You can find Chapter 2: On the Shore of the Great River here.
Chapter 3: Titles, Trappings, and Talk
When I woke the next morning, the two of them were still talking. I know Herkrist slept very little, but I had no idea how much sleep an orc might need. Or a half-orc. It was kind of a stupid thought, but Tak was so different than any other orc I had met—or heard of—that I had trouble thinking of him as an orc. Now I realize orcs come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, just like humans, but back then, all the orcs I had known were mostly mercenaries or criminals along with very few merchants. Tak didn’t look or talk like any of them.
I started scrounging through the camp, and Tak didn’t say anything. I guess once he was onboard, we were a team. You share your stuff with your team. That’s how it works. It wasn’t a very large camp, so scrounging meant going through four packs in front of the tent under a canvas awning. I found some dried meat and fruits, and the precious dried beans I’d been looking for.
“You got anything to crush these with?” I didn’t care that I interrupted their conversation. They probably needed a break.
Tak’s smile is what I’d heard Herkrist call ‘indulgent,’ and he rose. He moved slow and awkward. I’d imagine he’d get a bit stiff, sitting on that log all night long. It didn’t look like he had moved. He went to the one pack I hadn’t yet searched and drew out a small wood box with a metal top and a handle.
“Are you serious?” I took the object from him with great care. I had only heard of these, never seen one. “This is really a clockwork grinder?”
“I don’t think it’s anything so fancy.” He showed me how to slide open the top and then took a bean and dropped it in. “It’s a hand grinder. Not uncommon in Amlastergsh Tal.”
“Amlast must be a heck of a place.” I poured in what I thought was enough beans, then started the grinding.
Tak’s smile faded just a bit. “Amlastergsh Tal.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said—Amlast.” I continued grinding, holding his gaze without flinching. I knew what I was doing. I expected he would too. We were a team. You’re allowed to needle your team. It’s the game. “You have a kettle? How do you want to do this?”
Something somewhere between a grunt and a chuckle rumbled out of Tak. He went into the tent, his voice echoing out of it. “Max, have you met Ebeiya? Ebeiya Idasonu Eje?”
“Can’t say I remember that name.” I finished grinding and opened the lid. I’d broken the beans into much smaller pieces, but not a powder yet. Just right.
Tak exited the tent with two ceramic jugs. “She also goes by Claymoira when she’s working with the stonemen.”
I remembered her. She was a hard one to forget. “Oh, right, Moira. The easterling.”
“They are the Nan Eniyan, and you’d do well to remember that around her.” Tak dropped one of the jugs—the thinner, taller one—down beside the fire and took the short, think, round one with a circle on its top to the river.
“Sure, the Eniyan, got it.” I had heard the word before, but hadn’t thought much of it. I mean, they came out of the east, right? Well, I guess the southeast, but southeasterlings was a bit too much of a mouthful.
“If we are to succeed in travelling through Amlastergsh Tal without causing an incident, we’ll need to be careful using kingdomer slurs for those we encounter.” Herkrist rose from the log, as graceful as if she was getting out of a chair she had only just sat in. “From here forward, no Terror Lands. No easterlings. We travel through Amlastergsh Tal, hopefully with the help of an honoured warrior of the Nan Eniyan.”
“I understand respect.” And I did. I insulted people who deserved it. I ribbed my friends. But I could understand someone wanting to be called by their right name. I could understand how something normal could be insulting. The Wharves back home in Lacidum sure enough had docks, but when someone said you came from the Wharves, that’s not what they meant. I wouldn’t want to insult someone on my team. Not really. Annoy them? Sure, if it didn’t hurt them—inside I mean. But insult them? Nah.
“I know you do.” Tak called from the edge of the river. His hearing must have been really good. “We need to get Ebeiya on our side. She has important contacts with more than a few smuggling networks. If we are to get through the mountains without Lady Herkrist being noticed, we’ll need the help of the smugglers.”
“Lady?” I raised one eyebrow. I had worked hard learning how to do that when I was younger. “Really, boss?”
Herkrist smiled and I could see the satisfaction in it. Not smug. Not condescending. She understood respect too, and while I showed it in my own way, I think she liked Tak’s way. More? Maybe. But she knew me, and she knew that was a bridge I wasn’t ever going to cross.
“It is the proper title, is it not?” I couldn’t see Tak well because there was a little incline on the river bank. I didn’t need to see his face to hear the honesty in his voice.
“Sure, yeah, I guess.” I looked to Herkrist. “Is it? I mean, your family’s important and all, but have you got a title?”
“My father was what the kingdomers would call a ‘count,’ so lesser nobility.” Herkrist straightened her tunic. She didn’t meet my eyes. “I would not have inherited the title. The kingdomers don’t recognize daughters as heirs, and only the Kingdom’s laws matter now.”
“I never knew that.” I rubbed that back of neck, feeling that clenching fist around my heart that told me I’d done something that might hurt a friend. “How come I never knew that?”
“Because it didn’t matter to you.” Now Herkrist was looking at me, piercing, seeing right into my soul. “Because you care about the person, not the trappings. Titles don’t make the person.”
The fist unclenched, and a felt a warmth rising up from my belly. It felt good for just moment to hear a compliment from her, but that didn’t last long. I could feel my face go hot, and I squatted down on a log by the now guttering fire. The heat from the embers remained intense, but nothing like the heat of my discomfort.
“And the people Moira knows can get us in without anyone noticing the boss?” I examined the crushed beans intently as my face cooled. A sudden realization made me look up, seeing Tak approaching from the river. “Can I still call her Moira?”
“You? I think so.” I could hear the water sloshing in the jug Tak carried. “She remembers you as well. She had good things to say about you. I don’t think she’ll mind you calling her Moira.”
“I could ask, maybe?” I looked to Herkrist. For social stuff, she always knew the best.
“That’s a good idea.” She pursed her lips. “The name, it’s derived from the old kingdomer for sword master, isn’t it?”
“It is.” Tak put the jug he carried into the fire. “Her Ede name means something similar. She was born under the sign of the Sword Saint, so she has a name reflecting that deity. She is, however, Idasonu Eje—a Spiller of Blood. She has reached the highest level of martial excellent among Nan Eniyan. I think she is the only one alive to hold that title.”
“Seriously?” I scratched my chin and looked into my memories. Yeah. That fit. “I mean, she was good yeah. The best? I guess so.”
Tak let out what sounded to me like an honest laugh. Good natured, without sharpness. “I’m not saying she was better than you, Max. Yours is experience. Hers’ is training. Having the two of you together, though, will certainly make me feel better.”
The words brought me out of my memories and back to the present. “I’ve seen her move, but haven’t seen her in a real fight. I can see how she’d be better than me. Not really looking to test that.”
“Good.” Tak moved to the tent. “Though she might. Those kingdomers with whom the two of you worked had some ideas about you and your aptitude for violence. Ebeiya wondered how much of it was true.”
“Let’s hope we don’t find out.” Herkrist was looking east, toward the mountains. “Maybe when this is all over, the two can spar.”
“Sparring means rules,” I said. “I don’t do so good with rules.”
Tak emerged with a short pole, about the length of my forearm, with a hook on its end. It looked like it was some kind of copper, maybe bronze—I had a hard time telling the two apart. “Right now, I can’t even imagine what ‘this all over’ will even look like.” He squatted down beside the fire, eyes on the jug in it. “The one problem is that we’ll need to travel further south. Ebeiya is apparently working out of Navalebum.”
I didn’t mean to, but my mouth fell open. “That’s more than a bit south.”
Tak didn’t seem to hear my comment. “I was thinking of heading back to Bailthair and booking passage on one of the river boats, but I think after the visit of the Praetorians, we’d be definitely noticed. We can travel further south and get passage on a boat there.”
Herkrist had stopped staring at the mountains and now looked south, as if she could see the distance to Navalebum. “If the Praetorians are after me, I’m not sure we will escape notice no matter where we book passage.”
“I have been thinking about that as well.” Little puffs of steam rose from one of two spouts on the jug in the fire, and Tak poured the crushed bean into a small ceramic cup with holes all through it he had taken out of the tall and thin jug. “We disguise you. It’s going to be hot, but we cover you in a full robe and cloak, and cover your face as well with wrappings and a war mask I still have. If any kingdomer asks, you’re a seer, like a holy person. They’ll understand that, though that’ll mean they’ll probably try to cause you grief. How is your orcrish?”
Herkrist turned to Tak and spoke in a language that was harsh but musical. It has a bunch of guttural sounds but the flow made it sound like poems I had heard. I kind of liked it.
“That’s . . .” Tak was just staring, his mouth seeming to search for the next words. “That was excellent. Where, . . . where did you learn that?”
She responded in that same language. I had no idea what she was saying but that didn’t matter. There was music in it. I had always liked music. Looking at Tak, I’d say that even if she spoke to an orc, they wouldn’t know she was an elf, or a half-elf, or whatever.
“Okay.” Tak swallowed. The jug in the fire was whistling now, steam escaping from one of the two spouts. “Okay, this can work.” He used the metal rod to take the jug out of the fire. He had put the cup with holes into the tall, thin jug, which he had jammed well into the ground. Resting part of the bottom of the steaming jug on a log, he drew out a knife and popped off the lid on the second spout. Steam started coming from that. “We’ll say that you are a seer and that we are your acolytes, or maybe just your servants.” Using the metal pole to move the steaming jug, he tipped it so that water poured into the tall jug. It didn’t take long for the tall jug to fill.
“Max, could you?” He pointed to the tall jug with his chin. The lid was right beside it, so that was an easy enough job. He set the other jug down on the ground. “I think the war mask will really help.” He went into the tent. “There aren’t a lot of orcs so far from Amlastergsh Tal, so no matter what we do, we are going to draw interest. Hopefully, we can keep people at a distance.” He came out of the tent holding a mask that looked like a skull. It didn’t have a jaw and only the top row of teeth. That top row had two, long fangs pointing down. “We call you the Skull Bearer, a holy person on a pilgrimage.”
Herkrist took the mask from Tak. “I am travelling to Navelbum where the kingdomers landed in their first war against the Bright One.”
Tak nodded. “We’ll call them Gyalalzod, which I think some of the kingdomers will recognize but won’t link it to the Bright One.”
“It is a pilgrimage of supplication, as my people accept the victory of the Great Kingdom as a sign.” Herkrist slipped on the mask. It didn’t fit well. “This pilgrimage is a physical representation of our acceptance of the Great Kingdom’s rule.”
“I hate it but I also love it.” Tak stood behind Herkrist, tightening the mask’s straps so it fit better. “The stonemen will want to insult you and maybe harm you, but the story will speak to their egos. They want us subjugated. This promises that.”
“But, you know, we don’t call them stonemen.” I only looked up at Tak for a moment, my focus on the jug with the crushed beans steeping. “We call the kingdomers, right?”
“You are right, Max.” Tak finished with the mask, which now fit Herkrist well. He pointed to the pack where he got the grinder. “Could you get us some cups?”
I moved quickly. “Herkrist doesn’t indulge.” I fished out two cups. “But I indulge a lot.”
“One of his many failings.” The mask muffled Herkrist’s voice, but I thought that was good. I thought even her voice would reveal her high status. I mean, I might not have known her father was a count, but I always knew she was one of the better people. She sounded like someone born in the right place to the right family.
Tak took out the cup with the now sodden crushed beans and left it on the ground. He put the lid back on the jug and poured some dark liquid into the two cups I had brought. “How do you know about kofye? Not many kingdomers drink it.”
I blew on my cup. I know the orcs drink it scalding hot, but I preferred to keep the layer of skin I currently had in my mouth. “I’ve been around. You know the dwarves up at Mont Solitaris say its dwarfish. They call it kafay. We just always called it coffee.”
“Coffee?” Tak took a long drink from his cup. I think he winced a bit, but didn’t show any other sign of pain. That stuff must have burned all the way down. “At least something of us has invaded your lands, even if no one knows they are drinking an orcrish brew using an orcrish name.”
“Take your wins where you can, right?” I took a sip. Still hot, but my body was already reacting to the bitter taste. I knew the cup would give me a jolt, that I’d think clearer. Coffee in the morning and beer at night. Sometimes wine.
Could be worse.
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