Chapter Three Brod Callarnia, Sorvine Empire Day Six “Get up,” Brod was awakened with a kick to his bed frame. He stirred from a dreamless sleep to find Pavian’s gaunt, stubbled visage staring down at him. “We’re going into the country. How’s your Ketch?” Brod sat up scowling, and gestured for Pavian to give him space with a backhanded wave—partially so he could get up from the bed, mostly to waft away the man’s fetid body odor, “Passable. You?” Pavian snorted, “I can ask a woman how much to fuck.” Brod slipped on his boots and stood up. He had an extra head in height and a full shoulder's breadth on the other man, “For you? They must charge a princely fortune.” “Fuck you, peasant.” Within the hour, Brod was dressed, shaved, fed, and saddling his horse. Pavian was still breaking his fast on a bench table outside with a hash of potatoes, leeks, and bacon and some small beer that smelled of pine resin. The scent of his meal mingled with the aroma of the warm morning sun baking the wood of the fort. Brod would’ve found it pleasant if not for Pavian’s nauseating groans and smacking as he ate. “You got up earlier than me,” said Brod as he fastened a sack of supplies to the saddle. “How are you not ready yet?” His partner shrugged and replied with a full mouth, “I like an easy morning.” Brod scoffed and shook his head. Typical lordling, he thought. Pavian had been at Fort Taurian for hardly a week and behaved like it was one of his family’s holdings. “Plague! Famine! Mortal evil!” The reedy voice's exclamations came from the fort. Sauliard’s pale head of wispy white hair was popping out of a cocoon of bear hide as he shuffled through the corridor leading to the yard where Brod and Pavian were getting ready. “No, God’s greatest trial is this damnable chill!” He was shivering excessively until he crossed through the archway and into the sun, upon which, he promptly threw off the pelt and cried, “Bah! I’m boiling!” The two men shared a rare glance of mutual weariness, but still nodded their heads in deference to the chaplain, “Firekeeper.” Sauliard’s red and gold robes fluttered as he took his time shambling across the yard to them, “I’ve gotten word you’re going into the country.” In Callarnia, ‘going into the country’ meant leaving the fort, or any Sorvine-speaking settlement, for an expedition into the vast wetlands where the Ketch dwelled. “Yep…” Pavian’s voice reverberated into his cup as he took a swig of beer. He wiped his mouth, “Some fucking villagers think their neighbors put a curse on them and now we’ve got to ride three fucking days out to keep the peace.” Brod began to don his armor, starting with splint greaves, “We should just let them kill each other. What difference would it make?” Pavian raised his cup in agreement, “Fuckers are wildlife, I say.” Sauliard shook his head, “Gentlemen, I know you don’t mean that. It is our duty to civilize these people for God and the empire. You keep the peace,” he patted the holy tome under his arm decorated with a blazing image of the Sanctfire, “and I’ll do the rest.” Pavian snorted, “If we’re to civilize these people for the empire, why are we letting provincials act as ambassadors?” He brushed a greasy lock of long brown hair out of his face and nodded his head toward Brod. “With a name like ‘Brod’, he’s practically one of them.” Brod began on his brigandine chestpiece and shot back a contemptuous, “Not enough vowels for your liking?” “Please tell me you at least killed your father for giving you that peasant stamp.” “Oh!” interjected Sauliard. “His name isn’t actually Brod! No, it’s just short for Brodnoel.” He smiled at Brod, “Plenty of vowels!” “Hah!” Pavian’s sharp laugh sprayed half-eaten potato matter across the table, “Brodnoel?” The name meant ‘Brod’s son’ in Sorvine. “You’re telling me your father was Brod and didn’t even have the decency to give you your own fucking name?” He banged his fist on the table and howled, “Your father was so fucking worthless, he made you his crowning achievement—proof that he’d fucked!” Brod dragged his tongue across his teeth in disamusement, fastening a pauldron with inordinate aggression. Sauliard was quick to change the subject, “Would you lads care for a blessing before you depart?” Brod took a moment to soften himself and bowed, “Of course, Firekeeper.” The priest set his book on the table and reached into his robe’s pockets for a linen pouch. He worked it open just enough to dip his thumb within and drew it out gray with soot. He then smeared it across Brod’s ample brow, adorning it with a horizontal line, “As the Sanctfire of the Luminar’s holy Torch guided his pilgrims to the safety of the Havenwood, so may it guide you safely back home.” “Graces, Firekeeper.” Sauliard turned to Pavian who waved him off and tugged a thin cord hanging from his neck, drawing a small twin of the priest’s pouch from under his collar, "Ashes straight from Bastiol. I never leave home without it." The priest stroked his chin with a pleased, "Ah, you've made pilgrimage to the holy city!" Pavian didn't answer and tucked the pouch back under his tunic, “Anyway,” he stood up and patted the scabbard of a broad-bladed horseman’s saber fixed to his belt, “this will be my guiding Sanctfire.” Brod pulled his surcoat over his armor- blue and white in the colors of the Callarnian provincial banner. “Yes, very nice,” Brod was about to strap one just like it to his side, “However.” He mounted a hefty poleaxe to the other side of his saddle, providing a counterweight to his supply sack. It was a burdensome weapon with a hammer opposite the bearded axehead, a stout spike jutting up between them. This was no sidearm—it was a weapon of war rarely seen in Callarnia. The corner of Pavian’s upper lip curled in disbelief, “Do you really need to bring that? “I never leave home without it.” Departure from Fort Taurian took longer than Brod would have liked. By afternoon, they were still traversing the hill country, likely not to cross into the wetlands until evening. The two rode in silence until Pavian broke it. “Fucking peasant playing soldier. You look ridiculous,” he was referring to Brod’s full suit of armor. Brod kept his eyes forward, “What do you care?” “When the Ketch catch sight of you riding up in full kit with that fucking monstrosity,” he nodded to the poleaxe, “they’re going to think we’ve come to kill them and carry off their women!” He paused and thought for a moment, “Hmn. Actually…” “Just bite your tongue,” Brod grumbled. Pavian didn’t, instead sneering, “The way I see it, they owe us at least that much. Making us ride all the way out just to sort their quarrels for them. Stupid fuckers probably just got spooked by that bialu.” Brod’s face twisted, “What?” The Sorvine word meant ‘little well’. “You know,” replied Pavian. “That image in the sky from a few nights ago. It spread apart like…,” he cupped his hand, then flexed his two central fingers apart, making an obscene gesture, “a woman’s bialu.” “That’s what you saw?” “What did you see?” “Nothing, I slept through it.” “Hmn. Made for an interesting wank.” Brod shuddered and kicked his horse into a jog. The next day found them crossing into the wetlands. Brod always hated this aspect of going into the country. The roads were defined only by what paths had been formed in the winter-hardened soil. Come spring, anything that wasn’t on the high ground would dissolve back into obscurity to be forged anew next cold season. Still in the early weeks of autumn, traversing the swamps was a hindrance at best. The unstable terrain made it difficult to maintain a consistent pace with the horses and the oppressive, low-hang mist frequently led them to dead ends of impassable brush or bodies of water, forcing them to backtrack. A properly paved and maintained road would save the journey a whole day, but Brod supposed that would diminish Callarnia’s value to the empire as a buffer against the Vanar tribesmen to the north. While climbing a steep trail cutting through the brush of a hill, a cry pierced the fog in front of them. “Help!” It was in Sorvine. Brod and Pavian cautiously kicked their horses into a gait until the figure materialized before them–a man sprawled upon the path. Brod dismounted and squatted over the man. His plain tunic and hose were caked in mud, his hair and face ratty and unshaven. Definitely not a merchant, nor a ranger from another Sorvine outpost. Maybe a Callarnian homesteader. “What happened?” asked Brod. The man groaned, “My damned horse. Got spooked by a fox and threw me. I think my back is broken.” Pavian glowered over them from his horse, “What now? Throw him over your saddle and take him back to the fort?” “Yes!” the man yelped. “Please, both of you, help me onto your horse!” Brod scratched his square chin, “If your back is indeed broken, throwing you over a horse could make it worse.” “You can’t leave me!” “…And the branches on this hill are too thin to build a stretcher.” “Please!” The man was looking past Brod, directly addressing Pavian. “Get down here and help me!” Pavian gripped his reins and snarled at the injured stranger, “You don’t give me orders, peasant.” Behind Pavian, Brod heard a woman’s voice, “You heard the man. Get. Down.” Brod looked over his shoulder to find a woman in a soiled dress behind Pavian to his left, the point of a spear pressed against his neck. Another man armed in kind emerged from the scrub and leveled his spear at Brod’s back. Pavian slowly dropped his reins and dismounted. The fallen man got up and drew a dagger tucked into his lower back, “Just keep those hands up.” He gently took Brod’s saber from its scabbard and tossed it aside. “Thank you kindly.” Pavian seethed as the same was done to him soon after. With the Sorvine soldiers neutralized, he proceeded to rummage through the supply sacks fastened to their saddles. Upon seeing Brod’s poleaxe, he chuckled, “Oh my! I’d hate to be on the wrong side of that thing! I wonder how much it’ll fetch us.” The other man licked his lips, “It’s mine.” Brod cocked his head over at something in the brush, “Hmn?” Rather, he cocked his head at nothing. The spearman turned his head to investigate and Brod spun around, slamming a plated gauntlet into his left cheek and sending him tumbling down the decline. Before the keeling bandit could even disappear into the mist, Brod launched himself at the woman. In that moment, she had to decide between thrusting her spear into Pavian’s throat or turning to face the charging Brod. She chose Brod. The instant the spearpoint left his neck, Pavian dove for his sword, snatched it from his feet, and sliced behind the other bandit’s knee before he could fully comprehend what was happening. He crumpled with a curse. Meanwhile, the woman’s spear tore through Brod’s surcoat only to glance off the brigandine plates beneath. Brod clapped his hands around her head and drove his thumbs into her eyes. She let out a shriek as blood erupted from the sockets. Brod clenched his teeth and kept her head firmly in his clutches as she dropped the spear and fell to her knees, clawing his armored hands in impotent desperation. With two down, Pavian strode into the mist below. Brod heard the man he’d punched pleading with the lordling before his appeals were cut short with a curt yelp. Brod let the woman go with a shove as her screeching gave way to weeping. She curled onto her side and held her ruined face as crimson welled between her fingers. Brod stepped over her, took his axe from the saddle, and turned toward the remaining man, trying to crawl away on three limbs. His wounded leg dragged behind him. Brod kicked him in the side and sent him sprawling onto his back. “I yield!” he sputtered. “You can indenture me for reparation! I’ll remember your mercy, my lord! I’ll be loyal!” Pavian emerged from the fog just in time to sneer at the bandit referring to him as ‘my lord’. Nevertheless, Brod lorded over him, “Hmn, I don’t know what use you’ll be with that leg.” He kicked the man’s bleeding knee. He hissed and pleaded, “It’ll mend, my lord, I assure you! I can work! I will serve you well if you spare my life!” Brod cocked his head as if to consider the proposal. Then he flipped the axe around to the hammer side and raised it. “N-no!”, he shrieked just before the polearm smashed into the knee of his wounded leg. The thick air rang with a crunch overlaid with a scream. “Hmn,” Brod shook his head. “I don’t think it’ll be mending.” He followed with a strike to the other knee, evoking another howl. “What good is a servant who cannot walk?” Pavian crossed his arms with a sadistic grin, “His hands can still work.” Brod nodded, “Good point,” and pinned his hand under foot, bringing the hammer down on the joint of the man’s elbow. Then the other. He looked over the two bandits and raised his voice to carry over their sobs and moans, “Consider this mercy granted.” The pair remounted and continued over the hill in silence until the sounds of anguish faded behind them. Shortly after Brod and Pavian made camp, it began to rain. It was the sort of heavy, torrential rain that typically rolled in from the Callarnian Gulf. They had settled on a stout little hill not unlike the one on which they encountered the bandits. It wasn’t much more than a sandbar of swamp sediment bound together by roots of the brush. Beneath his blanket, Brod could feel the moistening soil begin to give under his weight. Whatever the situation was in Pavian’s tent, it caused him to sputter and curse, “Fucking hell! Fuck this miserable country! What were highwaymen even doing out here?” Brod kept his eyes closed in hopes that assuming the position of sleep would grant him it and answered loud enough to carry through the rush of rainfall, “Traders use these trails in the cold season when the roads harden. Come winter, the swamp will be crawling with outlaws just like them. We were lucky they were only three.” “Then why the bleeding fuck did they only send two of us out here?” “Probably because the man who gave you the order has never ventured past Fort Taurian. Nobody in charge cares what goes on out here.” “I didn’t come here for this!” No, thought Bron, you didn’t, did you? You’re some bored fifth son who came here to rub elbows with the Callarnian gentry in a quiet little swamp far away from the Vanar raiders and Lottan corsairs. You’re not some provincial whose only hope of owning land for themself is to serve seven years out here. You don’t even know why so many of us out here are lowborn, do you? That toothless bowman, that swarthy port mongrel, that stablemaster who looks like he’s survived two bouts of the weeping plague and three generations of inbreeding—if we can make it through seven years of tending this ‘miserable country’, the empire will grant us a plot of it to make something out of this God-forsaken mudheap. If you catch a bandit’s spear, you can limp back home to impress some third cousin you want to bed with your battle scar. If I am maimed, I cannot work my land at the end of my service. ‘Playing soldier’… Brod spent the rest of the night stewing in moisture and resentment. He did not sleep.