Chapter 01 – Bricklayers and Barbarians

Serpendis Endium, highly esteemed Master Merchant of Kannoniah, sat across the small campfire from his guide, Piecora Tiorold of Sienja. She had her strange companion with her, Hiero — a diminutive but deadly raptor faster in flight than anything else in the skies.

Serpendis watched them both intently while trying not to give away his fascination, as he found her behavior unnervingly contrary to what he considered rational and civilized. She was – in his mind – very Sienjan: coarse, abrupt, sometimes even rude, but what he hated most were her interruptions.

She sat across from him while feeding the small falcon bits of uncooked rabbit while eating cooked portions of her own meal. Hiero was somehow bound to her in a strange Sienjan accord that he would never understand. He studied them intently as one studies wildlife until —

“What are you looking at?” she asked suddenly, speaking the worldly Common tongue (also known as Low Kannonian) in her thick Sienjan accent. Her voice pierced the night’s ambience like a giant cricket. He jumped despite himself, blinking wildly at her uncanny ability to interrupt even his very thoughts. Her face, lit by the fire, resembled some ethereal demon from the Abyss – instilling within him a lurking, goading madness on the fringe of his calculating mind.

Like crescent jewels of obsidian set in deep auburn skin, her eyes were black portals into her primal Sienjan spirit, but opaque to any thoughts or motives. The sharp, multi-pointed deer antlers she wore through layers of thick, intricate braids of jet-black hair were bathed in orange against the dusky sky behind her. Black ink crawled over the contours of her tawny face in curving, linear designs emulating the antlers she wore in reverence to Stag, one of six animal spirits the Sienjans worship as gods.

“Excuse me? What did you say?” Serpendis rattled quickly, gathering himself.

Hiero turned and regarded him with a curious eye that gleamed in the firelight like a smoldering ember.

“You’ve been staring at me ever since I lit the fire. Why?” She took another bite of her food and continued with a full mouth, “It’s not my fault you devoured your portion of the hunt already. You can’t have mine, but you are welcome to try your luck with Hiero’s meal.”

Back home, Serpendis was not used to being addressed in this kind of fashion, and he wondered suddenly how long he could tolerate it. Her uncouth Sienjan accent made his eyes twitch when she spoke the Kannonian low speech so directly and informally at him, as if everything she said was in some way a rebuke, regardless of context.

All of Kannoniah loved Serpendis Endium of the mercantile town of Coast Haven for the exotic wares he brought to the ladies and children from parts of the world they would never see themselves. He surrounded himself with simple, agreeable people who marveled at the command of his personality, and he enjoyed weighing his formidable intellect against those he deemed lesser.

“Oh, please,” he dismissed. “You Sienjans are so sensitive. I’m staring at nothing, of course, and yet everything: the fire, the stars, the surrounding hills, those mountains over there —”

“Stay away from those mountains,” she cut in, returning to her cooked rabbit leg while Hiero, tilting his head left and right, stared at the wealthy Kannonian merchant.

This time he would have none of it. “Why? So far, this trip has been uneventful, dare I say even dull, given the reputation of these so-called Wildlands. These parts, between your country and mine, they are lauded as dangerous, filled with monsters and strangeness and –”

“They are,” she interrupted again. “You came to Sienja with a full caravan and eight sell-swords. Where are they now?”

“Well, look, getting to Sienja we lost some people —” he began.

“Not so dull getting there, then? I wasn’t with you,” she said.

“— and… if I may…” he went on, straining against his own patience. “… and then we visited the Banwar further east, to see if we could trade with them, and there we were destroyed. Murdered in the night while we slept! My whole company! I escaped before the slaughter reached me, and I arrived in Sienja through my own wits and survival instincts! You could learn a thing or two. I’ve been all over this world, now I just want to be back home in my own bed.”

He watched her through the withering haze of the fire as she slowly ate her meal, seemingly in some silent discourse with Hiero who gulped down portions of his rabbit. Serpendis luxuriated in the allowance of finishing a complete sentence for once and wanted more.

“Furthermore, those elves are truly savage, you know; uncouth, even for you —”

“And you were lucky to find me in Sienja,” she said slowly, completing the rest of her thought without acknowledging his renewed initiative. “And that I was willing to guide you back home, trusting in your word that payment awaits me in Kannoniah. And given that you left everything behind with those you let die at the hands of the Banwar, you would never make it home without me. I was a gift to you from Stag,” she said while briefly tapping her antlers.

Serpendis looked away, grappling for a response he had ready only a moment ago.

“It is no surprise to me that the Banwar were hostile to you and your people,” she said softly, unexpectedly, while rising to her feet and letting the bones of her kill drop into the fire.

She was short in stature with muscular legs and wide hips, and she moved silently, gracefully, seemingly without weight over the rough savannah terrain. From years of traversing Sienja’s grasslands, steep hills and valleys, turbulent rivers, and treacherous forests, she was honed to exist effortlessly and wander harmoniously in the wild.

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She wore soft fabrics beneath a loose Sienjan linen shirt tucked beneath a leather girdle. A hatchet – more of a tool than a weapon according to Serpendis’ observations – was slung on a belt that rode low on her hips, and a bow hung sideways against her lower back alongside a quiver of long arrows with black and yellow fletching. A pile of elaborate Sienjan braids kept her long black hair out of her face. Antlers from a young elk were attached to a leather band wrapped tightly around her head. Crafted many years ago by a Sienjan shaman in dedication to Stag when Piecora was a child – too big for her to wear at the time – the antlers were the extension of Stag, one of six animal spirits worshipped by Sienjans. So too were the markings of Stag on her face in silijan black ink that emulated the curves of her antlers.

She spoke the common Kannonian tongue simplistically and without embellishment, devoid of deceit. Serpendis realized she lacked the understanding of lying, or the relativity between truth and untruth, and therefore couldn’t relate to Kannonians properly.

No wonder their cultures never got along despite generations of alliance.

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She circled around the fire towards him, and he watched her nervously, uncertain of what she might do next. Sometimes he found her strangely alluring despite his prejudice against her people, but always his fear of her prevailed, distilling his thoughts so he could better cope with them. Fear, as it turns out, simply made it easier to get along with her.

She stopped in front of him and looked down, waiting for him to look up and meet her eyes.

“Sienjans like the Banwar. We trade with them often. Want to know how?” she said softly.

She suddenly knelt close to him, gripped his hand firmly, and held it to her face, slowly drawing it downward and smearing some of the black, oily ink onto his fingers. Serpendis shifted uncomfortably, having no idea what to do or how to respond. He could smell the wood fire in her hair, and her breath was warm on his face.

He opened his mouth to speak, but she interrupted him. “They taught us this,” she said, gesturing around the black runes on her face with his pale, boney hand. “And they give us silijan ink — that only the Banwar make — to mark ourselves according to our beliefs, our feelings, our moods, even what we did that day — as this is also their custom. They cover their whole bodies with the marks of who they are, and the stories of their lives. They taught us how to do this, and why. We wear these marks when we journey, when we prepare for that which has meaning to us, but most importantly we wear these marks when we visit the Banwar. For only when we do this, is there peace with them. Thus, we are exposed to them. Our intentions are clear to them. They can read us, and we them — even without any knowledge of language, written or spoken — and there is no conflict.”

“Without this understanding, we would all die,” she said, letting his hand fall back into his custody.

Serpendis studied her face as he absorbed the meanings of her words, confounded by the efficiency of her delivery. He hated the emptiness that she sometimes left in his mind.

“And now there is only you, alone in the ever-shifting contours of the Wilds, and me to guide you home,” she spoke softly, as if putting a child to sleep. “If I say to keep your distance from those mountains, it is not that I care about you or you bricklayers of Kannoniah, but only that my payment awaits me there if I guide you home safely, should there be any truth to your words.”

As if deciding for them both that the conversation was now over, she turned away to tend their two horses before bedding down for the night. The horses were fine Sienjan travel horses, bred and trained for navigating the rigors of the Wildlands safely. Their packs were laden with supplies purchased in Tielemark, Sienja’s capital and only city, with the last of Serpendis’ remaining money before embarking for Kannoniah. The estimated travel time between the two countries hovered around three weeks, but those familiar with the journey knew this could vary wildly and unpredictably due to the chaotic nature of the ever-shifting Wildlands.

“‘Bricklayers,’” mimicked Serpendis to himself while struggling to shake off the strange effect she had on him. “Ever the compliment from the horse-loving barbarians. I shall do more than just survive, savage.”

He laid down grumpily on his bedroll and covered himself in his blanket, close to the fire. The ground was soft, and the tall grasses made for comfortable bedding when bent down in the same direction, which Piecora taught him. He stared into the low, flickering flames of the campfire, allowing his eyes to lose focus and eventually relenting himself to the onset of slumber.

Despite a temperate warmth beneath the sun over the last few days while traveling across the prairie, the nights were chilly, and the breeze had a bite to it especially when the stars were out. No moon had yet visited the sky this evening, and no sounds were heard except for the soft rustling of Piecora rummaging through the gear on the horses and checking over their legs and hooves for scrapes, briars, lesions, wicked insects, or any other potential problems.

And yet, within the perceived stillness, there was movement everywhere for as far as the eye could see – too slow to be noticed as it happened, but irrefutable as the days passed. Mountains rolled over the lands like shifting waves on the open sea, forests marched through churning soils and clays, lakes changed their shapes and rivers altered their courses in response to the massive land movements surrounding them. This was why the Wildlands were claimed as unmappable – they were never the same when revisited.

For tonight, darkness lay over the sprawling grasslands like a muted void pierced only by the pinprick of their campfire’s light.

— New chapter is coming soon —
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