Ree'al and Lormia walked through southern city of River Town.
The river no longer flowed by the city given its name. A great storm three years ago had deposited tons of sand in the river channel, sweeping away most of the town. The River changed course, now empting into to southern sea five miles to the east.
River Town was now Old River Town with hardly any meat left on her bones. New River Town, more and more often just referred to as River Town, had grown up around the new channel. Old River Town was like a great whale cast upon a beach. Return in a few years, most of the meat and sinew would be gone. The bones and smell would linger for decades.
Ree'al had remained sober for two days since he had met Lormia. More important to her, Ree'al had bathed, shaved, and dressed. She was of two minds about the warrior. She was certain that Tarsus and Ree'al were the two warriors of whom the Seer spoke. Yet she couldn't believe that she needed this man's help. Her demeanor had remained as acerbic as it had been when they first met.
Both Real and Lormia were about 1.68 centimeters tall, in their mid- twenties but Ree'al appeared to be the slightly taller of the two. Ree'al had the upright posture of a dancer or sword master. He seemed to glide across the ground. Lormia walked with the rolling walk of a natural athlete. It would have looked more normal had their gaits been switched.
Ree'al had red hair, tied in a warrior's knot. His freshly shaven right cheek bore a bright red scar from a not quite healed wound. The scar made his natural grin look even more like a sneer than it otherwise would have. The wound came from what should have been a killing blow but he tried to not dwell on the incident, too costly, too fresh a memory.
He had lost weight traveling to River City and more while he was drunk. Now at a gaunt at 60 kilos, his weight was less than Lormia's.
She was thin with an angular face, her blond hair in four braids that were secured on the top of her head. Her breasts were small and her hips narrow. She would have never been a bed-mate of choice for Darsonus. Again Ree'al felt the loss of his sword partner. Eight weeks since Dar's death and still everything reminded Ree'al of his absence. Ree'al had one friend in the world, now he was gone.
Ree'al carried two swords at his hip: the traditional dinja and shorter tanja. They were similar to the weapons with which he had practiced with for most of his life. The swords he carried were a magnificent present from Lady Apala.
Lormia carried a slim straight sword with an ornately inscribed hand-guard. Her sword was sharpened on both sides and was longer than Ree'al's dinja. Ree'al was not ready to dismiss it as a useless weapon, but he didn't trust it. He would not let her die with it, as he had let Darsonus die.
All other things being equal, a larger opponent could defeat a smaller opponent, but all other things were rarely equal.
All other things being equal, a man would defeat a woman, for the man would be stronger. Many a man had lost his life thinking that being a man was an overwhelming advantage.
Many a woman had lost her life thinking her technique was better than it was.
Ree'al wanted to ask about Lormia's training but her constant scowl brought out his grin. His grin made her scowl worse and they barely spoke to each other. Once out of sight of the town, Ree'al came to a stop. It was time to clear up a few matters and easier to do it without the town watching.
"Why have you stopped? Have you changed your mind?" Lormia asked. "Or did you just forget to buy enough ale to last until the next town?" Her scorn couldn't be more apparent.
"If I needed as much ale as I've had the last two weeks," Ree'al smiled. "We would need 20 porters. No, no more ale for at least a month. I have a request to ask of you, or should you decline my request, I have an order for you."
"You work for me, not the other way round," Lormia spoke with a warning look as her eyebrows lowered into a frown.
"Then why haven't you paid me?" Ree'al asked innocently.
"You said that you were ready to move on anyways, and I have paid for all the provisions including your food and your new clothing," Lormia said heatedly. "That means you work for me."
"I thought those were gifts. You know, one friend to another."
"You are not my friend. Those things are payment to you. You are not even my travel companion. Without my help you would have been set upon by bandits while lying in an alley in a drunken stupor."
"It is kind of you to care so about me," Ree'al gave a small bow. "But if all the money you have is what is in your money belt and pouch, then I'm carrying more money than you."
"You looked through my things?" Lormia was incensed.
"You don't have much to look through," Ree'al grinned. "And as incautious as you were with your possessions I didn't think you cared."
"If you touch my things again," Lormia said slowly. "I will kill you."
"No, you won't, because you can't. A wooden spoon would be as useful as the sword you are wearing. Where did you get it?"
"It was my husband's," she replied.
"Well that explains why he's dead, doesn't it?" Ree'al replied with all the sarcasm he could put in the words.
Her sword was out and swinging for Ree'al before she thought of what she was doing. Ree'al dodged immediately, anticipating just that response to his taunt. Lormia attacked again but ended off balance as she reached to strike a Ree'al who somehow remained just outside of her range. He used her momentary lack of balance to move in, and strike her lightly on her left leg and then her left arm.
She realized that he was much better than her husband and even better than her instructor. Taking power from her contained rage she determined to outperform this clown by sheer willpower, yet as she swiftly moved to counter-attack he effortlessly tapped both her right leg and arm. The next instant her feet were swept out from under her, the tip of his dinja was pressing into her neck and he was down on one knee beside her.
"Do you not know your limitations? You seem stunned. This was just a necessary test," he said. "Your training is not complete and you need to be well aware of your skill compares to others. You need to learn that quickly or you will die. Those that hunt me are at least as good as I am, probably better. You would be nothing to them."
"I was a poor trainer to the last student I took," Ree'al continued, "and it was his life I was celebrating when you found me. This is what I require from you: A promise that you will take no part in honor fights that involve me until our mission is finished."
"If I am challenged," she said quietly, a sword at one's throat is often a quieting, if not calming, experience. "I will fight."
"I'll go no further until you swear to me. You need me, I don't need you. Tarsus told you that I'd take you Amamorn.
He was almost certainly lying or has fallen into his dotage.
In any event he didn't say it had to be this year nor even next year, did he?" Ree'al smiled down at her.
"I'd be considered honor-less if I didn't accept a challenge," hate filled her eyes as she spoke. None of the men of her town had had anything near the agility and speed he had shown.
"So? You're not Sulvaran. Those are not honor marks on your sword. What do you care?"
"My people follow the way of the sword," Lormia spoke with pride as she knocked away Ree'al's tanja with her hand. "As for honor marks, if that scribbling on your sword is an honor mark then I am in no need of one. I hold my honor in my heart. I don't brag about it to the world."
"Scribbling? What scribbling?" Ree'al asked.
A glance at his tanja stunned him. The faint markings found by Lady Apala had risen and were now clearly visible.
"What is this?" Ignoring Lormia, Ree'al pulled his dinja from its scabbard. The writing on it was the same. He rubbed them, feeling the script, in a lowered voice he asked of no one, "What is going on?"
"What is wrong with you?" Lormia had scrambled up from the ground. Her sword held at her side, she was very curious as to what had given him such pause coming closer to look.
"What is wrong with me?" Ree'al repeated. "You don't have enough fingers and toes to count all that is wrong with me. But this", he held the writings so she could better view them, "this is impossible."
"Why are honor marks so surprising to you? Sulvarans strut around like roosters with their honor marks," she said disdainfully.
"There were honor marks on the blades. I removed them. This 'scribbling' wasn't on the swords when I removed those honor marks. Those honor marks are in my pack. I go to Amamorn to return them to the temple. Not because a seer told you to go."
"If you removed them, how can they be there now," Lormia asked?
Her question returned Ree'al to the present. "You don't understand?" he asked. "And I thought I explained so clearly," his voice heavy with sarcasm.
"Bastard!" she said to him. "Forget about it because I really don't care. We are wasting time, let's get going."
"I am most certainly not a bastard. Please leave the king and queen out of this," Ree'al smiled. "As to the swords I don't know what I'm to do."
"Is the moon full?" Lormia asked. "Are you some kind of lunatic who's been staring in the sky to long? I think you just didn't pay that much attention to them then, if they are new, and didn't notice."
"Am I a lunatic? Some have thought so, and that's a comforting thought," Ree'al considered. "But no. No, I think I still hang onto my sanity by a thin yet sturdy thread. I don't suppose you would care to inspect the swords closely, just to see what they feel like, would you?"
"A Sulvaran warrior who is afraid of swords," Lormia laughed. "The irony."
"The great Ree'al begs," Lormia laughed again. "Now I'm losing my sanity. Give them to me."
Under Ree'al's stare she firmly took the dinja by the grip, looked at it, swung it several times and shrugged. "I don't know what you expected but it is just a sword," she said as she handed it over. "What's it feel like to you?"
"Like the most perfect blade ever made."
"What does it mean?"
"It means you can't fight honor fights. At least you must agree that you will not seek to fight any Sulvarans who come looking for me."
"What?" Confusion showed on her face.
"I just changed the topic back to where it belongs. My late sword partner insisted on challenging one of the two men who came after me. He was killed because I hadn't prepared him.
I won't let that happen again. My challengers may well be better than I am. You wouldn't last 5 seconds with one of them."
"I'm not afraid. If I die, it was meant to be," Lormia stoically spoke.
"Wonderful speech," Ree'al clapped his hand together.
"Original too. Let me ask you a question, do you love me?"
"Don't be absurd!"
"Do you like me?"
"As I said!"
"Would you like to be away from me?"
"Then why on earth should you become involved in an honor fight on my part?" Ree'al waited patiently for her answer.
"I shouldn't," she finally spoke.
"Great! Now can you swear that you won't?"
"I so swear," said Lormia.
"That wasn't so hard after all," Ree'al said as he carefully sheathed his swords. "I will be practicing for an hour in the morning and in the evening. We will also run much of the time." Ree'al said. "You're welcome to join me when I train."
"I'm not your student," she replied angrily.
"Of course not. You're far too good a warrior to learn anything from me. I was hoping I could watch you and learn some secrets," Ree'al said dryly.
Lormia stomped off, with Ree'al following but a hundred yards behind. He wanted to think even if he didn't like where his thoughts were taking him. Ginjarem warrior he might have been, but in his heart he had never really believed. He didn't believe in magic or luck. He accepted that he had brought dishonor on himself. He chose to do what he did. No God made him throw his tanja. Panic and lack of acceptance, those were the reasons for his actions. One, a trait he was supposed to lack and the other a trait he should have in large portion.
Now his tanja had broken a ginja, a storm had arisen at just the right time to save him, a black smith was a Sword Master and a Match Master, a temple to Ginjarem lay to the north, and now this, whatever it was, with his swords. He pulled the ginja from its scabbard and looked at the writing, clearly shining gold against a red background. Gold and red, no clan had those colors, at least none that he could think of.
"Father," he might have asked as a child, "what do I do if I've lost my honor but my sword insists in having honor marks?"
What answer would that have brought? He laughed out loud then quickly sobered. He would never know because his father was dead to him. The past was gone. He couldn't part with the two swords, his time with Lady Apala was too dear. He'd cover the honor marks and see what Ginjarem had in store for him, if there really were Gods.
Over the next month of travel through salt pines above the high tide line, Lormia and Ree'al reached an unspoken truce.
They settled into a camp site routine that seemed natural and surreal at the same time. They shared the work and they kept talk to a minimum. Lormia did not practice with Ree'al nor would she practice at all if he was watching. Ree'al could feel his power and quickness returning but without a partner, his timing and distance would certainly be off.
They traveled along Marshland Road which ran through the kingdom of Phulvii. It was an incredibly rich land full of food, especially crabs, eels, snails and other delicacies.
Fish were as plentiful as sparrows. It was a paradise in the winter but in the summer the marshlands were full of death due to black fever, break bone fever, and other unnamed but just as dibilitating diseases. So the roads through the Marshlands were used during the winter but not during the summer.
Fishing villages grew up in the winter only to be washed away by the summer storms. Permanent towns were to the east, in the piedmont, the rolling hills before the Cresthaven Mountains. Vagaries of ocean currents left the piedmont and the mountains with just enough rain to raise grain crops but not enough to support the massive clouds of mosquitoes that rose from the marshes in summer.
The first fishing village they came upon didn't even have a name. Make-shift sheds were scattered about; so poorly made they might collapse even before winter was over. A tavern and a trade store were the only true buildings. Drying racks for fish were everywhere.
Men and women were making money any way they could. The travelers would need to watch each other's back while they were here. Ree'al negotiated for a room for the night, a single ten by ten shed. To say that Lormia was unhappy with the arrangement was a gross understatement.
"Why didn't you get two rooms," she angrily asked him.
"Safety in numbers and all that," Ree'al said. "There'd be many attempts to relieve a lone guest of his belongings, doing unspeakable things to a female guest. We need to stay together to protect each other."
"If you touch me I will kill you."
"Agreed," Ree'al replied. "And if you touch me I'll do the same. I'll kill myself."
"What do you mean by that?" she asked.
"I mean absolutely nothing. I would like to go to the tavern for food and ale, just one mug of ale," he said holding up his hand to keep her from interrupting. "If I go there alone, the odds are about 50/50 that I'll have to kill at least one person. If you are left here alone, the odds are much higher that you will have to fight for your honor. I don't know how good you are. Can you take on three men intent on raping you?"
Ree'al continued not giving her a chance to answer, "If we eat together, the odds of me killing someone stay about the same and the odds for you drop unless I am killed. If you sleep in your own room, it's almost guaranteed that men will break into it. How many dead people should we leave behind us? Can we both agree that sleeping in the same room is abhorrent but better than slaughtering fishermen?"
"I'm going to the store," Ree'al continued. "Do you want to come with me or be alone?"
"I need some personal items," Lormia answered.
"Then we come to a very touchy point," Ree'al said with a grin. "It's a pun, you'll get it in a moment."
"Just say what you mean."
"We lessen the number of killings by how we act," Ree'al's face showed that he was serious. "We aren't players so I won't ask you to act as if we're lovers. God's know that I couldn't act as though I loved you, but at least I can act like I don't hate you. Think of me as a wayward brother that you manage to put up with. Can you do that?"
"Shall we go?" Ree'al held open the shed's door for her and offered his arm to her. "See, I told you it was a touchy subject."
To her credit, Lormia hid her dislike and took his arm; not without rolling her eyes.
Ree'al bought tar among other items at the store even though the prices were outrageous. He tried to be polite by paying no attention to what Lormia bought. It was hard not to complain as she looked over nearly everything in the store.
After they had paid for the goods and stepped out Ree'al spoke softly to Lormia.
"There are many eyes on us. Take my arm and we can eat now before they're all drunk."
The faux couple walked into the tavern and took a table in the back corner. Ree'al pulled out the chair for Lormia, both with their backs to the wall. The tavern smelled of old ale, tobacco smoke, cooking grease, and of course, garbage.
The room had a small bar for serious drinking and 5 tables for meals. Six patrons were scattered about. All of them, including bartender and waitress, were staring at Lormia.
Ree'al slowly leaned towards her and when he was within inches of her ear he whispered, "We need to know who is real trouble and who is not. Look around the room without making eye contact. Then smile and whisper something to me."
She did as instructed and spoke into his ear, "I took your arm. That doesn't mean you get to touch me."
"Agreed," Ree'al laughed loudly.
Ree'al stared at each of the men in turn. Only one didn't look away. He took Ree'al's measure and slowly stood. He was a large man dressed mostly in rags bleached by the sun. A sword at his side and a scowl on his face spelled trouble.
He walked out without a word.
"There goes Trouble," Ree'al said quietly. "He'll return with friends. If he's smart he'll take us as we leave. I don't think he's that smart."
A waitress dressed in men's pants and a faded purple shirt came to the table. She was tired and bored. "What will it be?" She asked in an emotionless voice.
"Seafood gravy over rice or fish soup and bread," she repeated the same words a hundred times, day after day.
"Lormia, what will you have?" Ree'al asked without looking at her.
"I'll have the fish soup and watered wine."
"Splendid and I'll have the gravy and a mug of ale," Ree'al smiled kindly at the woman.
"Do you have money?" she asked.
Ree'al put a silver coin on the table. She took the coin.
"Just enough," she said, retreating to the kitchen on the left side of the small bar.
"When the food comes, eat quickly," Ree'al spoke in a pleasant voice. "With luck we can finish before Trouble comes back."
"I'm not an idiot."
"You are if you keep that disdain on your face," Ree'al smiled sweetly. "These are hard men even if untrained. If they sense rancor between us, we may have to fight all of them," Ree'al cheerfully nodded to one of the larger men.
The man looked away.
Ree'al was worried that Lormia's sword play was woefully lacking, as lacking as her tolerance of him. He had easily made her lose herself to anger. But of course, being obnoxious was a talent he had long since perfected. Even now he had to resist the impulse to yank her chain.
He had done what he could to make tonight safe for her. He was on her left where he could provide defense for her if needed. He knew he should stop goading her. It was a long trip to Amamorn, more pleasant if taken with an amiable companion. He may never be her friend but there was no need to be her enemy.
And yet, she reminded him of all those puffed-up warriors who weren't as good as they thought they were, including Ree'al, and he held against her. His thoughts went back to that day on the grasslands of Amanora. Ree'al should have died, not Darsonus. If Darsonus were here the relationship would be different. At least once a day Darsonus and Lormia would stop to "rest". He would have already bent her over a tree limb and boffed her from behind. He laughed out loud at the mental picture.
"What are you laughing about?" Lormia asked him.
"I was remembering my sword mate. He had a lust for life."
Lormia smiled. She would try to be polite tonight. This was an opportunity to ask questions. "How long have you been away from Sulvara?" She asked with a smile.
"Four years maybe," he answered as he took a small sip of ale. "I try not to keep track of time. I pretend I'm a duck."
"Yes, a duck has a perfect life. Every day a duck wakes up to a new world. And when rain falls, it bounces off the duck's feathers. What a life," Ree'al sighed. "No past, no future, and water-proof."
"And you?" He continued.
"I've never been to Sulvara," she replied.
Ree'al twisted around to face straight at her. "That sounded like a joke. Are you ill?"
"No, just better at pretending than you are." She continued before he could ask a question of her. "Why did you leave Sulvara?"
Ree'al turned back and again studied the other patrons.
"There is even less use for an honor-less warrior in Sulvara, than here."
"How did you lose your honor?" She asked in surprise.
Ree'al gave her a huge smile. "I'll tell you that tale when we become good friends."
"Ah, alas," Lormia said. "Never to know."
They laughed together. Although he knew it was an act, he liked this side of Lormia. Perhaps he should take some of the sting out of his words. "Miracles do happen," Ree'al spoke softly. "My swords are proof of that."
"Are you really as good as you claim to be?" Lormia needed the question answered.
"At one time there were only a handful of men who could hold their own in a fight against me," Ree'al replied honestly.
"But now I am out of practice. I didn't practice for many months. I didn't treat my body very well for many months. I don't know how good I am."
"Are you serious or just over-confident?"
"Only one way to find out and I hope it doesn't come to that."
"Are you challenging me?" Lormia hissed.
"No. You don't understand," Ree'al said soothingly. "I am talking to you as a traveling companion, not as the mortal enemy that you seem to be. I will try to be less annoying even though it's what I am best at."
"Now you speak the truth," Lormia laughed. "You are the most annoying person in the world."
"How could you have met everyone? Sorry the words just gush out before my brain sees them. There's a handful that may be able to best me," he laughed, answering her question.
Lormia joined in his laughter and realized that this was the first time she had really laughed in a long, long, time.
"So what did you mean?" She asked.
"I meant that I wouldn't know until someone really good challenges me," Ree'al said soberly. "I might not like the answer."
"And I'm not really good?" She said evenly.
"I'm sorry, but no you're not. You're good and could become very good. You've been practicing how long? Five or six years? You would have had to start as a very young child to be in the same class as I am."
"You speak the common tongue very well," he continued. "With little accent, but it's not your native tongue. Your native tongue is Sandralin."
"How do you know that?" She did not remember speaking anything other than common since arriving at River Town.
"Many hours were wasted on my education, but back to your accent. You also have an accent with your sword. You will never be able to get rid of it any more than you can get rid of the last of your Sandralan accent."
"How do you know I have a sword accent?" She suddenly asked.
"And we were getting along so well," he sighed. "When I could, I watched you with a mirror while I cooked." Ree'al braced for the eruption to come, but it didn't.
"Yeah, I watched you too," Lormia admitted.
"Wow," Ree'al said with surprise. "I got off lightly there."
"Don't expect it again."
"In my native tongue there are seven words describing different ways to swing a tanja in an overhand diagonal strike," Ree'al said. "In the far north the natives have words for eight types of snow. All languages give information about their culture."
"And that makes Sulvarans better swordsmen?" She wasn't sure she believed it.
"No. Teacher, time, and the student make better a swordsman," Ree'al replied. "But the culture makes it easier to put all three together."
"Well no good deed goes unpunished," Lormia said as she pointed towards the front door. The man Ree'al had named Trouble had returned. He brought Trouble 2 and Trouble 3 with him. All three were armed with swords. "We spent too much time being polite."
"I'm going back to being really obnoxious," Ree'al smiled at Lormia. "Please be tolerant."
The three men approached and Trouble 1 said, "Mind if we sit with you?"
"Yes," Ree'al smiled up at the man. "I mind very much. You are far too ugly to sit with the lady."
The man glared at Ree'al then turned to Lormia. "What do you say?"
"It's the smell," Lormia added. "I'm more tolerant about looks but you do smell awful."
"You have a natural talent for this," Ree'al said to her without taking his eyes of Trouble.
"The only way you can stop us from sitting here is to kill us," the man said.
"Really?" Ree'al asked.
"Really!" The man spoke.
Lormia didn't see the ginja slash out. She saw Ree'al putting it back in his scabbard about the same time as blood began to pump from the man's throat. The dying man took a step back and collapsed. All eyes in the tavern watched him except for Ree'al who kept his eyes on the man's companions.
Lormia would not have believed that a sword could move that fast. She glanced at Ree'al and saw him with his obnoxious grin staring at the other troublesome men. She would finish what they had started. "Next?" She spoke loudly over the silence in the room.
The men turned their heads to her and then back to Ree'al.
They shook their heads, wanting no quarrel with this lightning fast man. They moved to the door.
"Please take your friend with you," Ree'al said still smiling. No one else moved as the men removed the dead man.
Nor would any meet Ree'al's mocking grin. "Come dear lady," he said to Lormia. "Let's take the night air and then to bed."
Ree'al rose and pulled Lormia chair back for her. She took his arm, no one moving to interfere with them as they left.
He spoke softly as the left, "Well, now we know how good a swordsman I am and I didn't need a sword master to find out.
I only meant to scare him, not to kill him."
"How did you move so quickly," she asked.
"The secret to moving quickly is to move quickly," he said.
"You don't have to tell me if you don't want to." She let go of his arm putting space between them.
"I am telling you," he said quietly. "Just move. Then next time move faster. There is no secret. You have in your mind what you'll do. Do it! If you think about moving, you'll be slow. Don't think, move. Your mind decides what to do. Your body moves without thinking of how to move."
Ree'al shoulders slumped and his grin disappeared. "I'd like to walk and think," he spoke softly. "Do you mind? I don't want us separated until we know if they have the guts for a reprisal. I wasn't trained to kill fishermen and farmers, but the sword is all I have left. Oh well, he was just a fisherman, he doesn't really count. I mean who cares? Blast him, now I have to take my scabbard apart to clean it."
Lormia was surprised at his words, "You're more upset than I thought you would be after killing that man. In his mind he was killing you and raping me."
"It's not him. It's me," Ree'al spoke after a pause. "He would be alive if I hadn't come here. His wife would have a husband and his children a father. I took that from them.
Why was I given this power of life and death of others? I'm certainly not worthy of it."
This thoughtful man was not the man that Lormia thought she had been traveling with. He was amazing with a sword but this was the first time he seemed to care about anything.
What was the story behind his false grin?
She decided then that it was time to turn the blade edge away from him. "I share the blame as much as you do, but neither of us forced him to do what he did. Your way resulted in only one death. There could have been many more including yours and mine."
The words that came out of his mouth surprised him. "I'm sorry about the way I've treated you. I'll try to be a little tiny bit less obnoxious."
"Don't strain yourself," she said dryly.
Ree'al smiled to himself. Maybe they wouldn't kill each other after all.
"I can hang your tarp between us tonight," Ree'al said. "It will give some illusion of privacy. I'll try to keep my snoring and other bodily noises to a minimum. Will you please do the same?"
"I do NOT snore."
"That's true, but there were cassal greens in the soup tonight and every time you eat cassal greens. well, a gentleman such as I, shouldn't take this much further."
"I like cassal. I like the fact that you don't like cassal.
I'll eat it ever chance it get. Surely the small effusions of one lady can be overlooked," Lormia blushed as she said it. "Let's go back to our room, go to sleep and take our leave of this piss-ant village before dawn."