CHAPTER THREE - Trouble On The Trail
They left the next morning at first light. There was a good day’s travel to the seaport of Talmi and Dannid wanted to get on with it. Once they reached Talmi they would board one of the island ferries that would wend its way up the Tirrom Archipelago that skirted the Brasallim wastelands on its western shores. This trip would take fifteen to sixteen days depending on the weather and that would bring them to the island of Guamaland, famous for the decaying ruins of the old days. It was at least a week’s travel to the next port and then two sea-days more to the main port of the Mid Lands. For the first time Jano started to have some appreciation of distance.
The morning was crisp with the smell of the forest heavy in the air. The Sou’ Reaches rolling plains were being replaced with sub-tropical rain forest that grew on the rim of the depression that formed the greater part of the land. Because of the prevailing southerly winds and the natural amphitheatre of the landmass the northern mountain ranges were nearly always cloud bound as the jet-stream air met and caressed the sub-tropical eddies from the equatorial regions.
As they wound their way up the mountain track they walked into the white mist that had been taunting them off and on for the past few hours. Visibility was limited to only ten or fifteen feet as classic whiteout loomed before them. Dannid stopped and waited for Jano to catch up.
“Curse the Maker for this shroud. It’s a bad sign Jano; we’ll have to wait it out. According to the traveller a while ago the afternoon winds will clear the pass.”
He sat down heavily on the side of the road. Everyone knew the danger of proceeding in a whiteout. After a while all senses are numbed to such a decree that vertigo will attack you and considering that in some places this track was only five feet wide with a thousand feet drop down the side of the eastern face of the valley to the river below, vertigo was not a good thing.
“What’s more the ferry sails on the evening tide and will be the last for three days. Blast our rotten luck”.
Jano sat beside him. He hugged his legs and rocked for a moment. Quite nonchalantly he said that he could lead them through this without a care. Dannid slapped his forehead and bellowed a laugh.
“Of course you can, lead on my boy.”
Jano stood and offered Dannid the end of his woollen scarf and started along the path. Jano walked with his eyes closed so that his sense of sight would not interfere with that of proximity. He had little trouble leading them along the track and kept up a steady pace. They continued through the whiteout for about an hour.
“What beauty.” Dannid dropped the scarf and stopped walking. Jano opened his eyes and had to blink to focus. They had just broken through the cloud and were standing on top of the world. In all directions the white stretched, punctuated with the peaks of the range, like islands of the Mid Lands archipelago. A warm sweet breeze filled their nostrils and there was the hint of the sea, in the height of winter all the peaks would be snow covered but the thaw had started over a month ago and patches of white pocked the horizon.
The stopped for lunch, a leaven bread sandwich of boiled meat and vegetables prepared by Young Tulla that morning and sweet-cakes covered in spice dust. As they ate the breeze became a wind, not unpleasant and now quite heavy with the fragrance of the sea. The white began to churn like the waves on an ocean and in under half an hour the mist had broken up starting to show the valleys and ridges below and the coastline in the distance.
Dannid slapped his knees, one of his most common mannerisms and jumped to his feet. “Come on lad, time to go.” With that he strode off, leaving Jano to roll up the blanket they had been lying on and run to catch up. Dannid was whistling, the sun broke through the clouds and in the distance the sound of a river filled the ranges with a vibrancy and life.
The path went down the valley wall and soon they were running parallel to the river. In places the water was like glass and elsewhere boiling white with rapids. Snow still covered most of the ground and their breath formed clouds of white against their ruddy cheeks. The sun fought to cut through the cloud and mist and did offer a little warmth but the air here was not as easily moved as that on the peaks. It was heavy with the smells of the forest.
They had met no travellers since early that morning and Jano felt a heaviness growing in his chest. He walked up to Dannid. “I feel something is not right” He spoke to Dannid in the instructive tense of a Gifted. The giant nodded saying nothing but Jano noticed that he had moved his thumb under the guard of his long sword and had clicked the blade free of the clasp.
Jano closed his eyes and tried to focus on the weight but couldn’t quite make out the cause. They walked a little longer. Suddenly they were surrounded by six men dressed in black and all armed with Moccas (three lengths of Yeoak joined with chain, quite a deadly weapon in the hands of an expert).
“Stand travellers!” The man standing on the track spoke, he was obviously the leader. Dannid had stopped and had adopted the front leaning stance. Any one unfamiliar with the ways of the sword would not have noticed this but Jano had and had followed suit. Dannid bellowed at the man.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“We want all your valuables,” the man yelled, perhaps to scare or perhaps to promote the courage of his supporters. Dannid moved forward one pace to the Crane stance, his shoulders square to his hips, his hands resting on the hilt of the long sword. He starred at the man; he had moved back a step as the giant had moved forward.
“What has come of the Sou’ Reaches when a man cannot walk the roads without worrying about being set upon by a band of brigands the likes of this sorry lot?”
Dannid’s lack of fear was evident in the ferocity of his voice and Jano noticed nervous glances going on around him.
“Jano, take the stance”. On Dannid’s order Jano turned and backed towards him, facing the assailants at the rear and moving into the cat stance. Dannid had quickly drawn the long sword and held it over his head leaning forward ready to slash across his body in the classic first cut technique. The magic of the sword appearing from inside the cloak where it had been hidden had the desired effect, the men all stepped back, least of all the leader who Dannid had pegged as a coward from the first; most packs are a hierarchy of cowards.
Dannid took three quick steps, sliding one foot in front of the other, keeping the stance perfect, not moving his shoulders or head, ready to strike with all the strength and accuracy a Kusso master could muster. The bandit, now fearing for his life vainly tried to swing the Moccas at Dannid. Dannid turned side on to the attack and swung an uppercut that took his blade smashing through the middle piece of wood, at the top of the arc he sprung into the air with a grace that no one would have expected from his bulk. Both his feet kicked into the man’s chest, knocking his feet off the ground and hurling him through the air, smashing into a briar bush.
Jano followed the lead and sprung a flying snap kick into the chest of the nearest man, turning in the air, rolling and sweeping the legs from under another, in the space of three seconds three of the six men were down and the other three were disappearing into the undergrowth from whence they came.
Dannid moved up to the leader, now struggling as the thorns started to rip his clothes and pierce his skin. He cried for help. Dannid raised the blade and the man screamed for mercy. With a series of swinging cuts he freed the fool who stumbled out of the briar sobbing, the front of his pants wet with his fear. Dannid grabbed him by the neck of his now ripped and muddied shirt and lifted him to his feet and then into the air, his feet swinging helplessly as the giant held him.
“Your action is punishable by death and I, as a Roamer, can exact that punishment according to the old law. Do you understand?”
Dannid’s face was only inches from the man’s, as if with a sense of false bravado the bandit laughed with a slight hysteria on its edge.
“We are protected by the Constables of Talmi if you cause us any harm you will have to answer to them.”
Dannid threw the man down and faster than the eye could see drew the long sword again and had cut an X on the man’s forehead, blood spurted from the wound that was deep but not fatal. This would leave a scare that would never heal, the man had fainted.
Dannid turned to the other two men, one obviously nursing broken ribs and the other would not be walking on his right leg for a while. Both were as white as sheets and trembled accordingly.
Dannid sheathed his sword and turned to the others. “What is this that fool told me”, he walked back, both men tried to move away but couldn’t. Dannid grabbed the first and dragged him to his feet; his face grimaced with pain.
“Is this true vermin?” The man nodded, Dannid let his drop and before he hit the ground he drew his short sword and performed the same graceful cuts on him. The last of the three whimpered and begged for mercy. Dannid knelt beside him. “Are you telling me that the constables are in league with brigands?” The man nodded tears streaming down his face. “What is the name of the leader?” the man shook his head pleading that if he told he would be signing his death pledge. Dannid grunted agreement and stood slowly and turned away, the man let out a sigh of relief, as he did Dannid turned and in a whirr of silver performed the same action. The man fell back in a dead faint.
Jano had watched all this in awe; he had never seen Dannid like this but agreed with the swift justice he had metered out. After all the laws were exact when it came to such matters and Dannid could have killed them with complete jurist prudence. The very fabric of their society was woven with such laws and punishments and it had to be lest anarchy would reign. Still the impact of what the leader had said had hit home.
Dannid grunted at the scene, the leader was moaning groggily and the man with the broken ribs sobbing like a child. The giant didn’t say anything, he just walked on; Jano followed checking as he did whether the others were nearby but his proximity sense could not feel anyone. He mentioned this to Dannid in a whisper and the big man nodded his head, he knew that they would be running in the other direction. The knowledge of this situation sat heavy on his heart, he knew that he would have to turn a blind eye to this lest the quest be jeopardised, what was happening to cause such a rip in the moral fabric. Dannid didn’t need the powers of a gifted to sense that this was just the start of an evil that was affecting the very roots of their culture.
* * * *
They had walked for another hour with nothing being spoken. Dannid was deep in thought, Jano sensed that he should say nothing and did as he sensed. They were now on the flat lands, the soil was the dark brown of the coastal fringes and Jano noticed that the crops were sparse on the ground due to the salt winds and rains that would surely occur here for the best part of the year.
The track was wider and a number of small villages dotted it at random intervals. From the looks of things, each of these villages was involved in dedicated enterprises, the one they had just walked through was obviously involved in the weaving of the fine goat hair imported from the Nor’ Lands and some of the others such things as wood work, tin smithing and forging.
Talmi was the gateway to the Sou’ Reaches and it was here that the raw materials were processed and made into the products the traders would then hawk the length and breadth of the territories. Drays and horse drawn carts clattered along the road and people travelled in either direction usually going to or coming from home and work.
They stopped by a stream and rested, Jano filling the goat skin bladder with the crystal clear melt water and handing it to Dannid in the way of apprentice and master.
“Jano, the chance encounter with our band of merry men has shown me that the old woman was as right as she has always been in such matters.” He lifted the bladder above his head and shot a stream of water into his mouth with practiced ease.
“We will have to move carefully. I cannot begin to come to grips with the idea of constables and brigands in bed together, what manner of evil is a foot?”
Jano nodded, the feeling of dread he felt now was not a simple proximity warning. Over the last few days he had begun to realise that there was something searching, he couldn’t be sure whether it was searching for him but is was there just the same.
He knew that this force was looking for his light and he had had to force it into the recesses of his consciousness lest it answered the call and Jano had no doubt that the call was this evil that Dannid now acknowledged. He felt like he was being watched all the time, he felt scared.
As if sensing the boy’s feelings Dannid put his arm around his shoulders, he said nothing.
They walked on and the outskirts of Talmi began to form on both sides of the road. They hurried as they had to be dock-side before the tide and they had over two miles more to travel through increasingly crowded streets. Jano started to feel the pressure of the crowd, he had never before experience so many people, Dannid had slowed his stride so that the boy could form directly behind as he cleared the path through the traffic.
The sounds and the smells meshed to form a potpourri of sensations Jano found both intimidating yet strangely invigorating and he felt his mind drifting on this uncharted sea of experiences. As they reached the docks the first of the night lanterns were being lit and a constant stream of dockers carried crates and boxes both aboard and off a number of craft on various wharfs. Dannid made his way to the harbour master’s office at the entrance to the docks and established that the good ship Elvira was tied to Wharf Three and was due to depart on the tide and that they had best be quick as the water was peaking as they spoke.
They made their way to the wharf to meet with the clerk in the booking stall near the gangplank. A line of travellers had formed in front of the desk and they joined the ranks accordingly. Dannid relaxed for the first time that day as they were now here and would soon be away.
The captain, a short brown-skinned man, was leaning on the rail at the top of the gang-way smoking a small cigar and complaining to the clerk that they would miss the high water if he didn’t get a move on. Aboard the ferry his crew were finalising the stowing of the cargo and atop the masts getting ready to set the sheets that were starting to flap in the offshore breeze that was a feature of the early evening at this southern port.
* * * *
The breeze carried the sounds of horses and rough calls and all around turned to see a number of men riding up to the wharf gate. Dannid frowned. The constables hauled up their charges and dismounted. There were three of them. They were dressed in the uniform of the law and strode onto the wharf with an arrogant purpose.
Dannid turned to face the trio as they walked up. The leader was a tall thin man. He had a face like a hawk and his hair and beard were as black as coal. His eyes darted around as he took in the scene and Jano noticed that Dannid had thrown his cloak back to reveal his “badges of office”.
The constable stopped just short of Dannid and the other two, younger men by half but with an equally formed and matured impertinence, moved to each side. The leader removed his gloves with a flourish and handed them to the man on his right.
The good folk around looked down or away, Dannid sensed that this was not the way normal folk felt in the presence of this authority or at least how they should feel. Normally it was with an open heart that citizens greeted their constabulary, Dannid smelt fear. Just as hawk, as Jano now thought of him, turned to face them, Dannid smiled as good-heartedly as was his way and walked up to the man, sword arm extended in greeting.
“Good constable, it is a pleasure to meet with you”. The man looked at Dannid with a sneer on his face and didn’t return the greeting. Dannid kept the smile on his face and stood his ground. Hawk went to move pass Dannid and Dannid stepped into his path, smile on his face and arm still extended.
The look on the hawk’s face was of surprise; surprise of a man who was used to people quivering in his presence. The other two had moved to each side of the leader and were doing their best to look fierce as if to amplify the situation. Dannid kept smiling; Jano had moved to his right and stood one step back.
“Out of my way!” Hawk growled through clenched teeth, obviously a man used to his own way, Dannid kept smiling. He placed his hand on Hawk’s shoulder and stopped him cold, still smiling.
“Constable, have you forgotten your manners on such a fine night.” Dannid still smiled and his voice was as sweat as honey but his hand pressed hard and Hawk grimaced. The other two had stepped back a step, obviously their training had only been during times of submissive behaviour and they didn’t seem to know how to handle this at all.
Dannid thrust his sword hand at the man again as he applied a little more pressure to his shoulder. A fine line of perspiration formed on Hawk’s beak. This time the man took Dannid’s hand and the giant let out a good hearted laugh, removing his hand from the other man’s shoulder and transferring all his strength to the current interchange.
“I am Dannid, a Roamer of the Sou’ Reaches and as a law-fearing man I humble myself to the keepers of that law” More pressure and Hawk’s eyes were watering. The crowd was watching nervously and with side-glances, none daring to become involved directly.
“Come man, has the cat got your tongue, to whom am I offering my hand?” Dannid smiled and applied more pressure; he felt a bone crack and a grimace shot across the other man’s face.
“Convan, constable of Talmi.” He said as he exhaled. The other two had recovered a little of their composure and once again tried to look aggressive. Dannid bellowed laughter again and slapped the hawk hard on his back almost knocking him off his feet. As the man stumbled Dannid turned and put his arm around his shoulder and hugged him against his side, completely controlling the man as he did so.
“Look good folk of Talmi, the ancient camaraderie of the law and the Roamer.” He turned away from the crowd and looked down at the now cowering face of the hawk, a hawk now with his wings clipped.
“You and your sad excuses will leave here now with no more ado, do I make myself clear?” The man nodded his head and his eyes burnt with hatred so intense Jano could smell it on the Mage winds. A little colour returned to the man’s cheeks and he snarled his rely.
“You have just signed your death order Roamer on the Maker’s name.”
Dannid sighed so quietly only Hawk heard it.
“The old laws are absolute. You are a servant of the people not a persecutor; I am an upholder of the old laws as you know. I smell rot and decay on you constable and I only wish I could spend the time I would like to fix it. Speak with those I have marked today and be aware I know.” The hawk struggled to free himself.
“Please free yourself and draw your sword filth, I could then execute you in the ways of the old laws and I would then feel that I have done something about this mess.” The man stopped struggling.
“I am going to release you and you will go. Be warned that I will be back and I will prosecute who ever I have to too remove this blight on the old ways.” Dannid let the man go and he staggered ever so slightly
“Be warned Convan that I will come looking for you and I will extract from you the payment for your activities.” he whispered to the man. Dannid turned and faced the crowd and then turned to the hawk again, this time bowing in the excepted fashion, turned and walked back to Jano.
“Come on boy, let’s go.”
They went to pay their passage; the clerk acknowledged the gold piece and pushed it back into Dannid’s hand.
“You will not pay after what you have done sir. Normal practice is for all passengers to pay a departure tax to the constables and you have interrupted their folly.” Dannid noticed a number of coins loosely piled on the table.
“Your fellow passengers have paid for you.” Dannid offered his hand to the clerk and shook it gently. He turned his head in time to see the hawk pull himself into his saddle, his right arm lose at his side. Their eyes met, Dannid knew that he had opened a door that he would have to close. He sighed again. There was surely great evil a foot.
* * * *
She sailed with a stiff offshore breeze filling the sails. The moon was full and the waters of the harbour shone with a million lights from the cloudless sky. Jano had made his way to the bow and stood looking over the rail with the sweet kiss of the sea-spray warming his face. Dannid was back on the forecastle with the captain. They had taken a liking to each other the moment they were aboard, with the captain applauding the actions of the big man.
“Aye, things are currently a long way from the old laws.” The captain stood with one hand on the tiller watching the Load Stone needle in the compass every now and then.
“The Mid Lands are not a happy place and the Nor’ Reaches are filled with the corruption you have witnessed on this day.”
Dannid had told the captain of their encounter earlier that day, making a point to keep the part about the collaboration of the constabulary out of it, no sense in fuelling the ground-swell of fear that he had sensed growing since they left home.
“Of course the Sou’ Reaches have always had a reputation of strong morality and I am not surprised that you have heard little or nothing of the new order but rest assured my big friend, the likes of your constable are now the power brokers of Sinterland.” The captain drew on his cigar, checking the heading again.
Dannid nodded to no one in particular. He bid the captain his excuses and made his way down the forecastle steps to the deck proper. There were twenty-seven passengers in all on this voyage and most of them were lounging on the deck before evening meal. They all greeted Dannid as he walked up to the bow towards the Jano. He leaned on the bow rail next to the boy.
“I’m afraid we may have opened a few doors today, Jano, seems that this evil Old Magla foresaw has a strong hold on things. I wonder why we of the Sou’ Reaches have been left most undisturbed by it all?” The boy stared up to the heavens.
“Because the Sou’ Reaches are the strongest in the old ways.” Dannid knew the answer, since the beginning of history the Sou’ Reaches had been a magnet to the most fundamental of the Sinterlanders. The gifted of the Sou’ Reaches were the strongest and their magic the most perfect. It was said that the original tribes were from the Sou’ Reaches. The most attention was given to the old ways and an absolute honesty existed making the infiltration of any immoral practices most difficult, he nodded agreement.
“Although I feel that there are pressures afoot to change all that.” Jano’s voice had a tone that Dannid had never heard before, it was the voice of a gifted; not the young boy and young man he had grown to love as his own son. It was at this point that Dannid realised that things would never quite be the same again.
The sky was alight, bright enough to read by. After the evening meal, consisting of a fish stew and fresh damper cooked on a charcoal brassiere, Jano had made his way back to the crew deck and was talking with some of the men. Dannid let him be, he remembered the first time he had travelled at sea, much the same age as Jano now, the wild stories the sailors had shared, the sounds and the smells of it all.
Dannid himself was tired and happily bid the gathering good-night and made his way below decks to the hammocks strung up in the long room where all the passengers and crew would sleep and shelter if the weather turned. Within minutes he was asleep.
Jano listened and watched, was shown the constellations and told how the pilot used the heavens to keep her on course. He felt light-headed with the freshness of the air and the vibrations of the surroundings. All Sinterland ships were treated as living things. Her crew protected her absolutely. Unlike any other seafarers absolute attention was given to cleanliness and maintenance, each crewman knew the ship as a man would know his woman and life aboard a Sinterland ship was a pleasure, hard work, but a pleasure.
Jano could feel the good magic in her heart. He could hear the happiness in her soul. It was at this time that he knew that he would spend a large part of his life seafaring or with seafarers. He sat back and listened to their talk, laughed at their jokes and drank hot cups of green tea with them, as the night became older.
The bell sounded midnight and most of the crew had excused themselves and only the mid-watch were left.
Young Samin, the apprentice of the captain, and Jano were standing on the forecastle leaning on the rail. Between them was the Loadstone compass pointing to the north. Samin and Jano had hit much the same stride as the captain, his name Kolmin, and Dannid had earlier.
“Have you been at sea all your life?” Jano asked Samin who was holding the tiller tight against his side, the wind blowing his blonde hair around his neck, the breeze had stiffened and was moving her at a good pace.
“Aye, I ‘av Jano.” His accent was strange to Jano’s ear, he had never heard anything other than the Sou’ Reaches and this was like a song to him; the Sou’ Reaches considered loud and abrupt to most listeners.
“Me mutha was killed in an accident when I was only three and me da couldn’t keep me seeing as I was the youngest of four and me next brother was eleven, and the rest older.” The boy leaned forward to check the compass and pulled the tiller a little to port, he then observed the mainsail still full and pushing hard.
“He was a wood smith and my brothers were all in the craft but the work is hard and his time was needed for business. He sent me off to my aunt and I was apprenticed to Captain Kolmin on my eighth birthday.” Jano nodded, such was the way of simple folk. His story not unlike Jano’s except that by Samin’s standards Jano’s life was more comfortable as a youngen.
Samin had told Jano that the captain was as strong as a mongrel pit dog and sometimes his temper was not much better but Jano had seen in his eyes and in his aura a love for the man in much the way Jano would have looked when talking of Dannid. The talked into the small hours of the morning; each comparing tales of their learning, Jano sharing the experiences of his sword making, feeling a little ashamed that he had to be dishonest with Samin, but aware of the importance of his mission.
Samin pointed to the horizon and Jano focussed on a single bright red-blue star.
“The Dog Star, it shines overhead the Mid Lands.”
Jano shook his head in disbelief, the distance seemed overpowering. Samin laughed and jibbed him as a typical land-locked Sou’ Lander. Jano bid his new friend good night and made his way to the bow. He didn’t want to sleep inside on this his first night away from land, he wanted to experience everything unimpeded. He lay in a coil of flax rope and pulled the rough but sweet smelling blanket Samin had given him over his body and looked up into the heavens. Sleep came quickly and he dreamed.