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Dragonford - The Long Highway

By Brendan Thompson All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Blurb

The Great War has ended. The Ellohi have been defeated, and the Emperor of Riddare has extended the borders of his Empire. Vast tracks of wilderness are to be settled by the veterans of the war, veterans like Simon Pekar, an underachieving mage who went from major to lieutenant, Blinker Bridger, a young hero who has been reduced to the role of convict soldier, Cheerim, a career sailor who has reluctantly left her life at sea, and Saerabos, warpriest of the Ellohi, who now must serve his old enemies. Their goal lies far to the west, at the end of a twisted, wild savvanah, where the Dragonsblood River is shallow enough to be forded. To get there, they will have to cross a thousand miles of road and open country. In that wilderness, they will face monsters and beasts, hostile natives, and the ravages of nature: hunger, thirst, weather, and disease. But before they reach that wilderness, they will cross the length of the Empire, and elements of its dark history.

Chapter 1-1

The sun was only beginning to rise, but the platoon was already assembled. The morning chill was visible in the thin frost that dusted the roof slates and the street cobbles, and in the stooped posture of the soldiers, their hands thrust into their pockets.

Lieutenant Simon Pekar, the platoon’s executive officer, watched the men and women shuffle in place. There were four lines. First, the regular legionaries, their uniforms blue and tan. Behind them were the Marines, wearing tan with a distinctive red stripe up the legs. The third line, the convicts, had uniforms devoid of all rank or insignia. In the rear were the irregulars, a tall blond man whose face was covered in tattoos, a tall blonde woman, willow thin, a short man with dark hair and caramel colored skin, two Granth, tall and powerful, their heads those of dogs, tongues lolling.

The wagon team was chatting, telling lewd jokes in their heavy, western language. Few of the platoon would understand them, though Pekar did. The language they were speaking was his native tongue, as well. The wagons carried stores and provisions to see them through the first leg of their journey, out to the westward end of the Imperial Highway. When that long road came to an end, they would load up their packs and continue on foot through the wilderness.

“Can’t wait to get out of this uniform,” Master Sergeant Amaroy said. The platoon’s senior enlisted was in dress uniform, her medals on display. Pekar was also in dress uniform, with his braid and epaulets, his ceremonial sword and jewel-chased wand.

“I bet a lot of gentlemen would take you up on that offer, Polly,” Pekar said with a grin.

“Lots of men,” Amaroy said, “but I wouldn’t want them to be too gentle.”

“Are the soldiers ready for muster?” their commander said. He came into the courtyard in his distinctive cavalry gear. With a silver sword on his hip, brocade running the length of his torso, and tall hat topped with a long, colorful feather, he looked more like a child’s doll than a veteran commander.

The man, Captain Emile Danvers, chatted with the master sergeant, while Pekar contemplated the city of Riddare. The cobbled enclosure where they were mustered lay at the edge of Greater Riddare, capital of the world’s most vast empire. It did not have the alien charm of some of the more ancient cities, like the spired cities of the Ellohi, the mountain caves of the Iron Ridge, or the gargantuan scale of Angorth, but it was an honest, sprawling city of three million souls.

Two of their number were Ellohi. They had been his enemies for eight years. The war had encompassed nearly every country and race of man on the continent. It had been the largest conflict since the gods had gone to war, to their collective doom.

The Empire of Riddare had proved more resilient than the gods. Not only had it endured its world spanning conflict, but it had become fabulously wealthy in its victory. With that wealth, they were settling the wilds, spreading the culture of the Empire to the far edges of the world.

“On your word, my Lord,” Amaroy said. She turned stiffly to face the milling soldiers.

“Have the troops fall in,” Danvers said.

“Fall in!” she ordered. She pronounced the words slowly, individually, so that they could be heard at the far end of the courtyard.

Pekar executed a sharp left face. He marched to within three paces of Danvers. There he stopped, gave a salute, and reported.

“All present and accounted for, my Lord,” he said. The man he saluted to was more than ten years his junior. Unlike Pekar, he had never been demoted. “We have twenty enlisted, three civilian specialists, and two officers.”

“Very good,” Danvers said. “Post.”

The lieutenant took his position. Danvers turned to the formation.

“Not all of us are from the cobbled streets of this great capital. A fair number, to be sure, but not nearly all of us. Not all of us are human, wholly. In this platoon are two Granth, one Brigon, and a Nokun. To my side are two warpriests of the Ellohi. What we have in common is the greatness of our Empire. The war is over, and any of us can go home. Many of us have, to rebuild.

“But we are pressing forward, to the next task in our Emperor’s service, and to the next great adventure. There is a lot of open range out there. It is ready for us, and we are ready for it. The Emperor has ordered that plots of land on chartered settlements can be claimed by any who can hold and develop them. We are no longer Fifth Legion, or Seventh, no longer Marines, or Imperial Navy. We are now Expeditionary Legion, First Division, 9th Platoon. Now, I put it to you, my platoon, are we the people to claim these lands?”

There was a shouted response, sudden and fierce, from the soldiers. They laughed, and some clapped. There were exultant fists raised high into the air. Pekar felt the excitement, the call of adventure. They all saw a world out there, and were going to conquer it.

For some reason, though, Captain Danvers had a look of mild disappointment.

“And now we wait for the officers to change into something more suitable.”

Saerabos smirked. As a warpriest, he had known a life of extensive rituals, but his conquerors baffled him with their love of pomp and ceremony. Captain Danvers had ordered everyone roused and ready at first light. After his speech, he had retired, along with his XO and top enlisted to change into clothing more suitable for travel.

Their soldiers did not have dress uniform, just tunics with their ranks and emblems sewn on. Occasionally, a medal or similar device could be found pinned to the cloth. They had been ready to depart when they had arrived, and now they were waiting for their leaders to catch up to them.

“Coffee’s ready,” Faeresta said.

“I’ll see who’s interested.”

Faeresta had volunteered for impressment. Saerabos wondered if she regretted it. She surely could not prefer this life, the humiliation of serving as an attendant to the army that had crushed their ancient and proud civilization, to the life of a noble in the alabaster halls of Shaharadar. It was out of a sense of duty, of paying a debt to the victors, so that her people by and large could escape a life of slavery, that she had made that choice. Saerabos, who had been a prisoner of war, had not been given a choice.

He wandered through the crowd with coffeepot in hand. The Imperial soldiery preferred to fill their mess cups with weak wine or rum, as had been their custom for centuries, but some of them had gained a taste for coffee on campaign, and it was slowly growing in popularity.

He passed the Nokun, Kourin, with a polite nod. He was even more out of place than Saerabos and Faeresta. The Ellohi were dark skinned, all with black hair and black or brown eyes, unlike the range of skin, hair, and eye colors seen throughout the Empire of Riddare. The Nokun were more exotic still, with a pronounced lack of facial hair among the men, slight, graceful frames, and skin with a rich, dark hue. Their eyes, too, were shaped differently, slightly slanted with an extra fold of skin.

Kourin was enjoying a drink of his own country, tea, so Saerabos went to the ranger, Meskaron. The grizzled, gray-bearded man held out his cup while he chewed on his black bread. He had been the first person to warm to Saerabos, because he was the one person who didn’t fear that Faeresta was a witch. He had often said, in fact, that he didn’t care if she was. Meskaron had traveled far, and the best women he’d ever known had been witches. That was his story, in any event.

“Thanks,” the old man said as he brought the steaming liquid to his lips.

Next Saerabos came to Warden Ebnar Black. “Some coffee for the boys?” he said.

The warden had custody over four soldiers. They were all decorated veterans of the High Pass campaign, which had finally broken the Ellohi Grand Army, but they had been brought up on charges within the last few weeks of the war. The charges included theft, assault, and sexual misconduct. They might have been punished by death a few months before. Their assignment to the expedition, under the custody of Warden Black, was a measure of mercy.

“None of that devil’s pitch for my boys,” the warden shot back. He sneered. “You can poison the rest of the damn platoon if you like. We’ll keep to good, reliable Riddare victuals.”

“Suit yourself,” Saerabos said. “There’s only so much to go around.”

His next stop was the Marines. There were six of them, including the tall, lithe Brigon woman, Cheerim, who was still technically a sailor. A couple of the men took coffee, while the others made a show of looking the other way.

“Any for you, Cheerim?”

She wrinkled her nose. “Smells too strong,” she said.

Saerabos raised his mess cup, “Well, a fine morning. Here’s to the Imperial Navy.

They all raised their cups, muttering a response. He knew that they could not forget fighting against him on the open sea. Rather than sidestepping it, he made a point of honoring their crew’s sacrifice, even if they would never repay him the same respect.

A husky, square-jawed legionnaire named Castor came up to him. He held four cups.

“Morning, priest,” Castor said.

“Morning to the Fifth Legion,” Saerabos said.

Castor and his friends were part of a very small number of survivors. The battle that had laid the Fifth Legion low had been dubbed the Bloodiest Week of the War in Riddare’s newspapers.

“Some for me, Jaik, and the Granth,” Castor said.

“Is one cup enough for the Granth?” Saerabos asked.

Castor smiled. He was missing several teeth. “They make due. I think they only really enjoy the raw meat from a fresh kill, but they want us to look at them as humans, so they play along.”

“Well, as big as they are,” Saerabos said, “I’d indulge them.”

“Oh, and I do,” Castor said. “You always want to have the Granth on your side. That’s how we won the war.”

“If you say so,” Saerabos said. He did his best to keep a friendly smile on his face.

Ebnar picked at his teeth with the tip of a small knife. He had been an officer of the law on the streets of Riddare for too long. He had managed to avoid the fighting, to stay out of a war that had killed millions, by enforcing the law in creative, and profitable, ways. While most other civil employees had seen their meager wages winnow off to less and less as the war dragged on, Ebnar Black had put away a small fortune in bounties.

The racket was fairly simple. Imperial recruiters were paid a sovereign each for every healthy, able-bodied soldier they recruited. Policemen were not paid a penny for the common criminals they put into irons, even though most convicts were sent to do productive work in the mines of Meker, Pieg, or Silent Footfall.

Fighting a war required iron, gold, and lumber by the thousands of tons, but it also required men and women to put on uniforms and fight. It was absurd to pay recruiters for one and not the other, and Ebnar believed in a square deal. So, rather than turning criminals over to the clink, he had forced them to enlist, and split the sovereign with the recruiters.

Not all of them, of course. Ebnar was not stupid. But he had made a regular and profitable business out of it. There had been benefits on the side, too. Shipping people off to fight the war meant abandoned property to be seized, and wives, fiancées, and daughters left defenseless. The protracted, bloody, mind-bogglingly expensive war had been the best eight years of Ebnar Black’s life.

This expedition was the next big score. He had four charges, each entitled to half a share. They could not collect on their earnings until incorporation, and any failure on their part to meet the terms of incorporation would default their shares to the warden. That gave him five years to get the most out of them before cheating them out of the whole deal. Then Ebnar would be a rich man, and a leading citizen in a new settlement.

It was his calling.

Cheerim rubbed her hands together against the morning chill. It was hard for her to keep warm, at any time, but standing at attention was the worst for her. The tips of her fingers were blue. This had been a mistake. She was a Brigon, and that meant that she was a mariner. She belonged on a ship, plying the waters of the glittering Laetan Sea.

She should be working on a merchant ship, up in the rigging. She had a decorated career, serving in the last three years of the war. She was leaving life at sea in order to don a heavy pack and wander through the wilderness to go live in a field, with a bunch of dirt-morons who were going to try building a town out of nothing.

She felt like the only person in the group who knew what was going on. The arrogant folk that surrounded her now certainly didn’t. She had asked around about farming experience, and her squad leader, Zerbos, had said, “We’ll figure it out. We’ve got a ranger with us, don’t we?”

We’ve got a ranger didn’t sit well with her as an explanation of how they were going to eat. Pressing the point had only been more infuriating. “Take a look at the map,” Zerbos had pressed. “See, that’s a river, and you know how to fish.”

“I fished deep waters with nets,” she said, slowly enough that he couldn’t possibly fail to understand. “In the deep waters, the fish travel in schools. So we can net them by the hundreds. That’s a river, and the fish are not going to behave the same way at all.

“Water’s water,” Zerbos said, showing the ignorance of a career Marine who had spent his whole life on boats but had never been responsible for making them work. “Besides, looking at this map, it looks like a huge fucking river to me. Maybe you can fish in the deep part of it.”

That was how much thought went into the planning of the expedition. Because of a scribble on parchment, they just assumed that conditions would pan out the way they needed them to. Because it would be more convenient for them that way. No one in a position of authority over this thing was even vaguely competent.

She had lost her place on the Argonaut out of willfulness. The captain had taken a pass at her, and she had turned him down, and that had been the end of her life aboard ship.

She hadn’t needed to give up sailing altogether! The problem was that she was supporting her parents, grandparents, and two brothers who had both lost their legs in the service of their Empire. Their pensions were only enough to get by. She couldn’t stand the thought of them falling behind and ending up begging in the street.

The signing bonus for the expedition had set them up with a house large enough to run as a boarding house, which would keep them clothed and fed. She had to put the well-being of her family first, even if it meant giving up her own dreams.

It shouldn’t mean getting killed in the process. Death by the incompetence of your superiors was still death. Thousands would continue to die in the service of the Empire, even though the war against the Ellohi was over. They would be killed by hunger, starvation, and sickness, rather than by sword and spear.

“You look cold, selkie,” Serid said. He was from the southern coast, from the town of Anin, where seals rested on the rocks of the craggy seaside in their hundreds. Their word for seals, “selkie” had become a universally accepted appellation for the people of Brigon.

“Better huddle for warmth,” he said, holding out his arms.

“Fuck off,” Cheerim said. She walked away, not in any particular direction.

She found herself walking toward the Granth. The monsters had always been the Empire’s beasts of burden and battle, but during the eight years of war north of Riddare they had become a common sight throughout the Empire.

Rester and Faege. They were both male, but then, she had never seen nor heard of a Granth female. The legend was that when the first Emperor had subdued the Granth tribes that lived along the river Quidor, now known as the Great River, he had ordered all the childbearing females as the price of peace. They had been taken and sequestered on the castle grounds in the heart of Riddare, where they only bred under the supervision of the court.

They had been bred for obedience, for hunting prowess, and for physical strength, but certainly not for beauty, grace, or intelligence. Despite that, the older one, Rester, was just as intelligent as any human being. He regarded her as she approached. His breath smelled of the coffee he was sipping.

Like many of the world’s strange creatures, most of the Granth’s body was human. Arms, legs, torso, all were proportioned like a man’s, just larger. It was their heads that were the significant difference, the heads of dogs. There was always the rumor they were better hung, and that using them as studs was one of the guilty pleasures of the rich elite. Cheerim couldn’t see how it would be different than taking a farm animal to bed.

The Granth’s jackal head faced her with its slitted, amber eyes. The nose ruffled, as if catching the scent of prey. She recalled how Captain Danvers had referred to her and the Granth in the same sentence, as both being not fully human. She balked at the parallel, being compared to the massive creature, with its mouth full of sharp teeth and its twitching ears.

“Good morning, Cheerim,” Rester said. “Are you excited to be on the road?”

“Perfectly,” she said. She put her nose up at the Granth. Tall for a woman, she was about half a head taller than most of the men in the expedition, but she had to look up at Rester. And he was the smaller of the two Granth.

“You must be,” Rester said. “Your people are renowned explorers.”

“And yours are renowned hunters,” she said. “You must be eager to track down savannah rabbits.”

Rester didn’t say anything in response, but Faege coughed out a laugh. “They’ve got that ranger to do all the hunting,” he said. “We’re more like pack mules. At least for the trip. We won’t get to hunt until we get there. I hope they have rabbits!”

“We should all be so lucky,” Cheerim said.

Castor walked up between them. “Girl,” he said, smiling, “are you giving my Granth a hard time? You know it’s hard for them to keep up to your quick wit.”

“The lady was just telling us how anxious she is to get on the road,” Rester said easily. He yawned, exposing his wickedly curved teeth.

“Yeah, should be going any minute now,” Castor added.

As if on cue, the door of the garrison command opened, and the command cadre, Captain Danvers, Lieutenant Pekar, and Master Sergeant Amaroy, now dressed for travel, came out to join them. Captain Danvers still, for some reason, wore his cavalry sword.

“Platoon,” the commanding officer ordered, “mount up. We are on the road.”

Cheerim grimaced. “Mount up,” she muttered. Captain Danvers was the only one who would be riding a horse.

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