The next six days of travel were an easy thing. Their water kept more in than on their bodies, thanks to Nather’s magic. They drank sparingly, though Anya’s consumption was unchanged. “My armor offers much the protection the boy does the rest of you. Though I am pleased now that Balor and I are not slowed by the rest of you.”
They had quickened their pace after the cart and its skeletons. There had been some talk about what the monsters’ purpose had been, but the only thing they were certain of was that the skeletons had been sent.
“Undead can happen without a necromancer,” Anya had said, “like bread moldering. But these were no tomb shamblers. They were transporting those jars, not barrow haunting.”
“Agreed,” Balor said. “The mindless do not tie knots. The ropes were secured by thinking hands, living or dead. And that cart…”
Anya nodded, frowning. “Wood with rope. Where could that have come from? It was old, falling apart. The wood imported from Senna is nothing like that.”
Windrider chimed in, “Not that it much matters. Nather sent it all to hell with one of his fireballs.”.
“Unless,” Balor said, “that was but one of many.”
“A plague of undead,” Anya said, “spreading those sands all across the desert.” Her lip twitched at one corner and it looked like she might snarl.
Anya said that she had to speak with the garrison commander when they arrived at Fort Waken. “The military must be informed and the forts made ready. An internal threat like that is not what they are prepared for.”
There were forts scattered all through the desert. They were set in misshapen rings to protect from encroachment of the many enemies that beset the Iron Emperor’s land. That was what Anya told her companions at least. “Each one is a town, with a population, but their greatest boon to the nation is their acting as a buffer between an advancing force and the capitol.
“It would be best if you parted with your pet now,” Anya told Nather.
“She means Gnolly,” Windrider said. “We’re going back into civilization.”
“It’s an outskirt fort town,” Anya said. “Don’t exaggerate.”
“She has a point,” Balor said. “At least where Gnolly is concerned. The gnolls are a hated people, more so than even my own. I may be able to walk freely into the outpost, especially alone. But the gnoll is like as not to be killed on sight.”
“Why?” Nather asked.
“Because they are all raiders and slavers.” Windrider said. “Not of the official slave trade, of course. They’re more apt to keep those captured to themselves until death. Then, of course, eat them.”
Though Nather was not pleased to see Gnolly go, the gnoll understood freedom was on offer and took it before his captors could put him to the sword. He thanked them, especially Nather, in the barks and yips. Balor was good enough to translate. The gnoll retreated, slipping along the sands and between dunes until he was a speck, and then nothing at all.
“I hope he’s alright,” Nather said.
“He’s a desert creature”, Windrider told him. “This is his place. Ours – mine at least – is in a city.”
They did not find a city. Fort Waken was a small town bordered by a fifteen foot wall of solid sandstone. The gate was operated by two guards who stood atop platforms on either side of the entrance, shielded behind the wall.
They called out to comrades the group could not see as the four approached from the desert. Anya strode to the front and hailed the gatekeepers. “Greetings. I am Lieutenant Anya Maynala Sebal. I would see your commander.” At her words the pair looked confused. They looked at Anya, clad in elf crafted steel, and spoke with a mix of suspicion and reverence.
“We’ll let you in, Lieutenant, but we must know why you are here.”
“To tell our commander,” the other added hurriedly.
“A threat to the nation. Say that much, and to your commander only.”
They looked as if they wanted more of her, but one took his leave, disappearing as he went down unseen steps. The other remained to watch them.
To the group, Anya said. “A town of this size, they may have only seen a true elf once, maybe twice in the span of any citizen’s life. One with my blood is not as rare, but still a sight to them.” She shook her head. “Backwater pisspot. At least it has a wall. Better than where we started out from.”
Windrider rubbed his chin. “And how will you explain us away?”
She sighed. “I have much and more to answer for in the loss of my ship. There will be repercussions. Those might be lessened, should I present the missing slaves to my employers.” She looked over their faces, then shook her head. “But no. I will think of something.”
“You haven’t already?” Balor frowned.
“So we go our separate ways here?” Windrider said.
She considered that. “It might be best. The longer you keep to my company, the more likely your recapture.”
They were ushered in past the first gate. The second was well past the frontmost area of the town. The garrison made up the most forward portion of the settlement, a hall of arrow slitted buildings that any trader would have to pass before, under the dozens of watchful eyes, before they could bring their goods to market.
Even now thirty or more men, each in leather armor and armed with spear and short sword, watched from street level. They were eager for any sign that the newcomers offered threat to their home.
Windrider could not at first place the xenophobia of the soldiers at their arrival. They had of course sent Gnolly off to curb such a reaction. Of course, a half-elf officer, a boy with moving hair and yellow-red skin, and a towering orc were probably enough unexpected things mixed together to make any guard prefer to be off duty today. Still, he could not shake the feeling that there was more to their worry.
The commander was beside the town’s well. It sat in the center of the street the military controlled. This made it for all eyes to see who came and went, and kept it under the control of those defending the town. The commander was human as well, skin tanned, sand colored hair left exposed. His helm rested against his hip as he sipped from a steel mug. This was set it on the edge of the well’s bricks when he moved to meet the newcomers. He saluted, clenching a fist over his heart. “Lieutenant Sebal.”
“Captain,” Anya said.
“Harrison, if it pleases you, Lieutenant. What brings you and your group to us?” The effort it took for Harrison not to look past her and scrutinize her company was a tension in the air that prickled the hairs on Windrider’s arms.
“We are a number who survived an attack on the ship left in my care by my employers. We were conscripted to a private service by parties I may not disclose. These three and I were off the ship, beating back raiders that had sacked a village, when my crew took the opportunity to steal the vessel and make for Lord knows where.”
“What kind of ship?”
The captain whistled. “Forgiveness, Lieutenant Sebal, but I am glad to not be you.” He shook his head.
“There is worse news yet,” Anya said, not dwelling on her failure. She told the Captain Harrison about the skeletons and their cart of mobile black sand.
“And you think there are others?”
“There was intent to the machination,” Anya said.
Nather busied himself twisting his head this way and that, wandering a few paces from the group, but never too far, as though a tether kept him within ten paces. Balor, to Windrider’s shock, was quiet. He had been silent for much of their trek, save when resting, when he would talk to no end about the world, and launch into arguments with Anya. She said he was a fool for taking stock in myths. He said she was manipulated by propaganda that posed as history.
He was silent now. Maybe he thought an orc’s words would do little to sway soldiers. Compared to a lieutenant’s, that was so.
“I’m hungry,” Nather said. He had circled around to where the Captain spoke to Anya, and said this directly to the man. Windrider winced and made to pull the boy back to him.
Captain Harrison’s expression made Windrider freeze. In the gladiator’s mind flashed an image of himself on his knees, a short sword in his chest. He blinked it away. Magic? It was there and gone, and he had seen no chanting or waving of hands. But then, couldn’t Nather cast his spells without such trappings?
The captain turned to look down at the boy. “Food can be provided for the lieutenant’s companions. Forgive me, but I have to inquire about your coloration. You look unlike any half-elf I’ve seen.”
“I’m from the fire country,” Nather said.
Of course he would say that. It had been Anya’s doing, telling him where he was most likely from. It was obvious enough, with his skin and hair and the warmth he gave off if someone was near enough to feel. Still, there was little reason to walk up to an armed soldier of a neighboring and hostile country and outright tell them you were the enemy.
The easiest thing for Anya would be to give them back over to slavery. Their resources would not suffice for travel to another enclave. The three were at her mercy here, and it seemed all but Nather realized it.
“He’s an ambassador,” Anya said. “A representative sent to treat.”
Windrider fought to blank his face. A cold chasm opened in his bowels. This was a good lie. It snatched them from the mouth of a hard and bloody death at the spears of these assembled men. Yet Windrider felt he had been spun from pointed certain death and hung flailing over a precipice that might mean his end or an eternity of falling.
Balor, that bastard. His face was hidden by a mask. Slowly, Windrider looked to Nather’s face. There lay the single greatest threat to Anya’s tale.
“I’m an ambassador?” Nather asked Anya.
She sighed and looked at the captain, apologetic. “The common tongue is not often used in his barbarian West.” To Nather, she said, “Yes. You are an ambassador. You represent your country here. You are to act in the interests of fire wherever you go. Isn’t that so?”
He cocked his head, then nodded vigorously. “Oh yes. I do whatever my fire tells me I should.
They ate in a room given to Anya for the purposes of her stay. The Captain had been with them for the meal, but left near the end, after some version of the tale was spun by Balor, who seemed uncomfortable with hyperbole. He would tell things factually well enough, but that left lying up to Windrider and Anya. Nather played the part of foreigner to perfection. Everything about him, his childish speech, his lack of manners, his tendency to blurt things out, all came together to paint the picture of exactly the kind of ambassador that would leave them feeling superior and safe. The stories included very little of Nather’s explosions and the melting of humanoids.
To Windrider’s suprise, the boy didn’t throw in his own exploits. Anya and he were both only too happy to share each blade stroke in detail, trying to get the Captain to wince or smile. Nather had no ego though. He treated his powers as natural, and despite having been in attendance, listened in rapt attention to each word spoken by the other three as they told the story.
“You could have given us over,” Balor said.
“Remember that,” Anya said. She pulled herself from the table. “This is my room. There is only one bed, and I’m not sharing. Find a place in town. The coin you scavenged from that razed village should be enough for that at least.”
She threw open her door and held a hand to it. Windrider grinned and got up. “And here I thought you had grown fond of my company.”
Anya smiled. “Never yours. Go.”
They went. The three males were allowed through the second gate and found themselves a room at an inn. There were two beds. Balor was too long for either. Besides, he slept sitting, legs crossed. He said he was meditating, but neither of the others believed that. He snored too much for one seeking inner peace.
In bed, Nather talked. He did that if nobody quieted him, his words spilling out like light from a dying candle.
“So that was a village before, with the dead people and gnolls?”
“It was,” Windrider said, back to the boy. There was a faint glow to Nather’s eyes that could only be seen in total dark, even when his lids were shut. It was enough to keep the gladiator from falling asleep if he faced it.
“And this is a town?”
“Yes. Towns are bigger than villages. This one is also a fort. It has a wall, and some military, a militia. It can defend itself.”
“Right.” Nather was quiet for a breath. “So why don’t they all have walls?”
“Not enough masons and mages, I would think. Workable stone is easy to come by, but you need skilled hands or magic to make it a wall.”
“They had buildings in the village.”
“So did someone want it attacked?”
Windrider went cold again. He felt that place that had opened up inside when Anya had told her lie.
He hadn’t thought about that at the time. The port town hadn’t had a wall, but it had been meant for docking sand ships. It had a well, and that alone would have given its people reason to rip their homes apart for the material to barricade themselves in and water thieves out.
He sat up in bed. Nather stared at him, still on his side, the thin blanket that came with his bed bunched at the foot.
“Things aren’t making sense,” Windrider said. “You’re right. There should have been a wall. Lest why did we stop there at all?” He thought of the skeletons and all the questions and ideas Balor and Anya had thrown at each other. Why hadn’t they been talking about this missing wall? “Did you see anything? When you ran out to chase the gnolls, did you trip on masonry, a foundation for something broken or old?”
“No,” Nather said. “did you?”
“No. And the gnolls had no siege gear. They couldn’t have knocked a wall down, not with their shit weapons and claws. They could have gone over one, but then there would have been one when we arrived.”
“Maybe they attacked because there wasn’t one.”
“But that doesn’t explain…” Windrider looked at Balor. “Hey! Wake up!”
“I am fully aware of my surroundings,” the orc said. “Do not raise your voice. The owner will ask us to leave.”
“Well?” Windrider demanded in a whisper so loud it came out normal volume. “What of this missing wall?”
“A good question. I was too preoccupied with thoughts of freedom and our captive to consider it. You are both right though. That outpost would not have existed without one, and would not have been a stop either.”
“Yet the ship stopped there, even though they saw there was no wall.”
“And left after we were off,” Balor said.
“The mutiny wasn’t because of the gnolls,” Windrider said. “It was part of a plan.”
“There is a stink of premeditation.”
“Someone wanted us off the ship?” Nather said.
“Could Anya be in on it?”
“I don’t think so, but we cannot know for sure. She was not in the hold, after all.”
“I thought Anya was our friend.”
“Anya doesn’t have friends,” Windrider said. “But either she got caught up in all this too, or she’s come along to keep an eye on us.”
Balor shook his head. “A scheme of this size would have to have some end. What would be the point? I am a scholar. You a retired pit fighter. The boy…” Balor opened his eyes then, blinking and looking at Nather. The room was dark, but the orc’s eyes gleamed like polished stones in the light that came from the boy’s own. “Nather, is there anything else about you that you haven’t told us?”
“I don’t know. I answered all your questions about where I came from and fire. Do you have more questions?”
“Asking him about what made him special is like asking sand why it isn’t the sky,” Windrider said. “He knows only his part in things.”
“Then what do you suggest?”
Windrider thought, touching a scar close to his heart. “Tomorrow we go back to the soldiers and Anya. We find out what her plan is from here. If we like it, we follow along. If we don’t, well, we slip our collars again.”
“I would prefer something more in the way of a plan for escape than that.”
Nather raised a hand. “I can blow a hole in the wall.”
“And that will get us out, make us criminals, and not stop a hundred spears and bolts from being driven into our backs.”
“I prefer to think on my feet,” Windrider said. “And a full stomach. Rest. We’ll figure it all out come morning.”
Balor shook his head. “As if rest were an easy thing after what you’ve dredged up.”
It was twenty minutes before Nather and Windrider were hearing the throaty snores from the orc’s throat.
Fundamental Forces, Episode 8 by Ryan Deugan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.