"Djeso-Mitar!” Binyamin muttered between clenched teeth “I hate Elfs...” He braced his foot on the corpse and jerked the thick blade of his dirk from its neck. Pale, opalescent green ichor oozed from the creature’s wounds, reeking of soured milk.
He stepped back into the shadows of the cave, away from his dying camp-fire. He stilled himself, slowly willing the fighting surge and post-fight trembling to fade, and focused for any hint of other enemies that might be outside in the snow storm. His attackers were all down, but that was no guarantee they were all he would have to deal with. Enough time passed for the unseen moon to move nearly a handspan in the sky before he began to relax enough to look more closely at the three corpses sprawled around his campsite.
Barely the height of a man’s hip, they couldn’t be true Elfs. The Seelae tribes Binyamin usually encountered were fully twice that tall – slightly taller than a human noble. Yanae, the savage goblins were shorter, but not this small. These were Askae, hedge-gnomes: late night blood-drinkers, and anthropophagi.
In death, their jaws had slackened, unhinging and splitting open at the chin to reveal the gaping mouth full of inward turned teeth, capable of enveloping a grown man’s head, or consuming a small child, or whole poultry. He couldn’t make out the usual body paint patterns through the clothing and in the uneven light, but their hair – or what passed for Elfin hair, was bound up and plaited in ways that Binyamin didn’t recognize – signs of tribal, clan or society allegiances that he was unaware of.
With a painful slowness, he crept carefully to the edge of the darkness to drag the nearest corpse out of the fire’s light; the bodies were too visible to someone outside the cave looking in from the darkness. Elfin skin was usually cool to the touch, but the frozen night outside the cave had already made these cold. He examined the first one. The diamond pattern pebbling of its scales glistened with eerie beauty. As expected, there were body paint markings under the clothes. The Seelae loved their decoration.. Even their long horny talons were carefully groomed and painted with unfamiliar sigils. These three were clearly not tribal outcasts, or lost travelers getting out of the icy night’s cold. The lack of any camping gear, supplies, or anything suggesting that they were crossing the mountains in the dead of winter strongly suggested that they’d come looking for him, and reaffirmed his concern that there might be others. All they seemed to be carrying were their ironwood leaf blades.
Slowly, he grabbed the second body by the leg, and slid it into the darkness. As he shifted it, he felt an odd lump on the Asku’s left thigh. Pulling the baggy Trossmai leaf trousers down around the Asku’s gaitered, woven bast leggings, he found what made the lump; bound to the right leg was a small leather sack. That in itself was unusual as Elfs didn’t use leather. They considered animal skins zacknash, unclean. He found a red woolen bundle, also unclean, greasy with scented oil inside the bag. It was a phylactery. Binyamin recognized this was what the Wizards sometimes called a “Hand”, human magic, “fed” with magical fluids to give it power. In this case, the fluids smelled like mint, sage and smoked meat. The common folk believed that to even touch someone else’s “Hand” brought potentially lethal bad luck to you. He cautiously unwrapped the bundle. Inside was a folded lead sheet, a bird’s leg, a small silver coin and some powdered roots, all soaked in the sweet-smelling oil. He slowly unfolded the lead sheet, expecting the inside to be engraved with a variety of occult symbols and nonsense seeming words, and he was not disappointed, but his blood chilled when he saw that instead of the name of its intended target, there, supported by a familiar looking seeming handwriting, was a clear sketch of his own face.
The sky was lightening before he moved again. Beyond the cave mouth, there were no footprints in on the snow covered plain of the broad mountain valley. The sky was deep blue and clear. He should be safe in the daylight. Elfs were nocturnal by preference. He took the last of his firewood and stoked up his campfire. He tossed the lead sheet and other items into the purifying flames, then gathered his bedroll and gear together.
As he hitched his satchel onto his back and adjusted the sword on his hip, he readied himself to go out into the below freezing morning. He took out one of his last cigars, and with a flick of his thumb he fired up his old trench-lighter. He lit up, the smoke drifting back into the cave, toward the fire. Then, catching up the oilskin covered bow, he walked out into the day.
As the sun moved towards mid-day, the trail rose up towards a broad hanging valley near a frozen river fall. He could heed the wooded valley was snowed in, but he could hear the faint pinging of a smith in the distance, and he walked towards it.
He soon lost any trace of the trail under the snow, but there was a broad cleared field between the walls of evergreens and sleeping wood. Beyond the first field, another field lay beyond a stand of trees climbing out of a ravine. In the distance the hammering of metal on metal continued, and the with it were faint smells of wood smoke and iron. As he moved from field to field, he soon noticed a large meadow stretching off to the left, away from the river, and moving up the side of the valley. This snowy expanse was covered in hundreds of tightly packed small mounds, each a man length long and a few hands high, all aligned more or less east to west. Three of the mounds were bare dirt. Those graves had been dug this morning.
A tight feeling wrapped around him. Older graves tended to settle, so this many mounds indicated a lot of people dying, and his first concern was some sort of plague. On the other hand, graves were odd enough, Nova Romanae were old fashioned enough to prefer cremation, usually only slaves were buried. Plague victims, when they were buried, were dumped in mass graves. Looking more closely, he could see that some of the mounds had settled somewhat, and many more were very difficult to see. At an estimate there were upwards of 800. He walked over to the trio of fresh graves, and squatted down next to it. The dirt was still loose and soft.
A bright light flashed overhead. Binyamin glanced up at it. Changing colors, it swept by almost faster than he could track, then turned sharply and vanished in to the clouds. He shook his head and turned back to the mound. The rumors had been right, there were Angels flying around up here. But at this moment he was more concerned about who all these bodies belonged to.
He drew an arrow from his kit and began to probe the grave with it. The tip met resistance at only a few feet down. They hadn't even buried the body deep enough to keep animals from digging it up. He sat back on his heels for a few minutes. Then, moving to the eastern end of the grave, he began to dig with his hands.
Fairly quickly he reached the body and was even more disturbed. There was no box, no shroud. He cleared enough dirt from around the head and neck that he could see what he was looking at, a young man, maybe 15 or 16. Hair shorn off and scraped, a pimpled face covered in metal studs, rings and hooks, and a fylfot carved into his forehead. This throat had been cut; a single stab from a long knife or dirk, in from the left, behind the trachea, then forward, angling slightly upwards. Two smooth motions from the way the meat was cut, and the cut marks on the exposed spine. To judge from the marks, his killer had been behind him, likely by a left hander, and shorter than the victim. No, he corrected himself, it was more likely the boy had been on the ground, kneeling forward, and executed by someone right handed and facing him.
The young man's clothes were some sort of black leather tunic over a soft undershirt with tightly knitted collar. Obviously the dead man had only recently crossed over the River of Blood, which should be impossible. The nearest of the five Fords was a week’s ride to the south. Even if he had been shipped here right after crossing, he would have had those studs and clothes removed, and an iron collar fitted. There was no sign of a collar.
After a few minutes thinking, Binyamin refilled the hole.
The shadows in the valley were growing long by the time Binyamin reached the crest of the hill. He just saw the buildings beyond, and quickly dropped down out of sight. He crept nearer to the ridge, crouching to avoid being easily seen from the town. Sliding off to the side of the path, and peering through the winter dead foliage, he could see the whole village of Ninertinanium Kentum. He compared what he was seeing with how it had been described in the most recent Census, five years ago: “The land of Gaius Eusebius Ninertae. Ninertinanium Kentum and new land of Oestramont Pass. 10 free plebes, 30 bondu laborers, and 15 slaves. 2,000 acres of meadow and pasture, 10 caracates under the plow, woods for 40 swine, a mill, 40 sokemen of 160 acres of land, and it is worth 1200 saestae. In addition, one berewick, as the manor of Aedu Nimium. 1 caracate of land, and 5 bonded laborers, 3 slaves, 30 acres of meadow, 1 mill, woods for 15 swine, with 3 sokemen on 10 acres of land, and is worth 20 saestae. Whoever is tenant there returns 12 dinae of every 20 saestae….”
Meaning that there was plenty of new land for eventual development and growth, but with a total population including Ninertae and his family, of maybe 170 people at the most. The sokemen normally would be in their farms with their families, dropping the count to 19 at the Manor and 65 in town. There were nearly three hundred people in and around the palisades of the town. Many were working at various tasks, splitting and hauling wood, carrying water buckets from the well, and so on; but many more were just sitting around huddled together. There were no signs of attack against the wooden walled town, from the large manor at one end to the mill house at the other. The gates in the walls were open.
Binyamin stood and walked down toward the town. As he neared the walls, he saw that the locals had noticed him and were staring at him with varying levels of curiosity, fear, and anger. It got worse as he walked through the gate into the open area inside the palisade. An armed man in leather and steel armor stood just inside the town’s gate. Binyamin noticed that this man was a bondu, a bonded laborer, wearing an iron collar. That was just wrong, why would anyone arm a bondu?
"Are there accommodations for travelers here?" Binyamin asked the guard. Binyamin doubted it. He doubted that this place had enough traffic to warrant any sort of inn. He wasn't sure it even would have a tavern. The guard ignored him. Binyamin considered his options, not the least of which was beating an answer from this presumptuous bondu. Silently he turned and moved past the pallisade.
As he neared the center of the small town, he saw the smithy he had heard all day. There was no hammering now, just a young bondu with an iron collar sweeping up.
“Pardon me, Sir?”
Binyamin turned to look at the speaker. A young woman stood a few feet away. He could see she was thin, even through the ragged wool cloak she wore. Her face was drawn and sunken. The healing pockmarks on her face and bright orange ends of her finger long ash-blond hair said she had only recently crossed over. But she looked clean and her collar didn’t appear to have made any major scars yet.
“Yes?” He replied.
“The Lord has sended me to tell you he would like to talk to you.” Her accent was similar to the Inglesu, but broader vowels. Binyamin had heard it often enough from his father’s father, a bondu himself. Binyamin thought he could, if forced to, still understand some of the English, as they called it – but not as well as that young woman was adapting to the Latinu of the Nova Romanae.
“By all means, take me to him.”
She led him to the manor, hesitating only in trying to decide which door to lead him to. Finally, she opened the main door and led him into a warm entry hall. An elderly man, waited for them. He nodded to the girl, who then ducked behind a curtain, fear on her face. Binyamin could well understand – servants were frequently beaten for using the front entrance. The old man turned to him.
“Sir, Lord Gaius will meet you at dinner, if that is acceptable to you. I will see to it that you are… made as comfortable as you can be. If you will come with me, please, sir.” The old man’s accent was clearly Inglesu
The old servant wore no collar, but had the calluses around his neck that showed he had served for many years after he had crossed over.
He led Binyamin to one side of the main hall. The manor was build around the standard central hall and two atriums. The floors were heated, the luxuriant warmth soaking up through the soles of his boots. It felt wonderful after having been outside for the past few weeks.
A few turns, and they entered a warm, clean, sleeping chamber, the bed prepared for a guest. The room was well-lit by hanging glass lamps. Once inside the old man helped Binyamin off with his pack and woolen top coat, exposing the worn green tunic underneath with the crimson klavae of a citizen, and the golden patches on an Ambulataru, an Imperial Walker. After taking the tunic, boots and trousers and setting them aside, the old servant then led Binyamin to the bath, where he could ease the chill with a hot soak before dinner. This was a wonderful welcome for the traveler, but it made Binyamin slightly uneasy. He was certain that Ninertae, the servant’s ‘Lord Gaius,’ didn’t treat all visitors to his town like this.
When Binyamin returned to his chambers, a clean white tunicle was laid out for him on the bed. It had the same size crimson klavae as his tunic, which was nowhere to be seen. His clothes and equipment had all been taken away while he was bathing. With the tunicle was the plain, white woolen sash of the small toga. The message was clear: he was to dress for dinner it seemed, but not overdress. That was unfortunate, since with the cold that still managed to seep through the walls, the full toga virilu would have been warmer.
The old servant returned and dressed Binyamin. After deeming him appropriately attired, he escorted Binyamin to the Dominu’s dining hall, and announced:
“My Lord, the Walker”
Binyamin entered, noticing the room was a bit spare by the standards of the capitol, but clean and lit by hanging glass lamps. Four men leaned on couches in basic formal attire, nothing flashier or fancier than what he was wearing. That was good; he really hated the subtle, and often not so subtle, games of upsmanship that the nobility frequently played in the more civilized parts of the Empire. One of the men, thick but not fat or soft, with thinning gray and blond hair worn far shorter than was stylish at the moment, wore the broad stripe of a patriciu, on his tunicle. The stripe was a red the color of drying blood that looked almost black in this light. Binyamin focused his attention on him
“Ah, Walker,” Ninertae took a large sip from a golden cup.
“Your Excellency. I am Binyamin Wood Farro,” he said self-consciously, only too aware that while the “Farro” cognomen said he was a free man, taken with the Inglesu gens and praenom, his family had once belonged to the great Farro family. “My commission is to investigate some unusual rumors…”
“The Angels, no doubt. We’ll talk more about that after dinner. I do so hate to disturb a good meal with business matters.”
“Please, take a seat. Tell me, aren’t you the one they call Maku Mardrim, the Wizard killer?”
Binyamin was a bit startled. The man knew of him? He was aware that he’d gotten a bit of a reputation, but hadn’t realized it had spread this far.
“Yes, Your Excellency, I have been called that.”
Servants appeared carrying the meal. Dinner was relatively simple; brine-cured pork and cabbage, legumes, and so on; a bit sparse for a patrician’s table, but Binyamin noted that this was the middle of winter in the hinterland. Candied lark’s tongues were probably a little hard to come by. The wine was excellent though, a bronzed Falernian, properly aged and warm.
“You don’t sound as though it’s a name you are proud of.”
“Your Excellency, I do not believe that killing is something to proud of. It’s a duty that must be performed, that’s all.”
“Wizards aren’t criminals. Why kill them?”
“Your Excellency, many Wizards are criminals. And it is clearly written in the 2nd book of Mosheh ‘those who’ve given themselves to demons must not live.’ Wizards have traded their souls, their humanity to the Dark Ones to gain their powers.”
“True. But they can have their uses, too.”
“It is not my place to dispute that point with my betters.” Binyamin picked at the meat.
“I would hope not,” Ninertae chuckled, “As the patronu of this place, I am the intercessor with the Gods.”
“As is proper.” Binyamin wondered what sort of game Ninertae was playing.
“Do you like the meat? We put up the swine ourselves, after the slaughter rituals in the late autumn. This far from the trade routes we have to produce all our food ourselves. I daresay our mutton can not be matched even in the Capitol itself…”
Later, as the remains of the meal were cleared away, the old servant carried in mugs of a rich creamie smooth ale. Eventually the conversation returned to the topic of Binyamin’s visit.
“… eventually Proconsul Atticus couldn’t ignore the reports of glowing lights, the Angels flying over the mountains any further, and asked the Emperor to send a Walker into the province to investigate.”
“That’s totally understandable.” Ninertae was examining the foam on his ale. The other two diners were eyeing him and each other warily.
“I’m certain I don’t have to tell your Excellency that Angels are only seen flying over an area where there is a Ford across the Crimson River.”
“And of course that’s impossible since there are only five Fords, and they are all in the cities on the White River.”
Binyamin nodded. Ninertae continued,
“Of course, though, it’s not impossible. Just up the valley there is a Wizard who has created a new Ford.”
Binyamin tried not to stare. He was not expecting this sort of cooperation from the local noble. Anyone who had a Ford under their control was sitting on a potential gold mine, as well as a potential death trap since the Empire kept strict control over new crossovers from the Old World.
“Yes, Kaly-aru ad Sthalrae, came to us a few years ago, claiming to be able to get us cheap labor. Since we had a ruined ancient building nearby that is totally useless to me – they tell me it feels “evil” to the ignorant,” he glanced garingly at his companions “so I handed it over. Within a few months, we had our first arrivals. And they keep coming, three of them per day. Most, of course, die fairly quickly, or are too sick of the drug-fever, or worse, to be of any use. Others lose their minds and have to be put down, as do those who are simply too intractable to bother with.”
Binyamin was astounded – the five known Fords only produced one person a day among them. He thought for a few moments, doing some simple math: three per day, over the space of “a few years”, call it 3 years, assume “most” was as much as 95 percent that would still be 165 or so bondu. That tallied with the numbers he saw around the town. The town was too inaccessible to bleed off any extra into the regular labor market, especially in the winter, so…
“You can’t feed them all, can you?”
“No, not and have any hope of feeding the people we already have. If this keeps up, I’m afraid we’ll have to start turning them out.”
“And that would violate Imperial law regarding recent immigrants.”
“You see our problem.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
“Good. The Wizard’s establishment is just up the valley to the north – you can follow the path in the morning.” And with that, Ninertae, rose from his couch and, with his companions, left the room.
Binyamin remained in the dining hall for a long time, thinking before retiring to his room.
The next dawn, he woke and found his clothes had been cleaned and repaired, and were lying out beside his gear, and a breakfast of leftovers from the night before. After a few bites of cold cured pork and wine-sopped bread, and he dressed.
Once outside, he found a pleasant bracing morning that promised to warm up, possibly enough to start melting some of the waters.
As he’d been told, the path up the valley was clear, a gradual slope, and trodden enough to keep the ground clear of snow.
After about a mile, he noticed a group of people approaching him. Two armed guards and three young people in chains; a boy and two girls. The boy and one of the girls looked to be about 14, the other girl couldn’t have been 12. They all wore outlandish clothing, were all dirty and very frightened. Binyamin could sympathize. His grandfather had told him about the shock and disorientation he had felt being thrust across the bloody path, although in his case bondage had been a relief compared to the hell of the trenches in a place called Flanders.
A few miles further on, he cleared a rise and looked at the ruins of an ancient structure, a tower set into the side of the mountain. He could understand why most people weren’t happy to be anywhere near this place. Even from a hundred paces away it was clear that it was just somehow wrong. The Seelae weren’t given to stone construction, but if they had been, once, in the distant past, this was the sort of place they might have built. The architecture was clearly non-human, the doors too high, too many irregular flowing surfaces. In fact the tower appeared to be built in the form of a burnt truck of a giant tree. The faint cadaverous stench of grave wax seemed to radiate from the rocks.
Guarding the gate, were two sleepy trogs. They were slightly taller than the average man, and massed twice as much. They had keen senses of smell, excellent eyesight and were strong enough to pull a man’s arms from their sockets in a wrestling match. They were also close enough kin to man that people could breed with them, as unpleasant as that sounded. They were cunning and hard to trick, but didn’t have a lot of initiative. In short, they were excellent guards for a Wizard’s lair. He watched them for a few minutes. One of the guards, apparently smelling him, looked at Binyamin from beneath its massive brows.
It was a tricky problem. On the one hand, he was a government official with every legal right to see the Wizard, while on the other Wizards often didn’t like to be disturbed and those who kept large guards all too frequently felt the need to use them. Then shrugging, and loosening the sword at his side, he strode towards the gate.
“Greetings” he said as he neared the gate, “I am the Ambulataru Binyamin Wood Farro, and I am here to speak to the Wizard Kaly-aru ad Sthalrae with regards to an investigation I am performing. May I enter?”
The guards looked at each other. The one who had noticed him first turned to him, and in a voice as deep and gravely as a mountain ravine told Binyamin to “Wait right here.” The massive creature turned and walked into the main structure.
Within minutes later, the Trog returned
“The Wizard will see you. Please come this way.”
Binyamin was escorted into a large vaulted hall with a set of stairs to the left going up to a high balcony. Though light came in through clerestory windows, the room was illuminated by a circle of red swirling mist in the far wall, the blood red river, held in place by seven large glowing red crystals imbedded in the wall around it. He was stunned. It really was a Ford.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” He turned to look, and a nauseous chill slithered through him. An attractive young woman slowly descended the stairs towards him. She had tattoos around her eyes and mouth, emulating the reptilian visage of the Elfs. She even had the Seelae diamond pattern markings and hair styling indicating a membership in the Slathrae tribe. She wore an emerald gown of woven tressmai leaves, rich and hinting at the Nova Roman dress style. A soured milk stink of magic reached across the room to mark her as a Wizard.
Binyamin quickly gathered himself mentally. At their least effective, Wizards were tricky, subtle and manipulative; they could twist a situation and have you just with their words, without even resorting to their other powers. This one would be even more dangerous.
“Hello, Clara” He said gently, stepping slowly to the side, keeping his sword between them as she approached. Light shimmered over her jewelry, three clearly talismanic rings, and an amulet on her chest – no staff visible. Obviously she playing the “harmless” game.
“When I was an apprentice,” she spoke distractedly to him, watching the swirling light, “they tried to convince me that Fords this large were impossible, but the legends are clear that every few centuries large groups could come across, and sometimes things could even go both ways.” She glanced at him. “How’s Mother?”
“Her last letter said she misses her children and wishes we’d write or visit more often. Miriam’s pregnant again, this must be her seventh. Teydor made captain of the 23rd a few months ago.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” She sounded tired, and about to say something else, but she caught herself. After a moment, she continued:
“Certainly there have been larger crossings in the past. For example the major Roman crossing brought over three whole Legions, although I can see why they might not want that known since they were being slaughtered on the other side at the time. Do you remember Grandfather telling us the legend of True Thomas? No? Ah, well about eight hundred years ago a human minstrel crossed the bloody river. He claimed that he met and was romantically involved with the queen of the Elfs before he escaped and returned to the old world.”
Binyamin snorted. She made a tight lipped smile at the sound.
“Yes it is ridiculous.” She sounded almost bitter, “ A human would be more able to breed with a horse or a goat. While their innermost fibers are from the old world, we can barely even eat the same foods.”
“Although they don’t seem to have any problem with eating us. Speaking of which, did you send the Askae to kill me?”
“Yes, I couldn’t risk that Ninertae hadn’t sent for you. I’ve been getting hints that he’s been tiring of our arrangement, and it would be within reason that he might send you to kill me.” She turned to face him calmly, her hands down at her sides, palms facing him in what Binyamin recognized as the first occult guard position. “As you have so many of my kind. So many of OUR kind,”
Binyamin forced himself to convey the appearance of calm. He could feel the tightening in the air, the hair on his neck, and down his spine telling him that she was targeting him with something truly unpleasant.
“It hadn’t actually come up in conversation, per se, but I think he’d be only too happy for me to do so. Honestly, I’m of two minds though. My mandate is only to find out if the rumors of angels were true, and if so, what they were doing there.”
“And now you know.” Her voice was chilling.
“And now I know.”
“You aren’t actually expecting me to let you leave.” She brought her hands up to shoulder height, palms still facing him.
“Expecting? No. But I do have to say, I think it would be a really nice idea. Certainly my death doesn’t appeal to me greatly, nor does the idea of having to explain to our mother that I was forced to kill you. It would break her heart.”
“No more so than having a son who’s an assassin.”
“I’m not an assassin. I’m just very good at defending myself against people who’ve surrendered their souls and humanity to unnatural forces.”
“You don’t really believe that, so you?”
“Absolutely. ‘Those who’ve given themselves to demons must not live.’”
She stared at him in horror.
“And how many have you killed so far?”
“Fewer than my reputation would have you believe.” He smiled gently. “Tell you what – let me put this away” he gestured with the sword, “and you put those down and we can end this without any trouble. What do you say? Here I’ll even go first.” He slipped the tip of his sword into the scabbard. As the blade slid home, he took a step towards the Wizard. She watched him uncertainly, and her hands dipped slightly.
As his weight shifted, Binyamin lunged, drawing the blade from its scabbard in a tight arc, slicing her hands off, separating the Wizard from her major talismans. Then stepping through the stroke, he calmly rotated his wrist and decapitated the creature that had once been his sister.
He wiped his sword off on her gown, and slid it back into its scabbard. Then, picking up the various pieces of her body, he tossed them into the swirling mist. After a few moments, he took out some chalk, and began to sketch a design on the ground in front of the vortex. Finished, he picked up a large rock and began to smash the crystals around the vortex.
As he watched the glowing red mist swirling away to vanish in the chalked markings he’d drawn, he pulled out his last cigar, and lit it.