Mar 042014

Brand had been busy. The tent that we were using as our base cape in Tuthom-Pothrie was in great shape, and was perfect for showing off the supposed wealth of the Skuza family. The New-Raphelian was used to a harsher environment though, and had reinforced it, as well as adding some extra flaps to give us more privacy where needed and some room to avoid the sun that was now sitting high in the sky.

I had done everything that I could think of to prepare myself for the fight, but still had many turnings until I needed to make a move. Several other traders had set yup shop throughout the morning though, so I decoded to entertain myself by imagining what I would spend my money on were I lucky enough to get paid. There were no swords finer than my own, and the dagger was a custom made one of a kind that I would struggle to replace this far from home. I contemplated the armour on offer though.

My chest was well protected, but a blow to the arms or legs could have easily crippled me. There was nothing to improve my situation that came within my current budget though. I did remember about the brigandine though; although it offered the same protection to my arms, and would be slightly more vulnerable to axe slashes than my chain, it was designed to be worn in polite society.

It had not come to me in great condition though, so would need repairing to be at all useful as an outfit that didn’t make it look like I was walking around just looking for a fight. There was an armourer or two kicking around, mainly looking to sell items they already had on them rather than make stuff to order. Once outside of the Profanerium I was sure I would find better appointed dealers with their own forge and slave children to keep the bellows blowing, but down here, there was only so much that could be carried on the back of a wagon.

One of them was happy enough to take a look at the armour, and offered to get it back into shape for a mere 50 Gold Dituri. That was still a little outside of my price range, but at least I knew where I could go when we got paid.

Just thinking back to how important it was to get paid back then. It’s hard to imagine a time in my life previous to then that I would ever have needed to worry about having the money on me to cover my bills. Might be why my attitude was still a little off when it came to money. It would prove difficult to convince a smith to repair a bit of kit without payment up front, but by the end of the day, I was happily racking up tabs for food, drink and a room for the night without even thinking about it.

By the time I was back from my almost totally pointless walk, Valerius and Fjorlief were back at the tent, but Caderyn was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t surprised, but I was hoping to see him again soon. Hell, at all would have been nice.

Since the food we had mainly been surviving on was either killed in the wild or part of the rations that made up Skuza’s possessions, we needed to get some food from the market. Thankfully, there fayre was greatly improved from the last food I had bought outside of a Pelosian city. As we sat there munching away of fresh fruit and dried meat, a large and extravagant palanquin could be seen heading towards us.

Not long before I left home these had been all the rage. The larger and more ostentatiously decorated the better, preferably with a entire regiment needed to keep it aloft. Although this would certainly give any Raphelian the run for their money in the decoration stakes, its size looked more a necessity than a choice, as its passenger was a huge beast of a man.

I don’t use that term lightly here either, the man was messed up. He had lost an ear and an eye, one leg was sadly absent, along with several fingers and what good looks he may have once possessed. Luckily, he seemed pleased to see us, rather than in the mood to feast on our spirits, and introduced himself as Erasmus Costanzo.

The inner workings of the Pelosian legal system make about as much sense to me as Yerwian finances. It seemed that it was no good for either Valerius or Eduardo to just step into a court room and represent themselves. Hell, they could both have been lawyers, and I think they would still need someone more important than them to get involved. Well, this heavily injured ex-legionnaire was to be that man for them.

I did my best to shown my respect, bowing and offering to pay for a drink to lubricate a social situation I barely understood, and that seemed to go down well. Whilst he and Valerius talked I set out to find a cheap bottle of yellow grass wine to keep him happy, and some fresh water for the serviles that had been tasked with hauling his not inconsiderable bulk around the city. This meant I missed a whole bunch of talking about Skuza and his chances, but what little I did catch didn’t fill me with confidence.

Costanzo was not easily convinced of his clients innocence, and was instead pushing fro a straight up confession. The word around the city – or at least the Profinerium – was that justice was required, and that it should be carried out quickly. If my future ability to eat didn’t rely him on quite so much, I doubt I would have minded at all if Eduardo took this option, and let himself out the easy with his own honour blade.

Luckily, Valerius seemed just as pissed off with that thought as I did, and spent most of the afternoon trying to convince Costanzo of our patron’s innocence. There is talk of a twin brother and some under the table dealings with the deceased, but anything other than that I struggled to follow, and soon lost interest in. He seemed happy with what he had though, and left in the manner with which he arrived, but not before taking the time to ask me my own opinions of Skuza.

There was no point painting a picture that wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, so I kept my answer honest, “Well Ser Costanzo, he is a man of high ideals and high standards, but of low ability in trying to meet either of them. The physical evidence I am sure, will prove right what I have always suspected, and what you will see for yourself when you meet with him. No matter what he might claim otherwise, he lacks the constitution to even consider killing someone. Hell, they could be charging towards him with axes drawn, and he’d be more likely to faint than fumble his ferros from its scabbard. I’ve seen it happen, and so has everyone sat down with you today.

“On the road, it paid to convince Eduardo that he was a martial man of great cunning and guile, who only needed to resort to violence when every other avenue was closed to him. It was good for him to think himself indestructible, as it made him take some risks that allowed us to be hear as early as we are, and I was happy yo feed him the lies he wanted to hear. But they were just that: lies. Spend a turning in his company, and you’ll have no doubts at all about him”.

Costanzo’s eyes had never left my face as I spoke, and at the mention of the lies I told him, I don’t doubt there was a trace of a half smile playing across his scarred face. He seemed happy with my reading of the man though, and was soon away, leaving the rest of us with a few turnings left before we would be off.

*     *     *

It looked like everyone of us still there would be joining me in my little excursion. There was to be other activities that night, including some more mole fighting, and various other games, including Velochi. Being a sport of my homeland, I was looking forward to relaxing and watching a match, but regretted my short funds as I would be unable to place a wager. As it turned out, the games were not quite what I had in mind.

A large Randish looking fellow approached us at a slow meandering pace, making it look like he accidentally came upon our party rather than seeking us out. He introduced himself as Rembrandt, and taking in my orange sash inquired if I had arranged a “one-on-one” Velochi match for later in the day. I nodded, and invited him to sit and join us for a while, but he held up a hand, “Sadly, there are many things this eve that require my attention. I am here at present to ensure the terms of the match are agreed upon. Am I to understand that this is personal match, which will see no outside interference?”

“You are correct my friend, I just hope my opponent is just as sporting”.

“This is guaranteed. Just a couple more details to be worked out then, is this… match to the bitter end, or just until a wound satisfies honour?”, I nod at the word honour. “Very good, and should we expect both participants to come as they are?” Another nod as I realise that this could give a man with a large group of friends and financial backing some measure of an advantage against me, but going in without my own tricks would be the death of me.

“That’s everything I need to know, in which case I will wish you whatever fortune the Goods see fit to bestow upon you. Before I leave though, am I correct in placing you as part of the honourable Ser Skuza’s party”?

“That is true, it is his honour that I am defending. In the Velochi match”.

“Of course”, he replied with a smile, “The rumours are that he will swing tomorrow at the order of the courts, or be found in a pool of his own blood having taken his own way out. If such a thing is to occur, know that there will be a place for you, and those wagons contain just the kind of thing that can be easily removed and sold for a profit. Sterk is always looking for new friends. Be seeing you”.

And with that, he was winding his way back through the crowds. Sterk. The name I had been hearing on occasion for most of this journey. A mercenary captain who was looking to become City Champion to secure his position in the borderlands of the Margo Marrisi. Being tied to someone so important was something worth thinking about, but in a large company of mercenaries, I would surely be lost in the crowd.

My entire reason for leaving my home and striking out to the borderlands was to make a name for myself, not just make some money as a faceless soldier. Even the story men of Thorgrim were just men. I had defeated two of them in single combat, and left a third to report his shame to his master. I already knew that the only role I would be comfortable with in a free company was as a captain, but that didn’t interest me. Tonight I would find out how well placed I would be as a duelist though.

With Rembrandt away, and a mole tucked under Fjorlief’s arm, we set off for the fair. Everyone seemed in good spirits, with Drazar seemingly unable to keep his trap shut. Before long though he separated from us, probably hoping to avoid attention by going it alone and keeping an eye out on any of opponents’ friends who might decide to interfere.

The fair itself was a surprisingly simple affair. There was certainly plenty to do that would keep anyone entertained, but I had been expecting something much more gaudy fir a Pelosian city, even in the Profinerium. It was understated in its revelry, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. The Hutzlunr especially, as she had a mole to wager on. She had spent some time before entering it into a competition, making sure it would win. I knew she could do the same for me, but wanted to win my fight on my own.

Her little pet did well though, and even coming out with a few scratches that required some attention, Fjorlief managed to win some money on the contest. It seemed that she wasn’t the only one in a betting mood that evening. My lack of funds stopped me from putting an money down on the odds of my own success, but a few of the others seemed very confident in my abilities. Looking back, I imagine Drazar wishes he hadn’t bet quite so much money though, and that’s taking into account the fact that I’m still alive to write this account of my younger days.

*     *     *

With all the other fun out of the way, we arrived at the Velochi pitch with time to spare. We even manage to catch a game in progress, but I was too busy getting ready. I could see my opponent, and he was surrounded by not only his usual cronies, but a few unfamiliar faces including someone laying on hands. Earth Power it was then, but there were limits to what that could do. With the power of Geomancy, I could alter the laws of physics themselves, so smiled to myself as everyone began drifting away to place bets of their own. Fjorlief took the time to at least wish me luck with an embracing hug. I felt buoyed by her support, and whispered in Pelo-Margo, “I dedicate this victory to you”.

Her cheeks had a certain blush to them as we parted smiling, and I was even more determined to give her a victory she deserved. Our names were being announced so I shed the last of my outer clothing that could be used against me. I had left my cloak behind, so shrugged off my over shirt and left my new hat on the ground and began to write a rune of sharpening on my Basaedo. Used correctly, it would allow me to cut deeper into the and through the hardest armour, and do massive damage to the flesh beneath.

Unlike most of my combat runes, it would last minutes rather than seconds, but took far too long to scribe to be useful in a surprise attack. As I approached the markings and listened to Rembrandt introduce us and lay out the rules, keeping up the pretense of a Velochi match all the way through, I brought Pelanore’s rune of befuddlement to mind, hoping to launch it quickly to give me the edge.

Before I knew it though, the Velochi ball was hurled through the air and struck the bell to signal the start of a match, and our duel. I was still thinking of the rune, distracted by the noise and was barely able to drop into a defensive stance before the windbag in front of me acted.

He quickly reached to the small of his back and withdrew a small long object. My heart stopped as for a moment I thought he had managed to get hold of a Spitzroden. I didn’t have long to think on the matter though, as sparks and flames were soon whipping towards me after the telltale flash of an inscribed room being broken. I dropped down and to the left, but wasn’t quite quick enough and took a blast of sparks against my chest.

My armour did its job though, taking the brunt of the brunt of the attack and allowing only a slight burning wound to open up. Nothing like a wound that would give Rembrandt the chance to call a pause to the proceedings and allow my opponent the chance to claim first blood. So, earth power and runes were at his disposal; I would like to say I didn’t have to be worried, but that would be a lie. I was committed though, so just did what I could and tried to ignore the fear in my gut.

Before he could surprise me again I loosed my own rune. I had done my best to stop it being quite as obvious as his flashy trick, and it struck well. His next step was sloppy, and when he tried to flick the wand around to ready another blast attack he almost dropped it, and even looked unsure if he was ready to strike at me again. It was a momentary distraction though, and I was soon the target of more sparks. This time I was ready for it, and his aim was definitely off.

I quickly stepped around him, moving lightly on the balls of my feet until I had closed the distance between us. I had no idea how many other tricks he had down the back of his trews, so went all out to inflict a crippling wound. I feinted right, but spun on my heel and struck high and hard, the point of my sharpened steel pushing through his cheek like it was fog. I felt the grating of metal against his teeth as the shape of my blade pushed his jaws open.

The tip of my Basaedo saw sunlight again as it pushed all the way through, tearing his tongue from its root. With another spin I had pulled away and withdrawn my sword. If he had survived the attack, I had left myself open, but it was certainly enough of a blooding for the bell to ring. And ring it did, but before the first echoes reached my ears my opponent’s head had lolled back on his shoulders and his knees buckled. The crowd gasped as he fell fully backwards, a final gush of blood as his heart beat its last.

I held my arms up and open to the applauding crowd and walked towards the fallen man. Rembrandt had approached to lift my right arm up in celebration, taking the time to sneak in his own congratulations. There was something more to be gained from this victory than honour and renown though. The man had fallen because of his threats and accusations against Skuza as he lay unconscious on the floor. His friends might still make trouble for us, so I had to negate them too. Seeing the Rarkscian fallen from his limp hand, I knew my opponent had one more use.

Leaning towards Rembrandt, I asked, “Is there a rule on who claims the spoils of victory? That is a very good looking knife.” I was not shocked to see a hint of a disapproval on his face, but he didn’t stop me as I bent to claim my prize. A good part of the crowd went suddenly silent, but soon began to murmur amongst themselves. I walked towards the crowd that had surrounded the mouthy git that had fallen beneath my blade, looking for whomever seemed to demand the most respect.

It was an older Dummonii that stood out, so I walked towards him with the curved knife in my off hand. “Your friend fought well, and he should be honoured. I will always remember him. But the reason we engaged in that fight still remains, and I wish to see it gone. He accused my employer with no evidence, and tried to kill him as he lay prone on the ground. He has answered for that, but I worry his friends will also seek their own… justice. I offer you the fallen man’s Rarkscian as a token of peace and goodwill, with the understanding that we shall hear no more of this from your people.”

He looked down at me from his place in the stands, like I was but a bar room brawler, but in my right hand I still held a wicked looking blade dripping with his friend’s blood. He turned to talk to his friends, and even mo knowledge of the Dummonii tongue did me no favours as they spoke so quietly and quickly. When he turned back around, he looked happier, but still determined. “It is not our way to fight as he did, but you fought well. Taking a Rarkscian is not something done lightly for our people”, at this he motioned his group, which included some very unhappy faces, “but returning it like you have is appreciated. So we will honour your request and cease our activities in regard to Skuza”.

It had worked. I had won a victory, and saved my employer from some small measure of inconvenience. I could only hope that Valerius had it in him to pass on my good deeds. Hell, i had made him some money, so that might help. It looked like everyone had done well out of my victory too, but Drazar seemed pissed about something. The silly bastard had tried to interfere in the fight after the first runic attack against me, and the druid on their side had struck back with some amount of force.

I had no sympathy for him though; all I had asked of him was to make sure no one else got involved, and he had gone against my wishes just to make some coin. If this was known by too many people it could do considerable harm to my reputation, so I just dismissed him with a wave of my hand as Rembrandt approached smiling. “My friend! Come, drink with us! We toast your impressive victory and drink until the sin comes up!”

It had been a long time since I allowed myself to get drunk, but the looks I was getting from Fjorlief convinced me to invite her along and spend the night enjoying myself without worrying about anything but the pleasure of spending time with a beautiful woman.

Feb 252014

“Geru! Bring my bag and a chair for Eduardo”, shouted Valerius as he walked out of the tent and saw me standing over the boss. The Gods damned Dummonii was still in my face, shouting to anyone that would listen that the unconscious man at my feet was a cold blooded murderer.

At the time, I had no clue as to what had happened inside the tent, but I would have bet my share of this venture plus my left testicle that Skuza would have passed out at even the thought of killing a man, let alone the fat bugger who was rapidly cooling on the side of the canvas. He was even more pale than usual, the sun practically passing straight through him as he lay there, eyes flickering behind the lids. But of course, none of this made any difference to the hothead determined to get past my defenses.

Every other breath he shifted his weight as if looking for me to fall for a feint and leave an opening for him to strike through. I would have loved to just leap forward and run the little prick through, but the Vigiles we closing in, and one dead body was enough to cause us all plenty of problems.

Luckily, as the most senior Numare present – and awake – Valerius was able to get them on side, and eventually convinced them to allow him to investigate the nature of the murder, if that was what it was, and use the results of his work to defend Ser Skuza from the charges.

I will admit to taking some small pleasure in letting the eventually roused Eduardo know that he was the one everyone suspected, but it was a fleeting happiness. With the exception of Valerius, the rest of us were so unimportant as not to matter, but were asked simply to not leave the city. Since I had no intention of going anywhere without being paid, this wasn’t a problem for me, but Caderyn was already keeping one eye on the horizon. Whatever his own reason for wanting to get into the city, it looked like getting paid for his work wasn’t the priority.

For now though, Skuza was to be placed under arrest. In my youth I would wake up often in gaol cells, hungover and smelling foul, devoid of coin and dignity. As it turned out, this was just one more thing that was different for those born to the right parents in Pelosia. All that was asked of him was to surrender his honour blade, and he was then placed under house arrest in a villa that would put a fine Raphelian hotel to shame.

I was still worried that the cocky little shit from earlier was around, haranguing the crowd and causing trouble, so decided to stay with the boss for as long as I could. With my shoulder under one armpit, and Valerius doing the duty at the other, we soon got him where he needed to be once more. Getting him to shut up was a whole other problem though. I did my best, if Valerius wasn’t going to get him to keep his trap shut, all i could do was gently suggest that he take his fellow Numare’s council, and speak only when requested, and only the topic at hand.

Whether or not that would make the slightest difference, only time would tell. I had other business to finish that day, and luckily we had managed to argue that we could retain our own possessions even with the haul from Skuza’s wagons kept until he was cleared of the charge against him. That meant I would have my shaving kit and some other essentials that I couldn’t afford to replace. When I got back to our group’s tent, almost everyone was still kicking around, cooling their heels. Vitus was nowhere to be seen though, and this was not good news.

He had been dealing with some matter of trade when Skuza had gone and gotten himself involved in matters of life and death, and had only been informed of his Master’s arrest whilst Valerius and I were walking Eduardo towards his incarceration. He had apparently gone looking for us, but we hadn’t crossed paths on our walk back. Who knew where he had gone, or when he’d return, but a voice raised in dissent was attracting my attention at that time.

Being a head taller than most I was able to see the prick that had tried his damnedest to do me and Skuza in earlier, and he was still trying to rally the troops against us. I walked straight over to him, moving through the crowd without disturbing anyone unnecessarily until I was stood yards from him. His friends were all nearby, but moved apart as I strode forwards. When I was a few feet away his moved down to his side, and as much as I wanted to kill him, this wasn’t the time.

“We have unfinished business you and I”, says I, staring him down. The bugger was keen, I’ll give him that, and looked ready to draw steel then and there. “Don’t be a fucking moron! The Vigiles are already on high alert, and are stood in sight of us. No, we can wait, me and you can go walking in the moonlight this evening”.

“Actually, I like girls”, he says to some nervous laughter from his cronies.

“Not. My. Intention. I don’t know this city, but I’m sure there’s somewhere we can go and sort out this little disagreement, just the two of us.”

“Yeah, I know a place. Somewhere that your lot use”, and as he said this he nodded to the orange sash across my chest, “We’ll be left alone there. What time?”

“A turning before midnight. It’ll be plenty dark and less chance of anyone interrupting. Come alone”, I finished as I turned and walked away.

*     *     *

When I got back, there was still no sign of Vitus, and Valerius was off investigating. I’m sure he knew his job, but I certainly didn’t and as such took very little interest in it. I had a good few hours before my appointment, so set about planning a few things. The rules of gentlemanly combat are very strict, but since I was no gentleman, and my opponent even less of one, I fully expected him to  break the rules, and needed to plan according to these expectations.

Drazar had more than once thanked me for saving his life, or at least doing anything I could to make it easier for him to survive. I felt a little bad roping him into this endeavor, as it was purely personal, but he had some skills that wold be damned useful. As everyone else was sat relaxing, I took him to one side and brought him up to speed on my evening’s plan. He didn’t seem that bothered, but once I informed him that our slate would be wiped clear if he could tag along out of sight, he took more of an interest.

I made sure he knew that I was expecting the Dummonii to be bringing friends, and that was all I was concerned about. I had some runic tricks left up my sleeve, plus the time to implant a couple more before our meeting, and that meant I was confident I could kill the arsehole. If he turned up with half a dozen men who were less than honourable, I doubted I would live to see the sunrise. The half blood nodded as I asked him to help, just enough to keep an eye on what was going on and dissuade any hangers-on from joining the fray.

With one contingency plan in place, I set about a second. Fjorlief was sat with the rest of us, looking bored and ill at ease. I motioned that I would like a private word and would be willing to provide beer to sweeten the deal. So of course the Hutzlunr was happy to tag along. Before I jumped straight in though, I thought it best to find out what was troubling her. I don’t pretend to understand the workings of prophecy, but she was apparently concerned about one that had been with her since her youth.

On our way to Tuthom-Pothrie we had heard about a competition for city champion that had attracted the attention of some mercenary captains trying to secure a position in the borderlands that would give them power through the winter too. Hell, it attracted my attention too, and I was still a young man then to be thinking such lofty thoughts. The rest of the details were beyond me, but had her terrified of what the future held.

As far as I was concerned, there was nothing to my future worth worrying about other than the night I had planned and getting paid as soon as I could. With that in mind, I made sure Fjorlief had a beer in hand before asking if she was free this evening. She looked me dead in the eye and for the first time I thought she got a hint of what I thought about her, and what I would much rather be doing with her on a cool clear night. I just smiled and let her know about my moonlit rendezvous and how much I would appreciate her being close by while I dealt with the talkative fuck who had so pissed me off earlier while trying to kill Skuza. Before we had gotten pain no less.

She smiled and nodded at that, but didn’t seem sure just how much help she could be. I did my best to reassure her about her talents, and how much I would be relying on her to see me through the darkness. Luckily, I think she needed a distraction, so agreed to join me. With one more drink in her hand I left her to rejoin everyone else while I made use of the merchants that were already present and able to sell their goods due to having the good fortune of managing to avoid being arrested for murder.

Within ten minutes I was happily sporting a fine felt hat with a tall red feather, and wandered back over to my friends. Caderyn was still sat where I had left him, and that surprised me. Dropping down next to him, and offering the goblet I had barely sipped from, I asked him why he was still with us. He seemed like he was itching to make a move, but was staying put. “I have business elsewhere, but with the attention from the Vigiles, I daren’t make a move”. I could understand his reticence to attract attention, but where he needed to go was still within the city limits.

True enough, he would struggle to get where he needed to be without a Numare tagging along or a whole boat load of coin for bribing any officials he met on the way. There was little I could do to help though, other than assure him that come the night, there would be some attention on me rather than him. Luckily, he got my meaning, and was even able to tell me where I needed to be come the hour.

I lost some time after that, as concentrating on my runes costs me almost all of my ability to pay attention to my surroundings. When I looked up next, the Dummonii was nowhere to be seen, and I could only assume that he had tried his luck to rejoin his friends and family. Vitus was still noticeably absent, and I was beginning to worry about our wayward caravan master.

Valerius was off too, but he had been away for most of the day thus far, working the case to get Skuza off from the murder charge. We did have some extra company though. One of Fjorlief’s people had joined us, and she was a sight. Young and slight, shorter than most girls of her country, but still taller than damned near every Pelosian she walked past. Her hair was long and fair, and it took me a moment to realise that although the two Hutzlunrs were friends, Fjorlief wasn’t exactly pleased to see her.

Still, she went back to join the new arrival’s family leaving just a few of us in our master’s tent waiting for news, or in my case, for combat.

Feb 172014

The bath I enjoyed that evening was possibly the finest experience of my whole time at the Margo Marissi, and I had a lovely shave to follow that made my head look considerably more civilised. I might add that the shaving was performed by a delightfully nubile and pretty thing dressed in what was almost a red gown. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard the rumours of the sapphic delights on offer to those well placed within the Mazzerine order. I could have spent a damned sight longer in private contemplation, imagining such an event from every conceivable angle, but I had dinner with an old priest that I simply could not avoid.

Dried, powdered, and slightly distracted, I made my my towards the dining area, and by all the gods, these priests and monks spared no expense in making sure everyone knew they were chosen of Pelo his holy self. In the waiting area alone was an eight foot tall harp, that was playing itself! Such a mechanical wonder of science had to be seen to be believed, and since none of you were there – unless Valerius is reading this, correcting my grammar and tutting because he thinks he’s taller – there really is no point in going into detail. In fact, I think it best if I sum up all the events of the evening succinctly; describing the taste of food that you I ate decades ago seems like a waste of all of our times.

The broad strokes then: Fjorlief seemed to be doing her best to offend our host, but was also oblivious to everything she was doing. At one point, she actually leaned forward and took some food from the Patriarch’s plate, smiling as she did so, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I was trying to mask my own experience of fine dining, doing my best to look ignorant of the uses for half the cutlery sat in front of me. Luckily, that left the other half that I was genuinely clueless about. I decided to play it safe and stick to a simple three tined fork, using it for everything and avoiding the soup.

Thankfully the Pelosians seem to have developed a culinary habit that means all of their food arrives at the table in mouth sized chunks, so I was able to just wipe the fork off between courses, and carry on regardless.

More impressive than the Hutzlunr’s lack of good graces, was Caderyn’s self control. He got the through the whole meal without leaping across the table and stabbing the Patriarch with his own fork. In his defense, I think the Pater was doing his best to appeal for a reasoned debate on the way forward for both sides in the conflict, but he never quite managed to do so without sounding like a condescending arsehole.

It’s difficult to see the conflict from either side without both of them looking pretty awful. Atrocities have been committed on both sides, and just because the partisans hid behind the story of defending their homeland didn’t make the way they treated the citizens of the Margo Marissi any easier to stomach. And here was a man thinking about how to end the war, but never about leaving these people in peace; blaming the continuation of war on sin and the rapaciousness of mercenaries, without ever stopping to think about how the conditions in which they thrive had been created along the bloody border.

He left well enough alone when he realised that he wasn’t getting anywhere with Caderyn, and turned the conversation onto the slightly more palatable topic of the conditions of our voyage. Here I was happy to turn to Valerius, he had spent more time in the region and could talk from experience of past years. I had barely been there a week, so just enjoyed the food and the spectacle of Fjorlief eating it.

My ears pricked up at the mention of that Hutzlunr bastard Thorgrim the Difficult though. I was happy to interrupt then, going on at great length about killing one of his named men in single combat before finding and sparing the second. I may have embellished somewhat during that tale, making out that Caderyn had pretty much single-handedly left the hatchet wielding maniac barely able to stand, but the poor guy wasn’t having the best of time and I thought that making him look good may have cheered him up. Sadly, looking back, I’m fairly sure that I was speaking in Pelosian to the Patriarch, and he would have missed pretty much everything. Ah well, he may not have wanted to admit it, but when he was speaking, an occasional word of Pelosian was sneaking into his patois.

It was an odd thing to see happen, and it’s only really when looking back that it seemed obvious at all. At the time, we were just adjusting to conversations taking place in several tongues, where a word was difficult to translate into another language. I saw an occasional smile when talking about the third story man, that Valerius had decided to spare seconds before my blade slit his gullet open, so he must have been able to at least pick up a choice rude word or too.

The rest of the meal was small talk and little else; I did manage to get a good word in for the supposed Bajo out in the cells, but after letting the Patriarch know everything that had happened, I decided on honesty as my best course, letting the priest know that it was highly likely the old fellow was a conman and thief, but if he was also a Bajo, I was duty bound to speak in his defense. Said speech lasted roughly 17 seconds and was delivered with a purposefully blank expression. Come the morning, I was able to tell the old chap that I had done everything in my power, and that he would surely soon be free. The poor sod looked grateful at that.

That was the morning though, and we had still had dessert to look forward to. It was brought in by half a dozen each the equal of my hairdresser in terms of loveliness and how revealing their outfits were. It was all I could do to look on without my pleasure being made obvious, but the Pelosians at the table were obviously not used to such sights. Valerius simply appeared slightly shocked, but poor Skuza looked ready for a fainting spell and was nervously adjusting himself beneath the table.

The hour was late by then, and the decision was made to spend the night in relative comfort, something I was greatly in favour of. Some of the others though chose to return to the wagons and continue roughing it. I wasn’t too sure if this was supposed to send a message to our host, or just because they preferred sleeping under stars? I cared about neither, so slept soundly on a comfortable bed with soft, fresh sheets. The only thing missing was one of our servers, but one very rarely gets everything they desire.

*     *     *

The next morning I was a little late rejoining my companions – earlier than Skuza, but that should surprise none of you by now – and it seemed I had missed some excitement in the night. A nocturnal visitor for Drazar had people a bit flustered, and it is only with hindsight that so much of the day’s strangeness now later made sense. As far I was concerned though, we were just making ready to set off, and I had spoken to my incarcerated brother, leaving him feeling decidedly positive.

We were soon on our way with little to stop is though, strapping my Basaedo back onto my left hip where it belongs. There was only a few hours of journey left to us, and we were in civilised lands, so I took grabbed hold of some ropes and let the hormorn do the hard work of covering the remaining distance for me, whistling a little as we went.

The city soon loomed up ahead of us. Tuthom-Pothrie was huge for a border city, and like all Pelosian settlements, split into two distinct areas. Regardless of our employer’s status, we would be entering through the profinarium as we had goods to sell. The man who would be dealing with the sale was a Margo man, with close ties to both sides in this conflict. When we finally made it through the final checkpoints, he greeted Skuza like an old and dear friend. And by that I mean there was a hell of a lot of piss taking and bluffing, but the boss took it in good humour. Well, either that or he was massively oblivious to what the big fellow was saying about him. And he was a big lad.

Looked tall as hell, but a lot of that was down to his bearing. He looked almost as wide too, so I doubt he was ever one to miss a meal. There was a whole bunch of merchant talk going on, and I was about as interested in that as I was in Drazar’s blistered cock, so most of us took a few minutes to ourselves. What was occupying my thoughts were slightly more worrying. I had made a bloody dangerous journey, with some decidedly unhinged individuals, for a man who attracted trouble, all for the chance to follow a woman I had fallen in love in.

And there I was, stood inside Tuthom-Pothrie with no way of finding her and, what was more troubling, no real desire to. I would have been hard pushed to describe her in detail to any citizens I met who would be willing to offer help. The face swimming in front of my mind’s eye was one made much more familiar by its recent proximity. I had come to this city to find my love, and stumbled into a different one on the way, with a formidable woman able to swing a two handed sword with ease. And I’d seen her do so while not wearing a stitch; what was there not to love? I needed something to take my mind of the subject, and it was too early to start drinking.

As it turned out, the subject of the Daemon’s prong was soon brought to light. His night time visitor was the young slip of a girl we had managed to rescue from the well, and Drazar looked like he was wanting to prolong the intimacy. Of course, there was a hell of a lot more going on than that, but at the time, I just fancied a bit of fun. I knew Fjorlief had taken the wee thing under her protection and that was definitely in factor in what came out of my mouth as I watched near enough corner the poor girl to talk.

I laid it on nice and thick, giving anyone who could hear the idea that we was trying to buy her company for an evening, and that she would certainly have better taste. I think he had wanted their conversation to take place in private, and when he heard my voice, looked over, as shocked as it’s possible to be while wearing a mask. The shock may have been down to the fact that I wasn’t alone, and soon had Caderyn and Brand joining in, with the women just looking on and laughing. I’m sure we’ll get back to what ever the hell was going on with those two eventually, but as were heckling his bedroom performance, a shout of “Murder!” came from down the hill.

Skuza had gone of to negotiate, with a warning from Valerius that no money was to change hands, and no final price was to be agreed on without his presence, but was now running back towards us whiter than usual and screaming the word over and over. I struggled to my feet, but rushing anywhere from a sitting position with near to four foot of metal strapped to your hip is never going to work the way you want it to.

I arrived to see Brand – who could move like lightening on a promise when he wanted to – and Valerius already moving into the  tent that contained the corpse. I couldn’t see the body as I ran towards Skuza, who had gone into a dead faint and was laying in the dirt, but the men rushing towards us looked very much like friends of our portly middleman that the boss had just gone to see.

There was a whole lot of clamoring going on, with people calling for heads and justice, and folks running all over the damned place. What I spotted though was the people rushing towards my fallen employer. Fuck that for a game of legionnaires thinks I, and put myself in their way. By the time they had arrived, I was stood above him, and had cast my prismatic rune to baffle anyone who tried to swing at me. Although it was focused on me, I had to hope anyone looking at Skuza might be disoriented a little too.

As they closed up, one of the fuckers was determined to take justice into his own hands. I had no idea what had happened inside that tent, but if Skuza died, I wasn’t going to get paid. If I killed this bastard though, I could end up swinging myself. I dropped down low and readied for his swing. It came in quick but I instantly knew he had been taken in by the rune, so moved myself just a fraction to the right and flicked his sword away with my dagger.

I almost missed my parry though, as in the heat of the moment had forgotten that I also suffered the effects of the twisted light. I would get used to it in time, but luckily wasn’t to be tested much more that day, as our still conscious Numare shouted for calm, and for the provosts to be called. With some of the crowd already parting for the authorities to get on the scene, weapons were being lowered, and an air of calm hostility descended.

I still had Skuza on the ground though, and some sore looking prick who didn’t seem ready to let this go just yet, so I kept my Basaedo pointed at his heart, and never met my eyes break from his.

Feb 102014

The flames were licking at my hair as I looked around, trying to decide on my next move. The three bastards that had pelted fire bombs at me were still some way distant hiding behind some undergrowth, and I would need a hell of a running jump to make it to them. Two others were paying more attention to the rest of my group, but my biggest threat was in the shape of two chaps armed with shields and short swords that had already taken a swing at me. In the heat of the moment I realised that although I was still on fire, I would need to deal with the bastards with the weapons first, or at least get myself clear of them.

They hadn’t managed to surround me yet, and I had kept them at bay so far, and quickly moved towards the nearest bastard, the tip of my Basaedo flashing out to keep him at bay as I moved to put my back against the thick trunk of the closest tree. He managed to pull his head back from the swing, dodging rather than putting his shield in the way. An odd move as far as I was concerned, but all would eventually become clear.

I was far too engrossed in my own activities to be paying too much attention to how everyone else was fairing, but I heard Drazar hollering in my native tongue from over by the wagons. I figured out what he was trying to get across, but I obviously had more to teach him as warning me about inclement weather in the middle of pitched battle was far from useful. He had meant that he was going to cause an attack to come from above, but I had no idea how an Earth Power wielder could manage such a thing, and was grateful to be protected by the tree’s thick branches.

It was these branches that the Daemon blooded wizard had in mind for his attack, and the sound of them as they seemed to rip themselves free from the tree itself was terrifying. They smashed with aggressive force into the ground, sadly failing to connect with either of my tormentors, the nimble bastards once again quick enough to keep them from harm. The fallen branches did provide me with some cover though, and I realised that I had a few moments to try and put the fire out. I jammed the point of my sword into the ground and trusted to my dagger should I face an attack, and began to beat out the flames that had almost fully taken root in my hair.

As I was doing so, I felt a different but much more pleasant form of heat affect my extremities. Looking back towards the wagons, the beautiful Hutzlunr Vytch was crouching with her hands placed firmly on the ground and her eyes locked onto my own. Hell, that gave me the spur I needed and I pulled the blade free as quick as I dared and looked for someone to run through, but the shits were already on the move. Not a one of them was standing their ground, even though they had us outnumbered and outmatched in terms of their superior fire power.

I still took a step or two though, just hoping that at least one of them would put up something like a fight rather just dance away through to tree line. They seemed to have thought of that though, and before I could take a third step more objects were hurled towards me. It was plain to see that they wouldn’t hit me full on, but as they exploded and filled the air with white smoke, it seemed that all they wanted to do was slow me down.

Suddenly from behind me I could hear the cracking of dry branches breaking, the sound of undergrowth being torn apart and the heavy thump of something large landing near by. I turned in less than a second with my blade pointing towards the thing’s heart, but it was none other than Fjorlief. She must have started to run the moment the smoke bombs landed to have gotten here so quickly, and she slid to a halt on her knees in front of me, batting at the fire still working its way up my leg.

Looking back on it, I think I did damned well indeed to just be grateful and not make some crass comment about other duties she could have performed while down there. At the time though, all I could think of was getting the fire put out, and she did so quickly. I remember smiling at her, thinking how glad I was that she was there; not just as part of our traveling group, but with me, helping me. Ah, well. Tall beautiful women have that effect on me.

By the time the flames on my leg had been extinguished, it looked like every one of our attackers had either fled or been killed. Brand was dragging a corpse out from under the rear wagon whilst Catranasia went through the various oils, potions, and bombs that were found on the other bodies. There was handful of useful and potentially valuable commodities, but the most worrying was a jar filled with a black, foul smelling liquid that she identified as a powerful acid. The New Raphelian’s jaw dropped when she said the word acid, and he rushed to grab a canteen and dove back under the rear wagon, leaving us all confused as he threw the water away while down there.

Bloody good job he did though, as one of the little swine had cracked a jar of the black liquid over the rear axle, and if not for Brand’s quick thinking would have eaten through what remained in seconds. We all jumped to check the other vehicles, but they hadn’t been so lucky with those. The back wagon wasn’t going anywhere quickly though. Vitus was called over and for the next turning they worked to repair the damage as best they could, while the rest if us moved the heavier items onto the front wagon to save the axle from any undue stress, all the while keeping an eye out in case the brigands returned to try and pick us off again.

Moving the goods took less time than the repairs did, which gave me the chance to take care of some personal grooming. As well as making sure that my wounds were cleaned, I really needed to do something about my hair. Missing my fine hat was one thing, but looking like a scare-corbie was quite another. There was nothing to be done at the road side to make me look even remotely presentable and still keep a hair on my head. The barber’s arts have never been at my disposal, but to maintain my beard and mustache I knew how to keep a blade and shave with it, so had only one real course open to me. We were still close enough to the river to get some fresh water, and with it I managed to do a passable job of shaving my head.

The chill of the water made it trickier than it should have been, but by the end I looked like a hired thug rather than a crazy person. Not much of a choice, I grant, but given the options I was glad to take the former. I was still a handsome young devil, and hopefully Fjorlief wouldn’t find the sight of my stubbly head too hideous.

*     *     *

With everything about ready to go, we were alerted to our rear by some loud moaning and groaning. The Zammerite we had previously walked past was kicking up a hell of a fuss, so a few us wandered back down the road a spell to see what his problem was. Valerius had joined us, and took the time to try and translate to us what was written on the slate around his neck.

Apparently the man was a liar and a thief who was to be confined to the halls of a certain order for his crimes. He was also making a hell of a noise, seemingly unable to form a full word but gesturing dramatically to his robes and the slate. None of us really wanted much to do with the wretch, and were quite happy to leave him there, but Skuza had decided to follow Valerius like an inecure shadow and was soon making his opinion known. “It is our duty as citizens and followers of Pelo’s way to see this… person back to his order. He has been judged and found guilty, and must complete his punishment.”

There was much rolling of eyes at this, but he was the boss. Even though he had once again managed to do us the immense favour of staying the hell out of the way while we fought, it seemed he was uneasy not to be involved in our actions for longer than a turning or two. The lock was easier to get passed than it should have been, which was odd, but not overly so. If we were going to have some extra company, then the least I could do was make his journey a tiny bit more pleasant. I can’t imagine that the Zammerites would show mercy to him, and liars and thieves had made my family what it was.

I offered him my canteen to slake his thirst – fully planning on washing it at earliest opportunity – and then led him back to the wagons. The cooling liquid seemed to loosen his tongue and allow him to reassert his control over it, and he tried his best to let us know what misfortune had befallen him. In broken Pelo Margo he weaved a tale of a vagrant whom had tricked him, stolen his clothes, dressed him in the robes he was currently wearing, hung the slate around his neck and left him hanging in the cage.

On top of all that, the bandits we had encountered had also drugged him to prevent him from speaking and left him there while they planned their attack on us. We had evidence enough to believe they possessed the alchemical expertise to perform such a trick, and as we tried to move the hormorn on, we discovered another of their tricks. No Earth Power had been used to stop them, rather a compound that had been sprayed across the road that had rendered them almost incapable of forward motion.

With our new travel companion squared away, I used a bucket from one of the wagons to fetch river water to wash the foul alchemy clear, and refill my canteen while I was at it. With everyone working together, we were able to move on without much more delay, just going slowly to avoid undue stress on the axle we had managed to repair. Thankfully Pelosian roads are usually well kept, and even this close to the border, the surface was almost completely smooth, and we barely had to slow down much at all.

The walk was as pleasant as it could possibly be, but Caderyn was acting a little strange whenever the river meandered close to the  road. For the rest of us, it was a welcome opportunity to cool down and refill canteens. In my case, to douse my head in the bracing water. Not only was the heat getting to me and already beginning to burn my now shaved skull, but the blisters had formed regardless of the healing that Fjorlief and myself had administered. Our Dummonii scout was nervous though, and never went too close.

He must have noticed that I had raised an eyebrow when he once again looked at the moving water as if expecting it to leap from the river bed and drown us all. ” There have been attacks in these parts recently”, he said. “The white spirit of vengeance was called to deal with the creature that was responsible, but the attacks continue. People have been dragged from their homes at night by something that lives in the river.” He looked genuinely concerned, as if the aquatic beast was simply biding its time before swallowing him whole, but continued “There’s a reward to whoever manages to kill the bloody thing, and bring the body back to one of the villages we’ve passed.”

“Well”, says I, “How about we try our best not to camp too close to the river at night, and keep an eye out. If we manage to kill the bloody thing, I doubt even Skuza or Valerius could claim that the bounty was part of their cargo.” He smiled at that, but I found myself also watching the water a little more warily. Nothing came out of it though, and we carried on our way until another crossroad, marked out by the usual gallows – thankfully without victims  – and a small roadside shrine.

Hiding from the midday sun in an alcove in the shrine’s side was an elderly gentleman wearing dark robes that damned near dwarfed him. He was an old man, with hair so white as to be grey, and looked even more frail due to the bulky over-sized clothes he was buried in. He seemed a decent enough chap though, and was quick to lay on the compliments while asking if we could possibly spare his old legs and let him ride with us a spell.

I think we would have done so happily, and without even thinking much of him, but our other traveling guest began to kick up a bit of a fuss when he saw the old geezer, “That’s him! He took my clothes, those are my clothes! He locked my the fuckin’ cage and hung the bloody slate around my neck”!

What followed was a hell of a back and forth, with one side claiming not only innocence, but also not a shred of recollection as to what the other was talking about. The other side, seemingly completely earnest and angry, would not be dissuaded that the old man was in fact the thief that deserved to be wearing the slate. Skuza just seemed to want to get one of them back the Mazzerite order, and wasn’t too concerned as to which. The old man was going in our direction anyway, so it made sense to keep them both with us for now.

As far as I was concerned though, there was more yet to be made clear. The man from the cage was wearing clothing clearly too small for him, and if he had been locked in the cage for any length of time, the reverse should have been true. The white haired fellow’s clothes were practically burying him, and out of the two, he was the only one who seemed capable of lying well enough for it be useful to him, and worth punishing. Thinking fast, I put him up on Skuza’s carriage, while asking Valerius to make sure he didn’t fall or jump off, explaining my suspicions.

To our robed friend, I took the time to try and explain what was going on. He was to keep protesting his innocence, but know that we were trying to get to the bottom of it, and if he was telling the truth, he would do well out of it. Skuza would feel absolutely terrible if a man he dragged miles away from his route after finding him languishing in a cage was actually innocent, and would certainly offer some form of recompense. I was just as sure that Valerius would be unwilling to give up even a share of his share and would manage to talk the boss round. I kept that last bit to myself of course, but he was enough of an idiot to not quite get what I meant regardless.

He carried on protesting his innocence, but not because I wanted him to, just because he thought it might actually work to convince someone. I tell you, if he was the liar and thief, I was Pelo reborn. But for now, I just wanted to get him away from us and back in the hands of the order.

We didn’t have too long to wait thankfully, as our next stop was at a checkpoint manned by some Mazzerites armed with spears and an overly officious manner. Skuza was once more in his element dealing with devout travelers on the path of Pelo’s Way who also wanted to check his travel documents. Four red garbed guards had spotted us approaching from a distance and when we came close enough lowered the points of their spears towards us. It was disconcerting to say the least, but the tired, disinterested looks on their faces made me think that this may have been naught but a ceremonial way of greeting strangers.

The man in charge, wearing a finer outfit, with even some familiar looking armour on came forward, pushing the point of a spear that had drifted away from where it was supposed to go and ended up in his way. “Papers please”, he barked in Pelosian not even bothering to waste a glance on anyone with whom he shared no common ancestry. The minutia of such border crossings and check points was of no interest to me, but we were close to the actual Mazzerite cathedral and so would hopefully soon be rid of our two new friends. I approached the man in charge once everything was correctly stamped and signed, and told him the story of the two oddly dressed chaps with us.

He seemed about as interested in their story as I was in correctly filed paperwork filled in and filed in triplicate, but told us where we needed to go. “Ah, we will be walking through Mazzerite lands with at least one criminal, should we get stopped we could end up in some trouble ourselves. Could you spare one of your fine spear-men there to accompany us until we hand them off to the correct authorities”? With a sigh, he took the paperwork back from Skuza’s grip and offered a compromise; our papers would be modified to show that we were doing Pelo’s work by transporting two possible lost souls and would need to make no further precautions about our dealings with them.

We were a lot closer than I thought to the cathedral, but it was much more than that. It looked like a small town with the overtly religious building dominating it. Everything was clean, neat, and ordered, obsessively so. The residents wore matching uniforms, and even the grass seemed to have been instructed to stop growing past a certain point. It was getting pretty late in the day, but a good ride and some small good fortune would have still seen us to Tuthom-Pothrie. It was a welcome break to stop while our guests were taken care of though.

The Numare walked them away with Vitus tagging along to keep them under control while the rest of us helped ourselves to some trail rations and took in the view; at the same time it managed to be beautiful and awe inspiring, while also dull and soulless. Caderyn looked particularly unimpressed. In his native country, nature was encouraged to run rampant and quite the reverse was going on here. Add that to the fact that he was surrounded by folks who would be likely to kill him by nailing him to wall if they met him out in the wilds, and the reasons for his uneasiness were obvious. Hell, as long as he could keep it under control, I’d be happy.

Before too long our companions returned, thankfully without the two new additions, and had news for us. Whether it was good or bad very much depended on your country of birth I suppose. Skuza had once again failed monumentally to keep his big mouth shut and had apparently gone on at length about his travel companions, including that rarest of creatures; a well behaved, practically civilised Dummonii. As a result of his showing off, the Patriarch of this order had invited us all to see him.

Well, I’m no idiot now, and I was no idiot then; when someone that important invites you to call on them, it’s probably best to think of it as an order, rather than a suggestion. I was pretty much resigned to it, and thought we might get a decent evening meal and a nicer place to sleep out of it, plus maybe some better than average doctoring. It hadn’t been that long since I almost had my leg broken, and only hours previous I had been on fire. The Dummonii – tamed or not – was less than keen to show his face, and Drazar looked ready to run for the hills at the merest suggestion.

Everyone else seemed okay with the idea though, so it made sense to leave the two of them behind and put in an appearance. Well, it did to everyone expect to the boss of course; he had waxed lyrical about his men, and wanted dearly to show them off, almost going so far as to try and drag them along. Valerius seemed quieter than usual, and so it seemed it was my job to dissuade Skuza from putting his men in a life threatening situation. “My lord, these Mazzerites are pious folk indeed, as is Caderyn, but in different ways. These different ways caused us some small inconvenience when last we met a man who was not as, ah, accommodating as yourself in matters of opposing theology. I think it would be best to avoid another confrontation, don’t you agree?”

The poor fool paled considerably at the thought, and it occurred to me I may have pushed back too hard. There was now a very real possibility that he would willingly confess all, martyring himself as penance for our ‘crimes’. I’d have to do something about that, but wished that the other Numare would weigh in. I could butter up those who thought they were higher born than myself, but complicated verbal sparring and intrigue was beyond me.

*     *     *

We once again found ourselves walking through well manicured landscapes and between imposing towers. All normal I assumed for the Numare, but the scale and sophistication for what was essentially an out of the way border church, was staggering even to my city born eyes. Ahead of us was a larger building constructed from green glass and metal, visible within was what looked like an indoor jungle worthy of New Raphelia.

At its door was a pair of guards wearing armour almost as fine as that buried a few days earlier by Caderyn. In a way, I was glad that Skuza looked so permanently ill, as I’m sure he was shivering and deathly white even in the stifling heat of the evening. Before being allowed to enter into the presence of the high-to-do priest, we were instructed to give up all of our weapons. This was no big surprise, and I was happy to hand over my Basaedo and dagger, while the Hutzlunr made a sizable pile of her own weapons. The guards seemed put out by that much steel on a lady, and they felt the need to double check if she had anything, to which they were informed that she did indeed have a small dagger in her boot.

Being the gentleman that I am, I was unhappy with the thought of her being molested by the guards, and so offered to retrieve it for her myself. I can only imagine what she thought I was playing at, having not spent much time in polite society – something I would seek to rectify – but with a puzzled luck on her face she gave me permission to take the knife from her. As I placed it atop her pile, I noticed that Brand’s sword was not amongst our possessions. He certainly wasn’t still carrying it, so must have stowed it safely back on a wagon.

Eventually we were ushered past them though, through two sets of double doors into the private jungle of the Patriarch. I recognised a few of the plants as being native to Brand’s homeland, but there were countless more that were foreign to me.

Flapping about in their branches were large, thoroughly unnerving looking insects. As we moved further down a wood chip covered path, I saw what could only be the Patriarch ahead of us. Wearing robes of the finest and deepest red, he stood not much taller than the average Pelosian, but seemed to tower over everyone but myself and Fjorlief. His gauntleted hand was raised to chest height, and fluttering above his open palm was another of the large winged creatures. The evil looking thing had a barbed tail coming from its read end that put Fjorlief’s boot dagger to shame.

Of course, the presence of the insect was far from accidental, and throughout the course of the introductions he made a point to compare it to our absent Dummonii. Apparently removing it from the wild was enough to remove its savagery. Something told me that Caderyn would take issue with such a blanket statement and I was glad he had stayed with the wagons.

As all introductions were made, I saw a chance to stop Skuza from damning us all and took it; “We thank you for your hospitality Pater Piam, but we are sadly the bearers of bad tidings. On our travels we came across an order of woman offering sanctuary to those who travel these dangerous roads…”

“Ah yes, the Grey Order”, he interrupted before allowing me to continue.

“Indeed. Sadly we arrived to find them all hanging by their necks from the door frame and many more dead within the walls. Included in that number were several partisans along with some Pelosians. One of whom was wearing the armour of your order, and was well decorated indeed. He seemed a young man from his face to be so well adorned with battle honours. We buried him as best we could with words from our noble employer, but full rights were beyond our means. If you wish to see him correctly interred, I’m sure you could send some men to him.”

“Thank you for this news, sad though it is, we will retrieve his body and perform the appropriate rights. Until then, I insist that you all join us for our evening repast. We have facilities for you to clean the dirt of the road from you, and then it would be my pleasure to dine with you all, the Dummonii included of course.” Before we could answer, he lifted his arm and sent the beast flapping away and continued, “For now though, it is best if you leave. Although controlled at the best of times, too many strangers can get them  riled up, and that is the definition of a bad idea.”

There was little else to be said about that, so we made our way back to break the good news to Caderyn. I’m not sure how, but we had managed to get through the conversation without Drazar being mentioned at all. He may have a boring night without us ahead of him, but it was a far better prospect than watching him try to enter any of the buildings we went through. The markings on the walls and arches bore some similarities to those that caused him problems back at the Grey Order hostel. I had failed to remove those, and they were just painted on wood, there would be no avoiding the impressive carvings while walking around this place.

Before that though, there was one extra matter to deal with. The older of the two men that had been placed in the care of the Zammerites had been causing some problems for Drazar. Drawing attention to his unusual nature and outfit, and demanding that we speak out for him had brought one of the warrior women of the order over to question the mask Drazar was wearing. We arrived in time to see her walking away, but looking over her shoulder suspiciously.

He filled us in on the details, but I was only half paying attention to begin with. Caderyn was sat with each foot in a small hole that he had dug. Now, he was a strange sort, and no mistake, but this was odd even by his standard. “Seriously mate, what the hell are you up to?”, I asked.

“I just needed to be closer to the earth”, was his reply. Well, that was the end of me hoping he wouldn’t make a scene, but the white haired codger in his cell was still a matter that needed dealing with. Apparently, we were supposed to leave them to silent contemplation, but he wasn’t going along with that, and so neither would I. While everyone else was discussing Caderyn’s appearance at dinner, I wandered over, much to the prisoner’s approval.

He repeated his earlier pleading, hoping that we would help him by vouching for him with the Patriarch, but when he heard my voice, he changed tack somewhat. The next words out of his mouth were Raphelian, and it occurred to me that he had often spoken with the very same accent. He saw my orange sash and immediately claimed to be Bajo himself.  While I doubted that at first, it would make sense. Not all wearers of the sash were sailors and fighters, but also smugglers and confidence men. He had the patter down right, but all I really wanted was for him to shut up and leave us in peace. Hell, something about his face was reminding me of something, or somebody from my past.

I had no doubt he was a liar, so didn’t feel bad about spinning a yarn of my own. “Strange to see a brother so far from home, but I will not allow you to languish here any longer than necessary. We dine with the Patriarch this evening, and I will do my best to talk him round as we eat. Until then, a sign of my word”. I reached round to my pack and drew forth the sash I had taken from the Bajo’s corpse earlier that day. “Take this, and keep it close, you will be wearing it again soon my brother”, I took his hands in mine, and he quickly had the sash hidden in his fist, with fingers as dexterous as any pick-pocket I had met.

With any luck, that would quiet the bugger down for now, and although I couldn’t trust him, him trusting me could pay off down the line. Walking away from him, I could see that the others were still deep in discussion, with Caderyn far from pleased. A deal was struck though, involving Valerius having the unpleasant task of discussing Caderyn’s religion with Skuza, and what he was allowed to say to the Patriarch.

While the rest of us had been pretty happy pretending that Skuza – who had stayed behind to join in the evening’s prayers – was doing a great of putting us on Pelo’s way, the Dummonii was a bit too pious to even pretend to turn his back on the many Gods he worshiped. In the end, a compromise was just about avoided, with Caderyn practicing a couple of key phrases to keep the Patriarch off his back; “Skuza has been diligent in his efforts to see us on the right path”, and “Ser Skuza has never relented in his efforts to see us redeemed”.

There was no guarantee any of it would work, but simply not turning up wasn’t an option at that point. We had all left weapons behind at this point, taking our cue from Brand, but I kept my dagger. Although I couldn’t take with me into the Patriarch’s presence, having it on route and back just made me feel better.

Thankfully, our gracious host was happy to have us smelling better when next we were in his company, so we were taken to a bath house. My hair was cut a little neater, my blisters treated with a cooling cream, and it was just about possible to imagine that the meal to follow wouldn’t end in disaster.

Feb 032014

I stayed on my feet for maybe an hour, thinking it best to stay awake throughout the night, rather than risk missing Skuza if he needed to exit the city in a hurry. It had been a clear, hot day, and was followed by a night cold enough to leave my breathe hanging in front of my face as I stalked around the vagrant camp sites. Even in the dead of night, there were people up and about, but all were eying me suspiciously. They were poor and destitute, and I was wearing what to my mind was simple cloak, but would have cost them a month’s earnings to buy for themselves.

With greedy eyes on me, and suspicious gazes following my every move, I decided that discretion was the best course and moved further from the camps and their followers. Moving away came with its own troubles though, as I had no light source of my own, and wouldn’t have risked lighting one if I had. The darkness was only broken by the soft glow provided by Majhbé, but even on a night as clear as that one I needed to tread carefully to avoid catching a foot on broken rocks and roots as I walked further through the treeline away from prying eyes.

Luckily the darkness was also in my favour when it came to finding somewhere out of the way, and a moment or two later I had found a tree that would do the job of a chair back, and wrapped my cloak about myself to keep the cold out as much as possible. When I left my home I was lucky enough to be wearing a fine leather hat with a red feather in its band. I had liked that hat, but at some point on the way it had gone. Maybe I had gambled it away, lost it in a river or traded it for a loaf of bread. All I could remember was as I tried to get comfortable on the cold damp earth, I really missed that hat.

I must have managed some sleep that night, but I was only sure of the fact because I was woken with a start before the sun had yet risen fully. The heavy doors had clanged open to allow the Praetor Mori to ride out as part of their daily ritual. I don’t know if it’s to scare the common folk away from the doors to begin the day, or just to show off their fine coloured livery, but neither would surprise me. I stood and stretched, watching the spectacle with interest as robed priests walked out behind the mounted troops, swinging smoking braziers about themselves to ward off Daemonic powers. Or the smell of the poor. Again, it could have been either, but at least they weren’t actively striking the destitute as they moved about.

There was still many hours to go before we were expected to meet up by the statues, and I had no idea what was happening inside the city so decided to occupy my mind elsewhere rather than worry about things over which I had no control. Looking around, there was already a bunch of traders setting up so I set about finding something to keep me going until our rendezvous.

In case any of my dear readers are curious about what happened back then, a couple of years back, when I first thought to write this story down, I did some research into the events of that day within the city. A young lawyer named Picissi had taken Skuza’s case, a man with a reputation for doing whatever was needed for his clients. The court records were decidedly better managed than they would be in my own fair city, but in a case as insignificant as this, there was little of use to be gleamed.

Something about mistaken identity, and a debt that needed paying, along with a servile who had vanished. There was no final note though, and it seemed that Valerius got through just about enough of the trial to placate the bankers and then gotten everyone the hell out of the city. I can only smile to think of the show Skuza must have put on. He saw himself as a man of honour, but would have been secretly happy to be rescued before he was sent to gaol, whether he deserved to be there or not.

As for myself that morning, my time was spent trying to digest possibly the worst breakfast I have ever tried to eat, wondering what had become of my employer, and whether or not I would get back to the wagons to find Caderyn standing over the corpses of Vitus and Catranasia, claiming all the goods were his. So much for distracting myself, but what worried me most though was the food and drink. Everything else could be dealt with in time, but by the Gods that breakfast had me fearing for my life.

*     *     *

Hours passed but I dared not partake of any other food in that hellish place. Before long the sun was high in the sky and my cloak was an almost suffocating weight as not a cloud passed overhead to offer shade. All morning, traffic continued in and out of the city, but it wasn’t until late in the morning when I caught a glimpse of Eduardo. Sad to say, the moment could have been better timed as I was stood against a wall, weapon in hand relieving myself and almost missed his hammering past at speed, the tethers pulling his wagon going hell for leather out of the gates. “Skuza”, I yelled desperately retying the front of my trews, “Ser Eduardo Skuza! Halt and let me aboard!”

Thankfully someone on board was able to hear me over the thunder of hooved feet on hard packed earth, and the wagon began to slow. What with time being short, I didn’t give it the chance to stop entirely, and jumped aboard as soon as it drew level. The driver must have been told how important it was that we reach our destination in time, and was soon whipping the beasts back into a frenzy and I was struggling to keep hold as we pounded away from the city.

The sun was almost at its peak as we moved, and Valerius was grim faced but seemed strangely content. Skuza had a strange look of pride about his face, so all I could imagine at the time was that they had gotten the result in court they wished for. The way his man was whipping the tethers into a frenzy made me smile though, we were going fast enough that we might just make it to the our meeting with the others before they took off with the goods and were never seen again.

In that matter I was correct, and the Gods favoured us with an even road and no unexpected delays, meaning that less than half a turning a later we saw the statues and our wagons arranged next to them, with our companions looking like they were just getting ready to set off. I jumped down from the wagon and managed to land almost gracefully after hanging on for dear life the entire journey. It was Caderyn with whom I first made eye contact, and he nodded to me with a smile.

It was safe to say that out of the entire group he was the one I was most surprised to see still there, but also the one I was most grateful to see. Everyone had their own reasons to have signed up with Skuza, but as far as I was aware, the Dummonii had motives closest to my own; get out into the world and have fun, making a reputation and money while we were at it. When I finish our story of my time as part of Skuza’s retinue, maybe I’ll let you all know what happened to the armour and mace that we had hidden around the country. “Didn’t get a better offer then”, I asked him with a smile.

He shook his head in response to that, along with a smile that had a bit of an edge to it, almost saying that it would only be a matter of time until that better offer was on the table, but for now we were still on the same side. “Thanks”, says I genuinely grateful that we hadn’t returned to empty wagons and bloodied corpses. Everyone was all ready for the road though, so we jumped to help, and took up our positions again ready for the rest of the day. Valerius took the time to walk around us all, making sure we were given a share of the money made thus far, including what had been left with Catranasia in case we had needed to bribe our way past any additional guards.

It came in at thirty Dituri each, and more than made up for the money wasted on rooms that not one of us had spent the night in. I think that after a tense night with no one knowing exactly what the afternoon would bring, this was enough to cheer everyone up. I tried once more to help Drazar out with his Raphelian, but for the most part was happy to walk and eat, having missed anything that could reasonably be called breakfast.

Most of the rest of the day passed uneventfully, with the standard road side attractions of trees, grass and the occasional corpse. The river meandered to and fro from us as we followed the road, and on occasion we spotted a few things that were out of the  ordinary. Skulls for the most part, but not attached to any bodies and decorated with painted patterns. When we saw a collection of them at a turn in the river, we decided it best to halt a moment in case there was something otherworldly about them. Caderyn was quick to usher us onwards though, with talk of a white ghost of vengeance that we should fearful of.

The grizzly trophies were apparently there to summon this spirit by a person or group that had been done wrong. The way they were arranged though made it look as if the people who had put them here was mad at the river itself. Looking about and around, what struck me as strange was that this place didn’t look like it was inhabited by Dummonii at all, but more like it was home to folk of the Margo Marissi. True the blood lines were all kind of mixed up round those parts, but the way our own Dummonii was urging us to move on without disturbing the offering made me think that this was some pretty powerful stuff.

He was very damned insistent though, so move on we did, covering a good few more miles before the sun began to dip towards the horizon. Ahead of us was another settlement, and from the distance it looked like a fairly sizable walled township. All we could do was hope that is was friendly, or at the very least, indifferent to us. It was our best chance of a safe night’s sleep though, and on this side of the river, the odds were in our favour that we wouldn’t be peppered with arrows as soon as we were within range.

Moving forward at the pace of the hormorn, we were some ways off when we were spotted. Luckily there was no rain of arrows, but rather an impressive sounding horn that must have been blown to alert everyone within that they were expecting guests. Moving on foot out of the large and sturdy wooden doors came about a dozen armed men. Although only a fraction of them looked like they could handle the weapons they were carrying, there were enough of them – plus archers on the walls – to give us all reason to pause and hear what they had to say. Although clearly expecting trouble, it didn’t look they were about to cause any with provocation.

Valerius – seemingly our spokesman in all matters not emphatically related to Partisan activities – was already at our front, and trying to arrange for us a safe place to spend the night. His verbal sparring partner in this matter was a small and frail old fella who had more than a look of Pelosia about him. His clothes had more in common with those seen on the folk of the Margo Marissi, but for my money, he looked like a true born Pelosian that had gone native. I’m not sure everyone picked up on it, but the accent was a dead bloody giveaway if you were blind to everything else.

It also seemed like since going native, he had lost all love for his countrymen of old. Valerius was having a hell of a time trying to get in, as the old chap seemed convinced that we were all rapists and murders, come from Pelosia’s borders to destroy everything in our wake. We did try to reason with him that since there was only a handful of Pelosians in our group, we posed no threat, and were in fact just looking for a place to spend the night.

Our various countries of origin didn’t do much to calm him down, and he was soon accusing us all of having laid waste to the land, killing countless hundreds of innocent dwellers of the Margo. “But, I’ve only been here a week”, I interrupt, which gets a chuckle from my lot, and a dry smile from the elder. Sadly it wasn’t enough for him to relent and order the doors open though. Adding that I’d try harder brought back his cold stony look and he admonished me for talking too much. I had no reasonable argument to offer such a claim, so instead asked him why would not be allowed entrance.

“If you come into our town, you come in without weapons, and that includes whatever’s in the wagons”. Well, that was enough for me. He looked like a harmless old coot, but there was no way any of us would feel safe without any means to protect ourselves. The sun was kissing the horizon by that point, so trying to find our way around in the dark would have been foolishness bordering on suicidal.

Our scout wanted to know if he was able to explore around the walls during the night, to try and find the safest route come the morning. The old bugger wasn’t happy with even that though, and made threats of arrows loosed into the dark if they were to see anyone sneaking around in the dark. Caderyn’s bravery had always come pretty close to stupidity – another reason I liked him, if I’m being honest – and he once again was pushing his luck, saying that he would be able to move without detection. While I thought it a likely claim, I did not see it as a certainty, and told him that. Anyway, there were other ways to find a safer route, so I called out to their spokesman, “Tell me old man, come the morning, which way round would you offer us? And be truthful now, for it seems like it’s in your best interest to get us moving on quickly and with as little disruption as possible to your fields as we poke around looking for a favourable route.”

He weighed this up before answering, “Go west come the morning, and be quick about it”, he grumbled, seeing the sense in my question but bitter enough that he still resented offering us any sodding assistance. I was happy though, and it seemed enough to keep Caderyn from wandering too far through the night. I wasn’t done yet though, and the morning’s lack of sustenance still weighed lightly on my stomach.

“You have food and drink within? If you’re going to make some friendly travelers sit outside alone all night, then the least you could do is provide us with a meal. We will of course pay for it all, and looking at the quality of the clothing on show, I imagine you could do with the coin in this town”. If he hadn’t been such an annoying prick I wouldn’t have made the pointless insult, but it was near full dark and I was in no mood for sweet talking the old bloody fool.

It looked like I was correct though, and he nodded before turning on his heel and stalking back to the heavy doors which were already swinging open to allow the men back inside. As we set about putting a camp together – far enough away to avoid any night time exchanges of arrows – a small group came forth with trays and a small firkin of beer for the evening. Sad to say, the young chap carrying it didn’t seem to be struggling under the weight, and when it was laid down and tapped, proved to be barely half full. Not that I would have had much to drink, a full night’s sleep was much more my speed that evening, but I’m sure between us we could have emptied one had it been brought to us full to bursting.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad night though, and we awoke after a decent bit of sleep having felt reasonably safe so close to the town walls. We left behind the detritus of the night’s meal and were up and about as soon as was possible. By choosing to not give up our weapons, we would were adding at least an hour or two to our journey, even if the western route was in fact the quickest. The undergrowth was thick, and the going slow, but eventually we made it through and out the other side.

The day had already turned hot by the time we were free of the shade and before long we were all sticky and sweating, taking every opportunity to drench ourselves when the road came close enough to the river. Ahead was a sight to chill the spine though. Even after a week in the Margo the sight of corpses hanging from their necks was something I hadn’t gotten used to. There were six of them, mostly Hutzlunrs – as I had come to expect, being mercenary buggers like myself – but also a Bajo hanging there too.

There wasn’t another living soul in sight, and we were close enough to the river that everyone was happy to take a break and cool down while I lowered my countryman’s corpse to the ground, taking his orange sash from him before dragging the body down to the river, making sure the flow was moving back the way we came and dropping it in. I wasn’t the only one who wanted to make sure that these bodies were treated with respect, and as I turned from the river, I saw Fjorlief dragging a Hutzlunr towards me. I nodded to her, and proceeded to help until all the corpses were taken care of.

It was far from a pleasant job, but doing it made me feel good, like I had helped those poor souls move on to a reward they deserved, or at least deserved more than becoming food for a corbie. And hell, doing a favour for a strapping young lady that I would love to see naked again was bound to pay off eventually.

*     *     *

That was the first of several encounters on the road that day. Next we were unlucky enough to come across yet more decorated skulls and pleadings to the same spirit of revenge that we had encountered previously. This time though, we also managed to find someone who might be able to give us some answers as to what the hell was going on with them. Sad to say the heat and my own disinterest was enough for me to quickly lose the thread of the conversation between Caderyn and the Margo dweller we had found. This one was far more of Dummonii than Pelosian, and from what little I can remember, there was something afoot that  had taken the lives of several people. The skulls were there to call vengeance down upon, well, whatever the hell it was. As I said, I was too damned hot to concentrate on some villagers superstitious nonsense.

Caderyn seemed to take it seriously though, and was quick to move on, checking over his shoulder a little more than I would have expected. Still, we had already seen one creature that claimed to be a spirit of his people, and it had tried to kill every last one of us if we refused to give up our shadows to it.

I can’t say I wasn’t happy to put some distance between us and the markers, but not too far ahead was yet another hanging man. This time he was still alive, but I doubt he lasted long after we passed him by. A criminal of some sort, wearing robes of the Zammerite with a slate plaque hanging around his neck. The Pelosians seemed to be able to make out what was written, but offered little in the way of explanation, simply moving on quickly.

He didn’t spend that much longer on my mind though, as trouble came from nowhere not long after we left him hanging in his cage. We walked once more past statues at the side of the road when we slowed a little, someone had seen something unusual, but before we could do much about it, a smoke bomb flew towards us, exploding and covering us in a thick white gas. I was quickly enveloped and could see nothing of anyone else, but could hear movement from all around.

Rather than wait for another attack, I opened up a squall to blow the smoke away from me, knowing it would give me a few seconds to determine the threat. There were several figures moving just outside of the cloud, which at first glance I took to be woodland spirits; some kind of human animal hybrids maybe? No matter what they were, they had more bombs in hand, along with more conventional weapons too. I could here our people preparing for another attack, and female voices trying to get our hormorn to move on before we were overwhelmed, but to no avail.

They assured me later that no Earth Power was in play, keeping the beasts from moving, but at the time it was all I could think of. If we weren’t going to walk clear of the cloud, then I was happy to take the fight to our ambushers. I could see a small gathering of them through the gap my squall had made, so decided to try out my new rune, casting it onto myself and watching as the world twisted around me.

I had only a second or two left to make my way out of the smoke, and could see Valerius loosing arrows into our enemies from his vantage point atop a wagon. I took my opportunity and charged towards them, jumping down from the road and managing to land safely in spite of my twisted vision. I got close enough to swing my Basaedo in, slashing across the chest of a creature that looked like a big cat had done something unspeakable to a woman, but it wasn’t enough to put it down.

They moved away from me, looking confusedly at me, or at least, where they thought I was. They seemed to get an idea though, or were just lucky as all hell, as three of them hurled bombs in my direction, two of them striking and bursting into flame. I looked down to see the material of my trews catch on fire and my chest begin to smolder. It wasn’t enough to stop me though, and as two others rushed in hoping to finish me off, I easily turned their attacks aside, one with my dagger, the second with my sword.

Luck had nothing to do with it, but I had managed to survive their attacks nonetheless. Sadly, I would very much need all the luck good Fortune had to spare as I squared off against them, burning and surrounded.

Jan 242014

As the news sunk in, I remember thinking that insisting Vitus keep the bottle of wine to himself may have been a mistake. It was far from anyone’s idea of a fine vintage, but when it came to getting a man pissed, it managed the job admirably. And what more could one ask of a bottle of cheap wine?

We needed a plan, but not everyone had the same priorities as I. I knew already that Caderyn and Drazar were only working for Skuza as a means to an end – not that said end was particularly clear to me – and weren’t overly concerned with his welfare as long they were going to make some money on the job. I could have really done with Valerius right then to bolster their spirit, but he had gone after Skuza, taking Catranasia with him, presumably to take advantage of her abilities as a merchant.

Vitus seemed to be the only other one who was overly concerned with getting the boss out of the city in one piece, and he was spending most of time lamenting his poor lot in life. Fjorlief was doing what she could to get him to talk sense, but he seemed to be happy with his face in his hands, grunting and questioning what he may have done in his life to be so badly mistreated by the fates. All very entertaining, but we had other concerns. If we were to formulate a plan to get out of the Profinarium to rescue Skuza, we needed everyone together.

Brand had expressed his desire to sleep away from the hostel, preferring the underside of a wagon to a roof over his head, and Drazar had likewise wanted to steer clear of the crowds, but for different reasons. While Caffees was purchased for our wagon master, I walked into the night to find them, doing my best to remember under which animal totem our wagons were secured.

Skuza had reluctantly parted with some coin in regards to our evening off the road, paying a few paltry coins to keep a watchman stationed through the night with his precious cargo; a light burning through the night. Sadly, he wasn’t the only merchant to take such precautions, and several scrawny looking types were posted around the open patch of land used for corralling the vehicles. Each looked like they would be unable to hold even one vagrant with a will, but undoubtedly offered some piece of mind to fools who new little of the world.

Eventually I spotted the carved wooden Ablec that was perched atop the pole that our wagons were secured to, and another rodent looking excuse for a man was indeed present, lantern held high. At no point did he even try to stop me as I walked between the wagons, even though I had no recollection of him having been retained while I was present. In the middle of the wagons sat Brand and Drazar, neither talking to the other. “I have news, bad news”, says I, “and I think it best discussed while we walk, keeping us away from prying ears”.

They both nodded, gathering their things and not pressing me for answers until we were clear of our no doubt dauntless protector’s hearing. It seemed that no matter what the weather, dozens of caravans and their beasts of burden could change any surface into rutted wet mud. The smell was particularly noteworthy, but I’m sure your imagination will do a far better job of conjuring up just how unpleasant it was than my words ever will.

So as we trudged through ankle deep filth I filled the two of them in on the basics of the meeting I had just come from, and was unsurprised to find Drazar wanting in his desire to see Skuza safely from the garrison town. Brand was quick to come up with suggestions though, including that we concentrate on getting the wagons free. Although I had instantly thought of getting Skuza to safety, he was right. Fulfilling my contract was a goal with its own reward, but having some coin in my pocket would allow me to be a little more discerning in my next choice of patron.

I wondered aloud if that would mean we would be better off bringing the boss with us here first, but Brand shook his head, “It was Vitus that dealt with the livery staff over there. I’m sure he could get the animals without needing Skuza around”. We still had to deal with the fact that the doors wouldn’t be opened again until dawn, and just how inebriated our wagon master was. As I was breaking that particular news to them, we were close enough to the covered drinking area for the two of them to see Vitus engaged in a heated discussion with Fjorlief.

From this distance we couldn’t hear the details, but by the time we were close enough to make out the words, it seemed he was still stuck in the same self pitying rut in which I had left him. Fjorlief, a woman growing more and more interesting to me by the minute, stood close to him, towering a good foot above his head, was looking him in the eye. When he finally seemed to have run to the end of his current lamentations she swung her hand round with lightening speed and slapped him across the face so hard, I almost felt it.

By the gods it did the job though, and he was soon looking considerably more sober and ready to act. With excellent timing, Catranasia made an appearance meaning I got to tell the whole sorry tale one last time. Apparently she had been off selling some goods to ensure that we had some pay in our pockets. A nice plan, thought up by Valerius if I was any judge. I didn’t doubt that Skuza wished us well, but I was less sure that he would have given us a second thought once away from the Profinarium and in close proximity to a hot bath.

Still, we would almost certainly need to bribe a gate guard or two if we were to get out of here under the cover of darkness, and having coin in pocket would make that possible. The young lady also seemed aware of guards who would be more likely to take said bribe, and how much it would cost. While talking on such things – including a man of the underworld whose help would almost certainly be needed – Vitus made his decision and stood up, slightly unsteadily. “Right, that’s it. I can get through the gates to the Piamarium, and if I need to, I’ll drag back Ser bloody Skuza. You lot, get everythin’ else sorted”.

He lurched through the crowd and was making his way to said gates looking as steady as a new born toma walking on ice. Brand was close by and within earshot for a hushed word or tow, “Follow him a way will you? Just make sure he gets to the gates of the Piamarium in one piece”. He nodded shortly and was up and on his feet instantly, but within seconds I had lost sight of his darkened form as it walked away through the bustle.

Vitus had asked for a full turning to see to our employer’s safety, but there was little we could do in that time. None of us fancied drinking anything more, and had already eaten our fills. We had company though, so we asked around some of the less reputable looking types to confirm the stories we had heard about Shepard – a man in the know it seemed – and his base of operations in a place lovingly titled the Crafty Bastard.

Although I still had many years left to me to learn valuable life lessons, even then I knew that the more comically entertaining the name of the drinking establishment, the more likely it was to be  full of cut-throat bastards and thieves. Time would prove me amply right on this, but for the moment, I only had Drazar to contend with.

He was clearly ill at ease. His eyes flickering constantly behind the slits in his mask, his fingers tapping out badly timed rhythms on the beer slicked table and his head never still for longer than a second. Imagine a child really wishing to be excused from a dinner table to take a massive shit and I think you might have an idea about how much he was fidgeting. “What the hell is wrong with you man”, I asked, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice.

“I just, don’t feel comfortable here. Not around so many of… these people”. Well shit, thinks I, working for a Pelosian was one thing, but being surrounded by them, and many of them decked out in legion clobber, was really getting to him. We didn’t have the time for any such foolishness though, especially if we were about to do something very foolish to try and rescue a possibly wanted man.

“Listen, I can see you look like crap right now, and that means other people can too. You square that shit away or we’ll get some very unwanted attention. There’s nothing to be done right now but sit and wait, so just accept that instead of worrying about bad things that most likely won’t even happen.

“Look around you. this place is full of stranger people than you, and a hell of a lot of them have moles with them. So, calm down, and we’ll have a much better chance of getting out of here together, and with our wages.”

That seemed to calm him down somewhat, but if you paid enough attention it was clear he was still on edge, just trying his damnedest to keep it hidden. Silence again settled upon our table, as we had exhausted all topics of conversation related to the evening’s events. Those around us were less silent, but I was still able to hear something out of the ordinary, and looked once more towards the Hutzlunr woman I found so enchanting. Something was different about her, and it goes to show just how blinkered I had been that I hadn’t noticed it before.

Sat on the table in front of her, a small collar around its neck, nibbling away at a discarded lime rind, one end of its lead held in Fjorlief’s hand was a small and desperately ugly creature. As I stared, perplexed by what I was seeing, she must have noticed where my attention was directed. “What?”, she asked, “This is Sally the Pelosian Fighting Mole. I bought her.” There was a hint of defiance in her voice, as if she expected to be chided for making such a purchase, but I could think of no reason to care about what she did with her own coin.

“Very well”, I replied, “but isn’t Sally an odd name for such a creature”?

“Her full name is Sally the Pelosian Fighting Mole. How is that not a good name for a fighting mole?” I had no easy answer to the logic of that question, so returned to sitting in silence, awaiting Vitus’s return.

*     *     *

Within a turning, but with little to spare the Pelosian was seen striding towards us once more. He had clearly sobered up some in the intervening time, his gait much more steady and deliberate. What was even more obvious though, was that he was alone. My heart sank, and the hardened expression on his face seemed to drain the life out of all of us.

He sank back into his seat before saying a word, “the daft old bastard seems to think that because he’s a Numare he will be tried as such and can easily argue that he is not to be detained. Valerius did his best to convince him otherwise, but he’s a stubborn sod when the mood takes him. Luckily, Valerius also volunteered to stay with him, and make nothing else can go wrong”. He looked about him as he finished, possibly hoping for some more wine, but coming to his senses before ordering any.

“So, we have another plan then?” I asked. And over the next few minutes we managed to come up with something. Catranasia knew this Shepard fellow, and had contacts within the garrison’s underworld. With Brand, Vitus, and Caderyn keeping her company we made our way to the Crafty Bastard. Fjorlief, Drazar, and myself made sure to keep some distance though, watching out for any agents of the banking house that was attempting to call in Skuza’s debt that might be following to try and stop us from interfering.

As we began our journey to the even worse parts of the city, its inhabitants were starting to call it a night, meaning the streets were busy with folk staggering to a bed, or other location they could lie undisturbed for a few hours. Although this meant it was hard to keep track of any potential threats, it also gave us the same advantage. With Fjorlief and myself towering over the crowds we were a much more obvious target than the darkly dressed group who we needed alive and able to deal with Shepard.

The further we got into the slums of the Profinarium the more dregs we saw. The less attractive the hookers became, and the more they must have grateful for the lack of municipal lighting. Any person we bumped into could have been a thief, and I was constantly aware that all I wanted to do was to pat my purse to make sure it was there, but absolutely certain that all it would accomplish would be top signal a thief as to exactly where it was about my person.

Still, we made it there in one place, and by the Gods it was a hole that I would be unhappy even pissing into. there was no doubting which of the scumbags that festooned this place was Shepard though. he held court like the syphilitic head of a decaying once noble family. On the table in front of him was a scavling, and he was maliciously toying with it as he engaged with his lackeys. I was glad to be free to stand away from this contemptible bastard and let others speak to him, but if the negotiation I witnessed was anything to go by, I wasn’t surprised that Catranasia had to throw her lot in with Skuza.

I ordered a round of horrendous Gennova for the three of us overseeing the conversation, and did my best to let as little of it as possible pass my lips as I pretended to sip on it. Some advice dear reader if you ever find yourself having to deal with the likes of Shepard. Firstly, never admit to desperation.

This put us instantly on the back foot and gave him the opportunity to negotiate from a position of strength. Secondly, don’t tell someone like that what you’re willing to pay; let them ask and negotiate them down. Luckily it seemed that Shepard had a thing for our young trader, and was willing to help, for a price. It seemed to be understood that he would take his payment by claiming what he wanted from the back of one of the wagons, but Catranasia was quick to counter here, instead suggesting some of teh treated moss we had all taken from the cave of the dead.

Its narcotic properties were obviously of interest to Shepard, and he nodded in agreement, telling us where we were to meet our wagons that his men would ensure were taken from the enclosure. The fact that he was so sure that his men would have no problem doing this, and in fact already seemed to know which wagons were ours, granted him a smattering of my respect. Mind you, it’s also a bit worrying to know that an organised criminal could have such easy access to your possessions whenever he wanted.

The others were soon up and out, but I held our little troop back before following, just in case Shepard had dispatched a man or two of his own to keep an eye on them. Once more though, we were lefty alone and made our back to the hostel to gather what little of our gear we had left in the rooms that I had paid for. Not exactly money well spent, looking back on it, but then the purchase of the wine didn’t do us any favours either. Some of Skuza’s poor fortune must have ribbed off on me that night.

With little time to spare before our meeting, we walked towards the West Gate. We once again split into two groups the better to keep an eye out for potential danger, but were not accosted. The West Gate led out to the legion encampment, and I could practically hear Drazar’s rapid heartbeat as we closed in. On several occasions we walked past groups of soldiers, marching in unison even when in tunics rather than  armour, but thankfully they seemed more interested in drinking and women than giving us any trouble.

We had with us the young girl from the ranch, who had been unsure as to what she should do with her new found freedom, but had weighed up the odds and decided to stay with us for now, rather than risk being once again returned to servitude. She attracted some attention, but after her treatment was skinny and pale enough for it to be cursory at best, and before long we were greeted by the sight of our home on wheels with accompanying beasts.

So far, so good, with only an army to get through before we were free. Thankfully, Shepard had kept up his end of the bargain, and we were soon at the exit to the encampment, with only a couple of armed men in our way, and they were already moving back the large doors to allow us to leave.

A breathed easier as we put the city behind us, but knew that my work wasn’t over yet. “Vitus”, I called, getting his attention, “Do you know what Valerius’ half of the plan is?”

He nodded, “There is a pair of statues at the side of the road, a few miles in our direction. We are to wait there for them, giving them until twelve turnings before we move on without them”.

“Well, in that case my friends, I will see you in a few hours. My job is to protect Skuza as well as his property, and I think you lot should have no problem with a few wagons.” With that I stepped off the slow moving wagon and let them pass in the direction of the statues. No one tried to stop me, but I can only imagine that Fjorlief let me go with a heavy heart and a keen desire to me safely returned to her side. As I have said, I was a cocksure young man back in those heady days.

I had a few hours left until dawn, and then the Gods knew how long it would take Valerius to see Skuza safely from the city. I would be waiting for them though, making sure that Ser Eduardo knew that I could be trusted.

Jan 092014

As the man’s body lay slowly cooling on the ground before me all I was thinking about was getting back to my companions. I had no idea that the death of Chains was to be the start of my own storied life, or just how much more blood would be spilled by day’s end.

I was in pain, but my wits weren’t dulled, and knowing that trouble was surely following I went quickly about my business. He was a big fellow, and the fine brass arm rings he had worn could each be sported as a crown by yours truly, such was the girth of his forearms. I took them quickly, along with his iron collar and the chain that had so very nearly shattered my thigh bone. With his coin pouch tied to my belt I took to my heels, hoping to close some distance with the others before trouble closed on me.

They would surely make it to the river crossing before I did, but would have to slow down while attempting to make their way safely to the other bank. Moving at a jog I came first across Catranasia though, looking to be in deep conservation with the one named Vraag Man. This was another storied man from Thorgrim’s mob, and by the extent of his injuries, I was sure the others had given him a hell of a thrashing. His skin was waxen and pale, with the shafts of arrows protruding from an arm that looked shattered by a mighty blow. In all honesty, I was amazed he was on his feet, but it seemed to be anger keeping him upright.

As I was moving quickly I had no chance to hide my approach, and he made certain that the lady was between us. It looked like he was in the mood to avoid another confrontation, and although I was in much better shape, I was happy to pass by without combat. He wasn’t going to just let me stroll on by though, “What’s the name of your fuckin’ tree-hugger?”, he asked, growling at me in Pelo-Margo.

Seeing the arrows that had yet to be removed from his left arm, I had assumed that Valerius had shot him once or twice, but it was a pleasant surprise to know that the Dummoni had finally had some success with his own bow. For half a second I was ready to give up a different name, but in the heat of the moment that only others that came to mind were Pelosian, and I’m certain he would have seen right through that. “Caderyn”, I answered, feeling bad for surrendering a friend’s name, but my options were limited.

“Well, I want me fuckin’ hatchet back off of him. It’s mine, and I mean to have it returned to me”, he spat with the same growl in his voice. He didn’t exactly look in the best of shape to be making demands, but I was far from my best and thought it best not to challenge him. His anger was constantly bubbling up, and although I was fairly certain which of us would fall first, I was almost as certain that I would suffer another major injury before he dropped.

“And just how the hell do you expect him to get it to you? Your mad bastard of a boss is rolling his ship in the other direction to us, and I can’t imagine my man will make the long walk to give back an axe that was lobbed at him”. All fair points, I think you’ll agree, but it seems that almost all of Thorgrim’s story men were a wee bit touched in the head, and Vraag man was no exception.

“I don’t give a fuck how, but if he don’t get it back, I’ll find ‘im and rip his fuckin’ face off with me teeth”! A charming fellow and no mistake. But I didn’t doubt him, and the Margomarissi was a dangerous enough place to travel without a blood thirsty savage looking for you with revenge in mind. Especially if he was hungry.

“You know of Maidens Play”, I asked, getting a swift nod in answer, “Go there tomorrow, and your axe will be stuck in a riverside tree, that’s the best I can do. Now, what’s your play with regards to me and the lady”?

“You’re gonna walk past us first, and when I feel like you’re not gonna pull any sneaky shit, the young lady can follow”, I nodded my agreement and began walking around him and Catranasia in a wide arc, not wanting to antagonise him if I could help it.  He stalked his way around her as I moved, keeping her between us at all times until he felt comfortable. Then spoke something softly to her that I never caught, and she turned away and made to follow me. Knowing she was putting some distance between herself and the crazy sod I again broke into a jog, hearing her footsteps match my speed as we made our way onward.

*     *     *

We made good time back to the caravans, and got there as Caderyn was wading out into the deep and rapid water. Praying to some god of water swells or something, he seemed always an inch from being dragged away from us forever. His Gods obviously favoured him though, and he shouted back that he had found a secure crossing. I was happy to catch my breath as the first wagon made its way into the river, knowing that there’d be little I could offer in the way of help.

The first two passed through the swollen river without a problem, and when it came to the third, I tried to help keep the hormorn in line, but only succeeded in not making the crossing actually any harder. We were safe for a while though, and got everyone loaded into a wagon and began planning for the attack that was almost certain to fall on us. Drazar has spooked a few of the tethers earlier, and no mistake, but none of us were foolish enough to think that Thorgrim wouldn’t have plenty more cavalry at his disposal.

With that in mind, I headed towards Caderyn before we set off again. He was clearly injured and I wouldn’t like to say who had come off worse in the last confrontation, so did what I could before speaking, tracing a rune in the air in front of him, closing his wounds and cleaning the dirt from them. In his belt was a hatchet that matched one that Vraag Man still had about his person when we spoke. “There’s man that wants that back”, says I, pointing to his belt, “I’m not telling you that you need to give it back to him, but he warned he would hunt you down to get it, and I believe him. If you’d rather not worry about keeping an eye over your shoulder for the rest of your life, I’d embed it in the tree over there, and he can pick it up himself later”.

He looked thoughtful for a second, before nodding and looking towards the tree. In a swift move he slid the axe free and flung it with a grunt, forcing the blade to bite deep of the wood. It didn’t stay there long though; as we were preparing to move off, discussing our route, the Dummonii was once more praying to one or more Gods, and looked ready to offer up a sacrifice to the river. The hatchet must have caught his eye, still stained with his own blood as it was, and he made his decision quickly. It never even occurred to me to stop him as he wrenched it free, and with a final benediction, hurled it into the white frothing water.

Although Vraag man was still a threat, mounted troops were the only ones that would have a chance of catching us up in large numbers. And although the crossing might be enough to dissuade them, we weren’t going to stake even a tin coin on those odds. So we set about making caltrops from bent and fastened nails, with Brand even showing me how to make an actual bola, as I only had one more shot at bringing a beast down with a rune.

Maybe an hour had passed on the road when we found somewhere with terrain that might possibly be in our favour. We had for once decided on taking a Pelosian road for the current leg of our journey, knowing that the smoother surface and more direct route would see us quicker to our destination. Sadly it offered very poor cover, with only an occasional copse of trees and broken down viaducts to stop us from being surrounded by quicker mounted soldiers.

The weather was in our favour at least though, as a mist had descended as we worked, and had made it harder for the tether-men to spot our hastily constructed traps. As we set the wagons up to keep Skuza safe and to the rear, they rode forth from the mist. A dozen regular riders, and another man who had a very different bearing than the others. The regular cavalry held a distant position, keeping them from even a long shot with a bow, but the leader moved closer, being careful not to make himself too obvious a target. The mist failed to hide that the back four were struggling to keep their tethers under control though; it looked like a few of our caltrops had found their mark!

“Good day gentlemen, I pleasure to meet you all! I am an emissary of Thorgrim the Difficult, and I’m here to negotiate your safe passage through these lands. He has heard of your journey thus far; an inconsequential group of vagabonds transporting a paltry amount of cargo, yet today he has lost two of his story men! Whom here was responsible for the death of Haaken Chains?” I raised my arm, Baseado held aloft to answer him, smiling as I did so. We held eye contact for a moment, and to his credit he he showed no fear or intimidation. “And what about Vraag Man”?

Caderyn raised his own arm at the question, but I knew that when last I had seen Vraag Man, he was alive and about as well as could be expected. Thorgrim was certainly a bastard of the highest order, but I hadn’t expected him to have killed one of his own men just for losing a fight. Still, I would eventually learn that it does you no good at all to expect anything of that contrary sod.

“Very well done gentlemen, but I think your luck has run out, and now your only option is to try and placate my employer with an offering”. Valerius perked up at this, but he had been the least optimistic of us all when considering our chances of outrunning or out fighting whoever was at our heels. It was the only the realisation that they could circle the wagons whether we were moving or stationary – and he would be much more likely to land an arrow when not perched on the back of a rocking vehicle – that had him in agreement that we should stop to stand and fight.

“And just how much would Thorgrim want from us in exchange for free passage”, he asked, while the rest of us began sizing up our enemies, preparing for a charge.

“Very little really, when compared to your lives. Your wagons and the women should just about do it I think.”, he replied with a smirk that made me surprised he hadn’t spent a more significant proportion of his life getting punched in the face.

At the mention of women, Fjorlief was quick to retort, as she stood to her not inconsiderable height and bellowed across to him, “No man’s going to stick anything in me that won’t get cut off as he tries”!

After my fight against Haaken I was feeling pretty damned invincible, and that’s the only I excuse I have for what slipped from lip in reply, while the fancy horseman backed away from his insistence on taking the women. I looked over and made brief eye contact with the formidable woman and smiled, “I don’t know, give me a couple of drinks and I might be able to convince you otherwise”. Ah, the confidence of youth.

“I might be convinced to take just one wagon back with me, and for that you have my word that Thorgrim will not pursue you. He admires men of courage, and that might just be enough for him to forgive you the loss of two story men in one day. This is a good deal for you, and I advise you to take it.” Throughout his little speech, the cool demeanour dropped somewhat, but he still seemed confident that he was the one in control of the situation, “If you don’t give me a tribute, Thorgrim will hunt you down to the ends of Uma”!

“And doesn’t that sound like a hell of story to tell”, I shout, refusing to be bullied by him, just because he had us outnumbered with superior troops, and two of our front line fighters were badly injured.

He smiled at this, “It is that kind of bravery my Lord approves of, what are your names so that I might speak of you after you die here today”? We all gave our names, and were told his; Hetgar if I remember correctly.

Valerius seemed happy to continue the negotiations from there, while the rest of us spoke quietly amongst ourselves, planning an attack before he would have the chance to either take what was ours or organise his men to charge us down. Fjorlief and Drazar were talking animatedly about ley lines or some such, and assured me that they could scatter the horses, or just remove Hetgar as an obstacle.

He was surely another storied man was Hetgar, but after the day I’d had, I felt up to the fight, especially as this time I wouldn’t be going it alone. The tether-men would be a real problem though, so I asked them to do what they could to scatter them to the six winds. As I waited for them to work their will, I watched as Valerius drew from a wagon the mace I had taken as a trophy, and did my best to catch up on the conversation. He had talked the Hutzlunr down to half a wagon’s worth of quality goods, and the mace had helped.

Apparently Thorgrim had a soft spot for the nuns of the Grey Hospice who had been slain by Fedenzo, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the weapon without a fight. Keeping my gaze fixed on Hetgar I reached down and hefted up the mace in one hand, and smiled as I pushed it back into the wagon. Valerius looked ready to shout me down for a moment, but he must have seen something in my eyes and relented.

A second later, the tethers in the distance erupted in noise and panic, scattering about and unseating a rider or two in the confusion. Hetgar looked behind him at the disturbance, but seemed unsure of what to do at first. He had held his position at range to keep him from becoming a pin cushion, but was quickly losing the backing of his cavalry. If he still had them under his control, I imagine what follows would have turned very differently for your humble narrator.

We all stood ready to receive a charge though, and he was happy to oblige mere seconds later, going it alone. Confident as I was, I was also happy to take any extra edge available to me, and as he closed on us, I opened up another Sudden Squall. With any luck, it would unseat him, removing his advantage, and giving the rest of us a much better chance of finishing him off quickly. I needn’t have worried though.

As the wind blew away from me, the tether he was charging in on simply ceased to be. It didn’t vanish as such, just stopped being a tether, and instead became a red mist with a few thick clumps of offal floating away from it. This crimson vapour was blown backwards by the gust of wing thrown up by my rune, and left a ten yard long stain on the landscape. A few of his compatriots who had managed to keep control of their chargers saw this horrendous sight and quickly turned tail and ran.

Hetgar had carried on towards us though, his momentum unimpeded by the exploding tether – a neat little trick from the Earth Power users who were very thankful indeed that we had chosen a ley line to fight on – and he landed with a thud only yards from where I stood. With my sword point angled down like a lance I rushed towards him, Valerius shouting behind me that I shouldn’t kill him. By then there was nothing to be done to arrest my charge though, and as he looked up at me I screamed, “And that’s three, mother fucker!”, as the point of my Baseado pushed easily through the soft material of his trews and tore apart his ankle.

I’d like to think it was the last thing he heard as he passed out from the pain. He would wake some time later, stripped naked, courtesy of Valerius who had a wicked streak it seemed, knowing that on that day, three of Thorgrim’s storied men had fallen beneath the blows of our group. Hell, my face was the final thing one of them would ever see, and Hetgar would have my words ringing in his ears for just as long as he was hobbled by the injury I did him.

*     *     *

The tether-men were still a problem though, so as Valerius relieved Hetgar of his clothing, anyone with a ranged weapon loosed arrows or bolts towards those that remained. Even I joined in, making use a stockbow that we had acquired early in our journey, but hit nothing at all. Still, we kept them from regrouping, and were soon on our way. A note was left was left on Hetgar’s unconscious form, but at the time I was unable to see what was written, hopefully Valerius had a sense of humour that wouldn’t anger Thorgim too much.

With that we were away, moving the hormorn as fast as we dared after a very eventful day, and as the evening drew in, it seemed we had left our enemies behind us. Since we had stuck to more civilised roads, we were moving through worked fields, with burnt and abandoned villas dotted around. Workers and civilians were in scant supply though, as it seemed teh partisans had done their work well hereabouts.

Ahead of us was a large secured villa with enclosed grounds. It was open, and looked abandoned like so many other Pelosian structures we had come across, and would be a great place to spend the night. True enough, as was rightly pointed out, anyone who was looking for us through the night was sure to search there. But if any of Thorgrim’s people were still hunting us down, I was a lot happier to be behind some big walls, rather than huddled under a wagon.

Even from a safe distance, Drazar was able to work his magic, and it seemed the place wasn’t quite as empty as we had thought. There were a dozen or so people in there, but none of them seemed to be in great shape. Based on what we had seen so far, I was expecting to find a family of Pelosians huddled together after a partisan raid. Valerius looked to share this suspicion, so we left everyone else with the wagons and made our way there through the darkening evening.

Although he was a Doctor by trade, his skill with a bow and ability to blend into shadows meant I was sure he had also spent some time working as a scout. What I was less sure about was which side he had been paid by, but for now such concerns were easily dismissed.

As we closed on our destination, I held back. If the place was a Pelosian refuge, they would be more comfortable with one of their own walking in first. Sadly, this was not what we were faced with. Once more the Dummonii had been here, but this time some had stayed behind to get drunk on the spoils. Five or so of the bastards were getting merrily pissed on rotgut that would make a hormorn blind, and another half dozen house servants that looked happy that their masters were no longer in charge were guzzling the poison like it was going out of fashion.

They were pissed, and although there was only two of us, Valerius was happy to get into a fight this time. Maybe after seeing everyone else spending the day kicking arse and taking names he just wanted in on the action. With so much combustible liquid knocking around, he had a plan to thin their numbers and sow some discord too.

With a bit of help from some flint and steel, a fire arrow was soon arcing into the building. Rather than just going for one of several puddles made by broken bottles, it struck and shattered one held by a drunken reveler. Suffice to say, all bloody hell broke lose in short order. The serviles were quick to gather what grog they could and disappear out a back door, but the partisans were drunk and stupid enough to charge towards us.

There was only the two of us though, so I needed to slow them down somewhat. Putting on my best Pelosian accent I shouted loudly, “There’s hardly any of them! We have this door covered, come in from the back”! Three of them ran in that direction, the others shouting out how stupid they were, but another arrow shut one of them up quite fatally.

By this time Brand was making his own way towards us, having been alerted by the fire, but Caderyn was staying put. Maybe a little bit of sympathy for his country men, or he was unwilling to again risk further injury, but luckily he wasn’t needed. By later accounts it seemed that Skuza was quite keen to rush to the fore, with only Vitus’ calming voice able to keep him alive.

As the remaining Dummonii pulled themselves together and ran towards us I was once more able to use a rune to take one down, the magical cords tightening around his legs as he fell. Admittedly, he was so pissed a stiff breeze could have done the same, but any little helps.

Brand was already amongst them as they spilled out of the door. I hadn’t seen him arrive, but a second later, there he was, in the midst of the action, sword – not aflame at present – swinging with gusto, dropping partisans with ease. It was almost too easy, and it looked like fortune would favour us all that day. She is a fickle bitch though, and just as I was ready to declare this fight over and offer terms, a brute of a Dummonii exited a side door, looking more pissed off than pissed.

Brand was engaged elsewhere and Valerius with his bow had kept some distance, so it was down to me again. I didn’t want to give him time to think so hurried towards him, swinging the point of my sword round and opening up a wound on his chest before he knew what has happening. It must have hurt, but close by it was obvious he was stone cold sober and out for blood.

He drew himself close to me, hoping to reduce the effectiveness of my long sword, and thrust a curved dagger toward my already injured legs. I felt the blade bite deep, and the white hot agony as he twisted it. A simple little trick to make it easier to pull the blade free, with the added bonus of opening a bigger wound for your opponent to bleed out of.

After taking out two better men already that day, I wasn’t about to die to some piece of shit partisan though. I pulled back and pushed the point of my Baseado under his chin and with a guttural scream pressed up and back with all my strength. With hot blood on my hands he fell backwards and a went down onto one knee. With so much action that day I had one piece of luck left, and with my final healing rune closed the wound to stop any further  blood loss and looked about me.

He was the last of them. We had taken the villa.

Dec 122013

That night was a time for quiet reflection for almost all of us. Drazar was happy to talk to me, but other than a brief conversation with Brand, kept to his own company. We spoke on a few matters; he thanked me for rushing to his defense, but I was quick to point out that I would do that for anyone in our traveling party. Still having him think well of me was a good thing, I just wished that everyone else was willing to think the same way about everyone else. We still had a hell of a road ahead of us, and without knowing exactly what faced us, I was still expecting more trouble on the road and keeping everyone from each others throats was essential.

He also confirmed my suspicions that he was of half Daemon stock, and that was why he wore the mask. I thought to myself that the more sensible course of action would be to get his arse the hell away from Pelosia, but he must have his own reasons for staying so close to their border. As we spoke I tried my best to remove the wards that prevented him from entering the hospice. Using my dagger for a purpose it very much wasn’t intended for, I pried away a paint covered board from each side of the doorway, but he was still unable to make his way past the boundary. “Thank you for the effort, but the wards remain and I am not sure it would be safe for me to try to cross. If you would be so kind as to bring some food out for me?” I nodded and patted him on the shoulder as Valerius stomped his way back into the hospice.

I was still happy to avoid him so let him pass without word, but before I had even gotten to the food pot, he was stomping his way back out, carrying the helmet of Fedenzo towards the hole that him and Brand had been digging. As I was making my way from the pot, Skuza’s man Geru was making his own towards it. Usually such a thing wouldn’t even be worth drawing attention to, but he had clearly been told what had happened. “Pardon me”, he says, talking slightly louder than required and occasionally bumping into things, “for my hearing is not what it once was. Also my eyesight has deteriorated considerably this evening, so I haven’t been able to see or hear anything interesting at all for several hours now”. I smiled at his antics, making a point to speak up myself when replying and then taking the time to steer him away from tables he seemed determined to walk into to prove his sightlessness.

I was half convinced that Skuza had coached him to behave as he did, but even if he had made the decision on his own, I couldn’t rightly blame him. I wasn’t too happy about executing witnesses, but even the hour or so since the fight had ended had cooled my head down on the subject and I  was beginning to see the sense in it. I’m not sure if I would have done the deed myself, but it was getting harder to stay angry at Valerius for doing what had needed to be done.

With a nice big bowl of broth filled I made my way back outside to see them bringing the bodies down from where they had been hanged. I would have liked to have helped at this point; the poor women had done nothing to deserve what had happened to them. Valerius was taking control of the operation however, and had taken the time to seek help from the New Raphelian, but had not even spoken to me. Maybe he saw this as an act of penance for himself, or just didn’t want to be anywhere near me. Either way, I again steered clear of him.

Knowing that Drazar would be unable to pass into the hospice to sleep in a bed, I made up a fire by the wagons and sat with him as we watched the men work. As we did, Catranasia came out from within the hospice. She was wearing a rough woolen cloak, but was carrying a sack’s worth of stuff in it as she stumbled into the darkness. She had made her way to the Nun’s chambers looking for medical supplies and had apparently hit the mother lode. Caderyn had seen her too, and was quite happy to lend a hand and get all the goodies loaded into the back of a wagon. If they saw the massive mace that was in there, neither commented or drew Valerius’ attention to it in case he decided to bury that with the dead knight too. Slightly mercenary I know, but I needed a big pay day after this job, and that mace would be worth a small fortune if sold to the right buyer.

It was at this time that Drazar sat and spoke to the Yerwian. I only caught a few words here and there, but from what I could discern they were talking about things Daemonic. I wasn’t sure why Drazar had thought that Brand would know more than he did about his condition, but they spoke for some time, so I guess he knew more than he let on.

With watches set – I remember taking the time to remind everyone when they were expected to be awake and whom they were to rouse before returning to bed as a few of us would be bedding down under the stars – I made my way back outside to the wagons and the fire, and curled up beneath one of the wagons. I kept my steel inches from my hand as I slept. I wasn’t so much expecting trouble from outside, but still hadn’t quite shaken the feeling that Valerius had one more body that might might like to throw into the hastily dug grave.

*     *     *

A shout woke me some time later, but since I was still an hour or so from ready for my shift to start I wasn’t awake enough to take in what was said. I just grabbed the hilt of my Basaedo and rolled out of my blanket toward the noise.

I could just about make out the darkened shadow of Caderyn running towards the stables. It wasn’t far from where the wagons had been arranged into a crescent so I quickly made it to my feet and began to run after him. Valerius was by the door, holding onto a length of rope keeping it closed. The Dummonii had covered the ground quicker than I, so I missed the start of the conversation, but it seemed there was someone in there, and Valerius suspected it was another nun.

The furthest I had even gone into the hospice was the ground floor, but the Pelosian had apparently taken the time to explore more thoroughly and had noted more beds than hanging bodies. As the two of us were there now as back up, he let go of the door so that it could be opened and shouted into the building, “Come out now, there’s nothing to be scared of”, but the only reply was the noise of the tether kicking up a fuss. Walking slowly towards it, I raised my left hand and placed it above the beast’s snout, making soothing noises, and within a few seconds it had stilled. Turning away – with my hand still in place – I looked up to see the grubby face of a young lady leaning over the the loft space and staring down at us.

“Please, come down”, said Valerius, in the closest he seems to have to a soothing voice, “We are not your enemies, and we will not treat you as such. You must be cold and hungry, we have food and a warm fire. Tell us your story”.

It was very much as we expected. Fedenzo has arrived with injured men, and had executed the nuns after they had admitted under torture that they offered aid to the Dummonii. They hadn’t needed to be tortured to give up such information, but it seemed the knight had wanted more, and had suspected them of performing dark rituals. After who knew how long, they were dragged outside and hanged until dead. The young woman had been out of the hospice when they arrived and as such had managed to stay hidden.

I don’t know if Valerius had convinced himself that this was all still some sort of misunderstanding, but hearing it from the girl was surely the proof he needed we had done, I had done, the right thing by putting an end to Fedenzo. Either way, by the time morning broke he had seemed to have lost his bitter edge somewhat.

Before that though, I had my own watch to stand, but rather than drifting off into a half sleep like I had done in the past, I decided to spend my time on something useful. Up until a few years back I was still in possession of my early notes for the Di Gregori Distracting Refraction, but I was made an offer it made no sense to refuse. It was the first time anyone else had been taught the most important aspect of casting the rune, and my handwriting stated it, if not exactly clearly: cast & step. I kept that bit to myself for many a year as I wanted to keep the advantage if I ever faced off against someone else who had learnt it. These days though, it doesn’t make that much difference.

I had roped in Brand to help me, and equipped him with a long thin branch that he could use to swing at me. Or at least where he thought I was. I cast it several times, making sure that I was aware of the angle that the light refracted at so my own blows would hit their mark. That morning I was still far from certain, swinging wide almost as much as Brand did, but the practice was well taken. I also realised that there was a pleasing side effect.

The rune was supposed to centre on me, creating an oval disk slightly bigger than a tower shield that would turn the light away, making it appear as though I had moved, hopefully causing an enemy to strike at empty air while I attacked from a position of surprise. Because I had centered it on myself though, on my aura apparently, it had fully encircled me.

This would mean that even people standing behind me would think I was standing where no one was, giving me even better protection. The practice casting ate up most of our watch, but still allowed Brand the time to prepare for his morning rituals. By now, we were all used to the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but we had an extra body with us, and Valerius was tasked with calming the poor thing down after her sleep was so rudely interrupted.

After breakfast we began getting the beasts of burden ready for another day’s travel, and I was more than happy to help. Geru did his best, but whenever he noticed anyone watching him, would be sure to stumble and occasionally take the time to walk into something he could plainly see. I don’t hold it against him that he was worried we’d kill him in his sleep, but it was taking up valuable time.

Skuza seemed like even he had hurried that morning. He had clearly not taken the time to bathe or even shave himself before we made our way out of the hospice. He looked more ill than I had ever seen him, and not the coughs of shakes of a nobleman away from his home comforts, but like he was actually sick. His skin was grey, and the eyes sunk into his face in dark pools. He walked slowly, with Vitus on his arm and a thick looking winter cloak wrapped tightly around him in spite of the already warm morning.

His wagon master seemed like the night’s sleep and some time to reflect on the previous evening’s action had been just what he needed. He wasn’t exactly ready to smile and offer us a drink, but he said a lot without ever opening his mouth by nodding to each of us as he led Skuza to the relative safety of his carriage. Maybe not an acceptance of what had happened, but at least an understanding of its necessity.

With everything squared away we were good to go, but there was still the matter of the young girl and the remaining injured soldiers. She seemed happy to stick around and try to offer help to those who needed it. Hopefully she would be able to survive without all the medicine that Catranasia had stolen, and with Pelo on her side, anything was possible. It seemed that his blessing hadn’t extended to the men though, as most had passed during the night. Of the few that remained, the old chap who lost his eyes seemed happy to stay too, to help administer to the fallen and maybe even don the grey cloaks of this order. Good luck to them, thinks I, but I was pleased to put the damned place behind me.

*     *     *

The air was so warm that morning that the muddy ground around us was steaming as the water evaporated. The track was rutted and uneven, and on occasion Caderyn and I had to slow our pace for the wagons as we trekked back the way we came to the fork in road before making our way to Maidens Play. The water vapour rising from the ground quickly mixed with the thickening fog, and before long we were lucky to see more than a dozen or so yards ahead of us. It carried on this way for a while, until we started to close in on the swollen river.

What we saw cutting slowly through the mist was enough to defy belief at first. The carved wooden figurehead of a ship appeared to making its way slowly along the road some distance away from us.

As the mists parted, we saw the whole picture, ship and all. The entire thing was lifted off the ground on four gargantuan wheels, and pulled along by a small army of slaves to the beat of a deep drum. Something so crazy, so audacious, would have taken a particular kind of mind to envisage. There were few people in these parts stupid or stubborn enough to attempt such a thing, and one name was coming to my mind above all others, but I hoped I was wrong.

Thorgrim the Difficult“, says Caderyn who had stopped at my side to take in the spectacle, and had similar thoughts to my own.

“Shit”, I agreed, “Thorgrim the bastarding Difficult. If that is him, and who the hell else could it be, we have no chance in a fight. Do we run for it, or try and make an offering”? Caderyn paused to think about this, his eyes locked on the unusual sight ahead of us. In a few seconds we had both come to the same conclusion. The knight’s huge mace was still in the back of one of the wagons, and might make a worthy offering. Of course I’d heard the stories about his usual weapon of choice.

He had once had three brothers, and they had all distrusted one another, possible down to the traditional Hutzlunr viewpoint with regard to families. Thorgrim was the biggest bastard of the lot of them though, and so had arranged for them all to be executed. Before that he had a Vytch – one of his several wives by all account – tear their souls from their bodies and had them bound to his Hutzaxe.

He spoke to it too, asked its council no less. Hell, there were even stories that he’d left the damned thing in charge of his army when he had other business. Crazy men are notoriously tricky to deal with, and this one was a head above even the worst that the Margomarissi had to offer.

Our decision was made for us though, as we could see a few tether and even a couple of chariots heading towards us at speed. They didn’t look like they were wanting a quiet chat about the weather, but luckily they were coming from a direction we could move away from and still make it to the river crossing at Maidens Play. If we were fast enough and had a good deal of luck.

As Caderyn and I ran back to the wagons and jumped up to grab some ropes to keep us in place, Fjorlief was on the ground, communing with nature to make the hormorn run like greased shit. They got moving quickly, and then Skuza’s carriage rattled up to speed following it, and Catranasia did her best to catch up, with me gripping tight to the rear wagon, trying to keep the animals focused best I could.

We weren’t far from the crossing by this point, but even with Earth Power coursing through them, the beasts were never going to outrun the tethers or the chariots. the best we could hope for was an easy run and that one of them might lose a wheel or throw a rider. They were already closing the distance though, and there was little we could do but hope.

Apart from Drazar that was. With his own Earth Power he could do something, but he would need to be on the ground. The thought had obviously occurred to him as he dropped from the wagon, probably grinning behind his mask, and landed without seeming to hurt himself too much, then quickly shrunk away in the distance as we moved on.

The ground was still harsh as we bounced our way along the road. The speed and rough terrain was surely causing some damage to our wagons, and I could only imagine the colours and quantity of vomit that must already have been covering the inside of the Boss’s carriage. I could see Valerius climbing on top of it though with his bow in hand and already strung. He must have thought he could at least get a shot off, and Caderyn wasn’t to be outdone by the Pelosian with a Dummonii bow, and was clambering with a lot less grace onto the top of the first wagon.

Behind us we could hear cursing in the Hutzlunr tongue, and see the tethers start to pull away from the chase as their riders berated them loudly. This was the half-Daemon doing what he could to help, and he wasn’t done yet. A few moments later one of the chariots had flipped over, crushing the two beasts pulling it and almost certainly crippling the driver. The other chariot wasn’t slowing down though and at least one more tether was still closing.

The men who rode with and fought alongside Thorgrim were all storied men. It might seem like a strange concept to you if the most excitement you get is a giddy little thrill at the casino once a mune, but for people who live to kill, their name is very important, and how people think about them, even more so. So to ride with Thorgrim, you needed a name with a story attached to it, a reason why people called you thus. And these stories were always bloody, always brutal, and usually true. If even the couple of them still heading our way made it and managed to climb onto a wagon, engaging us one on one, our blood would join the rain and mist, making mud of the road.

Drazar had given me an idea to even the score somewhat though, so I acted quickly, without thinking too far ahead. The two bowmen were in position, and the Pelosian was already drawing the string back, an arrow knocked and pointed at the man on the tether. That just left the other chariot, and I could do something about that. The range of my runic attacks were tiny though, and if I waited for them to close to within it and missed, the chariot would already be upon us. So I braced myself, and let go of the rope, keeping my Basaedo away from my body as I dropped and rolled clear of the wagon’s wheels and the stamping feet of the tether.

I turned and saw over my shoulder the look of confusion on Caderyn’s face. I had no Earth Power so no reason to be on the ground, and I imagine he would have been happier if the other trained swordsman was still around if the archers failed to bring down the fucker swinging a hatchet who was now very close indeed to the rear wagon.

No, I had no Earth Power, but if I wanted to be useful, I needed to be close to the animals pulling the chariot. I had one rune learnt that could bring down one of them, and after watching Drazar at work, I knew that would be enough to halt the entire thing. I moved away from the middle of the road and waited, the shape already formed in my head that I would need to carve into the air in front of me.

As it thundered towards me I got my first look at the driver. He was wearing a loose looking mail shirt and padded armour elsewhere, which gave me some hope.The Basaedo is a thrusting weapon, and the point could easily punch through the mail and into his flesh.

The rest of him gave me a moments pause; his face looked disfigured, but not from any scars. It was lumped and swollen in places, and just looked wrong. I would find out later why this was, and why my steel didn’t cut through him as easy as it should if he was only wearing loose mail armour.

The Hutzlunr Vytches brew magic potions for their men. These make them bigger and stronger, berserk and immune to pain. They also often disfigure them, and toughen the malformed skin, turning it into a form of natural armour. And he was smiling.

He had seen me, but then I wasn’t really hiding, and was angling the chariot to run me down, seemingly not caring that I was holding my ground rather than ducking into the undergrowth as he flicked the reins to increase his speed. I was happy to keep eye contact with the ugly grinning sod as my fingers formed the curved rune and I threw the phantom rope forward towards the front legs of the beast on the right. All I could do was hope that it was so fixated on keeping up its speed that it would be unable to move away from the entangling cords.

As I felt the rope make contact I kept my eyes locked on Smiler and pulled my fist back in one swift movement, tightening the rope and bringing both legs together in an instant. It fell forward as its back legs crashed into its front, and the other creature wheeled around, centered on the fulcrum that was the chariot’s yoke as they both crashed into the ground. And of course, Smiler had just sped them up hoping to crush me beneath their talonned feet and the momentum drove the chariot over them both, flinging him up and forward, smashing him into the road with a thud.

I had managed to avoid the flying vehicle, but Smiler had some luck all of his own and had managed survived the crash. He was already getting to his feet, be it slowly and gently. I don’t doubt that I could have just ran back to the wagons and left him to walk back as a failure to Thorgrim the Difficult, but Smiler had pissed me off. I walked towards him, and thrust my steel hard into his leg, hoping to keep him on the ground and retain the advantage.

The Basaedo went through the armour easily, but his toughened skin stopped it from dealing as much as damage as I would have liked. This was going to be a real fight, I thought, as he drew himself up to his full height in front of me, the movement pulling the tip of my steel free, letting blood run from the wound.

As all this was going on, the rest of the caravan weren’t doing much better. The hatchet-man was damned hard to pin with arrows, and only a couple even came close. He had managed to jump from the tether to the rear wagon by now, and by all accounts had done so with ease and style. Like I said, storied men are not to be trifled with.

While the archers carried on trying to bring him down, he had jumped onto the seat and kicked Catranasia to the dirt. She was damned lucky to avoid a serious injury, but also to find Drazar. He had somehow managed to catch up with the wagons – Earth Power no doubt – but could do little else from where he was. No, it was Vitus who saved the day on that wagon, with some help from Valerius.

He jumped off his own quickly moving tether and managed to land next to Hatchet-man and remove him as a threat. By this point he had a couple of arrow shafts in his left arm courtesy of Valerius, so all it took was a couple of solid blows from the caravan master, and down he went, shouting his hatred of archers as he fell.

That just left me and Smiler. He had pulled a length of chain from around his waist and was swinging it in tight circles as he came for me. It was lucky that I had my dagger in hand as it was, but he was too quick, and before I knew what was happening he had whipped the chain out towards my legs and the blow landed hard. Staggering backwards I just about managed to keep my feet and returned the blow as quick as I dared. I wanted to end this quickly, but after his first strike I knew I couldn’t live through many more so had to fight carefully.

I wished I had put more time into the new rune, but even casting something simple could have given him an opening here, so I just aimed low and went in again, trying for the already wounded leg. This time I felt the blow strike deep and he cried out and stepped backwards, pulling himself away from my steel. Turning my stance I readied for his counter, but the crash must have taken more of a toll than it seemed and he took two more steps backwards before falling comically onto his arse into the mud. He sat there for a second, that damned smile back on his lips as the air left his lungs for the last time.

My legs were bruised and shaking as he fell all the way back, and I knew I was in no fit state to run to catch up with the wagons. Hopefully Smiler had something about his person that would make the delay worth while.

Dec 072013

Killing a worthy opponent doesn’t usually bother me. By this time in my life I have realised how little it matters to keep score, but in my youth I would often take pride in such things. Strangely, even though the body at my feet had been skilled fighter and would have been a sore test of my skills had I been alone, I felt a little melancholic. Although Daggerbills are said to posses a keen animal intelligence, they still do what they are trained to do, and that makes them – like all pets – little more than slaves. There’s nothing to be gained from killing such a creature, and I wish – even to this day – that we had acted differently.

There were other concerns at the time though, and finding out why we had to kill the Daggerbill was one of them.  Laying dead a few paces back was our answer. The man looked to be a scout, and after going through his things, there was little doubt he was either that or a smuggler. He had a tent designed to kept hidden throughout the year, and in various locales, and carried on him clothing that would allow him to pass for either a Dummonii or a Pelosian. It looked like he had failed to convince at least one side though, as he had died slowly from several wounds. It was hard to say for sure if they were caused by the dirks of the Partisans, or the sword shorts favoured by the Pelosian Legions, but he had died slowly from a wound that had cut deep.

It looked like he had lain there dying for some time, and had finally passed a day or so before we came across him. His pet was obviously loyal, and had stayed to defend its master even when there was no saving him. I don’t know if the Gods look kindly on animals and birds, but I would like to think that they would make a special case for this one. We found a name tag on it as we were searching for anything of value, and finding out it was named “Daffy” didn’t help my mood at all, but at least I had a name for it if ever I had the chance to offer up a prayer.

Valerius was quick to take everything he could see of use or that would be worth more than a copper or two. I don’t know if he was also a book keeper in his real life, or if it was just in Pelosian nature to organise and record everything, but he was always the first to take on such a role, writing stick in hand, cataloging what we were taking while the rest of us packed it away. Most of it would be worth a little bit, adding maybe a few coins each to our share if we could find a buyer, but he did have one item of significant value on him. A leather bracer with an engraved coin fitted in place so it would sit over the inner wrist.

I had seen such items before, and was impressed that the scout had been able to afford one. At first I thought it was worth little though, as the wax seal that protects the rune was already broken. In the fight for his life he must have been desperate, and summoned forth the rune engraved there; Faranol’s Most Excellent Testudo as I remembered. It would have brought forth a magical shield centered on the bracer to help him defend himself. It had obviously been either too little or too late, and I was ready to throw it into the pile of assorted goods. I’m glad I took the time to pay a bit more attention though. There was still wax around the coin, and turning it over I saw that the clever little man had made sure both sides were engrave with the same rune.

Having one use left made it worth at least a couple of hundred coins, if we could find someone to pay for it, so I drew Valerius’ attention to the item, explaining what it was and how it was used. I don’t know if I expected him to impressed by the object, but he barely raised his head from his book keeping as I spoke.

With the fog still hanging heavy in the air, it seemed like night was almost upon us already. We were still some hours from the river crossing though, so made what ground we could before night fully enveloped us. The road we were on was clearly well used, and as we made our way through the early dusk, the signs of other travelers became more obvious. Littering the ground on either side of the road were discarded water skins and food waste. The path was rutted and muddy, with boot prints still in evidence all around us. If you’re reading this from the comfort of your family home, a home you have little reason to leave, you might wonder why this set my nerves so on edge.

That far away from civilisation, there’s no one you should trust. At any point we could have come across a detachment of Pelosian soldiers, and we’d be almost as likely to have our lives threatened as we did by the Partisans the day before. Only Skuza and Valerius would have a chance of keeping our skins safe if that happened, and it was far from certain they’d be able to do so easily. Even without the soldiers on either side, there would still be bandits to deal with on the roads. With the war wrapping up for the winter, they would be out in force, preying on anyone left behind, taking what they could by force or deceit.

Eventually the light vanished from the world though, and with no other option we made camp just off the road, and had to hope for the best. Caderyn was still suffering after his wrestle with the Corbie and was in no fit state to bring down fresh game for our evening meal. Daffy had one last purpose though, and we ate well from his flesh. Hard to imagine that I had lamented his passing only hours previous, and there I was licking the grease from my fingers as I tore the skin from his thighs with my teeth. A good bird to the end.

*     *     *

We slept well that night, and I had taken the time remind everyone not familiar with the activities of the New Raphelian people what would happen at dawn. I was once again awake after my watch and was amazed how Brand was able to know when the sun rose, as the mist was even thicker today. It seemed like people were finally getting used to the hollering and waling from him, as even Skuza had little to say about it over breakfast. “Really Valerius, every morning?” was all he had to say as the doctor nodded his head resignedly.

His resolve was obviously shaken though, as his desire to “rough it” with the men had vanished that morning, replaced with an overwhelming desire to have a warm bath. I knew how long it would take his poor manservant to drag the bloody thing into place, fill it with water and heat it all too, and was ready to convince him against such foolishness. Brand was quicker than I that morning though, and was able to talk him round. “My lord”, I seem to recall him saying, “You should wait until we have completed the day’s travel. You will be hot and dirty after our journey, and will only need to bathe again, so why not wait”? he looked doubtful, but the forlorn expression on his man’s face seemed to have done the job.

“Very well, for this morning just a thorough wash should suffice”, he says, looking slightly crestfallen. “And a shave mind you, must maintain a certain standard, no matter where one lays one’s head.” I did feel sorry for his man, and I had helped carry that gods forsaken bath myself, but I felt the need for a little flourish, and since I had a couple of the runes prepared, I used the Wash-maiden to freshen myself and my clothes up while the water was heated for Skuza. As the old man set about sharpening Skuza’s pearl handled straight razor, I noticed the edge on my own wasn’t up to the task. Rather than spend the time, or ask the old fellow to do it for me – I’m sure Skuza would have insisted had I asked – I set about it with another rune.

Over kill for certain; the rune used was designed for combat, to put a murderous edge or point on a blade so that it cuts through armour and skin like they were butter. Still, a clean shaved cheek was in order, and I’m sure I wouldn’t regret showing off later.

The mist again was our constant companion as we trudged through the grey light of the morning, seeing all around us the detritus of passing traffic and soon enough the signs of a recent and bloody battle. Bodies were littering the ground around us and as we moved further into their still and silent ranks, living people could be spied amongst them. Scavengers and ghouls, looking thin and wan as they scurried around, pulling scraps of clothes from remained of the bodies. It looked like anything of value had long since been claimed, perhaps by stronger more able bodied sorts than this sorry lot. They were determined though, and as we passed through them, their ranks began to thicken.

We must have looked like rich pickings indeed, when the best they could have hoped for until now was a set of teeth without too much rot, and maybe a ring ripped from the gut of a man who had swallowed it to keep it safe. The bloody and ragged masses were eyeing us hungrily as we made our way through the open air charnel house that the war had left behind. I was loath to advertise our wealth any more than I had to, but they also needed to know what would happen if they were foolish enough to try and rush us, so I drew my Basaedo as I walked forward. In no time at all, there were dozens, with dozens more in reserve, and they knew they had us outnumbered. I was eyeing the crowd looking out for ringleaders and bravos, but for now they seemed content to keep enough distance from us so they couldn’t feel the sting of a weapon.

I was feeling nervous, but doing my best to stay calm, or at least look it. If the horde thought they had us spooked, they could just about muster the courage to swamp us. I glanced to my left to see how Caderyn was fairing, and if I looked anything like as spooked as him, we were sure to be overrun in moments. Spitting onto the ground near one of the vagrants, I did my best to look imposing, hoping my not inconsiderable height might make up for the nerves that were almost certainly showing all over my face by now.

Valerius must have been aware of our predicament too, as the next time I glanced to our rear he had climbed onto the top of his wagon, and was stringing his bow. “Don’t worry about them, they’re just scavengers. They’re weak”, came Caderyn’s voice as we walked, and I just wished he looked as confident as he sounded. We were approaching a large ruck of them, and they edged closer as we moved forwards. I strengthened my grip on my steel as the Dummonii brought his shield up, looking ready to smash it into the face of anyone who came too close. “Stay away from this caravan”, he shouted, “you don’t want to end up like these poor bastards, yer innards getting picked through at the side of the road”!

A high pitched voice, screeching almost to the point of breaking came back at us, “Many have made such threats, Partisan, and they lay around you still. You’re not the ones to stop us”! In the midst of all the blood and ichor, it took a moment to work out where the call had come from, but twenty or so yards away a woman was on her knees, bloody up to her shoulders, one hand deep up the guts of a fallen warrior. Her other hand was dripping blackened blood from an organ she had torn from the man, and as she finished her cry she threw it towards us. With a dull wet noise it struck the side of Skuza’s carriage, and left a dark trail as it slid quickly into the dirt.

“Then try my words, hag! Step forward and find see if you have the stomach for killing, rather than harvesting from those already dead”, came his reply. The woman held her ground, but refused to drop her gaze. Any second now – I think – and the crowd will lose control. But they held back as we moved onward, Valerius an imposing figure from his perch, and Brand’s cold eyes keeping them back when our words weren’t enough. Ahead of us and a way off the road, even more scavengers could be seen.

These weren’t random people looking for a few hard earned coins though, but more likely the stronger of them that had claimed their prizes early, and were now sharing in the pleasure of having money to spend and gamble. Once again it seemed like the night was coming down early due to the damnable mist, and they had already lit fires to dance and fuck around. More of them were playing games, either of sport or to gamble on, with cat calls and jeers, accusations of cheating joining in the sound of dice rolling and the turn of a card. Children ran amongst them, playing games their own, and if you didn’t look too closely at what they were using as ‘balls’ in their games, it could almost be jolly.

Skuza seemed like he had something to prove after getting his home pelted with human organs, and the fact that they were some distance away did wonders for his courage. He was out of his carriage and drawing his sword as we went past them, insisting that something be done to put a stop to the ungodly way they were desecrating the dead. I didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact they were treating the corpses of both sides with the same lack of respect, but it was unnecessary anyway. His health was a constant vexation for him, but once again had saved us from his caterwauling as he struggled for both breath and balance before losing to both and falling silently down. Thankfully the scavengers were more concerned with their own merriment than claiming us as an extra prize, and as the minutes passed we left them behind.

The bodies laying all around became fewer as we moved away from the worst of the fighting that this nameless field had seen, and that meant less vagrants to threaten our safety. Without knowing exactly when, it seemed like we had made our way into what was once a village of some kind. The buildings were even less complete than the ones we had passed through recently, but I was still on edge. Luckily the lack of walls gave us plenty on opportunity to check them out for ambushes before we got too close. Eventually we came to a fork in the road, and Vitus was quick to call us to a halt so we could choose our best course.

Caderyn was keen on heading left towards Maiden’s Play and the river crossing he knew of, but Vitus wasn’t happy about attempting a crossing at night with so many animals and so few trained handlers. I voiced my agreement, and when Vitus offered another option I was even more vocal. Down the right hand path there was a hostel, a place of healing where anyone was welcome, be they Partisan or Pelosian, Or neither, as I so happened to be. We could have a night sleeping indoors, although they may have been left open all night, as was the way of these nuns. We could eat while sat around a table, and Skuza could bugger off to a Numare only private room for his bath so none of the rest of us would have to worry about his vanity shield falling over in a stiff breeze. I think Caderyn would have been prepared to try for the crossing rather than hang out with a bunch of Pelosian holy women, but everyone else was in agreement, and so we turned the hormorn right and set of to the hostel.

*     *     *

It was a couple of hours later that we saw the lights ahead of us, and I remember smiling to myself in anticipation. It was a large building, with huge lumber logs driven into the ground to create a hell of wall. The outer doors were, as we expected, open to all who would seek refuge. Closing in though, the smile dropped from all of our faces.

There were figures in the doorway, six of them. One was stood, ready to welcome us into the hostel, but the others hung from the wooden beams that crossed the top of the entrance way. From the clothes that were stuck to their slight frames with drying blood, I suspected they were the nuns. Our gracious host had kept the torches burning, so even from a fair distance we could see that they had been subjected to many wounds before being hanged. “Greetings”, he yelled, his voice sounding strange coming from within a large and ornate metal helm. “Welcome to this place of safety”!

His entire body was encased in metal. It was the first time in my life I had seen anyone wearing a full set of Pelo’s Plate, and to this day it still inspires a certain kind of awe. He was a short man, and stockily built, and as we drew closer I could see several ribbons of parchment hanging from his armour. At the time I had no idea what was the point of this ornamentation, but I have since discovered they were prayers and blessings, each commemorating a battle or engagement the soldier had fought in. The amount he had draped about his frame meant he was certainly a champion of high regard, but his voice didn’t seem to match his appearance.

True enough, his voice was certainly affected by the full helm he wore, but even so, it sounded too young for one so highly decorated. I know that most armies are happy to recruit from the young and impressionable, but they must have grabbed this one from his mother’s teat if he had been campaigning long enough to have so many laurels and still sound like a boy dressed in his father’s best. The voice notwithstanding, we had all slowed down as we approached. Hanging nuns are enough to give even paid killers a moments pause, especially when the bugger that almost certainly strung them up is welcoming you in, seemingly unaware of their presence.

With one hand on the grip of an eight flanged mace, easily big enough to give the Hutzlunr something to think about, he gestured again for us to come in, “please weary travelers, enter and enjoy what little hospitality we have to spare. All are welcome here, except those who practice dark and forbidden rituals that shame Pelo’s grace.” He was obviously crazy, but he just as obviously had a pretty fatal case of religion too. Over the few days of the journey so far, I had thought Skuza a little too pious for comfort, but he was nothing compared to the holy warriors of the Mazarantiom.

Those forbidden rituals he talked of could be the only reason he had strung the nuns up by the necks after torturing them. I very much wanted to not enter the place he had made his own, but to back away now would have looked suspicious to him, and at the time I had no reason to think he wasn’t alone. Behind him I could see several bodies on the floor of the courtyard, and for all I knew he could have dispatched them all, or had a dozen friends tending to the wounded, all armoured like himself. “My friends, there is no reason to be afraid to enter. Only those traitorous to the way of Pelo would turn away from his light which is offered within. You are not such traitors are you?” The voice, while still sounding younger than it should, now had an edge of steel to it. Iron can be hardened to steel in many ways, but craziness does a damned fine job.

What option did I have? I sheathed my steel and stepped forward with a smile. Caderyn looked worried, and ready to kill. “What the hell’s going on here”, he asked in Dummonii, hoping the crazy bastard hadn’t learned his tongue. With only a couple of dozen strides until we would be face to face with the man in the shiny armour, I had to keep my voice down.

“I think that the bastard in the metal has some damned strange ideas about what constitutes a sin, and has acted against these women in the manner you see before you. He should give us passage as long as we act like Skuza’s men , so for now play the good little slave, and we might see the morning”. He looked at me askance, and I realised I had used the Raphelian word for slave. I had no idea how to get across to him what I meant, so just nodded towards Brand and hoped he could figure it out. By then we were a few paces away so I bowed deeply to the man in charge. “Good evening my lord”, said I, “We were unsure if you had room for us, I can see behind you that many injured are currently in residence within these illustrious walls”.

“Worry not weary travelers, these doors remain always open, and welcoming to any who need aid. Please, enter and take your rest”. I walked past him with Caderyn and was glad to put as many paces as possible between me and him. How he could see so happy, with blood from his victims dripping inches from his shiny plate; it just made me want to punch him, and never stop. Behind me I could hear Valerius question the knight, asking about officers and detachments, but it seemed that no one was in charge here but the crazy bastard. At least he had introduced himself, now that he was talking to another Pelosian. His name was Ser Castus Fedenzo, and there was only him and his squire who were better off than the nearly dead bodies of soldiers that littered the hostel courtyard.

We saw his squire shortly after that, walking amongst the bodies, administering aid where he could. Slattero was his name, and he looked tired to the point of falling over, but still managed to smile when he saw us. “Welcome travelers, I wish I had more to offer you, but I have many patients, and scant resources as it is”. Looking about I realised that my estimates on the number of casualties was well short of the truth, dozens upon dozens of men laid about, and I wouldn’t want to bet more than a copper or two that any two of them would live to see the sunrise. The squire was quick to walk from us to see to a wounded man who had just begun screaming in agony, giving me the chance to speak to those of us still with the caravans.

“If we sleep here tonight, sleep with a weapon close to hand, and try and stay close to each other”, I begun in Pelo-Margo, “This bastard is crazy, and I have no idea what he’ll do. I do know that while he’s in that armour he could kill any one of us easy as breathing, and I’m not sure if all of us together could take him down without him taking one of us with him.” Caderyn didn’t look convinced though and was looking towards the exit.

“I don’t want to be here for a night, not with that prick. I could get out of here, stay somewhere safer until morning”. I’m sure he thought he was making a sensible move, but when dealing with crazy, sensible doesn’t always make sense.

“He’ll take that as an insult at the very least, and at worst he’ll imagine you have something to hide of an heretic nature. He will ask us what that is, and torture us to find out. Right now, with the way Skuza has been about Pelo’s way, I’m not sure if he would even put up much of a fuss about one of us being at the mercy of that prick. You’ll put us all at danger if you leave, just try and stay out of his way, this is a big enough place and we can sleep with the wagons.” I put on my most earnest face as I spoke, and thankfully my words got through to him. He nodded to me before checking again that his axe and shield were ready to be used if needed and walked back into the shadows of the wagons that were being arranged in a crescent formation. Fjorlief looked just as doubtful, and I tried my best to reassure her. “Just play nice, and when in doubt, smile and bow. It seems he doesn’t speak anything other than Pelosian, so he might not even bother trying to convert you. Me on the other hand…” I smiled and turned away to make sure everyone else was prepared for the worst.

From the large central building I could hear the high pitched tones of our far from gracious host inviting us all in for a meal. I wandered over to see the Pelosians stood near the doorway. Said doorway was surrounded by symbols daubed onto the wood in white paint, as were all the windows. My training in the complex arts of Daemonology was nonexistent and still is, but the Pelosian’s anti-Daemonic fervour left me in no doubt that Fedenzo had painted them there to keep out any sign of Daemonic taint. At the time I had no idea just how much this would be a problem for some of our party, but I had my suspicions about Drazar that would soon be confirmed.

I had no such problems, and was very happy to play nice with the crazy murdering fucker, so walked towards him with a smile all over my face, and dropped into my best Pelosian, “Why thank you kind host. I know these ladies and gentlemen would be happy to join you, but some of our party have other duties”. Drazar was staying clear for one, and Caderyn looked like he was happy to stay with the wagons. “Once they have finished they will probably just eat some rations and sleep under the stars, as is their way”. He looked happy to have myself and Fjorlief join them, but was insistent that the others also sit together and eat; some kind of Pelosian matter about treating your guests well, but at the time I just put it down to all the crazy.

Skuza was in his element, offering food to his man before he had anything himself, and then talking to Fedenzo about Pelo and all that is holy. Fjorlief caught none of it, but the knight was looking towards her and asked if we had yet to take our rightful place on the path of Pelo’s way. I had to translate for her, but did my best to deflect the question, “We are all in the process of being educated by our noble employer, my lord Skuza”. Of course he was quick to take the praise, but Fedenzo was just as quick to question his training in such matters.

“Ah, of course. One does one’s humble best, ah, but I think I’m making some substantial headway, in matters of the, ah, spiritual”, he mumbled away, obviously nervous in the face of such religious fervour. By now the knight had taken his helmet off, and his face looked just as young as the voice that issued from it. Playing nice seemed to have worked though as he did seem to be at his ease with us. After we had all eaten, Skuza was quick to take his leave and go and enjoy a bath, but our host offered the facilities to our female companions first. Once again I had to translate, but made sure to include a warning, and that if there was any trouble that Fjorlief was to stamp hard onto the floor three times to let us know. As they walked through the door to the upper floor, Fedenzo placed his prodigious mace against the door to keep the men folk from disturbing them and went out to see if the rest of our group was yet ready to join us for an evening meal.

*     *     *

For several years prior to this venture I allowed myself to get into all manner of trouble by acting before I thought about the consequences. Watching the Knight stride purposefully towards the doorway I began thinking about what could go wrong if I was correct in any way about Drazar’s true nature. I couldn’t follow the conversation, but I saw over his shoulder that Drazar was at least engaging with him. The masked man was walking towards the door, but slowly. Fedenzo’s back was to me, but I imagined his eyes fixed on Drazar, following his every pace as they slowed down the closer he got to the door and its painted sigils. My breathing had all but stopped as he came to a halt a pace or two from the door, then reversed his course, stepping backwards away from the knight. Shit.

I exhaled slowly as Fedenzo turned to face back into the building and began walking with a purpose towards the large mace he had left blocking access to the upper floor. All my thoughts about what could go wrong, what could go right, who would get hurt, who could die; they vanished and I found myself striding towards him, aiming to stop him before he had a chance to grab his weapon. He had taken his helmet off, which gave me a small chance, but my dagger would be next to useless in parrying the eight flanged mace he had his eyes set on. As I closed the distance, I knew I wouldn’t have long to put a stop to this, “Please, you don’t want to do this”, I said, with quiet resolve.

“He refuses to pass the wards. Either he’s barred from entering because of them, or he fears to try. It is my duty to question him, and I intend to do that very thing”. He had stopped short at my approach, and given me an opportunity; I could either leave him to his delusion that would give him cause to torture and kill poor Drazar, or I could try and stop him. Words weren’t going to be enough though, it is often impossible to reason with those who have eschewed it in favour of religion. Violence was my only option, but I had a few other tricks up my sleeve before we would have to exchange blows. With a swift movement that he clearly wasn’t expecting I had inscribed Lisanna’s Sudden Squall onto the air in font of me while drawing my Baseado with my right hand.

Even behind the rune hanging in the air in front of me I could feel the draft of air being sucked forward to blow away from me with the force of a gale. Fedenzo looked ready to resist, but the weight of his armour threw him off balance and he toppled to the ground in front of my, sliding a few yards away as the wind increased. I had the advantage, but couldn’t press it just yet. Walking forward even a pace would take me passed the rune I had traced in the air, and would see me caught in the squall as well. That would be a neophyte error, and one I wasn’t about to make. Caderyn it seemed wasn’t aware that the air was still moving with the speed and force of small hurricane, and with a cry of “For Branoc!” he charged towards the fallen knight with his axe held high. I knew it was going to happen, but there was no way I could have warned him in time, and he fell forward, slipping over the ground too, joining Fedenzo in a heap on the floor. Whoever this Branoc was, he obviously didn’t favour those who charger headlong into magical gales.

With only a few seconds left before he would try and regain his footing I had to keep my advantage. Remembering that two more of our party were upstairs I first called for reinforcements. I had told Fjorlief what to do if she needed help, and hoped she would understand that I was in need myself as I shouted “Three!”, and lifted my left hand towards the blade of my steel, preparing to put a wicked edge on it with a rune reserved for this very kind of situation.

Damnation! I had cast that rune earlier in the day just to sharpen a razor and impress Skuza!

I wasn’t out of tricks yet though, and the wind would take a few more seconds to die down. Pelanore’s Bumbling Befuddlement would have to do. It was a subtle rune, and there was no real way of knowing it had worked, unless the victim just flat out fell on his arse, but I had to try it. Helmet or not, I needed every edge I could get. Encased in his armour as he was I thought back to my schooling as i prepared to strike him, the rune glowing faintly as it was cast. “Aim for armpits, the throat or the belly. All armour has weak points, and if the wearer needs to move a limb that’s where you can slide a blade. Unless the bastard’s wearing Pelo’s plate though, then you’re fucked young ser”. All wise words indeed.

And here I was, stood in front of a man who was getting back to his feet wearing a well decorated set of Pelo’s bastarding plate. Caderyn was regaining his footing too, as the air whipped past them both, and I could hear from behind me the crashing of large and hurried footsteps coming down the stairs. “Cease this foolishness, NOW!”, came a cry from behind me. Valerius, I had guessed, without turning my back on my opponent for even for a second. At least he seemed on our side, hoping his voice would calm down Fedenzo where mine had failed.

Sadly it didn’t seem to have worked as he was striding confidently towards me, probably hoping to brush me aside as he went for his mace. I struck out quickly, hoping to convince him otherwise, but if the rune had taken affect, he was still in possession of his fighter’s instincts, and managed to turn his head away at the last second. The Dummonii had more luck than me though. Striking from behind, his axe glanced off the knight’s head, opening a bright red wound that barely seemed to slow him down. Rushing past me and into the fray at that point was a tall, wet and naked Hutzlunr women, screaming bloody murder and armed with the two handed sword she had reclaimed for a fallen enemy. Damn, thinks I, somewhat inappropriately, that’s a fine looking woman, and built to my kind of scale.

She charged towards Fedenzo and swung at him, the impact so solid I could feel it through my feet, but the plate did its job. Brand was also in my eye line as this was going on, moving past us and out of the door. All I could assume was that he was hoping to find Drazar and defend him if we failed to bring Fedenzo down. It seemed that the knight had similar thoughts, and had realised he wasn’t getting through us to reclaim his mace. With few better choices available to him, he turned his back and ran through the melee towards the door.

I was flatfooted by this, no doubt. My pride was also a little wounded if I’m honest. It’s not often someone I’m in a sword fight with regards me as so little a threat that they turn and walk away from me. I made him regret it though, and stabbed into his face as he turned, his own momentum and a flick of my wrist opening up a bright red smile across his cheek. The point of my steel had bitten deep, and as the blood dropped onto the floor I heard the rattle of teeth hitting wood accompanying it.

Once again though, it seemed like Pelo was providing the impetus for him though, and he was away and running, leaving a trail of claret coloured drops in his wake. He had barged between us all, but some if us were quick on his heels, naked or otherwise. I admit to being a tiny bit distracted by all of the fine female flesh on show, and I was slower than I should have been in keeping up with Fedenzo, especially considering he was wearing heavy plate and bleeding from several wounds to the head. By the time I had closed the distance he had come across Drazar, and the Yerwian had already suffered a wound, his arm looking ragged and behind the rags that remained of his sleeve, also slightly scaled.

Blows quickly rained down on Fedenzo and it was only a matter of time before he fell. In the ruck I lost track of who had inflicted what wounds, but I remember with some pride that he finally fell from a bite of my own steel. I had thrust forward towards his face again, knowing that the armour would protect him everywhere else, and the point had pierced his eye, pushing back several inches. He was still upright as the blade withdrew, and I was thinking he may in fact be favoured by his God, but then his other eye went dark and he fell forward into the dirt.

Looking around, everyone of us seemed alive, but with a few wounds dotted about. Drazar looked me in the eye, and with a slight nod began walking amongst us, working his skills, and using magic to heal the damage that the knight had wrought. I checked everyone was okay, and could see Caderyn looking at the armour. I’m sure it would need beating out in a few places if it was going to fit him, but either way it was worth a small fortune. Looking him in the eye I said, “Don’t show disrespect to the body, but take the armour if you think it’s worth the effort”.

Fjorlief only just seemed to remember her sky clad appearance, and made to head back towards the communal area. I was heading that way too, so tagged along for the short walk. I don’t know what I was thinking, if there was any chance she would be interested in me, but I had to take the shot. “You fought well”, I say, with a cheeky smile playing across my lips, “and looked damned good while doing so, if I might add!” She looked across at me – I thanked the gods for being so tall, as if she had looked down on me after I had said that, I may very well have burst into flames – and smiled back, but hers looked a little more confused than I would have liked. What the hell, she was a fine looking woman, and could handle herself with a weapon, but maybe now wasn’t the time. I wasn’t going to let it go that easily though, just hang back for a spell.

As we came upon the doorway, Valerius was walking out of it, grim faced and would likely have charged us down if we had stayed in his path. Inside was something unexpected though; one more dead body than I had accounted for. The corpse of Slattero was laying face down on a table, where previously he had eaten after his master had prepared a bowl for him. The dark puddle around his head was all the information I needed about how he had died, but the why confused me somewhat. I turned to Vitus, who had stayed put throughout the fight, probably unsure what the hell to do, and who was on the right side. “What happened here”, I asked, pointing to the boy’s body.

“Valerius”, was the reply, delivered with a voice as cold as ice. At first I thought he was angry at the Numare, but the more we talked, the more I realised he was angry at me for striking down our host. “The boy had seen what happened, he could have talked, and Valerius wasn’t happy about that”.

“Who could the boy have spoken to? We were to be gone in the morning, and we could have destroyed any paperwork that Skuza handed over that could have placed us here”! I have never minded killing, and don’t want anyone to think that I was a saint that never struck an unfair blow on an undeserving enemy, but this still angered me. The lad was just trying to help the injured, and I doubt he had enjoyed what his master had perpetrated upon the nuns, and he certainly didn’t deserve to have died at the hand of someone he would have expected to protect him. “Sod it, lets get the body outside and bury them both”.

“So you killed Fedenzo then? And what the hell were you playing at attacking him like that? How do you expect me – expect us – to trust you if you’re going to behave like a fucking savage”! Vitus was on his feet, and heading towards me, not quite fast enough for it to be considered an attack, but I’m sure the thought of striking me down had occurred to him.

“I killed the man who slaughtered the nuns. I killed the man who was going after one of our traveling companions. And I have already killed others who have threatened this caravan’s safety. It was what I was hired to do, and I will do it just as vigorously defending anyone in it, yourself included. It’s why Skuza picked me, and if he picked Drazar as well, I don’t ask why, I just keep him alive. That’s my job, never doubt I will do it to the best of my ability.” I think that calmed him down, as his shoulders slumped and he nodded slowly in either agreement or resignation.

Skuza and Catranasia were around by now, and both had looked a mixture of angry and confused as I had walked in, but placated by my words. I meant every bit of it too. I had tried to get it across to Drazar, that even from a totally selfish viewpoint, my best chance of surviving until we reached the city was if everyone else was still alive and willing to fight to make sure I got there in one piece. Take that out of the equation, and I was trying to build a reputation. If every person in this group walked away from the endeavour knowing I was a man to be trusted when I was on a contract, and told their associates, I would be in good stead for my career.

That was a thought for the future though, and at the present, I wanted words with Valerius. I was killer, no doubt, but he was a murderer. As I walked back into the darkness, dead and dying bodies ranged all around me, I saw him on his knees. What makes one man pray for another who was so clearly deranged is beyond me, but I saw that my initial assumption was incorrect. He was digging a grave for the knight with his own hands. I realised at that point that I still had my sword in my hand, and that the knight’s blood still covered the point. I wiped it off onto the wet grass and watched. Whatever his reasons for doing what he had done, approaching him about them now was more likely to cause more trouble than resolve anything.

Anyway, Drazar was heading over, and he looked like he wanted to talk.

Nov 302013

Drazar and I sat for a while in conversation that evening. After being offered up as a sacrifice to a Daemon, I knew he wasn’t going to be in the best of moods. At the time I still didn’t know why, but since I hadn’t had the chance to discuss it with Fjorlief, I just set about damping down the fire somewhat. Out there, taking the hard roads through a hard country, I didn’t want to be worried about two of my fellow travelers being at each others throats. Not when it looked like we would have no shortage of strangers more than happy to take on that job.

He seemed happy to listen to me, but managed to once again steer clear of the question of his mask. I wasn’t going to push him too hard though; he seemed happy to talk to me about other things, and pushing him away would have just made matters worse. Caderyn had no such qualms, and was quick to assume the worst, “She was probably off due to your spirit being aflame and being eaten away. You must have done something to cause offense”? He had obviously either overheard our conversation or had been privy to the Vytch’s opinions already.

While we were in the caves of the dead, I had noted that something wasn’t quite write with our Yerwian friend. From what I understood of such matters, he was a wielder of the Earth Powers and something in those dark caves had affected how he was able to sense the flow of the earth power. To this day, I couldn’t explain it any better than that, but it had obviously affected him if I had noticed it while he was hidden behind his mask. The Vytch also used the Earth Powers for her own magics, but didn’t seem to have been as put out by our subterranean journey as Drazar. Maybe she was surprised by how much it had affected him, and that was what she thought was “wrong” about him.

Either way, the Dummonni’s interruption called an end to our conversation and before long Skuza was making his presence known. Thankfully the herbal concoction that Valerius had provided had kept him out of our hair through the worst of the day, but he was up and about again now. For some reason he seemed determined to spend time with us as a man of the people he so clearly wasn’t. He at least seemed on Drazar’s side about the debate, agreeing with me that just getting along would be the best option.

The fact that he seemed equally frightened by the idea of a foreigner, a magic user and a woman probably tells you a lot about the kind of man he was, and after the day we’d had I decided to have some fun with the poor fellow. I knew he was trying his best, but it just wasn’t the right time. As he was stalking the campsite, hand on the pommel of his ferros, trying his damnedest to look every inch the wandering hero, I turned back to Drazar with a smile, “When he next has his back to us, throw a stick into the tree line. Lets see how brave and heroic he really is”.

He looked over to me and I could swear that he was smiling beneath his mask, eyes deep blue even the red light of the fire. There’s only so long that you can have some Numare try and convert you I guess, and that time was long since passed in Drazar’s case. He waited for the right moment and swiftly threw a short branch into the trees at the edge of our camp. Skuza wheeled around hurriedly, hand gripped tightly around his honour blade, eyes wide with fear. It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing, but then Drazar threw again. Skuza spun like a top seeking out the Dummonii partisans that he was sure were waiting just beyond the range of his vision, readying their knives to skin us all at a  moments notice.

They never appeared of course, but Valerius and Brand shortly made their way back, curtailing our fun. I don’t doubt that the physician had as little time for Skuza as the rest of us, but as a fellow Numare, he seemed honour bound to show him respect, and would probably have looked down on us for toying with him. That being said, I was happy to see his stern expression tonight as with it came a Toma. Not the mythological fiend that the Daemon had impersonated to trick us, but an honest to goodness toma. We ate well that evening, with a fresh stew made with vegetables from Brand thrown in the pot too. Brand being Brand, he was quick to work his way through the offal that the rest of us had left behind, tutting away at us for being wasteful.

We weren’t letting it all go to waste though; Valerius had claimed one of its horns, either for a drinking vessel or a prize, and I had asked for the skin. Brand set about treating it for me, and I still have the gloves that were made from that beast to this day.

*     *     *

Once we were all fed, it was time to get some sleep. We maintained the same watch pattern, regardless of Drazar and Fjorlief’s objections to spending so much time together alone. They would just have to put up with it, and if they managed to survive the night together, than there might yet be hope for them. As I pulled my blanket around myself I listened to the noises of the forest at night. After our near call with the vraag the other night, I didn’t fancy being caught out again. All I could hear though were the noises of some Scaren, and the unmistakable cawing of the Corbie that seemed to be following us from the caves.

I hoped no one was foolish enough to try and bring down one of the winged rodents for sport or food. Their defensive mechanism has to be seen to be believed, and really does no benefit to the individual scaren that has to employ it. Luckily I was awoken some time later without finding anyone covered in bits of flesh and foul smelling ichor.

I had a couple of hours before full dawn, so I made sure there was water for a hot drink and anyone who needed to shave, then set about my morning ritual of re-imprinting some selected runes in my memory, in case I might need them during the day. As I was finishing up, I spotted Brand getting himself ready for his particular morning ritual, and smiled as I realised that I had forgotten to remind our employer of the wake up call he was about to receive. As the bellowing and wailing began, I thought how lucky we were to be camped so close to the mountains still, as the echoes joined in his own high pitched shouts, adding to the cacophonous assault.

“Bless Pelo! Is this to happen every morning”! Skuza threw open the window of his caravan and shouted out to us.

“Indeed my Lord”, I replied, with a smile on my face and a warming beverage in my hand, “the daemons do not rest, so our holy man does not either. It is truly a good sign for the day though, just listen to the earth shouting back to him in agreement. Uma herself has blessed this day for us”! I wasn’t entirely sure he believed me, but I was just trying to get through the morning without incident, and was happy for him to take his cup and join us for breakfast. Maybe in future I should learn more about this Pelo, god or man that he was, and use it to placate our nervous patron.

The hunter’s gatherings still remained so we ate well indeed, and Skuza decided to forgo his morning bath, roughing it with his men, as we discussed our route for the day. As a non native to either of the lands we were skirting the borders off, I had little to offer in the discussion, but it seemed that once again we were to brave the Dummonii side as it looked like the quickest way to reach our destination. The other option was a place called Kad-Bah, but only the Pelosians seemed keen on journeying there, and not even all of them.

They made pointed looks towards the New Raphelian and the other foreigners, but Catranasia seemed to have something else on her mind that made her want to steer clear of the outpost. It had a ferry that we could use to cross the river easier, but there would likely have been a day long delay both waiting for the ferry and jumping through the Pelosian bureaucratic hoops. It was all much of a muchness to me, but I was happy to cede to Caderyn’s plan when he informed us all of a fording point only really known to scouts on the Dummonii side. The place was called Maiden’s Play, but I had reason to doubt we would have as much fun as the name implied. With everyone in agreement though, we quickly set off, at our usual walking pace, with the fighters taking point.

*     *     *

It was plainly clear that we were in the disputed lands, and that the war – although winding down for the year – was still fresh, and had left fresh scars on the countryside. Ahead of us were six impaled Pelosian men. All looked like legionnaires to me, with tattoos on their shoulders, bar one that was probably a priest of Pelo. They had been stripped of anything else though, and left to die, naked with a sharp pole thrust up through their arses and out of their mouths. I’d heard stories of such atrocities – and the things that Pelosians did to their own enemies – while I was back home, but it was another thing entirely to see the poor sods hanging limp like that. The partisans were supposedly skilled at such things, and could leave you hanging like that until you died from hunger, rather than pierce any vital organs on the way through.

I doubt if such a thing is possible now, but at the time the stories seemed very real. They had been indeed been there for days, and dead for about that long. The skin was already tightening in the heat, and black carrion flies were everywhere. Soon the bodies would be little more than nests for maggots and eventually just a stain on the wood. Valerius was as grim faced as I had ever seen him, but Skuza was almost apoplectic. Once he had cleared his gut of his breakfast at the sight and smell of the impaled Pelosians, he insisted we cut them down and bury them.

Looking about, it was fairly clear that what ever had happened here had taken place days ago, but I doubt Skuza knew that at all; he just wanted to do the right thing, the bloody fool. The fact that a holy man was hung up there made him doubly sure, even as he once again lost control of the contents of his stomach. “My lord”, interrupted Valerius, “look about you. The tree line is close, and we have no idea if the scalpers are still around. This could likely be a trap, designed to get well meaning folk such as ourselves to stop, so that we can be run through just like these poor souls”.

“Also, we don’t want to offend Krath”. We turned and looked at Caderyn at this, wondering just who the fuck this Krath was, but fully expecting it to be some kind of god of bloody awful deaths and horror. The boss seemed to be the only one who wanted to do anything for the poor bastards – I for one was happy to keep going until we made it across the river, stopping for any length of time made us tempting targets for anyone with a grudge, Dummonii or otherwise. Skuza didn’t want to give up on this though, it seemed like it meant more to him than his own safety, but luckily for us, his constitution got the better of him. He was breathing too quickly, but struggling to suck in any air, and with his hand on his chest he fell unceremoniously backwards in a dead faint.

Valerius and Vitus lifted him back into his caravan, and we all moved off, glad to leave the grim spectacle behind us. Were these more ghosts that would follow me? I hadn’t killed them, or left them to die with a ten foot pole stuffed right up their fundament, but just leaving them like that could still have pissed them off somewhat. They never did haunt me, but I do wonder if Skuza still remembers them?

As we marched further onward there were more signs of the recent hostilities; a few half destroyed buildings in the Pelosian villa style, and corpses of hormorn lying by the side of the road. Someone with better eyesight than me also spotted day old tracks of some zolts, moving tightly together, probably someone’s guard beasts or part of a hunting pack, but it kept us all concentrating on our surroundings, that’s for sure. When I saw more ruined buildings up ahead, I got a strange nervous tickle down the back of my neck. The others looked ready to carry on down the road, but there was at least two buildings on each side of the road, and half ruined or not, they made great hiding places for anyone wanting to ambush us.

“I know it looks like a couple of days since anyone was round these parts”, says I, “but I’d be happier taking a look at those buildings on foot for now, just in case there’s anyone left around waiting to give us a surprise”. Most of them looked at me like I was a paranoid fool, but Drazar was quick to offer his assistance. With his mastery of the Earth Power, I was glad to have him on side, and it seemed that taking the time to talk to him the evening before had worked out in my favour. I thought for a while it would just be the two of us, but Caderyn eventually offered to join us too, something that I would be very thankful for later.

As we made our way forward, Caderyn’s training as a scout was obvious, as he quickly disappeared into the undergrowth, constantly moving from cover to cover. Even Drazar seemed to know what he was doing, but hung back a little his deep blue eyes concentrating through the mask as he slowly stalked towards the buildings. As we neared them I was struggling to keep the Dummonii in sight, so skilled was he at keeping hidden, but Drazar pointed me towards a certain building. I could see nothing unusual about it; no figures in the windows, or shadows moving within, but he seemed sure, and I knew well enough to heed his advise.

Moving closer, I began to hear the sounds of talking. The language was clearly Dummonii, and there was at least four or five people engaging in conversation. I moved as close as I dared before I spotted a bowman on the roof of another building, and realised just how much danger we were all in. From where I was hidden I could just about make out a few obvious partisans, one built like a brick shit-house with a Hutz-axe in hand, a couple of women – including one sat on a tether – and a handful of other rough looking types. I could also just about make out Caderyn, and signaled him to be wary as best I could.

Thinking such a thought, I turned to see Drazar walking down the street towards the building. He was trying his best to stay in cover, but there was no way that anyone stationed on a roof would fail to see him. It was either take a risk or watch or him stuck with Dummonii arrows. Luckily for him, I acted as usual without even really thinking, and gave out a low whistle. The Gods alone know if it sounded like a bird native to anywhere even in these lands, but it got his attention without alerting the Dummonii, and he scampered back to where I was secreted. “Partisans, Drazar”, I whispered, “You need to get back to the wagons and bring Brand and Valerius. Make sure he has his bow strung, there’s at least an archer or two”. And with a nod he was off, keeping his head low heading back towards the carts.

It helped that Caderyn was making a distraction of his own, but at the time I was more concerned with my own skin. He had walked right up to the Partisans, weapons not drawn, hands held high, looking ready to parley. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then he was talking, loudly at first, claiming to be one of them, or at least in the same line of work. It calmed them down somewhat, and after that he dropped his voice so that I couldn’t make out more than an occasional word. The way he had managed to get close to them with alarming them had me worried that he was about to betray us, and I kept my sword in my hand, the fingers of my other hand tracing out a Rune of sharpening on the air above the blade.

No matter how hard I strained, I couldn’t make out what was being said, but behind them I noticed something that shouldn’t be. A still living Pelosian, stripped almost naked was standing unsteadily on a buggy. His neck had a rope coiled around it that was hanging from the tree above, and every little breeze seemed like it would be enough to knock him off balance and end his life. I looked around for a way to get to him when I finely heard something from the Partisan: “Killing many Pelosians!” It was the big sod, the one carrying the Hutz-axe that looked almost the right size for him. I spied Caderyn quickly, and he seemed to be making placatory hand signals to the men, but I still wasn’t sure exactly whose side he was on.

The wait for reinforcements took an age, so long in fact that Caderyn was walking away from the Partisans, almost straight towards me. I know he was formidable in a fight, but I also knew he was injured, and hoped that if he was about to attack I could take advantage of that and at least finish him off quickly. He still had no weapons drawn though, and was whispering as he came upon my hiding spot, “They mean to let us pass, come back with me, but keep your weapon sheathed”.

Sod that, thinks I, “They haven’t seen me, if I stand up now, how do I know I won’t get perished”?

“Come on you bloody idiot”, was his only reply, but he didn’t seem to want to draw their attention to me, so kept on walking before any of the partisans would get suspicious of his dallying in the rubble. I watched him walk away, back towards the caravans, and held my position, happy to be able to at least hear them talk, now that Caderyn was no longer there, practically whispering. What I heard was something very similar to the conversation going on between my friends I would later find out. Some wanted to kill us as we approached, others were happy to let us past if we didn’t start any trouble, and a few just plain didn’t trust that we were just going to go on our way without trying to kill them all.

I heard all this, and saw the dark fleeting shape of Brand in the tree line. I didn’t know why he wasn’t attacking, but was happy to at least know that him and his magic sword were close by. It would certainly scare the crap out of a bunch of pissant partisans, and could give us the edge we’d need against a group with better numbers and position, should it come to that. It wasn’t to come to that though, and before long, I saw the caravan heading towards me, rolling along at its usual slow pace, with Caderyn at its front. “Come on out Kantrel”, he shouted, “we have safe passage, just put your bloody sword away”! The bugger was looking right at me, and there was little I could do from where I was. I wasn’t going to meekly step forward though, so instead I stood up swiftly with a smile on my face and my steel in hand. With a flourish I swept the length of the blade across my front, and slid it swiftly into its scabbard while turning to face the partisans with a smile and a bow.

Turning my back on them was a hell of a risk, knowing now that they had at least two men with warbows in the buildings above me, but I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of seeing me worry about them, “Don’t worry none, they don’t plan on killing us, just letting us go past if we keep ourselves out of trouble” I said. As I rejoined my companions, I shared a smile with Vitus, who seemed pleased that we had at least got a little something over them, but they weren’t going to let us have the last laugh. One of them had walked towards the hanging man as I had walked away, and as we neared them, ready to go past, he kicked the buggy out from under his feet. The rope went tight, and his legs started to kick. The drop wasn’t far enough to break his neck, and it would be a slow death for this man, whoever he was. “Next we meet, your going to die first, pig-sticker man”, sneered the big fellow, looking at me with a powerful hatred. I kept my hand on the hilt of my sword, knowing that only Caderyn and I were still armed and met his gaze: “I’ll be waiting, when the midnight killer smiles”, I replied in Raphelian and carried on walking, leaving him looking confused.

*     *     *

The rest of the day passed uneventfully; more walking, more signs of war. We were never a very chatty group on the march, but we were practically silent that afternoon. Only Caderyn seemed his usual self, but I can’t imagine him losing any sleep over a dead Pelosian, regardless of whether it was a combatant or just an innocent farmer. This close to the front line, I don’t suppose anyone could be thought of as an innocent bystander.

Come the evening we settled down for another night, and Skuza brought forth a bottle of white wine, and several goblets. It was a small bottle, and shared between us all, we we were lucky to get more than a mouthful each. I wasn’t in the mood to be drinking, so took a small sip for the sake of decorum, than passed what little was left on to Vitus. More than anyone, he seemed to have taken the Pelosian’s unwarranted death to heart. I noticed that Valerius also didn’t seem to be in the mood for drink, but didn’t draw any attention to it. As we sipped, Skuza again went into his man of the people act.

After the day we had had, I wasn’t in the mood to play with him for fun, so instead thought I would do him a favour. He had after all spared us some of his no doubt very expensive wine. As he waffled on about Portage ales and this being the closest thing he had to offer, I took the time to thank him, not only for that, but for being willing to lead from the front when facing the Partisans. I slight bending of the truth, but it lifted his confidence somewhat to know that the men thought highly of him, and in the days to come, we would sorely need him to stay focused on the path ahead, believing he was a capable man to lead us.

With the wine all drunk, we called it a night, set the watches, and prepared ourselves to be woken at dawn in the usual fashion.

*     *     *

The next day we began our journey through the foothills towards the vale of mists, and were lucky enough to have an uneventful morning. Noon rolled around soon enough, and we were again confronted with the signs of the war. At least eight dead Dummonii, each executed in the style of the legion. After dispatching the deserter, I knew the signs well enough, but we moved on with barely a word. It was true that both sides were capable of atrocities in this conflict, but since we had recently seen what the Partisans were willing to do first hand, we were’t in a rush to defend them, or honour their fallen.

We moved on through the mists and ahead of us we heard some kind of commotion. The fog was too thick to see that far ahead of us, but the sounds of a struggle still reached us. Drazar used his gifts to pinpoint its location, and a few of us headed off in that direction. At first I thought we were facing more vraag based on the noises we were hearing, but as we closed in, something bigger was seen striding through the mist. Its long pointed beak was sharp enough to rival my steel, and it moved quickly, like a fencer sizing up an opponent.

The Dagger bill was huge, and if it wasn’t in our way, I would have been happy to have gone around it, rather than tangle with it. We didn’t have that luxury though, so we went at it with a gusto. The mist was too think to be entirely accurate about what happened during the melee, but I do remember Drazar falling at one point. The point of my Baseado found its target, but the thing was wearing armour! Around its neck hung a small steel plate acting as a breastplate.

The cling of metal on metal had me startled, and I glanced around, not sure what to expect. On the ground behind the bleeding Dagger Bill was a body in a pool of blood. Seeing this, I looked again at the creature, taking in its livery and decoration. It was clearly a pet of some kind, maybe even a riding beast, but these things were often trained to defend their owners too. In a few more seconds, the bird was down, with Fjorlief claiming the final blow, and its neck. As we all calmed down, getting out breathe back, we stepped forward around the fallen body, wondering what had become of it.