The Reaver Road
As it had been prophesied, I came down from the hills and walked over the sunbaked plain. Very soon I noticed fresh horse droppings on the baked red ruts of the road, the first I had seen for many weeks. I saw also that the way was empty of the stragglers who had kept me company all that time. Sensing the danger, they had taken cover.
I walked on, feeling odd in my sudden loneliness, but knowing that a careful scan of the hedges and hayfields would reveal the missing wayfarers cowering in the foliage. Soon one man, bolder than the rest, rose and called a warning, I acknowledged with a wave and continued on my way, whistling as before, confident of my destiny.
The sky was very huge and blue, and the heat wearisome. I wondered if the faint shadows to the north could be the famed Kulthiar Range, or merely some trick of the haze. The east was still streaked by the smokes of yesterday. Every morning the smokes were closer.
To be out of the endless olive groves was a relief, for I was not yet desperate enough to eat untreated olives, but I missed the shade. The plains‘ fertile fields and orchards that I had been hoping might offer some nourishment had been picked clean by the army of locusts preceding me. A whole day and a night had gone by since I licked the crumbs from my provender bag.
I never pester the gods with complaints. They are well aware that a minimum sustenance is necessary if I am to perform my duties. Gauntness has a certain appeal. Possibly I had created a miscalculation by sharing the last of my victuals with little Bulla. If so, I did not regret the act, for her breasts were as rosebuds and her tiny hands restless as summer butterflies.
Since the night Dom Wilth burned, I had met no one coming from the west. I had traveled faster than most, for there had been few able-bodied men upon that road of sorrows. Children and cripples and old women yoked to carts had been my companions. Penniless, homeless, and dressed in rags, they had yet been kindly and uncomplaining in their misfortune. Despair clears away pettiness. Many had been alarmed at first by my outlandish garb and appearance -- it is part of my trade to be visibly a stranger -- but once I had assured the refugees that I was not a Vorkan, they had been content enough to talk, while I lingered awhile at their slower pace.
Thus I would gather a tale or two. Soon, though, aware of the urgency of my mission, I would bid my companions good fortune, and they would call down blessings from the gods upon my back as I strode ahead to the next group.
Now I walked alone through a deserted land, hearing only my own whistling and the rumbling of my belly.
I arrived without warning at the wide glare of a river and a ford, and they seemed familiar to me. Although the river was too large to be any other than the great Jolipi, I saw no boats at all. Admittedly the water was low at that time of mellow summer, a tress of silver braids winding among shoals of golden sand.
Charred ruins showed where a ferryman‘s house had stood, but weeds sprouted within the blackened timbers, and there could have been no ferry there for many years. A legacy of a garden remained in the form of six green willows and a tulip tree flaming scarlet. I had no recollection at all of house or ford, but I recognized the tulip tree.
Sprawled on the black carpets of shadow in the grove, a squad of soldiers was taking rest while keeping careful watch on their chomping ponies and also on a group of near-naked men crouching in the sunlit water. These bathers were splashing listlessly and making none of the cheerful noises that such activities normally provoke.
As I approached, soldiers turned their heads. I knew how hot they must be in their bronze hats and metaled corselets, their greaves and vambraces, for I have worn such absurdities in my time, although never willingly, l knew also that their unfortunate mounts would never rise above a trot when so burdened. These stalwart warriors might be competent at intimidating peasants, but the Vorkans would ride gavottes around them.
Their leader was easily identified by a crested helm and a bronze cuirass. Even sprawled on the grass, he was a man of authority, thick chested and narrow eyed. He leaned on one elbow, and his calm was a symbol of power in itself. His beard of black ringlets hung almost to his waist, lush even by the standards of the Spice Lands. Indeed, he had a magnificent head, which might well have graced a marble bust, or a golden coin. It would have looked splendid on a pike, too.
I headed in his direction. Some of the nearer soldiers sat up, reaching hands to sword hilts and regarding me with distrust. My hair and skin are lighter than is common in the Spice Lands, and my eyes are gray. I wore my beard close-trimmed in those days. Even without my foreign garb, I would have been visibly a stranger to these warriors, and warriors‘ violent instincts always rise to the surface at the sight of strangers.
I smiled back guilelessly at them and was allowed to pass unchallenged. Arriving at the leader, I dropped my staff, swung my bindle from my shoulder, and then sank down cross-legged.
"May your life amuse the gods, Captain," I said cheerfully.
He raised one bushy black eyebrow. "That is not greeting I have encountered before."
I pointed out that it was a worthy one, and asked if he would prefer the hazards of boring them.
"Indeed, when you express the matter like that, then see the wisdom in it. I hope you also will provide amusement."
I smiled to set his mind at ease. "Such is always my aim, for I am a trader of tales, and amusement is my business. Sir, my name is Omar."
The captain‘s large hand stroked his apron of beard "And I am Publian Fotius, captain in the army of Zanadon."
"Ah! Then you may be able to assist me. Is not the city of which you speak that same Zanadon of renown and glory, the Zanadon whose fighting men are so furnished with valor and hardihood that it is known throughout all the Spice Lands as Unvanquished Zanadon?"
The soldier studied me with care and then nodded solemnly. "Such indeed is the case, thanks be to the Holy Maiana and Immortal Balor."
"Thanks indeed. I am indeed honored to meet one of its outstanding citizens. But my geography is hazy, noble Captain. I have been following the Reaver Road toward Shirdle and Thang these past many days. Dare I believe that this rolling flood I see before me is the celebrated Jolipi River of ancient story, and that therefore I am within a day or less of Unvanquished Zanadon itself?"
"You are overly modest, Trader of Tales Omar," the captain said in his sonorous voice, "for you have stated the situation exactly. But an hour‘s stroll up the river will bring you within sight of the granite wails and many shining towers of Zanadon the Unvanquished."
I ran a thumb thoughtfully over my own trim beard. "In these times of troubles, when the flagitious hordes of Vorkans ravage the land, defiling the very plausibility of the gods with pillage and slaughter -- when mighty cities such as Forbin and Polrain and Dom Wilth have gone down to destruction -- then surely Zanadon the Never Vanquished must stand forth as a sure refuge against the marauders."
"We shall resist them with all vigor and, if Holy Maiana wills it, grind them beneath our heels."
"Spoken like a brave soldier, a noble citizen, and a faithful servant of the Holy, er, Maiana," I said with enthusiasm. "But... you will pardon my presumption if I seek to pose a further question, or even two, perhaps?"
The captain turned his noble head to study the men in the river. "I must needs be on my way shortly, but pray continue, for I am rarely regaled by conversation so learned and inspiring."
"Your kindness illuminates your greatness, Captain. This, then, is the matter that now troubles me. Many are the refugees I have observed upon the road, fleeing the fury of the Vorkan horde. Many mark out my way ahead and many I have overtaken. Great though Unvanquished Zanadon may be -- however renowned her mercy and hospitality -- there surely must be limits to the number of unfortunates she can succor in her bosom?"
"Alas! You speak of a matter that sorrows us greatly."
I sighed. "Then were I to make this trifling journey up the river that you mentioned, might it not be that I should be turned away, and my petition denied?"
Publian Fotius sat up. As if that was a signal, the troop began struggling to their feet with sounds of clanking bronze and creaking leather. I noted that some needed help to rise, they were so loaded.
"Be of good cheer, Trader Omar. I ween that the gods have guided you to the very man who can assist you in your ambition to enter into the sanctuary of Mighty Zanadon, the Unvanquished."
"Then may the gods be praised for their mercy!"
He regarded me with sudden chill. "And may I inquire what business you have within the city?"
"I have been ordered to proceed there," I explained.
"Ordered by whom?"
"By the gods, Captain. I am not certain which gods, or god, although I suspect that the mighty Krazath, or Balor as you term him, is at the heart of the matter. You understand, therefore, my joy at having encountered one who can win me admittance? It is a curious tale, with which I shall be happy to enlighten you. It begins some two years ago, when I was first sent a dream, which--"
"The matter is not quite certain." The captain braced his hairy knuckles on the grass, drew up his boots, and sprang easily erect. His bulk darkened the glade.
I clambered to my feet, also, feeling like a willow by an oak. "I beg of you, honored sir, to inform me what impediment may lie in my chosen path, and how I may seek to circumvent it."
Publian looked me up and down. He waved a wordless signal to his men. Some hurried to attend the ponies, others went over to the water and began summoning the bathers, addressing them in crude and peremptory terms. The captain continued to consider me, stroking his flowing beard.
"Your wisest course in my estimation, Trader, would be to remove your clothing immediately -- all of it."
I frowned in mild surprise. "Sir? I have received such instructions from common vagabonds and cutthroats in my time, and I confess that similar sentiments have been conveyed to me on other occasions by members of the opposite sex, usually more by way of insinuation. But I am at a loss to understand how such an immodest act now could benefit my chances of favorable consideration by the civic authorities of Unvanquished Zanadon."
"Then consider the corporal here," said Publian Fotius with an expansive gesture. "His name is Gramian Fotius, the son of my youngest brother. Is he not a fine, strapping lad and a credit to the army we both have the honor to serve?"
"Indeed," I said, looking up at the giant so indicated, "if I may make allowances for his comparative youth, I can truthfully say that I have never observed a warrior to match him in either quantity nor the awe-inspiring quality of his demeanor."
"Then you will understand the wisdom of my advice when I explain that, should you delay further in implementing the course of action I recommended, Corporal Fotius will rip off your right ear with his bare hands."
I admitted that this insight clarified the advisability of compliance, and proceeded to strip off my hat, shirt, breeches, and sandals without further delay.
"Search his bedroll," Publian said. "Turn around, prisoner. No brands? Nor do I see even marks of the lash. You have been as yet deprived of the salutary experience of being flogged?"
"I fear so, sir. My audiences do not invariably greet my narratives with enthusiasm, but I have yet to provoke negative response as drastic as you describe." I completed my turn, and waited, enduring the captain‘s continuing inspection with untroubled good humor. No one who has spent as many years as I did among the Bushmen of Gathoil will ever be troubled by nudity.
"And no weapon scars! You were never a soldier?"
I admitted that I had been, once or twice, but assured him that Mighty Krazath had always smiled upon me and turned his terrible frown upon my opponents.
"Praise to the god," Publian said, "although he is unfamiliar to me by that name. I fear I must conclude that you are a spy, stranger. What gold?"
The soldier who had been ripping my bindle to shreds now rose and sheathed his sword. "None, sir."
"Try his clothes. Trader, I do not see your knife. How does any man survive without a knife?"
"With a fuller belly, for the first few hours."
"The tales you trade have so depreciated that you must deal your very knife away?"
"Alas," I admitted, "my tales have not depreciated, but the value of food has risen to levels hitherto unprophesied. It was a good knife, with a handle of carved bone in the form of warring demons."
The captain nodded reassuringly. "I suspect you are better off without it, then."
I watched with sadness as my breeches were shredded -- the fine breeches that dark-eyed Illina had made for me, fashioned from soft brown camel leather and stitched with scarlet thread. They had covered my knees comfortably and left my shanks bare for the heat of the day. My sandals had been the price of a night‘s entertainment at the Seven Gods, in Wailman, and they, too, were now disassembled. And so, finally, was my shin -- a garment of strong linen, and still good, a gift from a caravan leader down near the coast, for shirts are unknown in the Spice Lands. The road dust of a continent obscured its pastel dye, dark sweat had mapped oceans upon it, but I was sorry to see it so ruthlessly treated. My hat I had made myself, of yellow straw, and I did not mind that being returned to its component pans.
But no gold was thus revealed, and Publian smiled for the first time, glinting teeth as shiny amber as cats‘ eyes amid the midnight of his beard. "You are fortunate indeed in your poverty, Traveler, for I cannot envision a spy without either gold or weapon. You are also either fortunate or clear-thinking in approaching me to relieve your prospect of imminent starvation. As you so acutely postulated, Never-vanquished Zanadon has regretfully closed its gates to the rabble that the Vorkans drive before them. Were they to be admitted, they would undoubtedly congest the streets, pollute the air, and disturb the nights with strident ululation. One small exception only is permitted."
"I pray you to disclose it," I said.
The captain waved a paw at the clinking line of unfortunates now emerging from the water.
"My men and I were dispatched in search of able-bodied volunteers of good character to aid our citizens in their arduous labor of raising the walls. And, while you hardly measure up to Corporal Fotius as a paradigm of manhood -- nor would you ever be chosen to pose for a statue of Immortal Balor in the temple -- I descry that you are healthy, acceptably thewed, and may be worthy of the daily gruel with which our civic leaders will reward your willing service."
Paying no heed to the smirking soldiers closing in around me, I stooped and selected the largest remaining fragment of my linen shirt. I knotted it expertly around my loins. It was less than adequate, but I would still be one of the better-dressed members of the company.
"I am at your service, Captain."
"That much was evident from the first," Publian said.