Home

Some twenty fugitives were waiting at the rivers edge.  All were spent from the exertions of escape, all needing rest before moving on. Move on they must, and that quickly or there would be risk of Asgaran raiding in the dark. Already there were troops crossing down river where the passage was less difficult.

Varlan forces were assembling on the heights above them, but not in strength enough to repel raiding along the river. We would only gain from their presence after climbing the upslope onto the Varlan plain.  Ahmanhad led the way up with me following behind Alleilah in case she slipped. The ascent was fraught as the climb was covered in loose scree.  Thankfully the height was not excessive, and we, plus another ten who had followed, safely made the top.

 

Settling in a defile so we could see, but not be seen by those we did not want to find us, we waited for night to fall.  The wait was not protracted.  With the onset of darkness, we had still not been approached by Varlan troops.  I was convinced that we would not be at least until daylight returned.

Alleilah, Ahmanhad and I had all brought a blanket each although Alleilahs' was still wet from her dipping.  Only two of the others had such foresight.  Thus there were four dry blankets to share around thirteen persons. We organised it so there would be constantly two on watch, which would help, but some would have to go cold.  I wore my oilskins (which were utterly useless now for their intended purpose) as an extra layer, giving up my blanket to others.  Alleilah would share Ahmanhads.

There was precious little fuel for a fire and this was no time to go and find some.  All took a dry, cold meal, even then it was necessary to share provisions as a few people had come away with nothing.

 

As the night came to its darkest point we could hear carnage down below.  An Asgaran patrol had sneaked up on the party remaining near the river and was clearly bent on eliminating it.  The scree slope carried noises of flight and pursuit.  The sound and smell of bloodletting came even closer. That climb had been awkward in daylight. I doubted that it could be completed in the dark, let alone when pursued.

I was wrong.  At least three made it, but only one lived to tell the tale.  One of the three was Asgaran, and in the starlight I witnessed him cut down one of the escapees.  The other fugitive fell into our defile.  The Asgaran followed and fell onto latiistabber.  He spasomed and grunted as I drew stabber clear.

 

Back up on the edge of the depression looking for more trouble I could hear both the wheezing and retching of the Asgaran and away off the whimpering of the equally fatally wounded Driikan.  Both subsided during the course of the night, curiously quite close in time.  I seem to remember it was the Asgaran who lapsed into silence first.

It was of no matter. The unseemly and undignified deaths of both had utterly introspected the hidden fugitives in the defile.  I could tell that every single one was awake.  Every single one was silent.  Pushing Ahmanhad into lookout position I managed a span or so of dozing. 

 

Dawn came to reveal a cold huddle of frightened exhausted people keeping well distant from the thing laying dead in the hollow.  Already the creatures of the parched lands had been busy.  What had been eyes were now sockets, and a trail of creatures extracted carrion from mouth and wound openings.

Even as I stared, bewitched and revolted by the macabre sight the Varlan came.  They were good. With no scrub or trees to hide them, they had still approached unheard and unseen.  Of a sudden the defile was surrounded.  Panic broke out.  My shouts for calm went unheeded.  I settled for gaining Alleilah and Ahmanhad at my side.  We were solidity amongst confusion.

 

The Varlan were patient, waiting calmly for a restoration of order.  As the fugitives realised the finality of their position some broke down to weeping.  Others steeled themselves for what they considered the inevitable.  As the hubbub quelled, the Varlan captain spoke out.

"Come out, one by one, hands clear of your bodies and you'll not be harmed."

"Let's go." I muttered, adopting as best I could the Varlan accent. 

"But ." Ahmanhad started.

"It is all right. These people are truthful." I interjected over my shoulder, walking up to the Varlan ranks arms held wide.

A basic search revealed Latiistabber, which was about to be taken from me.  But I forestalled that by producing the blue Varlan pass I had pilfered some while ago.  This entitled the bearer to do as they will on the states' authority.  Latiistabber was handed back and the captain even saluted me.

 

"These two," Indicating Alleilah and Ahmanhad, "are what's left of my entourage.  As you can see, we got out by the skin of our teeth.  I'm most grateful for your timely arrival and for the assurance of our safe return now to Krogeii."

"I don't understand what precisely has occurred, and until then Grand Commissioner Niiniipa (that was the name on the pass) I can't let you continue."

"It's all right, I understand entirely."  I placated. The entire situation running off the top of my head, abetted of course by my knowledge content and use of the pass.

"And I shall tell Elector Ripokalii such when I see him."

The captain visibly paled.  I had spoken the right words.

"You, you know Elector Ripokalii then?  But you don't come from his edict?  Do you?"

"AC2?  No, of course not. I said Krogeii and that is what I meant.  That I am acting on his behest with the Grand Electors' seal is not of concern."

"The...Grand..Elector?  You know the Grand Elector?" he tried to counter.

"Valadij?" I answered.  "Not really.  We've talked a few times, particularly on this project, but that doesn't really mean we know each other. If you follow?"

 

The captain was convinced.

"What about these others?" He asked.

“Usual format." I replied.  "They're mostly escaped slaves from this botched uprising. Check them out for political awareness and compatibility then deal according."

"And these two?"

"I told you. They're with me.  Undercover work, that's why we're dressed like this." 

"How about the others you spoke of?  Are we likely to see them?"  The captain asked.

"Sadly not." I lied.  "All were killed in this bloody stupid rebellion."

"It's not stupid!"  Ahmanhad blurted.

"Not now Zaniikij!"  I turned. "We've talked this over a hundred times.  It was too soon.  Their door is opened with nothing to come out.  All they've done for all good intention is let the ogre in.  Like I said before, if they'd listened to us they could be truly free.  But no. And this is the result."

   

Alleilah understood what was going on, partly because she had got the blue pass read for me. Partly because she was more rested than Ahmanhad, partly because she was more intuitive than he.  She pulled him round to face her.

"Zaniikii... It's over." She said, reinforcing the lie.  "We all know their cause is just but without the Varlan way they couldn't win. It's over."

Ahmanhad deflated into silence.

"An odd pair you've got there."  The captain noted.

"It's all right."  I returned. "Deep cover training can do that to you."

"Come." I mock consoled Ahmanhad. "The road home isn't far off." Then speaking to the captain. "Will you escort us, or do you need to stay here to oversee things?"

"You go." He answered.  "We have some clearing up to do."  And as an afterthought,  "You'll be all right?"

I assured him we would be fine, and all the better for reaching our first nightstop.

 

Once well clear of the military, Alleilah was jubilant.

"You were fantastic!"  She applauded me. "What a plan!  And so well carried through. But you could have warned us."

When I told her it had all been made up as the situation developed, she was even more awestruck, explaining to Ahmanhad what it had all been about.

I had to correct her when she came to telling how we had been saved from slavery here.  The reality was too stark for her belief.  We were all armed and could very easily have been designated FA‑SC (unregistered foreigners, illegal entry‑ violent, anti state). I could remember that much of the system. In such cases, and it was likely that at least some of the fugitives would be so categorised, the sentence was invariably death.

 

It was a long walk first to the road then up it before reaching L11SH, our stopover point.  All the way I had hammered it into Ahmanhad and Alleilah their new assumed identities and what was expected of them in Varlan society.  Their response was impeccable.  So was that of the blue pass.  No task was too much to please a blue pass holder.  In a meagre place we washed ate and rested like royalty.

 

Our progress through Varlan up the L11 Samageij to Meskeii road continued in a similar fashion. Each stop was a village-sized habitation seemingly put where it was solely for the purpose of providing hostelry to travellers.  Each had its own life, but the locations were not as would be expected were these conurbations in place before the road.

I had made it clear at the earliest point that Alleilah was a free person, unbound by me, and could safely remove her armband.  Ahmanhad had taken it off for her on the first night stop immediately after removing his own.  The act had a sort of bonding effect, and the two became more frequently in each other’s company, at a slight separation from me.  That is to say, when we ate, they would be one side of a table and I the other. When walking they would be together two steps behind me.

 

It was no bad thing. In truth it seemed right.  Male and female.  By the time we reached Meskeii they were not exactly sleeping together, but it was not far short.

We had discussed en route where there were no eyes or ears to discern our conversations, what Alleilah and Ahmanhad desired next.  Both, unable to return to Samage~ and unhappy with Varlan opted to stay with me. At least until in a land where they could settle.

 

All the way the scenery had been dull.  Typical of the Varlan plain, gently, incredibly gently rolling land growing less dry as we journeyed away from Samageij.  Even around Meskeij it was not naturally fertile, but made so by the inhabitants of the area.

Meskeii itself was perched above a gorge, standing guard over the only exit from that chasm. Here was a town in place before the standardisation of the land.  In its way it could be likened to Samageii though now more austere in habitation as well social behaviour.  

 

Both Ahmanhad and Alleilah (now reacting well to their respective assumed names of Zaniikij and Omiijana) became easier in the more familiar surroundings.  Here it would pay us to rest a day or two to recoup our energies. Here too I could solicit more information.  

 

I needed it badly, for I had believed Krogeij lay at the end of this road.  My enquiries found more than they had bargained.  Krogeij lay down the gorge some three days away. More importantly, only just the other side of the river was Latiian territory.

Everywhere, it seemed to me, abutted either on Latii or Aponia.  Was there no escape from these malign influences?

 

I did learn that Latiian military activity was significantly reduced in the past two sectors. Due, it was said, to actions against far off Mides. Here again comment was made that I should have seen the same thing, coming from Kruss as I obviously did.  Well, I knew I did not but I was not going to tell these people that.

Very carefully I extracted the knowledge that Krogeij was downstream, Kruss was up.  A long way it was thought, for visitors from there were rare and always looked tired.  In Kruss lived people who looked like me.  I could not resist it; that was where I had to go.

 

Putting this to Alleilah and Ahmanhad I got a reception other than that I expected. They were not well pleased, in fact quite the opposite.  Both had wanted me to guide them onto Krogeij and then to Mides, where they hoped to settle more agreeably and make plans for the relief of Samage~.  That I had any other intent frustrated their objective.

We talked and talked over our differences and came at length to a compromise. Ahmanhad would carry the blue pass and assume the mantle of Grand Commissioner Niiniipa, with Alleilah his escort.  Alleilah half bridled at this, that I could concede her favours so readily.  The mollification was of course that her consort would now be male.  Neither was slow in consummating this new arrangement, and once again giggling and writhing kept me awake at night.

For my part, I would make my way passless and as best I could up river and avoiding habitation. A second and third night were spent in Meskeij, resting up after the journey so far and preparing for that ahead.

 

We left together in the early morning light.  Passing out the Riverway Gate and down the long track descending into the gorge. Partway down we halted and I passed my flowing hat, shoulder cloth and pass to Ahmanhad.  We had agreed that this had to be done quickly so as not to raise suspicions among potential observers.  It was no bad thing for the parting was sorrowful and speed would preclude tears all round.  So bidding them both farewell and good luck I slipped into the rocks and began to work upstream, out of sight of the citadels watchtowers.  Should they look, all they would see were three far off blobs of colour as Alleilah and Ahmanhad held my cloaks between them.  When far enough off, they would pack them away and continue on in their new guises and no one would be the wiser until it were too late. 

 

Climbing steadily at a shallow angle I managed after some considerable time to regain the lip of the gorge quite a way from the walls of Meskeij.  From there I strode out purposefully, ever watchful of patrols or even just ordinary folk.  If there were any they were few and far between for I saw none all day.

The ground was plainly regularly tended though, for I passed through grove after grove of fruit bushes and small trees.  These thinned and gradually petered out as the day progressed, the land supporting only scrub and scrappy pasture.  It was to stay that way for the entire remaining distance I covered in Varlan.

Three days upriver I came across more cultivation but skirted this completely to return to the river further up.  Throughout these three days the gorge had become less deep and the river narrower, but more violent and tortuous as it twisted and turned along the bottom of the cut.

In common with this side, the far bank had exhibited no form of sentient life in its entire length. I could not believe that Latii was so lax, or so extended to permit this.  But I was not going to cross over (even where the river might let me!) to investigate the truth.

 

Five days upriver from Meskeij, a stranded buika, the first large animal I had seen, caused me to cross.  I had not seen it until quite close.  On the far side and halfway down, it had plainly slipped when feeding near the edge and though now safe was unable to regain the pasture.  Without help it would surely die and then rot uselessly.

I found a place about a longpace upstream where though tricky I could get over.  This successfully negotiated I worked back down to the trapped stock.  Then grabbing it in the time honoured fashion slung it over my shoulders and proceded to climb out of the gully.  This was no easy task, and by the time I could let the thing go I was well pooped.

 

Sitting down to rest, I reflected on the situation.  Where there was livestock, not too far away must be people.  As I were on this side now anyway, if I were careful I could search out these people to confirm (by sight only) that this was indeed Latii.

Logic all in order I set about this new plan.  Following the buika trail I quickly came across others and then the buika themselves. Not far off there was a trace of smoke gently rising from behind a knoll.  There, I presumed, the herder would be preparing himself a light evening meal.  I crept to a place where I could see, and found I had been wrong.  The herder was neut, and I was in Kruss.

 

As far as I could tell he was alone and so I trusted to luck, standing up and walking openly in toward the rudimentary camp.  As I got to within fifty paces his head jerked up suddenly to face me, then he relaxed again.

"You startled me."  It was said in heavily accented, but comprehensible Surian.

"I am most sorry."  I returned. "That was not my intention. I merely approached to request in the spirit of friendship that we share a pot."

"It is my mothers' honour to accommodate a guest."  He replied in the formal manner.

"May your family ever prosper."  I continued in the ritual, accepting the invitation to join him.  "My mother too would be honoured should you permit me to add my meagre components to the pot."

He came back (of course) with, "Let the honour and profit be mutual."

With that I handed over pieces of meats, plant stocks and spices from my bag. Tradition dictated that it was his pot, so he would decide what went in.  Nothing was left out. It is a lonely and tedious life being a herder.  Company and good food are commodities that are rare in the open, and so much appreciated.

 

"You are not from here then?"  Was the opening to a long and easy conversation that lasted through the meal and into the darkness.

I told him of Varlan, Samageii, Woneii and Swez.  He told me of the locality.  He was called Oshmita, of the family Antanko, within the district of Krusska in the land of Sia.

Sia!  Well I never!  Sia was a breakaway from the old lands of Sur before it became a kingdom. I was a lot closer to home than I could have imagined.  

Oshmita made room under the brushwood cover he had constructed and we slept there as soundly as any prince on a feather bed.

Early in the morning mists I left him with his buika.  Striding out across the clearing landscape, the rising sun on my left and a bright jagged horizon far off to my right as the longpaces fell away.

Later on I came across a track heading more or less in the direction I wanted to go, and so followed it, whereupon it led me to a hamlet.  Well, really just three matriarchal units in proximity, and here I enquired the way to the local centre and thence the regional town. 

My garb and manner were looked on as strange, but without hostility or suspicion.  I was even offered cheeses when I explained that I had spoken to Oshmita and told, in answer to enquiries, that all was well with him.

The journey there onwards was met at every stop with hospitality.  The Sian system was so close to that of Sur it requires no explanation, and only served to cause my incomprehension as to why the rift. Unfailingly I was offered breads, cheeses and meats, not to mention a bunk as night came on.  I had nothing to return the kindnesses, for I had no currency save that of Samageii.

A large proportion of that however was in the form of Ahran, Ahranla and Shokka, which are coloured stones, not as I had at first believed, glass.  Though common in Samageii, these items were unknown here and thus much admired.  They served well as gifts of thanks, and thus in a way filled their original purpose as currency.

 

Pressing on through the Krusskan down, the presence looming large to my right needed no introduction.  I knew these formations well enough.  My entire life had been lived in their company.  The mountains.

All I needed to do was follow their march and I would surely find Valev.  My step acquired a spring and my heart a gladness I had not known before.  The longpaces now sped by through an ever greening and more populace countryside, only to halt with a jerk at a military roadblock. 

 

No one was stopped. The block was only there as a warning. From there on the military presence escalated alarmingly to reach a crescendo in the regional capital. Krusska.  The reason was immediately apparent on looking over the river from the town ramparts.  Black Latiian banners stood over the encampments on the far bank.

Active the Latii here may not have been.  Offensive they would always be.  Krusska had a reputation the equal of Pom or Kiisk and though now not under direct threat, I dallied not.

One night to rest and on again, three days journey to Lusska, a far safer and happier place.  Even here was too close to Latiian lands for my liking and so despite a growing fatigue I continued on again.  Day after day, one foot then the other. Tramp, tramp, tramp, the jubilation of before thrown in the dust.

 

Five whole days after Lusska at last I entered the old town of Munesk, and like it or not here I had to pause for rest.  A few Shokka purchased a bed and food for three nights.  In that time I hardly left the room.  For two reasons really, firstly, I slept most of the day anyway. Secondly, I was ensconced in a male house.  I know it to be strange but I had become used to being treated as a male.

The proprietor asked no questions as the place was near empty, the games being recently completed and most males touring the countryside displaying themselves. Anyway, it meant that I was undisturbed. 

No one at all seemed to even give it a second thought.  In my Samage clothes I was plainly a foreigner, but not Latiian or Surian, and as only males travelled alone why should anyone suspect different? Even my behaviour, which would have given it away before did not do so now, so changed was I by experience.

 

A thought occurred to me after leaving the city.  I had not been asked once where I had come from or where I was going.  Did that mean the inhabitants did not care, were too polite to ask, or were studiously avoiding the whole question?  I would never know, for less than a day down the river Munsk it flowed into a vast waterway.  The mighty Grivov, the boundary between Sia and Sur, and the river that runs by Yoss, gateway to Valev.

 

Boat rowers, Surian and Sian alike, waited for fares to cross the mighty waters.  I paid for a Sian with the few coins I had acquired in change.  Border formalities, if you could call them that, were limited.  A few questions from a guard as to where you were from, where you were going, for how long and on whose authority.  My answers flummoxed them completely and I was allowed to pass with a good deal less hassle than local people.

The passage was by no means easy, with my neut rower struggling at times to keep pace with the current as well make headway across it.  He had no energy left for idle chat. As a consequence I landed in Sur with no real idea as to its situation.

 

The war had really taken hold, with the recruiting methods practiced in Pom and Rega the previous summer extended to remote rural area such as this place.  My dress helped to ward off the agents, its flamboyancy (though only a portion of its Samagean splendour) spoke of foreignness whilst my height and looks indicated racial integrity and therefore lack of threat.

Quite frankly, those in authority (or assumed authority) did not know what to make of me and erred on the side of discretion.  As the campaigning season got under way I would wager this laxity ceased.

I was immediately faced with a choice.  With well over a span of daylight left I could either find lodgings and start off with a new day, or alternatively I could keep going and lodge under the stars. With the weather good I opted for the latter and followed a well-trodden path running alongside the river as it ran downstream.  There were plenty of provisions in my pack and so there was no need for me to trap my supper, which bubbled happily over a little fire in the first trees I had made camp in since Mides.

 

A further two days strolling through the pleasant farm and grazing land brought me to another river which could not be crossed by wading, step stones or ford.  Nor was it easily bridgeable, though a start had been made to bridge it at an amenable spot upstream of the confluence with the Grivov.  But as that wasstill in early stages of construction the craft of the boatperson was not lost here yet.

One would have thought so though from the time it took to call one from over the river.  On its eventual arrival to pick me up I could not believe my eyes. I knew the rower. Not well of course, but enough despite the disfigurement to recognise him.

 

He failed to make the visual connection in my direction until halfway returned, when I spoke his name. He had been in the Zandov 2nd. Regiment when I was cooking for them.  For the entire time I was with them the "in" joke had been that my food always tasted like shit.  I had last seen this individual just outside a burning village called Jokljii as the 4th Regiment that I had been transferred to crossed over flanks.

I asked the same question now as I had called out in jest back then.

"Hey Borakta, have you checked the pot yet?"

A light came into his one good eye and he leaned forward to look closer.

"By my hairy arse!  It's." A pause to think then, "Valever. Yes, the Valever if I'm not mistaken!"

"It is me." I said. "And none the worse for my troubles, which is more than can be said of you.  Where did you get that?"

I was referring to the obvious dent in his skull and the scar that ran through the corner of his left eye, rendering it useless.

"Just after Jalii."  He pronounced it "Garly" just as I would have done last summer.  "When them arseholes that carved up the right wing jumped us.  You remember?"

"I was with the 4th then."  I gently reminded him.

He thought for a moment, bringing the boat back into course.

"You was too. Now how did you get here, 'cos all the 4th. and the 12th. too was in the right wing and was killed."

"Pure luck." I told him.  "Got separated in woods and had to fight my way out. But I ended up in the wrong country and I have been trying to get back ever since."

"That would account for your weird dress then."  He commented, and after a pause added.  "So how many's with you then?"

 

"If you mean how many got away.  I do not know.  But I suspect only a few at most.  For myself, I am the only one that made it this far."

I distorted the truth only slightly to make it sound better to an old soldier.  Said otherwise, I knew for I had said it to myself enough, it could so easily be contrived as a coward running away. Borakta had not run. He had been invalided out of military service.

 

Reaching the town banks I stepped out and went to pay him.  He took the Ahran only on the condition that I would sit with him and talk over old times.  There were none hereabouts who had been campaigning and Borakta had a need to reaffirm the reality of his experience and role, past and present.

Besides, he argued, the Ahran was far too valuable to pay for a mere boat ride.  I had not thought so, but reconsidered peoples willingness to accept these coloured baubles as currency in place of legal coinage and was myself forced to re‑evaluate their worth. It might be that instead of a purse full of useless rocks I held the drawstring to commodity of value.

We both retired to a hostelry cum ale house to share a meat pie, a jug of ale and reminiscences. For more than a subspan it was; "Did you see those walls?" Or, "Remember Pankov’s feet?". "Poor Misak, how unlucky can anyone get?". "Was not the High Chief a good leader?". "How about the day Amonta got five sentries one after the other?". "Remember when the shits raided to stop it?" That brought shudders. "And the campaigning?  Was that not the worst and the best at the same time?" 

 

On and on it went as we compared notes on our individual experiences.  I told of the defeat at Jaliiaprom and escape over the river, how I had still been fighting them off when the Nula pitched in.  He told of his action and the final course of the campaign as relayed to him in convalescence.  

It transpired that the right wing had gone on too far too quickly, the main body being delayed in major battle.  The destruction of the 4th/12th Zandov had prevented flanking and had permitted a resounding victory over the following days, the Jaliiaprom garrison arriving too late to change the course of events.  The fighting had been at low cost to Sur, most regiments, excepting Zandov 2nd/5th who were at the centre of the action, suffering minor losses, but of course major damage in the process to Borakta among others individually.

 

The Latii had been forced into defence of another river town through siege.  Only the onset of winter and difficulties with rations had caused a Surian withdrawal to Jojiisk, where the town actually fell with the New Year.

Public opinion was approving of the armies efforts in taking the town as a lesson to Latii and the glory of Sur.  There was division however among the enlightened over the value of campaigning, for the whole endeavour had in the end been costly in lives.  Moreover, the grand manoeuvre had ended in withdrawal to original positions so to a number appeared to be a waste and even foolhardy as it would most likely condition an exaggerated response from Latii this following summer.

 

The Land Army was recruiting heavily in expectation of that, as well to replace the losses of the previous seasons activities.  Almost no sooner than the subject was broached than in stomped two recruiting agents garbed in the yellow half mantles of the Kings' Messenger Service, with the blue Land Army over-sashes.

The male was puny in stature and voice but with an arrogant and overbearing attitude.  The neut was large, subservient and possessed an intimation of restrained violence.  There were twelve others in the alehouse and none were precluded from the agents' attentions.  Recruiting agents is perhaps a misnomer of a description.  Enforcers would be more accurate.

 

Male or neut, there were three types of persons in the recruiters eyes.  Those who for whatever reason were officially excluded from the requirement to serve, those already promised to the Land Army and awaiting instructions, and those who should and would be promised.  Every individual who was not in the second category (and that meant thirteen out of the fourteen there) was harangued as to their exclusion, and when this was not immediately watertight, intimidated into promissory service.  Attempting to leave merely focused attention upon the individual.  One tried it.  No one followed the example.

 

These agents had five notes of intent when they came to Borakta’s table.  He had moved deliberately so they would not see his scars on their approach.

"Filth." He had muttered on their entry. "I would have them to the war faster than a breath.  Look at them. Strutting in here, sending others to die when they're living on the fat of the land."

 

"So!" The male chirruped almost gleefully. "A fine pair we have here. Eh?"

To me in particular, "Wherever did you get that mannequin suit?  I tell you I can find you a Surcoat that would fit you far better!"  Then without pause and turning to Borakta, "And you! Those broad shoulders would suit well the High Chiefs' divisions. So why are you not attested?"

Borakta slowly and dramatically turned full face to the male, who stood rooted and appalled.

"Is this..?" he started to recover.

"Yes!" Borakta butted in, his voice full of venom.  "We two have stood in the ranks.  Now why do you not?"

"Do not be cheeky with me!" The male exploded.  "I am on the Champions' staff, and whilst you draw a pension I am your superior.  Now stand up!"

Borakta insolently remained seated.

"Miskov!" The male screeched.  "This one to custody!  The turd may be beyond fighting but he can porter for the army for his sins!"

Miskov blundered forward and I stood.

"Do not think..." The male halted in mid sentence, his two eyes growing wide as Boraktas' one.

"Shiii-it!" Borakta exhaled, turning white at the sight of Latiistabber drawn.

The room was absolutely still.  Not a breath taken.  Two moments passed, then a third.  The male started to back up and the neut saw the need to act on his superiors behalf.

The ceremonial shortspear lunged but stabber was old to action and had its measure.  Sweeping up, its mass splintered the haft separating it from the blade and coming to rest on high.  Ready for the killing down-stroke.

 

Borakta retched. Neither male nor neut needed further convincing of the position.  Both backed very carefully to the door and wordless made their exit.  Latiistabber relaxed and hid itself once more in the folds of my clothing.  Borakta started to regain control, regaining colour in the absence of the terror weapon. A buzz of conversation broke out.

I assured myself of Boraktas welfare and health, saying that I had caused enough trouble for him, and that I had better be gone when the recruiters returned.  The room had an ear to all we said and concurred, as next time there would be more than two.

 

"Where will you go? Asked Borakta.

I told him, "Downstream.  Down the Grivov to home."

"Take my boat then."  He offered. "Better still, let me take you, then when I get back the fuss will have died."

I did not want to be an encumbrance but could not refuse the offer.  In no time we had re-boarded and slipped the line.

 

Borakta only guided us a short way though, negotiating the confluence of rivers and then clear of the town, then bringing the boat to the bank and hiding it amongst reeds.

"Wait here." He instructed. "I will get provisions and let my family know what is going on."

I did not have long to wait before he was back with armloads of bags.  These were just thrown in pell mell and again we were off. Little effort was needed to keep going. The current did all the hard work, carrying us past villiages fields and towns.

The days were idyllic, comprising leisurely progress through fertile country with plenty of stops for refreshment.  We stayed mostly with the Surian bank although the welcome was equally good on the Sian side. We overnighted in a put you up.  That is to say a proofed fabric sheet on poles much like that employed by Oshmita the Sian buika herder.  How Borakta had obtained it at such short notice I could not think.

 

Beyond the major river junction and inevitable town of Mikov, both banks became Surian territory, with Sia passing ever further behind us.  I trapped a few times for food but most of our vittles came from Boraktas' bargaining in villages.  He would not take my assistance or offers of remuneration in these deals.  

His only condition was that at our destination I gave him all my coloured stones and allow him a tenth part of what he could sell them for. That to me seemed a ludicrous arrangement, but Borakta would accept no other.  I had no reasonable choice except to agree to it.

 

The day swiftly came when Borakta moored his boat alongside the jetty at Yoss.  On the far bank the mountains had been steadily rising, now they loomed large.  For the land of the high hills was a mere river crossing away.  Valev, and home.

Borakta found us lodgings and over a heavy meal and lashings of ale we made our goodbyes.  He would not come into Valev with me.

"A homecoming," He told me, "Is for the leaver.  Strangers just spoil it."   He would find me before the snows, with the profit from his trading. 

Artfully reminded, I handed over all the Ahran, Ahranla and Shokka.  Borakta was not interested in the Susski, or for that matter any other coinage.

 

There were enough of those to choose from.  I still had two Nula Gos, half an Enaran Gros and three Aponian Dramah, none of which was worth very much.  There were of course the two Midean silvers which were valuable and less so but of some value nevertheless Driikan Suskii.  None of these, except perhaps the silvers were usable in Sur or Valev, and so Borakta lent me coinage enough to get home.

 

I crossed the next morning on the same ferry which had first brought me to foreign lands.  It still carried huge quantities of buika pelts from Hivalev and I had to wait for these to be unloaded before I could board for the trip home.  It was odd, but as soon as I stepped on the deck I felt foolish.  The looks I received at my apparel were no different to those I had seen all the way up from Varlan.  But somehow, because these were Valever eyes widening or peeking askance, it bothered me.

 

I could not do much about it for Borakta had lent me enough to eat, not to buy shirts. Alleilah, in her wisdom had furnished me completely with new clothing and so the only non Driikan costume I had was the equally foreign looking Legny drysuit.

A few longpaces clear of Ipnayoss, the small village and landing station on the Valev side of the river I rummaged through my pack, and although dirty, chose the least flamboyant shirt and hose then surmounted them with the shabby top to the drysuit. Now in cream leggings and illegal Driikan yellow shirt with grey-brown overjacket I could not be classified as hideous, even though colourful by Valev standards.  It was at least better than I had started the day, in pale blue hose and bright red shirt.

 

I still had a set of matching red trousers, a dark blue and a green shirt plus a dark blue shoulder cloth packed from my Driikan days.  Thankfully Alleilah and Ahmanhad had carried the red shoulder cloth and headscarf off with them.  The cream headscarf I had worn as a cummerbund since I struck Sian soil. Needless to say it was less than cream now.  And so I entered Vasny not as a stranger, but with the appearance of one.

 

Overnight lodgings were easy to find, especially with the knowledge gained in my time here at university.  They were less easy to obtain. My garb, muted though it was in comparison with Driike, was still foreign, and to house owners I was therefore a risk. The prices they asked were extortionate and when I quoted a previous known sum, more often I was asked to leave rather than shown courtesy.  A great change in attitudes.

This was explained when I did find lodging, the proprietors consort recognising my voice and looking more closely to remember me despite my clothing.  Taxes, Zimlov told me, had been increased.  Or to be more truthful, more rigorously enforced against popular will.  This to pay for the regiments that had been sent in token aid to the Surian war.

 

As he spoke the words, my heart dropped and a premonition that I had not seen the last of Latii swept over me.  The whole thing, Zimlov explained, was a try out, to see if two regiments would be enough to placate Sur.  That and to gauge Valev military capability and to examine the lands’ ability to pay. All three pointed to an expectation of long-term commitment.  In the short term only the first was a question.  Already a whole Land Army was being formed to answer it.

It transpired that during the winter the Vasny council had ceded to Surian diplomatic moves, again for two reasons.  Firstly to honour a misquoted misunderstanding that Valev would assist Sur in a time of need.  Secondly to provide a natural camp for Valever males who were going to Sur in ever increasing numbers as volunteers to the Surian cause.

 

The champion was there, as were two High Chiefs.  So their stand-ins were running Valev and Vasny instead. I asked who was who and got answers I did not want.  There was a new Champion, Zorak Oblanva, and he had taken Imnak Vasyakva, High Chief of Vasny and Iktak Amakva High Chief of Iktna as field commanders.  Even worse, Andrak Andrakva of Yagev was stand-in Champion and his puppet, Endak of Vasny stand-in High Chief for the capital. There would be no succour for me from either of these two.

 

Very well, my tale was not to be told in Vasny anyway.  I would now have to press on home more quickly before any chance these two would hear of me and put three and three together.

Accordingly I made my preparations and bade Zimlov farewell next morning.  Facing me now was no small task.  It would take three full days from here to climb up to Asne, via Yossna. I had walked half a continent but that was no experience like this.  I had done it before of course, but every time was more backbreaking, leg aching than the previous.  This was to prove no exception.  I was not getting any younger, as my collapse into Asne testified.

To make it worse, I had lugged two sacks of grain over the hundred and fifty longpaces which themselves rose nearly twenty thousand paces into the sky.  I could go no further without rest.  Fortunately a division was made here, with only half the grain going on to Iktna.  As a latecomer to the portering I was laid off at this point, there being sufficient regular neuts to do the work.

 

The other not required porters in the service of other masters went back down to Vasny to wait on another load.  For me, I carried on in the wake of the grain column, albeit a day behind.

 

Asne had been an odd town, for although in Hivalev and capital of a region it was a place where most people only stopped when en‑route to somewhere else.  The real median between Hi and Lovalev being Yossna, and the "end of the road" and Hivalev powerhouse being Iktna, a further two days travelling away.  By my reckoning, I arrived there a year to the day after leaving.  

There were people I knew in Iktna, though fewer nowadays.  Varikta still runs a buika business, though not for the same master as when I used to trade with him. He took me in and gave me more suitable clothing and a place to lay my head for as long as I needed it.

 

This is really what friendship is about.  He asked nothing more than I relate my tales to enliven his evenings.  I was happy to comply, at the same time gauging the ground so to speak.  I had not put ten questions to him in two days when he grasped the purpose of my quest. He told me all I needed to know there and then.

Iktak was indeed away to the war having taken over as High Chief on his fathers demise.  The stand-in was an old fool, long rejected for the post and constantly inebriated.  There would be no sense gained there.

 

But the secret (if that is what it was) was out.  No more males had been born this year and now all Hivalev knew.  So did Vasny.  They were sending males up this season in exchange for neuts.  Even now the adjudicators were selecting as instructed, those to be taken down to Vasny, into the army and thence to Sur.

All Hivalev was affronted and embittered, but optionless.  The councils had no solutions and the designate High Chief would do nothing in Iktna, though he at Asne riled loudly at Vasnys handling, but to no avail.  It was plain then that I must first approach the Iktna council, then the Asne High Chief if I were ignored.

The council are not an easy body to speak to, particularly if you are neut and of technically no filial allegiance.  I tried for four days and each time was turned away, until like elsewhere I got angry and made demands.  Here it merely got me an appointment to speak, and that in another ten days.

 

I used the intervening time to make a visit to my mothers' house.  The nearest thing I had to a home.  That it most definitely was no more.  On arrival I was recognised, and spurned.  It transpired that both my mother and aunt had died in winter, and my now ancient sister Aminra was matriarch.  She had always disliked me and made it plain that I no longer had links there.

I was fed and lodged there as a stranger, and shown the way out next morning.  I am sorry to say it, but that hurt.  I determined that a family so heartless would no longer benefit from those they excluded.  I would speak to the council of elders and have the stipend reserved for my use only, and then make a place for neuts like the male house in town.  Not that many neuts would need it, but should they it would be there.

I gushed my story to Varikta on my return.  He was not impressed.  Both by my families lack of hospitality and the likelihood that they would advise the adjudicators of my presence and thereby retain one of their neuts in exchange for me.  I could not believe that things could be so bad.  I was wrong.  They were worse.

 

Eventually speaking before the council, I explained the quest I had been set, and started to describe my travels when I was cut short with the demand for an answer.  It was an unbelievable impoliteness.  The explanation was far too complex when told by me, a layperson, for the council to properly comprehend.  I think I have the basic grasp of the AO-BD complex, but relating it to another without the depth of knowledge held by the researchers at SSAG was almost certainly doomed to failure.  To me it sounded clever.  To them it sounded gibberish.

 

This did not help the conclusion that a dietary imbalance was most probably the cause. This based on SSAG experimentation that revealed the addition of Zaphrod to intake in the female most rapidly re enabled the male producing AD link.  Its drawback was that it reset O's to A's.  As this was the normal state anyway in all higher beings under the SSAG scrutiny, they had considered it a positive result.  What that meant was no neuts in the peoples of Milatan/Aponian stock, and the introduction of Zaphrod to Valev females may mean no more Varlev neuts.

This of course was a price any society would be prepared to pay in order to guarantee its future.  I could see this and advocate it even though it meant catastrophe to what I grew up with and believed in.  Perhaps this was torn between the standards and expectations of two genders.  I cannot tell.  Perhaps it was because despite my incessant claim to be from this society I was now apart from it, and in retrospect was never really belonging to it in the fullest sense.  Again I cannot tell.

 

The conclusion the council saw met their own ends.  Imported males would not rectify the situation and were therefore not to be permitted passage to Hivalev.  A search would be made for Zaphrod.  This was all. To add injury to insult, no record was known of any stipend to me. Stipends were not paid to neuts and that was it.  My pleas got them to conduct a search of records in case it were marked as my fathers or in another name.

 

Two days later the answer came.  There had indeed been a levy attributed and paid to Asyavak and his primary dependants. That however had been anulled with a triple payment last year.  That paid direct to Asyavakson instead of as had for years now been usual, the boys’ mother. I could not believe it.  I had been given my own stipend and not the Champions gold after all.

I was stunned by the duplicity and cunning.  Despite being dead now, the High Chief had guaranteed that the nation benefitted. If I did not return he and his successors would be rid of an embarrassment.  Even if I did I would be forced, as now, to revert to the socially accepted role of menial neut.  Furthermore, if I did manage to get back I would bring some sort of answers.  He had laid his bets well.  Whatever happened he could not lose.

 

I came away from the council chambers embittered, confused and angry.  Not only had mud been thrown in my face but now it was being squished into every orifice.  With the news had come instructions for my 'welfare'. I was to report to the Grand Marshall of Vasny.  I protested this, demanding audience with the High Chief of Iktna, on whose staff I arguably still was.

"You shall see him."  I had been told.

This small victory heartened me for a moment then I remembered where he was...Jojiisk.

"What about the deputy High Chief, the Grand Marshall?"  I asked.  It transpired that the source of the order was the Grand Marshall himself.  There was no way I could elude or disregard such an order.  I could however kick the system and be slow in reporting for the order had not stated a time or date.  So I spent another night with Varikta.

 

It turned out that I could actually be of use in this move, as he had assembled a small herd of buika for his master ready to go down to Yossna and thence via the trader I used to work for, on down to Vasny.  The usual herder was late returning from the last trip and if any longer were waited the herd would become too large to manage without difficulty.

 

I would not have been surprised to find these same buika driven halfway to Rega.  In the process of course they would change hands and price four or five times.  I suggested that by my taking them direct to Vasny, at least one middleman could be eliminated and the profit come direct to Iktna.  Varikta wholeheartedly agreed.

 

Feeding the herd that evening, as they had been assembled in a pen for security and treating, I noted an odd thing.  The grain in the tray was husked.

"It is a while since I have seen that."  I commented to Varikta, asking why he fed them this way.

"The time of year."  He answered. "Hivalev third class grain is cheaper than grass fodder at the moment, and although classed unfit for people it is fine for animals."

"I thought," I told him,” That all grain was de husked."

"Usually." Was his answer. "These days. But that is because Lovalev grain comes up like it so now it is fashionable.  But it was not always so, food used to always have a bit of husk. I like it that way, makes you more regular.  Now people think it is easier to de husk everything not straightway classed as grade three, and worry about its classification and use later.  It is also a more reliable quality check.  There have been cases you know, where the husk is sound but the core rotten."

 

Of a sudden, links in the puzzle of life started dropping in place. How could I have missed it? How could anyone have missed it? It was so obvious, staring us in the face.  I wondered then if Zaphrod or something like it were in grain husk.  I had a strong suspicion that it did.  Well, I thought to myself, this was a little bit of conjecture or information that could wait for someone appreciative to hear.  Like Iktak, High Chief of Iktna.  Even then at a price.

A price like the reinstatement of stipend.  Not that I wanted or needed that much, but it had now taken on a point of honour.  If not him, then with his knowing, the stipend had been stopped.  It was my money that had set up the blue eye traders.  It was my money which had purchased Hu~gans freedom.  Reflecting on this I actually felt better about it.  I had been concerned as to how I should account for these finances to the High Chief.  I no longer had worries on that score.

 

In fact, should Borakta ever reappear with profits from his endeavours, I would without a second thought pocket my share. My thoughts had taken my mind away from the present.  Varikta brought me back with aloud cough.

"That is better."  He said. "Are you going to tell me now what took you away?"

I was slow to follow his meaning, and then when I did evaded the issue.

"It made me think of a far place."  Was my reply, "and of a fellow who was to have come here.  An Enaran called Harnen.  Have you heard of him?"

Varikta had not. I was sure that had Harnen reached here everyone would have known of it, not least Varikta.  Thus it was reasonable to presume Harnen had not made it and yet another trick was in my pocket alone.

 

A short time ago, as recently as twenty days, all this information would have been divulged for free. I had given most of it in my account not three days since.  It was not my fault that no sense and therefore no urgency was made of it.  I could not hold that attitude for long however, so much so that guilt pangs kept me awake in the night.

 

On the morrow, in my goodbyes I had to make comment to Varikta, saying that in my opinion all matriarchs he dealt with should be advised to mix husk with their oats and set fire to stubble after crops were in.  He burst out laughing.

"You mean that is what all that heartache and searching has found?  Go on with you!  get these buika moving before you see solutions in their shit!"

"I am serious!"  I retorted hotly.

"I know!  I know.  " He placated.  "And I shall tell them I assure you.  Now go!"

He was right to push. The morning had worn on, and buika are known slow movers in herd.  

 

There is a knack to moving them on and a special trick told to me many years ago when I clerked in Yossna.  These multi source herds are all treated to follow a lead animal.  Usually then the herder just has to keep the lead moving, but this can involve a lot of prodding and other inducement.  The lead animal is chosen for its acceptability to the buika, however and is usually the largest animal in the herd.  Of a consequence things can get hairy if the lead takes exception to the herders methods.

 

A far easier means is to extend the 'treatment'.  this consists of scent marking the noses of each animal with the chosen leads urine. Why or how this works I do not know. Suffice to say it does.  The trick the old herder told me was to scent mark the lead with ones own urine.  That way the lead follows you and therefore all the others do.  The advantage is that when you leave the herd at destination it is only necessary to restrain the lead until you are out of scent range. If it were done to all the herd, each one would have to be penned just like they must be during assembly before the journey.

Needless to say, it worked like a charm.  The buika following me (provided I did not go too fast)  all the way down.  Straight through Asne as usual and skirting Yossna so as not to annoy the trader there for future transactions.  I finally guided the buika into the stock trading market at Vasny some eleven days after setting out.

As with everywhere, all the faces I knew from old seemed to be gone, with precious few new ones taking their place.  Bargaining was hard, taking three days to achieve a sensible figure despite prices being higher than normal.  It seemed that everyone was on the take.  All the old values were gone in a wave of change.  I did not like at all what I saw and heard.  It was as if the fabric of society had been ripped open to reveal a rotten corpse beneath.

 

But how could this be? In so short a time with so small a real change.  Sur was not so affected and the demands on them were far greater.  Then I thought about it.  Had Sur changed?  How could I know what it was like before open war?  Indeed when I thought about what I had seen but not taken in, I was not sure Sur was not much like Valev now.  What about Borakta?  Was not he on the take right now, squeezing what he could out of a system that had let him down?

 

Putting aside my ruminations, I banked Variktas profits as instructed and accepted my hundredth part.  Did that mean that I too was on the take?  Not really, I told myself, for that is the rate that would be set aside for the herder whether filial or hired.  It is true that usually the herder, being neut would not actually see the sums, the favour or finance being received by the matriarch, who then used the gains to the welfare of the family, the neut being an integral part of it.

 

Of a technicality, my wages could have been paid to the credit of Iktnas High Chief, whose staff it might be said I was still on.  However, as Zimlov pointed out when I laid my troubles at his door, it could be said that I had been discharged in tasking by Pratak, the ex High Chief.  As I had not been on his staff all the time, i.e. permanently, it could reasonably be interpreted that I was a hiring, albeit in my case a non filial hiring.  This would legitimately 'free' me to do as I wished and so avoid reporting to the authorities.

 

I found this argument quite persuasive, particularly as I well knew the form of treatment I could expect, namely military service.  Postulating out loud as to the probability of getting away with this ploy it was obvious that it would not work.  Well, not without declaring it before the Grand Marshall.  Hiring or not, having been ordered to his presence I was compelled to go.  If I did not, sooner or later the tallies would come down from Iktna and I would be missing from them.  Were I then discovered, there would be no excuses.  My appearance now, without prompting and unexpected until the tally arrived could be easily managed to produce a result in keeping with that I required.  Particularly if, as was normal in these cases, the reporting was done to an intermediary body.

 

Zimlov and I worked on my story and wording until we were reasonably sure of the desired effect. Then I went to the offices of the Grand Marshall.  Sure enough, the matter was dealt with by clerics.  These neuts just took my details and noted my argument.

"You would." I was advised. "Have been assigned to reserve regiment five, which being all uplanders is under strength and probably will not go this year. But, as there is a question of validity, you will go down as tenth regiment."

 

"Quite frankly."  The cleric told me.  "In these cases it is best to let your objections alone.  Reserve three marched two days ago, four is close to complete forming and is expected to move within the month and ten will follow shortly thereafter.

I did not understand the organisation and said so.  The explanation was readily given, almost happily.  The Valev Compliment for Surian Defence (VCSD) departed leaving two support regiments, reserves one and two ready formed with orders to follow one month behind the main force.  Subsequent reserve units were to be made up on an as required basis.  Lovalev having to provide reserve regiments one and filling RRs three and four.  Hivalev was responsible for RRs two and five.  All persons, no matter their background, who required validation of service were assigned to RR ten, the expectation being that this regiment were on paper only.  In practice, its numbers were such (after confirmation of validityof course) that it seemed  likely to go long before the fifth which was nowhere near completion.

 

The bad news was that come move out date, all validation checks outstanding would be aborted and the individuals sent regardless.  There was no prospect whatsoever of transfer from one regiment to another once allocated. This was the source of the clerics’ glee.  My case would be looked into, but it might take a full month for them to get round to it. By which time it may well be too late. I could be in Sur and marching to Jojiisk.

 

Reporting to the designated assembly station two days later I got another cold welcome.

"Bloody neuts!"  The controlling officer, a male naturally, commented.  "Always trying to avoid duties."

I said nothing for I could see he had the notes referring to me in front of him.

"So you think you are a bit special eh?"

"No." Was my reply.  "Just that I have un-concluded business and do not think it right that I should be conscripted...Yet."

"Hah!  Neither did any of the other ranks in this bloody regiment.  You are all wrong!"

I started to protest but was cut short.

"Ever been in an affray?"

I answered truthfully in the affirmative.

"That is something then.  Come back here next Three day and we will see what can be made of you."

 

I took the time to go down to Ipnayoss and leave a message there for Borakta, after my enquiries ascertained that he had not passed through as yet.  I had not expected that he would have, but you can never be too sure.  Through this entire affair Zimlov was a great help. Accommodating me for minimal cost and readily listening and advising on my situation.

 

Three day came, and with it the temptation to abscond.  I overcame it and reported for duty.  It was a shambles.  The assembly station was packed with people of all genders and all walks of life, pushing, shoving and talking simultaneously.  I waited for a subspan amid the chaos and no improvement in order came so I left.  Nobody stopped me.  I do not think in all the hubbub my going was even noticed.  I did not return and no one came looking for me.

Fourth Reserve Regiment did not move out as quickly as foretold.  Out of curiosity I spent some occasional times at the games arena as they and the fifth assembled and practiced movement, attack and defence. It was plain that they were not ready and even when the fourth did depart at the end of month eleven I could see they would have difficulty fitting in with the Surians.

 

With the departure of RR4, Tenth Reserve was dragged out of the woodwork to form an opposition to RR5.  The result was a disgrace and I said so to Zimlov.  He very neatly put me in my place saying;

"It is people like you that make it so."

He appreciated my sentiments but truthfully pointed out that I was not in a position to criticise unless I were prepared to do something about it.  Shamed by these comments I went down to the DAS and reported for duty.

They had known I was absent, but so many others were too that it would take a return of the Army to find them.  Glad that I had changed my mind, the commander elected for no punishment. Quite the contrary, on the basis that it was known I had participated in the affray of Asyavak (if only they knew to what extent) I was to be promoted to Squad Marshall.

 

Organisation was dreadful, each sixty or so strong section being differently made up each day dependant on who turned up and when.  Sometimes there would be five sections to oppose RR5th's three, and other times as little as two.  Each 'soldier' was issued a spear stave, minus head to avoid injury.  There was no fear of that.  Whenever RR5th's disciplined ranks charged, the tenth ran. There was not a lot I could do at first for as with the soldiery, the officering altered every day.  I could not stand it for long.

Zimlov and I made up blue and red entwined ribbons, enough for my squad.  Whatever persons I was issued next day would wear them and be my squad thereafter. I took a list of names and told these people to be there every day or it would not bode well for them. It did not go down well at first with anyone, but it is so obviously the right way to do it that it was quickly taken up.  I had however taken the prime position, 3rd squad, 3rd section, the lucky squad.

 

In combat training my first move was to relocate myself from behind the squad to in front. With my back to the approaching RR5th I felt the first stirrings of command.  I had drilled the squad mercifully all morning, not that the basics of battle were by now unknown, but to temper them as a cohesive body, and ensured that they were the first to eat at midday.  All lessons confirmed in war.

In previous days I had cause on occasions to demonstrate that the hottest anger in a surly individual was no match for practical competence.  Each knew that the first to move without my approval would pay the price and I was well capable of delivering it.  Now they stood.  I hoped it was not all fear of me, but if that were the case, so be it.  Having stood once they would do so again.

What a difference a day could make.  As it was, it was not the squad which received my blows but a Section Leader from RR5th.  Mocking our line up and unable to resist the temptation of a turned back, he forgot all that was learned against RR4th.  There was another lesson to be learned but it was over too quickly for him to realise it. I fight like Latii.

 

Screaming Milatan curses I launched into the Hivalever ranks, sending them flying with the ferocity of this assault.  Using sticks instead of stabbers, I failed to clear the third row properly, catching a foot in the tangle of falling limbs.  Even on the ground I managed to take out the Section Controller who was moving to cover the gap.  The Equerry, though young, was games trained and knew how to move, parrying my blows long enough for order to be regained in his troops.

Regaining my feet, I was ringed with hostile faces.

"Very well." I conceded.  "Now you have me, a Marshall in a training squad you so readily mock.  And yet see what I have done. How do you fare against soldiers?" 

A stick made to lunge. Mine countered.

"A lesson to the overconfident."  I jabbed. "Imagine now I were a tenth taller, twice as broad, there were thirty of us and." Jab flinging my stick at the lunger I reached to my belt and whipped out the Latiiian stabber. "Armed with these!"

Arcing the stabber up  for all to see then down to shatter the outstretched sticks, and hammer home the point, I cursed.

"That is Latii.! That is what you will confront! Mark it well and ready yourselves."

Replacing stabber and retrieving my stick I returned to my own squad.

"Any questions from here?"  I asked. 

There were none. And so we went back to work. Seriously.

 

In ten days they were solid and I was promoted to Controller.  Ten more days and the section was solid.  I was gaining a family, one I needed to protect.  What we needed were teeth.  In the Valev Army, archers are an extra.  Following the Surian pattern I apportioned the troops to their best suitability and converted not just the fourth but also the third rank to archers, but grouped them in order to provide greater firepower at weak spots.  All the sections of RR10th and RR5th saw and copied the formation.  Ten weeks after starting, a force capable of linking with Sur and defeating Latiians was ready.  Moreover, it was a force in which I had a chance of surviving a second encounter with the black clad ogre.

 

It was not needed. Due to march out at the start of month 13, one full month after RR4th, the reserve was instead disbanded. Why?  The advance column of the VCSD crossed through Ipnayoss on 12/33 with the main force marching triumphantly through Vasny three days later. Engaged in border patrol, and encountering minimal action the entire compliment had regarded their presence as unnecessary and returned home for winter.  They were not to have known that for this last summer Latiian attentions were directed elsewhere. It did not mean they would always be.  I would not raise the issue for the return meant that I too was not needed.

 

I thanked my dancing stars then double thanked them when a mere five days afterward Borakta came. He produced an unthinkable wealth, of which I could not allow him to take the measly tenth portion that he had allotted himself.  Even half would provide funds for me to live comfortably under Zimlovs roof for the next ten years.

 

I tried to persuade Borakta to stay, but he had a family to return to, and from which he had been away too long already.  We feasted and drank for a ritual three days as he told me of the deals struck and the prices paid.  Sadly I went down with him to Ipnayoss and bade him a safe journey home.  His boat seemed to take forever to make way against the current and disappear finally upstream.  Borakta too was gone.

 

Turning my back on the river, the first flurry of white winter snow danced its way through the air around me, symbolically sealing me in and closing a chapter of my life. I could now live and eat well enough but without friend or purpose.  Cut off by snow from Iktna and the High Chief now safely there ensconced and from all others save Zimlov my landlord by gender and societies precepts. 

It would be a long cold and lonely winter indeed.  It would be a winter to write down a tale.

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© Alexander Travell