The Hordes of Chanakra, Snippet Five

The series starts here
The estimated release date for the book is July 8

 Kreg glanced over at Kaila and saw a wide smile gracing her face as they left the shop. “I take it he was as pleased with the price of the sword as you seem to be?”

“Pleased to have any coin at all, I think.” Kaila smiled still more broadly. “Still.  ‘Tis a puzzlement.” She shook her head.

“A puzzlement?” Kreg asked.

Kaila nodded. “Despite all I said, the sword is of excellent make, although–” She smiled again. “–not quite the equal of the claims that yon smith made for it.  Should you be so unfortunate as to meet a krayt, rely not on this sword to behead it at a single blow, but do as I would do and flee to the protection of stout stone walls.  So if the smith made this sword, why then did he not put his maker’s mark upon it?  And if he did not, from whence came it?  A puzzlement.”

She shook her head again then said, “Also, did you note the manner of my speech while we bargained over the price?  ‘Tis the manner in such things, to speak in only the most formal of language.  You must learn this as well.  Doubtless you will lose many a raben before you catch the knack.”

“Doubtless.” He guessed she meant bargaining in general and not just the mode of speech.  He also suspected the most important factor was one she had not mentioned–knowing the approximate value of an item before one began to dicker. “Since you’ve mentioned language, there’s something I’ve been wondering.”

“Say on,” Kaila said.

“You and Shillond,” Kreg said. “He’s your father, but your speech is so different it could almost be different dialects.”
“Truly this confuses you?”

He laughed. “Truly, there is little about your world that does not confuse me.”

Kaila joined her laugh to his.  Kreg braced himself for another clout, but Kaila’s hand only came to rest on his shoulder.

“As to our speech,” she said, “in my early years, I lived at court.  My mother died in battle scarce one year after my birth and a witch in Shendar held Shillond in captivity while all thought him dead.  The King raised me in his own household until Shillond escaped and returned to claim me as his own.  And so, my speech has the flavor of the court, although not the full measure of those who lived their entire lives within palace walls.  Shillond’s speech is that of his own southern province.  And so, my own is a mix of his and that of the court.  Do you now understand?”

Kreg nodded.  He slapped the sword hanging from his side. “So how do I use this thing?” he slid the sword farther back around his waist, trying to find a comfortable position for the unfamiliar weight.

“I remember spying a training yard, used by the city guard, yonder.” Kaila pointed ahead and to the left. “They should have such as we need to begin your training.” She stopped and looked at him. “Do not imagine, however, that you will be able to stand against a blooded warrior for some time.”

“As you say,” Kreg said.

#

“No!” Kaila shook her head. “Hold your sword higher, thus.  One could with ease penetrate your guard.”

Kreg shook sweat out of his eyes and raised the sword in both hands, trying to imitate Kaila’s stance.  His forearms ached from lifting the weight of the sword and his thighs burned.  His ribs, on his right side, still smarted from the last time Kaila had rapped her training sword against them.

Kreg and Kaila practiced alone in a large courtyard.  At one end stood several pells, short wooden posts set in the ground and used as targets for sword practice.  Along one side of the courtyard ran a roped-off lane at the end of which loomed a jousting dummy.  The dummy could pivot on its post so that if the jouster did not hit it perfectly it would swing around and strike him on the back with a sandbag.

The sun had drawn all trace of moisture from the ground, eradicating all evidence of the previous night’s rain.

“Again,” Kaila said.

Kreg attacked, dancing the quick footwork Kaila had taught him.  He struck in a middle line, aiming at Kaila’s rib cage.  She neatly diverted Kreg’s sword then hers flew straight at Kreg’s neck.  He twisted his hands over, interposing his blade before hers.  He succeeded but the force of the blow drove him back.  Before he could recover, Kaila’s sword whistled around again.  He stepped back and parried, barely avoiding her blade.

Kaila’s sword plummeted from above.  As Kreg lifted his sword to parry, he met empty air.  The lack of resistance where he had expected it threw off his balance.  He recovered quickly, but Kaila’s sword smacked the side of his leg, dropping him into the dust.

“Ah, Kreg,” Kaila said as Kreg stood up and dusted himself off, “you seek to strike my blade with yours in the old manner.  One does not use the shashyn that way.  You need to guide your opponent’s blade away from you, not hammer at it like a blacksmith at his forge.”

“You’re fast,” Kreg said.  He kneaded the sore spot.  A ridge of bruised flesh marked where her sword had struck.  She had hit hard. “Strong too.  I’d hate to think what would have happened if that had been a real sword.”

“You learn well, like one with a true gift.” Kaila let her arms hang loosely, her right hand held the grip of the training sword while the fingers of her other hand curled gently around the blade. “Already you master the details of footwork.  Indeed, your balance is like none I have ever seen.  Your handling of the sword though?  Ah, this is most difficult.  I can see the flaw in how you control the sword, but I lack the tongue to explain it.  I can only hope that with practice you will come to it on your own.  What most is needful is drill to build the hand and the eye, and drills to strengthen your wrist, which is still weak.  Is it sooth that never have you studied the art of the sword?”

Kreg shook his head. “Still, once I stopped fighting the sword and started to think of it as an extension of my own arms it came a lot easier.”

“Truly?” Kaila looked him up and down. “That is well done indeed.  Many months was I in learning the lesson of oneness when first I began my own training at arms.  You have a true gift for the sword to accomplish so much in but a few candles.  Join passion and training to that gift and few there will be who will stand against you.”

“I think I’m going to be one big bruise tomorrow.” Kreg stretched, feeling the knots in his muscles and the stinging of welts raised by Kaila’s sword. “Well, I guess I’m ready to continue.” He took a ready stance.

“Nay.” Kaila shook her head. “‘Twill suffice for the nonce.”

“In that case–” Kreg let his arms fall to his sides.  His feet kicked up little clouds of dust as he scuffed over to the rack where they had hung their weapons. “I’m starved.  What say we go find a good eatery?” He used his cloak to wipe sweat from his face and hair.

“‘Eatery’?” Kaila scratched behind her right ear. “Your words are strange, but if you mean an inn or a tavern I would say ‘aye.'”

“Right,” Kreg said.  He stared at the cloak wadded up in his hands for a moment then shook it out.  Since the buildings provided shade against the sun he did not really need to wear it so he slung it over one shoulder.

“Now as to food,” Kaila said as they stepped through the gate onto the street, “the common room at the inn is as good as will be found in Trevanta.  In earlier days, perhaps…well, board is thin in Trevanta in these times.  Moreover, Shillond should soon return from his business and we may meet him there.”

Kreg nodded. “One thing I have to do is find employment of some sort, and that fast.  Not much money left.  I don’t want to get more the same way I got this.” He tapped his belt pouch.

“What skills have you?” Kaila asked as they left the courtyard.

“I’m not sure,” Kreg said. “At least as far as what’s useful here.  I don’t think my former line of work exists here.”

“What is this occupation?” Kaila asked. “Mayhap you will be surprised.”

“Have you ever heard of computers?  IT?”

“Eye Tee?” Kaila asked.

Kreg smiled. “Don’t have it here?  I thought not.  If you don’t have IT how can I be an IT consultant?”

“Ha!” Kaila said. “Still, I am sure you will find your calling.”

“That reminds me.” Kreg turned to face her. “What is this thing with the nomads?  For a second there I thought the smith was going to hit me for being one, never mind that I’m not.”

“It is simple enough.  The lifeblood of the city is its merchants.  When they travel by sea they face pirates, by land, they face….” She paused and looked past Kreg’s shoulder for a moment, then shook her head. “They face raiders.  To them one desert tribe is like another and all are raiders.”

Kreg nodded.  “One more thing I didn’t know that could have tripped me up.” He looked over his shoulder in the direction Kaila had but did not see what had drawn here attention, just a shadowed alley. “What?”

“I thought I saw someone,” Kaila said. “No matter.  There is no one there now.”

“I was lucky to fall in with you and Shillond,” Kreg said thoughtfully. “Had I not, I would be in dire straits by now.”

“In truth,” Kaila said, “how could I refuse one possessing such courage, and a defender of the weak?  And too, there was something about you that drew….  But stay.  A thought has occurred to me.  Mayhap you could teach your ‘way of yielding’.  There is not much call for teachers of combat without arms but mayhap you could make a living thus.”

“Perhaps,” he said, unconvinced. “On the other hand, there’s still a bit of time before I have to make a decision.  I think I’ll wait a while and see what happens.” He glanced down at his pouch ruefully. “A very short while.”

“I would not worry over much, were I you,” Kaila said. “One may always make one’s way if he has courage, determination, and a stout sword arm.  The first two I have seen you to possess.  For the third, have you not the best warrior in the eight kingdoms instructing you?”

Kreg started to retort, then stopped.  While he was no judge of swordsmanship, he suspected that Kaila had ability far beyond what she had displayed in their training.  While he had never touched her with his sword, she had always carefully measured her strikes on him.  They bruised and raised welts, but no more than that.  And when she had given blows against more vulnerable targets, such as neck or head, a much lighter touch.

After some minutes of walking, they reached the inn.  Shillond ambled up to them.

“You seem in good spirits, father,” Kaila said. “I trust all went well?”

“‘Father’ is it?” Shillond smiled. “My, my, my.  It is not often you call me that.”

“Shillond!” Kaila said, her voice pleading. “The treaty?”

“Oh, as to that.” Shillond winked at Kreg before turning back to Kaila. “The Lord Mayor was right glad to come under the protection of Aerioch’s armies.  It seems that Schah has made a number of threats of late.  Why Schah would threaten even a free city such as Trevanta, I do not know, but it seems that they intend to replace the Empire of Shend with the Empire of Schah.  In return for our protection, our trade will pass through at a quite favorable taxation rate and Trevanta will pay a tribute amounting to eight thousand gold norbeni annually.  In truth, I think they welcome our shipping more than our armies, for where our ships go, others will follow.  I think they would have welcomed us had we come to annex Trevanta, but that would have been more trouble than it’s worth.  All in all, it has gone well.  In fact, as everything has been concluded, we may return home on the morrow.”

Shillond’s words, about threats of war from Schah, reminded Kreg of something, but the aching in his head drove the thought away.

“These are glad tidings!” Kaila clapped her hands. “Too long have we been away.”

“And you, Kreg?” Shillond turned toward him. “You will come with us, of course?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Kreg said and then grinned. “Either one.”

END CHAPTER TWO

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Election dynamics

New snippet for The Hordes of Chanakra later today.  In the meantime, some political philosophy.

People invoke a “conspiracy” to ensure that the candidates are “the same” creating the illusion of choice.


No conspiracy is necessary. All that’s necessary is that politicians want to win elections.

Consider the typical election (at least at the national level) in the US: person currently holding office got a majority of the vote. In order to win you need to get a majority. Even if you get every one of the people who did not vote for the current individual, that’s not enough to make a majority (if it were, someone else would be the current officeholder). You need to get at least some of the voters who voted for the current officeholder.

Say you do. Now, next time around the opposition wants to do the same thing. They want to win. The folk who voted against you aren’t enough (or you would have lost) so they need some of the voters who voted for you.

Repeat over a bunch of elections and both sides are trying to appeal to a lot of the same voters. However much they may differentiate themselves “on paper” what they do starts to look a lot alike, not because of any puppetmaster pulling their strings but because they’re competing for voters who want the same things. Well, those voters may way they want one thing, but demonstrate by what/who they vote for what they really want.

This similarity causes some people to object. What they want is different from the group both sides are wooing. They may suck it up and accept that they’re not going to get all they want and instead try to push for a little bit of what they want through one of the existing sides, or they may abandon the existing sides and try to create a new one that can win elections. But, again, unless they can get a lot of the voters voting for the existing sides, which means appealing to their wants. it’s a forlorn hope. This is what we have had to date with the Libertarian, Socialist, CPUSA, Green, and other “third parties”.  These generally have not been numerous enough to be worth going after at the expense of the larger numbers who could go either way between the major parties.

The thing that changes that dynamic is if enough people abandon the existing parties to force a reassessment of what it takes to get that majority.  That requires either a major change in what the population wants–something that generally doesn’t happen quickly–or a “crystallization” of gradual changes with the parties having moved slowly one way while the population has slowly moved another, then reaching a tipping point to overcome inertia which can be heralded by mass “desertions” from one or both of the existing major parties.  The interim can be chaotic and ugly until things settle down to a new dynamic with both (all) sides seeking to woo many of the same voters, but a different group that wants something different from the previous dynamic.

This may be where a Trump candidacy is taking us.  Before Libertarians were generally getting less than 1% of the vote at the national level.  Before Trump became the sole remaining Republican candidate they were polling 11%.  Now running around 20%.  This could be the “sea change” that either forces a reassessment of the Republican party to a more libertarian viewpoint (and then, since the Democrats want to win elections, they have to woo many of those same voters and so are forced as well to move in that direction), or that leads to the collapse of the Republican party and the rise of a new major party in it’s place.  The last time that happened was in the 1854-60 timeframe with the founding of the Republican Party itself and its winning of the Presidency for Abraham Lincoln.

The other scenario, of course, is that the “mass exodus” will fizzle leaving two parties appealing to the “goodies that other people pay for” crowd.

I have my own views on which way I want it to go, of course.

On the recent meltdown of the Republican Party

I have long been arguing that the way to get back to a free society is not to find some magical third-party candidate who will magically give us all back our freedom magically in a single election. And been scorned and called names by the Paulbots and other “Big ‘L’” types (an interesting take on “win friends and influence people” but there you are).

The same tactics of look for someone who has a reasonable chance of winning, who gives you at least a little bit of what you want who might even give up a bit in one area to gain in another so long as you can get a net gain that the Left has been using against us can be used right back at them.

In 2008 I could point out that McCain had a history of voting “pro gun” twice as often as Obama (Out of 4 votes on gun issues Obama voted “pro gun” once–yeah, surprised me too. McCain voted “pro gun” about half the time). He also had a history of supporting more conservative picks for judges. Just a couple of examples that come to mind. Thus, there were actual areas where McCain for all his faults–and they were legion–was better than Obama.

In 2012, I could point out that 11th Article of Faith (statement of some of the core beliefs of the LDS religion) that’s basically a statement of freedom of religion and that unlike, say, Reid, he actually seems to follow his religion. We would, therefore, expect him to support freedom of religion, unlike Obama. Just one example that comes to mind. So there, too, I could point to actual areas where Romney for all his faults–and they were legion–was better than Obama.

Now it’s 2016 and we’ve got Trump (or are about to get him but nothing can stop him now). Um. Well, there’s some campaign rhetoric most of which he’s already walked back (and when questioned on those walkbacks he said that he’s not president and what he says is “just flexible suggestions”, basically admitting that his word is worthless) but his actual history of supporting positions and politicians or actions with any kind of tangible effect… Um. Sorry. Coming up blank here. In the past I could admit to a lot of overlap between the two parties–has to be; they both want a majority so they have to compete for at least some of the same voters, but I could also point to differences. Now? Hillary with a combover. I can’t think of a single policy position where I can expect Trump to be better than Hillary on anything.

When I ask others for reasons to support Trump I get variations on:
“Trump said…” (That’s nice.  But see above.  His word is worthless, self-admittedly so.  Doesn’t really matter what he says when you can’t believe a word of it.)
“But…Hillary’s bad.” (Yes.  Stipulated.  Hillary’s bad.  Hillary’s horrible.  But show me where, on policy and given something, anything, I can trust even a little bit, where Trump is better.”
“Trump can’t possibly be worse.” (Have you ever cracked open a history book?)
And my favorite: “There are solid reasons to support Trump but I’m not going to tell you for…reasons.” (Uh, whatever works for you, but that’s not exactly a compelling argument.”

At the moment, I’m probably going Libertarian, not because I expect it to help but because while we really do have “Hillary” vs. “Hillary with a spray tan” there is absolutely nothing to be gained by voting either of the main parties. Eventually it is my hope that either the GOP will break up and a new “major” party will emerge and I can get some difference even if only a little bit, or, it will get its head out of its collective rear and I can start working on the “get even a little net gain, then build on that to get a little more” that has worked so well for the opposition. Otherwise, well, I’ll be marking time to the final collapse of this Grand Experiment.

Couple of on-the-way things.

1) A lot of people in writing and other fields who are non-liberal are “in the closet” regarding their politics for fear that editors, directors, producers, whoever has power over them in the field will not work with them.  (See the reaction of a lot of “professionals” in the field to the recent Sad Puppies campaigns to learn the truth of that.  No the Puppies are not racist, misogynist, white supremacist, or even monolithic.  They’re just folk who want “story” to come before “message”.  Who think message is okay so long as its wrapped in an entertaining story, but that when it’s allowed to take the place of story you have a problem.) I, however, have always been “out” politically as a libertarian leaning conservative. I can never be otherwise. Entirely too forthright. So, I guess I’m at least one of your tripwires. Use it well.

2) Not giving up my guns. Not turning them in. No way. No how. If Hillary does manage to “get the NRA shut down” (First Amendment? What First Amendment?) and get handguns (among others, I’m sure) banned? Not gonna comply. Decision already made. Let the chips on that fall where they may.

Will we succeed or not in the end? Don’t know. Like to think we will but feeling very discouraged at the moment. Still doesn’t mean quitting. If it means going down fighting well, I’m good with that.

The Hordes of Chanakra, Snippet Four

The series starts here

 Late the next morning Kaila hid a smile as Kreg tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the way aches pulled at his body.  He had slept the night bunking on a pallet of folded blankets in the room she shared with Shillond.  He was still wearing the light cloak of a style favored by the desert nomads.  Knowing how the local people felt about the nomads, Kaila thought that Kreg would find the cloak a burden in more ways than one.

“‘Twere best if I did the bargaining,” She told Kreg. “Just watch and learn.”

“As you say,” he said.

Trevanta by day was a far different place from Trevanta by night.  Hawkers, selling from wagons, lined the streets, extolling the virtues of their various wares.  Crowds surged through the streets, passing in and out of various shops that claimed to sell a plethora of goods.  Wagons and carts bounced over the deeply rutted, muddy streets, splashing mud and slop on anyone too slow to get out of the way.  Hogs wandered freely, set loose to eat the garbage dumped into the streets.

On closer look, however, the wares hawked from wagons were spare indeed, with more space than goods on the racks.  The crowds too, were thin, only seeming thick in their frantic energy.

Shillond had been right.  The city was dying and only pretending to health.  Few of the ships, which had been the life-blood of Trevanta, docked here anymore.  Trevanta was yet one more casualty in the collapse of the Empire.  Had old King Cael been right, she wondered, to venture down the path of independence from Shend?  Much evil seemed to have sprung from it.  And yet….  She sighed.  Such matters were beyond her.

Sometime during the night the storm had spent its fury.  Now the sky was clear, with only an occasional wad of cloud to mar its deep blue.  Yet even after the cleansing rain, the city stank of waste, filth, and decay.  Kaila longed to be back in Norveth, the capital of Aerioch, with its cool breezes and streets not so choked in filth.

“First, a stout sword is needful,” Kaila said, turning back to Kreg. “When I did examine the briganti’s sword I found it too slender for serious combat.  A pretty toy, fit only for petty duels or for frightening townsmen.  We must obtain training swords as well for ‘twould please me not to carve you up in practice.”

“No,” Kreg said. “I don’t think I’d enjoy it much either.”

Kaila laughed and clouted him on the shoulder. “‘Tis but the truth, I warrant.”

Although she had masked her strike as a friendly clout, she tested Kreg as well.  Despite his height, his slim form bore little muscle.  Yet she had found that what muscle he had was hard and well toned, and his slim frame was stronger than it seemed.  Strength he would need, for she had seen that he had little of the skills that served a man well in the world.  Untutored he was and innocent as a babe.

But had not Shillond once said that knowing ones ignorance was the greatest wisdom?  If true, then she suspected that Kreg was wise indeed.  Although Kreg had strange humor several of her former squires could have learned much from Kreg’s willingness to listen and to assay.

“Ah, but what do I espy?” Kaila said after a moment. “If yon sign speaks sooth, we approach Trevanta’s master weaponsmith.”

“Then let us enter,” Kreg bowed, sweeping one arm to invite Kaila to precede him.  Kaila stepped through the shop’s doorway with a quick glance over her shoulder to see that Kreg followed her.

“Pay heed and act as I do,” She whispered over her shoulder.

She leaned forward to peer at the swords that dangled in racks along one of the walls.  A collection of spears, swords, and axes festooned the other wall but these Kaila ignored.  She slid one, the best of a poor lot, free from the rack and held it before her eyes. “These are truly poor blades,” she said. “It warrants me that these all are apprentice work.  Behold the looseness of the joining between blade and hilts.  Note the quality of the wire wrapping of the grip.  I find it appalling that such should be displayed for sale.” She handed the sword to Kreg.

“Oh, I agree,” Kreg said, although his voice sounded none too certain.  In this sword, wood peeked through gaps in the wire wrapping of the grip. “You only need to look at them to see.”

“May I be of service, Lord and Lady?” A man approached them.  The top of his head just came up to Kreg’s armpit.  The man bowed and waited, wiping his hands on his knee length, black, leather apron.  Muscle bulged under his tunic, his right arm thicker than his left. Dozens of small, puckered scars dotted his arms.  His proportions, his clothing, the scars, all cried out “Smith” to Kaila’s eyes.

Kaila ignored the man for some seconds, while Kreg shuffled his feet nervously.

“Mayhap,” Kaila said with a slight lifting of her shoulders, “if you have better than these to offer.” She waved at the rack of swords. “It may be that we can make do.”

“Certes, I have wares which may please such a fabulous warrior as you no doubt are.” The smith bowed. “You are obviously a person of much discernment to note that these blades are of inferior make.” He bowed again. “If you will be patient for the nonce–” Bow. “–I shall display for you the master’s own work.” Bow.

The master’s own work, Kaila thought, meaning his own work, no doubt.

“As you will.” Again, Kaila lifted her shoulders a bare finger width, then let them drop. “As I am here already, ’tis as well I see what you have, though it be little enough.  Bring these swords.”

“At once, Illustrious Madam.” The man bowed yet again and backed out through a door leading into the rear of the smithy, still bowing.

“Do always remember,” Kaila whispered to Kreg as the door swung shut on leather hinges. “A master will oft display goods of inferior make, apprentice work or his own failures, and then deal evilly with any possessing not the wit to know the difference.  But be wary.  As like for pieces of true merit to be concealed among the poor as a test of ones discernment.  Here, there are none such.”

“So that was all true?”

“Aye.  Save that yon smith was likely the master himself.”

He started to ask another question but Kaila raised a hand to warn him to silence.  The smith had returned.

“Do examine these, Madam,” the man said. “Mayhap you will find what you seek among them.”

“An’ they are better than those I have already seen, then mayhap.”

Kaila suppressed an inrush of air as she saw the swords on the counter.  One of the swords was a shashyn, a serpent, the great sword of Aerioch.  As quickly as excitement brushed her mind, she quashed it.  Poor copies of the Aeriochnon shashyn sometimes appeared in nations bordering Aerioch, toys for the local nobles to play with and pretend that they could match the Knights of Aerioch.  Yet without the secrets of its making, secrets closely guarded by swordsmiths in Aerioch, any foreign made shashyn could be scarce more than a plaything, fit for children to play at being knights.

Paying no particular attention to the shashyn, Kaila inspected the swords the smith laid on the counter.  She paid particular attention to the edges and the ricasso, the unbeveled area in front of the guards.  She held in turn several swords by the grip and swung them slowly in graceful arcs, using only her wrist and forearm, trying their balance.

In the end, she turned to the shashyn.  The blade and grip were the correct length.  When she set the point on the ground, the blade came up to her hip while the pommel just reached the height of her short ribs.  About a hand long for her but, she eyed Kreg critically, it should be perfect for Kreg’s longer frame.  The blade was also the correct width and thickness, with a wide, shallow groove that ran half the length of the blade.  The ricasso was short, the edges starting almost immediately in front of the guard.  And, how strange, there was no maker’s mark.

From the hilts, it tapered gracefully to the point.  The edge was not particularly well honed, but the basic shape was correct.  Some candles with a stone would correct the flaw.

The steel of the blade did not have the delicate serpentine patterns produced by whatever secret techniques went into the making of the true shashyn of Aerioch and Kaila was dubious that it would be both strong enough to stand in combat yet not so brittle as to shatter at the first blow.

She decided to test it anyway and placed the point of the sword against one of the stone tiles of the floor. She leaned her weight against the blade judging the amount of bow.  With a twist of her wrist, she let the point spring free of the stone and watched the blade snap back to straightness too fast for the eye to follow and leaving no residual curve to the blade.

She looked at the smith. “Pells?”

For answer the smith gestured at a door at the side of the shop that led to a small courtyard.  In the middle of that yard stood a wooden post.

Kaila approached the post then looked back at the smith.

“As the Lady pleases,” he said.

Kaila slid her right foot forward, leaving the sword trailing behind on the left, sloped down so that the tip hovered a few fingerwidths above the dirt.  She paused for a bare moment then struck, driving the sword with measured force into the pell.

Three more times she struck at different angles, striking with different parts of the blade.  For the final strike she closed with the pell and drove all her strength and weight behind the base of the blade, with the cross hilt just kissing the wood.

Wrenching the sword free from the wood she held it up and sighted along its length.  Still as straight as when she had begun.

Gods’ Iron, she thought.  The sword had to be made of Gods’ Iron.  It would suffice.

“Verily, there is little enough of value here,” Kaila said.  She walked back into the shop. “What ask you for this blade, though it is fit only to skin some farmer’s fat hogs?”

“Ah!” The smith beamed. “Trust Madam to select the best sword in the shop!  A true warrior’s sword!  Note the edge, keen enou’ to behead a krayt at one blow.  Note the balance.  Note the weight.  It is heavy enou’ to withstand the stoutest of broadswords, yet light enou’ to be swift on the attack and on the parry.  Surely such a blade will be a joy to use.”

“I note,” Kaila said, “that you say naught of the temper.  Will the edge hold true or will it be blunted at the first strike?  Still, for the nonce, it will suffice.” She shrugged. “What ask you?”

“Why, madam.” The smith bowed. “Such a fine sword could not possibly be sold for less than the price of twenty-five rabeni.”

“Twenty-five rabeni?  For this tin billet?” Kaila dropped the sword, shaking her hand as if the sword had burned her. “I will give you ten.”

“Ten!” The smith shrieked.  He grabbed his dull brown hair as though to pull it out by the roots. “Were I to part with the swordsmith’s pride for so paltry a sum, he would have me flayed alive then boiled in oil.  And then he would have my flayed hide made into scabbards!  I will sell to you for twenty-three.”

Kaila frowned and sighed. “‘Tis theft at half the price.  Nevertheless, I will pay thirteen.”

“For that sum–” The smith shook his head. “–I would avoid only being made into scabbards.  Still, in honor of your companion who stands looking on and is so bold as to wear the garb of desert raiders–” He frowned. “–I will sell for twenty.”

“Fifteen,” Kaila said.

“Eighteen,” the man said, “and not a ve’ib less.”

Kaila shook her head. “‘Tis robbery, but eighteen if you will also supply two whalebone training swords, balanced and weighted thus–” She held up the shashyn. “–in trade for my companion’s rapier.”

“Although of a surety the smith will punish me,” the smith said, “I will do as you bid.”

He stalked into the back of the shop, grumbling, and returned with the training swords.

Other stories set in this world: 

The Hordes of Chanakra, Snippet Three

The series starts here

Smoke hung heavily in the crowded room.  In one corner, men threw knives at a target stuffed with straw.  A shout rose in another corner as a rotund man won an arm wrestling match against a somewhat slighter opponent.  The loser groaned and money changed hands as the winners of bets collected.  Beside the large fireplace a minstrel wailed a ballad, badly off-key.  About half the patrons of the tavern wore rain-soaked clothes and water ran in tiny rivulets down their faces.  The sound of the rain was more muted here than in the rooms above.

Kaila led Kreg and Shillond to the only unoccupied table in the room.  The crowd swirled around them but always left a gap before them, more, Kreg suspected, in deference to the way Kreg and Kaila towered over them than from any notion of courtesy.

“These places always like this?” Kreg sidestepped a stumbling drunk and sat.

“Aye.” Kaila said then looked over her shoulder. “‘Twould please me mightily an’ yon bard be silent.  I am near of a mind to clout him aside the head an’ he continue.”

Shillond sighed as he sat. “The people carouse, I think, to forget that their city is dying.”

A barmaid dodged a groping hand and arrived at their table. “May I help you, Lords and Lady?”

“Roast venison and a tankard of ale!” Kaila slapped her palm on the table, causing its legs to bounce off the floor.

“Whatever is by the board and a flask of wine,” Shillond said.

“Aye, Lord.” She turned to Kreg. “And you, my lord?”

“Uh.” Kreg hesitated for a moment, uncertain what to say, and then decided to follow Kaila’s lead in choice of food. He did not know what Shillond’s “by the board” meant. “Roast venison, I guess.  Uh, what do you have to drink?”

He looked at his companions for assistance.  Kaila bit back a laugh.  Shillond raised his eyebrows, the twinkle in his eyes brightening, but he offered no advice.

“Why, sir.” The barmaid sounded as confused as Kreg felt. “We are as well stocked as any tavern in the city.”

Kreg groaned.  He sighed and tried again. “I am a stranger here.  Could you be more specific?”

The barmaid’s face lit with understanding. “Oh?  Does the Lord wish companionship?  For three rabeni, and one for the innkeep, I could….”

Kreg raised his hands in warding. “No, no.  That’s fine.”

Kaila could no longer restrain her laughter although she tried.  Tears rolled down her cheeks as she half-choked with the effort.

“Well, my Lord.” The barmaid frowned for a moment. “I am sure you would find me more pleasant than this boy thing.” A flip of her hand dismissed Kaila. “Send her, it, on its way and let me be your companion instead.”

Kaila’s laughter vanished.

Shillond broke in. “My friend will have wine.”

A fresh look of understanding crossed the barmaid’s face. “Oh?  Is that the way of it?  My pardon, Lord, if I intruded.  I shall see to your food and drinks.”

As the barmaid scurried away, Kaila started to rise.  Shillond laid the tip of a finger on the back of one of her hands. “Kaila, no.”

Kaila sighed and sat. “Aye, father. She is what this foul city has made her.  The insult from such a one is not worth the back of my hand, let alone the staining of my blade.”

Kreg looked from Kaila to Shillond then back again.  Something had happened that he had missed. “How much did I just spend?” he asked to change the subject.

“About a raben,” Kaila said.

“Which is?”

“The pouch from the briganti?” Kaila held out her hand.

“Yes.” He produced the item and handed it to her.

“This–” She held up a silver coin about the size of the dimes he knew, “–be a raben.” She shorted. “Yon wench’s price was high.  She asked for rabeni where ve’ib would suffice.  One raben be equal to five less than a score of copper ve’ib and eight rabeni be equal to a gold norben.  Understand you this?”
Kreg considered for a moment.

“Fifteen ve’ib to the raben.  Eight rabeni to the norben.” He nodded. “Got it but….”

Shillond leaned forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. “I think you had best remain with us until you learn how to fend for yourself.”

Kreg agreed wholeheartedly, more than happy to remain with anyone who could help him learn his way around.  With every passing moment, he regretted more leaving the nomads.  Would living the rest of his life as a desert nomad have been so bad?

“We will remain in Trevanta just a few more days before we return to Aerioch.” Shillond’s face took on a thoughtful expression for a moment. “I have a feeling there is more to you than anyone may guess.  You have an aura that….” He shook his head. ”Well, no matter.  We will discuss this later.  We have more immediate concerns.”

“Aye,” Kaila said. “‘Tis needful to instruct you in some manner of weapon’s work. Your skill unarmed was good enough against unskilled bravos such as the briganti.  Nor like I the sword you took.  Such a light weapon would be all but useless against a good broadsword, or a mace, or an axe, or….

“I’m sure he understands, Kaila.” With a sigh, Shillond waved her to silence. “You may go tomorrow to buy a good weapon and I can leave his training in that to your capable hands.”

Shillond looked at Kreg then cast his eyes upward.  Kreg was beginning to get the picture.  Kaila seemed to think that a strong sword arm was the answer to any problem.  She reminded him of Billy, the man who watched the shop where Kreg had worked–good-natured, but blunt.  Billy had seemed to think that the answer to most problems was to pound on them until they stopped being problems and Kreg suspected that Kaila felt much the same way.

“Look,” he said. “Teaching me to fight is all well and good, but there is more to living than that.  You saw how helpless I was in so simple an act as ordering a meal.” He scowled at Kaila, attempting to look fierce, but Kaila’s impish grin told him that he had not succeeded. “Things you learned as children, I have never experienced.  For instance, if magic works here–and thanks to your demonstration, Shillond, I have to accept that it does–well, it doesn’t back home.”

“Absurd!” Kaila burst out. “Such things are of minor consequence.  A good sword arm will see you through all matters of import.”

Shillond pretended that she had not spoken. “Perhaps we should see about finding a way to return you to your own world as quick as may be.  Your background may cause you problems here.”

Kreg shook his head. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin,” he said. “Would you?”

Shillond sighed and shook his head.

Kreg sighed. “Then I guess I’m stuck here…for a while anyway.”
“Our food comes,” Kaila said.

Other stories set in this world: 

The Hordes of Chanakra, Snippet Two

The series starts here

 Kaila watched her newfound companion from beneath lowered lids as they walked.  He was an odd one.  His name, Kreg, what kind of name was that for a man, just a single, harsh syllable.  The barbarian hordes of the Anor and Selb had such names, but no one else.  Yet he could not be one of their ilk as they were short of stature and dark of skin.  The tallest of them would be able to walk without stooping, without even bowing his head, beneath Kreg’s outstretched arm.

He had courage enough, certainly.  That he could face three briganti while armed only with a staff ‘gainst their swords, and even toss the staff away to face them unarmed, told her that.  That he could do so in the depths of exhaustion told her that he had more than mere courage, but possessed the strength of will that oft’ marked true heroism and nobility.  Indeed, she could only name three of the Knights of Aerioch who would do so under such conditions for anyone other than the noble born.

As they walked, he seemed to shrink into himself.  Kaila knew what he was feeling.  When the battle-rush fades, it leaves one more tired than before.

A movement drew her attention for a moment, as someone retreated before them into deeper shadow.  A robber, as she supposed, unwilling to try her sword.  In the dimness she caught the hint of a face, the gleam of eyes.  Those eyes gazed, for a moment, on Kreg, then flicked her way just before the robber slipped yet further into the shadow and into invisibility.  Or not a robber.  That gaze directed at Kreg….

Did Kreg have some enemy dissuaded by his coming under her care?  She did not know.  Such thoughts were too deep for her.  Later, when she could speak to Shillond alone, she would ask him.

At her side, Kreg walked on, seeming not to have noticed.  This brought a frown to her face and she stopped. “Kreg.”

He froze.

“If you must be about at night, it would be well if you blundered not about like a blind pig.”

“I don’t understand,” Kreg said.

Kaila pointed at a shadowed doorway. “Not a dozen heartbeats past, someone stood within the shadows yon.  Whether man or woman, I know not, but surely meaning no good at this hour.  The one within skulked away as we approached.”

“I didn’t see,” Kreg said.

“Aye.  You did not see.  This time the skulker in shadows quailed from facing us, but what of the next?  If one were to strike at you, an’ you not be aware to defend yourself, you could be slain before I could come to your aid.”

“I…see.” Kreg’s expression became distant for a few heartbeats.  Kaila surmised that he was pondering his fortune that no one had waylaid him before she had taken him in hand.

“Be cautious,” Kaila said, “and ‘ware of such things.”

Kreg nodded slowly.

“Come,” she said and shook her head.  Stout heart Kreg may have, but he had no more wit than a babe in this town.

The inn where she and her father, Shillond, abode was not far.  This was fortunate, as the skies would soon unleash their pent fury.  And while storms were few, and short, here on the verge of the desert, they were all the more fierce for their shortness, as though all the fury of northern storms squeezed into one or two candles of time.  Kaila led Kreg to the back entrance of the inn, avoiding the crowds in the common room.  As they entered the building the first drops of rain fell.

Kaila climbed the stairs followed by Kreg to a room in the upper floor of the building where she knocked on the door. “Shillond?  It is I, Kaila.  I have returned.”

#

After Kreg had followed Kaila to the inn and she had knocked on the door to announce their presence, she opened the door.  A fringe of gray hair framed the bald pate of the short and stout man who stood on the other side of the doorway.  The lines of his face told Kreg a story of frequent laughter and his eyes held the hint of a twinkle that Kreg suspected was a permanent fixture.  Those eyes were the green of new-mown grass.  One look at this man’s face made Kreg want to trust him.

“Kaila!  Come in.  Come in.  Who’s your friend?”

“This is Kreg,” she said. “He braved three briganti with that staff of his.  Killed one, the other two fled.  The fight was over ‘ere I could intervene.”

“Which upset you, I’m sure,” Shillond said.

Kaila shrugged. “He has an interesting story, I daresay.  I have heard enough to know it is beyond me.”

“Really?  Shillond shook his head. “Child, whatever am I going to do with you?  You are always taking in strays.” He smiled.

Before Kreg could even begin to feel uncomfortable about the banter over him, Shillond smiled at him and said, “Don’t mind me.  We have this argument quite often.  Last week it was an injured sparrow; the week before, an orphaned fawn; Kaila has difficulty realizing that she cannot save the entire world from hurt and harm.” He cast a sidelong glance at his daughter.

“And if I cannot defend all the weak and helpless of the world,” Kaila said, “Is that not all the more reason to defend and aid those who do come under my hand?”

Weak and helpless, Kreg thought.  That means me.

Shillond grinned and turned his attention back to Kreg. “But we forget our manners.  Sit.  We have neither food nor drink to hand or I would offer….”

“I understand.” Kreg stepped through the door to find himself in a small room of rough-hewn wood, the kind that made him wary of splinters.  Several three-legged wooden stools stood scattered about the room but their rickety construction appeared hardly likely to support his weight.  Gingerly, he lowered himself onto one.  It creaked, but held.  Wind-driven rain sheeted against the wood tiles above them making him glad that he was inside.

“So you have a story?” Shillond sat on another stool with far more confidence.  Kaila sat on the bed, tucking her legs under her.

“Of sorts.” Kreg pursed his lips and thought for a moment.  Not knowing where to start, he decided to start at what he thought was the beginning. “I suppose it begins at home, in my land, I mean.  I was walking home from my–” He realized that the language he had somehow learned had no word for his job. “–call it a shop, I guess.  As I passed an alley I saw a mugging well on its way to becoming rape.” He frowned at the memory and anger rose fresh in his mind.  The man had ripped the woman’s blouse half off and had been fumbling at her bra.  If there was one thing he hated more than a bully it was a rapist, the ultimate bully. “I had to stop it.”

“So you engaged the villain with your staff?” Kaila said. “What man of honor could do less?” The fury on her own face told Kreg all he needed to know of Kaila’s feelings about rape, feelings which apparently mirrored his own.

“Kaila, hush,” Shillond said. “Let the man finish.”

After a nod of acknowledgment to Shillond, Kreg said to Kaila, “Not quite.  You see, we don’t generally carry weapons in my country.” He waved off the shocked look on their faces. “I know you think that absurd but it’s the truth.  I am somewhat skilled in a form of unarmed combat.  We call it…” Kreg hesitated.  The name he knew it by would mean nothing to these people, so he translated. “We call it The Way of Yielding.  It’s a sport mainly, practiced for exercise and entertainment, but useful at times.” He laughed. “What I didn’t realize what that the filth had a friend.  Somebody hit me from behind.”

He shivered at the memory. “This is where it starts to get weird.  As I fell, I felt a…wrenching, as if I were being turned inside out, but strangely not an unpleasant sensation at all.  My head hit something hard and I don’t remember anything else for a while.  When I woke, I lay, naked, in the desert with a lump growing on the back of my head the size of an ostrich egg.  I’d already gotten a bad sunburn.”

“Os-trich?” Shillond asked.

“Shillond, hush,” Kaila said. “Let the man finish.”

A faint smile caressed Kreg’s lips at the by-play. “A tribe of nomads found me.  It seems their customs required them to feed and clothe anyone they found in such need.  I had awakened near a water hole, but I had no protection from the sun.  The sunburn was so bad when they found me that I was sick for days.

“I thought I was going to die.  But they were patient and gentle with me.  They smeared some kind of paste on my skin and lay wet cloths over me to ease the pain of the burns.  They made me drink water with salt and some kind of berry juice in it.  That helped the sickness.  After a few days, I felt like living again.

“Another few days later I was able to do their chief a good turn and gained a little more open welcome among them, although they never did figure out quite what to do with me.  After about two weeks, the shaman told me something about smoke and needing to find my way among the people of iron and stone.  I left the nomads and made my way to Trevanta.  Here I found those three men attacking another and the rest you know.”

And what a terrifying decision leaving the nomads had been.  He could have remained with the nomads, lived with them, perhaps even married one of their women.  That would have been safe, but something he could not explain had told him that the shaman had been right and he had to leave.

“Interesting,” Shillond said. “You speak Shendi well for a mere two weeks in this region, or do you come from some lost colony of the Empire of Shend?”

“That’s part of what makes this so strange,” Kreg said. “This isn’t any language I’ve heard before, yet I could speak it from the moment I first met the nomads.” He shook his head.

“I don’t understand any of this.  Simplest explanation is that I’m lying in that alley with a fractured skull and you are all the hallucinations of a dying man.” He waved a hand, as if to dismiss the thought.

“I have some knowledge of foreign lands,” Shillond said. “Perhaps if you described your land and its neighbors, I may be able to recognize them even if I don’t know the name.”

Kreg shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh?” Shillond asked.

Kreg laughed. “No, and I doubt you’ll believe the reason why not.”

“You can only try.” Shillond said.

“All right.” Kreg shrugged. “Where I come from we’ve explored the whole of the world and there is nothing like Trevanta anywhere.  And where I come from, there’s only one moon.  So I must be on some other world, either that or I am lying in that alley.”

“Travel between worlds?” Shillond stood up and began to pace.  A few seconds later, he stopped. “It is possible, I suppose, but I know of no one who has ever done so.”

“Jandak, Father,” Kaila said, “He crossed the great void before the world was.”

“Yes, Kaila,” Shillond said, “And spoke to the God of another world and brought back the plan by which the world was made.  I know.  But Jandak is one of the three First Gods.  No mortal has ever done so and I know of no wizards of sufficient power to make the attempt.  I do not have such power.”

“Wait a minute.” Kreg stood up. “Gods?  Wizards?” Shillond had sounded so intelligent, so rational, that Kreg had not considered that he could believe in magic.  And yet, did Kreg have any better explanation for how he had come here?

“Of course,” Shillond said, clearly puzzled by Kreg’s question. He turned his right hand, face up, and a ball of light appeared in the palm. “I know a thing or two about magic.”

Kreg’s world spun about him once more.  He had seen magic tricks before but no one had ever done anything like that.  The light was not fire, nor was it a glowing object.  It was simply light, a ball of blue light.

“I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” he murmured.

He fought down an urge to babble.  Magic.  There really was magic here.  Either everything he knew about reality was wrong or he was not just on a different world but in a different reality.

Shillond stared into Kreg’s eyes for a moment, his gaze forming a bastion to which Kreg clung while his world reoriented itself.

“It is late,” Shillond said. “Might I suggest that a meal and drinks would be in order?”

“Aye,” Kaila said. “Roast venison would suit me well, if they have it in this place.”

Kreg had almost forgotten that he was hungry but Shillond’s suggestion made his stomach rumble.  He nodded and licked his lips.

“The fare in the common room,” Shillond said, “although not up to the standards of Aerioch, shall suffice I think.  And we will not have to brave the storm.” He opened the door and motioned the two others to precede him. “Shall we go?”

Other stories set in this world: 

The Hordes of Channakra: Snippet One

The sun had sunk below the distant peaks before Kreg reached the walled city, the like of which Kreg had never seen before. Mail-clad armsmen, wielding spears and short swords, stood guard atop the gray stone walls. Walls.  Around a city.  And men armed with swords and spears.  That was something he had only read about, something that only happened in the distant past, not in the present, not in the world Kreg knew.

In the distance, the last rays of the setting sun blooded tendrils of clouds stretching as diaphanous claws from the wall looming in the east. Those bloody claws reaching from the blackening hand gave warning of an approaching storm.

Kreg leaned on his staff and rubbed at his neck. Healing blisters still itched, legacy of the sunburn that had almost killed him after he found himself naked and alone in the desert. The waterskin slung over his shoulder, long since drained, slapped empty against his side.  The rutted track stretched behind him a dozen miles to where he had said his goodbyes to the nomads. His shoulders rose and fell in time with his deep, ragged breaths.

“The smoke does not command,” the shaman had said that morning. “It only gives counsel. And the counsel is that your path lies among others, among those of steel and stone. This is the Gods’ word, as told by the smoke. You will always be welcome in Three Mountain’s Clan, but it is to others you must go and this is the time to leave.”

Two weeks in this strange world and Kreg had to leave the only friends he had come to know.

“Halt and state your business,” said one of the mail-clad men from the top of the wall at Kreg’s approach.  The language was the same as what Kreg had somehow known when he first met the desert nomads although the dialect was different.

“I seek food and lodging.”  Kreg leaned against the staff, like his clothing a gift from the nomads.

“What brings you to Trevanta?”

“I am a traveler.” Kreg suppressed a hysterical laugh as he thought of just how far he had traveled, farther than the guard could possibly imagine. “I . . . was told I needed to be here.”

“A damn nomad.” The voice held more than a hint of disgust. “Off with yo–“ A softer voice interrupted the first speaker. Kreg only understood a few of the words of the second speaker.  Something about coin?  “He might have some coin?”

“As you say,” the first voice said, then louder, “Alone you are no doubt as harmless as you are worthless, nomad.  Enter and be done.”

The portcullis creaked upward.  Kreg shuddered. The spikes reaching downward from the bottom of the gate and the shadows beyond it made the opening look like a giant mouth preparing to swallow him whole. The gray wood doors behind the gate blew a blast of fetid air over him as they creaked open.

He swallowed once and forced the apprehension to the back of his mind as he limped through the gateway.

Rutted dirt streets, led in all directions.  The buildings blocked most of the light of the setting sun and the smaller of the twin moons leaving the city’s depths shrouded in gloom.  Trampled piles of animal dung littered the streets.  Since no street differed from any another that Kreg could see, he set off down the road that led straight ahead, into the city’s interior.

Kreg remembered the first time he had seen that second moon.  He had known then that he had not just appeared in some distant land, but on a whole other world.  Once more he fought down the panic that arose at that thought.  Another world, a world of two moons, dropped among people who wandered with their herds from well to well to well in the desert, then to a city guarded by stone walls and mail-clad men armed with spears and swords.  Had anyone ever been so lost before?

He hobbled through the soot-black shadows, his pace slow as the strap of his right sandal stung where it had rubbed his ankle raw.  He clung to his staff, leaning his weight onto it every time his right foot touched ground.  He had long since given up on trying to adjust that strap for comfort.  At one step something squished underfoot, releasing a noxious odor to assault his nose.

At the next intersection, Kreg peered down all four streets.  The narrow streets and the heavy clouds, which had rolled in with the setting of the sun, conspired to prevent him from seeing more than a few yards.  He gnawed at his lower lip as he considered.  The nomads had given him a few coins but he did not know how long they would have to last.  He doubted he would find anything like the welfare departments and homeless shelters of his own world.  The best he could hope for was a church that gave aid to the poor.  Yet he did not even know what religions exited, let alone which might have a tradition of charity. He did not even know what a church or temple might look like.  None of what he remembered from the stacks of history books he read helped him now, not even the time he had spent with the middle ages reenactment group gave any guidance.

He would have thought this a dream, created from the stories he had read, had it not continued so long.

Stumbling around the city at random seemed a hopeless task yet he did not know what else to do.

“Oh, God,” he whispered as once again despair and panic rose up within him. “What am I going to do?”

A moment later he shook his head and pushed the feeling down, where it lay like a block of ice in his belly.  He began walking once more.

A door opened ahead of him, releasing a pair of short, burly men into the street.  Through the open doorway Kreg saw men sitting around tables, drinking from enormous flagons before the door closed again.

An appetizing smell wafted past Kreg’s nose, driving away even the stink of the street, a smell of meat and broth and of fresh bread baking.  Hunger drove even his despair away.  He had not eaten since that morning.  For a moment Kreg considered entering and parting with some of his sparse funds in exchange for a meal.  He extended his hand toward the door then caught himself.  He could survive a night without food, but he might not survive a night without shelter if the storm clouds rolling in were any indication.  And meals in a tavern would be expensive at a time when he would have to make his few coins last.  He would be wiser to wait until day and find someplace where he could buy cheap food.  With a regretful glance over his shoulder, he walked away from the tavern.

After some time Kreg stopped.  Two lanterns, set on the ground, illuminated the scene before him.  Two men dressed in embroidered waistcoats over short-sleeved tunics and knee-length breeches held an old man wearing tattered robes by his shoulders, pressed against a wall.  A third waistcoated man drew back a fist in preparation for striking the old man.  Blood ran from the old man’s nose and smeared his upper lip.  More blood marked the old man’s lower lip and chin.

Kreg considered turning and leaving.  This was not his affair and he had troubles enough of his own.  But another look, at the blood trickling from the old man’s mouth and nose, quickly quelled any such notion.  Anger rose within him as his hands tightened on the staff and his lips pulled tight and thin.

Kreg rapped the tip of his staff against the boards of the walk.  “Don’t you think that’s enough?” Kreg asked, anger driving all traces of exhaustion from Kreg’s voice.

The men whirled to face him, releasing the old man, who slumped against the wall but remained upright.

“I’ll say when it’s enough,” said the man who had been doing the beating. “And I say it’s just begun.” He drew a long thin sword. “Begone, you.”

Typical bullies, Kreg thought, keeping what passes for brains in their muscles, and bone and muscle where their brains should be.  These were the same kind who had tormented him throughout his childhood until his parents had found a teacher for him and he had soon needed to fear bullies no more.

Kreg straightened his shoulders and looked down to meet the man’s eyes.  Drawn to his full height, he stood a full head taller than any of these men.  He held his staff in his left hand, one end planted on the ground, the shaft tilted forward and to the side.  Kreg’s right hand, under the cover of his cloak, gripped the cloak pin.

He drew a deep breath and blew it out slowly, then rolled his shoulders and curled his back, first to one side then the other.  With luck, the quick stretch would leave the men thinking Kreg were preparing some secret attack.  Whatever the men thought, the exercise served its primary purpose.  When Kreg spoke, his voice held no hint of either fatigue or fear, and most of his anger was under control. “Put that toy away.”

Raising his voice in a shrill shriek the man charged.  His sword snapped outward, the point driving at Kreg’s belly.

Kreg dropped his staff.  His right hand pulled his cloak pin free as his left hand came up to his collar.  He whirled the cloak from around his shoulders and around, tangling, for an instant, the other man’s sword and driving it aside.  In the instant that the other man’s sword was deflected Kreg stepped forward.  He released the hold on his cloak and grasped the other’s right sleeve with his left hand.  He stepped in further, pulling hard on the man’s arm, keeping him off balance while he grabbed the back of the man’s neck with his right hand.  He continued to turn, fitting his hips into the socket where the man’s upper body bent forward.  His right leg swept up, driving hard against the inside of the other’s left thigh.  Kreg swept his right leg up higher and pushed hard with his right hand, driving the man headfirst to the ground.  There was a soft crack then the man convulsed once and lay still.

Kreg stared at the body at his feet.  A stone.  His head must have hit a stone.  Bile rose in his throat and he swallowed furiously, fighting down an urge to vomit.

“All right,” Kreg’s voice sounded a little shaky, even to himself as he turned to face the other two men again. He managed to cover uncertainty with volume. “Who’s next?”

The two remaining men responded by backing away, their swords held at low guard.  In the gleam of the lantern light, Kreg could see their eyes darting from one side to the other.

“If that’s the case,” Kreg stooped to retrieve his staff and lifted it overhead, one end pointing at the nearer of the two men, the other slanting up and back, “get!” Kreg hoped that the pose would make him look larger than he was.

The men turned and ran.  Kreg sighed and let his arms drop loosely, still holding the staff.  His whole body shook.

“Oh, wondrous well done!” The voice came from close behind Kreg.
With a yelp, Kreg pivoted to face the direction from which the voice had come.

The voice belonged to a woman in her early twenties, about Kreg’s own age.  She was tall, nearly matching Kreg’s six feet, and towering over anyone Kreg had yet met on this world.  A tunic of chain mail covered her to mid thigh and down each arm to her wrist.  A massive sword hung down her back.  Leather boots encased her legs, their tops disappearing under the hem of her mail tunic.

“Kaila,” she said. “Knight in the service of King Marek Caelverrem.  And you?”

“I am Kreg,” he said. “I am a stranger in these parts, a traveler.”

“One of the desert nomads?” Kaila asked.

“No,” Kreg said, “Though I stayed with them for a time.”

They regarded each other for a few seconds, Kaila’s eyes, a gray that was almost silver meeting Kreg’s blue eyes.

“But we’re forgetting someone,” Kreg said.  He turned to look for the old man but found that he had already gone.  A moment later, Kreg saw the old man down the street, stooping from time to time to pick up something from the street and put it into a large bag.

“Have you never been to Trevanta before?” Kaila asked as she stooped to examine the dead swordsman, tugging at the body’s legs to pull it to its full length. “No,” she said before Kreg could respond. “I perceive not.  Still, few have I seen in this city given to much honor.  None, it is certain, who would have come to the aid of that one–” She jerked her head in the direction the old man had gone. “–saving perhaps me or my father.  As I saw you before you met those Briganti, you seemed to be wandering without purpose.  Have you no place to go?” She looked up at him.

Kreg sighed. “No, not really.”

“As I thought,” Kaila said. She removed something from the swordsman’s belt and flipped the body onto its back.  She then rubbed her upper lip for a moment and before continuing. “Come.  I will introduce you to my father, Shillond.  From him you will receive wise counsel.”

“Fair enough,” Kreg said.  Although he felt uncertain about following a stranger into the unknown, he could not suppress a surge of relief.  He could use advice from someone, anyone, who knew about this world, and no nonsense about smoke.

Kaila rose smoothly to her feet.  In her right hand she held a small leather pouch which she opened and inspected its contents. “Three norbeni, half a dozen rabeni, and a few ve’ib.  A good catch from such a one.”

She tossed the pouch to Kreg who caught it by reflex. “Law of this city.  A villain, slain in pursuit of villainy.  What was his, is now yours.”

Kreg stood looking at the pouch in his hand. “Brutal law.”
Kaila cocked her head to one side and stared at him for a moment. Her shoulders rose a bare fraction of an inch, and then dropped. “This city is scarce lifted from barbarism, it is true.”

“I see.” Kreg sighed. “Shall we go?”

“‘Twould be the course of wisdom to take yon briganti’s sword as well.” Kaila pointed at the weapon. “You have shown a skill remarkable without arms but such would serve you naught ‘gainst one more skilled than this briganti.”

Kreg laughed. “I’d be more likely to slice off my own head if I tried to use a sword.”

“You are unskilled in the sword?” Kaila looked Kreg up and down. “And yet, you would be so foolish as to be abroad after nightfall in a city unknown.”

If Kreg’s being out after nightfall was foolish than Kaila was as much fool as he.  He decided it would be wiser not to say so. “I . . . didn’t have a choice.”

Kaila regarded him for a moment. “I am a stranger in this city, but I think you are more so.  Whence come you?”

This was a hard question to answer in a way she would understand so he did not try. “I am from Earth,” he said. “Ever hear of it?”

“It must be far indeed,” Kaila said. “I am familiar with all the lands hereabouts and never have I heard the name, nor seen it writ on any map. ‘Tis not of the eight known kingdoms.  Still, whatever the customs of your land you would be wise to take the sword and learn its use.”

With an exasperated sigh, Kreg removed the sword belt from the corpse, struggling for a moment with the body’s weight.  He could at least humor her.  Besides, she could be right.  She knew local conditions far better than he did.  Primitive societies could be, often were, quite violent, with an unarmed man seen as fair game by anyone who wished to practice a little robbery, or a little assault as he had just witnessed.

He had, after all, just wished for advice and it would be foolish to spurn the offered advice.

He sheathed the sword and buckled the belt around his waist.  He then stooped again to retrieve his cloak and fastened the pin under this throat. “Now, Shall we go?”

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