Taoheor lay in ambush, concealed in the forest canopy, crouched and ready to spring into action like a cat about to pounce. Through the trees he had a good view of the caravan he was going to assault.
For a moment, Taoheor's gaze shifted from the caravan, as he inspected the surrounding slope. Hidden among the wild forest growth, there were his comrades in arms, crouching or standing motionless, hands firmly clutching spears or bronze swords, curved forward like the talons of an eagle.
To his left, Taoheor suddenly heard a muffled sniffle. "I don't know... just look how many there are," Nadžik objected.
Once more Taoheor checked the caravan. Six fully stocked ox-drawn carts drew closer. Plenty to plunder for everyone. Then the bandit leader turned his attention to Nadžik. "You all agreed. Now's too late to go back on your word."
Nadžik shook his bushy beard in disagreement. "Just look how many... more than thirty armed. Half of them inhumans. Won't end well this one. There'll be losses."
"And that scares you?" Taoheor sneered.
"Got myself a wife now," Nadžik reminded, "and don't feel like leaving her bed cold any time soon."
Taoheor snorted at the annoyance. He wasn't in the mood to listen to such talk. He lived for battle, found joy and passion at blade's edge. So far, no one he'd encountered could match his skills, and so the warrior kept searching, grasping at darkness to find his own boundaries, as of yet unsuccessful.
The caravan reached a curve on the road. Some of the armed inhumans had already hastily leaped to the front to secure the next area. That sharply reminded Taoheor of the here and now.
The young brigand captain put his hands to his mouth and gave an owl-like hoot. The signal to strike. Sword in hand and Nadžik in tow, the warrior rushed forward.
The rest of the bandits followed quietly.
The moment Taoheor breached the cover of the pine branches, he immediately fell upon the closest guard - a simple human trying to protect himself with a spear and a shield, head covered just with a rough cap instead of a helmet. Taoheor swung his sword, and the man's head flew off his shoulders in a geyser of red mist.
The first death alerted everyone, but Taoheor shut out the sounds of fighting now flaring up all over the slope. He locked his sight upon the next victim - a massive inhuman clad in padded splint mail, standing defiantly in the bandit's way. This enemy was prepared, his spear pointing at Taoheor's chest. Further back, atop a cart, one of the human defenders nocked an arrow with obvious intent. And yet another inhuman was approaching from the side, leaping quickly to his comrade's aid.
Taoheor kept sidestepping, drawing the tip of the spear outside the intended angle of strike. As the archer released an arrow, the warrior sprang forward and managed to avoid the spear. He got around the inhuman, and with a heavy swing severed his tendons. The gargantuan guard fell to the ground with a heavy thud.
With just two leaps Taoheor closed the distance to the archer. Immediately he drove the curved sword's tip in the unprotected chest, pushing the man to the ground and disembowelling him.
The other inhuman, swinging a club, ran up and leaped at the young warrior. Mid-air he did a pirouette to give his blow even more force. Taoheor easily dodged, and with a precise sword strike of his own severed one of the soldier's powerful legs at the knee.
The rest of the assaulting force split into pairs and kept the other guards busy. Taoheor was running from group to group, assisting his comrades. When only about a half of the inhumans were still fighting, their commander gave a whistle, ordering the rest to stand down.
On top of the carts, the archers - the few still alive anyway - ceased firing as well. The fight was over, they lost and had no intention to provoke the victors any further.
With his underlings regrouped, the inhuman commander turned to the bandits, fuming incredulously: "No less than thirty in our unit... just how were you able to overpower us?!"
Taoheor came forward and spoke: "Do you recognize me?" Well aware that his reputation had spread far and wide, he expected the inhuman to panic and flee. Some of his soldiers did exactly that.
The commander grumbled, drew a heavy breath and took off his helmet. The head underneath looked almost human, even if the ears had noticeably ridged lobes, bony protrusions grew along the nose, and slanted eyes gleamed with a deep, dark-blue hue.
The inhuman approached, gesturing with his muscled, four-fingered hand that had no ill intentions. Stumbling, unsteady gait clearly showed that his kind mostly used their powerful legs to move with graceful leaps. "I am Wtamar of Mkeburi, a servant of the king of Marajun. I would have a proposition for Tawhir the Manslayer."
Normally, Taoheor would probably have declined. There was still a lot left to do - take stock of the loot, convince Nadžik to stay - but the inhuman piqued his interest. He showed no fear and his eyes sparkled with malice. Taoheor had dealt with enough people to learn to recognize unspoken subtleties. "Taoheor is listening," he replied.
"Rumour has it that Taoheor the Manslayer has yet to meet a worthy foe. This begs the question whether it is due to the weakness of humankind. Taoheor should try to challenge my brethren."
"How's about volunteering yourself?" Taoheor remarked. "Your brethren haven't whetted my appetite much, I'm afraid."
Wtamar shook his head and explained: "Taoheor, what I propose is a business of mutual benefit. Pay me a visit in Marajun and I shall divulge more." The inhuman tossed his
helmet to the warrior's feet and added: "Bring this with you. My men guard both the western gate and the palace, they will recognise such sign and let you in."
"And if they don't, I'll hack my way through," Taoheor sneered. He picked up the helmet. The bargain was struck.
With Wtamar and his minions hastily leaping away, it was now time to turn attention to the carts. Those were crewed by humans, merchants from nearby cities. In one of them, the warrior found a motley group, consisting of an old, withered cattle drover; a particularly portly merchant, whose wide-brimmed hat tried to hide the fact that the man's hair had all but fled to the proverbial hills in the stress of battle; and a young girl, scowling as though her pie dough had gone sour. She jumped down the carts, and before Taoheor could react, marched right to him and gave the warrior a resounding slap.
"Just what do you think you're doing? Stealing from your own kind?" the girl shrieked.
Taoheor gripped her hand. So she slapped him with her left. The tenacity and speed of her blows surprised the bandit. "Sit down, lassie," he spoke to her mockingly, earning himself a spit in the eye and a kick to the shin. Finally, he let go of her.
The tirade continued: "I've heard of you, Taoheor! Never would I have believed that such an evil person could actually exist! Look at you! Have you no shame? There's more honour in your mangy dog's fourth litter! If only one of our venerated spirits could see this, he'd send a bolt of lightning right where you stand!"
The fat merchant - her father no doubt - kept clutching at his head. He was afraid. Surely his days were numbered.
Taoheor tried to silence the girl with the palm of his hand and was bitten in return. Finally, he grew tired and shouted at her: "What do you want?! And stop insulting me with such lowly tongue!"
The girl snorted, put her hands on her hips and spoke defiantly: "Those carts carry my father's entire livelihood! Did you think we were bound for Marajun just out of boredom? The journey's plenty dangerous even without you around! We need to make profit, not lose it! So kindly get your rabble in check and escort us to our destination, now that you've killed all our guards!"
With that, she finally fell silent. Now it was Taoheor's turn to speak: "My dear, me and my men take care of five local villages. That's right, five at the same time, every single one in a blood feud with at least one of the others! We've been fighting constantly - no respite through the whole winter! We need some food. We don't provide our services out of the goodness of our hearts, we're here to make a profit too. You've the rotten luck of being the one caravan we chose to ransack." Taoheor gave a sign and his men started unloading the goods off the carts. The bandits were now piling up bronze swords and spearheads, ornate bowls and pitchers, finely sewn dyed cloth and furs. "In Marajun, they got nothing to trade but gold and gems. Hardly a reason to lug around your entire stock."
The girl was wrapping a lock of her brown hair around her finger. She still didn't sound one bit afraid. "Leave us with one tenth," she decided. "We can fit that on one cart. And escort us."
Taoheor laughed. He intended to visit Marajun anyway. No idea, why he felt so drawn to that place. He nodded and shifted his attention away from the girl and her father.
Nadžik was standing a bit further away from the carts. He'd already gathered just about as much loot as he could carry. The sack he'd managed to pilfer was bursting at the seams, filled with bronze and expensive cloth. He stood firm, having already made a decision. That much he also told Taoheor: "I'm coming back home, my friend. It was good to fight and plunder with you, but I feel my calling lies elsewhere."
"Take care then," Taoheor agreed and hugged his comrade. "Got anything in mind?" "Father's old... I should take over his smelting trade."
Taoheor shook his head. "Can't imagine you'd enjoy that very much."
"And what do you know of smelting, eh? I grew up with it... and actually... why don't you swing by sometime later? I might just show you wonders." Puzzling smile lingered as Nadžik took to the road.
"Why do they call you Manslayer?" Ďamin asked, taking a hefty bite of an apple. For a merchant's daughter, she had the most peculiar manners. That or she was trying her hardest to look as vulgar as she could in front of Taoheor to show her contempt.
The lone cart was speedily making its way along the road on the banks of the river Rime. Taoheor took the driver's place so he could hold the reins and not have to battle the constant urge to grab the girl by her throat. Her constant questions undermined his authority, frustrating the bandit to no end. "I think you saw the reason when we fell upon your caravan."
"There were many men who killed, not just you."
Taoheor focused his entire being on the compensation he'd been promised. Straining to keep his voice calm, he explained: "I am a brigand, an exile. I make my living as a warrior for hire whenever a village needs to have a blood feud settled. And I'm bloody good at that. Haven't in fact found anyone to put up a decent challenge. On the battlefield, everyone usually recognizes me and runs away. A shame, that's what it is. So if I do get to fight someone, it's always to the death. I wish to awaken my opponent's true potential. Finding a worthy foe is a difficult process to be sure."
Ďamin spoke, mouth full of food: "Hust he'hohing... never understood why the village folk fight so much among themselves."
"Well... they don't really want to. That's why they keep a couple of exiles around and provide for them. Then when one village slights another in some way, it's just the exiles who
fight, no need to waste more ordinary folks. That way it's still possible to achieve peace. Though I have met some right bastards, so full of hate they actually prolonged the feuds, always finding some way to hurt the other side or kill someone from the opposing village. I never let those live long."
"And still, you will murder given the opportunity..."
"Keeps me fed. If blood feuds were no more, what'd I do? It is an evil, but I seek to find some balance. I don't take advantage of it... too much." Taoheor flashed a sinister grin. The girl wasn't too impressed. Her father had also managed to overcome his initial fear. This merchant, a wide gentleman in a wide-brimmed hat so massive that he could fit two more men under it, spent most of the journey sleeping or entertaining the rest of the travellers with stories from his youth, back when he himself would fight as an exile.
The bandit sighed with relief as the group finally left the confines of a narrow valley, now opening like a morning blossom to reveal a wide plain, stretching at least two-day's journey to the North, its other end hardly visible on eastern horizon. Over the centuries, the water of the Rime had managed to transform the once unremarkable rock jutting from the northern riverbank into a majestic cliff.
The road slithered around this cliff, surrounded by dozens of tiny villages and solitary residences. Like stray ribbons, dusty trails diverged from the main road, leading mostly to the Northwest, towards the Golden Hills. That was where most of Marajun's wealth came from.
The northern cliff face, standing defiantly in the way of lashing winds, revealed a city surrounded by a wide stone wall, built upon a ring of earthworks and towering over the surrounding landscape. Below, on the flat plain, the main road was cut short by a forward gate, complete with a palisade.
Even further away from the city walls, just outside the palisade, the landscape was pock-marked with small, ill-matching groups of houses. Looking at them, Ďamin's father snorted angrily. As the cart passed through, he stopped by almost every one of the shacks and was greeted by their inhabitants - humans.
"Some foul business is afoot," the merchant grumbled. "They must have moved all our people outside the walls since my last visit."
Ďamin harrumphed in agreement. "Look, there's uncle Navor. Didn't he use to live in that large house at the foot of the hill?"
Taoheor didn't pretend to care. At the gates, he showed the helmet to a pair of inhuman guards who let him pass and gave directions. He was to go up the hill, where the royal palace stood.
Ďamin and her father said their goodbyes. They had obligations in the merchant's district. Taoheor, alone and the only one of his kind in the midst of hundreds, if not thousands of inhumans, started his journey uphill. On his way, he passed rows upon rows of small earthen houses with tall roofs. In the upper parts of the city, larger and more representative manors started popping up, each equipped with a stone socle, some even surrounded with a fence. At the very edge of the cliff, he finally found the palace - a large two-winged residence with a wide staircase.
Taoheor turned his gaze away and looked around. He was rewarded with some breath- taking vistas. To the North, directly opposite, he saw a glacier forcing its way through the mountain massif. This was the end of the world as he knew it.
Again, the guards let the foreigner in without a hassle. Under their escort, Taoheor entered the throne room. On a wooden stool sat an inhuman wearing a mix of rough furs and the most lavish of fabrics. His garb glittered with golden buttons and a gilded belt; glittering crown on his head adorned with many jewels and amulets, cascading off his brow on golden chains like a waterfall. The ruler of Marajun introduced himself as Derchim, and with hands outstretched welcomed Taoheor under his roof. "I have been told to expect you. They say one of my subjects convinced you to offer us your services."
"That... isn't quite correct," Taoheor chimed in. "I only brought you a caravan."
"Certainly," the king replied nonchalantly, "nevertheless, I am sure we'll be able to find common interest."
"If you got work to do, have me take care of it and come up with a reward. That's all there is to it," the human maintained. He knew better than to get tangled in local politics, or even just stay in the city longer than was necessary. A wise warrior had to have an instinct for timely retreat, lest he get surrounded.
"I have enough work to employ you for years," the inhuman king admitted. "I need a safeguard that would allow me to export our wealth to other corners of the world without having to fear bandits. And what better safeguard could there be than employing the most fearsome from their ranks?"
"I won't fight my own kind," Taoheor protested.
Derchim sank back to his chair. "I said nothing of your kind. Even here in Marajun, we have use for humans. As neighbours you are very important, supplying us with seed and grain in lean years. You also managed to tame donkeys and horses, both of which we'd like to use as well.
Still, if it's something easier and less time-consuming you're after, I would have one such task. Far to the East, at the mouth of the river Rime, one of my tribes is ruled by a rebellious chieftain. Teach him some obedience and I'll reward you handsomely."
"I'll think about it," Taoheor acknowledged. "Will give you my answer in the next couple of days."
Derchim nodded and released the warrior from his presence. Taoheor gladly obliged. The guards escorted him to the courtyard where he was once again free to enjoy the view. The moment of serenity didn't take long, and he was approached by Wtamar.
"The king has no idea how to reach a lucrative deal, would that be right?" the inhuman said mockingly, not bothering with a proper greeting.
"Lucrative for him, sure. As for others... he doesn't care," Taoheor replied. He didn't care much himself.
Wtamar laughed. He took Taoheor's hand and guided the bandit through the wooden halls of the palace, richly decorated with scenes of inhumans hunting various game. The two
men then passed into private chambers at the back of the residence. Taoheor took a seat in a chair on a balcony overlooking the cliff and the river Rime with its surrounding valley. Wtamar offered his guest some apple cider, which he then poured in his own wooden cup as well. Sitting down, he said: "I am in charge of the king's safety here."
"Then you're doing a piss-poor job. You let a stranger in his chambers even if that stranger's only just arrived in Marajun," came Taoheor's scathing reply.
"I shall let in whomever I wish and whenever I wish," Wtamar objected. "I can also keep anyone out, should I deem it necessary. Behind this door, I have six guards in our best armour at the ready. I could easily have you thrown off the balcony. All I need to do...," Wtamar reached in his sleeve and took out a tiny bell. It made a little jingle, upon which six inhumans burst in the room. Before Taoheor could react, they had him by the throat, bent over the balustrade, "... is ring a bell."
The human answered with a laugh. "I'm listening."
Wtamar said something to the guards in his language and they sat Taoheor back in his chair. Then the inhuman turned to his guest: "Now then... as I said, it falls to me to keep the king safe. Safe from both outside threats - like you exiles and other miscreants - and internal intrigue, meaning various powerful nobles who would love nothing more than to take the king's throne. One of these would be that rebellious chieftain somewhere on the other side of our realm. He, however, resides far from here. I am far more concerned about the men in charge of our mining operations in Golden Hills. Journey there would take you but two days on horseback. Chief among my concerns is one very particular man. Wkaghun of Mkeburi, my cousin."
"Want to kill him to take over his lands?" Taoheor deduced.
"Indeed. It is, of course, all meant to protect the king. Wkaghun controls a powerful fortress, and to siege it would cost me many men. But a single competent agent, a single assassin... might save a lot of time and resources."
Taoheor remembered the tiny bell, now hanging from the armrest of Wtamar's chair. He gave a cautious nod, thoroughly regretting ever having stumbled into this mess.
The most beautiful religious ceremonies in Marajun undoubtedly took place in Dbasuri's grove at the north-eastern slope, a place called the Lower Ring. There the city's walls encircled a wide swath of fairly flat ground, overgrown with massive trees, laid out so that multiple alleys converged at a piece of rock, protruding from the ground.
For centuries, the stone had been smoothed by innumerable rains, and Dbasuri himself had touched it many times with his lightning. It was there that the priesthood presented their offerings. Whaldun, the archpriest of the thundergod, was both a talented orator and an actor. Wtamar always found his performances - he couldn't call it anything else - highly enjoyable.
"Thus was it then, in time immemorial, that Dbasuri, who had conquered the primordial chaos of creation, established the divine right to kingly rule. He placed this mantle upon the inhumans, so that they may tend to his garden of victory," exclaimed the priest at the
end of his speech, his voice rising and falling in a melodic rhythm. A chorus of lesser priests knelt around the stone, constantly chanting: "May he show his good will."
"May this offering please Dbasuri and help keep the world in order," the high priest sang, as his underlings, along with a crowd of Marajun's nobility, kept droning on in fearful unison: "May he show his good will."
Some deities drew their sustenance from flame, others from water or the depths of the earth. Some however had to be fed, as was the case with the golden snake. Dbasuri always took the offerings during storms. Baskets filled with food, bronze items and clay ritual figurines piled up around the base of the rock. The high priest finally stopped singing and turned away from the stone. The ceremony was over.
The crowd of city dwellers slowly dispersed, leaving only Wtamar still loitering about. He gestured towards the lesser priests and beckoned them to leave as well. After his several years in office, he'd managed to build up enough authority to make them comply.
Whaldun, the high priest, recognized Wtamar and went to greet him. Wtamar, however, was faster with his question: "Have you settled well in your new house?"
"Comfortably indeed," the priest answered with an awkward smile. He never quite knew what to think of the smarmy Wtamar but tried to hide his uncertainty. It was always a good idea to get along with dangerous people. "It is a very spacious house and my daughter with her children like to spend time there. It seems I owe you my thanks."
"All is as it should be. You only got what you deserved."
"Like so many others?" Whaldun retorted. "By which I mean those human merchants."
"Those shamblers got closer to the king than they should have. This was not natural, and we had to set things right."
Whaldun laughed loudly. "But they were harmless. One would almost think you actually have some personal grievance with the humans."
Wtamar beckoned the high priest to take a walk with him through the grove. They were alone, and thoughts flowed better when walking than standing still. Eventually, he admitted: "Humans have not slighted me, thank Dbasuri for that. My parents kept me away from them, which I'm glad for."
"And yet you hate them."
"They dilute the influence of our nobility. They work the land that could be ours. On top of that, they are weaker and slower. I fail to see any way in which they could be of use to us. No reason, then, to keep them around."
The priest objected: "Dbasuri left the humans here even when he could easily have exterminated them. What reason could he have had for doing so?"
Wtamar brushed that comment off with a dry cackle: "And what if even a god makes mistakes? Just consider our good king for example. He too tries his best, and yet Marajun
does not even fully control the lands it has claimed. Keeping order in the world is a daunting task. We all have to do our part to help."
The priest nodded, keeping his true thoughts to himself. "Did you like the sermon?" He asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Wtamar picked up on the opportunity and went straight to the point: "Very much so, yes. I believe you deserve some boon for it."
"Just for this one?" The high priest teased.
"For many of course. Don't worry, I am being honest here." Wtamar outlined his plan: "I saw many nice things underneath Dbasuri's stone. Jewels, toys for your grandchildren, prime pieces of meat no one's going to miss. And I happen to have a few people in the city, who - despite all their humanity - might prove a valuable asset."
Murder in Mkeburi
The entire city of Marajun did not seem to house a single horse or donkey that a human, or even an inhuman could borrow. The few animals Taoheor saw, were used by farmers and artisans to transport various materials. He was forced to set out for Mkeburi on foot.
As the bandit got through the main gate, he afforded himself a brief pause for contemplation. His legs were getting restless for the journey, but his thoughts kept wandering off towards the merchant's quarter. Since he'd gone through so much effort transporting Ďamin and her father to Marajun, he hoped they were at least doing well.
The road towards the Golden Hills was straight and wide. It led through the river valley of one of the many tributaries of the Rime, wriggling its way through villages and pine groves. Few travellers were to be seen, fewer still who'd journey on foot. Taoheor thus didn't have to worry too much about being questioned. The day went by with just scarce few encounters, and even then, the inhumans mostly hurried past him on their dog-drawn carts, paying no heed to the lone traveller.
One exception did eventually materialize in the morning of the second day. He was accosted by a powerfully built inhuman, whose hair was neatly combed down. Taoheor would normally have taken him for a soldier, if it weren't for the stranger's rich, colourful garb. The stranger rode his cart alone and unarmed.
"Mornin'," he suddenly hollered at the pedestrian. "Where are you headed?"
"Golden Hills," Taoheor admitted.
"I can see that. Never met a human on this road though. I'd half expect a crowd following you all wide-eyed."
Taoheor just shrugged.
The inhuman continued: "Myself, I'm going to Mkeburi. That's the nearest larger settlement. They have some wares for me there to barter."
Taoheor hesitated with his answer. He did not want to get drawn into a conversation, but he'd been walking alone most of the day, and after the week he'd been through, some company would have been welcome. In fact, there was now a faint voice in his head, mimicking Ďamin's incessant nosy questions. Finding boredom the more immediate enemy, he decided to reply: "You don't look like a merchant. Wouldn't you be transporting some wares if that were the case?"
"I'm on my way to get some. I've helped one local lord and he promised a reward."
Taoheor did not believe in random strokes of luck. It was too suspicious that fate should send such a uniquely useful person his way. As if to confirm his suspicions, the merchant added: "Why don't you tag along? You'll get there much faster and I'm sure that acquaintance of mine will extend his hospitality to you as well. A human in these parts, you don't see that every day!"
The bandit finally nodded and climbed in the cart. The merchant got his animals running, and before the sunlight dissipated completely, they reached a series of villages, nestled at the foot of massive hill slopes, overgrown with coniferous forests. If anything, the hills resembled a sleeping giant, turned perhaps to stone in the middle of drawing a long breath.
As if the giant's outstretched hand, several lone hills rose from the ground slightly ahead of the main mountain range. On the tallest and most massive of them lay a small castle, situated below a rocky slope and an obsidian waterfall. Two robust towers protected both narrow ends of the fortress, with a perimeter wall encircling the courtyard, palace and several smaller buildings. In both entrances a visitor was greeted by the watchful gaze of inhuman figures on bas-relief. The tallest among them, donning what seemed to be crowns in the likeness of pine treetops, delivered judgement upon the other figures, smiting the unworthy with bolts of lightning and leaving their corpses at the mercy of enormous snakes. Divine judgement, Taoheor thought to himself and grumbled. A ridiculous notion if ever there was one.
The merchant noticed and hurried with an explanation: "Don't be so quick to ridicule our king's majesty. His predecessors through their wisdom and skill managed to unite all the tribes in the region of Marajun. The king has the power to judge us all, since he's made us all his subjects. All worldly power comes from him alone."
"You make it sound as if the king were something more than just one of you."
"He most certainly is!" The merchant maintained. "His name starts with a 'D', just like the names of all our gods. The king is their equal. Were he a commoner, his name would start with 'W'."
"Well, I've seen the man and if you ask me, he'd probably bleed just like anyone," Taoheor cackled. Then, upon realizing he might have divulged a bit too much about himself, decided to keep quiet.
The merchant left his dogs by the lake at the foot of the fortress hill. Then he took Taoheor with him right through the gate. Guards on the wall noticed the approaching pair and announced their sudden arrival with loud whistles. Denizens of the fortress flocked to the courtyard in anticipation.
All the while, Taoheor had been looking around for any potential escape routes. He saw that there was just one entry into the fortress - a gate in one of the towers. Two sets of stairs would take him atop the wall, each on the opposite side of the courtyard. Many houses with wooden-shingled roofs were built next to the massive wall, all decorated with paintings. Here too the decorations referenced various tales of royal power and the unification of tribes.
As the paintings suggested, guests were supposed to bow to their host. Taoheor's companion did so promptly. He introduced himself as Warsim and turned to his fellow traveller: "This human is called Tawhir and claims to bear a message from the king."
Taoheor noticed Wkaghun right away. He was the only person in the crowd not wearing any armour, and judging from his pot belly, was used to a life of luxury. What a pity, thought the exile. The prospects of a decent duel looked slim in Mkeburi.
"Well, what is it you want to tell me?" The corpulent inhuman asked.
Taoheor had a pretence ready: "Your king sends word that more men are needed for his eastern campaign. He expects fierce resistance."
Wkaghun gave a neutral reply: "I'll have to think about this." With a gesture, he dismissed Taoheor and headed across the courtyard towards his house, bigger and more opulent than the rest.
The brigand had no intention of letting his prey walk away. He tried something else: "Also... I have a message from your cousin, Wtamar. He stressed it was meant for your ears only."
Wkaghun stopped in his tracks. "What sort of message?" He pried.
"Family matter," Taoheor said. To his surprise, the inhuman answered with laughter.
"Wtamar would never have a human deliver any important message," Wkaghun mocked. "He's despised humans his entire life. You pathetic shambler! Why have you come here?"
Taoheor searched in vain for any reasonable excuse, but when Wkaghun barked at his men to apprehend him, the bandit abandoned all subtlety and charged into the fight.
Inhuman guards were not prepared for such rapid assault. Most didn't even manage to stop picking their noses in time when Taoheor rushed past, mowing down all in his path.
Wkaghun reacted surprisingly fast, given his girth. The message was now clear, and he hurried up the ramparts and into one of the towers.
Taoheor knew he couldn't possibly catch up. When an inhuman started leaping full strength, there was no outrunning him, save perhaps on horseback. However, his prey was now backed into a corner and had nowhere to run. Taoheor followed in hot pursuit. He couldn't afford to linger either. A second wasted could mean a spear in his spine.
The stairway spiralled up the tower where Wkaghun was hiding. Not pausing for a second, Taoheor ran up to the topmost chamber, where he found the lord of the fortress huddled in the corner by the arrowslit, clearly in over his head. The bandit slit his throat without hesitation.
Duty fulfilled, Taoheor headed back. At that point, the guards had managed to regroup. They caught up with the murderer, but their master was already lost. Taoheor advanced and pushed the guards back to the staircase with wild swings of his sword. In such narrow space his sword was a clear advantage over the inhumans' spears and shields.
The smarter among the soldiers decided to fall back to the wall, whereas their more naïve brethren fruitlessly painted the stairs red.
Atop the wall, it was now Taoheor who had the disadvantage. Soldiers enveloped him from both sides. He couldn't jump down; the walls were built too high for even the inhumans to leap over, and a human certainly risked breaking a leg or two.
A sudden realisation struck Taoheor. The merchant who'd brought him in was nowhere to be seen. Surely it would make sense for him to just remain in the courtyard, paralyzed with fear.
Taoheor chose to strike to his right but quickly found that this was not the right way to go. Two guards with spears easily managed to keep him at bay.
All was not lost, however, as he remembered an observation he'd made earlier. The houses adjacent to the wall encircling the courtyard had solid roofs made of tough wooden shingles. Immediately he leaped on one of them and hurried towards the stairs.
There he found the merchant. Over his travelling clothes and cloak, the inhuman had now donned a bronze suit of armour, most likely stripped off one of his fallen brethren. Unlike the other guards, he didn't carry a spear; instead, he immediately drew a slender axe- hammer.
Once more, the merchant bellowed an introduction: "My name is Warsim of Marajun, first among the warriors of our good king!"
Taoheor had no time for talk, sincerely doubting that anyone competent would. He struck as nimbly as before, aiming at the face and unprotected neck. Warsim, however, dodged the strike and leaped from the adjacent roof back onto the stairs in front of Taoheor.
The exile had to turn around. The guard from the wall almost managed to reach him. With a fair bit of luck, he waded through their spears, throwing one off the wall and severing the other one's arm. Then he jumped back onto the shingled roof, waiting if any would follow. Two more made that mistake. On the uneven terrain, they ended up above Taoheor, who easily hacked off their legs.
The incessant hacking was taking its toll on the blade. It slightly bent sideways, and the edge was getting blunted and jagged. Taoheor realised he was running out of time. He slid down the roof, jumped down to the courtyard and made for the gate.
Warsim caught up. He leaped in front of the exile, cutting him off once again. He mocked: "If you're so good, why would you run?"
Taoheor would have liked nothing more that to scream in his face that he simply wouldn't fight with a blunted blade, but he knew not to fall for distractions. He tried to provoke his foe into a predictable counterattack, but Warsim was wise to it. The inhuman was content to wait for Taoheor's mistake.
The exile's patience was running out. He felt an itch between his shoulder blades - an ill omen, it seemed - and fear slowly crept in his mind. A wiser man could have predicted all this and drawn the inhumans into open space where it would be easier to manoeuvre.
Seeing no other option, Taoheor tried to rush past Warsim and parry his blow. This didn't go as well as he'd hoped. The axe-hammer struck his side and knocked out his breath.
Taoheor stumbled, swore through his pained breaths, but kept running. He couldn't follow the road, the inhumans would have caught up with him. Instead he chose to circle the hill below the fortress walls and headed for the forest at its far side.
Warsim gave chase. Every second step, Taoheor had to turn on his heel to dodge the blows of his axe-hammer. Blocking was no use - the inhuman whirled his weapon with such momentum that every strike gained in power.
Taoheor was saved as soon as he reached the uneven terrain in the forest at the foot of the hill. He turned to face Warsim on a slope so steep that he himself had difficulty standing. The inhuman miscalculated his jump, missed the attack and landed nose first in the undergrowth. Taoheor approached him and held his head up.
"We can do this quick or we can do it much slower," the exile threatened. "Tell me who sent you. Wtamar?"
"He wanted to be sure... should you have failed to kill his cousin, he intended to have a capable man in place to finish the task. Otherwise..."
"You were to kill me," Taoheor finished. He swung his blade but the inhuman sensed an opportunity and pulled him to the ground. Their fatal wrestle took only a few moments. Warsim tried to land a deadly kick, while the human held firmly to his chest, where he couldn't reach.
Taoheor managed to hold on to his weapon, Warsim lost his in the struggle. Growling and huffing, both eventually rolled down the slope, and down at the foot of the hill, the exile finally overpowered his opponent. A few well-placed punches stunned the Marajuni warrior, and the jagged blade hungrily sunk in his throat.
It seemed that the guards in Mkeburi either blindly trusted Warsim's skill or were too afraid to chase a dangerous adversary on their own. Taoheor waited a few moments but no one was coming for him. He glanced at his twisted, cracked sword. Wouldn't cut through a moth-ridden rag if he tried, he thought to himself grimly as he slunk into the shadows.
Ďamin was feeling restless, and ever since she'd got off the cart, everything drew her towards exploring the city. In the merchant's quarter she helped her father stow all the remaining wares onto four rugs they'd rented in one of the warehouses, a long building with several wings. It was just one of several such structures in the surrounding area - a labyrinthine mess of narrow streets and passages, made even worse to navigate by the haphazard placement of various small houses of local merchants and city guards. Dog-drawn caravans and carts arriving from the east and north far outnumbered donkeys or horses coming from the west. The warehouses brimmed with riches impossible to ignore. Piles of precious gems, bars of gold stored in stoneware jars, bronze cuirasses, shinguards, helmets, ornate cups and bowls, everything imagination could conjure. And surrounding villages provided at least ten types of root vegetables, as well as plenty of sacks of millet.
All this might have been very interesting first couple of times, but now the only thing on the young girl's mind was the total absence of other people in the building. Indeed, save for Taosneor and her, the warehouse was completely deserted.
The old merchant noticed his daughter's unease. "I've a bad feeling about it myself," he grumbled. "Don't you go anywhere on your own, you hear? We'll pay a visit to Wahkem and see what he can tell us."
Wahkem was an old acquaintance, local healer, who would usually welcome Taosneor and his daughter, and let them sleep under his roof. He received the guests with hospitality rarely seen in the rest of the city. First he offered soup for lunch, then it was time to discuss some sobering matters: "Much has changed since last year. We had some... troubles here. Humans took to the streets and killed a few of our own. So the king decided to relocate all of them outside the city limits for our safety."
Taosneor immediately asked whether some band of exiles couldn't have been involved, but Wahkem denied that. "It was the locals," he maintained. "Mostly rich merchants."
As the two men single-mindedly dove into local politics, Ďamin used their inattention to her advantage and snuck out into the street.
The girl knew better than to heed father's advice. She was young and loved to talk to people. Determined, she set out for her favourite spot, the dog market.
Not far from the warehouses, she reached an open area with many dog enclosures, separated into groups based on the social standing of the individual vendors. Even here, she didn't see a single human. The locals gazed at the girl as if she'd slighted them somehow. She remembered Marajun a lot more pleasant place to be.
Every big city has to employ guards, and Marajun was no exception. Soldiers regularly patrolled the streets, and one such patrol now came across Ďamin. One soldier, tall even for inhuman standards, but otherwise as lanky as a pine needle, snapped at her angrily: "What're you doing snooping around here, shambler girl? Get back to your cesspit of a village!"
Ďamin protested: "I'm here with my father, a merchant. We're not from these parts. We've come just for a few days and don't want any trouble."
"And what's it you're doing at the dog market? Want to buy a dog?" "I just like them," the girl replied.
"Maybe she just wants to eat 'em," another guard teased, prompting a salvo of laughter from the rest of the group.
Ďamin shrugged and walked away. The soldiers kept shouting that dogs tasted better with thicker fur. The human girl couldn't have made more than two dozen steps when another voice thundered across the area: "You lot! Catch her! She must be one of them!"
Ďamin turned to see what was going on. She noticed the patrolling soldiers leaping after her. Panic gripped her as she tried to escape. The dogs started barking furiously, their owners' swearing further accenting the cacophony.
The chase was over quickly; the human woman stood no chance against her pursuers. The guards caught up, and in order to immobilize her, one of them tossed her on the ground and broke her leg with a powerful stomp. Ďamin shrieked in pain. Several dogs howled, others barked even more vigorously, as if to show sympathy.
The soldiers held her up and presented her to the one who had yelled before. It was a priest, wearing the finest fabrics and a comically oversized fur hat. "Yes, that has to be her," he confirmed. "Take her to Wtamar. He'll be at the healer's house in the lower circle."
The inhumans each grabbed Ďamin, and without much care for her well-being, went leaping where the priest had sent them.
Wahkem's home was now encircled by a whole platoon of soldiers. The patrol went in with their captive. Wahkem and Taosneor were still sitting at the table, with Wtamar now comfortably settled between the two. He grinned upon seeing Ďamin.
"This one tried to flee," the patrol sergeant reported.
"That's it then. We require no further proof," Wtamar replied and turned to Taosneor. "Do you still deny stealing the ritual food from the temple?"
"Of course I do!" Yelled the merchant. "Why would we lay a finger on your food? Wahkem's always treated us well."
"Everyone knows you humans don't believe in our gods. Nothing is sacred to you. I needn't even ask why you'd commit such barbarism - no one else but you could have done it!"
Taosneor tried a different approach: "What do you want from us? Gold? Goods for free? Did we not get robbed by bandits while you were busy saving your own skin?"
"Nothing you possess is of any value to us, human," Wtamar cut him off. Then he spoke to the guards: "Where did you find her?"
"With the dogs," the sergeant answered.
"Good, good." Wtamar chuckled. "Let us wait for the news from Mkeburi. As soon as Taoheor is dead, I'll have you thrown to the dogs. They should get nice and hungry in the meantime."
Taoheor was in for a painfully slow trek back to Marajun. The bandit couldn't wait to get Wtamar in his hands, though he wasn't quite sure how to kill him. He could hardly do it barehanded. He still had his battered sword. If it came to the worst, he might try to bludgeon someone with it. As he trudged forward, he tried his best to straighten and sharpen the blade, but even then, the weapon was a shadow of its former glory.
It was almost noon when Taoheor finally reached Marajun's gates. One quick glance was enough to tell him just how shabby he looked, and that was after taking a bath in a nearby stream. Even his clothes got torn in the fight with Warsim.
Guards by the gate recognized the newcomer easily. There were no questions or obstructions from any of them. One soldier came closer to Taoheor and whispered: "You should first pay a visit to your friends. They are staying at the healer's house in the lower circle. Go to the merchant's district and look for a house painted with flowers."
The human found it suspiciously convenient that they would manage to have such a well-informed guard posted right at the gate. Nevertheless, he reasoned to himself that since he already knew of the trap, he should easily be able to avoid it. So he nodded at the soldier's advice and made his way to the healer's house.
There were several guards. While two of them stood patiently at the door, the remaining six were engaged in a passionate argument with a crowd of locals that had assembled in front of the building.
Taoheor had no idea what was going on but kept wary. Then someone from the crowd threw an apple in his face. Angered, the exile barged into the house.
Inside, he found both the merchant Taosneor and his daughter. Ďamin lie on a bench, resting her head on her father's side. The house's owner was pacing nervously between the vestibule and the main chamber, while children were heard weeping from the loft where the family normally slept, their mother trying her best to console them.
"Don't go in! Get away!" Ďamin yelled upon seeing the visitor.
"Nice to see you too," Taoheor replied, grinning.
"No, you idiot! Go away or they kill us all... Oh, it's probably too late anyway..." The girl lamented and rubbed her face in desperation.
The exile dropped on a bench opposite. "Will you tell me what's going on?"
Taosneor spoke: "Our mutual acquaintance, Wtamar, has wrongfully accused me of theft in the temple. He's spread the story all over the city. Seen the crowd outside? They're here to lynch us."
"What a disaster this is," Ďamin added. "Wtamar's going to feed us to the dogs when he's done with you."
At that, the door opened and Wtamar entered the house. He was wearing a full bronze plate mail, carrying a bronze hammer-axe on his belt. The inhuman's lips twisted in a
malicious grin. He bid a good day to everyone and sat himself on a stool at the head of the table, reserved for honoured guests.
"Don't even think of causing trouble," he spoke to Taoheor, pulled a tiny bell out of his sleeve and placed it on the table. "It's rather cramped here and there are enough men outside to hack you to pieces."
Taoheor had plenty of questions, it was, however, the merchant who asked first about Wtamar's treachery. "You were a guest in my home, and I showed you hospitality! I taught you our language! You owe me an explanation!" Taosneor pressed him.
"You are a human and I owe you nothing," Wtamar answered. "You are also a fool to have let others use you."
"You used me as well, is that right?" It was Taoheor's turn to ask.
Wtamar turned to him and explained: "It was my hope that you would die in the attempt at his life."
"But why?" Taosneor lamented.
Ďamin's voice answered silently: "Father, he hates us humans."
"You are worthless," the king's confidant agreed. "You cannot even mate with us. What use could there possibly be for you, then? You merely occupy fertile lands that could be ours." Wtamar realised he might have said more than he wanted and stopped himself.
"And so you want to pin crimes on us to manipulate the king and the whole Marajun into a war against humanity," the girl finished.
Wtamar simply nodded. "I just needed a proof of connection between Taoheor and you two. Now the locals should easily believe that all humans conspire to attack them. We have a proverb for that: fear makes you run faster than any whip."
Ďamin snorted. She was clearly in pain but tried not to show it. "Wonderful. You only have to hope the king's fool enough to agree." She gritted her teeth.
"The king... the king should be easily convinced by logical arguments. Our realm needs to expand its borders. And where else would we go? North to scratch a living in the cold wastes? South to the mountains? East, past where the Rime springs from the earth? There is nothing but desert. So tell me, shouldn't we instead look towards your fertile plains?"
"But... I trusted you! Why... if you hate us so much did you come to me in the first place? Why did you learn our language and travel with me?" The merchant still struggled to understand.
"Well, I needed to give you all some incentive if I was to make use of you," Wtamar explained. "Especially the exile. My plan required at least some exiles to get involved. And since they are generally a pack of numbskulls and wouldn't be able to learn my language, I had no option but to learn theirs. At least I had the opportunity to get to know my enemy."
Taoheor sensed a brief moment of inattention and made a quick attempt to snatch the bell with his left hand. He didn't care for politics. Trapped or not, he intended to hack his way out. The exile brandished what was left of his sword...
Wtamar was faster than expected. Without even standing up, he suddenly kicked Taoheor in his chest, flinging the warrior towards the door. Hammer-axe in hand, he leaped to the exile's side, about to take a swing.
Taoheor's blade immediately went for the inhuman's face. Wtamar dodged back, giving his opponent space to spring to his feet. With a powerful whirl, the hammer-axe struck the sword, bending the bronze blade sideways. Both combatants froze in surprise, but Wtamar reacted first and swung again. Taoheor couldn't block the strike or even dodge. The weapon struck his shoulder. His arm didn't break, but the exile still collapsed into a corner.
"Stop this!" The merchant yelled. "I... Wtamar, I'll pay whatever price you name, just let us go. I beg you."
"So you could speak of me? So that your brethren have time to muster their defences? I think not. My plans will proceed without unnecessary risks," Wtamar laughed. Taoheor tried to kick him in his privates, but the hit didn't achieve much. Still guffawing, the inhuman lifted the exile with one hand and said: "Those two I shall kill when the king is done with them. As for your life... I am not bound by any obligation."
Wtamar readied for a final blow. Taoheor, unable to defend himself, had only one option - cause a distraction. He frantically rung the bell in his hand.
The door opened and about ten inhumans burst in. Confused, they looked around the chamber, as there didn't seem to be any threat.
Wtamar turned his head towards them and - unfortunately for him - forgot to go for the kill. Taoheor grabbed the axe and rammed his head into Wtamar's temple.
The royal confidant collapsed to the ground. The exile took the chance. He threw the hammer-axe into the crowd, and as the inhumans stumbled over one another, he ran into the street.
"Run!" Ďamin's cries lingered. "We can manage!"
That's very likely, thought the young man. There were no other guards outside. He ran right into the angry mob, waded through and made for the merchant's district. He needed to escape, which would be impossible on foot. Probably no better place to look for a mount of some sort.
Taoheor noticed a local farmer leading a donkey, valiantly trying to pull a cart stacked with ceramic pots. Without hesitation, he pushed the inhuman aside, untied the animal and hopped onto its back. One firm slap on the flank, and the utterly bewildered donkey charged forth, only stopping long after he'd passed through the city gates.
A Better Weapon
"You look miserable," stated Nadžik, after he offered his guest a swig of brandy. The two men were sitting in the dim light of Nadžik's smelting workshop. It was a dark, reclusive place - a hut well separated from the rest of the village to prevent accidental fires.
"I didn't think it could happen to me," Taoheor sighed. "To lose and lose this badly!"
"They had you outnumbered," his friend consoled him.
"But I don't lose," the exile maintained. "Losing, that's... a dangerous habit. Mostly gets one killed."
"I know, friend. That's why I've settled here. You ought to find a trade of your own too. Can't rightly fight till you die of old age. Your strength will leave you a lot sooner."
Taoheor finally had clean clothes to wear and was in a good mood. The drink warmed him up, so he almost forgot about the rain that had soaked him moments ago. Even now, raindrops kept noisily tapping at the wooden shingles. He reminded himself that there would be enough time for self-pity later. At the very least, he could return his friend's hospitality by asking about the trade and pretending to listen intently. "So how's your work been going?"
"See for yourself. Over there, in the corner close to you," Nadžik replied. Taoheor reached in the darkness and found several pieces of some broken metal, grey in colour.
"Not good I take it."
Nadžik took a deep breath and raked through the coals with a stick. Taoheor didn't understand why he'd even keep the fire going in this kind of weather. Then the fledgling metallurgist finally shared his story: "Actually, several generations of my family have toiled for what you see before you. It might have been my grandpa who first came across this ore and found its deposit. It's past the village, you just cross two hills towards the heart of the mountain range. He offered some of it to the spirit and found that the sacrificial fire couldn't even crack that stone."
"That's a stone?"
"Well, something like pure copper. Have you ever seen natural copper? It's rare but you find it from time to time. The material crumbles but fire has almost no effect on it. That is unless you really raise the temperature something fierce.
Gramps was the kind of man who doesn't understand the meaning of 'impossible'. He tried everything he could and eventually cracked the mystery." Nadžik reached into the corner closer to him and pulled out a basket filled with crumbling stone. "This became what you're now holding."
Taoheor inspected the broken pieces with newfound interest. It looked as if someone had been trying to shape them into a sword which then broke repeatedly. Some pieces seemed more brittle than others. He took one of them in his hand and tried to bend it - snapping it in half effortlessly and cutting himself in the process.
"Careful with those," the warning came a bit too late.
"About as useful as a rotten shingle," Taoheor commented.
"Father worked on that one. You know, when you actually smelt this rock, it trickles down into the ash and mixes with it."
"How'd you even find such a weird stone?" Taoheor was baffled.
"Don't interrupt! Eh, well... there's a copper deposit nearby. Nowadays it's completely spent, but in grandpa's day, people still used to mine ore there. And when sifting through copper slag, grandpa noticed pieces of dark, strong metal. He'd never seen anything like it, so he started investigating. Apparently, our local ore had always been mined impure, with a portion of this red stone."
"Okay. You mentioned something about ash," Taoheor reminded, immediately apologizing in his mind. After all, he wasn't supposed to interrupt.
"The ashes - ah, yes! Father tried to cleanse this new metal of all impurities. He wanted to discover its true properties. That led us to the piece you're holding. Hard, yes, but an incredibly brittle metal. And even this took a lot of time, great many attempts that went nowhere."
"But it's useless," his guest remarked.
"This one, sure. However - what if we didn't remove the impurities? I got this idea one day as I was walking in the woods and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. An exile's life gives you plenty of time to think. And so I..." Nadžik stood up - his intended dramatic pose marred by deep huffs and contemplative harumphing - and reached into yet another corner. As it was dark, Taoheor could first only make out the outline of a pile of slag, but when he squinted, there was something else as well.
"And so I... there it is... went and cast an ingot."
It didn't exactly deserve to be called a sword. The piece of metal looked more like a vaguely sword-shaped club.
"What do we do with it?"
"It's both tough and flexible." Nadžik demonstrated that even if bent, the blade would easily return to its original shape. "It holds well. I was whacking a tree with it for good two hours - trunk, mind you, no flimsy branch - and it didn't bend in the slightest. And there's one more interesting quality to it. Looks like you could further shape it in flame."
So that's why he's kept the fire hot, thought the exile. Intrigued, he raised an eyebrow. "Show me," he pleaded.
The next few hours Taoheor spent regretting ever having asked to see anything. Or rather hear anything. Nadžik heated the grey pole and started hammering it tirelessly while Taoheor held it in place with a wooden plank. Wooden mallet was soon tossed aside, and after even bronze proved insufficient, the metalworker went to borrow a stone hammer from his neighbours. It was a long afternoon, and at the end of it, an almost finished sword was laid next to the primitive furnace, cooling off in the dim light of dying embers.
Taoheor's ears were ringing. When his friend told him that the blade would take a day or two to finish, he could only hear a faint hum. Later at the dinner table he went through a similar sensation when Nadžik's wife asked if he'd like seconds.
A day or two. Taoheor worried he didn't have that much time. But he couldn't return to Marajun without a weapon. In the meantime, he devoted every minute to training.
From time to time, Nadžik would go outside to take a break from his work, noting each time how much zeal his friend put into his exercises. "Wouldn't have guessed you're that furious about your defeat. I've never seen you train half as much."
Taoheor stopped doing push-ups and lay on his back in the wet grass. "I can't stop thinking about her."
"Her you say? And here I thought we were talking about revenge."
Taoheor gave his friend a murderous glance.
"I won't tell anyone," Nadžik reassured him. "Whatever, right? Not that I even know her. What's she like?"
"Insufferable," Taoheor blurted out faster than he'd wanted to. "She's got an answer for everything. Clever, resourceful. When I saw her sitting there with her legs broken... even then she was bristling with anger. Looked like a wet cat. Something that can kill you, and yet you want to pet it. I keep thinking about her."
"You're young. You don't know if she's the right one for you. Whatever you do about her, don't be too hasty."
"Maybe you're right," Taoheor replied. He thought about it. Could it be that he wanted to save her just because she was a girl? He couldn't make sense of himself anymore.
"We'll work through the night. Tomorrow morning, you'll have your new sword," Nadžik promised.
I only hope that won't be too late, the young exile thought as he went back to his push- ups.
A golden snake was slithering all over Derchim's body and neck, and Wtamar couldn't help but imagine if those were instead his hands clasped around the royal throat. The king had sent his own best men, in bronze armour and equipped with the best weapons Marajun had to offer, into the streets to prevent his adviser from killing that pair of human captives.
Wtamar was caught off-guard, and in a brief moment of confusion, he couldn't provide a solid argument for his actions. That kind of mistake wouldn't happen again. He waited patiently for the end of the ritual, during which the king descended into a deep crevice on the south side of Marajun hill to feed the magnificent, four-fathom reptile some sacrificed dogs and ewes.
The enormous snake had yellow scales, glittering as if made of precious crystal, and shining like Autumn sun. There was always only one of its kind in Marajun.
Though the ritual was usually a brief affair, it never failed to draw huge crowds. The fact that the snake never tried to devour the king reinforced the idea of sacred royalty. Even Wtamar, as much as he considered himself smarter and more capable, would not think to harm Derchim in any way. A mortal does not, after all, lay a hand on gods.
As was usual, Wtamar bid his time and approached the king at the very end of the ceremony, when the gathered inhuman crowds and royal guards had already left the cave.
"I do not understand why you would intervene, my lord," he lamented. "Those humans were provably guilty..."
"You view matters from such a low perspective," the king replied, his wording perhaps a thinly veiled jab. "Even those provably guilty can be of some use to us. There will be a need for interpreters and intermediaries when we finally manage to strike at human- controlled territories."
"But why, lord? Will we not strike to wipe them all out?" The king's confidant was getting confused.
"No," the king answered with a sigh. "Not immediately. Humans are too many. If we tried to annihilate them, they would unite and crush us even just bare-handed. We first need to turn them against one another. Let their realms bleed... then we move in and claim them. Later still, perhaps not in our lifetime, humanity will be weakened enough that we might weed it out completely."
Wtamar nodded. True, he hadn't been thinking that far into the future. Suddenly, he felt something brush against his leg. He stared as the massive golden snake slithered between his feet and out of the cave. Fear gripped his entrails like a serpent's coil.
"Find a way to crush the rebellion in the east. Find me someone else to serve as our emissary to the humans, and I will give you that merchant with his daughter. Bring me Taoheor," the king commanded.
When Nadžik finished his work, he took the sword and went with it all the way across the village and to the entry road. There at the crossroad of well-trodden paths, stood a lone boulder, black as the night and painted with yellow, red and white strokes. The boulder did not resemble a human figure, nor that of any animal under the sun, not even a plant. Twisted limbs ran perpendicular to a rotund body, topped with a tiny head with no eyes or nose, rather a deep hole through which the spirit smelled the world around it. The belly, meanwhile, was covered with many eyes, watching intently the entire widening valley of the Rime.
Nadžik, master smelter and now the very first metalsmith, laid the iron sword in the spirit's arms. He hoped that the son of the mountains would like the weapon and give it his blessing.
At dawn, Taoheor came to fetch his sword. He took out a whetstone and sharpened the blade as much as he could. Then it was time for a bit of training to get used to the new weapon.
It was a bit heavier than his previous bronze one, but the difference was not too significant. Nadžik added a novelty to its design - the back side in its furthest third also tapered into an edge.
The plain around Marajun looked a lot less lively than the last time Taoheor had seen it. Back then, it was dotted with the dwellings of those humans who'd got run out of the city. Now the houses turned into smoking ruins. Wheat stacks lay trampled on the ground, fields were getting overgrown with weeds, and instead of the usual birdsong, a hoarse caw could be heard as murders of crows feasted on the last scraps of remains they could find.
The exile had already seen many a grim sight in his short life, but this time he felt genuinely saddened. He decided not to inspect the corpses drying out in the sun too much, lest he find that he'd arrived too late.
The exile walked right to the gate, announced his name and the intention to come before the king and surrender himself to justice. The inhumans did not believe him, so Taoheor drew his sword in a flash and forced them to open the gate. One of the guards he kept as a hostage, while the other one went to relay what had happened.
The news from the west gate spread through the city like wildfire. Many left their homes and hurried towards the sloping road to the royal palace. There they gathered in crowds, staring wide-eyed in anticipation.
A lone human was making his way up the slope, leading a horse. Such animal had only been seen in Marajun a couple of times, and certainly none lived in the city. It looked exhausted, as if the rider had forced it to gallop most of the way.
A little ahead of the human, a procession of twelve guards was marching at a similarly slow, ceremonial pace. Wtamar had each of the escorting soldiers wear a full plate mail and carry not only spears, but also swords and hammer-axes. The palace had not put on such a display of wealth since the last war.
In their midst, the guards escorted an emaciated inhuman, afraid even to look up; a human man, bald and rotund, putting on a defiant façade while shifting his gaze from side to side in quiet desperation; and finally, two soldiers carried a bier with a human girl. She looked half-frightened and half-satisfied, as if her injuries were no longer a concern.
Despite Wtamar's cautioning, the king had decided to make the trial a public spectacle. He was standing atop the stairs to his palace, surrounded by a similar dozen elite guards. Wtamar, wearing his armour, was waiting by his side, staring at the procession like a hungry fox eyeing a rabbit.
"Citizens of Marajun, you who obey the gods and have been blessed for your piety! Hear the words of your king!"
The crowd, abuzz with excited whispering, went silent.
The guards spread out, letting Taoheor join the rest of the accused. Ďamin threw an impatient glance his way and interrupted the king's monologue: "I hope you know what you're doing."
Taoheor winked reassuringly.
The king repeated his ceremonial formula and again asked for silence. Then he added: "Three humans have been brought before us to be judged. One stands accused of multiple murders, his guilt evidenced by many eyewitnesses from Marajun and Mkeburi. Another of sacrilege and thievery."
Taoheor wondered to himself whether sacrilege and theft shouldn't be synonymous, and if the merchant had perpetrated at least one of them.
"The third one is charged with offending the gods, as she does not know when to hold her tongue."
Ďamin stared at the king, her expressions conveying a single question: Are you serious?
"Prosecution shall be presided over by our loyal aide Wtamar, the freshly established lord of Mkeburi." The king finished his speech and gestured towards Wtamar. The inhuman stepped forward but was immediately interrupted by Taoheor.
"No need to bother with prosecution. I confess." As most of the onlookers couldn't understand a word of what he'd said, the doctor, otherwise silent, crawled before the king on his knees, pleadingly offering to translate. Permission was granted, and in a few moments, the crowd gasped in unison.
Taoheor continued: "I confess to the following: Wtamar of Mkeburi, the protector of the king and guarantor of his safety, hired me to kill his cousin. I did exactly that. I was given a simple choice - die or perform the service and get paid. I have fulfilled my end of the bargain. Now I am here for my reward."
Silence followed his words, somehow even more oppressive than accusations; as if a difficult question had been asked of the whole city, waiting to be answered.
"Wtamar's proposition went against the law and kinslaughter is an intolerable crime," the king proclaimed.
"Of course, Wtamar himself committed no heinous act, right?" Taoheor derided. It was clear that Wtamar and the king had similar interests in mind. Both wore the same stone- faced expression.
"Wtamar shall be reprimanded at proper time and through proper means. You, however, have just admitted having committed multiple acts of murder."
The young bandit burst into laughter. "I am an exile. Murder is my trade. It is the reason you wanted to hire me in the first place."
The ruler of Marajun replied: "It is my divine right and mine alone to decide who dies and who gets to live. This land recognizes no other authority."
"Interesting. How's that your decision to make? I don't see you carry a sword." Taoheor flashed an innocent smile, and before the king managed to recover from such insolence, he continued: "In accordance with our deal, I ask for my reward. If there is none, I'll settle things with Wtamar myself. Instigation of murder might not be a crime around here, but where I come from, betrayal is punished by death."
Wtamar gestured to the guards to take Taoheor out. The exile was ready. He slapped his horse's rear and sent it running to one side. He himself rushed to the other, drew his iron sword and twirled in the rhythm of his favourite dance.
The guards mostly carried spears in one hand, swords in the other; none had shields, and the thought never occurred to them that something might penetrate their bronze armour. Taoheor was quick to dispel their delusions as he yanked one soldier's spear and cut his leg clean off. The horse gave him a few more moments, so until the second half of the guards could engage him, another inhuman lost his arm and one got decapitated.
The rest of the accused were helpless; Ďamin couldn't escape from the chaos and her father was determined to shield her with his body.
Parrying numerous attacks, Taoheor advanced to the stairs at the edge of the cliff. The inhumans rushed after him. The young warrior caught the closest one by his spear and yanked him towards the edge. The guard couldn't keep balance and fell into the chasm. Another spear Taoheor used as a pole and vaulted right in the middle of the unit. The inhumans fell to the ground like wheat under a scythe.
The iron sword whirled on in its deadly pirouettes, and soon the battlecries of the king's soldiers were drowned out in moans and screams. A good half of the palace guard lay wounded or dying.
"Stop this!" The king bellowed. The rest of the guards heeded his command and withdrew. "I will have no more killing here. If it is Wtamar you want, you can have him!"
The king's right-hand man would have liked to be anywhere else, but there was no way out of this - the crowd stared at him with reproach. So many men died needlessly because of him. Wtamar laughed, took a hammer-axe in his right hand, sword in his left and descended the stairs.
Taoheor intended to give him enough space for a fair fight. He kept circling his enemy, waiting for him to make the first move. Wtamar readied himself with a few undirected swings, and when he built up momentum, leaped forward to strike.
Taoheor dodged to the side and swung at his right. The right arm fell on the ground, still gripping the axe. Wtamar roared in shock and collapsed to the ground, but the exile immediately pulled him back to his feet. "Let us continue," he said.
Wtamar, mad with pain, swung wildly with his sword, knowing he wouldn't make it out alive. His blow was weak and badly calculated. The exile easily dodged it and cut off the remaining arm of the traitorous inhuman. Then he nimbly flanked his opponent, cut both his hamstrings, and finally chopped his head off with a powerful swing.
The crowd gave a shrill wail.
Taoheor was tired of it all. "Take Ďamin and let's go home," he said to her father and the healer.
The king cleared his throat and spoke once again: "You have killed a very... haughty man, Taoheor. Let me say that you have taken the first step towards atoning for your previous crime. However,..."
"I'm going home. Not in the mood to do your dirty work as well," the exile cut him off angrily.
"But..." The king's voice faltered. Taoheor turned to him, giving him his most hostile glare. The monarch did however continue: "the only thing you have shown today, Taoheor, is that Wtamar was right all along! Look at yourself! You are a barbaric murderer, delighting in senseless bloodshed!"
The exile took his horse by the reins and calmed the animal. He stole the animal but intended to give it back in one piece. Villages had waged blood feuds for less meaningful reasons than the theft of a beast worth about as much as whole year's supply of food for one family. When the horse calmed down, the exile took it and followed the merchant and the healer.
"Do you hear me? Do you hear?! We will come, remember my words, and teach you some manners! I don't care how many of your cretinous exiles we'll have to slaughter or how many villages will be put to the torch! And I will find you, you especially, and I will throw at you our entire army and the wrath of all our gods! Crows will feast on your eyes and rats will gorge on your entrails!"
"Still got your cart?" Taoheor asked. The king's shrieking sounded sweeter to him than any songbird.
Taosneor nodded: "I don't think anyone's stolen it."
The empty cart rumbled and rattled along a dusty road connecting many small villages. Here and there, twisted boulders were seen at the crossroads, and sometimes the fields and clearings were interrupted by stretches of wild forest.
"Iron, you say..." Taosneor was baffled. "How'd he think of that? I thought iron can only fall from the sky when one of the sky spirits dies."
"I don't think it's quite the same iron," Taoheor pondered. "It just has the same colour, and I don't feel like coming up with new names. So iron it is."
"Well, since we now know how to produce it, it's going to be a valuable article," thought the merchant aloud.
Taoheor disagreed: "It won't be up for export that soon. Every single exile, and there are many, will want a sword of iron for himself. Nadžik is a good smelter, but this is more than he can handle. We need more people like him." Then he added: "I see you'll want to trade iron as soon as you can. But what's your plan until then? Marajun is closed to you."
"I'll turn west. Go to the Empire," Taosneor replied. His chest sunk, as if to say he wasn't looking forward to it. He mulled something over for a bit and finally managed to conjure a warm smile.
"I thought I might go see the imperial capital. They say it has an unpronounceable name and it's supposed to be in a very, very faraway land. At the shores of a gigantic, unending lake."
"Sounds like an old wives' tale," Taoheor noted.
Taosneor, however, had already made up his mind and didn't intend to give up. He said: "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. If it isn't, I can chart a path no one's walked before. From our lands all the way to the endless lake. And if it is... the Empire must have a centre somewhere. Somewhere else, yes, but it has to exist. Who knows what wonders I might see there?"
Ďamin had been silent for quite some time, no one knew why. Suddenly she nudged the exile and motioned with her head to the right. Three carts were passing them, fully stocked with bronze, expensive fabrics and ceramics. It seemed to be a small caravan from somewhere in the forgotten northwest.
"What about them?" Taoheor didn't understand.
"You promised to leave us with one tenth, and we lost that. The Marajuni confiscated everything, of course..." the girl reminded. "All that was left we gave to the healer to pay for his destroyed door."
Taoheor sighed. He took the horse that had been walking at a leisurely pace behind the cart, leaped into the saddle and headed for the caravan.
At the urging of his daughter, Taosneor took the reins and followed with the cart.
Meanwhile, the exile had been negotiating in his own, clumsy way. He drew his sword and tried to coax the merchants into giving up some of their wares. So far, he had six arrows pointed at him, and the merchants were furiously debating among themselves.
"Hey, hey! Enough of this!" Ďamin yelled when they got closer. "you've been honourably waylaid, and we just want a portion of your wares, don't know what's so hard to understand about that. So kindly give us one cart - we want the one in the back, looks more spacious - and if you have too many heads to make a single decision, Taoheor will gladly help you trim their number."
The merchants came to a quick agreement as soon as they heard a familiar name. They took Taosneor's empty cart and hauled some of their things on it. Taoheor and the merchant carried Ďamin on it and then took a seat beside her. They bound the horse again and went along their way.
"That's more than one tenth," Taoheor observed. "What are you going to do with the rest?"
"My dowry," Ďamin said quietly and snuggled up to the exile.