Excerpts from Irith Queen
To the mariners of NaRasch and the Pirates of the Kemlane Islands there were no harbors between Oomar and Vestrodge beyond the barren inlets of Arme. It was held among the ship-goers that there were no inhabited shore regions about the mouth of the great river, and in fact, most of them did not dare to pass within the ring of Drapmorg. There was no reason to take the risk.
However, the lands on southern shore of the inlet where the great river issued into the sea was far from uninhabited, and the Bandits who dwelt there had many seaside towns and more than a few small ships, though they did not themselves venture near Drapmorg or attempt the passage into open water.
The word Bandit encompassed a great range of forest dwelling peoples living at different points throughout the southern reaches of Greatwood. In the far western corner near the dividing mountains were the wandering bands. It was these same tribes that had held the princess Gail captive near the river village of Wanderwash. These deep forest Bandits were perhaps the closest to the Khalad, and therefore the furthest from anyone else. It was primarily because of their kind that the name Bandit was unsavory in civilized lands.
Throughout the southern marches of Greatwood similar dwellings lay, and though most of them were far less sadistic than the deep-foresters they all knew the Khalad and had no love for men of other races.
However, the black panthers of the forest hated the ocean, and so their sway was not so strong among the seaside dwellers. Travelers would move at times among the different communities and men could by no means say that any town was purely evil or purely good. However, even the Bandits agreed among themselves that the ocean side dwellers were a great deal more like the outside world than their cousins in the west. They maintained a primitive form of government and kept their towns to a basic code of conduct. They traded much among themselves for which they primarily used the water, as they had few carts and fewer roads, and they even spoke the common language of NaRasch rather than the broken dialect of their kind. Nevertheless, for all their civilization, they were beneath the skin Bandits, and they always remembered this, holding in suspicion any outsider who attempted to enter their lands.
The greatest of the coastal Bandit cities, which nowhere else would have been large enough to be called anything other than a town, was set in a low valley at the mouth of a river issuing from one of Rejhant’s western vales. This was called Soptrod in the Bandit tongue, but the locals affectionately abbreviated it to ‘the Swamp’. Here where the peaks of Rejhant came to meet the sea the weather tended to be foul more often than not and it was not uncommon to make it through the summer without more than twenty days of sunshine. Even in winter, the snows that fell deep on the mountains held a shifting domain on the shoreline, falling deep one day, and melting on a warm gale off the sea the next. Turning to rain, it would render the entire region of Soptrod full of half-frozen sludge, too wet to be kept out, and too cold to be abided.
It was around eleven o clock the morning that a band of outlandish travellers emerged from the deep valley of the dead mountain where no Banded ever dared or desired to go, and rode boldly into the Swamp. They came in five sleds drawn by the dashers of the southern lands and there were seven of them; an old man, three women, and two younger warriors. One of these lay in the other’s sled, wrapped in bandages and unconscious, riddled with fever and shrapnel wounds. Behind him came a grey horse, unbridled and following of its free will. The Bandits had heard nothing of the coming of the Paladin and this was for the better, for in these regions they feared him as they feared and hated the Khalad. Had they known more of the Paladin they might have recognized the face of the man who lay unconscious in Alken’s sled, but to the ones that peered cautiously and suspiciously out of windows and doorways he was just another outlandish face to avoid.
The old man Hayley, it seemed, had been to the Swamp at least once in his wide travels, and remembered something about the layout of the city. He led them down among the houses, but chose for his course narrower ways about the outskirts rather than the wide lanes through the markets that were the closest thing Bandits had to roads. The snow had faded now to a thin covering when they entered the town. They found that the passing of many feet had crushed it into the mud of the stony streets and it could no longer support sleds. Therefore, they dismounted and walked alongside their dashers.
In this way, they came unchallenged through the greater part of Soptrod to the lower city where the trade of the docks was carried. As they drew nearer the water, Hayley began to enquire of the traders who might have horses. Many of them would not even speak to him, but shuffled away angrily as if to dismiss his uncomfortable existence, glancing over their shoulders with dark looks as they did so. But a few spoke, and when he had purchased overpriced trinkets without bothering to haggle too much their tongues began to loosen. There were no horses in Soptrod they said, and had not been for many months now. Nevertheless, the general agreement was that Harlon from the ship might have some. The merchants spoke of the ship repeatedly, but gave no explanation for the phrase. With great prodding and greater attention to the things that were not said than the things that were, they learned that ‘the ship’ had come to the Swamp about two weeks past, and Harlon had been causing quite a stir in town. He came with goods and soldiers, and they were rumoring that he might not be leaving.
The opinions were mixed about the outsider. Some said that he would have to be made to leave, others that he was their best deterrent against the imperial ships that were passing by on the ocean. One old trader with a friendly tongue – too friendly, maybe – said that the man on the ship had already chased off one of the imperial vessels that had ventured within the ring of Drapmorg. But even he shared the opinion of the others, that even if this Harlon was helpful for the time being he should be dealt with the moment the imperials were no longer a threat.
When it became clear that all the merchants who would speak were talking of the same man, Hayley made his decision and they turned around, returning into the city in search of Harlon from the ship. He had learned that the man they sought, or some of his soldiers, could generally be found about the main market toward which many of the greater roads ran. They found themselves in one of the Swamp’s main arteries, and many of the residents saw them, and did not bother to conceal their stares.
Gail had been silent all that day, wrapped in her own thoughts. She trailed behind the others, and for the time being they did not try to engage her in conversation. The images of the fight of the night before were as clear to her mind as the waking world was, but it was not these that she dwelt the longest on. She found herself traveling back in time over the past months and every memory she had of Anne Gretnert.
She had not until now realized how fond she had become of the Elemental. It did not help anything that Anne had not strictly been human, or alive, or killed for that matter. It did not even help that, when Hayley had done everything he could to save the unconscious Leordon, he had come and talked to Gail. He had explained to her how Anne’s purpose from the moment of her creation had been to destroy the Paladin. Gail had understood what he told her. Somehow, it made sense. If a thing was not human – not born with the plans and desires intrinsic to humanity – that it would not benefit it to go on living when it had fulfilled its purpose. It all made sense to her reasoning, but it did not help the great hole she felt inside at the loss of her friend.
The streets near the Swamp’s market were quite crowded. It was one of the busiest hours of the day, and among the Bandits there were few rules regarding traffic or the placement of merchants’ wares in the roadway. Nevertheless, they had little difficulty getting through. The crowds parted before them, and the Bandits avoided them like a plague, scampering into the corners to stare at them in fear and suspicion.
They had nearly come to the market when out of the parting crowd came a lone figure, hidden beneath a muddied cloak with cowl pulled low, who stood in their way and waited for Hayley to approach.
“Greetings, travelers,” said the stranger. They were surprised to find that it was the voice of a girl coming from beneath the hood. “You must not linger here. These streets are not safe for you. I can hide you and, if you are willing, I will take you to Arlen Bresh for he wishes to speak with you.”