(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.”
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