The Stand: Part 1
Adesh slapped his neck and glanced at his hand. He wiped the offending insect remains on his trouser leg and flicked the reins. His horse snorted softly, acknowledging the command to move faster and totally ignoring it. Adesh tried to ignore the sweat that seemed to be streaming down his neck from beneath his black hair but gave that up as a lost cause. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and sighed.
“We’ll be out of it soon enough. No need to hurry.” Stefan cautioned.
“It’s this damned heat. I don’t think I’ve ever sweat this much. You’d think this close to the sea there’d be a breeze at least.”
Stefan nodded in agreement. “I know you’re more used to Galis, but it’s no cause to risk the horse breaking a leg though.”
“True enough.” Adesh sighed. “The track is a disgrace.”
“It seems to be the way of things here.” The older man observed, as he ran a hand through his greying hair.
“That’s going to change.” Adesh grumbled.
“Maybe win them over before you start making them suffer? The Clanless this far from Galis have even less use for a Clanner than those around Galis.”
The young warrior laughed. “Surely you jest!”
Stefan smirked. “Not even slightly. Places like this only respect hard work. They’ve no time for anything else. If you want their respect, you must work for it, same as everyone else”
“And I thought the hardest part was going to be trying to run a fort in Hannano territory.”
“It could be worse, at least it’s not Terada.” Stefan pointed out.
Adesh shuddered. “Small mercies. I can’t stand how they always seem to be looking down their noses at everyone else.”
“There.” Stefan pointed. “See it? The road is pulling out of the swamp.”
“Once we’re atop the hill, we’ll be about a half mile from the fort.”
Walking his horse through the gate, Adesh decided that he should have expected the fort to be in the state it was in. Built on just back from the cliffs with a good view of the sea and the river to the east, the stone walls and parapets were badly weathered, almost crumbling away in places. Inside the walls, the wooden buildings were solid enough, but the original roofs were long gone, replaced by thatch that was in dire need of being replaced. The gate appeared as though it hadn’t been closed in a decade or more and looked as though it’d fall apart if someone tried. He pinched his nose and closed his eyes for a moment. This was going to be a lot more work than he’d expected. It was obvious in hindsight, though. After what had happened, he was never going to get a comfortable fort. With how matters lay at home, he was lucky to get this one. His father would advise him to make the best of it. His mother would just shrug and tell him that an easy life, is a dull life. His sister? Well, the less he thought about her, the better. It was her fault anyway.
He turned as he saw a warrior in a tatty tunic and trousers, walk unsteadily towards them. He could hear Stefan behind him grinding his teeth. Passing his companion his reins, Adesh intercepted the man.
“Not s’posed to be here. Piss off.” The warrior slurred.
Adesh stepped back from the guard. His breath was truly awful.
“Where’s your captain?”
The warrior belched. “Who?”
Adesh glared at the obviously drunk, guard. “Your captain!”
The warrior swayed on his feet for a moment. “Longhouse s’pose.”
“Take me to him. Now.”
“Why not?” Adesh demanded, his temper starting to flare.
“Got a woman in there. Said not to bother him.”
“Oh, for fuck sake. Go back to what ever you were doing.”
The warrior thought about that for a moment, before he shambled off towards the wall.
“Find a hitching post, or something, and follow me in.” Adesh ordered, shortly.
Stefan grunted and looked around for anything that would be sturdy enough to qualify as a hitching post.
Adesh stomped towards the door into the longhouse and shouldered it open, letting it bang against the wall. Inside it was dark and stuffy, several empty fire pits were dotted around the room, and a long table with benches dominated the end of the room. A fat, balding man with a greasy beard was sitting on a chair at the middle of the table. A tall woman with honey blonde hair was sitting on his lap, her blouse undone. The door banging open appeared to have interrupted what ever was going on and the fat man glared angrily at Adesh.
“Who the fuck are you?” The fat man roared.
“Lomo Adesh.” The young warrior answered coolly. “Are you Hannano Prasad?”
“What if I am, you little shit?” The man hissed.
Adesh crossed the room to the man and handed him a roll of paper.
“What the fuck is this supposed to be?” The man demanded, pushing the woman off his lap and grabbing the roll of paper. The woman hurriedly crawled behind the chair, holding on to it nervously.
Adesh replied shortly. “You’re being recalled to Galis and I’m taking over here.”
Prasad sat back in his chair and took a breath. “On whose orders?”
“The High Lord.”
Prasad pushed himself to his feet and leaned forward on the table, staring at Adesh. “I’ve found over the years that one Urito is much like the other, always eager to show how much better they are. Maybe this High Lord Urito will last longer than the last, hmm?”
“How dare you?! Adesh growled. “High Lord Urito Kwan was a great warrior.”
“Of course he was. That’s why he never managed to take back the Northern Plains from Toren.” Prasad scoffed. “Didn’t your family lose all their lands when they supported the Uritos? Everything north of the Drethan Valley gone. Just like that.”
“We were loyal to the High Lord!” The young warrior shouted at the older captain. “And we were rewarded for it.”
Prasad laughed. “Rewarded! You lost your lands and now live on charity from the Urito Clan. Fine reward that. It’s why the rest of the clans say that under every Urito tunic is a Lomo sucking on the teat.”
Adesh ground his teeth as he stepped forward to lean on his side of the table. “Take that back!”
Prasad slapped a hand on the table. “You’re a long way from home. Best you leave, boy. I’ve no plans to go anywhere.”
Adesh could feel a bead of sweat slide down his forehead as he stared at Prasad. “I’ve orders to relieve you, Prasad. I’m staying.”
“Well.” Prasad smiled darkly. “It’s a rough journey from here to Galis. Anything could happen an unwary traveller.”
Adesh backed away from the table and put his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Now, now.” Prasad cautioned Adesh as he calmly walked around the table towards him. “Don’t be like that. There’s no need for swords. Just turn around and walk away.”
Adesh was sweating heavily, his breathing heavy. This was not at all going to plan.
“Well, fuck me sideways!” Stefan exclaimed from the doorway where he stood. “Prasad, as I live and breathe!”
Prasad stopped dead in his tracks, a few feet short of Adesh.
“How are you still alive Prasad?” Stefan continued, walking across the room to his young companion. “I thought someone would have stuck a sword in you by now.”
“What are you doing here, Stefan?” Prasad spat.
“I’m with Captain Lomo here. Did you get your orders?”
Prasad stared at Stefan and then at Adesh, his shoulders slumping.
“Clear out your quarters Prasad.” Adesh ordered, confidence renewed. “I want you gone by the morning.”
The fat man cursed Adesh and stomped back around the table. He grabbed the woman by the arm and hauled her up off the ground and dragged her out of the longhouse with him.
The two men waited in silence until Prasad and his woman had left.
“I didn’t need the help.” Adesh said hoarsely.
“I know.” Stefan replied. “I was just following you in here, like you asked.”
“You know Prasad?
“Long time ago. We came up in the same unit.”
“Fair enough. Go round up the men and I’ll address them.” Adesh ordered.
“I wouldn’t expect much.”
“I’m not, but I have to start somewhere.”
“True. Okay. I’ll go do that.”
Adesh walked around the table and flopped down in the large chair, his hands shaking. He took a deep breath and let it go, then another, and another, until the shaking stopped.
Adesh blinked as he walked out into the bright sun from the dim interior of the long house. Just over a dozen men were milling around, waiting and complaining. Loudly. He leant against the door frame, waiting for the rest of the men to appear. A few minutes later, three more men appeared from one of the other buildings, ahead of Stefan, two of them supporting the one in the middle who was bleeding from what looked like a freshly broken nose. The old warrior caught Adesh rolling his eyes and smiled back at him. Somethings never changed. Stefan had always taken the physical approach to bolshy warriors. He stepped away from the door and stood before the men, who eyed him warily as Stefan took his place just behind Adesh.
“Is this all of them?” Adesh asked over his shoulder.
“Looks to be.”
“There’s supposed to be thirty men manning the fort and we have only half that number here? Where are the rest?”
“One thing at a time I suppose. Get their attention, will you?”
“Be happy to.” Stefan sniggered.
The old Warrior coughed to clear his throat then focused his attention on the men. “Listen up assholes. You might be used to lying around all day and getting drunk, but that ends now.”
“Says who?” A voice called from the back of the group of warriors.
“He does!” Stefan shouted back, pointing at Adesh. “Captain Hannano has been called back to Galis and Captain Lomo here’s been sent to take over.”
One of the men at the front stepped forward and spat on the ground. “I’m not taking no orders from a short, little man, who looks barely old enough to shave.”
Stefan started forward, but Adesh put up his hand and stopped him.
“What’s your name?” Adesh demanded.
The man spat on the ground again. “Oleg.”
“How drunk are you right now Oleg?” The young captain asked.
“Some.” Oleg admitted.
“How about the rest of you? Are any of you sober?”
The gathered men looked around but no one spoke up.
“Starting from tomorrow, that changes.” Adesh announced. “I didn’t want to be here, I still don’t. This place is a fucking misery. But if I have to be here then so do you, and I refuse to sleep in a fucking pig sty. Enjoy your last drinks lads, because as Aratu is my witness, tomorrow you’ll either be sober or dead.”
Adesh turned on the spot and walked back towards the horses. Stefan hurried to catch up.
“What’s the plan?” He asked.
“What are we doing tonight?”
“We’re going back to the village and you’re going to watch me get drunk. I wasn’t joking when I said I wasn’t going to sleep in this shithole. I want a comfortable bed before the work starts tomorrow. If I’m going to be stuck out here, I might as well accomplish something.”
The village was just as quiet as when they’d first rode through. The people who could be seen, were hurrying through their tasks, constantly checking over their shoulders. None of the villagers would meet Adesh’s eyes as he rode in ahead of Stefan. There was only a single village inn, and it was the best maintained building in sight, which didn’t say much. As they approached the inn, a boy ran across the road in front of them, intent on what ever task he was about.
“You! Boy!” Adesh called. “Where are the inn’s stables?”
The boy, little more than nine or ten, looked scared as he pointed to a narrow alley beside the inn and ran off, disappearing around the end of one of the houses. Adesh shrugged and beckoned for Stefan to follow him.
The narrow lane led around the back of the inn, to a scruffy looking stable that was in dire need of cleaning. A man, sitting with his back to the wall, looked up when he heard them coming and looked like he was about to run off.
“What is wrong with these people?” Adesh muttered to himself.
He swung down off his horse and walked towards the man at a slow pace, making no sudden moves.
“How much to stable our horses for the night?” Adesh enquired.
The man just stared, his eyes fearful.
“Can you speak, man?” Adesh asked, annoyed. “How much?”
“A - a bronze. For one night, sir.”
Adesh pulled out the coin, and then several more, small coppers.
“Clean out two stalls and get some fresh water and feed.” He ordered, handing over the small bundle of coins.
The man nodded and scurried off to the stable.
“He seems to be a bit rabbity.” Stefan observed.
“The whole village seems that way. This must be the quietest village I’ve ever passed through.”
“In fairness Adesh, you haven’t been this far from Galis before. The villages near the city are not like the more distant ones. People away from the capital are very suspicious of strangers.”
The two men walked their horses to a hitching post outside the stable and began pulling off their packs and saddle. The man stuck his head out of the stable and then disappeared inside again.
“Rabbity.” Stefan repeated.
The gloomy lighting of the inn’s taproom and shadowed corners gave it a somewhat unintentional air of danger, Adesh thought, as Stefan closed the door behind them. He walked to the rough counter behind which the innkeeper stood. He shrank back a little as the two men approached. There were several men huddled in a corner quietly drinking. They stopped talking as the two warriors entered and watched them closely.
“A room and two tankards of what ever passes for beer hereabouts.” Adesh instructed the man.
The innkeeper nodded warily, eyeing the door, and pulled two wooden tankards out from beneath the counter. He turned to a tapped keg mounted on a table behind him and began pouring.
“Any food?” Stefan asked.
“Cold beef, cheese, might be some bread left.” The innkeeper informed him curtly as he placed the full tankards on the counter.
“Sounds lovely.” Stefan grumbled disappointedly.
“Make up two plates if there’s enough.” Adesh instructed wearily.
“That’ll be three bronze for the night and eight coppers for the food and drink.” The innkeeper informed Adesh as he folded his arms.
Stefan glared at the innkeeper as he dug around in his purse. “How do you sleep at night?”
A smirk replaced the nervous look on the innkeeper’s face as Stefan put a small pile of coins on the counter top. He swept them off in a practiced gesture and made them disappear into a pocket somewhere. Adesh picked up both tankards and crossed the dirty, rush littered floor to a table in the corner, opposite the only other occupied table. The men there had resumed their quiet conversation and drinking. He sat down and put Stefan’s tankard on the table while he took a hesitant taste from his own. He paused to savour the drink and made an appreciative sound.
“Good?” Stefan asked as he took his seat.
“Not too bad.” Adesh replied and took a deep drink.
Stefan took a long swallow from his own tankard and made an agreeable sound.
“Better than I expected.” He allowed.
“Maybe it won’t be a total misery here after all.”
“Maybe next time you won’t be caught with your pants down in someone else’s bed.”
Adesh grinned. “She didn’t have a problem with it.”
“No, but her husband did. I hope she was worth it.”
Adesh’s grin faded and he sighed. “No, she wasn’t.”
“Didn’t think so. Have you realised how much work you’ll have to do here? The fort is falling apart, the men are … “
The young captain interrupted his friend. “Drunk, to say the least.”
“As well as under trained and under equipped.” Stefan added.
Adesh took another long drink from his tankard and belched as he put the, now empty, tankard back on the table.
“A problem for tomorrow.” He signalled the innkeeper for more drinks.
The room was still dark when Adesh woke, his head aching and his mouth dry. Stefan was clearly in a deep sleep, judging by the deeply aggressive snoring emanating from the other bed. He groaned inwardly and was about to turn over and go back to sleep when he heard the floor board creak. Quietly, he reached down to where he remembered dropping his sword and grabbed the sheathed blade.
Another creak, this time closer.
Adesh rolled out of the bed, landing in a crouch, and drew his sword, shouting as he did so.