The road to Arlohorna took their band along the Song Deep's eastern coast to the small coastal town of Oporelk. The city, if you could call it that, wasn't much to look at from the outside. Walls maybe twice the height of a man kept the people inside feeling secure, but Skinny reckoned it'd be nothing at all to get in, even if he wasn't wanted.
He squinted up to the sky with that one pale eye of his and wiped his face with a scrap of cloth that he'd tied into a bandana around his neck. Bloody heat. Years up in the northern desert city states and he still couldn't find the taste for the heat. Skinny and the rest of his band looked about as tired as they felt, and their horses didn't look much better. Twelve hard-faced men caked in road dust, with eyes as hard as glass.
The gate was in a sorry state of repair, guarded by two men with spears and slapdash armor. Militia, Skinny figured, judging by the lack of Civic Guard badges. He'd be surprised if there was even a single Guardsman out here. A sheriff, maybe.
One of the gate watchmen shoved off of the wall and stood in front of the approaching party.
"Ho there!" He called out.
Skinny reined in his horse a few paces distant and the other eleven riders drew up just behind him. The gate watchman gave Skinny the sort of skeptical look he'd seen a hundred times. Skinny grinned back at the fellow, silver-capped teeth glinting in the afternoon sun.
“What's your business?" The watchman asked.
Skinny suppressed a snort. 'None of yours, you useless shit,' he thought. Instead, he kept that friendly grin on his face. Given the look of him, what with the scars, the missing eye, and the weapons his boys were carrying, Skinny doubted it was very convincing.
"Just a few travelers lookin' for a place to rest their heads," Skinny told the man.
The watchman grunted and inspected the rest of the party, his eyes lingering on Hodric. The Khalar tribesman gave what Skinny figured passed for a smile, which was more of a baring of yellowed teeth than anything else.
"You lot mercenaries, then?" The watchman asked.
Skinny sighed and leaned forward, arms crossed on the horn of his saddle.
"Used to be," he lied. "But that line of work's all dried up now, what with the war ending. And us on the wrong end of it." He turned his head to the side, hawked up, and spat on the road. "Why? You know someone who's hirin'?"
The watchman grunted and gave a signal to the gatehouse above.
"Just stay out of trouble, aye?"
The watchman gave Skinny a hard look. Skinny blew out a long breath, cheeks puffed out.
"Aye, that I will."
The main road through Oporelk was little more than packed dirt, rutted and tracked deep with the passage of carriages and horses. Skinny figured it'd be hell to walk through when the rain came and stuck to the middle of the road, the rest of his boys riding behind him in single file. Hardly a bustling metropolis, this place. Shingles from storefronts hung limp in the still air, and old, dusty men sat in old, dusty chairs, smoking and spitting and glaring at the passing band with rheumy-eyed hostility.
Skinny twisted a bit in his saddle, eager to be off of it. Three days on horseback after a hard fight had his legs and crotch aching something fierce. They came upon what passed for a tavern and dismounted. Skinny leaned back and pushed his fists into his lower back, groaning as he felt the muscles in his legs start to tingle. They tied up their horses, shouldered their bags, and entered the tavern.
It was a rustic structure, two stories tall and made of wood, with plaster caking the interior walls to keep the heat out during the summer. The common room was dimly lit by a scattering of torches and candles, smoky, and smelled of week old piss and sour beer. Skinny sniffed and reckoned him and his boys didn't smell a whole lot better. He shrugged out of his pack and let it fall to the ground beside one of the bar stools while Hodric and the other lads dragged a couple of tables together.
The bartender was a salty looking old dog, with a shaggy mop of greying hair, deep lines around his mouth and eyes, and a dull, listless sort of look common to residents of go-nowhere towns like this one.
"Evening, vorfon," said the barkeep, speaking Arangothek.
Skinny nodded to the man and pulled a few rixtles out of a pouch at his hip.
"Let's have a pint of whatever's cold and a bowl of whatever's hot."
He pushed the coins across and the barkeep nodded. The sound of groaning furniture had Skinny glancing over his shoulder to where Hodric and the boys were getting settled. The barkeep frowned, took up the coins, and began to pour the beer.
A young girl made her way over to the dragged together tables to take orders. Skinny figured she couldn't have been any more than fifteen, but Hodric eyed her up all the same. Skinny knew it'd be a long week on hard roads before they made Hornath-ul-Marfed, but he still got that uneasy feeling in his guts whenever any of his lads got too handsy with the women. Not that there was much he could do about it. Coming between any of his lads and a woman was the quickest way to a kicking, as he'd found out. That was a lesson he didn't need to learn more than once.
He pressed his lips together and pulled a cob pipe out of his jacket. He packed the pipe with a bit of dry tobacco, lit it on a candle, and exhaled the smoke through his nostrils.
A few minutes later, he and the rest of the lads were seated around the tables eating some sort of stew out of chipped ceramic bowls. They all sounded like animals as they ate, shoulders hunched and heads bowed, slurping and burping. The stew was simple stuff, but to Skinny it was the best meal he'd had in days and days.
It wasn't long before the bowls were empty and they'd all mopped the grease up out of the bowls with heels of dark bread. They'd practically filled the common room, which had been mostly empty before they'd arrived, save for a few of the local old boys, the barkeep, his daughter, and a local lad who seemed determined to push a mop around the same square foot of floor for the rest of the evening.
Skinny had his back to the nearby wall his chair kicked back onto its rear legs while the rest of the lads groused about the weather, the road, and anything else they could come up with. He'd just got his pipe lit again when he got that tingling feeling in the small hairs on the back of his neck.
He glanced up sharply and saw that one of the locals, seated off in a corner with a small candle and a mug of ale, was looking right at him. He gave the man the most contemptuous sneer he could muster, but the man simply smiled back at him and took a gulp from the mug he'd been holding.
Skinny frowned and looked away, then realized everyone at their table was looking at him. Someone had asked him something.
He peered from one to the other. Anskar, a sturdily built fellow from Sresaria with long, dark hair and a clean shaven face, laughed.
"Just wondering what's so important we need to dodge the Border Watch all the way to Tagrana," Anskar said.
Skinny shrugged and clamped the stem of his pipe between his teeth.
"Tagrana's a big place," he explained. "Sure as shit beats waiting for wagons from far off."
"It's risky, though, ain't it?"
"Sure it's risky. But now that the war's over, folks are going to want things to get back to normal. That means trade'll pick up."
He grinned broadly.
"That means plenty of caravans, eh?"
Hodric grunted his approval, palming his greasy beard and dislodging a few chunks of bread.
"I don't know about you," the Khalar said. "But sure as shit, I'm tired of the back country. Only lady I ever saw out there was a horse."
A few of the other lads laughed.
"Doubt her bein' a horse would stop you any, eh?" Skinny said.
Hodric laughed and shook his head.
"Be nice to find a place worth a damn, is all," the big man replied.
A few of the other lads nodded their agreement.
"Keep your chins up, boys,” Skinny said to the group. “Two weeks and we'll be close enough to where we can get set up nice and proper."
They'd spend a good couple of hours in that tavern, drinking their beer and smoking their pipes. Skinny was good and drunk by the time the evening had drawn to a close, and it was no small effort for him to get to his feet and lurch towards the stairs to the room he'd got himself.
He got that prickly feeling again and scowled, looking to where the local man had been staring at him. There he was, calm as you please, sitting in the same chair he'd been in hours ago, smiling that same smile. Skinny stopped by the man's table and leered at him, wobbling slightly.
"There somethin' I can help you with?"
He'd meant for it to sound threatening, but drunk as he was, he doubted he came off as anything more than an idiot.
"No," the local replied. "Just thought you were a friend, is all." The man shrugged. "Suppose I was wrong."
"Handsome fucker, was he?" Skinny slurred. "But I'm no friend of yours, so piss off."
The man held up his hands, palms out, and Skinny glared at him for a few moments. He had an uneasy feeling in his guts, but he put that down to all the beer he'd drunk. He turned without another word and heaved himself up the stairs.
The key to his room didn't seem to want to fit into the lock, and it nearly took him a full minute to figure it out. He practically tumbled into the room, righted himself, and kicked the door shut with the heel of his boot. He shrugged out of his jacket, let his sword, knife, and pack all fall to the floor in a heap, and turned. He collapsed onto the straw mattress and fell asleep with his boots on.
When he awoke, it was to the sound of thunder. His head throbbed mightily and he groaned, clapping his hands over his ears. Someone was yelling something, and the sunlight from the open window nearly blinded him as he tried to open his eye. He was just beginning to sit up when the banging came again.
"Open the door, in the name of the Border Watch!"
Skinny's hands dropped and he dragged himself to his feet, only to trip over the pile he'd made of his weapons and his bag. He fell with a squawk just as the door burst open. Five well armed men in dark green cloaks poured into the room, shutting it behind the last of them. Skinny reached out to grab the knife in the sheath beside him, but one of the men stomped down on his wrist, pinning it to the ground.
"Shit," he gasped.
He raised his head to look up at one of the men, but one of the Border Watch behind him cracked him in the back of the head with a cudgel. He gasped, the world spun, gone white, and Skinny went limp.
Outside the city of Drache lies a number of cities, towns and provinces of varying size and populace. Most of the people living outside Drache are natives who speak Arangothian and observe the native customs and rituals. Click here for a list Arangoth's locales, and here to view a map.
1 post • Page 1 of 1