling melody of the lyre. Steam drifts from bathhouses at every quarter, where men and women splash one another, laugh, and whisper conspiratorially. Blacksmiths stoke their forges to put in a few good hours in the cool mercy of dusk, and the courtyards echo with the steady rhythm of their hammers. Above it all the sky is still a cerulean blue, though gradually darkening to navy. Wisps of cloud collect the fading sunlight, glowing shades of gold and red. A school of sparrows alights from square rooftops. Their wings catch the light and flash as they wheel single mindedly through the air, circling once before winging their way to the west, following the retreat of the day.
A shout can be heard from the Golden Hind, Calipula’s most renowned tavern, as a tullie man is thrown head over heels into a nearby pile of woven baskets. The bouncer scoffs and brushes his hands together before going back inside. There is a beggar nearby, laying flat on his belly in the street with his ear to the stones. He looks up long enough to watch the belligerent drinker rise from the tangle of baskets and stagger cussing into the night. The old man grins, chuckling through broken teeth, then lowers his ear back to the cobbles, listening.
Along the northern edge of the city, where the ground swells into the rise of a gentle hill, horns and flutes announce a wedding procession, making its way to the temple at the hill’s stop. Maidens dressed in brightly colored tassels dance before the bride, showering her in flower petals while loudly proclaiming her beauty. The noble elite, sitting on the balconies of expansive manse overlook the urban sprawl and toast to the wedding party as it passes. Then they drink to the sun, Prote’an, their god, and to the passage of the day. From a nearby garden the lovely tenor of a male voice sings a sorrowful hymn, marking the end of an evening’s religious observance.
Calipula thrums with life, with sound. The city thrives.
The barracks at the northern gate was a bustle of activity. Rows of militia recruits grunted and barked in unison as their unit leaders ran them through formation drills. Spear shafts slapped into shields again and again as they practiced the phalanx. Captain Bouros watched from the ramparts of the city wall, occasionally glancing away to admire the sunset over Calipula. His commanders would continue the drills for at least another hour. Bouros was briefly tempted to push for two, but quickly dismissed the thought. Tired soldiers don’t march well, and the night would already be too short for most men’s liking.
The captain clasped a roll of parchment in one hand. Once he was able to tear his eyes away from the recruits on the muster field, he read over the paper again. It was a list of names belonging to those who had signed on to leave with the expeditionary force in the morning. Beside him, a tally man rattled off figures from the supply train.
“We’re short a day’s worth of grain.” The man was saying.
“Hm.” Bouros grunted. Coming from someone with his aquiline profile and square jaw, the sound of his displeasure of all the more intimidating. “Have you submitted a new requisition?”
“The storemaster says the court has supplied all King Priam is willing to give.” The other man replied. “The midland farms had a poor growing season last year, and the lack of trade from the south has hurt us further. If this inquiry turns into the opening battle of a war with Lycinea, the King feels the majority of the kingdom’s food stores should be reserved for the legions.”
“Then we will have to hunt.” Bouros said simply. “There are plenty of boar and deer to be found in the barrens.”
“It takes a lot of meat to feed over three hundred soldiers.” The tally man said.
“They will make due.” Captain Bouros retorted. “We will restrict rations from the start if we have to. Once we reach Chalcis we can resupply.”
“And what if Chalcis is already lost?” The other man asked.
“Then food will be the least of our worries.” Bouros grumbled. Then he pointed to something on his list. “Who is this man?”
Leaning in to get a better look, the tally man squinted his eyes slightly, reading the name allowed. “Rio Coatl.”
“Hm…” He ruminated the flavor of the name for a moment. “Interesting title.”
“I know this name.” Bouros said. “Could he be the Rio Coatl?”
“I do not know, sir.” The other man replied earnestly. “I do not have your familiarity.”
“Most of the hired men are camping beyond the gates, are they not?” Bouros asked.
“Find this man’s camp.” Bouros said. “Escort him to my offices here. I would like to speak with him.”
“Should I have a security detail accompany him?” The tally man seemed mildly uncertain.
“No.” Bouros waved off the other man’s concern. “A messenger will suffice. All the better if you go yourself. If this man is who I think he is, his experience could be an asset.”
“I will go at once.” The tally man said curtly.
“As you will.” Bouros dismissed him.
With a curt salute the other man turned and left for the railing that would lead down to the base of the wall. Sighing, Bouros watched him go, and then returned his attention to the soldiers drilling in the yard.
Rinnyrig ducked his head to step through the open door of the Golden Hind. The burgeoning evening chill washed from his scales the moment he set foot into the foyer. The oppression of the day’s heat had not only preserved itself inside the tavern, it actively perpetuated itself through the press of bodies within. Patrons jockeyed for seats wherever available. Where there were no stools or benches to be had, men and women lined the bar, and leaned against the walls. Most wore the local garb, though Rin could make out many who adorned more exotic attire. Whether they were merchant or mercenary he could not be sure.
The atmosphere was a cacophony of conversation. Rin, by contrast, emitted a brooding silence. People quickly took note of him upon his entrance, and as he stepped forward, the crowd gave him as much berth as they could afford. Jesthyri abhorred wanton violence, but Rin could not be bothered with begging pardon from anyone not aware enough of him to get out of his way. They would move, or be moved, and that was the final say on the matter.
At the bar, people scattered, revealing an olive skinned Tuyul setting mugs up along the dark polished wood of the counter. Rin settled in between two stools and leaned across to peer at the barkeeper.
“Fancy seeing you this early.” The tullie’s shrill voice carried the characteristic squeak of a female. She took Rin in at a glance. He wore a stained leather tunic that hung well past his waist, belted around his middle with a hide sash. His blue scales were smeared with black, and he smelled of soot.
“Figured you’d be working late.”
“There’s no time.” Rin rumbled. “I finished what commissions I could, but the King’s army has paid me to march with them in the morning.”
“A high price, I’d wager.” The tullie gave him a sharp toothed grin. “You’ll be needing a room, then?”
“Meat.” The Jesthyri replied. “And drink.”
“You always order the same thing.” The barkeeper frowned slightly. “Don’t suppose I could entice you with a nice turnip stew?”
“Meat.” Rin reiterated, this time a little more firmly. “And drink.”
“Your usual?” She asked.
“Something that burns.” The last word drug slowly across his tongue, and rattled in his gullet as a throaty growl.
“Tch!” The Tuyul woman clicked her tongue. “I’ve got just the thing.”
A moment later and she set a mug on the countertop in front of him, filled with an amber liquid emitting a mildly acrid odor. Rin palmed the cup, and tossed the contents back in a single gulp. He paused, rolling the flavor around in his mouth for a moment before nodding in satisfaction and returning his mug to the bar.
"Don't you think you ought to be better served as a barmaid in a tavern?"
The grating voice of Copti struck the back of her skull like a physical blow. Pozu stopped in her tracks and watched as the whorls of dust settled back into place around them. It was packed and dry, evidence of the blistering sun over the past few days. The heat was just as appropriately cloying as it brought beads of sweat to the brows of every person at the makeshift congregation. Pozu herself found it familiar and unsettling within the same moment. It reminded her of home, and home was not a place she enjoyed thinking about. It was likely this thought that had soured her expression visibly and not the rock thrown at her pride, but none would be privy to that information as she turned to face them.
A lull of silence swelled between Pozu and the unknown other as onlookers quieted when noticing the tension. It threaded between them, lax at first as she stared upon his leathered and haggard face. A triumphant smile was plastered across it and put his mismatched, yellowed teeth on full display. The dangling metal in one ear and dirt smudge across his colorful, but sea-salted clothes told her what he was: a pirate. Her time in Midea had not afforded her to meet one prior, and Pozu herself doubted this tragic first impression would be stellar.
"I'm sorry, what was that?" she inquired in Goshe. The thread went taut as she stepped forward once, twice, a third time. It left only two feet of space between the smaller female and the burly man who worked to loom over her.
A sore mistake on his part, she thought dryly.
He smiled wider, wrinkles appearing to dimple the innards of his cheek. By the gleam in his eyes from the afternoon sun he'd thought he'd already won with that one line, so he repeated his victory and this time in Goshe: "You'd be better off as a barmaid or in a brothel, lass."
"That's what I thought you said." Pozu nodded, her braid of dark brown hair scratching against the back of her perspired neck. She knew she'd need to wash her hair of the stench soon; one of the few pet peeves she couldn't ignore. With a vicious yell she careened her weight backward onto a single foot while the other lifted from the ground itself. Knee bent, leg twisting to the side - and then jammed forward. The hardness from the back of her boot connected with his knee, his thin trousers offering no cushion to the impact. It cracked loudly and seconds later followed his surprised-mingled scream of anguish. While he buckled to the ground to his good knee and holding the other, Pozu closed the distance and had slid a thin arrowpoint from the waistband of her own trousers. It kissed the underside of his stubbled chin.
"Next time I suggest you treat a lady proper, lest she turn into a man and treat you like that instead." Her point was carried by a contradictory wink paired by the raucous later of those around them who'd witnessed the scene. Embarrassment mottled the man's face as he sputtered a quip, however none but spittle left him instead. Pozu couldn't determine if it was due to his shock or stupidity.
She released him to his wounds and fit the thumb blade back into her waistband in full view of others to head back to her staked camp like all the others. She could hear the jeers flying toward the man behind her as she walked, but the thumping of her heart in her ears had drowned it out.
He'd been bigger than her. Larger. Meaner. Like the soldiers. And still she'd managed to have the upper hand, if only by value of astonishment alone. It was worth noting, even though she hadn't managed to break his knee like she'd intended.
"Was that really necessary?" It was a familiar voice, also feminine but far more sultry than the abrasive tones men usually carried with them. A friend she'd made in the two days of her encampment, Travelle. Unlike Pozu, Travelle was almost ethereally beautiful in her pale hair and even paler eyes. Somehow her skin had managed to only turn red at her nose and cheeks beneath the sun and Pozu thought that it befit her. She was dressed similarly to her tucked in blouse and trousers, though Travelle's were also far less dirty.
"No," Pozu admitted with a sly smirk. It had the mirth dancing in the emerald depths of her gaze. "But I liked doing it."
Travelle shook her head, though Pozu could tell she'd done so with endearment. It was going to be a long, long journey for them both.
The sunset and the orange blanket it lovingly laced over the barracks, with its longing kiss in farewell, announced the night’s hurriedly approaching arrival. Twilight’s more somber sister would undoubtedly bring with it silence—a contrast in stillness that almost felt telling of what awaited them in the morrow’s morning sunrise.
What would follow it on their trek was less certain.
A sense of unease remained Isolda’s constant companion ever since she’d received word about the mystery around Chalcis and the task for which they would march. The templar couldn’t discern if it was her inexperience with the unknown that made her walk on constant alert, but she couldn’t quite lose the tension she carried on her very shoulders as she ran drills on her unit.
It had taken all of five minutes for the unit to see that Isolda was in no mood to tolerate their foolery, further evidenced by the unforgiving drills she mandated. She wouldn’t push them overmuch, her orders clear, but she was not about to forgive disrespect. By now, all the recruits knew better than to bark their insecurities at her.
Well, almost all of them.
“How much longer must we continue, Chauthier?” Exasperation pierced the cooling air, resentment also present in the soldier’s prose. “We’ve been at it for an hour already!”
Isolda did not miss a beat, lowering her own shield and spear to turn to the weak link in her chain.
“How silly of me. Forgive me, recruit,” she mockingly jeered, emerald eyes cold as she approached. Though Isolda wasn’t the tallest in her unit by any means, the way in which she walked—how she carried herself—was analogous to intimidating. “I’d forgotten that battles, skirmishes, and all manner of warfare, only last but a single hour. The possibility that I’ve wasted even a minute of your invaluable time will hardly let me sleep tonight.”
For a moment, only hushed cackles resonated from other soldiers. One look from Isolda and the others fell silent immediately. The golden hue the light shone of the unit made Isolda’s ginger hair resemble fire, and the same flame was present in her unforgiving leer.
“I’ve not the time to listen to a bitch—” The soldier, scarlet from both exertion and embarrassment, lashed out once more, but could hardly finish his insult before Isolda rounded on him.
Isolda stopped just an inch shy of actually knocking him down, causing the soldier to nonetheless recoil at her fury. “And I have not the patience to continue to baby you, recruit. We will continue to drill until your Captain dismisses us all for the night. If it were up to me, I’d keep you here all night. Now fall back in line, soldier, or I will send you back to the captain myself, with my spear between your very legs.”
Silence hung over the unit once more, and the soldier reluctantly fell back into formation.
"Seems Templar Chauthier’s unit 's sharp as e'er.”
Waxley muttered in Quintus’s ear in Goshe, taking a slosh of his flask as each of the arbalests observed the training ground from their overlook at the southern wall, bent over with arms resting on the parapet. Quintus gazed side-long at his so-called ‘comrade’, a man who had preserved a habit of taking to the drink as soon as their marksmanship training had ended.
An unfortunate habit in the Quintus’s eyes. It was one thing to enjoy getting sloshed at a pub surrounded by company, three hands into a game of cards. It was an entirely different matter to treat it as medicine. There was no riddle why his marks were piss-poor in comparison, and not simply because Quintus’s marks were at the top of the rank. Intoxication on a regular interval was bound to dull the senses, and make a trained soldier stammer their strikes like a toddler swinging a stick around, or toying with a sling for the first time.
The Silent Fox knows it well: a narrow focus brings big results!
“Aye.” Quintus said, eyes turning back to the grounds. “Got iron in her veins she does.”
Indeed. It wasn't the only time Quintus had witnessed the red haired commander set fire to the infantry. It had become a bit of a show in fact; each time after his unit wrapped up for the day, walking the southern walls gave sight of some soldier faltering in their duty, and Templar Chauthier picking them to pieces. ... Waxley gave a gurgling chuckle, half-way into his swallow.
“Oi! Y’sound like you never seen a Templar.” He said. “They’re all steel eye’d and unforgivin’. I say that as a certainty! Say all ye want ‘bout religion n’ such.”
Quintus picked a speck of dried mud out of his black shock of hair, left over from earlier that day, and flicked it off the ledge.
“The moment Templars start showing up in mercenary circles, you know there’s something wrong in the world.” Quintus chimed. “Might as well call it quits on being saved altogether.”
Not that prayer ever saved Quintus from a likely death to begin. In his line of work, the time it took to close your eyes and mutter some self-pitying appeal to a mother or father figure in the sky, you could be stuck by a blade seven times over, in every direction.
Never waste time when you’re facing death. Death wastes no time.
“About that.” Waxley prodded. “Y’never told me what brought you ‘ere in the first place. All that talk about fightin’ in wars for petty lords in the north of Goshen, being one of the Named Few, a known man in the mercenary trade. Why y’down ‘ere with the enlist’d?”
“On a technicality.” Quintus spoke, absent of emotion like he took no interest in the conversation. “Lacorum’s doesn’t seem to like mercenaries. Figure I may as well play the part.”
That, Waxley might have figured, was a puzzling answer. Something for the drunken fool to chew on, and not look further into. In truth, Quintus was living the result of some very bad luck; decisions which involved a collapse of a contract, a pickup by a Lacorum patrol, and a certain marshals offer to either submit to punishment, or be impressed into the militia. One would think Quintus could slip away whenever he felt like it, if it wasn’t for the fact that the marshal managed to get one of the caster class to place a Rune of Bind to his forehand. Good luck finding someone in the Grey Market with the magickal clout to decrypt a bind in short order, before a timely visitation from some rather disgruntled reclaimers.
The whole thing could have happened to anybody. Unfortunately, it happened to him.
Since, he had been taking orders from a rather ill-tempered child of nobility with not a lick of strategic sense in him; the kind of person who gained his position as punishment, rather than promotion. A petulant mouth-breather who nasally sneered at each of his soldiers and gave them hazings and insults like a master ridiculing a slave. That man was lucky he had the cushion of position and name to him, and that Quintus was serving sentence. In any other arrangement, he’d be getting the hazing of his life. Perhaps have his nose delivered to him as a present.
“Private d’Eamon!” a uniformed messenger stopped just short of them.
Quintus turned to the messenger, a narrow eyed frown locked onto his face.
Private, he says. To think; he went from someone whose name racked wariness and song, to a pawn on someone else's board. Fucking private!
“You’ve received a summons. You are to report to the Captain at once.”
“For the last time. I didn’t mean to maim the bastard! He was standing in my way!”
“Captains orders!” The messenger repeated, before moving on.
Waxley chucked again, this time dribble falling from his lip.
“O-oh! Looks like you’ve got a date with destiny!”
The piercing of arrows that formed in his eyes chose Waxley in that moment. Sometimes, he had no clue how he had settled on this man being company worth having, say an excuse not to be completely friendless in this ordeal. Quintus carried on jeers and jests with plenty a rugged or earnest type before, but Waxley was something else. Always joking at the exact wrong time.
“Thanks.” Quintus said bitterly.
Lifting himself up from his lean, he begins stepping along the rough-hewn stone toward the east tower.
A date with destiny. We shouldn’t keep her waiting.
The men and women of the Golden Serpents were used to unwelcoming climates, some even preferred the abusive love of the Karak sun. Survival was the first lesson learned in Karak; some learned it, others struggled to understand it. The Golden Serpents though, they thrived on it. Each member of the mercenary company was hand picked by it’s now infamous leader, Rio Coatl; The Shadow Serpent. They had to be killers, hunters, baptised by the golden wastes of Karak. If they could conquer where no man could live, then they were welcomed into one of the most elite fighting forces in all of Karak. Their shepherd was Rio, they would follow him anywhere, to glory, to death, to the jagged jaws of the sand drakes that made the golden wastes their home.
This time though, this time they had followed him to the distant and strange...Calipula in Lacorum, and they were loving it. The sun did not hate them here, it was not a predator seeking to consume all life, no, here the sun embraced them lovingly unto its bosom. The ale and wine were cold, the food full of exotic flavors and fresh ingredients, the women well fed and full figured, the men hairy and strong. Here the Golden Serpents could enjoy themselves. Sure, one could make the argument Rio’s crew also enjoyed themselves in the breathtaking coastal cities of karak, with their azure and jade waters, open air architecture, and spiced wines, but Karak was their hunting grounds.
Rio had carefully crafted the reputation of the Golden Serpents to be one of apex predators in one of the world’s most unforgiving countries. The serpents had to be at their best behaviour. In Calipula it was a different story. They were here to answer a question; find out what happened to the people of a plantation down south. Calipula men were not made of the same material Karak men were chiseled from. They were soft, gluttonous things, living simple lives dedicated to serving richer, softer men. Here, they were demi-gods, and they celebrated like it.
Meat was easier to come by in Calipula, so Rio had four whole stags and a boar brought to the camp along with various wines, cheeses, breads, and dancers for his men to enjoy before they set off in the morning. They were camped right outside the city walls, something Rio preferred as it kept the locals away from them and kept his men away from trouble. The sun had dipped behind the horizon and spilled the evening violets and deep blues across the sky, bringing a cool breeze and a wave of torches that lit the camp in a warm orange glow. Rio Coatl stood at the head of a table placed outside his tent in an open area where his crew was set up, large hunting knife in one hand and a cleaver in the other.
A roasted boar sat before him, if you were quiet you could still hear the bronze crispy skin crackling. Juices and oils slowly dripped out of the boar, catching the low light from the nearby torches and sparkling gloriously.
“This, men, is what the fat, rich bastards inside those walls are eating tonight,” chuckles and agreeable grunts came from the group of deadline men standing around him, "They sent out dried leather and warm piss for you to drink.”
“That is what they think of you, sell-swords meant to go out and die because some lord deemed it so.”
“I ain’t no sell-sword.”
“But you are no sell-sword, no, every one of you was bathed in the blood of a sand drake. You faced the rage of the golden wastes and conquered it! You are not men, you are predators, you are warriors, you are golden serpents, and we feast like the lords of battle that we are!”
Cheers. Cups in the air. Women yelping in joyful surprise as their bums were smacked as they danced around the fire.
Rio cleaved a chunk of fat and meat, biting into it and letting the juices run down his chin.
“When we march deep into the south of Lacorum, do not think yourself a man, do not think yourself a warrior, we are the tip of the spear.”
"You are the fangs of the serpent.”
“You are what the golden wastes couldn’t break, now eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we hunt.”
Rio raised his left hand and stabbed the hunting knife into the back of the roasted boar, the punctuation to his toast. The Golden Serpents raised their cups and began to hack away at the beasts brought to them like wolves to the slaughter.
Rio sat in his chair, his senior officers on either side of him.
“Look, a sheep has wandered into the wolf’s den,” Risur, his personal bodyguard, whispered in his ear.
Rio looked beyond his camp to a man dressed in Calipula fabrics, quietly but firmly walking towards him. The shadow serpent waved his man to clear a path for him, one the Calipulian quickly walked through.
“Good evening, master Coatl, I have been sent to escort you to Captain Bouros’ office, he is leading-”
“I know who he is, why does he wish to see me so late? While I feast with my men? It is Karakian tradition to break bread with those you will go on a hunt with.”
“Well, sir, I wouldn’t call it a hunt exactly-”
“I don’t care what you would call it, seeing as Calipulian men call heading into the forest with ten horses and twenty dogs hunting. I am calling this a hunt, my serpents were hired to hunt you’re missing sheep, I was not hired to be paraded around after sunset.”
“Very well, I shall break tradition for this captain, but if this curses us,” Rio pulled his hunting knife out of the boar, then pointed it to the tally man, "We will feast on lamb next.”
The serpents hissed in laughter. Rio stood and motioned for Risur to follow him.
“Let’s see what this captain needs from the golden serpents.”
The first city, after he left Magog, was Karcorum in Samaria. He didn’t know the language, and as soon as he felt that he was beginning to get a grasp on it, another complex dialect was brought into the mix and he was back where he started – blinking in confusion, trying to work his tongue and teeth around a new array of shapes and sounds and unknowingly offending what seemed to be a very proud country of people. It was a boisterous city; antagonistic and – in comparative retrospect – hostile. Busy, and yet, entirely ingrained in a warmongering mentality where every new encounter only further cemented the impression that Samarians were a pugnacious people.
His second city was Shante in Edom. Fortunately, after having stumbled through the better part of five dialects and hardened himself under the combatant prowess of Samaria, Day had managed to somehow garner enough of a grasp on Samarian, that the language and its cultural differences weren’t much of a barrier when he arrived in the sea-side nation to the north. But what was the challenge was the cold, harsh temperatures and dampness which seemed to penetrate all manner of material right through the skin into the very center of his bones. It was a chill that clung even by the hearth of a roaring fire. It was only after weeks of living in Shante that Day had learned that one of the city’s more well-known commodities were the slaves that its seafaring residents brought back from their raids along the coastline and that he was lucky to not find himself among them.
The last two cities were the twin capitals of Bochem and Gilead in Goshen. One earning the nickname the Silver Hills and the other the Golden Gates of Goshen. The temperature and culture were far more agreeable with him, although once again he found himself faced with the challenge of being in an alien place, with a foreign tongue, traditions, and cultural niceties which he didn’t quite understand, haphazardly stumbling through like a bright-eyed Umano child staring up with wonder at a sighting of one of the Universities’ Mages. Perhaps that’s what drew Day, some sort of ill-fated attempt at learning more about aether and the Kadur, and the intricate relationship between the two and the world, only to learn its complexity went far deeper than the Caerna elders understood. Dayir had thought they were being purposefully withholding, as a way of entrapment to keep him secured in Magog. The truth was contrary to that. They didn’t hold the secrets, rather they feared losing the opportunity to uncover them.
The capital of Lacorum was his fifth city, and in this city of Calipula, with its arches and promenade, and architectural wonders, and young lively streets and thirst for growth and expansion, Day found himself strangely disquieted and restless again.
"Here." Murdommar offered a canteen to Day. The silver in his hair caught the firelight. Shadows danced over the wrinkles that had weathered his brown skin, telling of a lifetime of battles and experiences that the Caerna in their natal city could only imagine.
Someone cackled in the distance, raucous laughter followed, carrying through the tavern of eager and restless men. The King’s call to action had gathered them all, including Feggit’s band of sellswords and silvertongues, and one Dayir Sihwih'li, Jadebird of Magog, the nomadic city of the sun children.
Taking a swig, it was sharp and pungent, burning like fire in the pit of his stomach. Day must have made a face, because the old Mage smiled, slapping a hand affectionately against his back enough to jostle him forward. Perhaps Day should have expected it. The Mage expressed affection with force.
Taking back the canteen, it hung from one hand between Murdommar's knees as he stared into the dancing flames. The expression on his face changed, the merriment replaced with something somber. "Are you sure you still want to do this?"
He spoke in Khoi, a language only used by the Caerna, and a dialect specific to Magog. Day had encountered very few who knew it – and almost none of them were anything but Caerna – but Murdommar was an exception in almost every way to what Day knew about the workings of the grand world, and having known the man for nearly two years, very little surprised Day.
"There's a mercenary group leaving at dawn. They're not a particularly cultured folk but at least they won't gut you while you sleep. They're headed to Ai in Karak – I know you've had your sight set on the capital since we first joined up. Perhaps you can finally see the Red Hill Valley for yourself.”
“You’re worried,” Day noted curiously, arching his brows as he continued to stare into the flames.
“There is more out there in the world for you to experience besides a warfront,” Murdommar answered.
The jade man simply shrugged his shoulders. “All life meets an end.”
“Which is exactly why there is no need to rush it,” the Mage countered.
Day might have replied had their conversation not been interrupted.
He had only caught the words ‘fucking lizard’ spoken in Goshe just before the unsuspecting soldier of fortune was thrown from the bar and landed on the table where Murdommar and Day sat. The table failed to hold his weight; the legs gave out almost as quickly as the sellsword’s back slammed into the surface. A piece of the splintered wood shot towards the door, while the rest crumpled underneath the table. Murdommar hadn’t moved from his chair, but Day had defensively shot up to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
A Jesthyri stood at the end of the table; large, imposing, nearly a head – and shoulder – taller than every Umano in the tavern. Jaw taunt, his sharp pointed teeth gleamed between the folds of reptilian skin. Day had imagined it hadn’t taken much effort on the Jesthyri’s part to toss the Umano sellsword across the room and was likely a modicum of expressed restraint that he hadn’t tossed him right through the tavern instead.
“I see you have found yourself some disagreeable company, Master of the Forge,” Murdommar spoke, cutting through the hushed silence that overtook the tavern.
Those were the whispers on the streets and in the taverns, the dark and bending alleys of any city he dared stride into. The man they called The Shadow Serpent didn’t need a reason anymore than he needed permission to do anything; to break a leg, to sever an alliance, to end worlds.
Risur had only known him for a short while but even she knew just how wrong those whispers were.
She followed behind him, observing both he and the crowds of Calipula on the way to Captain Bouros, considering him. What the masses couldn’t see was just how deliberate his violence was.
Rio always had his reasons.
Risur just couldn’t always be sure they were good ones.
Though she prided herself on her unwavering morals and for all his selfishness and cruelty, Rio was still the man who had saved her. She wanted to believe he was worth saving too. And in any case, anything was better than Zarrius. Just the thought of his name was still enough to turn her stomach despite his life having been ended by Rio that fateful day six months back.
The little Linx her patron had called her when they met. Him standing in his foyer; him taking up the living room with his belly and his greed. She’d assumed it something sexual to him. Maybe it was the vulnerability she had felt since being stolen from her family (whom she presumed dead--if not that night then surely by now) but he had given her a smirk that tugged enough on the corner of his lip that it showed a glimpse of yellow stained teeth.
He eyed her. Even at fourteen she had too much resentment for her time at the Academy, she stared right back at him; he laughed harder. This titillated him, that so much fight could be left in her. That’s why he had picked her, he said. The fat pig had repulsed her. It didn’t matter that her time at the Goshen University was hell on earth, this was not a better alternative. So, fifteen years later, when Rio showed up purely by coincidence, Risur couldn’t help but see it as a gift from her Gods. An answer to a prayer she hadn’t yet prayed.
Pledging to serve him was her choice. Something her mother said had nudged her to it-- Zarrius’ blood still tacky on the floor as Risur eyed the man who had killed her abuser in short order.
“You have to learn how to hold your head as if you wear crowns. Wring the arcane from the ordinary.”
She remembered these words now, even though years within the system had tried to beat it out of her. “That’s how you survive when you aren’t one of the chosen. When the world owes you nothing, demand something of it anyways.”
Rio was the embodiment of the heart of her mother's words. And for that she would follow him into battle, no matter his reasons.
Baroque Rolluk crouched on a bench, leaning as far over his plate as he could reach. It was an instinctive way to eat, protecting the meal at the sake of one's own person. Fairly normal for a Tuyul, particularly one who had spent a fair share of his time in the company of larger and hungrier individuals. The grizzled old Tullie had worked for years under Lacorum’s king. The regular soldiers were already familiar with him. The hired fighters were quickly getting acquainted.
Anytime someone came too close, Baroque snarled, baring sharp teeth in a wide mouth. His eyes glittered in their sockets, hard and feral. He was ever careful to keep one hand at his plate. The other usually darted for the dagger on his belt. Also on that same belt, strung along beside that very dagger, were the desiccated remains of no less than three fingers. Gifts, he called them. Souvenirs taken from foolish Umano who had thought to sneak a scrap of rabbit, or a bite of quayle from him before. Word got around quickly in fighting circles, and these days the mere presence of those fingers was enough to deter most hungry parties.
He was cracking into the leg bone of some small creature killed during the heat of the day when a commotion to his left drew his attention. There was movement all around as other nearby onlookers scrambled for a better view, but a section of the boiling crowd parted just enough for Baroque to catch the finale, and watch some great man toppled by what looked like a waif of a girl. From his seat, the Tuyul caught the glint of a tiny blade in her hand, held to great effect under the man’s chin. She made some statement in Goshe, which meant Baroque could only catch about every other word, and then left the man on the ground with his shame. The crowd erupted into peals of laughter.
“Hm.” The Tullie mulled over what he had just witnessed. “Interesting.”
Then he slid away from the bench, leaving his platter behind, bones and all. Someone would likely steal it. But then again, it hadn’t belonged to Baroque in the first place. By the time he made his way over to where the other fellow continued to kneel in the dirt, most of the witnesses had gone back to their respective fires.
“The Umano have yet to learn.” He said in Premi, words tumbling from his lips like a handful of gravel. “Nothing good comes from speaking out of turn to females. Nothing except a good thumping.”
He laughed quietly at that, but the other man sneered, growling. “Fuck off, you Greenie shite.”
“Green?” Baroque seemed unphased by the common slur. He feigned confusion, holding out his arms to examine his hands. The skin was a charcoal gray, nearly black. His palms were a paler color, almost the same shade as cream.
“No green, friend.” He then reached up to the collar of his gambeson, and tapped a finger on a crest stitched into the linen.
“Tell me.” He inquired. “Can you read this? They give to me only this morning. The words are in Goshe.”
Smiling, Baroque shook his head mildly. “I do not read Goshe.”
The big man sighed, his nostrils flaring. “It says piss off, a’fore I break yo-”
He hesitated as his eyes actually focused on the emblem, then his jaw fell slack upon recognizing the crest of the King’s Hunt Marshal. A minor member of the royal court, but an authority he would still do better not to cross.
“I didn’t realize.” He started. “I...I didn’t know.”
“Learn respect.” Baroque told him calmly. “Twice already your eyes have tricked you into thinking you are above your peers. I would not believe them a third time.”
“Nai.” The man agreed. “Yes, I will...I will keep that in mind.”
“See that you do.” Baroque patted the man’s shoulder firmly, and then turned away from him.
His eyes swept the milling crowd, and he quickly caught sight of the young woman who had felled the man at his back, walking between encampments alongside another Umano female. Given his shorter stature, he had to trot along to follow after her. Accustomed to traversing thick underbrush and overgrown wilds as he was, the tangle of legs from fighters moving past were a minor obstacle, and Baroque soon gained ground.
“Good Lady!” He called, his gravelly voice reaching a high whiny pitch that made him wince.
She seemed to not notice, which was not altogether strange, given the ambient swell of noise from the camp. Baroque cut loose with a string of curses, remembering she had spoken in Goshe earlier. He hated that thrice damned tongue. Still, he tried again.
“Rasah!” He called. “Rasah!”
The word meant many things, most of them bad. It was a Goshe term used to describe assassins, and people of lethal talent, but also commonly used for cut throats and petty murderers. Given what he had just witnessed, Baroque could think of no more accurate term in the moment.
“Here, girl!” He slowed himself to a walk. “Come. Speak with me.”
The captain’s command was little more than a ten by fifteen foot box recessed into the stonework of the northern wall. Officer’s of Bouros rank typically were not assigned an office within the barracks, but given the situation, an exception had been made. The room had originally been a weapons cache, but the arsenal had since been moved to the main armory. Where racks of spears, bows, and mail had lined the walls, there was barren stone. Windowless, the heat within was stifling. Bouros had taken down the room’s singular door the day it had been assigned to him. Doing so effectively removed all privacy, but offered a much needed modicum of relief.
Making his way down to his office, Bouros passed the men drilling in the yard, and glanced over as he heard Paladin Chauthier’s voice crack sharply in the evening air. Some brazen young soldier had opted to run his mouth rather than work his spear, and it was earning him a thorough dressing down. Bouros smiled slightly as he passed, caught the hardened eye of the young woman, and gave a curt nod of approval before continuing onward.
The guards at his doorway straightened their backs as he approached. Bouros paid them very little attention as he passed between them and entered the dimly lit interior. There were two torches lighting the room, which was all the fire Bouros could stand in here. Taking up much of the interior was a square wooden table, and a pair of roughshod chairs. The table’s only decoration was a small candelabra, and a vellum map of Lacorum’s landscape. One of the barracks retainers had left a basin of water sitting on a stool at a corner of the room. Bouros skirted the edge of the table and made his way for the water.
Removing his gloves, he dipped his hands into the basin. Even tepid, the water felt cooler than the room’s interior, and Bouros sighed happily as he splashed some of it up over his face, scrubbing the stubble on his cheeks and chin.
“Sir.” One of the guards outside said curtly. “A man to see you.”
Excellent. The captain thought, assuming his visitor to be Rio Coatl. A punctual man. He arrived sooner than I thought he would.
“Show him in.” Bouros replied, reaching for a woolen cloth that had been left near the basin.
Bouros turned, dabbing the water from his face, but the figure who entered was not the one he was expecting.
“Ah.” He said, hesitating for only the briefest of moments. His accent switched immediately to a Goshen dialect. “Master Quintus d’Eamon. Very good.”
He tossed the cloth onto the table, partially covering the map, and motioned to one of the room’s two chairs. “Let’s get this done quickly, shall we?”
Inside the Golden Hind, the Tuyul bartender's voice rose in a piercing shriek as she witnessed Rin toss a patron onto one of her nearby tables, collapsing it to the floor.
"Hoyep goff!" She cursed, slipping habitually into Lagertongue. "Not the furniture, Rin! By the gods, what're you playing at?"
Waving her off, Rin thumped across the floor until he came looming up over the man who had offended him. The fool groaned, and winced as he saw the Jesthyri approach.
"This lizard has ears, sir." Rinnyrig rumbled.
"My...my apologies." The stranger gasped, winded and still recovering from the dragon man's tender treatment. If he had companions, they were wise enough to leave him to his fate, and remained silent within the protection of the multitude.
"Men have died for lesser insults." Rin replied, ignoring the man's stuttering.
He then leaned down, and with a great clawed hand, grasped the front of the mercenary's jerkin.
"You Umano are like pups." Rin muttered, slowly raising the man up off the floor. He then made several soft mewling sounds from somewhere inside his throat.
"Making noise. Careless, not thinking." He shook his fist slightly, and in the hush that had fallen over the common room, the sound of fabric tearing in his claws could be heard.
"Yes." The man exclaimed. "Yes, you're right. Forgive m...me, m'lord."
Rin's satisfaction could be measured in the slight huff extruded from his nostrils, and the mild softening in his eyes. He released the poor idiot.
"Go home, little man." He said. "Do not cross my path again."
The man cast one bashful glance around the room. He must have had some friends after all, but again they kept to themselves. Then he quickly made his exit. The atmosphere took no time to recover, once the rest of the patrons realized there was nothing more to see.
"A thousand pardons." Rin turned his attention at last to the two individuals occupying the space at the now ruined table, heedless that one of the two had spoken to him already.
"Out!" The Tuyul woman appeared suddenly at Rin's right side.
Barely as tall as the Jesthyri's hip, she craned her head all the way back to stare up at his chin. "I want you out."
"Gisle…" Rin began, calling her by name.
"No!" She hissed. "Don't even start. I'll not have you in here breaking shit and scaring off paying customers."
"The man called me…"
"I heard what he said." Gisle cut him off. "But your kind are supposed to be better, yes? Drink your drink, eat your food, and catch him in the streets, but don't destroy my direshky furniture!"
Rin straightened his back, his chest puffing indignantly.
"You need to be leaving." The Tuyul countered. Then she glanced across the debris to the Caerning man and his companion.
"Are you with him?" She gestured to Rin with a toss of her head. "You can get out too."
"I want my dinner." Rinnyrig snorted.
"Not one scrap. Not one pint more until you replace what you've broken." Gisle chided. "You might intimidate the rest of this lot, but you don't scare me. I'll cut your shins, I will."
"But I leave the city tomorrow." Rin's eyes narrowed, and his stomach growled for him.
"Then I expect two tables for making me wait." Gisle snapped. "One more word, and I'll have you make chairs to match."
"I am not a carpenter." Rin sighed.
"Not my problem." Gisle was already weaving back through the crowd, shouting over her shoulder. "If you want to shadow my bar again, you'll figure it out."
Rin's eyes rolled, and he stared skyward for a moment before looking again at the two men nearest to him.
"Excuse me." He rumbled, and started his way towards the door across the room.
Day’s eyes narrowed with interest as the Jesthyri retreated out the door. He couldn’t help but notice that the dragon man had to bend forward in order to pass underneath the threshold. “Who was that?” Day asked, switching to his mother tongue as the cacophony of the tavern trickled back in.
“Someone we’ll want on our side.” Murdommar shuffled out of his seat. “Come,” he commanded, and glancing momentarily at the broken table, he tossed a gold coin onto his chair.
With the towering gait of the Jesthyri, the Master of the Forge had covered significant ground by the time Day and the old Goshen mage caught up to him.
Murdommar fell into stride with Rin. “A word, if I may, Rynnyrig.”
Day walked a half-pace behind them.
"Hmm?" The inquisitive grunt from the Jesthyri rolled inside his great chest like distant thunder as he turned to face the two individuals tailing him.
He glanced briefly at the Caerning man, who could be nothing else, but had unusual features Rin had not seen before. Then he turned his attention to the elderly human who had spoken.
"Do I know you?"
The old Mage seemed unaffected by the Jesthyri’s tall stature when he stalled before them or by Rynnyrig’s impressive display of prowess just moments earlier. “I’m afraid we have been but two passing ships in the night, however your infamy has reached many ears and many shores. My name is Murdommar Tyfridald, and my Caerning friend here is Dayir Sihwih'li. We are travelling under the Ironguard banner of Feggit Stormwright.”
"Feggit." The reptilian nostrils flared as Rin echoed the name. "I am familiar with the man. I commend your choice of employment."
"Now, again, if you will excuse me." Rin gave them a polite nod of the head as he prepared to take his leave. "I need to find some place else to sup for the night."
“Perhaps that might be something we could aid you with while you consider a proposition of ours,” Murdommar offered earnestly – although Day hadn’t missed the subtle glint in the Mage’s eyes that hinted at a grander plan that the old man hadn’t yet disclosed. Always two steps ahead and never one back.
Rin stopped at that, and turned to square himself with the older man. The Umano carried himself with a wisened sort of certainty, something Rin had seen a few times in other parts of the world. It was a common sort of air, particularly around the Goshen universities.
“Perhaps.” The word grated in Rin’s throat, dragging slowly over his tongue and through his teeth. His stomach growled softly, and after a brief span, he nodded.
“You have my attention.
The evening watch was closing the gates as Rio Coatl approached, but a sharp word from the official trailing in his wake brought the timbers swinging wide again. The usual questions demanded from night travelers were waved, and the mercenary leader, along with his small retinue, was allowed to pass without delay.
Yet as they turned onto the route to make their way from the gatehouse to the barracks, something in the street brought them to a halt.
"Remove yourself from the path, at once." Bouros' tally man barked.
Lying on the cobbles in the middle of the road was what appeared to be a thin framed old man. His body was shrunken with malnutrition, and his belly swollen with worms. His arms and legs were knotted and gnarled like the limbs of an old tree, and covered with skin the color of cinnamon. The dirty white tangle of his hair sprung in all directions from a sun blistered scalp. The beard covering his jowls and chin jutted outward as accusingly as a finger.
His head had been turned, with his ear pressed to the stones. Upon hearing the tally man's outburst, he raised up enough to see who was speaking. The frazzled point of his beard leveled first at the tally man, and the beggar cackled quietly through broken teeth. Then his wild gaze shifted to Rio.
“Listen.” The beggar rasped, speaking the city’s native tongue. “Listen, listen. Oh, listen me kai.”
The tally man sighed, and took a step closer to the mercenary lord. He recalled from his lists that Rio was not entirely fluent in Premi. “He asks you to listen to him.”
The official then spat something back at the old man, which only made the beggar laugh harder. Despite the broad grin splitting his cracked lips, there were tears running in dirty rivulets over his cheeks.
“No.” He said in reply to whatever command he had been given. “To the earth.”
“The earth?” The tally man echoed, and then his mouth tightened. “Rubbish. GUARDS!”
At least two pairs of boots could be heard colliding with the stones as a couple of the gate watchmen hurried toward their summons. As they drew near, the tally man pointed to the old man in the street. “Remove him.”
The guards immediately flanked the beggar, who dug into the cobbles with his bony fingers as though he thought he could cling to the ground and prevent his arrest.
“NO!” He shrieked. “Prépei na akoúseis.”
His weeping eyes then settled again on Rio, and his panic once again succumbed to a small smile. “Sssserpent...lord.”
He spoke Domish, but the words were clearly unfamiliar to him. He then switched quickly back to Premi, slowly enunciating every syllable. “Come close...please. Listen.”
Through an alleyway, around a few careening city bends, and in the middle of a dusty courtyard, a hill of muscle and dark gray scales sat in almost complete silence. It had been there all night and throughout the entire early morning. Occasionally it would swell when it took a deep breath, casting a shadow as large as some of the shacks that lined the street, and would sigh as deep as a yawning cave in autumn. Every so often, the hill would raise his head and glance cautiously about, or stretch his arms out to the side and groan in satisfaction at a stretch well done. Every window in the square around him was shuttered, and stayed such the entire time he was there.
Erdra crouched silently at the edge of the courtyard, hidden away behind a stack of empty crates and rubbish. A girl of just barely seven years, she had drawn the shortest straw of her lot of friends. Thus, she had found herself charged to approach the enormous Jethyri and, at the risk of her life-- or worse, her pride--, ask him to leave. Her friends were nowhere in sight, fled, probably, just out of eyesight but within earshot.
A deep breath. Her face hardened. She approached as surreptitiously as a mouse.
Sen’s head slowly rose from his thick, clawed hands, where something briefly caught a ray of the noonday sun and glimmered gold against Erdra’s eyes. “Yes, young lady?”
When he spoke, gently as it was, she felt it rumble in her chest. The dust shook at her feet. It echoed in the alleyways like a deep wardrum. Her stomach told her to run, but her heart was defiant, and she held her ground. She was almost the size of one of his hands, but only just almost. “Could you, erm, please move somewhere else?”
“Why, pray tell?”
Erdra spread her arms out wide and gestured to the courtyard, “Because this is where we play our game of ball EVERY day and,” she pointed at him with her chin, “WE can’t play with YOU in the way, can we?”
Sen’s eyes, the color of sun-dried barley, sparkled with amusement as he slowly looked from her hands to the small square they were in. There was ample room for the children to play on most days, but with him camped in the middle, there was hardly any space for them to do much of anything. He clicked his tongue and the scales around his lips scraped into a small smile. “Ah,” he thrummed, “I see. Forgive me, young master. Those of my trade pass their time in the pubs and taverns and other such places. But I,” he nodded indolently to himself, “do not fit through any of the doors. And if I did, there would seldom be a place for me to sit, and I may have to lie down, which, as you know, shows a lack of decorum. So, I did not mean to be so rude. I would like to repay you. Perhaps I can tell you a tale?”
“What? Just a story?” The way Erdra spoke now, Sen felt like, in her eyes, he was now no bigger than a stray dog, and his smile grew.
He chewed his words through his teeth as he spoke, and his words marched off the front of his chin, “A tale… and perhaps something else. Choose wisely, and I shall craft it: a sword or a shield?”
Erdra rested her chin upon her thumb and thoughtfully wandered to Sen’s side. After a moment, she looked up at him, and he towered over her. “May I have both?”
“You may, and after I have crafted you a tale, a sword, and a shield, I shall ask you ‘why’. Please, young master, sit.”
“Why do you call me that?”
A thoughtful grumble droned in the back of his throat. “YOU were the only one of your mates who dared speak to me. For two days I have sat here, and no man nor woman nor child has dared approach me. Until you. Now, sit.”
Erdra sat beside the great Jethryi, large even by his races’ standards. Sen opened his hand up and showed it to the young girl. There, buried in the deep folds of his palm, was a golden Umano skull with jewels embedded to look like a crown across its brow. Its empty eyes were hollow and sad, although its teeth were bared in an everlasting grin. “This is the Golden Skull of Rava, a once great lord in a land long forgotten. It is said, lass, that Rava had accumulated an enormous treasure: mountains of gold, and jewels, and weapons of legend. Even greater still were the sprawling halls lined with shelves brimming with books and tomes from across the lands.”
“Wow,” Erdra whispered.
Sen peeked down at her, and to his surprise, several other children were sitting beside her with eyes as wide as a Lacorum shilling. He shook his head and chuckled, the fin that stretched down his back rattling with every shake. “Erm… well, as I was saying… Rava became obsessed with his treasure. His beautiful daughter and his honorable son would visit him in the great vault, which was called the Hearth, where he spent almost the entirety of his time, both in waking and in his sleep.”
“‘Dearest Father and King, please, your lands need you,’ his daughter one day pleaded to him.
“‘How could they need me when our kingdom has become so rich with gold?’
“‘Beloved Father and King, please, your people are lost without you,’ begged his son, the crown prince.
“‘How could they be lost with this vast knowledge I have amassed for our denizens?’
“So King Rava stayed in the Hearth with his knowledge and his gold, while his daughter and son ruled over the kingdom. Under their rule, the kingdom survived, but the people had long lost their faith with the royal family, and the ruler children were tasked with the arduous trial of rebuilding their trust. Years passed, and as King Rava became more and more obsessed with his treasure, he eventually commissioned a powerful mage to create an invincible door to protect the vault. The mage warned King Rava that, in order to do so, he would have to give up one of his most precious possessions to bind the door and fuel the magic, the cost for these things, as you all well know.”
The children all slowly nodded, and several of their mouths were wide and silent.
Sen slowly continued, his chest rumbling with every rise and fall of his story, and his hands deftly worked away at the gifts he had promised, “The powerful mage set to work constructing the vault door, and after many a long month, finally stood before King Rava. ‘Now you must choose your greatest possession, or choose one of theirs, to enervate the door.’ As you children have figured out, because I can sense that you are all rather very clever,” here he winked and nodded, which won him a handful of hushed snickers, “he was being asked to choose whose life would need to be sacrificed to complete the magic-- a word of advice to you all here: remember, mages make a habit of being rather vague for a reason, and it usually serves them first… ahem, where was I? Ah… yes.
“King Rava fell to despair. His loyal son offered his life. His loving daughter offered hers. And after much thought, King Rava decided.”
Erdra piped up, “Who did he pick…?” There were now a dozen children, all huddled in the cool shadow that Sen pitched over them with his hunched shoulders.
His teeth chattered in a soft laugh that sounded like boulders tumbling down a ravine. “King Rava chose himself so that he could have both of his most prized possessions, of course. When the spell was done, all the was left of him was this very skull here, the crown that he wore melted there upon his brow. His daughter grew to become the sword of his kingdom, a sword that fought for the rights of her people, to teach them that they just fight for their prosperity. His son grew to become the shield, to protect the people from harm and to teach them that without humility, even a king is doomed. The Hearth was sealed away and has not been opened since, and none know where the key is.
“This skull was passed down to the next prince, then the next, and then to the next princess, and then finally to the royal family’s close friend and advisor. The King died as he lived. Sad at the lives his children lived that he could not see, but proud of the people they grew to become in the end.”
Satisfied with his story, Sen straightened his back, and his spine cracked as loud as a falling tree. The skull was gone from his hands, and instead he held one a sword, and a shield in the other. Both were carved of wood, and softened leather was braided around the handle of the sword and for the straps of the shield. He held these out to the young girl, who gingerly took them from his hands. “You, lass, are presented with these items. May you be the sword that fights for your friends, and may you be the shield that guards them, and may your bravery always be tempered by your humility.”
It was night. The day had dripped away, and the sun had rolled itself down the sky and was now tucking itself into the horizon to sleep. A fire crackled beside the group, and the orange glow made the deep and old scars in Sen’s scales glimmer. The children yawned and rubbed their eyes and Sen finally stood up. At his full height, the younglings looked even smaller, the tallest of them managed to stand just above his knee. He stooped down, bent at his waist, and patted Erdra on her head with a single finger as she admired her wooden sword and shield. In her eyes, they were pounded from the finest steel, and gilded with gold fit for royalty. His voice ground through his lips, “I fear, you littlies, that I must take my leave and you must take yours. I smell something that I haven’t smelled in a long time, and it’s most certainly here for the same reason that I am.”
Rio raised an eyebrow, though not in interest, simply in surprise that something as meek and rotten as the old man would dare and speak to him. A distraction perhaps? This far away from the sand dunes of his home land? No, this was no ambush, Risur would have picked up on it by now.
The old man knew who Rio was. Now it was interesting. That the beggar’s sun baked mind could hold any knowledge was peculiar, but that he knew of Rio, and wished to speak to him, ignited the mercenary leader’s curiosity. Rio raised a single finger and did a circular motion with his arm, his people knew what it meant.
“Speak quickly, old man,” Rio said without getting any closer.
The beggar's relief was tempered by his uncertainty. He glanced quickly from Rio to the Calipulan officer and back again. The Tally man sighed heavily, but motioned for the guards to stand by. They each took a measured step back, but remained a looming presence. Even so, the beggar breathed a sigh, baring broken teeth in a grateful smile.
“Please.” Again he waved a hand for Rio to come closer, oblivious by the man’s apparent disdain and suspicion. Slowly, he lowered himself to the street, lying flat to his stomach, and spared a glance to the mercenary leader, expectant. “You must listen.”
His eyes darted around at his surroundings. Then the beggar turned his head to one side and pressed his ear to the ground.
Rio’s eyes narrowed in annoyance, he had been charitable with his time and had been made to look like a fool.
“He is simply a mad old man, let's be done with this farce,” Rio waved off the old man and indicated for the Tally man to continue.
As he passed by the old man, Rio thought back to his days hunting in the golden sea, the shifting sand beneath his feet, the stories it carried if you were willing to listen, the whispers in the vibrations of the desert. How many times had the desert spoken to him? How many times had it saved him? Perhaps the old man wasn’t so crazy, perhaps he would take some time to listen to what this land had to tell him back at camp.