After nearly two months of travel, the caravan pulls into one of the larger trade cities of Varang after night has fallen. We've been within the country for the past four days. Varang is much bigger than I realized. It is hemmed in by the sea on three sides and Kou on the fourth, separated completely from the other kingdoms of the world. Though, a voyage by sea would get them to Imachukk rather easily. As we pass down the main road, I find that the architecture of the buildings here is quite similar to that of Imachukk, but, not quite so large. The houses are wooden and decorated with antlers and carvings. The shops are much the same. Each building has a thickly thatched roof, meant to contain heat during the cold months. Fortunately, we've arrived in summer. I've heard that the cold months of Varang are full of heavy snows and biting winds. Even now, in the summer, it is much more temperate than many of the places I have been. It is not, however, anywhere close to the coldness of Imachukk. I've begun to think that, perhaps, this means the people of Varang, who are touted as fearsome warriors, are of a normal stature.
This thought is quickly dashed as I leave the caravan and make my way to an inn. The expenses for travel more than halved my purse, but, I have enough to secure room and board for a few days, at least until I can discern what it is the Rukh desire of me. As I walk through the streets, I find that a city of this size does not settle down for the night like a smaller town might. Every city has its night activity. People wander everywhere, going into shops that are still open or to nearby bars. As I pass a tavern, a pair of men come out, laughing loudly and clapping each other heartily on the back. I almost stop to stare. While I know I am of slight build and not among the tallest of women, these men are huge. I estimate them to be somewhere between six and seven feet tall, with barrel chests and broad shoulders to match. Thick beards obscure fierce faces. They are adorned in hide, fur, and leather, simple clothes that do nothing to detract from their fearsome appearances. Even while wearing easy going smiles, I know that they must look like death itself when in armor.
The thought comes unbidden to my mind, a remnant of something from the world I'd previously lived in.
Salos quickly picks up the image in my mind and delves deeper, pursuing my memories of anything to do with these Vikings.
No, he says teasingly, They're Varangians. But, close.
I send him an unappreciative thought in retaliation and go on my way. Even the women I pass are larger than me. Though, not quite as large as the people of Imachukk, who seem to truly defy physics. The Varangians are obviously a hearty people, built to weather their harsh winters and work hard in the warmer months. As one man walks by, I see a large axe hanging from his belt, one that, with his stature, could cleave a smaller man down the middle.
I'd heard the Kou had left them alone, I comment to Salos, This must be why…
I've heard that the population of Varang is rather impressive for a kingdom its size. If all of its people are built like this and can wield weapons, it's no wonder Kou has not attacked them yet. The cost of a venture like that would be too high on both sides, and I suspect neither wants to deal with that. Still, I wonder how long a conquering Empire like the Kou will remain dormant on this front. I've seen their assimilation methods firsthand. To conquer this land, which is rich in resources and manpower, would definitely be a feather in their proverbial caps. It must only be a matter of time…
I wander further into the town, Salos curiously watching through my eyes. Being forced to reside in a vessel as a djinn, he cannot experience the world as I can. However, our bond allows him to live vicariously through me. Quite literally. He expresses a childlike wonder at not only our surroundings but the memories I have of the historical Vikings of my old world as well. He sifts through them as one might through the pages of a book, occasionally commenting and drawing comparisons. I can't help but smile. Though he swears that he's the older twin because, according to him, he was born two minutes before me, I think sometimes that it's the other way around.
All around us are tall wooden buildings and magnificent craftsmanship. Smoke from wood fires wafts from chimneys and fills the air with a distinct scent. I can smell meat cooking as I pass some of the buildings and my stomach twists and rumbles in response. After nearly two months of travel rations, I am most definitely ready for different, real, food. I can imagine a cut of some of that tasty meat I smell. Maybe with a side of some sort of vegetable.
Salos snorts in amusement.
Despite myself, I check my mouth.
I am not.
He laughs, sending a teasing mental caress my way, almost like those long fingers of his are dragging through my hair.
You're too much fun, my sun.
I quickly learned over my travels that the bond between Dioscuri usually leads to such a deep affection that outsiders might interpret it as incestuous. The use of pet names, a possessiveness of the other, and a very tactile relationship are not uncommon. Salos calls me 'my sun' because of my light magic and how it works in conjunction with his life magic. From the few memories I've recovered of our former home, I know that he's always done this. He sometimes tells me 'you're the sun to my flowers'. To be completely honest, it disturbed me at first. But, over time, I became used to it. Sometimes, only when he's been truly helpful, mind you, I return the favor and call him my flower. But, since he becomes rather overly emotional at that point and gushes all over me, I do this very rarely.
I continue to follow the Rukh as they glide down the street, their glowing forms all the more visible against the clear night sky. Normally, I would simply go to an inn for the night and rest. However, it seems like my compatriots have something else in mind. I follow them until we leave the housing district of the city and venture into the dark, quiet shopping area. The stores are all closed for the night and there is no one else in sight. I glance back toward the better lit place I've left, feeling a sense of danger at being away from both the light and the people there. Then, I focus on my surroundings. Instincts from training kick in and I suddenly feel hyper aware. I feel a strange sense of foreboding. Sensing my discomfort with our new setting, Salos moves his focus to keeping watch as well.
I doubt the Rukh would ever intentionally lead me into a situation where my life would be lost, but, they have taken me into dangerous places before. Salos hisses at that thought.
I will not allow you to die, Mina…not again.
I send him a comforting thought in reply.
I know. Don't worry. With these dirt roads, your plants will be easy to use in a fight. The darkness helps my light magic as well, particularly my flash spells.
He gives a brief affirmation, still tense. I return the gesture from earlier, like I am mentally stroking my fingers through his hair. He relaxes reluctantly, the tone of his thoughts softening.
The Rukh have stopped up ahead. All I really want to do is find an inn, eat something nice, and lie down in a warm bed. However, it seems that destiny calls. I realize that they're hovering at the entrance of a dark alley.
Are you serious?
I feel Salos slip into a calculating mood.
There could be something on the other side…
Or we could get mugged.
To be frank, dear sister, it would be you who was mugged, not I.
I feel my eye twitch at his smart tone.
You are not helpful. If you're not going to be helpful, shut up.
So hurtful…he sighs, All joking aside, you can't put off your destiny for fear of a dark alley. You are more than capable of fighting any human thief.
I'm tired. I don't want to fight thieves. I want to go to bed.
You sound like a petulant child. There might not even be thieves in that alley.
When I don't follow immediately, a few of the Rukh fly back and circle me, seeming to gently give me a push towards the alley.
Trust in Solomon's Rukh, Salos tells me.
Annoyed that Salos proved to be wiser than me, I follow the birdlike Rukh as they again go to the mouth of the alley. He's right. My training with the Yambala has made me into a skilled physical fighter. Not as skilled as they are, but, enough that my master told me that he felt alright with my going out into the world. I was glad that it had just been him with me at that time. Had Mu heard that, he would have wasted no time in making fun of me. Mu is a rather upstanding man, but, he can be as insufferable as Salos sometimes.
I continue down to the alley, thinking about how the annoying man would make fun of me for not going down it sooner. The entrance is even more foreboding up close. Shadows seem to fill it to the brim, creeping and stretching. I sigh. The Rukh are beginning to go down it, glowing in the darkness, but, not brightly enough to light the darkness. I stand for a moment more, unable to shake the feeling of foreboding that welled up in me. The last time I felt this was when I was travelling to Sindria and pirates attacked the merchant ship I'd bartered passage on. There were quite a few deaths that day, despite the hired men and I fighting to the extent of our abilities.
Very wary now, I begin to walk into the alley, lifting my staff slightly.
"Lf Khfyfh," I mutter softly, so that I will not be heard by potential thieves.
The orb as the top of my staff begins to glow softly, just enough for me to see the wooden walls on both sides and the dirt road ahead. I can faintly see the outline of the other end of the alley and expect to go through and emerge on another main street. However the Rukh swerve to the side at the midpoint of the alley, leading me onto another backway. I obediently follow, glancing about for possible threats. We continue on like this for a while, me following the Rukh, keeping watch with Salos, going deeper into the city. Deep enough that the buildings begin to look run-down. Mold sticks to some of the wooden walls and they smell of rot. I can tell by that smell, among others, that we've reached the poor district. It's not quite a slum, but, it's close enough. I hear people moving about, oblivious to my passage through the alleyways. I stay to the middle of the path, unwilling to be near the edges, where the smell betrays just what has been dumped there.
Why are they leading us through waste-infested alleys? I ask Salos, more worried than annoyed now.
Only Solomon knows. Well…and maybe Ugo. But, we just need to follow.
I purse my lips and continue on my way.
To my relief, the Rukh leave the alley, drawing me through a narrow gap between two buildings that makes me grateful for my rather small chest and slender form. If the situation wasn't so shrouded in mystery, I know that Salos would make fun of me. He knows that my womanly figure, or lack thereof, is a bit of a sore point. While my hips do follow the rounder quality that all women have, they're rather narrow. My chest, in the other world, would have been a small bra size. As it is, I don't have to use a very large binder. I seem to be built for combat rather than seduction or even childbearing. This is all offset by my face, which I've heard has an exotic look with its prominent features and slanted eyes. At least if I can't have an attractive body, I have a nice face.
Mina, the Rukh have stopped. Stop thinking about body types and focus, Salos says with an undercurrent of laughter.
I look up to find that the Rukh have indeed stopped. I curse my momentary distraction. It was enough to make me miss a rather important detail. I let my previous thoughts slip away and focus on where the Rukh have brought me.
The establishment appears to be a tavern of sorts. I can see firelight flickering through the dingy windows. It lacks the boisterousness of the taverns in the better part of town. It also has a…shady quality to it. I feel apprehensive about entering. This isn't the kind of place I normally go to. For one, it looks like it's about to fall over.
Go on, Salos urges.
…This has 'getting into a fight' written all over it.
I grudgingly walk up to the door and push it open.
The inside is much worse than the outside. The smell of unwashed bodies hits my sharpened senses like a tidal wave and I nearly gag. It's obvious that the bartender, an almost normal sized man with a sneer, doesn't pay much mind to cleanliness within his building either. The place is filthy. I keep my poker face on, though, because as soon as I walk in, everyone in the main room turns to look at me and all sound ceases. Every single one of them is what my foster father would have called a rough customer. Large men with angry faces sit alone or in groups. Women with contemptuous eyes and too much cleavage sit near them, obviously providing some sort of service. Everyone is eyeing me in my travel worn clothes and dusty cloak. With my light blue hair pulled back in a long tail of ringlets and my golden staff in hand, it's obvious I'm not from around here.
I almost turn around and walk out right then. However, the Rukh have other ideas. They flutter past me, unseen by anyone else, and right over to an empty table in the corner. I follow, pretending to ignore the looks that trail both me and the staff. Once I've taken my seat and made my intention to stay rather clear, activity around the room resumes. The women, who I believe are commonly called 'wenches' in establishments like this, go back to their games of seduction. The men who sit together return to their conversations. The bartender continues to polish a filthy glass with an even dirtier rag. Some still watch me, but not as many. I keep the staff close. While I think I could fight my way out of here, it would be hard, and I'd rather not cause an incident.
I look around, feeling Salos also checking the area. There has to be some reason for the Rukh to have led us here, and I doubt it's for the aesthetics of the place. However, the Rukh are being rather uncooperative, sitting at an empty table between me and a rather large group. At first I wonder if maybe I've sat at the wrong table. Then, I realize I can hear what the other group is saying.
"Dammit, Ingrid, that's not what was agreed. You're gonna be stickin' with us now."
I glance over to see that the group is comprised of three men and two women. All of them look to be fighter types. I spot a quiver and bow on the back of the smallest man. The other two carry monstrous axes. The one woman wears a sword. The other is the smallest of the group and looks much different from the others. She's much fairer in complexion and doesn't appear to be quite as rough around the edges. She doesn't fit with the scowling faces and darkness of her fellows. The bottom part of her face is covered and I can only see her sharp blue eyes under her blonde hair.
"I think it's time for me to move on."
It's the blonde who speaks, her soft but strong voice slightly muffled by the covering over her mouth. The man who was growling at her before clenches his fist on the tabletop and leans in threateningly. The woman who sits on beside who must be Ingrid scoffs.
"We not good enough for you anymore?"
Ingrid shakes her head.
"It's not that. I've just stayed in this area for too long. I got into trouble with the government a while back and I can't get caught now."
The archer cocks a brow. Yet another person who can do that while I can't.
"Your mysterious government trouble seems to be rather convenient. I've heard we aren't the first mercenary group you've run out on whenever big things went down."
Ingrid shoots him a glare.
"Yeah," the first guy speaks again, his red beard hiding his moving lips, "You're a skilled girl. We need someone like you around. We can't just have you running off on us."
The blonde woman's eyes narrow slightly. I take it that the group isn't always so tightly knit. Something is going on. She gets up.
"Sorry, but I only agreed to stay with you for a few months. I'm moving on."
The woman beside her stands as well, reaching over her shoulder to grip her sword.
"What's the rush?"
I see now that Ingrid is wearing quite a bit of fitted leather covered by a short cloak. She flips the cloak back to reveal a pair of daggers, one on each hip. Judging by her attire and choice of weaponry, I'd say she's a thief, or perhaps even an assassin. The other woman wears some rather revealing pieces of leather augmented with metal. She's obviously the more up front fighter.
"You have no reason to keep me," Ingrid says.
This conversation was obviously already quite heated when I walked in for it to have escalated this quickly. The other patrons of the tavern are watching, some curiously, some warily, and some even gleefully. It looks like a fight is about to break out. I'm in the middle of wondering which exit I should slip out if it does, when the Rukh lift off from the table between mine and the group's. In a less than exciting maneuver, they join a few of their brethren, who appear rather suddenly, in fluttering about Ingrid.
I pride myself on controlling my tongue, another skill I learned in training. But this is too much.
"Are you fucking serious?" I mutter.