The sun had tinted the tents orange by the time Tellias and Tanuke finished their haggling. Tanuke grudgingly counted coins out of a pouch, Tellias corrected his inadvertent counting errors, and the money changed hands. Tanuke whistled loudly, and seemingly from nowhere a flock of Quintanelle children appeared and began gathering up Tellias’ goods.
“Our transaction, a transcending pleasure. Now I depart,” Tanuke said with a deep bow.
“One moment!” Kamendian interjected. “A man named Ruval said you could show us where his encampment was.”
“Ah!” exclaimed the Quintanelle. “The eminent Ruval, your acquaintance! His encampment, not far to go. Guidance, I can provide.”
After a few moments of expectant silence, Kamendian sighed. “How much?”
“The cost, for such wealthy men, a pittance. One tally, the cost.”
Kamendian snorted. “Try a token.”
“A token, your offer? An insult, from any other! Time, the most precious, when opportunity surrounds a man. Marks and tallies, the sky is scratched! Three marks, my offer.”
Kamendian was too busy puzzling out “marks and tallies, the sky is scratched” to reply. Tellias jumped in, saying, “One mark. Final offer,” and proffering a coin.
Tanuke sighed and took the mark. “Your tongue, your sword, equally sharp. One mark, the price. Malka!”
A Quintanelle child, probably about ten, leapt up from wrapping Tellias’ goods into cloth and ran to Tanuke. Malka had the typical pale yellow Quintanelle hair, though it wasn’t braided like Tanuke’s, instead hanging loose in long strands; anything else was difficult to distinguish under the layers of cloth enfolding the child.
Tanuke spoke to Malka briefly in the Quintanelle tongue, then turned back to Kamendian and Tellias. “To Ruval, Malka will conduct you.”
Malka piped up, “This direction to go, legionnaire sirs.” So saying, they started to move off toward the east.
“Our transaction, a transcending pleasure,” said Tanuke with a bow. “To you, good fortune.”
As they followed Malka, Kamendian muttered, “I thought Tanuke was going to take us there.”
“So did I,” replied Tellias, “but there’s no use in arguing now. He’s already got the money. Now, what is this all about?”
As they walked, Kamendian explained his conversation with Ruval and the job he had offered them. Tellias agreed it was about as good a job as they could hope for, assuming the Shammarians assembled a halfway decent force.
Malka led them through the remnants of the Grand Alliance encampment. The palisades were all down, and most of the camps struck. Most of the Imperial flags were gone, and the Vannetasians were gone completely. There were a few Casthanean and Borogodani camps left. Civilians had moved in where legions had struck camp; it was like a small impromptu city. The legions had always been followed by a shadow legion of merchants and other camp followers hoping to make a few tokens off the soldiers; now they’d caught up and no one wanted to make it their business to shoo them off. A few hopefuls tried to approach Kamendian and Tellias with some trinket or another, but Malka chased them off with some choice curses.
Finally, as the day slipped into twilight, they came to a cluster of tents on the edge of the city of encampments. Malka seized Kamendian’s hand.
“Ruval and the Shammarians, here they camp. Your destination, arrived we are!” said Malka, looking up at him with an ear-to-ear grin.
“This is less than overwhelming, Kamendian,” Tellias said.
“Well, let’s see how it goes,” replied Kamendian. He started forward, only to be brought up short. Malka still had a lock on his hand, and wasn’t moving. The grin hadn’t moved either. Kamendian sighed. He pulled out a token and tossed it to Malka. Malka let go of his hand to catch it and instantly secreted it somewhere in their clothing.
“To you, good fortune!” Malka cried, and then turned and ran off the way they had come.
Kamendian and Tellias walked over to the Shammarian tents. As they drew near, a tall man in archaic-looking armor blocked their way.
“What is your business?”
“We’re looking for Ruval. He said this afternoon he had a job for us.”
“You are mercenaries, then?”
Kamendian and Tellias looked at each other. “Until yesterday,” Tellias said, “we were Imperial legionnaires. Today we need to eat. Call it what you will.”
The man peered at them. “Ruval has not returned. I am Nemun. Your skill must be tested if you are to serve Their Majesties.”
“We will fight. I will determine if you are worthy.”
“I have no confirmation of that.”
Tellias sighed. “This is ridiculous, but if that’s what you want to do, fine.” He shrugged off his pack. “What weapons are you using?”
“We will use sword and shield. I assume that it is the combination with which you are familiar.”
“Sword and shield, sword alone, two swords, whatever. Sword and shield is fine.” Tellias unbuckled his shield from his pack, strapped it to his arm, and drew his sword. Nemun did the same.
“Are you prepared to fight?” Nemun intoned.
“Ready when you are,” replied Tellias.
The two men looked at each other across the tips of their swords. Watching them, Kamendian wondered where Nemun had learned to fight. His stance was similar to the style taught in the legions, but not identical. His sword was held higher than a legionnaire did. It was a different sword, too–curved like a saber. Not unlike the sword he’d pulled off the Storm Guard, actually.
Tellias made the first move, an exploratory thrust. Nemun knocked it away forcefully with his shield and responded with a savage downward slash. Tellias managed to deflect the blow, but it clearly took him by surprise. He leapt back a few paces. Nemun smiled. Tellias returned the smile, but Kamendian could tell he was shaken.
Now Nemun took the initiative, slashing in at Tellias’ left shoulder. The blow was blocked and returned in kind. The two soldiers traded blows for a while. Nemun was apparently stronger than Tellias; Tellias seemed to be getting tired under the repeated blows. On the other hand, Kamendian knew Tellias had a habit of feigning weakness in order to lure sparring partners into overextending themselves. He’d been taken in himself.
Suddenly, Tellias threw himself forward and down to his knees, covering his head with his shield and slashing at Nemun’s knees. Kamendian smiled to himself; that was Tellias’ favorite move, a good way to take advantage of his long reach. It had taken many a man down, both on the practice field and in battle.
His sword, however, slashed only air. Incredibly, armored as he was, Nemun had leapt into the air. Tellias flung himself to the side to avoid the warrior’s blade, coming down as he landed. Nemun gave him no time to think, pursuing and slashing at him. Tellias caught the blows on his shield, but their force kept him on the ground.
Suddenly, Nemun stopped. He stepped back.
“You will do.”
Tellias sat up with an effort. He seemed to be searching for something to say. Nemun pointed to Kamendian with his sword.
As Kamendian moved up to face the man, he was thinking. Nemun was obviously extremely fast; he’d have to take that into account. Tricks and feints might not work. He knew himself to be overall a better swordsman than Tellias, but not by that much.
It occurred to him that he’d never fought with this sword before. That could be a problem; he was used to a straight sword.
“Are you prepared to fight?”
Nemun stood across from him, looking at him. Kamendian, however, suspected that Nemun’s style followed the Vannetasians in stressing the importance of letting your opponent attack first, and was intent on waiting him out. Finally, Nemun grew impatient, and struck at Kamendian’s shield.
Kamendian had planned on an initial exchange of blows to explore his opponent’s capabilities. As Nemun’s sword lashed out, however, he saw an opportunity. The tip of his sword flashed between them, thrusting between Nemun’s thumb and the hilt of his sword. As Kamendian flicked his sword upwards, he barreled forward into Nemun’s shield with his shoulder. Nemun let out a grunt and crashed backwards. Kamendian slashed across them again, this time catching the edge of Nemun’s shield and knocking it aside. As Nemun hit the ground with a thud, the point of Kamendian’s blade was at his throat.
There was a quiet thup as Nemun’s sword stuck in the soil.
“Damn,” said Tellias. Kamendian felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead.
“I yield,” Nemun said quietly.