Rezkin tightened the strap securing his pack behind the saddle and then took the reins. Leading Pride forward, he looked over his shoulder to make sure the others were with him. He did not want their presence in Gendishen announced, so all but one of the landing party were dressed as mercenaries, a guise they decided would not raise suspicion since bids for mercenary companies were rising in every kingdom. It was a lucrative profession if one could survive the war that would follow. Only the priest, Minder Finwy, appeared out of place. While the Gendishen extremist views of the Purifiers did not adhere to the tenets of the Temple of the Maker, and, in fact, the collectiare openly condemned their actions, the people of Gendishen respected and honored anyone who served the Maker—so long as he or she was not a mage.
Rezkin’s party had come ashore midmorning, far from any settlement, sacrificing time for secrecy. By foot, it would take the travelers half the day to reach the trade route and from there another three days to the nearest city. Rezkin hoped they would not have to walk the entire distance. Gendishen was known for good horse breeding, and King Privoth, like his ancestors before him, had vowed to create a breed to rival the battle chargers of Ashai. The Gendishen reds were no battle chargers, but they were fast. Since his was the only mount, Rezkin hoped to procure some reds for the rest of his party. He had dusted and painted Pride’s coat, mane, and tail to make the horse’s appearance less striking, although it was unlikely anyone would recognize the battle charger for what he was. As far as Rezkin knew, no battle charger had ever trod upon Gendishen soil. Even so, he had covered the majestic stallion in a worn and muddy brown caparison that hid the impressive armor underneath.
Kai cleared his throat, the gruff sound barely discernable over the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks on the desolate shore. “You should ride,” he said. “You are the king. No one would begrudge the king his mount.”
Rezkin checked the dinghy one more time and then waved to the crewmen who would return it to the ship. He looked at Kai and said, “To what end? We can go no faster than the slowest walker. I would grow bored in the saddle. I prefer to be active. Besides, while they may not resent me for riding, they will respect my decision to join them in the walk.”
Kai hefted his own pack. “Perhaps, but it is unseemly for a king to be trudging through the dirt like common infantry.”
As Rezkin scanned the horizon, he said, “Remember we are mercenaries. Besides, Cael is a warrior kingdom led by a warrior king—one that fights with his men, walks with his men, and dies with them if necessary.”
“Is that right, Rez?” Farson said as he strode up to Kai’s other side.
Rezkin had struggled with the decision to bring the estranged striker but had concluded that he would rather keep the man in his sights than allow him to run amuck in his new kingdom. He stared at his former trainer, waiting to hear his latest resentful accusation. Farson did not disappoint.
Farson said, “Would you die with us if we came under attack from an undefeatable force? Or would you be on that horse and away to safety?”
“I follow the Rules, same as you,” said Rezkin.
“Not like me. We are not the same. You—as king.” Farson huffed with contempt. “You will drop this role as soon as it becomes inconvenient.”
Rezkin paused, and Kai and Farson stopped beside him. He glanced over his shoulder to see that Jimson and the others were far enough back to lend them privacy, all but Minder Finwy. The priest was scrabbling over the detritus at a respectful distance, but he was still close enough to hear the conversation.
Rezkin lowered his voice. “What would you have me do, Farson? These people have need of me. Ashai has need of me. Should I abandon them now? To do what?”
Farson scoffed. “Are you doing this to serve their needs, or are you using them to serve your own?”
Exasperated, Rezkin said, “What needs have I?” He closed the distance between them, inciting Farson to palm a dagger from his sleeve. He made no effort to hide his distrust.
Rezkin said, “I have more money than I could spend in a lifetime. I am trained to become anyone, to do almost anything. I am not like them. That is clear, as is Rule 257. Have no doubt that I understand. Yet, without them”—he nodded toward Malcius, Brandt, and Yserria—“I cannot heed Rule 1. Without them, I have no reason to be anything. Without them I have no purpose.”
He knew that arguing with Farson was futile, so he did not wait for a response. He instead tugged at the reins and headed inland at a brisk walk.
Kai turned to Farson. “I have not heard of a Rule 257.”
Farson followed in his former pupil’s footsteps, calling over his shoulder, “Be one and alone.”
The terrain between the shore and the trade route was rough, covered with sharp rocks, pits, and hollows that could collapse under the weight of a careless traveler. Brandt and Malcius were surprisingly quiet, keeping most of their anguished grumbling to themselves. Jimson and Sergeant Millins were good soldiers, suffering in silence and making sure the others navigated the treacherous passage without injury. Yserria danced over the rubble with ease but tended toward the opposite side of the group from Malcius. Rezkin had hesitated to bring her since swordswomen were even more uncommon in Gendishen than they were in Ashai. She was a capable fighter and spoke fluent Leréshi, though, which would help to disguise their party’s origin.
Malcius huffed as he caught up to where Rezkin waited for them with Wesson. He said, “We should not have left so soon after the battle. What if there are more demons? What if those white creatures attack again?”
“You had the option to stay behind.”
“You know I could not,” Malcius said with a nod toward Yserria. He tugged at an amulet that had been fashioned to hold her life stone. “Not since you hung this burden around my neck.”
“It is only temporary,” said Wesson.
“You cannot know that. I was talking about the attack, though. What of the creatures?”
Rezkin said, “I cannot be everywhere, and the war will not wait. I delayed this trip long enough. It has been two weeks, and we have seen no signs of aggression from the creatures. If anything, they seem eager to please. Shezar and the mages are keeping an eye on them. The shielreyah insist they will be able to prevent them from becoming a problem again.”
“They could not the first time,” Malcius said.
“That is because the shielreyah are not fully conscious,” said Wesson. “Their souls reside in the Afterlife. They could not detect the threat because their vague awareness could not conceive of it. Now, they are aware of the potential danger.”
“I harbor no trust for them either,” Malcius grumbled. “And it makes no sense. The shielreyah were created to protect the fortress. If a threat exists on the island, they should know of it.”
Rezkin said, “The shielreyah refer to the creatures as ictali. Apparently, the ictali were utterly loyal and devoted servants when the shielreyah lived. They would not have recognized them as a threat. I believe the only reason they attacked was because of the demon’s control.”
“And Healer Aelis? Was he under its control as well?”
“I have reason to believe he was already possessed when he joined us in Skutton.”
Wesson said, “I have seen only a few references to demons, most of them warnings in introductory texts. They all agree that demons can only possess a person with consent.”
Malcius looked at Wesson aghast. “Why would anyone do that?”
Wesson shrugged. “For power. Some even think they can use it for good. My master told me a story about a healer who wanted to cure his wife of some terrible ailment. He did not have enough talent on his own, so he made a pact with a demon. It did not end well for either of them. They think they can control it; but, in all the stories, the demon ultimately overcomes the person’s will. I am not sure if the ritual we interrupted in the forest was a form of forced possession or some other kind of demonic control. We do not have enough information. Truthfully, I never completely believed the stories. I thought demons were myths. Surely, if they were real and so powerful, they would have consumed the world ages ago.”
“All the more reason we should have stayed in Cael,” Malcius grumbled. He sighed with exasperation as he stumbled over another loose rock. “I do not understand why we could not bring at least one earth mage. It would have made our passage far easier.”
Rezkin said, “I told you the talent is not tolerated in Gendishen. All forms of magery are outlawed.”
Wesson added, “The talent is referred to as the scourge, and those afflicted with the scourge are put to death. A special division of the king’s forces called the Purifiers are dedicated solely to the investigation and elimination of the afflicted.”
“But you are here. You could do something about this,” Malcius said as a stone shifted beneath his foot.
“We do not wish to attract the attention of the Purifiers,” replied Rezkin.
Wesson said, “It is unclear how the Purifiers identify the afflicted, since only those with talent can sense it in others. Still, if anyone witnessed my actions, they would certainly report us.”
Brandt, who had arrived on Malcius’s heals, said, “It makes no sense to me. Most people would kill to have the talent. Why would an entire kingdom spurn the gift?”
“People often fear what they do not understand, and they tend to hate what they fear,” Rezkin said. “No ruler of Gendishen has possessed the talent. The king rules with strength of arms alone. A mage class would threaten the ruling family’s power.”
“So they just kill anyone they think is a mage?” Brandt said. His irritation was compounded as he snagged his pant leg on the razor edge of a boulder.
Rezkin navigated around a steep slope of talus, leading Pride to stabler ground. He said, “The surrounding kingdoms are glad to accept talented refugees, which has always been a major point of contention between Gendishen and its neighbors, Channería and Lon Lerésh. To keep the peace, the other kingdoms begrudgingly agreed not to assist in an escape, but they will provide sanctuary if someone makes it across the border.”
“Why is Mage Wesson here, then?” Brandt asked. “He will be killed if caught.”
Rezkin paused to dig a rock from Pride’s hoof as he answered. “According to the Interkingdom Accords, rulers and dignitaries from foreign kingdoms are exempt from the anti-scourge laws for the duration of a sanctioned visit. I doubt King Privoth will extend us the courtesy without first recognizing me as an independent monarch. Therefore, we could not bring any mages. Journeyman Wesson, however, insisted on attending despite the dangers. He knows his strength and also speaks fluent Gendishen.”
“I am willing to hazard the risks,” Wesson growled in a heated tone unlike his usual easy-going demeanor. “What they are doing is wrong. People should not be persecuted for being born different from others. The Gendishen believe the talent is a choice—that wielders have made pacts with demons or the like.”
“But it is a blessing of the Maker,” Malcius exclaimed. “Mages can do great things!”
“And terrible things, too,” Sergeant Millins muttered as Malcius stumbled into him.
“Come now, Sergeant, how can you say that?” Malcius said, shrugging off the soldier’s assistance.
“The sergeant is right,” Wesson said. “I know more than most that the power can be both a blessing and a curse—not in the bearing of it, but in the use. For one with my affinity, it is easy to destroy and infinitely harder to create.”
“I think you will find that is true in all things,” Rezkin said, “not just with the talent.”
Rezkin wondered if Wesson’s true reason for attending was to keep an eye on him. Rezkin had been better about keeping his emotional—and often paranoid—episodes under control, but the strikers still treated him warily. He had overheard Kai asking if Farson had noticed a difference in Rezkin’s behavior, and his former trainer had laughed. Farson had said that if they were observing a strangeness in Rezkin, it was because he wanted it to be so. Farson’s assertion had been a relief, since Rezkin would not want his potential enemy to perceive the weakness.
After finally reaching the road, the travelers took a short respite and then walked for another hour. Gendishen was a large kingdom. Far to the east were forests and to the north, mountains, but it was otherwise dominated by flat plains. Even the smallest bump in the landscape was a notable topographic feature. As such, most of the residents were farmers, ranchers, and plantation owners. The countryside seemed to go on endlessly, and everything in sight was tall grasses, clumps of bushes, or short, scraggly trees, feasted upon by herds of grazing animals. Occasional disturbances in the grass, usually caused by a fox or wild cat, would incite a frenzy in the grassland birds, which took to the air in a noisy flurry. The buzz and snap of insects was only overshadowed by the hollow drone of the breeze wafting through the sea of wispy green and gold stalks.
Eventually, Rezkin came to a halt. “We shall stop here,” he said.
“Why so early?” Malcius said. “We have at least a few hours before sundown. We should push ahead and get to civilization sooner.”
Rezkin nodded up the road and then to the meadows surrounding them. “This is unknown, possibly hostile territory, and we travel light. Are you capable of hunting in the dark?”
Malcius said nothing but furrowed his brow in frustration as he followed his pack to the ground.
Brandt turned from surveying the landscape and said, “I am not questioning your decision, Rez, but I am wondering why you chose this spot. It looks identical to everything else around here.”
“True,” said Rezkin, “there is little to distinguish it.” He pointed to a spot a short distance away and said, “Those grasses are slightly greener than the rest. Do you hear that bird song? It is bouncy and quickens at the end. It is a sedge wren. They are often found in wet areas.”
“You think we will find fresh water here?” said Brandt.
Rezkin shrugged as he untied his pack. “Possibly. It is no guarantee.”
“Did you teach him that?” Malcius said, as he stared at Farson.
Farson paused in the searching of his pack and glanced between Malcius and Rezkin. People generally avoided bringing up their past connection since it was obvious their relationship was less than conciliatory. Malcius seemed to be in a foul mood, though. Farson finished fishing in his pack and set to stringing his bow before answering.
“No, that was probably Beritt. He was good with birds—most animals, really—and he was an excellent tracker.”
“So where is Beritt now?” Malcius asked.
“Dead.” Farson turned and disappeared into the tall grass, and Malcius looked to Rezkin for answers.
Ignoring the unspoken question, Rezkin said, “I go to scout the area.” Then he, too, vanished.
Malcius was not satisfied. He looked to Kai, who was brushing down the disgruntled stallion. “What happened to Beritt?”
“How should I know?” said Kai without pause. “It is none of my business.”
“You are a striker. Is it not your business to know what happened to your brother?”
“As far as I am concerned, Beritt died twelve years ago on a mission. Such was the official position of King Bordran. Beyond that, it is neither my business nor yours.”
“But he obviously did not—”
“Perhaps he asked too many questions,” Kai snapped. “Leave it be, Lord Malcius. No good can come of dredging up his past.”
“You mean Rez—”
“You and Brandt will start clearing the area for a fire pit. Unlike your little fiasco on the beach in Port Manai, this will require some forethought. We do not wish to burn down the field with us in it.”
“But the soldiers can—”
“Stop arguing. You are not lords in a plush estate. You are mercenaries. Act like it.”
Since Farson had gone south, Rezkin headed east and then turned north. The scent of horses and unwashed bodies reached his nose as he pressed through the grasses, some of which were taller than he. Quickening his pace, he turned back toward the road. After a cautious circuit of the group, he moved to crouch within the brush at the side of the road. It was a noisy bunch of twenty-seven rough-looking men with an assortment of mismatched weapons and armor. Each wore about his waist a black sash bearing a white crescent moon at one end. Only five of the men led horses, and all but one of the mounts were loaded with equipment. Several casks and trunks were piled into a rickety mule-drawn wagon from which the company’s standard flew atop a tall pole. A few boisterous fellows trod at the front, setting the pace, while the rest dragged their feet behind. Some wore bandages, and the lone rider appeared as if he might not see the dawn.
Rezkin waited for the company to pass and then skirted back the way he had come. Upon arrival at the camp, he silently approached Farson from the rear. The striker turned too late. If Rezkin had intended it, the striker would have been dead. Farson graced him with a scowl, and Rezkin replied with a grin. The effort was rewarded by Farson’s obvious disconcert. Rezkin could not remember ever smiling at Farson, outside of an act.
“Find Kai,” he said.
Without question, Farson shouldered his bow and vanished into the grass.
Rezkin surveyed the camp and was fairly satisfied with their progress. A broad patch on the side of the road had been stamped down, and the group was huddled around a pit that had been cleared for the fire. An unoccupied perimeter separated them from the tall grasses, although it was still too narrow for Rezkin’s comfort. They would have at least a few seconds’ warning before an ambush, assuming their assailants were not carrying crossbows. Brandt crouched over the pit attempting to light the fire, and Jimson and Millins plucked a couple of unidentifiable fowl, while Yserria hovered at the far perimeter with the appearance of keeping watch. Wesson was, with crossed legs, weaving his fingers through the air over a palm-sized lump on the ground as Minder Finwy watched.
Wesson glanced up as Rezkin neared. “Can you feel it?” he asked.
“Only since entering the circle,” Rezkin said.
“You are a mage?” Finwy said, genuinely surprised.
“No,” said Rezkin.
Wesson glanced at him dubiously but did not comment. Instead, he said, “I have been working on narrowing my vimara bleed.” He dangled an object in the air that looked like a black stone carved into an intricate knot. Tiny runes were marked along each curve, and a smaller red stone was set in the center. The object hung from a leather lace strung through a hole in the knot. “This amulet should help. You are particularly sensitive to it.” He raised his head and narrowed his eyes at Rezkin. “I wonder if you use a method similar to the Purifiers …” Without finishing the thought, he went back to his ministrations.
When Farson and Kai arrived several minutes later, Rezkin said, “We will have company soon. Mercenaries are heading our way from the north.”
“Trouble?” said Kai.
Rezkin said, “They have injured and may wish to avoid conflict. That being said, we will implement the plan.” He looked to Brandt and Malcius. “Remember, do not speak. If you must, keep it short and slur your words. Neither of you sound like mercs.” He paused, giving them a once-over. “And slouch.”
“Got it. Pretend we jus’ returned from a bender,” Brandt mumbled. Malcius punched Brandt in the arm. “What? Palis would have laughed.”
“Shut up,” Malcius grumbled, but his expression softened at the thought.
Rezkin shook his head. “If you must, but stop smiling. You have a terrible hangover.”
“Well, that shucks,” Brandt said in his best drunkenese, eliciting a genuine smile from Malcius. The expression abruptly vanished behind a scowl directed at Yserria before he went back to poking at the ground with a twig.
“What about you?” he muttered. “You do not sound like a merc either.”
“I am capable,” Rezkin said as the sounds of the troop finally reached his ears. He checked his longsword that was strapped to his back, shifted the shortsword at his hip, and then plopped down on the ground practically on top of Wesson.
The mage looked up in alarm. “Wha-what are you doing?”
Rezkin drew the hood of his worn brown cloak over his head and sprawled out on the flattened grass as he lounged against Wesson’s side. “Yer too purdy to be on yer own, boy,” he said in Ashaiian with a heavy Gendishen accent. “If one of us don’t claim ya, one of them will. Best it be me.”
“B-b-but Yserria! I mean, she is a woman! Why do you not claim her?”
“Yserria’ll put ’em in their place. You can’t or ye’ll expose yerself as a demon-bound afflicted, and then we’ll have to kill ’em all.”
“Wait. You would kill them? But, they have done nothing to us. We could find another way. I could—”
“Can’t have no rumors gettin’ ’round, Wes. You show ’em, we kill ’em.”
Wesson was visibly upset, and Finwy pursed his lips in disapproval. The others said nothing as they shared a surprised and uncomfortable silence. The strikers and soldiers, who were trained for combat, did not appear to share their distaste for the brutality of war—or at least accepted it as necessary. Farson dashed into the grass while Kai, Millins, and Jimson moved to intercept the incoming company at the road. The others stared at Rezkin as if he had just grown a second head, and he supposed he had, in a manner of speaking. Wesson quickly hid the amulet he had been enchanting and then sat stiffly under Rezkin’s weight. The clink of armor, creak of wood, and snorts of men and horses were nearly upon them when a small, furry creature darted out of the grass to roll in the mat and dirt at Rezkin’s feet.
He spied the beast curiously, and Malcius blurted, “Is that your cat?”
“I s’pose …” Rezkin drawled.
“I do not remember it being in the dinghy when we rowed ashore.”
“Nor do I,” said Wesson, “and we have not seen it all day.”
Rezkin shrugged. “Cats be mysterious. Quiet now or the jig’ll be up as soon they get here.”
As the troupe came into view, Kai called out in a traditional Gendishen greeting. “Hail to the travelers. May we meet and part in peace.”
Given the Gendishen penchant for violence, Rezkin thought it sounded more like a plea. The mercenaries plodded to a halt, and the lead man, a black-haired, hefty fellow with dark eyes and a braid dangling from his chin, spat off to the side.
“Peace? You don’t look the sort is lookin’ fer peace.”
Kai grinned and shook with a hearty laugh. “We ain’t lookin’ fer trouble neither—not ’til there’s silver and gold weighin’ down our purses.”
“Then we’re of a like mind.” The man surveyed the group and added, “You lot ain’t much to look at. About eight of you, not including’ the priest? You got some hidden in the grass?”
Kai mirthlessly chuckled. “What we be lackin’ in numbers, we’re makin’ up fer in skill.”
The leader said, “Ha! Next, you’ll be tellin’ us yer all swordmasters.” His men burst into uproarious laughter, slapping their armor and jeering.
“And ya got two women!” shouted another fellow who was missing a few teeth.
“That one’s a lad,” Kai said with a nod toward Wesson, whose face was flushed. “You prob’ly don’t wanna be challengin’ his friend there.” With a nod toward Yserria, he said, “That one’s a lass, though, and I’d wager she’ll lay any one of you out.”
The men laughed and a few stepped closer to get a better look at the tall, red-headed beauty. She set her stance and patted her sword hilt. Her distaste for the men was obvious by her determined expression. She lifted her chin in defiance and spoke in Leréshi. “Presh tuar duevinua.”
Rezkin snorted and remarked, “Duarvashkatin conjuhotu.”
Yserria looked at him with surprise and grinned.
The black-haired mercenary hawked a glob of phlegm at Rezkin’s feet. “A Leréshi, then? The lassies don’t often carry the swords, but I’ll not be messin’ with one who does. Which of you has she claimed?”
“He’s dead,” said Kai.
“That’s fitting,” the man muttered. Seemingly satisfied, he waved back toward his men. “Kingdom pays more fer large companies. If yer as good as you say, you’d be best signin’ with us. We’ll all get more at the end.”
Kai grinned again. “Aye, but the fewer of us is at the end, the more we all get?”
The man scowled furiously. “We don’t stand fer traitors.”
“Maybe not, but ain’t none of us is really one of you, eh? You get a bigger contract fer the extra swords and then stab us in the back.”
The mercenary leader said, “He that wears the crescent be the crescent.”
The other mercenaries nodded and barked their agreement.
“Seems a better deal,” replied Kai. “Mayhap we’ll march together. See if we can come to an agreement.”
The man grunted. “We’ll get yer measure.” Then, he turned and waved his hand in the air as he began barking orders to his men.
The mercenaries set their camp on the opposite side of the road. They had little in the way of comforts, but they made due with their wagons and battered gear. About an hour after sundown, Rezkin stumbled into their camp carrying a jug of ale he had snagged from their supplies. His arm was slung over Wesson’s shoulders, and Wesson looked as if he would crawl into a hole and die.
“What do you want?” said one mercenary whose hair had thinned by half, the remaining strands hanging past his shoulders. “No one invited you to our camp, and ain’t no one gonna be givin’ you their drink. You get back to yer side of the road afore we make sure you can’t come back.”
“See?” Rezkin said in Gendishen as he slammed the jug into Wesson’s chest. Then he thrust it back into the air with a slosh. “I tol’ ya they’d be interested in a story.”
“I really don’t think they are,” Wesson muttered in the same tongue.
The black-haired leader rounded the fire. “I know yer kind—saw you earlier, lazin’ about with your pretty boy while the others worked. You prob’ly think you should get the same take as us is workin’ hard, don’t ya?”
Rezkin laughed and pushed Wesson to the ground. Wesson scowled up at him, his frustration genuine. Then, he ducked his head and played the part of the cowed young man with no choice but submission. He was ashamed to admit that it was not so far from the truth. He had never tried his power against Rezkin and wondered if it would be as ineffectual as the power wielded by the other mages. Rezkin tumbled gracelessly to the ground beside him, nearly losing the contents of the jug in the process.
“They don’t want me doin’ none of that. I gotta stay rested, ya see? In case any of you decide to make trouble.”
The men burst into laughter, but the leader was having none of it. “You had best be able to put your sword where yer mouth is.”
Rezkin laughed boisterously, slapping his knee. “If I did that, I’d not be talkin’ no more, would I?”
“We’d all be better off,” said the mercenary leader. He turned to Wesson. “And you? What good are you? Yer too puny to lift a blade, and I doubt you got a scar on ya.”
Wesson was saved from answering when Rezkin jabbed an elbow into his ribs. “He polishes my weapons.”
The men snickered and groaned as Wesson’s face heated. He decided that whenever they were away from the mercenaries, he was going to give Rezkin a piece of his mind—even if it killed him.
Turning back to Rezkin, the leader said, “What’s this story yer talkin’ ’bout?”
“First, Boss, what be yer name?” said Rezkin as if the alcohol were taking its full effect. Even Wesson was inclined to wonder if he had truly been drinking.
“The name’s Orin, commander of the White Crescents.”
Rezkin said, “Commander, eh? Army man? What kinda name is White Crescents? Don’t sound like no merc comp’ny to me. Blood Moon, maybe, or Black Eclipse, but White Crescents?”
Orin kicked Rezkin in the side and then grabbed his chest plate. With a hard yank, the mercenary leader lifted Rezkin toward his face. He then leaned over them both, and Wesson could smell the man’s putrid breath as he said, “On the night of an eclipse, the white crescent is the last vestige of light ya see before all goes dark, and it’s the first ya see if yer lucky to see the light again. It’s what they calls a metaphor. It’s fer battle, fer life.”
Rezkin stared at the mercenary for entirely too long and then burst into laughter. He shoved the man back with surprising force. “How poetic. Now let’s get to the story.”
Orin waved off the men who had jumped to defend their leader, or perhaps just his pride. “What story is it yer tellin’?”
“What?” said Rezkin, blinking up at the man as if he couldn’t see through the ale drowning his mind. “No. Can’t say as I’ve got no stories worth tellin’. I’s wantin’ to hear yers. Why are half yer men injured and one looks to be makin’ a deal with the Maker? The way I sees it, y'all must’ve been the victors, seein’ as how yer still alive. I ain’t heard about no battles, though.”
With a wave toward his men and a grumble, Orin sat down on a saddle draped across a mound of grass. He pulled a knob of crass root from a pouch at his waist, gnawed on the stalk a moment, and then shoved the whole thing into his cheek before answering.
“Weren’t no battle of men. Was the drauglics—come down from the mountains, I suppose.”
“Drauglics?” barked Rezkin. “I ain’t buyin’ it. We ain’t nowhere near the mountains, and ain’t no one ever seen one on the plains.”
“Can’t say as I blame ya,” said Orin. “I wouldn’t neither but for the rumors. You must’ve heard ‘em. Been goin’ round for months. Drauglic sightings, peasants in the outlands disappearin’. Some say they been findin’ pieces of people—eaten they say—slaughtered. I didn’t believe none of it myself—least not ’till we was attacked. A day and a half ago to the north. We was huntin’ fer game not far from the trade route when they just appeared outta nowhere. We counted about twenty bodies at the end but don’t know how many done run off. Took us by surprise, nasty suckers. Before the attack, our company was forty-two with as many horses.”
“So they was after the horses,” Rezkin said.
Orin motioned for one of his men to chuck another log onto the fire and said, “I don’t think they cared if they got man or horse, only the horses didn’t have swords.”
“And the drauglics? What’d they have?”
“Crude weapons and farm tools, mostly—a few swords and knives they prob’ly took off their victims.”
“Drauglics carry weapons?” said Wesson “I thought they were small, primitive creatures.”
“So he can speak,” said Orin with a chuckle, but his humor faded quickly. “These weren’t small things. They was nearly as big as a man … well, a small man, maybe. They wield weapons, but I hear they ain’t smart enough to forge metal. They make their weapons from sticks and stones, and some of ’em got wood or leather armor. The better stuff is what they find or steal. They looked kinda like men from a distance, but they was lizards—got purple and orange scales over parts of their flesh.”
“They sound awful,” said Wesson.
“Don’t you worry ’bout it, boy. Yer friend there seems to think he can take on an army!” He and his men laughed and jeered.
Rezkin rose unsteadily, motioning for Wesson to stand. He leaned heavily on Wesson’s shoulder as he said, “Only thing I’m plannin’ to take on is this here ale.”
Orin grunted. “Seems to me you’ve had enough, but at least you’ll be rested if we decide to attack ya. Maybe even you’ll kill a few of us, eh?”
“Sure, and the purple lizard men, too,” Rezkin said with a drunken gurgle.
When they got back to the camp, Rezkin slumped to the ground in front of the fire and called loudly for Malcius to dish up the grub. Having already removed much of his armor, Malcius shuffled forward, leaving his sword with his pack. Rezkin grabbed him by the shoulder and shoved him back, causing him to trip and tumble into Millins who was trying to sleep before taking his turn as lookout.
“What was that for?” Malcius hollered, his anger getting the better of him.
“Don’t be stupid,” Rezkin said, switching to the highly accented Ashaiian trade dialect. “You leave yer sword unattended, and it won’t be tendin’ you when ya need it. I don’t care whether your pissin’ or bathin’, you keep that blade on you always.”
“Like he bathes,” Brandt said with a snort, dutifully playing his role of debaucherous mercenary.
Malcius’s response died on his lips when he saw Brandt’s gaze flick to a place beyond the firelight. A movement in the dark, the crunch of a footfall, and the jingle of buckles betrayed the mercenary hovering at the road.
Attempting to mimic Rezkin’s style of speech, Malcius said, “I don’t need to, seein’ as how, unlike you, I don’t go rollin’ about with swine.” Rezkin, Kai, and Brandt burst into laughter.
Yserria huffed, and the trade dialect so common in Skutton rolled off her tongue like liquid silk. “You’re all swine, and if ya don’t lay off the ale, you’ll be spitted like swine, too.”
Malcius cinched his sword belt with an angry tug and said, “You’d best hope that don’t happen since none of us’d be around to save you this time.”
Yserria squared her shoulders. “No, I can see that honor don’t run in the family. You forget that I don’t need your help.”
Alert to the shift in tone and the silent watcher at the road, Rezkin interrupted the exchange. “The woman’s got a point.”
Malcius looked at him flabbergasted. “You’re questioning my honor?”
Rezkin turned a sharp gaze on his friend and slurred, “No, ya idjit. Ain’t no honor to be had by the likes of us.” Malcius’s mouth snapped shut, and his shoulders dropped as he resumed his mercenary role. Rezkin continued. “I was talkin’ ’bout us getting’ spitted.” He slapped Wesson on the shoulder and motioned to the roasting meat. “Since Mal can’t keep his head straight, you get the food.” As Wesson crouched over the fire muttering incomprehensively, Rezkin said, “Them over there is sayin’ there’s lizard men goin’ around eatin’ people.”
“Lizard men?” Brandt said hesitantly, as though hoping to avoid becoming the butt of a joke.
Kai, the presumed leader of the group, leaned forward from where he sat atop Rezkin’s saddle, “You mean drauglics?”
Rezkin nodded. “That’s what they’s sayin’. They was attacked less than two days ago. Drauglics killed ’bout a third of their men and took most of the horses.”
“We’d best be on high alert,” Kai said, meeting each of their gazes. “It’ll be easy fer those creatures to sneak up on us in this high grass.”
“You mean real drauglics?” Brandt exclaimed. “You’re serious.”
Rezkin nodded. “Their scales are hard. A sword can get through with enough force, but it ain’t easy in a heavy battle. Got scales on the sides of their necks, so you gotta jab straight for the throat. Same with the torso. The middle’s soft, but they usually cover it with some kinda armor. Yer good to go fer the inner thighs, groin, and soft spot under the tail.”
“They have tails?” Brandt said with too much enthusiasm.
Kai grumbled, “You’d best hope we don’t run into any.”
Rezkin nodded toward the others, silently indicating that man at the road had returned to his camp.
“You sound like you’ve battled ’em before,” Brandt drawled, still wary of being overheard.
Rezkin nodded. “About two years ago, a large band of ’em took up in the Zigharans. We went in a cleared ’em out.”
“You and your trainers?” Kai said.
“Nah, just me and my men. Men like them,” Rezkin said with a nod toward the party on the other side of the road.
Kai narrowed his eyes. “I thought you said you’d just left yer trainin’ when we met.”
“Right, but I weren’t always at the fortress.” He met Kai’s suspicious gaze and said, “Didn’t go near no settlements. There was trainin’ to be done. Battles to be fought. Wars to be won.”
“You fought mock battles?”
The others watched him with hawk-like gazes as he spoke. Even Millins had given up on his attempt at sleep. Despite the attention, Rezkin realized that he was no longer inundated with the persistent paranoia that had plagued him since landing on Cael. He said, “Only thing mock about ’em was the reason for fighten ’em. Men was captured or hired to fight on both sides, and none of ’em knowin’ why. Turns out, weren’t no reason fer it but me. I even went on campaign with a King’s Army unit called the Scavengers.”
“You were part of the Scavengers?” Millins exclaimed, his expression soured with disdain.
“Who are the Scavengers?” Malcius said as he took a bowl from Wesson.
With a glance toward the other camp, Millins drawled, “Not all men make good soldiers. Some cause trouble—fightin’ in the unit, problems with the locals, offendin’ the nobles, deserters. Those men go to the Scavengers. Nobody wants to be a Scavenger. They get the worst assignments, the worst pay—most or all of it levied for fines before it even reaches their purses. As a reward for their sadism, the strictest officers are assigned to whip the Scavengers into shape.” Millins looked to Rezkin. “So, you were placed in charge?”
“Nah, I was a green recruit. I got caught for desertion,” he said with a half grin. “My job was to fit in—to learn the ways of the army. It ain’t so convincin’ to fake if ya’ve never experienced it. I’ll tell ya, the deserters is treated the worst. The vilest degenerates in the army got too much honor … or fear … to abandon their posts. Even the foulest of the lot spit on the deserters. I had to work my way up the ranks—without exposin’ my trainin’.”
Malcius said, “Who were you battling?”
He looked angry, and Rezkin could only guess as to why. Rezkin shrugged and said, “Bandits, mercs, insurgents. We was at peace, but that peace was kept by maintainin’ close watch over the borders. Northern forces prod for weakness. We made sure no one survived to keep proddin’. Anyway, I made sergeant—”
“Wait, you made sergeant in a year?” said Millins.
Rezkin grinned. “Commander said I was the fastest learner he ever seen. After I made sergeant, I weren’t gonna get no more promotions in that unit, and I couldn’t transfer. I was there fer a reason, after all. So, we was sent to battle an army of four merc companies. We was outnumbered three to one, and I had to pretend to be an average soldier, except without gettin’ killed. The mercs killed most of our men, but we took out a lot of theirs. I had orders, though. When it looked like we was done for, I killed the rest of our men.”
Leaning forward so he could see around Wesson, Minder Finwy looked at him with horror. “You killed your own men?”
“Well, I let a few live—the ones that was loyal to me. Then, I challenged the merc commanders. They was confused and didn’t wanna accept. I killed ’em anyway, along with a lot more of their men. Eventually, the others accepted that I’d won the challenge, and I took command of what was left. That’s when we went to face the drauglics—a horde of the beasts. The rest of the men died.”
“But you lived,” said a deep voice from the grass. Orin stepped into the firelight and kicked dirt over Rezkin. “Yer full of it. That’s a bloody fish tale if I ever heard one. Takin’ out army units and merc companies like they was children.”
“I wouldn’t kill a bunch of children,” Rezkin protested. “No challenge in it. Senseless killing, that.”
Orin spat. “Weren’t no battles. Weren’t no missin’ army units or merc companies. I’da heard about it. Men like you is what gives mercs a bad name. Makin’ people think we’re all soulless bastards.”
Rezkin grinned. “You wouldn’t be the first to call me that.”
“You brag like yer some kinda god of war. When the real fightin’ starts, we’ll see who holds the torch and who runs crying into the dark.”
As Orin stomped back to his side of the road grumbling about fish tales, Farson emerged from the grass near where the mercenary had been hiding. He nodded at Rezkin’s questioning glance.
“You knew he was there,” said Brandt.
Malcius exhaled in a whoosh. “You had me going. I thought you were serious.”
Rezkin got up to unroll his blanket and sleeping pad, ignoring Kai’s stare. Eventually, the striker turned his gaze to Farson who had bent over the fire to collect his dinner.
Farson sighed and looked up at his comrade. “What?”
“I’m tryin’ to figure out which parts are true.”
“You mean some of it was?” said Brandt.
Kai looked at Rezkin and said, “The best stories always got a bit of truth.”
Farson looked to Rezkin who merely shrugged as he laid back to rest his head on his pack.
“It was all true,” Farson said. “Except he left out a few parts—like the reinforcements.”
Millins turned to Rezkin. “So, you had reinforcements against the mercenaries?”
Farson said, “The mercs had the reinforcements—a cavalry unit from Jerea. It was probably the horses that attracted the drauglics. They said they’d been harried for more than a week as they rode and were already down by a third when they joined up with the mercs. By the time the battle between the Scavengers and mercs was over, the ground had become a bloody soup with body parts floating in the muck.” Nodding toward Rezkin, he said, “He killed the rest of the Scavengers and took over the mercs, like he said. Then, drawn by the scent of blood, the drauglics came down from the mountain. They fought off the ones that attacked and then chased the rest into the mountains. Only he returned.”
The others silently pondered the revelation. Finally, Millins said, “He really killed his own men?”
Farson scoffed. “They were never his men. We put him there for the experience, but they were always meant to die. He might not have cared about the circumstances, but we did. You know who we are. We’re men of honor. We wouldn’t send him to kill a unit of our own men without good cause. What he didn’t mention was that the Scavengers had gone rogue. What would you expect to happen if you put the worst of men together with weapons and a semblance of order? There used to be a mining village at the base of the Zigharans near the Tremadel. The Scavengers raided the village—killed all the men and children. They saved the women until they were spent and then killed them, too. The soldiers he didn’t kill were the new recruits that had arrived in the unit with him afterward.” He narrowed his eyes at Rezkin and rubbed his chin. “We didn’t tell him to do that—to spare them. I suppose those few died honorably in service to the kingdom.”
“It sounds like he did care about the circumstances,” said Brandt, eyeing Rezkin sideways. “I mean, he left the good ones alive.”
Farson glanced at Rezkin as well. While he appeared to be ignoring them, he could obviously hear the entire exchange. “They all died in the end.”
“You can’t blame him for that,” said Yserria. “It was the drauglics.” She fisted her hands on her hips and leaned over the striker. “You made him live with those horrible people for a year. He was what—sixteen?”
Farson scowled at the woman. “Yet he’s the one who lived.”
Wesson turned to Rezkin. Of everyone present, he had seemed the least fazed by the story. He said, “How do you do that? How do you deal with all the death?”
Satisfied that everyone had been fed, Rezkin snagged the remainder of the roasted meat. Settling back down beside the mage, he said, “You have to remember, besides Farson, everyone I ever met before leaving the fortress is dead. Everyone. Ever.”