Rah’slah was the southernmost city in the Tjish.unen peninsula. It was separated from the Kahi River by the imposing Nthus Mountains, which had a range of over 800 sepeks in length and nearly 800 sepeks in width. The caravan Lahn and Domio would be joining would travel the Merchant’s Road around the tip of the Nthus, along a vast grass field toward Lake Cera in the north. From Lake Cera, they would take a river boat up the Kahi River for nearly 1,500 sepeks north to Da’hrisjah at the eastern tip of the peninsula.
Lahn and Domio joined a caravan led by a man by the name of Maedoc. The caravan was large, consisting of twenty heavily ladened covered wagons owned by ten overly-worried and interfering merchants, which made for a cranky caravan master. Beside the twenty wagons, there were some fifteen travelers on lirtah, which included Lahn and Domio. Due to the constant threat of brigands, the caravan also consisted of forty mercenaries. Master Maedoc told Lahn and Domio that a caravan that large would travel at speeds of around twelve to fifteen sepeks a day, if they were lucky. At that rate, they would reach Lake Cera in sixty-six days. Once at Lake Cera, they would have to travel another thirty-three days to reach the capital of Tjish.un in the north. Lahn questioned the wisdom of having chosen to travel inland, but it was too late, as they had paid their nonrefundable caravan fee and had just enough gold and silver left to pay for their boat fee once they reached Lake Cera.
As Lahn checked his saddlebags and the fastenings of his saddle, he looked over the caravan with a jaundiced eye. The chaos of the wharves made it hard for him to gauge the size of the caravan. He had never seen so many people cluttering up a space. He had been told Rah’slah was a typical Tjish.unen city: she sprawled with seemingly little planning in all directions, constricted only by the tall red walls that surrounded her. The tallest building of all was the strange red brick ziggurat at the center of the city. It was easily six stories high, a rectangular building with three sets of stairs leading up to her zenith. A stair led up the left side of the building, the right side of the building, and the back of the building, while a ramp led up the front. Lahn was told by one of the more garrulous of the merchants traveling with their caravan that the top of the ziggurat consisted of large altar, where animals were sacrificed to the Goddess Rah’slah. The center of the ziggurat (the doors were located under the stairs, hidden from view) contained the wealth of the city, a hoard of gold, silver and gems controlled by the priest that ruled the city. The ziggurat was constantly patrolled by city guards. Around the large building were other smaller buildings which housed the great number of priests and nuns and clerics that helped run the city. The great religious complex took up most of the area at the center of the city. Lahn would have liked to visit the ziggurat, for it looked like an imposing building, but the caravan was slated to head out within the hour.
“Oh, it’s a marvelous building, simply marvelous,” the merchant gushed to Lahn.
The merchant’s name was Telhos Soron and he was chatty to the point of distraction. He was middle aged, with a slight paunch under his flowing robes. His swarthy features were handsome, with bright hazel eyes and a trim beard and mustache. He was tall, although not as tall as Domio.
Telhos Soron owned ten young isili who did all the work for him. Lahn was endlessly fascinated by the dual-sexed beings and attempted, unsuccessfully, to engage them in conversation. They blanched when he addressed them and scurried away, to continue working at their chores. They were quite stunning to behold, and the tallest was not as tall as Lahn, who himself was not a tall person. They had blond hair, either wavy or straight, and bright, curious eyes.
“You seem interested in my isili,” Telhos Soron pointed out to Lahn as they mounted their lirtah in preparation for departure.
“My nephew has never seen an isili,” Domio explained. “He has only ever seen the Isemi.”
Telhos’ eyes brightened with interest. “The fierce Isemi, ey? I hear they are quite unlike isili and Farrukian in stature and comportment. Is this true?”
“I wouldn’t know how to answer you,” Domio replied. “How do isili and Farrukians look and behave?”
Telhos puffed up, being possessed of knowledge the other two did not have. “Why, the isili are like Farrukian in that they are short and even-tempered beings. Quite gentle and well-behaved. The Isemi, on the other hand…aren’t they are tall as men and volatile?”
“They are taller than men sometimes,” Lahn put in. “Quite broad and muscular and they are fond of war-making.”
“You’ve met an Isemi?” Telhos asked Lahn.
“Yes, when I was a child my father entertained their Tauk.na, their king. He was quite handsome and loud.” Lahn smiled. “He lifted me up and placed me on his lap. Each of his legs was wider than I was. He enthralled me with his beauty and fierce stare. He laughed quite loudly and was very gruff, although he was gentle with me. The Isemi are quite fond of children and he told my father he had ten children.”
Telhos gaped. “Ten? However can he afford that, I wonder?”
“By raiding the border towns,” Domio rejoined dryly. “Mark my words, the Isemi will have to be driven from Torahn if there is ever to be peace between our nations.”
Telhos nodded soberly. “Surely so, Father. Surely so. I do not understand how South Torahn could have treaty with such volatile neighbors.”
Master Maedoc blew his horn at that moment and the caravan began its ponderous journey onto Merchant’s Road. It took close to two hours before they cleared the city walls and were on the road towards Lake Cera. They moved at a steady, but slow, pace. Lahn had ample opportunity to study the landscape. It was still green here, although flat and monotonous through the grass fields just north of the city. Their pace was made slower by an even larger caravan ahead of them on the road. He turned in the saddle to gaze at Rah’slah’s tall red brick walls. Soldiers stood at her parapets, spear tips glinting in the hot sunlight. Lahn had purchased a face and neck cover to keep most of the bright sunlight from his skin, which although honey-dark was much lighter than that of the native Tjish.unen. He also wore a wide-brimmed hat which was all the rave in this country. It was late morning and already the temperatures were almost too hot to withstand. The wind moaning through the empty grass fields offered no relief. He settled into the saddle and resigned himself to a miserable two months.
He gazed east and studied the tall brown mountain range. He saw Mount Leh in the south, an imposing goliath. The mountains disappeared into the hazy distance, all the way to the horizon. The sky was an unrelenting blue, clear of clouds. He made a comment to this effect to Telhos.
“Oh, you don’t want the rain, believe me,” the merchant told him. “The downpours last for days and days. And if you think the heat is oppressive, never mind the rain. It slows everything down, but it also tires the mounts. The Merchant’s Road is paved, so it is no bother, but the countryside becomes like a river and we must camp on the road itself. We might be able to avoid the rainy season if we travel closer to 15 sepeks a day. Otherwise, you will find out. Perhaps you will be on your boat on the Kahi before the monsoon hits us.”
Lahn said nothing, praying to Atana that they reach Lake Cera before the monsoon season. That gave him something else to worry about.
He dropped back to ride beside his uncle.
“You looked worried,” Domio murmured and gave him a sharp glance. “What has that blather mouth told you now?”
“He warned me that if I find this heat oppressive, the rain is even worse. I am just hoping we reach the river before the monsoon season.”
“Maedoc assured me we would,” Domio replied. “Put your mind at ease, Nephew.”
The days melted into weeks as the caravan plodded on along Merchant’s Road. The road meandered east and split in two. Lahn was told by Telhos that one branch of the road continued towards the city of Kahn in the north, while the second branch of the road ended at Lake Cera. Several caravans continued towards Kahn, while Lahn, Domio and their caravan headed east. For weeks, the landscape had been monotonous: a flat landscape with knee-high grass, moaning wind, and an unrelenting blue sky. Malthos glared down from his perch in the sky, the sun seemingly larger in this land than it had ever been in Torahn across the sea. They skirted the Nthus Mountains, coming closest to the range before the Merchant’s Road arced north. Their mercenaries grew even more somber and watchful than they had previously been, and Telhos told them that brigands were known to harass caravans along this portion of the Merchant’s Road due to its proximity to the mountain range.
Lahn paid no heed, thinking their caravan would be safe enough from brigands due to the numbers of their mercenaries. But that night, when they camped along the side of the dusty road, and Lahn went to his tent to sleep, he was awakened a handful of hours later by a scream. Blindly, he reached for his sword and scrambled from the tent, barefoot and bleary-eyed. He wore a pair of wrinkled trousers and naught else as he hurried towards the sound of sword clangs and shouts.
“Lahn!” he heard from behind him.
He ran faster, cursing when he stepped on a stone and almost fell. For the most part, the ground was made up of soft red dirt, but the occasional stone or rock proved troublesome.
The wagons had been parked in two concentric circles, the tents inside the center for safety. Lahn hurried between two wagons and into the heat of battle. This far from the campfire, it was dim, although Taitah was overhead. She was a scythe, so provided only some light, but Lahn could tell who was mercenary and who was brigand as he made it to the melee. He saw a mercenary had fallen and was set upon by two brigands. Lahn ran up to the brigand on the left and ran him through the back. The man screamed and crumpled to the ground. The other mercenary faced Lahn with a snarl. He swung his sword in an arc and Lahn raised his to deflect its downward momentum. The swords met halfway with a joint-jarring clang. Lahn grunted. They fought desperately, more or less evenly matched, although Lahn had not fought for a long time and his skills were rusty. The brigand pushed him back until Lahn’s back was up against the frame of a wagon.
“Give up,” the brigand growled.
“Never,” Lahn assured him breathlessly, blinking at the burn of sweat in his eyes.
The thief lunged at him and Lahn flung himself onto the ground, hitting the hard ground with a grunt and rolling to his feet again.
“Leave him alone!” Domio commanded, unsheathing his sword.
The brigand cursed and turned and ran into the darkness. A moment later, the skirmish was over and Lahn heard the sound of hoofs in the distance.
Lahn and Domio said nothing to each other as they turned as one and hurried to see about any injured. They found three mercenaries with sword wounds, and one dead. Lahn could see the fallen soldier gazing blindly at the moon and sighed, moving on to the next man.
He knelt beside the fallen soldier. “Where are you wounded, soldier?”
“Stomach, my lord,” the man grunted. “Hurts.”
“Yes, belly wounds are quite painful. Lie still so I can see to the wound.”
Lahn carefully peeled back the tunic from the wound and the man cursed. The cut was narrow but deep, bleeding thickly and steadily. The man’s skin was cold and clammy and Lahn suspected there was internal bleeding.
“Be still,” Lahn chastised softly, cutting the man’s tunic and pressing it to the wound. “Hold this cloth to your wound while I get you moved.”
Three other soldiers stood nearby.
“Bring him to the campfire,” Lahn told them.
Two of the guards bent to lift the man up. The injured man screamed and passed out.
Lahn followed the two mercenaries to the campfire, where he put a kettle with water over the fire.
He turned to the soldiers. “I am going to wash the wound. I have some disinfecting herbs, so I will make a paste to place on the wound. I’ll have to sew the wound closed. Have we an empathic healer?”
“I am, my lord,” said a young woman from one of the tents.
“See if you can stop the internal bleeding,” Lahn told her. “I will see to the other wounded while you do that. Then I’ll make the paste.”
She hurried over and Lahn made his way to the skirmish site.
Domio was directing soldiers to carry the other two wounded soldiers to the campfire, so Lahn turned back and went to his tent, where he looked in one of the saddlebags for his bag of herbs. He took three packages of Ckalpa leaves to the campfire, along with his mortar and pestle, some clean cloth strips for bandages, and a needle and thread. He began to grind the Ckalpa leaves into a thick paste, pouring some of the boiling water into the paste to thin it out. The green scent of the crushed leaves was soothing to Lahn and took his mind from his worry that at least one of the mercenaries could die.
Master Maedoc hurried to the campsite. “How many are wounded?”
Lahn said nothing as Domio dealt with the caravan master. When he was done with the paste, he washed his hands and poured some of the paste into the water. He took the kettle to where the healer worked on the wounded mercenary.
The healer looked up at him and smiled wearily. “How did you know there would be internal bleeding?”
“The wound looked deep,” Lahn replied.
The man was still unconscious, so Lahn dunked the cloth into the hot water and bathed the wound, which still bled although in a thin trickle now. Once the wound was bathed, he sewed the wound tightly before applying the Ckalpa paste and bandaging the area. After they were finished with that soldier, they moved on to the other two. One had a shallow groin wound and the third had a deep slash across a thigh. By the time he and the healer were done, Lahn noticed the sun was rising in the east. Wearily, he stood up, gathering his belongings as the soldiers were moved into wagons to ride until they healed. It would be touch and go for the soldier with the stomach wound, for an infection could nevertheless develop. The healer would ride with him in the wagon while Lahn went to get dressed for the journey. He and Domio took down their tents, rolling them up and tying them up before tying them to the saddles.
“What you did was brave and foolhardy,” Domio commented as they mounted their lirtah.
“The Warlord has called me brave and foolhardy as well,” Lahn replied with a chuckle. “I will not sit around while men fight, Uncle. You’d best get used to that.”
Domio sighed. “Yes. So I am gathering.”
He pulled a strip of dosi jerky from his saddle bag and handed it to Lahn. “Eat. You look exhausted.”
Lahn took a bite of the jerky and chewed. Their first month in Tjish.un had ended on an adventurous note. st