Good Reef!

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Chapter 3

Sava made sure everyone was ready to go and that the morning’s tremor didn’t damage anything. She looked at the road ahead and touched her heels to the horse’s sides. The scouts had said the road ahead was clear, but she always stayed alert, scanning the woods for a glimmer of metal and the skies above it for a sudden flight of frightened birds. As a General, she could travel alongside the king, maybe even in the carriage, but Sava always thought that was for old farts who grew weak and soft, and therefore, were no longer soldiers. And she was a soldier. Still and always. Currently leading a small contingent of men protecting the king’s journey to… somewhere. He still wasn’t sure. He’d know when he got there, apparently. But nobody protested or commented. First of all, he was the king and second of all, everybody felt this strange pull from somewhere in the Tario province. Going there just felt strongly like the right thing to do. The war had stalled, now that most people sauntered vaguely towards the coast (well, deserted and sauntered vaguely towards the coast) but Sava would’ve stayed to fight were it not for the king’s insistence that she go with him. The woman was in her early forties and still young. She was not beautiful; with short black hair, cut in the soldiers’ fashion and a prominent nose over a pointy chin, but exuded something that fascinated people (men and women alike) and had a presence that demanded full attention and accepted nothing less than just that. Also, she could snap anybody’s back in a second, but preferred to use her other powers over people before reaching for that particular talent.

The day was sunny and quite hot, which for many soldiers wearing more than just a plain shirt and trousers meant a lot of discomfort. And sweating. And for some reason, farting. But that was usually the norm regardless of the weather. She made absolutely sure that everyone had a sack full of fresh water on their person before getting back on the road.

The garrison of a hundred men was well rested and fed, and eager to continue with the journey. Sava was known for being one of the best Generals to serve under and believed that soldiers needed to be well fed and rested to perform properly. Unsurprisingly, many of her counterparts thought she was soft because of her sex, and believed that if from time to time their men went without sleep or food, it would only make them meaner and angrier, and hence, turn them into better soldiers. Thankfully the king didn’t share their opinion and saw her rise through the ranks with great speed. Sava (General Vars to everybody else) was the reason he hadn’t lost the war yet. As far as kings go, Komin the Second (or the Second Komin) didn’t appear to be the smartest of them all, but seemed to recognise talent and know when to delegate, which, in reality, made him much more intelligent than he looked. He wasn’t happy about the war. His father started it, and Komin was expected to finish it. But until recently, he was on the losing side and soon would have had to capitulate (which would mean the loss of masses of money and land and other tributes on top of the lives already sacrificed). Now, thanks to Sava, things were rapidly changing and he was hoping to talk peace very soon. Well, after this weird business with the end of the world was concluded, anyway. And depending on its outcome of course, since if it was truly coming, he wouldn’t really need to worry about anything after that.

A few hours into the journey, the soldiers’ banter and chatter got more relaxed. They were still ready to fight at a moment’s notice, but the ones on the sides were there to keep their eyes and ears open so that the rest didn’t have to deal with the constant tension. They would swap places regularly - another one of General Vars’s ideas. She, on the other hand, didn’t feel the need to banter that much. It was good for her men to feel they could speak to her, but they should feel that there would always be a certain barrier between them. She reached for her water and had a few mouthfuls. It wasn’t cold anymore, but needs must. While putting it back, her eye caught some movement deeper in the forest on the left side of the road. She lifted her left arm for an instant, and immediately everyone became more alert. There was no reason to stop and inform the possible attackers that their element of surprise was lost. Instead they kept on going and pretended to keep talking to each other while scanning the trees. The king sat straighter in his carriage and looked around with interest. One of Sava’s lieutenants travelling close to her, called Bor, was about to ask what it was she’d noticed when he saw it too: something silvery moving through the forest. After a while it got closer, emerged from between the trees and bushes and presented itself in all its magnificent glory. A bloody Unicorn. Just what we needed, he thought to himself.

‘Keep your calm everyone,’ he said to the men loudly ‘You know how this works. Don’t be stupid and just do what you were taught.’

The beautiful, silvery stag made sure it had their attention and then, slowly and gracefully, as if it was on a stroll began walking in their direction, swishing its shiny tail and reflecting the sun with its magnificent coat. The soldiers ceased their talking, kept their eyes on the road and tried hard to avoid looking at the stag, which was now pretending not to be staring straight at them. It reached general Sava and raised its eyes considering her for a moment. She smiled widely and lifted an eyebrow.

‘I think not my dear,’ she said ‘Good try, though.’

It walked past and, giving the lieutenant a quick glance, moved towards the rest of the soldiers. It would slow down and tease some, jump suddenly and return to haughty calmness, pointing the horn at them from time to time and rolling its eyes with hardly concealed, menacing pleasure. It finally made a decision and came up very close to a soldier, who tried to stifle away a squeal of delight that gave her away as being female. She smiled widely and gave the animal a gentle pat on the nose, which it accepted with disappointment and kept on moving looking for another victim. A young boy with large ears and pimples tried his best to appear invisible but nothing could be hidden from this magical creature, who jumped between the marching soldiers and happily joined the pimply boy on his way, giving him a little affectionate (or pretend-affectionate) nudge with its muzzle. The boy’s face turned scarlet and his ears were radiating so much heat, it could be felt a foot away. He was desperate to shoo the Unicorn away, but it was having none of it, proudly lifting its long, graceful legs very high and swishing its tail in delight. Men and women walking around the boy started sniggering, and slowly but surely the wolf whistles began. He loudly denied everything. Everybody knew Unicorns were mean, and the possibility of them misleading people always had to be considered. That’s why they were so scary.

After the spell of humiliation and torture, the Unicorn chose another victim, and then another, and then another… Once or twice the soldiers’ superiors had to calm them down and remind them to behave with dignity, but the spectacle would last for as long as the Unicorn wanted. The larger the group, the longer the fun.

Sava sighed and kept her eyes on the road. How easy it was to distract a highly trained group of soldiers... The General tried to ignore the stifled but constant sniggering and jeering coming from behind her, which was thankfully becoming more and more quiet as the Unicorn slowly (but surely) made its progress through the ranks of marching soldiers and moved towards the back. It gave the amused king an interested sniff (after all shaming an obviously important man would be impressive) but continued on with a look of distaste in its eye to the accompaniment of raucous laughter from His Majesty and his closest aides.

It took quite a long time but finally, the cursed creature reached the very back of the marching group and decided it had had enough. With that, it shook its silver mane, neighed happily (it sounded suspiciously like laughter) and gracefully trotted alongside the group for the last time before disappearing back into the forest. They could still hear its faint neighing (laughter) for a few minutes afterwards, but the entire company had already exhaled a massive sigh of relief. Unicorns (usually) would not return to the same group. They preferred to spread their fun and play once with as many people as possible rather than many times with the same victims. Of course they were another endangered species. Very few Unicorns were left, but nobody would ever dare harm them. Everyone knew that if you hurt or killed a Unicorn, you wouldn’t live long yourself. They were magical creatures, and after centuries of being lured into traps by young and unspoiled (yet evil) ladies, so that their skin, mane, tail and most importantly – horn – could be sold to all the quacks in the district for many questionable potions, they somehow evolved this self-protection mechanism. From then on, anyone who hurt, killed or touched anything coming from a dead Unicorn would die (usually in agony) within months. It didn’t take people long to figure out what was behind the sudden bout of deaths in a certain trade. But that wasn’t all. The Unicorns felt it wasn’t punishment enough (since they were now nearly extinct) and, since they were no longer hunted they bravely took to stalking people. They soon discovered that when they showed their attention to certain innocent males surrounded by other males, it created fear and pain and humiliation which pleased the Unicorns to no end. A whole trade disappeared, many people needed to look for employment elsewhere, and perhaps that was a good thing. After all, anyone with half a brain could see that the potions and charms didn’t work. The magic attributed to Unicorns throughout generations made them desirable, but now people couldn’t run fast enough away from them. Too bad the Dragons weren’t smart enough to come up with a similar defence mechanism.

The rest of the day was uneventful. After a short stop to let both the horses and people rest, they continued on their journey until, in late afternoon, they neared an old inn, ironically called ‘The Unicorn’. It would be a nice change to sleep in a bed, and the king would surely appreciate it, so Sava got off her horse, handed the reins to a nearby soldier, ordered her men to set camp nearby and went inside. The inn was large enough to fit a hundred or more people. It had only a few windows, oil lamps hanging from the beams and smelled faintly of chutney. It also had a few more supporting columns (fashioned out of thin tree trunks) than usual but such additions were to be expected with all those recent end-of-the-world-earthquakes.

Always alert, Sava looked around and saw only a few travellers here and there tucking into a delicious smelling stew and a blonde girl sitting at a table in the corner with a pair of large dogs at her feet. The general walked purposefully towards a happily chatting group consisting of two barmaids and a barman. They were all far too young to be the inn-keeper. The cook looking out from the kitchen with curiosity was also still a young boy.

She came up to the bar, and the taller of the girls gave her a wide smile and a warm ‘Hello there!’ in a southern accent. Sava was weary of southerners. They weren’t that great at fighting. Too laid back, she thought.

‘Hello,’ she replied ‘Where’s the inn-keeper?’

‘On holiday,’ replied the girl.

‘On holiday? With the end of the world coming?’

‘What better time? Might be her last chance. But I’m sure we can help you.’

‘Do you have any available rooms?’

‘Still a few. We’re usually full, what with most people travelling home to be reunited with their families and that, but you’re quite lucky today.’

‘You’re not going home yourself?’

‘Nah. Couldn’t leave him behind,’ she pointed to the barman standing nearby. He was tall, skinny and had a filthy shirt but the southerner had her lovely eyes only for him. She brushed her straight brown hair away from her face and looked at Sava more carefully.

‘How many rooms are you looking for?’

‘How many can you give me?’

‘Are they all for soldiers?’ asked the other girl. She was blonde, tiny and had a no-nonsense attitude. ‘Don’t get me wrong, they fight for our freedom and that, I think… But they tend to cost us a lot in damages whenever they rent a room.’

Sava nodded with understanding.

‘Not my soldiers and not when I’m here. But the rooms wouldn’t be for them. His Majesty is travelling with us, and he’d like to spend a night sleeping on an actual bed for a change. A couple of his aides would probably also appreciate a room.’

‘We have three rooms free tonight,’ said the taller girl ‘Do you want them all?’

‘Yes, please.’

‘Anything else?’

‘How many people can you feed in one go?’

‘Joooon!’ called the girl toward the kitchen.

‘Yup?’ the cook, obviously listening behind his swinging doors emerged immediately. He was surprisingly slim for a cook, wore a stained apron (which was a good sign really), had red hair and a short beard.

‘How much food do we have left?’ asked the smaller girl.

He thought for a second and scratched his head.

‘Enough for forty, maybe fifty people.’

‘How about a hundred?’ asked the general.

He shook his head.

‘Fifty. After that I’d need another hour or so to prepare more.’

‘Fine. Start your preparations. I’ll send the first fifty soon. Are the rooms ready or do you need some time?’

They hesitated.

‘Well,’ said the blond finally ‘They’re mostly ready, but if one of them is to be for His Majesty it might need a bit more… attention. Fifteen minutes.’

Sava nodded in agreement and went back outside. Inside the inn the four people looked at each other with excitement, and the girls were about to rush upstairs to properly clean at least one of the rooms, when the cook said:

‘I’m going to need help in here.’

The skinny boy turned to go inside the kitchen but was immediately stopped in his tracks.

‘Not you,’ said the cook firmly but trying desperately to be pleasant.

In reply the boy shrugged his shoulders with kind understanding.

‘Right,’ decided the southerner, obviously in charge ‘I’ll help Jon. You two go and make at least one room a bit more presentable. Take this,’ she handed them a vase of dried, dusty flowers, which had obviously been standing on the counter for months, if not years.

‘She was a General, wasn’t she?’ asked the blonde girl.

‘She’s welcome to order me around anytime,’ commented the cook and the two girls rolled their eyes.

‘Always the same,’ moaned the southerner ‘And with your girl here, too,’ she added pointing to the woman sitting in the corner with her dogs.

‘She could join in,’ he replied with a grin.

‘Not that many female Generals,’ said the skinny boy thoughtfully ‘Good for her.’

The tall girl gave him a squeeze and was about to go into the kitchen, but quickly stopped to hit him over the head before he finished muttering something crude about a sabre and its flavour.

General Vars walked among her men and made sure that the camp at a nearby clearing in the woods was all according to her usual specifications: running water close by, evenly spaced groups of soldiers forming a large circle with the people needing protection in the middle and with sentinels all around the outskirts of the camp. Three separate areas for horses in case some got spooked or attacked by wolves (or nicked, although nobody would dare let a horse be stolen while serving under general Vars). This way they wouldn’t trample people in a massive stampede and there would always be some left. There were also a few large holes for latrines dug upwind and behind some trees. Everything seemed to be in order, so she walked towards the centre of the camp and let the king and his two advisors know that there were rooms for them in the inn. They seemed relieved at the news and not at all surprised to hear that she preferred to stay in the camp. Sava then gathered a few of the higher ranking men to carefully divide the soldiers into two parties of fifty, so that both groups would have a similar amount of drunks and rowdy idiots and one group wasn’t stuck with all of them. The senior officers were also to divide themselves between the two groups so that some semblance of control could be had over the soldiers during their dinner. This way the inn would have a slightly easier job dealing with the crowd. Each group would only have an hour for their meal, otherwise they’d just get blind drunk.

When the two groups were organised, they were informed that because the inn was a much fancier affair of eating than their usual (tougher) daily rations carried on a cart driven by an overweight military cook, they were to make themselves presentable so as not to scare and disgust any other patrons. The group that looked better would get to eat first. Normally it wouldn’t be much of a challenge since Sava’s soldiers were fed well, but they hadn’t had a properly cooked meal in days, and so they made an effort. It would also help them strengthen their cooperation skills. There was a sudden rush of men towards the stream to wash and shave, while others polished their shoes and cleaned their nails.

In the end, to the groans of the other fifty, the slightly cleaner-looking and less-smelly group left the camp in an orderly fashion with the king and his aides among them. The other fifty swallowed their disappointment (or spat it out) and spread across the camp to chat, sleep, sharpen their weapons or do whatever else it was they did to relax, while a few of them stood watch. The general stayed behind with them and walked among her soldiers to share their banter and jokes or to stand watch with the few figures, who had their backs to everybody and their eyes towards the forest.

The horses were becoming restless, which nowadays meant only one thing.

‘Tend to the horses!’ she called ‘And calmly! You don’t want to frighten them any more than they already are!’

Soldiers closest to the three areas designated for horses, slowly stood up and walked over to join the people already on equestrian duty. Everyone would talk to the animals gently, pat their necks and remove the feeding bags to give them treats kept specifically for such occasions. As predicted the tremors started. The trees shook violently, and a low rumble beneath the earth was heard, while the horses reared, rolled their eyes and threw their heads. Thankfully, this wasn’t that new to them anymore, so they didn’t try to trample anyone as they’d done on previous occasions. They were still scared though and needed attention. The General looked around and noticed a strange, pulsating light above the forest. It disappeared very quickly and so did the tremors. She made sure that everyone was all right and that the horses were taken care of before looking again. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The trees were now gently swaying in the early evening breeze, and there were no lights of any kind around. The previous night she’d thought that she saw a glow far ahead and above the trees as well, but it was also during an earthquake and she’d had other things to take care of. It couldn’t be her imagination. Once, she could maybe discard it as her eyes playing tricks on her, but twice? What mattered now was whether it was dangerous (it did seem to be coming from the very ill-reputed forest) and whether it would have any impact on her job.

That’s when the first fifty soldiers came back. Their bellies were full, and they looked suitably happy. Duties and jokes were exchanged. It turned out that, to the complete joy of the rest of the group, one of the soldiers had been punched in the face by the tiny, blonde barmaid for grabbing her bum. It wasn’t that kind of an establishment, he was told.

‘Not even a slap, the way they’re supposed to do it,’ he complained wincing slightly when one of his companions put a wet cloth on his swelling nose and a small group gathered around for a laugh.

‘She did have an attitude to her, my man. You need to learn to notice these things. I’ve seen you slapped by women more often than in combat with the enemy.’

‘Not more often,’ he protested weakly ‘Maybe not less than… but definitely not more often. And not by all of them, either. I believe the Unicorn proved that today,’ he said with a little pride.

‘There’s always a chance it just didn’t cover everyone. Besides, just because it skipped you, doesn’t make you a ladies’ man, my friend.’

All the female soldiers around gave a little snort of agreement and Sava smiled to herself. Some men joined the army because they believed it would make them instantly more attractive to women. They were surprised when it didn’t.

There were also some, who thought that their uniform gave them permission to take advantage of or abuse women. Not under her command, it didn’t. Grabbing bums was probably the most serious of offences among her soldiers, so she was quite proud of them. Even if they did get knocked out by women whose bums they grabbed. That also made her rather proud. Of the women that is.

The camp returned to its regular rhythm, while the second half of the soldiers had to wait another hour for the inn’s cook to prepare their meal. Firewood was gathered for the night, and some fires were started since the day was nearing its end.

Back in ‘The Unicorn’ with her other half of the garrison, Sava sat at one table with ten soldiers, lieutenant Bor at another, and they made sure the remaining three tables had at least one person of superior rank sitting there. Unfortunately soldiers were a lot like children and needed constant supervision, especially when civilians were involved. The king was already up in his room doing whatever it is kings do when they’re alone.

The little blonde barmaid looked angry, but cheers from some of the soldiers placated her rather quickly. Fairly soon after the jugs of water and wine, bowls of stew began arriving at the tables together with cheese, chutney and some freshly baked bread. Despite his young age the cook appeared to be extremely good at his job, not to mention very quick and efficient. And the stew was absolutely magnificent. The fact that they all lived off rations most days may have had something to do with it, but the food did seem to have genuinely been made with some special effort. Sava motioned to one of the girls that she needed more water. The tall southerner brought over two jugs and was about to walk away when a female soldier stopped her, hesitated for a moment not wanting to appear too girly in front of her male companions but decided to go ahead anyway.

‘This chutney is really wonderful,’ she said.

‘I’m glad you like it. We make different types of it, but this one seems to be the most popular. We do sell jars of it as well if you want to take some with you.’

‘That would be lovely. The rations we get are not exactly terrible but it would definitely help to have good chutney with them.’

‘Sure. I’ll get you some,’ she replied and disappeared behind the bar.

Some of the men around groaned quietly and rolled their eyes. The female soldier blushed a little but stood her ground.

‘Just you wait,’ she said to them ‘When it’s another day on dry rations and old cheese. You’ll be begging me for some chutney.’

The barmaid returned with a jar in her hand.

‘I’m afraid this is the last one we have. We used to have shelves of it but a few days ago, during a tremor, they all collapsed on top of one of our serving wenches. The chutneys, wine and some beer… all of it. That’s why the place still smells of chutney.

‘I noticed that. Was the girl all right?’

‘Oh, she was banged up a little bit and covered in glass and chutney… What a waste of good chutney though…’ she sighed and quietly added ‘We still have other types of chutney if you’re interested. If you don’t want the others to notice, I can prepare a bag for you later.’

‘Thank you. I’ll come up to the bar in a while. Maybe you could even give me your recipe for this one?’

That night a rather terrible tremor woke everyone up, and the general didn’t even need to give orders. It took a good number of people to restrain the horses and then even more to try and find the few missing ones. There was definitely a light above the forest during the earthquake. Nobody else saw it because they had things to do, but general Vars did take notice and decided that the lights must have something to do with what was happening. Should they investigate? It was miles away and the garrison would be forced to split up. Most would stay on the road with the king’s carriage and the supply cart, while the rest could go and see what this was about. She pondered this for a moment. The dark forest was dangerous. Was it worth it? Would they come back? Satisfying her curiosity wouldn’t stop the tremors or prevent the end of the world, would it? But then, perhaps the lights were a signal to the few brave people of this land. A signal that maybe there was something they could do to stop their world from collapsing in on itself. She sent a couple of soldiers over to the inn to check if everything was all right and considered sharing her thoughts with the king the next morning. Would he understand the importance of the lights? Probably not. His advisors might, though.

She looked around and made sure the camp was back to its peaceful state before lying down again. Worry was for the waking hours. Now was the time for sleep.

The king’s advisors were smart people; after all he was good at picking them. But they weren’t always the bravest. They didn’t dismiss her thoughts outright and were inclined to believe her when she said the lights seemed to appear only for the duration of the tremors. But they also firmly believed that the king was in permanent danger of attack and that they couldn’t spare any soldiers on a (most likely) suicide mission inside the dark forest. In the end, they decided it would be best to keep their eyes open during the next tremor to confirm what she was saying, and if Sava was right about the lights, they’d consider her idea again. For now, nothing could be gained from losing men, and there was absolutely no proof that finding the mysterious lights could change the world’s destiny. Also, taking into account their current route, the lights were in front of them along with the forest so they were headed in that general direction anyway. And with that the discussion was over.

There were no more tremors after that. And no lights, either.

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