Closed eyes. Gaping mouth. Red. Brown hair. Yellow flowers. Red. Hard iron. Gelra. Red. Closed eyes. Red. Gelra. Gaping mouth. Red. Soft skin. Red. Eyes open.
He opened his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. Just a dream.
The council meeting was still going on. Boring talk of boring subjects by men over twice his age. When the gods had gifted him with his sword as a child, he'd never dreamed of playing politician, but peace was the law of the land. It left little room for swords.
The men seated around Gelra, eyeing him briefly before turning their attention back to whoever was speaking, weren't interested in his frustrations. They worried about money. Other people's money. Getting more money. Spending money.
Gelra considered going back to sleep, but the light shining into the chambers was from a low sun. It was almost time to leave, get back to his temporary home here in the city. His eyes wandered around the many stern faces, hoping to find Shar, the swordsman who trained him. There. Gray hair tied back. Neatly trimmed beard, still black despite his age. The blue-stained pieces of leather armor were more decorative than functional, just like Gelra's own brown pieces. Just like the swordsmen themselves. Stupakparya they were called, a title that once meant something, but now all it got him now was a sore back from sitting on a stiff wooden bench all day. Shar was a lot better at putting on a good face to impress the politicians, but young Gelra didn't care enough to try and hide his annoyance, only enough to not get up and leave.
Shar wasn't looking in his direction, just the speakers as they came, spoke, and left and the people seated immediately next to him, whispering to each other. Gelra stretched his legs, stiff from the hours and hours of sitting, interrupted only once to relieve himself. He'd spotted two other swordsmen along the way, but they were too busy with each other to pay him any attention. A pang of jealousy for the lovers, one built to fight and win, and the other beautiful as the sun, made his heart beat fast for a moment.
The fifth swordsmen, Alyadim, hadn't been spotted by him. He wondered if he was even in attendance, and why Gelra was. It was a waste of time, but when the closing prayer came to an end he wasted no time in getting up and making for the nearest exit. It was time to relieve himself again.
Shar was standing next to a couple of the men he'd been speaking to during the meeting when Gelra stepped back out onto the green surrounding the enormous council chambers. Straightening himself up while walking towards them-
Why do I care what these forgettable people think of me?
-Gelra weaved through the crowd spreading its way into the city of
He'd hoped to see Shar before night fell, if only to say goodbye. The last few
years it seemed like they only ever saw each other at these annual meetings,
and sometimes not even then.
"You know I prefer Gelra, Shar."
"Here, I want you to meet some people," he said, ignoring his comment. "This is S---- and D----," he said, motioning to each. Each wore the expensively embroidered tunic and shawl of priesthood. "They'll be accompanying us on our voyage north."
His mind started racing as he held each of their hands in turn to greet them. "I'm sorry, what voyage?"
"I want you to come with us to Kalires. I've found a beautiful cave there, and I want to show it to you. I doubt anybody knows about it but me. I've been describing it to these two men during the meeting,"
Glad he was just as bored as I was.
"and they wish for me to show it to them. Get closer to the gods. You really feel their blessing sitting inside, away from, well," he said, gesturing around him, "all this. You should go and grab your things. I'm planning on leaving tonight if we can."
"But, I," don't want to "can't. They're expecting me back home. It's hard enough on my uncle leaving him for these meetings. I can't leave him alone longer than is necessary."
"Ah, I forget." The disappointment in his eyes almost made him change his mind. "Well, perhaps afterwards, eh? Give my regards to your uncle for me." With that he turned back to the men whose names Gelra had already forgotten and began walking with them towards the harbor while Gelra turned and walked away, cursing himself under his breath.
I should've gone. Idiot. Why didn't I go? I should've gone. Stupid. Stupid.
Regret followed him all the way to his bed that night, alone with his thoughts in a cold dark room. The noises outside his room certainly didn't improve things. Eventually exhaustion overtook him and he got a bit of peace.
They next day he hitched a ride with a farmer who'd come to town to sell off some of his crops. The man was nice enough, but Gelra cared even less about raising crops than politics, and spent most of the trip in the back of the cart lying down and staring up at the sky. The wood still reeked of whatever fruit the farmer had raised, with scattered dark splotches left behind by the pieces squished by those above them. The sweetness mixed with smell of grass and flowers that grew in the fields on either side of the road. Much more pleasant than the city. A bump here and there prevented him from getting too comfortable though, and Gelra welcomed the darkening sky.
"How far'd we get?"
"Well, Bacha's still-"he said, his words cut short by an arrow he took to the chest. Gelra's eyes widened. Heart raced. Riders, four of them, dark, a bit off the road ahead but getting closer. He wrapped his arms around the man's limp body and grabbed the reigns, urging the old farm horse into a gallop. Another arrow flew, sinking into the man's thigh. Come on! The cart shook violently, the stiff cart making it hard for him to keep his balance without holding onto the dying man tighter. Another arrow, sticking from the horse's neck this time. As he urged the horse on, Gelra saw the glint of metal against the black. Come ON! A raised arm swiftly lowered, a sword catching the horse on its shoulder and collar. Gelra fell back down into the cart, hoping not to receive the next sword swing. Chop. Warm wet along his arm. Thud. Pressure. He couldn't get up. The farmer was lying on top of him. He rolled out from underneath and got up, glancing at the riders; now behind him, but not chasing. Why? He swung his legs over and settled into the driver's seat, desperate to get to Bacha before it was too late. He was too afraid to see that it already was.
* * *
He woke up. Bright light shining on his face. What happened? He slowly became aware of a sore arm and that he wasn't wearing any clothes. There were a few pieces of cheap clothing folded and stacked on the floor by the mat he'd fell asleep on. After dressing and exiting the room he found himself standing in a long hall, similar doors to his own going on in a sequence of four, ending in a blank wall. He turned the other way and saw another pair of doors, this time ending in a door, barely open, with nothing but darkness beyond. He walked slowly towards it with legs as sore as his arm. Creak.
His eyes opened. Heavy breath. Another dream. The room was similar, but less bright than its fantasy counterpart. Clothes in a similar spot. Only once he smelled meat cooking and heard the muffled sound of people talking was he sure this wasn't a dream too. He left his room and entered a kitchen of some sort. A cook had his back turned to Gelra, leaning over a huge pot set over the fire.
"Glad you're up!" he said, not turning his back. "I was worried I'd find you as dead as the man you rode into town with!"
So he is dead. Damn it.
"I'm a bit sore, but I'll be fine. Do you know where my things are?"
"The owner's got them. You should be able to find him at the bar through there."
He thanked him and walked out of the kitchen and towards a tall man seated at the bar against the back wall. "Hello, I was told you have my things?"
"That'd be me, son," the bartender said as he reached underneath the bar to pull out a sack. "Your sword and other effects are locked in my office. The clothes you were wearing last night have been cleaned but I doubt you'll ever get the blood out. You can keep those if you want. Follow me," he said as he stepped out from behind the bar. Gelra followed sheepishly behind the man, gruff and standing a head taller, clutching at the cloth sack. His sword, armor, and purse sat on his desk.
"It's all there," he said, sitting down behind the desk. "Before you go, though, I'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Sure," he said, sitting opposite him.
"Did you get a good look at the people that attacked you last night?"
"Not really. It was dark, and they were wearing black themselves."
"How many were there?"
"Uh, four. Any idea who they were?"
"I can make a good guess," he said, reaching down and bringing up an arrow, blood covering the tip. "You see the feathers? I'd seen these before on a bird unique to the wastes of Sheshpal to the north. It's a common enough bird that I'm not saying who attacked you came from there, but I'd be surprised if they didn't. I've already notified the local sheriff, but I'd like you to use your connections as a swordsman to try and find these bastards. The sheriff's heard of similar attacks a few hours away. Nobodies been caught yet, and it all seems to be really small attacks like the one last night. A few men coming in out of nowhere and then vanishing. I don't want people thinking this area's unsafe. Bad for business." He leaned forward. "I'd like to say that a swordsman's come to take care of things. Think you can do that for me?"
Sweat began to form as his stomach dropped. "It'll be taken care of, I promise."
A smile formed on the man's face as he leaned back. "Great! That's just fine!" He stood up and began leading Gelra out with an arm around his shoulders. "I'll give word to the sheriff. In the meantime, borrow one of my horses. You'll need it if you're going to get around up in Sheshpal."
"Of course," he said, thinking about what he was going to write his uncle.
* * *
Death. That's what Sheshpal reminded Gelra of after the lush green of Shorpal. The soil couldn't support any more than thin brush and twisted trees. Small crawling things and the animals only big enough to eat them without bursting. The map given to him by the sheriff was an old one. How accurate it was could only be guessed at. Everything looked the same once he'd left the last town, where he'd gotten rest, water, bearings, and little else. Nobody had any information on the arrow or the men who'd attacked him.
Now he was here, alone, with nothing more to go on than a poor memory and an arrow. Every moment that passed was another chance for him to turn back. What would I tell them? What could I say? He'd thought of a million excuses, but he kept going. He'd almost convinced himself that it really was his problem. He'd been attacked, too, after all. But, somehow, that meant less to him than getting home. Yet, here he was.
He lifted his head and checked the sun, making sure he was still going in the right direction. When he did he noticed a cloud of dust in the distance. People. He kicked the borrowed horse into a quick trot, praying that they weren't moving further away from him. Hoping that the only reason he hadn't seen it before was because they were getting closer, and not because he just hadn't been paying attention.
He didn't have to wait too long to get an answer.
Soon, figures appeared in the distance. Many figures. It was a caravan, dozens of riders and large cloth-covered wagons, with a battle-hardened swordsman at its head.
The men accompanying him were initially hostile, but once they realized who Gelra was they backed down. "Do you not see what he carries? Refill his waterskins. So, Gelra, what brings you out here?"
After he explained what had happened to him and what he'd heard concerning the other attacks, Alyadim became deeply concerned. When Gelra showed him the arrow, a look of recognition flashed across his face.
"The make of it belongs to the Misa to the north," he said, and described how to get there.
"Would some of your men be able to accompany me? I fear I might get lost."
"I'd go with you myself if I could, but unfortunately there's a pressing matter which I must attend to, and I couldn't spare even a single man. All I can offer is the water and my prayers. Mind my directions and be careful. The Misa care for nobody but themselves, and it would be best to turn around and leave them alone."
"I can't do that, not until I confirm that they are the ones responsible."
"Suit yourself. I hope I get the chance to meet you again, young swordsman."
With that they moved on, Alyadim veering west and Gelra north. He arrived a few days later to find a small settlement populated by dead villagers. They'd been dead for a while, maybe a week. Parts were scattered everywhere, some appearing to have been partially eaten. Jackals, maybe. A few had arrows sticking out, the same make as the one Gelra carried with him. This should have been where these arrows came from. Had he gotten the directions wrong? Did he lose his bearings and end up in a village near where the Misa resided? It had taken longer to get here than Alyadim said it would take. He couldn't ask anybody here for directions, and the thought of wandering around here and probably getting lost didn't seem worth it, not by himself like this. He had to go back. This was too much for him.
"Thank you for your help," the sheriff said, taking back his map. "I'll spread word to some of the other baronies to gather men. They've slaughtered an entire village, and I don't see them stopping. I'd ask you to stick around and show us the way, but while you were gone a messenger came from the city. You're wanted by the Council immediately."
"Did they say what for?"
"No," he said. "Just that you're wanted."
He bought the horse off the tavern owner, having become fond of her travelling the wastes, and made for Skandagal. The entire journey he wondered why he was being recalled when the annual meeting, the only one he was ever requested to attend, was done and over with. The trip back took about as long it had before, weighed down by unfounded guilt instead of a wagon. He'd always just simply gotten by as Stupakparya, never being comfortable with a public position. Never made a fuss, never made waves. This message was unprecedented for him. He'd never been singled out like this, not since the sword he carried suddenly appeared to him one day almost nine years earlier, when he was only thirteen. Since then, he just did what he had to and that was it. He wasn't really excited about what he was now. After all—
"The year is 793. We've progressed far since the founding of this great city. We've achieved something many thought impossible: unifying the nations of this continent under one banner, that of the High Council of the Five Nations. Us."
Gelra stood before the panel of councilors, every one of them, in his mind, a copy of the next. They took turns speaking to him, but as far as he knew they all spoke as one. He had to make a conscious effort to try and look at them, but his head kept drifting back down to the floor. It's beautiful stone, whatever it's called.
"Gelra, we've come to the agreement that in this modern age of peace, the Stupakparya are reminders of a time when war was commonplace. However, times have changed, and the notion of war is a relic. That is why we have decided it is best for the people of this great land to abolish the tools of war, including the sword which you carry now." Guards came out of the shadows and moved towards Gelra. "As an act of good faith, we would like you to now relinquish your sword to us. The other swordsmen have been sent for, and are on their way to do the same. This is the beginning of a new chapter in our history. You should be proud to be the first." Gelra unclasped the sword belt. "You and the other swordsmen will be the example which the rest of the world will follow. Once we've gathered you all there will be an announcement held here to the rest of the nations. No longer will there be blood shed over trivial matters. We of the High Council shall be the ones to determine how disagreements are won, not through brute force but with debate and adjudication. Humanity is too precious and too civilized for anything less." A guard reached for Gelra's sword.
"But, what about rebels and gangs? I was attacked the day after I left this city."
"Yes, we'd seen the report. This is a small matter and will be dealt with accordingly."
"A man died! I was almost killed!"
"And they will be dealt with. Now please hand over your sword."
"You don't understand."
"A whole village was murdered!"
Not a single expression changed.
"Another matter to be dealt with. Guards, take the sword."