"Don't understand them. Never have," Kalvar said. "They shrug away a mage spawned khraga, no offence Ma'am," he nodded at Gring who bared her tusks in return, her version of a smile, "but a woman in command has them take leave of their brains."
"You had better apologize to the lady anyway. Mage spawned and khraga in one sentence was twice uncalled for." Trindai smiled. Gring wouldn't take offence where none was meant, but Major Terwin could do with the occasional reminder of politeness.
Kalvar reddened slightly. "I apologize Ma'am. That was rude. Not many mage spawns nor khraga where I come from." He had a twinkling star in his eye. The only man Trindai knew who was able to smile from his eyes down to his lips.
"Good thing you have both honour and bravery. One could mistake you for a true warrior-born human." Gring showed even more tusk.
Kalvar visibly straightened, and Neritan, who had been silent this far, filled the tent with laughter. Trindai soon drowned it with a happy roar of his own.
"What?" Kalvar sagged slightly in his chair.
Darkness, but she's a quick study. "You've been had man, twice, and you didn't even notice it!" Trindai rose and slapped the major on his shoulders. "Who'd known. Not a mere imperial major this one, but rather a fierce khragan warrior."
Kalvar darkened, but then he lit up again and shrugged. "I deserved that, I did. I'll buy us a bucket of ale when we pass Lianin's wagon next time."
"Good to see some good use of your shiny coins," Gring answered, and then she managed to show even more of her tusks, a sign that she wasn't finished by far yet, "but what will you have to drink?"
"You mean to share a single bucket? Maybe not a warrior after all."
Trindai saw the tent flaps pulled aside and made room for Captain Weinak and Major Berdaler as they entered.
"I thought we were called to a war council," the latter said.
Trindai moved aside to give Ingeld Berdaler the full worth of Kalvar's stricken face.
The tent exploded in another round of laughter.
Trindai waited for the mirth to settle down. They had deserved a good laugh, needed on. "This is a war council I'm afraid," he said, and at once the friendly banter was gone and he faced the stern expressions he'd come to recognize. Unholy gods, but they're tired! "We have a problem with the outworlders."
That met with more surprise than consternation.
"From what I've seen Major Goldberger runs a superb command," Ingeld suggested.
"He does. Not a problem with personnel. Logistics." Trindai dug his fingers into his beard. More ash than earth in there now, he thought. Same with my hair as well. I'm growing old. "The hovercraft will run until long after we're all dead, Mindwalker Hwain excepted, of course," he added guiltily, "but the body walkers they use aren't as sturdy. They fuel them from the hovercraft but small parts of the machines are breaking down and they have almost no spare parts left."
Nakora stared blankly, but Kalvar came to her rescue. "So they need to resupply. When are they leaving?"
"Leave? They can't leave." Nakora suddenly looked scared.
And you have reason to. "That's our best scouts and screen," Trindai agreed. "Strange how fast you take outworlder wonders for granted." He gave Nakora an unhappy look. Seems I can't see you in that uniform for a while, and now for the worst. "They were sent here. Somehow. Still doesn't make them our soldiers. I'd commit treason if I allowed them to enter Keen unescorted."
Nakora sunk deep into her chair. "How many," she asked, and her voice was but a hollow whisper.
"Half I'm afraid. We'll travel on the hovercraft, so the horses will have to stay. The horse masters stay with the horses, and I'll leave a full squadron under you command."
Thirty men, and only twenty of them fully trained. Handling horses took a skill of its own. He knew. "I've spoken with young Graig. You are his commander as well now."
Nakora brightened a little. With Karia Graig's twenty riders her command would be back almost to full strength, but Trindai knew the young nobleman from Belgera and his men were not a fair replacement for the superbly trained soldiers he was about to take with him.
"Mindwalkers Khat and Hwain will stay. Keep them close. I don't trust that sorry excuse for a command they forced on you in Ri Khi." There, now it was in the open. Nakora paled. Unholy gods! What piss poor kingdom gives soldiers to a commander she has good reasons to fear more than an enemy? "Not even under major Terwin's command," Trindai added.
"Kalvar stays?" A glimmer of hope spread over her face.
"Major Terwin stays," Trindai confirmed, and Nakora let out a long breath of relief. "He's promised to keep up their training." Which should have them too tired to show any interest in you, and keep their resentment firmly aimed at Kalvar.
"A bit unruly. Should still be possible to make good soldiers of them," Kalvar said and grinned.
"Maybe you can," Trindai lied in return. They would never become good soldiers. Too important, too powerful. Soldiers should never be powerful. Soldiers were weapons, nothing more, and no one should be ruled by a weapon.
They had to leave. He hadn't been entire honest with them. The outworlders had spent a lot of time guarding the hovercraft the last eightdays. The craft was breaking down, and Goldberger had been adamant about it posing a greater danger to them all than any nomad band bent on attacking the caravan.
Nor were the outworlders running out of spare parts. Major Goldberger had said as much. Half of their body walkers were beyond repair, and the nightmarish battle in Belgera had left them with insufficient ammunition even for the three that still functioned. The weapons they had captured were more than enough for their needs on the way back to Verd. Trindai has asked for them to be left with his remaining men, but unlike crossbow quarrels ammunition for outworlder weapons could never be reused, and there was simply not enough of it left for training. In the end they had agreed to mount one gun fitted with field glasses on a wagon. Close to two hundred outworlder missiles. Enough for hunting gherin.
He walked out into the sunlight. The ground was already baking hard under his feet. The days of struggling with mired wagons were over. From now on they would make good progress on their way home. There was at least that.
The caravan felt emptier. Colonel Laiden had left with less than half a hundred, but everyone noticed their absence nonetheless. Outworlder machines and imperial uniforms were so much more visible than uncoloured leather, and the single squad remaining only made them remember how much stronger, how much safer they had been before. And so the caravan hugged closer, wagons driving five abreast instead of on a single line. For every word of comfort there were two of irritation or fear. On their way to Braka it had been an adventure, a hope to make fortunes. Now the wagons were loaded with those very fortunes. Where they once had stood to gain they now stood to lose.
Nakora pulled the reins closer. She rode with Karia, the lordling who had fought side by side with the enemy to keep his capital free of marauding outworlders. The enemy ran between their horses, but Nakora was only grateful for Gring's presence.
You valued your life less than the taleweaver's, Gring had said. Now I value mine less than yours. Honour needs honour That is only right. And after that Gring had refused to stay out of sight. Not when they ate, not when they slept and not even when Nakora really wanted her privacy.
Karia never laughed once. As much as he admired Gring it was clear he despised the men from Ri Khi. Mercenaries, not sworn men. Nakora shrugged. Not soldiers would have been Trindai's choice of words.
Now they were headed for yet another dressing down of Watoai Takarak, oldest son of the Takarak family and so full of himself you could burst a khragan stomach with him. He had been problem on the way to Braka, but not he was unbearable. Major Terwin wanted him stripped of his commission, but it was paid for in full long before Nakora even knew of a caravan bound for Belgera. They were stuck with him, more so since the caravan elders from Ri Nachi fawned all over the next Clan lord.
She hated politics.
They rode madness. From early morning to dusk, with only a few short breaks they soared over the Sea of Grass hearing nothing but the roar of outworlder machines. Twice the speed of a racing horse.
The ground blurred around them, and only Major Goldberger's small command never took notice of the insanity. Trindai was as shaken as his men, some of who even made warding signs against evil.
He stared as far away from the hovercraft as he could to avoid watching the onrushing ground. Nothing was supposed to be this fast. Man was never meant to flaunt his pride in the face of gods this way.
As sun set they reached the gorge where they had exited the mountains. Over a moons worth of travel in less than a day.
They made camp, they woke, they rode. Slower now. Mountains were treacherous, but a wide path, blackened proof of outworlder use of explosives, was cleared ahead of them. Christina and her thugs must have taken even longer than the caravan to cross the mountains, blowing their way through every obstacle that prevented the hovercraft from passing. As it was they spent only two nights in the mountains, and after one more, adapting the speed to the roads on the other side, they reached Erkateren.
It was a nation under siege. Everywhere small wagons and carts with food and everywhere guards in the bright colours of imperial uniforms.
What madness is this? Trindai stared from where he sat. We're Keen. We don't steal food from people in spring. He exchanged a look of shock and fury with Ingeld. They'll starve before summer. He dropped to the ground and started marching. The huge outworlder machine and the thunder it spread was impossible to miss, and he meant to make as much use of the attention he commanded. "Who commands this atrocity?"
Two soldiers from the south gate regiment stared at him. If they believed he was unable to carry his voice over the roaring hovercraft they were sadly mistaken.
One tried to edge away.
"Halt!" And if they really believed they had been born with the spine to leave when Trindai wanted answers someone else, much higher in command, was simply going to be sad. They traced their immediate line of command to General de Markand, a formidable person in his own right, but no one in their right mind wanted problems with the Council of Twelve. "Bring me the sorry ass of your superior!" One hesitated. "Now you shit faced piece of worthless scum!" They hesitated no longer.
"Colonel de Laiden. We expected to meet you on the Sea of Grass."
Trindai glared at the general, regimental class. Arrogant prick, but he was still ranking. "What are you doing here with a full regiment?" he asked. Stole the food, stole the horses and stole someone's home while they were at it.
"I heard you deserted your command." Not even an attempt to answer a valid question put forth in a polite manner.
And all for the comfort of a pitiful excuse of a man who should never have been born, much less made it through Imperial Arms. "My men are with the outworlders. Now, again, why..."
"Shut up, Colonel!"
Trindai glared but kept his voice to himself.
"I have new orders for you." He walked over Trindai's frayed and dirty uniform with his eyes. "I'm certain the Twelve will demand an explanation from you when you get back."
Trindai grabbed his sealed orders. Fuming, but he forced his murderous thoughts to stay in his mind.
The seal was not from the Ministry of Art. War? But by the unholy demon spawned piss brained gherin who fathered you why are you transferring me to de Saiden? He broke the seal. He read his orders, and glee as unholy as his oath spread through him.
"I asked you a question earlier. Answer it Regiment General!"
"How dare you..."
Trindai's fist cut him short. "Now you fat little pig. Why, I think you're questioning the right of a superior officer to ask you a question. In my book that stinks of rank insubordination."
"Guards!" The pig didn't even bother to crawl up from the floor before he cried for help.
"Belay that order!" He heard the shuffling of feet, but no one entered the room. A coward. A mean little coward. Despised by his own men, even those he bribes. Keen had its share of failures as well, even though Trindai had never seen enough in one place to fill an entire company of cavalry. But everyone knew Ri Khi excelled in stupidity.
He leaned over the officer. "Now, you will see the farmers paid. You will continue to pay for every single loaf of bread you politely ask for." He's not broken yet. "And you will do all this, not because I ask you, not because I order you to, but because it is an imperial decree." He shoved the orders in the face of the stunned general. "When you meet the caravan you will detach a company strength unit to escort it back. Is that understood?"
Trindai received a shudder, a nod and his orders. War? Why me? Markand is enough, we don't even have troops enough for a second.
Imperial General Trindai de Laiden left the house.
Something moved in the night.
Nakora woke from an uneasy slumber.
Gring? No, more than one. She rolled over and came to her feet. Too silent. Her sword was out of reach. She drew a dagger and searched for it in the dark. I wonder...
Tent flaps pulled aside and two shadows entered, then another, and another.
"What is the meaning of this?" Fear ran through her.
Outside the silence was broken by a predator's fury, and she knew.
She slashed with her weapon, but two shadows already lunged for her. She stabbed at the closest and heard him grunt. Then she was thrown to the ground.
"You get what you deserve. Whore!"
Someone tore her clothes. She would not survive the night. That was knowledge. She was afraid of the unknown, but now she knew. No fear, only rage.
"They raped her and then they killed her! Her own men!"
Gring heard, but she didn't listen. She was hollow.
"Your escort killed six of my men! Your escort murdered their lawful commander! Your escort! All because you refused to pay what you were bound by law to pay."
The halfman's rage was magnificent. He stank with it. A clean stench, pure. If he had been born with proper glands the merchant oath breakers would have trashed in uncontrollable panic, but he was only a halfman.
Trindai would have been proud of his soldier nonetheless, she admitted as much.
"We want the murderers and we want them now!" Karia Graig, her enemy unknown. They had only fought side by side, never measured fang and steel against each other.
The world was wrong. Those she should have met in combat stood by her side, and those among whom she had hoped to make a home had struck at her honour
Her life a shield for the taleweaver, then a shield for a shield. But now Nakora was dead, two shields broken.
"... are the escort we hired. Clan Takarak should have commanded it from the beginning."
Gring stiffened. She had to listen or else her path would be unclear.
"That's the dirtiest, most absurd excuse I've ever heard!" Karia's voice vibrated with a rage more silent than his words. The stench of his fury was more complex than Kalvar's. "We don't always agree to women in arms, but that doesn't give us the right to murder our own."
"The laws of Braka don't apply here."
"They're my command," Kalvar said. "That makes it my law. In my law rapist murderers have lost their right to live. My law extends to those who would protect diseased animals."
"Are you threatening us?"
Kalvar turned and gave Gring a long stare. Then he slowly and deliberately lingered on his surviving men, weapons drawn. "Yes," he said, "I think I do."
"And you're lucky he only threatens you," Karia added. "I was sworn to her. With her dead Major Terwin has the right of command, and it's only his hand that has stayed my men." He exchanged an unhappy smile with Kalvar. "If he would release that hand I can and will be held responsible for my actions -- after you are all dead."
Gring's path became clear. For all their attempts at protecting the oath breakers who had killed Nakora she knew the merchant masters could to very little. The smell on halfmen leather and flinty odour of their large crossbows hovered over the ground as a memory only. It was no longer alive and changing, so they must have left the place of Nakora's death late at night. Along the caravan? She doubted that.
"Your superiors will hear of this."
"They will, but you will all be dead before then if you don't tell us where the murderers hide."
Another memory of metal in the air caught Gring's attention. It should have been sharp, like acid. Coins! Always the shiny coins! You killed, mated and took the coins. I heard you halfmen left coins when you mated without consent. "They are not here," she said.
All attention was immediately fixed on her. She hadn't spoken before, only lent her gifts so the halfmen could understand what they shouted at each other.
"Go on, ma'am," Kalvar urged.
"They stole from Harbend. The money is not here."
"You don't know that. You could have stolen the money yourself."
"If that pig opens his mouth again I want a quarrel in his throat and another in his mouth. That is an order!" Kalvar turned to his men with the last words, and they sheathed their sabres and started loading their crossbows. Not one smiled.
The master merchant glared. Greedy, but he wasn't a coward. He made a show of looking at Gring's bloodied fur, her hacked leathers and the bow she carried. "I apologize. Khraga are large but Lord de Garak's strongboxes were many."
Kalvar shook his head when he received eager looks from his soldiers. "Where are they?" he asked.
"I don't know, but I know one who does."
"Then we are finished here, for now. Lead the way, ma'am."
"You can't follow. This is a matter between mindwalkers."
Kalvar looked as if he was about to argue, but they both knew what Gring had meant. He had shown time and time again how uncomfortable he was with users of the gift, and Neritan Hwain was not only a mindwalker. A golden, with living memories from World War, she could conjure unpleasant experiences if angered.
Gring let go of her powers. The meeting was over and she had a new confrontation ahead of her.
They stared. No words. When mindwalkers wanted no listeners they shared an experience as intense as it was exclusive.
Had it only been a matter of raw power and experience Gring knew she'd run away, ashamed of her audacity. She was a small child in comparison with Neritan. The mere thought of comparing them was ridiculous, even laughable. But she didn't run, because she was right and Neritan wrong. And she was furious. Once again Neritan had behaved like the oath breaker she was, golden or not.
You are without honour
What do I care about your precious honour?
Did you believe I was so weak you could walk my soul against my will?
I tried, I failed. What does it matter?
Another probe stabbed against her defences and almost shot through. I'm not halfman born. Like Harbend. That threw Neritan's latest attack. Did you think I didn't know you forced his actions? Your very strength betrayed you.
And so? He did what he needed to do. Arthur was saved.
Oath breaker, have you no respect for the privacy of the mind?
They are short lives. A glittering spark. They are born, they age, they die. Why should I care?
Gring threw arrows of her own against Neritan's probes. Never before had she walked the mind of a golden, and to her shock she found it truly alien. The short lived halfmen were like close relatives in comparison. You should, because it's right. Alien and cold beyond comprehension.
Right? Fool! I decide what is right. It was right to save the taleweaver. He is important. Harbend is not.
It's against the law.
Those laws apply to you who age and die, even you who will see four lives of one like Harbend before you fade and pass beyond the veil. We are exempt.
The golden mind was so different. Right, wrong, they had no place there. Need, necessity and danger was as close as Gring could get, but even those were poor translations.
Again tendrils of concepts and false memories snaked into crevasses in her mind. It was all she could do to cut them before she forgot why she was here. Give me the link! Her sudden demand managed what her failing defences had not, and Neritan withdrew.
Why should I? Such contempt!
Vailinin ad Rhigrat.
You wouldn't dare!
Dare? What would a warrior born not dare, golden halfman? She had won the game. The laws did apply to the golden as well, or at least enough of them.
You don't understand. You don't remember. I had to. Something is wrong. If Arthur had died there we would have Dragonwrath ahead of us.
It was still dishonourable. Wrong.
Desperation shone clear in Neritan's mind. They were that much alike at least. Dishonourable? Are you mad. He's only a short life! They multiply like flies! Already they are more than before World War. One greatyear. Only a little more than one was all they needed.
So, they regained what was stolen.
You don't understand? How could you? We don't fade and die. We don't breed like animals. There are so few of us left. I will not allow another Dragonwrath!
So fear was at the bottom of it as Gring had guessed. I am right. You are wrong. Give me the link to Harbend!
In the end she got the link. She had won it when she threatened the golden mindwalker with a truth seer, but she had lost her respect for the golden in return. She had to make her part of the exchange worth it, and she promised herself to reach out to Harbend each morning until she walked his mind. She had to. Honour demanded it. Respect demanded it. He deserved to know what had happened, and why.
Kalvar bowed stiffly. "I'll escort the caravan. Six or none, not much of a difference maybe."
He held an aura of solidity that belied his size. Oath breaker by birth but none by deed, and Gring held her silence, waiting for him to find words. Halfmen needed to explain their decisions, as if the act of speaking carried more weight than what they spoke about.
"Colonel Laiden gave me an order." He scratched his head. "I hope the bastards find nothing but dragon packs out there. I wish I could bring them to justice, but my mission is to see these fat pigs return home safely." He drew back his shoulders and breathed hard. When he let air out again Gring felt the difference.
So, he's found his resolve.
"I'll escort them. All the way to Ri Nachi. I'll see those merchants responsible tried and executed, and then I'll report back to Verd."
"Why should they listen to you?" Six against a kingdom. He presumes a lot.
"They will. I just realized." A flicker of steely joy flashed over his face. "The caravan started in Verd. The murderers, all of them," he shot the passing wagons an almost longing glare, "have put a mission of great economic value to Keen in danger."
More coins. Always the bits of shining metal.
"I don't care much for fattening greedy pigs, but I can use this. As the saying goes: steel in De Vhatic gold."
Gring had never heard the expression before, but she guessed. Even humans knew halfmen prized the coins from Verd over all others. They never lost shape from age, couldn't be scraped and if violently cut, immediately lost shape and became uneven discs of metal, just like most coins made elsewhere. She was unclear why this made halfmen want them more than any other coins.
"We don't fight for gold, but we'll bring war to those who would threaten what makes gold grow." Kalvar growled. "They'll hang their own or we'll tie them a noose of sabres"
She had guessed wrong. The stench of fear ran along her own spine. She had also been right. Trindai was a very dangerous man, they all were.
"Good hunt, ma'am. Lord Karia, do what is right for you." Kalvar clasped arms with the lordling from Braka. Then he mounted his horse and rode to join his pitiful command.
She watched Kalvar ride with his remaining men along the caravan. Six of them. He's brave for a halfman. With an honour of his own.
"Halfman, you should go." Gring looked down at Karia. He had fought bravely in the stone tomb his kind of halfmen called home. She wished him no ill.
He stared back. "We follow you."
"Stupid oath breaker! Where I go no halfman can follow." She only smelled a cold, calculated fury.
"We follow. I was her sworn man. These are my sworn men."
"You know nothing of the plains."
Halfmen boasted about eyes of steel, or smiles of iron. Karia had none. In his eyes a slow fire flared, like ice burning. It was nothing like steel. "Then we learn, but we follow. When our horses die we walk, but we follow. When our legs fail we crawl, but we follow. When you kill us we die, but we follow. We were her sworn men."
Gring gasped. "Karia Graig. I will call you oath breaker no more, halfman no more. You are Karia a warrior and you have my honour. Follow!"
And so they did. Each night they killed, each day they stalked. They slew men eating and men sleeping. They cut sentries from behind. They stabbed those who begged for mercy and the injured alike. They tracked two legged prey on the plains, counting each one they killed.
Sworn men no longer. Soldiers no longer. Warriors no longer. Killers only, hunting in the dark.