Crossing the river was no easy task. There was a raft that traversed the flow along a rope, much like the arrangements I had encountered in Nul and Enar. With the river so high and swift this was not a crossing to be made by anyone at all nervous or weak willed. There was added to the inherent dangers, the complications of politics. The raft would only take twenty-four persons, perhaps thirty at a push. In these conditions, with heavy packs, it was recommended that not more than twenty be aboard at one crossing.
This meant there would be a number of journeys. The trader needed to be on the first trip for two reasons. Firstly to give his porters confidence, secondly to begin organising formalities in Mides. His desire though, was to see what happened to the laden raft before leaving Swez. Mizak on the other hand wanted to delay leaving Swezz as long as possible, but also needed to keep an eye on things on the Midean side.
He too wanted to be on the safest raft, logically therefore the one on which the trader crossed, but not the first and not the last. Each of the two could see each other’s viewpoint and after a time of negotiation a compromise was reached. Affta and I would be on the first crossing, with the trader and some of the porters. We, that is Affta and I, would watch the proceedings to see that nothing amiss took place whilst the trader returned on the third or fourth raft. Both he and Mizak would then cross on the next to last raft with Mokta. It sounded a poor compromise for the trader if you asked me, but of course no one did.
The raft had started on the Midean side, and watching it come for us was as unnerving a sight as anyone could withstand. It jerked and bucked as if it were a live animal trying to free itself from the single rope hawser restraining it to the banks. For all that, the raft arrived in one piece. The creaking and groaning of its timbers as it was loaded enhanced the impression that it and we would not survive its return.
It did, and we did. In all the devices' shuttling to and fro, not a single person was hurt. In fact, fully laden, the raft was steadier in the water. The crossing occasioned little more than a dampening from spray and twisted nerves from the creaking of the rope and woodwork.
The disembarkation into Midean territory was a relief to everyone. Indeed, even Affta and I were welcomed, and that was before the trader had informed the authorities of our arrival and purpose. Here for the first time I saw Midean soldiers. They were different to the Latii. For the first part, their armour was not of metal, but of padded leather and wood. Their head gear was of a similar construction, making their heads look huge, and unlike Latiians were open faced.
The most striking difference was in colour. Each soldier had a bright blue sash and a coloured cummerbund. Most were in yellow but there were reds, blues and greens in evidence. I surmised them to be an indicator of rank much as the Surian Army and totally different to the uniform black of Latii. Where variation ended was in the pair of stabbers each wore belted to their waists.
As each porter came off the raft, they were directed to stack their packs in a chamber guarded by the soldiery. Affta and I had counted them in. None were missing. Both the trader and Mizak were happy with the arrangement and sorted out accommodations for the night. The porters were billeted four to a room, we three neuts shared another and of course Mizak and the trader had rooms to themselves. Plenty of food and drink was laid on and at the meal the trader made a speech of welcome to us, exploring the wish that greater trade be started by this event. Mizak responded well, stating that if this were typical of Midean welcomes he would guarantee his frequent return.
Here was definitely a parallel for Valev. It would even be the same commodity going up. The differences were that there was actually nothing wrong with Swezer grain, just not quite enough of it. Most importantly, when it was short they had another commodity for its exchange. The grey metal, which was much in demand by those who had grain. Mides.
What I could not figure was why it was so badly needed. It was for sure, not just a useful trading item. The veneration the Mideans showed, and their precautions for its safekeeping were evidence of that. There were however plenty of metal artefacts around. Knives, spoons, mugs, pots, brooches and beltbuckles. All the normal things one would expect, so creating an intrigue as to the metals intended use.
There was not time to muse on it for the proceedings were brought to an early close by the traders' departure. An example for the porters without doubt, as within a very short time all had retired to bed and rest for the next days travel. It was just as well that an early start was made, for the winter was not done yet and decided to let us know. It was not cold enough for snow. But the distinction was close. Intensely cold rain fell in buckets during the entire daylight hours available. The going was miserable, with mud caking everyone's boots up to the knees.
Far worse than snow, this made uphills laborious, dowhills treacherous and the few flat bits just plain hard work. I suffered less than most, for my waterproofs from Legny were absolutely first class. Here they were truly in their element and not a drop of rain or mud permeated through to my inner clothing. They had been well worth the fight with Nikov to retain them.
The rest of the party were almost without exception soaked wet through. I do not care how hardy people profess to be. Soak them, freeze them then ask them to carry on and there is only so long that they will. Laden as everyone was, I judged that a good proportion of the followers/porters were close to the limit by days end. Fortune would have it that the town of Tolikeii presented itself at a very timely instant.
We had been escorted by a small band of soldiers and they had sent some of their number ahead to organise accommodations. This had been most successfully achieved, and was conducted with military precision. As each person arrived at the town centre and dumped their packs in an annex to the Militia house they were detailed off with a guide to individual hostelries and billets.
We three neuts were housed separately from Mizak, in a small but comfortable house run by a female and her partner. It was hard to tell which one or if either was in charge. Both were very pleasant and helpful. Both fetched and carried for us. Affta and Mokta both found this embarrassing, although pleasing, and looked to me for how to react.
"Just accept politely." I told them. "It is a different land here, with different rules. We, as the visitors, must adjust to them. Not the other way around."
I explained that here there were no neuts, so the people treated us as males, and what is more, males who were paying them for their hospitality. Affta nearly choked at that.
"We have no money!" He hissed.
"We do not need it." I assured him. "Our board is paid for by the trader out of his profits."
"What is profits?" Asked Mokta, as if it were the local form of currency.
I then launched into a dissitation of how trade works. How for example these hostelers here let strange people into their home, fed us, provided beds, washed and cleaned behind us and in return the trader would give them money with which they in turn would obtain the things they need. Food, clothes, etcetera.
"Sounds fair to me." Said Affta. "I understand that. How money works in barter when you do not have the right thing there and then, but that still does not explain what profit is."
"Profit." I said, "Is what is left over after all the necessary things are paid for."
"Hmm." Mokta grunted. "All right. I can see that. But what is its use?”
“To make things better." I answered. "For instance, these hostelers could get a carpenter to make better beds or perhaps build a new room. The trader can then take more porters or better goods and so on."
"Hmm." Mokta mused again. He was a bit of a "Hmm'er."
"Is that not," Affta put in, "A bit of a cheat? Like.. um. It is.. um. Well, is it not overvaluing your work?"
"Perhaps yes." I countered. "But it is common practice."
"Here, you mean?" (from Affta).
"Everywhere." I replied.
"What? Even in Swez?"
"Of course." Was my answer. "How do you think the males get on when they are not chosen for mating? They are not all on a Champions' stipend you know."
" It is the Kings', and Mizak is." Mokta quipped.
"Well, any profit he makes, five tenths will go to the King then."
"That cannot be fair!" Affta blurted.
"Why not?" I asked. "After all, it is out of the Kings' purse that you are looked after and Misaks' stipend is paid."
"Hmm." Mokta again. "But what then if the King has profit at the end of it?"
"Easy." I answered. "The Council of Elders see that it is used up wisely and to the good of the entire population. You know. New bridges, improved roads, more Militia. That sort of thing."
Both Affta and Mokta nodded their understanding and our conversation turned to more normal matters, then was brought to an end by the need for bed.
It may seem strange to some that Affta and Mokta were not enlightened to the ways of the world earlier. But they are neuts. Neuts just speak to the elder neut if they need anything and the elder neut in turn refers the matter to the matriarch or the male in charge of a body of works as necessary. The change or acquisition is then approved or disapproved and the neut informed. Much like a child, excepting that neuts are brought up to need little and so ask only rarely. As they achieve the bulk of work, a request is rarely denied. There are of course bad masters, unloving mothers and greedy neuts, but these are abnormal. Most neuts live a cosseted and worry free life, albeit Spartan.
The next three days changed the attitude of the march. Each dawned fine, cold and clear. The suns rays on us warmed our bodies and spirits. They also quickly dispelled the deep frosts and turned the way once more into mud. The gradual clouding as the day wore on and occasional light showers could not however despoil the drying of the ground.
The change in surroundings was slow to almost imperceptible, but it was there. With every pace beyond the crest of the second day the landscape became just that little bit more orderly. Stream courses straightened, bushes planted in rows, fields sized and bounded in a pattern of squares. Houses set back, with ordered shapes laid out for planting in front and paved paths to their doors.
The road too became paved and then lined with tall straight trees to match the straightness of the road. After a while, other lines of trees could be seen on either side, all converging on our destination, Uptoull, the capital city of Mides. A mere five days march from the border with Swez, this was truly a capital city. Broad avenues led from the main thoroughfares, each lined with large and impressive dwellings. At frequent intervals there were enclosed covered market places and facilities stations for water and waste.
It was getting on for evening as we trudged through this affluent metropolis. It was not for us. We were bound for the heart of it all, for all this was outside the old walls of the centre, where all the vitals were protected. Here all the buildings were jostled up close. Old and well used. Here the dwellings were built upon each other, for here was where the workers lived, and here was the place the goods that made those outside the walls wealthy were produced. Here too was the store where the porters dumped their packs for the last time. Mizak bade us retain ours to be handed over later as a formal gift of friendship from Swez to Mides.
Once again we were allocated a hostelry of our own. Mizak had brought us in part to defend him in case of trouble, but at night when it would be most likely, we could have been of no use, separated as we were from him. As before, all three of us were provisioned and treated very well, with no possible cause for complaint. Our only means of reciprocation was to be as polite and friendly as possible, and as befits our gender, to ask for as little as was reasonable.
I do think that all three of us acquitted ourselves well.. Of course, I cannot speak for Mizak as we never saw him from dusk to dawn. No harm came to him, and probably a lot of good. At any rate, he and the trader came to our lodgings early the following morning.
"Make yourselves as presentable as possible." Mizak instructed. "For we are all to be shown off to the Elders of this city at midmorning."
Affta consented on all our behalves.
"I am off now, and a messenger will come for you later. Do notforget to bring the metal bars. All right?"
Affta asked how we would know the messenger and was told that it would be Rupiitii Rookeii, whom we knew, plus a Midean soldier.
"Oh, and wear these." Mizak said, handing us three soft metal clasps as if he had previously forgotten them. Each was fashioned and painted in the colours of Swez.
As good neuts will when given such an instruction, we set to brushing an rubbing our cleanest clothes as there was no time to dry them if we had washed an item. We Scraped and polished our boots and belts and then scrubbed ourselves until we too shone. Each neut then inspected the others to ensure every hair was in place. We were ready. Three neuts. Three equals. Even three friends, for Affta had shown no animosity after my fracas with Nikov, his mentor. In fact, since leaving Swezzag he had been quite the opposite, fitting in with Mokta and I easily and contentedly.
As we waited, we debated the advisability of carrying our weapons. Mokta thought it would show unity and strength, that we were not afraid here, which would help Mizak. He was for the weapons. Affta was undecided, but slightly in favour for safety's sake. I too was undecided, but thought that a lack of weapons would best demonstrate our lack of fear. Especially if they knew we had them.
"How about." Said Affta, "Taking them to this place. Open so all could see. Then handing them over before we get to see the elders?"
"That is a brilliant idea!" Put in Mokta. "That way it will even be seen as a mark of respect. They are sure to give Mizak a good deal then."
I conceded the point, and so we were agreed. So we waited. Then waited some more.
Affta dozed whilst Mokta gently polished his blade.
"You ever used that?" I casually asked, for he handled the shortspear with professional ease.
"No. Not really." Was his reply. "Only in display. “Though I once was in an affray with a padspear."
"Oh? How did you get on?"
"All right. Or so I thought. That is until I broke the thing over a males' head."
Affta grunted, one eye now open.
""It was all right for you!" Mokta rejoined. "You were next to Nikov. No one would go near him.
Both eyes open now Affta retorted, "That is where everyone with any sense was. Did they not teach you anything about the games?"
"No." Said Mokta. "I just got roped in, same as most people I know."
"Surely," I put in, "You were told how to stand and manoeuvre?"
"Well, yes." Mokta admitted. "But very briefly. Most had a good idea what to do from watching others before, but there was no practice."
"That is all anyone knows the first time." Interrupted Affta. "But you would be a fool not to see that the safest place was next to Nikov."
"Not everyone can be next to Nikov. So what then?" Was Mokta’s response.
Seeking to break the deadlock I changed tack, asking; "Did you use the high-low stance, throw and go, triple wall with end sweeps or a combination?"
Both looked at me dumbfounded. The subject was changed.
"Say that again?" Queried Affta.
So I did
"I do not understand." Mokta conceded.
I explained each tactic, looking for signs of recognition as I did. They both had seen "Throw and go" and had been in a triple wall but sweeps, backs and squad tactics like the high-low were new to them. They both wanted a go at it in practice.
"It would look good if we worked as a team if we were actually challenged." Mokta stated.
We decided that Affta and I should be front-stops, him left and me right as that was the most difficult position when not in line, with Mokta as high-stab due to his greater height. The idea was that the two front-stops brought the enemy in close but kept attention at waist height. Then the high-stab reached down over their shoulders to strike the enemy in the neck or chest. It was a very effective manoeuvre when performed well.
A small tree in the courtyard had just expired for the fifth time as Rookeii Rupiitii came through the gate.
"Jiigaan!" He exclaimed, disappearing swiftly.
Next through the gate came the soldier, stabbers out and up with feet splayed in a defensive posture. His finery bright, he made an impressive sight.
"Hey! Rupiitii! Come back!" I called. "We are your friends."
His head poked round the gate as the soldier relaxed. With our spears down and out of formation it was obvious that we were not a threat.
"Have you come to take us to the elders?" I asked.
The soldier and Rupiitii looked at each other and shrugged.
"Ahh!" Cried Rupiitii, clicking his fingers. "I've got it! ELDIIR.! Yes! Yes. We're to escort you to the Electors' Residence."
Plainly I had just made a translational gaffe.
"What did you do?" Rupiitii asked, pointedly pidginising his language to promote understanding. "That not for friend."
I offered him my shortspear, saying. "I am your friend, take my weapon in token of that. I am sorry if my words are not clear, or are in error."
He did not take the blade, but both he and the soldier understood my meaning.
"I will ask later." He said.
With that the soldier put up his weapons and they led us away through the citadel.
The streets were hectic, filled with people going this way and that and wearing a proliferation of bright, even gaudy costumes. Some were flowing, some tight. All were heavily ornamented and none were of a single hue. At every pace it seemed we were assaulted by a brand new colour and design.
In contrast to the order outside the walls, the citadel was haphazard in layout. The streets zig zagging and curving almost randomly. There was no central plaza with large government buildings. Instead the only indicator that the Elder’s House was different from any other were the guards outside and that it was set back from the street with large wide steps running up to it.
At the top of the steps we were challenged, then inside the door we were stopped again. Something was said about giving, which I did not quite catch. But the escort soldier handed over his stabbers and that made it obvious. Both Mokta and Affta had it figured out as well and the three shortspears were offered almost as one. The door guard took them and waved us through to the inner chamber. Even from there we were taken along a corridor, up stairs, another corridor and into a waiting room where Mizak and the trader were already prepared for our arrival.
"Just in time." Mizak told us. "We are next."
"You three," The trader interjected, "Should come in behind Mizak and I and stand in a line. Then, when I clench my fist; like so, we all go down on one knee in supplication. Understand?"
"Yes." We all chimed.
"Do we get up again?" I asked.
"When I do is easiest." He replied. "I shall do all the talking. Just come forward when I turn to you as individuals, hand over your bars and go back to your place. Then watch for me again, for we must kneel again before we go. All right."
Just nods this time. I do not think any of us were impressed by this. It all sounded too much, way too subservient. Still, if that was what was necessary....
The door opened to admit another soldier in even finer array, who motioned us to go into the Electors' chamber. Well, it was not the elders, just one of them and not old at that. I suppose the misunderstanding must have been in the translation. A better description might have been 'Governor' or even 'Regulator'. What ever it was, this person really thought he was something special. Sat on a red padded bench which was itself on a raised dais, his head was higher than the traders' and yet he was facing the ceiling, but looking down at us, almost as if a bad smell were in the room.
At the traders signal we all kneeled. There was no response, save an exhalation. Evidently that was signal enough for the trader stood again. We followed suit. The trader then went into a lengthy speech, part way into which he mentioned Swezz, then Mizak. At which Mizak cocked his head. Later on we too were included as the trader swept his arm at us, bringing each one forward then taking the bars and handing them to the Regent. Throughout this diatribe the Regent/Regulator/Governor spoke rarely, interrupting at whim using short, slowly spoken sentences.
The audience was concluded by a nod from this ruler, the trader instantly dropping to one knee. We followed suit a little bemusedly. Not really understanding anything of what had gone on, and filed out of a different door to another antechamber.
No sooner had the intervening door shut that the trader muttered.
"Yes!.Yes!" His face abeam.
"What is that?" Asked Mizak. "And what exactly was going on in there?"
"You and I my friend are rich. That is what that was all about!"
"Oh." Was all Mizak could say. "How?"
"The Supreme Regent, in his infinite wisdom, has just granted me exclusive right to deal in whatsoever commodity in whatever quantity to obtain continued supplies of this quality greymetal. That's how."
"How does that affect my grain?" Mizak asked.
“It assures it, my friend. " The trader replied. "But for now, we will dine in celebration then you and I can go look at your precious grain and talk about exchange rates. These three good fellows." Indicating us neuts, "Can have the day off. Oh! After, if you don't mind, them taking the bars to meet the others."
Mizak did not mind, and so a soldier was detailed to show us where to take the bars, now the property of Mides. It was a fair walk right through the citadel and down to near the river. There, the smoke from many fires lay heavy in the air. For there were the foundries where the greymetal was turned from bars to implements. The implement of the moment, and the reason for such quality metal was the Latiistabber. They were being turned out of the forges at an enormous rate.
We were taken to one particular workshop, where were stacked the other bars brought from Swez, some of which were already being turned into weapons. A quick calculation led to the conclusion that even at two stabbers per soldier, the amount of greymetal brought on this trip would arm a complete regiment. So why, I asked myself, did Mides need so many new stabbers? I had to content myself with noting that the soldier eyed these new products enviously, and even tried, albeit in mock jest, to exchange his stabbers for them.
Affta echoed my disquiet when back at our lodgings.
"Wicked looking things, those." He commented.
"Makes you wonder what they want them for." Added Mokta.
"More importantly, who they want them for." Was my contribution.
"How do you? Stars! It could not be us!" Mokta cried.
"I do not think so. No, not Swez." I retorted.
"Why not?" Affta questioned. "It would be one heck of a coup."
"I will kill the turd suckers! Every last one!" Mokta cried, leaping to his feet.
"Calm down! Calm down!" Affta interjected. "I think maybe Okhta is right. It does not smack of sense." Then turning to me. "But who then?"
"I do not know." Was all I could say. “I would not have thought Aponia either, but who knows? Whatever, there has to be something in the metal business. It is plain that their metal is only just, and perhaps not really, up to the task"
"That can only mean they are thinking in terms of people with hard heads or harder stabbers." Affta quipped.
Then it hit me. "By the throne! Of course, it has to be. The Latii! Mides must be at war with Latii, or at least thinking of it. Now that would be of rare interest to some that I know!"
"Oh come on!" Affta burst out. "How can you say that? You cannot know, and you are saying that because you have seen some Latii. Once."
"True perhaps." I had to concede. "But it fits. And if you have a better conclusion, speak it."
"Well I do not. But what you are saying is just supposition." He countered.
"Again, true. But." I started.
"But true." Came the voice of the trader from outside the room. We were all straight to our feet now as he entered with Mizak.
"We have heard your conversations from outside, and enlightening they have been too."
There were instantly two things I did not like or understand. Firstly, why should they have waited, listening in secret? Secondly, what the enlightenment could be. There was nothing in what was said that the trader had not seen or heard for himself.
It was the trader who spoke now.
"We came to enquire on an incident of today. It seems that not only are our suspicions on professional soldiery confirmed, but there are conspirators here as well."
Affta and Mokta looked at each other, speechless.
I spoke. "That is Rat shit and you know it.
Mizak burst. "How dare you!? You bloody neut!"
"Mizak." I said, cold and controlled. "That is twice you have countered me, knowing I am in the right. Just because I am neut gives you no right to do down or maltreat me, in fact, quite the opposite. It is your duty as a male to ensure fairness and freedom for all."
Mokta and Affta had backed up against the wall, well away from me. Here an amazing thing happened. Mizak backed off as well.
"Well...uhrmp...Perhaps that is a point. But I warn you. One step out of line and I will squash you."
The trader looked pointedly at Mizak, then at me. And then at Affta and Mokta and back to Mizak. He plainly could not believe his eyes and ears.
"Well!" He said at length. "We do have a turn up for the book here! Perhaps an explanation is in order?"
"I agree." I said through gritted teeth. "So tell us what you are at."
"You presume to take me on as well? My, we are a plucky fellow!"
Getting annoyed, I retorted "If it is a fight you have come looking for, note that I have gutted bigger and better than you and think again."
"Jiigaan! A regular hothead! Well now we know who's behind all the violent stuff, and there's plenty of time to settle your lot!" Turning to Mizak he continued "I am very sorry. It's obvious there's only one rotten fruit in your pack. Whatever your reason for bringing it, I suggest you dispose of it quickly before it sours everything for you."
"I assure you I will." Mizak replied. Then to me, "Get out. Now. Take all your bits and whatever, and go. I wash my hands of any responsibility for you."
"Can you do that?" Queried the trader.
"Ohh yes!" Mizak replied. "You see, I do not have to answer to any board or family for this one. He is not even a Swezer."
"Really?" The traders' eyebrows raised. "You brought a mercenary?"
"Yes.. No. So anyway, you or your militia can do with him as you will."
"Hmm. This might be interesting. Swezz sends foreign mercenaries to our Regents' chamber. I thought something wasn't right, but I never suspected it would be that bad."
"It is not like that!" Mizak protested.
"No. I'm sure it isn't. But we can sort that out later. For now I'd better take him with me."
The trader reached for his stabber to reinforce the decision. My hand had been on my shortspear behind me for a while. I now whipped it round and with a flick of the wrist sent it flying across the short space to pinion the traders' arm. Afftas' spear was on the table and it took only a half step to reach it.
"Haad noii!" The trader exclaimed. "A curse on you runt!"
"Curse me all you like." I said, "But it is yourself you are condemning."
I heard Mokta behind me mutter, "Kings turds! Did you ever see the like"
Affta did not answer.
Mizak was struck dumb. Paralysed into inaction.
Well, this was going to be it, now or never. I picked up my bags and went to leave. Mizak moved away, clearing my exit through the door. Turning back, I said to Affta,
"You do not mind me borrowing your shortspear do you? Mine is being used at the moment." Then to the trader, "I am sorry about your clothes, but there is not much blood on them. The blade has only nicked you. I must be getting out of practice."
The look was pure venom, but he was not making any moves.
Turning to the two neuts I bad them farewell, "You know that this is not of my doing but it looks like goodbye anyway. Take care of yourselves and good luck.
Then I was off. Down the corridor, into the main room then through the kitchen and out the back. Skirting the water barrels in the small rear yard, I caught a glimpse of bright colour through the fence. I had been right not to use the main door and yard. Soldiers were there.
Out through the rear gate into an alley, down the alley into a sidestreet.
"Do not run now." I told myself. "They have seen you before so they will think nothing of it unless they see you run."
There were looks, but none hostile, all inquisitive. So I smiled and waved at people. Any alley I saw I used, and down these I ran. Not knowing where I was going, I was just using the afternoon sun as a beacon.
There was as far as I could tell, no pursuit, and certainly no hue and cry. In no time I was through the citadel walls and nearing the river. I thought of 'borrowing' a stabber, but decided against it on the grounds of sensibility. In these cases delay was fatal. I must get across the bridge and into open country with all speed. It would be my only chance, for in town I stuck out like a sore thumb and militia were there in numbers enough to take me with ease. In the open, they would have to find me first.
I crossed the bridge on bluff. There were no guards, only toll takers and to these I produced my document from Anapes that had been returned to me as rightfully my property in Swezzag. This looked official enough for them to let me across for free. The townlet on the far bank did not take long to clear, and I was away. I could not believe it. It had almost been too easy.
There was a main road, well paved leading off at a slight angle to sunset, and as it was almost empty now I stuck to it for better speed. Only just before last light did I veer from this path as is my wont, into a stand of trees. This was not a natural wood, for all the trees were in lines with the undergrowth well cleared. But it would do.
I had been eating well for a while now and though my guts had a little rumble I would not suffer from not eating this night. I therefore donned my warmsuit then the oiled skins and settled down to sleep. I had not been asleep long, at least it seemed that way, but it was pitch dark when I awoke with a start. There was something moving through the trees, and it was not a small animal. Whatever it was trying to be silent, and did not make too much noise, but occasionally would break a fallen twig or stumble into a low branch. It was the abnormality of the sounds that had woken me. For this was not a wild animal at all.
Laying quite still I listened harder. As far as I could tell, there was only one of them. Then I saw the darker shape amongst the trees! Silently I reached for Afftas' shortspear. With slowness born of patience and practice I rolled onto my knees then slithered into the vertical alongside a tree trunk. Stepping round to its far side using only the sides of my feet, I positioned myself with the trunk between me and what I could assume was a Midean soldier.
From this vantage point I could observe the figures approach. Just a darker patch of darkness,vague in outline, solid at its core, the shape came ever onward. A few steps at a time ever so slowly, and mostly quietly. Pausing now to almost sniff the air, then on again. Following myscent. Lower now as it came to the spot where I had lain, carefully reaching down feeling for my form. Then realising that I was no longer there, raising up again, peering round and sniffing. Then, curse the thing! Coming this way! The sound of my heart must give me away! Slowly but surely, nearer and nearer.
Steady! Steady! ..Now! Powering from behind the trunk I kicked the legs away at the same time grabbing the torso and dragging it forward and down, twisting it so that my knees would drop my weight onto the chest. The half cry died to a grunt as the body hit the ground in a thud and my weight in close succession forced what air was left, out of its breast. The shortspear stopped a fingers' width from the throat. Why, I do not know, but I was suddenly hesitant, even reluctant to kill.
The Midean began to struggle as he gasped for breath.
"Quiet!" I hissed, pressing the blade against his windpipe.
Instantly he stilled.
Listening very carefully, I could hear nothing but the gentle sighing of the wind and my own beating heart. I eased the pressure of the blade and the Midean sucked air.
When I considered recovery sufficient, I whispered. "You only?"
"Yes." Came the gasped reply. "Only me Okkta."
"What?? You know me?"
Hesitantly, "Okkta. It is me. Rupiitii."
I was stunned. What the shit was he doing here at this time of night? Nothing made sense. Except a trap!
I hissed again. "Only you Rupiitii?"
"Yes." Came the reply again.
"Why?" Was the only word I could think of.
The reply came as a whisper that I could only make a few words out from. Something about 'we friends, trader bad, you cheated, me help.' I did not understand what was going on, but he sounded genuine enough so I withdrew the blade and climbed off.
"Quiet, yes?" I asked now.
"Yes." Rupiitii answered sitting up and massaging his throat.
"You wait here, yes?"
Again the affirmative.
Using the side foot push method and bent double I made my way to the edge of the trees. Here the light was better, the small amount of starlight illuminating the land. I reconnoitred for a bit. There were no soldiers or signs of their passing that I could discern. It would seem that Rupiitii had indeed come alone.
As silently as I had come, I returned. Rupiitii had not moved in my absence, save to rest against the trunk behind which I had hidden. As I crept in, I could sense him stiffen, then start as is head whipped round to find me a pace behind him.
"Jii!" He yelped, arms flailing up. Then realising it was me collapsed in nervous exhaustion, exhaling the words, "Don't do that!"
I had been gone about a subspan I would guess. In that time Rupiitii had as far as I could tell, been still and quiet, awaiting my return. I can imagine how nerve racking it must have been, sitting in the dark knowing that someone was coming, but not when. Every rustle of leaves, every movement of nocturnal animals has you strung out. Then when they do reappear, you do not hear them. I would have jumped too. But then I would not have waited there. I would have been on the ground at least three trees away. Rupiitii was not. This in itself told me something. He had neither the mind nor the training of a country dweller or combatant. This in turn meant that he was either very brave, very stupid or set up. He was also very cold.
Sat all that time with no warm coat or blanket, the night chill had eaten into him. He had brought nothing. No food, no blanket, no weapons, no spare clothing. Nothing. There was only one thing for it, as nothing of mine would fit him. We had to have a fire. We also had to shield this fire from any eyes that might see it. That meant digging a pit.
The shortspear sufficed as a spade, albeit poorly, and choosing a natural hollow I set to. I gave Rupiitii the roll I used for packing up the warmsuit and oils, and indicated that he should construct a windbreak out of it. I thought of just wrapping him in it but that would not have covered him completely, and anyway it was so thin it would have provided no warmth at all. The fire when I got it going, for all the wood was damp, was deliberately kept low and Rupiitii sat almost on top of it. He had made the break too far from the heat, and so I took it down and laid the sheet over his shoulders and back.
The glow from the flames lit his features as I lay across from him and asked why and how he had followed and found me. Because of the difficulties in language it took many attempts at explanation before we understood one another reasonably properly. But eventually I think what transpired was this;
Rupiitii and the soldier had brought the courtyard incident to the attention of the trader, wishing for a correct translation and therefore no misunderstanding over the events. The trader had seized on this as a means of weakening Misaks' hand by embarrassment, and thereby strengthening his own. The entire party then went to our inn, where by what was overheard, it became obvious that the traders' ploy had misfired. Instead of a problem for Mizak, it became a problem for the trader. Dismissing the two outside, he had manipulated Mizak and turned it back round.
When Rupiitii heard that I had gone, and why, he came looking for me, but with no real hope of success. It was only by chance that he saw me from afar as I was crossing the bridge. He took up after me but was too far behind to catch up. With the fall of darkness he had continued beyond the last point he had seen me until he was sure I had not gone on, then come back to these woods where he found my shoe mark leading from the road and all this in starlight. Following his senses and the most likely route into the wood he finally homed in on the faint aroma of the oil from my waterproof skins.
I knew the rest. As to why, it was bad Midean manners to mistreat a friend, and so he had no option but to attempt to rectify this if he was to have any honour.
"All very fine." I thought and said, "But if he could find me, so could others."
"No." He retorted. "No anyone look."
I did not understand.
Even when the words were repeated even more pidginised for my benefit I thought that there must be some other meaning to them. Seeing my puzzlement Rupiitii explained.
The trader was in a cleft stick situation. If he condemned the whole party of Swezz he would say goodbye to further supplies of greymetal. If on the other hand, he charged just myself then it would come out that someone smaller and less significant bested him. In short, to retain 'face', he could do neither and had sealed his action by covering up at the time, for he did not alert the soldiers to the incident. They were not and would not be looking for me as a criminal. When this had finally sunk in, I could not believe my fortune. Once more I had danced through flames and not been burned. A few singed toes perhaps, but no real damage. Incredible!
I was all right, but what of Rupiitii now?
"We should go together to Uteii." He told me. "There was work in that place for us. But first, he would have to go back into Uptoull for his belongings and pay."
That would wait until morning. It would have to, for Rupiitii was tired and the bridge was closed.
The night was kind, being not too cold, with just the merest nip of spring frost, and that outside the wood. I woke snug and rested. Rupiitii woke cold and weary for the fire had died while he slept, and the roll had, as I suspected failed to cover him completely and therefore not retained even his body heat. I relit the fire with fresh wood and cooked us some porridge for breakfast. After which Rupiitii set off back to Uptoull.
He reappeared much later in the day laden with all the equipment he carried as a porter to Swez and back. Minus of course the greymetal. In that time I had laid a number of traps and managed to catch one of what is known in Einul as a Gartak. This was simmering nicely while I waited on the edge of the wood, watching the goings on of the world and looking out for any tricks or traps.
Uptoull was not that far off, and the road became busier as the day progressed. No one stopped near this wood however. All were going this way or that, with other things on their minds. The normal traffic of every day, onsumables going into town, finished goods going out. Not a single soldier or anyone who looked like militia did I see.
In addition to his travelling gear Rupiitii had brought a quantity of dried rations and some spices for me. He had also acquired a large sheet that would act as a tent. This told me that he had no intention of using way stations for night stops or provisioning. We elected to spend a second night in that wood so Rupiitii could recuperate a little from the previous nights activity, before we set off to Uteii.
This night was a lot more comfortable than the previous one. For a start we were both well fed and our sleep was uninterrupted. As a result we both woke refreshed and ready for the journey ahead. The pace was good under a clear sky, the warm spring sun rapidly clearing the last vestiges of overnight frost. As the day grew, there came a marked difference in temperature from open to shade, as in reality, the air was quite cool. In direct sunlight however, we quickly became hot and sweaty. The desire to discard a layer of clothing was strong, but soon overcome as a shaded stretch of road was encountered.
The afternoon introduced clouds to the sky one by one until by dusk no more blue showed. This was both good and bad. Good, because there should be no frost, bad because there might be rain. There would be plenty of shelter if it did, for the thickets, copses and woods had gradually become larger and less managed until the merged together at length. Before us stood an unbroken line of trees, stretching in either direction as far as the eye could see. Which in this case was not far.
Rupiitii wanted to camp outside, or on the edge of this forest and tackle it during daylight. According to him, it would take a whole day to negotiate it, despite there being a good road. Because of the wild animals it was best to go in only when one could see he told me. By the faces he pulled and growls to describe them he was referring to something larger than Wolves. Perhaps they were a type of Bear, like the one I had glimpsed long ago in the forests of Grimask. There was no point in speculating, but if there were any reasonable probability of attack by something of that ilk, I reckoned I would need more than a shortspear. Rupiitii had brought nothing in the way of weaponry save his eating knife. This had a better blade than mine however, and so I borrowed it to whittle some arrows and fabricate a crude bow. This project took well into the night, but when we entered the forest next day I was in possession of a viable weapon and thus had given my shortspear to Rupiitii for his own defence.
There had been no rain but the overcast did not help light levels already reduced by the overhead canopy. This does not mean that it was dark, for there were gaps and clearings, and in any case the leaf cover was not complete. On a lot of trees there were still only buds. It was after all only early spring, nevertheless the place was at one and the same time, a wonder and an oppression. There seemed no end to trees, and here they were not tamed nor the undergrowth cleared. It was in truth diminished by the effects of winter but sufficed quite well in pervading a sense of isolation and menace.
I had not seen the like since my travels in the forests of Grimask, this endless procession of trees. Though in truth these trees were different, for in Grimask they were tall and straight and held their foliage all year through. Here the boughs were bent and contorted, all intertwined as yet not fully burdened with leaf and altogether more sinister in appearance.
What was good was the road. True, it was not paved. That had ceased long before we got to the forest, but there was a good layer of gravel to mark the way and prevent muddying up. As far as was reasonably possible as well, the road ran straight and true through the heart of this wilderness for longpace after longpace, subspan after subspan. There were no horrific beasts or real traces of them that I saw, but there was always the impression that just beyond vision in the denseness of undergrowth, something was waiting.
As a consequence it was a great relief when the trees began to thin, and then of a sudden we were clear. Oh, there were more woods to traverse, but these could be seen to have limitations even by the waning light of day. For all day is how long it had taken to get through. Rupiitii had told me that this was a relatively new route, opened up to speed transit between Uptoull and the far Mides cities. In the past it had taken an extra two to three days to complete the journey we were on, purely in detouring to avoid the worst of this forest.
"Just one more day." He assured me as we lay down to sleep that night. "And we'll be in Uteii. Then things will get better."
I wanted to ask how and why he could be so sure. But refrained from it. I had the strange thought that perhaps there was some other motive behind this, quite separate to that stated. I would bide my time and keep my ears open for my grasp of the language was improving by the span.
In the fresh morning light, the land before us gently undulated as it dipped away to the horizon. The impression being that from here there was a dowhill march. Just the other side of the forest the land was clean and orderly, laid out in a patchwork of fields, meadows and woods, bisected by the road running straight and true into the distance. This was our path and on it we trod as the clouds scudded above our heads.
Rupiitii spoke the truth about the distance again, for within the day we were on the outskirts of Uteii. Set in a broad valley, easily twenty longpaces wide, the presence of the town was only discernable from afar by the smoke smudge above it. Nearer to of course, the buildings were the indicator, but even these were in ones and twos, then threes and fours until they joined up into streets. No stark contrast between urban and rural here, just a gradual blending one to the other.
Before we had entered far, Rupiitii stopped to find accommodations. This did not take long and I was quickly ushered into a back room at a seedy hovel. To be quite frank, prison had been cleaner. At least here the food was good. The shame was that we ate in the little room and not in the main hall with the other guests. Rupiitii had fetched a tray full of steaming platters, explaining that he didn't want me on general display just yet as it might jeopardise the pay scales for work he intended to get. I did not understand and said so, but he fobbed me off saying it would all be clear later.
Even next morning when he bade me stay at the Inn and out of sight while he went to "speak to someone he knew here" I was hushed in my enquiries and asked to trust him. Well I am sorry, but my nature has been shaped by experience and I am not in the trusting business. Particularly not when I do not know the goings on of the main plot, let alone the lesser parts. Nevertheless I assured him thatIwould not do anything rash, and with that he was off.
There was no way to follow him here. I would stick out like a sore thumb and the populaces' attention would follow me wherever I went. I had already seen that, all the way from Rookeii. Just on the road from Uptoull there had been amazed looks and comment from passers in the opposite direction despite Rupiitiis' attempts to shield me.
"If we do it right," He had said, "People will think we're father and son until they're up close. Then I'll stand between you and them. They'll never know the difference.
That had worked fine for single travellers but he could not shield me from groups, and these are the ones who had gawped. As indeed the people at the Inn had gawped, those that saw me being brought in at the back and fortunately were few in number. It was not just that I am smaller in stature and have facial hair where the Mideans don’t, my facial colouring and features are all together different.
Even if Rupiitii was not going to hand me over to the militia or the like, there was always the possibility that someone from the Inn would. Thinking on this, there was no way that I would remain idling in that dirty back room. Therefore, I waited until the clamour of morning had eased, then with all my bags slipped out of the Inn. I would have preferred to get onto the roofs but these were of thatch and very steep, so that was out. I needed a vantage point and as this was the outskirts of town still, the obvious place was a tree. Getting up it without being seen would be a problem though.
My bags safely stashed under a bush, I waited for the opportunity to present itself. I was looking for a lull in activity when I was shown that it was the exact opposite to my real chance. Three buildings down there was a gap with another tree in it. In that tree were four small boys. All I would have to do was skirt these buildings and cross the road. No mean feat, but not impossible. Then I would just join their games as the 'ugly, stupid kid.' Brilliant! If it worked.
Later, as I sat, now alone in the tree, I saw Rupiitii returning. Close behind him, but not too close, were two large and shady looking characters.
"A pox on him!" I thought. "He has handed me in after all!"
Observing more closely I realised that these two were following Rupiitii without his knowledge. Every time he hesitated or turned his head, and he did that repeatedly, these two followers would disappear. I could not believe it. This was even worse than I had imagined, but what to do?
As soon as all three were inside the Inn I nearly fell out of the tree in my rush. I did not give a turd who saw me now, so long as it was not these two bad people. Tearing round the back of the houses straight to my stache, out came the shortspear. Bent low, I ran to the back of the Inn, from within which a terrible noise was emanating. Crashing and yelling, screaming and crying, the tearing of cloth and splintering of wood. The way into the Inn was blocked by people and the sound was coming from within.
I heard Rupiitiis' voice yelling defiance and knew I had to get in. There was only one way now, through the window. Fortunately these were not of glass, but the more common clear gel coated thin fabric held in place by a frame, which ripped free as I propelled myself through it. The cloth and wood made my landing awkward and slowed time into action but this was compensated for by the shock of my arrival to Rupiitiis' assailants.
One of them had hold of Rupiitii and was in the process of hitting him again. The shortspear stopped that. The second had a stabber and had been smashing the room and deterring outside help. Indeed, one of the staff lay bloodied in the corridor just outside the door. The stabber came up swiftly, missing me by a hairsbreadth on the upstroke. It would destroy me on the down. Lunging in to be within the arc effect I had to leave the shortspear embedded in the first attacker. My body weight was not enough to trip this other fellow but my attack unbalanced him. From the corner of my eye I saw the stabber twist to fulfil its alternative function and skewer me. Distracting his mind with a forehead blow to his nose bridge forced him to release me, and staggering back, he was now open.
My feet hit the floor, found balance and the left immediately powered into his groin. As the body arched in, the head dropped and my clenched fist to the side of the temple finished the job. He dropped like a stone. Turning to the first, I saw that there was no longer a problem there either. He lay groaning in an ever-widening pool of blood. The face was losing colour quickly, but still had the energy to scream as I put my foot on his abdomen to retrieve the shortspear.
Removing the stabber from his belt, I hefted it, feeling the power of the weapon in my hand once again. But this one was not quite right. There was definitely an inferior feel to it, so I tossed it into the corner where I had already kicked the other one.
Rupiitii had been beaten up, and was bloody but not bowed. Turning to him I asked,
"So what was all this about?"
He did not answer for a moment, then blurted. "I don't know."
His visage indicated that he spoke the truth.
"I can guess, maybe." He started to continue, but was interrupted by a head round the door.
"The fightin' stopped?" Came the question.
"Err. Yes I think so." Rupiitii answered, spitting blood.
"Oh good." The head commented, then revealed itself to be attached to a young female. "We 'ad betta start cleanin' up then."
Bending down over the body in the corridor she felt the victims then called for help.
"Oi! Get Thrukka 'ere to a bed 'n' washed up. 'e'll live yet."
Then with that one taken away she came into the room. I had looked Rupiitii over, and a hot bath and a nights' sleep would be all he needed. She nevertheless gave him a checkout and came to the same conclusion as I although hers was stated.
As for the two attackers, one she dismissed as already dead despite the fact that if anyone had wanted to make the effort it was possible to save him. The other she ordered to be locked up until he awoke, then she would reassess dependant on whether or not he was going to pay for the damages.
"I know hoo started it." She assured Rupiitii, "But you mus' be at fault somewhere, and anyway your friend broke the window and made all this blood what 'as to be cleaned up."
Rupiitii handed her some coins, which seemed to placate her, and the two assailants were taken away. Neither with any compassion. One too weak to scream though I could see the agony writ large on his face. The other still unconscious.
"Tell me." I asked Rupiitii again later. "What do you thinkthat might have been about?"
"Well," He replied slowly, "It could have been simple robbery."
"Wolf shit!" Was my response.
"All right." He countered. "Unlikely, but it couldhave been."
"Wolf shit." I said again.
"Yes, I know." He replied. "Look. I'll tell you what's happened, then you can draw your own conclusions... I went today to an old friend and got us both work. Plus I got a bonus for information."
"What information?" I cut in, suddenly ill at ease.
"In two days there will be a shipment for the army arriving here. It will need taking to Woneii, so it needs new porters. That's premium rate work, but if my friend hires the porters today or tomorrow, he'll get them cheaper and also he'll be the only one who can bid for the job because he's the only one who can fulfil it. Therefore he'll get a better price for it. Understand?"
"Yes I do." I replied. "And you think those two characters were sent to find out for someone else what you had told your friend?"
"Getting a bit carried away were they not?"
"Not really, when you consider the money involved." He replied.
"But did you not consider that something like this might happen?"
"Oh, yes." He answered. "But not on the street where the militia might see and I was relying on your help here."
"Shit!" I exclaimed. "That was a risky venture."
"Not from the tales I've heard about you." He retorted. "I spoke to your friends when I went back into Uptoull and they told me stories that were quite incredible. But I believe them to be true."
"Do not believe everything you are told." I said.
"I don't." Was his reply. "But among other things, Affta showed me his scar from the stool and I was convinced. What's more, you've just validated that conviction."
There was not a lot I could say to that, and so I said nothing. Rupiitii apologised for not telling me everything before, but had thought that my moral disapproval would cause me to wreck his money making plan. He could have been right. He also noticed that my bags were gone, but told me he understood how I trusted no one after the way I had been treated. It turned out they really had told him it all.
Of the assailants, the first died, which made me feel bad. The second was handed over to the militia for theft when he came round, as he would not divulge his sender or cause. I heard that the militia hanged him. That too made me feel bad.
"Bastard deserved it." The young female commented when I remarked on my unease. "Specially after the way they smashed up this place."
I had to ask Rupiitii the meaning of "Bastard", and even when explained, it seemed a strange term to me. Particularly when used with such invective.
Let out of the room into the real world, it was curious to see the workings of this society. In this Inn, for instance, the young female was not actually in charge, but was the driving force behind everything, running and rushing as if the place belonged to her. Just like a Surian matriarch, but half the age with twice the energy. Rupiitii was paying our way as 'guests' but she nevertheless ruled us like her offspring during the two days we waited for the shipment and the further two days for contracts to be argued and organised. Thus, it was almost with a tinge of regret that we left her establishment that dull spring morning. I particularly felt it, for in those few days it had been the closest thing to a home I had been in for quite some time.
We were waved off like departing family members. I had left the few large denomination Aponian coins remaining in my possession as a token of esteem. They were of course worth nothing here, but in receipt treated as if they were gold. Given from the heart and received in kind, perhaps they were of greater value. What little weight they were I was glad to be rid of when we were allocated loads for the journey to Woneii.
The packs were all weighed out to be even. Evenly heavy that was. It was dispiriting and unusual being the one having difficulty keeping up. My mind went to how Hu~gen must have felt and I tried harder for him. Wherever he was. If even he was for I had no idea if he was still alive.
Whatever Rupiitiis' friend, the Uteii trader had made on the deal was not passed on to the hundred porters in terms of better wages or lighter loads. Their greater size made it marginally easier going for the other porters. But marginally was the word. Everyone ground on under the burden of their loads for the six days of hard slog it took until we overlooked the besieged city of Woneii.
The feeling of deja-vu at first sight was so strong that I came to an abrupt halt. Rupiitii blundered straight into me, nearly knocking me over.
"What the bloo." Then seeing my face, "What's wrong? What's up?"
I stared, stupefied. It could not be! It could not! It really was just the same!
"No!" I breathed. "It is not possible! That would be too cruel!"
"What?" Shouted Rupiitii, uncomprehendingly.
Looking straight at him, I stated flatly, "You have brought me to Jojiisk. That is what you have done haven't you?"
Rupiitii was open mouthed. "What?"
One of the hurriers had come up.
"What's the hold up you two? Come along then!"
"You shits!" I yelled. "You absolute Bastards!"
Throwing off the load, I began screaming in anguish. "You hateful filth! I will carry your means to kill my kin no more!"
I was tired, and completely unprepared for this so it took me time to unsling the shortspear. Rupiitii saw it coming and quickly made room, yelling to the hurrier to back off. The hurrier only needed half a brain to see that Rupiitiis' call was vital, and so did.
"Stop! Stop now!" Rupiitii implored. "We are your friends, and I don't understand you. Please don't do it!"
Through the tears of anger I could see that he told the truth. He was my friend. But how can one friend bring another to this?
From a safe distance Rupiitii spoke. "This is not Jo whatever you say, Okkta. This is Woneii. This is Mides." Gaining confidence, "We are your friends. Now please put up your spear."
I looked again at the town before me, then at Rupiitii and again at the town. No. It could not be possible that two places were identical. There, was the bridge with the town on the far side. There, were the siege lines, series after series encircling the town and broken into blocks that never met. There, were the encampments of the regiments outside the walls. There to the right, the river confluence, all where it should be when viewed from this side.
Looking again, I snivelled. "No, you must be right. For we burned the bridge."
"You what?" Was Rupiitiis' question.
Turning to him I said, "I am sorry for it may be that I have wronged you. As I look, this is so like Jojiisk it is uncanny." I had to keep stopping to gain control of my voice, but carried on, "The only thing that I can lay a finger on, that tells me it might not be, is that the bridge is still there with no sign of damage or rebuild... No. When I look closely, the river runs wrong for the burning party."
"I don't understand." Was all he could say.
So, regaining some of my composure, I pointed out how, if the investors of this town sent a burning party to the bridge, they could not retrieve them for both sides of the town were upriver and either side of the confluence. Thus, the raiders would be carried ever further into enemy and in this case Midean territory.
"By the Regent’s nose!" Interrupted the hurrier. "I've been here loads of times, but I've never seen that before. You've a good eye for war my lad."
"I have been a little too close to it." Was my response.
Rupiitii looked at him, then looked at me. "Come on." He chided. "Up with your pack and let's on. The others are well ahead now. Let's try to catch up."
Chastened, I complied.
We did not catch up, and the Uteii trader was waiting at the bridge as we lumbered up.
"Where the crap have you been?" He thundered.
"Don't ask." Rupiitii glowered back. "You'd never believe it. We're her anyway, so where to?"
The trader rattled off directions and we started over the bridge. Off to the left, upstream, I noticed a rope stretched across the still high waters.
"Looks like this lot have tried for the bridge anyway." I commented.
"You mean the rope?" Queried the hurrier.
"Yes. I would guess that is to hamper fire boats coming down, don't you think?"
"Mmm. Could be." Was the reply.
The conversation went no further as our concentrations moved to safely threading our way through the streets.
Our loads were delivered to the master at arms in Woneii for safekeeping, and we were directed to rest quarters for the night. I could not go there direct though, for even as I now knew the besiegers to be Latii, I had to have evidence to confirm this before I could settle. It seemed a silly thing trying to explain this to Rupiitii, but he was very understanding and cooperative. It was he that guided me to the forward walls where an attack had been bested that day. Here, lined up awaiting disposal were Latiian corpses. All the proof I needed. No one treated their own dead like that.
"That is enough." I said, unable to conceal a shiver of dread.
"Ho! Little fellow. You've fought them too eh?"
This was a Midean soldier who was escorting us.
"You could say that." I replied. "Only they were in here and we out there." Indicating outwith the walls.
"Oh? When was that?"
"Oh yeah? Well how come you're here now?"
"It is a long story." I replied, walking away from the bodies.
"Seriously." Rupiitii asked. "Did they break the siege or did you?"
"Neither, as far as I last heard." I responded. "But I was transferred to the field army and it was there that things came unstuck."
Rupiitii wanted to know more, and so I told him. The soldier had invited us to his campfire so he too could hear, and within no time there was a small gathering listening and firing off questions. I could not field them all, some because I just could not understand what exactly they were asking, others because I did not know the answers. They all liked the idea of archers and were impressed by my reports of Surian martial skills, particularly the formations and discipline.
"How'd they let such a little fellow into the army though?" Called one soldier jokingly.
When I explained that my stature was normal for my people, that doubly impressed them.
"If they can get a better than one to one kill ratio, why can't we?" Mused another.
"It's these bloody stabbers!" Cursed the first. "One good welt and they break. Then half the time all you've done is given the bastard a headache."
"Yeah." Echoed another.
"I used to have a good one for a while." I mused.
"I thought you said you buried it in that Latii bastards guts?" Rupiitii questioned.
"I did." I answered. "But it seemed a waste to leave it there, so I went and got it back."
There was laughter at this and I ended having to explain where I had finally left it. Always there were more questions. Whatever I said brought yet one more enquiry, until I had to call a halt. I just had to have some sleep.
It seemed like only a moment since my head had touched the bed when I was awoken by cries of alarm.
"Shit!" Cursed Rupiitii from across the room as he tried to rub sleep from his eyes. "There's an attack on!"
"What?" I queried disbelieving, as I groped for my boots. "In the night?"
"Listen to it." He responded.
I listened. Subdued by its distance, for we were by the river and away from the walls, there was a heck of a noise going on.
"You might be right." I said in half sarcasm.
We came out of the room then the Inn and into the courtyard, where all the others were assembling and milling about. The hurriers were making no effort to create some sort of order out of the confusion. That is until I suggested to Rupiitii that someone had better get everyone lined up and counted so that whatever needed to be done could be organised quickly. He had a word with one hurrier, who then called for quiet whilst he got everyone formed up against a wall. He also despatched someone to find the Uteii trader and another to find some martial authority.
Neither were gone long when a soldier came into the courtyard.
"You the Uteii bearers?"
"Only the rear echelon." Answered the hurrier.
"Where's the rest then?"
"I don't know." The hurrier replied. "But I've sent a fellow to find them. I expect him back soon."
"Forget it." Urged the soldier. "Just get down to the bridge, and go along the river to get there. Not through the town, blocking it up. It'll be quicker. We're getting all you civilians out."
"Bloody heck! It can't be that bad." The hurrier retorted.
"They're through two bloody walls already." The soldier growled. "So don't muck about."
"Can't we help though?" The hurrier called as the soldier ran off.
Stopping, the soldier turned, paused a moment then said. "All right. Bring your weapons with you and go straight up this street."
"But we've no weapons." Was the reply.
"Just get the fart out of the way of those who have then." Were the soldiers' parting words.
The hurrier got us all moving, in two lines, one each side of the street heading down to the river. At the waterfront we had to turn right for the bridge, making our way under the stone walls of the inner sanctum. Our party could not go beyond its end, for there it guarded the bridge and this was athrong with people jostling and pushing to get across. There would be a long wait before we could go, and so everyone lolled about, finding a less uncomfortable place to wait.
There was of a sudden, screaming and shouting upstream from us. Everyone was yelling out, wanting to know what was going on and what to do. I had enough of this. Taking a deep breath I roared out at the top of my lungs.
The noise around me ceased. But not that hidden by the bridge.
"Hey! You up there!" I called to the sentry on the citadel walls. "What is happening?"
"Just the other side of the bridge, the Latii are coming ashore in boats." He called back. "Are you troops?"
"No." I replied. "But throw us some stabbers down and we will be!"
"Yeah!" Came a cry from beside me.
"I've not much, but stand clear and I'll throw it down." The sentry called. "You'll have to go under the bridge to get at them as well. Good luck!"
The five stabbers he threw were quickly picked up.
"What about the rest of us?" Rupiitii questioned.
"Stones, I reckon." Was my answer. "As many big ones as everyone can find."
In moments, the whole assembly was moving in file down the bank and under the bridge. There was not much room with the river high as it was but we managed, and as we came out the other side, there were the Latii.
"Stabbers up the bank!" I ordered, then turning to Rupiitii, "As soon as we're clear, let them have it. Every stone!"
Hurrier had a stabber, and should have commanded, but said nothing. Just went straight up the bank and laid into the first Latiian within reach.
The Latii still on the bank were caught broadside by the fusillade and were sent tumbling, mostly into the water. Some were tripping over the boats others were disembarking from, tipping them all into the river. Suddenly this fight was not going Latiis' way. Those already up the bank now had enemy in their rear. Those that realised were distracted and chopped down. Those that did not were hit from behind. Their attack fell to pieces. No longer an armed thrust, it was a series of melees where numbers were not on their side.
I could not end there of course, for every side has its leaders, and the Latii are no exception. New boats were arriving and seeing their jeopardy, a Latiian captain organised a rally to protect his reinforcements. Closed in to formation on the defensive, the Latii were for the moment impregnable. There were not enough Midean soldiers here to take them, and the civilians who had taken them on with knives and bits of wood when spread out were now just cut down if they got too close. Even the stone throwing had become erratic and almost ineffectual. Mides was losing people and the initiative too fast, and more Latii were coming ashore.
We now had twenty stabbers in the echelon, the extras taken from Latii dead. These would have to be the guard.
"Hurrier!" I yelled. "Now is the time! Get the stabbers in front as guard and we will go in under a screen of stones."
As he organised this I got Rupiitii to line the throwers in two ranks behind the stabbers, with all the spare people tasked in fetching new rocks.
"Ready?" I shouted to the hurrier.
"Yes!" He shouted back.
"On your word then!" I called.
Pausing to steel himself, he raised stabber high and called out. "UTEII!!"
As one, a hundred and twenty rocks hurtled into the Latii, ripping their ranks open.
"Wait!" I bellowed.
Some of the Latii staggered up. Others dashed into the gap. The line thinned and contracted to compensate.
"Ready?.. Now!" I ordered, taking control.
The Latii reeled again. A third volley, and the civilians had seen their real use. The supply of stones was coming faster than they could be thrown.
"Rear echelon! One pace forward!.. Ready?.. Now! Wait for it... Ready?.. Now!"
This was war again. Not the mindless bloodletting it had been. The Latii were dropping at twice their reinforcement rate. They had to do something soon, and it would be against us. I was watching their captain closely so when he gave the order I would know. I saw his mouth work and I understood what the lips said.
"Rupiitii." I called over my shoulder. "Make sure everyone has two rocks from now on. All right?"
He did as asked without question. I was not sure after which volley it would happen, and when I did it would be too late. So there had better be standby fire ready.
I almost missed the command in the hail of our fusillade, but the speed of its execution left me no doubt. The scream left my throat even as the Latii reserve punched its way through their own line, scattering the fallen, falling and survivors alike. Like a bolt of lightning, the black mass thundered toward us.
"Now! Now! Now!" I screeched.
The back up volley was ragged, coming so quickly. But it was enough to blunt the horror. Tripping over their flailing comrades, the Latii nevertheless hit with an incredible force.
Smashing and stabbing, they beat a path into out midst. Blood was everywhere as the Latii attack bogged down and slowed to a stop, then finally succumbed under a tide of kicking, biting, punching bodies.
My shortspear was thick with the blood of three Latii and stuck in a fourth as the tide compressed me and knocked me down, locked onto this enemy. Trapped beneath his dying weight I was trod on and kicked as the avenging crowd swarmed over. Helpless, I could only listen as the mob dissected the Latii formation in a frenzy of hate. A more hideous sound is not conceivable.
When light came, daylight that is as opposed to flame light that had dominated the night, people came round looking for wounded. Finding me, I managed to persuade them to remove the body of this Latiian who had jerked and grunted and sicked up blood on me almost interminably before finally dying, much to my relief at the time, and remorse later.
I emerged from under this dead weight into a sea of bodies. The carnage had been truly immense. Hundreds of dead Midean and Latii lay jumbled across the whole area, from the bridge outward and up the riverside for a thousand paces. Further up, a pall of smoke was still rising where the main fight had been won. Woneii had held again, but at what price?
I staggered around in a horrified daze, looking for people I knew. Rupiitii was there. Not twenty paces from where I had been pinioned. His face was full of anger, probably because half his head was missing. Maybe because a good number of the rear echelon lay equally dead nearby, with various parts of their anatomies destroyed. Hurrier was there, but further on, where the Latii raid had finally met destruction. He had died with his stabber jammed in the Latii Captains' throat. That would be one for the Midean book of heroes. All I knew was that I was not going to write any part of it. In fact, I was determined not to have anything more to do with this place and the madness it brought.
Making my way back to our lodgings, I picked up the rest of my gear and went down to the river as we had done last night. I could not get out through the Latii lines and I did not want to go back the way I had come, which meant across the bridge. That left only one option. Go down river. All I had to do was find a boat. After last night there should be one or two unclaimed ones about. It did not take long to find one. There were even two dead Latii in it to keep me company. I would have thrown them out, but I was just too tired. I pushed the thing off and clambered in. The river was high and swift, but not bumpy, so I just laid back and let it guide me away from the horror as I slid into sunlit oblivion.