This is an account of the adventures of Quayam Srae, Thristen Allomere, and Gristel Virage in the Western Outlands of Clarus as they try to arrange for the cooperation of the local inhabitants in the building and maintaining of a road. If built, this road will allow iron to be brought from the Star Mountains in the north, to Varay in the south, and from there to Ursia, where the price of iron has risen as a result of an embargo placed upon the country by its neighbor, Endor. We invite you to look at the maps and documents that accompany the diary, if you want more explanation of the Claran Ecumen and its history. Our heroes do not build any roads during the course of the episode, but instead go about meeting orcs, gnolls, black-orcs, and kobolds. Around the middle of the episode, they are diverted from the Western Outlands to protect the desert road east of Ursia from armies of what appears to be undead orcs. But they return to the Outlands after that, and continue with their political and economic planning. At the center of their travels is their relationship with Falmut Grossman, the owner of the Green Horn Tavern, and Thristen's relationship with an orc woman called Zak, who he meets at the Green Horn Tavern.
The diary takes a traditional form: dates with events. Most entries are brief, with exposition of events. Other entries are more lengthy, with dialog and a description of the setting in which events took place. As the diary proceeds, the lengthy entries begin to outnumber the brief entries, until the diary takes the form of a novel.
17-OCT-2481: Throm returned with Bolus from Draxius, arriving Jamchelk in May, and flying by hippogriff to Pakesh, arriving in June. She collected $290k immediately of the $400k owed to her on the Medusa Photograph Bet. She rents an apartment in Pakesh, and relaxes for a while.
As a result of her success and her excellent photographs, she gets plenty of media attention, which eventually attracts the Ursian government to ask her to work for them as a hippogriff-riding photographer. Shahram Karadan, secretary to Mohsin Kurd to whom Quayam and Thristen talk directly, invites Throm to his office. She meets him on 17 October.
21-OCT-2481: Quayam and Thristen say goodbye to their women and children and leave on the destrier carriage for Karadan in the company of Fornikant Pelagi. Fornikant was born in Weiland. He is 57 year old, 198 cm tall, 85 kg, and wears a goatee. He is a wizard trained in the Vatzit University, in the Vale of Wortham. Now he is acting as the Ursian Emissary to Prolixus. Thristen is responsible for taking Fornikant to Prolixus, keeping him there long enough to complete his diplomatic mission, and returning him to Pakesh. Quayam is going to watch the Endan border near Mashad for signs of Endan interference.
23-OCT-2481: Quayam gets off at the Ababadan stop and says goodbye to Thristen and Fornikant. He walks from the little-used stop, five kilometers to the small settlement of Ababadan, which lies upon the caravan route from Karadan to Pakesh. Quayam gets a room in the caravansary, and meets Malcomn Watford (40 yrs) of Weiland, who is travelling back from Karadan all the way to his home, in the company of his son James (17 yrs). Malcomn has four Weilandic guards with his four camel-drawn wagons. They are the Corning brothers from Weiland, just hired in Karadan for the entire trip back (John, Bob, Matthew, Stanley).
Thristen and Fornikant arrive in Karadan in the late evening. Orphus "The Kraken" Reamer meets them at the station and takes them to his house, where they have supper and go to bed.
Ababadan is two hundred meters across, with a mud wall, and fifty-three inhabitants, most of whom are goatherds, but there is the hostel, run by Jamsheed, and the caravansary, run by Fatimeh Begoom. Jamsheed is a handsome man in his forties, and Fatimeh Begoom is a capable, charming, well-preserved woman in her forties. Working for Fatimeh is Shireen, who cleans and cooks. There is a watering hole for animals in the center of the town, and a well for clear water off to one side, in a circle of blue tile. An old man looks after the clear-water well, and accepts donations from travelers.
24-OCT-2481: There are two new sailors on the Sorrel Sun, both Endan, two women lovers. Thristen orders them removed from the crew on full pay for the duration of their trip to Endromis.
Throm meets her pleasant-natured hippogriff of the Ursian Air Force. He is called Seah. He is almost all black. She flies to Varay for her first job.
25-OCT-2481: Sorrel Sun sets sail for Endromis with Thristen and Fornikant on board. They plan to dock at Dravius, on the West side of Endromis, and go overland a hundred kilometers to Prolixus (also known as Gondiath).
Quayam introduces himself to each of the Ababadan residents. Shireen has figured out who he is already, there are some QTG stories in the copies of The Adventurer's Gazette in the caravansary's common room. He tells the goatherds he is here watching to make sure the laws of Ursia are upheld despite incursions by Endans. Some of the goatherds, however, remain suspicious of him.
26-OCT-2481: Throm sets off early in the morning and begins to survey the borderlands up on the North-East edge of the country. She is supposed to take photographs for a full day. After four hours, a black orc on a wyvern swoops down on her out of the sun and attacks with a lance. She swerves aside and dives for Varay. The wyvern overtakes her and flies overhead, upside-down so that the black orc is looking down at her. He does not attack her again. She lands in Varay, then makes her way home. The government pays her $1000 per day for the four days of her trip.
2-NOV-2481: For the third time, Endans board the Sorrel Sun asking for papers and permits. This time, the ship is only two days from Dravius. On the Endan navy three-master there are twenty plate-armored knights. Two come aboard the Sorrel Sun with a platinum-haired woman. She walks tall and straight, and commands the men. She orders Thristen and Fornikant to get their things and come aboard her ship. She will take them to Dravius. Thristen acquiesces.
On the ship, the woman assigns them two small cabins. Thristen find a Jesuit prayer book in one of them. The Jesuits are reported by Ursia's spies to be keen for war, and keen to stir up trouble between the two nations. Later in the afternoon, Thristen and Fornikant overhear a conversation on the deck above their rooms, in which the captain appears to be discussing with a knight how they are going to get rid of their two unwanted guests by throwing their bodies overboard. Thristen's Endan is good enough to understand. He grew up in Anplery, where the language is almost identical to Endan.
Over dinner with the woman, the captain, and two knights, Thristen and Fornikant have a few laughs. The woman gives her name as Lucinda. They sleep well enough after, but they squeeze into the same cabin for safety.
While Thristen is rocking on the ship, Quayam is sleeping soundly in his room in the caravansary, the windows open to let the cool, dry, night air come in. Shireen bursts into the room and wakes him up. There are people in the town, she says. He dresses and goes out into the square, where he hears doors breaking, women screaming in alarm, and heavy boots tramping around.
He runs to a nearby house, where he finds two Endan soldiers searching a goatherd's house while the goatherd and his family cower in their main room. The soldiers wear chain armor and carry long-swords. Quayam orders them to drop their weapons and surrender. They attack him. Quayam kills one of them with his sticks. The other fells, Quayam gets him too, breaks a few of his bones, and takes his sword.
He heads back to the caravansary and goes in the back way. He finds Shireen and Fatimeh being questioned by the captain of the Endan soldiers.
"Get out of here," Quayam says, "You have no right to be here. This is Ursian soil."
"You have the moral higher ground, sir," the captain says, "But I have twenty men."
The captain must have seen the sword in Quayam's hand, so he may have subtracted at least one man from his company, or maybe not. Quayam was just thinking of the reply, "Eighteen men," when the captain gets word from one of his men, and leaves out the front way.
Quayam follows. The soldiers converge upon the hostel, where they capture someone Quayam does not recognize, perhaps because it is too dark. Quayam hears Jamsheed protesting, too. The soldiers are about to open the East gate and leave, but Quayam covers the gate with surrounding sponge.
Shireen runs up with Quayam's bow and arrows, which he left in his room. He puts them to use immediately, firing at the soldiers. There is no moon, but the stars give him enough light to hit a moving target. A man, presumably the captive, breaks away from the soldiers and runs towards Quayam.
Quayam tells the man to crouch down beside him, and keeps firing at the soldiers. The captain orders a charge. The man runs away, and Quayam is surrounded by the soldiers. He backs towards the wall, defending himself with his stolen long-sword. He takes down three soldiers.
The captain orders the soldiers off to the West side of the town. Quayam dons his armor with Shireen's help. The town's inhabitants gather in the square by the light of lanterns and torches. Quayam goes to the West gate, intending to follow the soldiers out of the settlement. But the gate is shut. He starts searching the town.
It is only in the morning that he sees the tracks of the soldiers leading both in and out of the West gate. They closed the gate behind them, and he thought them still inside.
Quayam finds out that the stranger captured by the Endans was an Anoni rebel fleeing south, and hiding for a night in Ababadan with one of the goatherds. The goatherd reveals all to Quayam now, and would have done sooner if he had not doubted Quayam's allegiance.
3-NOV-2481: With the Ababadanis watching, Quayam summons a hippogriff, and in the first light of dawn flies off in pursuit of the soldiers. He soon finds them, almost to the Fen River and riding on horses. There are seventeen soldiers mounted. One man is obviously wounded. Another soldier leads his horse. Jamsheed and the Anoni rebel are riding double with two of the soldiers. There are three or four spare horses.
Quayam swoops down and fires arrows at the riders until they scatter. He loses sight of Jamsheed, and then the Anoni. He flies to the river and puts up a 100-m wall of conjured sponge in front of the ford. But the riders don't show up at the ford.
Quayam waits an hour, then flies around looking for them. He finds their tracks at one point, in the late afternoon, and follows them to a sharp defile in a limestone outcrop. They fire crossbows at him as he approaches, but he gets in. They flee out the other side of the defile on their horses. He fails to capture any one of them, or kill one, and he does not see either prisoner.
Quayam runs back to his hippogriff and takes off. He soon sees the horsemen riding in all directions but south. He finds at least six, but none of them carry either prisoner. He keeps looking all day, but to no avail, and the horsemen disappear into the trees on the south side of the river.
Meanwhile, Thristen and Fornikant on the Jesuit ship drop anchor outside the Dravius harbor. There are forty Endan three-masted warships in the harbor, anchored all in a pack. Fornikant thinks it is a display for their benefit. Thristen thinks how much damage a few hippogriffs and thunder-eggs could do.
The Sorrel Sun has been following them all the way, and drops anchor nearby. It is an hour before dark. The Jesuit ship will drift in on the morning tide and send Thristen and Fornikant ashore. Thristen instructs the Sorrel Sun, through his space bridge to the captain, that they should wait here for their return.
Quayam retires to the ford and spends the night watching his wall. In the middle of the night, he sees a dozen soldiers (leaving at least one unaccounted for) leading their horses through the forest along the edge of his sponge wall. When they go around the edge of it, he puts a sponge in front of them so they can't get to the ford. He regrets it immediately, he might have trapped them between the sponge and the ford. The soldiers mount up and ride in the light of the stars along the tow-path by the river, heading East.
4-NOV-2481: Quayam follows on his hippogriff. After a few hours, the riders get to a small town on the river, called Babulsar. Four barges are tied up. The soldiers attack the barge guards and take possession of one of the barges. They ride their horses onto it and start poling out into the river. The barge guards fight well. One even jumps onto the barge before being driven off and into the water.
Quayam flies down and drops sponges on the barge. He fires arrows too. Several horses fall in the water, the barge flounders in the middle of the river. The soldiers take their armor off and swim for the Endan side. Quayam lands to meet them and knocks out three of them. The rest escape into the forest.
Quayam interrogates the men he has captured, but they refuse to say where their captain is, or claim they don't know. He kills one in his efforts to get them to speak, and beats the hell out of two others. He resolves to learn how to torture people, so he can do it without killing next time.
Quayam helps the barge guards retrieve the barge, captures two more Endans who crawl out on the bank, interrogates them with as little success as the others, and then takes the four surviving prisoners into Babulsar, where he has them thrown into the jail. The chief of the guards, the intrepid Garak Ban, says he'll keep watch over them.
After breakfast, Thristen and Fornikant go ashore in a boat rowed by half a dozen sailors. Lucinda goes with them, and a couple of knights. On the docks, they meet Mario Elia, the Endan Undersecretary for Ursian Relations. In his company are twenty knights. They say goodbye to Lucinda and follow Mario through the docks to the city. Twenty-three horses wait for them there. Twenty are heavy war-horses for the nights. Two are light horses for Mario and Fornikant, and the final horse is a strong but simple beast for Thristen to ride. Thristen is wearing chain armor.
The mounted party rides out of the city, and climbs through rolling fields until they enter a hilly forest. The road winds between the hills for fifty kilometers and then descends to a plain. The trees come to an end and they are in farming country again, with ancient hedgerows. The road is sunk into the ground by its age, so that they can rarely see the country around them. But finally they enter a vast cleared area where the road runs true to the citadel of Prolixus.
The city encircles a large hill, rising to a summit of five hundred meters, and topped by astonishing towers of shining stone. The outer wall is fully thirty meters high and ten meters thick. Within is a park that girdles the inner wall, which is as tall and thick as the outer one. They pass through the inner wall and enter the city proper. Mario tells them that Prolixus has never been taken, even though it was besieged half a dozen times by the Weiland Empire, back before the Dark Ages, and attacked by marauding orcs numerous times during the dark ages.
The buildings of the city are magnificent. Thristen has never seen so much polished marble and granite. Endromis has plenty of both types of stone, and the best masons for the working of them in the sapien world. The blacksmiths of Prolixus are also renowned, and both easier to work with and less expensive than the dwarves.
"But surely the dwarves can outdo sapien blacksmiths," Fornikant says.
"In some ways," Mario says, "I have never seen intricate mechanisms to match those of the dwarves. I've never seen the same piece be reproduced so exactly as by dwarves. But I've yet to hear of a dwarf blade that astounds our blacksmiths, and it is for the instruments of war that our people toil at the anvil."
"I've been here twice to buy armor and weapons," Thristen says, "This suit here was made in Prolixus."
"No higher praise need be given," Fornikant says.
After a long ride, the party reaches the Federal Campus on the top of the hill, and Mario shows them to their rooms in a fancy hotel. After a bath and a change of clothes, they go to the Campus and have a quick encounter with the King and some of his men. There is an official dinner at which several senators and many secretaries are present. After dinner, there is a play in an adjacent theatre. The actors all wear masks during the performance. After the play, the guests are treated to music, dancing, and fine wine. The actors, still wearing their masks, mingle with the guests.
One actor whispers to Thristen, "I am an Ursian agent."
He gives his code name and warns Thristen that there is a Jesuit plot afoot to assassinate Fornikant. He says he will be outside Thristen and Fornikant's room after the party, and they can climb out of the window and be taken to safety by Ursian sympathizers. Then the actor vanishes into the crowd.
After the party, in their room, Thristen and Fornikant give plenty of thought to their predicament, or possible predicament. Thristen appears to trust Jeff Bridges (of Weilandic descent like Richard Crockford) and the three other well-armed soldiers assigned the duty of guarding the two of them during the day. The night shift, however, is another matter. Their leader is Horatio Bellazario, and Thristen has not had much time to determine the character of this man.
Two guards are in the street below the window, and two outside. Later, however, the two in the street are either hiding in the shadows or gone, and Thristen, looking out of the window, sees someone light a match in the shadows below. He closes the curtain. He's tired. He decides to summon a kobold to keep guard while he sleeps. His pantheon grants the summoning and his kobold arrives. But then Thristen, seeing the scaly little warrior, decides he cannot sleep with it in the room, and sends it back, despite its protests as to the poor mark that this return will leave upon his honor.
So Thristen stays up until six in the morning, then sleeps from six until eight while Fornikant is awake.
After breakfast, they meet with three senators, the most aggressive of which is Fabio Elatis. This man is so devious and annoying in his discussion with Fornikant, that Fornikant gets annoyed, and starts to lose his clarity of thought. Thristen marvels to see a wizard put at a disadvantage, but it goes on for an hour, until suddenly Thristen hears Fornikant confirming that the Ursian Air Force has a thousand hippogriffs.
Fornikant realizes immediately that he has been duped. He is so angry and dismayed that he attempts to beguile Fabio. Fabio, however, is well-trained in beguiling, and fends the spell off easily.
"The wizard just cast a spell on me," he says, "Guards: seize him."
Fornikant is so confused, he does not even try to deny the accusation. He stands up and two guards take his arms. "I surrender my office to you," he says to Thristen, "See if you can do better."
The senators are looking at him and at Fornikant. The guards are waiting to take the two of them away. Should he go with Fornikant to a cell? Should he fight? Neither seems acceptable. Should he escape himself? Not unless absolutely necessary.
"I am now the official representative of the Ursian Government. From this point on, all your negotiations will be with me."
"What?!" Fabio says.
"I confirm Thristen Alomere's appointment to the position of emissary, and surrender my responsibilities to him," Fornikant says.
After a few more questions, Fabio tells Thristen to sit down. Fornikant stands back with the two guards on either side. "I now assume the role of bodyguard to the emissary," he says.
"Ha!" Mario says.
"What does Endromis want from Ursia?" Thristen says.
Fabio argues that the Ursian government, as both trading corporation and government, has an unfair advantage over Endan traders in the seas bordering the West coast of Idonius. Even in Isikoss (Phthisk), merchants are so afraid of the trading wizards, that they will sell to the wizards at a lower price than they will to Endans. The Endan government feels that it must defend its trade with counter-balancing intervention.
The Endan navy and army are both ready to defend Endan interests, and Endromis will gather all its allies to the cause.
"You are going to declare war upon Ursia," Thristen says.
"We would rather not," Fabio says, "Because we have nothing against your people, only your government. We have a list of demands that the Ursian government can meet in order to avoid war."
Fabio produces a fifty-page document. Thristen looks at it. It asks the Ursian government to pull out of certain ports, or to give a certain proportion of trade to Endan merchants. There are many detailed demands, any one of which could be interpreted in a broad or a narrow sense, so that Thristen gets the immediate feeling that he would rather not have the Ursian government comply or promise to comply with any of them. But he makes no comment.
"I will read these today, and give you an answer tomorrow," he says.
"Very well," Fabio says, and to the guards, "Release the wizard."
Thristen and Fornikant retire to their room and go over the list.
Quayam flies back to the defile in the limestone outcrop. He finds a concealed door leading to a secret chamber containing second-hand weapons. He assumes the Endans got their crossbows from here. He concludes, correctly, that it is a weapons cash for Anoni rebels.
He sees the tracks of two men leaving the defile up one of the steep sides. He follows the tracks. One of the men, wearing soft boots, leaves an obvious trail. He must have done so intentionally. Quayam follows easily, leading his hippogriff.
The tracks lead to the river and away again to a camp. To his surprise, Quayam sees the camp has just been deserted. He jumps on his hippogriff and flies back to the river, in time to see the captain dragging the soldier into the river. Quayam shoots from the air, but the captain is a strong swimmer, takes his armor off on the way, and gets across with the rebel still on a leash. But Quayam is waiting for him on the bank.
The captain is worn down from Quayam's shooting at him, and the fight two nights before, and he does not think he can defeat Quayam in combat now, without armor, and without a sword.
"That man murdered a church full of women and children," he says.
Quayam lets the captain go. He turns to the rebel, who introduces himself as Garodi Baloni. He half admits to setting fire to a church full of Endan sympathizers and their wives and children. He does not mention barring the doors.
Throm sets off for Mashad, where she will drop off and pick up Ursian agents operating in Anon. She flies on Seah and gets there in a couple of days. She doesn't know about Quayam's work nearby, or she might have stopped to say hello.
5-NOV-2481: After breakfast, Thristen and his wizard bodyguard go and meet with the senators.
"I will take your demands to the government. I will not give you conditional acceptance in the meantime."
"So you give us conditional refusal," Fabio says.
"If you like," Thristen says.
"It is time for you to go home, then," Fabio says.
Thristen and Fornikant leave soon after in the company of four knights. They retrace their route from Dravius. In the forested hills, thirty black-clad men ambush them, firing arrows. But the knights close in around the emissary and the wizard, and ride away. The arrows cannot penetrate their superb plate armor.
"Who were they?" Thristen says.
"Rebels," one of the knights says.
They reach Dravius without further incident, and are soon abroad the Sorrel Sun.
Quayam flies Garodi to Babulsar. After consultation with Pakesh, he releases the Endan soldiers, and takes Garodi to the jail in Mashad.
6-NOV-2481: Sorrel Sun weighs anchor and sets sail for Karadan. On the way home, she is stopped and boarded three times by the Endan navy, but they do nothing more than delay her.
"Those damned buccaneers are all over the seas," Orphus says.
"I would hardly refer to them as buccaneers," Fornikant says.
"A ship that stops you with full sail is a buccaneer in my books."
"If Endromis declares war, what do you think we should do with the ship?" says the first mate.
"We'll think of something," Orphus says, "But it's no use fighting them."
The Sorrel Sun reaches Karadan on 5 November, and Thristen and Fornikant step off the destrier carriage in Pakesh on the 8 November.
7-NOV-2481: Throm goes with Kambiz, another rider, to pick up an agent. They have a spare hippogriff with them. Throm is there as muscle, Kambiz is there because he knows where the pick-up point is.
It is as well that Throm is there, because the agent is running from policemen even as he enters the pick-up field. Throm swoops down on the policemen to keep them back, and fires upon them too. Just in time, they get the agent onto his hippogriff and away.
8-NOV-2481: Quayam takes the destrier carriage back to Pakesh, arriving 10 November.
10-NOV-2481: Throm drops off Kambiz Abdulrahimzadeh (another Kambiz), an agent, in Anon. She does so at night, and takes his hippogriff back with her.
13-NOV-2481: Throm flies out in the middle of the night with a spare hippogriff to pick up Kambiz. It is the second of the two assigned pick-up nights. The first she abandoned her attempt because of foul weather. There are still low clouds about. She cannot see the ground. She navigates by the stars, and occasional glimpses through the clouds give her a clue as to where she is.
But she cannot find the pick-up point. She descends through the clouds, but nearly bumps into a hill. She swerves away, and up, but she loses the other hippogriff in the mist.
Eventually, she finds the field. She lands. A man comes striding from the borders. Then another man comes running from the other side, waving his arms and shouting. She takes off. She soon surmises that the first man she saw is some kind of cloaked soldier trying to kill the other man, who may or may not be Kambiz. She doubts he is Kambiz, because Kambiz did not have a beard, and this man does.
Clouds shadow the field from the moon, and then reveal it again. The cloaked soldier sights the other man, and gives chase. When Throm gets too close to the cloaked soldier, he throws daggers at Seah, and his aim is good. She manages to keep the daggers away from Seah, but she is getting worried. She wants to go home. But she keep circling.
She lands, the second man runs up.
"Who are you," she says.
The soldier is coming up fast.
"Kambiz," he says, and remembers his beard. He tears it off. It is a fake. "What an idiot I am."
Kambiz jumps on the hippogriff. The soldier closes in and attacks with his sword. Throm is hard pressed to protect her hippogriff while trying to take off with an extra person. Fortunately, she has a slope to help her, and they get away.
"Thanks," Kambiz says, "I was in trouble there. You didn't have to stay."
3-DEC-2481: Back in Pakesh, Throm, Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel are reunited. Throm collects another $30k of what is owed to her, but the last guy is trying to get out of paying. She sells the $80k debt to a collector for $5k, and is content enough.
8-DEC-2481: Quayam and Thristen meet with Mohsin Kurd, Secretary to Malek Fakheem, Senator Assigned to Foreign Affairs. He tells them the price of iron in Pakesh has increased by 40% over the last two years, from $110 per kg to $150 per kg. The same is true for the prices of many other goods, because of Endromis's efforts to shut down Ursian trade from the north. In particular, trade of iron through Anon from the Star Mountains on the south side of the Whispering Sea, the chief source of iron in the western continent, has been stopped by an Endan embargo.
"Ursia is interested in supporting the construction and operation of a road across the Western Outlands from Varay to Kiali. We would rather the road did not come into Ursia, because we don't need any more trouble with the Olympia. As you know, we think they are supporting Endromis in their conflict with us because they fear us wizards."
"They're afraid of the molecular bridge," Thristen says.
"Yes, if we have it."
"We're not sure."
Aside: We forgot to mention earlier that a wizard called Fahram Ghobi, working in the Unseen University, claimed to have made molecular bridges, albeit small ones. He gave a number of demonstrations to audiences, but the bridges were so short-lived, and only 1-cm across, that convincing verification by his peers had yet to be performed. Fahram was assassinated three weeks after his first demonstrations. He was found dead in his bed in the Unseen University.
"Fahram Ghobi's papers have been found, so we will soon know if he was for real or not," Mohsin says, "Either way, Olympia believes we have the molecular bridge, and that makes Ursia's elimination a matter of urgency. I think you understand why."
"We have a good idea," Quayam says.
"A road through the Outlands would break the Reconciliation Treaty. The enforcement of that treaty is the responsibility of the Princes of Hell, who own all the Outland temple plots. We don't know how they control the orcs, but they do control them, through the black orcs. But we don't know how they control the black orcs. We estimate that the average annual income of an orc is a fraction of the income of a sapien on the other side of the borderlands. The Reconciliation forbids sapiens and hellspawn from entering the borderlands. It forbids the passage of goods across the borderlands. It may be that these rules are broken in a small way all the time, but so far as we know there are no major trade roads across the Outlands. We want there to be one."
"How much iron do you expect the road to carry?" Quayam says.
"A million kilograms a year to Isengard, Varay and here combined is, we believe, a conservative estimate, assuming the embargo continues."
"And how much would they be willing to pay for transportation?" Thristen says.
"The price of iron in Pakesh is almost one hundred and fifty dollars a kilogram. In Kiali, it's one hundred dollars a kilogram. We sent an agent there to feel out the locals, to see if they're willing to cooperate. They're more than willing, and Varay is willing too. They say they can speak for Isengard."
Mohsin turns to Quayam. "You're wife is from Varay, is she not?"
"They're an indomitable nation. They and the dwarves of Isengard kept Gelden at bay for four centuries. They don't care about the Reconciliation. They're not scared of orcs. When the Endan armies drove the orcs before them, they tried to take Varay as well, but couldn't. Varay is no friend of Endromis, and not afraid to fight them either, if it comes down to it. Varay is our closest ally. The dwarves want cheap iron. The Varayans want weapons."
"So the toll on the road could be ten per kilo, or twenty?" Quayam says.
"At least," Mohsin says, "Which makes at least ten million a year gross. We're willing to lend you, anonymously ten million dollars at one percent a year to get the thing going."
Quayam and Thristen are interested. When they get back home and tell Gristel and Throm, they're interested too.
9-DEC-2481: Try to find an adventurous civil engineer to come with them for a foray on hippogriff-back into the Outlands, but no such luck. Flying on hippogriff-back over enemy territory is known throughout the land for being romantic, fun, and not to be done over hostile territory. It won't be long before our heroes find out why.
Look at maps of the Outlands. They make a sketch of the region that was once the great nation of Mareo. [Note: There is an error in their map, which they realize a year or two later. The Whispering Sea does not drain out to the west. The Chrome River, also called the Goon River flows into the Whispering Sea from the west, as the Tarrish River, also often called the Grototh River, flows in from the east. The Whispering Sea is saltwater. There are no rivers draining out of it.]
14-DEC-2481: Get civil engineering lessons. Throm, Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen buy hippogriffs for $100k each. Pay $20k for a five-way centralized-decentralized field-work one-month-longevity communications system. The guy says it will probably last for two months, and if they give him a lead paragraph, he'll give them a tune-up for free. The tune-ups are normally $5k.
22-DEC-2481: Fly to Virage house. Gristel is one of three sisters. They are all there for the Mid-Winter Feast on the evening of the 24th.
25-DEC-2481: Leave on hippogriffs and stay the night on the border near the bridge.
26-DEC-2481: Fly over swamp. Land on an island. Note that the annual flooding appears to be about six inches higher than the current mid-winter water level. Make a shelter and a fire. Have a pleasant night. Discuss building a road across the swamp by supporting a boardwalk on stilts the whole way. A lot of trouble, but possible.
27-DEC-2481: Ominous clouds. Quayam and Gristel explore on conjured punts. Quayam makes fishing line and catches a big perch, which they eat. They see a big creature in the water, but they are not sure what it is. Of course, it is a Swamp Monster that breaths a nasty green gas on Thristen and Throm later in the day. Thristen shoots the thing to death.
28-DEC-2481: Spot another swamp monster, and more of them, basking in the swamp far below as they fly west across the swamp looking for a way to cross it with a road. Fly over a Homely House on and island. Who lives there, in such isolation? Whoever it is keep horses and has a small field. But our heroes don't come down to find out.
Camp in the woods east of an orc nation. Decide that the swamp is not viable, because of the swamp monsters, unless they kill all the monsters, which would be a lot of trouble, and also a pity. Where do the monsters come from? Do they reproduce, or were they planted there, each and every one of them, to keep the swamp clear of intruders?
At 3 am, their camp is attacked by twenty stick-wielding orc soldiers, who they see off after a good scrap.
29-DEC-2481: In the early morning, after moving camp, they get on their hippogriffs and fly for Varay. Out over the borderlands, they pass a black tower, out of which fly twenty large, brightly-colored birds with large beaks. The birds follow them, gaining slowly. When they catch up, they attack the hippogriffs. Quayam is in the rear and takes the worst of it. He sponges many of them, but the others come on without fear. By the time the last of them is dead, Quayam and Gristel are exhausted and unsettled. They land, rest, and proceed unmolested to Varay, where they find the Ramada Hotel, stable their hippogriffs in a barn evacuated especially for them, and lie down on their feather beds with a sigh of relief.
30-JAN-2482: Recover in Ramada Hotel until the sixth of January, and see in the New Year. Throm goes back to Pakesh to continue work for the Ursian Air Force. She says that flying over the borderlands on a hippogriff is a good way to get herself killed. She leaves her cameras with Quayam.
We note now that our intrepid surveyor are equipped with the following: Olympian summoning bridges, dried rations, sheepskin flying armor, bows, staffs for QG, sticks for T, five javelins each (you can throw a javelin one-handed, so it's good on hippogriff-back).
Ready to go, just have to wait for the wind.
14-JAN-2482: South-easterly, overcast, 40 kph, 5 C.
Flying at 100kph land speed, go west to the river, then across the borderlands. The river has a weir where it cross into and out of the borderlands. In the middle of each weir is an obelisk. The river flows out of the swamp in the Outlands. They see a barge in the river on the north side of the borderlands, downstream from the weir. An hour later they reach the swamp, fly north into the Long Hills, eventually get across, but can't go straight over because of the low clouds. Once over the crest, they see a giant in a secluded valley, herding sheep. At first they think the sheep are all lambs, but then they recognize the slow gait of a giant, and they are taken back to their days on Ersay. The giant's children come out to watch them fly over.
Have lunch on a river beyond the Long Hills. Fly on across the savanna north of the Long Hills. See buffalo grazing. It is mid-winder. It's not too chilly on the ground, but in the air it's freezing.
See a walking trail below, running East-West, and the remains of a camp fire beside it, but no sign of travelers.
They cross a river and find themselves over a range of hills (The Old Hills). They fly past a castle, over a plowed field, and over a saddled horse standing in the middle of a river. That night, somewhere in Kiali, they sleep in a three-walled conjured shelter.
15-JAN-2482: Talk to some farmers (see here for languages of the region), who direct them east to Lutetia. Stay in the Loud Lady's Lodge and meet Elatio Milano, who takes them for rookies, wearing leather armor and carrying sticks as they are (see here for a description of the Lodge). He tries to sell them on some great dungeons in the Old Hills, that are just waiting to be cleaned out, but when the steward tells them that their hippogriffs have been stabled, Elatio gets wise, and makes to leave immediately. But they tell him to sit down again, and he does. They get him talking, which is not difficult, because the man like to talk, and he soon explains his "more goes in than comes out" theory of the Old Hills. Our heroes end up paying Elatio for his evidence, and for a lead on existing iron trade with the Outlands.
After Elatio leaves, Tanya, a seasoned Old Hills adventurer, joins them and offers her help getting established. She tells them Elatio is a crook, and not to take any of his leads to dungeons. When they introduce themselves, she realizes who she's talking too, being an avid reader of the Adventurer's Gazette, and switches to offering her services as a guide, in which she seems both earnest and eager. But they tell her they have no intention of going in search of adventure in the Old Hills.
Visit the tall, stern, iron supplier Ferrax, who openly admits selling iron to orcs at the border of Kiali.
Visit the arms seller, Themix, who has been much maligned to their ears by adventurers who deal with him. Themix admits unashamedly to selling the same suits of armor several times. One suit he sold five times in three years. He buys the stuff from orcs at the border, or from anyone else willing to sell, and he's not ashamed to do so. His supply is the best, his repairs are the most reliable, and his prices are fair. If young idiots want to buy armor and get themselves killed, at least his children are going to have meat for dinner.
Visit Chief Vergovinax in his hall outside the city. He welcomes them and says he is glad to have trade in iron with the Outlands or with Varay. He has already spoken to an emissary of the Ursian government, and assured them of his support.
20 to 23 January 2482: Snowing. Stay in the Lodge. Talk to a lot of novice hackers. Learn about the Crystals of Credo, the Chests of Many Things, the Unbreakable Doors, and the Artifacts of Legend. One adventurer shows them his sword, forged from "demon metal", the metal from a demon's skull. The only thing better than demon metal is "divine metal", from the skull of a god. Swords made from that metal are called "Vorpal Weapons". Tanya says she had one for a while, but some jerk stole it from her.
Our heroes come to think Elatio might be right: the Old Hills are a business operated by some power in the Outlands, and funded by the sale of possessions taken from adventurers. They joke about going into the Old Hills, beating the hell out of a dungeon-manager, and demanding to speak to The Tax Man. Some of the Lodge's hackers share their cynicism, but the survivors are rich, even though they are few, and nobody believes that they are going to be one of the losers.
23-JAN-2482: North-easterly, no snow, set off. Fly south along the east side of the Old Hills, cross the river, find a trail heading south, and follow it until it ends where it meets the same east-west trail they crossed on the way north. They follow this trail to the west. They orcs camped and asleep beside the trail, their packs set aside. Three guards keep watch with sunglasses on. They don't appear to have seen the hippogriffs.
The trail goes west until it strikes a road. There are wagons on the road and parked off to one side. The road climbs up and over a pass through the Long Hills, then down into an orc nation, the same one they camped near at the end of their first trip. They are on the north-west side of the nation now, and they camped previously on the south-east side. They fly straight over the country and into Vary without any harassment, and land once again near the warm, peaceful Ramada Hotel.
24-JAN-2482: Make the following list of questions. They give some of the questions to Op-Inc (Opportunities Incorporated of Pakesh) to see if they can come up with any answers. Op-Inc comes back with its answers two days later.
(1) Where does Isengard get its iron?
Suspect that Isengard is importing iron by space bridge at a cost of $50 a kilo from the Star Mountains. When you add the $100 per kilo cost of the iron in the Star Mountains, you obtain the reputed $150 per kilo cost of iron in Isengard. You can pass iron through a space bridge, but the iron burns explosively in air. If you evacuate the space around the bridge, you can cut down the combustion, but the iron still needs to be re-smelted afterwards. When you add the cost of the bridge, the evacuation, and the re-smelting, you arrive at a cost close of at least $50 per kilo for the process. Ursians are importing iron by bridge into Pakesh. There are frequent, fatal explosions, but the profit is enormous, so they keep doing it. It is not the wizard who gets hurt: the wizard is far away when the iron is passed through.
(2) How would the Princes of Hell feel about building the road?
They can't get a firm answer from Op-Inc.
(3) How extensively does Ayudrarethrex (hereafter referred to as 'Big A') operate in Ursia.
Op-Inc and others claim that Big A can't do much at all in Ursia. The capital is protected from molecular and spirit gating by bridge suppressors, except for certain hours of the day assigned at the last minute by the authorities. Wizards know well the trappings of time travel business and time travelers. They do their best to keep him out, and to their knowledge they succeed. Time travel and all associated operations are forbidden by law in Ursia. The laws against time-travel operations are an exception to the Ursian libertarian policy.
(4) Are there renegade black orcs?
(5) What is the orc nation near Vary and Ursia, next to the swamp?
(6) What is the cost of iron in the countries neighboring the Outlands?
(7) Will the dragons be able to help?
Conclude that the dragons will always be willing to help, but that the cost of their assistance will be too high, and never declared.
(8) Are there any books about the culture and habits of the orcs in the Western Outlands?
Op-Inc finds four books and gives them to a hippogriff-courier to bring to the Virage household in Varay, where Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen plan to go in the next few days.
(9) Is there a book on Mareo?
Op-Inc sends a book on Mareo as well.
27-JAN-2482: Fly to Virage household. Gristel's parents relieved to see them in one piece.
30-JAN-2482: Books arrive from Op-Inc while QTG are out on a walk.
Slave of the Orcs: two centuries old, account of a sapien captured by orcs in the borderlands and taken as a slave into the Western Outlands. Author hates the orcs, paints them always in a bad light, and reveals far less than he could about their way of life.
The Hobgoblins: fifty years old, description of the way the hobgoblins of the Western Outlands, north of the High Road of Taerin, protect themselves by playing off certain powerful persons who live between their tribal territories. Author is fond of the hobgoblins with whom he found sanctuary from Endan law enforcers, and talks in detail about their inter-tribal politics.
Outland Trader: One hundred years old, story of an intrepid salt-herring trader from Comitor who lived among the orcs of the Kratanak Mountains, importing salt-herring from Comitor to the orcs through the CSCR1 conjunction. He talks about the black orcs as if they were sapiens, and the orcs as if they were juvenile delinquents. Most of the story is about how he undercut his orc and sapien competitors on both sides of the conjunction, protected himself by making the right alliances, and made himself a fortune. He lived his final years in Pakesh.
The Outland Menace: twenty years old, is a text from Laconia, written by a captain of the Laconian infantry. It describes a campaign fought against the orcs, in which the orcs invaded Laconia and parts of Caravel, with the assistance of demons, monsters, and many sorcerers. The account would like to have the reader believe that the Laconians drove back the orcs against all odds, but the facts presented are not consistent. The captain describes orc arms and weapons in detail. Most orcs don't have metal armor, and use sticks unless especially supplied by their superiors with swords, and when they use swords, they do so without the skill of a sapien soldier. Nevertheless, the captain is proud of Laconian soldiers for being able to take on orcs one-on-one. Laconians are among the best mercenaries in the world.
The Rise and Fall of Mareo: A detailed account of the growth of the multi-racial Mareo culture, its government by lottery, its fight against Endromis and Weiland, its eventual fall to the Weiland empire, and eventual enslavement by Gelden's orcs.
Send a message to Aries via Opportunities Incorporated, requesting and interview.
3-FEB-2482: Aries replies that he will meet QTG at a certain latitude and longitude in the north Ursian hills, in the desert south of the Iron Mountains, on the 1st March.
4-8 FEB-2482: Fly back to Pakesh.
8-FEB-2482: Arrive in Pakesh, sleep in their own beds.
10-FEB-2482: Interview with Mohsin Kurd. Tell him all their plans. He approves of their contacting Aries. Aries owns several temple plots in Ursia, under contract to the Ursian government. They trust him not to act for the Peace and Prosperity camp of Olympia. But Mohsin asks for a couple of days to get the approval of the senate for their plan to ask the Princes of Hell to cooperate on the road-building.
12-FEB-2482: Talk to Mohsin again, and he gives them approval and commendation from the senate.
Romayne and Travis are thinking about starting a business in Pakesh, but they are not sure what. They are also thinking about getting their own agent and doing some work.
26-FEB-2482: Fly towards Aries' temple point on a north-easterly wind. Stay in caravansaries on the way.
28-FEB-2482: Arrive in Halili village and learn the whereabouts of the "Temple of the Hill God".
29-FEB-2482: It's a leap year, so we have a 29th. Walk to the Temple of the Hill God and talk to Shahram, the old man who lives up there and tends the place. He says the Hill God will be there tomorrow.
1-MAR-2482: Return to the temple in the morning. They land their hippogriffs and dismount. The desert stretches away to the south. They can see some rocky outcrops two hundred kilometers to the south. It is still cool, but a warm breeze is beginning to pick up from the desert below.
Over the stairs leading up to the temple door is a roof supported by painted wood pillars. On top of the roof, in front of a window opening into the dome of the temple, sits a woman. Her hair is curly and cut short. Her skin is jet black. In her ears she wears gold earrings. She is sitting cross-legged. Her face is noble and strong. It is perfectly symmetric. Her body is lean and muscular. She smiles at our heroes.
"Hello," Quayam says, "I am Quayam Srae, this is Gristel Virage, and this is Thristen Alomere."
"We are here to see Aries."
"I am Aries."
Our heroes had guessed as much.
"Do you like your new body?" Thristen says.
"I am still growing accustomed to it, but I think I will get to like it. It is certainly better than that of the crippled cellist, or the diminutive Lomese woman. In any case, it is all that they would let me have."
Gristel wonders what became of the diminutive Lomese body.
"All that they would let you have?" Thristen says.
"Why?" Quayam says.
"I think," Aries says, "after my many crimes, the council thought that the body of a woman would hinder me best in any future efforts I might make to lead men."
"Oh," Gristel says.
"I think you have done very well," Thristen says.
Aries smiles at him. "I am flattered." He looks out across the desert. The wind ruffles our heroes hair, but not the bristly curls of the god.
"We have some questions for you," Quayam says.
Aries faces him. "I have questions for you too."
They agree to alternate questions, with Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen going first. At any time, the procedure will terminate if one party does not wish to answer the other party's question.
QTG: "Can you negotiate with the Princes of Hell on our behalf?" Answer: "Yes."
Aries: "Did you do a service for the dragons in addition to rescuing Sophia on Bragos?" Answer: "Yes."
QTG: "Is the Peace and Prosperity camp in favor of Endan aggression against Ursia?" Answer: "Yes."
Aries: "Does your friend Bolus think the molecular bridge spell is genuine?" Answer: "No."
QTG: "Would any of the Princes of Hell oppose a trade route through the Western Outlands?" Answer: "I don't know."
Aries: "Would you like me to ask them that question?" Answer: "Yes."
QTG: "If they are in favor, could the Princes of Hell protect the route from the orcs?" Answer: "Possibly."
Aries: "Do you think Ursia can stand against Endromis?" Answer: "Yes."
QTG: "Do you think Ursia can stand against Endromis?" Answer: "In the short term, yes, but in the long term, I am doubtful. The Ursians cannot replace their incendiaries as fast as the Endans can make new ships and recruit troops."
Aries: "Do you want sapiens to develop the molecular bridge?" Answer: "No, it would upset the entire sector. We are doing well as we are."
QTG: "Do you want sapiens to develop the molecular bridge?" Answer: "Yes. We have more to fear from the illuminati than from mankind. I will be content to live among men and be protected by them when the illuminati arrive, and they will arrive, sooner or later. Most of the Olympians, however, do not want to surrender their dominance over mankind, so they do not want the sapien molecular bridge. But the illuminati, when they arrive, will come with technology far exceeding our own. We cannot build things such as ourselves, and the illuminati built me thirty-five hundred years ago. But sapiens are faster thinkers than both gods and illuminati. They may learn in the next few centuries what the illuminati took thousands of years to learn. They may be ready in time. Otherwise we gods will once again be the pawns of the illuminati, or thrown upon their scrap heaps."
"We have a proposition for you," Quayam says.
"I will be glad to hear it."
Quayam explains their objective: to build a road across the Western Outlands along which sapiens can transport goods, paying a toll to use the road, and being protected and sanctioned by the orcs. At first, the road will be a trail adequate for mules and small wagons, and later they hope to pave it with stone if the profits from the road can justify the labor. They would like Aries to find out what the Princes of Hell have to say about such a road. If they are in favor, then Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel can build the road with their cooperation and to their mutual profit.
Aries says he is friendly with the Ursian government, witness his ownership of one of the Ursian temple plots, and his freedom to appear there without interference by the wizards. He is willing to join them in the road-building project, if it is feasible. He would like to be compensated by part-ownership of the road-owning corporation.
After some haggling, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen agree to give 20% ownership in the road to Aries. The road will be operated by a Varay corporation, and Aries will be represented by another Varay corporation, owned indirectly and untraceably. The arrangement, however, must be supported of by the Ursian government, who will be providing the $10M loan. They will want to know the truth behind the second corporation. Therefore, QTG will now go to Pakesh and report to Mohsin Kurd the content of their conversation with Aries, and seek his approval.
Aries, meanwhile, will go back to Olympia and make tentative inquires with the Princes of Hell.
"I will send a message when I have something to tell you," Aries says.
"Until then," Gristel says.
Their conversation has taken several hours. Aries is in no hurry, he has been living among elves. But it is hot outside in the sun, and Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel have said all they can think of saying, so our heroes mount up and fly away.
4 to 20 March 2482: Pakesh. Spend time with the children, who are interested in the road. None of their plans to start a company have yet come to fruition, and they appear to be watching their spending.
Meet with Mohsin Kurd. He consults the Federal Council, and they encourage Aries' involvement.
21 to 23 March 2482: Fly to Virage House in Varay, with intention to go to Kent from there.
26-MAR-2482: South-Westerly, 30 kph, 20 C. Beautiful spring day in Varay, and out over the Western Outlands. Fly north (see earlier map showing flight paths). Attacked by a black orc on a wyvern out over Gutak (see map following). The orc shakes up the griffs with his slip-stream, and then throws stones on a second dive. Thristen discourages him from further attacks by throwing a well-aimed javelin at the wyvern.
Fly over what appears to be a giant-king's castle.
Out over Mokul, see wyverns taking off to pursue them, but the black beasts never catch up with the griffs, who land safely in Lutetia.
Arrive at the Loud Lady's Lodge exhausted after a hard day's flying. Collapse into their beds and sleep.
27-MAR-2482: Rest and get horses for the journey overland to Kent. Arrange to stable their griffs (worth, we note, $100k each) in the Lodge. Hoping to see their collaborator Elatio, but he is not around.
28-MAR-2482: Ride out of Kiali and into Morden. Just before the bridge over a major river, they stay in the Bridge Inn. There they meet Ralphy and his son John-Boy, both from Kent, and disparaging of the barbaric people of Morden. Ralphy is a pickled herring trader. He brings it from Kent to Lutetia, where he says he can sell as much as he can bring.
29-MAR-2482: Pay toll and cross the bridge. Stay the night further across Morden in Dooby's Place, which is pleasantly bohemian. Mr. Dooby is a wizard, trained in Pakesh, and now retired here surrounded by "clear-thinking, no-nonsense, meat-eaters". He tells them the Mordii take their manliness and military prowess so seriously, the men are not allowed to have sexual intercourse until they are twenty years old. They believe that intercourse saps your strength.
30-MAR-2482: Stay just inside Morden at the Latinata. They do not press on to the Cross Roads, which was the place inside Kent recommended by Dooby. In the Latinata, a man giving the name of Antonius Larazona offers them money to carry something into Kent. When they say no, he says he is glad, because he works for the Kent Drug-Enforcement Agency, and he was testing them out. He does not show any identification.
1-APR-2482: Pay the visitor tax and enter Kent. Have lunch at the Cross Roads Hotel, a stopping-place for hackers on their way to and from the High Road of Taerin. Its rivals are the Latinata and the Taerin's End Hotel. It boasts of lower room rates and a champion chef. Proceed to Scartoni, the city at the end of the High Road, and take rooms in the Taerin's End Hotel.
2-APR-2482: Determine that the price of iron in Kent is $105 /kg.
Go to the Scartoni Public Library, which is large, quiet, and well-served by interested librarians. There they read old newspapers and compose for themselves a picture of Kent's politics.
Kent is an old-school frontier nation from the Reconciliation, population 400,000. It was founded by Endan soldiers, who brought their families from Endromis to live in the newly liberated territory. To its north-east are the Plains of Grototh. To its south-east are the Goblin Moors, part of the Western Outlands. It is bordered on the north by the Whispering sea, on the coast of which is its capital city Belladoni. The western edge of Kent runs along the foothills of the Star Mountains. To the south-west is Morden. The Kentish call the people of Morden and Grototh 'barbarians'. The hobgoblins of the Moors are 'hellspawn'. In the last century, there were some invasions from Grototh, but the Kentish army has quadrupled from 5,000 to 20,000 men over the last fifty years. The cost of such an army, one soldier for every twenty inhabitants, is high, but it protects the nation from the perceived threat of the barbarians and hellspawn. The soldiers are everywhere, in the cities, and in the countryside on maneuvers.
The Kentish government is a republic, fashioned after that of Endromis, but lacking the King, who in Endromis serves as Commander in Chief of the army. The Kentish army is directed by the elected Master of the Senate. The god they worship in Kent is called Bedalia. Her church encourages people to be good, loyal, and humble. Kent is a firm ally of Endromis, with whom they trade via the Whispering Sea and the Goon River. Trade began with the Outlands fifty years ago in drugs such as heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. The government banned the importation of these substances with heavy penalties. The prices of drugs went up, and the black market spread crime through the cities. The government introduced penalties for possession and sale. Now they are fighting a war on drugs, with the hobgoblins as their chief enemy and supplier. In the past ten years they have started sending armed forces to raid drug-ring headquarters hundreds of miles into the Outlands. The government asks the people to tolerate the cost of the army, because a strong army is "the only way to stop the destruction of Kentish society by the poisons of Hell".
See Mildred Volume, whom they thought was killed in a crypt back in Weiland (see 'Stoning'). She is walking down the high street with a silver torque around her neck. She has lost weight, and she looks ten or fifteen years older, even though only a few years have passed since they last saw her.
They run after her. She surprised to see them, but agrees to join them for coffee. She fidgets in her chair. She excuses herself to go and get a pastry from the shop opposite. She never returns. They let her go. They know for a fact that she was in Big A's clutches in the crypt. They assume she is in his clutches now.
5 to 9 April 2482: Had enough of Kent. Pack up and leave. Have lunch again in the Cross Roads, press on to Dooby's Place, then the Bridge Inn, and finally The Lodge.
11-APR-2482: Get word from Aries that he would like to meet them on the sixteenth of this month. They agree, sell their horses, and wait for a good wind to help them back to Varay.
12-APR-2482: Westerly wind, and they fly straight home without incident. Stay in the Virage House for a day, and then fly on to the Temple of the Hill God.
16-APR-2482: It is another sunny day on the Hill. It is hotter this time, and the air is still. The old man meets them outside and instructs them to go in where it is cool. They do so. There is a table and chairs. An iron staircase fastened to the wall rises from the floor to a door above the main entrance. The door opens and Aries steps out. She carries a tray with tea, cups, and iced water in a glass pitcher.
She smiles at them. "Hello."
She descends the stairs slowly. She moves deliberately, but appears to be concerned about falling. When she reaches the bottom, she puts the tray down on a table.
She sits down. She is slow but graceful. The way she sits down reminds them of their dear friend Enheduanna Mintu Alali. Thristen helps himself to some tea. Quayam and Gristel have a glass of water.
"I should have some too," Aries says. She pours herself a glass of water and a cup of tea, and takes a drink from each.
"I spoke a couple of the Princes," she says.
"Good," Quayam says, "We spoke to the Ursians. They are in favor our collaboration and your partial ownership."
"Well?" Thristen says, "What did they say?"
Here is a summary of Aries' exposition. It contains his own opinions about the Princes of Hell, and the results of his own research and consultations of the Olympian Public Record.
The Princes of Hell don't make any money out of the Outlands. They might make $100/yr per orc if they tried, but that would mean only $40M per year for the entire Western Outlands, and would require that the orcs be forced into an organized taxation system. Thus oppressed, they might rebel, and break the Reconciliation, bringing upon the Princes penalties far greater than their potential gains.
There are five Princes of Hell, known by many names. We shall call them Beelzebub, Lucifer, Shiva, Thor, and Erebus. They share the burden of enforcing the Reconciliation on Clarus. This burden is their punishment for allowing orcs to get to Clarus in the first place. The Reconciliation confiscated all the Princes temple plots in the homelands, and gave them all the plots of the Outlands.
When they deal with their orc populations, the princes most often communicate only with black orcs. The black orcs always rule their smaller and short-lived relatives.
Thor looks after Garaz. He is in favor of obeying the Reconciliation, and making the most of it. He likes things as they are. His nation, Garaz, gets its strength from the profits it makes in the Badlands and the Old Hills. He boasts of these profits to the other Princes.
Lucifer is responsible for Mokul, Dag, Gutak, and Gadz. They defend themselves against Garaz, but they are live in fear of invasion. Although the Princes try not to take part in the squabbles of Olympian politics, and rule only their own four worlds, Lucifer has a long-standing interest in the Western Outlands, and he is a cultural dynamist. He is an admirer of the old Mareo culture, and he is an admirer of Aries and Bakkus. He was against the final destruction of Mareo brought about by the Reconciliation, and spoke against it in the Olympian Council. His advice went unheeded. He was out of favor at the time: Gelden was Lucifer's general. Endromis carried out Mareo's destruction. Mareo had stood in the way of Endan imperial ambition for centuries. The Reconciliation eliminated it forever. Lucifer would love to see the Reconciliation annulled, and something like Mareo restored, with orcs thrown in the mix as well, but he cannot encourage such an endeavor directly, because the fines he would suffer as a consequence would be crippling to him, and he is beholden to Olympia for his bodies, as are all the gods.
Beelzebub is responsible for Vaz and Ankh. His delight is to create orc societies that give the appearance of being ruled by dark and oppressive cruelty. His orcs live in fear of him directly, as opposed to fear of the black orcs. Beelzebub will appear himself, black and huge, in his temples. He doesn't care much about global politics, and likes to hang out with his scrappy orcs, maybe torture some criminals, or flay a few sapien prisoners.
Shiva owns the plots of the Long Hills, where she keeps giants who mine tin and copper, and the Goblin Moors, where she sells drugs to Kent. This latter enterprise is new, and provides her with much-needed revenue to defend the hobgoblins from their many enemies, both to the north and from within.
Erebus owns several temple plots in the Western Outlands, with small populations of hellspawn other than orcs.
The Princes of Hell are friends who spend a lot of time in one another's company. They like to play war games. They invade one another's territory, they make secret alliances, and betray one another, but only in the game. On Clarus, the Reconciliation makes the game more exciting, because they have to compromise between risking fines on Olympia and increasing the size of their armies. In their war-games, Thor tends to prefer open contests. Lucifer is the most daring. Shiva is clever and careful. Erebus is secretive.
When a god travels to or returns from a Free World, he must report both his time of arrival and departure to the Olympian Council. The Council enters the dates into the Public Record. For Clarus, the public record also contains the temple plot that the god visited, its exact location on Clarus, and the population limit associated with that plot.
On planets where the Olympian laws enforce population limits, a block is the right to have one thousand people living in your territory. A Claran block currently sells for about ten million Olympian dollars. The Reconciliation prohibits the transfer of blocks into the Outlands, but it allows the transfer out of the Outlands. Therefore, the legal population of the Outlands can only decrease, and it was the hope of the gods that this would lead eventually to the reduction of the Outland population to zero. But the Princes have sold not a single one of their Outland blocks. They have traded blocks among themselves, but they have not allowed them to pass to the homelands.
Aries agrees to discuss the road with Lucifer, and possible Shiva. Meanwhile, Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen will write a business proposal with the best backup for their projected profits that they can obtain.
Lunch-time comes and goes, and our heroes are still talking to the god. It is not until late afternoon that they say goodbye and get back on their griffs. The beasts are unhappy to be woken up. They were napping in the sun, their wings drawn over their bodies to shade them. They are drowsy, and take a while to get ready to fly.
Five minutes later, they land and let the griffs drink from the stream that runs through Halili village. Then they fly on towards Pakesh.
18-APR-2482: Pakesh. Talking and planning. How do the Princes enforce the Reconciliation among the orcs? Is it their monopoly on the supply of healing serums? If so, can the black orcs be persuaded to take money to arm their soldiers instead of serums to heal them?
Assuming the orcs can be persuaded to allow a road through the Western Outlands, how much would it cost to have sapiens transport iron along the road, and how much would the road cost to build?
Along a 500-km mule trail, with 5 mules per trader, 100 kg iron per mule, 25 days each way, and $25k revenue per trip per trader, that works out at $50/kg for transport, which is too much. The base cost of iron in Kiali is $105/kg, so the cost by the time it reached Pakesh would be well over $155/kg. The current cost of iron brought across the desert from Weiland, and from the mines in the Zagross Mountains, is $150/kg.
If they use orcs instead of sapiens, orcs might do the trip for only $2.5k, in which case the transportation would cost $5 each way. But now the iron is passing into the hands of orcs who cannot afford to buy it. They merely transport it. What is to stop them from stealing the iron and selling it?
Along an 800-km level cart road, with one sapien trader per four-horse cart, 2000 kg of iron per cart, 25 days each way, and the same $25k per trip per trader, the cost will be $12/kg, which is more viable. But can a four-horse cart carry 2000 kg or iron?
Because a mule trail is not profitable, there is no point in making one. The cart road, south out of Kiali, around the north side of the long hills, through Dag and Gutak, and around to the Varay bridge, would be about 800 km long, with roughly 100 km of forest, 200 km of low grassy hills, and 500 km of savanna. To clear a level path, they estimate that they will need 1 orc-day per meter in the forest, 0.5 orc-days per meter in the hills, and 0.2 orc-days per meter in the savanna. At $10 per orc-day, the labor will come to $5M. The cart trail will need gravel to keep it well-drained and flat. To cover the entire 800 km by 2 m of road with 10 cm of gravel, you need 160,000 cubic meters of gravel, or roughly 300 million kilograms. At $1/kg to break up and transport the gravel to the road, the gravel costs a total of $160M, which is prohibitive. The gravel would have to cost less than $0.1/kg before the project would be viable.
A road running south-west along the Long Hills, and then through the pass into Gadz and so to Varay, would be able to make use of the existing cart-pass through the hills, and therefore be cheaper than the Gutak road.
25-APR-2482: It would be nice to speak to Aries more frequently. The send a message asking to talk to him as soon as possible, and resolve to persuade him to arrange for a space bridge between himself and themselves.
2-MAY-2482: Once again, Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel find themselves at the Temple of the Hill God, near Halili Village. Their griffs know the place by sight, and land beside the temple without instruction. Shahram, the old priest, comes out to greet them. It is overcast in the hills, a rare thing, and Shahram looks different in the gray light, careworn and sad instead of his usual old and content. He invites them in, where they find Aries waiting for them.
Aries has not yet talked to the princes of hell, and tells them that they should not expect any news from him for at least two months. He recommends that they take the time such arrangements would take in Pakesh and multiply it by ten to get the time they take on Olympia, where the pace of life is set by the pace of the elves.
They tell Aries how they might offer the black orcs money to substitute for healing serums, so that the orcs could buy metal armor and thus avoid being injured in the first place. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen have been pleased with this plan. They were confident that the way the Princes of Hell controlled the orcs was through the distribution of healing serums. But Aries disillusions them: orcs recover so quickly from injuries that sapiens have to see it to believe it. It is not the healing serums that the black orcs want, it is longevity drugs. Without them, black orcs spend two hundred of their natural three-hundred year life span getting steadily weaker and stiffer. The Princes control the black orcs by controlling the longevity drugs, and the black orcs control the orcs by their physical dominance and social cunning. Five gods control one thousand black orcs, and one thousand black orcs control the continent's population of one million orcs.
Our heroes are disappointed, but at least Aries gives them Shahram's spare summoning bridge, and promises to isolate it from its doublet the very next day, so they can have private communication. They agree to talk again on the sixth of May.
6-MAY-2482: To talk to Aries through the bridge, they purchase a trumpet designed for the purpose. The bridge fits into the narrow end of the trumpet, and Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel sit in comfort in front of the wide end. When they talk, the trumpet concentrates their voices into the bridge, and when Aries talks, the trumpet directs his voice to all three of them.
They gather thus in a closed room of Quayam and Gristel's house. They do not invite Romayne or Travis to join them, in fact they tell both that they are not allowed to join them. This is in the face of Romayne and Travis's often-stated interest in the road project. Quayam and Gristel do not want Romayne to know that they are conspiring with the god who kidnapped her, but more important, they want to keep his involvement secret from Olympia. They do not trust Romayne or Travis to keep their mouths shut. Therefore, they refer to Aries as the Hill God, and Gristel makes an effort to call Aries a 'she', even though all three of them can't stop thinking of him as a 'he'.
Aries asks them to prepare a written business plan, including an estimate of the cost of building the road, and the cost of transportation. He suggests that they assume that the Outlands allow the road to be built, and that sapiens to the actual transporting. They promise to get the plan written up in the next couple of weeks.
10-MAY-2482: Talk to Aries again. He tells them he was talking to Shiva, and Shiva was once again off-hand about breaking the reconciliation treaty's trade clauses, saying it happens all the time. Shiva gave an example of the drug trade out of Kent, saying, "If it pleases the PP boys, they'll let it slip," and also mentioned a place called the Green Horn Tavern in the Morden borderlands. Aries recommends that they pay this tavern a visit.
14-MAY-2482: They complete the eighth hand-written copy of their business plan. Each copy is ten written pages plus one printed map that they annotate by hand. They did the copying themselves to keep it confidential. Talk to Aries and decide how to distribute the copies: three to Mohsin Kurd, who wants them to justify the $10M loan, two to Aries, who wants to show it to the Princes of Hell, one in Quayam's vault, one on Gristel's person, and another on Thristen's person.
21-MAY-2482: Catch a SW'ly wind and fly to the Virage house in Varay. Gristel's parents ask lots of questions about the road project, too many questions, and our heroes decide to be close-lipped about it, just to be safe.
26-MAY-2482: Catch a SE'ly wind and fly over the length of the swamp until they come to the Homely House they have flown over twice before. This time they decide to land. As they approach, flocks of small birds take flight from the trees around the clearing. An elf woman, bald and straight, rushes out of the house and starts casting a spell. Quayam shouts down that they are friendly, giving his name, but she either cannot hear, or cannot see, or she does not care. Moments later, Thristen and Gristel feel their griffs being thrust upward by some invisible force. Quayam has flown off to the side, low over the trees, and does not experience the force. Only when Thristen and Gristel urge their griffs to run through the air to they escape the reach of the elf's spell. After this experience, they might have tried to land again, but after a quick discussion through their walky-talky bridges, they decide to move on.
They fly north over the Long Hills and to their delight they fly right over a mining operation run by giants. It appears to be mining some sort of metal, because there are smelting plants. The ore does not look like the silver ore they saw lying around in Vichay (see 'Silver Lining'), so they doubt it is silver, but it might be iron, or copper, or tin.
In the borderlands south of Kiali, they fly over a striking stone outcrop that rises fully one hundred meters almost vertically out of the forest. On the top is a stone lookout lead to by a stair cut into the outcrop itself. The lookout and the stair look to be ancient, but standing in the lookout are two gnolls with crossbows and spears. They see the griffs, and load their crossbows. Our heroes fly on to the Loud Lady Lodge.
27-MAY-2482: See Elatio in the lounge. He tries to get them to pay him $1000 for directions to the Green Horn, but they do the walk away and thus knock him down to $100. Stable their griffs and buy horses.
28-MAY-2482: Ride east to the Bridge Inn.
29-MAY-2482: The young man at the checkout desk at the Bridge Inn seems to have no qualms about telling them how to get to the Green Horn. Elatio, on the other hand, seemed to imply that the place was a secret meeting-place of thieves and murderers.
Proceed along the main road, then turn right onto another, well-maintained cart-track to a hamlet called Arki. The inhabitants do not speak Latin or Endan, but they point down the road, which continues south.
They follow the road. Soon it passes next to an obelisk marking the edge of the borderlands. Once inside, they see that they are being followed on either side discreetly and skillfully by kobold scouts. They see the scouts only a few times as they ride a trot the ten kilometers to the Tavern.
The Tavern is a large, solid, two-story stone building in a clearing of cut grass with a stream running next to it, and a pond with bull-rushes growing in it, and benches all around for the customers. It is mid-afternoon, and our heroes see a dozen orcs in three or four groups, a like number of rough-looking sapiens in different groups, and two black orcs sitting at a bench on their own.
The black orcs are both male. The are armed with swords, staffs, and longbows. They wear well-tailored clothes, but no apparent armor. They look up at our heroes as the ride in.
At the edges of the clearing around the tavern are low stone houses with tiled roofs. A street leads off in one direction, and there are more stone buildings there, some of them two stories high. There is a large stone warehouse beyond the pond, and a stable on the other side of the tavern.
Standing in front of the tavern is an enormous man. He could be forty or sixty. He has some fat on him, but the muscle underneath is still firm. He has a large red beard. He looks like one of the Mordii. They are big people, and strong. He has a large truncheon in his belt, a leather apron on, and light clothes under that. On his feet he has large black boots. Around him stand half a dozen kobolds, twittering quickly and pointing. One of them is so excited that it jumps up and down and bangs the but of his spear into the soft earth.
"Welcome," the man says, "I am Falmut Grossman. I run this Tavern, and I am mayor of the village."
"Hi," our heroes say, and introduce themselves.
"Will you be staying here?" he says.
"Yes, we would like to, if we would not be imposing."
"Of course not, that is my business," Falmut says, "Let's stable your horses and find you some rooms."
The tavern is built to withstand attack, both from the outside, as is witnessed by its smooth, meter-thick walls, and from the inside, as is witnessed by the tables and benches bolted to the floor in the common room, the oak beds, and the windows without glass panes.
The Tavern has an inner courtyard with its own spring. It has twenty guest rooms. Almost half of the second floor is taken up by Falmut's private quarters. One entire side of the downstairs is take up by the common room. On one end is the front door and the bar, at the other end is a stage. In front of the stage is a dance floor, and between the dance floor and the bar are a dozen tables with benches, enough to seat a hundred people.
According to Falmut, one hundred orcs, including twenty children, and fifty sapiens, including three children, live in 'his village' as he refers to it.
"And some black orcs, too," he says.
"What sort of black orcs," Thristen says.
"Ask them yourself," he says.
The double-rooms are $2/night. Meals are $1, and pints of beer are two for a dollar.
"Cheap, Eh?" Falmut says, "I should charge more for you high-rollers, keep some special rooms for you with a mirror on the wall and a mother-of-pearl handle on your bed-pan."
"A nice mother-of-pearl handle is worth an extra dollar a night," Quayam says.
Falmut looks at his huge hands. He stands over a head taller than Thristen. "My hands can't tell the difference, but my wives, I'm sure, would agree with you. You must meet them and discuss with them the luxuries that they lack."
Falmut has four wives, six daughters, and three young sons living with him in the Tavern.
"I have two older sons, from a previous marriage," he says, "but they are off on their adventures, I hardly see them, but they are fine boys."
"Congratulations," Gristel says.
"Now, tonight you must be sure not to miss our show: the Herringbones are here. They are all the rage these days. There will be quite a crowd in here."
Supper is meat, potatoes, and green peas. To their surprise, the green peas are not overcooked. They sit in the common room with twenty other guests. After dinner, however, the place starts filling up. By the time the Herring-Bone girls come on, there are two hundred people in the room, most of them drunk men, hooting for the show. Falmut has broken up three fights, and thrown one orc out. The orc comes back in later, but Falmut pays him no mind.
The Herringbones are six women orcs (actually seven, one of them is having a baby). Before the women appear, four elderly male orc drummers bring out their drums and sit down. Suddenly, they strike their instruments. The women run out start the show immediately. It is a boot-stomping, thigh-slapping, fist-throwing dance, accompanied by sharp, rhythmic chants in orcish. There are moments when the women stop still and the drums fall silent, and then, just as suddenly, they are in full motion again, and the drummers are pounding.
The Herringbones wear tight leather, with plenty of cut-outs to show their calves, thighs, and stomachs. They are strong and fit. Their skin is white and smooth. Their lower chins jut out like those of all the orcs, and their tusks curl up to the sides of their noses. The tusks are bright and white. Their eyes are large and quick. Their hair is black and shiny. Some have it cut short, but others have it long and braided.
"When an orc carries a heavy load, a load too heavy for a sapien to go far with, he bends over until his hands are at the level of his knees. But when he is unburdened, he stands straight. When he enters sapien society, he can contract illnesses that disfigure his face, although they do not slow him down. His cloths are often worn and dirty, because orcs do not bother to wash themselves when they are traveling. But when he is at home, he wears the clothes his wife has cleaned for him, and he baths in the bathing pool of his commune. But with these habits of his, he gains the reputation of being the most ugly and apelike of dirty beasts." extract from Outland Trader
The Herringbones perform for an hours, by the end of which, the male orcs, and perhaps even the male sapiens, are banging their tables in a euphoria of lust and admiration.
30-MAY-2482: Walk up Falmut Village street and enter a strong-house of a building, in which they meet Mario, a tall, slim man from Kent in his sixties. He says he can get them anything they want, if they are prepared to wait for it to arrive, but that he can do a lot better than sticks for them if they so desire. They make inquiries but buy nothing.
They cross to the bank, which is another strong-house of a building. Falmut has recommended a clerk named Bag to act as their teacher in orcish. They find back working at his desk, and agree to meet him at lunch time.
Bag, as they find out later, is only ten years old, but they take him for eighteen, because he is full-grown and carries himself like a young man. He wears a thin cotton robe and carries no weapon. He comes from a family of pacifists who live in the village.
Bag is glad to teach them orcish, of which there is one root form in the Western Outlands, with the exception of Ankh and Vaz, which share their own unique language, one which is particularly hard to learn. Bag assures them that if they can speak the common orcish of the Western Outlands, understanding the local dialects is a question of understanding a new accent and the local slang.
They agree with Bag that he will teach them for two hours a day after he gets off work in the afternoon. Quayam estimates that it will take a month for him to speak passable orcish, and he is keen to do so.
When they get back to the tavern, the Herringbones have just left on their train of mules. Orcs are returning to have a beer after following the women down the road towards Mokul.
That evening, talk to Aries, without the use of the trumpet this time, because they did not bring it, but they manage anyway. Says he has translated the most important parts of the Reconciliation Treaty for them, from Greek, and a few relevant parts of the Free World Declaration as well. He has written the whole thing out, and had a scribe make some copies. But since he can't get the copy to you through the bridge, he simply dictates it, and our heroes take it in turns to write it down.
"If they dispensed with all these legal phrases," Gristel says, "It would be half as much work."
"I thought you would rather the original text, instead of the Aries-Expedited version," Aries says.
"Of course," she says, "That comment was directed at the drafters, not you."
"It's not as bad as Endan law," Thristen says, "You should see Endan law."
31-MAY-2482: For breakfast at the Green Horn Tavern, you can't get coffee or tea, but there is warm goat's milk, porridge, yogurt, honey, bread, and, at this time of year, strawberries and sour plums.
The tavern stable has twenty-eight stalls. When Thristen goes over there to check on the horses, there are fourteen horses there, including their three. One horse in there appears to be an albino. The groom is an old guy named Larsen. He says he's been with Falmut for decades. He himself is sixty-seven, born and raised in Morden.
"Who's horse is the gray one?" Thristen says.
"That would be Olinda, she's Falmut's."
"How old is she?"
"Ah, now you're asking, lad," Larsen says, "I reckon she's about twelve years."
"Is she still fit?"
"Like a three-year-old."
"How can that be?"
"Falmut loves that horse, lad. Sometimes I think his wives are going to do away with her. But you ask your questions of the man himself, will you, lad? Don't get crafty with me, I know your sort."
"I'll get her out for you so you can have a look at her. There never was a finer beast."
Thristen decides that Olinda must be on longevity drugs. Comparing the mass of a horse to that of an adult human, they estimate that the cost of providing such drugs could be as high as $100k a month. They get an estimate from Thristen's pantheon of the cost of drugs for horses, and they say $20k to $50k a month. Where does Falmut get the money?
Later that morning, Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel walk up the main street, hoping to find out what the shops sell, and who they sell it to. None of the shops have window displays, but some have signs written in Latin sitting on the sidewalk, and painted above the door.
"They're wholesalers," Quayam says.
"Let's try this one," Gristel says, "Grack Brothers. It looks like a fabric store."
They enter the cool, dark, interior of the store. There are sample rolls of cloth on tables: wool, silk, cotton, linen, from the far reaches of the world. Some of the silk may even be from Chiin, it is so fine. Behind a mahogany desk is a lean black orc wearing loose silk clothes. They recognize him from the tavern, although they have not spoken to him.
He gets up. "Good morning."
"Good morning," they say.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?"
"No," Quayam says, "We're just looking around."
"Please do," he says.
"Do people in the town buy their cloth from you?" Thristen says.
"What do you mean?"
"You have a large selection of fabric here, who do you sell it all to?"
He walks around to the front of his desk. He is not an intimidating figure as black orcs go, he is thinner than most, but he stands straight and seven feet tall.
"I don't answer questions about my customers."
"Oh," Thristen says.
"Where does this cloth come from?" Gristel says, holding up the fine silk.
He seems to consider answering her for a moment, but then says, "Get out of here. You are not here to buy cloth, so you are wasting my time."
"Would you sell a length short enough to make one dress?"
Later that afternoon, they are sitting outside with Bag when two large wagons come into town from Mordii with an escort of twelve sapien soldiers. Falmut comes out and opens the warehouse. The wagons disappear inside. Soon after, the black orc from the fabric store, and his brother come walking quickly to the warehouse and go inside.
"The Grack brothers," Bag says, "Fabric Merchants."
Then comes a short, portly sapien in bright shirt and trousers.
"That's Tangle," Bag says, "He sells glassware, beads, and crystal."
"Who are these guys?" Gristel says. She points to two tall men, one with graying red hair, and the other with brown.
"Meganix and his son Megix, competitors of the Grack brothers. And the orc running this way is Dek. He deals in pickled herring, and other luxury foods."
"Pickled herring is a luxury food?"
"I don't like it myself," Bag says.
"Are they going to see what just came in?" Thristen says.
"I think so."
"And they sell it to whom?"
"To orcs mostly," Bag says, "Rich black orcs."
They also learn from Bag that Falmut founded the town and built the tavern only ten years ago.
That evening, spend half an hour or so chatting with Falmut at the bar. They don't discuss their business, and Falmut does not discuss trade to and from his town either, but he does confirm that he built the tavern ten years ago.
"I made a deal with the devil," he says.
Later that night, they find out from Op-Inc they find out that the last Claran census was eight years ago. Ask Op-Inc to find out what they can about Falmut.
Next talk to Aries on the 4 June.
2-JUN-2482: It is market day today. The peddlers come from both the Outlands and the Homelands, and perhaps a few from the Borderlands as well. Not many of them speak Endan or Latin, or are willing to admit that they do, but they are willing to make a bargain. Here are some of the things Gristel, Quayam, and Thristen see for sale. The buyers are black orcs from the south for goods from the homelands, and the merchants themselves for goods from the Outlands.
The prices paid for homeland goods is about fifty percent higher than you would get in Kiali, although some of the things, like photographic equipment, it is doubtful you could find in Kiali. The Outland exports are fifty percent cheaper. Copper, for example, is fifty percent cheaper per pound in this market than in Kiali, but the supply is small.
Haleh of Op-Inc, as it turns out, has seen Falmut Grossman before, on Olympia, about eight years ago. He was there to act as witness in a court case involving Lucifer and the Olympian State. She can't remember what the case was, but she will see if she can find out.
4-JUN-2482: Visit the tailor, the blacksmith, and the baker in town. They are an orc, a sapien, and a sapien married to an orc woman who works with him. They serve the town, and are not secretive about their work or lives.
Talk to Aries. No progress with his investigations, but they tell him what they think of as a loop-hole in the Reconciliation Treaty, as it applies to the road project. They think that if the trade takes place across the Outlands, and is managed by sapiens who spend less than half their time in the Outlands, then all the people serving the travelers, and the travelers themselves, will be classified as homeland residents, so that profit made from the trade across the borderlands will not be passing into the hands of the homelands. Therefore, it is perfectly legal to build a road across the Outlands and have sapiens use it to cross over.
Payments to the orcs would have to be secret, but that could no doubt be arranged. Perhaps Falmut's town could be the place where the payment changes hands, or perhaps the gold could be smuggled in from Varay.
The also ask Aries to find out what the court case between Falmut and the Olympian Council was all about. He says he will go to the library and look in the old newspapers, or even go to the court and look it up.
5-JUN-2482:It's a rainy day. At around lunchtime, four of Falmut's kobolds come running to the tavern. They are so excited, they can't stay still. He makes the leader calm down enough to report to him. They are speaking orcish, but so fast that Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen, who are standing nearby, cannot understand any of it.
Falmut says, "Two wagons have been taken by a pack of gnolls."
"Where?" Thristen says.
"On the road from Mordii. Well now, why don't you come for a ride with me?"
"We'd be honored," they say, and grab their sticks, packs, and horses. Ten minutes later, they are riding behind Falmut, mounted upon his old gray horse and armed with a big club. They gallop along the path through the forest, leaving the kobolds far behind.
Ten minutes later, they come to four beaten up soldiers and two miserable merchants, missing two wagon-loads of cloth. They were attacked by about thirty gnolls, who took the wagons, complete with their two horses, off into the woods to the west.
Thristen and Falmut see to the three broken bones among the soldiers, and bind a few minor cuts. Falmut tells the soldiers to escort the merchants to the tavern, and they can all have a free meal and night's lodging, for which they thank him.
Falmut now leads our heroes through the old-growth borderlands forest, following the path of the gnolls and their wagons. Falmut confirms that they are gnolls, from looking at the pattern of their boot treads, and the way the walk in a bunch. It is raining, so the track are not going to last long. After a few kilometers, they come to a wide, smooth area of stone, onto which the tracks, to Thristen's eyes on horseback, disappear. But not to Falmut's eyes. He does not pause, but continues straight across the rock.
"Those crafty devils," Falmut says, "Look here they tried to brush over the wheel tracks on this piece of turf. But not crafty enough. Idiots, actually, but wise enough to know it. They keep to themselves, you know, because the orcs make fun of them so much. Sometimes they keep company with - Ah, look here, one of them dropped an apple core, and apples aren't even in season."
"They keep company with?" Thristen says, because he is right behind Falmut.
They come to a clearing. On the other side is the base of a steep, rocky hill, and at the base, a crude barrier made of nailed timbers pressed up against cliff-like face of rock.
"I should have taken care of that cave a long time ago," Falmut says.
"There's a cave mouth behind that barrier?" Gristel says.
They sit on their horses in the rain, none of them uncomfortable, it would seem. Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel have their oilskins on, and are warm and dry. Falmut is wet all over and only half-clad. It's summer, but it is still chilly. He does not seem to notice.
"This may be a trap," Falmut says.
"You mean there may be more of them in the woods?" Thristen says.
Falmut laughs. "That wouldn't be much of a trap, now would it? No, it may be a ruse to get me away from the tavern."
"Because of the warehouse?"
"Maybe the warehouse, but that's not what worries me."
"Could you perhaps take care of this for me?"
"The gnolls?" Gristel says.
"We'll be glad to," Quayam says.
"I'll owe you one," he says.
"It will be our pleasure," Quayam says.
"But don't kill any of them, is that acceptable to you?"
"Absolutely," Quayam says, "No killing."
"Thank you, good luck."
Falmut spurs his horse for home.
"Perhaps it is a trap for us," Gristel says.
"I really don't think so," Thristen says.
Presumably the barrier is well-secured, and the wagons are inside with the horses. So how to get the gnolls to come out? They tie up their horses and approach the barrier to see what will happen, thinking to lever it off from the side, but they get fired upon by crossbows. The gnolls may be stupid, but they can fire a bow.
They retire to the forest and make a cunning plan. They creep up with mock stealth, past tree stumps and rocks, until they are within firing range of the barrier, but acting as if they don't realize that they can be shot at. The gnolls wait until they are within thirty meters, and then let loose with half a dozen bolts in two sets of three. One of them is destined to hit Gristel, but she rolls aside and pretends to take it in the stomach. She starts screaming in pain. Quayam and Thristen drag her to safety behind a rock. Quayam gets up and shouts at the gnolls in fury, waving his stick, then ducks down when they fire some more.
Gristel keeps wailing.
Two minutes later, the barrier creaks, and then slowly lowers itself forward and to the ground. IN the darknees behind is a croud of about thirty gnolls. They are tall, thin, boney, their faces toothy and angular. Their clothes and armor appear ragged and unkept in the shadows, and tatters of cloth flap about their limbs when they rush out of the cave. They run forward in twos and threes, their sticks and staffs in hand, yelling at the top of their voices. Quayam waits until they are upon him, and throws a bridge ring behind them, filling the entrance with conjured sponge, and dividing the gnolls into two groups. A dozen remain in the cave, a few are trapped in the sponge, and another dozen or more press their attack, unaware of what had happened behind them.
Our heroes stand up and brandish their staffs. The gnolls keep running forward, undeterred, shouting and wooping. It seems to matter little to them that they have been deceived. They are as unaffected by Gristel's surprise recovery as they are by the sudden silence caused by the sponge behind them. Perhaps they have already forgotten why they left the cave. Gristel at least expects a few of them to stop and look around in dismay to see no sign of hurt upon her. But they just keep running up and shouting. Before they reach her, she looks aside at Quayam, and notices that he's smiling. She runs forward to meet the gnolls, waving her staff over her head and shouting back at them.
For five unforgettable minutes our heroes do battle with the gnolls in the clearing. The clatter of their staffs upon those of the gnolls is a sharp stocatto rythem to which they feel their movements are a dance, and the blows they deliver to their determined opponents are like jestures in the dance, jestures that signify the moment at which one dancer must leave the choreography and be replaced by another dancer, a fresh dancer whose legs and arms are full of strength and eager for action, and who will show, for a few dozen beats of his heart, a look of hope. Or perhaps the look on the gnolls faces is ambition: that they will be the one to strike down one of the sapiens, and earn for themselves everlasting glory among their clan.
All too soon, however, the gnolls are lying on the ground, groaning, or sitting up and rubbing their heads. Two of them run off into the forest and hide. Our heroes stand among their enemies panting and grinning at one another. The gnolls in the cave are looking out through the sponge with their eyes wide. Some of them shake their staffs, and shout, but their words are lost in the body of the conjured matter that still holds stationary three of their comrades. These three are struggling a little, but no longer appear particularly afraid.
"Well," Gristel says. "What about that?"
"They fought well," Thristen says.
Our heroes walk among the injured gnolls, taking their sticks, staffs, and crossbows away, and putting them in a pile nearby. Some of the least injured they tie up, and those that have broken bones Thristen tends to as best he can in the time available before Quayam's sponge decays.
"Any minute now," Quayam says. One of the gnolls in the sponge has broken free, and rejoined his comrades in the cave. The rest of them start pushing upon the sponge, and it yields before them. Suddenly a large part of it must have given way and floated away, because a passage wide enough for two gnolls to come out abreast opens up, and the remaining fifteen or twenty gnolls come streaming out of the cave, waving their sticks and shouting with the same enthusiasm shown by the first group.
Our heroes brandish their staffs and run forward to meet their opponenents, and for another five glorious minutes they fight the tall, bony creatures. The gnolls tower above them, some of them two and a half meters tall, with staffs up to three meters long. The tatters and rags that the sapiens at first took to be signs of their opponents pitiful poverty turn out to be braided rope and locks of hair sewn to the hems of their baggy shirts and the thighs of their loose breeches. These tatters, and their baggy clothes serve at first to make the gnolls look wider and more bulky than they really are. But our heroes, through striking through the clothes to the boney joints beneath, soon learn that the gnolls are astonishingly thin, almost skeletal. One advantage for the gnolls in this respect is that they move quickly, and when they fall, or roll to escape the sapiens, they jump to their feet easily, despite their height. Perhaps these boney bodies would be good proof against swords. But against the staffs and sticks of their sapien adversaries, the protruding joins of their arms and legs are vulnerable, and it is with broken shins and forearms that many of the gnolls sink to the ground, unable to rise for the fight. They lie on their elbow, or crawl away from the combatants, so breath deeply, but without complaint, their faces pale, and their eyes watering.
Despite their numbers, the gnolls find that they have no hope of prevailing against the sapiens, but they fight on, almost to the last man. Two remain standing in the end. One is bleeding from the nose. The other's hands are shaking with fear as he holds his staff in front of him. Quayam lowers his weapon and smiles. Thristen jestures with his hands: put your staff down. The two gnolls put down their weapons.
With the fight over, some of the gnolls moan from the pain of their injuries, or is it from the shame of being defeated by only three sapiens, when they were at least thirty in number? Slowly the gnolls begin to stand up. Despite broken bones, it's only about five or six of them who cannot rise. Thristen looks at their wounds, and bandages two broken arms and a broken shin. The gnolls show no sign of agression. They pick up their staffs to lean on, or put their sticks back in their belts, but they now look upon the sapiens with curiosity rather than fear or anger.
Quayam walks among the wounded and finds their leader: he wears a helmet with red feathers sticking out of it in all directions. The man has no broken bones, but is winded and bruised, and his staff lies on the ground beside him. Quayam helps the chief up, and gives him back his staff. The leader makes a short, undecipherable speech, ending with putting his hand on Quayam's shoulder, and then the remaining gnolls give grunt of what may have been approval, and walk off, or are carried off.
"You broke a lot of bones, Thristen," Gristel says.
Thristen nods. "Clean breaks, though."
Ride the wagons home through the forest to the tavern, where Falmut has had nothing to do but wait for them.
"Ah! You fine fellows, and madam," he says, "You must have had a good time, eh? Come on in and tell me all about it."
The story travels fast.
Same day, they order chain mail shirts and metal helmets from the armorer. They enjoy their lesson with Bag, and then they have supper with Falmut in his own quarters, in the company of his four wives, six daughters, and three young sons. They all speak Orcish and Mordii, but only the eldest wife and two eldest daughters speak Endan. They are a cheerful bunch. The wives, to Gristel's surprise, don't seem to be jealous of one another.
"I'd love to ask them about it," she says.
"I think you should wait until we get to know them better," Thristen says.
Falmut tells them that his mother is dying in northern Mordii and he wants to be with her when she dies. He says he had been thinking about asking them to watch the tavern while he's gone.
"It seems absurd, I suppose," he said, "because we have only just met, but it's hard to find people who can defend the tavern against all-comers. When you find them you can't waste time."
"You've left the tavern in someone else's care before?" Quayam says.
"I don't see why we couldn't," Gristel says.
"Let's all think about it," Falmut says.
6-JUN-2482: Town school is out, the orc and sapien children, mostly orc, are running around. They see Falmut taking on a crowd of ten or fifteen of them in a wrestling fight. He is clearly enjoying himself. His sons are in the mix, as well as one of his little girls. It's a beautiful sunny day.
7-JUN-2482: A tall, slim, and handsome black orc, richly dressed, and accompanied by a dozen or soldiers wearing metal armor, arrives at the tavern, with his pregnant wife. She is regal and elegant in her silk clothes and crystal tiara.
"The prince and princess have arrived," Falmut says.
8-JUN-2482: Go out and buy black-orc style sunglasses, which they think are very cool. They find out from Bag that the prince and princess are not really the children of the King of Mokul, but nobility from one of the countries to the south. They come and spend a lot of money on clothes and things.
9-JUN-2482: Dinner again with Falmut, followed by discussion in his living room. They agree to watch the place. They do not agree on a fee, but it is understood that Falmut will owe them a big favor or two.
12-JUN-2482: Falmut leaves the Green Horn Tavern under the protection of Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen, who are to keep order among the customers, and defend the town and warehouse from looters. The running of the tavern will be taken care of by Kati, Falmut's eldest wife. She speaks Endan, and appears to be Falmut's closest friend. She does not have any children, however, but the remaining three wives have nine children between them. Denga and Helganix are the eldest two daughters (11 and 13) who speak Endan. The other daughters are Lini, Laniki, Troxi, and Doxi. The three sons are Fumu, Dragix, and Balix, but they are only 1, 4, and 7 years old.
Quayam decides to tend bar, and be the host in place of Falmut. Thristen decides to spend his time outside, commanding the kobold scouts, of which there are twelve. They work in shifts so that six are on duty at any time, except when there is something special going on. Gristel is going to be the bouncer in the evening.
Before he leaves, Falmut tells them to expect the Herringbones to be back on 17 June, and possibly the Pork-Rind Drummers on 14 June.
They persuade Falmut to take one of their walkie-talkie bridges with him. He does not want to, because he wants to forget about the tavern for a while, but his wives work on him about it until he agrees. They will talk to him every other day at lunchtime.
Hear from Romayne that Sid just arrived at Quayam and Gristel's house, and is following her around.
14-JUN-2482: Talk to Falmut. He's glad of the bridge now, because he worries less about the tavern, and so can relax more.
16-JUN-2482: The over-night lodgers in the tavern tend to be sapiens running from the law, either long-term or short-term. Orcs would rather buy an extra few beers and then pass out in the forest than pay for a room.
Today, three new sapien visitors who have been here for three days, are sitting outside in the beer garden when four Mordii soldiers on horseback come riding up and try to arrest them. One of them turns and runs. One of the soldiers rides after him. Quayam throws a beer mug at the soldier from the door of the tavern, but the soldier dodges it and rides on to cut down the man who is running away. Gristel and Thristen run and protect the remaining two guests. They exchange blows with the soldiers, who remain mounted, but the soldiers soon realize that they are not going to get the better of the fight, and ride off.
The two survivors are called Dillon and Thomas. They bury Fabian in the town cemetery. Quayam tells them that, when you are on the run, the idea is to run, not sit around.
17-JUN-2482: Herringbones arrive in mid-afternoon, and perform in the evening. There are seven of them now, their leader has with her a newborn baby, which she has strapped to her back even during her dance.
The Pork-Rind Drummers, meanwhile, have delayed until the 24th and then the 27th.
18-JUN-2482: The Herringbones practice a new routine in the common room, in which they cartwheel and vault down the tables, intending to smash a few plates and get the audience all fired up.
Thristen is watching the practice. Afterwards he and Gristel chat briefly with two of the performers, Kim and Zak. When they are called back to the stage, Zak touches Thristen under the chin with an outstretched finger and says, "I hope what you have down below sticks out more than what you have up here."
19-JUN-2482: By this time, they have figured that there are six black orcs living permanently in the town. Four of them are exiles, as can be seen from the exile brand on their foreheads. The remaining two are the cloth-selling Brak brothers.
Today they spend half an hour chatting to the Brak brothers over lunch, patching up their previous acrimonious beginning. Also, Thristen, in walking around, sees two of the other black orc residents sparring vigorously behind the house they share. He sees them frequently after that. They appear to be working hard to improve their skill.
The four exiled black orcs come to the tavern occasionally, but they show no desire to meet or talk to our heroes.
20-JUN-2482: Another Herringbone performance, this time with the cartwheels and vaulting. There is a big crowd or orcs in from who-knows-where, and a bunch more who have come as escorts to wagons.
After the performance, Thristen is just falling asleep when someone bangs on his door. He opens the latch, and the door flies open. It is Zak. She closes the door behind her and pushes him down onto his bed.
21-JUN-2482: The customers are rowdy tonight. Thristen and Gristel put a stop to a couple of fights.
24-JUN-2482: Herringbones depart except for Zak. She wants to stay with Thristen, and they have time off now. Zak keeps her double-room, and Thristen keep his.
To celebrate her staying, Thristen and Zak go off for a day's hiking in the borderland forest, taking a picnic with them. Zak is sure that someone will attack them at some point, and that Thristen will get a chance to show off his prowess, but no such luck: they don't see a soul all day, except for Falmut's kobolds.
25-JUN-2482: Woken up in the middle of the night by an explosion. Gristel and Quayam are outside first, then Thristen and Zak. There is fire on top of the warehouse. When Quayam and Gristel get near, they hear a bestial screech from somewhere on the roof. Quayam starts to climb up the side of the warehouse immediately. Gristel goes around to the door and tries to pick the lock.
Thristen tells Zak to stay behind, but she refuses. She is excited. They see Gristel working on the lock, and go back to the tavern to get the key. Quayam keeps climbing the wall. He has no rope. He climbs with the edges of his boots and the tips of his fingers. Thristen and Zak are waiting for Falmut's eldest wife to give them the key. Gristel cannot pick the lock.
Quayam reaches the top of the wall. He grabs the gutter and pulls himself up onto the roof, where he sees a wyvern, a black orc, and a hole blasted through the slate shingles. The timbers around the hole are glowing. He tries to advance towards the black orc, but there is a conjured sponge barrier between them. He gets out a bridge ring, casts a spell, and throws it over the barrier to land next to the hole, where it emits a sphere of conjured sponge. The black orc jumps out of the way. Quayam starts to walk along the roof, away from the hole, to get around the barrier and attack the wyvern. The black orc jumps on his wyvern and the beast leaps up into the air and away.
Quayam gets around the barrier and approaches the hole. There is a grapnel at the edge of the hole, and a black orc appears climbing up the rope attached to it. When the orc encounters the sponge blocking the hole, he draws a sword and starts cutting through it. Quayam starts breaking up the sponge with his staff. The sponge breaks away from the roof and floats up into the night. Quayam and the black orc close and fight. The black orc quickly realizes that he is out-matched and turns to run. Quayam pursues him. To Quayam's astonishment, the black orc jumps off the roof and lands behind Gristel below.
The orc gets up with some difficulty and whistles. A wyvern flies down out of the sky. Thristen and Zak arrive with the key. Thristen draws his bow and shoots the wyvern. It screams and flies away. The black orc turns and runs to the south. He does not follow the road, but heads into the forest. Thristen pursues him. The black orc is limping, but still runs fast. Thristen can barely keep up.
A few hundred meters into the forest, the black orc runs into a clearing, casts a spell, and floats up into the air, his hands above his head, holding some sort of conjured balloon. Thristen fires several arrows at him, but he dodges them and escapes.
Quayam climbs down into the warehouse and sponges the door from within, thinking that perhaps there is another intruder still within the warehouse. Because of his sponge, Gristel and Zak cannot open the door, even though they unlock it, because the door opens inwards.
But Quayam does not find anyone else in the warehouse. When his sponge decays and Thristen returns, all four of them search the crates inside to see if anything has been stolen. Several crates are open, but it is not clear if anything is missing.
26-JUN-2482: The merchants whose goods are kept in the warehouse all come and inspect their crates. Tangle says that he is missing 20 crystal animals from one of his chests in the warehouse, but apart from that, everything appears to be still present. Talk to Falmut and ask what to do. He is glad of their success, but says Tangle is a sneaky fellow.
Thristen feeling sore from running in the dark last night, and tired. Thinks he's getting old. Zak gives him an hour-long massage in the afternoon and he has a nap.
Outside Tangle's store, Bag tells them, is a sign advertising crystal animals like those stolen by the raiders. They are selling well. Gristel falls ill.
27-JUN-2482: Gristel still sick, Thristen getting sick, Quayam is okay. The Pork Rind Drummers arrive at last, and put on a wild show followed by their trademark leaping into the crowd and starting a fight.
Zak and Kim have been dancing with the orcs on the floor in front of the stage. Now the orcs all start punching one another and the drummers, and Zak and Kim are in there punching away as well.
There is one particularly large and muscular orc among them, who keeps stomping his feet, even thought there is no more beat, and thumps anyone he comes near. One of the drummers runs up behind him and hits him on the top of the head with a wooden drumming-club. He turns around, says, "Oy!", and knocks the drummer out with a right hook. Kim kicks him on the backside and leaps away before he can grab her.
Zak and Kim leave the fight and come and sit with Gristel and Thristen, who have been watching. Zak has a black eye. Zak tries to persuade Thristen to go an join in to impress her, but he refuses. She suggests that she might run off with the big handsome orc if he is not careful, but he is unmoved. Kim is quite taken with the big one. She comments upon the size of his white tusks, and the sharp outlines of his forearms.
The fight winds down, and the drummers, with the exception of the one knocked out by the big orc, crawl back onto the stage, and start drumming again for a final ten minutes. When they finish, they leave the stage. The audience drains their beer mugs and start to leave the tavern. The big orc walks out with a couple of the local orc ladies-of-the-tavern. Kim is downcast, and Zak teases her that she has not been forward enough.
28-JUN-2482: Finish repairs of the warehouse roof. Falmut's mother dies, so he will be home soon. Thristen is sick. Zak looks after him. She also helps look after Gristel. The black eye she had last night, which swelled up in minutes, has now almost disappeared completely.
2-JUL-2482: Thristen and Gristel feeling better.
One of the first things he does is confront Tangle and extract from the poor fellow a confession that he lied about the crystal animals to move his stock of them, which was not selling. Falmut punches him on the nose, and later, they hear, he orders Tangle to pack and leave.
4-JUL-2482: It is time for Zak to go, and our heroes as well. They have learned a lot about orcs, especially Thristen, and learned to speak their language. Zak asks Thristen to come with her. He says he can't. He asks her to come with him. She says she can't. She is going home to Ankh to visit her parents, and then to Garaz to meet up with the Herringbones to start their next tour.
Say farewell to Falmut and his family, and farewell to Zak. She rides off on her mule in the company of a wagon and an escort of soldiers, heading for Mokul and eventually Garaz. Our heroes ride in the opposite direction, out of the borderlands, heading for the Loud Lady Lodge.
Spend the night at the Bridge Inn.
5-JUL-2482: Get to the Loud Lady's Lodge just after sundown. Check on their griffs.
One thing that makes an Inn attractive to adventurers is a hippogriff stable, with grooms trained to exercise and feed the beasts. Hippogriffs have large beaks, and are therefore dangerous unless they are mild-mannered. An aggressive horse can be a sturdy and enduring ally, but an aggressive hippogriff is a liability. When you leave your griff with and Inn's stable, you sign a contract taking responsibility for any unwarrented attack upon the Inn staff, and any damage the griff might cause to other animals. Wyverns, with their fanged jaws, foul tempers, and fierce affinity for their owners, are impractical charges for a Inn, and therefore make impractical mounts for most adventurers. Some Inns will stable wyverns, if their stalls are large enought, but most often the owners must attend to the wyverns personally.
All's well with the griffs: they have been well-behaved, and are in good health.
When Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel walk into the lounge of the Lodge, having picked up their room keys, they are heading for the stairs when they see, seated across the room, their old friend and traveling companion Richard Crockford (See The Captive and the Clowns).
They walk over to his table. He is delighted to see them. He introduces them his colleague Besalio, a man in his mid-thirties who is the Endan Consul to Kiali. He himself is the Endan Ambassador to Caravel. He invites them to join him after they have put down their stuff and washed up.
When they return, Besalio has gone, and Richard buys drinks. He is now forty-eight years old, and married to Lee-Ping (also of The Captive and the Clowns), who is now thirty-one. They have four children, Crassus, a six-year-old boy, Julia and Scipio, twin boy and girl aged three, and Cordilla, girl aged eighteen months. Since Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel rescued Richard from Feras, he has not traveled much. His wife does not want him to. He spent all his money, or almost all of it, on QTG's fee. Lee-Ping said he can't go risk being captured again: their first child was on the way. It is less important to be rich than to be there for her in a strange land and to provide for her.
Richard tried to make money in the local import-export business, but it is difficult to compete with Ursian wizards and tough old Endan traders. Their first child arrived, and he was not making ends meet. What to do. At least he owned his own house, but he had to let Nicholas, his secretary, go.
Richard revealed his difficulties to an old friend in the government, who recommended that Richard run for senator, which he did, and, to his surprise, he won. People knew him from his travel journals, and trusted him.
That was five years ago. Now, and for the past sixteen months, Richard has been Endromis's ambassador to Caravel. He lives in the capital city with his family. He and his four staff are trying to improve relations between Caravel and Endromis. Two months ago, he set up the Endan Consulate, with two staff, in Lutetia.
That's all that Richard says about himself that night: he wants to hear what they have been doing, and they can't help but tell him about their travels on other worlds. Richard is well-informed about divine politics and travel on the Open Worlds, having been to several himself. But he is not as well-traveled as our heroes, and envies them their experiences. He listens with interest to all their descriptions, but his questions are always pragmatic. He wants to understand the motives of the people involved at every stage. He does not ask about the spectacle of Bakkus's party, but he does ask about the relationship between Sophia the oracle and Bakkus the god. He asks why it was so important to the dragons that Sophia made it to Polaris, but he does not ask how they felt when their ship was sunk.
At four in the morning, the story-tellers are tired, and Thristen has a feeling that Richard has learned more about their affairs than behooves their present objective. He is, after all, the Endan Ambassador. They say goodnight, and agree to meet for lunch tomorrow. Richard is staying at the Loud Lady as well.
6-JUL-2482: Before lunch, talk to Aries. He says Shiva is willing to open a pass through the Long Hills, which is his territory. The hill giants, and their two kings, one in the north and one in the south, are his people, and he can guarantee their cooperation. They are poor people, but hard-working. Most important of all, Shiva claims that there is already a road through the hills, which once ran across the swamp and into Varay, built over a thousand years ago.
Aries tells them that Helen, the chief goddess of the Endan Pantheon, was Helen of Troy in Terran Greece.
Aries calls Shiva a 'she', even though Shiva is currently in a male body. Shiva has another body that she can possess that is large and has six arms. She uses this body to appear in front of her people in the Outlands, and many other places. She has an Olympian copyright on the six-armed symbol.
Aries went to the Olympian Court Hall of Records and looked up cases of eight years ago until he found the one in which Falmut served as a witness for the defense. It was a case brought against Lucifer by the Olympian Council accusing him of giving false information to the Olympian Censor, resulting in an under-estimate of the illegal population of the Borderlands adjacent to Kiali and Morden. Falmut, as an sapien adventurer and citizen of the Free Worlds, testified that he knew well the distribution and origin of the inhabitants of the Borderlands, and that Lucifer had reported correctly the number of residents about whom Lucifer was likely to know. The excess, Falmut claimed, were Kentish drug-dealers hiding from the Kentish army. Aries looked for a follow-up case in which the Council might have sued the Bearers of the Reconciliation Treaty for the excess population, instead of going after them for misleading the Censor, but there were no such cases. If no such case is brought before the next census six years from now, they can never be brought to court.
Next talk to Aries is 10th July.
Consider transporting gravel by space bridge for road metalling. It would be $20/kg through a molecular bridge, but it would violate the 1% of lifetime summoning rule. The cost of gating people between worlds, they decide, as a corollary, must be related to the transfer energy between the two planets.
From Romayne they hear that she and Travis have signed up as guards with a caravan heading to Sax on 16th July.
List the languages they can speak: Ursian, Orcish, Latin, Lomese, Endan, Calipan, Weilandic, and some Greek. Gristel also speaks Varay, which has its roots in the original Maereo language, but is mixed with Imperial Weilandic. They recall that Richard speaks a dozen languages fluently.
Take several hours over lunch with Richard. He is leaving tomorrow, and has some business meetings in the evening, so this is the last time they will see him this trip. They want to get back and see Romayne, Travis, and Sid the Demon, and he must go back to his family.
They discuss the Ursian-Endan trade conflict. Richard says that Ursian wizards force all the nations along the coast of Idonius, from Karadan all the way around to Weiland, into trade agreements that favor the Ursian government's trading corporations foremost, and independent Phoenician traders second. Endan traders typically suffer a sales tax at all such ports, are simply refused entry into the harbors. In every case, it appears to be the nation itself that enforces the rejection of Endan trade, because it is not the Ursian way to act openly. Everything they do is hidden in layer after layer of artifice and protocol. But the rulers of these trading nations know that they personally stand to die at the hands of the Ursian wizards or their demonic assassins if they go against Ursian wishes, and so they comply.
Richard says that secretly these coastal nations petition Endromis to free them from this unholy domination. Endromis, meanwhile, is stifling under the burden of taxes on their trade. They cannot export their grain and wool without it passing through Phoenician hands. Ursian imperialism is cloaked, but it is real. Endromis has little choice but to act to oppose Ursia, or else they will soon be bowing down themselves.
Richard asks them several times what they are doing here, and they tell him at one point that they were in the borderlands at the Green Horn Tavern. He makes no comment, and does not appear overly interested, but Thristen thinks they have again revealed too much.
Richard invites them to stay with him in Caravel. He has a net bridge, so they can stay in touch.
7-JUL-2482: Waiting for the right wind. Today it's a Southerly.
8-JUL-2482: A North-Easterly, 10 kph, nice day with scattered clouds. Fly south without incident, land on a hill and have lunch. Fly past a hill-giant mine. By the look of the slag outside, it is not silver that they are mining. They suspect tin or copper. There is smelting going on nearby.
Fly by the Black Tower, from which there once flew the multi-colored birds that attacked their griffs. This time they are high up, and swoop down to take a look. The tower is set in dense woods. Inside its encircling wall (see picture) is a well-tended orchard, vegetable gardens, goats, and chickens.
Land at the Ramada Inn. This Inn does not have a regular hippogriff stable. It is not a hacker's in, but one that QTG found after crossing the borderlands, looking for a place to stay (see 29 December 2481). The Inn does have an old barn that they vacate for the griffs, and QTG can tend the beasts themselves. They are welcome guests at the Inn. They tip well, and the locals are proud to have them staying. Gristel's father was a general in his day, and Gristel herself is well-known in Varay.
We note that Gristel speaks the local language in Varay, and that most well-educated people there speak either Latin or Ursian. The Innkeeper speaks Ursian. But when Quayam and Thristen order a drink from the bartender, they start to learn the language themselves. Romayne speaks it fluently, having spent much of her childhood in the care of her grandparents.
9-JUL-2482: A 60-kph North-Easterly takes them to Pakesh in just two hours. Romayne and Travis are leaving in one week. Sid seems to be in good health, if health is the right word. He is angry at Quayam for leaving him in Calipan, and he spends as much time as he can on Romayne's shoulder. It is clear, however, that he still takes Quayam's orders above all others.
10-JUL-2482: On Romayne's recommendation, shop for parachutes.
13-JUL-2482: Meet Mohsin Kurd and discuss with him Richard Crockford's picture of Ursian imperialism. Mohsin is at times rude in this interview, especially with Thristen. He seems impatient, and says several times that he is busy. Thristen tries to get from Mohsin a statement of how the Ursian Government wishes to place itself in the overarching political milieu of the Celesti Sector, and indeed the Galaxy of the Illuminati. Mohsin does not seem to understand the question, and insists upon specific questions.
Despite his manner, Mohsin does describe to them some of the operating principles of the Ursian Government. Among these is the principle of through delegation, combined with overlapping responsibility. Each of the ten Federal Senators is head of one of the Federal Offices. Mohsin works for the Foreign Policy Office. They appoint ambassadors, and handle relations with foreign governments. The other offices are the Domestic Policy Office, the Foreign Trade Office, the Domestic Trade Office, the Federal Treasury Office, The Foreign Enforcement Office, the Domestic Enforcement Office, the Scientific Research Office, the Social Services Office, and the Domestic Transportation Office.
The federal senators approve projects, and assign funds and authority to one of the offices, charging it with the responsibility to carry out the project. The office's progress is reported on by the offices whose duties overlap with its own. A foreign policy project might be monitored by the foreign trade office. But there is no internal review of the offices. Their performance is judged externally, by the funds they consume and their success as seen by the other offices.
Mohsin assures them that their names in relation to this project are known only to himself and Shahram Karadan, the senator for foreign policy. The federal senate approved Aries's involvement, but they do not know the names of the local agents with whom Aries is communicating. Mohsin himself is in charge of the road-building project, and all others involving contracted adventurers or funded adventurers, so Shahram Karadan does not know the details of much of what Mohsin is doing. The policy of delegation without interference carries down through the offices as well.
The offices do, however, keep records of their activities, and these may be reviewed by the Federal Senate when they are ten years old. Crimes of neglect or corruption might then be identified and punished. The records are kept under lock and key in the Federal Treasury Office.
With this explanation, Mohsin answers Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel's concerns about secrecy. They wonder if an Endan spy in the Ursian government might have learned that they are planning a road through the Western Outlands, and that therefore Richard Crockford might know already of their intentions in Kiali.
Later the same day, QTG take parachuting lessons, jumping from a scaffold onto the ground and practicing their landings. The parachutes are made of silk, cost about $10,000, and are thirty meters across. It's a rough landing, but if correctly executed, results in no more than a few bruises. The parachute weighs about ten kilograms.
15-JUL-2482: Meet Mohsin Kurd at 9 PM in the Garden Restaurant of Ghotba's Arn. He is a little more relaxed this time. In answer to Richard's statements about Ursian foul-play in trade relations, Mohsin says that he does not know exactly what methods the Foreign Trade Office uses to obtain its advantageous trading relationships, but he would not be surprised if they used intimidation, and such tactics would in no way violate Federal Policy.
16-JUL-2482: Romayne and Travis embark upon their first adventure together without their parents. Quayam interviews the leader of their caravan, and decides that the is a decent enough fellow. The caravan contains one hundred wagons and fifty guards. They leaders says that such large caravans are hardly ever attacked, but when they are, it is by the wild orcs of the Outland desert to the north, and by the unruly nomads and calipanti to the south. Romayne and Travis will be paid $10,000 for the two-month journey to Sax. Along the way there are sixteen oases, each a well-defended town in itself. Our heroes know the route well: they have traveled it several times.
In the afternoon, QTG have another parachuting lesson.
18-JUL-2482: Talk to Aries. He says they should head over to Varay. He is setting up, through Shiva, an appointment with Vasaleshen, king of the giants in the northern part of the Long Hills.
20-JUL-2482: Take Sid with them, fly to Ankle, capital of Varay, and stay in the Gumption Arms, a hotel with a hippogriff stable. They see some familiar faces among the hackers staying there, but no close friends.
21-JUL-2482: Fly to the Virage house, and stable their griffs in the new barn that Gristel's parents have built for the purpose, the idea being to encourage their daughter to visit more often.
That evening, they talk to Gashley, Gristel's father, and Dominican, her mother, about Varay. Gristel has already told them that only those who attend military training camp get to vote in the elections. The camp consumes two days a month, and one month a year for operations, and requires that soldiers maintain their own arms and readiness to fight.
Gashley says that in the old days the rule was looked at the other way around: only those who were citizens of Varay had the honor of attending the camp and fighting in the defense of the nation.
"But it's been centuries since we fought wars like those against the orcs in the Dark Ages, or against Weiland," Gashley says, "Nowadays, we put down the wild orcs in the desert to the west, and we do Ursia a favor by keeping their nomads in line in the south. I've served in sixteen campaigns, most of them in the desert, and only one of them on our soil, and all of them, by the standards of our ancestors, decidedly minor."
"Come now, darling," Dominican says, "You are a war hero, admired and respected by your country. You have scars from your wounds. There's nothing minor about the time somebody stuck a javelin right through your shoulder, or the time you were shot five times defending a bridge."
"That's individual heroics you're talking about. What I'm talking about is war, with tens of thousands of men, battle lines five kilometers long, flanks you lose touch with, supply lines and baggage trains to worry about, fortified camps, sickness among the troops, entire divisions being annihilated and enslaved. That's real war, and we don't have it any more."
"Good heavens, darling, you sound quite insane to want it back."
"I'm not saying I want it back, I'm saying that our system of government is based upon the need to win such wars, and that it is therefore an absurd anachronism. The real force in this nation now is trade, trade with Isengard and Ursia, and beyond. It's absurd to have soldiers controlling the government. They don't understand trade. It's not about giving orders and pushing people around, it's about negotiation and accounting."
"Many of the richest traders attend military camp," Dominican says, "They swear by it. It keeps them fit and alert. It forces them to take a break from their business. Jousting, boxing, fencing, these are our national sports. From earliest childhood boys love to play with wooden swords."
"And girls," Gashley says.
"So what harm does it do?"
"How many men can Varay field for war?" Thristen says.
"About two hundred thousand," Gashley says.
"How does Varay regard Ursia?"
"What do you mean?"
"Are they allies?"
"Most definitely. We need them as a conduit for our goods, just as Isengard needs us as a conduit for theirs. And they have not forgotten that it was us who held back the Endan army when it would have forced the wizards out of Ursia."
"Do you think Varay will fight with Ursia against Endromis?"
"If it came to it, we might, but I don't think things are going to go that far."
"Why not?" Quayam says.
"Why would they? What does either side have to gain from war? They just have to get their trade treaties worked out, which they will do after a suitable period of posturing and threatening, and then everything will settle down again."
"What if the Endans wants to build an empire?" Gristel says.
"If they do, they will build one. When you count their allies, they can field a million men. There is no way the wizards can defend Pakesh against a million Endan soldiers, no way."
"What if the orcs join with the Ursians?"
"You're joking, right?"
22-JUL-2482: Talk to Aries. They are to fly to the king's castle, which they have passed over once before, and meet him on the 24th July. It's a rainy day. They stay inside and play cards with the retired general and his wife.
24-JUL-2482: Fly to the Old Bridge and land. They believe there is a road crossing the Long Hills that once ran through the swamp and across this bridge.
They meet the small demon of the bridge, familiar to both Thristen and Gristel from years back. Sid flies to attack the little demon immediately, but Quayam calls him off. The demon remembers both Thristen and Gristel. He demands his toll of ten grams of gold for maintenance of the bridge.
They ask him what his name is. He says it is Pickardo. They ask him about the bridge and the road.
"If you want to know about the road, you have come to the right person. There is no greater expert on this road than I."
"Well, please tell us all about it," Thristen says.
"It will cost you."
By the end of his discourse, they owe him two hundred grams of gold, but consider it well worth it. Pickardo appears to be a demon of Luman origin, but his intelligence and vocabulary are astonishing for demons of his size. He stands only two feet high, has no claws or teeth or wings, and his head is no larger than a child's. It is possible that his intelligence resides elsewhere, but this does not occur to them while they listen to him. Sid hisses at Pickardo frequently, but everyone ignores him.
"I was bookkeeper to Cornelius Silvani, an elf, like you sir," he nods at Quayam, "and the greatest engineer of his time. He was the master road-builder of Mareo at the height of its own greatness."
With thousands of laborers at his disposal, Cornelius built the road through the Long Hills. He drained the swamp, contained the river with stone embankments, built a road running parallel to the river, and continued the road from the hills across the swamp, over this bridge, and into what is now Varay, but what was then the south-eastern province of Mareo. At the cross-roads, he founded Cantor, which grew to be a prosperous trading city. Its ruins lie buried in the swamp.
Cornelius survived the invasion by Weiland, and lived on under the rule of the Weilandic Empire as one of their own road-builders. He worked on the High Road of Taerin. The chief engineer was a Weilander, but Pickardo claims that most of the engineering was decided by his master.
When the orcs invaded, Cornelius died of one of the many plagues. Pickardo, bereft of his master's protection, fled into the wilderness.
In 1346, the Varayans flooded the swamp again to put a barrier between the orcs and themselves. They destroyed the bridge as well. In 1352 they restored it. Although the workmanship is far inferior to the original, it is still good work, and Pickardo claims to have advised the re-builders in their design. The bridge was then used to transport Varay troops to the hills, where they made their defense against the orcs.
They thank Pickardo for his story, and bid him farewell. They do not mention that they want to build their own road, or perhaps restore parts of the old one.
Fly on to the Giant King's Castle. There is a temple, or you might call it a church, outside the castle, with a cemetery around it.
They land the griffs outside the church, and stuff Sid in a sack. A giant walks out and greets them in Latin. He is wearing a brown robe tied with a rope around the waist. He is thin and over three meters tall. Around his neck is a leather thong with a small, silver, six-armed image of Shiva. It seems out of place around his neck: Shiva is one of the princes of hell, and her image is one that sapien cultures associate with evil and darkness.
There is nothing about this giant, however, that suggests evil or darkness. He is trembling, and there are beads of new sweat on his forehead. He swallows twice before he speaks to them.
"Welcome, oh great ones," he says, "My name is Aslovich."
The priest takes them to the castle, up a flight of wooden steps to the castle door.
"They can throw these steps down when they are under attack," Gristel says.
Two armed and armored giants stand on either side of the doors. They have battle axes, scale armor, helmets, and beards. They stand about three meters tall. They must weigh about four hundred kilograms each.
The walls are made of limestone, each cubic centimeter of the stone made of the compacted shells of thousands of sea-creatures that died millions of years ago. The ridges that make up the summits of the long hills are granite, but the valleys are limestone. The outer wall is two meters thick. Within is are rooms thirty feet wide, and then there is an inner wall around a courtyard. They walk across the courtyard and enter the hall of the king. It is unpretentious by sapien standards, but the king is imposing enough, sitting in his wooden throne, with three mighty giant soldiers standing on either side of him.
There is a table with bread, cheese, meat, fruit, and drink laid out upon it. The table is a low one for giants, but chest-level for sapiens. The giant king speaks, and the priest translates. The language he speaks sounds similar to the orcish they have just learned, but they cannot understand it.
"King Vasaleshen bids you eat and drink after your journey."
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel whisper among themselves in Ursian, and then say, "No thank you."
"The king asks if he can provide something more worthy of your greatness, oh great ones."
Thristen picks up a pitcher. It is heavy, and he grimaces cheerfully while pouring some of its contents into a pewter mug. The soldiers laugh. It is red wine. He takes a couple of gulps.
The king gives an order to one of his soldiers, and they pour a mug of wine for him too, from the same pitcher. The mug must contain two gallons. He drinks it down in about twenty seconds, and throws the mug over his shoulder.
"Aha!" he says.
The mug clangs against the stone wall behind him.
The king smiles at them.
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel start whispering again about how they should address the king about the road. The king stops smiling, and the priest steps from one foot to the other. Thristen wants to ask if the king knows why they are here, but Gristel says that is far too indirect.
Finally, Thristen says, "We would like to look at the old road that runs through your country."
"The king asks why you want to look at the old road."
"We want to open it again."
The king frowns.
"The king says that the orcs will come along the road and steal our sheep."
"No, sir, they won't. If orcs travel the road, they stay on the road."
The king pounds his fist on the arm of his throne and makes a loud statement. The soldiers grunt their approval. The priest breaks out in a fresh sweat.
"The king says he does not want any orcs in his country, because they will come and steal our sheep."
"The orcs will not come and steal your sheep. You will make money if the road opens. Everyone who uses the road will pay money to you."
The priest talks to the king for several minutes.
"The king says that you can look at the road, but you must wait two days before you go. It is one day's walk from here, and everyone who lives there must know that you are coming so that they do not try to kill you. The road is blocked with many stones one both ends. The king does not permit you to move the rocks, or to open the road, but because you come with God's blessing, he will let you look at the road. I will take you to a hill nearby, and we can bring you food while you are waiting. The king says that you must come back and talk to him for a longer time, and with an offer of money and promises of the safety of our people. Only then will he be able to give you permission to use the road."
"Please thank the king. He is most generous."
25-JUL-2482: Spend the day on the hill near the castle, talking to the priest. His knowledge of his own country's history extends four or five generations before it becomes mere legend. He has never been outside the Long Hills, nor even to the South Kingdom, which lies beyond the orc-road that crosses the Long Hills. This is the North Kingdom. The two are enemies.
He brings them plenty of food. One giant portion is more than enough for all three of them. One loaf of bread is a meter long and half a meter high. The wine he brings them is watered down, probably one part in four, so it quenches their thirst, and it tastes good.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen tell the priest about the wide world beyond the Long Hills. He is amazed that there are entire nations populated by sapiens. He thought they were all killed by the orcs when the Old Gods died. He thought elves were angels. They have given him a lot to think about.
Perhaps more than Shiva would have liked.
26-JUL-2482: At noon, say goodbye to the priest and fly south-west towards the alleged road. They let Sid out of his sack. He is angry, but soon cheers up flying around.
They find the road crossing the hills about sixty kilometers away. The follow it to the north, and see where it runs out of the hills and is lost in the forests bordering Mokul. At the edge of the hill, the road is indeed blocked by a large pile of boulders.
They fly south-east along the road. It winds through the hills, keeping a gentle incline by following the valley cut by a stream. The road is strewn with limestone boulders fallen from its steep escarpments, and is overgrown with grass and occasionally trees, but the gentle incline and level width of the original road remain.
At the highest point of the road are signs of an ancient village, perhaps a stopping point on the road. There is a small wooden temple there, and a spring, erected by the giants. On a hill a little distance to the west are the ruins of an old castle, and within the outline of its crumbling walls, an orchard. In the valley next to the hill is a stand of one-hundred-meter redwood trees.
Land by the temple and look inside. There is a statue of Shiva. Once on the ground, they notice that the road's paving stones, where they are visible, are granite. A shepherd's path follows the road past the temple. It was most recently used yesterday. It starts to rain lightly.
Fly up to the hill. There are tracks of a 40-kg humanoid wearing leather shoes in the orchard. The stones of the castle are all spirit stones, in an advanced state of decay. One block of them, however, must be newer, and sits on the highest point of the hill. It provides a good surface to sit on, or lie on, and on the east-facing side there is a depression worn in the surface, and another such depression on the west-facing side.
Thristen follows the shoe tracks down from the hill, and then loses them. It is raining harder now, and getting dark. Retire to the hill-top and make camp.
That night, they get the feeling they are being watched.
27-JUL-2482: In the morning, they find that the humanoid, whoever he is, came and crouched behind the very same tree against which Gristel was resting in front of the fire. They did not hear or see him.
Choose another hill-top to stay on, go back to the one with the orchard, leave Sid to watch, and fly off to hide on the second hill-top. He flies back to them three hours later with an arrow through his chest.
They pull the arrow out, and let Sid sit on the ground sulking. The arrow is a short one, but sturdy. It is made from ash, and its flets are feathers.
28-JUL-2482: Sid is completely better, so they go back to the hill and leave a message on a piece of paper on the block of spirit stone. It is written in Latin.
"We will be back tomorrow. We would like to talk to you. We mean you no harm."
Follow the road south-east to the forest. It disappears into the trees, and might well have crossed the swamp. Fly back to the second hill-top. There they keep an appointment with Aries, and talk with him through their bridge. Next meeting is August 5th.
29-JUL-2482: Go back to the orchard hill. There, they see an elf woman in the trees. She has blond hair. Quayam approaches her, unarmed. She motions that he stop when he is ten paces away.
Quayam thinks she is over a thousand years old.
"Laruna," she says.
"I am Quayam, not Laruna."
She closes her eyes, then opens them again. Her eyes are blue.
"You look so like him."
"Was he of the Namrazi?"
"He was a sorcerer. A great sorcerer, and my husband. This was our house."
"What became of him?"
"The Endans killed him. Not the empire, or the plagues, or the invasions from hell. Our home was an island of peace in a sea of torture and death. The Endans swept everything before them. They cared nothing for us. They knew only that Laruna was a sorcerer. They besieged us, and he was too proud to run away."
Quayam takes a step closer.
"No!" she says, "I will sicken and die."
Quayam steps back. "What is your name?"
"Bashila," she says, and looks over his shoulder at his companions. "Those are sapiens who travel with you?"
"And you trust them?"
A couple of minutes go by. She says nothing.
"How long have you been here?"
"I don't know. I don't count."
"Why stay here alone?"
"It is my home. It is all I have left of my life with my husband."
"You have been grieving for five hundred years. It is enough. Come with us. The city we live in is a fine an vibrant place, full of music and talk and fine things to eat. Come with us. I invite you as my guest."
"I would sicken and die."
"No, we will make sure you do not sicken and die. We can cure the sicknesses. You may sicken, but you will not die."
"This is my home."
"Laruna would not want you to throw away your life being alone."
"Do not mock me. I know well enough what I want to do with my life. How do you know that I am so sad to be alone here, in my home, with fresh meat to eat, fruit in the summer, and wild honey?"
"I'm sorry, but I think you should come and see what the world has to offer you before you refuse it."
"I know what it has to offer: violence, sickness, and death. Goodbye, Quayam."
She turns and walks into the woods.
Quayam returns to his comrades.
"That woman is depressing," he says.
Fly down to the swamp, and around its north end. They see signs of an old stone embankment in the middle of the swamp, which is consistent with Pickardo's story. Soon after, they are amazed to see two humanoids riding a swamp monster. As soon as the humanoids see the griffs, they drive the monster under cover. They fly over a large stand of huge redwoods. Flying low, they see signs tree-houses in the branches.
That is food for thought as they fly back to the Virage House.
30-JUL-2482: Check messages in the morning. Travis and Romayne doing okay. It's hot in the desert. Romayne stopped a fight among some drunk wagon-drivers.
Geila sends a message. Gristel listens to someone in Pakesh reading the message to her through her bridge.
"Dear friends. We have had such adventures since we saw you last, but this is not the place to tell you about them. Oh well. How is my Latin? Arrak is doing well. I think he is stronger and quicker than he was when he was twenty. We cry sometimes when we think of what you have done for us. It is hard for Arrak, because he is so proud. I am sure you understand. After our adventures, we can pay for our own keep, as you say. We have made arrangements. Thank you all for your kindness. We hope also to be able to pay you what you have already given us. I know you do not want us to, but I hope you will understand that Arrak is very proud. If ever you need him, he will come. I do not need to say it, of course he will come, and so will I. Our love, Geila."
None of these messages are passed to Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen as notes on paper, but are read aloud to them by their message-handling service in Pakesh. This morning their reader is Negar Shams. She is a first-cousin of Ali Ghotbzadeh, and reads clearly and unerringly. She works for the Pahlavi Message Box, one of the three largest messaging services in Pakesh. They promise confidentiality and accuracy, as well as twenty-four hour service to all customers.
At first it sounds easy to get messages through a space bridge, but if you give a bridge to a friend and use it to keep in touch while you travel, you will soon find that because the two of you are at different altitudes, or even different worlds, air is rushing through so quickly that the bridge is howling like a trumpet, and you can't hear yourself think, let alone hear your friend speak.
A walkie-talkie bridge solves the pressure-differential problem with what wizards call a 'sibilant membrane'. A sibilant membrane encloses the bridge ring of one half of the walkie-talkie bridge. It is a strong, flexible skin of conjured rubber. It flexes out when the pressure on the other side is greater than the local pressure, and inwards when the pressure is less. Each membrane has a maximum and minimum pressure differential it can withstand. The membrane can break outwards, or it can be pressed into the bridge and be annihilated. Provided the membrane holds, however, it stops the flow of air. But it still transmits vibrations. It is made of a variety of rubber that is less flexible to slow changes in pressure than it is to fast changes in pressure. A person speaking directly into onto the membrane will be heard by someone with their ear to the other half.
Wizards quote the efficiency of the membranes they make by giving the square of the ratio of the distance a person can hear a word spoken through the bridge with the membrane around it to the distance the same person can hear the word when the membrane is absent. The first membranes, made in the early 21st Century AE, had efficiencies of less than 1%, but the late 25th Century sibilant membranes deliver efficiencies as high as 50%, while withstanding pressure differences of 100 kPa.
Sibilant membranes are one thing that daemons and the gods cannot make. They were never designed to make such things, and they have neither the technology nor the understanding to go about making machines to make them. There is great demand for wizards to provide sibilant membranes on Olympia. There is a steady flow of long-life bridges with sibilant membranes from Pakesh through the Eldrich synchronous two-link to Olympia. An exported eight-year bridge with an eight-year membrane sells for ten thousand dollars.
The Olympians, however, did figure out how to overcome the pressure differences long before wizards came along. Summoning agencies, for example, enclose all the Olympian halves of their summoning bridges in small air-tight glass-fronted boxes hanging on a wall in a dark room. When light shines through one of the glass fronts, an agency employee takes the box off the wall and walks it into a pressure chamber. He attaches a barometer to a valve in the box, and measures the pressure inside. He now equalizes the pressure in the chamber using either a large bridge to high pressure or a large bridge to low pressure. When pressure is equalized, he takes the bridge out of the box and talks to the customer. The pressure chamber includes apparatus for expanding bridges, and it has an air-lock through which summoned goods and creatures can enter and thus pass through the bridge.
The advantage of the Olympian way of doing things is that it allows you to pass things through a molecular bridge. The sibilant membrane, while protecting the user from the atomizing power of the communication bridge, also blocks the bridge for the passage of solid objects. Wizards cannot make molecular bridges anyway, so the obstruction is no loss to them. The four-way walkie-talkie (three ways plus a spare) system used by Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel has membranes around their bridge rings. Each person has a 5-cm long by 2-cm wide by 1-cm deep metal case with a perforated front. Each case holds three bridges, one to each of the other three plates. You can just about hear someone shouting through the bridge while flying on a griff with the walkie-talkie case in an outer breast pocket.
The membranes of Bridge-Net bridges, or 'net bridges', are on the service-provider's side, or 'node-side', of the bridge. The bridge and its membrane are maintained by the service-provider's wizards. Net connections between users require at least two bridges, because the connection takes place through a node. Sound must pass through at least two membranes. The best net connection between two 25th Century users of the same Bridge-Net service provider has efficiency 25% (50% times 50%). A connection to Olympia, however, might have four bridges, and an efficiency of only 6%.
In the early days of the Bridge-Net, intermediate bridges between nodes had no membranes. Instead, the node chambers were all held at the same standard pressure. The service providers would pass through air-locks into the communication chambers. As membranes became more efficient, pressurized chambers were dropped.
When our heroes hear Negar reading, the sound is passing through one membrane, because their message service also happens to be their Bridge-Net service provider. If all of them want to hear her at the same time, they must put the amplifying horn on their bridge, and sit in a quiet room. When they talk to Aries, he is speaking from a pressurized chamber, and his voice is twice as loud. They can huddle around the bridge and all hear him without the horn. When they speak to Romayne and Travis through a direct bridge, they get 50% efficiency just as they do with Negar. When they speak to Romayne through the net, they get only 12% efficiency because she does not use the Pahlavi Message Box. Only one person can listen to her at a time.
5-AUG-2482: Staying at the Virage house. Talk to Aries. He says that Erebus will soon be in town for a court case, and he expects to be able to talk at length to her then. Erebus is currently in a small, dark, female body modeled on the women of Goss. Shiva is in a male body, as are the other three Princes of Hell.
Out of this conversation with Aries, and another with Bolus over the net, comes the following list of Things to Consider.
Thristen starts training his griff to come when whistled for.
9-AUG-2482: Talk to Romayne and Travis in the morning. They are camped in an oasis (see map). They have received word over the net that the oasis ahead of them and the one behind have both been destroyed and their inhabitants slaughtered by what is reputed to be an army of undead orcs that can move any distance at will across the desert. The army has struck four oases in a single day.
Romayne and Travis's caravan is camped in the oasis. There are fifty guards. The army that attacked the oases is rumored to have up to one thousand orcs.
The oases on the road to Sax are separated by night's march each, or about 120 km. The road is not straight, it goes from one oasis to the next in the approximate direction of Sax. The map above is just a schematic.
10-AUG-2482: Romayne's eighteenth birthday.
Better information received from desert travelers fleeing the orcs. It appears that there are four armies of orcs, each about five hundred strong. The orcs are either undead or diseased. They march at night and rest during the day, as do most desert travelers.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen tell Romayne and Travis about the desert crabs they encountered when they went after Buffy east of the Iron Mountains. They remember Astakoss, the wizard from whom Buffy sought sanctuary, but received abuse and abandonment. Is he behind this invasion? The desert crab's victims are obviously diseased. They could be mistaken for undead. And at least some of them obeyed Astakoss, because they fought for him against the adventurers.
11-AUG-2482: Aries calls up. He says that Lucifer owns the plots east of the Iron Mountains. It is where most of the exiles from the Western Outlands end up hiding. Astakoss the adventurer-wizard has lived there for fifteen years. Lucifer helped Astakoss establish himself there, and in exchange Astakoss kept the exiled orcs under control. Since Astakoss moved into the area, there have been hardly any attacks by exiles upon the caravan route to the south.
Now Astakoss is not answering Lucifer's calls, the Ursian Air Force, with its fastest wyverns out from Pakesh, has found four armies of five hundred diseased orcs, each lead by at least on black orc, marching fifteen kilometers a night east along the road, each coming from a destroyed oasis and heading for an as yet intact oasis. The water in the destroyed oasis has been poisoned. The oasis inhabitants who survived the attack are either dying of thirst or have already died of the poison in the water.
Lucifer is in violation of the Reconciliation Treaty: his orcs have crossed into the homelands and assaulted sapien towns and traders. He is already involved in a court case over orcs travelling to Comitor to trade, and now this as well. Aries says that if Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel can do something to limit the damage done by the orcs, Lucifer will be grateful, and will most likely pay attention to their requests about the road. Most of the Ursian territory along the road, it turns out, is contained in Aries's Ursian temple plots. Therefore is will be Aries who presses a suit against Lucifer is any suit is to be pressed. But Aries will press such a suit only if asked to do so by the Ursian government.
Quayam says they will take care of the undead-orc problem.
That afternoon, go with Gashley into town to buy weapons. Quayam and Gristel each pay $200k for +5 long-swords. Thristen pays $200k for a +6 large-sword. The orcs are carrying swords, so they might as well have them too.
After a good meal in a restaurant, they go home.
12-AUG-2482: 0600: Send urgent message to Mohsin Kurd, asking to talk.
0800: Talk to Travis and Romayne, saying they are coming out for their own reasons, not to rescue their children. Romayne is annoyed, but Travis welcomes anything that makes life easier.
0900: Gristel leaves to buy arrows, javelins, and quivers.
1000: Talk briefly to Mohsin Kurd. He is busy, but he writes down questions and promises to try to come back with answers by 11 am.
1100: Get answers from Mohsin. The UAF confirms that there are four armies on the march, each of five hundred orcs. He dismisses the undead rumor out of hand, and will look into the desert crab theory. According to UAF estimates of the speed with which these sluggish orcs are moving by night, the four orc armies will reach the four oases east of them on the following dates. Meanwhile, the UAF has persuaded desert nomads to come and rescue the people in the oases, leaving their goods behind. Mohsin says the nomads plan to kill the orcs later and take all the goods from them. The nomads will arrive at the following dates. The oases are numbered starting from the westernmost. Romayne and Travis are in number nine.
|Oasis||Nomads Arrive||Orcs Arrive|
|5||14th Aug||16th Aug|
|7||13th Aug||14th Aug|
|9||14th Aug||15th Aug|
|11||12th Aug||13th Aug|
1200: Manage to get Buffy, of all people, on the net. She gives them a detailed description of Astakoss, and says she will do what she can to help track him down. At the moment she is in Goss, about to set sail for Susa.
1300: Gristel back with all necessary equipment, including water skins, light tents, and sunglasses. Pack up and catch an lucky 70 kph westerly wind. Their route plan is shown in blue on the map of the road. Their best guess as to the route of the orcs is shown in red.
1800: Fly over Oasis 8, and see that it has been devastated. They see bodies bloated in the sun. But they do not land. They continue to the east.
1830: To their surprise, spot an orc army heading north away from the road in broad daylight. A UAF wyvern circles overhead at 3000 m. They are flying at 200 m. Circle and watch. The orcs do not appear to see them.
The army travels in a grid formation, with 20 m between each orc. A little forward of the center, but not at the front, is a black orc on a camel. All other soldiers are orcs.
One orc stumbles and does not get up. Another grabs a few things off his body and returns to his place in the formation.
Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel decide to try to kill the black orc. They dive down out of the sun, with six seconds between each of them. Thristen fires the first shot. Only after it flies past the black-orc's head do the orcs know they are under fire, and it takes a few seconds for them to see what is going on.
Quayam comes over and the orcs fire at him with their crossbows, all of which seem to have been loaded and ready to shoot. There are a lot of crossbow bolts in the air, and Quayam has to work hard to keep his griff from being shot half a dozen times.
Gristel flies over and drops a thunder-egg on the black orc's camel. The black orc escapes, but his camel dies.
Thristen swoops around for another attack. The orc captain shouts orders in an astonishingly loud voice. The orcs are reloading their crossbows and closing up their ranks so they can bring more fire-power to bear upon their attackers.
Thristen dives again, followed by Quayam and Gristel. Their arrows and javelins fly straight for the orc captain, but he always manages to get out of the way. Meanwhile, our heroes are rattled from the number of shots coming so close to their griffs. Just one in the head is all it takes to bring the beast down.
Fly up the 500 m and talk through their bridges. The orcs proceed to the north in close order. Our heroes decide that they cannot get all four army captains this way. Perhaps one, but not all four. They proceed to Oasis 9.
1845: Land their griffs on the caravansary roof in Oasis 9, and meet Romayne and Travis. Travis has organized the guards and made a deal with the merchants. All the guards, with Travis as their captain, will escort all 200 camels to Oasis 12. The dozen mule-drawn wagons will remain at the oasis. The caravan will go south of the road so as to miss the orc army, which will most likely head north after devastating Oasis 11. Oasis 10 is already devastated, and its water poisoned. Fifty camels will carry precious cargo. Fifty more will carry thirty guards and the twenty traders who own the precious cargo. The remaining one hundred camels will carry water, enough for ten days. They will travel 40 km every night. If attacked by orcs, they will be able to ride away on their camels.
For this daring effort to rescue the merchant's profits, the thirty guards will all get quadruple pay. That means Romayne and Travis will each get forty thousand dollars instead of the original fee of ten thousand each. Most guards will get ten thousand instead of an original twenty-five hundred.
The precious cargo is mostly magical items made in Pakesh. Upon these the merchants make a 25% profit in Sax. Upon fifty camels, Travis estimates, you can easily carry ten thousand light stones (200 g each, 40 kg per camel, 50 camels), each costing a thousand dollars in Pakesh. That's ten million dollars worth of magical items. Quite apart from the profit on the goods, there is the original expenditure. And the profit itself is going to be almost two million, and split between thirty guards that would be seventy thousand each. So asking for ten thousand for each guard seems reasonable.
The merchants haggled for a long time, but in the end they gave in.
12-AUG-2482:"The objective of war is peace, and peace is obtained only by taking away the will of your enemy to resist." Gashley Virage
2000: Throm lands at Oasis 9 to act as liaison between the Ursian Air Force (UAF) and QTG.
2100: UAF wyvern and another griff land. The wyvern rider is Hossein, a slight man of 55 kg. Sheereh is the rider of the griff, even lighter at 41 kg. The sun sets, and Romayne and Travis set out with the camel caravan and merchants.
13-AUG-2482:0000: Talk to Aries, who says he can talk to Lucifer at short notice if necessary. QTG want Lucifer to confirm or deny their theory that the orc soldiers are afflicted by desert crabs, and if they are afflicted, what antidotes to the crab's poison are available in quantity at short notice.
0030: Steady 10-kph wind from the west.
0200: Talk to Aries. Lucifer confirms that orcs are most likely afflicted. There are two antidotes, one that neutralizes the poison and must be taken daily, and another that kills the crab and must be taken only for three days. This second chemical is called amoxycyclopentawalene (ACPW). Lucifer says they can obtain it from their summoning agencies.
0210: Throm takes off on a UAF-ordered reconnaissance mission. She flies west looking for the orc army that is heading towards Oasis 9. She finds them about forty kilometers away, walking on the road by moonlight. She makes two passes over them and estimates that there are only three hundred of them, out of the original force of five hundred.
Thristen talks to the Druidic pantheon, asking for ACPW. They look it up and find that it is under Olympian copyright. It is available with one-hour half-life, and only to qualified clerics. That means that only Thristen can perform the summoning. The Druidic pantheon has six doses on hand. They put in a request for the chemical from the copyright holder, who remains anonymous.
"It's Lucifer, I bet," Gristel says.
"He's going to work us from both sides," Quayam says.
Soon after, word comes back that the Druidic pantheon can obtain the requested six thousand 100-mg doses at a rate of one thousand doses a day, in the form of a twenty-milliliter liquid dose in a small, corked test tube. The cost of the doses, in bulk, will be $100 each. Lucifer has said that each orc will require three doses on three consecutive days.
0600: Leave Oasis 9 at dawn.
0620: Land and say Hi to Travis and Romayne, who are proceeding with their camel train without incident so far.
0815: Find an orc army of five hundred camped in low hills west of Oasis 11. A UAF wyvern circles overhead. Land on nearby hilltop. The orcs load their crossbows. Quayam fires an arrow with a note tied to it into their midst. The note says, "We can cure you of your disease. We would like to talk to you," in Endan and Latin. Thristen summons twenty vials of medicine. The two black orcs in the army read the note, and advance towards QTG with one hundred orcs, crossbows at the ready. Thristen advances down the hill to meet them, and finds himself in a semi-circle of eighty crossbowmen, each with his weapon pointed and loaded. The junior of the two black orcs advances to the center of the circle to talk to Thristen. He speaks Latin.
"Greetings," he says.
"And to you," Thristen says, "I am Thristen Alomere. My companions and I come in peace to offer you a cure for your disease."
"We understand that you are suffering from the effects of desert crabs."
"What are desert crabs?"
"Small creatures that live in the sand. They bite you and make you sick. If you don't take medicine, you die."
"Is that your name for them?"
"I can give you medicine that will kill the Alkazini and leave you unharmed."
The black orc thinks for a moment.
"What is the form of this cure?"
"It is a vial of liquid that you drink. You must take one a day for three days. The vials must be used immediately, or the medicine loses its power."
"Do you have enough of this medicine to cure all of our soldiers?"
"And what is your price?"
"Leave the next oasis undamaged. You can go there for food and water, but do not poison the well or damage the settlement."
"How do we know that your medicine is not poisonous?"
"You can select a vial at random from those I bring you, and I will drink it."
"Do you have the medicine with you now?"
"I have twenty vials in this bag."
Thristen holds up a cloth sack. The vials clink inside it.
"I will consult with my captain," he says, "Please wait here for me. I will return."
For five minutes, Thristen stands in the center of the semi-circle of orcs. Their crossbows are trained upon him. He doubts that he could escape alive if the orcs were given the order to fire.
The black orc lieutenant returns.
"Here is our offer. We will take nineteen vials, and you will drink the twentieth. We will give the medicine to volunteers. Tomorrow you will seek us out, and the next day, and we will repeat the same actions. If, after that, we find that your medicine is effective, we will accept many more vials, until all our soldiers are cured. Each time we receive the vials from you, you must drink one of them. If all goes as you say, we will not poison the water at the oasis, nor will we do any deliberate damage to the settlement."
And so Thristen gives the lieutenant the bag of vials, the lieutenant picks one out, and gives it back. Thristen drinks it. The black orc is satisfied.
"Until tomorrow," he says.
"Goodbye," Thristen says. He backs away up the hill to safety.
1400: Back at Oasis 9, after flying over Travis and Romayne, but not landing.
1700: Onwards to find the army west of Oasis 9.
1800: Find the army sleeping in the meager shade of a low ridge. They are down to two hundred soldiers. Further to the west, bodies lie here and there on the road.
1900: Inspect a body. Thristen determines that the orc died of measles. Throm tells the UAF that they should try to gather and burn the corpses, to stop the desert crabs hatching out of them and infesting the road.
Return to Oasis 9. Talk to Aries and ask him to persuade Lucifer to change the copyright restrictions on ACPW so that Quayam and Gristel can summon it too. Aries says he has already put in this request, and expects Lucifer to make the change by morning.
14-AUG-2482: 0600: Aries tells them that Lucifer changed the ACPW copyright. Quayam and Gristel may now summon the drug directly from their summoning agencies. The ACPW will still be supplied with the one-hour half-life.
Now that Thristen is not the only one who can summon the ACPW, they decide to split into two groups to spread the cure more quickly. Quayam and Gristel will go west, and Thristen and Throm east.
0700: Quayam and Gristel fly over the army suffering from measles. There are only one hundred of them left. Proceed towards Oasis 7, using the road to guide them.
0900: Thristen and Throm arrive at Oasis 11, where they find the orcs encamped contentedly. They land and talk to the black orc lieutenant. He tells them that all of the orcs who took the medicine are feeling better than they have in a long time, and the 'alkazi' on his back fell off.
The orc soldiers, and the black-orc captain stay clear of Thristen and Throm. Only the lieutenant comes near them, or talks to them. But the soldiers nod when they walk by, and many stand a distance off and look at their sapien guests with smiles on their faces.
The lieutenant brings them a meal of dates, freshly baked bread, and wine. He says little, and answers no questions about himself, but he is gracious and welcoming nonetheless.
1000: Quayam and Gristel arrive at Oasis 7. It is being looted by hundreds of orcs. They fly onward, and discover the abandoned camp of the orc army, ten kilometers to the west, and just north of the road. There are dozens of corpses lying around. Land the griffs and dismount. The orcs dies in battle.
They find a survivor. They bind his wound, which is severe, make some shade, and give him water. Not being clerics, they cannot summon healing serums, for which they are sorry. But they can understand the orc when he speaks.
"Thank you, sir," he says, after he has drunk a little water. He has a large wound in his left side. It is still bleeding into the bandage Quayam put on it. Quayam is uncertain if he bound it tight enough.
"What happened here?" Quayam says.
The orc says a word they do not know. Quayam remembers it, and later finds out that it means 'mutiny'.
"I do not understand," Quayam says.
"Some of the boys wanted to go for a swim, but his lordship says no, you can all go for a swim tonight."
"What happened to his lordship?"
"Get some rest," Gristel says, "We will be back for you."
"Thank you, madam."
Nearby, Quayam and Gristel find the dismembered corps of a black orc.
1300: Thristen and Throm fly over the measles army, west of Oasis 9. They may reach the Oasis by tomorrow morning.
1430: Quayam and Gristel arrive at Oasis 5, built around a deep well in a dry valley. The inhabitants are still there. There is cool water and even ice. Everyone is drinking their best wine, beer, and roast meat. There are dancing girls and entertainers.
1500: Nomads enter Oasis 9 with many camels, to take away the inhabitants and those of the merchants who did not leave with Travis and Romayne. The nomads wear loose wool robes. Normally, their faces are in shadow, but when they throw back their hoods to drink or eat in the shade, their skin is dark and deeply lined. They are lean and handsome, but their expressions, when directed at the soft, water-laden people whom they are to rescue, are cold. They do not wish to stay in the Oasis, they say the orcs are nearby. Thristen and Throm do not interfere.
1600: Nomads leave with all people in the Oasis except Thristen and Throm.
Just before sundown, Thristen and Throm leave the oasis and camp in the desert to the south.
15-AUG-2482: 0600: Quayam and Gristel fly west from Oasis 5 and find the fourth orc army. It has one black orc leader, a large man in chain armor. The wind starts blowing fiercely from the south-west. They UAF reports that a sand storm is coming from the west. The orcs are camped in a depression north of the road. Quayam and Gristel land on a rise a few hundred meters to the east.
Quayam makes Gristel a shield of conjured wood to protect her from crossbow bolts, and she approaches the orcs. She finds herself in a semi-circle of crossbowmen just as Thristen did two days before. The black orc approaches. When he gets near, she lets go the shield. It rises immediately and disappears.
The black orc stands two heads taller than she, and broad with it. The lines of his face are sharp and scarred, and there are two sores that Gristel knows are signs of affliction by the desert crab. He stands three meters from her. He carries a sword at his belt, and a shield on his back. Both are built to match his size. His tusks are yellow, capped with gold leaf. On his head is a polished steel helmet with hinged side-pieces. He has no eyebrows, and no eyelashes. Unlike the rest of his soldiers, he is not wearing sunglasses. His red irises are hidden in the shade of his helmet.
The wind blows in Gristel's face. It is a hot wind. She is sweating beneath her armor, but the wind penetrates her cloths and keeps her dry. There are eighty crossbows pointed at her. She is at the mercy of the black-orc captain.
"Do you speak the language of Endromis?" he says.
"Yes," Gristel says.
"Do you need water or food?"
"No, we have both."
"Then what brings you here?"
"We know that you are afflicted by a creature you call the alkazini. We have a drug that will kill it and leave you healthy. You won't need Astakoss's drugs any more."
The black orc looks long and hard into Gristel's eyes. He clenches his jaw. Two indentations appear in his cheeks. He juts his chin forward, then pulls it back.
"I would like to believe you, madam."
"I have twenty vials of medicine in this sack."
Gristel holds up the sack.
"I will give you the sack. You can take out one of the vials and give it to me. I will drink it. Nineteen of you can take the remaining doses. You must do so within an hour, because the medicine loses its power quickly. Tomorrow and the next day we will return and repeat the procedure. On the fourth day, when we come back, you will know that the medicine works, and you may then choose to receive enough medicine for your entire company."
The black orc nods.
"In return for the medicine, you will do no damage to the oasis east of here. You will not poison the wells nor destroy any property."
"We must go there to obtain water."
"You may go there, drink the water and eat whatever food you find, and stay there until we have cured you all, but after that you must go back to your land in the north."
The black orc rests his hand upon the pommel of his sword. He looks sideways at his men. The orcs are glancing over their shoulders at the sandstorm looming on the horizon. The wind is picking up sand and blowing it into Gristel's face.
"My name is Carnus," he says, "I am called Lord Carnus by my men."
"I am Gristel Virage, and the man behind me is Quayam Srae."
The black orc looks at Quayam and smiles. "I will accept your offer."
He takes one step forward stretches out his left hand. His right hand remains upon the pommel of his sword. He towers above Gristel, looking down at her. His body shelters her from the wind. She looks up into his red eyes. The pupils are narrow slits. His face is unmoving. The wind flutters some loose cloth on his shoulders. He smells like sandalwood insence. His left hand is near her chest. If he tries to strike her, Gristel is not sure if she will defend herself.
"The bag, madam."
Gristel blinks and looks down at his hand. His fingers are twice the size of hers. Unlike the fingers on his right hand, they have talons. She holds up the bag and he takes it from her. He reaches into the bag with his right hand and picks out three capsules. He examines them in the palm of his hand, rolling them from side to side. The palm of his hand is black like the rest of him, but Gristel expected it to be pale. He selects a capsule and holds it up for Gristel. She takes out the stopper and drinks it without hesitation. She hands him the empty vessel. He inspects it and puts it in the bag.
"Until tomorrow, madam," he says.
He backs away from her several steps and turns and walks down the hill. She walks backwards all the way to Quayam, where she is out of effective shooting range of the orcs' crossbows. She leans upon her husband and takes a deep breath.
Carnus turns and shouts out. His voice loud and clear, carried by the wind with the sane, across the hundred meters that separate them.
"Beware the storm, Gristelvirage!"
Gristel nods and waves. She and Quayam mount their griffs and fly with the wind to the north-east.
0630: Throm and Thristen fly over Oasis 9, and see thirty or so orcs lying under shade in the oasis. Perhaps there are more inside the buildings. These are the survivors of the army that attacked Oasis 8, and then fell pray to measles on the way to Oasis 9. These are the orcs that Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen attacked on their approach to Oasis 9.
Thristen and Throm talk over their walkie-talkies.
"I think they will have to rest here for a while before they leave," Thristen says.
"The storm will blow through here this afternoon," Throm says, "So we won't be able to get back."
"I don't think they'll leave for a few days, and the rest of them might just die here."
"But if they leave tonight, they will poison the well."
"They won't leave tonight, they must need some rest."
"We have to go down to the oasis to water the griffs. I hope they have not poisoned the well already."
"I doubt it," Thristen says.
"Let's land on the east end of the water. Our griffs can drink there and we will be thirty meters from the nearest orcs."
"Sounds good," Thristen says.
They circle and land beside the water. Several orcs in the settlement are watching them, and take up positions at the west end of the oasis with crossbows, but they do not fire upon the adventurers.
Ten minutes later, Thristen and Throm order their griffs back from the water and into the air. The beasts are still thirsty, but they can make it to the next oasis. If they drink too much, they won't be able to fly.
10:00 Quayam and Gristel land beside their injured orc outside Oasis 7. He is dead.
"Damn it," Quayam says.
Gristel shakes here head.
There is no time to bury him. The storm is coming. They fly to Oasis 7 and circle above it. They see no signs of life, but there is a clear trail left by many soldiers off to the north-by-north-west.
There is no time to follow the trail. They land, put their griffs in a large, sturdy barn, and close the doors in readiness for the sand storm.
Soon after, fierce whirlwinds hit the oasis, filling the air with sand and debris. The power of the wind increases in bursts until it is rattling the barn doors, and forcing sand through every crack in the shutters, the rafters, and the doors themselves. The howling of the wind, the hiss of the sand against the walls, the shrieking of their griffs in that enclosed space, the shuddering of the barn, and the thumping of flying objects striking the barn's walls at random, is all together deafening.
Gristel, standing next to Quayam, and leaning against the door to steady it, shouts as loud as she can to make herself heard.
"Now I know why they have shutters on all their houses!"
"Right!" Quayam says.
"How the hell are Romayne and Travis going to make it through this?!"
"Romayne and Travis!"
"Oh!," Quayam says, and thinks for a few seconds, "Travis will figure something out."
The secret to surviving a desert storm is either to build a strong house and sit inside it, or place yourself in the lee of a cliff. It is to just such a cliff that Travis and Romayne are even now heading towards, in anticipation of the storm. In the end, however, the storm hardly touches them, hundreds of kilometers to the east.
1100: Throm and Thristen land at Oasis 11 and give the army there their last set of sample doses. They eat, water their griffs again, and agree to come back on the 17th August to supply doses for the rest of the army, assuming that the medicine has been effective.
1145: Throm and Thristen fly to join Travis and Romayne. Throm wants to make sure they know about the storm, and its severity.
1200: Storm has blown over Oasis 7. Quayam and Gristel come out, take a sample of the oasis water, and look for orcs. Their griffs are thirsty, but are denied water. Quayam and Gristel find no living orcs in the settlement, but they see that the orcs have been ripping the place up and having a party. 1300: The wind is now blowing 80 kph out of the East. Quayam and Gristel fly west to Oasis 5.
1400 After battling a headwind, Thristen and Throm find and join Travis and Romayne, who, as we said earlier, are nearing a cliff that will provide them with shelter from the storm.
1600: Nomads enter Oasis 5 and take away inhabitants. Only the UAF griff and wyvern riders are still there. Quayam and Gristel cook a meal for themselves and the riders, and look at the stars.
16-AUG-2482: Thristen and Throm, having spent the night in the camp left behind at sundown by Travis and Romayne's caravan, fly east to meet them again, and then on to Oasis 11 to water their griffs. They do not stay long with the orcs there, but fly west again, scouting the land, and rejoin Travis and Romayne a few hours before dark.
0500: Easterly 20 kph wind. Quayam hears back from his summoning agency that the water sample from Oasis 7 is drinkable.
0600: Quayam and Gristel find Carnus and his army not far to the west. Carnus has taken the medicine himself, and looks forward to taking the next dose. Quayam summons another twenty doses, then he and Gristel fly for Oasis 7.
1100: Quayam and Gristel circle over Oasis 7. It is once again filled with orcs, who must have returned from some excursion the night before. There are half a dozen camels tethered next to the watering hole. The camels were not there two days ago, nor were they with the orc army on its approach to Oasis 7.
They land outside the Oasis and approach the walls to parley in orcish.
"Hello there!" Quayam says.
An orc climbs up to look over the wall at them. The gates to the oasis are closed.
"Buzz off!" the orc says.
"We can cure your disease."
"What, by feeding us those two big chickens of yours?"
"We can get rid of your desert crabs," Gristel says.
"Why don't you come inside, then, darling, you can cure my disease, and I'll cure yours at the same time."
"We know about the alkazini," Quayam says.
"Oh, I'm sure you do, mate, and you just can't wait to come in here and make us all feel much better, so we can get on with destroying this lovely Oasis."
They hear orcs laughing behind the wall. "In fact, whenever people come and attack my home, I always likes to make sure they are feeling as right as can be while they're doing it, so as they can really enjoy themselves."
"You don't have to be Astakoss's slaves any more," Quayam says.
"Oh, slaves is it? We're nobody's slaves, mate. Anyway, you must be getting mighty hot out there in the sun, and all, so why don't you come on inside here, and have a nice drink with your pals, so we can really get to know each other?"
"No thank you."
"Oh, refusing me hospitality, is it? I call that ungrateful, not to mention rude."
Quayam and Gristel start walking away.
"Oy there! I'll give you ten jugs of wine for those chickens of yours!"
The orcs burst out laughing again.
"Idiots," Quayam says.
They mount up and take off.
1500: Back at Oasis 5. Carnus has arrived. Land, water the griffs and have a friendly tea with Carnus. His alkazi, as he calls it in the singular, has fallen off. He took two doses yesterday and today, being larger than the other orcs. Among the other test subjects, several alkazi have dropped off, and others appear to be on the verge of doing so. Carnus says he has ordered that the alkazi be bandaged over so that no orc can pull theirs off before it has fallen off of its own accord. In any case, he has decided that the medicine is effective, and asks for Quayam and Gristel to begin treating his entire force immediately. He promises that if all his men are cured, he will adhere to the terms laid down by Gristel in their first meeting, and thank them also. They agree to do so, and summon 480 more doses. The orcs line up to take them, after Gristel has drunk one chosen at random from the batch.
That night, Quayam and Gristel sleep on a roof in the oasis with their griffs.
17-AUG-2482: 0600: Thristen and Throm arrive at Oasis 11. The black orc lieutenant tells them that he and his captain are convinced that the medicine is effective and not harmful to their men. They agree to Thristen and Throm's terms, and accept 480 doses of the medicine.
0700: Quayam and Gristel give another 500 doses to Carnus's army, and then set off for Oasis 7 to see what is going on there.
1100: QG arrive Oasis 7. It appears deserted. They land on top of the caravansary, leave their griffs there, and go down to the well and the pool to take water samples. They start searching the Oasis. They find four beheaded orcs, an orc that appears to have choked in his own vomit, and then a live orc hiding under a porch. He runs away, and Quayam runs after him.
The orc runs out of the oasis, followed closely by Quayam. It is not long before Quayam catches him up, and forces the fellow to turn and fight, which he does, drawing his sword.
After they have exchanged a few blows, the orc backs off.
"What do you want from me, flat-face?"
The orc is average height, and slender beneath his well-worn ring armor and filthy cotton shirt and trousers. His tusk are yellow, and his face mottled from the alkazi.
"Come back with me to the oasis."
Quayam hears Gristel call for help. He turns and runs back. He finds here standing among six prone orcs. She is panting, and sweat stands out on her face. She takes her helmet off and wipes her brow.
"They must have been hiding," she says.
"How many were there?"
"Nine or ten, but they came in ones and twos."
Three of the orcs are dead, three are injured. Quayam binds the wounds of the survivors. The nastiest looking wound, a cut to the neck, he somehow manages to bind successfully, but the two others just keep bleeding despite his efforts.
Quayam is about to re-dress wound when the orcs emerge once again from hiding. There are seven or eight of them, led by a large man with a scar on his chin. This character holds a wooden bowl full of what appear to be floating spheres of fluid, out over the well. He smirks at Quayam and Gristel, who stand their ground near the well. The orcs close in from all sides.
"Give us the cure," the leader says.
Quayam says he is happy to give it to them, but they must take it according to his instructions.
"How do I know it's not poison, like this stuff in the bowl here?"
His men murmur their approval at this penetrating insight. Quayam offers to drink one of the doses. The leader takes two doses from the bag, extends one to Quayam, then pulls it back and gives him the other.
"Aha!" he says.
"Good work, Dugout," an orc says.
"That's captain to you, idiot," Dugout says.
Quayam drinks the dose. Dugout takes the bag.
"Now," Dugout says, "you stay here where we can keep an eye on you."
"We're leaving now," Quayam says, "But we will be back tomorrow."
"I says otherwise."
When Gristel and Quayam start to back away, the orcs attack and get beaten up. In the fray, Quayam gets the poison from Dugout, Gristel and Quayam ascend to the roof, and the orc Quayam chased earlier jumps off another roof and knocks Dugout on the back of the head as Dugout is running off to regroup his men. Dugout collapses and Gag, for that is the name of the orc Quayam chased, takes the medicine from him.
Gristel's griff has flown up and is circling above. Quayam flies up and gets it down, then they fly away to the north, looking for the rest of the orcs. They find them in three parties. One, the largest, has the camels with it, and is heading to the north-east. This group is camped out under canvass tents, and appears to be in good order. Another is camped out a hundred kilometers to the north-west of Oasis 9, around a hole in the ground. They appear to be in good order, and are retreating to the Outlands, using the stores laid down for their army's use after they dealt with Oasis 9. Quayam and Gristel think this party is made up of those orcs who remained loyal to their commander. The large party to the west must be lead by the cocky orc they talked to the day before. A third party, spread out, its trail marked by the occasional corps, follows the second party along the line of stores. They are too far behind, it would appear, to catch up unless they run hard, but they appear to be in bad shape.
1200: Thristen and Throm arrive at Oasis 9. They see half a dozen orcs in the act of burying their dead in the cemetery outside the Oasis. They land and approach. The orcs are gruff, and stand their ground. Thristen persuades them to try the antidote. They ask for sixty doses. Thristen summons them and takes a dose himself. Thristen doubts that there are as many as sixty orcs surviving among the measles-decimated army, but he gives them the doses anyway, since it seems important to them to keep up appearances. There is something hard and grim about the orcs that commands his sympathy and respect. They agree not to poison the oasis if they find themselves cured.
1730: Gristel and Quayam arrive back at Oasis 5. Talk at length and openly with Carnus. He is a gentle and courteous man. He speaks slowly, and his voice is deep. His intonation is varied and sometimes confusing, but his Latin vocabulary is extensive, and his mastery of the conjugation is perfect. Latin, it would appear, is the language spoken among black orcs of the western outlands. Carnus is not an exile, he can return to his home in Garaz any time he wants. He was on a pilgrimage to the Encircling Mountains when he was infected by a desert crab, and forced to remain near Astakoss's castle.
1600: Thristen and Throm arrive back at Oasis 11, and hang out with the lieutenant, who introduces himself at last as Cliffandstone, an exile of Gadz. They talk all evening, share a meal together, and a few drinks. He tells them about his home. Among many other things they learn about Gadz and the Outlands, Gadz is lead by a council of black orcs, and a commander-in-chief of the army, while Garaz has a king. The last Cliffandstone heard, the king was Trackandslay, an old, tough black-orc sorcerer of great reputation. [QTG learn later that the Trackandslay is in fact the younger, less-renowned, sorcerer-king of Mokul.] Cliffandstone himself was exiled from Gadz for treason. He was took part in an effort to overthrow the council that approved paying tribute to Garaz instead of fighting for their freedom.
18-AUG-2482: Throm and Thristen give second set of 480 doses to army at Oasis 11. Quayam and Gristel give third and final dose to Carnus's army at Oasis 5. A UAF wyvern picks up the poison Quayam captured at Oasis 7, and the water samples. The water is okay.
Throm and Thristen fly to Oasis 10, take sample water, and see that there are four fresh graves outside the oasis, which they assume to be orc graves. Fly to Oasis 9 and give another 60 doses to orcs. Fly back to Oasis 11.
19-AUG-2482: NW'ly 98 kph.
Carnus hunkers down in Oasis 5, delaying his departure until the wind dies down. Same in Oasis 11. Last 480 doses to the orcs there.
20-AUG-2482: Romayne and Travis are near Oasis 11. NE'ly 50 kph. Orcs leave Oasis 5 and 11. Romayne and Travis arrive at Oasis 9. Quayam and Gristel grounded by the wind, waiting in Oasis 5. Throm and Thristen fly to Oasis 9. It takes them three hours, arrive 9 am. Give sixty doses to the orcs there, and fly on to Oasis 7, which takes another three hours in the saddle. Examine the oasis from the air, but see no signs of life. There, Thristen make a pyre out of the date palm leaf roofs and burns a dozen corpses. He takes a water sample from the Oasis. Meanwhile, Throm circles overhead, worrying about orcs that might be hiding in the Oasis. Thristen takes a water sample. Griffs are exhausted. Throm lands, summon fruit juice for them to drink. They are so thirsty that they drink it.
2100: Southwesterly wind.
2200: A fire starts in a shed nearby the caravansary upon which Throm and Thristen are encamped. Throm and Thristen sit tight. They see an orc leave the building next to the fire.
A couple hours later, Thristen hears the Gag opening the trap door to the roof. He is sneaking up on them. Gag fires a bolt at the griffs. Thristen knocks it aside. Throm takes off with both griffs. Thristen chases Gag off the roof, and pursues him through the Oasis, only to lose him.
21-AUG-2482: 0100: Water sample from Oasis 7 is okay: water not poisoned.
0400: Later that same night, with Throm and Thristen both on the roof again with their griffs, Gag comes up the stairs on the side of the caravansary and talks to them over the low wall that borders the roof. He speaks orcish, and Thristen understands.
"Hello mate," he says.
"What do you want?" Thristen says.
Throm takes off on her griff.
"I want a ride out of here. I want you to give me that chicken of yours."
"You ain't got much choice, mate, because I'll shoot him otherwise."
"I can cure you of the desert crab."
"I'm already cured, mate. That medicine you pals left us did me just fine."
Thristen makes a move towards him, and Gag shoots the griff in the shoulder, then runs off.
The arrow is poisoned, and Thristen's griff seems to be paralyzed, or immobilized. Gag returns and tells Thristen that without the antidote that he, Gag, has in a vial, the griff will die. He gives Thristen one dose, which he says will neutralize the poison for a day, and Thristen feeds it to the griff.
Thristen if furious at Gag, and Gag runs away. Thristen takes a blood sample from the griff and sends it to his pantheon.
0600: Dawn, westerly 10 kph. Throm has both griffs up in the air. Thristen summons ten bugbears and orders them to scour the Oasis for Gag. They soon bring him to Thristen. Thristen orders them to strip Gag, and hold him up. Thristen coats and arrow with Gag's poison, and shoots Gag in the shoulder, dismisses the bugbears, then ties Gag up and leaves him in the sun.
0700: Throm and Thristen water their griffs at the oasis.
0730: Quayam and Gristel set off for Oasis 7.
0900: Thristen pulls the arrow out of Gag's shoulder and binds his wound.
1000: Thristen asks his pantheon for the results of analysis of his griff's blood, but finds out that the Druidic pantheon is suspending his contract pending the investigation of shooting an orc in cold blood.
1100: Quayam and Gristle arrive.
1200: Thristen remains at Oasis 7 with Gag, Gristel, Quayam, and Throm fly on to Oasis 9 and give the orcs there another sixty doses, making five sets of doses to them in all. They say they are cured. Water griffs at pond, tell the orcs to move on. Set off for Oasis 11.
Gag tells Thristen that the antidote to the poison he inflicted upon Thristen's griff was a fake, and that both the griff and he himself will be okay. The griff, in fact, should already be okay. Thristen unties Gag and leaves him in Oasis 7. He flies to Oasis 11 himself, taking the fake antidotes with him.
Throm hears a UAF report that the party of 200 orcs with the six camels, has reached the mountains and appears to have picked up the cache trail intended for the army at Oasis 9. Do not tell the orcs in Oasis 9 of this discovery.
1900: All together at Oasis 11: Romayne, Travis, their caravan, Gristel, Thristen, Throm, and Quayam.
2100: Talk to Mohsin Kurd. He congratulates them upon their success. He tells them that the Chemistry Department of Pakesh University (not the wizard's university) has developed a reagent that turns blue when dropped into water contaminated with the poison Quayam obtained from Dugout at Oasis 7. They are working on a filter through which the muddy oasis pond water can be passed and come out clear enough to perform the same test with confidence. Furthermore, Mohsin believes that the conjured matter spheres in which the poison is enclosed, for timed release over the next year into the water supplies of Oases 4, 6, 7, and 8, will release the poison into the water too slowly to generate a harmful concentration of the poison in either the well or the ponds.
Ask Mohsin the populations of various countries around the Western Outlands, and Ursian estimates of their military strength. He pulls a book from his shelf and reads the numbers off right away.
Mohsin says that the Ursian government will now put pressure on Lucifer, through Aries, to get Lucifer to open a road through the Outlands according to Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen's scheme for avoiding demonstrable violation of the Reconciliation Treaty.
Mohsin agrees to have his staff write a report on the Western Outlands that Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen can refer to. He will call this report Outland Politics. Around this time, they ask Haleh Nassiri of Op-Inc to provide them with a report on the various inhabitants of the orc nations in the Western Outlands. She starts work on Outland Inhabitants.
After they are through talking to Mohsin, they discuss business models for the Iron Road operation. In the course of this, Quayam says that they did Lucifer a big favor at their own expense, but decide not to reveal to Lucifer that they were not reimbursed by Ursia, because he will think better of them when he assumes that they were so reimbursed.
Thristen consults his pantheon again, and finds out that they have frozen his clerical privileges on that account for thirty days as a reprimand for his shooting Gag in cold blood. He will not get his 10% discount, or access to any healing serums and protected substances until 22 Sept. Nevertheless, they do perform analysis on the griff blood sample and the fake antidote. His griff's blood is okay, and the antidote appears to be a mixture of wine and urine.
Discuss the cost of carrying iron across the swamp in barges. They want their entire transport operation to break even with one million kilograms of iron passing through it per year, or roughly 20,000 kg per week, which is 2 m3. They would have to travel only during daylight so they could see swamp monsters approaching, and deter them with crossbows. If the barges proceed by poling at 4 kph, and they pole for ten hours a day, they can travel 40 km per day, or half-way across the swamp to a comfortable hotel run by the Iron Road Co. If they have four barges, each carrying 5,000 kg of iron per trip, and themselves weighing 3,000 kg with another 2,000 kg of miscellaneous cargo, only four polers will be needed to navigate easily around 10-m radius bends at 4 kph. If the crew of each barge is ten men, each a poler and an archer, poling in one-hour shifts all day, and earning $2k per week each, it costs $80k per week to run the barges and transport 20,000 kg of iron, so that is a cost of $4/kg across the swamp. The estimate does not include the cost of maintaining the barges.
They estimate the cost of transportation of one million kilograms of iron along a road through Mokul, over the Long Hills, and across the swamp to be:
2300: Talk to Aries. He congratulates them. They ask him to forward a number of questions to Lucifer, Erebus, and Shiva.
22-AUG-2482: Say goodbye to Travis and Romayne, who are proceeding to Oasis 12 and onward to Sax with their caravan. The griff riders themselves are grounded by a westerly wind.
23-AUG-2482: Quayam, Gristel, Thristen, and Throm set off on a long day's flying to Oasis 9 with a 30-kph NW'ly and a 40kph SW'ly.
24-AUG-2482: NE'ly 30 kph helps them to Oasis 7, where they water their griffs and spend the night, keeping watch for Gag. Nomads have been and gone, taking what little there was left of value.
25-AUG-2482: Say goodbye to Throm. She is continuing duties in the desert for another couple of weeks. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen fly with a 60-kph southerly right across Astakoss's territory, over the Iron Mountains, and to the Virage house. They see no sign of Carnus's army on the way, but they are flying at 1,000 m and can see only a few kilometers across the desert.
Welcomed by the family, have dinner, then settle down to talk to Aries.
Aries tells them that Erebus was 'intrigued' by the idea to transport iron across the swamp. She said she has little control over the elves that live in the redwood trees on the eastern edge of the swamp. The swamp monsters are precious to her. She does not want the swamp drained, and claims that the monsters can be tamed and intimidated.
Aries told Lucifer the latest business plan for the road, and suggested that the Iron Road Co. could pay him $1M/yr for the right of passage, not to mention covering the cost of building the road. Lucifer is interested, but it is a big step for him to take, and he needs more time to think about it. He has a copy of Aries' legal note on the nature of the Reconciliation-defeating arrangement, and his lawyers are studying it for flaws. Anonymous transactions between Olympian and Claran accounts with the same inter-planetary bank will be the key to ensuring no possibility of successful prosecution of Lucifer for breaking The Treaty.
Aries told Lucifer that he, Aries, has been asked by the Ursian government to either sue Lucifer for ten million dollars in damages caused to the Satian road by Astakoss's orcs, or to accept as payment in kind Lucifer's cooperation on the Iron Road.
Shiva told Aries that $1M/yr to rent use of the old road through the Long Hills sounded like a pretty good deal to him. When the adventurers are ready to close the deal, Shiva will give it the nod, and they can go make a public negotiation with the Giant King over the price. Aries asked Shiva about Bashila, saying that the elf woman does not want the road to be traveled. Shiva does not know of Bashila. She will check with her managers, but says QTG should, "do what they have to do."
Call Op-Inc and ask them to post an advertisement for Class III information on one she-elf called Bashila.
30-AUG-2482: Have decided to go meet the 'tree people' personally, and to do that they have to be on foot. So they set off for Pikardo's bridge on foot, leaving the Virage Household's horse grooms to look after their griffs.
It is a pleasant day's walking, and they spend the night near the bridge in a pub. They talk to Aries in their room after supper. Aries talked to Erebus again, and this time Erebus said, "Why not." Aries says this means Erebus might be persuaded to cooperate within the next few months, and asks for their patience.
31-AUG-2482: Talk to Pickardo on the bridge. He says he has never been into the swamp, and he knows nothing about the tree people. They pay him his toll, and cross into the borderlands, walking down a clear path between the obelisks and into a tall, old forest.
The branches meet overhead. It is raining, but the forest floor is still dry. There are signs of foot traffic on the road. After half an hour, the road descends and turns to the left between to rising slopes. Thristen sees a squirrel jumping back and forth between two branches in agitation, and on the other slop, sees three crows flapping their wings and squawking.
"I think there is an ambush up ahead," he says quietly, "the animals are annoyed about something in the undergrowth on both sides of the road."
They cut immediately off the road to the left and run through the forest behind their ambushers, of whom they catch a few glimpses: sapiens with metal armor, swords, and crossbows. The ambushers do not pursue them.
In a clearing further on, Quayam makes a spirit-cloth balloon and they catch a perfect wind: a 30-kph NE'ly that will carry them across the swamp roughly along the course they would like their barges to follow. They sail along two hundred meters up. Quayam guides the balloon and watches the sky. At one point he sees a wyvern overhead, but they get no trouble. Thristen and Gristel examine the swamp below. Gristel is measuring the time for which they are over water. Thristen is counting the number of times an obvious path north-east for a barge with a 50-cm draft will be blocked by land within his field of view. In the 80 km crossing, Thristen counts ten barriers, and Gristel measures 80% water cover. They see four swamp monsters.
At three in the afternoon, they land and go fishing in the swamp in a conjured punt. They cook their fish for dinner and have a good night's sleep. They think nobody has set foot in their clearing for a thousand years.
1-SEP-2482: Walk east. It is raining again, and dark under the trees. Walk all day. At 5 PM they encounter a conjured rubber wall about a meter thick and rising all the way up to the tree-tops. It has been in place for years, by the looks of it, because leaves and dirt have built up against it.
Follow the wall for five kilometers. It bends around to the south slowly. Thristen catches a glimpse of an elf hiding on a flet high up in a tree on the other side of the wall. They proceed. They come to an entrance into the wall, a tunnel that ends in a wooden door. On the other side of the wall, and commanding the door are two elves high up in the trees. They are hard to see, and keep hiding, but they are there.
It is time to camp, so they camp fifteen meters from the entrance. While Quayam is gathering some firewood, he looks through the trees to the north in the fading light of day and sees a red-coated centaur carrying a spear and a shield, then several others, stopping and running east. The centaurs do not appear to see him.
Light a fire, and have their supper. They discuss the 'annihilate conjured matter' spell, with its one-hundred-meter annihilation range, and decide to buy stones of annihilation when they get back to Pakesh.
One person sleeps at a time that night. At two in the morning, Gristel and Thristen have their backs to the fire, when they see and hear an amorphous dog-sized black shape snuffling along their side of the wall from the west, the direction of their own path. Whatever it is, it is hard to keep an eye on, but it makes a wheezing noise that they at first think is snuffling, then breathing, then Thristen says it is the sound of air hissing through a space bridge.
The creature, whatever it is, enters the tunnel, scratches on the door, and doubles back. QTG shine their lights on it and it freezes. It appears to be made of leaves. They turn off their lights, and a few minutes later it starts snuffling along again. It emerges from the tunnel and proceeds along the wall to the east. They shine their lights on it again. They catch a glimpse of six stumpy legs before it hunkers down, flattens out, and grows leaves on its back again. They come closer and decide it is some kind of chameleon homunculus.
"Flip it over with your staff, Gristel," Quayam says.
"No, you flip it over."
"I'm not flipping it over," he says.
Gristel pushes her stuff under the thing, and the moment she does so, it releases a surrounding sponge. They jump away to avoid it.
Quayam gets out his trusty 'dagger of desperation' and cuts his way to within two meters of the thing and has a long look at it. It does not breath, it makes no noise. He does not get any closer.
They withdraw and turn off their lights. Sooner or later, the sponge will decay. They sit down with their backs to the fire.
"Why not just fly iron across the Outlands by hippogriff?" Quayam says.
"Haven't we thought of that already?" Gristel says.
"I don't know," Quayam says.
In the ensuing discussion, they decide that flying iron would, to their surprise, be profitable, and they cannot understand why they did not think of it sooner.
The cost of a hippogriff is $100k, and it gives at least twenty years service, making the depreciation per week $100. The payments on a $100k loan at 10% are $10k a year, or $500 a week. We can assume, therefore, that griffs can be rented for something like $1k a week. Each griff could make one trip back and forth over the outlands a week, and carry 100 kg of iron. During that week, the griff would eat one sheep after each day's flying in addition to the one a week it eats normally. It also needs to be housed and cared for. One griff with a rider could lead two griffs carrying the metal, and care for all three at other times. He would need $900 for nine sheep a week, plus another $100 to rent stable space, and he would expect $2k pay himself. The cost of transporting 200 kg of iron by this method would be $6000, or $30 per kilogram.
"So that works out at about $30 per kilogram," Gristel says.
"We don't have to pay the rider $2k a week, he'll take $1k."
"We should fly it straight from the Star Mountains to Isengard, Quayam says.
"We could have four griffs following one rider," Thristen says.
"Perhaps the cost could be reduced to $20/kg, and the cost of the iron to $95/kg, so we could add a $10/kg tax and get a price in Isengard of $125/kg, which is $25 below what it is today."
"But it's not permanent like a road, and we want a permanent connection across the Outlands," Quayam says.
"We could start that way, and build up to the road," Gristel says.
The creature starts snuffling on its way. It has been fifteen minutes, and the conjured sponge has decayed.
"Shall we capture it?" Gristel says.
They decide to let the snuffling homunculus proceed upon its way unmolested, and allow its origins and function to remain a mystery. Thristen lies down and goes to sleep, leaving Quayam and Gristel on watch.
2-SEP-2482: It is a cold morning, with more rain on the way. Quayam speaks to his grandfather, Mikado, on the net. Mikado does not reveal his location, but wherever he is, it is day-time there. From Mikado, Quayam obtains a net node number at which he can send a letter to his father Frloadut. Quayam dictates a letter to his service provider asking his father what he knows of elves in the Western Outlands, and who might have been capable of making the magnificent wall outside which they are now camped. He requests also that Frloadut contact him when he can, for a friendly father-son talk. Hail the guards in the flets, but the guards just nod their heads in acknowledgement. Break camp and proceed around the wall (see map). When they reach the river, they double-back to take a closer look at the last kilometer of wall. By touching the conjured rubber of the wall, Quayam concludes that it was built up in one-meter layers. The wall is in most places anchored by tall trees. Its top is marked by leaves and dirt, and there is a healthy growth of ferns up there in many places, suggesting the wall has been in place for several years. The anchoring trees are behind the wall. At one place there is a clearing on the other side, and the wall is braced by buttresses on the inside.
As they study the forest beyond the wall, they come to see that it is cultivated. Dead wood has been carried away. Flowers, fungi, and herbs grow among the ferns, grass, and bushes on the forest floor. Paths and shapes marked out in shades of green are visible clearly with Quayam's eyesight, which is sensitive to shades of green, but not so clear to Gristel and Thristen, whose sensitivity to red and blue obscures the contrast in the green spectrum. In one patch beneath an oak tree, Quayam sees three circles of moss growing on the ground, one within the next, but all Thristen and Gristel see is a roughly circular area of yellow-green moss.
As they proceed along the wall, the style of cultivation on the other side changes too, sometimes suddenly, as if the territory of one cultivator ended and that of another began. In one area, they see sixteen different types of autumn mushrooms, growing in large patches and in great abundance. The patch of fly-agarics is spectacular. The largest specimens are thirty centimeters across, bright red with pure white spots.
There are elves in the forest, a hundred meters back from the wall, following the progress of the three explorers. The elves are so stealthy that they are hardly ever visible. There are animals and birds in the forest too, and these appear all to be native to the forest.
Once again at the river, Quayam makes a fine three-person canoe out of spirit wood. It weighs 2000 N, being the same weight per volume as water, has negligible inertia, and longevity one year. He finishes it in half an hour, and everyone is impressed with his workmanship. He has made three paddles as well.
They slide the sparkling gray canoe into the water and push out into the middle of the river. The current is slow, and the water turgid. The north bank is a stone wall made by the elves, atop which is the thirty-meter conjured rubber wall. After a kilometer or so, the river branches. The rubber wall crosses the river, over the top of a five-meter high stone wall with a three-meter arch. The stone is carved with plants and animals, and over the archway, written in Latin, it says, "Eriba, Enter Unbidden Upon Pain of Death."
Eriba is the name of the elf settlement, known to Erebus, but over which he exercises little control. Quayam takes a photograph of the archway.
Decide not to risk the Pain of Death, and proceed along the main branch of the river, until the other branch joins up again (see map). With canoe and by foot, map the remainder of the circuit of the wall.
It starts raining lightly. There is a 4-kph wind blowing from the south-east. They cannot balloon home, so they start to paddle, and think it just as well that they do, because they will learn more about the swamp, and its navigability.
Start paddling at 2 PM. Proceed through wide lakes and joining channels. Camp on an island at the south end of a lake. Thristen catches a twenty-pound catfish on a hook and line.
3-SEP-2482: After a peaceful night, proceed due south again. It is wet and cold. They pass through two channels where they know they would have to port a barge, and they have to port their canoe once. Make thirty kilometers and camp on another island. Eat some leftover cooked catfish. It rains all night, but they stay relatively dry under a conjured canopy.
4-SEP-2482: Rain stops, but it is still cloudy. That day, encounter one barge portage, and one canoe portage. They come to what they think is the edge of the swamp, and leave their spirit canoe behind. But three kilometers later, they come to a river channel. Quayam makes a conjured raft and they go across without incident.
At 5 PM they come to a trail. The tracks of twenty heavily-laden orcs lead to the south-west. They hide in the woods back from the path and rest. In the middle of the night, proceeding by starlight alone, twenty orcs go back again the other way towards Gutak.
5-SEP-2482: Up and away at first light. Follow the orc tracks down the trail, which is towards Pikardo's bridge. The trail comes to a fork. One trail proceeds along the edge of the Outlands, the other goes south. The tracks go south. Soon the path enters the borderlands between two tall and crumbling obelisks. They recognize the place where they were nearly ambushed a few days before. A little farther on, in a clearing, sapien tracks from Varay join the orcs, and head away, now burdened.
The tracks lead out of the Borderlands and across Pikardo's bridge. Stop and talk to him briefly. He says he does not watch the bridge at night because it is dangerous. He was once attacked and wounded.
We note at this point that Sid is staying with the Virage's. Quayam ordered him to do so, and Gashley is unafraid of the little demon, so Sid gets the run of the house. He hides when they have guests, and they do not make a show of him, but the servants see him frequently. This arrangement is agreeable to Sid, and to the Virages, but Gristel expresses concern about leaving something so valuable unguarded.
The sapien tracks lead to the town near the bridge, and Thristen loses them in the traffic. Proceed to a larger town, arriving in the afternoon, and hire a cab to take them the last twenty kilometers home to the Virage house.
Thristen orders six stones of annihilation from Pakesh, to be delivered by mail.
6-SEP-2482: Rest. Talk to Romayne and Travis, who are fine. They are still on their way to Sax, and once there, intend to stay there for a few weeks and then proceed to Weiland, Phthisk, Siam, Susa, and home.
7-SEP-2482: Talk to Aries. Lucifer says, about the possible court case against him from Ursia via Aries, that he will fight it. He says he has evidence that the Endan pantheon sponsored Astakoss's betrayal. He wants to find Astakoss and extract from him a confession.
"You should have pitched his options to him more tactfully," Quayam says to Aries.
"Do not presume to tell me how to negotiate with my peers."
Despite Lucifer's bold talk about the court case, he says that the Outland road plan is a small venture the consequences of which, should it go wrong, cannot be grave enough to threaten his equilibrium, so he sees no reason to object to it.
"He does not want us to think we have any leverage over him," Quayam says.
"Perhaps," Aries says, "Be that as it may, Lucifer says he will not hinder the project. So that means you can go ahead."
"What about a letter of introduction to the king of Mokul?"
"He said that if you three are so formidable, you can go and introduce yourselves on your own."
It should be a happy day, therefore, for you heroes, but they all have colds from the trip across the swamp, and Quayam has a fever.
Later, Quayam's fever rises until he is delirious, and Thristen diagnoses malaria. Unfortunately, because of the ban placed upon him by his pantheon, Thristen cannot summon the serum that kills the malarial parasite. They call in the Virage family doctor, Quinton Skinner, who arrives within an hour. Quinton agrees with Thristen's diagnosis. In Varay, the clerics are doctors. The extent of their advice to the people on issues of religion and morality is to nurture a respect for life and happiness. They are all, at heart, doctors. The charges for healing are fixed for all patients, but rich citizens donate to charitable funds that pay for healing for the poor.
Quinton himself, according to Thristen's judgement, is a master-healer. He summons the anti-malarial medicine, and says he will come back on the ninth and eleventh of September to deliver two more doses.
Quayam feels much better in a matter of hours, and is much pleased with the service provided by Varay's church.
9-SEP-2482: They are keen to meet Jacques Martinique, a Caravelli native, and author of two essays they have read on the Outlands (see Outland Inhabitants). They are considering going to Caravel to find him. They contact the university at which he studied in Caravel, and get from them the address of his family. They dictate a letter to a net node in Caravel.
Quinton Skinner and his wife Beverly come over for supper.
13-SEP-2482: Receive a reply to their letter to the Martinique family. It appears to be a press release, or prepared statement of some sort, saying that the family has had no word from Jacques for a year, but that his father has made no changes to his will.
15-SEP-2482: Good southerly wind, 40 kph, and they mount their griffs and fly for Kiali. Out over the savanna south of the Old Hills, they pass over two orc armies camped within two kilometers of one another. The armies must number several thousand each, perhaps ten thousand each. They have passed over when they are attacked from above by three black orcs on wyverns.
Two of the wyvern-riders are women, the other a man. All bear a red cross on their wyvern's wings and their own uniforms. They release stones from iron containers as they dive past. The adventurers fire arrows. The wyverns swoop up and dive again, and again. The adventurers land. One wyvern goes south, the others circle. When the adventurers take off again, the two above attack again, and are soon joined by the third again. When the wyvern-riders run out of stones, they resort to javelins. Always, they attack the griffs and not the riders.
Our heroes are concerned. They do not know if they should land or continue. If they continue, they may be forced to land anyway, and do so with less strength left with which to defend themselves. The attacks upon their griffs are wearing them down, for it is their prescience that must save the beasts from harm. Nevertheless, they decide to persevere on the assumption that the wyvern-riders will not be able to endure their return fire.
And indeed, after seven or eight encounters, the wyverns back off. Two fly south and the third follows them at a higher altitude, all the way across the Old Hills.
And so they arrive at the Loud Lady, where they stable their griffs. They chat to their favorite groom.
"Are many griffs attacked over the outlands?" Quayam says.
"Oh yes, sir, it's crazy to fly over there. You'll get shot down."
It is 4 PM when they walk, packs on their shoulders, to the Lodge. Gristel almost bumps into Vango Grule as he is leaving. He greets them courteously, after taking a moment to remember them, and invites them to have a beer with him later. They agree.
"He doesn't bear a grudge," Gristel says.
"Nor should he," Quayam says.
"I wonder what he is here for," Thristen says.
In the reception, they find Marcel Candiman, the manager, behind the desk. he says that someone who looked very like Quayam was in a few days ago, and for a moment he thought the elf was Quayam. In the guest book, Quayam sees his grandfather's writing, signing in as Sam Smith. He checked out two days ago.
Marcel says also that the Endan consul was looking for him.
"Perhaps with a message from Richard," Gristel says.
"Or perhaps spying," Thristen says.
"I hope I did not offend you by letting him look through the guest book."
"Not at all," Quayam says.
That evening, they find that their friend Tanya is there. They have drinks with her and Vango in the evening. It soon becomes clear what Vango is here for, at least in the short term, because he gets drunk and flirts with Tanya. She has previously been unashamedly affectionate with Thristen, but tonight Vango is making progress in his efforts to charm her. By the end of the evening, however, he is so drunk that he has to stagger off to bed.
"At least he remains courteous when he is long in his cups," Gristel says, imitating the speaking-style of the Old Hills adventurers.
17-SEP-2482: Draw the red Maltese cross they saw painted upon the wings of the wyverns that attacked them. They suspect that it is the mark of the Mokul army. They show it to Tanya. She says that she does not recognize it, but that they should ask a man in town who will probably know, a man by the name of Jacques Martinique.
"He hangs out at The Lion tavern."
Our heroes are excited by their good fortune, and proceed that evening to The Lion. The barman says Jacques is not there right now, but he has a card with Jacques" address. The card says Jacques consults on Outland affairs. They memorize the address, return the card, buy what the bartender says is Jacques" favorite bottle of wine, and set off.
Up a rickety flight of stairs they knock on a stained door.
"It's the next door," comes a voice from within.
The door opens a crack. A pale, flaccid face with red eyes looks out.
They agree to meet him in the Lion in ten minutes, where he can drink some of the wine. He does not appear willing to let them into his room.
In the Lion, he is reluctant to answer many questions, and gets steadily more drunk. He does, however, confirm that the red cross is the mark of Mokul. He agrees to meet them for lunch tomorrow, when he says his head will be clearer for negotiations.
18-SEP-2482: Long lunch with Jacques in which he answers many questions about the outlands in exchange for a $1000 payment in gold.
20-SEP-2482: Are having a good time in the Loud Lady. Today the new issue of Adventurer's Gazette arrives, and there is Tanya on the cover, depicted in a line engraving, holding her sword up, and posing in her skimpy armor. She throws a party.
21-SEP-2482: Set off on rented horses for the Green Horn Tavern. Spent the night at the Bridge Inn, where John Rush, an Old Hills adventurer is organizing a band of adventurers to go into the Borderlands tomorrow to root out and kill a clan or gnolls that has been taking slaves from Kiali and Morden. Among the party gathered at the inn are a couple of wizards, some light-armored archers, and several huge fighting men.
Gristel discusses with Quayam and Thristen the possibility of going ahead to warn the gnolls and protect them. She says she, when she was a novice, went on such an expedition and killed a gnoll child, something which has haunted her ever since.
"Each of us," Quayam says, "has a counter in our minds at which we try to repay the debts of the past with the debased currency of the present."
"Did you make that up?"
"No, I read it in a novel."
"Well, it's appropriate."
22-SEP-2482: The Druidic Pantheon restores Thristen's summoning privileges.
Try to get away before the gnoll-hunters, but they are up early too, and the hotel is hard-pressed to get all the horses out and breakfast served, so that in the end they all set off together. There are three heavily armored knights. One in particular is wearing full plate armor and rides a huge charger. With a great rumbling, therefore, they canter off into the pre-dawn light to the east.
After a few hours, they turn south towards the borderlands. In the village of Arki, John Rush asks again if they would like to accompany them on the gnoll-hunt. They decline. Just before the two groups part, Gristel says, "And try not to kill any of the children. It stays with you."
As they ride away, Quayam says, "That was perfect, the best you could have done."
In the Borderlands, the kobolds start tracking them, but when Thristen hails them they come out and greet him warmly.
"Good to see you, lord Thristen."
"Good to see you too. Is all well at the tavern?"
"It is, sir, and the master will be glad to see you."
"Has there been any trouble on the road?"
"Not for some time, sir."
"Have you seen any gnolls today?"
"I can't tell you that, lord Thristen."
Quayam says to Gristel, "He's trying to slip into the role again, but it didn't work."
"I understand," Thristen says, "We will go on to the Tavern. Good day to you."
"And to you, sir."
When they reach the Green Horn, the clouds have cleared and the sun shines down upon the familiar tavern and gardens. Falmut comes out and hugs them all. Soon after, who should emerge, but Zak. By a stroke of luck, the Herringbones are there. Zak holds Thristen tight, and he finds himself holding her tight too. She is as pretty as ever, her tusks pressing into his cheeks as she licks his lips in the orcish kiss.
"Well now," Gristel says, "we shall have a docile Thristen for a while."
That evening, have supper with the Grossmans and Zak in Falmut's quarters. After supper, Zak leaves to get some sleep, and QTG chat to Falmut privately. Ask him about Mokul and its king. He confirms that the king's name is Trackandslay, and that the mark of Mokul is a red Maltese cross. He knows the king, and reminds them that he owes them two favors. He will be happy to relieve himself of one of these favors by writing them a letter of introduction to the king, since QTG have said that they want to meet him, although they have not told Falmut why.
"If you want to discuss your plans with me, I hope you know that you can rely upon my discretion."
"We do," Quayam says, "but your knowing our plans may put you at risk."
"I like risks, and I am used to them. I am at your service."
23-SEP-2482: Find Bag, their orc language teacher, and he gives them a lesson in the afternoon. Thristen's orcish has been improving fast through talking with Zak. But Zak does not appear to understand the grammatical construction of her own language, and Bag is better able to answer Quayam and Gristel's academic questions. Furthermore, they like Bag, and he is happy to tell them the gossip of the town.
Today they study the past perfect tense and the subjunctive, both of which are expressed by emphasis and pronunciation in orcish, rather than by a distinct construction. They learn from Bag that the four exiled black orcs live in the village under Falmut's protection. One is an exile from Mokul, the others from other nations. In return for a home in the village, and occasional instruction in the fighting from Falmut, the four exiles behave themselves, have pledged to defend the village when it is attacked, and, most important, act as the Green Horn's ambassadors to the clans and gangs that inhabit the local Borderlands.
That afternoon, talk to Falmut at the bar in the common room. Quayam asks Falmut if an elf called Mikado Tamaran has been to the tavern recently.
"No he has not, but I know Mikado."
"He is my grandfather."
Falmut's eyes open wide. "Is that so? That makes sense, I must say. Mikado's grandson, no isn't that interesting."
"So you know him?"
"How did you meet him?"
"We mixed in the same circles when I was younger."
"Are you on good terms with him?"
"Has he ever been to stay here?"
"Now that would be telling, wouldn't it?"
Later in the afternoon, the kobolds come running out of the forest. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen are sitting outside. Zak is inside rehearsing tonight's show. The kobolds warn Falmut of an incoming band of gnolls, and soon after these same gnolls arrive, tall and lanky, jogging quickly, and carrying several conspicuous cloth-wrapped bundles. Quayam recognizes the chief of the band they so recently defeated.
The gnolls go straight to the armor shop and emerge an hour later laughing and hurrying to the tavern, where they proceed to get drunk and buy everybody drinks. One of Falmut's daughters tells QTG that the gnolls sold a suit of adamantine chain armor and two swords to the armor shop, and they now think they are as rich as kings.
"That's great," Thristen says.
"I guess a couple of our hacker friends are going to spend some time as slaves in the Outlands," Quayam says.
"It serves them right," Gristel says.
"And so the debt is paid. You must be satisfied."
"I am morbidly gratified, I will admit."
24-SEP-2482: A cool Autumn day, with the leaves beginning to turn. Relax in and around the tavern with the Herringbones. They meet the newest member of the band, the twelve-year-old Tig. She is so shy around the sapiens that she cannot speak a word to them. The leader of the Herringbones, who is nursing her infant son, is Jekyl. She is thirty-one, so Zak says, but looks no older than Zak, who's nineteenth birthday is on the eighteenth of October. Although orcs die in their mid-forties, they do not start looking old until they are dying.
Kim we have met before, she is sixteen and Zak's best friend. The remaining three dancers are Kubit, Hak, and Oy. The four male drummers who accompany them are in their early forties, retired from the armed forces, and spending their last years travelling with seven beautiful women. Since the last time our heroes saw the group, one drummer died, another was killed in a fight, and the group has hired two replacements.
Now that hour heroes are getting better acquainted with Western Outlands orcish, they can talk more easily with the Herringbones, but the conversations are still awkward for Quayam and Gristel, because they have not yet learned to understand orcish facial expressions. Nor do the Herringbones, with the exception of Zak, understand the sapien facial expressions.
Thristen, however, can joke around comfortably with all of them, and even gets a smile or two from Tig. He himself is the subject of intense scrutiny from all the Herringbones, who are forever looking at him, whispering, and laughing.
"I think Zak has been telling them all about you," Gristel says.
"Women are the same, no matter what the race," Quayam says.
Thristen nods and looks a Zak, who is playing catch with Falmut's youngest son. Her cheeks are rosy and bright. She is full of energy and strength. She sees him looking at her and she stops and smiles at him. Even Gristel and Quayam can tell that the smile is broad and unguarded. The ball, thrown by the little boy, passes unseen between her hands and bounces off her tummy.
That evening, talk at length to Falmut, although they do not tell him of the Iron Road. He offers to write them a letter of introduction to Trackandslay, sorcerer-king of Mokul, and send it by courier to him tomorrow. From news of the campaign to the south, it appears that Gutak's general Rackhammer is in charge of the combined forces of Gutak, Mokul, and Dag, and that Trackandslay is in Mokul Castle, in Mokul City, two days ride to the south.
28-SEP-2482:Falmut receives a letter from Trackandslay saying that Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen should come immediately. The border guards are expecting them and will escort them through Mokul to the city.
The Herringbones are due to perform at Mokul Castle again in three nights, so they decide to save themselves the trouble of hiring an escort by simply travelling with Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen. At first, our heroes are concerned that they will be unable to defend seven defenseless orc women and four old orc men, but when it comes time to leave, they see that the Herringbones, armed with crossbows and sticks, are far from defenseless.
Cross the Borderlands without event, come to the Mokul border post, where the Herringbones receive a warm welcome and plenty of lusty pats on the bottom from the soldiers. Continue on their way with an escort of five orc infantry. Camp at night in a field, food purchased by the Herringbones from the locals, and sleep under the stars. It is cold, but all the orcs huddle together for warmth.
29-SEP-2482: Continue on to the settlement around Mokul Castle, which is known as Mokul City, arriving at about mid-day. They cross an old, granite bridge. The castle itself sits on a hill around which the Mokul River flows in a sweeping bend, and is clearly visible through the trees. The settlement, although called a city in orcish, is more a conglomeration of small farms, each with a few hundred square meters of land in which to grow vegetables, corn, and raise livestock. In these small fields, the corn is tall, and the grain is ripening towards the October harvest.
Where are the markets, the shops, the banks, the wagons of goods? Where is the bustle of a capital city, with its trade and artisans and temples? They see no sign of it until they come to a small square at the edge of an elegant and wall-less estate.
"That is where the Lord and his wife who Falmut calls the Prince and Princess live," Zak says, "Their names are Valcutlass and Larkwing."
On the border of the estate is a row of four or five shops selling food, cloth, iron tools, and wine. Valcutlass and Larkwing manage the shops, such management being, in Zak's words, "too mundane" for common orcs, although the shops themselves are staffed by orcs.
All through the city, the Herringbones and the sapiens attract the attention of all who see them, and many more who come running to stand by the dirt road and stare. For the Herringbones, the orc men cheer and make lewd remarks, while the orc women threaten them with all manner of disfigurements if any of them should touch their men. All of it is in good fun, because, according to Kim, most of the women would be honored if a Herringbone was to pay attention to one of their men.
Some of the orcs point and laugh at the sapiens, others make scary faces and act as if they have been a cause of fear to their visiting aliens. Their escort of orc soldiers marches before them, and growls at anyone who steps too close to them.
As they near the castle, they see that it is surrounded by a five-meter wall made of large square-cut granite blocks, in the same manner as the bridge they crossed to enter the city. The castle is a collection of exotic towers joined by narrow bridges and stairs, with many arched openings in the walls, looking out upon the countryside and the city. From the top of one tower flies a flag with the red Cross of Mokul.
"It's hundreds of years old," Thristen says, "It might have been made in the Dark Ages."
"Legend has it that Gelden built the castle for his second wife," Zak says, "In the Age of Heroes."
At the gates of the castle, they are met by an old friend, Yardstick Circle, who they know from the Green Cavern adventure, and who is now Trackandslay's "Advisor on Sapien Affairs". Yardstick Circle takes them and the Herringbones through the castle walls to the guest quarters. The castle is built around a hot spring. In the guest courtyard is a hot bathing pool. Outside the walls of the castle is a large, warm bathing pool for the locals. The Herringbones and Thristen go an bath there. The orcs gather around and stare at Thristen when he gets undressed, but once again, Thristen is unashamed. The Herringbones strip off and jump in. The water is hot and soothing. Gristel and Quayam, meanwhile, enjoy the private pool in the castle.
30-SEP-2482: Herringbones perform for the castle guard in the barracks, as well as every local resident who can pay the fee charged by the soldiers to get in. There are fights afterwards, or so Zak tells Thristen later, over the distribution of the profits. QTG do not attend, but instead explore the guest quarters, where they find a library with nearly one hundred books, most of them in Latin. They find black-orc myths and histories, and philosophical ramblings. Some are difficult to understand because the ideas and use of terminology are so foreign, but there is much to learn from them all the same.
Reading together, they start to assemble a picture of the black orc world-view. The glorious golden years of Gelden, the fall of the empire, their imprisonment in the Outlands, their enlightenment over the centuries following, and now their desire to break free, which battles with their desire to keep their youth by acquiescing to the Princes of Hell in exchange for longevity drugs.
Some say that life in the Western Outlands is as good as it can be, with leverage over the devils thanks to the Reconciliation Treaty. A contemporary writer from Garaz took this attitude. Then there are those in Ankh and Vaz, who, according to a writer from Gadz, worry more about staying on the good side of Beelzebub than anything else.
Thristen picks out the biography of a black-orc from Gutak by the name of Axegrinder who traveled far and wide on the back of his wyvern, staying for years at a time with orcs in foreign parts of the Outlands, and befriending curious and formidable sapiens in Sax, Ursia, and Siam. Axegrinder philosophizes at length about the injustice of the imprisonment of the black-orcs by the Reconciliation Treaty, and urges that they do whatever they can to break free of it, although he himself admits to compromising himself to obtain longevity drugs when he passed his two-hundredth year.
"These drugs, they are poison to our souls. They cripple our ambition and tie us to the Hell from which our great father led us to safety. He who himself turned gray but held the continent to his will, would that he could see now to what depths we have sunk, cowed by the very vanity and pride that once made us great."
1-OCT-2482: In the evening, the Herringbones and our heroes gather in the Throne Hall of the castle, there to meet the king and perform to him. Valcutlass and Larkwing (still pregnant) are there, as well as a two other black orcs who serve the king. The hall is dimly lit, so that the sapiens have difficulty seeing the roof above. The hall is large, with imposing granite pillars rising up to the arched ceiling, and a marble sun-burst in the floor.
A black orc dressed in a silk robe enters from behind the throne and announces that the king has pressing business with the war in the south, and must cancel tonight's performance, with his apologies.
"Our sapien guests, however, his majesty wishes to remain for a brief audience. The remainder of you are excused."
The Herringbones are happy to take the evening off, and even the black-orcs who came to see the show reveal no signs of disappointment, and soon our heroes are left alone in the hall with the king's equerry and Yardstick Circle.
Trackandslay, the king, enters by the front door and approaches his oak throne. He looks neither to the left nor the right until he is sitting down. He wears a velvet cape over silk shirt and trousers. On his feet are leather sandals.
"Welcome to Mokul."
"Thank you, it is good to be here," Quayam says.
"I hope you are comfortable in your quarters."
"We are indeed."
"You must be Quayamsrae."
"I am. And this is Gristel Virage, and Thristen Alomere."
"Gristel is your wife."
"I am," Gristel says.
"Falmut Grossman tells me you have a proposition to put to me, although he does not say what the proposition might be."
"We do," Quayam says.
"Yardstickcircle speaks well for you also. I am inclined, therefore, to hear your proposition, whatever it may be, but I do not have time tonight. Yardstickcircle will bring you to the Hall of Three Winds tomorrow at noon, and we will talk then."
"Thank you, your majesty."
They back away and leave.
That night, in the privacy of their bedroom, Zak tells Thristen that she is relieved that he is with her in the castle, because Trackandslay previously expressed interest in her, and it is hard to say no to a king. But with Thristen and her sharing a room, Trackandslay is unlikely to press himself upon her.
"Aren't you honored to be the subject of his interest?"
"I am, I suppose, but it's not right."
"He's a black-orc. I am a white-orc. It is not healthy for one to be interested in the other, and I am not that way inclined."
We should note that the words for black-orc and white-orc in orcish are karazi and keshi respectively, and make no reference to the color of their skin.
2-OCT-2482: Yardstick circle leads them up several flights of stairs and over a narrow, arching walkway with no guard rails to the Hall of Three Winds, which has three arches in its walls, and another large black-and-white marble starburst on the circular floor. In one archway is a telescope, looking south. It is a calm day, or else this high chamber might well be rushing with the winds after which it is named, and their crossing the walkway to the chamber might have been treacherous.
Trackandslay is standing next to the telescope waiting for them. He has gold caps on his tusks. On his head is an old iron cap, embellished with engravings, which might be some sort of crown. He wears a loose yellow silk shirt buttoned up to his neck, and blue wool trousers. On his feet are heavy black boots. Hanging from a belt of silver chain around his waist is a curving sword in a gold-plated scabbard. Upright in his left hand is a three-meter wood staff with iron caps. In the light of day they see that his skin is not absolutely black as is the skin of most black orcs they have encountered, but is instead a shade of gray just short of black.
"Good day to you, and welcome. I trust that you slept well."
"We did, thank you," Quayam says.
Although Trackandslay is not as astonishingly muscular as certain fighting black-orcs our heroes have encountered, such as Scholastikan, he is lean and obviously powerful.
"Yardstickcircle, please wait in the tower beyond."
"As you wish, your majesty."
Yardstick leaves the room and crosses back over the walkway. He seems to have no fear of its precarious height.
"I must ask you to be brief. I must leave this afternoon to attend the war. The enemy has entered Mokul."
They explain to Trackandslay, with all the brevity they can muster, although interrupted at the beginning by a debate among themselves, their proposal for a road from Kiali, through Mokul to the Long Hills. They tell him that Lucifer has given his tacit approval of the project, and that Shiva approves enthusiastically.
Trackandslay says, "The King of the North Giants will admit you?"
"He will. Shiva will tell him to do so. We plan to use the old road that passes through the hills."
"I know that road."
They tell him that Erebus consents to the passage of barges through the swamp.
"And what of the Treaty of Reconciliation? Will this road not break the treaty, and how can the Princes of Hell stand by while such a breech takes place?"
They explain the loophole in the Reconciliation Treaty that they hope to exploit by paying for use of the road secretly, and in cash. Trackandslay asks a few more questions and then says, "What you propose is interesting, and if it is indeed possible, as you clearly believe it to be, then it might be of great value to my people. I must leave now for the front."
"Thank you for your time," Quayam says, "And if you can think of a way in which we might be of service to you in this war, please do not hesitate to ask it of us."
Trackandslay looks at them for a moment. They are all smiling. He grimaces, and then says, "Would you like to fight with us?"
"We would be honored."
"Yardstickcircle will be joining us, you may accompany him on his ride to the camp."
"You are welcome."
They leave, crossing the same walkway to join Yardstick.
"I was hoping he would ask us," Thristen says.
"Me too," Quayam says, "Our first orc-war."
They return to their quarters. The Herringbones must decide what to do, now that both the king and their escorts are leaving the city. They decide not to try to make their way through the armies to Garaz, nor to go to Gutak, but instead to return to the Green Horn, where they might put on a few extra performances for the Borderland bandits.
3-OCT-2482: In the early morning, say goodbye to the Herringbones and leave on horse-back with Yardstick, heading south-west to the front, which is only forty kilometers away. As they ride, Yardstick describes the summer campaign to them, talking freely in Endan. Mokul's division, about four thousand infantry, is under General Spearthrower. In alliance with Mokul are Dag and Gutak. Gutak has one division of five thousand infantry in the field under General Rackhammer, and Dag has a division of about three thousand under General Kroninspike. Last week the forces fielded by Garaz and her allies drove back the Gutak alliance, forcing Rackhammer to the east, and Kroninspike to the south. Only Mokul's division now stands between Mokul Castle and its enemies. Garaz has fielded two divisions, and is assisted by one division from Vaz. Yardstick was not present at the battle a week ago, but is was by all accounts a magnificent one, in which Garaz's cavalry played a victorious role.
"Rackhammer seems to have been demoralized by the defeat. He has withdrawn to the east, and we believe he will retreat to Dag, hoping that Dag's division will desert us also, and defend Dag and Gutak until the harvest."
"So we are outnumbered three to one," Quayam says.
"Unless Kroninspike decides to honor the alliance and come to our aid. We hope that by making a stand at the river we will inspire him to do so."
"Three-to-one is not good odds," Quayam says.
"Do you expect to lose?" Thristen says.
"And then what happens?"
"That depends upon Trackandslay. He will probably pay Garaz a fraction of the harvest. It will be the first time in sixteen years."
"When was the last time Garaz paid a tribute to Mokul?" Gristel says.
"I don't think it has happened in living memory."
"And this Rackhammer, what if he just takes off?" Gristel says.
"I don't know. Rackhammer is a difficult man to deal with. I think, although it is hard for me to say for sure, that there is a great deal of tension between him and the king."
"Yes. Rackhammer has no sorcery, and Trackandslay does. I think that may have something to do with it. I think Rackhammer is jealous of Trackandslay, and likes to make a lot of Trackandslay's need for Gutak's support against Garaz."
In the afternoon, after asking directions from the locals, they arrive at the Mokul army camp. The camp is approximately square, and two hundred meters to a side. It encloses a stand of cypress trees, and two fields. Its defenses consist of a ditch two meters deep, behind which is an embankment one meter high made from the dirt excavated from the ditch, and on top of the embankment is a one-and-a-half-meter high stockade of near-straight, weathered poles stuck into the ground and held together by short side-branches left deliberately on the poles for the purpose. Sentries on the inside are wearing sunglasses and can look out over the top of the stockade, or through the gaps between its poles.
"Amazing," Gristel says.
"It takes them only two or three hours to make a camp like this," Yardstick says, "You should see them do it, it is incredible. Four thousand orcs digging and shoveling and planting stakes. They have a team that goes out and measures the camp before they start work, and then every soldier knows where he should go and put his stuff, and then where he should work on the wall, and what he should do. They have been trained to do it from birth, every summer."
In Yardstick's company, they enter the camp over a wooden bridge across the trench, and through a gate in the stockade. Inside the orcs have set up their camps in orderly arrangements, with straight paths between the centuries. Most of the soldiers are sleeping. The sun lowering towards the horizon.
They enter a large canvass tent at the center of the camp. There they find Trackandslay and another black-orc in chain armor.
"These are Gristelvirage, Thristenalomere, and Quayamsrae."
To them he says, "This is General Spearthrower."
Spearthrower nods to them.
Trackandslay says, "You will find a tent for you outside. I hope you will be comfortable. You will not have long to wait for battle."
Yardstick ushers them out quickly, and an orc centurion shows them their tent. They make themselves comfortable, see that their horses have water and hay, make a fire with some wood that has been provided for them, and brew some tea.
A while later, a wyvern lands outside the King's tent. The rider is a woman black-orc they recognize as one of their attackers on their flight to Kiali. She stops to stare at them briefly before she enters the tent with a scowl on her face.
Our heroes lie down in the tent to get some rest in anticipation of a night battle. They are asleep when the sun sets, but Yardstick wakes them for supper. Soon after dark, with a half-moon at the zenith, whistles sound in the camp, and the orcs rush for their arms.
The four sapiens put on white, sleeveless shirts with the red cross of Mokul painted on the front and back. All the orc soldiers are wearing the same. Yardstick leads them to the cohort forming up beside their tent, and tells the centurion to assign them positions among his men. The centurion looks at Yardstick and snorts between his iron-capped tusks, then barks orders at one of his lieutenants. Our heroes find themselves jogging out of the camp in a column of two hundred orcs.
The orc troops are armed with wooden truncheons, round wooden shields, and crossbows. Most of them wear leather armor, but some have metal plates sewn into the leather, or wear shirts of chain mail. The centurion had armor made of bands of metal, and an iron-shod staff. Yardstick wears leather armor and carries his two light fighting-sticks. Thristen carries the same type of sticks, but has no armor. Gristel and Quayam have no armor either, and carry hardwood staffs.
In the light of the half-moon, the cohort marches at the double down to a river one kilometer from the camp, and spreads out along a one-hundred-meter front twenty or thirty meters back from the river bank in a field. The space themselves every two meters along the front, and four deep. On orders from the lieutenants, they lie down in the ripening hay, and stay still and quiet. They do not know what to expect, nor the plan of battle.
For two hours they wait. It is a cool, clear evening. An owl hoots in the forest across the river. Water condenses upon the grass. Gristel's toes are getting cold.
To the south, they see flashes of white light, each followed two seconds later by a loud detonation. It looks like someone is letting off thunder-eggs. Gristel imagines that Trackandslay is unleashing his sorcery upon the enemy, but she can't think what good it will do him, unless he can scare them away.
The bangs stop, and the sound of shouting and the battering of arms drifts up the river. Word comes down the line that they are to withdraw on two notes on the centurion's whistle. The forest beyond the river is quiet, but Thristen can't hear the owl any more, and is convinced that the enemy is lurking in the shadows beyond the water.
Five minutes later, they hear two quiet toots on the whistle. They wait for a few seconds to see how the other soldiers respond, and then rise and run in a crouch as they do, away from the river and across the field. No sooner have they left their positions than the roar of soldiers charging across the shallow river rises from behind them. The enemy bursts through the trees bordering the field, sixty meters behind them. The charging soldiers wear the green cross of Garaz.
Three toots on the whistle and the soldiers turn and drop down to load their crossbows at the top of a low embankment at the edge of the field. The enemy charges them at a sprint. Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen fire two arrows each, and the soldiers one bolt. But the enemy is far more numerous than they are. Quayam is counting orcs in front of him. Six, seven, eight facing he and Gristel alone. With the enemy twenty meters away, the centurion blows a loud, clear note on his whistle and they turn and run as fast as they can, through dark stands of trees, and across moonlight fields, the enemy spreading out and close behind them. At some point, several hundred yards from the embankment, Thristen realizes that the withdrawal has become a flight for the camp. They pause at the top of a slope. They are panting and finally warm again after their two hours lying on the cold, wet grass.
"This way!" Thristen says.
He leads them down the slope, stumbling over tree-roots and holly bushes, and then turns north towards the camp. Orcs burst out of the trees to their left and, seeing their shirts, join them. Thirty Garaz soldiers appear behind them, sprinting in good order behind a large, long-legged lieutenant. Another group of orcs appears in front of them, and there are blows exchanged in the darkness before the orcs with the sapiens realize that the newcomers are their own.
More of the enemy appear to the left, and the Mokul soldiers split, some fleeing for the camp, others turning and fighting. It is light enough away from the shadows of the trees for the sapiens to fight too, and they do so immediately. Gristel stops short the long-legged leader, battering him relentlessly with her sticks. But he is a tough, iron-clad man, and stands his ground. Yardstick whirls his sticks before him to her right. In a square, back-to-back, they are invulnerable, and move steadily through the battle towards the camp.
A few minutes later, the enemy, for no obvious reason, breaks away from the fight and moves off. The sapiens are alone at the edge of a field. Orcs are running to the north and east. They take shelter in some trees, but when they hear orcs coming through the darkness, they step out into the light again. Fifty Mokul soldiers appear around them and start to form up behind a large centurion who shouts clear and well-paced orders. Yardstick pushes his way towards the centurion with the other sapiens close behind him. The next thing they know, they are marching on the forward edges of a wedge of fifty orcs, and the camp is in sight to the north.
The Garaz army appears to have surrounded the camp, and the gates are closed. Wyverns swoop overhead, screaming. Their wedge moves forward and meets a cohort of enemy soldiers that surrounds them in less than a minute and presses them hard. But the tip of the wedge is firm. The leading orcs fight tirelessly, and beside them are four sapiens against whom the enemy cannot stand, so that their progress is unstoppable. The centurion, at the tip of the wedge is bleeding from several crossbow wounds, but he smashes away with his truncheon undaunted, his men pushing him from behind, thrusting back the enemy and parting them faster than they can form up.
On and on they go, one step and then another, a rush, then stop and reform, fight for another step, and then another. One of Yardstick's light wood sticks shatters on the elbow of an opponent. An orc behind him passes him a truncheon and he fights on without a pause. They rush again and the centurion barks out an order. The orcs on the outside of the wedge step back and let their comrades take the front line. In the center of the wedge, six orcs carry six wounded comrades.
It seems impossible for their insignificant contingent to reach the camp, and yet they do. Their comrades inside open the gates and burst out to surround them and escort them in. As he steps finally onto soil of the camp, the centurion collapses, his truncheon falling from his hands. Three of his men pick him up, and exhausted though they are, the orcs start to split up and move towards their quarters. As the sapiens walk by, many of the orcs reach out and put a gloved hand firmly upon one of their shoulders.
"The gratitude of orcs," Yardstick says to the three of them, "And well-earned. It was an honor to fight beside you again."
"What a scrap," Gristel says.
"It's not over yet."
"Will they try to storm the camp?" Thristen says.
"Unlikely, especially with Trackandslay among us."
Yardstick points towards the center of the camp, where a wyvern stands in the moonlight outside the King's tent.
"Let's get some rest before the next confrontation."
They head for their tent.
"I don't want to be out there after the moon has set." Gristel says, "In the pitch darkness, the orcs will be too dangerous."
"I hear you," Quayam says.
The moon is three hours from setting.
While they brew some tea, they try to figure out what had happened to provoke their original flight. Why they were ordered to withdraw instead of advance and hold the river-bank? Why were the Garaz forces in such disarray around the camp as to allow them to break through to the gates? Trackandslay is in his tent, talking with his centurions, and pays no attention to the sapiens.
Thinking that the night's fighting is over, the sapiens lie down to rest, but no sooner have they started to drift off into sleep than horns to the south awake them, and the camp comes alive with shouting troops. They rush from their tent. From a passing lieutenant they hear that an allied regiment is approaching the camp, and Trackandslay has given the order to issue from the camp to break the encirclement and unite with the allies.
Ten minutes later, our heroes emerge from the camp onto the battle field once more, with two hours of moonlight left to fight in. Most of the Mokul orcs are ahead of them, and they find themselves adrift from the cohorts, and fighting as a group of four in a square whenever they encounter the enemy. In the dim light they rarely know if they are approaching the enemy or their allies until they are so close as to have no opportunity to avoid the fight.
But our heroes have no particular wish to avoid any fight, until a black orc with the Garaz markings, accompanied by fifteen common orc soldiers, runs at them from the shadows beneath a line of trees, and assails Thristen with what at first appears to be a sword, but soon turns out to be a flexible metal pole with a two-handed grip. The sapien square is quickly surrounded, and their sticks and staffs hiss through the night air, striking at opponents they can hardly see, but who can see them clearly. The disadvantage hardly seems to matter to Yardstick, Quayam, and Gristel, but to Thristen, fighting a huge black-orc lord in chain armor wielding a metal pole, the fight is a tough one. In the darkness, he feels the pole glance off his armor and whistle over his head. His wooden sticks smack dully against the black-orc's armor. Only direct hits on the giant warrior's joints have any hope of discomforting him. His head is so high up as to be difficult to reach. In the darkness, the black-orc's prowess matches his own.
But, as has been the way in this battle, the confrontation is ended as quickly as it began. At an order from the black-orc, he and his men run to the north-west and are lost in the gray shadows cast by the setting moon.
Minutes later they stand in a flattened wheat-field, and see a black-orc on horse-back surrounded by fifty or sixty orcs, and conversing with a black-orc on the back of a wyvern. The wyvern crouches on the ground. They approach until they are within hearing, and recognize Trackandslay's voice. He sees them clearly enough to recognize them, even though they cannot make out his face.
"Come hither, Yardstickcircle, and bring our guests."
The other black-orc turns to face them as they approach. The orcs they pass through wear a plain circle on their shirts and on their shields, of a color Quayam says is blue, but that the sapiens cannot identify in the moonlight. The black-orc wears the same circle painted on the breastplate of his plate armor. He is covered from neck to toe in metal. At his hip is a two-handed pole. His helmet is under his left arm. On the back of his saddle is a large composite bow and a quiver of fifty or sixty arrows. His neck is thick and muscular, and the size of his armor, if it is an indication of the size of the man within, speaks of musculature to satisfy the highest expectations of the sapiens.
"Yardstickcircle you have met. And also Gristelvirage, Quayamsrae, and Thristenalomere, guests of our tonight."
The unknown black-orc looks at them and pushes his head forward for a moment in the orcish nod.
"This is General Rackhammer, come to our rescue. His troops are of Gutak, and are our allies."
"Pleased to meet you," Quayam says.
Trackandslay spurs his wyvern. It spreads its wings. Rackhammer moves his horse back, and everyone else backs off too. Trackandslay shouts to Rackhammer, "Good fortune."
"And to you, your majesty."
The wyvern launches itself into the air with a scream, and flaps its wings, throwing a cloud of grain and chaff into the air. Before the cloud can settle, the wyvern is gone. Rackhammer shouts orders to his men, who begin to disperse immediately, and spurs his horse to the east. The sapiens are left alone again.
As they walk, the sapiens encounter Garaz troops withdrawing to the south-west between companies of allied orcs who appear to be doing nothing to hinder them. Soon, the battle-field is devoid of the enemy, and they return to the camp and go to sleep. It is too dark for them to fight anyway.
4-OCT-2482: In the morning, with the orc soldiers sleeping soundly, they learn that the Dag regiment had arrived from the south-west last night, even as that of Gutak arrived from the south-east, and set an ambush for the Garaz forces as they withdrew, hence the willingness of the Gutak and Mokul forces to let them flee, and leading to the capture of two thousand of the enemy, enough to trade for allied soldiers held by Garaz, and end this summer's campaign. Last night's fight, therefore, was a victory. But Quayam talks to an old orc soldier who brings them their firewood, and this fellow, who has no tusk left, says that it was a victory for old Rackhammer, not Trackandslay, because even Trackandslay was taken in by the general's feint to the south, and he told them all along that old Rackhammer was up to something. "But don't say I said so because I'll be losing what teeth I have left to the centurion's pliers."
With the battle won, and Trackandslay already back in Mokul Castle, our heroes mount their horses and ride back to Mokul City themselves. That evening they dine with Yardstick at his small house near the castle. They meet his three slaves, all sapien. One is an old man who Yardstick does not introduce, and who keeps out of sight, and the other two are young women, both slim and healthy. When Yardstick is in the kitchen with one of the women, the other begs Gristel, in Endan, to take from her a bundle of letters, addressed to residents of Caravel, from her. Gristel takes the bundle and puts it in her shoulder-bag.
5-OCT-2482: The next day they talk at length with Trackandslay in the Chamber of the Three Winds. He says that he has confirmed already that Lucifer will not oppose the Iron Road. He appears well-informed about the Reconciliation, and appears to understand their proposed loop-hole exactly. We note that he has not received a copy of the Iron Road Executive Summary. Lucifer, however, has received a copy.
Trackandslay concludes the interview by saying that he thinks the proposal has a chance of bringing much-needed wealth to his people, but that he must consider it more fully, and that they should put the issue to Falmut Grossman. Falmut's favor will be necessary for the project's success. Also, the route of the road needs to be considered in more detail.
6-OCT-2482: Ride to the Green Horn, leaving early and arriving late. They bear with them a pass from Trackandslay, and travel without an escort. They are received respectfully at the border, and nobody harasses them in the outlands.
At the Green Horn they are reunited with Zak, and sit down to talk to Falmut that evening. They tell him at last of their Iron Road, and he is at first enthusiastic, but Quayam makes it clear that the road may not be to Falmut's advantage. Falmut says he will sleep on it, and they should have a longer chat tomorrow.
7-OCT-2482: The information Aries posted on the Veritas exchange on behalf of Quayam, Thristen, and Gristel, giving the whereabouts of Bashila, the elf of the Long Hills, is not selling. Nevertheless, they leave it posted.
Quayam receives the following message from his father. It is in Latin, and his service provider reads it to him over the net.
It is with great pleasure that I hear of your good health, and that of your family. If you can arrange it, I will be available at this place to speak with you in the mid-morning of the twenty-eighth of October.
Take a lunch-time walk with Falmut, and climb a nearby outcrop. Take a picnic. It is a clear autumn day.
Gristel gives the letters she was handed so furtively by Yardstick's slave to a merchant returning to Lutetia, asking him to put them in the mail for her.
We note that Zak and Thristen are now sharing a room in the Tavern, two doors down from Gristel and Quayam. Zak's birthday is on the eighteenth of October. She will be nineteen years old.
8-OCT-2482: The Herringbones are arguing about where to go next. Some want to go back west, but others want to strike out to the east.
Quayam, Gristel, and Thristen go out for a walk on their own, wearing their armor. Sitting on top of a hill in the middle of the borderlands, they discuss again using barges to get the iron down the Mokul River. Even at Mokul City, the river is wide and full. The bridge at the city spans a narrow section that is still a full seventy meters across. Only five kilometers downstream, its banks are nearly two hundred meters apart. But as the river widens, it becomes more shallow, and is broken by sand bars and occasional rapids. With a good knowledge of the river, however, and some men with poles, a barge carrying several thousand kilograms of iron could float all the way down to the Fen Swamps, and when empty, be poled back up the river in the shallows by the banks, where the current is slow.
But the Mokul River flows through Garaz, and past Ankh and Vaz, so transport by the river would require arrangements with Thor and possibly Beelzebub as well. The road across the hills, on the other hand, already has divine approval, and awaits only an arrangement with Trackandslay and Falmut. Politically, therefore, it appears the easiest, and the stretch through the swamp on the south side of the Long Hills would be easy for our heroes to control.
At 11:15am they are sitting on top of a hill and they feel the earth tremble. The look around, wondering if there is some subterranean cavern beneath them, but find nothing. They learn a few days later that there was an earthquake in the neighborhood of Ababadan, which leveled most of that village, and several others.
Back at the Tavern, check messages on their bridges and find one from Richard Crockford written to Thristen in Ursian.
I'd like to talk to you. If you are in my neighborhood, let's meet here in Caravel, or in Lutetia. But otherwise, over the net.
That night, after supper, in the privacy of their room, Thristen and Zak talk about the future. They have both enjoyed the chance, extended reunion at the Tavern, but neither seems willing to talk openly about their ambitions and fears. Zak does not repeat her offer to take Thristen with her as her "slave", and says, "Things are more complicated for me now." In the end, they agree to, "See you when I see you."
9-OCT-2482: Talk about hiring a wizard to work on the Sorrel Sun, maintain their communications bridges, and perform other such duties.
Send a message to Richard Crockford: will be in Loud Lady within the month.
Talk to Falmut in the evening, after supper. He says he thinks that the Iron Road, if there is to be one, should run past the Green Horn Tavern, but he is not sure if he wants there to be such a road.
10-OCT-2482: Say goodbye to Zak and Falmut.
11-OCT-2482: Arrive at the Loud Lady and check on their griffs. They learn that Tanya and Vango went off together. Perhaps Tanya will find some real adventures now, not the pre-packaged ones of the Old Hills, or perhaps Vango has gone with here into her own domain.
Meet Richard that night, in a private dining room of the Loud Lady, over a good meal. He offers them work with the Endan government, acting as bodyguards to Endan emissaries and traders visiting the ports on the southern tip of Idonius. He says that in taking these jobs, they will be well-paid, and they will see for themselves the unscrupulous behavior of the Ursian government. He says that he does not want the escalating animosity between his nation and theirs to stand in the way of their personal friendship.
They refuse the jobs.
12-OCT-2482: Talk to Romayne and Travis in the morning. They arrived in Sax on the fourth of October, and are now staying in the hackers inn and looking for work.
13-OCT-2482: What to do? Waiting for Falmut to think things over, and then to talk to Trackandslay. Want to add two more bridges to their walkie-talkies, and that gets them thinking again about hiring a wizard, so they decide to fly back to Pakesh to do just that.
Talk to Orphus. He says the average speed of the Sorrel Sun is about ten kilometers per hour over each thirty-day period, so each month it goes an average of seven thousand kilometers. He is now in the Cypriate Islands, he has one more stop on the way home, and he will be in Susa in three weeks, where he could pick up a wizard crew member, and he says he would be very glad to have a wizard on board.
Mount up on the griffs and fly to the Green Horn Tavern to have a last word with Falmut. Land on the common beside the Tavern. The Herringbones are still there, leaving today for Gutak. They decided upon the eastern tour. Thristen gives here a net bridge, and tells here how to use it. She listens carefully. Falmut declines a bridge. Thristen and Zak gets time alone in her room while Falmut chats to Gristel and Quayam.
Quayam tells Falmut that they intend to make the Iron Road with or without his help. Falmut says he understands, and that part of him wants to join in the project, but part of him does not. It sounds like a great adventure in business, but it will threaten the quiet lives of his family and villagers.
The adventurous part of the old warrior appears to conquer, because he agrees to start negotiating the details with them and Trackandslay at the next opportunity. Quayam asks Falmut to tell Trackandslay that he is on board, and Falmut says he will, when he's ready.
Quayam and Gristel say they could pay $500k a year for rent and use of his borderland road. Tell Falmut to tell Trackandslay that Falmut is on board.
14-OCT-2482: Flay back to Loud Lady. Next morning, take a good wind, Northerly 30 kph, and fly all the way to the Virage House. See Mokul wyverns on the way, with a fly-by and a wave from the woman black-orc rider, but no further incident upon the journey.
17-OCT-2482: Take Sid and fly to Ankle, there to stay a night in the hackers inn.
18-OCT-2482: Winds are against them, so hanging out in Ankle instead of battling home against the steady westerly.
19-OCT-2482: Thristen takes out his Iron Road Executive Summary, and as he slides it out of its tube, he smell's Zak's sweat on the paper. Her scent is distinctive, something like pineapples, and he knows it immediately.
Thristen calls Zak over the net. She answers an hour later, having checked in with the node as arranged. Their conversation takes place in orcish. Thristen has put the bridge in a trumpet, and Quayam and Gristel are in the room, too, although Thristen does not tell Zak until later.
"Hi, how are you doing?"
"Okay, we're in Dag."
"You opened my pack and looked at my papers," Thristen says.
A short silence.
"Why did you do it?"
"I had to do something."
"Things are complicated for me."
"So you said, and now I want to know why."
"I work for the lords of Garaz. I tell them what I learn about the armies and politics of the countries I pass through on the Herringbone tours. When we were in Mokul City together, I told you that Trackandslay wanted me to visiti him in his chambers, but you did not say anything about it. How could I say no to the king? How would I explain it to Garaz? Who knows what I might learn if I became intimate with Trackandslay?"
"So I told them that I could learn much more by staying with you, and that I would lose that chance if I deserted you for Trackandslay."
"Then they started asking me what you were doing in Mokul, and what was your business with the king. I did not know, and I did not want to ask you."
"So you opened my pack and looked inside."
"Yes, I found that letter."
"But you don't read Latin."
"You never told me."
"No, I didn't."
"So you read our Executive Summary."
"Some of it. I looked at the maps, and read the beginning and end, and some of the bits in the middle."
"When was this?"
"When you came back from Mokul, and we were at the Tavern, about two weeks ago."
"And what did you tell your bosses?"
"I am supposed to report when we reach Gutak, but I don't know what I am going to say."
"What do you know?"
"I know you want to arrange for iron trade between Kiali and Varay, that you want it to go through Mokul, and possibly over the Long Hills, or through Gutak. They will be interested when they hear that the road might go through Gutak. They may want to stop it, and if they do want to stop it, they may try to kill you."
"They won't be able to do that."
"I know they won't. I"m sorry, Thristen, I did not know what to do. If I could have told them that I no longer wanted to work for them, I would have, but they would hunt me down, and they know where my father lives, too. He is old, and when he dies I will try to do something, but until then I am trapped."
Gristel taps Thristen on the shoulder, indicating that she wants to say something.
"Zak, Gristel and Quayam are here. It is their business as well."
"Hello Gristel and Quayam. How are you?"
"We"re fine," Gristel says.
"I"m sorry. You have been good friends to me."
"And you to us. You took good care of me when I was sick."
"I don't know what to do."
"Stop worrying, sleep well, and we'll talk tomorrow. We will think of something. We will still be friends."
Later, Gristel says to Thristen, "I notice that you did not suggest to Zak that she should have slept with Trackandslay and avoided these problems."
"If she did not care about me, she would have slept with him, and taken something from my bag as well."
"I suppose you"re right."
Later the same day, when Quayam has stopped telling Thristen that, just like Travis, Thristen can't keep it in his pants, Thristen comes up with the idea of transporting gold to Outland recipients by means of atomic space bridges. It is not explosive when so transported. All the more reason to hire a wizard.
20-OCT-2482: Talk to Zak again, and tell her she can report to the Lords of Garaz everything she learned about the road from the Executive Summary. In return, Zak can inform on Garaz to them. Zak agrees.
21-OCT-2482: Fly back to Pakesh. Home sweet home.
22-OCT-2482: Talk to Aries. Tell him about Zak. She is delighted with the story, and thinks they did the right thing. It may be for the best, she says. She suggests they meet in person in the near future. they can name the date, but she suggests a week from today (the 29th October).
23-OCT-2482: Talk to Zak. She has made her report, and delivered it to an agent in Gutak. She will not receive further instructions for a week at least.
Go see Mohsin Kurd. He is in a good mood, and is glad of their progress. Quayam tells him of the difficulties they have yet to overcome, but Mohsin is optimistic. He urges them to move as quickly as they can, but is pleased with their accomplishments. They discuss the terms of the ten-million-dollar loan, and Mohsin seems favorable to a guaranteed purchase-and-delivery contract, whereby the Iron Road corporation, based in Varay, will contract to deliver a million kilograms of iron to the Ursian Government at a certain price, say $120/kg, and the Ursian Government contracts to buy it. The contract might run for five years, or even ten.
24-OCT-2482: We note that housing prices have been falling in Pakesh since hostilities opened between Ursia and Endromis. Many people fear that the Endans will sweep down into the northern desert and into Pakesh. Last year, the prices dropped by 5%. The year before, they were flat. For the last century, however, housing prices in Pakesh have been rising at 2% per year, compared to the average for Clarus of 0.5% per year. Quayam and Gristel have owned their house on Kambiz Street, only five minutes walk from The Triangle, for thirteen years, in which time its value has risen from the $2M they bought it for, to $2.6M. Thristen's house, which he bought about the same time, is thirty minutes walk from The Triangle, and has risen in value from $1M to $1.3M.
25-OCT-2482: Plan to go and see Aries on 29th. It's a journey of 400 km by griff.
28-OCT-2482: Quayam talks to his father, Frloadut Srae, over the net. They greet one another affectionately, by elf standards. Frloadut says he enjoyed reading The Captive and the Clowns, which he read in anticipation of this conversations, and which Quayam sent to him three years ago when the Latin version came out. Quayam tells Frloadut his family is well, and that he has been in contact with Mikado. Frloadut says he is well, but he has not spoken to Quayam's mother in twenty-five years. He says he plans to visit her some time in the next decade.
"And your visit with the sapiens continues to entertain you?" Frloadut says.
"It's more than a visit, father."
"I have some questions for you."
"Is that so?"
"What do you know of an elf nation called Eriba?"
"Describe it to me."
"It lies on the edge of a swamp in the Outlands west of Callissa. It is surrounded by a high wall of conjured rubber. You may approach it by boat, along a river, and over the river is a stone arch upon which is written "Eriba, Enter Unbidden Upon Pain of Death"."
"You have been there, then."
"We have walked around it."
"I have been there too. They would welcome you. I have a good friend there, a woman called Shaleesa Elia. A promising sorcerer. Young, like yourself, but more accomplished and more studious."
"And she would be willing to meet me?"
"I am sure of it. But you may have to leave your sapien friends behind."
They talk for an hour or two. (Quayam is paying the bill at $10 a minute.) Quayam asks Frloadut several questions about his sorcery that he has been waiting to ask. Although Frloadut allows himself to imply that Quayam should be past these questions in his studies by now, he nevertheless answers them clearly and expertly.
"Can I learn to destroy conjured matter?"
"You might, but it is a different path. I cannot."
"Is it possible to make conjured matter that cannot be destroyed?"
"I believe it is. I have heard report from two friends of mine that dragons can make conjured matter that is immune, or at least resistant, to annihilation. I have been working for the past thirty years with a good friend of mine, a destroyer himself, in an effort to learn to create such matter."
"Is that so? And how are you progressing?"
"We have only just begun, but we see some promising signs."
Quayam asks Frloadut if he knows an elf called Bashila, and tells here story. He does not know her, but says he will inquire about her.
Quayam invites Frloadut down to see them, and Frloadut says he looks forward to doing so as soon as he has time.
NW"ly 10 kph. Fly 300 km to a caravansary on the Satian road, where they receive a warm reception on account of their recent exploits with the "army of the undead". They tell their story to the guests, and receive their room and board for free.
29-OCT-2482: Aries waiting for them, wearing local men's clothes, but still looking very much a woman. She descends the staircase inside and greets them as they enter her temple. Thristen and Gristel shake her hand, but Quayam reaches out with both arms to embrace her, and she hugs him warmly in return.
Tell Aries the latest, most notably the affair with Zak, and the possible connection with Eriba. Quayam makes his usual joke about Thristen being like his son, but Aries likes the story, and thinks it is endearing that Thristen has been compromised by his affection for an orc woman.
"I would so like to come with you and meet these orcs. I have met them, of course, but only on Olympia, not in their own countries. And they do not live on the Open worlds, except in Hell, or even any of the other Free worlds, and only here to they have their own culture flowering fully in near autonomous isolation. What a fascinating experience it would be to meet them and learn their language."
"Perhaps we could arrange some kind of smuggling operation with you as the goods," Thristen says.
"Unfortunately, I am in no position to break the law. I am, as you know, on probation."
"What a pity," Gristel says.
"But if you ever want to bring Zak to me, I would love to meet her."
"How dangerous to our plan do you think she can be?"
"She reports to Thor's black-orcs, it seems. So she could bring Garaz's armies into play against us earlier than we would like. But on the other hand, if we are careful, I think she will prove to be useful to us."
"I don't want to use her," Thristen says.
"I do not mean to sacrifice her interests for ours. And I think that no good comes from fighting against love and friendship. I trust that you will be able to find a way to protect your friendship with Zak and continue with the road. We are close, I think."
"How are our divine allies?" Gristel says.
"Starting with myself, I am well. Lucifer has been in poor temper, but he is resigned to our road. We have him under pressure with this threatened law suit from Ursia, and I don't think his bold talk of defeating the suit was heartfelt. I talked to him last week and I think, for a moment, I conjured in him a momentary enthusiasm for the project.
"As for Erebus, she is a strange character, and does not say much, but I think she is doing well, and she remains constant in her support for the road. Shse does not want to be involved directly, but he will give his approval to any of her subjects who ask for it.
"Shiva is ready to move at your convenience. She says her giants can clear the road for you, and she is happy with something like $1M a year for use of the road."
After further discussion, Aries asks them to give him a few lessons in stick-fighting. She has been sparring, but she feels that she will restore her old fighting ability if she spars with adventurers rather than instructors. So Quayam gives her a lesson with the sticks and staff. She is a mere shadow of her former self, the bandit-leader So-Mean, but Gristel recognizes some of here moves from that fight long ago in the cavern, and encourages her to keep practicing.
SW'ly 20 kph fly to Ankle and stay the night in the hacker's inn.
30-OCT-2482: Fly to Virage house and put the griffs in the barn.
31-OCT-2482: Land on an island in the swamp near Eriba. Quayam makes a spirit matter skiff and punts off into the swamp. Gristel, Thristen and Sid fly back to the Virage house.
Quayam punts to the entrance of Eriba. He calls out his name, says that his father is a friend of Shaleessa, and requests permission to enter. Moments later, a male voice speaks to him from the archway. There must be a bridge hidden in the carvings.
"Wait on the ledge by the river, Quayam Srae, and we will summon Shaleesa."
An hour later, a woman's voice speaks to him from the arch, asking him about his father, his own history, the purpose of his visit, and the intentions of his companions. After hearing his answers, she tells him to punt to the steps further along the river, but to leave any private belongings on the ledge.
He leaves his pack, and proceeds. Soon after he finds himself entering a small room in which he strips naked, cleans himself in warm water and disinfectant, and waits for an hour while they wash and dry his clothes. Then they let him out. He wonders what would happen if he was carrying smallpox. Perhaps they would summon the cure from Erebus. They must be worried about poisons, or specially-designed biological attacks. Perhaps their fear is left over from the days when the orcs spread the plague and small-pox across the planet.
He meets Shaleesa Elia. She is tall, slender, fair-skinned, with long, curling blond hair. She flirts with him openly, and consistently, but without making him uncomfortable. He suspects that she was his father's lover when his father visited Eriba a century ago. She is almost the same age as Quayam, so when Frloadut was here, she would have been only fifty or sixty years old.
The elves of Eriba live above the ground among the branches of their great redwood trees, many of which are over one hundred meters tall, with branches extending up to fifty meters from the trunk. Their rooms and staircases are made of wood, stone, and both spirit and conjured matter. Shalleesa takes Quayam to a high room, up at least a hundred stairs, that is warm and comfortably furnished, but whose walls, floor, and roof are transparent, made of conjured wood. They watch the sun go down out over the swamp, and the clouds turn pink, while they drink spring water and eat small, rough-skinned apples.
Shalleesa is one of the more prominent wind-lords in Eriba. She discusses their wall with Quayam, and admits that it is vulnerable to annihilation. It is designed, however, so that the annihilating blast pushes the disintegrating material outwards, and devastates the forest on the outside for hundreds of meters. There have been three such attacks upon Eriba since its birth in the Dark Ages, and each has resulted in the repulsion of the attacking forces by the great extent of the explosion, and the immediate restoration of the wall by Eriba's sorcerers.
Shalleesa arranges for someone to fetch and disinfect Quayam's stuff so he can tell Thristen and Gristel that he will be spend a week in Eriba, and then join them again. Thristen and Gristel fly back to the Virage house, taking Quayam's griff with them.
Quayam meets many citizens of the settlement. He dines with them and discusses the world with them. Many have traveled the widely, most of them with sapien adventurers as guardians. (Gristel later suggests that if they need such guardians, Romayne and Travis would be perfect for that kind of work. But Quayam says it would be too boring.)
Quayam meets with the Prefect of Eriba, a man of over a thousand years named Tenderassi Maridanus. They meet in Tenderassi's garden. Tenderassi walks Quayam around, showing him the plants and fungi.
"I am proud of this," Tenderassi says, pointing to an artistic arrangement of mushrooms, herbs and flowers.
Quayam likes it immediately, but knowing that he is with his own people now, he looks at the arrangement for ten minutes in silence, standing next to his host, before saying.
"Thank you, I enjoyed it."
"You are welcome."
They sit down with some fresh herbs and cherry tomatoes.
"It is late for tomatoes," Quayam says.
"Yes it is. I have bred this variety, whose fruit ripens until mid-NOV. I am so fond of tomatoes. They are quite good, I think, and better than no tomatoes."
Quayam eats on of them with a leaf of mint.
"Oh yes, they are good."
They now get down to business. Quayam describes his earlier explorations of the swamp with his sapien companions, and asks about the swamp monsters and the homunculus. Tenderassi says the swamp monsters can be trained, and they can be intimidated. The homunculus is the mysterious pet of their late friend, the sapien wizard Hameed Hassan.
"Hameed was a pioneer of the art of homunculus-manufacture. He lived to be ninety-three, and when he died, his pet, that strange machine you encountered, took to wandering around here, disturbing the gardens, so we put it outside, and now it circles the wall, and wanders the forest, but always staying near to the place its master is buried. It used to talk, but rarely does so now. We have sympathy for it, because it is intelligent, and we are certain that it is mourning."
It turns out that Hameed Hassan used to teach wizardry to many of the inhabitants of Eriba. Tenderassi explains that fully one third of the elves in Eriba are sorcerers to some degree, and the remainder, who have no powers, are keen to learn some sort of magic use. He himself was a pupil of Hameed's, and has no ability with sorcery. As yet, not one of them has been able to cast a spell, but some believe they are close, and so they have been planning to look for a suitable wizard to live with them.
Quayam tells Tenderassi about the Iron Road. He listens carefully.
"We could stop you," he says.
"I"m sure you could. But we would like to make a deal with out, to our mutual benefit. We can pay you in gold for our right of passage."
"We are not poor."
"What can we give to you?"
They discover that there are several things Quayam and his companions can do for Eriba. First, there are certain commodities that they cannot summon from Olympia, that they would like to import from supplier they can trust, such as iron, copper, tin, and zinc. They can work it themselves, but they have no ore.
Even more interesting to Tenderassi, however, is Quayam's offer to find a wizard to come and teach in Eriba, or a sequence of wizards if necessary.
Tenderassi offers the help of the elves in training the swamp monsters to stay away from the barges.
8-NOV-2482: When Quayam leaves Eriba he is well-pleased with his accomplishments, and Tenderassi seems equally pleased. Shaleesa has been pleasant company, too, and he has stayed in her house, but it is clear that she was hoping he might share her room as well, but he declined.
Quayam leaves Eriba with a bag of mushrooms from Tenderassi's garden, and punts in his spirit matter boat to the island, where Gristel and Thristen (with Sid) pick him up and take him back to the Virage House.
10-NOV-2482: With a S'ly 30 kph, they fly north, stopping in the Long Hills for lunch, leaving Sid behind with Gashley and Dominican. They follow their proposed road route, and Quayam takes photographs the whole way, so they can have a detailed photographic record of the path of the road.
The Mokul wyvern-riders wave and let them pass.
At the Loud Lady, the hear that Vango and Tanya are probably gone for good, and they see a dozen new faces in the common room. Fresh fodder for the Old Hills.
11-NOV-2482: Lunch with Jacques Martinique.
12-NOV-2482: Ride rented horses to the Green Horn Tavern. Falmut reaffirms his willingness to have the road pass through his village, in return for $500k a year in gold.
13-NOV-2482: Receive invitation from Trackandslay to go to his city. Set off with a letter from Falmut stating his acceptance of the project.
15-NOV-2482: In the room of Three Winds, meet with Trackandslay yet again. He says he is willing to build and protect the road. He appears content with the $1M a year rent. He says he will take care of Rackhammer, the famous and able general of Gutak. They have yet to determine where exactly the road will pass, although it should use the existing bridge into the city to cross the river, and how much it will cost to build, but a cost of something like $1M seems reasonable to Trackandslay. Decide to do some more detailed planning, and then talk again.
Back in the guest quarters, they celebrate with a bottle of Varayan wine they find set out for them.