5. Lords of Opportunity

After slinking away from his ruined domain, Amar lost himself in lawlessness.

“Be quiet, woman!” snarled the thief who Amar knew only as Smart Grab. The thief was short with shoulders and arms so thick that they made his greasy-haired head look small.

The woman, draped in simple cream-colored garments, travel stained at the hem, pleaded for the thieves to stop tormenting her husband, who was face down in the road. Another thief named Huan ground his boot between the man’s shoulder blades. Smart Grab struck the increasingly shrill woman across the side of her covered face and sent her crashing into the side of her donkey cart.

Amar watched the abuse from atop his stolen horse. Part of him lurched inside as the woman cowered, finally silent after the blow from Smart Grab. Her headdress was askew and she struggled with shaking hands to straighten it and uncover her eyes.

Harshly, Amar pushed back his feelings. They belonged in Gendahl’s grave where he now stored his many griefs. Better to be this animal that had no compassion or responsibility. 

Huan stomped the squirming man. He shook the confiscated purse containing only a few copper rings over the man’s head and demanded to be told where the rest of their market coin was.

“I know you have more than this,” Huan said. “Your carts are empty. I know you sold goods in town.”

The dust of the road made mud on the man’s bloody, tear-streaked face. The man insisted that he had given them everything. He begged to be left alone and then offered his donkey and cart. The desperate generosity irritated Huan immensely. He kicked the man in the ribs and spat at him.

Amar turned his horse that he had stolen five weeks earlier from Patharki warriors and surveyed the area. A tall field of sorghum, green with brown crowns of grain, hid their activities from the direction of the nearest village, and the cut hay fields on the other side of the road were empty. The hay was curing in the hot sun, and its sweet grassy scent wafted over the bitter drama unfolding on the road. 

“There’s only one place left to look,” Smart Grab decided and reached for the woman. He jerked her harshly to her feet and tore at her voluminous garments. She fought him frantically, wailing for help. Her husband, despite his cracked ribs, tried to rise, but Huan hit him in the face with his confiscated purse and then, with frightening speed, cut his throat in a dagger flash.

Amar heard the unmistakable gurgle of blood in the throat and watched the progress of his two loathsome companions.

Huan put his dagger away and assisted Smart Grab in pinning the woman to the road in the shade of the cart. The donkey, heedless of it masters’ suffering, blinked patiently at flies. Perhaps the donkey had been worked too hard to care about the fate of its owners who had burdened it for years.

Once the woman’s clothes were half torn away, Smart Grab shouted with victory as he lifted out the fatter purse, heavy with coins from her time at market. Huan laughed at the silliness of men who expected the bodies of women to hide their coins when they could protect neither. Huan pushed off her headdress. Her begging for mercy was sobbing gibberish. With her husband’s blood soaking the dusty road in the late summer heat, she knew that she would not escape more suffering.

Amar saw her wild white eyes and silver hairs streaking her black braids that had been loosened in the scuffle.

Smart Grab moved quickly to dishonor her. Huan, still laughing, got up and bounced the purse in his bloodied hand.

“I told you they would be easy pickings, Amar,” Huan said amiably and walked over to him.

“I had only said that they were hardly worth the trouble,” Amar said defensively.

“I know,” Huan recalled and peeked inside the purse. “But even wolves hunt mice.”

Amar did not comment. He still was not quite sure how to talk to a man who would murder for the pittance paid a peasant’s produce.

The moans of the woman decreased as she diminished into silent horror, waiting for her attacker to finish.

Huan gathered the reins of his skinny horse and then swung into the saddle. “You want to have a go at her?” he asked Amar.

Amar narrowed his eyes contemptuously and still said nothing. He had found that his silence tended to elicit respect from rogues.

“I know. She’s too old for a young vulture like you,” Huan said. “Come on, Smart Grab, I’ve seen this show before and it’s not entertaining.”

Vulture. That’s apt, Amar thought. Many carrion birds had wheeled over the lost domain of the Lin Tohs.

Smart Grab left the woman crying and drooling in the dirt. He pulled up his pants and tied them closed and then proceeded to unharness the donkey from the cart. After scratching its face with an innocent friendliness that defied the nearby evidence of his viciousness, he swatted the animal playfully on the back and shooed it away. The donkey trotted into the hay field and began to eat.

Amar glanced questioningly at Huan, who shrugged. “He always sets donkeys free,” he explained.

Amar had not expected to discover a trait in Smart Grab so benign. Once Smart Grab was back on his horse, they rode away quickly. Although Amar tried not to look at the poor woman, he glanced down at her as he rode by. They had left her alive, but it was no mercy. A rape victim was expected to commit suicide. The shame would be too much for her family.

Agony exploded inside Amar as thoughts of his lost wife barged into his mind. Had she had a chance to kill herself when the Patharki broke through the defenses? Or had she been violated and then killed?

A sick chill swept through his soul. He kicked the ribs of his horse and galloped ahead of his companions. Emotions clawed at him like starving senshals quarreling over a rabbit. He had learned to block his tears, but memories of what he had seen in his devastated homeland could still break loose.

Images stampeded through his mind. He saw again the charred heap of fallen stones that remained of his stronghold at Do Tohsall, where once he had been lord. Thick timbers stuck out of the debris, blackened and crumbling. All the villages had been burned, except for a few houses here and there that had escaped the flames by only chance or laziness. The ashen remains of pyres accompanied each settlement where the bodies of people and animals had been burned. Bodies hanging from trees, bird-pecked and rotting, swayed in his mind. By their defiled clothing, Amar knew that they had been warriors in his service.

The demons of his memories were inescapable. The bitter punishment of it all smashed Amar’s heart upon a rock over and over. But he deserved his suffering, and it was far better retribution for his failings than quietly killing himself in the forest. He had no family left to shame.

Amar urged his horse to go faster and he veered off the road, cut across the last hay field and entered the forest. He wove between the trees, heedless of where he was going. He let the horse choose the path if only the animal would go fast. Wind rushing in his ears and the slapping of low branches helped to distract the mad rages in his head.

Eventually his mount tired of the pointless course and stopped by a stream to drink water. Amar dismounted. He stared at the flowing water. Vaguely he was thirsty, but he did not have the ambition to bend and scoop the water into his hands. He sank to the mossy bank and let his memories spill over him, surrendering to the current of his horror.

He recalled staggering from burnt village to burnt village in his former domain, weeping often and collapsing with grief. Only when he had been completely parched had he sought a creek from which to drink because he dare not draw any water from the wells.

As Gendahl’s tormented shade, he had wandered his old domain. This land that had always been his home had become entirely foreign to him. If the Gods of Gyhwen had not killed him here, then it was his place no longer.

He had resolved to leave. He would cast himself upon the world and fall into whatever crack opened for the ruined and damned. But before he went, he had traveled the roads of his domain again and cut down the bodies of his warriors. Digging them graves was too difficult but he had managed to pile crude cairns upon them. The effort had been exhausting and prompted him to seek food. From abandoned orchards he had found ripening fruit, and the occasional root cellar had been unmolested and given up vegetables for him to roast. The first time he had tried to eat, he had retched it up. The stench of death had permeated the land as well as his mind, but on subsequent tries, he had kept down some food.

Without Onja to provide for him and coax his body toward health with her power, his ribs had become more prominent and his cheekbones had sharpened. Yet he had continued to prowl about the Lin Tohs Domain in his sad limbo and attend to the bodies of his warriors, who unlike the common folk, had been left to rot instead of being burned.

As far as he could tell, he had finished the grim task late on a particularly hot day when the grip of summer was strongest. While washing his hands in a pond, Amar had heard the rumbling of approaching riders. Instinctively he had crouched among the reeds and watched a dozen Patharki warriors pass the pond on the road to the nearby village. He had presumed the warriors were there to begin staking out their land claims, which would be their rewards for the extermination of the tiny Lin Tohs Tribe, up and coming as a people no more.

They had slowed and then stopped when they had passed a row of fresh cairns. Amar had been able to faintly hear them discuss the cairns, but distance and their dialect prevented him from understanding them.

Bending deeper among the reeds, Amar had waited for night to fall. After having spent so much time outdoors, the half moon gave him plenty of light to see by. The campfires of the Patharki had been bright, and Amar had crept close to the tethered horses with his sword drawn.

With silence and swift anger he had slain the sentry posted on the horses. The blade chopped through muscle and bone and the sagging head never issued a warning cry. Amar had gone to his knees as the body slid off his blade.

Killing after so much time spent in useless despair had made his blood run hot again with life. Perhaps a cruel world had bequeathed him only cruelty as pleasure.

Amar had wanted to rush into the camp and kill as many Patharki by surprise as he could before being overwhelmed. But a chilling rationality had consumed his mind as the Patharki warrior cooled on the ground.

Gendahl is gone. Let Amar be what Amar can be, he had thought.

Amar had then stripped the dead Patharki. He had taken a sword, a dagger, some silver coins, and various small tools useful to life in the saddle. He had selected a horse and led it quietly away. With enough of a head start, Amar had escaped whatever pursuit the warriors had launched after finding their dead comrade. Amar had ridden west from his lost domain, descending the rougher foothill country and entering the flatlands. In the dense forests between the tribal domains, Amar had encountered his new companions.

Smart Grab and Huan had of course tried to rob him. They had confronted him openly in daylight as he rode a lonely trail between the lands of the Tacolucus and the prominent domain of the Temulanka. From the outset, Smart Grab and Huan had been assessing him because they suspected that he was more rogue than foolish traveler. Amar had met their threatening presence without fear. After drawing his sword, he had rolled his shoulders to warm up his body for the fight.

Naturally, Huan had chuckled. “You must have many valuables to risk fighting us, young man,” Huan had said.

“The Philosophers say that one’s greatest value cannot be taken,” Amar had said back.

“The Philosophers? What a high-born wanderer you must be,” Huan had said.

“The prattle of the Philosophers is no secret to common men who do not favor ignorance,” Amar had said. “Now move aside and let me pass or start this fight.”

But there had not been a fight. Huan had exchanged a look with Smart Grab, and in the silent way of men who ride together and commit crime together, they had made a decision without discussion.

Huan had asked Amar where he was going, and Amar had said that his business was his own but had added, “And who are you to question travelers in this place? Would you be the lords of this land?”

“We are the lords of opportunity. We obey no laws and impose few,” Huan had answered. “You, I’m thinking, are a citizen of our realm.”

Amar had given them his name then and they had done the same. He had been riding and thieving with them since that day, and they had pried little into his origins, except to ask him about his burnt hands. Amar had told them that it had been an accident with an oil lamp, which was plausible enough. With a sly and suspicious look, Huan had asked Amar about one of his swords. Not the common warrior’s sword taken from the Patharki, but the other blade that was smithed by a skilled man and crafted for a lord. The blade was of iron, not bronze. To maintain his aura of mystery, Amar had said that he did not recall where he had stolen it.

Amar supposed that soon enough he would lose track of what he had stolen or not stolen. With Smart Grab and Huan, he had robbed eight people and broken into three homes. He was not proud of it, but nor did he dislike it. There was a genuine thrill in living outside the confines of society and law. He could do what he wanted without regard to duty or family, past or future. He could forget himself.

Today had been especially violent though. Amar had no desire to be wanton with the employment of terror, but he had no right to judge his companions. They were vicious, and Smart Grab was arguably crazy, but they did not judge him and did not compel him to be overly violent if he had no urge to do so.

Amar blinked. The sunlight was dazzling on the jingling stream that he had been staring at for some time. He took a deep breath and emerged from his fog of memories. The pain remained, but his mind had regained a hold on the moment.

Suddenly, he realized he was not alone. He spun around and drew his sword. Panic slapped him for being oblivious to his surroundings.

Huan and Smart Grab stood among the trees just beyond the bank of the stream. They had chosen their ground well. The shadows of the trees fell across them, making it easy for the eye to pass over them if they did not move.

Amar lowered his sword warily.

Smart Grab moved through the foliage that crowded the bank. The sunlight over the stream was shiny on his oily hair. “What are you doing, Amar?” he said.

Amar did not answer.

Huan followed Smart Grab into the light. “If you meant to steal the loot and run off, you forgot to rob us,” he joked.

“I wanted to be alone,” Amar said grudgingly.

“Are you done?” Huan asked.

Amar nodded and splashed down the stream to retrieve his horse that had wandered down the bank. Huan called after him that they needed to ride all night.

Returning with his horse, Amar asked why.

“Summer’s end has a Thievesmeet,” Huan replied.

Amar wrinkled his forehead questioningly. It made him look young and naive.

Smart Grab chuckled. “He knows nothing.”

“That’s why he’s got to be introduced around,” Huan said.

Annoyed to be spoken of in the third person, Amar demanded to know what they were talking about.

“The weaklings who hide behind their lords’ laws have their faires and festivals. We have ours,” Smart Grab said and clearly he thought that Amar was hopelessly green.

With sudden seriousness, Huan said, “Amar, I see that you suffer. This is the life for men who have lost their place in the other world. You have nothing left to lose. That is why you are with Smart Grab and me. I know this.”

Amar had not expected such analysis from Huan. He had expected even less for Huan to care anything about him, but he seemed to be reaching out to him. Huan, and perhaps even Smart Grab, had shown him the concern of genuine companions. The bandits and rogues who roved the gaps between the tribal towns and cities were men as much as monsters. Amar realized that there was a culture in which he could live. At the very least, he supposed he needed a community where he could survive the winter.

“I lost my family,” he whispered. Harshly he chastised himself for sharing the detail. Exposing the vulnerability of his emotions was risky but the words were spoken.

Huan nodded and seemed to be on the verge of saying something meaningful, but he reverted to his lighter side and said, “Maybe you’ll have another someday.”

No, Amar thought without any doubt.

They traveled north. Smart Grab apparently knew every deer trail between the Temulanka Domain and the northern Kelsur frontier. They kept to the forests and did not use the roads, which was surely to the benefit of travelers.

After three days, they met another group of four men, who appeared even rougher and more dangerous than Huan and Smart Grab. They wore armor, much of it scuffed, dented and mismatched, and they bristled with maces and shields in addition to swords and daggers. One carried a bow with a quiver of arrows fletched in black and iridescent blue. Two dead ducks hung from his backpack. The men wore no tribal insignia that Amar recognized, but he saw how war had hardened these men. They were not just robbers and scoundrels. They were mercenaries.

Huan clasped his hands together and walked slowly toward the mercenaries. When Amar saw that Smart Grab was doing the same, he intertwined his fingers as well, but still hung back.

The mercenaries stared at the three thieves for a long uncomfortable moment, until the captain joined his hands in the same way and introduced himself as Rakir. Then the tension dissolved, and they all exchanged names. The other three mercenaries were Utuh, M’hen, and Daso, the archer.

Rakir and his fellows were traveling north to the Thievesmeet as well, which Amar surmised welcomed mercenaries as well. They all camped together that night, and Amar listened to Rakir share news of the larger world. Hearing about the intertribal goings-on interested Amar more than he had expected. Maybe he might be able to take an interest in the world again. Trying to function, even among the lawless, was better than blundering in his grief. But when Rakir started to speak of the destruction of the Lin Tohs, Amar’s stomach strained queasily against his supper.

“No one saw how hard the Patharki were going to hit that little tribe,” Rakir said. He paused to suck some meat off the leg bone of a duck.

I should have seen it, Amar thought, and Gendahl’s shade stirred restlessly. Amar could try to stow away his grief, but he had only leaky jars to hold it.

Rakir continued, “Ginjor Rib, cheap bastard, didn’t hire any mercenaries to keep it all quiet. But I’m thinking next year, we find some work with the Tacolucus or maybe even the snobby Temulanka. They’ll be nervous from this boldness shown by Ginjor Rib. I’m thinking those tribes might want the Patharki annoyed and distracted on a regular basis.” He tossed his bone aside. “We’ll see.”

“I heard the Patharki made a thorough ugly job of their attack,” Daso said in a whispery voice reminiscent of an arrow hissing through the air.

Amar’s guts coiled around themselves. Even with his appetite killed, he shoved the duck wing in his mouth and picked at it with his teeth as a way to keep his horror from showing on his face.

Daso said, “It is being said that the Lin Tohs are no more. Has anyone seen stray warriors escaped from the fight?”

“I heard some rumor of a few going south,” Huan answered carelessly.

Amar wondered if there was any truth to Huan’s statement. Then he noticed Smart Grab giving him a queer look across the campfire.

He knows, Amar thought, but what did it matter? As long as no one suspected that he was Gendahl, he was just another ruined warrior without a home.

Rakir said that he believed hardly any Lin Tohs escaped the carnage because of their remote home. The Patharki would have had much opportunity to cut them down before they could reach distant towns or cities into which they could disappear into anonymity. “Or, they have gone into the wild lands that surrounded their domain,” Rakir suggested.

At the mention of the wild lands, Onja sprang into Amar’s thoughts. Her beauty and power exploded brilliantly out of his memory, and he was comforted to know where she dwelled in the Espen Forest. With a sudden pang of regret, he wished that he had not left her.

Amar considered returning to her. He was not so close to these new companions that he needed to give any explanation or excuse about leaving. He could just ride away, but curiosity compelled him to stay. Amar wanted to see the Thievesmeet and learn more about the workings of the underworld.

I will look for Onja after I have done this, he thought and he liked the decision. He could discuss what he learned with Onja. He suspected that she would be interested.

The next morning, the thieves and mercenaries started early when the birds were just greeting the dawn with songs. They broke their fast on the trail, eating hard stale hunks of bread. Amar considered how they killed for money yet lived with no luxury. Perhaps it would be different at the Thievesmeet.

Rys Rising, web novel chapter , , ,

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