(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.”
“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.”