I’m a light sleeper, so when the hostler pounds his way up the stairs I’m awake before he flaps our curtain door open. “Your godsdamned stud, destroyed his stall, broke out and bred three of my mares! And he broke one of the stable boy’s legs!”
I groan, “What color?”
“What color stud?”
Thoroughly enraged by our lack on caring, the hostler’s skin begins to take on a fascinating hue of red. “The bay stud! It’s now rampaging through the barn we managed to lock it in!”
Rellik’s bitter cursing makes me grin. For once it isn’t my stud. “Have fun.”
He growls something in returns as he stomps out of the room shirtless and holding his shoes.
Less than an hour later, we sit over the same filthy corner table in the Silver Dancer and eye porridge with curiosity and horror. Rellik still sullen about the damage fee the hostler charged him, stirs the gelatinous glob in his bowl. I’m certain the black spots in the filth are moving on their own volition. We shovel it in, and swallow without tasting. Outside our horses stand idle, saddled and ready to take us down the Sandbelt’s Rim Road.
Nessa settles the tab for our rooms and I stretch, enjoying the suns on my skin and the feel of desert clothes again. God I hate having to wear fur when we work in the north. We make a small speck on the edge of the vast desert flowing to the ocean’s edge, five riders amidst an ocean of sand and heat.
Lataf’s skin holds a gray pallor, and his movements are those of a man with a dozen smithies in his head. Nessa’s teasing voice continues to harry him. “What’s the matter Lataf? “Did you wake up with the fat woman from the Silver Dancer? She had eyes for you.” She breaks out in a lilting song about a gypsy who dies because he entertained too many women. He doesn’t comment, but I smile.
Evals, and Rellik stare down the rock road’s length with bloodshot eyes. Desert whiskey possesses an uncontested potency, especially when doing shots. They remain silent, not wishing to gain Nessa’s rambunctious and loud attention until the night’s dregs fade from their bodies. I grin, it’s a fine day to ride the desert, a fine day to fight, and a fine day to die. What more can a mercenary ask for?
The days blend into each other when the scenery stays the same. A well-known routine of ride, practice, and eat emerges as it always does. We’ve traveled the world over this band of death and I. Lataf strays off the road, hunting small game with his eagle. With a 6 ½ foot wingspan, the vicious gold hunter takes down medium game with ease, Nolat’s ever-watchful eyes made him an excellent sentry from his place high above us. Raef hunts for us as well. Her vicious wrath brings down medium game as well. The antics of both animals keep the five of us entertained, and supplied with fresh meat.
The farther we follow the road, the more deteriorated it becomes. Rock sloughs at the edges, shedding size into the hungry sand on either side. Five days out, the horses have settled and we’ve slipped into our own minds as we ride. I let the stallion’s rhythm soothe my mind, allow my eyelids to close, shading eyes from searing heat. I always think when we travel. Hours of emptiness that drive some insane allow me a little peace. I know what the others look like without checking, but I look anyway. Rellik with his cursed straight posture gazes at nothing in particular, his hand tapping a thigh and his head shaking. I grin to myself, and they consider me the crazy one. Evals frowns at the space between his gelding’s ears, exposed flesh burned crimson. Nessa and Lataf remain hidden within their robes, their slumped posture mirroring my own. Like dogs to a wounded beast, wars draw us in for the kill. I smile fully now, a private expression hidden by the folds of my hood. I’ve no issues with being a dog of war.
At Nolat’s scream, five sets of eyes range outward looking for the attack. The eagle dives through the shimmering heat waves, screaming all the while. He levels out at the last moment before rising on the air, resuming his sentry position as a black dot in the unmarred vastness.
Black clothed men birth themselves from the sand that flanks us. The front and rear paths close with an efficiency I appreciate in a detached way. We’ve been waiting for this, waiting to be greeted. Now we see how the greeting goes. My eyes take in the gleaming swords, and this time the smile does not belong to me alone. The other four wear them also. The raging beast that rises within me at every conflict claws at its cage, striving to get out. I keep a leash on it for a moment and survey the men in front of me, picking the ones who will die, and in what order it will occur if this goes wrong.
Silence reigns until Nessa shatters it. Small hands clap in sarcastic applause, flashing indigo tattoos in the sun. “Well done boys. But now you must decide what to do with us.” Her smile flashes brilliantly but it doesn’t touch the cerulean eyes that have gone colder than the mountain glaciers of her home country.
I watch the lead figure survey us and I can guess what he sees. We possess a coolness regular soldiers could only imitate. We are loaded to the teeth with weapons, and that’s only what the leader can see. The hilts of our swords show the worn leather and gleaming metal of well used weapons. I hear Raef begin to snarl from underneath the roan’s feet. She likes a fight as much as I do.
I see irritation begin to cross the face of our new companions. We are not scared or intimidated, no doubt they are used to striking fear into the hearts of travelers. But we haven’t been scared for a long time.
The leader takes a step forward and stops as Raef slithers out from under the roan with bared teeth drooling. Hackles raised, she crouches in anticipation of blood. “You are trespassing. This is Ohadi land and you will not pass.”
I know the voice and the man it belongs to so I know it can become an all out fight in a few seconds and that’s not what we need right now. What we need is to get within the tribes and destroy them from the inside out. I bring my hands to my hood, slowly, and drop it down my back. “I’m Ohadi and by the right of my father’s rule I’ll go wherever I want Carid. Or do you wish to be the one who stops me?”
I know an instant of pleasure as I see Carid’s eyes darken. He has always been easy to goad and when mad he doesn’t think as clearly. Silence reigns and I see his mind work. “I didn’t believe the runner. I was sure it was a mistake. You’ve no reason to come back.”
I laugh, for all his strength and temper Carid was never all that devious of mind. No, he was an honest Edalb warrior, and I’m gambling he still is. “It’s as good a place as any. Besides I’ve always liked a fight.”
Carid’s mouth curls in a sneer and I hope he hasn’t changed too much. “So you’re back. I hear you’re a dog for hire now. You planning to whore out to Miron?”
I calculate, yes he’s changed a little, but not totally, “At the moment I’m not whoring for anyone. I just wanted to visit home sweet home for a while. But if you wanna hire me I’m game.” I lean forward casually, one elbow braced against the saddle. “As I recall,” I widen my smile, taunting and cocky; “You didn’t mind me being a whore when you got to participate. As I remember it, you were more than willing.” I hear Rellik snort in amusement.
“And you were always a twisted bitch Shealtiel Shibalt.”
I know if he’s trading insults then we’ve a chance of succeeding, for he doesn’t know how treacherous I can really be, “The fact still remains tha you’ve got ta do something with us, and I’m tired of waiting. So, what’s it going to be?” At my last words, steel rings free and all of us have thirsty swords in our hands. It’s a risk to push this hard, but we’ve a deadline, and a bonus if we succeed. So, we’re pushing the issue, the less time they have to decide the better off we are.
I see no fear in Carid’s eyes, just the wary look of a man weighing his choices. He knows many of his men will die if they continue. He’s crossed blades with me before, and is under no illusions about the company I keep. I watch the battle wage across his face, reason fighting temper. His raised hand stops his men from answering blade for blade. Genuine disappointment lances through for a moment when I see the nod that sends a man scurrying towards where the Edalb horses undoubtedly wait. I truly due love a good blood laced battle. But as the Edalb warriors circle us and proceed into the desert, I know there’s plenty of time left on this trip for blood to be spilled.
The others ride with intense curiosity, but I doze. My body sways to the stride of my stud, I release my mind to sleep and wake and remember and sleep. Part one of our plan is working and Rellik, Lataf, Nessa, and Evals will see any treachery coming. I’m back, back to the land of tradition and Seers where the women were modest and meek with few exceptions. I was born a bastard, the get of a low tribesman’s daughter and the then Ohadi prince. I never graced my father’s castle, I was born, tattooed a royal bastard and left with my uncle since my mother died a year after I was born.
The caste system of the Ohadi tribes varies on the lower levels, but the lowly do not consort with the upper. That is stone and iron. So, I was raised by my uncle, an Edalb swordsman. The Edalb are the warrior caste of the Ohadi, the swordsmen, bowmen, the blood and bones of the Ohadi’s defense against Miron. My uncle didn’t know what to do with a girl so he treated me as a pupil from the time I could walk and talk. The last words he ever said to me were that I must be broken inside somewhere to love the blood and death of battle as much as I did. To this day I take that as a compliment. I find myself wondering if my uncle is still alive, last I heard he got caught selling secrets to Miron. But I won’t ask Carid, not today. Today we’ll ride silent as they take us closer to our goal.
The miles fade away beneath the horse’s long striding legs and it’s dusk before we halt. As night falls the chill of the desert dark arrives. Carid and his men set up their tents in the shadow of a small rise that shelters a natural well. Carid would not camp if they were close to an Ohadi band. I sigh to myself; we’ve several more days of travel at the least.
I see Carid frown when I toss my blankets down alongside Rellik’s. Evals and Nessa have already set up our shelter. The tent boasts four sides, but the front of the shelter remains rolled up, revealing the neat line of bedrolls filling the tent floor. A miniature version of an Ohadi tent, versatile yet lightweight. Saddles anchor the back corners close to the sand, the unused fabric from the low back wall stretches across the ground carpeting the bed area. The front corners are the height of Rellik and supported by collapsible wood uprights. I glance at our tent and realize how similar it is to the Edalb tents I used to live in. Well, except for the coloring, that is a totally different world than the neutral tan of Edalb tents. Without paying attention to my fingers, I undo the buckles holding my swords in place. The straps come loose and I lay the swords down, one on either side of my bedding. Sitting down I strip my daggers and throwing ax as well.
Rellik starts laughing as he sits down on his bedding next to me. He nods in the direction of Carid’s men, “I think they’re impressed. Between our five piles, I think we’ve more weapons than them.”
I look at my pile, then to the other bedrolls of my group. I grin, “Hell, I’m impressed. And we’ve got more on our saddles. Carid!” My bellow brings his head around as he brushes his horse down, “You’re welcome to borrow some of our extra weapons if you want to balance the scale out a bit.”
Nessa laughs outright and Evals merely grins.
A few moments later Carid finishes brushing down his horse and circles our tent with a wide smirk. “The weapons are impressive Sheal but this tent, this’s spectacular.”
With an exasperated sigh, I look at the tent again. Warm at night, it keeps the wind out and in the day, it provides a great shelter. It also possesses flamboyant sky blue coloring with embroidered swirls of gold, crimson, violet, and emerald vines. Lataf had found it, damn his gypsy tastes. “Aye, well I’m not claiming responsibility for this gypsy trash. That’d be Lataf’s doing.”
Carid snorts in amusement as he walks away. Rellik grins knowing my train of thought. The tent has brought more than a few comments over the last two years. The man of our thoughts arrives at that moment. Lataf drops the three hares hanging from his saddle to the ground besides the tent, and proceeds in stripping his grey of the saddle. Nolat soars down from the sky to the stack of saddles Lataf has just added to. Raef slinks into the tent, deposits a desert hare at my feet then curls up in a corner of the tent. Lataf retrieves the hares along with Raef’s and gives a graceful bow, “Dinner is ready ta be prepared ma dear cooks. There was anothah but Raef decided ta feed herself all of it.”
With quick efficiency, we strip the skin from the four carcasses. Soon the smell of dinner wafts across the camp, while the strips of rabbit sizzled in the camp pans at the fire’s edge. Carid and his men look on in disgust as they chew their jerky.
With full bellies and a succeeding plan, we relax in the desert chill. The night sky shines down, its inky blackness drinking the light of the campfire up. Valiant golden and ginger flames claw at the darkness, but fail to win. Wind whispers across the desert, ruffling the tent. I welcome the dark; we’ve done good today but were not done yet.