Anapes

The sea wall with its guard towers loomed large out of the squalls.  Grey and grim, with activity on it even at this hour, for our arrival had not gone unnoticed. Depending upon your point of view, I had pride of place or the most dangerous position, for I was at the prow of the leading galley.  The Legny ship was standing back until all was in order for their entry.

As we passed through the harbour mouth I could see the soldiers on the walls quite clearly. Confusion was obvious.  Here were Aponian built vessels under a foreign flag and in consort with a Legny ship.  Yet they were sailing into Zoma with decks full of Aponians.  This was because I had the Aponian prisoners brought up, on the premise that the sight of them might make the inhabitants of Zoma think twice before firing the ship on which I stood.

 

We came to rest centrally in the harbour, surrounded on all sides by enemy arms.  Small boats came out, but stayed at a healthy distance. None of them as far as I could see had incendiary devices.  Perhaps then, this was only a weapon of the Legny.  A series of shouted exchanges ensued, at the end of which one boat came up close and three heavily armed warriors, all large in stature, climbed aboard.

They took in the scene and started barking questions at the galley watch captain.  He became tongue tied and servile under this tirade, and one of the Aponian prisoners butted in.  This was not diplomacy.  It was a farce.

"Enough!" I cried, striding up to the group. "What is going on?"

The watch captain and Aponian hushed instantly.  The warrior ignored me and continued blustering.

In the most civil of voices I asked the Aponian who had translated for me before, "Would you mind interpreting?"  

"Certainly," He replied, stepping over. "What has happen-."  

"Shut up!" Ordered the warrior.

"That is enough!"  I responded. "There is no need for that attitude."

"Ennara?" The warrior turned on me, speaking in Enaran.  "Go away and mind your business runt."

I looked at him square and then replied.  "Just how long did you plan going on living?"

 

The deck cleared with amazing rapidity, and it was probably that which caused him to hesitate with his weapon half raised.  His came full up and he stepped toward me aggressively.

"I wouldn't."  Said the prisoner who had first butted in.

"Oh?" Was the reply, as the warrior slowed, sensing that there was definitely something amiss.

It was the gasp as Latiistabber came out that stopped him.

A muted, confused curse came from him, a babbled sentence from the prisoner translated hurriedly to me as "That's the thing that butchered two crews including the Governors' guard".

Then from the warrior, comments that were not translated, but then the Legny master stepped in.

 

He had been chosen for this vessel because he spoke both Aponian and Enaran.  Confusion broke out again with everyone trying to have their say.

I filled my lungs and shouted. "Shut up!"

The command worked.

"We have got the new Governor of Anapes!"  Blurted the Legny master.

"Does that make a difference?"  I asked.

"What?  Can you not see that we have another important bargaining point?"

"Not really."  I replied. "We just send them all ashore together no matter what."

"But hold on. If we hold him to the last, then ‑."

"Who the shit are you?!"  Broke in the warrior.

In reply, I said to him, "You my friend are going to have to learn some manners.  In the meantime just know that you stand on the deck of a ship under myflag."

"This is an Aponian vessel."  He responded hotly.

"Not any more."  I quipped.

"I will soon change that then!"

Up came the weapon as he turned and charged.

 

Oh, dear. This fellow had never played livesix.  A standard half step, twist and flick and he was face down on the deck neatly separated from his weapon.  Assuming nonchalance, I asked who was next.  There were no takers.

"Better find me this Governor fellow then had we not?"  I said to no one in particular.

The warrior started to rise, but a well placed foot on the elbow and Latiistabber against the back of his neck dissuaded him.  I looked around.  No one had moved.  All were engrossed in these proceedings.

"The Governor?"  I prompted.

 

He appeared shortly, looking as regal as one can in seagoing clothing and an oiled cape.  I would not have been able to distinguish him from any other before.

"You are the Governor of Anapes?"  I questioned.

He did not speak Enaran, so his reply came via the translator.

"He is, and he asks what you want of him."

"I want him to get these buffoons to start shipping you people ashore out of this rain. Failing that I want an assurance that there will be no funny business if we draw up to a quay."

The fellow saw the humour of it and passed the request, which was soon granted.

 

It being the quicker method, we backed up to a dock and discharged our prisoners there. There were armed warriors waiting, but they caused us no trouble once the Governor spoke to them.  One of the last off was the warrior I had floored. As he went to go I tossed him his weapon, joking.

"Here. You should be more careful with it."

 

We came back out of the harbour and galley two went in to unload, whilst we took off the prisoners from the "Pride".  Again via the stern, as with the oars at the sides this had proven to be easiest portion of the galley to abut another ship or dock.  All three galleys had adopted it as a means of transferring people or cargo.

Galley two came out and galley three went in.  When that returned from the Harbour, we in galley one made a second entrance.  I was first off and immediately gained guidance through the sodden, but orderly and paved streets to the Governors' palace.

He had already changed into drier, and more fitting attire, a knee length overshirt in white with a half cape and wide belt in purple.  On his shoulders lay a fur pelt and round his neck was a heavy ornate gold necklace.  His feet were in open sandals with straps that criss crossed over the top of dark stockings all the way to his knees. 

 

There was another dressed similarly but with red cape and belt, and a number of others all clean and smart but lacking ornamentation.  On the door had been two warriors in shining breastplates, helmets and leggings, with weapons unsheathed.  Standing dripping in my grubby oiled skins and confronted by all this pomp, I felt positively inferior.  

"His excellency, the Governor wishes to know what brings you, an Enaran, to his presence now."

Launching into a well practiced speech I explained that I was not as they assumed, and told them of my origin.  I was interrupted in mid flow however.

"Do we understand then, that you are the emissary of a foreign power we have never heard of, but which has declared war on Anapes without our knowledge?"

I had to expound then, how I had merely been seeking passage and had been caught up in the affair. How I had at first been just protecting myself but had been carried along by events, then had continued in an effort to minimise loss of life.

 

"But!" They interjected.  "You took life.  The Governor himself was witness to that."

I justified this, saying that to me it was the better of two evils.  I could not countenance all those people burning to death.

This perplexed them for a moment until they realised that I was really talking about the slaves, for I had been willing to risk my neck and to kill Aponians.  This affronted them, to think that anyone thought more of slaves than themselves.

It took a deal of patient explanation to convince them that I was brought up to respect all life. That there are none more or less important in terms of existence.  The red cloaked one nearly caught fire at that concept.

"Of course," I placated, "Some gain positions of high value and responsibility. But just as their subordinates rely on them for guidance, they in turn rely on their subordinates for support. Both are important for an orderly land."

The fellow in red calmed down a little at the instructions of the Governor, but I could see that he still seethed inside.  Perhaps the governor did as well, but he hid emotion and intention remarkably well.  Probably that is why he had become Governor.

 

"Enough.  May the Governor know the reason for this audience?"

I had practiced this little speech with the Aponian aboard the galley and so launched into it in Aponian.

"The reasons are threefold."  I replied. "Firstly to request that the ships with the Blue eye flag shall not be harried nor molested in your ports or waters, and nor shall their occupants.  For this I can guarantee that these ships will not engage in any activity that is against the interests of Anapes.  Secondly, I request on behalf of Legny, that they be permitted to resume trading with Narbori.  Thirdly, I request free passage through your land for myself alone."

That took them back a bit and the two of them went into conference.  Whilst this was going on, I asked and was told by the translator that the male in red was the Regulator for Zoma.  (A different title was used, but regulator is the closest I understood.)  The Governor himself was new, and had been appointed because the old one died over a year ago.

 

I was directed to a separate room and there provided with a seat, some pale and sweet ale and foodstuffs.  An odd thing happened when they were brought.  A slave carried them in on a tray, and then sampled some of everything in my sight before placing the tray before me.  I did not know what to make of that.  Was it cheek?  Do they starve the slaves?  Perhaps it was just that the slave wanted a taste.  Or was it to show that all things tasted good?  There was not much showing needed in that case, for good the foodstuffs most certainly were.  Each laced with an individual delicate hint of some exquisite tang, all unlike anything I had ever before encountered.  If this was how Governors ate, then I was ready for the role whatever the encumbrances it brought.

Most strange. But I determined to make no comment, for the warrior standing guard did not behave as if it were unusual.  I offered him some but he declined as if offended.

 

I waited for three subspans and was quite dry by the time I was recalled to the Governors chambers.

"The Governors mind."  The translator intoned. "Was at first to reject all three of your requests."

Which Governor he meant I could not know, for sure neither were there.  Leaving this chore to a menial.

"Thinking further on the matter, he has decided to grant the first and last.  The ships of the Blue eye shall have unrestricted access and trading rights in all ports and waters under the jurisdiction of Anapes. The occupants previously under slavery may not however set foot on Aponian soil without recourse to re enslavement. This, all on the condition as previously stated, that no action or intent be made contrary to the interests of the Aponian Empire, and the colony of Anapes in particular."

 

"For the third request, the Governor has seen fit to grant you free passage through this colony only, and on three provisos.  One, that no residence be sought and the transit of this land does not exceed one calendar month.  Two, that your arms be laid down, and three, in line with the Blue eye accord, that no activity or intent be made contrary to the interests of the Aponian Empire or the colony of Anapes in particular.  Breach of either covenant will invalidate the other."

"Here are the written drafts of these decisions, already signed by the requisite authority."

Passing me the sheets of parchment, he continued.  "It is our desire that you indicate acceptance with a mark. On both your copies and the originals, which will remain in our possession."

Passing the pen and ink, he pointed to where I should sign my name.

That I did so half startled the translator.  My next action thoroughly did.

"How." I asked, "Am I to tell that these documents say what you tell me they do, as I am unable to read Aponian?"

"How dare you?!"  He cried. "The word of the Governor is beyond question!"

"All right then."  I returned. "The governor did not write these, so I ask for your mark as true translator. Also, may I ask why trade with Legny is rejected."

"Certainly not! The word is true, and who the.. Oh, look.  It's... There's no way we are going to confer trading rights on a nation which wars on us, and that so heavily."

"But." I interjected, "You could have a peace, or a part peace anyway."

"It is of no consequence now.  The Governor has decreed thus, and thus it shall be."

There was nothing more to be gained from this individual and so I turned to go.

"Your weapon!"  He demanded to my back.

I turned, puzzled.

"Your weapon."  He demanded again, hand outstretched.  "You agreed to lay down your weapons.  I demand now that you do."

Thinking swiftly, I retorted.  "Most happily.  When I begin my journey through Anapes.  For now I will keep them.  That way I shall be sure of delivering this document to my ship."

The translator was infuriated, but lost for a reply.  Quickly I left, and made my way through the now dark streets to the dock where galley one was patiently waiting.

 

We cast off and anchored in mid channel with the other ships.  A council was formed from all the crews and convened on galley one to hear the news.  The Legny were most displeased, but being a canny lot immediately saw an opening. Even if they could not trade with Narbori, there was nothing stopping them transhipping their wares at sea to one of the galleys that could.

"Hey!" Cried one of the prides representatives. "Even better!  What if we take some of the Blue eye crews to stand on deck when we're in port and fly the blue eye flag ourselves?"

"Wait!" Cried another.  "What if?  Yes!  I have it!  What if the galleys ply the waters round Anapes, running the trade and we fly the flag down to Aponia itself?  Surely if we push it a little we can get away with it.  Then instead of burning Aponian traders, we'll take their place!"

"It won't be that easy."  Said the first. "We'll still have to burn a few, under our own flag of course before they realise the benefits."

"But." And so it went on.

 

A similar debate was taking place among the Blue eye people, with outbursts like;

"This can mean we will become prosperous!"

"We will control trade all along this coast!"

"The heck with going home now!"

"But we need a home.  Where can that be?"

"Who cares? Anywhere!  Anywhere we want!"

 

This was all naturally very hard for me to follow for it was happening in two different languages at the same time, and translated for my benefit into a third, Enaran, with which even now I was not fluent.  The resultant was that an agreement was thrashed out between the two parties, with me as a bystander.  This agreement was presented to me at its conclusion for my ratification. I was hardly in a position to reject or alter it, for it did not actually affect me. I was merely the titular head and as such struck the bargain.

 

The three galleys would have exclusivity to all Anapes harbours and access to the Legny port of Vlas. The Legny would confine their regional trading to Enar and would attempt with the others' assistance and under the blue eye flag to trade with Aponia.  That way the trading partners would prosper and yet the status quo would not be altered for no means of war would be carried. A great benefit from this would be the mixing of crews. This would put more Legny sailors among the Galleys and give some of the ex slaves a chance to acquire sailing skills on Legny vessels.   I was well pleased.  Everyone would benefit from this arrangement, except perhaps the Enar.  There was now nothing more to do save settle down for my last night on board ship.

 

I woke with the dawn, cold and bleak to find that the "Pride" and galleys two and three had already gone, leaving us alone.  They would tranship the "Prides'" cargo and take that to Narbori to begin trading.  Galley one would land me in Zoma and attempt to gain goods to take down the coast.

 

The whole crew breakfasted together and before the night watch went to their bunks I presented Latiistabber to the ship.  I was in turn presented with an oiled skin bag for my now precious few possessions and a curiously shaped walking rod. “We heard about your not being permitted weapons but we thought that a stick would help you walk, and in an emergency,” The new captain explained. “either used as a pole to hit with or even better” he produced a string and at once I saw how the curvature had been disguised by end caps, “as a bow.”

It was a masterpiece. A work of art and a superb weapon rolled into one. I thanked the entire crew over and over again.

Thus, the ceremony over, the ship came to harbour.  Once again galley one gently backed up to the quay and was fastened. None of the ex slaves were allowed on land and so it was up to me to start things happening.  I had picked up a few phrases of Aponian by now, but "This ship is making a passage down the coast.  If anyone wants to put anything aboard, please talk to the captain."  Was not one of them.  This was circumvented to some extent as one of the ex slaves had been a scribe and so wrote an open letter which I hawked around the dockside area.

 

There was interest, though at first limited.  For the carriage of goods across country was an arduous business.  The merchants needed a lead before committing their supplies into the hands of foreigners.  By days end, seventeen merchants had expressed interest, but all wanted their goods paid for before shipping.  To the ex slaves, this was impossible as there was nothing to pay with. The Legny had seen to that, stripping the galley clean of wares. I suggested that there might be a way, and when I slit my belt open to drop the thirty two golden coins from it onto the table, eyes went wide.  I selected two to retain for myself and asked if the remainder could be used to persuade some of these traders.  The answer came back in a hush.

"Oh yes. We think this might just do the trick."

It did.

 

When I walked up into Zoma the next day and for the last time, deals were being made at an alarming rate.  I need not concern myself with the welfare of these ex slaves any longer.  They were on the way to being wealthy if they stayed as a group.  Now I must to my own affairs.

This was brought home to me with a vengeance as I left the confines of the town.  The road was guarded.  This in itself gave me no cause for alarm.  After all, I had a document giving me free passage across the land. All I had to do was produce it and I would go unhindered.  Not so easy.

 

Firstly my plainly not being Aponian or able to speak their language made the guards suspicious. The production of the paperwork was to no avail.  None of them could read.  It occurred to me that it was not inconceivable for me to overpower these two.  It would be close, for they were armed and with room to manoeuvre, where I was essentially unarmed.  There would be surprise on my side though.  I put this thought from my mind.  It would be a foolish way to start off in a new land. So I patiently sat in their guard hut as they indicated I should.

 

I waited and waited. One subspan, two.  The hut was open fronted and so as well as they being able to keep an eye on the incumbents, I could see the comings and goings on the road. Everyone was stopped.  Those obviously Aponian were immediately waved through, but all others were questioned intently before being allowed to pass.  I noticed that Aponians did not travel alone and there was always a minion among the party that could explain their business to officials.

 

I there and then determined to quickly master this language or obtain the services of someone who could.  As I had already been in the company of Aponian speakers for some time now (about three weeks) and had as yet failed to gain a good grasp of the tongue it being totally different to Surian or Enaran, I considered the latter of the two options to be the more workable.

The question of how I should achieve this was on my mind when I was dragged from my reverie and summoned from the hut.  Dusk was approaching and the guard was being changed.  Three replaced two.  The three oncoming brought blankets and food bags.  The two being relieved took their own empty bags with them and indicated with their weapons that I should follow.

 

With them keeping a close eye on me we walked back into town and to their reporting post, where I was handed over to their superior.  I was told in Enaran to sit down whilst the superior took the soldiers' report and dismissed them.  This done the superior did not rush, but in his own good time came to me and began his interrogation.

"Name?"

I told him.

"Who's your master?"

"I have none."  I told him.

"Huh! Clever beggar eh?  D' you think I've not heard that one before?  WHO IS YOUR MASTER?"  Said with real volume and force.

Fortunately I had retained the document from the guards and now reproduced it.

 

The superior took it and began to read.

"Ohhh.  Mmm...Oh!  Oh‑ho!   OH!" The last with a step backward and a sharp look at me.

"Well.  It looks as we've detained you without proper cause.  But this is all highly irregular.  If you don't want a repetition of this, you'd better learn Aponian."

"I realise the error of that now.  But I am hardly going to learn overnight am I?"

"You got any weapons?"  He suddenly asked.

I replied in the negative, “excepting if you call my walking stick a weapon” I said. To which he relaxed some, but still retorted. "No need to get lippy with me!"

Handing back my passpaper he concluded.  "Better be on your way then.  Hadn't you?"

"Two questions first if you please."

A hesitation with narrowing of the eyes.  "All right."

"First.  How and where shall I find someone to speak for me? Second, as I have been delayed here I should like guidance to find somewhere to lodge the night."

 

He thought a while, then replied.

"For the first, your best bet is to buy a slave at market tomorrow.  For the second, you can bed down in the back room tonight. But tonight only."

I thanked him and enquired what had changed his attitude.

"Easy." He explained.  "Any lodging houses I can think of would have only dragged us out in the night to arrest you as a runaway slave.  So putting you up here saves me work.  The slave'll do the same tomorrow, and if the new Governor's sanctioned you, who am I to doubt your character."

 

The room at the back looked remarkably like a cell to me.  I was informed that it was not.  It was merely a holding room where they put drunks and other vagrant type miscreants who would be released come morning.  The real troublemakers were taken direct to the main barracks and prison where they would be kept under lock and key.

"Even most runaway slaves don't get sent down there."  He told me.  "Well, not unless we've reason to suspect they'll run again, which most don't when we tell them what happens to persistent runaways."

I did not ask what that was.  I did not really want to know, and the manner of the wording carried all the latent horror I could think of to bring someone into line.

I slept well enough all things considered.  In its way the town patrols stamping in to warm themselves from time to time was restful for it compensated in some part for the ever-present crew on board a ship. Nothing could compensate for the lack of movement.

 

I woke early next morning and breakfasted in the company of the guards.  They offered to share their rations when they saw the contents of my bag.  I had taken supplies from the ship, which had re vittaled itself in Vlas.  Here were fresh fruits from Enar, vegetables and dried meats from Legny together with carefully packed titbits and spices from Aponia.  All of these were in short supply, or non existent in Anapes.  They had meats, vegetables and fruits, but not of these species nor of such fine quality.  I would never have been able to eat it all before it spoiled anyway, and so sharing out seemed a good idea.

"By the Governors' name!"  Enthused the superior.  "This fruit is good. Where did it come from?"

"Enar, I suspect."  I replied. "For I saw none growing in Legny."

"A pox on the filth!"  He scolded. "The stuff grows in Nisk. But not like this."

"This is not the best either."  I said. "They are saving that for their armies."

"My word! That must be juicer than the first lady's' buttocks, for this is.. hold on.  Did you say armies?"

"Yes."

"They've only got one."

"Not what I heard.  The locals talk of two. Rocha and Lemin.  Judging by the level of conscription they must be big ones as well."

"By my hairy arse!"  He exploded. "What's this Governor doing about it?  Wait. You're joking with us aren't you? No.  I can tell.  It's true! Gahh!  And we're here checking the town for drunks and runaways."

The soldiers were animated as they ended duty, handing their agitation to the daytime contingent. Just as the day troops had marched to the post then dissembled to enter, so the off going unit assembled outside then marched off to barracks under the command of the superior.  I, for my part, made off back toward the city centre.

 

I approached ten or so Enaran looking people to ask directions and advice.  I was surprised how many did not understand me.  They only had knowledge of Aponian.  I eventually gained help from a female who told me that those who only spoke Aponian were born here into slavery and that the only Enaran speakers I would find would be Aponian slave masters or slaves from Nisk.  Buying a slave would not be my best chance of obtaining an Aponian/Enaran speaker.  It would be my only one.

She gave me directions to the slave market and advice on how to go about choosing and acquiring the right person at the right price.  I took her word in, but was appalled at the easy way she embraced the concept of haggling over peoples' lives, even her own.  Sadly, it is a level I was reduced to within a very short time.

 

The market was in the form of a hollow circle, with roofed booths surrounding it.  There were two entrances, both guarded, and once again I had to produce my document and await someone who was able to read, in order to pass.  It was here that I found another piece of information.  I asked why I was stopped and yet other non-Aponians were not.  It was pointed out that all non-Aponians were slaves and were either in attendance with the immediate company of their masters or had an ownership band visible. This was a bronze ring on the left wrist, with an official seal and code indicating their owner and giving movement restrictions. Even those with bands were methodically and randomly checked as to their status and business.  If I were going anywhere, any slave I had would need one of these in order to be in excess of twenty paces from my side. 

 

Once inside to witness the number of souls waiting patiently and quietly to be put up for sale dismayed me. They were mostly Enaran males, females and the occasional neut.  There were other types though.  Darker coloured peoples, those with body hair so fine you can see the skin beneath, and others with strangely shaped faces.  Some were huge, some small, even two as small as I.  Most varied between the two extremes.  All were from subject Aponian territories.  I had already seen a number of these kinds of people aboard the slave galleys and was thankful that they had been spared this indignity.

 

As I looked in each booth one by one, I became more despondent at the misery that affronted my eyes and at the prospect of finding someone here to suit my purpose.  It was obvious that the exotics would not be able to interpret for me, and few of the Enaran types looked capable of lasting two days on the road, let alone thirty.  At each booth with anyone half decent, I called in.

"Who here speaks Enaran?"

There were many cries back, particularly among the most battered specimens, of  "Me!  I do!"

But few could reply when I asked "Can you talk Aponian as well?"

The choice eventually came down to three people, none of whom were ideal.  I was pondering this quandry when I was approached by an Aponian who asked a question, which from its timing, delivery and content I assumed to be an offer to provide for my requirements.  As the words were spoken in Aponian I could not be sure as to their meaning and consequently declined to make reply.

"Enaran then."  He said. "Your master is looking for a translator?"

"No." I replied.  "I am doing the looking."

"Yes, I know. But is the translator for your master or mistress?"

"For me."

"What?  You personally?"

"Yes me personally."

"My, you are an important slave.  Whoisyour master?"

"I am not a slave, I have no master and I do not like your tone.  If you cannot be civil, leave me be."

My tone in turn angered him and he snatched at my sleeve.  I countered, locked, twisted and pinioned his arm, causing him to fall to his knees ghasping.  His work had been done though, for he and others had seen that I had no amulet. The guards were called and I had to go through the rigmarole of explanation once again.

 

The Supervisor at Guard sorted out the situation but was unhappy with it.

"You just don't manhandle an Aponian citizen like that."  He stated.

"Very well." I came back.  "But that works both ways.  No one manhandles me.  I am not subject, nor property and these people had better learn it."

I am sure that if it were not for my letter I would have been very roughly treated.  But the influence of the Governor went a long way. Aponians stood back a pace after learning the notes' contents.  Could this be called the power of the pen?

The Supervisor at Guard thereafter stayed near me the entire time I was in the market, in order to prevent further trouble.  He went so far as to translate during the haggling over the price for the slave I finally selected.  A half starved young Enaran male with a withered arm and gaunt sunken eyes.

"Why did you pick that one?"  Asked the Supervisor in disgust.

"Well," I replied. "There was not much to choose between the three possibles, the female is with child and should not be outdoors.  The male is slow where this one has a good mind, furthermore he is so weedy he will never get taken on by anyone else."

"True, but he'll never be able to manage your pack or stand travel.  You'll have to get another slave to carry him!"

"I will carry my own pack, so all he will have to do is translate for me.  He can do that adequately, so I will take him."

 

This conversation had taken place after the price had been agreed, for to say these things in front of the slave trader would have put the price up.  It was hard enough getting sensibility out of the trader anyway, and I had to walk away at least once before he bargained properly.  Even when my gold coin entered his palm he attempted to restructure the cost.  I put him very quickly right on that, demanding the correct moneys in exchange.  I had learned from the people on galley one the structure of counting here and value of Aponian finance.  

They have strange system, where they change value at eight instead of ten, but if you knew its workings and took your time there was no reason to be cheated.  For instance, I knew that one gold coin of this size was worth around 350 Susski, (yes I know, a strange word for a currency, but this was indeed a strange land) but by their system counted as five hundred and twenty. “Four hundred you said.” I told him, looking meaningfully at the supervisor for support. He nodded and the trader was obliged to acquiesce. 

 

The advice from the female earlier in the day had been invaluable, and so I was able to walk away from the market with a translator and enough money to feed and clothe us both for over a week without recourse to the last gold coin.  It had cost four hundred Susski  (256 in real money) to buy Hu~gen, a further eight to fit him with an amulet and I had given the Supervisor Guard a generous (I thought) eight for his checking that the amulet was legal and correctly worded, and to cover for the distress I had caused.  That made a total of 272 Susski out of the total, with 72 in cash.  By the octimal system it meant that I got 530 susski, spent 420 and had 90 left.  Figuring it out did my head in. Which-ever way, I had seven small silver coins in my hand and a slave to feed. 

 

The first thing I did was to take Hu~gen and get a good meal inside him.  Only then did we search out and acquire suitable attire and implements for him to travel.  This took the better part of the day and so once again I spent a night in Zoma, this time in a small hostelry on the outskirts.  With Hu~gen to explain things, apart from the overall expense of everything, there were no problems.

We rested well and partook of a filling breakfast then began our journey.  I deliberately kept the pace down to acclimatise Hu~gen to the road, but I hardly needed to for with a full belly he was a different person. It did not take much for him to open up. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy that a non-Aponian could carry my status.  At first I had been just another master, albeit an interesting one for my non-Aponianness, and he had just done as he was asked and answered questions as shortly as possible.  The combination of clean clothes, a full belly and fresh air even though it was cold and damp, woke up his spirits.

Unfortunately the rigours of travelling began to take their toll all too soon.  By the end of the first day I was sore, but I knew I would quickly harden up.  Hu~gen was tired but elated.  As each day progressed I became steadier and the walking was easier.  The opposite effect occurred within Hu~gen.  In time of course he would be inured to this, but for now his lopsided body was finding it hard to cope and he would require lots of building up before going any distance. 

 

 As it was it took four days to complete a distance that should have taken three.  We made regular stops during the day and overnighted in way stations that were comfortable and well provisioned.  Here Hu~gen more than made up for any lack he showed physically.

It was a strange situation really, for by all normal standings it should have been me easing his path and doing his chores.  Male master and neut supplicant.  That our roles were reversed seemed not to bother him unduly for he played the part of subservient with ease.  All the time however, he was gaining confidence and gradually turning from translator to interpreter.

We stopped an extra day in the fortress town of Aamboi for Hu~gen’s sake, but I fear he did not rest much.  This was my fault.  Dragging him around, inspecting the towns layout.  Not at all different to Pom or Kisk in overall concept, but starkly altered in internal layout.  The outer walls were thick and castellated with a walkway on top, all surrounding the houses and buildings that were laid out in a square pattern.  All the main roads ran straight and true into the central plaza.  The houses lining these streets had a continuous frontage and were all fitted with strong doors and window shutters.  Even the side streets running from them were heavily gated.  The effect would be, instead of containing an entry as in Surian forts, to direct attacking forces into the central area that was overlooked by the inner fort.  It was all very impressive but it was never so formidable as Pom, or even Kisk. Never as daunting as the endless simple walls of Jojiisk, and even though on a hill overlooking the river as was Jaliiaprom, never so imposing in its siting.

 

That the place was run as a garrison town and had not seen or been threatened with action for some time was evident.  Not only in the demeanour of the soldiery or the affluence and bustle of the streets despite the lack of goods from foreign parts, but in the state of repair of the defences and only evident on close inspection. A broken hinge here, a bolt missing there, a new roof affording easy access to a wall, even half a gate gone. All these things could be rectified, but I could not understand why bother with the rest of it.  If the place was no longer under threat, disburse with all the impediments to civil activity.  If there was a threat, however remote, then properly maintain the defences. Still, mine not to reason why.  This was not my land.

 

Another two days down the road the story was very different.  For the first of those days, it had been much the same as prior to reaching Aamboi, taking the road as it ran along the hilltops following the course of the river.  That the thoroughfare was not in the valley was most likely a relic of the time when the river formed a frontier.  As Hu~gen and I approached within a day of Uoika it became one again.

This was the time of the frosts and the wind made the days bitter.  No descent to the shelter of the valley was permitted however.  The road had been routinely and randomly patrolled. Now however, that patrolling was systematic.  Even the little waystops had the look of castles.  Each one we entered looking for some warmth was full of soldiers doing the same.  Each one was full of gossip, the soldiery hogging the fireside and the broth.  For us there was not much gain from these stops save to get out of the wind for a little while.  In fact, the closer we got to this next town the more hostile was our reception, the closer we were scrutinised as we passed, the more often stopped and our papers inspected. 

Not once were we detained, with Hu~gen to speak and my document to vouchsafe.  But it was obvious that we were not liked or trusted and more than a few of the inspecting soldiery would have been only too happily subjected us to incarceration.  It may seem crazy, but the retention of Hu~gen as a slave also eased our passage. It was as if by conforming in some part to their system we were condoning it and this therefore enhanced our acceptability.

 

Uoika was built on the same lines as Aamboi but a smaller scale.  Here, there were no broken hinges, no missing bolts.  All walls were stark, all gates shut, opening only on demand.  The change was absolute. This was no fortified town with a languishing garrison impeding civil progress.  This was a true fortress, an outpost of empire.

From its cold windswept ramparts the border across the valley could easily be seen.  Aponian occupied Nisk to the left, Enaran Mietar to the right.  The division graphically a tributary, politically a world.  As Hu~gen and I stood looking out over this curious juncture it was almost possible for me to sense the massing Enaran armies even as we could see their patrols.  Hu~gen saw something entirely different but equally invisible. Freedom.

 

To his eternal credit, Hu~gen did not once complain.  He discharged his duties diligently and to the best of his abilities in a trying circumstance.  To be found at my side in a moment, ready to explain or translate.

He was hardening well to the journey, but the coldness of the frosts and wind bit deep.  Not being so inured as was I, and in his clothing that despite many layers was inadequate to the task of combating the chill, he suffered visibly.  My oiled skins and under cloaks were made to stand against the worst sea storm, and even these seeped in icy cold as the day wore on and the oiling froze.  They were after all expected to be constantly wet, at least damp.  Here the wind dried them out very quickly until they were rock hard and cracking at the joints.

 

Our progress was slowing noticeably in spite of Hu~gens' valiant efforts to keep up. Reluctantly, for we were fast using up my thirty days, I called a halt in the next large fortification.  Here there was every bit as much activity as at Uoika but a conspicuous muting of tension. A conservative order, a knowledge that this process was something that would always be the same.  For here there was no Aponian territory over the river.  The divide was stark and clean at the waters' edge. This normalisation of affairs was lost on Hu~gen however.  The poor fellow was distinctly not well.

We were fortunate enough to find lodgings where the proprietor spoke Enaran and Hu~gen could be spared his duties enough to be confined to bed and rest for a while.  I was already into the second gold coin as on the frontier everything was more expensive.  The initial benefit had been that I had made an exchange at 552 Susski, [362 to me] but the average lodging price for a night had risen from 8 to12 Susski. With meals, this was eating up (sic) funds at about 20 Susski every day.  Calculating it out, it would be a close call, which would run out first. My time or my money.

 

I had seen a depiction of the province on the wall of the Governors' residence in Zoma, and having been down the coast by ship could guess its length.  To come this way therefore, across the width of the province at its top end had been the most obvious route for me to clear the land in the allotted time of thirty days. When I had at first set out my guess was that the distance was coverable within twenty days.  How wrong I was.  I was on my twenty-first day already, with an unknown distance still to go. I could not make progress without Hu~gen however and Hu~gen could not make progress without rest.

 

Two days were all I could afford.  Hu~gen knew this and struggled to maintain a role for which it was obvious he felt a genuine obligation.  Two things were in my favour in finally persuading him to rest.  Firstly was my insistence on it as his master, and second was the understanding and helpfulness of the proprietor.  An Aponian, but an unusually sensitive and sensible one.  He was of solid build and average height for Aponians, with a dark complexion and an almost hairless face.  Sober and hardworking, he treated his slaves well, as the valuable commodity they were. He was not made aware of the disparity in our genders, but saw this as a situation in which a stranger from a strange lands' male servant was incapacitated.

 

At his own effort and cost he provided all the things he would have expected Hu~gen to do for me. It was not actually him that did the work, it was shared among his four slaves, but he coordinated it.  All the fetching and carrying of food and drink. The cleaning of our clothes. Tidying of our quarters and listening out for every word.  I had been quite willing to do it all myself.  It was no hardship and it would not be the first time I had done all the chores, me being neut.  But the proprietor would not listen.

"I know you are from far off parts, where things are different."  He told me.  "But here we have to keep up standards.  You are a fellow of class.  You cannot be looking after yourself.  If we let our slaves think they can have it easy it would not be long before they were running us.  Eh?"

Dutifully I concurred and submitted to unmitigated pampering.  Well, that is how it seemed to me.

I would not say I hated it, but others would have had a better time of it.  I tried to hide my unease and believe that I did not do too bad a job of it, being neither too imperious nor too reticent to demand. Meanwhile, Hu~gen made a recovery of sorts.

There was a lull in the weather, it turning to cold and damp fog.  But at least the bitterness had gone from it.  These two portents allowed our continuation to Kasa. I left with mixed feelings. Gratitude for the kindness of the proprietor and his staff and relief that the pretence was over and we were moving. Once again what could have been achieved in one day was done in two stages of shorter days and slower progress. This was far preferable to being held up again through overtaxing Hu~gen.

 

These two days I had been more aware than before of a general raising of the land and a thickening dark line on the horizon, when we could see it.  Hu~gen had never seen its like.  I had. We were approaching mountains.  From Kasa, a larger and more imposing version of the fortresses we had encountered, and between the squalls of rain there looked like a solid wall of rock some twelve longpaces away.

"We can not go any further that way!"  Hu~gen stated in awe.

"It looks like that from Vasny, only more so, andwestill go up."  I replied.

"What? Which? Is this more?"  He asked.

"No.  The mountains above Vasny are higher."

"I do not believe you."

"I should know."  I replied. "They are my home."

"No." Stated Hu~gen flatly. "No.  I still cannot see it.  There is no way to get up there."

"You may be right."  I answered, even though no question was asked.  "At this time of year."

This was confirmed quite categorically by the inhabitants of Kasa.  There was no way possible for us to continue.  What precarious routes there were in high summer were all snowed in now.  It was far too dangerous and would not be permitted under any circumstances.   This we learned from the hosteler to whom we had been directed by the proprietor at Momba.  The information was backed up by the local soldiery.

 

I learned of the placing of this fortress, on the junction of foreign lands.  Enar over the valley, Swez ahead up the mountain. Neither were possibilities for my exit from Anapes.  I felt the walls closing in on me as my finances and time dwindled and the options disappeared.  A full day of enquiries resulted in my standing in the office of the chief of militia, where a glimmer of hope was shown.  Only four days march from here was another border.  A new land.

 

I could have skipped with joy on hearing this.  But there was a catch.  I was not allowed to go without escort.  Furthermore, no special escort would be provided and the next organised party would not leave for three days.  In three days and four days I would be penniless at current expenditure rates. If I were on my own I could live off the land, but with Hu~gen, at this time of year?  Without weaponry it was doubtful and as I understand the intricacies of culture here, it was not proper to subject personal slaves with the open. It sort of said that the masters were not able to support slaves and were no better people than them.

It occurred to me that although living out on the land was not really on, Hu~gen and I could make cuts in our living expenses. For a start, we could do our own cooking, and if a suitable place could be found we could do all the other things for ourselves. I would then only pay for a room and for provisions.  Our methods might be a little Spartan but the saving may make the wait affordable and therefore feasible.  But most important, if this was to happen I had to have an accurate transcript of my promissory letter that I might know exactly how long there was before I risked arrest.  And if this time was as nearby as I suspected with a genuine chance of conflict, then I needed to know the exact wording so I could prepare arms without prematurely invalidating the letters' effect.

I would have known all this before if Hu~gen could read.  That he could not in any language was an early blow, and I wished many times that I had thought of it when selecting him.  But now is too late for yesterdays wishes and we each must deal today with what we have.   I had (I believed) seven days in time and five and a half days finances.  The temptation to just sneak out and run for the border was so very strong.  I am afraid that I just was unable to handle the responsibility and strain of controlling finance and people as well as I would have thought.

 

Only now was I really able to appreciate the skill and courage of the trades and business' people I had worked for or known, or just met in passing.  Reflecting on this I determined to not be bettered by the situation and to take a leaf from the traders' manual on resilience and initiative. There was of course always another option open to me, and that was to organise passage with the party in three days, then sell Hu~gen for what I could get.  I did not want to do this because I had told Hu~gen that he would be freed as soon as we were out of slaving lands. 

In my mind he was really free now, but that was not a situation that this country could tolerate and so he was forced to continue in the manner of slavery.  No. The selling of people is immoral and condemnable.  I could not and would not do it.  There would be another way.   That decided, I thought "In for brass, in for gold."

We were here for three days and I would spend whatever necessary to obtain a transcription of the letter, procure supplies for travel and hopefully some weaponry.  If that left me penniless here there were two borders I could try for.  It would not be the first time I was pursued across one.

 

Two days of extensive enquiring found the person I was looking for.  A female Aponian, and wife of a laundry owner.  All the males Hu~gen and I, or even Hu~gen alone, had approached had either read the document to themselves and refused to speak it aloud, or read part of it and stopped, declining to vocalise the remainder.  The woman read it all to Hu~gen and even explained parts of the passages in detail to him.

 

Hu~gen paid for her services and brought the result to me.The length of time he was gone and the grin he wore on returning caused me to suspect that perhaps the service had involved more than a translation 

 

By the authority of the seal of the imperial governor of the  province of Anapes, made this day, the forty first of sector five in the seven hundred and second Aponian year.

 

Be it known that the bearer of this document, one OOKHITAR of the blue eye, shall as reward for remarkable service to the province be granted the privilege of unihebited passage through all districts of this province of Anapes.  Throughout said transit the full facilities of the state shall be afforded this individual, on the proviso that no arms be borne, nor activity contrary to the interests of the state be propagated by him, those incited by him, or others on his behalf.  The treatise of this accord shall become null and void in the event of violation of any of these terms, and in any case on the expiry of forty days from this date. Upon invalidation of this document the debt of the state shall be deemed to be discharged and the status of this OOKHITAR revert to that of pirate and renegade. All legal implications and enforcement requirements shall at that time become effective.  There shall however be no reward set for the apprehension of this person and any agency contemplating  this action should be advised to exercise extreme caution particularly if force of arms be involved.

 

 

Governor of Anapes.                                   Regulator for Zoma

 

 

I had Hu~gen say it three times for I found difficulty in believing what I heard.  Was this thing good or bad?  No wonder there had been exclamations at its disclosure. What a condemnation!  It was just as well that the arrows I had fashioned for my as yet untested bow had been made in secret and that the two Aponian fighting devices I had stolen were well hidden.  They would remain so.  The good news from it was that I had a full twelve days more than I had thought.  The miscalculation had been that I had understood the time limit to be one Surian month of 32 days, not one Aponan month of 46 days.  Furthermore, the authorities here would hardly refuse my passage and could probably even be persuaded to pay for it.  I am sure the translation was accurate and the letter did say "The state should affordme every facility." 

 

That evening I took Hu~gen to revisit the Chief of Militia.  At first he was obstructive, but as I revealed bit by bit how much of the letters text I knew he backed down, fearing the wrath of his superiors. We were allocated places on the train leaving on the morrow and guaranteed all normal requirements catered for. I became a little cheeky and even asked that I personally hear the captain in charge of the party be told and agree to these conditions.  The Chief of Militia huffed and puffed and wheedled to the extent that I gave him a moral victory, not demanding this subjugation in front of his subordinate.

 

I thought it a worthy climb down as it might not actually gain all the advantages I had won but at least should not gain me hostility.  There would be enough distrust and lack of understanding for me to deal with on this short journey as it was.  It would be the first time that I was travelling with Aponians and not in control.  I decided that weaponry was essential but must be concealed.  All slaves were expressly forbidden any kind of arms and it was by now well known that I too was not deemed safe when armed, and was therefore prohibited possession of weaponry.  As such there was a possibility of search and so I put my mind to how I could have these things without the Aponians being aware.

 

That morning had seen the first carpeting of snow for the winter.  Only a thin layer, but enough to mark every movement off the straight and narrow.  It was a curious thing, but it actually seemed warmer after the fall.  That was not possible of course, the snow would have melted and it did not.  But the effect was there.  It also killed my idea of sneaking away to hide the weapons out of town and picking them up en route.  The bow I could get away with as I had been doing so far, these people had not seen its like and it would be seen exactly as it was meant to, as an aide to walking. The blades could not.

If we were to carry them they would have to be in our packs or clothing.  After much deliberation I decided to take only one, and that inside my clothing against my back.  Hu~gen should not undergo the risk.  He would probably be next to useless with the thing anyway.  His one good arm was so contrary to his natural handedness he could not have written with it if he tried.  Merely holding the weapon if discovered was almost a certain consignment to the grave for him, and for me to have even contemplated otherwise had been an act of sheer blind optimism and a gross folly.

 

These Aponian weapons were not like any other, although distantly related to the Latiian stabbers.  They were of a similar length, a bit longer than an Aponian/Latiian forearm in total with a handgrip at one end and a point at the other.  They differed in cross section, weight and purpose.  The Latii stabber was as you know heavy and eccentrically round, sort of egg shaped if you looked straight down the tip.  It was either thrust or swung heavily to break open flesh and break bone.  The Aponian weapon was much thinner, almost oval with one edge ground sharp.  Its use was to slice open flesh and as such was much lighter.  It was also fitted with a flat plate to guard the users hand against another blade sliding down on it.  It sounds a potent device I know, and against a similar weapon can surely be lethal. Up against Latiistabbers these things just shatter on impact rendering them useless.

 

I had demonstrated this effect to a number of Aponians already. However very few of them are in any position to tell any one of this.  Thus I was in possession of an effective weapon until I came against any Latii. To carry it I had to remove the hand guard and sheath the sharpened edge then arrange strings to hold it to my back.  It would not be an easy matter to draw it in an emergency, but at least it would not be noticeable to others.  Hu~gen knew of it and although he would not tell anyone I felt he needed reassurance and so I said it was "just in case."  The reason this part of the journey was only allowed to be undertaken under escort was because of the presence of bandits.

 

"Who do you think the Aponian soldiers will look out for first if there is an attack?" I asked.  "I do not want to be stood like a fool waiting for some bandit to chop us up for fish food whilst the soldiers make a defensive formation somewhere else."

"Have? I mean, have you ever used one of those things?" Hu~gen gingerly queried.

I smiled. "Not quite."

Hu~gen blanched. "Oh my stars!"

Cutting an arc and feeling its weight I said.  "I have broken a few though."  

"What? Practising?"

"No.  For real.  Hahh!"

I had flicked the point and thrust, stopping a fingers' width from Hu~gens' chest.  He nearly shat himself.  I withdrew the blade and sheathed it.

"But, but you just said you had never used one."  He blurted, recovering himself.

"I have not. It was the other poor beggars who had these." 

"What do you mean?" Hu~gen asked slowly, being draw in, hooked, fascinated. "Were you, are you really a pirate?"

"No." I answered. "I just got caught up in a little fight.  You do not really think I would be roaming around freely if I was a pirate do you?" 

That hushed him up for a bit but he soon came back, with.

"The letter says you are, and intimates that you have just been excused for a bit because of some service or other.  How do you explain that?"

"Look." I retorted. "Think of it this way. I am not Aponian am I?"

Hu~gen had to concede that.

"Everyone who is not Aponian is a slave.  Right?"

That too he agreed on.

"Now if I get to do something like save the Governors life he has got to give me something in return.  Has he not?"

"Wow! Yes!" Concurred Hu~gen, wide eyed.

"But he cannot grant that forever or that would upset the honey barrel.  So I get Aponian status and enough time to quit the country with an incentive to do so."

"But what about the pirate bit?  Or the warning about arms?"

"Well," Said I hesitantly, "That is to give the story credence and give me a chance. Otherwise the militia would just lock me up and ask questions later."

"Ahh." Said Hu~gen understanding, well maybe not understanding, but pretending to do so.

I could see him at odd times after this exchange looking askance at me and then away as if trying to figure it all out.  He was a good fellow, but he had a lot of learning to do.  There was time enough for him yet.  After all he had only lived fourteen summers or so.

 

The morning of our departure dawned cold and grey with leaden skies drizzling a mixture of rain and sleet.  Our farewells said, we commended ourselves into the hands of the Aponian Militia. Were shuffled into a semblance of order and started off on the road out of Kasa.

Toward midday the inclemence eased and the pace picked up a little.  Heads and faces emerged from hoods and helmets to see an untidy line of merchants with eight soldiers at its fore, some in the middle and another twelve to the rear. There were flank guards more or less every twenty four paces, one to the right and then one to the left and so non.  A total of forty-three soldiers were shepherding a hundred and eight merchants and porters.  There were no carts here.  All the trade items were carried on the backs of slaves.

 

Hu~gen and I were toward the rear of the second part of the file, and must have looked incongruous for we were more of the stature of the porters but without the loads, whereas the others without loads were almost all the taller Aponians.

A halt was called at a place where an enclosure had been erected.  There was no shelter there from the freezing rain, but the walls did break the wind and everyone huddled against them to devour breads and dried meat slices washed down with a little water for most, a little wine for the few.

It was not long before the soldiers came round hustling everyone back into formation and the train got under way again.  Progress was steady, and not too quick.  It could not have been, for the porters were heavily laden, and I was glad to note that Hu~gen appeared to be experiencing little difficulty in keeping up.  There were no more stops until dusk came and the train came up to another enclosure, this time with huts in it, one of them showing a thin plume of smoke.  People lived here, and this party was expected.

 

There was hot food and warm sleeping accommodations, all provided for the soldiers, Hu~gen and I courtesy of the Aponian state.  No one actually paid for anything here.  The merchants had paid their dues in advance for these places were kept up by the government to provide overnight shelter for travellers.  From both the elements and bandits.  I was given to understand however that the bandits hardly ever came this far up the road.  The latter part of the next day and the day after that would be the times most susceptible to attack.  The soldiers however were not taking chances, and posted sentries throughout the night.

 

We woke next morning to find it had snowed again overnight.  It was only a light coating but enough to blanket everything in a cloak of white.  Far and near, all looked the same, with the dark grey overcast threatening more snow providing the only contrast.  The whole party breakfasted then set off down the road, which was only discernible by the coloured posts marking its route.  These were put in at I guessed about two hundred and twenty paces apart (I found out that they were actually 256 and by the rule of eights that is logical) and obviously intended for just this circumstance.  Whether it was a good idea or not is disputable. Because it may ease things for those at the front of such a file as ours, but for those like us to the rear the snow had been pulped to ice on the stone surface, making the footing treacherous at times.

 

The skies executed their warning later in the morning, depositing their burden onto us and turning our world into a swirling fog of flakes.  It was a wonder that the rest enclosure was found, but found it was and lunch stop made there.  There was little or no frivolity in this stop, mainly due to people being unable to see far enough to enjoy the effect of throwing snowballs.

The forming up again took longer, with the soldiers counting and recounting to ensure no one had been left behind, before restarting the trek.  Thankfully the cascade eased after two or three subspans. A timely reduction, as visibility was improved enough for the pace to be increased and allow us to reach the night stop compound before dark.  That halting place was so similar to the previous one, when coupled with the lack of sensation of progress caused by the snow; it gave a funny feeling that perhaps it actually was the same one.

 

The meals and accommodation were the same and even the people living and working there looked and behaved as those before.  It was not just me. Hu~gen remarked on it and said that a number of others had as well. It crossed my mind that this was an elaborate trick to cause delay and thereby run my time out.  Sense told me otherwise.  I was not worth that much trouble.   It really was just an illusion.  It still was an eerie feeling to cross an identical courtyard into an identical bunkhouse and get into an identical bed.

The next morning broke in the same manner as that before, compounding the sensation.  This morning however the coating was crisp and coming up to two handswidths deep.  There was sufficient now for it to just compact without turning to ice under the feet of the advancing file of porters as the train got under way again. The sense of repetition continued as it began to snow again. Not as heavily as before, but enough to limit visibility to below seventy paces.  

 

This sense of isolation and of getting nowhere was beginning to tell, for at the lunch stop I walked around and all I saw were cold tired faces.  Even the merchants and soldiers were looking haggard.  I do not know what these people would have done if faced with a major journey.  This one was after all only supposed to be four days long and we were already half way through the third.  A warm meal or even a hot drink at this point would have helped, but there was not time. The assembly had to be moving again or the night stop would not be reached before dark.

 

I had Hu~gen walk in front of me so I could keep an eye on him and throw the odd comment at him in encouragement.  From time to time I would move up and walk alongside him, chatting and just keeping his mind alive.  That was harder work though as I had to break tracks to do it, and so after a bit I would fall back in behind him, plodding along, thinking of something new to say.

 

I was watching one of the soldiers off to the side, contemplating making fun of him to Hu~gen when it happened.  The arrows came in among the snow flurries.  Even the dull thuds of their striking were deadened by the swirling flakes. The first victims, the soldiers, seemed to silently and almost gently collapse into the soft white blanket, arousing little interest from the cold and dispirited travellers they were meant to protect.  It seemed to me like a dream. 

 

I could see it all happening and dived forward, knocking Hu~gen to the ground to avoid being hit.  We rolled to one side, covered in snow and I held him down, hissing to be quiet and lay still.  I raised my head only to see the remainder of the party continue trudging on as if nothing had occurred.  Even the warning shout from one of the soldiers was so muffled by the falling snow that it failed to penetrate their frozen minds.  The file continued to trudge onward, heads sunken into hunched shoulders.  Oblivious to all but the next step.

Reality slowly intruded as the second flight of shafts felled some of the procession, causing progress to be disrupted.  Halting bemusedly as their downed comrades impeded forward movement, heads came up. Revealing tired, suddenly frightened faces. Then panic broke out.  Some blundered this way, some the other. There had been no particular discernible source for the short shafts.  They had sped in from all directions, their firers hidden in the squalling snows.

 

I looked for them, searching for the point of origin of each incoming shaft in order that I might return some fire, for I had freed my secreted arrows and strung my bow after removing the end-caps.  I could see no one standing to loose off these shafts.  Even the shafts themselves were difficult to track as they had been whitened to disguise them.  The giveaway came as in their exultation at striking down porters who were getting away, a few of the assailants exposed themselves by movement.  Clad in white and masked by still falling snow, they were nevertheless targets now and I took my opportunity.

 

Loading as I rose I launched one then another arrow.  My arrows flew true, and dashing quickly in their track I came to where one of the bandits lay writhing.  I dealt a swift and fatal blow to the bandits' head with my reversed stick and dragged the body behind the bush it had been using for cover.  Rolling it over, I stripped the white cloth from it and put it over myself. Retrieving my arrow, I crossed to my second victim whom I dealt with in a similar manner.  This one was shorter, and turning it over I found to my horror that it looked like I had just killed a Surian.

With no time for recrimination, I took the white cloth, sack of short darts and the strange throwing device and hurried to where Hu~gen still lay.  Looking around, it was obvious there was nothing effective to be done except save our skins.  The ambush had been expertly executed and if there were other survivors I could not see or hear them.  All that was visible were glimpses of ghostlike figures darting from one hapless victim to another.  Speedily ending each ones' moanings and pillaging their packs.

 

Time to be gone. I had not enough shafts for them all and this was their territory. With Hu~gen in tow there were no tricks I could pull here except run like the wind.  Keeping low at first, we straightened up when clear of the road, and ran like these bandits were on our very heels.  They would be shortly, for thought the snow would initially disguise our flight, later on it would reveal our exact path.  For now, we must get well clear andRUN.

 

I ran first, with Hu~gen in my tracks and me looking over my shoulder every few moments to see how he was doing.  There was no worry on him keeping up.  He was right there.  If I had slowed he would have run into me.  We were both running on fear, but where to I did not know.  We could have been running in circles for all I knew. 

I began to tire and looked around at Hu~gen, gesturing to slow down.  We came to a stop, both breathless.  It took a while, sucking in great gulps of cold air before I could speak.

"Well done!" I said.  "Well done!"  Clapping his shoulder I asked, "How do you feel?"

"Knackered." Was the reply.  "I do not know how you do it."

"Same as you my friend."  I replied. "Pure fear."

 

"I do not think so."  Gasped Hu~gen over my shoulder a short while later.  "About the fear, that is.  You did not look at all afraid back there."

"Now that I will grant you, is an art." I answered back.  "Not letting anyone see it when you are scared shitless."

I turned and stopped again.

"I mean, do I look scared now?"

"No." Was the reply.  "Why?"

"I can assure you I am.  Because if that lot realise what has gone on they will not be too pleased I can tell you. And they know where they are." 

"Do you not then?"

"Not a clue. Have you?"

"My stars no! How could I have?  I am just the slave!"

"Not any more my friend."  I said. "I think we just crossed our border."

"Really? Where? Hold on!  How could you know if you do not know where we are?"

"I was being metaphorical."  Was my reply. "The way I see it, that little fracas has invalidated my warrant.  I cannot see the authorities viewing it differently.  So if I am to be a renegade you had best be free.  Do you not think? "He thought for a moment, then agreed. "Yes. I like the sound of that.  It is good.

 

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© Alexander Travell