The road stretched out before him for some distance before it turned sharply and was lost to the rest of the woods. He walked with a heavy step and a sober demeanor. His black hair had been left to grow and fell in coarse locks around his face as straight as wheat stalks. He was a large man by anyone’s standard and carried himself was though he knew exactly what to do with the sword attached to his hip. He dressed modestly in grey and black, and it was clear that his clothes had not been tended to in some time.
He was travel worn and his spirit was a heavy sight to bear. He was a wanderer; he had no home and no purpose. For years and years, too many that he didn’t care to count, he had wandered the North. He had drunk from every lake in Itan and felt bought flesh of a pleasure slave in Ostapor. He had sat among the camps at Qundor and heard their tales as they shared Firewater. He had seen the Queen in all her finery in Sylon and danced on the streets in Damshir during their festival of light.
Yet none of this brought him any joy, and whatever appeal it had had was lost with time. He had thought once to travel to the Wildlands and give himself up to their Blood God but even he was not such a coward. His travels had brought him in full circle as he walked the road that connected Ostapor to Lorian. He knew he had left Ostapor and its slaves and wealth and empty eyes.
For all of Ostapor’s sins, Lorian was a country of peace and tolerance. In fact no one remembered what the name of the road was he walked now, everyone called it the Road to Tolerance. Colonies of those fleeing religious prosecution were scattered all over Lorian. The Devote ruled over Lorian, speaking of the God of Many Faces. That life and death are but a line of gray cut in the sand of time, one never knows where one is ending and another beginning.
He traveled there now, to see if he could find himself again.
He had found not god that granted him the solace that many seemed to have and his old faith had died inside him like a sour wine. Hadrian wanted to be born again, like a new skin or a new name; he hoped to wrap himself in a new faith. He wanted to be remade, and forget the blood that stained his hands.
He was so lost in his thoughts that Hadrian did not notice as night descended around him. He did not need much sleep and he had been walking for the better part of his life because he didn’t have the coin for a horse, a chinu or eagles. The great eagles were owned by a single merchant who owned and trained these great unmanageable eagles of Itan. They were just large enough to carry a man and his belongings.
Horses were few, and most of them were wild in the South. The few that were tamed and ridden to places the eagles could not go because they were not trained. Chinu, the large cats of the desert, were cheaper than horses and twice as smart as them. They were not made for the cold and you could not stray far from the dunes of their birth. An eagle could have taken him to Lorian but the price of being a wanderer is that you have no roots and no coin.
He had stopped at the Twin Teats, a brothel at the mouth of The Knife in the city of Rentas, and tried to decide what to do. Hadrian had watched the men pass their coin and the women at their games. Yet as he watched them most of the pleasure slaves, male or female, seemed to have this sadness about them. They were happy enough to take the coins and yet their smiles were forced and their whispered promises stitched together with shame.
He had not taken a woman that night, but decided to travel to Lorian. Rentas was the city on the east side of the river and he had to take the northern ferry to get to the western city of Lanus. Rentas was the older city and spread out reasonably far to the east. The great city of Tars lay north about halfway between the city of Rentas and the border to Eswan. He had been there once, it was a subdued city where the rich ruled and the poor barely survived or went into to slavery.
It all reeked of oppression.
Though Eswan was worst, more of a military state, it had one ruler: The Commander. They were a brutal people, the Eswanish. Hadrian had fought in one of their fighting rings and won himself a nice fat purse. Now that he was older, he preferred the sadness of Ostapor to the ferocity of Eswan.
As the sun set he heard the cry of a young girl and the shouting of men. Hadrian glanced to the sky and saw that he had been lost in his thoughts again. He hurried his steps further down the road until he came to the bend. A girl held the bridle of her horse and two men tried to take it from her.
He didn’t speak a word but rushed towards them, his legs carrying him and he waited until the last moment to pull his sword. She screamed when one of them took hold of her arm. The first turned at the sound of the pull of his sword and the hilt met his nose with force. He crumbled as Hadrian faced the second man as he got his arms around the girl and the horse sprung free.
“Release her.” Hadrian said, hearing his own voice come out as a growl.
The man and girl both looked up; they had not heard him in their struggle. The man was ragged; he wore old clothes and had a sword at his hip Hadrian would bet he stole. They were bandits, and not the only ones to raid travelers on the Road to Tolerance. The girl tried to pull herself free, her hair was brown and streaked with red and her skin a coppery tone. She was probably from Nymeria, based on her looks and the clothes she wore. She had come a long way.
“Leave well enough alone, old man.” He said.
Hadrian raised the sword ignoring the gibe at his age, he was just older than the moron in front of him, “Leave her be.”
The man released her, and when she tried to flee, he backhanded her. She crumbled to the ground as Hadrian fell into a water dancer’s stance. The man faced him with the brute force of an untrained outlaw. When the man fell on him Hadrian moved and allowed the man to stumble past him as Hadrian hit across his shoulder blade with the flat side of his sword.
“I am sure you know the deadliness of this sword,” Hadrian said as he turned and waited for the man to recover.
The man paused then, his eyes burning with hatred, but he looked at the blade in Hadrian’s hands. It was folded steel, the strongest of hours and days worked into a blade. Hadrian saw the hesitation in the man’s eyes and lurched forward. The man took a step back and fell.
Hadrian laughed, the sight made him suddenly merry, before he said, “I would run now, before my blade grows hungry for blood.”
The man stumbled to his feet, abandoning his unconscious friend. He stood watching as he disappeared around the bend before he turned back to the girl. He found her mounted with a short dagger in her hands. He could see the blood gathered at her lip and the quiver of her hand. It was not the first time she had been assaulted on the road, nor saved only to be treated wrong by a self-proclaimed savior. Payment, he was sure, for a deed done.
He sheathed his sword, the girl could do little enough to him, as he walked around her, “You can come along and no harm will come by you.”
He could feel her eyes watching his back as he paced ahead of her. Her horse side stepped nervously as the man on the ground groaned, alerting them both that he was coming around. Hadrian continued to walk on, waiting for the girl to come to her senses. She gave no reply but urged her horse forward to follow him.
The horse soon came abreast him, with nearly the entire road between them. He glanced over at her only to find that she was watching ahead. They walked in silence as the dark fell around them, night had come and he knew he would have to stop soon. The moon was only at half-light, and it did little to warm his face in the chill of spring. Though his beard did well to cover most of his face, his nose always bothered him; it was hard to tell that it had been broken because it had been set right to heal, but it felt the cold more acutely after the break.
“Come along,” Hadrian said and turned off the road, following an old deer path in a short distance.
“Where are you going?” She asked, her horse set firmly at the end of the road.
“Setting camp,” he answered and continued in deeper until he was in the woods a good amount.
He did not look up to see if the girl followed or not, she had to make her own choices. That is all they were; blood, bone, muscle, chance, and choices. Hadrian was a strong advocate for will and the use of it. They would be nothing more than mindless vessels if it were not for the ability to choose. He set his pack down and set his sword atop it before sitting cross-legged on the ground.
He reached into the side pocket and pulled out salted beef. The taste was peppery, but he was running low on previsions. He heard a twig snap and glanced towards the girl as she led her horse down the deer path. He took another deliberate bite from his hardened meal and chewed slowly as he watched her. She was a thin little thing, with little breasts and narrow hips, but she was tall and young. She still had growing to do, she couldn’t be more than 14, but her height had first led him to believe she was older.
She put the horses tender next to a small patch of grass and sat across from him. She crossed her legs, the britches pressed into her thin thighs and he could see that she would so outgrow them. He watched her, his face that of stone while he waited.
Her gaze held secrets, sadness and a glimmer of hope. Hope that things would get better, that she had seen the ugliness of the world and only happiness could be left to her. He had known that look, it had haunted him every time he looked in the mirror. Memories could be suppressed, but the more you suppressed them the more they were seen on your face.
When she finally spoke, her voice was careful and calm, “What do you want?”
“More importantly what do you want and what do you have to give?” He countered and saw her stiffen but he did nothing to elaborate.
“I want protection as far along the Road to Tolerance as you are going,” she said and then she shifted, her entire body as though it was fighting her decision, “I have little enough to give but I can cook and fix your clothes.”
“I am going to the Checkered City,” Hadrian said at once.
“As am I,” she answered with a whisper of uneasiness.
He watched her listening to the sounds of the forest before he asked, “Do you know how to start a cook fire?”
“I do,” she said, her every movement weary and her fingers seemed to strum for the dagger on her hip.
“Every killed anyone?” He asked pointedly.
She shifted and answered, “Yes.”
“You need to lie better,” Hadrian answered, watching her face as the edge of her lips pulled back, “You shall do all that you said and I will protect you along this road.”
She stared at him, searching his face before she asked, “Are you a Monk?”
“Are you making the cook fire?” He countered taking another bite from his jerky.
She got to her feet and he watched her leisurely while she gathered wood and started the fire. She used an old flint box; it was dented and covered in scratches. It worked well enough as the dry grass she gathered at the bottom caught fire. She blew on them and he watched the fire spread. Water and fire: that is what their world was.