The Riders of the King's Own

Week Three
Ulkar

Nyan rana yn Ulkar, di nyan yn Maralu.

Ignore Emon; Emon is a pessimist. Me? I’m an optimist. We’ll be perfectly fine, have a successful mission and return to Ni-Yana having only lost a bit of blood, no limbs, no digits and definitely no lives. So there. Well… maybe a digit. He’s also still better than everyone but Rumal with the sword. He has dropped off a bit since the last mission, but the power he’s lost is barely noticeable. He definitely still deserves to be in the Own, whether he wants to admit it or not.

He also needs to move that girl of his to Ni-Yana. I’m amazed at how restrained he was with his retelling there, barely any mention of her at all even though she’s his second-favourite topic of conversation. Number one is of course “We’re all going to die” as I’m sure you’ve picked up. But yes, well done to him for not turning the story of the mission into a romance novel. Commendable work.

Anyway, yes, I am Ulkar, otherwise known as the country bumpkin, which I don’t mind too much, I guess. At least I don’t forget my roots, unlike some of us. Not mentioning any names, Rumal.

My roots are the most glorious, beautiful roots you could possibly imagine. You wish you had my roots. I know this is supposed to be a serious “this is what the Own’s really like” document, but Aeia-damn it I’m going to gush about my roots. My roots rule.

Ladies and gentlemen, Ni-Linalaa. You wish you lived in Ni-Linalaa. Currently home to forty-three residents, it’s undoubtedly the most picturesque town along the Ra-Lin. We have palms lining the riverbanks, and dotted through the streets, and the people are the friendliest you’ll meet. We extend a warm welcome to anyone who passes through, not just the Own. I know this because we did when I still lived there, and the place hasn’t changed since.

My younger sister runs the pub there now, since Papa’s too old to do it himself anymore, and she does a fantastic job.

The welcome we received upon entering the town wasn’t quite as jubilant as normal—I think the whole town feels Rau’s death almost as much as the Own does—but once that was over with, all was shiny and happy again. Congratulations all around for Haenel for getting in the Own, and for Nimay for being appointed General.

Mama and her friends always insist on cooking for us when we’re there, since it’s usually supposed to be my turn to cook when we reach Ni-Linalaa, and of course I’m not going to turn it down. It unfortunately doesn’t count as my turn though. I still had to cook tonight.

We always put on a spectacle similar to what we do on the Summer Solstice in Ni-Yana, so basically training, but some people can’t be bothered.

I always wish we could stay longer in Ni-Linalaa, but it is a mission, after all, much as it doesn’t feel like it yet. Give it another week or so, then we’ll cross the border into Kazin. It always starts to feel like a mission then. Just seeing the border is enough to make you realise it’s the real thing, as anyone who’s seen said border can testify. I’m sure even merchants brace themselves when they see it. Because hey, there are bandits up there, who are most often the reason we go to Kazin.

In the past five years, two missions have had nothing to do with Aeia-damned caravan ransackers, and one of those two was still inside Raykinian borders. Hopefully with this one it will make our jobs a little easier.

The archers have been acting odd today, ever since we left Ni-Linalaa. I mean, odder than normal, because they’re normally odd, especially since The Thrai Incident. The oddness of archers is at least something Emon and I agree on. Mama told me she’d heard from Aera that they’d asked old Olem for some honey. She said it quite innocently, thinking maybe we’re in for a sweet meal some time soon, but none of those four are cooking in the next week. I don’t know how much honey, since Mama hadn’t thought to ask and I’ve never really gotten on with Olem, but it can only have something to do with the blade archers.

This is either going to be very good, or very, very bad. I just wish they’d hurry up and get on with it. The suspense killed me about a week ago; it’s just irritating now.

I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. That was so, so bad, and yet so stupidly funny. Typically archers, we’ll give them that much.

The town we stayed in last night is a ghost town, having been abandoned because of a sandstorm a decade or so ago that basically uprooted the farms, so the people all moved up or downstream to greener pastures. All that’s left of the place now are the shells of buildings, which works well enough for us. We stable the horses in what must have been the pub in years gone by, because it’s the biggest building in the town, then pick a house each to sleep in.

This morning, as the more civilised of us, being most of the swordies and one pikeman, were waking up and eating breakfast around the coals of the communal campfire, something that was either a peal of laughter or a scream of annoyance made us all exchange glances. It obviously had to be something to do with the archers, so nobody panicked.

The archers had woken early this morning, which is a feat in itself, then somehow climbed up on the rooves of the blade archers’ temporary houses, Gylepi on one, Nol and Garuk on the other. I think they must have used horses, or found discarded ladders somewhere that weren’t rotten through. Murali was… somewhere else. I’m not entirely sure where.

We didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on at first. There was a lot of running and screaming of “you Aeia-damned bastards!” and not much else. We don’t know. When they were eventually herded to the remains of the campfire though, both blade archers were covered in sticky geya feathers.

Like I say, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Such a typical archer prank.

The blue shirts thought it was absolutely hilarious though. Three of them with sticky fingers and the other with the odd feather sticking from his shirt and hair, all four of them grinning stupidly. I think anyone who was laughing was more doing so at the archers’ amusement than at Yoryl and Kaen.

Let this be a lesson to everyone: never annoy an archer. Especially if you’re a blade archer. You’ll never live it down.

What worries me though is the complete lack of the thrai head. I mean, somebody must have picked it up. Whether blue shirt or purple, I don’t know, but someone must have it. How long does a snake’s head keep for? Do I want to know? I don’t think I do, but doubtless I’m going to find out in a few days. Maybe Kaen picked it up with the body and they’re going to use it as revenge for the feathers.

That’s what worries me. What scares me is that one of those three giggling archers with honey coating his fingers is going to be leading this fine kingdom in a few years. But, as he said in his introduction, we don’t tend to think of him as heir to the throne when we’re on the road, only when we reach our destination so he and Rau can talk to foreign dignitaries. He’s apparently not too bad at that, according to Rau.

I wouldn’t know. The rest of the Own is very rarely present at any of these negotiations, and we never say anything when we’re there. Our single purpose is to “look intimidating”. I don’t know whether it works or not, but the Kazinian archers present always look at us suspiciously.

Anyway, I’m a country boy turned warrior, not a rich kid turned ambassador. Politics aren’t my thing, but it always sounds impressive. It’s amazing how much those two—Nol and Rau, I mean—can change just because of their setting and who they’re talking to. I’ve tried understanding what they’re on about, but it really is too complicated. Give me ten Kazinian warriors and my sword and I’ll be fine, but talking to a Kazinian queen is beyond me.

Kazinian royalty aren’t like Raykinian. Even Majesty’s quite approachable, happy to talk to the palace staff, have a chat with someone in the street. In Kazin you wouldn’t dream of it. Nol’s only hard to approach if you do it in the wrong way, but most of us are like that. He’s just lived with it longer so knows the type of person he’s dealing with, I guess. Something like that.

Kazinian royalty, be they prince, princess, queen or empress, are nothing like our dear Majesty and Highness. No matter how high-ranking you are, you would not dream of approaching even the lowliest of Kazinian royalty (and they have a lot, considering they’ve got a separate ruler for each region). Only other royalty is allowed to argue with them, and Nol always seems to talk about such encounters as though he was having an argument with a sibling, not one of the most powerful women in the kingdom. I could never do that.

…I deviated a lot from the topic there, didn’t I? Sorry, bad habit of mine.

So yes, mission. We’ll be in Kazin by next week. Scary stuff. Tonight we’re in Ni-Karila, tomorrow we’ll be out in the open, then Ni-Horia will be the last we’ll see of Raykinian people for a month or more. But such is life. We’ll be back, and we’ll still have the Ra-Lin to follow, even though it changes dramatically in Kazin.

The landscape has begun to change already. We can still see to the horizon in all directions, but the land isn’t completely flat anymore. There are slight undulations that in this kingdom would be considered hills, and there are a few tufts of genuine grass too, as opposed to spinifex clumps. Still red and sandy though, that won’t change for days yet.

This is about where the ominousness, if that’s even a word, starts to nibble. Even the slightest hint of Kazin, in the form of not-quite-hills in the landscape and tufts of grass, is enough to set the butterflies in action. I’m not entirely sure whether they’re excited butterflies or terrified ones. I think a bit of both.

Four days and we’ll be in Kazin. Again. I can’t wait.

Okay, now it’s four days and we’ll be in Kazin. We hope. We’ve been waylaid slightly in Ni-Horia.

Remember those tufts of grass I mentioned in Ni-Karila? In Ni-Horia, those tufts are knee-high meadows. It looks quite beautiful seeing the pale brownish golden grasses rolling over the hills, with the little creek of the Ra-Lin snaking its way through it, but they’re also great havens for real, reptilian snakes, unfortunately.

We neglected to tell Haenel this. I think it’s just become second nature to the rest of us that we don’t think about it, so nobody thought to warn the poor guy.

We were pitching the tents again, and while the rest of us were checking the grass to make sure we weren’t disturbing any critters that had already made their home there, Haenel went right away and started hammering in tent pegs.

There was a sharp yell of shock and pain, a string of equally sharp expletives, then he dashed off to the healing house.

He’ll be fine though. The healer told us it was only a white-crowned shingleback. For the uneducated, there’s no antivenom for that snake, simply because they don’t really need one. Its venom isn’t fatal to humans, so Haenel will only be sick for a few days and he’ll be fine. He wasn’t looking too good yesterday though—pale and clammy, short of breathing, but nothing too serious. He’s started improving already. Got some colour back, but still not really up to talking. The healer assures us he’ll be ready to leave in two or three days.

Emon, as only Emon can be, is convinced he’s going to die. He makes out as though he’s as relaxed as the rest of us, but he keeps rubbing his arms as though warding off a chill, and since it’s not cold enough for that yet, that can only mean he’s nervous and he doesn’t like it. How that man comes through time and again in Kazin, I’ll never know.

The rest of us, as only swordies can, have placed our bets on when he’ll be right to mount up again. Melraan reckons tomorrow, which I think is cutting it a bit fine. Kurae’s gone for four days, if only because that’s when it’s Haenel’s turn to cook and he’s so far tried every excuse to try and get out of cooking. I’m playing safe and saying two days—he seems too dedicated to training to want to be incapacitated for more than that. I’d be going stir crazy after one day. Rumal and ‘may have decided on three days, so we’ll see how we go.

Of course, we never bet coin. We earn too much of it for that to mean anything. Betting beer is much more worth it. Whoever wins gets free rounds at the next pub we come across, which isn’t saying much in Kazin. Kazin is into their liqueurs more than beer, but I’ll leave that topic for whoever gets to write about the first pub we go into.

Since we’re here for a few more days than previously anticipated, the local boys, and a few of the girls, have taken it upon themselves to get some free tutoring from us, under the guise that it will be “good for our training.” I’m not entirely certain how worthy an opponent a ten-year-old boy can really be, but it is good for relaxing the nerves. I’m optimistic, but I’m not stupid. Kazin is scary, make no mistake.

So most of us—inevitably the guys who have kids back in Ni-Yana, plus a few who aren’t parents—spent the day “training” with the kids, which was great fun, I have to say. I never get tired of the oohs and aahs that accompany the metallic shing when I draw my blade. I love my sword. I swear Nimay stole my design though—mine’s an eagle, with the tail as the hilt and the head engraved onto the blade, and hers is of course an yrae with the neck as the hilt and tail as the blade. Certainly the most famous blade in the kingdom, even if it’s not the best. Mine’s the best, obviously.

You can’t help but notice all the people watching from the sidelines either, whether they’re just walking past with their head turned, or watching unobtrusively from a window. That always gives me a good feeling. Gylepi and Garuk can’t stand having people staring at them while they’re training, and there are a few other guys who’d rather we weren’t watched every second, but I like that we get the recognition. Especially in Ni-Horia. Ni-Horians are lovely people—they’re the last Raykinians we see before we hit Kazin, and they’re the first to welcome us back again. There’s none of the tall poppy syndrome up here that Ni-Yana seems to have.

Okay so maybe I am a country bumpkin, what of it?

The group grew larger over the course of the day, and I’m sure that one or two of them are determined to head for Ni-Yana to start army training now. You can just tell by looking at their faces half the time. In the evening they were still hanging around, and one comment about Rumal’s and Emon’s missing fingers sparked an evening of story telling.

Or, as Melraan likes to call it, scaring off the opposition, which I guess is true enough. Rumal and Emon could pretty much just hold up their hand to make half the kingdom think twice about joining the Own. Well, Emon at least. Rumal still gets people thinking he lost his finger long before he joined the ranks, so he has to resort to telling all the gory details, which you can tell he just revels in now.

Anyway, I’ve deviated again. I’m tired and my week’s up, hurrah!

Week 2      Week 4