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Shattered Mirror


Arrival


It is dusk. The heroes' legs are tired: even Humakti discipline can wear thin after four days' march across desert. They trudge on uncomplaining, even with a renewed spring in their step, for ahead they spy low-fires and huts, a village settling down for the night. They are expecting it, they have even been aiming for it, but the sight is a relief nonetheless.

Moving through the last of the fields the warriors temper the eagerness of their bellies for warm food and beer with instinctive caution, eyes ready for the least sign of danger. Ahead, a small group of Yelmalian farmers watch the approaching warriors with obvious trepidation. They edge back towards the village carefully, one of their number sprinting back, raising the alarm. Mothers gather children and bundle them indoors, for Death approaches.

"Well, there it is. Looks like the place survived without you for a few weeks after all."
Mara snorts good-humouredly at Dori's comment. The plump little woman might look fit for no more than a little light embroidery, preferably in the shade, but she had kept up with their march without apparently noticing any discomfort, and had made her original journey to Horn Gate without any escort at all. There was an iron will there that Dori would not like to cross. Fortunately they seemed to be in agreement on many things, especially the ability of men to organise themselves without help.

Dori gazes at the squalid little huts, the drooping palm trees, the dusty vegetable patches, with an expression of thoughtful distaste. "Strange to think I must have been born somewhere a lot like this."

"Oh? Which village?"

"I'm not sure I ever knew. We left when I was tiny, and it was only ever referred to as 'back home', or 'the village'. It can't have been anywhere very important or pleasant."

She shrugs, dismissing the idle speculation. "Go on, all clear as far as we can see. You'll get more of a welcome if you don't have us with you to start with."

Stopping apparently to catch his breath, Vastyr and Runner take quick seeing to on the village. Orderly little houses of varying size, with most if not all windows shut, children being herded to the strongest ones. And...

"Incoming," Vastyr says in a voice that gets heard without being too loud.

Dori and the strange Ernaldan priestess turn to watch him, and then the small of band of spearmen cautiously approaching. Some of them are still trying to get their armour into order. They look like green novices to the weary Humakti. Apart from the leader, who looks like he's had much practise with his spear... And the way they march is too well-drilled, the kind of marching in order that a warrior can never unlearn. Vastyr realises with a flash that these are warriors trying to lure the unwary into underestimating them. However, their formation appears purely defensive. At the moment...

Jamal looks up at the approaching solar warriors, and his mouth turns to form a sneer. He has no love for the glorious solar tradition. Too many haughty Darra Happans from his past, striding round his families Worian stronghold as if they own the place.

Jamal looks at the advancing group of hoplites and laughs, his hand resting lightly on Bull Spikes pommel. A high hard dismissive laugh.....

Jamal's barking laughter seems to fill the space between the tired, but obviously battle seasoned Herewardi, and the approaching Yelmalian spear men, it swirls around them and seems to pinch at the hoplites' resolve and courage.

One man stumbles, and another curses as he lets the buckle on his breastplate slip, yet another appears so flustered by his unexpected response to their approach that he drops his spear.

The leader turns to look back at his men, and seems obviously disgusted by what he sees, and he motions them to halt. The men clatter together in an unseemly group, but manage to remember enough of their drilling to form up some rudimentary defensive order. The captain snorts and steps forward, his voice is clear and authoritative, but obviously flustered by the poor display is men have put on....

"I am Antarius Venistix, I am the war leader and protector of this place. Who are you to come and disturb our calm, begone and let us in peace"

At this, Jamal stops his laughter and regards this man, his sneer never slipping from his lips...

"We are travellers and warriors, we are passing through, but for a time require rest and sustenance. We could take this....." Jamal lets his voice fall away has he glances at the collected spearmen with a distainful, patronising gaze, "... but we would rather not expend the energy. Get your men to stand aside and let us pass, and you will find us most polite guests, otherwise.." his voice fades again, the threat obvious.

Antarius glances back at the village, then his men. He sighs and then speaks. "By my oath I cannot permit this to happen. Name your leader or champion. If they can best me you may pass, else be on your way..."

"Well, if that's what your oath requires...."
Dori strolls forward, leaving Kristen to guard Mara. "Dorinda, ten-thane in Hereward's Legion. This is my ten." She looks round at the twenty-odd people she seems to be leading these days. "And friends."
"Does this oath put any particular limits on the form of the duel, or shall we just go for the standard rules - first blood, all magic allowed except for the death-touch, and so on?"
She seems almost bored by the idea: clearly, this is just routine to her, nothing to get excited about.

Antarius nods soberly. "I am familiar with the code followed by your cult, and these rules have always seemed fair to me. Shall we take a few moments to prepare ourselves, Champion?" Dorinda notes that his is an outlander accent, she does not face a native of Sun County.

The Yelmalian warrior turns to address his assembled troop. "Hold yourselves. Honour is on this duel, and your behaviour reflects on me." Antarius then turns to face the assembled Humakti and begins invoking the Gods. His spear and shield begin to glow, and it seems that this outlander has no small gift with magic.

One of the militia, a stupid-looking farm boy, says with an air of puzzlement to one of his comrades, "why is he worried? He can whip a woman with his arms tied behind his back!"

Without turning Antarius says, "because she has given herself to Death. A woman she may be, but if you that think that makes her weak then you are a fool, for Humakt will redouble her strength. She is a worthy foe."

The militia mutter amongst themselves in surpise at this, but none question their commander further. Antarius settles down in a half crouched stance, awaiting Dorinda's first move.

Dori eyes her opponent thoughtfully, and with surprised respect. "I hear Yelmalio also produces good soldiers. It's not often I meet one who lives up to their claims of honour, though. This will be a pleasant change..."

She draws her sword, strokes the edge reverently, whispers to it. Runes on the hilt shimmer, the light from them pouring down the blade, and the snaking lines within it start to glow as if with fire.
And pauses.

"Boss?" Elendala sounds surprised. "No Death magic?"
"No. This is to first blood. I see no reason to make that first blood fatal. The advantage would not be worth the dishonour."
"Nor Truth magic - no use forcing a man to act honourably when he already is.
"Although of course, against this opponent, there's a more appropriate option. Less effective, but..." She strokes another rune on her sword-blade. A circular one. Daylight blazes forth from the blade, and Elendala blinks, dazzled.

"Antarius? If you're ready..."

She salutes him gravely, waits for his response. Then she moves in to the attack, probing his defences. Working past a big shield is always difficult, and she makes no move yet that she expects to hit, nor lets down her own guard. She flicks the light from her sword into his eyes, wondering if it will have any effect at all on someone who is probably a master of Light magic himself.

The opponents circle each other warily, exchanging a few testing blows. Antarius turns Dorinda's sword easily enough, but in return seems reluctant to offer more than a probing jab with his spear. Despite trying to draw him out, Dorinda is left with little idea as to the spearman's ability.

Satisfied that she faces neither a helpless novice, nor someone who completely outclasses her, Dori moves on to the more interesting task of seeing how and if she can win, preferably with enough style to honour both their gods. Spear and large shield is a very defensive combination, and not ideal for duelling, if only because it's so boring! But perhaps something can be done about that... there's a trick to getting shields out of the way. A bit harder this time, as she doesn't want to do him any serious damage, but it can be done.

She steps in close, blocking the spear with her sword and getting inside his reach, and hooks his shield sideways with her own. Then the attack: not at his torso, as he might expect, but at the strap supporting his shield. With just a touch of magical destruction to help, as she can't get much power into the blow from this angle. Where her sword touches, the colour fades from the leather, and it crumples into grey dust.

His shield drops from his shoulder to the ground, banging his shins, and Dori backs off to give him time to recover. Yes, in a fight to the death that would have been an ideal time to gut him, but fair play is more important here.

She considers for a moment whether continuing to use her own shield is fair, but that two-handed spear still out-reaches her, and he can use both ends to attack now the clumsy shield is out of the way. Of course, he may not know how, but that's his problem.

He still outreaches her. There are two ways of dealing with that: get in close, or find some way of extending your own reach. Let's try the second. Magic can be used at more than touch range. She calls the wind. A little difficult to concentrate on this while defending against his attacks, but all she's doing is defending. A cutting wind - not much power, but it doesn't take much to draw blood from bare skin. Not that much of him is unarmoured - the cheek, perhaps. In theory she could go for the eyes, but again that's more damage than she wants to inflict.

Dorinda calls for the truth-storm and feels the prickle on her fingers as the Cutting Wind leaps to the attack. She is well practised in calling on Hereward's Wind, but today when it answers her call it seems harsh and unusually overpowering, the rush of magic making her blink and stagger - and in this vulnerable moment Antarius' spear thrusts forward, through her shield-guard, and leaves a fiery rake trail of pain down her side.

Blood wells in the cut, and spills through Dorinda's armor to fall on the dusty ground.

Antarius, watches her reaction carefully, never rising from his defensive stance. "First blood is mine, warrior. By the terms of the duel you shall not pass here but must leave by another road."

Dori steps back, nods, sheathes her sword carefully. "True enough, and well fought."

The Kargani scowls as the contest unfolds. How he despised Yelmalians. Fawning self-righteous spear wielding moon lovers. His mind drifts away for a moment. Thoughts of home and of Harvar Ironfist; the so-called 'Lord of the Alda-Churi' and his Cordali cronies.

How many Tovtaros where lost at Gamla's Leap? How long would the Tresdarni resist the purging of Orlanthi faithful? How did Ingard Mannison end up in Prax as the sky cancer wormed its way onto his Tula?

Returning to the present with a start it seems that first blood is drawn. Strange. It was well known that the Ten was skilled at the duel. Perhaps this was some kind of ruse? Turning to Hrolf he smiles obviously relishing the chance to stir this up.

"Now we will see if these Sun Domers bleed crimson..."

Marching over to the Yelmalian he spits. "What would a moon fawning Sun Domer know about honour?"

"Oh, by Humakt's piss" thinks Malan. He steps up beside Aelf and says "Forgive my comrade, for he is foul-tempered from the long march." He places a hand on Aelf's shoulder, turns him back towards the other Herewardi and whispers to him "Let's not make enemies were there are none yet. And don't disgrace the ten-thane while she duels!"

Despite his comrade's wise words, Aelfwyrd is not in a mood to listen to reason. Malan almost has to man-handle him away from the Yelmalians with his hand over his mouth, Aelfwyrd's anger clearly having got the better of him.

Antarius slowly rises from his defensive stance. "You fight well, Lady, and surely worthy of the sword you bear. I offer my wishes that your followers will one day be of the same quality. Night is falling, and you will not be long on the road before darkness. Down yonder is a place suitable for sleeping, there is some water there - mayhap some other travellers. Do not presume to approach closer to our humble village, and count on being on your way come Yelmalio's rising."

Jamal's face has been ashen since Dori's fall at the hands of this "Darra Happan"!!

He hides a smirk at the antics of the impetuous young Kargani, but quickly forces his face back into his usual grim visage.

He approaches Antarius with the impeccable courtesy that his comrades recognise as the mask he uses with those whose company he finds unpleasant.

"We stand bested, Antarius, and so shall retire the field. We shall set camp as you have indicated. We shall continue our journey on the morrow"

He nods a stiff Carmanian-bow (as etiquette demands), then leads the others to make camp.

Antarius nods stiffly at Jamal's genufluction. "It has been long time since I have been greeted thus by a Hazar, warrior. It is a strange sight, amongst such wilderness, to be met by such a civilised gesture. Go in peace, by all means, but go."

Having been dragged away the Far Walker fumes in silence. These lunar lap dogs would have been given short shrift in his homeland. No chance for parley at Long Run, Three Beacons, Young Lagerwater or any of the other Tresdarni stead's.

The Legion could not know that Conla Brightshield and his Yelmalian Cordali clan was moving against the remaining Bluefoot Orlanthi. They had not witnessed the clan Lightbringer Rings replaced by fork tongued solar 'officials' and their 'councils'. Maybe the Herewardi had not felt the Righteous Wind?

Dori is still somewhat dazed by the backlash of her magic, if not the trivial flesh-wound that followed it, and her response is slower than usual.

"We will use this camp-site, as you suggest. My thanks for the advice, and for your forebearance towards an idiot who did not deserve it". Her glance toward Aelf makes it quite clear who's on latrine duty tonight!
"Before we part, though, there is a question I would ask, if you will. It seem to me to be unusual that a small village such as this would be honoured by the protection of a warrior of your quality. And the troops you command, too, seem to be of rather better experience and training than the average militia. Is there some particular threat towards this village that we should be aware of?"

Antarius pauses before answering, clearly reluctant to do so. "It is often said that is is hard to hide the Truth from those who worship it, and I see that this is the case here. It might be wiser not to speak of it to an outsider, yet I have heard that your cult despises the Dark Hater as much as we do, and I cannot believe that one who bears the Light in her sword could be in league with Darkness.

"A few weeks ago, this place began to come under attack by night. mall things at first: small creatures appearing in the shadows, stealing food and fleeing. Then it grew worse, full-size beasts of Darkness attacking the herds and destroying crops. The headman here sent to the Sun Dome for help."

"Trolls, actually inside Sun County?" Dori is incredulous. "Surely that has not been known for decades? I know this place is far out on the edge of civilised lands, but even so, for them to come this far from their usual haunts seems strange, and the delay, with no attack but only minor thefts, is most unlike their usual tactics."

"Indeed," Antarius replies. "And in the days while his messenger travelled, and I and my men marched to their aid in response, the situation has grown worse again. Children have been taken, and their bones found, gnawed. A huge monster stalks the outskirts of the village, and from the glimpses seen of it, wears black and red. Foul dreams haunt the farmers, dreams of torture, and fire, and huge lead teeth. So far no outright attack has been made, we know not why, but we fear the worst is yet to come."

"Lead teeth?" Dori's eyes widen in recognition. "Surely not - but there can't be two of them!"

"You know of this creature?"

"I think so, yes. If it's the same, we have unfinished business with him - and Aelf may even decide that you're a friend after all, for pointing us in the way of this encounter. A Death Lord, named Kzgran Barefang. Even by the standards of the Dark Hater, he is known to be..." she pauses, unable to think of words strong enough, and falling back on understatement, "very unpleasant."

"Though if this is Barefang, why he's here at all, much less waiting before attacking a defenceless village, is beyond me. Unless.... Oh." A horrified half-understanding comes to her. "He was waiting for you."

"Waiting for his victims to be defended?" Antarius shakes his head. "That makes no sense."

"I'm afraid it does. Barefang used to be a powerful warrior, possibly even courageous after his fashion. Then he met us." She smiles thinly. "He got away - just. Now, he skulks in shadows, seeking to steal back the power he lost. And where else would Zorak Zoran steal power, but from Yelmalio? And how else would he bring Yelmalio to him, but by attacking those under his protection?"

She shrugs. "I may be wrong. But if I'm right, you face a great danger here, and a great evil, and we would be delighted to help you meet it."

Antarius smiles grimly, and shakes his head. "If we were looking for help with this monster I would not have challenged you so in the first place. No, your road lies that way. The presence of so much Death in this village would not be welcome, not when the ewes and cattle are ready for birthing, and so many of the women folk also. Fare thee well, strangers, and tarry not with finding a swift and safe road to your destination."

Shaking his head Aelfwyrd spits. He would not find his truth amongst these fawning Sun Domers - of that he was sure. Picking up his gear, the Kargani makes ready to move out.

Mara shoulders her satchel, and turns to make her farewells. "Thank you for the escort thus far, warriors, I'll take my leave of you here - though I'll be sure to miss your company. This seems like a cheerless place, even though I'll be staying not long. This evening I will look for you at the camping place mentioned, in case you decide to be staying there."

With that the woman makes her farewells, and the Herewardi turn to leave along the route indicated by Antarius. The Yelmalians stand their ground, ensuring the warriors keep to the road, and they stay there until the party are far along the track.

Sand underfoot, the warriors pass fields of withering crops on either side, irrigation ditches empty and cracked. Scarecrows hang uselessly in dying cornfields, contemplating the dying around them. In one plot, far off from the road, stands what might be the remains of an old, roofless temple, columns standing jaggedly against the setting sun.

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