The heart of the eternal

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Chapter 12: The cruelty of man

But Nefhriel did also explain that the superstition some believed in had caused problems, people had accused them of stealing children and come searching for them when the truth was that the kids had gotten lost and died and others had believed that elves could make you sick. These days such reactions were rare but they did still happen. Rhawan wasn’t worried about these things, he worried more about the fact that they travelled with many wagons and good horses and that could tempt thieves and highwaymen, even with this large escort. Since elves were rarely seen in the highlands few were aware of the fact that they are superior fighters and he was worried that some idiot could try to attack them. Floth’bha did just snicker and pet her axe, she promised that if some dimwit did give into temptation then she would make sure that the person forever more would have to squat like a girl in order to pee. Rhawan cringed and told them that Floth’bha once had castrated a male orc who had tried to get a wee bit too familiar with a friend of hers. Wenja didn’t doubt that, at all.

Floth’bha was a sort of enigma for she never spoke that much about herself and although she was a very cheerful person she could be terrifying as well. Wenja sensed a great darkness in the half orc and she did understand that some of this was because she had suffered a lot in her youth. Half orcs were rare, and most of the time they weren’t accepted by neither humans nor orcs. Her mother had been human and although Floth’bha never said anything it was common knowledge within the clans that she was the result of rape. It had been a terrible burden to bare and Floth’bha had become a warrior, just to prevent this from happening to others.

Imh told them a lot about the dwarves and Wenja did find their conversations most enjoyable, the small woman had a very peculiar sense of humour and tried to teach Wenja some words of her own language. It did usually end with the girl feeling as if she had somehow managed to turn her own tongue into a knot! But the language was very interesting since the way you pronounced some words changed their meaning completely and Wenja did make some blunders which made Imh curl over in wild laughter. When she was caught having referred to the man who drove the wagon as “the one wearing a shrubbery” she decided that she had had enough and concentrated on the common speech instead. She could learn dwarvish later on, when she had the time.

They had been on the road for a few weeks when they entered the first real obstacle on the way, it was a river and it was very wide and deep and they had to use ferries to cross. The ferries were huge flat bottomed barges which were attached to a strong cable stretched from one side of the river to the other and you moved the ferry by turning a sort of mechanism which pulled it forth. The mechanism was placed on land and were being powered by four huge horses and the ferryman was grinning from one ear to the other when he saw the huge number of people, horses and wagons. Rhawan had brought lots of money and he did pay the man very well but crossing took the entire day since the ferry could transport only one wagon and a couple of horses at a time and it didn’t exactly race across the water.

Wenja did feel nervous when it was their turn to cross, she saw that the ferry was very solid and well made so there was little danger but she had never seen that much water before. It made her feel dizzy and Prina was afraid that there could be monsters in it. Why nobody knew but somebody had probably scared the girl with tales of strange creatures. Rhawan did make sure that some of the guards crossed with each wagon, nobody were left behind unguarded and when the last wagon and the last horses had crossed it was getting dark. The ferryman bowed deeply and shook Rhawan’s hand. The payment ought to keep his family fed for most of the winter and the man was obviously very grateful. He cleared his voice and pulled the tall eternal aside. “I wish to warn you my lord, you transport great wealth and I know for a fact that there are some men of a somewhat shady reputation living in the next village. Stay here until the morrow, and don’t stop there. They may try to rob you, or worse”

Rhawan took a deep breath and his eyes got narrow. “I thank you for the warning good man, and may the blessings of every God be with you and your kin”

The ferryman appeared to be almost weeping with gratitude hearing this for many believed that a blessing from one of the eternal would ensure that you would have a good and long life. Rhawan turned around and sighed, that meant that they would have to be very careful indeed. The smaller villages did usually house only honest hardworking people but when the villages grew people didn’t need to work to stay alive and some did seek easier ways to make a living. He told the other riders of the news and they all agreed that staying by the river was smart, he didn’t want to upset the women but told Sefa who snorted and responded by finding her throwing knives and attaching them to her waist. Floth’bha was told as well and she swore she would sleep under the wagon for the next nights, just to protect Wenja and Prina. Floth’bha had taken a particular liking to Prina and acted a lot like a very protective older sister and Prina did like the half orc too. She felt safe when Floth’bha was close by and since they both had suffered a lot they had a sort of connection between them which was hard to explain but definitely strong.

The next morning came with sour wind and sleet and it meant that it would be a rough day, the wagons were prepared and checked and the horses hitched up and off they went. The roads here were very good for there were several large villages in this area and they transported a lot of goods south so some stretches were even covered with cobblestone. The village the ferryman had spoken off was indeed rather large and it had a wall built around it and even a mote. You had to go through it since the road did split it in half and now Rhawan did organize the caravan in a new manner. There were two riders by each wagon, and two riding in between the wagons and the rest did ride in front of the wagon train or at the back. Floth’bha was riding in front and he did take up the rear and they were told to keep going no matter what. The wagons were covered with thick tarp and the ones holding their provisions were guarded by a dog each. Wenja and Prina were told to stay in the wagon and Sefa and Theka did sit on the roof wearing rather raggedy clothing. Nefhriel was riding, dressed as a warrior with her hair braided back tightly and a double blade at her side. The weapon did require great skill and Nefhriel did reveal that she was a warrior too, not just a teacher.

The village was rather rich, the houses large and well kept and the streets were relatively clean and well cared for with few holes and bumps. Some people were scurrying along and few bothered with even looking at the wagons and the riders, that caravans did pass through this place was common and since the village saw much trade the inhabitants were used to seeing both elves and dwarves.

They had reached the gate on the opposite side when they heard an odd sound, it was a sort of shriek and it made the elves turn their heads in confusion. Rhawan did gesture for the others to go on, he turned his horse and rode towards the source of the sound, it was heard again and he couldn’t identify it. It had to be a sort of animal but what? The sound came from a small square and he rode into it, with his blades ready. There was a small crowd there but the people did look scared and he saw why. A huge brute of a man was causing the commotion, he was obviously trying to sell the animal which was tethered to the well and the crowd were too afraid of him to just leave. Rhawan cussed, he felt faint for a few seconds, what he saw was sacrilege. These creatures were sacred and no elf would ever dare to lay hands on one. It was a zahar, and it was obviously abused and starved. Rhawan did almost lose his cools there and then but he managed to rein in his wrath and tried to estimate the situation, the way Ahravan would have done. The Zahar was a stallion and it was not yet fully grown, but already it was taller than most horses and the long legs with cloven hooves were covered with mud and deep cuts from a whip. It was wearing a halter and a cruel bit which had cut into its mouth and the animal was desperate, the piercing yellow eyes wide open. How a human had managed to catch one was beyond Rhawan’s understanding but this had to end, now!

The zahar was snow white with stripes of grey and the mane and tail was also grey in a slightly darker tone. The horns on its head hadn’t fully developed yet and the lack of canines told Rhawan that it couldn’t be more than a handful of years old. He raised his voice, making it calm and almost indifferent. “Excuse me, what a peculiar animal, where did you come by it?”

The man did notice the elf and sent Rhawan a fat grin. “Oh it is rare ye see, I found it trapped in a canyon, a rockslide had sealed it off”

Rhawan hid a grimace, that made sense, no human being would be able to catch a zahar if it was free to run. “Is it for sale?”

The man extended his arms. “Of course, if you can tame the beast. Do not remove the bit, without it the thing will attack”

Rhawan sensed the magic within the piece of steel, it was probably spells laid into it and he reached out to the zahar with his mind. These were magical beings, and they could communicate with elves the way they did with their closest friends. The zahar was terrified, it was hurting and it was angry. Rhawan did whisper soothing words through the mind bond as he dismounted and walked towards the animal. “How much do you want?”

The man grinned, Rhawan had to hide his gaze since he otherwise would reveal just how pissed off he was. “Twenty gold, not a shilling less.”

Rhawan pressed his lips together and sent a friendly smile to the people assembled there. “Go home good people, there is nothing more to see here”

Most did listen and obey, most of them with obvious relief. He sensed that they had disliked this but that the man was someone they all feared. Rhawan walked around the zahar and saw that it was skinny and the coat matted and covered with dirt and blood. He knew what he had to do. “I think it looks a bit thin?”

He kept his voice indifferent and the man nodded. “Didn’t want the oats I gave it, stupid nag!”

Rhawan felt a need to roll his eyes, the man didn’t even know what sort of animal this was. Zahars are omnivorous and prefer meat over grass, if eating something other than meat they will often try to find fruit and vegetables or even nuts but rarely grass and never things like oats and stuff. He saw that the zahar was following him with its gaze and the man started to look a bit nervous. The eternal was almost a head taller than him and very wide shouldered and he did move without even a sound. Rhawan did send the man a grin but it was an ominous one and his eyes were dark. “Know what, that is a zahar, a sacred animal. You have committed sacrilege and broken the laws of the Gods. The punishment for such atrocious crimes is death”

The man tried to intimidate Rhawan by leaning forward, frowning. “How would I know? Buy it or get lost”

Rhawan smiled still, but the smile was becoming a sneer. “Know who I am? I am the Si’ish of the Ath’ir, I am his hand and his blade. The laws of the realm are very clear, and you have just pissed on them.”

The man swore and attacked, used to the fact that his great bulk gave him an advantage but this time he was acting foolishly. The elf just spun around and pulled one of his slender daggers with lightning speed. As the human tried to punch him he just slid underneath the movement and thrust the dagger in under the man’s lower jaw where it penetrated the oral cavity and the palate and entered the brain with a sickening thud. He pulled the blade free and the man just fell, dropped dead like a brick made from lead. The people who were still there just gaped and the elf shook the blood of the dagger before sheathing it again. He turned to the people. “This man has broken the laws given us by the Gods, and he has been punished for this.”

One of the men there did step forward, he was a tiny guy with a thin moustache and a wrinkled and sun worn face, he did bow his head with his hat in his hand. “Good sir, this man… he was the scourge of this village, a brute and a criminal and no tears will be shed on his behalf. But he has two brothers, and they are almost as bad, I can guarantee you that they will seek vengeance for this, no matter what he did”

Rhawan made a grimace. “I see, but I fear them not, go home, speak of this to everyone. Nobody is above the laws of the gods!”

The man bowed deeply and the crowd scattered, he walked over to the zahar and managed to get the halter off it. The animal shook its head and he sighed when he saw the marks from the whip. “Oh my beautiful one, what am I to do with you?”

The zahar rubbed its nose against his chest and he stroked the head gently. “Follow me, and we will help you heal”

The animal snorted and nodded its head and greeted his horse with a short whinny. Rhawan mounted and the zahar did follow him willingly, it would require a lot of attention and help before it was fully healed. He saw that it was limping and stiff and he swore that he would do whatever he could to help it regain its health.

He caught up with the caravan some farthings away from the village and the elves just stared, then they all let out a wailing sound and appeared to be very shocked by what they saw. Rhawan stopped his horse. “We do not stop tonight, we have to keep moving. A very bad human had captured this zahar and I killed him as was my right and duty. But he has brothers and I fear that they will try to avenge him, even if he did break the law”

Floth’bha was baring her teeth. “I will not let anyone get near us, I know spells”

As a half orc Floth’bha had some inherent magic and it was very primitive and not very strong compared with that of elves but it was efficient since it usually was less elegant and more brutal. Rhawan stared over at Nefhriel. “Could you add some magic as well? I must focus on the poor creature, it needs help urgently.”

One of the wagons was of the roof less type and they used it to transport tents and some kitchen equipment. Now that was transferred to one of the other wagons and they stopped and helped the zahar jump up into the wagon. The guards gathered straw and moss and made a bed for it and the animal did sigh with relief and laid down immediately. They covered the sides of the wagon with tarp and as they moved on Rhawan sat down with it and tried to transfer as much healing energy into it as he could.

Wenja was shocked when Sefa told her of the incident, she hadn’t even peeked out of the wagon as it passed through the village and the danger of an attack made her stomach knot. They had many guards and they all knew how to fight but she was still getting nervous. Nefhriel and Floth’bha did disappear into the woods and Rhawan did give orders to everybody. The caravan did move forth rather fast, they didn’t spare the horses and the small stops they did make during the night were just to switch the tired horses with rested ones. Wenja did sleep rather well in spite of it all, she had gotten so used to the movement of the wagon she didn’t actually notice it anymore and she was also used to sleeping with Sefa by her side.

The morning light came with mist and they entered a wide valley with a flat bottom and Rhawan was a bit worried. The road was very good there but the area surrounding it was rather swampy and they couldn’t leave the road at all. The wagons would sink or get stuck if they did and he would have preferred to spread them more out. As it was that was impossible and he ordered the drivers to arm themselves and he also placed archers on the wagon roofs. The problem here was that there seemed to be a parallel road to this one and it was narrow and hardly more than a cattle track but it was a real road and if someone did use they could potentially get ahead of the caravan since a rider could travel so much faster than a long line of wagons. The zahar was getting better, the healing energy had been accepted and the animal was healing fast but it was still weak. One of the hunters had ridden off and returned with a small deer and the zahar had devoured half the animal with glee. The strange cat like eyes were calm and mild when one of the elves were nearby but it sneered if a human got too close to the wagon it laid in. They tried to keep a brisk pace and the drivers were glad the valley was relatively flat, the horses didn’t have to really spend much strength on pulling the wagons. The few guards who weren’t riding sat in one of the smaller wagons and kept an eye on the surroundings. Rhawan had mounted his horse and he had his blades ready at his side at all times. They had put many miles between them and the village but he didn’t doubt that the men he had been warned about would try to cause them problems, the question was just when and where.

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