The hell is made of stagnant water, mud and rotting plants. Or so the reed-folk living on the borders of the Cold Swamps claim burying their dead in the murky waters. They placate swamp’s spirits with offerings of food and liquors and ward them off with charcoal and herbs. This belief makes them distrustful of anyone coming out of the marshes, alone or in small groups – unlike the denizens of Forest Duchies, the reed-folk do not trade with those rare Grand Republic merchants that chose to brave the Cold Swamps route.
The group finally came out of the swamps in the late afternoon. Tired horses welcomed soft grass and stable ground with visible relief while the riders found the woodland air refreshing change to the stagnant breath of the swamps.
Leading rider turned towards the rest:
– I think we have made it, uncle. No more puddles, no more toads, no more slugs, no more decaying plants…
– Actually, leaves and needles of trees in forests drop on the ground forming a thick litterfall… And yes, they are decaying feeding the soil. – The older man in the middle of the group responded with a dry smile that only widened when the young man groaned. – You really should have been spending more time outside…
– I have been spending lot of time outside, uncle. Training camps, roads, battlefields…
– But no forests.
– Nor swamps. Lots of hills and plains, though… I won’t be teaching you geography of the Republic, uncle, it’s not like I would know it better than you anyway.
Older man shook his head still smiling: – No, you would not.
Behind them woman wrapped in robes of fur and leather shrugged: – Whatever. Can we move forward, Viridius? I miss the sight of the open sky, not concealed by swamp mists or tree branches.
– Then you are up for a disappointment, Hisha. This land is called Forest Duchies for a reason. But you are right, we should move forward and put some distance between us and the swamps before we settle for the night. – The older man turned back to his nephew. – After you, Marcus, after you…
Young man spurred his horse to move between the trees and the rest followed.
It took them two more days to reach settled lands. The first sign of civilization was a small clearing with a wooden watchtower standing near the overgrown highway. Bored guards looked at the travelers surprised, as if expecting no travellers to come their way. The tallest of the men put away the jug on the table and stood up while placing the other hand on the hilt of his sword.
– Be welcome, travelers, in the thegendom of Black Raven. – He stopped and scrutinized them for a few moments – You don’t look like a regular merchant group… Unless your wagons stuck in the marshes. That happens from time to time, or so I heard. Not many merchant caravans come here. Maybe one or two every two or three years. But you don’t look like merchants anyway… I am Brimmi Rideg-Hadda, commander of this watchpost. I can offer you peace if you come in peace or violence if you come with malice in you hearts.
– Peace be with you and your kin, Brimmi, son of Rideg and Hadda. We bear no malice in our hearts toward you or the thegendom of Black Raven. I am Viridius Dor Antaros, this youngster here is my nephew Marcus Dor Getheos and she is Hisha of Ha’shak tribe…
The woman interrupted him with anger in her voice – I was Hisha of Ha’shak tribe but I am no more one of them. You know that quite well, general Antaros!
Warrior savored the woman’s outburst and then looked meaningfully at the remaining members of the group: three soldiers and two unarmed men. The bulky rider with pale skin and braided hairs wearing rainbow-hued clothing smiled to him and answered the unspoken question with a highly-pitched voice:
– The remaining ones are the most dedicated and loyal servants of the illustrious master Antaros. The humblest speaker is the master’s gourmet chef, studious chronicler, keen astrologer, sagacious physician and patient apothecary. – He gestured toward the small bald man in plain white robe riding beside him - This one here is the master’s secretary, aide and master of coin. The three valorous men bearing the arms are the master’s most vigilant guards protecting his glorious persona’s and his young companions’ safety.
Brimmi grinned and looked back on the old man – Apparently he is also your comedian. Does he entertains spectators with tricks as well as with his words?
– Man of many talents is often underappreciated by the simple folk. - Astrologer shrugged. - Thankfully, the illustrious master of the humble speaker is a talented, talented and generous man himself, capable of recognizing and rewarding true artisan at his work.
Brimmi started to laugh openly. – Illustrious master Antaros… Would you care to show your generosity by presenting us, simple guards of this boring watchtower, with your humble servant, so he would entertain us on long days with his multiple talents?
– I doubt we have enough silver with us to pay you for taking away Zzaz’zakan with all his humbleness. He has enough of it to supply all of your men and still remain a remarkably humble man despite his uncounted skills…
– The master’s words warm the heart of this humble servant. – Astrologer’s words made Brimmi’s underlings chuckle together with their commander.
Viridius cut his servant with a gesture before he could continue. – Brimmi, son of Rideg and Hadda, with your permission we shall travel further this trail. I presume it leads deeper into the thegendom. How long it will take us to reach the thegen’s keep.
– Two, maybe three days if your horses need rest after passing the marshes. – Warrior scanned the group once more and reached for the jug. – The trail will take you into the depths of thegendom, aye, but don’t expect to find the thegen’s keep… – He raised the jug in a toast, followed by his men. – For the thegna!
Viridius nodded to Brimmi and Hisha chuckled seeing surprised look on Marcus face. The group moved along the path again.