The Sword

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Man discovered murder even before he discovered death.
- Myrconian proverb

Days passed before the sun finally rose, bruised and swollen, over the eastern horizon. Cray would have liked it to be at their backs by this time, but they were still travelling south, searching for the trade road. None of them were familiar with this part of the world, and the darkness had made it near impossible to search for landmarks.

One night when the moon was full, Cray picked his way to the top of a knoll by the roadside and spent a quarter of an hour peering into the darkness, squeezing light into his eyes and willing it to paint a picture he could understand. He saw dark blotches and swathes of color that were fields and valleys; a yellow smear that might have been a road. The stars were clear enough, and from these he could see that they were at least headed southward - the mountains looming in the distance might or might not have been the Shield. He descended to Dazi and Setka, disgusted.

"We make camp here," he said. "We'll be safe from the wind, at least."

Dazi must have sensed his bad humor, for he decided to upset it. "Lost the road, have we? How odd that one could misplace something so large."

Cray cast him a dark look, but said nothing.

Now, the sun's late rising brought light back into their world. Burning low to the horizon, the glow it gave off was dull and red, and the earth looked like it was drenched in blood. But it was light, and when Cray next scouted ahead to find their path, he returned to Dazi and Setka with good news.

"I caught sight of the Shield," he said, "and even of the great sluice. There's a village in the valley beyond; once we've passed through it will be scarce a few hours' walk to the trade road."

"A village?" Setka said. "Are there men there?"

"I think not; someone put it to the torch some time ago."

Dazi glared at Setka. "Bandits," he said. "They infest the trade road. We are like swine walking into a slaughterhouse."

"Yes," Setka agreed. "And the Rel-Tsen are the butcher who drives us. Which would you rather face? You knew of the risks when you agreed to this pilgrimage."

Dazi's face could not be seen under his hood and mask, but his impotent anger was sensed plainly from behind both.

"Do not forget that we have a Stoorish swordsman on our side," Setka added.

Dazi laughed cruelly. Cray ignored him and said instead,

"I don't intend for us to fight an entire band of men by ourselves. A hand or two I could match; but if we find ourselves facing more than this, we will either have to run, or one of you will have to draw blood."

"I would not draw for your sake," Dazi said.

"I thought not."

In the end, of course, they had no choice - their time was too scarce to go looking for another path when one had already presented itself. In the light of the newly risen sun, they picked their way down the face of the valley and into the nameless village.

Razed it had been, and recently; had it not been for the storm, Cray thought that he might have been able to jab his sword into the ashy earth, pry aside the wooden beams and uncover still-burning embers underneath. As it was, the village had been crushed by first fire, then water, and what was left was an empty shell, a memory of a place.

There will be no men here, Cray thought as they stepped through the ruins, their cloaks stirring up ash and mud. A man would choose the raw wilderness before he tarried in a place such as this.

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