by Den Valdron
Apart from the horrors of the Rodals, there were moments when our journey was almost pleasant. It is strange to say, but there was a timeless quality to the Jagged Lands. The twisted rock was ageless and unending, the paths winding.
One might almost forget the outer world existed, that beyond these expanses of tortured and broken stone was a world of deserts and cities and alien men and women. Or that somewhere hidden among these canyons and cliffs was the only home I knew.
By daily increments, my traveling companions became my world, and I came to know them well. Aspar Aguus was the most unknowable of course, the tall tusked alien was too different to fathom. Yet, he was the most straightforward of us. Ton Sabat, was the simplest of course, in some ways as naive about the world as I was, clumsy, broken-brained, but as we had seen, he possessed remarkable gifts.
But the two I paid the most attention to were Japh Leah and Vadak Eth. Japh Leah with his ready smile and quick wit. Vadak Eth full of sly purpose and graceful measure. Of course, on a journey like this, in such a small group, literally always on top of each other, there was little opportunity for more than mild flirting and the exchange of knowing glances.
We made steady progress each day. In the evening, before the sun set, we made camp. Aspar Aguus enforced an almost military discipline, sometimes retracing our steps to select a properly defensible camp site.
After that, would come fencing. Aspar Aguus and Vadak Eth were determined to turn Ton Sabat into something that might resemble a passable swordsman. I wasn't sure that was altogether necessary, given his superhuman strength, or even possible, given his manifest idiocy.
But remarkably, Ton Sabat proved an able student, learning quickly. He seemed to pick things up readily. It was almost as if he was not mentally defective at all, but had simply arrived a babe in the world a few months ago. It was a mystery, whatever injury had robbed him of his faculties so completely, he seemed to be healing well. Sometimes at night, we would sit together, and I would run my fingers through his hair, subtly examining his scalp for scars or cracks, searching for some sign of the injury that had ruined him. Oddly, though he learned some competence, there seemed a limit to his progress.
“It is strange,” Vadak Eth agreed as we stretched out together one night, chatting quietly while he stood guard. “Some things, he does well, as if he has always known them. Other things he masters quickly, as if recovering a disused but well established skill. But swordsmanship? It is as if he'd never held a sword in his life before a few months ago.”
Just then, a strange chittering cry rippled through the night.
Vadak Eth clenched his weapon, even as I cuddled close against his body. His manly strength was reassuring.
“What was that?” I asked.
“A spiderling, I think,” he replied. “A King from the sound of it.”
“What are they?”
“Fierce creatures,” he said, “long legs, determined hunters. Mostly in the Jagged Lands. Rare beyond it.”
I wrapped my arms around him, enjoying the masculine strength of his body. He showed no discomfort at my touch.
“It sounds close.”
“Are we in danger?”
He shrugged. There was a steady calmness to him that was reassuring. Quite different from Japh Leah's mercurial disposition.
“Too many of us, and too many Rodals. It would happily pick off a stray. Hungry enough, it might attack a small group. But it won't come near us.”
“What if it does?”
“I'll protect you Princess,” Vadak Eth said, his lips close to mine. “I promise.”
I closed my eyes, waiting for the inevitable kiss.
“Change of watch,” Aspar Aguus announced, appearing out of nowhere. “You can rest now, Vadak Eth. I will stand guard until morning.”
Damn! Vadak Eth smiled haplessly, and stood to return to the campsite. This was the only spot with even a chance of privacy. I bit my lip with frustration.
“You can accompany me, Princess,” Aguus said, settling down with his rifle across his knees. “If you are feeling sleepless.”
“No thank you,” I said archly. “I will take my sleep.”
The big Orgus warrior laughed knowingly.
“It seems you need exercise to sleep well, Princess,” he chuckled, “I think we'll start you in on fencing as well. It might keep you out of trouble. And perhaps shooting. But not cooking.”
Cooking! I fumed. Cooking was a task to be handed from one person to another each night, but after I had only prepared a few meals, I was politely exempted from the duty. I felt sort of insulted. No matter who was cooking, the food was uniformly horrible. How could I be worse?
In the morning, in hindsight, it struck me that I needed to be more careful with my flirtation. What use to win Vadak Eth, if in turn it aroused the jealousy of Japh Leah, Ton Sabat and the others? It seemed to me that in the logic of the group, to favour any man too much might be to lose the rest, or to inspire conflicts and rivalries in this desolate place that might not be healthy at all.
In the morning, we began my tutelage in swordsmanship. I distinguished myself from Ton Sabat in knowing which end of a sword to hold. I had the advantage of long experience in stage combat. Unfortunately, I discovered that there was a horrible distinction between stage combat, and real dueling, or even the mock combat of training.
As for Vadak Eth, if he remembered our lingering moment of near romance the night before, he gave no sign of it. He proceeded to beat me black and blue. Then it was Aspar Aguus. And then Japh Leah took his turn. By the time we were ready to set out, I hated them all passionately. Luckily, for them, I could barely move.
“How are you feeling?” Japh Leah asked, riding his Rodal beside mine, as we journeyed later that day.
I glared at him.
He had his ready smile.
I fantasized about crushing his head with a rock and burying the body somewhere. Nobody who'd had to suffer through a smile like that could ever blame me. In our final sparring, he'd struck the sword from my hand four times, until I'd finally burst into frustrated weeping. It had been a morning of horrific humiliation.
“Stiff, I would reckon,” he answered for me. I was perfectly happy to let him keep up both sides of our conversation. “I imagine that I know something of how you feel, being abused by foes of superior strength.”
If he knew how I felt, he would be keeping several Rodals between us, I thought. Perhaps he could fall from his mount and they could kick him to death.
“It is like that for the rest of us, trying to teach Ton Sabat the rudiments of swordplay. I swear, his muscles are made of iron. It is like trying to fence with a statue, while being beaten with clubs.”
Beaten with clubs. I kind of liked that thought. It inspired a half smile. I would have to pay more attention to their sparring efforts with Ton Sabat, if only to enjoy their suffering.
“Ah,” he teased, “is that a smile? Perhaps you are not half so bruised and crippled as you think?”
“I am imagining you trampled by Rodals,” I said, “after which they defecate uncontrollably.”
Japh Leah burst out laughing.
“Excellent, Princess,” he slapped his thigh. “That's the spirit. I remember, I hated my fencing master too. Every time I saw him walk through our gate, I wished for a stone to fall on his head.”
“You had a fencing master?” I asked.
His smile flickered, and then returned.
“A long time ago, Princess. I can tell you've been tutored as well. You show signs of effective technique, but your teachers have trained you in bad habits.”
“At some point, after the Rodals finish defecating, you catch on fire.” I smiled sweetly.
“You are careful not to harm, you aim for the blade and not the person. It is showy, almost theatrical....”
I blushed and looked away so he would not notice.
“You must understand it is not a dance, your opponent is not a partner in your moves. He seeks to injure you, to kill you. And for your own part, you must desire and seek his death.”
“I think I've grasped the idea. May I desire you to be horribly tortured before I desire your death?”
Japh Leah laughed again, grinning. Oh, it was hard to stay angry at him. I kept looking away, this time so he could not see my pained smile.
“Oh grasping the idea intellectually is one thing, Princess,” he said. “But your body must learn it as well. Still, you were a good student. You even fetched me a couple of good blows on the arm.”
“I was aiming for your head.”
He chuckled and then rode his mount close. He seized my wrist.
“It is hard,” he said, “but it is necessary. You will get better, I promise.”
I swung, intending to shake him loose. But then, as I came face to face with him, I froze.
He was smiling, yes. But there was no mockery in his smile, no malice or condescension. It was, for want of a better word, friendly and honest. He was not trying to charm or manipulate me, nor to belittle. He simply cared.
I wasn't sure what to say.
“Promise?” I asked, finally.
“A certainty,” he said, “it will get better.”
“Then I can start hitting you?”
His eyes twinkled, his smile grew a little wider. Despite myself, I let the corners of my mouth quirk up.
“If Ton Sabat has left anything of us for you to hit. I'll tell you what, Princess, to inspire your enthusiasm, I'll let you hit me. I'll allow you openings, you will have to work for them, but you will have them,” he told me. “That kind of satisfaction is the best salve of all.”
He let my wrist go, and we rode along. I smiled, thinking of a particular place I would love to hit him.
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