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.