The Forests of Aman-Ámônoc, Hattusa
Cold was not the word for it. Cold meant biting, stinging, whipping. This was something else, something that came down heavy and dense, like diving deep into a lake and feeling the mounting pressure. The pressure, in this case, was snow; great heavy flakes fell down on the soldiers camped in the forest. It oppressed them. This was not cold – this was Hattusan Winter.
Brown spots highlighted the waves of rolling white. A soldier’s leather, a mug of putrid something-or-other, a frozen-over stew on an untended and long burned-out fire: the source didn’t matter. The only colors were brown and white. Tent flaps remained battened, conserving what heat they could. Little wisps of smoke trailed out of the small holes at their tops. The camp’s unfortunate underlings ran from tent to tent with new orders, new information or just a steaming cup of melted snow-water.
Within one of the sealed domiciles, a tense meeting was taking place, made more so by the smoke and oppressive thickness of the air. A small and well-kept fire crackled in a brazier as three Marans looked around the room. These were dirty and slush-covered, but kept some noble bearing.
The perimeter of the tent held twenty beings – some men, some Gabo, a few Orcs – all that was left of Corsi’s Marchers. Corsi himself had died three months ago, but lack of alternative options had kept the mercenary company together. There was also the matter that First Spear Mavos Falius had hired the company but they had not yet received coin – and wouldn’t until the company had served its time. To re-organize would, no doubt, mean the Marans would renegotiate, which meant re-setting the terms of service and further delaying their pay.
Falius, one of the Marans, flanked by his two closest legionnaires let his eyes move slowly through the crowd around him. “No doubt you have heard that the twelfth has met with difficulty on the eastern route and will not be joining us. This is regrettable but the war goes on. We will move within a month from this camp.”
There were glances. Moving in this weather was suicide, particularly when one did not have the luxury of being able to travel in Maran wagons, covered in Maran fur with hot Maran wine in one’s belly. Falius continued moving his gaze through the company as he spoke.
“You will move within a week. The twelfth had a job to do – one that required an army. You will do that same job with twenty-four men. If you survive, I will personally arrange for passage back to Hattusas Bay where you can arrange transport to the City or any Province you choose. You will also receive your payment, per man, as agreed.” The company shifted.
Suicide was one thing, lying another. They saw the ruse for what it was: an empty promise to move twenty-four men into a meat grinder for the benefit of the Republic. You’ll not move them with the promise of exodus and a few coins, thought a Gabdonian in the company.
Falius’ eyes fell on the seated Gabo – a grey-black thing in the darkness of the tent. He was large, even for a Gabo. His half-man, half-hyena features were sinister in the flickering light, made more so by the fact that Falius could not make out his eyes in this darkness. Something lay coiled on this Gabo’s leg – a snake?
“You,” Falius said, “You are a member of this brave company the same as anyone else. What say you to my offer?”
The thing rose. It wasn’t large, it was enormous. The Gabo strode forward and Mavos Falius was reminded of the terror-stories the older servants would tell the Falius children growing up. Dark Gabdonians coming in the night to snatch children from their beds, devouring their loved ones, feasting on noble Marans, helpless against nightmare incarnate. At full stance the Gabo’s head almost brushed the ceiling eight feet above them. It’s fur was not grey-black as he had thought, but a myriad of browns, reds and blondes with black spots. There were vicious scars up and down his arms and visible on his torso – he just realized he wasn’t wearing even a shirt. The thing on his leg was no serpent but a cruel bullwhip, well-oiled and well-used, which slid to his haunch as he stood, tied to his belt with a loose hook that indicated it’s owner wished to have it ready at all times.
The face was the worst. His teeth were white and clean, unlike the yellow fangs that many mercenaries displayed. The fur on his face was darker and clung to him like a hood. His eyes were shining yellow – no, wait – just one eye! For the other lay hidden beneath a leather patch. Later, Flavius would leave out the part when the beast first spoke, for it made him cringe visibly.
“Why would we want to leave this place?” the Gabo said.
Flavius found his composure. Filthy dogs. “What do you mean, Marcher?”
“Our reward is an exodus from Hattusa. That assumes we wish to leave.”
The other Marchers were agape. Of course they wanted to leave! The endless fighting, the cruel Trogs who hid in the woods and snatched whole companies from the living world with their ambushes, the meaningless war. Sure the whole thing was a scam, but they wanted to believe they could sail from this place.
“And you wish to stay here till Talia returns, is that it?”
The Gabo didn’t move. It turned to its companions. “What is my name?”
“LANX,” the chorus chimed.
“No. My name is Hunter. My name is Death. My name is Burden. My name is Fear.”
Somewhere a legionnaire swallowed.
“I did not come to Hattusa to leave Hattusa. I could have stayed in Mara if I wanted that. I came to drink the blood of the Trog, to watch his women-folk cry and his children burn before him. I came to match steel with the monster than frightens the Maran.”
That touched a nerve.
“I have seen this Trog. He is a good enemy. He is clever and fast. He doesn’t think of his safety, he thinks of the kill. The Maran thinks with the Republic in mind, or maybe his farm, but the mercenary does not have that luxury. In this, the Marcher is alike to the Trog.”
Marchers, once seated, now rose.
“Are ye men that stand before me? Do ye not quest for glory and honor as all men do? Or are ye women that stand before me? If so, my cock is in need of a warm reminder.”
The men laughed. Flavius, to his credit, started to get it.
A Marcher spoke up. “We will not survive. There is no point.”
The crowd’s gaze was on the man speaking, and so they didn’t see Lanx’s hand drop to his side. They only knew that one minute a man was speaking, and the next he was choking. He was flung to the ground with a quick snap of the Gabo’s arm. Then, as if by magic, the whip was retreating to its masters hand, coiling itself against his hairy leg, content to have been let out for a bit.
“We will survive. Because we will be paid in full – the entire sum agreed on, at full roster, at the formation of this contract. Isn’t that right, First Spear Marvos Falius?”
The Marchers’ eyes collectively widened. Suicide was stupid. Lying was underhanded. But twenty-four men being paid for sixty-five men’s work was something else. The men would all be rich. And any who died in the mission? More for the rest. This was a different deal, too good to turn down.
“That’s correct. That is, ah, what I had intended to propose. Full pay – as though not a man were lost, including your Captain’s pay and pension, divided among the company as you see correct.”
A cheer went up. The men laughed at themselves. What stupid fools these house-trained soldier Marans were! What idiots who paid for the simple task of – what was the task again? No matter, for the gold made it worthwhile. Schemes and greed worked faster than reason in the minds of the Marchers. Everyone has a sail, they merely need the proper wind to come along.
The Marchers filed out of the tent and back to their own to prepare. All but the Gabo, Lanx, who had sat back down in the commotion.
Falius rounded, having missed the Gabo’s lingering. “What is it, Mercenary … Lanx, was it?”
The beast was back in his cage now, wreathed in dark shadows. From within the darkness a small ember burned, glowing then fading. Smoke billowed out of the shadows and Falius smelt the pungent Gabo tobac mixed with the crisp smell of burning parchment. “When I return from this task – and I will – I want something special.”
“The payment of sixty-five men isn’t enough?”
“No: Because you do not have those funds here.”
“However, you do have four mercenary companies that have each lost their captains in the recent campaigning and are near mutiny. I have a whip and a mind to use it. A clever Maran like you will come up with a good use of these two resources.”
When Lanx returned to the camp three weeks later, his fur was cracked with frozen red. On his side was the coiled beast he traveled with, always oiled and never allowed to freeze in the slightest. On his back rode a bag full of sixteen Trog heads. Within five minutes of him entering the camp, the heads were rolled out on the ground before the commander’s tent and Lanx was pronounced the new captain of the mercenary companies serving under First Spear Mavos Falius.