Three days later, we arrive at Ohadi camp. Dusk casts sly shadows among the sand dunes as we top out on a rise overlooking the encampment. The camp is nestled against the beginning of the rock cliffs leading to the Mad Mountains. The cliffs rise jagged and brutal to tower over everything. Beyond them, the Mad Mountains stretch their twisted peaks to the sun. Those mountains harbor the Ohadi city of Trebloc. The stone city, but also the gem city. Where gemstones are built carelessly into stonewalls lined with gold ore. Not that anyone enjoys that splendor except those who disregard the gods and the curses said to have been placed on the mountain stronghold. I went there once, with my uncle. We rode down the canyon side to the gorge crossing and stopped. On the other side of the gorge the stronghold shimmered and gleamed with its riches and bared its stone teeth at us as the wind wailed. I smile a little, my uncle never knew while as he lay sleeping that night, I crossed the bridge and slipped through the gates. That night will stand us in good stead now. There is no way out now, but to finish the job. To our back the sand stretches out in endless waves of shifting treachery.
I can’t help but grin as I anticipate our arrival in the Ohadi camp. I was somewhat of a pain in the ass for the Elders of the Ohadi. I believe the word they used was “recalcitrant.” Not much has changed there. As we ride through the tents, people emerge and follow. It’s rare for the Edalb warriors to bring anyone back alive. And we are very much alive and very much armed.
Carid and his men come to a halt in front of the Elders’ tent. One of his men dismounts and ducks through the tent flap. Nessa starts to hum a tune and Evals whistles along while Lataf mumbles the bawdy words to song. We’re consistently a little irreverent to authority so why stop now. The five Elders emerge from the tent. They are iron hard men, the desert has seen to that. All extra has been melted off of their old bones till they are nothing but suns darkened flesh stretched across bone and unyielding religion.
I know four of the five Elders. They look the same as I did when I left seven years ago, hard bitter men. But I’ve killed many hardened bitter men. It’s hard to fear old men when you’ve as many demons as I do. The hairless Elder I know as Iyore starts the ball rolling.
“So, Shealtiel Shibalt, bastard daughter of the passed King, what do want here?”
“At this moment I want food, my bedroll, and a willing man.”
Rellik chuckles in his throat, “I’m willing my lover, I’m always willing.”
“But I’m thinking your question was a bit broader in meaning, aye?”
Iyore sneers, revealing remarkably white teeth, “You disgrace your bloodline with your disrespect.”
“I disgraced my bloodline by being born. I’m sure it’ll survive a little more shame.”
“Why are you here?”
I raise an eyebrow, “I’m a mercenary. You shouldn’t need any help figuring it out. I want a job. Carid simply interrupted us on our journey to Onserf.”
I hear gasps from the crowd behind me and the Elders’ permanent scowls crease deeper on their faces. “You admit to being a mercenary, to being willing to hire out to the Miron scum, and you think we’ll simply let you leave?”
“Well, you could always hire us. We’re not particular about the employer, just the payment.”
“We can simply end you here and now.”
I’m warming to the confrontation now, especially with a crowd behind as observers. There’s nothing like sowing trouble and distrust in an enemy’s followers. “Actually,” I look behind me at the crowd, “and correct me if I’m wrong. There’s a requirement to consult the Seer before you execute any travelers who have been brought to an Ohadi camp by Ohadi tribesmen. In this case that would be Carid and his Edalb riders. Now, we all know I’m one to break tradition and rules, but you Iyore. You’ve a responsibility to uphold them. Else it would be madness amongst the tribes. Everyone doing as they pleased with no thought to tradition. It’d be a gods damned disaster.”
I watch them glare and compare them to piranhas, all teeth and snapping viciousness. I know they can’t break tradition now, not with so many tribesmen witnessing our greeting and conversation. It’s one thing to break tradition in secret and quite another to do it in full view of followers.
“Now, we’re going to go make camp over there,” I point to the base of the cliffs behind the encampment. “If you’ve any problems with that I suggest you fuck off.” As we pass by Carid and his men I smile, “Thanks for the escort in my friend.”
I wake to the front of the tent being thrown open. After the gloomy dark of the tent, the morning light filtering in makes me squint. I sit up, and the blankets follow me revealing Rellik’s annoyed features. It’s Carid. He looks at us in severe annoyance, and I can’t say I blame him. I threw him under a standing herd of horses by pointing out I was escorted into camp by he and his men. He’d have been smarter to just try and kill us all.
“You’ll see the Seer. She arrives in two days.” He spins on his heel and strides away, leaving the tent flap open to the dawn’s rays.
Rellik raises onto his elbow, “Well, were awake for some gods damned reason. We might as well make something of it.”
I grimace, after a night spent skulking amongst Ohadi tents, my mind begs for sleep. I’ve barely gotten an hour and a half of sleep; hell I didn’t even strip, just crawled in the blankets fully dressed. I burrow deeper into blankets in an attempt to fend of rising. Already dressed and standing, Rellik nudges me with his booted foot. He’s a morning person, I’m most decidedly not. He laughs as I growl at him.
Across the tent Nessa laughs as well. “He’s spoilin’ for a fight this mornin’ Sheal. I say you give it to him.”
In the darkness of my cocoon I pretend I’m alone, on a suns lit beach, where the waves lap gently against the sand. I’ve food and rum and no one bothers me. Sometimes this works to keep me from being goaded, sometimes not. Rellik’s boot nudges my back again, and I feel my temper spike a little more.
“Come on people, we haven’t had a good fight in weeks.” For all her petite size and feminine build Nessa’s a bloodthirsty bitch from time to time.
My sleep-fogged brain is clearing despite my best efforts. Sleep isn’t going to happen. Rellik shifts behind me, his foot taps my back again, and I move. The hand that’s been resting on my side snakes back, grabs the offending foot and heaves hard. I hear Rellik’s curse as he teeters off balance and falls. Evals grunts as Rellik lands on top of him. As Rellik springs up, I shed blankets and lunge at him in one long clean spring. My momentum carries us out the tent flap and into the sand outside. Only a few yards away I see Carid stop and turn in surprise, but my focus isn’t on him. I’m cursing Rellik in three four different languages. In the background Nessa is whooping and Lataf is whistling the tune to the Lover and His Lady Fair.
Rellik and I lock and roll together as we use elbows, knees, and fists to try and gain a win. When it comes to hand-to-hand I rarely win against him. I’m better with blades, but for now I’m doing my damndest to come out on top. I lose my grip and Rellik gets an arm around my throat. Before he can tighten the lock, I smash my head back and feel it connect with the side of his face. His grip slips and I step forward and rotate. Planting one leg, I shoot the other into his stomach, shoving him backward and taking his air. I lunge for him as he goes down, but he’s a slippery creature my lover. I miss my grab and slide past him in the sand. Before he can turn, I copy his earlier attempt and slip my left arm around his throat. I grab my left wrist with my right hand to lock the chokehold and throw my legs up around his waist, cinching down hard as my weight topples him backward onto me. He swings an elbow into my side, but he’s already lost too much air from my front kick and I feel him fight to breathe. His elbow swings again and I grunt as it connects with rib bones. But he’s weakening. It’s silent now but for the hiss of our bodies on the sand and our breathing as I fight to keep my hold and he fights to break it.
Nessa breaks the quiet, “Aw give it up Rellik. She’s got you on this one.”
Rellik hisses out a curse and then relaxes; I hold for a second longer then release my grip. As he rolls to his side next to me I glare at him, “All I wanted was some gods damned sleep.”
“Aye, but I wanted a tussle and then a nice bit of time making up for it afterwards.”
I grin, as my temper eases. “Well, that can be arranged.” As he starts to get up, I sweep his legs from under him with my own. I straddle him and bend down to nip his lower lip with my teeth. I pull just a little, enough for a sting and enough to get bout our blood pumping with lust. “But not yet,” I whisper into his ear and then bite the strong column of his neck, “First we give them a show.” With a grin I stand and give him a hand to his feet. Lataf, Evals, and Nessa wait for us at the tent as Rellik and I shed desert robes and shoes to buckle on swords.
Together we move out from the tent and a little closer to the Ohadi camp, a little exhibition to warn the Elders about an attempt to slit our throats in the night. We’ve done this many times, releasing anger and grudges with physical competition, sweat, even a little blood. Sometimes all of us fight, sometimes just a few. I start to smile, I love this life of blood and steel and sweat and death and war. It makes my blood sing and my heart dance. I spin my swords in my hand and beckon my Rellik to begin.
I watch him circle me and keep my body loose, ready to move in any direction required. He slides in closer and our swords touch and slip away, whispering like silk on skin. Feet shuffle in the warming sand, each of us acutely aware of how the granules shift under our weight. He tests and I parry, he attacks I defend then attack in return. My swords flow in my hands, cutting rivers of silver through the air. There is no sound but our feet in the sand and the meeting of steel on steel. Stripped of the desert robes the suns pours over our flesh and sweat flows in rivers of exertion down battle honed bodies. Blades lock and pull us closer so that we are face to face over swords. He blows a kissa t me over the blades. I laugh and then the blades slide away. This is as much a mating ritual between Rellik and I as it is a demonstration of skill for the Ohadi. Swords lock again; with a heave, Rellik twists ne of my swords out of my grasp. The tip of my other blade rests against his neck as we circle, but his blade rests against mine as well. Our nostrils flare in the struggle to consume enough air, this time Rellik laughs and reaches out to trace a finger down my left blade. My blood still pounds, so I throw my blade with measured precision to where Lataf and the others sit watching. I don’t have to look to know Lataf catches them easily.
Hands weaving, we resume our dance. Rellik lunges grappling, but his grip slips on my sweat covered skin. My foot doesn’t miss. With measured strength, I stomp down on the bridge of his left toes. I laugh at his curse and then grunt as his legs sweep across mine, dropping me to the ground. His jump to straddle me ends abruptly with both of my feet in his gut. He sails over me and lands hard in the sand, but I know he isn’t done yet.
On the edge of my vision I register we’ve drawn a rather large crowd of Ohadi. Our hands reach, grasp, twist, and release to seek another hold. Breath changes from measured to labored but focus does not fade. Feet kick and strike like weapons. I slip in the sand and dive, shoulders pushing against legs and Rellik goes down. But my momentum carries me past him. Rellik checks his fall and spins. In the instant before he hits, I appreciate the picture of his body curved in the turn, sand spraying under feet, and black hair swinging wildly.
There is no finesse, just brute force, as his body slams into mine knocking the air out of me and pinning me at the same time. His legs scissor around my waist and a sweat slicked arm slides around my neck in the same move I used on him earlier. I reach behind me as I fight for air and cinch my left arm around his neck holding it forward in position for my free arm to swing a wide powerful punch that tears through the air and collides with his skull. I feel his neck-lock loosen, and use my smaller build to my advantage. I twist in his grasp so we are face to face and watch his grin fade as the pressure from the knife tip against his throat registers. Behind us I hear Nessa whistle and Evals clap his hands. This time Rellik offers a hand and helps me to my feet. I stand and then stretch, fingers grasping toes.
I hear Rellik groan, “Gods you’re trying to kill me aren’t you?”
I straighten and grin as Rellik rolls his shoulders to ease sore muscles. Not a bad start to the day.