Els looked up and then up some more, "This isn't a country! It's a mountain range cleverly disguised as a forest."
The little dwarf guiding their horses turned his head slightly--the gesture politely acknowledged Els's words. The dwarf did not speak, which made learning his body language pivotal to their conversations.
"I did not expect to be sent to Mai as my first service to the Goddess." In her bed at Gallis, Els held on to the hope of a punitive expedition into Hokubu for the Massacres. Most of her family did not make it to the Sea Elf ships; thinking about her elf sisters being raped and killed brought rage too close to the surface. She took a deep breath before continuing, "I suppose it makes sense. Hokubu is out of the question or I'd kill a noble here and there, or maybe a hundred of them. How many Hokubu nobles are there anyway? Shin would be no better with the Empress letting Hokubu wormlings slither around like they did not try to exterminate two of the Created races within their borders."
The dwarf stopped and frowned at a signpost. He nudged his claw-pony close enough to kick the post over.
"What did you do that for?" His claw-pony sniffed the ground and followed the scent to a bush. Someone had tossed another signpost behind the bush. "Is that because of us? Is someone hoping we'll get lost? Or trying to misdirect us?"
She got a new gesture. After some thought, she replied, "You're right. Nobody knows we're coming and if they did, they'd know you don't need signs."
The Seven Nations of Guo existed in a state of war; but with dwarves, elves, humans, and dragons co-habiting Mai, full military expeditions into the country were rare. The forest-covered mountains heavily favored elves and dwarves in battle. The human clans had lived in the mountains before anyone uttered the words Guo or Mai and combined the best of elf and dwarf tactics against invaders. Sanity precluded attacking dragons.
"Probably Yun slavers!" The pony's claws extended, clenched, and retracted. Her dwarf guide did not carry any weapons; but claws, horns, razor-sharp teeth, and a perpetual bad mood would make any rider the odds-on favorite in a fight. If it weren't for the dwarf desert tribes to the west of Guo, the pony would still be called a wolf-cat.
"Maybe we could find them." She sighed at his shrug; hunting down Yun slavers was not on the way to their destination. The dwarf seemed to know where she needed to be, which was more than Els could say. The Twins put her on a Sea Elf ship with only a cryptic mention of someone waiting for her. Out on the open ocean, Els realized it was done for her benefit. In her twenty years of training, she grew attached to the town of Gallis, more so than other Steel after years of captivity in Hokubu.
"I shouldn't say I did not expect to be sent to Mai. It actually never crossed my mind," Els explained as they returned to the trail. "Minami doesn't need Swords so recently put into the Goddess's hand. The Dragon Prince is more of an emperor in Minami than the Empress is anywhere in Shin."
The dwarf grabbed a water skin off their packhorse. He handed it to Els and stared at her until she drank. He took a drink when she handed it back before carefully putting the skin in its proper place. The dwarf liked things in their proper place, which meant they rarely got an early start.
"I considered the desert tribes; it would have meant crossing Guo. Or maybe across the ocean to serve in the Forest Nations." The few people Els befriended at Gallis would have found her chattiness odd. Something about the little dwarf's silence made her want to fill it.
"Wouldn't traveling through Chun been easier?" Els tried another surprise question to see if he would let something slip about their destination. Like every other time, her dwarf failed to take the bait.
She narrowed her eyes at his back. A head shorter than any dwarf Els ever met, the width of his shoulders, thighs, and arms would have been impressive on a dwarf a head taller than normal. Elves studying Weaving were less reticent than her little guide, and for a dwarf to be anything short of gregarious did not bode well for his past. Like possibly having multiple younger and older dwarf sisters!
"We could have sailed down the Chun shoreline and come up from the south," she said, feeding him more line. Mai and Chun ran parallel, with Chun hugging the ocean. The countries had a peaceful relationship relative to normal affairs between the Seven Nations. Mai's mountain presence secured Chun from attack, except from the ocean and the Chun/Yun border to the south. The price of Chun's security was ignoring one of the most precious jewels in Guo, Mai's single port town.
Els shrugged and looked around at the mountains again. She hoped they would get to wherever they were going soon, "A town wouldn't be bad either."
Since leaving the port, they stopped at two villages to pick up supplies. They encountered other travelers of mixed race parties, but her guide did not accept or offer any invitations to talk over a fire and some dwarf ale.
Els asked more direct questions about their destination when she first stepped off the Sea Elf Ship. Having arrived in the middle of the night on a ship with no other passengers, the dwarf at the docks had to be waiting for her. He ignored her curiosity and pointed at the horse he brought along. The pristine white mare was an elf steed with desert horse in her lineage. He should gotten her something cross-bred to a mountain goat!
The boredom of the sea voyage made Els glad to be on their way immediately, even if it left many questions unanswered. Who was he? Where were they going? Was that really a claw pony? By the time, she thought to interrogate him they'd silently agreed she would do all the talking.
Thankfully, the dwarf did not intend climbing any mountains to get to their destination faster. Els grew up near the Hokubu Mountains but those were little sisters to these giants. The dwarf wound their caravan through roads and beaten paths around the mountains.
"You're not from Mai," Els declared. "The way you know the roads, I thought you might be. I also considered the desert tribes, but the only tribesmen who leave are Swords and they always return to serve the Goddess among their people."
The female scream cut Els off. Drawing her swords, she leapt from the mare and oriented on the sound before running towards it. The claw-pony overtook her quickly but without its rider. Els nodded--the dwarf didn't have to know how to fight, a claw-pony and a quick release saddle took care of most things that might trouble travelers. Another scream greeted Els as she turned the corner into a clearing. A woman in a white dress stood on a massive rock. Seven men surrounded her, approaching carefully so as not to damage their prize. Yun slavers! Other men lay dead or dying around them.
The woman smiled as Els ran into the clearing, "A Sword of Gallis!"
Men who made their living from the suffering of others dared not ignore those words. There was no chance against a Sword except to attack as a group or run in as many different directions as they could. The men turned around and charged Els. The claw-pony gored a slaver; momentum drove the pony past the charging group as it eviscerated its victim.
Els was not the type of fighter to stand and blunt a charge. She picked up her pace, upping the ante by charging the slavers. Some hesitated at her action, creating the opening she needed. The tip of her sword struck the shield of a slaver, breaking his stride. She thrust the other sword into his neck. Spinning away from him freed the blade. A slaver was behind her, but she was in a pocket with four slavers in a semi-circle to her front.
Double-edged elvin steel composed Els's jian-styled swords. She wielded them like wands, with crisp and sharp movements. The Elf Twins spent twenty years training her-only their second student ever.
Her sword flashed to the left, taking a slaver eye. Els stepped right, ducked, and thrust into the groin of another slaver. No guard! Her body was open for a counterattack, but the slavers could barely follow her movement. She spun behind the newly made eunuch; left and right thrusts ended his misery. The two unwounded slavers caught up to the violence. Stepping away from her, their stance and sword position became defensive. The tactic was a mistake against someone trained to use speed as her third sword.
A slaver jumped on the feint to his eyes. Els moved past him as the attack on his partner momentarily relaxed the other slaver. Els thrust her sword through his eye. The slaver behind her would be turning. She let go of her jian, grabbed the slaver's short sword out of his hand, threw it over her shoulder before pulling her own sword out of his head, and rolling to the right.
If not for the thought Gallis might make an appearance and teach her proper Sword etiquette in combat, Els would have laughed. She did not intend for the slaver's sword to do any damage, only to make the other slaver pause. The slaver was pawing at a cut on his sword arm. Els slashed his throat open. It was her first battle as a Sword so the Elf Twins would probably forgive her for having to chase down the one-eyed slaver.
"There were seven," she said after looking around the clearing. "I know there were seven."
Her little dwarf coaxed the woman on the rock to a sitting position before giving her a water skin. He patted the woman's head to reward her for doing what he wanted. Having been on the receiving end of those pats, Els understood the woman's annoyed glare.
.... There is more of this story ...