Torathia was an odd place.
It was a place where cultures, tongues, and peoples mixed and mingled. Some of their clothes, food, and cultural traditions were very recognizably Middish. But strong influences from the south and east were stamped all across the land, in every city and on every streetcorner.
They all spoke Middish, in fact it was far more common than their own Torathi temple tongue. But their accents were so varied it bordered on the ridiculous. They ranged from the sort of posh cadence one might find in a Caedian lord’s great hall, to the soft lyrical sounds of old Cassaline, to the throaty vocalizations of Hassadian, to strange amalgamations wholly unique to Torathia.
It was a marvelous land, in its own way. A rich land, filled with opportunity.
A strange land.
Most of them would say the same about the Free City, like as not, Dylan thought to himself as he rode. And they’d be right.
Victoria, the City of Kings, would always be home to Dylan. He would always be grateful that he grew up on a farm within the Victorian borders, and not a dozen miles south. As a Victorian farmer, he was still a Victorian. A free man, like every other Victorian: beholden to none, equal to all. If he’d been born across the border, in the kingdom of Kirkworth, he would’ve been a peasant. A serf, sworn to serve his lord, chained into the same feudal landscape as everywhere in the Midlands.
Everywhere but Victoria.
And Torathia, Dylan acknowledged.
Torathia was different, but it was no Victoria. They still had nobles, here, and lowborn. The business with Yusef Scaleman had proved that. But rather than ultimate authority deriving from a king’s noble blood, in Torathia everything came back to the Church. It seemed a worse system to Dylan, prone to some of the same excesses and abuses as any feudal kingdom.
But Dylan had left behind the Free City for a reason. He had no interest in tilling the fields with his kin. Rejected from serving the city’s government, rejected from serving in the Sons of Victory, rejected at every turn. When he finally met Terence Tanner, he had been desperate for somewhere to belong. The Free Spears provided that.
For a while, anyway, he thought. Terence was a good man. Not a great man, but a good one. He cared about his men, at least.
Dylan glanced ahead, towards Aleksandr. The Ruskan rode alongside the priestess, deep in conversation. He still felt there was much to learn about this new commander, but there was no denying that Aleksandr was a good man.
And maybe a great one,he admitted to himself. Remains to be seen.
An overcast sky shed gray light over the landscape. The Torathian outpost of Nashim loomed ahead of them. Twin rocky bluffs overlooking the Cassaline road as it cut through a ravine, and atop each bluff was an old stone drum tower. Cassaline work, kept in good repair even after all these years. A rough, wood-walled township filled the slopes on this side of each bluff as they descended into the plains.
It wasn’t Nahash, or Victoria, or even Misviyr. Just a small fortified outpost, but still Dylan could hear the sounds of life and commerce bustling in the distance. Nashim was the last keep within Torathia-proper, as he understood it.
“Torathia-proper.” Strange concept. To most of Dylan’s kin on the far side of the mountains, everything east of the Midland Mountains was Torathia. But the reality was that even here, much of the land was divided up amongst a variety of disparate small kingdoms and fiefdoms. Only the core of the region, radiating out from Nahash and the other major trade cities, could truly be counted as Torathia.
Which made Nashim a defensive keep, after a fashion. A border guard. If that’s what it was, it was a good one. Any force passing through the ravine below would be subjected to sustained and deadly fire from Nashim’s two towers. An assault up the other side of the bluffs would be costly.
If this is the edge of Torathia, I’d wager the Serpentes wield less influence once you cross that ravine, Dylan thought. It’s some podunk Torathian “kingdom” instead.
Dylan urged his steed forward, closing the distance between him and Aleksandr. As he grew closer, they came into earshot.
“—no disrespect, Alaina,” Aleksandr was saying. “If I misspoke…”
Alaina laughed. “For the last time, Aleksandr: Your questions are not disrespectful. They mark you as an honest man with an inquisitive temperament. Those are good—”
“Whip,” Yorrin murmured from beside Dylan. “Something wrong?”
Alaina was still talking, but the sudden closeness of Yorrin overrode Dylan’s senses, and he turned to face the small man. He’d been so focused on catching up with Aleksandr, he’d barely noticed Yorrin intercepting him.
“No. Not yet, anyway. Sorry if I startled you. I was hoping to speak with Aleksandr,” he said. “I had a thought.”
Yorrin nodded, his face cool and impassive. His chin and cheeks were dusted with more stubble than Dylan had seen him with thus far. It wasn’t a good look, making him seem even older than he already appeared.
“Aleksandr,” he said. Aleksandr paused in his conversation, and both he and Alaina looked back.
“The Whip wants a word.”
They looked to Dylan, then. His gut tightened for a moment, as he realized the members of the group riding behind them had likely caught up by now, and were staring at him too.
“I was just thinking… Nashim is the last outpost inside Torathia, yeah?”
Alaina smiled. “Indeed. By nightfall we will be within the borders of the kingdom of Karim.”
“Right,” Dylan said, nodding. “When I came over with the Free Spears, we came through Cardenbury. Took the Pontiff’s Pass. That drops you pretty much into Torathia straight away, with Ephrath so close. But even so, Captain Tanner, he said the most dangerous place in Torathia is just outside.”
Aleksandr cocked his head, confused. “Am not sure I understand” he admitted. “Perhaps I have not the words? My Middish…”
“Not your fault,” Yorrin said to him. “It’s an odd concept. But I think I get what your dead Captain was saying, Whip.”
Dylan’s jaw clenched at the dismissive way Yorrin brushed past Terence’s death. He felt a flare of anger, more at himself than Yorrin, but he tamped it down. Yorrin continued, oblivious.
“Right outside a kingdom, even if you’ve got good landmarks for borders, is always going to be dangerous,” Yorrin said. “Nobody can cleave to a border perfectly. Most patrols stay at least a mile or so from the ‘border,’ such as they can see it. Bandits use that, knowing that right along the razor’s edge of the border between nations is a place that they can hide.”
“Right,” Dylan said, embarrassed at how succinctly Yorrin had articulated his own thoughts. “That.”
“Ah,” Aleksandr said. “I think I am understanding now. We must be careful, after we pass between those towers.”
Dylan nodded. “Probably the most dangerous part of the journey lies just beyond Nashim.” He hesitated, then added: “Other than the hostile goblin hordes, I mean.”
“Naturally,” he heard Prudence mutter behind him, her tone sardonic. Dylan felt heat on his cheeks.
“Is a good thought, Dylan. Wise,” Aleksandr said. “We stay vigilant, da?”
“Actually,” Alaina interjected. “It may be even wiser than you know, Dylan. Between Torathia and the Underpass lies the kingdom of Karim. It is small… Far smaller than Torathia. I suspect that even once we are well within its borders, we ought to remain vigilant.”
“We sleep with sentries, starting tonight,” Aleksandr said. “And always someone is watching for trouble on the road, front and back of our column.”
A chorus of approval met the suggestion. One, in particular, was quite loud.
“Finally!” Bear shouted. “Maybe we get some, what is word, Yorrin? For not boring?”
“You want some action, Bear. Or maybe excitement.”
“He wants some violence,” Prudence murmured.
It was unlikely Bear heard her remark, since he was already bellowing over her. “Action! Excite mint too long. Action is good word. Da, I want action!”
As always, Bear’s antics mostly earned a few rolled eyes and tolerant chuckles. Of everyone, it almost seemed like the priestess was the most amused.
“Patience, Bear. I’m sure you’ll get your action sooner or later,” she said. She turned to Aleksandr. “Should we not stop in Nashim’s market, to pick up a few more supplies? Civilization will keep growing more scarce for some time, the further we go down this road.”
Aleksandr nodded. “More food, perhaps.”
“More arrows, too,” Dylan said.
That got him a few looks. “You’ve lost some since you bought a quiverful?” Yorrin said. He eyed the quiver lashed to Dylan’s steed. Its leather cap was fastened closed, but a keen eye could still make out the bundle of arrows kept within.
“No,” Dylan admitted. “But… might be a good idea to bring more anyway. It’s not like we can stop off at a fletcher’s in the Underpass.”
Aleksandr nodded. “Good idea, Dylan.
“Bah! More stop?” Bear grumbled. “We go, Aleksandr! Go kill little goblin fighty men!”
“Keep moving,” Yorrin told Aleksandr. “I’ll swing through Nashim’s markets and pick up what we need, catch up with you on the way.”
Aleksandr frowned. “Are you sure? Is not better if we stay together? I have plenty of coin…”
“Nah, it’s fine,” Yorrin said, wrinkling his nose dismissively. “I’ve got more than enough shekels to load a few sacks of smoked meat, hard bread, and harder cheese.” He glanced at Dylan, and gave a thin smile. “And arrows, too, if there’s a fletcher or a smith that sells ‘em.”
“I’ll go with him,” Prudence offered quietly. “Watch his back, and help if there’s more than he can carry on his own.”
“How you help? Your arms so small,” Bear said.
Prudence just gave Bear a long, quiet look. Dylan could feel the contempt radiating off of her eyes, and he knew if she’d looked at him that way, he would have withered. Bear just stared at her, oblivious, brow drawn in confusion.
“Saddlebags, Bear,” she finally said.
Understanding dawned on the big barbarian, and his expression brightened.
“I can handle myself, Prudence,” Yorrin snapped.
These two, Dylan mused. They’re so alike. Is that why they hate each other so much?
“No shit,” Prudence said. “Even so, in case you need to handle more than just yourself, I’ll tag along.”
“Yorrin…” Aleksandr’s voice had a measure of caution in it, and Yorrin shrugged.
“Fine,” he said. “Keep up, then. Let’s ride on ahead.”
Yorrin wheeled his horse, but before he had snapped the reins and urged his steed forward, Aleksandr stopped him.
“One more thing,” the Ruskan said. He wasn’t looking at Yorrin. Instead, he was staring up at the sky. The gray clouds that obscured the sun now swirled, thicker and darker than they had been an hour ago. They seemed much lower, much closer to the ground. Dylan knew enough to know what Aleksandr was seeing. He felt a cold wind beginning to blow from the east.
The ending weeks of winter in Torathia were brutal, at times. As bad as any part of it. Sleet storms could kill as easily as a snowy blizzard, if one didn’t take sufficient precautions.
Yorrin paused, looked back. He glanced skyward, then back to Aleksandr. He saw it too. Aleksandr lowered his eyes from the clouds and met the small man’s eyes.
“Cloaks. Canvas,” Aleksandr said “Whatever they have. Is likely we will need more shelter, I think.”