He woke for morning prayers.
Not prayers to his gods, for Talyn Brood kept no gods as his own. And they were not his prayers. But he woke for them all the same.
They were the prayers of the Athastari, hard men of the desert who prayed four times a day. As religious men went, Talyn had no problem with them. They kept their gods to themselves, never proselytizing the way religious sorts were wont to do. They also did not sprinkle their god into every conversation. It is sunny today! Thank our great god for that! It is raining today, we must give thanks to the goddess!
And so on. So that every event in life became some reason to thank some unseen being. No, the Athastari kept their religion private.
Except for the prayers.
Four months in to the campaigns across the continent of Daradja, he ought to have been used to their prayers by now, or at least, less surprised by them. But the discordant sounds of their throat singing, the way they clanged their curved swords against their shields, the occasional wild shrieks, it never failed to put a black mark on the beginning of his day.
Especially not after all the wine he'd had the previous night. Rich, red wine pilfered from the private stores of Duke Sterikos, whose holdings in the Highlands had just been plundered, their riches added to the great army that marched across the face of Daradja.
The prayers made his current bedwarmer stir as well. But after stretching like a cat, arms over her head, back arched to present her bare breasts to the cloak she used as a makeshift blanket, she was on her feet, happy to be alive and awake at this hour. People should not be this happy this early.
He thought to himself. I don't know how much longer I can keep her around.
He'd picked her up in the city of Valdaraak, the last city they'd come across before a month of marching across the Highlands, which boasted only large estates looking over larger tracts of land. The Highlands had no cities. Only estates, peasants, sheep and the occasional Duke with vast stores of wine to fend off the boredom. At least, however, the wide open fields made for easy living among the vast army. People could spread out, and each nationality could stay among their own, without worry about butting up against some other person whose hand gesture for "pleased to meet you" matched their signal for "your mother is a whore and I fucked her last night." In his years, he'd seen more than one army disintegrate over such petty differences. Miraculously, everyone seemed to agree that the Athastari could have their morning prayers. Memories of the way the fierce warriors had broken through a shield wall at the gates of Minos might have something to do with the tolerant attitude.
Giving her up wouldn't be so bad. Every camp had followers. Even out here in the middle of nothing, there were plenty of camp followers. Whores and bards and even merchants. Armies always had men with coins they could not spend in normal places. Men with appetites for women and song and foods that reminded them of home. Provided you took cover when the arrows started flying, an enterprising person could make three fortunes following an army around.
Talyn groaned and put a hand over his eyes as she opened the flap of the tent. His was a pavilion, befitting his stature as commander over the Brotherhood of the Black Blades, his mercenary company. It was not the small tent of the common soldier, though not so grand as some of the pavilions he'd spied in the other parts of the camp. His tent was not half as grand as hers, for instance.
There was already a decent breeze, and it made the flaps of his tent billow inwards, caressing the whore's naked ass. But the light was too bright, even if there was a beauty being caressed by it, and he rolled over to his side, squeezing his eyes shut. “Shall I read your fortune? I am of Rhivari blood, my people have the gift. Would you like to know your future? Shall I tell you of future riches, warn you of dooms yet to come, and put the whole path of your life in front of you?”
Those had been her words to him at the tavern in Valdaraak right before she'd perched herself on his knee. Talyn had no doubt that she had a good many strains in her blood. There might even have been Rhivari mingled in there, perhaps some long forgotten great-great-great-great ancestor somewhere might have been convinced to bed with one of the wandering folk, it was common enough. Talyn himself had once ended up traveling with a Rhivari caravan, only to wake up one morning on the side of the road, possessed of nothing but the skin he was born in. But he held out no hope that the girl actually could tell his future. For one thing, he didn’t believe in destiny and fate, and for the other, the true Rhivari he knew hadn’t ever bothered to tell him that there was a robbery in his future.
But, she'd begged him to take her with him. And after a night seeing what she could do, he'd consented. Still, if she kept being so damned cheerful this early in the morning, he'd discard her. Or maybe, if he was feeling generous, he'd give her over to one his captains. A good leader knew how to keep his men happy.
Finally, his head cleared enough that Talyn sat up, and looked at the girl, who stood in the open flap of his tent, sunning herself.
"Why is it that view costs me a pair of silvers each night, but you give it to the whole army for free each morning?"
"The view is free. Its what you do with what you see that costs you," she answered in her muddled accent. An accent that might be Rhivari. If he didn't hear traces of other places in it. Traces that told him that not every part of her act was as polished as what happened after coin changed hands.
She was small and fine boned, with skin that was naturally a golden brown color. Her long dark hair, composed of perfect ringlets might well have been Rhivari, though those almond shaped eyes suggested a hint of eastern influence. The emerald green of her eyes could have come from numerous places, all of which Talyn had visited in his past travels. Her looks were exotic, and two silvers was not so steep a price to buy a beautiful woman's enthusiasm.
Talyn reached for the cloak, -his- cloak, the nice black one with the fur around the shoulders, that she'd taken as her blanket, and carefully folded it. It smelled like her. Of cheap perfume and a woman's pleasure. He packed the cloak away carefully. Eventually, she would tire of him or he'd run out of coin, and she would be gone. He wanted to make sure that the cloak stayed after she left.
"Put something on and find me something to eat," Talyn said, rubbing his face with his hands. When he looked up through still bleary eyes, she'd pulled on one of his long undershirts, the sort that he wore under his chainmail, and had slipped out of the tent, flitting among the other brothers of the Black Blades. Hearing her delighted giggles as each man complimented her, Talyn could tell she was already seeking a new patron. He did not fault her.
"Each of us must make our money according to our skills," he muttered to himself, only his swords and clothes to hear him.
Still, enterprising as she was, she did return to his tent with a plate full of eggs and bacon, along with two large cups of juice pressed from apples also taken from the Duke's orchards. As always, she did not bring a plate for herself, and instead had piled a single plate with twice as much food. Two people eating from the same plate was a Rhivari custom, she'd claimed. Talyn didn't bother to tell her that he knew enough Rhivari to know they held no such custom.
"You're dressed well today," she remarked, Talyn offering at first only a noncommittal shrug of his shoulders.
In the time that she'd been off seeking food and drink, Talyn had finally managed to shake the worst of his hangover away. And he was dressed well. He'd chosen to wear a shirt of black silk, slashed at the neck and open to reveal the top of his muscular chest. The sleeves were short, and showed two of the tattoos he sported on his body. On his right forearm was a lion done in black, earned upon graduation from the Imperial Academy. The other tattoo was barely visible. It sat on his left shoulder, a pair of crossed blades also done in black. The bottoms of the swords, the pommels were visible at the bottom edge of his sleeve. The swords marked him as a member of the Brotherhood.
His pants were also black, made of a material that was uncommon anywhere, and, as far as he knew, never seen here in Daradja before his arrival. At first, they appeared to be leather, until one drew closer. Then, it could be seen that the material was made of small, interlocked scales, the black iridescent in the sunlight. Dragonscale. Exceptionally rare and expensive. The gift of the Myrrininan Empress after the Black Blades had broken the siege of her palace.
Talyn had even managed to get a brush through the unruly tangles of his hair and pull it back, where a leather thong held it (very tenuously) in place. His beard remained shaggy, however, as his mirror had gone missing. But the gold hoop in his left earlobe shone after he'd splashed his face with water.
"You're going to see her, aren't you?" The whore (he was certain he'd caught her name at some point, but he was just hungover enough to have no memory of it), said to him, her voice accusing.
"Aye, so I am," he said with another shrug, before swiping the last piece of bacon and pushing it into his mouth. "You have some objection?"
"She... she worries me is all," the girl said, her eyes going shifty. "You have heard the stories. About her dancing with demons? About the way she enchants the armor of her warriors? About the... ceremonies?"
"I've heard all that and more," Talyn said. "What of it? Every nation represented here has some rite or ceremony that seems queer to the others. We're supposedly fighting to prevent the Gray King of Garon from forcing us all to bow to his one god. A little acceptance seems necessary."
"They call her witch," she said, warning Talyn.
"They call her worse than that," he replied with a chuckle. "Indeed, its rumored that along with fighting men, she also plies your trade." The words came out surprisingly sharp. Talyn didn't know why he was defending the Witch.
"I lie only with other men. Not with the underworld beasts she invites to her bed."
"Well, if she keeps showing us victory and coin, I may join her in one of these orgies. I could use a little luck fucked into me."
The girl shuddered, making some sign of warding over her heart. A sign that was definitely not Rhivari nature. "But to go see her? Surely you can send another?"
"I never send another man to collect my wages," was Talyn's answer. "And today is payday. You want to keep getting my silver, don't you? I'd think you'd be happy to see me on my way."
The girl had no answer for him. But judging by the look in her eyes, she would not be here when Talyn returned. She didn't trust the general, and now, Talyn was guilty by association. They were all following her army, but now Talyn had crossed some invisible line by intending to go directly to her. Well,
he thought it'll save me the trouble of sending her away.
Breakfast passed the rest of the way in silence, and then the girl with the mixed blood was making excuses for why she had to be off. Excuses that Talyn accepted without argument.
The Highland sun felt good, despite his hangover, and his eyes adjusted easily. It was not the harsh sun of the desert, and this time of year, the skies were clear and pleasant, rather than dreary and overcast.
His hand rested on the pommel of his bastard sword, called Death Knell. The blade was itself spellforged, taken from the hands of a warlord who, despite his might blade, had fallen to a much more mundane weapon during one of Talyn's first real combat experiences. His dagger, Heartseeker, was concealed in his boot. Though almost everyone knew of Death Knell and Heartseeker in the same way that they knew of the reputation of Talyn Brood and his Black Blades. So the concealment of the dagger was now more a nod to his reputation than any real desire to hide it.
His men greeted him with cheers and well wishes. They knew it was payday, and had no qualms about who the coin came from. Indeed, a few of them even suggested to Talyn that he go the extra mile and earn some more coins from the Witch. Talyn didn't point out that the rumors were that –she- was the whore and so he'd be paying her.
The ribbing was good natured though, and Talyn would not let it carry past his ears. After all, at the end of the day, Talyn knew that he was the true whore. He sold his body for coin. Only he used his body for fighting, not fucking. Still, it was selling himself. And as long as he was well paid, he saw no vice in doing so.
Such judgments belonged to the Gray King and his one god. Talyn kept no gods, and so did not worry over their judgments.
Across the great field he strode, passing by each nation's army. There were the Asthari, who had finished their morning prayers and who were not busy in mock combat. Even now, in the green fields, they wore desert colors, their faces hidden by great veils. There were Tyroshi axemen, enormous men who looked like trees and who wore long, squarecut beards. There were dark skinned spearmen from Muteesi, gathered around their fires, speaking in their own language. They alone refused to learn the common tongue that the other soldiers all knew. How orders were communicated to them remained a mystery to Talyn, though the spearmen never failed to be in the right place at the right time.
There were dozens of other nations and regions represented. Sometimes even a region represented by a half dozen different factions and sects. And then there were the mercenary companies, like the Black Blades, themselves a polyglot of ethnicities and backgrounds. The army was large and ought to be unwieldy.
But the Witch was keeping it all together.
Talyn finally made it to her camp. She was from the Highlands, if rumors were to be believed, though she had long ago left these green lands. Her mother was a witch, also if the rumors were to be believed, and the concubine of some southern lord. How she had gone from witch's daughter to the lover and general for a king was a story that Talyn was still trying to piece together. Not that it mattered. She had a knack for victory, and a talent for making sure her army was well paid and well fed. What more could a mercenary want?
He felt immediately out of place in her part of the field. He could sense what had made his whore skittish. There was an unworldly air about the place. He could sense the presence of the gods he did not fully believe in. This place seemed exotic and forbidding, even amidst a gathering of diverse nations and strange beliefs. Something hung in the air here, and not just the incense that was constantly burning.
Warriors mingled with priestesses and witches and silk clad courtesans danced between them all. There was an air of mystery here, and of danger. Talyn suddenly found himself thinking about his immortal soul, another concept he didn't actually believe in.
A shake of his head and a chuckle dispelled such thoughts. Some young girl, her hair wreathed in flowers, her still ripening body covered by a flowing white dress, took him by the wrist.
"You are expected, Commander Brood," she said with an open smile. "She is eager to see you."
Talyn nodded, once more uneasily. He'd sent no word of his arrival. Perhaps there was something to all this witch business after all.