You can find Chapter 1: Right Place, Wrong Place here.
Chapter 2: On the Shore of the Great River
When Tak had said to meet him at a camp, I had expected something more than a single tent with a guttering fire in front of it. I guess a camp is a camp. And I guess we should be a bit careful with assumptions.
Or maybe it’s just me.
The province we were in, Lunaventum, seemed a nice place, even in the dead of night. What with all the trees and fields and such. There were farms. I mean, not along the river, but in the area. I had seen a few since arriving in the province, but I think more than a few were abandoned. A lot of the space was empty. That didn’t make a lot of sense because since this land was pretty much free for anyone from the Great Kingdom. It had been a hundred years since the Downfall, but I think people were still afraid of the Terror Lands. I mean, they still called them the Terror Lands.
The royal steward resided in Lunaventum, further south than Tak’s camp or Bailthair by about a day. He had a thousand cavalry and triple that in infantry. That should have made anyone feel safe. But with the war over for a century, and the province ‘pacified,’ people just didn’t come.
From what I’ve heard, back in the day, when the war had just ended and the land was just empty, even with the steward around, nobles didn’t come. They say that some families, sick of being bullied and taxed west of the river, did come. They say that’s what got the great king to send a few nobles, to make sure those peasants got bullied and taxed.
Still, on our way through, there were still not too many people. That meant not too many nobles. Not too much of anything really, which is good. I was looking to avoid prying eyes and assassins’ knives.
Well, except the Terror Lands were just beyond the mountains to the east, a bit more than a day’s ride away on good roads.
Not that anything really terrifying lived there any longer. The rangers and knights of the Great Kingdom had ventured beyond the mountains. I’d heard they hadn’t been too gentle. After the Downfall, the Great Kingdom had done its part to kill anything it didn’t like or couldn’t control.
We passed a few ruins along the river, just broken stone and marble. Some were small, not more than a couple of fallen structures. A few looked like they could have been fortresses or castles, but their outer walls had fallen and there wasn’t much left inside them. The wars would have done their part to destroy all these places, but age could have done it too. Time’s the world’s best weapon.
We came upon Tak’s camp while I was thinking about those stones and what they had seen. We found Tak sitting on a fallen log, back to that single tent, gaze moving up from the fire to look at us. The flames reflected in his eyes, something that reminded me of a cat, or maybe a wolf. He didn’t rise, didn’t welcome us, just watched us as we approached and then stood between the river shore and his fire.
“Welcome to my camp.” He gestured to other logs assembled around his fire. “Feel free to get comfortable.”
I sat. Herkrist didn’t. Tak clicked his tongue, dropped onto a log himself, and then took a deep breath. “Erzrotheratis wanted me to pass along her greetings, Max. She said you did right by her.”
“I made sure things ended fair.” I didn’t like people saying nice things about me. It made me feel uncomfortable. I always found a way to turn it around, to cut myself down. “She did her job, she got the pay promised. Just making it fair.”
“Yeah, I heard you care about that.” He stirred the fire with a long stick. “Not too many people do. That makes you special in some ways, you know?”
“If you care about fair, you should listen to my boss.” Again, I tried to avoid the subject of me being anyone worthy of praise. Insult me and I’ll probably agree with you. Compliment me and I will be looking for the nearest exit. “She’s done right by me year after year. She’s good to her word. She’s got work and I think you’re the person for the job. It pays good.”
He stopped stirring but did not look up. “Why me?”
“I don’t know you well, but I think I know you well enough to know that you care about fair as well.” I just told him. I don’t lie and if I give a compliment, it’s because it’s true. Some people react well to that. Some don’t. “Ezzie said you were someone she trusted. She seemed smart about stuff like that. We need someone we can trust.”
Tak smiled and pointed at me with his stick, its end now an ember, glowing orange in the night. “She hated your nicknames for her. She goes by Thera for those of us who know her well.”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t know her well and I called her Ezzie.” A smile found its way to my face as I thought about the orc mercenary. “I was just joking. I knew it bothered her a bit but not really. She kept calling me Baldie.” She hadn’t lied. I kept me hair shorn pretty darn close to the scalp.
“You’ll be calling me Tak.” Stick back in the fire, eyes following it. “Or Tarkmog. That’s it.”
“Then you’re in?” I tilted my head slightly like I do when something’s new or a bit confusing. I remember stuff like that. Herkrist says I’m self-aware.
“That depends on your boss.” He looked up at Herkrist who still hadn’t taken a seat. “Your man has done his job.” I kind of wanted to say something about being Herkrist’s ‘man,’ but Tak was on a roll and I didn’t want to interrupt. “He’s set the stage. Because he’s trustworthy and he trusts you, I’m inclined to do the same. That doesn’t mean I’ll be signing up. You say you want to get to Amlasterg Tal—what the stonemen call the Terror Lands.”
The orcs and the easterlings called the kingdomers stonemen. Not sure why. I’ve never asked. Maybe because of all the stone buildings?
He stopped stirring the fire, but left his stick in it, even as flames licked up its length. “What’s in Amlasterg Tal for you?”
Herkrist watched Tak, her face impassive. “I can only tell you if you accept the contract.”
“I can’t accept the job without knowing.” Tak looked up at her frowned. “Sit down, please. You make me nervous.”
Herkrist’s eyes narrowed, barely visible in the shadows of her face. She did as asked. “If you know Max, you know how bad he is at lying, even when he needs to. You can ask him about this job. It’ll be dangerous, but you’ll be well paid.”
Tak shook his head. “You would trust me when I am under contract, but not otherwise? That makes no sense. A contract is not going to constrain a dishonest person. If you don’t trust me, you shouldn’t trust me when I’ve accepted the contract. If you trust me, you should trust me with or without a contract. You have my word I will tell nothing of our meeting to anyone, whether I take the contract or not.”
It made sense. I looked over at Herkrist. “He makes sense.”
Herkrist’s brow furrowed. “You’re not helping.” She turned back to Tak. It was hard to see her eyes in the firelight. Usually so bright, they seemed dimmed. She took a long breath and held it for a heartbeat. She was making a decision. “Fine. I need a guide to Turre Tenebris and to Mons Malum. I need someone to get me into the Terror Lands, and get me out. Max tells me you are the person who can do this. I’m willing to pay well.”
Tak pushed his burning stick into the fire. He sat straight, staring at Herkrist. “Why would you want to do this?”
“I have my reasons.” Herkrist didn’t say more.
“That’s not enough,” Tak said. “Of course you have reasons. I want to know what they are. My vow of silence remains, but I will not accept this contract if you aren’t plain with me. You need to understand you are asking to visit two of the greatest religious sites of my people. We don’t even travel there except on pilgrimage. The lands around them are guarded and even the stonemen have left them to lie.”
Herkrist pursed her lips. “Are you religious? Do you have an objection to us travelling there?”
Tak exhaled a rattling breath. “I’m not religious, but I was raised religious. That’s something hard to shake. I can take you there, but I need to understand why.”
Herkrist leaned forward, her arms resting on her knees. “If I tell you this and you refuse to guide us, I’ll have Max kill you.”
My hands went to two of the many knives I carried. “I’d hate to do it, but if she thinks it needs to be done, I’d probably do it.”
I’d heard he was dangerous, but I felt pretty confident I could beat him. I had seen him move, seen him think, and seen him react. I thought I was ready for him. If anyone ever found out, I’d have a target on my back in Lunaventum. Not nice. Neither was I.
Tak chuckled. “I’ll take that chance.”
“There are items in the ruins of the tower, very powerful items.” Herkrist looked down at her hands. She clutched them together. “There is a crown, or maybe a circlet, and a torc I want to recover. I want to take them to the veins of Mons Malum where the Abhorrent One’s essence remains.”
Tak pointed at Herkrist with his hand straight, not insulting her by using a single finger or even two. “I’m not religious, but around me, you will name them the Brilliant Star, Gyalalzod, or Asteris. That holds now and it holds if I agree to your contract.”
Herkrist nodded. “My apologies. I used the term common in the West. I will be careful in future.”
Tak crossed his arms over his chest. “And what will you do with these items once you have them? What will you do with them if the Bright One blesses them for you?”
Herkrist did not hesitate. “Break them. Destroy them if I can, with the last of the Abhor. . . the Bright One’s essence in this sphere. I will ensure none will ever find it as I had, that none will ever access it, like I will. I will stop anyone from ever using it again.”
That made Tak lean forward. “And someone intends to use it? Someone other than you?”
“You’ve heard of the Blue Emperor?” Herkist had got quiet, though there wasn’t anybody else around.
“Out east?” Tak pursed his lips. He looked off to the side. “I’ve heard stories. Nothing substantial.”
“I’m telling you something substantial now.” Herkrist clutched her hands together on her knees. “He is real. He is amassing power. And he wants to talismans of the Bright One.”
That got Tak looking directly at Herkrist. “To what purpose?”
Herkrist shook her head. “He is a warlord: what purpose would you expect?”
“And have you told your people?” Tak gestured west. “Have you told the scribes and sages of the Great Kingdom?”
“My people?” Herkrist all but spit out the words. “I am neither a friend nor a supplicant to the Great Kingdom. If I didn’t fear for the fate of innocents, I would relish watching the Great King and the Blue Emperor bleed each other.”
Tak crossed his arms before his chest. “You sound like an orc elder. Why do you hate the stonemen so much?”
“Because I think I understand your orc elders,” Herkrist said. “The Great Kingdom took everything from your people during the war and my people after. It demanded that we give our lives and the lives of our families. It told us that our freedom and the futures of our children were at risk, that if we did not help it in its war, we would all suffer. We gave everything, we lost everything, we won the war for them but it didn’t end. There were more wars. It was always the same. And then, when something like peace came, the kingdomers took everything that was left. They took the very freedom that we had fought for, that they had told us the Bright One would take. The great king demanded that we bow down to him, follow his laws, and pay his taxes. Those that said no were suddenly the new enemies, and the armies that we had helped turned on us. We won the war for them, and then they took us as the prize.”
Tak’s face grew more and more open as Herkrist spoke. His mouth fell open. His eyes got wide. He stared like he saw an oasis in the desert. And when Herkrist had finished he swallowed. He took a steadying breath.
“I think we can work together.”
You can find Chapter 3: Titles, Trappings, and Talk here.