The Riders of the King's Own

Week Four
Inel

Nyan rana yn Inel, di nyan yn Maralu.

Nimay wishes for me to inform you all that she won the bet, whatever that bet was. And apparently Kurae did too. Good for them, I’m sure they’ll be very happy come the next pub crawl. Yes, I’m bitter that the rest of the Own got left out of another swordies only wager. They do it all the time.

In completely unrelated news, we’re back on the road again. Or it may be entirely related, for all I know. We left Ni-Horia behind yesterday morning, and have been in the wilderness of the Raykinian highlands since then. Ironic that this is as mountainous as our fair kingdom gets. It’s easy to see why the Kazinians mock us for it and tell us we don’t know what mountainous really is. The fifteen of us obviously know mountains though, since we’ve been to Kazin several times before.

Tonight’s our last night in Raykin for the next month or more, probably more judging by the mission brief. It’s always an odd night, since it’s the night we count as the last before the mission. Technically we’ve been on the mission for the better part of a month now, but there’s no challenge or danger in riding through Raykin. There may be one or two nerves the night before we leave Ni-Yana, but it’s hardly worth mentioning.

When the horizon around you is wavy because of the hills, and the earth seems to move because of the swaying grasses, and the wind makes an eerie, distant hushing noise that continues through the night, it’s an entirely different matter. It’s very lonely on those hills, believe me. Sometimes I wish we could have the send-off from Ni-Yana up here instead, just to lift our confidence a bit, but there’s quite literally nothing. I don’t know, maybe the Ra-Lin’s valley is busier in more friendly times. The only times we’re ever here is when trading has pretty much ceased, so there’s no traffic.

Around the campfire it’s really quite bizarre. It starts out much the same as any other night in Raykin, with the standard bickering between archers and blade archers, mocking or complimenting the evening’s chef and just general joking around, but there’s always an undertone of foreboding. We can all feel it, but try to act as though it’s not there and everything’s perfectly fine.

The fire started dying about an hour ago, and we’ve been seated around the flickering coals since then, completely silent. Nobody’s said a word or even cleared their throat. There’s no sound beyond the incessant wind and the quiet crackling of the fire. Even Yoryl and Kaen have gone quiet. Not a single twig has been thrown at the fire, which is most odd. It’s just me writing, and that of course doesn’t normally happen.

It would probably be quite a sobering sight to anyone not part of the Own. This is the real eve of the mission, as distinct from the night at the Golden Thrai before we leave Ni-Yana. I always wonder how the rest of the kingdom would react to seeing their best warriors as we are now. In many ways the anticipation is more terrifying than actually seeing a herd of Kazinians rushing at us.

Oh yes, we get scared. We’re confident, determined and positive, for the most part, but that doesn’t mean we’re fearless. Some of us hide it better than others, Anganur, Melraan and Nol in particular, but even the most apparently stone-hearted of us are intimidated at the mere thought of that border.

Imagine Yoryl with a genuinely serious face. It’s a difficult task, I know, but he’s had that same face for the past hour. That should give you an idea of the situation.

We’re probably even more sober tonight, given that the last time we passed through these hills we were one member down. Lim ela, Rau.

Rumal’s just retired to bed, and I’m tempted to follow, but one or two guys have caught my eye, so doubtless they’ll want to have a chat later on. Everyone has their own way of preparing. Most tend to just hide whatever’s going on in their mind or go to bed early and think about the next day. A few like to talk about it, which inevitably ends up being with me. I’m not going to argue—the best way for me to prepare is to talk, but not about how I’m feeling about things. Sorting out other people’s fears is far easier than facing my own.

That’s my way of dealing with it and it’s worked for the past eight years, so I’m sticking to it. And apparently I give good advice, so everyone wins.

We’ve crossed the border.

For those who’ve never been to Kazin, I’ll tell you now that the Raykinian-Kazinian border isn’t just a metaphorical one, nor is it a sign stuck in the earth with “Welcome to Kazin” written in large, friendly red letters. It’s not even a House, strangely enough. If Kazin built one that close to the Raykinian border, they wouldn’t last particularly long.

No, the Kazinian border is a row of skulls.

Glowing white human skulls, with the hollow grey eye sockets staring mournfully into Raykin. A stark warning, from the Kazinians who placed them there as well as the long-dead owners of the skulls. Not every skull belongs to a Raykinian—there haven’t been enough killed in recent times to line the whole of the Raykinian border—but certainly the ones a day’s walk in either direction of the Ra-Lin are. I don’t want to know how many tens of thousands of skulls that means, but it’s unfortunately something I can’t avoid thinking about.

In typical Own style though, we don’t just ignore the Aeia-damned things. We charge at them at a gallop. This is another tradition Rau began, upon realising that we’re all too tense at the border. It’s all well and good to prepare the night before, but if we were that tense and focussed the whole night, we’d either start attacking each other or miss something vital. Rau was like that.

So it’s come to be that the first person to see a gleaming white skull shouts out a cheery “See you on the other side!” then digs his heels into his horse’s flanks and off they go. Unless it’s Nimay, in which case she just grins and goes.

Coconut and I used to win the first races nearly every time, but my girl’s getting a bit elderly now, so she’s not quite as quick off her hooves as she used to be. She’s a lovely animal though, still puts everything into it even though she hasn’t got a hope against the younger horses. Mongrel and Nol won today, at which point Mongrel decided to rear in triumph and almost tip Nol off his back. Why he hasn’t gelded the thing yet, I don’t know. He threatens, but I think those threats have lost all meaning to the Aeia-damned stallion.

Anyway, the race always relieves a lot of the tension. We’re looking out for the border in the hopes that we’ll be the first one to it, rather than dreading the sight of it. Haenel’s been to Kazin several times before, so there was no obligatory “High and holy blood of the goddesses, they’re skulls!” from him as from every other new recruit. Even Nol commented he didn’t remember the skulls from his previous visit. Maybe he was asleep when he crossed the border the first time, because I honestly don’t know how something like that wouldn’t stick in your mind.

Truth be told, there’s no dramatic change in landscape upon crossing the border. If there were no skulls there, there’d be no way of knowing. The grass is the same brown, there are no more clouds in the sky, the temperature doesn’t suddenly drop to freezing and no rivers instantly spring into existence. The trees grow gradually taller and thicker, until they close around in a forest, but the forests don’t suddenly appear from nowhere.

For some reason, Kazin is always thought of as being a very green kingdom. Water everywhere, so trees and greenery everywhere, I guess. I can’t help but see it as grey. It’s a very grey kingdom, especially in the foothills on the Raykinian side. The grass is all silver-brown and grey, as though the life has been sucked out of it, as opposed to the more golden look our spinifex has. The earth has none of the vibrant red of our desert sand, but is instead dull grey. The sky is at best a washed-out, diluted blue, but more habitually glaring grey or dark blue-grey with grey rain falling out of it. There are grey granite stones and boulders scattered over the landscape…

It’s grey, there’s no other way of putting it. Even the supposed leafy green trees have had all the colour sucked out of them. The tropics are green, I’ll agree with that, but the mountains are most definitely grey.

We got some of that grey rain today, as a matter of fact, not long after having crossed the border. It’s not quite cold enough to get the fur cloaks unpacked just yet, but it’s certainly getting that way. Another day or two and I’ll be wrapping myself in mine.

The cold isn’t the worst thing about the rain though. The last mission we were up here, I broke my leg, and because we were too far from a healing house at the time, it didn’t heal quite properly. So now it hurts whenever it’s going to rain. Very useful back home in Raykin, but in Kazin, especially in Autumn, it barely ever stops raining, so my leg hurts the whole time. Just a dull throb, but that’s going to get increasingly worse as the mission progresses, I can tell.

The rain had slowed to what Kazinians call a “drizzle” when we arrived at the House of Welcoming Gifts, just as the sun was setting. The Kazinian Houses are some of the more annoying aspects of the kingdom, so we tend to avoid the most of the time, but Nimay made the executive decision in giving us all a bed for the night.

The Houses are basically a way for Kazinians to make money. In Raykin, we don’t charge foreign merchants any taxes until they start selling their merchandise. In Kazin, there are thirty-odd Houses between the border and Silrona. Travelling by road, it’s impossible to get to the city without passing at least ten Houses, so naturally we go across country, which makes life awkward to say the least.

But the Houses have beds. And stables. They’re expensive, but sometimes we just need that little bit of “luxury” to keep us going. Hence why I’m writing right now instead of huddled in a tent trying vainly to keep the drizzle off the pages.

For the average Raykinian merchant, the cost to pass through any of the Houses is, I understand, between two silvers and a gold piece per person, plus another few coppers for any camels, and doubled if said merchant wishes to spend the night. As I say, rather expensive. It depends on what your business is in Kazin, so someone selling jewellery would have to pay more than someone looking to buy some Kazinian rugs to sell back in Raykin.

Our business is, as you would imagine, rather more complicated and therefore rather more expensive. Five gold for each of us, another gold per horse (which is something I’ve never understood—Kazinians are more used to looking after horses than they are camels), then doubled to stay the night. One hundred and eighty gold pieces, for one night in a pretty average bed.

And you wonder why we’re high-paid. Yes, I believe the merchants can hold their tongues now.

Of course, it started out as eight gold for each of us, but when in Kazin, haggling is an art form. You’re expected to haggle. You’re looked at strangely if you pay the first quoted price for something, even taxes at Houses.

And thus begins the strange business of customs and immigration, which I believe is just Kazin’s way of making themselves look organised. It may fool the Kazinians who pass through, maybe even some Raykinians, but it’s an absolute joke to us. Kazin is far from being an organised kingdom.

Customs and immigration basically involves a lot of paperwork, whereby we give our names, kingdom of origin, occupation and intended purpose and duration of our visit. I always answer honestly, because it’s easier than making things up and they never do anything with the bits of paper anyway.

Then we get to show off our weapons a bit, which is always fun. I’m yet to figure out why they do this, but they like to have a record of every weapon that enters the kingdom. They tried to take them off of us once. Rau casually asked them how many soldiers they had on standby at the House, to which they answered “ten archers,” and carefully backed away from the shiny swords. Smart move.

Tonight there must have been a new person officiating the House of Welcoming Gifts, someone who felt some vague hint of sympathy towards Raykinians, or just really hated Silronans. Either way, we ended up with a “free” meal and beer, if of course you ignore the hundred and eighty we’d handed over earlier in the evening.

Pretty ordinary pub-style meal, as one would expect since it was free, though in Kazinian style. Chopped up vegetables thrown into some extremely greasy gravy and slopped into a bowl. Still better than most of us would have cooked, especially since whoever it who would have cooked (Murali, I believe) would have probably had to do so without fire.

The beer, though, was absolutely appalling. Nobody drank more than a mouthful, it was that bad. If you ever come to Kazin, don’t waste your money on the stuff. In fact, don’t even accept it if it comes free. Not even for novelty value. Dip a glass in the Ra-Lin and you’ll be far better off.

I don’t know how to describe it; it doesn’t even really taste like beer. There’s alcohol in it, you can just barely taste that, but I don’t know what in Lin’s sweet name they brew it from. Like diluted mud with alcohol, I think that’s the best way of describing it. Better to go without beer for the next month and a half than to drink that stuff. It’s absolutely foul.

As we were silently scooping down the casserole, knowing it was probably going to be the best meal until Kurae cooked again, the night’s manager, for want of a better word, came over to talk to us. At least among the runners of the Houses, we’re as well-known in Kazin as in Raykin. The rest of the kingdom generally doesn’t have any idea though. Not even the army personnel give us any higher regard than the rest of the Kazinian army. They know we’re the best in Raykin, but they don’t actually know what that really means. But in the Houses… we give them more gold than anyone else who passes through there, so they’re naturally trained to recognise us.

Anyway, the Kazinian official didn’t start off too well. She glanced at our full tankards of beer, gave a lopsided grin then joked in a husky voice, “Too strong for you, is it boys?”

Half the guys spluttered on their mouthful of casserole. A quarter, me included, stared at her in some strange look of incredulous disgust, and the rest exchanged glances debating, silently debating which words would be best suited for the situation. Too harsh and she might make us actually pay for the stuff, too soft and… we don’t do soft.

In the end, Melraan lifted his glass accusingly and told her, “This is not beer. It’s fermented ditchwater.” A good choice of words, I thought.

Nol then glanced disparagingly into his glass and muttered something about fermentation. I was on a different table, so couldn’t quite hear him, but It was probably something along the lines of, “You mean it’s been fermented?”

The Kazinian official laughed all-too-brusquely, which meant she was obviously feeling the daggers every one of us was shooting at her. “Oh, I was joking! Joking! Everybody knows what strong drinkers you fellows are! I was joking!”

No, we didn’t kill her, despite the wishes of about half the guys. But if she says that to every Raykinian who passes through, joking or not, she’s not going to last more than a week. Not just in the job, I mean she will literally not survive the week. Everyone who knows Raykinians can hold their liquor also knows not to mock us for the opposite. Blood of the goddesses.

Just as we were retiring to our rooms, there was an almighty screech from the kitchen, followed by giggling archers. Apparently the thrai’s head has finally made its appearance, so we don’t have to await its attack with baited breath anymore.

Tomorrow is when I guess you would say the “fun” starts. I’ve never gone into Kazin with the purpose of killing off every bandit from here to Silrona. Should be interesting, if nothing else.

Week 3      Week 5