1: The Port of Mandelbroggen
1: The Port of Mandelbroggen —
1054 Geipharalka 3
The city of Mandelbroggen is now visible from the bow of the brigantine. Night has fallen, and the fires lighting the port area flicker dimly ahead. Our captain must know the harbor well, as he pilots us to our berth in the dark of evening. Following an exhausting sea voyage, the ship glides up the mouth of the river toward its berth. On either shore mountains are visible only as an inky blackness that is even darker than the night sky above. Ahead of us, the two moons of Bhyuike and Cejiina are floating above the city. Both of them are nearly full; yet even so, their combined light is not enough to penetrate the shadows. Positioned not far above the horizon, the smaller and fainter Cejiina runs just ahead of the larger and brighter Bhyuike tonight, their glow occasionally obscured by wisps of smoke rising above the city.
I am a Traveler.
I have been sent to North Plessia, the most isolated province of the Pyrusian empire, to learn more about the people, culture, and economics of the region. It is my first assignment and while I am excited about the adventure before me, I am apprehensive as well, having never felt so isolated and alone. Despite the rough weather, the sea voyage was not difficult for me; venturing forth into a new land alone is far more challenging. Having lived my life in the Bhayanna Archipelago, I am thoroughly familiar with shipboard routine. Now the voyage is about to end, and the fresh salt spray of the sea has been replaced by the earthy smell of the estuary. Within minutes, I will set forth into an unfamiliar land where I do not speak the native tongue, have no conception of the customs, and do not know a single soul outside of the five other passengers on board.
I stand silently in the bow as the ship draws nearer to the pier. When the brigantine has docked, I am the last to debark. Traveling light, I carry everything I own in the pack on my back. By our calendar, it is the third day of Geipharalka, the tenth month of the year 1054. I do not know what the local inhabitants consider the date to be.
At the end of the pier, there is a rough desk with a heavy-set official sitting behind it. A town guard or soldier, I do not know which, stands beside him. The nearby fires give the guard’s folded, muscled arms a bronze glow, and his penetrating gaze is aimed directly at me. When I reach the desk, the official addresses me.
“All visitors and immigrants to North Plessia are required to register with the city guard,” he intones in accented, unemotional Gallish. “State your name and place of origin.”
“Rocalla Rastama, of the Bhayanna Archipelago,” I reply.
“Can you sign?”
“Then write your name here.”
I sign my name using Gallish characters. It seems strange and foreign to me. My name should appear in the flowing script of my native Kopa Teidhwardadya, not in the awkward scratches and circles of the Gallish alphabet.
“You’re free to go.”
Without hesitation, I move on. Just beyond the checkpoint there is a prominent sign written in three languages. The first is unknown to me; the last I can neither read nor decipher the runes with which it is inscribed. In between is written in clear Gallish: “All Practice of Wizardry and Sorcery is Prohibited in North Plessia. Anyone found to be engaged in such practices will be tried by the Church Tribunal. If found guilty, the wizard will be branded and exiled, imprisoned, or put to death.”
As I leave the docks, the odor of the adjacent marshes gives way to the stench of the city. The smoke of the fires, the foulness of the sewers, and the stale, sweat-soaked sweetness of hundreds of people living close together assault my senses. It is late, and despite the many torches and lanterns, most the city before me is enveloped in darkness. The stillness of the night is punctuated by the rhythmic tapping of my quarterstaff on the stones as I walk along. I wander forward, my booted feet slipping on the damp, worn cobblestones, looking for a place to stay. The few people I pass on the street glance at me, then avert their eyes, muttering words that have no meaning for me. After about fifteen minutes, I come upon The Happy Pilgrim Inn.
The occupants of the inn stare at me as I enter. You would think that a unicorn had just entered the room. While my light brown skin is much darker than theirs, and I bear the flower-shaped tattoo of a Zariinyeida priestess on my forehead, I really am not unlike them. More learned, perhaps, and of a different culture, but otherwise I am as human as the lot of them. I quietly go up to the bar and ask for a room. Finding one available for a reasonable price, I pay for my lodging, obtain a mug of ale to drink, and move to an empty table in a corner of the tavern.
The ground floor of the inn is spacious, large enough to hold a hundred people. Only fifteen or so occupy the area now, predominantly in groups of two or three sipping ale and talking in whispers. Most of them have blond or light brown hair, with skin so pale that it hard to imagine that they spend any time in the sun. Five men sitting on the far side of the room are more boisterous. Mercenaries or adventuring fighters judging from their appearance, they wear chain mail or leather armor. Several have swords slung by their sides.
After about ten minutes, I am just finishing my ale and thinking about retiring to my room upstairs when a young woman comes into the inn. Tall and thin, with wavy red hair that is tied back behind her head, she wears a quilted tunic over a short red dress. Brown leather boots are laced up to her knees. Carrying a crimson bow, with a quiver of arrows slung behind her back, she enters the room boldly and proceeds to the table occupied by the five men.
As she approaches the table, one of the men calls out. “Here comes flame-head again.”
“Hey, bar maiden, fetch us a round why don’t you,” says another.
“I am not your bar maiden,” says the woman. “I’m as good a warrior as the rest of you.”
Laughter rips out of the mouths of the five men, while the woman looks on impatiently.
“I could outshoot any one of you,” she says. “You’re just afraid to stand up to my challenge.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, it’s dark outside,” the second man says.
“Well then, come shoot against me tomorrow.”
“We might do that, except that we have a paying job to attend to tomorrow.”
“Let me come with you.”
With that, another round of laughter and jeering breaks forth. “There are already women there to bring us our lunch.”
“You think me a camp follower? I could take on any one of you.”
“Ooo, she means to show us her mettle,” the bulky fighter in chain mail speaks.
“Stand up right now. Or are you afraid that you might be beaten by a woman?”
“I’m afraid you might trip over the table and spill my ale.”
At this she slaps him across the face. “Come on, get up on your feet, if you can.”
“You little wench, I’ll show you a woman’s place,” the bulky fighter says as he rises shakily to his feet.
“Your place will be on the floor in a moment,” the woman replies as she leans her bow against the wall. She moves quickly and lightly, circling her prey as he shambles slowly around the floor.
For several minutes, that is how it goes. The man throws a few punches, which she easily dodges. At the same time, the bulky man either blocks her punches or accepts them without blinking an eye.
Then, as the woman circles back close to the table, one of the other men sticks his booted foot out behind her. The bulky man lurches forward, causing the woman to jump back. Tripping over the outstretched foot, she lands hard on her rump. Uproarious laughter erupts from the five men and most of the rest of the patrons as well. Even the innkeeper joins in.
The woman gets to her feet, her face closely matching the color of her hair. Rushing toward the door, she almost forgets her bow. On her way to retrieve it, she slaps the bulky man soundly once again, then heads for the door.
As she passes close to my table, I decide to speak to her. “You should choose more worthy opponents.”
She stops suddenly, without turning. “What would you know about anything?”
“Sit with me awhile, and you’ll find out.”
“Unless you know of someone looking to hire skilled archers and not loathsome buffoons, I’m not really interested in what you have to say.”
“What’s your name?”
At this, she turns to look at me, her face wet with tears. “Dierdra Laak. What’s yours?” Looking directly at her, I notice how much jewelry she is wearing. Three gold hoops hang from each ear, and three or four cut gems adorn her upper ears on each side. Numerous gold and silver chains dangle around her neck, many of them carrying one or more pendant jewels.
“Rocalla Rastama. Here, sit down. I’ll get us both something to drink.”
She hesitates for another moment, then sits down. “I could use a drink. It’s been a frustrating day.”
I obtain two ales and return to the table. “So you’re looking for work as an archer?”
“Yeah, are you hiring?” Dierdra takes a long drink from her mug.
“Unfortunately, no, at least not at the moment. But I like your spirit.”
“Spirit doesn’t pay the innkeeper.”
Not knowing what to say to her, I take a sip of my ale. For a few moments, silence passes between us. I smooth the folds of my dress, pulling the white fabric tight over my thighs. Wanting to befriend someone, desperate to soothe my feelings of isolation, I allow fear and uncertainty to clamp my mouth shut. The woman casts a glance toward the men, then looks down at her drink. Needing to break the silence, I ask her, “So what are you doing now? I just arrived here today, and I’ll need to find something to do myself.”
“You call me over here, and now it’s you looking for a job. I’m afraid that I can’t help you, and you obviously can’t help me.”
“Wait, I’m sorry. So maybe I can’t do anything for you right now, but I hope that I can repay your kindness in the future.”
“Yeah, right.” Dierdra finishes her ale. “Do you even know how to use a weapon?”
“I’m good with a quarterstaff.”
“A quarterstaff,” I reply. “It’s that long wooden staff leaning against the wall.” I indicate with my hand.
“I know what a quarterstaff is, I just couldn’t understand you through your accent. Where are you from anyway? Obviously, not from around here.”
“I’m from the Bhayanna Archipelago.”
Dierdra shakes her head, tossing her bright hair back and forth. Her earring hoops tinkle as they rattle against each other. “Never heard of the place. Whatever made you decide to come to this farthest corner of nowhere?”
“I am a Traveler.”
She raises one eyebrow. “Whatever.” After a few minutes of thought, she continues. “Tell you what, where are you staying?”
“Here,” I reply.
“Well, in actuality so am I,” she sighs. “Tomorrow is the beginning of the Festival of the Second Moon. No one will be working for the next three days, not even that bunch of liars on the far side of the room. We’ll meet here, in the morning.”
“We can spend the day at the festival and decide what to do after that.”
“Sounds good to me. Thanks, Dierdra.”
“I’ll see you in the morning, Rocalla.” Without hesitation, she picks up her bow, crosses the room, and scurries upstairs.
Five minutes later, I follow up the stairs and retire to my own room.