(The following is an initial draft of this work. All content is (c) Andrija Popovic 2015)
“Almost there. We’re reaching the outer limits now.” Strom pointed to a series of low hills covered in walled farmlands and orchards. Late afternoon sun soaked the odd and crooked trees in amber. Winds picked up and rattled along the roadside. Even the elephants seemed to sense the trip was ending.
As they rode, the scent of the sea grew stronger. Adia suspected the coast hid behind the rocky outcroppings to their left. From the descriptions she received, this part of the coastline consisted of high cliffs and black rock. She found himself glad their former captain unleashed the creature. A few leagues north and they may have been dashed against cliffs.
“What kind of farms thrive on hillsides and cliffs?” Adia peered into the distance. She rode with Strom today and discussed business, strategy and the differences between soldiering and bodyguard work. Cormac and Ufric rode with Tellus, telling him about the legends of their land. The Baradus isles favored stories of heroic men who lost arms or hands, yet used the deformity to their advantage though cleverness and magick.
“Olive and date orchards, amongst other things.” Strom pointed to the terraced hills, connected by earthen aqueducts. Adia imagined ancient floodwaters curling against the once rocky hills, depositing soil and breaking through the weaker barriers as it rushed to the sea. Over aeons, the desert would drink in the waters. Some day, it was said, the earth would eat Father Ocean in much the same way.
“We will be meeting the outer perimeter patrols soon. I will talk with them, and then they will do a quick inspection before we’re routed to the sea gate. It’s a slow walk but you’ll get to see the city before sunset fully hits.” True to Strom’s word, the hills along the road grew high and bore the marks of stonemasons. Archers appeared along the hilltops. Unlike the ones which guarded the caravan, these carried bows much like Tellus’ – multiple curves, instead of a single one.
Two riders approached Strom. Adia glanced over her shoulder as they spoke. Hanud glanced at the sun and fidgeted in the saddle. His yakkul snorted and waved its horns, irritated. She could not blame the beast. Any sensible animal would have thrown Hanud off by now. The rest of the caravan seemed just as eager to be home, or at least well guarded.
Adia fell back beside Tellus. The logging cart next to them rumbled away. Afternoon shifted into very early evening before they first saw Ivre. A gentle slope took the smaller road onto a massive causeway. Thousands of footsteps beat the stone and sand into a flat pathway, big enough for five elephants side by side. To the east the great roadway traveled to the docks cut from the sea cliffs. Ships still unloaded their cargo onto oxen and elephants even as the night approached
Ivre showed itself in a beam of rose-colored light. Adia stared at the city’s tower: a pillar of pure marble stretching skywards from the city’s heart. It dwarfed the massive keep surrounding the base, built from the same stone which lined the coast. A beam of light would sweep from a massive crystal seated atop the tower and illuminate the coast.
“The sorcerer kings of old knew how to make their navigation beacons, eh?” Cormac trotted beside them. Adia could see generations of soldiers and generals building this city. The inner keep held a clear view over the rest of the city as it stretched out to the outermost walls. Four stout towers kept the city and the approaches in view They jutted from the corners in strange oblongs. And the walls were not straight, but curved slightly, dipping in wards.
Ah, I see. They prevent blind spots. Outside the massive city walls, a smaller city of low brick houses and stone walls hugged the city for protection. They faded out into the hills, merging with the farmlands.
“Is that an eye on the gates facing the sea?” Tellus pointed to the two massive doors spread wide apart. The construction was not fancy – timbers worked and riveted together, held in place by massive iron bands – but the scale impressed. Two columns of elephants and their carts, one entering and one leaving, flowed through the massive portal.
“Indeed. The doors are made from old ships and imported woods. The original gates for the inner part of the city contributed wood to the final ones.” Strom pointed to several notches within the door, facing inward. “The Lord Protector who designed the door also made an inner set.”
Adia nodded. “Ah, I see. In case of storm or siege, you can winch down braces which tie the doors together. The two doors become one, and create a kill zone between them.”
“And the words?” Tellus peered at the massive carvings along the door. They mirrored ones cut in the walls, in six different scripts. “Is it the same set of phrases?”
“‘Thou shalt leave thine vendettas behind. No feuds will be fought within the tower’s light. The law is the law.'” Adia smiled, enjoying everyone’s surprise. “I can read at least three of those languages, thank you.”
As they traveled under the archway, men in red vests walked to the elephants and lead them through the crowd. She saw similar uniforms worn by others tending the animals: a porter’s guild.
The inner gate gave way to a massive plaza. Columns, almost as high as the city walls, ringed the market space and sheltered permanent store spaces and workshops clustered. She saw a blacksmith’s in one part of the market and smelled a tanner’s in the other. People of every kith and clan made way for the massive caravan.
Adia looked upwards, unashamed. Guardsman patrolled the parapets and causeways, which linked to a barracks in the center of the market. Raven Guard filed up along the side of the wagons, inspecting them, before lining up and presenting arms. Strom checked her troops, nodded seriously, and dismissed them. She dropped from her yakkul and watched as the mounted soldiers cared for their beasts. Adia and Tellus followed Cormac and Ufric’s lead, returning their borrowed mounts to two of the Raven Guard.
“Hurry up!” Hanud road up to the sledge with the heartwood stacks. “I need this in my storehouse by sundown. I’ll pay you double to clear the whole sledge.”
“Then maybe you will compensate me for taking my part of the shipment?”
Adia looked up, over the crowd. A dark-skinned woman with almond eyes stood beside a group of porters, arms crossed. She wore a simple brown tunic, belted in the middle, with long flowing trousers and battered boots. Curls of wood hung in her ebony hair. Glue stains dotted her clothes.
Her hands fascinated Adia. Calluses dotted the fingers. They matched the ones she saw on Tellus – another archer. Moreover, another bowyer. And here is the rival.
“The porters know their business, N’Talle.” Hanud waved dismissively. “This load is mine. You don’t need that much heartwood for the small orders you have to fill.”
“And you do not need the fines for remarking wood shipments meant for others. Again” She clambered onto the wagon, looking at colored fabrics nailed into the feet of each log. “Ha. Your old eyes missed it. My section of the heart wood is on the bottom. I can wait while your porters take your section.” N’Talle hopped off the cart with ease. She gave Strom a quick bow. “Captain, I heard there was an attack on the caravan. How did your troops fare?”
“We did take casualties. I will have sad notices to send to some family members.” Strom unbuckled the straps of her chest plate, loosening it and pulling at the padding beneath. “But we had assistance from two travelers.”
“Adia and I had the fortune to be where we could help.” Tellus bowed his head respectfully. “Tellus of the Anutai Clan from the Red Desert, at your service.”
“Adia of the Black Blade tribe, and available for hire at this point.” Adia smiled and crossed a hand across her chest.
N’talle bowed to Adia, but fixed on Tellus’s back. The outer curve of his bow drew her attention. She almost slipped, staring the way she did.
“You carry a beautiful bow.” N’talle spoke, voice low, in the language of Tellus’ people.
“Thank you.” He bowed his head once more.
“Yes, they were quite instrumental in turning the battle.” The exchange did not go unnoticed by Hanud. He waved over a young man carrying sheaves of paper.He scribbled a note onto one and stamped it with a signet ring.
“Here. A note of credit for the two of you.” He handed it to Tellus. “This will see you room and board at the Wayfarer’s Rest. It is the finest lodging in the city. And…” Another quick scribbling on the page, another mark, and Hanud handed Adia a second voucher. “This will give you a night at the Zarina’s Tavern, the only true pleasure-house of the city.”
Adia tightened her grip on the page. “Are you making an assumption of my interests and whom I prefer to keep company with?”
“And I think you assume what I enjoy doing…” Tellus crossed his arms. “I was ordained as ensayyadin. They preclude me from taking advantage of the pleasure houses.”
Hanud raised his hands. “My apologies, you misunderstand. It is not that kind of pleasure house.”
“Well, it is.” Cormac knocked on the side of his saddle. “But it’s more than that. All pleasures are welcomed there. They’ve got poets reading on a regular basis.”
“And there’s a ranked ajedrez master in residence.” Ufric brushed his mount as they spoke. “They say he’s beaten every scholar and in the city at least three times.”
“No, four.” N’talle smiled. “They held a tournament while you were out. He rousted the entire college, including the Lady Protector’s husband. You could see them spitting fire and magick in frustration.”
Adia saw an itch crawl up her companion’s fingers Tellus lost his small ajedrez set during the shipwreck – a gift given to him by his father before he began his travels.
“Still nothing to interest me, though.” Adia handed Tellus her voucher.
“There are the duels.” Cormac stepped forward. “Arms demonstrations.”
Adia shrugged. “If I wanted to watch two people fight, I’d hang around practice yards.”
“Not like this.” Cormac smiled. “It’s more art than war. The objective is not to hurt or injure the other one, but to carefully cut away the opponent’s clothes…”
“…and the loser is left naked.” Ufric rubbed bits of dander from his hand. “Good show last time I was there.”
“Sounds a bit like blade dancing…” Blade dancing was a storyteller’s art back home. Dancers carried history and recited it back with each movement. The thought of using it to tell a dirty story never crossed her mind. She pursed her lips. “Well, as long as the dance paid for I might as well give it a go. At least I won’t be bored while Tellus contemplates the intricacies of strategy and gameboards.”
“Then it is settled.” Strom gave one last glance to the caravan. “Tellus, Adia, if you come with me I can escort you to the Wayfarer’s Rest. Just one small note, though. Do not start a fight there.”
Tellus blinked, looking genuinely hurt. “You think we’d break hospitality?”
“In all fairness, we do look rather… unsavory, Tellus.” Adia brushed her hands against her ragged trousers.
Strom laughed. “I warn everyone who stays there. Giant-killer of a sword over Visik’s fireplace is not for show.”
Adia’s paused, then laughed. “So that’s what he meant…”
Tellus frowned. “That is what who meant?”
“My father.” She stooped, and deepened her accent. “‘You’ll go many places and see many things. But the one thing you must never do is start a fight in an inn where a sword hangs behind the bar. It means the innkeeper knows how to use it, and survived long enough to retire!'”
“Soldiers never retire.” Strom motioned them deeper into the city. “He and his wife head the merchant’s council. They traded one kind of war for another. Now, come, let’s get you settled.”
They followed Strom into the city. Adia glanced behind her. N’talle and Hanud ordered their respective porters around. One would watch the other, waiting for any sign of theft. But in spare moments, both bowyers turned and watched Tellus vanish into the crowd.
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