Ivre – Part 1, Chapter 3

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

Tellus looked into the campfire, seeking wisdom in the smoke and embers, but all he found were ashes.

The soldiers set up camp around the oasis with the same practiced efficiency they burned the bodies of the raiders. Carts themselves became the perimeter of the camp, great walls of lumber creating a fortress. Sentries took watch on the carts, eyes facing the darkness, watching and listening for any sign of beast or man. Smaller camps were set up in rough circles.

Adia sat by the cavalry fire, talking with Cormac & Ufric. It was eerie, how she just became one of the soldiers after a battle. The day’s blood washed away with a few drinks and an exchange of stories.

Tellus sat in the innermost camp, by the merchants. They clustered together, discussing trade, costs, employment and the state of the world. The conversations of merchants changed only in specifics as one moved through the world. Places and things were altered, but the subjects remained the same.

One difference was the esteemed Hanud. He did not join his fellow merchants, making camp on his own under a large tent.

Tellus chewed on a strip of cooked lizard. The camp chef found a way to turn pit roasting into an artform. The spices made all the difference. He made a note, to collect a few samples and bring them home. His father, ever experimenting with new tastes, would appreciate the subtle bite they added to the meat.

Home. In his time from home, chasing visions and Adia, this small oasis was the closest he came to home. The tents, the small fires, and the drifting winds were a side-step away from the sacred places his tribe visited in their eternal travels around the red desert. Were it a bit cooler, and the sands loose instead of trapped by the reedy grasses, he could almost imagine himself back home, listening to the elders discuss the next day’s travel plans.

“Damn the Guard. They should have seen this coming. The market will plunge on news of this for sure.” Another merchant spat into the fire. More spoke ill of the Raven’s Guard’s work not five steps from the wounded, and those tending to the soldier’s dead.

“Never expect gratitude in exchange for duty. Only expect more demands. It’s the way of things.” Strom sat down beside him. She held a small root bulb in one hand and a knife in the other. With practiced ease, she sliced off a tiny bit and offered it to him “Jira root. It’s sweet, with just a little bite afterwords.”

Tellus dropped the jira onto his tongue. After a moment, it oozed a very intense, sweet flavor. He had never tasted the like. “It is amazing.”

“The young ones are sharp like this. Good for keeping one’s energy up. As they grow older and fatter, the flavor dissipates but it remains tangible. Very good for stews and when mashed with other spices. And they grow easily in sandy soil.”

He nodded. “Thank you. I may purchase a few seeds when we reach Ivre.”

“I should be thanking you.” Strom sat down, armored rattling as the segments fell against her trousers. “Whatever gods nudged you in our path did us a service. The attack could have cost us more men had your friend not been so hungry for reptile poisons.”

Tellus chuckled. “Do not tell Adia. Her head will swell.” He took another offered slice. “My lord of wind and vision tends to place me where I need to be, not where I want to be.” He paused. “Whose gods do you follow?”

“I follow the old Gallatian gods. Ivre was founded by exiles from the Empire, in the days when the New Sun was on the ascension. My family god is Janeus, lord of home and shelter, but I personally follow Everix, goddess of war and cunning.”

“She suits you.”

Strom smiled. “I like to think I suit her.”

“We fit our gods, and they fit us.” Tellus touched his forelock. “We are reflections of them and, in reflecting their divinity, they become reflections of us.”

“That would get you burned for heresy in some parts.” Strom wiped her knife against her trouser leg.

“Very true. I should try and be more circumspect.” Tellus held up the sugary root. “I feel exhaustion and the buzz from this little plant may be loosening my tongue.”

“Drunk on jira? That’s new.”

“Glad I could expand your horizons.” He smiled. “In truth, I do not often get to speak openly of my faith and beliefs. I miss a good discussion. ”

“Your companion is not the philosophical type?” They glanced over to Adia, who sat beside Ufric and Cormac. She laughed and spoke, hands drawing shapes in the air as she told a story. Between breaths, she knocked back a pungent mix of hot water and alcohol.

“Adia?” He smiled. “She has her depths, but when it comes to faith, she tends to see very directly. There’s Mother Mangrove, and Father Ocean, and where they meet in between. Everything else is overcomplicated wanderings created by scholars.” Tellus leaned towards the fire. He pulled a small, earthen pot from the embers on the edge. “One of the merchants had tea. Care for some?”

Strom nodded. He withdrew two small, battered cups and poured. “Thank you.” She wrapped her hands around the chipped earthenware. “So how did you find yourself on a wrecked ship?”

“Troubled seas.” Tellus smiled. “Our travels took us eastwards from here, near Aegypt and the plains tribes there. We followed the river, found a boat heading west and south with opportunities for work, and took it. Bad luck lead the boat’s captain into bad waters.”

“That was rather vague.” Strom lifted her eyebrow as she took another long sip. “I ask because rumors fly between soldiers for hire. A few seasons back, I heard of a man from the desert tribes who enraged a small horde of bandits in the tombs of old Aegypt. Seems he held them at bay from atop one of the old king’s statues with just a bow and five quivers of arrows…”

Tellus shrugged. It was more than just the bow or the arrows. The approach was narrow, through a necropolis gate into the courtyard of the old king’s tomb. And Adia did help as well, as did the late Kerin. He whispered a small prayer for the thief’s soul.

“We all have stories which follow us. Everyone has someone who angered them. I can say I have not angered anyone who would attack your city, however. So I hope that allays your concerns.”

“It does indeed. My thanks.” She finished her tea with a last, long swig. “And I understand your discretion, and appreciate it. I would not want all of my old war stories wandering around camps like this.”

“Thank you.”

“Does your companion share your sense of… propriety?”

Tellus glanced over to Adia’s fire. She stood right before Ufric, Cormac and a few other soldiers, mug in hand. Her gestures were broad, mimicking a battle. At one point, she handed Ufric her drink and mimed firing a bow from a kneeling position. In the pantomime, it looked as if a hundred soldiers fell under the arrows of the single archer.

“Not as such, no.”

***

“So, he killed how many?” Ufric twisted his brow, disbelieving. Adia continued miming as he Tellus mowing down Aegyptian mercenaries.

“Oh, good score, at least. Remember the ground. They were funneled through a causeway into a priest-king’s funerary temple. So he is on the statue, taking high ground, and putting arrows into their front ranks. By the time they reached us, he’d thinned their numbers in half.”

Cormac tossed a bit of scrub into the fire. “So, their commander actually allowed this?”

“He had no choice. The would-be princeling who hired them used his own personal retinue to force them forward. The man had more cock then brains. And by the time Tellus and I were finished, his cock was all he had.”

Ufric shook his head. “Arrogant moron. Seems the world is lousy with them.” He walked over to a gourd resting on a bed of coals. Lifting the blackened vessel with care, he poured himself another cup of grass tea. “So what happened after the arrows ran down?”

“By then, only a few were left. In close quarters, I was had them. They were well equipped, with good brigantine, but joints were open. One cut and I let the venom work.” Adia tapped her chin. “Adder venom if I recall.”

Cormac hissed, imagining the venom hitting. “And then?

“The mercenaries commander refused to keep marching into the tomb. He turned his men around and walked out.”

Ufric laughed. “And the princeling allowed this?”

“Mother Mangrove, no. He attacked the mercenaries!” Adia slapped her thigh. “Massive brawl, right in the center of the courtyard of the necropolis. Tellus and I just took advantage of our good luck and escaped out over the walls.”

Ufric frowned into his tea. “So who won?”

“I’m guessing the Prince. He had more fresh troops.” Adia spread her hands. “Still, from the river to the sea to a shipwreck to here. Our story, neatly bound.” Her cup empty, she poured herself some tea. It was surprisingly sweet. “And what about you? You seem Gallatian, but your names are unusual. You from one of the outer regions?”

Cormac looked to Ufric, questioning. Adia crossed her arms. “Story for a story. You can keep out the gory details, I’m just curious.”

“We’re from Barradus. It’s an island the Gallatians occupied two centuries ago.” Ufric chewed over the ‘occupied’ like a bitter seed. “It’s the furthest province from the capita. The Governors pretty much run the island. We could be independent, but the clan elders like trading gold, peat and heartwood for power and station.”

“And us.” Cormac leaned over his drink.

Ufric nodded. “Aye, and us. Every two years, the Legion would come. All the able bodies would be tested, and drafted into compulsory service. Some would stay home, join the legion there. Others would ship out.”

“How long was the service?” asked Adia.

“Seven years.” Ufric spit out a chunk of grass from his tea. “They brought us to the inner provinces for training. We ended up in a lot of the southern provinces, by the sea. Wasn’t bad when we were actually fighting someone – brigands, usually – but when the Legion returned to barracks the bloody priests would come in and lecture us.”

Adia frowned. “Priests?”

“Aye. We worshiped the gods of Baraddus. Many of the other still held onto the old Gallatian gods. But the empire has one official faith: that of the New Sun.” Ufric reached down and sketched a quick map of the empire. He marked out five small spaces along the coast of the sea between the continents. “The five kingdoms. Each is controlled by a merchant prince. They introduced the faith about three generations ago. Spread like wildfire in the upper classes. The emperor converted. In the end, the princes got to keep their kingdoms by writ from the Patriarchy. And the Empire got a new faith.”

“Yea, gods.” Adia shivered, touching her shoulder scars. “And they tried to convert you?”

“The literalist priests, the ones who thought their holy book was divine, were the worst. They’d yell at you about damnation, and dying outside of the Sun’s light.” Cormac looked up. “The others were not as bad. Remember Gennarius?”

“He was a good one. Worked with the legion for a year. Tried to actually live by their tenants and strike us up in conversation. He never pushed, just talked.” Ufric Pursed his lips. “Hope he survived. Honest priests who actually live by their faith tend to be eaten alive by the church.” He shrugged, eyes ringed with sadness. “Once our tour was up, we couldn’t go home. Not after all we’d seen. And we wouldn’t sign up again. So we joined a mercenary crew.”

“The Raven Guard?” Adia moved a bit closer.

“No, Creos’ Legion. Went across the sea, fought in a few border actions before the legion split. The Gallatians were fighting some new war out of Dubrov. Creos’ smelled money. He went there. We ended up guarding a caravan heading East, hitting some of the smaller plains kingdoms. That’s when we met up with a detachment of the guard heading back to Ivre. We signed up when we hit the city.”

Adia looked into the fire. She rolled her mug between her palms. “How is Ivre?”

“Not bad.” Ufric looked up. “It’s not like Dubrov. That city’s just rotten to its core. Urkar’s a scholar’s city. Magick and nepotism.” He shuddered. “The Five Kingdoms are pious and corrupt. They use their god to excuse everything. And Cunis just exists so it can ravage Aegypt for lost wealth. No, at least in Ivre, you can live and survive.” He nudged Cormac on the shoulder. “What’s that you said last time?”

Cormac straightened himself out, as if doing a speech. “The sun is shining, the sewers are not overfull, the wind’s blowing away from the tannery and no one is dead in the streets. It’s a good day to be home in Ivre.”

Adia laughed. She scratched a few bits of sand and salt from the ragged locks. “Well, let’s see what your home has to offer. If nothing else, it’ll be better than drowning or starving.”

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 2

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

He may be ill-tempered, but he makes excellent bows. Tellus watched the merchant, Hanud Saath, and the archers atop the wagons. He saw no deformities or cheap wood. The strings were almost silken chords. Light leather wrapped the hitch points and the grip. Some of the archers added tiny knots of rope along the shaft, right where the arrow would hold.

Everyone kept a solid watch, arrows waiting. Sachels of arrows hung by their side, ready for the draw.

Once, overwatch was once Tellus’ place. In the deep desert, he focused on animal attacks: hungry sand snakes and packs of jackals. An important place in the tribe, until he was called elsewhere.

“Tellus. Look ahead. The crest of the hill – do you see it?” Adia pointed out a small red and black form on a rock. “Can you kill it for me?”

“I’m not sure our escort would allow it.”

Ufric coughed as he pulled close. “Your escorts are wondering what you want killed?”

Adia pointed once more. “That lizard. Right there. I need Tellus to kill it before the elephants scare it off.” She flicked at the tip of his bow. Tellus smacked her hands away and sighed.

“Mad and stupid. Small wonder you were found wandering the roads.” Hanud trotted up on his yakkul, wiping sweat from his brow with an embroidered kerchief. “That lizard oozes poison. It would kill you the moment you touched it. Besides, you cannot strike distance with any accuracy.”

“Tellus, this gentleman doubts your skills.” Adia grinned like a fiend.

“Sirs, please, let me at least take the shot.” Tellus opened his hands, apologetic. “It will keep her busy for an hour, at least.”

Ufric and Cormac exchanged looks.

“Remember your oath.” Cormac rested his hand atop his sword’s pommel.

“Indeed.” Tellus unwrapped his bow from the protective oilcloth. The grabbed Hanud’s attention. Even archers atop the wagon paused. His recurved bow resembled the top lips of a woman. Instead of one continuous piece of heartwood, the bow was built from different materials: flexible horn-like substances, sinews, and woods of different strengths.

“I’ve never seen the like.” Cormac rubbed his chin.

“You’ve seen compound bows before.” Ufric shrugged. “You practiced on them.”

“But this one has a unique providence.” Even Hanud could not help but stare. “How was it made?”

“With care, and by ancient hands, Master Hanud. I was gifted with this bow by following my lord of Visions through the deep desert.” He lifted an arrow. “Now, let us see how travel has treated her…”

Tellus cupped his eyes and looked into the distance. Heat smeared the lizard’s shape. He took a breath, murmured a small prayer, and hopped off the wagon.

“Not an easy shot. But, here goes.” He took a breath in as he drew back the bow. It creaked, mirroring the familiar pull of his arm and back muscles. He aimed for the beast, and then angled his bow upwards. As his father taught him, he did not imagine the distance or the difficulty. His mind’s eye already knew the path the arrow would take, and where it would strike. All Tellus needed to do was retrace the path in this world.

Tellus breathed out, and let the arrow loose. The arrow arced upwards and fell, striking the beast just behind its thick skull and buried into the base of the lizard’s brain.

“Yes!” Adia clapped her hands. “Excellent shot.”

“Thank you,” said Tellus.

“How?” Hanud growled and yanked at his gazelle’s reigns. “You said you swam ashore. How did the glues on the bow not dissolve or crack?”

“I do take steps to protect it. The bow is well built.” Ufric and Cormac gave him odd looks. “And we take pains to protect things from all weather. Storms are infrequent, but they do happen.”

The rock did not arrive soon enough for Adia. She tore away, running on the balls of her feet. Pulling a small knife from her sword sheaths, she cut the arrow free and held the lizard by the open wound, like a freshly caught fish.

“Just as I thought. It only poisons its back ridges and claws, not the whole of its body.” Adia hung the lizard on the side of the wagon. She lifted the beast’s frills. “It lifts these as a warning. But we were far enough away it did not get scared. So…”

Before Cormac and Ufric could speak, she opened the lizard’s back. Adia reached inside and pulled free two purple sacs with knotted glands attached. “There. Full venom sacs. Have to be careful not to spill a drop.” She cut the sacs free, holding them by the sinews and connective tissues, never touching the poison itself.

“And what will you do with it? One touch will kill you outright.” Ufric patted his yakkul, Drom, on the neck to calm it. Cormac’s ride, Mir, needed no such attention.

“One touch? No, I’ve handled far worse as a child. You get used to it after a while. I have to thicken it a bit, mix it with bone powder and oils, but it’s enough to get my swords re-seasoned.” Adia flicked lizard’s blood onto the ground as she worked. “We’ll let her drain for a while. The sun will cook off any leftover venom and she’ll be good to eat.”

“How does venomous lizard taste?” Cormac eyed the draining beast.

“A bit spicy.” Adia dusted her hands and rubbed away blood. “And if there is a bit of venom left, all it’ll do is give you visions. Not a bad trade for some good meat, eh?”

“Tell me that when you’re sick by the road thanks to rancid lizard meat. I’ll stay with what I know.” Tellus replaced his bow. He watched the long, thin trial of blood from the lizard vanish under the feet of the elephants, the hooves of the yakkul, and the grinding wheels of the lumber carts.

***

Adia stood on her wagon and gazed northwards. A faint spray of trees, dark black against the fading light of the day, surrounded their final destination. “And lo, I think I see an oasis.”

“And I think they see it as well.” The caravan buzzed. The archers grew tense. Soldiers snapped into formation, shields ready. Ufric and Cormac rode up and down the line, barking at anyone caught out of position.

There are mercenaries, and then there are soldiers for hire. Adia knew mercenaries. Adia’s first contracts were with mercenaries: lone fighters looking for a steady meal mixed with members of disbanded and disgraced cohorts from other companies. She played bodyguard to the company owners, or the powers that hired them. Every band was one fight away from a riot.

Not so with the Raven Guard. Each and every one worked and moved as professional soldiers, without reluctance, or grumbling of small pay or ugly camp followers. Ufric and Cormac alone were worth ten normal mercenaries.

“Are you always this nervous approaching an oasis?” Adia asked Ufric as he rode close.

“This is a traditional place for robbery attempts or ransom. Last caravan I was on, someone threatened to poison the well at the oasis if we didn’t turn over the gold we carried.”

“What did you do?”

“He watched the archer’s feather the idiot.” Cormac rode up beside his partner.

Adia glances towards the watering hole. Another lizard sat atop a rock, enjoying the last of the warmth before sliding back into its hole. She tapped Tellus on the shoulder and pointed. “Oh! A second. Please, this will set me for the next few weeks!”

“Very well.” Tellus unslung his bow. Before he could remove an arrow, the beast hissed.

Every soldier in the caravan paused. The lizard frilled its back ridges and darted across the road into the tall grasses.

Ufric looked to the head of the column. Strom unsheathed her sword. “Position!”

All along the column, shields unlimbered and formed into walls protecting the sides of the elephants. The forward column moved around the merchants, who quickly dismounted, using their yakkul as living shields. The cavalry patrols formed into skirmishing lines. The archers took readied their bows and watched the tall grass.

Adia and Tellus ducked behind one of the shield lines, staying close to the elephant. It moved with serene grace, never slowing and stopping, as if it knew its duty and continued.

From the hills, a single whistling line of darkness arced up along the horizon; a signaling arrow.

“Incoming!” A horde followed it, dozens of dark lines crossing the sky, sailing upwards and then down in a thick rain. Half the arrows landed a few inches short, while the other rattled against the shields of the soldiers and the barding on the elephants.

The Raven Guard’s archers responded in kind. Strom’s troops loosed three volleys in the time it took their attackers to send one.

Adia peaked past the shields. The shadowed figures of the bandit archers screamed as the sky was blackened for a moment. A few ran. She could almost hear a voice along the hill yelling at the bandit bowmen, calling them cowards and idiots.

“Tellus, they’ll be charging through the grass soon.”

“Yes, they will.” Tellus joined in the next volley. His arrow punched through skull of a bandit. In the dim light, she couldn’t tell if it went into the eye, or the throat. “Go. And be careful.”

As soon as Adia slipped around the cart, dodging arrows as she went, she saw the other half of the assault: Spearmen, armed with weighted javelins. This group held together well. They launched as one, ran a few steps, and launched another javelin.

Adia took position behind one of the guard formations. Normal shields, backed with hide and bone, would have given wayto the javelins. But the Guard stood behind re-enforced tower shields. The javelins glanced, or only stuck partway. With practiced ease the soldiers knocked their shields free with their swords. They stepped forward, shoulder to shoulder, blades sticking from the gaps between their shields like silver spines.

Their javelin’s gone, the raider’s unslung a motley assortment of shields from their backs and drew swords. They met the formation, shield to shield, and tried to surge around them. But the superior weight and positioning of the Guard pushed them back. Their blades – random and darting – could not find a gap between the shieldwall worth using.

The Raven Guard pressed the advantage, weighing down their enemies with the heavy tower shields. When a gap opened, their swords stung like wasp tails. Soon the raiders falling backwards, entangled in their own bloody legs and torn entrails. All who joined the lines were pushed back.

Adia waited until the ranks broke. She ran, keeping her body low and covered by the grass, until she saw the enemy’s flank. Whipping her blades free, she cut at every exposed arm, leg and back she could find. They howled in pain as the last of her venom hit their bloodstream.

Inside the grass, the raiders practically drew a map to their positions. She followed the trampled lines of amber stalks back the second line of archers and spearmen. They startled as she burst from the grass, both blades drawn. One raised a sword, attempting a low cut into her belly. She deflected with one blade, and sliced his stomach open with another.

Adia fell into the familiar dance of close quarters fighting. One blade blocked, battering at the enemy’s weapons and defenses to give the other a chance to bite. Everything melted into a red song. The black metal would part skin and bone, leaving behind blood, muscle and a dead spearman.

The dance continued. Two, three, five spearmen fell under her blades. A few managed to get past her defenses, cutting her shoulders and thighs. Blood trickled down her skin, but the heat of the battle kept her focused on the next opponent. She snarled and opened a red smile across a bandit’s throat.

“Adia, hold!” A familiar voice broke through the red song. Ufric and his mount stood over a trampled spearman. Brains and bone clung to the ground and the yakkul’s horns.

“You’ve circled the line.” He offered her a hand up and onto Drom’s back. “The spearmen are routed. We head after the archers and the bandit leader.”

“And Tellus?” She took Ufric’s hand and vaulted behind him.

“With Cormac. We think your priest got an arrow into the leg of the leader.”

Adia smiled. “He’s not my priest, just a friend.” She glanced over Ufric’s shoulder. “This is not the most organized bandit raid. They didn’t have half the forces they needed to attack a caravan this size.”

“Agreed. And this is rough, even for a mercenary band. We’ve counted harness and shields from a dozen different tribes and companies.” A raider leapt from the grass, trying to gut the yakkul as they rode past. Drom hopped out of the way, lithe and quick, while Ufric sliced the top of the raider’s skull from his head. “We suspect this was done for market reasons, not to actually capture the cargo.”

“Market reasons?” Adia sheathed one of her blades.

“We’ll explain later.” Ufric joined the other riders. The cavalry moved up along the hills beside the road. Dead raiders, punctured like thorn bushes with arrows, covered the ground.

Cormac, Tellus, and Strom sat atop the highest of the hills. . Running down the other side, an arrow sticking from the meat of his left shoulder, was a masked figure tawny brown hair.

“You just got him in the arm?” Adia frowned.

“He’s wearing chain under the cloak. Gallatian make, like its wearer. He came a long ay south to die.” Adia frowned. More men from the north and its empire found their way to her continent. This part of Alaque collected them like driftwood against mangrove roots.

“Hold, dammit, or I’ll have my archer take your balls!” Strom kicked her yakkul into persuit. Tellus raised his eyebrows, surprised. Adia grinned. From possible bandit to company archer in one day; this commander liked him.

The bandit kept running. He loped along the rough grasses and scattered rocks. Blood dribbled from his wounds. Adia almost felt sorry for him when Strom looked to Tellus. “If you would be so kind?”

Tellus obliged, pulling another arrow from his quiver. He leaned to the side, clearing Cormac from his view, and fired. The arrow punched through the bandit’s left calf, spearing the muscle like a bird on a spit. The bandit cried out and fell along the rocks, panting, spilling blood over the reddish stone.

They dismounted. Adia flipped her sword, the unbaited edge ready in case they wanted him alive. Strom walked up, sword drawn, and yanked away the bandit’s mask. “Erchelle?”

“Ah, Strom. Good to be arrested by you again.” The bandit was, indeed, Gallatian and still bore the accent of the Empire on the northernmost continent of the world. “I’m not long for the world, though. Lost too much blood. I suppose you wish to know who employed me.”

“It would be a start.” Strom kept her sword’s point at Erchelle’s neck. “Tell us, and we will bind you wounds. You’ll have an even chance of surviving the night.”

“As if I could give you a name. The contract was anonymous. I met a man in a tavern. The usual story.” Erchelle winced. The mail coat, blackened by weather and age, grew red and wet. “It was too much money, I couldn’t refuse. Not for a simple job. Attack the caravan. Inflict a few casualties, cause some damage, and then fade back. Didn’t know you’d be guarding it. Kerus would have made it easy.”

“That’s why Kerus is dead on a battlefield on the other side of the continent.” Strom shook her head. Adia caught a few notes of sympathy in her voice. “You should have stuck to waylaying nobles.”

“We all make poor choices.” Erchelle looked up at Adia. His eyes measured her blades. “You. I saw you kill several of my men. They died screaming. Black-blade tribe, yes?”

“Yes.” Adia flipped her blades around and sheathed them. “I used leftover sea adder poison. Very quick.”

“And painful, from what I saw. Poison is a bad way to die.”

Adia shrugged. “They shouldn’t have attacked me and my ride. They could have died at home, under a pile of lovers.”

Erchelle laughed, coughing blood and vomit. He blinked. “I’m losing sight. And it’s getting cold. The Eternal Sun will be coming to burn me. I’d speak my final confession, but it’d do no good.”

“Then at least tell us why the attack. And why on this caravan?” Strom leaned down, looking the bandit in the eyes.

“Buggered if I know.” He closed his eyes. “By the Son, I could use two whores to keep me warm right now. Big woman to one side, round belly and backside, and a tight bloke to the other.” The bandit laughed. “Guess that’s one of my confessions. Still won’t save me from the fire.”

Erchelle gurgled. The last of his lifeblood spilled from the arrow wounds, mixing with piss as he voided himself. He grew cold and still on the rocks.

Strom shook her head. “Stupid waste. Ufric, head back to the caravan, see to mopping up. Cormac, detail several men to collect and burn the bodies. The last thing we need are scavengers looking for fresh meat this close to the oasis. Oh, and search this one before you add him to the pile.”

Ufric and Cormac saluted. They quickly lashed him to Mir’s saddle and dragged the corpse back to the caravan. Adia and Tellus followed. She tore a piece of the bandit’s clothes free and dabbed at her wounds. They would need a little paste and venom later on or she would come away without scars.

Adia glanced up at Cormac “So, if we find any stragglers, do we let them run or hunt them down.”

“Let them run.” Cormac walked beside Mir, piling bodies onto the yakkul‘s back. “We have reputations to spread.”

“Aye.” Adia touched the hilts of her black blades, one at a time, and kissed her fingers. It was a small supplication Mother Mangrove and Father Ocean. It felt comfortable after the battle. “We do have reputations to uphold.”

Ivre – Part 1: Arrival, Chapter 1

Ivre
by
Andrija Popovic

(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)

Part 1: Arrival

Chapter 1

“I cannot help but feel somewhat responsible.” Adia Baited-Blade stared at her companion, Tellus of the Anutai Clan. A few leagues off the rocky shore, the ocean waters were a forest of monstrous tentacles. Thick as ship masts and muscular, they pulled two three-masted galleons into scrap wood. Barbed suckers caught unlucky sailors, crushing them like overripe fruit. Around them, the ocean boiled into a thick, greenish-black fog. Only the beast’s screams could be heard over the waves.

“Somewhat responsible?” Adia shook her head. She pulled off her leather vest, laying it on a nearby rock. Seawater dripped from her short, jet-black hair and ochre skin. It beaded against her ritual scars. She brushed what she could away before checking the pack she dragged ashore. “Tellus, how in Father Ocean’s name could you be responsible for this?”

“The caption did give us passage at half cost. I feel I could have done more.” Tellus wrung water from his tunic onto the black rocks. His bow, arrows and sword lay in a long pouch of oiled leather. He kicked away rocks with his bare feet, soles bright pink in contrast with his deep umber skin. Water dripped from his short beard and kinky black hair.

“Did you advise the captain to board the ship?” Two curved, black blades – more machete than sword – rested atop a flat slab of stone. Their sheaths lay to the side, water dripping from the tips. Adia pulled off her trousers and twisted them, squeezing streams of ocean water free.

“No, I did not. I advised against it.” Tellus saw her wringing her pants and followed suit. Her companion’s muscles rippled as he pinned his trousers down, bent over and twisted. She shook her head. And he wonders why some frown when he mentions the vow of celibacy?

“And didn’t you point out to… what’s his name? Jasbel? Didn’t you point out to him how we only found parts of the other crew?” Adia flattened out her clothes before sitting down on the rocks. The black slate faces warmed in the sun. It felt pleasant against her sore legs.

“I did tell him.” Tellus climbed down a rock or two. He stopped where the ocean surged into a small tide pool. Shading his eyes, he watched the inky shadows around the dying ship for any signs of escaping sailors.

“And did you break the seals on the cargo?”

“No, that was the captain himself.” He touched his forelock and murmured silent prayers.

“Then you are not responsible for that beast out there.” Adia pointed to a twisted waterspout, which circled the wreck site like a column of smoke. “I’m betting the survivors will blame me.”

“You saved them from sea adders!” Tellus sat, cross-legged, and watched the waves.

“Most folks don’t remember favors, only slights.” Another scream echoed against the rocky cliffs behind them. “Why do you think they swam back for the ship? We dove for shore. Seemed sensible at the time.”

“The ship was still a good distance from the wreck before the creature caught it and dragged it back.” Tellus shaded his eyes. “And the ballista were ready for firing. Maybe they thought they could kill it?”

Adia saw glints of shattered wood topping the wave crests. Lines of blood and severed limbs floated towards the shore, like seaweed dredged up by a storm. Her stomach roiled. Many of the sailors were pigs, but they did not deserve this fate. Not the captain, though. She hoped Father Ocean gnawed on the captain’s bones for letting the beast loose.

“So, what do we do now?” Adia brushed grains of rock and sand from her legs. “Climb the rocks? Go inland and find a road?”

“We should wait.” Tellus pointed to the oncoming flotsam. “A survivor may wash up. Even if they’re flung away by the waterspout, the tide may carry them back.”

“True.” She reached over and checked her blades. The black metal dried quickly in the sun. Most of the coating had washed away. Adia muttered, wishing she’d kept more of the sea adder’s venom. “And we may get lucky. A water cask could head this way.”

“It seems sensible enough. We – ” He stopped, and she heard him scrambling to his feet.

“What?” Adia sat up and uncovered her eyes. The red haze of the sun faded into a blue glow. It made the tempest, now noticeably smaller, almost purple. She raced after Tellus, following his gaze. The hot rocks picked at the hardened soles of her feet.

“I thought I saw a hand clutching to the wreckage!”

“Where – No, I see it!” Glad she left her clothes behind, Adia kicked off the rock and plunged into water. The greasy slick of blood and bile covering the waves parted. She swam for a large chunk of the ship’s railing. A hand clung to it, knuckles white and locked. Only swimming closer did she see the rest of the wreckage.

“Tellus!” She bellowed, dragging the railing behind her. “I’m sorry.” When she reached a convenient rock and hauled the wreckage aboard, the hand came free. Bitten off just past the elbow, it floated under one of the stones and vanished.

“Damn.” He plunged into the shoreline, keeping one hand on the rocks. Tellus could swim, but barely.

“I did see a water barrel out there, though.” Adia threw the railing out of the water. “I’ll swim out and collect it. We’ll need everything we can get when we move inland.”

“I’ll look along the cliffs, see if there’s an easy way up.” He touched his forelock again, lowering his head. “And I will pray for them.”

The whitecaps around Adia’s shoulders, now tinted red, grew rougher and sharper. As the beast moved southwards, into deeper water, it took its unnatural storm along. The oceans churned, as if great legs kicked under the surface. More wreckage streamed their way.

“They are in Father Ocean’s hands now.” Adia touched the two of the scars just under her breasts. “Poor bastards.” She took a breath and swam towards another tangle of wrecked ship and shattered bodies.

***

Five days passed between their escape from the dying ships and their first encounter with the caravan. After collecting what supplies they could from the gore-streaked ocean, they set about climbing the rocky shoreline. Gradually, the deep black rock gave way to high hills which tumbled down to another sea: tawny grasslands stretching for leagues into the distance.

“No jungles.” Adia resettled her makeshift pack. “But no desert, either.

“And possibly a coast road.” Tellus noted a thin line of dirt etched in the grass. “Shall we head north or south?”

“North.”

They relied on Tellus’ skills more than her own. The grasslands behaved more like his desert home than her swampy mangroves. Adia and Tellus traveled as the sun rose or set. They sheltered in the high heat, and kept warm during the sudden chill brought by the night. But they found game with relative ease, even if it was small and lizard-like. Tellus collected water from the cold night air. And they passed the days walking along the road with conversation and song.

“As the poet said, ‘the mountain for one may be a valley to the other, based on where the Gods placed his feet.'” Tellus smiled as he quoted.

Adia sighed. By the fifth day, the conversation veered to thoughts and beliefs. The philosophical line of discussion may have been an error in judgment. Tellus was ensayyadin, a lay priest of his god of winds and visions. Long discussions of the scriptures, visions, perception and the divine were his food and drink. She missed trading legends.

“You stare too far into the distance you forget the road under your feet.” Adia covered her head with a scrap of sailcloth. A terrible cap, but useful against the high sun. “When you trip, fall, and cripple yourself.”

“So, you never look into the distance and dream?” Tellus chewed a bit grass. The rest of the stalks made up a makeshift conical hat.

“You find the right place and time for dreaming. That’s all.” She lifted up a leg, hopping as she pulled a pebble from the soft leathers under her toes. “Why is it all the little stones on this road find my feet?”

“Because they don’t.” Tellus lifted the brim of his woven hat. “You simply notice them because you’re focused on your feet. Is that a dust cloud ahead?”

Adia lifted her hat and squinted. “Yes. Windstorm?”

“No. I’d smell it in the air.” He picked up his pace. “And it is moving too slow. Caravan”

Adia ran up along the hills bordering the road. She squinted “Yes. I see elephants.” And she smiled. “And a bend in the road as well. We can catch up to them if we go overland.”

“Excellent. The sooner we meet up with them, the sooner we will be captured.” Adia laughed. Tellus strapped his weapons and gear closer. She checked her pack before joining him in a run through the grass.

Three massive carts, piled high with felled trees, kicked long fingers of dust into the sky. Pulled by paired elephants, the carts rolled on two rear wheels. The beasts becamethe front wheels. Complex leather rigging pinned the elephants to the carts, and protected their hides from the hitches.

Adia recognized the trees – hartwood, plundered from her home forests to the south. These were young trees from edge of the forest, just before it became grassland or mangrove. Supple, valuable wood, it made for good trade with the plains nation. This caravan contained six carts piled to the brim with trunks, bark and branches.

Valuable wood and valuable plunder. Archers sat atop each of the wagons, scanning for any sign of movement. Four soldiers walked along the shipment, pikes ready, searching for movement in the grass.

A series of smaller carts – other merchants, or loggers – led the procession like an arrowhead. Their carriages drawn by gazelle-like creatures with massive horns. They followed the pace set by the caravan leader. He wore riveted leather armor and a black-plumed plumed helm. At least six other soldiers on gazelle-back patrolled up and down the caravan.

“I know them.” Adia paused to catch a breath. “The soldiers. I know them. The Raven Guard – the mercenary army of the city of Ivre. Fierce reputation, even amongst my people.” Her father, in the roaming days before she was born, rode with them during the last round of river wars threatening the content of Alaque’s trade routes.

Taking a breath, they raised their hands and walked from the hills down to the end of the caravan. The archers on the last wagon drew their bows.. She glanced at Tellus. He focused on the archers, eyes measuring their longbows, calculating the draw strength, and checking their form as if admiring art from afar.

“Hold!” Two of the gazelle riders approached, swords drawn, and circled them. Up close, the plumed helms covered the back of the neck and the cheeks, leaving a T shape open for visibility and speech.

Adia looked in the eyes of one of the riders. Blue, the color of sky before a storm. They were the inverse of his partner’s eyes, black as deep water. Their mounts moved with delicate precision, but she had no doubt they could spear her on their horns before she took a breath.

“We mean no harm. We are just travelers.” Tellus, with his practiced, resonant voice, spoke first. His words carried down the caravan. “There are only two of us.”

“March forward. Do not reach for your weapons or make sudden noises. ” The dark-eyed one put his blade against Tellus back. She felt the blue-eyed one’s sword against her. They marched to the head of the column. Adia gave them credit, they did not stop the caravan, nor did they over-guard them. The archers eyes followed them, bows still ready.

Another gazelle rider detached from the head of the caravan and met them. A blood-red shoulder marked this one as the commander. The gazelle, bigger than a warhorse, nickered and pawed the ground.

“Right, then.” The dark-eyed one tapped them on the shoulder with his sword. “Names and business.” The whole time, the pack of riders and prisoners walked forward, save the commander, whose gazelle walked backwards. Adia suppressed a laugh.

“It falls onto me, then.” Tellus sighed, and then bowed his head to the commander. “I am Tellus, ensayyadin of the Anutai Clan, from the Red Desert.” Adia said nothing. He nudged her in the shoulder.

“Oh, I’m Adia of the Black Blade tribe.”

The commander’s eyes narrow.

“Our ship wrecked off the coast and we came inland to this trail. With our supplies as short as they are, we took a chance on the caravan.” Tellus looked down. “As you can see, we only have what we carry on us. We are poorly arrayed for bandit scouts.”

“You could just be sent to waylay us.” The commander removed her helmet. Black hair, cut short around the neck, spilled forth over light brown skin. Adia glanced at her hands and arms. Under the riding gloves and armor, she saw thick chords of muscle.

“And, yet, we are still moving. Moreover, we did not attempt to meet the caravan from the front.” Tellus shook his head. “Commander, we are as we appear to be. While it is a rare thing in the world, it does occur now and again.”

The commander weighed Tellus’ words against their appearance. Before she could speak, a bearded figure in bright, silk robes burst from the head of the caravan. He rode a white horse, built for agility and breeding, not war. Gold glimmered on his fingers and annoyance burned in his eyes.

“Commander Neiradus! Why haven’t these two been killed yet?”

And a fine day to you, too, thought Adia.

“Because they are not bandits, Hanaud, they are travelers who found their way to the caravan.” She kept a calm and even tone, in contrast to Hanaud. “But do not worry, we will keep them under guard and at the first sign they attempt to waylay or destroy the caravan with the massive force of arms they’ve brought, we will feather them.”

“Good to hear you’re concerned.” Hanaud pinched his face, as if swallowing a sour fruit. “I’d report your attitude to the High General, but it would do little good.” He reigned in his horse. “Just remember, if you wish to have your archers supplied for their campaigns -”

“- Then we must insure this caravan reaches its destination. Yes, Hanaud, I know. We’ve had this conversation the last three caravans.” Here annoyance crept into her voice. “You’re not the only merchant with cargo here. My soldiers are, as always, vigilant.”

She pointed to the riders. “Ufric, Cormac, you’ll escort our guests. I’ll detal Elisha and Samira to take your place.” To Adia and Tellus, she nodded. “I am Strom Neiradus, Commander of this detachment of the Raven Guard.”

“These two will be your escorts.” The riders sheathed their swords and removed their helmets. Both had fair skin, reddened by time in the sun. One, blue eyes, wore blonde hair in short braids. Dark eyes’ hair resembled crimson earth. He wore it in short spikes.

“Ufric, son of Aelric.” The blonde nodded.

“Cormac, son of Drannus.” The dark-haired one glanced at their weapons. “We’ll let you keep those. But draw without permission and you’ll be sporting a few new holes.”

“No doubt.” Tellus glanced down the line. “Your archers are well placed and have steady draw arms. My compliments to their trainers.”

“Enough shop talk.” Strom donned her helmet once more. “Get the two of them some extra water.” Her eyes fell on Adia. “You. Before we go on, do you swear on your family’s blades you have no ill intentions to the caravan?”

Adia stopped. Oaths by family blades were common, but not from outsiders. The commander knew her kind. “I can’t promise I won’t backhand one of the merchants if they can’t keep their hands to themselves, but I bring no ill thoughts, words, or deeds to this venture.”

“Good.” Ufric and Cormac small jugs of water and salted bread pressed into their hands. Tellus smiled. Adia shot him a puzzled look. He took a sip of the water, and ate the offered hunk of bread before nudging Adia, indicating she do the same. She shrugged and wolfed down the bread. She was hungry, after all.

“Welcome aboard.” Ufric grinned while his companion remained impassive. “We’re hoping to make the oasis before evening hits, so no stopping.”

“Don’t supposed you can give us rides?” Adia walked beside the gazelle. “It’s a yakkul gazelle, yes? He can hold two.”

Ufric laughed. Cormac shook his head. “We can offer you the a luxurious space one of the finest hartwood trees.”

“Compared to walking, it will be a palace.” Tellus hopped onto one of the log carts. He held out his hand. Adia grasped it and hoisted herself aloft.

“Welcome to the height of comfortable living.” Adia dusted her hands, lay back, and watched the grasslands roll on by.

“Enjoy it while it lasts.” Tellus adjusted nodded to the archers and smiled.

Adia just waved to Cormac and Ufric. “I always do.”

Exposing Oneself on the Internet

No, I will not be posting nude self-portraits on the site. (Though I have been told by my fiancee this image of me vacuuming the bedroom is quite attractive to some.  I’m still doubtful. “My turn-ons include men who help clean?” 0_O?)

I’ll be exposing something else: the draft work on my novel, Ivre. After spending time noting what I need to cut and shorten, I’m going to be revising the book, chapter by chapter. And I will be posting the results here, under the category “Ivre.” In the tags, I’ll try to put the part, chapter, etc.  I’m hoping to get some constructive feedback.

Now, do note all of these chapters are draft 1.5 – I expect I’ll be digging into them further based on feedback.   What I’m looking for are general items:

1. Flow – – does it make logical sense; does it track comfortably; is it paced evenly?

2. Structure – – do all the scenes fit; are they all necessary; are there any missing elements?

3. Tone – – is the wording too stuffy or too relaxed; is the dialog appropriate, is it consistent?

4. Concept – – does the mood fit; does the story have tension; is the core idea sound and plausible?

5. Characters – – are they believable; do they have enough depth; do the properly drive the plot?

6. Names – – were the off-putting; did they help/hinder the story?

7. Other – – what would make it better; is it publishable; was it worth reading; did you like it?

I hope to start soon. Keep an eye out for updates!

2015: The Year They Return

The time is now. After five long years, the Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov will return from its voyage to Jupiter. This harrowing journey across a vastly altered solar system marks the half-way point in a decade which changed us all.

Er, no, wait. Wrong world. Sorry.

But I can think about the future, even if it lacks interplanetary spacecraft for human use. And to do so, I need to look at the past.

Last year, I set down a few goals. They could be summarized this way: “Complete novel, Ivre. I have about 32,000 remaining. This year, I’m going to focus on the short story market and try to submit several stories. My goals will be commensurate with those efforts.”

Well, I have completed Ivre. After giving it a bit of rest, in November I broke down the long “scroll” of a manuscript into individual scenes, chapters and parts. I’ve begun reading through and making general notes on what to trim & change. Keep forgetting how dialog heavy I can become – dangers of learning writing via screenplays.

And I have completed 4 short stories which are almost ready for submission. That’s one a quarter. I just need to get them in manuscript format and start shopping them when everyone returns from the holiday. Time to see if my stories have any legs.

And I (still) have a massive number of photographs from the UK trip. Many are posted on Flickr. And they’ve gotten me some compliments from a professional photographer, so I think I did a good job capturing the sense of place. Still have to dig around and finish things.

You’ll note, I’m not going on about the things I failed to do. I focus on failure far too much, usually as an excuse to pummel myself. But contrary to years of programming, this is not an effective means of negative re-enforcement. It just drives me to be less ambitious, to try for less and hope for little more than crumbs off life’s table.

So what of next year? What will 2015 hold for me?

  • Focus on Photography: My creative joy this year, my highlight so far, was creating this photo for ChuckWendig’s Awkward Author photo contest. Spending the time with Lisa creating thescene & the photo was a wonder. Seeing the finished product go out into the world was a thrill. But, alas, I did not get as many photos taken as I’d like this year,dispite the travel. And certainly didn’t get as many photos of people as I’d like.So, I shall come up with one, maybe two, themes for photos and see if I can get folks to participate after I make a proof of concept image.
  • Ivre- The Revision!: Basically, in the first quarter of the year I want to completely revise my novel, chop it down, and get it to a readable place. I’m hoping an early year focus on this will help me get my revision skills up to snuff.
  • Short stories, flash fiction & revision: right now, I think learning to revise my work in a timely way needs to be my a core focus. I won’t stop creating new things – no one wants me that crazy – but the more I revise, the better my initial drafts will become.

So what is the final hope for 2015? For my creative projects, I’m going to try and follow the commandments in my 2nd place prize in the Awkward Author Photo contest.

Art Harder Motherfucker.

The End is Nigh

Everyone take shelter! The end is here!

Well, the end of the year, at least. I’ll be writing a summary after I get back from Chicago. For the first time in ages, I’ll be visiting another city for Christmas. This is my first holiday with my fiancee’s family. They say it’ll be a quiet affair, so I hope to get a little personal writing done. Then, I’m coming back to put two stories into standard manuscript format and submit them around.

So I’ll see everyone on the other side.

A Quick Thought – The Screaming Gate

I had a thought – just needed to write it down. It won’t mean anything to folks now, but in the future.

At the end of K’s story, H dies in her arms. The body is preserved, though. When K is placed about Amantia, and the ship tries to fix itself, it uses H’s body as a way to do so. A ends up in H’s body.

Now, K’s got two goals: find who made her the way she is, and find a way to get A back in her body so H can be brought back to life completely.

The answers are through the gate.

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