(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)
Part 1: Arrival
“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?”
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.”
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