AUTHORS: Mel and Christy, soldiering on despite Real Life hitting a few rocks!
WARNINGS: Yaoi, angst, sap, language, some OOC, AU...
PAIRINGS: 1x2, 3x4, 5x?
DISCLAIMER: 'Gundam Wing' and the 'Oath of Swords' series are owned and created by people who are not us. We're still jealous.
FEEDBACK: Makes our lives complete!

Demon of Justice + Chapter 37
Avoiding an arms race

I feel like a mob of small children are about to mug me, Wufei thought wryly.

The crews of three halfling warships -- four ships, counting the crew of the Osprey -- certainly made a crowd large enough to count as a mob, though they were much quieter and better-disciplined. Gathered on the beach, carrying an assortment of weapons and lanterns, they were muttering among themselves, looking back and forth between him and Nataku looming above them in the darkness. Uthmar and Arwen had explained his place in their group and the background leading up to it, and now they were waiting for... what? A decision? For the assembled crews to come to a consensus on whether or not Wufei and Nataku had to die anyway?

And they were all about three feet tall.

You didn't think of Uthmar and I and the rest of us dwarves as children, Karthan snickered in his head. Or did you?

You're all about four feet tall, bearded, and built like brick walls, Wufei snorted. They're a lot thinner than you. I'm sure they're stronger than they look, the weapons they're carrying are proof enough of that, but the point is that they look like five-year-old human children with horns. Admittedly, some of them look like five-year-old human children wearing impressive false moustaches...

There was a sputter of laughter, but when Karthan 'spoke' again his mental voice was more serious. Keep your mind on the weapons and moustaches, not their height, if you can, he advised. Halflings as a race have a reputation for cowardice, but that doesn't apply to Marfangers. They may be small, but that just means that more of them can attack one target at once, they're harder to hit, they're nearly as strong as humans and they're fast.

Back in my own world, I spent a lot of time over the last couple of years taking advantage of people underestimating me based on my age and size, Wufei told him dryly. I'll keep it in mind.

"I have a question," growled the halfling who seemed to be commanding the three warships. He had a surprisingly deep voice to be coming from such a narrow chest, a restrained moustache, and what looked like a couple of metal bands fastened to his horns -- decoration or reinforcement, Wufei couldn't tell. "Two questions," he corrected himself.

"Yes, Commander?" Uthmar said politely.

"Not for you," he snapped, jerking his chin towards Wufei. "I'm asking the demon." His mail leggings jingled as he stamped towards where Wufei was leaning against Nataku's foot, coming to a halt with fists on his hips and his chest thrown out, breastplate gleaming in the lantern light. "Why'd you save my crewman?"

Wufei blinked, eyebrow lifting. "Because he needed it."

A faint noise, a muffled laugh perhaps, came from where Vaijon and the rest of the Order of Torframos's men were standing. "He does that," somebody muttered.

"Huh." Commander Morash's chin jutted out aggressively. "Fair enough. What do you plan to do now?"

"Well." Wufei considered for a moment. "Sharna seems to be devoting a lot of his attention to trying to kill me, so I think annoying him is a good basic goal. I haven't worked out the details yet, but killing his priests has been working so far."

Morash barked a laugh, and the predatory grins gleaming from half the assembled halflings suddenly made it much easier to remember they were adults. "Ah, now there's a goal I can be agreeing with," the commander said, eyeing Wufei with new respect. "So you're not feeling any sort of obligation to Demon Breath for bringing you here?"

Wufei snorted. "Why would I? I had a perfectly good home in my own world, friends closer than family and a cause to fight for. It's nice enough here, I suppose, but it's not where I want to be. If I owe Sharna anything, it's a kick in the teeth!"

"Right then," Morash grunted, nodding briskly. "Damned if I'm going to stand in your way. Anyone think different?" he called, looking back over his shoulder at the assembled crews. Several of them shrugged or nodded, muttering to each other again, but the commander's eyes were on the blue-robed mage; Adric had his arms folded and a half-smile on his face, clearly not objecting. Turning back to Wufei, Morash grinned and stuck out his hand. "Pleased to have you on our side, Sir Demon. Better than what I was expecting to happen tonight!"

* * * * *

"Krashnark?!" Yurgazh said incredulously. "Girl, he's had less to do with mortals in the last few hundred years than-- than Silendros has," he sputtered, naming the Goddess of Stars.

"That's a fair enough thing to say," Mathel shrugged, "but that's also the past, and it's not the way things are going to be from now on. I've seen him, Captain." She leaned forward, meeting his eyes with an intense stare. "Seen him and spoken to him, closer than you are to me now. I owe him my life, and if he says it's time for hradani to stop ignoring the gods then I believe him... and if you're minded to cut me down for worshipping a Dark god, now's your chance."

Yurgazh's jaw set. "He's Dark all right. How's worshipping him any better than following one of the others?"

"That's fair, too," she allowed, smiling slightly. "All I can say to that is, look at what they do. You know what the rest of the Dark gods do, what they're like. Would Sharna appear in one of his temples and say 'No, sacrifices aren't what I want, stop that'?"

The captain's ears flattened as he looked at her incredulously, and her smile broadened into a near-grin.

"Krashnark did," she said softly. "Sharna wants us to lick his boots and like it; Krashnark wants us to be ourselves. I think... if we choose to follow him, he can get us to a place where we can be proud of what we are. Rightfully proud! Not the sort of pride Black Churnazh has, that he hugs to himself at night thinking of how he's got his foot on our necks," she spat. "And if it really is time for us to choose a god to follow, who else can we follow but Krashnark? The other Dark gods have done too much to us over the centuries; and for all they talk about loving mortals, none of the Light gods have lifted a finger for us in over a thousand years."

Yurgazh settled back against his desk, hand loosening slightly on his swordhilt. "Why now?" he asked quietly. "He's the god of War, and there's been war enough without him ever bothering to show up. Is he waking up now because it's about to get worse?"

"I don't know," Mathel told him frankly. "He hasn't said, and truth be told, I -- we -- haven't asked yet. But really, Captain... we're hradani, and Bloody Sword hradani at that. Half the world fears us, the other half hates us, the Horse Stealers just stepped all over us in a war that Churnazh looks to be starting up again, he's beginning to lose the support of the other Bloody Sword cities, and the Sothoii are just waiting for us to look weak. Did you think it was going to get better?"

"Ha!" Yurgazh grinned despite himself. "You never know. Miracles do happen."

"Ah, but Captain... you need a god for that," Mathel grinned back.

* * * * *

"Aw, 'Lena, babe, please don't cry," Duo said, helplessly patting her shoulder. "We're not going to just up and vanish on you tomorrow! Um... guys? Little help here?"

To everyone else's surprise, it was Heero who reached out and started awkwardly rubbing Relena's back. "Relena-- 'Lena," he said quietly, using Duo's affectionate term for her. "We can't stay. It took us a while to work it out ourselves, but we really can't."

"Why not?" she asked, voice cracking. "Milliardo thought he couldn't-- shouldn't-- stay, but he, he changed his mind, why can't you?"

"Because we're not as much like him as you might think," he told her gently. "Zechs only piloted Tallgeese because it was the best way he could serve his cause. He can give it up, forget those skills, and be happy in a different life. We... can't."

"You don't know that," she said angrily, twisting away from the soggy patch she'd created on Duo's shirt. "You haven't tried!"

"It doesn't matter whether we can or not, really," he shrugged. "Say we could be happy as ordinary people. Say we stayed here and tried to build a normal life for ourselves. You know the people in the interim Government, 'Lena; you know how the people who are going to be running the world think. Would we be allowed?"

"...I don't understand," she whispered, staring at him wide-eyed. "You-- but-- why wouldn't you be allowed to be normal?"

"You think of us as people because you know us, Relena," Quatre sighed. "A lot of people are going to think of us as weapons. Well, we are weapons; and most politicians will either want to use us, or make sure nobody else can."

"Gundam pilots arms race," Duo snickered. "Sorry, hon. We've hashed out this same conversation about three times since yesterday, so we've had time to get used to the idea. You can protect your brother, but even you don't have enough political oomph backing you up to protect all of us. Besides, we want Wufei back, and apparently that trip only works one-way."

"Oh. Yes. I... almost forgot. Wufei needs you... more than I do. I shouldn't be selfish." She laughed, a little bitterly, wiping her face. "I'm Relena Peacecraft. I don't get to be selfish any more."

Duo snorted, rolling his eyes. "Hell yes you do! 'Lena, we just bullied your brother into staying put so you wouldn't lose him again, what do you call that?" He held up a finger to stop her as she turned to him, horrified. "Yes, I know, that's not why we did it, and it's as much for his good as it is for you, but think about it. If you look at it one way, we did it for perfectly innocent and benevolent motives. If you look at it another way, we totally ignored his desires and used emotional blackmail to get what we wanted. Half of life's decisions are like that, so yeah, we're being damn selfish by skipping off into another dimension to have fun with our friend Wufei and avoid having to get rid of our toys. At the same time, we're sacrificing our lives and friendships here and selflessly flinging ourselves into the void, removing ourselves as a source of conflict. The truth is somewhere in the middle."

Relena blinked. "Duo... I'm a bit confused here. Are you telling me to stop whining, or that it's okay to be more selfish?"

"Yes!" he said triumphantly, grinning at her. "Though I'd probably tell you not to be emo instead, I've had good luck with that word today. 'Lena, I'm sorry. I really am. I know it seems like we're abandoning you, but we'd have to leave one way or another; it's kinda hard to hide from law enforcement and sleazy politicos while you're dropping in for your weekly lunch with the Vice-Foreign Minister."

"You did just fine during the war even with me turning up on your doorstep all the time," she pointed out caustically.

"That's exactly my point, babe. You kept finding us, and we had to keep abandoning safehouses before OZ followed you. They were kinda incompetent, really," Duo mused, "but if half the world government ended up looking for us -- and they would -- we'd have to get serious about hiding, and that means no contact with anyone known to associate with us. Which means you." He shrugged.

Relena accepted yet another tissue from Quatre and blew her nose, sniffing. "Are you sure you were running away from OZ, and not me in my persona as Heero's creepy stalker?"

"OZ. Honest. Though it was kind of a package deal," he grinned.

----------

After Relena finally left, Duo collapsed onto the sofa, letting his crutches rattle to the floor. "Argh," he groaned, letting his head fall back and rubbing his eyes. "It's not even lunchtime and I'm exhausted. No wonder Zechs gave in when 'Lena was crying at him! She's got a freaking weapon of mass terror there!"

"That must be it," Heero nodded, picking up the crutches and leaning them against the wall within Duo's reach. "It couldn't possibly have anything to do with you getting hardly any sleep last night."

"I'm a damn Gundam pilot and walking weapon, Heero, or did you miss the whole conversation reminding Relena of that little fact? It takes more than a few hours of missed sleep to get me down. Princesses crying at me definitely counts as more. --Unless I'm getting old in my teens. God. I'm using crutches, that's halfway to a cane isn't it? I should stand out on the front porch shaking them at kids and yelling for them to get off the lawn."

"We don't get kids on our lawn," Heero pointed out. "They're all over on the other side of the street, looking at the gossip ladies' cats."

"Well that spoils my fun. Go bribe them with cookies or something to get them over here so I can shake my crutches."

"I don't think that would fit with our cover story, Duo... unless you really want people to think you're high, and reinforce the rumour about you being kneecapped in a drug deal gone wrong, in which case I'll probably get arrested on suspicion of luring juveniles with adulterated baked goods."

Duo's head snapped up, eyes wide. "Holy shit, don't tell me that one actually got started!"

Heero smirked. "I told you what would happen if you chopped the leg off those jeans. It's not a very popular rumour, but it's out there. The gossip ladies assure me they'll squash it."

"Since when did you start talking to Miss Immy and Miss Neppy?" Duo laughed, grinning.

"Since I was working on the car out in the driveway three days ago, to keep up my side of the cover story, and they came over for a 'little chat'."

"Oh man, I feel for you! I know what they mean by a 'little chat' -- I have fun, but you aren't exactly the happy chatty type. Three hours?"

"I got away with two," Heero grimaced, "but it was at the expense of a promise to keep them up to date on how the engine runs. Which one's which, by the way? They never got to formal introductions."

"They don't," Duo snickered. "They just start in like they've known you all your life. Miss Immy, real name Imogen Sands, is the taller one; Miss Neppy is the shorter one with darker hair, real name Niobe Hawthorne. Three cats each, Miss Neppy is considering getting a puppy, both widows in their early seventies, best friends since they were about five years old, moved in together roughly twenty years ago when their husbands died."

"Were they talked to death?"

Duo snorted. "How dare you malign two sweet and only slightly garrulous elderly women? Cop shot in the line of duty, and plain old age -- Miss Immy apparently has a thing for older men."

"I'll believe that when I see the death certificates." Heero grimaced again. "I have to admit, though, you were right when you said they could be part of our security system. Nothing gets past those two, and since they started talking to me they've kept me up to date on practically every vehicle that's come down this street. I gather they're telling me about cars because they believe I'm interested in them."

"Yup! And they tell me about everyone's medical problems and accidents," Duo nodded. "Nothing anybody would want to keep secret -- they're really good about not passing on anything embarrassing or malicious -- but I know who fell off a ladder winterproofing their house, that sort of thing."

"I get all the pet-related news," Trowa said mildly, leaning on the doorframe with a drink in his hand. "Last I heard, Quatre was getting clothes and caffeine talk; Miss Neppy is just as much of a coffee fiend as he is."

"How do they find the time to talk to everyone if they're spending two or three hours with each one?" Heero asked incredulously.

"They don't," Trowa shrugged. "It's just that everyone else is up to date; with us, they're trying to get through several years worth of gossip in one go."

* * * * *

"Well," Holderman said dryly, rubbing tired eyes. "That's a new record, even for us."

Evark grunted assent, leaning on the rail and squinting towards the rising sun as the Wind Dancer slid smoothly through the calm waters of the Bay of Kolvania. "We needed to make good time while we had blue water to sail in," he pointed out, voice harsh with fatigue. "Even I'm not about to sail at night once we get inland. We're going to need to take pilots aboard... hells, we're going to need maps. Gods only know if any landsman's drawn maps we can trust, though."

Holderman laughed. "Aye, well, they do tend to concentrate on unimportant things like roads and towns, Captain."

"Uff. You know more about the inland geography than I do," Evark said, stretching with both hands in the small of his back. "Know anything about the Bellwater river?"

"A little," his first mate admitted. "We shouldn't need to worry about shoals or picking a route until well after we hit Riverside, about thirty leagues in; there's nowt but the main channel, and it's good and deep. So long as we set a watch to keep an eye out upstream for snags and floating trees, we should be fine. After Riverside, though, there's about fifteen leagues clear sailing on the Morvan River -- same channel, just a different name -- and then we'll reach the Lower Saram. That splits into four or five separate branches, and I've no idea which is the best one to take. If I remember rightly, three of them come together again below Derm, but at least one of those has a reputation for bad shoaling."

"So we'll need to pick up a pilot, or a good map. Better a pilot," Evark mused, "they'll know the landmarks where we'd have to puzzle them out. At Riverside?"

Holderman shook his head, yawning hugely. "Saramfal. The city lies in the first fork we'll reach in the Lower Saram, a pilot based there will have better local knowledge."

"Sounds like a good idea. We've got a course to sail and daylight to sail in; get to your bunk and get some sleep, man. I'll need you awake to take over the noon watch. Given a bit of luck and fair winds, we ought to make Riverside just after dusk if you've remembered the distances right."

* * * * *

"I'm glad to be off again," Karthan muttered, half to himself and half to Wufei, sending the thought down the link. "That wasn't a good spot to be spending the night."

Oh? Wufei's reply was tinged with sleepiness; he'd slept in Nataku's pilot chair again, Gundam resting on the sea floor, and was taking longer than usual to wake up. What was wrong with it?

That, the dwarf thought grimly, looking towards a treeless ridge on shore. Above the beach where they'd talked to Commander Morash and his crews, silhouetted against the dawn sky, a ragged group of figures were watching the Osprey set sail. This is about the northern edge of Wild Wash territory. We weren't far off shore, and they have boats; Captain Grantik made sure the anchor watch were armed and wary, and the Order set sentries as well, but it wouldn't have been pleasant if they'd decided to come for a visit.

Hradani, yes? Uthmar said something about them, night before last... The thought paused, fading out, then resumed. Karthan? What is it about hradani? I've only met Cord and Naiya, and they seem to get along well with everyone, but whenever someone mentions other hradani people seem... wary.

Um. Karthan rubbed his nose, frowning. Wary is a good word for it, yes. Cord and Naiya aren't typical, Wufei; that's not to say that all hradani are murderous brigands, but plenty of them are. Even the ones that are mostly law-abiding when they're sane are dangerous.

When they're sane?! What do you mean by that?

Grimacing, Karthan glanced towards the prow of the ship where Cord and Naiya were standing along with several of the Order of Torframos, staying out of the sailors' way. Hradani are berserkers. All of them-- well, all of the men. They run mad, and not just in battle; from what I've heard, and seen myself as well, it doesn't take much to set some of them off, and they're almost impossible to stop.

I spent about ten days in that village, Karthan, Wufei sent stubbornly. Nobody there was expecting Cord to go berserk.

So he's a calm one, Karthan replied. He still went crazy during the fight against Sharna's temple guardsmen, while you and I were stuck underground. He and Naiya are good people, Wufei, I'm not disputing that. The fact remains that a lot of hradani aren't, Wild Wash definitely included, and even if every one of them took up charitable works and joined a priesthood people would still be wary of them because of what happened during the Fall of Kontovar!

The what?

"Gods," Karthan muttered aloud, leaning his elbows on the rail and rubbing his temples. "Now that he can speak fluently, I keep forgetting how much he doesn't know..." Kontovar is the landmass to our south. Twelve hundred years ago, the followers of the Dark Gods destroyed the Ottovaran Empire and drove the survivors north to Norfressa before they were wiped out by the last white wizards calling fire from the sky. The hradani were their shock troops, the first fist of the Dark armies. People have long memories for something like that.

...

That's the short version. The long version involves us getting to the Motherhouse and spending a few days in the library there.

...Twelve hundred years, and people are still holding their ancestors' sins against an entire race? Even if every single hradani living back then chose the side of the Dark Gods, which I sincerely doubt, their descendents didn't--

It was all of them, Karthan interrupted. Every one. The way I heard it, they were compelled or manipulated or something-- I don't know the details, which is why the long version requires the Motherhouse library, but--

Compelled?!

Ah-- yes. The dwarf blinked, taken aback by the force Wufei put behind that single word. It's why hradani hate wizards; Carnadosa's dark wizards did something--

So we're talking about ancient history that wasn't even their fault in the first place, and the other races still blame the hradani instead of the ones who did it to them?! Dear gods but this world is fucked up! Wufei raged, and Karthan flinched as the link between them slammed shut.

"Ow," he muttered, rubbing at his forehead. "Put that way, I can see his point..."

----------

Seething, Wufei glared at the screen showing him a camera view of Osprey's hull from below, dyed green by the depth of water above him. Twelve hundred years! Twelve hundred years and how many generations? How many changes in the story as it's been passed down? How many people with a vested interest in it being 'us' versus 'them' and having 'them' be the villains? I'd bet the version the hradani tell would focus more on the, ha, details that the dwarves seem to have half forgotten. Who knows if it would be any more accurate, though--

Something about that last sentence seemed to echo significantly.

Who knows. Who does know what really happened?

Nobody alive today is going to know the pure, unadulterated truth, even if...

...No. Not 'nobody'. No mortal alive today knows the full story.

----------

Krashnark!

Startled, Krashnark pulled his attention away from yet another temple, turning his thoughts towards his prospective Champion. He sounds angry-- =*What's wrong?*=

I need a history lesson, if you have a moment.

=*Always. Which history? Or should I ask whose?*=

I want to know about the Fall of Kontovar. Specifically, the role the hradani played.

Krashnark's mouth curled into a wry smile. ...Ah. Yes, I should have anticipated something like this.

It didn't take him long to decide how to handle the conversation.

----------

=*The hradani were victims, even more than the people they killed. Given the choice, virtually all of them would have fought against My Father's forces. They were not given that choice.*=

Wufei blinked, startled by the blunt admission. "You don't deny it?"

=*What would be the point of lying to you? You'd find out soon enough, and I owe you truth at the very least.*=

"What happened?"

Somehow, Wufei could feel Krashnark settling down for a long explanation. =*Before the Fall of Kontovar, the hradani were one of the most respected Races of Man. They were known for their calm natures and good sense. They were also,*= his voice turned dry, =*large, strong, and swift to heal.*=

"Perfect soldiers, in other words," Wufei said, just as dryly.

=*Exactly... apart from the niggling little matter of free will,*= Krashnark agreed. =*The wizards -- my sister Carnadosa's followers -- were magically powerful, but at a disadvantage on a battlefield. Major spellcasting takes time, and can be disrupted if your enemy reaches you. White wizards, Semkirk's followers at the time, coordinated well with the other Light gods' forces and were able to shelter behind, say, a shield wall formed by Torframos's dwarves or Lillinara's warriors. We Dark gods and our followers... don't do that. The Carnadosans had to provide their own shielding force. They found one.*=

"An entire people?!"

=*It was the nature of the spell they cast,*= the god told him, sounding mildly regretful. =*Instead of affecting just those hradani within their reach, they aimed to... twist... the nature of the race. My sister helped. The hradani became larger, stronger, faster to heal, resistant to magic... and berserkers, under the control of the wizards. They were an extremely effective weapon.*=

Wufei choked. "You almost sound like you approve!"

Krashnark's tone darkened. =*I don't. I am the God of War, and My worshippers fight and die by their own choices, for their own causes. Their actions in battle are their prayers to Me, and I do not presume to control them. The magical compulsion of an entire race, forcing them to fight and die by another's will, was an abomination. However. I am also My Father's Steward and General, and my duties in that role have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not I 'approve' of My siblings and their actions.*=

He paused, then went on when Wufei didn't reply. =*The wizards controlling the hradani died when Wencit of Rum and the last members of the Council of Ottovar blasted the continent behind the refugees as they fled, and the surviving hradani escaped north as well. The refugees from the other races turned on them, and hunted them nearly to extinction. They've survived -- barely -- by making strength and self-sufficiency their religion, in place of the gods they reject. Their males are still berserkers; they call it the Rage.*=

"Didn't anyone understand that it hadn't been their fault?"

=*Some did. Most didn't care.*= Wufei felt Krashnark shrug. =*They were a far easier target than the wizards who were truly to blame, after all. Can you look at two humans, dressed alike, and point out which is the wizard? No. But you can easily look at two mortals and pick out the hradani. They couldn't hide, Wufei, but the wizards could-- and the other humans knew it. It was far safer to target hradani than it was to try to hunt wizards when one of them might be standing right behind you.*=

"True," Wufei sighed, anger draining away. "I suppose it's human-- mortal, whatever-- nature. It was certainly easier for OZ to convince most of Earth's population that it was 'us versus them', Earth versus the colonies, than it was for them to admit that the real problem was some of their own people..."

=*You understand, then.*=

"That doesn't mean I have to like it."

=*Exactly.*=

"So... what about their current reputation? Are most hradani 'murderous brigands'?" Wufei asked sourly.

=*No. A significant percentage of them are brigands, whether murderous or not, but most? Hardly. Of course,*= Krashnark added, sounding darkly amused, =*the humans and dwarves who spread that reputation almost never admit to all the raids that go the other way, into hradani lands. It's to the point where everything is in revenge for something else, though the hradani were attacked first-- not that many others remember that.*=

The conversation paused again, and a quiet, brooding silence filled Nataku's cockpit... eventually broken by a snicker.

=*What?*=

"Nothing."

The mental equivalent of a disbelieving expression flicked into Wufei's mind, and he smirked. "All right, it was something. You really were being optimistic, weren't you? Thinking that I might agree to serve you even with this sort of history behind the Dark gods."

He could feel Krashnark grin, a cold shark's expression. =*What has history got to do with it? As I said, I am the God of War, and that means whatever war my worshippers choose to fight. If you requested my aid in a crusade against my little brother, for example, I would give it gladly.*=

Wufei blinked, then grinned back, just as coldly. "But not against your father, I'm guessing."

=*...There are limits.*=

----------

Time passed, slowly, but peacefully for once. Wufei welcomed his temporary isolation, cut off from outside contact except for Karthan's thoughts and Krashnark's mental visits; even those distractions were kept at a distance, both unwilling to bother him unless he called first. He ate ration bars and more of the small nearly-grapefruit, glad of the variety, and had time to think and heal over the next couple of days, cuts fading to white scars and then vanishing completely.

* * * * *

Elsewhere, others had time to heal as well-- or not.

----------

"How is he?" Evark asked, low-voiced. Chihar grimaced.

"Stable, for now," the halfling surgeon sighed.

"Is that good or bad?"

"Both. Good, because he's not getting any worse. Bad, because he should be getting better." Chihar sighed again, pulling at his goatee. "He's running a fever, low, but constant. I can keep feeding him febrifuges, I've got the herbs, but that's just a stopgap measure. The chop to his leg went to the bone, and that's where I think the infection is. It's not going to clear unless it drains, and I doubt I can lance that deep without killing him. He could go on like this for years, or he could fail and die in a five-day, that's how delicate the balance is. He needs a healer."

The pendant under Evark's tunic twinged, cold and warning, and he grimaced. "Pray he makes it to Hurgrum and they've got someone as can help him, then, because he's not getting one here," he growled, glaring up at the white walls of Saramfal, capital of Saramantha, pearl of the elven kingdom. "Seems like Foam Beard still wants to keep him secret."

"Secrecy's not going to help him if he dies of wound-fever."

"And a healer's not going to save him if we get boarded by a shipful of Sharna's dog brothers," Evark snapped. "Chihar, I know he needs more than we can manage ourselves. I know! But Korthrala wants him to live as much as we do, maybe more, and he's still warning me off, which tells me that one word in the wrong ear will get us that shipful of trouble."

"Korthrala's worried about agents of the Dark gods, here?!" Chihar gestured at the city. "They're elves. Half of them were alive during the Wizard Wars, they're not going to serve the gods that drove them out of Kontovar!"

"You haven't been to Saramfal before, have you?" Holderman asked, moving up behind the pair.

"--eh? No, why?"

"Because it may be an elven city, but there's not much chance of us actually dealing with elves," the first mate told him, leaning on the rail. "The docks are in the Trade Quarter, and that might as well be a separate town."

"Oh."

"And I'm not about to trust elves just because they're elves," Evark muttered. "I've seen trader captains sell out to pirates for money, or fear, or just because they felt like being on the side doing the looting for once; I don't reckon elves are any more immune to changing sides."

----------

Holderman turned out to be right. Not only did the Wind Dancer's crew not deal with elves as Evark negotiated fees for a pilot to Derm; they didn't even see one. The Trade Quarter was run by the Merchants' Guild, down to having their own guard force and city council, and the population seemed to be mostly human and dwarven. There were a few halflings skittering around the edges of the crowds -- not Marfangers, judging by their height and behaviour, so the crew weren't tempted to mingle -- and even a couple of hradani serving in the Guard.

And half-elves. Evark glanced to the side as his pendant chilled warningly, and the dwarf he was talking to followed his gaze to the elegantly garbed lord and his human underlings.

"I've seen him in Bortalik," Evark said in explanation, pulling his attention back to the conversation and trying to appear casual. "Didn't know the Purple Lords did their own business up here, though."

"They've got an embassy to Saramfal, and a separate one to the Trade Quarter," the dwarf shrugged. "That one comes up every few months; I think he's a courier for the Council of Lords, but he does plenty of trading on his own account."

"Makes sense, if he's here anyway," the halfling captain shrugged, carefully not looking sideways again even though the hair on the back of his neck was prickling; the half-elf had been heading in his direction. "So, how much is it to hire a pilot just to Derm? I'm not sure when we'll be coming back downriver."

"You aren't thinking of heading further east, are you?" the dwarf asked, scratching his beard. "I doubt there's any branch of the Upper Saram that'll reliably take a trading ship; the merchant caravans all switch to carts at Derm."

Damn! "No, no," Evark said calmly, waving one hand dismissively and rolling his eyes to disguise his reaction to that piece of information. "It's just that I'm on charter, see, and my principal doesn't talk about his schedule with the hired help. Gods only know when he'll be ready to sail back; I'm not about to pay a pilot to stay on board while we sit at the docks twiddling our thumbs."

"That sounds terribly inconvenient," a cultured voice drawled above his head, and he barely managed not to spin around with his sword drawn. "Captain... Fletchhollow, wasn't it?"

"Pitchallow," he said cheerfully, turning with an eyebrow raised instead of his weapon. "M'lord Serthan, if I'm not mistaken? I hope the spices I sold your factor last month have given satisfaction-- and did your lady wife like the silk?"

"I've heard no complaints," the half-elf sniffed, folding his hands inside his flowing sleeves. "What's this I hear about a charter?"

Overhear, you mean, you point-eared nosy bastard-- "That? I'm headed upriver to Derm. There's some cargo space to spare if you'd like to send anything along? I'll even give you a discount, seeing as how I'm headed there already." He cocked his head attentively, trying to look mildly avaricious. No Purple Lord would ever believe an innocent expression from a Marfang Island halfling, but they'd believe a trader captain looking for extra profit any day.

Serthan blinked. "Isn't Derm a little out of your usual range?"

"My principal didn't want to have to change ships, so he needed one that could both handle blue water and go upriver without bottoming out on the way. Thus my hire," Evark shrugged. "He's paying well enough." And thank the gods Holderman and I managed to come up with a plausible story before it was needed...

"And who is this so-financial principal?" the lord drawled, expression sharpening just a trace.

"Someone who's also paying for privacy, m'lord," Evark said mock-apologetically.

"Really!" Serthan huffed, seemingly offended, and yet... there was something off about his manner. "I don't see why you can't tell me. Aren't I a good customer?"

"Of course, m'lord!" As Purple Lords go. Which means you're terrible by any other standard. "So you'll understand that I can't discuss my principal's business," the captain continued, spreading his hands. "After all, I didn't discuss your business when you were planning that little trade coup with Southern spices to Belhadan, did I? It's the same now."

The half-elf practically pounced. "So it's some trade deal, hmm?"

Evark let a flicker of alarm show on his face. "Uh, I didn't say that."

"Oh, you can't fool me, Captain Fitcharrow," Serthan said playfully, waving one finger in the halfling's face. "Hmm, Derm; I'll bet it's weapons. No? Armour then. Don't bother to deny it, I can read you like a book. Well then, I shan't keep you..."

Evark waited until the half-elf was well clear, then snorted loudly and turned back to his previous conversation. "Ass," he said, voice loud enough to carry a little. "One day someone'll bite that damn finger of his off."

"I gather it's not weapons or armour, then?" the dwarf grinned.

"It's not even trade! Just between you and me-- " he leaned closer and dropped his voice slightly-- "somebody's looking at Baroness Ernos's daughter as a future match for their young son. Getting an early march on the competition, like."

"I should say so! Isn't the girl about four?"

Off to one side, the last member of Lord Serthan's retinue abruptly put down the fruit he'd been bargaining for and walked off. Evark pretended not to notice.

----------

On his way back to the docks after finishing his bargaining, the halfling captain took his time, strolling around the market and making several small purchases. He seemed indecisive, passing stalls with a shake of his head and then doubling back for a second look at the merchandise, but eventually he worked his way to the wide street that led down to the docks (called, imaginatively enough, Dock Street) and made his way back to Wind Dancer.

"How'd it go?" Master Holderman asked quietly.

"Serthan Du'hai Ardun is here, and being more curious than I like," Evark told him under his breath. "I think I fobbed him off, and I'm pretty sure nobody was following me, but all he'd have to do is send someone straight to the docks. Assuming he remembers the ship's name better than mine, though that could have been an act," he added as Holderman swore quietly through a fixed smile. "Is everyone on board?"

"Aye, Chihar came back just before you."

"Good. I want us ready to cast off the moment the pilot gets here, and I want the lookouts on watch for any ship that seems to follow us."

"Reckon Serthan was looking for our passenger?"

"Him, or someone else taking a message to hradani lands." Evark thought back to the quiet conversation he'd had with Brandark when the half-bard had first woken up. "I'm thinking Demon Breath isn't quite sure what all happened." He gave Holderman a meaningful jerk of his chin towards the companionway. "From what he told me, the leader of the ones hunting our passenger's friend had a cursed sword of some sort, but he was a bad swordsman and a fool to boot, and went down early in the fight. I reckon he had to be the only real link Sharna had in the group, or one of the others would have picked up where he left off; and without someone he can focus on, a god can't often see things in our world. So it's fairly likely the Scorpion knows the friend is dead -- if he was important enough to be hunted down that way, his death would be important enough to be noticed -- but for all he knows, there's twenty hradani making their way home with the news that the Dark have their fingers in the pie up north."

Holderman grimaced. "That's not exactly news I like to be carrying myself. Who's to say we aren't going to deliver the news to someone the Scorpion's got his claws on? I mean..." His voice trailed off and he looked eloquently at his captain.

"Aye, they're hradani," Evark nodded, answering the comment Holderman hadn't voiced aloud. "But I'm not about to write them all off, same as I'm not about to trust all the elves. Korthrala likes our passenger, so he's not following the wrong gods, and Foam Beard also wants this message delivered, so there's got to be people up there it's safe to deliver it to." He grinned suddenly, smoothing his moustache. "Besides, we've fought enough of the Wild Wash to know that they may be smugglers, bandits, and pirates, but the most of them are honourable smugglers, bandits, and pirates!"

The first mate snorted. "Oh, aye, weirdly honourable maybe but I'll give 'em that. All right, so we'll be good messenger boys and see how it goes. Did you arrange for a pilot to take us all the way, or just to Derm?"

"Hells, I'd almost forgotten that!" Evark scowled, tugging at his short hair. "We've got a pilot to Derm, but we probably won't be able to sail any further than that. The Upper Saram's not reliably deep enough."

"Ah, Phrobus piss on it! What are we going to do, then?"

"Damned if I know. Find a trading house and hire a couple of carts, maybe. There are regular caravans, so we'll manage something."

"We always do." Holderman managed half a smile, watching the dock traffic over his captain's shoulder. "Knowing you, we'll likely also come up with three trade deals and a cargo contract. --Is that the pilot?"

Evark turned and followed the pointing finger, squinting at the dwarf making his way purposefully towards their mooring. "Looks like. He's wearing the right colours, at least."

"Time we got moving, then," his second grunted, and stalked off, already bellowing orders. Evark stayed at the rail for a moment, eyes automatically following the dwarven pilot as he thought back to an earlier part of the conversation.

Brandark didn't know how many of the Navahkians lived, but he thought there were some, he mused, rubbing his chin. So for all I know, there really may be other hradani on their way home... though I don't know how eager they will be to spread the story, given as how it was their own prince gone over to Sharna and waving a cursed sword. They might. And if Demon Breath is digging his claws into one of the hradani cities, he's likely to be moving elsewhere, too.

So who else is out there right now, dodging cultists and praying he makes it to someone as can do something about it?

* * * * *

Kairic studied the little village from the shadow of the trees, scratching his stubble and frowning. He'd taken longer to reach it than he'd originally planned, even factoring in Greediguts's lameness; he wanted nothing to do with any Purple Lord forces right now, and the forest was uncomfortably cluttered with scouting parties. Only caution, wariness, and an unreasonably large helping of luck had enabled him to come this far without being sighted; now, however, it looked as if his luck might be running out.

That's one hell of a lot of horses and armoured men, he mused, crouching lower behind his sheltering bush. Damn. If I didn't know better, I'd say the army was quartering half a regiment here... and since I don't know better, that might be exactly what they're doing. Narrowing his eyes, he tried for a moment to find an angle that would give him a better view, then sighed and sat back on his heels.

I can't see any banners, and from this far away I can't make out any heraldry on their surcoats. They're wearing brown and blue, I think. If I want to get any more detail than that I'll have to work my way around, come at the village from the side without all the fields... so, do I want to? Or do I want to give up on this village and head for somewhere else?

...Head somewhere else, I think, he decided regretfully. It'll mean Greediguts goes a while longer without being re-shod, but this deep in Purple Lord lands the only armed forces that size are going to be the army, or some lord's personal forces. That's not Yithar's colours, but given how he looked when he passed me I'd say he was being hunted, so any of his relatives who come across me are likely to want to hush things up by hushing me up. No, I'll swing further west--

Something cold and sharp laid itself gently against his neck and cheek, and he froze.

"You look awfully suspicious lurking there like that, friend," a calm female voice said from behind him. "How about you come out where we can see each other properly, and you explain what you're up to?"

"If you can explain," a harder voice chimed in. "Personally I'd be happy to stick you right here and now, so I suggest you don't give me any extra reason to do it. Hands where we can see them and turn around, nice and slow."

Carefully, Kairic brought his hands up to shoulder height and shuffled around on his knees, leaning away from the blade. Close inspection -- closer than he really wanted -- revealed it to be a leaf-shaped spearhead, held admirably steady and polished bright enough to show him his own warped, wide-eyed reflection. It swung slightly as he turned, coming to rest with its point just barely pricking the hollow of his throat, and he resisted the urge to swallow hard as he looked up at his captors.

Three armoured women wearing moon-badged blue surcoats looked back at him. One was frowning darkly, suspicious blue eyes never leaving his own; there was a vicious scar running down her right cheek from hairline to throat, pulling the corner of her mouth up into a half-smile, but her expression could never have been mistaken for a friendly one. The other two were genuinely smiling, obviously amused, and even though one of them was holding the spear at his throat Kairic immediately judged them as far, far less dangerous.

Overriding everything else, though, was an immense feeling of relief. Sisterhood of Lillinara -- which means the ones in the village wearing brown are probably Order of Torframos, not the army. I'm safe.

Three sets of eyebrows lifted in surprise as Kairic grinned broadly, spear still at his throat and hands still lifted in surrender. "Gods preserve us, am I glad to see you!"

The spear-wielder blinked, then cocked her head towards the scowling woman without shifting her gaze. "Do you know, Kerry, I think he's serious?"

'Kerry' snorted, cropped black hair wafting in the breeze. "So long as he's not thinking good looks and a pretty smile will get him out of trouble."

"Actually, I'm thinking that relying on good looks and a pretty smile would probably get me into trouble, since I'm sure you've seen it all before," Kairic assured her honestly. "I was planning on doing exactly as I'm told and answering questions with the truth. Will that do?"

Almost unwillingly, the unscarred side of her mouth twitched up to match the other for a moment. "It's a start," she admitted. "I think I'll wait to see what exactly this 'truth' is before I give you any guarantees, though."

"Well, I know you aren't going to like it," he shrugged, relaxing a little more as the spear-wielder pulled her weapon back a judicious finger-width or two. "But it's not me you're going to be mad at, so I'm not tempted to make anything up."

"...Now that sounds interesting," the spearwoman murmured, regarding him with considerably more curiosity. "And more likely to be truthful than we were expecting, I think. Come along, then; I'm looking forward to hearing this story of yours."

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