Roots Of Corruption Prologue

Act I

In which Karmahl and K'mreyl arrive in Whistling Canyon; the forerunner gathers rumours about the threat that has choked off the Ford of Osy'yan; and meets a wretched former hero of his profession.

Most people would have heard the Whistling Canyon before they saw it, but with his sharp eyes, Karmahl En'Asani caught a glimpse of its towering, precarious spires through the heat shimmer of the midday sky before he crested the last dune and caught its music on the wind.
Golden sand crunched under broad, bare feet that barely sank into it as the forerunner of the Ma'Haedra tribe surveyed the settlement, still some miles distant. Ahead of him, the ground fell away into a shallow bowl, the desert giving way to a more patchy scrubland of tough brown shrubs and parched dirt. A flock of striderbirds could be seen picking their way through the dessicated plants, plucking at leaves, insects and unwary field mice with equal appetite, while others scratched for roots or enjoyed a dust bath and two juvenile males clacked their beaks and croaked, practising for mating-fights later in the year. Two elves in fluttering, ochre-coloured cloaks could be seen watching over the flock, standing comfortably on one leg with the other raised and crossed across the other knee, perfectly at ease. Karmahl was too far away to accurately judge their attitude or expressions, but they didn't seem particularly perturbed by the sight of him standing on the distant dune, being more interested in watching their birds.
Beyond them rose the gnarled, eroded spires of the Whistling Canyon itself, like the bones of some ancient stone behemoth. Brightly coloured flags of twined silk fluttered from some of the tall, narrow mesas or the bridges that vaulted between them, announcing the presence of large and more prosperous flotillas than the Ma'Haedra's scant few dhows and single xebec. The famed music of the Flutes of Riwal reached out across the fringe of the desert to Karmahl's ears, a slow melody of earth and sky that meandered at nature's own pace, skirling low and rising to high notes when the wind peaked. Miles beyond the Whistling Canyon his hawkish eyes could see the Desert River like a silver ribbon, glittering on the horizon and marking the northernmost extent of the Clashlands… the furthest point the land-hungry empire of the orcs had claimed. So far.
Behind him, the forerunner heard the sands shift and the quick, hard breathes of his companion as she caught up to him. K'mreyl Do'Sarai was as fleet of foot as any of the tribe, but she could not keep up with Karmahl unless he allowed it. “You run… as fast as… good news,” she called up to him. The young priestess of the hearth goddess had shed her leather and metal-ribbed corset, carrying strapped to her pack and wearing only a breezy shift as he climbed the dune with long-legged strides to reach the man's side. “Is it… oh,” she marvelled, catching her breath and gazing wide-eyed at the unique combination of architecture and geology before them. “It's beautiful! The song of the Flutes of Riwal! This is why the gods blessed us with eyes and ears.”
Beautiful or not, it was where Karmahl had to go. Reis Ma'Haedra had sent his right-hand man, his fastest, to the trading post after the caravan had come across a lone traveller on the trackless roads of the desert. Breaking bread and salt at the captain-chief's table, the stranger told them he had come from the Whistling Canyon, after being warned off from his attempt to cross the Desert River at the Ford of Osy'yan. The locals had told him the ford was no longer safe, though he could not get a straight answer as to why, and he had left dejected. This news had troubled Reis; if the Osy'yan was not passable, the caravan would have to turn west to the bridge at the Rubyspan bridge, or east to follow the river to the coast and try and get portaged across at Port Cinnabar. Either way would add many days to their journey, time that Reis did not seem keen to spend.
And so the forerunner was sent to do what forerunners did: seek a safe path for their tribe, to find and clear danger when they could, or bring ill-tidings back to the caravan when they could not. K'mreyl had decided to come along with him. Though she had slowed him a little, that was not necessarily a bad thing; a priest was almost always a welcome sight in an elvish community, and might smooth his arrival there.
In truth Karmahl was glad of the priestess' company. His sleep had been disturbed ever since Reis had announced his intention to turn south, and his feet were not so fleet as they had been. The slower pace his pride would not allow him, K'mreyl excused, and he paused on the dune crest, as much for respite than to admire the great curving stones of the Whistling Canyon. Though he had to admit, there was a rugged grandeur to them even at this distance. But how long would Riwal's music play for free elves, with the green tide of the Padashar Empire so near?
Realizing he had forgotten that today he did not run alone, and that for long moments he had stood silent, Karmahl shook himself from contemplation, to acknowledge the winded priestess. "It is lovely." He cast around for more to say, but found nothing beyond his own unease. "I'll go ahead and speak to those herders to learn what news has reached them of the lands south. Take Ithalayn's ease for a time, and come upon us when you will."
He offered a smile, full of reassurance that did not dwell in his heart, and with a mere stride's acceleration, was gone.
K'mreyl looked indignant, about to protest that she had no trouble keeping up, that she had no need of rest. Some wisdom or other prevailed, though; whether respect for his position as fastest of the tribe, a realisation that she was a bit winded or because caution dictated that it was always better to approach strangers in the wilds with some degree of reticence, even if they looked every inch humble herders. She nodded, and ran her fingers through her muddy brown hair, shaking some of the sand grains loose and watching Karmahl flit down the slope.
Dust kicked up beneath Karmahl's feet as he jogged across the scrubland towards the pair. Several of the striderbirds turned towards him as he passed, responding to the unfamiliar figure with their usual defensive belligerence; heads ducked low, necks arched, beaks open in a raucous croak of warning. One of the herders raised their voice, giving a piercing cluck that seemed to settle the animals back down.
The herders were a man and a woman, dressed in plain orange and brown shades that merged well with the earth and rocks of the landscape. The man had a sling wrapped around his wrist and worked a round river stone in his palm, the woman carried a forked staff of the sort used to pin a bird's neck when it needed to be restrained for treatment or butchering. Both lowered their dusty veils politely as Karmahl approached, watching him with expression that said he was only marginally more interesting than the herd.
“Forerunner,” the man said, nodding. Enough caravans passed through Whistling Canyon that he recognised the type. The woman cocked her head, looking at the fearsome weapon strapped to Karmahl's back. “Is that a dal'faiess?” she asked, a little intrigued now. “I saw a warrior try to wield one once. He nearly gelded himself,” she added, glancing at the smaller blade at the bottom of the haft.
Karmahl laughed despite his grim mood "When I first handled it I nearly did the same. The dal'faiess is not a weapon for the untrained or timid, but there's a cruel art in it." he patted the weapon over his back. Usually he would leave the bulky axe behind with the caravan, but today he felt better with its weight at his back. "My caravan is bound south, what news from the Canyon and beyond?"
“Wife,” the man said in a pained tone, giving Karmahl a rueful smile. “To speak of gelding to a stranger! Have you lost your manners in the dust? Must I fetch a thorn branch to thrash you?”
“You would need to catch me first, husband,” she replied wryly. “I see how flat your feet have gotten.”
Once past his initial stand-offishness, the man – whose name turned out to be Rhaym – proved to be perfectly willing to talk. More than willing, in fact; positively effusive. So readily did he chatter than the woman sniffed and turned away. “If you two are to gossip like fishermen, I suppose it falls to me to tend the flock,” she said, running off across the plain to round up a few of the striderbirds that were pecking and scraping away from the body of the flock, striking her stick against the ground to shoo them back.
Rhaym gave a resigned smile. “On the day of my marriage, I learned why Almighty Azaid hides his face each night when Ithalayn returns to the hearth.” Settling himself back in his one-legged stance, he resumed conversing. He proved a veritable font of information about the comings and goings of caravans and flotillas to the Whistling Canyon; the tribes and costers that came to trade and those just passing through; how many da'janah each flotilla had and how heavily they were laden; information that might have been valuable to the Ma'haedra tribe if they were engaged in a trade war with any of the other groups, but as their destination lay across the border where few great consortia ventured, of little worth now.
The herdsman related much of the general situation in the Whistling Canyon, too. The trading post was always a meeting point for different races – dwarven merchants down from the mountains on their way to Port Cinnabar, following the river like tumbling pebbles; disreputable goblins slipping into the markets at odd hours, looking to barter (doubtless stolen) goods for weapons; a band of orcish deserters apparently intending to usurp mercenary work from the guards hired by the great consortia. “I avoid them, though. Who knows what simple slip might drive such renegades to violence? Besides that, we even have a dryad, working as an apprentice to the hullmaker,” he added.
“Heading south, you say?” Rhaym asked, raising his brows. “I fear you may find your way impassable. They say a demon has made its lair at the Ford of Osy'yan! No traveller has crossed safely there for a full month, at least. I would think it mere mirages and wine-addled stories…” his voice dropped ominously, “But, well, I have seen what became of Ja'Harash.”
Ja'Harash. There was a name that made Karmahl's ears prick up. Ja'Harash was something of a legend, a forerunner amongst forerunners. A freelance ranger and pathfinder who sold his skills to caravans and explorers across the Blasted North, it was said he had run across the desert from where the sun rose to where it set, and knew every dune like his own skin.
Rhaym nodded solemnly, seeing the expression on Karmahl's face. Indeed, the very same. He continued: “If you go to the Prayer and Staff, you will see it too. There he drinks his woes away. But I do not know why the guards would allow the passage to be blocked if this was so. Surely it is their business to keep the trade routes open? If you truly seek to go that way, mayhap Captain Val'Annyst can tell you more.” He cocked his head, looking at the forerunner thoughtfully. "Dare I hope that your caravan would be interested in purchasing a consignment of feathers for whatever market you travel to? Look how fine the plumage is on our birds!"
Begging off on the grounds that he was a mere herald, with the promise that his tribe would surely need feathers to decorate their hulls, Karmahl turned to look for K'mreyl. So the pass was closed by some demon? What clearer sign could the gods send that they should not go south?! Still, it might do to find more. Perhaps he would go ahead into the settlement and find this Val'Annyst, or at least sight Ja'Harash for himself. Then when the Ma'haedra arrived he would be armed with all he needed to know.
The young priestess loped easily across the plain as Karmahl finished with the loquacious Rhaym and turned his eagle eyes back northwards to look for her. She soon reached the forerunner, and the rest seemed to have done her a world of good. Bidding farewell to the herdsman, they turned towards the trading post and broke into a run again.

The Whistling Canyon rose around them like waves of liquid stone frozen in the aeons. The arching, curling structures the wind had carved seemed too delicate to be natural, too fragile to support themselves, yet Karmhal could see elves walking along the precipitous bridges, climbing up the sharp spires, or lounging at their ease in the shade of cliff-edges. Here and there raised voices could be heard carried on the breeze, but for the most part the fluting music of the stones and wind was the dominant sound.
The centre of the ever-changing community was, of course, the marketplace. It was set on the ground, a bazaar of brightly-coloured stalls and blankets covered in wares from all around the north-east of Zenth and beyond, alive with the dance of commerce. Elves from a dozen or more tribes and costers evaluated goods and made offers, measuring each other up as well as any two duellists in an arena might. Why make war when you could make profit? Crates of dried pears changed hands for bolts of silk; blocks of sea-salt were traded for intricate greenstone carvings; next year's wheat harvest was exchanged for the profits of an as-yet undug ore vein.
Looking up to the natural stone parapets, Karmahl spotted the mark he had been told of. A hollow walking stick, pierced with holes like an oversized flute, wrapped in a skein of cloth embroidered with sacred words – the sign of the Prayer and Staff caravanserai. It hung over a welcoming cave mouth, the rock smoothed and engraved with grape vines. Karmahl's informant had said that Captain Val'Annyst was the head of the mercenary contingent that watched over the trade consortia's stores, so if she were to be found looking for their headquarters or speaking to the guards might lead the way.
He glanced back at the priestess. Even elves could not truly guess the age of another, but there was a youthful vivacity and headstrong determination about the girl that made Karmahl feel responsible for her. "The herder Rhaym tells me that the Ford of Osy'yan is barred by fearful beast. If we are to know what lies ahead I must find travellers who have braved the ford and learn more. Have you duties to pursue here? I know that there will be a shrine you will wish to visit. But if such observances can be delayed you are welcome to accompany me, my path lies through the Prayer and Staff at present." he indicated the caravanserai with a nod.
The sounds and sights of the marketplace had drawn K'mreyl's eye, and she glanced back as Karmahl spoke. “Duties?” She paused at the reminder, then smiled. “Yes, you are right. I should prepare a hearth for the tribe's arrival… and pay my respects to my sisters and brothers in faith, if there are any here. There should be a bi'shar at the market.” Bi'sharas were the masters of berthing for caravans and flotillas, assigning space for them to come to rest and make camp, and extracting a toll for the privilege – though this was usually expressed in the form of a 'gift'. Glancing up at Karmahl, she touched his elbow. “Fortune on your road 'twixt home and home,” she blessed, before heading towards the marketplace at a gentle run.
The Whistling Canyon was something a three dimensional maze, Karmahl found as he started to make his way to the caravanserai. It look a little good guesswork or carefully planning routes with the eye to navigate the labyrinth of carved handholds, interlocking wooden bridges and narrow stone spans that allowed travel from one level to another. He made one or two false starts that would have ended up at the mouth of a different cave or on a ledge overlooking the desert, but he soon got the hang of it and reached the Prayer and Staff.
It was shady and cool within, the ceiling only just high enough for him to stand upright beneath the plush curtains that were pinned across it, softening the stone surfaces and muffling the perpetual music of the wind through the Flutes. Piles of cushions sat around low tables, most of which were empty. A man, presumably the keeper, sat cross legged behind a low bar stocked with decanters of clay and glass, kegs of alcohol and a tall, funnel-shaped barrel Karmahl recognised as a snow-melter, a luxury afforded by the Whistling Canyon's position on a trade route running down from the white-capped Daalands.
The keeper was portly for an elf (which still made him no fatter than a goblin, of course), and had a content, welcoming smile as he polished a cup of cut glass. The beard on his chin was teased to almost a foot long and braided, while his head was shaved. Besides him, an elven woman moved about the caravanserai, wiping tables and bringing drinks to the few guests. She wore a silk skirt that whispered as she moved but left her bare above the waist, revealing small peaked breasts, as casual about showing skin as any elf. In the darkest nook of the cavern a figure sat alone, shrouded in shadows and the smoke from a hookah. A pair of traders swathed in green robes sat at one table, talking quietly and casting nervous glances at the other party of guests: a half-dozen armed and armoured orcs, sprawled around another table. Dice clattered and they barked, shouted and laughed in their harsh tongue, slopping down cupfuls of sweet, sticky date wine. “Another round!” one bawled in the dwarven-elven pidgin that served as a trade tongue, banging his empty cup on the table. “The god of gamblers smiles on me and shits on my friends today!” Someone punched him in the side of the head and he laughed merrily.
The maid glanced away and sighed in resignation, heading to the bar to fetch another tray of drinks and fixing on a polite smile. The orcs grinned tuskily and ogled her as she approached, muttering lewdly to each other and her.
Choking back a wave of disgust and outrage, Karmahl settled for a deadly glower. How dare these foul pig-children talk to one of his kind so! But still, he was fastest to the Ma'Haedra, and carried their honour upon his shoulders. To interject himself might shame the tribe, and if it led to a brawl - well, he would likely suffer worse than shame. Still, instinctively Karmahl shifted the dal'faiess on his back into position. These war-hungry creatures could never be trusted to keep the peace.
With a look of sympathy and admiration for the maid, he strode silently to the cross-legged keeper, and when he reached the man took a moment to unlock his jaw and calm his voice, loud enough that it did not carry further than they two. "Hail good keeper, I am Karmahl En'Asani, fastest of the Ma'Haedra, and I come before them." he finished the simple, but crucial formal greeting "My captain seeks to travel to the south, but I have heard much news already that the ford at Osy'yan is in dire hands. I spoke to an honourable herdsman as I approached the canyon, and he advised that there were those in this place with whom I should speak to ready our journey. I would be truly obliged if you were able to direct me to the captain Val'Annyst. And also, if I guess right -" he shifted a few ornate Dwarven coins across the bar "- I would also like to purchase libation for honourable Ja'Harash and myself." He indicated the shadowy stranger in the corner.
There was coin enough for drink and information. In a place of business nothing could be asked without payment of some kind, it was the elven way that currency should flow like water between them, and the keeper would not be shy in returning the trade should he be in need of any knowledge of the lands to the north, or were his service be lacking.
The keeper of the caravanserai looked up with a pleased smile, gesturing for Karmahl to sit. “A bright wind shine on our meeting and light your way, Karmahl En'Asani. I am Ceyleel Windsong. The Prayer was once mine, and the Staff still is. I must most humbly beg forgiveness, but I know not the Ma'Haedra tribe. However, should they come after you, they will find welcome here.” He steepled his fingertips together in the middle of his chest and bowed deeply from his sitting position.
He watched and listened closely to the forerunner, clearly intrigued. His face fell as Karmahl mentioned the Ford, and he nodded solemnly. “By all accounts, it is true. Something fierce attacks man and beast without mercy or exception when they come near the river there, and strangles all attempts at passage through. Captain Val'Annyst can be found in the stock room of Evenstar Coster, unless I miss my mark. Look for the banner of orange, blue and yellow half-way up the tallest of the spires. A hard woman. And a sober one, but she will know of what you seek. She had lost men to it. Good eye,” he added as Karmahl glanced at the shadowed stranger. “That is Ja'Harash, once a great foreunner, and now…” he sighed. “Now, just Ja'Harash, and barely that. If you wish, I can introduce you. It may let you past some of the thorns he wears to keep others away.”
Ceyleel poured out a measure of pale green liquor – cactus vodka, potent stuff – for Ja'Harash, and offered Karmahl a choice of the same drink, meltwater, date wine, a rather… chewy dwarven beer made from mountain oats and sour, stewed orcish ale. For the cost of the drinks he accepted only a single brass disc, the smallest denomination, and passed the rest back. “For a tale. What sands do the Ma'haedra hail from? What paths bring them here to the Canyon that is never silent?”
Though he was not a heavy drinker, Karmahl's nerve and temper needed calming, and he chose the vodka without hesitation, though he nursed it cautiously. "No forgiveness is needed Ceyleel of the Staff, for my tribe is a small one, though I would still welcome your introduction to Ja'Harash. As for my tribe, our sails have tasted the winds on both sides of the world, from the Tradewind Sea to the Bay of Corsairs. I have served my captain Reis for more than twenty turns of the seasons, and I have seen dragons burst from the sands, seen the salt sea stretch like glass by my side, and felt the sands of the desert, the stone of the mountains, and the ash of the desolation beneath my feet, and followed the many colour paths above in my time in this world." he smiled, all forerunners spent lifetimes composing poetic accounts of their travels, and Karmahl was proud of his own.
"Our path now is a strange one though. And once you have seen the Ma'Haedra you will not soon forget them. My captain have made wagons of our da'janah, and we are bound to seek our fortunes in the land to the south. Of our journey so far, all I can say is that times are lean around De'Kisehr Bay, and those tribes that can have sailed for the Sea of Salt, or even taken to the sea. Perhaps the closed ford has cost us trade, or perhaps something brews in the lands beyond, but whatever the truth the Ma'Haedra are destined to seek their fortunes in the lands of industry and plenty beyond the Rubyspan."
He downed the remains of his drink, heartened somewhat at the recollection of so many lands beneath his heels. "And now I come to a canyon where the very stones sing - truly Riwal has blessed my life's journey, to pass such a fair place and meet it's fine denizens." Karmahl spared a glance at the orcs. 'And not so fine' he thought silently.
Ceyleel's eyebrows arched up the curve of his brow as Karmahl mentioned 'wagons'. His look was not one of incredulity so much as surprise. “Janah on wheels? That must be a sight that sets the wind blowing with rumours and speculations in its wake. I thank you for your story, forerunner. Allow me a few moments to bring the honourable Ja'Harash his beverage.” The keeper rose, light on his feet despite his slight paunch and drifted over the darkened corner with a tall decanter of cactus vodka for the other elf. He leaned over as he deposited the drink, speaking softly.
Meanwhile, one of the orcs dicing at the table lumbered to his feet. “Fffaugh! This elven water goes straight through me,” he grumbled to the others, hitching up his belt and swaggering away. He smelled of sweat and leather, and as he passed Karmahl he tottered a bit as if about lose his balance, but managed to right himself and headed out the door. The orc paused on the edge of the cliff outside, peered over and chuckled to himself. There was a sound of clanking and creaking as he adjusted the piecemeal armour he wore, and then a stream of piss arced down. Cries of disgust and anger echoed up from the canyon below, and the orc chortled.
Ceyleel returned, glancing at the vulgar display and shaking his head ruefully. “Good news, my friend. Ja'harash will speak to you,” he said as he resumed his seat behind the bench.
Rising, with a look of open disdain for the orcs, and choking back the desire to deftly pitch the vulger monstrosity off the cliffside, Karmahl thanked his host, leaving a few coins upon the bar, and went to the shadowy alcove that housed this once-legendary elf. Sliding into a seat opposite he tried a warm smile, but he couldn't hide the concern in his eyes "Greetings fastest, what lands has your stride known?".
The dark corner had a foetid whiff to it and the cushions were sunken where they were piled up beneath the elf that sprawled there, suggesting he had remained in that same place for a long time. As Karmahl approached and seated himself, he beheld a figure that was once sturdy but now had the emaciated, raw-boned look of an elf approaching his Twilight Run. Shrouded in faded grey robes and a hood, he swirled the pale green liquor around in his cup, staring down at it intensely.
At last, Ja'Harash raised his cowled face and stared at his visitor. Ruddy brown skin had a waxy hue to it, a slight translucence that suggested if he remained still for too much longer, it would fade entirely as Death came for him. It was criss-crossed by innumerable fine scars, and his haggard, ugly features were all but expressionless. He sat with one leg tucked beneath him, the other stretched inflexibly out on the cushions, and even with them both swaddled in robes Karmahl could tell the left leg was… wrong. Scrawny, malformed, shrivelled and useless. Eyes the colour of bleached bone regarded Karmahl coldly, bitterly.
“More than I can count.” His voice was harsh, little-used and thickened by drink.” More than scholars have names for. But my tracks are of no interest to anyone… why care where I have been, when I will never stride anywhere again?” He swallowed the glass of vodka and reached for the decanter again. “Don't mock me with that title, boy. I am the fastest of nothing. A dryad with his roots in the ground could outrun me now.” Ja'Harash barked a self-loathing laugh as more liquor splashed into his glass.
Seeing one of their own kind in his final year was repellent to any elf, and terror and disgust both rose up in Karmahl. Had he no shame? Why had he not gone away, alone to die? But the dying forerunner might well be the key to crossing the Osy'yan. Choking back instinctive fear and disgust and hoping it did not show on his face, Karmahl sat. "I am truly sorry ill fate has stayed you Ja'Harash. I have heard of your legacy, and you were the greatest in your time. I have come, not to mock you, but because my tribe seeks to cross the Osy'yan. Something terrible guards the ford, and I would not face it blindly." he looked with genuine sympathy at the stricken elf.
Ja'Harash's brows furrowed, the expression pulling the mesh of scar tissue across his face into vicious patterns as he studied the younger forerunner. Karmahl was not the most deceptive of elves, and Ja'Harash had a long lifetime of suspicion and experience to drawn upon. But, in the end, even the oldest, bitterest and canniest of men can sometimes be swayed by what they want to hear.
“Nor would I send anyone blind into the same trap that maimed me,” he sighed. He slugged his refilled glass then set it down and reached for the hem of his robe. Flicking it aside, he revealed the leg he kept stretched out on the cushions – a shrivelled, dessicated length of useless flesh and bone. It looked like meat that had been left to smoke for too long; dark, withered until Karmahl could see every sinew and fibre of the dried-out muscle, the skin taut, leathery and insensate. Two blackened pocks were dug into the thigh, a couple of inches apart.
“Behold the bite of a dragon,” Ja'Harash spat.
He slowly flexed what remained of his left leg, grimmacing at the stiffness and weakness of every joint and length. “A salt dragon. Not the biggest I've seen, but big enough. A nine footer, perhaps. Cousins of the sea breed, but living inland. Same sort of venom. The pain was…” He paused for some time, his face still and drawn, his eyes hollow and distant.
Karmahl nodded his head slowly "It is the sorrow of our people that once day we must stop running, and all the more sorrow for one such as you to be lost to the world. I know your legend, and regard it highly, as do others like me. The world is poorer for no longer knowing your footfalls, and I am sorry." he offered, his tone formal but heartfelt. The forerunner of the Ma'Haedra could not imagine the sorrow and dejection he would feel in the cripple's place.
"But I fear than even so terrible a foe will not dissuade my master Reis from braving the ford. He is adamant that in the lands to the south lie opportunities richer even than those of the dry seas of the north. Though I know it would pain you, I must at least ask you to recount to me what befell you. For to know where the creature lairs, and from where it strikes might save elves of my tribe from sharing your fate."
Ja'Harash nodded, covering up his desiccated leg as if to spare the world the shameful sight. Resting his elbows on the table, he began to relay his tale, his voice starting drink-thickened but gradually growing more animated as he went along. “I was hired by the Evenstar Coster. They were bringing in a caravan of orc-forged steel from the south by orox, and wanted my opinion as to whether the Ford was passable to those beasts by the high route, or just the low.”
He then described the Osy'yan Ford, using the efficient terminology for geology and topography that forerunners shared. At the ford, the river widened and shallowed into a half-mile long mudflat, where men, beasts of burden, rafts and even carts could wade across – albeit slowly, messily, and with risk of sinking if they were overlaiden. A safer path was across the stone bridge that crossed above the river. like the Whistling Canyon it was an arc of stone, but at the Ford of Osy'yan wind and water had partially eroded it, making the bridge full of small breaks and gaps that a man or striderbird could easily hop across, but that an orox would balk at. This, along with its narrowness made it too precarious for any wheeled vehicle, so only walkers or striderbird caravans went that way.
“I saw no travellers, no animals using the ford as a watering hole, so I became careless,” Ja'Harash continued bitterly. “I approached the mudflats to ascertain their depth this season… and that was when it had me.” He splashed cactus vodka into his glass and gulped it down, shuddering violently – more at the memory than the effect of the liquor. “It can ascend or descend the pillars that hold the high way aloft as easily as a man climbs a rope. Grey-white scales, bright in the sun, but I didn't notice a damn thing until I caught a glimpse of that reflecting off the river. On the sand they rasp, you see, but in the mud…” he drew his finger silently through a puddle of spilled drink, then licked it clean. “Smooth. Silent.
“It went for my throat, pulling me down with its coils and weight. I went for my knife. Then it got its fangs in my leg, but I cut it before it could give the full measure of its venom. The pain was…”
Karmahl felt the orc's presence before his shadow fell on Ja'Harash. Felt, or rather scented; leather, sweet date wine, sour sweat, a misplaced whiff of incense, sharp urine. The orc mercenary who'd been taking a leak off the edge of the cliff outside the Prayer and Staff caravanserai stood behind Karmahl, swaying slightly and grinning tuskily. “I got some piss on m'boot, elf,” he slurred, addressing them both indifferently. “M' sure yurrrl kindly lick it off?”
If you want to interact with the orc (or not interact… rolling Composure to 'ignore the bully and he'll go away' would be a viable tactic), choose a method and an appropriate characteristic and giver 'er a roll - in fact, you're always free to include a roll if you're post includes something non-trivial you'd like to try. We can hash it out on YH! if you want more examples of what you could do and how you could do it. I'm treating the orc as a 2D henchman, so effectively he has 2D in any appropriate characteristics (with a penalty for drunkenness), and if he takes two levels of damage to any resistance or combination of resistances he's out.
Karmahl's jaw locked, muscles standing out tensely from his cheeks as deep-seated prejudice made war on prudent business. The caravan was not yet here, and his actions would doubtless affect it's welcome, and yet what right did this beastly thing think it had in such mockery?
Without turning to acknowledge the teetering brute, Karmahl hissed from between clenched teeth "I'm afraid you may have come to the wrong table friend. I believe that your place was over with the other soldiers. You can join them, or I can reunite you with the rest of your piss. It matters little to me."
The orc belched, and his fists balled dangerously at his sides at Karmahl's grating response. His temper burbled drunkenly towards the surface… but something in the elf's tone made him think twice. Muttering imprecations under his stinking breath, the mercenary waddled back over to the rest of his band, who jeered at his cowardice and belted him with the dregs of their drinks. The barkeep and the maid looked relieved that the tension had not escalated to violence.
Ja'Harash had sunk back into the shadows as the drunk challenged the two elves, but Karmahl could see a grim smile on his lips now. “Not bad. You don't like their kind, I see. I won't ask why; Azaid knows they give little enough reason to be loved.” The cripple lifted his glass up to his mouth, but did not drink; instead he spoke softly, using it to hide the movement of his lips. “That one was not as drunk as he seemed. Even now he is whispering to his commander, relaying our words, no doubt. You are being tested, I think, fastest.”
He set the cup down and hunched his shoulders forward, leaning into the light again. “If you are as foolhardy in challenging dragons as you are in antagonising drunken soldiers, you may need help. I dropped a pack of useful belongings when the foul wurm struck. You may find it still there, near a hollow salamander-wood log on the river's edge. If you can recover it, you may keep it. A cripple has no use for such things any more.”
Troubled, Karmahl risked a glance over his shoulder, but the orcs seemed satisfied with their drinking. He slid a handful of coins across the table to Ja'Harash "What you have told me may well save the lives of my tribe great Ja'Harash. I am in your debt." the coin might be mere custom, but the last was a valuable gift indeed in elven culture, debt was no mere lip service to the culture of traders, but a tangible asset. Still, it was true enough. Karmahl knew already that he would advise Reis to turn back, and knew that Reis would make a show of careful consideration, but push forward. It would save precious lives - likely his own amongst them - to know what lurked at the ford of the Osy'yan.
"Sadly I must now depart, to make arrangements for my tribe's arrival." Karmahl knew that a fellow fastest would understand he had little time for leisure at the fore of so many travellers. "I wish you well brother."
“Better to wish me enough drink to drown myself in,” Ja'Harash replied sullenly. He made no show of refusing the coins; perhaps he retained enough pride in his knowledge to recognise its value; or perhaps he was just greedy. “This might do it,” he mused, jingling the coins in his palm and calling to Ceyleel for another bottle.
Karmahl left the Prayer and Staff as the wind picked up, painting the northern horizon with a haze of sand that made everything indistinct. The wind caught in the Flutes of Riwal and they rose in great, whistling, discordant but stirring song as he began to scale down the leaping stone bridges, carved ladders and ropes to the desert floor and make his way to the marketplace.

Act II

In which K'mreyl passes judgement; Karmahl stifles the doubts in his heart; and a mercenary is consulted.

K'mreyl sat cross-legged under an awning on the So'kayal, a platform of flat piled stones in the middle of the brightly-coloured festival of tents and carpets that was the market. As a priestess it seemed she had been roped into the role of judge and arbitrator, and she rested her chin in her hand, looking irritated as the plaintiffs of the dispute of the moment bickered, while a crowd of other merchants and onlookers kibitzed, offering their interpretations of law and custom, moral and mercantile rights. Into this crowd Karmahl slipped.
“So, again,” K'mreyl sighed, looking between the elf and goblin before her, a startling contrast in heights. “Master Ol'Acci, you claim that Master Chbriti sold you these goods,” she gestured at the array of black ceramic vases and bowls before her, “With the promise that they were lacquered blackware.”
“No! Never said that!” the goblin interjected, clacking his sharp little teeth angrily. “Said they were blackened. Blackened! With soot! Dirty! Second-hand!”
K'mreyl gave Chbriti a stern look and he hissed back, but quieted. She looked up at the elf, and said: “Master Ol'Acci, what you say you paid does seem rather little for proper blackware. Did you not suspect…”
Ol'Acci gave the goblin next to him a haughty glare down his nose. “I thought the little… I thought Master Chbriti did not know the value of what he had. I thought merely that I was being a canny trader, as I was raised to be, as the god's love. Instead I got…”
K'mreyl reached out and ran her finger along the pot. The blackness came away, revealing brown clay underneath. The priestess licked her finger, and grimaced. “Soot.” She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth. “And… olive oil?”
“Yes!” the goblin shrieked. “Soot! Oil! Used for cooking! Are dirty! As was told!”
“Evenly coated with soot and oil… all over?” K'mreyl looked sceptical. “No. I think… I think they were carefully painted with soot and oil, to give that dark, shiny lustre.” She sat back, and placed a small block of incense in the copper plate above a burning lantern, signifying she was to pass judgement. The rich scent of jasmine and rosewater filled the air, and she adopted her best authoritative tone. “Master Chbriti, the gods make clear that you are guilty of the crime of forgery and fraud. In our place of trade you have come without good faith, and you have tried to take silver with lies. For this, I award Master Ol'Acci his choice of goods from your possessions up to the value that was defrauded from him, and half as much again. I also say that when the names of traders are spoken, the name of Chbriti the goblin will be spoken off as a trickster and a fraud!”
The priestess placed a snuffer over the incense, quenching its aroma and marking the end of the judgement. A murmur of approval ran through the crowd, from all but Chbriti who stomped his little feet and cursed, and Ol'Acci who seemed to think that 150% was a poor profit on his end. When the time came for him to present K'mreyl with a gift for her service, he threw only a necklace of polished wooden beads into her bowl, before he and a half-dozen other merchants 'escorted' Chbriti away to pay for his crime.
As he left, Chbriti glanced over his shoulder, eyes venomous. “Of course elf chooses elf. Time will come when goblin chooses goblin!”
The tall elf smiled as he made his way through the crowd to the priestess. "Have you been doing anything useful, or just making enemies?" he teased when he reached the young woman "I have news of the ford of the Osy'yan, but you won't like it. There's some kind of dragon lairing there."
“Useful?” the mud-haired young elf retorted, assuming an expression of exaggerated scorn. “Merely the work of the gods. Surely not as valuable a task as,” she sniffed, “dousing myself liberally with cactus vodka in a caravanserai.” Then she smiled, fetching up the handful of dwarven and orcish coins that had been placed in her bowl, along with a small pouch of refined salt, a little glass phial of fragrence and Ol'Acci's necklace.
“In truth, yes, I have,” K'mreyl continued as she rose gracefully. “I spoke to the bi'shar, and told him of our needs.” She nodded towards an open-sized canopy with long, square fringes hanging down and swaying in the musical wind, a desk visible under its shade. “And now I have the means to place a token of our esteem before her, as a downpayment until Captain Reis can cover the rest.” She motioned for him to follow as she set off towards the bi'shar's office, but his words made her stop.
“A dragon?” she chewed her lip. “Is it one we can avoid? Or slay?”
Karmahl's face turned grave "It is one I would rather not face if I didn't have to. It might be wiser to counsel a different route, but the cost of passing by sea, or mountain, would be crippling. I know more of the creature than its last victim did, but still, I don't relish having to face it. Or risking the tribe in its presence. I met with Ja'Harash - he runs no more thanks to the beast." he shook his head, troubled. "Taking to the sea would be wiser, but…" he left the thought hanging. Both knew the Ma'Haedra could not afford to change their course now.
"Reis must hear what waits at the ford, and make a plan himself." Karmahl shook off the gloom "And until then there is no sense in troubling ourselves over tomorrow's tasks. Let us see if the Ma'Haedra have crested the sun's shoulders yet, and if not, the herders pointed me to a captain who may also prove helpful, and you can join me."
K'mreyl nodded thoughtfully at Karmahl's words, then they moved again towards the open tent. The bi'shar that sat in its shade was a gaunt, shaven haired woman with intricate tattoos crawling over her scalp, and eyes every bit as mercenary as the orc sell-swords in the caravanserai. The priestess laid down her coin in neat stacks, but noticing the phial of perfume the bi'shar tried to haggle her price up; K'mreyl remained firm, however, and at last the bi'shar nodded, taking a piece of coloured chalk and carefully marking the sigil of the Ma'Haedra tribe in an open slot on the sandstone slate where berthings were recorded.
Having secured a place for the flotilla, Karmahl and K'mreyl went to ascend one of the taller Flutes of Riwal, its airy music surrounding them as they reached a high ledge by rope ladder and carved handholds. The altitude afforded them a fine view of the land around. To the south lay the Desert River, a wandering ribbon of silver fringed with green, the Ford of Osy'yan visible as a finger reaching across a brown smudge. On the far side lay the conquered Clashlands, ruled by an emperor who claimed half the world. In particular, the landscape was ash-covered grasslands studded with burnt trees like dark fingers reaching out of the earth. To east and west stretched the scrublands that fringed the deserts of the De'Kisehr Bay, while the northern horizon was still smudged with the minor sandstorm – sandsquall, really – he had seen before. It was the sort of conditions that would encourage the flotilla to move cautiously; Karmahl expected that, even were visibility perfect, the tribe would not be within eyeshot yet.
K'mreyl seemed to have little interest in the vista, however, as she mulled over the forerunner's words. Standing next to him on the ledge, she said: “Fastest, do you… have doubts about the captain-chief's plans? When he speaks of the profits to be wrung from the orcish colonies, greedy for luxuries, of bartering with people who have never dealt with a full caravan before, only scattered traders, it sounds so convincing. But he is so… driven. This plan seems to consume him.” She looked uncomfortable broaching the topic – the authority of the leader of a tribe was usually considered sacrosanct amongst elves; but if it was to be questioned then who better by than a priestess and a foreunner, whose roles were to be the vanguard against moral and physical dangers to their people?
Karmahl gazed out across the blurred horizon, the song of the flutes filling his ears, the firm stones beneath his feet, unyielding, hot. He felt the cool winds from the south fill his lungs, and listened to the chattering rising up from the bazaar below. His copper hair flew like a banner behind him. The muscles in his jaw tightened, and his eyes stayed locked on the northern sky.
"No," he lied.
If K'mreyl saw and heard the inconsistency between Karmahl's words and his body language, she gave no signal of it beyond a long, sideways glance. “As you say,” she said quietly. Then, as there was no sign of the approaching flotilla through the sandstorm, they moved to follow through on the forerunner's intention of visiting the captain of the guards.

They found the captain's compound on a rim of stone overlooking the mouth of a large cavern in the base of one of the wind-hewn spires that served as a warehouse. The compound's entrance was surrounded by coiled silk flags in the colours of the three great merchant consortia that paid for the contingent. Two guards perched on rocks on either side of the dark hole that receded into the stone, spears across their knees, watching all the comings and goings. They seemed to have no orders to stop visitors wishing to speak to Captain Val'Annyst, although one of them gave a mirthless smile. “Go in, if you will. It is your eyes that might get pecked out, though.”
Inside, the compound was mostly on a ledge overlooking the inside of the storage-cavern, with a few adjoining rooms carved into the rock. It was dark and cool, a constant breeze flowing through the hollow spire that rose to an eye of light at its summit, far above. Crates and barrels were scattered around, often serving as seats for a half-dozen more guards who lounged about sharpening their weapons, stitching decorations to their leather breastplates or playing draughts with pebbles and lines scratched on the floor. A large table dominated the centre of the ledge, scattered with maps, and a fierce looking elven woman leaning over them.
“Why is that hog-farmer Baraqjad moving his men further out into the scrublands?” she grumbled to a smaller, bookish woman at her side. “Does he imagine we'll loose track of them? Does he think he's still a janissary, with another company of orcs to flank us?” She looked up as Karmahl and K'mreyl entered. “Yes…” she looked him up and down, “forerunner? What do you want?”
Karmahl stepped forward, clasping his hands before him respectfully, in an ancient show that he carried no weapon common to the desert elves - even when greeted without formality, the forerunner felt that propriety served his tribe's honour best "Meaning no interruption, I am Karmahl of the Ma'Haedra, and this is K'meryl, priestess of our tribe. As is my duty, I bring you greetings from Reis of the Ma'Haedra. My tribe comes south now, making for the ford of the Osy'yan, and I have heard from many that a beast holds sway there. If you have the time to share a few words I would value your account of the creature."
Talein Val'Annyst was a woman who put people in mind of a bird of prey. With her sharp, bent nose, hollow cheeks and hair that grew straight back from her temples and the top of her scalp but fanned out behind her head like a crest of feathers, she looked ready to swoop at any moment. Angular scars etched on her cheekbones reinforced the gaunt, aggressive lines of her face.
She studied Karmahl for a few moments, then, without taking her eyes off him, leaned to the side and spoke quietly out of the corner of her mouth to the scribe next to her. “Ma'Haedra?”
The other woman paused for a brief moment in thought before answering. “Ma'Haedra. A northern tribe. Small. Recently they have been migrating south, with the intention of…”
Val'Annyst gave a snort of laughter, the sort of amusement that comes from the foolishness of others. “Ah, yes. I remember. Put wheels on a ship and call it a cart. Might as well put ears on a dwarf and call it an elf, eh?”
K'mreyl bristled, and gave the mercenary captain a hot look. “If I recall our ways, captain, it is more noble to run a path no elf has run before, than to sit in watch over the cargoes of another like a vulture.”
Val'Annyst gave the priestess a scornful look. “Your ways can go drink sand, hearth-watcher. I shall keep to my own.” She turned to Karmahl and continued. “Yes. You spoke to the cripple, did you not? There is a dragon nesting and hunting at the ford. And I will tell you what I told the last fool who came complaining and begging me to rid them of it: my employers pay me to watch their goods, and guard their routes. They do not use the Ford of Osy'yan, so I have no compulsion to clear the way.”
She glanced back down at the maps so hard it was a wonder that her gaze did not pierce the vellum. “Still, a dragon within slithering distance of the Whistling Canyon is not my idea of a comforting neighbour. I would gladly go run the damn thing through, if there weren't a gang of orc deserters just waiting for me to show them my back and take over this trading post.”
Karmahl furrowed his brow in thought for a moment "The Ma'Haedra have few warriors, but we may be able to come to a bargain. If I were to suggest to my caravan master that we bolster your men and go after these deserters, would you then aid us in facing this dragon? It seems safety in numbers would be wise in both cases after all."
Straightening, Val'Annyst folded her arms and glared at Karmahl. “I am not looking to start a war with the Company of the Condor, forerunner. Orcs have a nasty habit of appearing in greater numbers than you gave them credit for. If you Ma'Haedra have so many warriors, why not go after the wurm yourselves? One beast, even a dragon, is easier prey than a hundred renegade imperial soldiers.” She barked a laugh. “Or hire the orcs to kill the beast for you! Maybe they will slay each other to the last, and solve both my problems at once!”
Karmahl nodded. "I shan't take up any more of your time then. Thank you." His diplomacy was being tested, and he was eager to leave before his irritation showed. Guiding K'mreyl by the shoulder without awaiting any parting comments he left. Once they were clear of the garrison he stopped "I am sorry K'meryl, we were wasting our voices in there. Let us prepare for the Ma'Haedra's arrival and not trouble ourselves further with this dragon. We know all we need to, it is up to the tribe to decide whether we brave it or not."


The sight of a da'jannah up close never failed to impress.
The Wistful Hope of the Empyreal looked like any other elven ship, but out of the water its hull reared up much higher, a great curved wall of overlapping wooden leaves etched with the faded names of the elves that constructed it. Rope nets were hung over the prow, flanks and aft, allowing elves to scamper up and down to repel boarders, repair damage, monitor the camber of the runners or simply enjoy the feeling of the air rushing against their faces. The Ma'Haedra's only xebec sang her own song as she entered the Whistling Canyon's da'jannah docks (really just a wide, sandy field designated for ships to come to rest), a song Karmahl knew as well as his own heartbeat and the blood in his veins; the sound of straining ropes, the crackle of her great orange-red lateen sails full of wind, the creaking of her decks and hulls, bloated with a rich cargo destined for the Clashlands. A half-dozen smaller sand-dhows that acted as scouts and outriders nestled around the xebec like chicks around a mother bird as she came to rest.
A few of the merchants and travellers of the Whistling Canyon, including the bi'shar, had heard the rumours of wheeled 'janah, and come out in hopes of a spectacle. They were disappointed – it would have been impossible to sail the flotilla through the desert on wheels, so the Empyreal still rode on her sifoes, the long runners of special alloys that cut through the dunes like waves. Her sifoes were heavily scored and worn from their long journey, far past due for a change in Karmahl's expert opinion, but Reis was confident they would last until they reached the Ford and could be replaced with the wheels. The crowd that had gathered to gawk dispersed, sniffing and muttering.
K'mreyl had set up a small ceremonial hearthfire to welcome the Ma'Haedra, and the smell of cooking meat and spices wafted pleasantly through the late afternoon air. As the Empyreal reached the roped-marked area of her berth, a few elves dropped from the nets and stretched their legs, running to meet the forerunner and priestess.
It had been days since Karmahl had last parted with the greater part of the tribe, and welcoming decorum forgotten, he sprang forward at speed, and reaching the base of the mighty xebec, where it ploughed a deep flurry of flying sand, he nimbly leapt onto the rough hull-riggings, and hand-over-hand swung himself on board the rumbling monolith of rope and timber. "Rasida!"
“Hai! Hai! Foreunner! Karmahl!”
The fastest's tribe-brothers and -sisters (and uncles and aunts and cousins, and other relatives on the braided blood-tree of a nomadic band of a half-dozen families only the elven tongue had names for) called out warm greetings to him, singing snatches of old shanties in praise of the 'returning spearhead', reaching out to slap his palm with theirs and yelling questions that were lost on the breeze as Karmahl all but ran up the side of the Empyreal like a gecko. As he vaulted the railings a small cup of water was placed in his hands, and he drank from bone-deep habit and ritual; it was warm and slightly stale, but it had the familiar taste of the ship's water barrel wood infused in it. It tasted like home, and signified a spiritual reconnection and refreshment with the Ma'Haedra's wandering home.
“Papae! Papae!”
Rasida's crystalline voice trilled down from above. Looking up, Karmahl saw her perched amidst the rigging, in the shade of one of the great red lateen sails. High enough to make his paternal instincts flinch. Balanced on a knot, she kicked her bare feet at him and laughed delightedly. “Look how high I can climb! I can nearly reach the falcon's nest!”
Nearby, a short, brawny figure hung from another rope, watching the little silver-haired girl closely. Gwongaap was a mountain-born dwarf, shaven-headed, bronzed from the sun, all leathery muscle and sinew on his thick limbs, but he could climb like a monkey. He had forsaken the quiet and spiritual life of his people for the adventure and travel of life on a tribal flotilla, where his head for heights and skills with ropes and cranes had eventually lead him to being accepted as one of the Ma'Haedra, despite his race and ponderously short legs.
Gwongaap glanced down at Karmahl, and gave him a respectful nod. “Child,” he said to Rasida. “Don't you think you should climb down and greet your father?”
“Not until I reach the top!” Karmahl's daughter cried willfully, biting the tip of her tongue and squinting up in concentration. Ambitiously, she reached for the edge of the sail itself, aiming to pull herself along the rings that connected it to the yardarm and reach the top of the mast that way.
Concern warred with pride as those little hands reached up, ever higher, and for a moment he saw Samayah, Rasida's mother, in his daughter's determination. She was one to defy her own limitations too. Taking the briefest instant to marvel at her courage, Karmahl leapt up the mast towards Rasida, with an easy hand over hand motion, swift and twisting like a zephyr. Ready to launch himself out into the ropes and catch his daughter should she fall. Confident that he could. But equally confident that she would not.
Reassured by her father's presence, Rasida swung along the edge of the sail, hand over hand. Her hollow-boned body moved effortlessly, limited only by her short reach. As she reached the top of the sail she solved this by kicking out with her legs and wrapping them as far around the mast as she could, then letting her body drop. She hung upside down for a heart-stopping moment, giggling, then bent upright and began to climb. Within a minute, she was perched in the falcon's nest, panting and peering around at the elevated view of the Whistling Canyon in triumph.
A minute later, she had her arms around Karmahl's neck and was holding tight as he climbed the pair of them back down to the deck. “Papae! Did you see how high I was?! I could hear the rocks singing! Singing rocks! Is it magic? Do they have dwarfs here? Not like, I mean, proper dwarfs? Do they have orcs? And goblinses? And tree-mans? And dragons? And sorcerers? And children? I'm sick of playing with Zeil and Gehlen, they're so slow! Can I go explore…?”
The girl was unusually energetic today, as was often the case when they reached a new port or trade-meet. Up on the Empyreal's aft-castle, Karmahl caught sight of his captain standing by the carved railings, looking down with a smile that was both warmly tolerant and tinged with sadness.
Karmahl tousled his daughter's already unruly hair and held her tight "I have seen orcs in town, and the stones do truly sing when the breath of Riwal sounds them sweet child. And I am sure that dwarves and more pass through that place. But you will see it soon enough. You must be patient and wait with the tribe. Now you must wait while I speak with the Captain-Chief, and then we will go and see it." And kissing her lightly on the brow he disentangled Rasida's small hands from his wind-knotted hair and strode to the aft-castle.
"Hail Captain-Chief, master of Ma'Haedra-" he intoned the formal greeting "-your fastest brings tidings."
Rasida squalled as her father kissed her, but hugged him back before racing off to entertain herself with childish, arcane passtimes of her own design. “K'mreyl!” she called out in delight as the mud-haired priestess climbed aboard, having completed the ceremonial welcoming home of the da'janah. "Hello, little one," K'mreyl smiled as they fell into talking.
Reis Ma'Haedra's ambiguous expression solidified into a more regular broad expression of welcome and respect as he looked down at Karmahl. The captain-chief wore his age unusually heavily for an elf, in the lines etched like wadi on his face, in the silvering of his hair, in the parchment-like fragility of his skin. The mountain carries its years, but the running river washes them away, Samayah might have said.
"Welcome back, old friend," Reis said, forgoing a formal reply. He beckoned Karmahl on to the aft-castle, and shuffled towards the silk sunshade set up at the rear, where he kept his stool and writing tablet and qawfeh set. He poured himself a small cup of the black, bitter orcish drink and ameliorated it with a dollop of honey. "What tidings?" he asked as the forerunner approached, his eyes quick and keen despite the prematurely aged texture of his flesh.
Karmahl sat, sensing that on this occasion formality was foregone "I ran into town and met with a few locals, K'meryl has arranged a berth, but the ford at Osy'yan is hazardous I fear. A salt dragon lairs there, and attacks those that try to pass by, and there'll be no aid from the garrison should we choose to face the thing outright. I fear it would cost us a great many fine warriors to pass the Desert River this way. And orc deserters are at large in the countryside, so searching for another passage might also carry risk. Were I to suggest a course, it would be to observe the ford, and perhaps wait for a second party seeking to cross, so as to lessen our injured." the idea of just waiting galled the fastest, but losing brothers and sisters to the jaws of a dragon, and its venom, was worse.
The captain-chief listened intently to Karmahl's report, a look of deep thought on his lined face. The forerunner was only too familiar with that look… it meant that Reis would take in his fastest's words, weight them carefully, give them all due consideration, and then go ahead with whatever the hell suited his mysterious agenda the best regardless.
After several minutes of meditative pondering, Reis set down his empty cup and clasped his palms in his lap. "I thank you for your advice and your sight and hearing, Karmhal. But it seems to me that one dragon, while not be be treated lightly, is not so very great a threat to a band of prepared warriors. Select as many men and women as you think necessary, best suited to this task, and clear our way through the lair of the beast. Are there not those of the Whistling Canyon who are concerned about a dragon nibbling at their toes? Perhaps you can find other willing aid there."
The forerunner bowed his head in deference "It shall be as you say Captain-Chief." he promised, without emotion "I shall return with the tribe to the Whistling Canyon, and there I will organize a party of warriors, and search for those who share our cause. The wyrm will be banished from the path of the Ma'Haedra."
Karmahl paused, thoughts warring in his head, and uncharacteristic concern crept onto his face for a moment. Not doubt, nor fear, just a dreadful certainty "Before this is done," he said quietly, scarcely above a whisper "you must make ready the young to receive the wounded. I fear we will not return whole." And then, without haste, the tall forerunner turned to return to his daughter.
If Reis was aware of the doubts in Karmahl's heart, he chose not to answer them - which was in itself a worrying sign. A captain-chief should not be so removed from his crew, especially his fastest, that he fails to perceive their concerns… or allows doubt to fester in their breasts. "Thank you, Karmahl. I will make preparations," he concluded solemnly.
The forerunner was able to snatch a few precious hours with his daughter, then. They sang the song of desert blossoms, a lesson-song about how to recognise different species of plants. And Rasida proved once again to be an indifferent student when it came to the thin, flexible staves children used to spar with. Later, they played the listening game, a way to practise picking apart the many sounds that filled the air, concentrating on one at a time or hearing the whole pattern. Lastly, he braided the beads into her silvery hair as she fidgeted and chatted about her friends, her dreams, and asked innumerable questions about the world. It was at times like this that Samayah's absence was felt most keenly.
As the sun began to fall towards its rest in the north another elf approached. Long-featured and sculpted, his bare chest, shoulders and cheeks were covered with countless concentric circle tattoos, and he wore his dark hair in a topknot. He carried a spear tipped with stingray barbs, and seemed taut as a bowstring. Haythim Ma'Haedra, Reis' nephew was arrogant and ambitious - he felt he would serve better as fastest than Karmahl, and very nearly had the speed and brash charisma to back up his claim.
"Away, child," he said imperiously to Rasida. "The adults will speak." Rasida slipped off the crate she had been sitting on and darted off - pausing only to stick her tongue out at his back. Haythim stood before Karmahl, feet parted, resting his spear across his shoulders like a yoke. "Uncle tells me you are to hunt the wurm. You will need my help." He smiled confidently.
Karmahl regarded the lean warrior with appraising eyes. Haythim had not dismissed his daughter so callously out of malice, but in open competition, and though it irked him the fastest could forgive such words. Especially given it was clear that Rasida would not be so easily demurred. In any case, the tattooed Haythim was right - his skills would be needed, as would those of the rest of the tribe, and Karmahl trusted that the pride and ambition of his would-be rival were enough to make him strong and loyal.
"You speak truly." Karmahl agreed simply "The more skilled spears we go to the wurm's lair with, the greater the chance we shan't see any of our kinsmen end their journey by it's fang, or worse. And yours is no doubt a fine spear. I am grateful that you have stepped forward, there is great glory to be had for all if we return with the beast's head."