The game is not about gold or glory per se, but glory and gold fuel the game. What it fuels is a simulacrum of the Nackstei social system made corporeal through the game. The belligerent, conceited soul of the Nackstei man, subdued by the awesomeness of his God, is allowed to release itself in a ritualistic and moderated display of martial passions. Sacrifices of blood, ransoms, and declarations of amorous devotion reveal themselves in the game. The imbricating, vacillating multiplex of Nackstei societal grading- on display for all.
-On the Nackstei Affair, Gari Corewei Anokuzdiwe

1: Tower of Mud
2: House Nowhere
3: Nothing to Do But Learn
4: A Game Within the Game
5: The Beatings Bear Fruit
6: A Summer's Hearing

1: Tower of Mud

They were struggling down the mud track, these muddy boys, carrying the logs that the riders would work for the onrush. The onrush on a makeshift tower created just for that day, created for the fun of folk with long days and longer stores of fightsomeness. And enough food, coin, and iron to hire men to be mudboys.

Laft slipped. A rock gashed his ankle, but he forgot about it. Up and down, up and down. Their shoulders ached, all these mudboys’ shoulders ached. The rider they were following, Maksym, was huge. He had the landthralls. He had the food. He had the meat to grow big and strong. Laft came from a hot, dry land to this cold wet land. This cold wet land full of giants and the pale nearkin of war. What he was doing there with the seven other mudboys on that dirt track going down that draw, what he was doing there was not war. It was playing at war. He'd been in a war once, as a young lad. How long ago had it been? Only a few years. His part of the war was a lot of writing. A lot of leather. A lot of counting. A lot of shifting tents, feeding camels, and keeping fires. He left the fighting to his sister and the Hero. Though no one knew the Hero here. Most folk didn't even know the name of Laft’s land. Laft eyed the hilt of the wooden sword, the waster hanging on his waist. It was unwieldy. He hoped he could afford a full blunt blade. If that day went well, if Maksym got the glory he was paying for, then the mudboys would also be paid. Thistle, who was always of good cheer, shot Laft a grin and said, “Stick by him. That's the only way any of us ever gets paid. If you go off and earn your glory elsewhere, there'll be no coin for you. What he doesn’t see might as well have never happened.”

Laft nodded. All he could do in this outlike land was listen. He did not know enough to talk yet. Weeks being told what to do and what not to do. It was said you could nab a rider as a mudboy, but no rider ever cared about what a mudboy thought of them, so sometimes, they shirked the nabprice, in the melee. Unless as it ran, you had a rider of your own. Or even better yet, one of the godriders. The godriders were the riders of God. What a funny thing that was. Laft did not understand why God needed riders. Surely His will was good enough. Yet here they were, His guard-lions on earth. Then again, the Prophet had said God needed The Hero. Laft’s heart grew sore with the minding of the Hero, with the minding of the Prophet, with the minding of his family, and everyone else who was no longer alive. Laft knew that God did not need the hero in the end. God did not need his folk in the end. That is why Laft was here in a new land, working for the very folk who won over his home: The Kingdom of the People, who bore witness that they had no king, even though there was one man they all answered to. The Kingdom of the People came rich, fat, and full of steel to his poor land, scant and with nothing but the rocks and goats and wind. They came to his home and made it theirs, just as they made him theirs, and sent him here to this green land of the Nackstei, cold and wet and gray. They sent him here to learn of these warlike folk, so that one day they would make it theirs, as they had done to his home before.

Laft found work as a trader’s guard sometimes. At other times, he put his writtling to work. After all, the tongue and writing and ledgers of the Kingdom of the People were worked everywhere, just as their coin was worked everywhere. Many days he even stooped to the work of a washerwoman, when there were no women about. And so there was work for him here in the land of the Nackstei. But to really know what was going on in the land of the Nackstei, he paid mind to their games. More than their God, more than their grain, more than their lumber, more than their women or children, they loved their games.

The men of Nackstei gathered around the Melee. Each kindred, though they were not called kins there- they were called burghs and households: the households of loafwards, warbearers, stirrers, and highbred leaders. Each kindred sent men to this melee where they could make their name, where they could put their life on the line. Few died but it was there, an opening for death was there. In this game of blood, they sent their men to prove themselves. Men could be born from the lowliest of families, they could be the offspring of a priest and a whore, and yet, they could become a rider there in those games. They could become a stirrer of the games. And if they were a Stirrer in the games, the stirrers out of the games would bring them into their houses. And if they were in their house, they could eat at their table. They could ride their horses, the leader would take care of them, and they would fight their wars. While the priests did not like this (they called them the Great Fathers), the many godriders (they called them the Brothers) who were both priest and rider fostered it. It was good to give the fighting men something to do, they said. Laft could agree. In his land, the fighting men had once had nothing to do. And so the fighting men found a hero to follow. A prophet to listen to, and the land to lose. So Laft slogged, a log on his back with the other mud boys and Thistle. Thistle with the white pinched nose and the whiter cheeks, even in this cold where everyone else's cheeks were red but Thistle’s and Laft’s. The one white, the other dark.

They spanned the next hill, and about a hundred and fifty feet away there was the tower. Already there were stakes planted in the ground. Sharp ends stabbed toward them, stopping any horse from getting too close. They heard from afar the calls of the other mob, of the other party, shifting forward. Their rider, Maksym, glanced at them with his klappvisor, looking like the snout of a dog barking, “Faster, you boys! Faster! I don't pay you to walk like my grandmother's lame donkey. I pay you to run like stallions. If you don't get there before them, I will beat you myself!” The steel of his gauntlets was hard, it was true.

Mudboys worked the slope to their ends. Running, sprinting, until Thistle, for Thistle was small like Laft, Thistle slipped and fell and the log spiked into the ground. And he heard a cry of a man, the man with the straw hat on the left. The log had fallen on his knee and his leg was twisted. It looked wrong. Laft knew he would never walk the same way again. But he pressed hard on, with the other mudboys, leaving their own in the mud. Knowing that to get their coin, Maksym needed to see them fight. Maksym needed to see them get hurt. So they stumbled forward in something too staggered to be called a line, too tired to run after the halt. Some of them had sticks. A lucky few had pitchforks. Many had rocks, which they started throwing then. Not as true as any sling, but useful nonetheless. Harmless to the riders in their wardwear, but sore to mudboys on the other side.

Laft waited a heartbeat. He took a stone out, and put his hand back like he'd been taught a hundred times. Taught, but failed to learn how to throw properly. And so in anger, he tossed the rock, knowing that it would never be. With this, he deemed himself a weak writtler. He deemed himself weak. He took another rock and threw it again, harder than before. Enough to make his shoulder hurt more, with all the tightness, all the woe that comes from not knowing how to throw. His duty done, he made his way in between the stakes. It looked clear, the tower, like no one was there yet. There were rocks, sure. Rocks that hit where they did, the sound of them landing in puddles and the strained battle yells of the men across the way, the men trying to make their voices big- only to sound scared and sour. Maksym’s mudboys picked up the log they had lost and put it on the stakes, a ladder to the tower of mud. So that Maksym could walk evenweighted on it as a ramp straight to the tower. The rider was the first one in. Maksym’s brigandine, which was a wool jacket with steel plates sewn in between the cloth, his red brigandine made him a heroic figure in the doorway of the tower, where the sun gleamed through. “Maksym the Great! Maksym the Great!” he yelled the yell of his house, which was not the yell of any house. It was just the yell of Maksym. The mudboys did not have the strength to back his sound with their own yells. If he backminded that he would drop their stride, to give them care so that they would have strength when the melee started in earnest. He did no such thing. Laft followed Maksym on the log. He managed not to fall, even with the sweat on his palms and the wobble in his knees. Unlike the man with the warts on his lips, the mudboy who he only met that day. Durvent? Durvent. Names like his should be known. Durvent slipped on the log and fell onto a large stake which punched into his buttocks. His screams went on without stopping, in Laft’s ears. Screams in his ears. Screams in his ears. Screams in his ears. Durvent’s screaming as Laft scrambled across the earthen floor of the tower, heavy with fear, but with the time to slam the point of his wooden blade into the first rider to cross the threshold of the tower, busy as the man was with Maksym. A little wide, but true enough to hit the forearm. True enough to give the witherling rider a long piece of doubt. Doubt enough for Maksym to slam the bulbous head of his black mace into the man’s helmet with a crunch. Time enough for Maksym to get the man to yield, and he shifted on. The man, meant to be playing dead, meant to be out of the game- that man tripped the mudboy Laft in anger. The tower, small as it was, had no doors. And Laft fell out the door and into the pit of stakes. Facefirst into the mud, thank Moon and Sun. He did not land on a wooden stake. It helped only a little, for the feet of the mudboys on the other side found his ribs, until he, too, yielded, with Durvent’s screams still in his head.

On the next day he found that Maksym had made good on his payment, and Thistle was hale. When he was waiting by the midmost scribe, by the tent where the pay was given out, there was a mark by his name. He knew what it meant. This would be enough coin to buy himself a nice wool cloak, one better than the rags that he’d brought from the south, though they were very pretty. And they were resplendent blue, the bly of highbred in his land, but not warm enough for this land. The highbred of his land: those raiders of goatherds. There was even enough coin for blunt iron.

2: House Nowhere

The season followed like this. Some days were worse than others. Other days were better than that. They shifted from field to field and burgh to burgh. Wherever the games went, he went. This made him a working mudboy. There were a few of them. All men of Nackstei who were not riders were mudboys in their day, but few were mudboys for long. Working mudboys were beholden to no one loafward, but beholden to the game itself. Nackstei was a large land. It took a fortnight to span its breadth on horseback, a month on foot. Yet he came to know it well, which was one reason to be a mudboy. He would see this land. He would get to know it well. He found that they did not call themselves the Nackstei, that was just the Kingdom of the People’s name for them. They called themselves the folk who spoke the folk’s tongue, or something like that. And because of this, Laft was able to write letters back to the Republic of Rwiz (for that is what the Kingdom of the People called themselves) to tell them how many fighting men lay in each town. And what lords are jealous of Blumval’s riders? And what lords did not know what to do with brigands? And what lords listened most to their ladies? And what ladies craved the poppy? Laft’s own folk were a folk of the tent. So it was not so outlike to never have a house to sleep in, to never have a fireplace or a bedspot, warmed and ready to go. But there was a fury in his heart, a cold hatred at his standing, his standing with no might. First losing to the Kingdom of the People. Well, even before that. He’d been clumsy, short, slow, and weak. Even his sister was a better fighter, and he was never chosen for the hunt. All these things, all these things built a large pyre in his heart. And that fire burned bright, with no hearth to light.

A fire of hair and rough strides heralded the woman who stomped behind Laft, startling him with a barb of an asking. “Why were you over there?”, she waved at the river. “What were you doing?”, she bid him as if she was his elder.

Off-weighted, as if he was put to an asking by a reeve, he mumbled an answer. “Nothing…” A few heartbeats to gather himself. “I was just washing some clothes.”

You don’t have folk for that? Are you a shieldbearer? A bondsman? A-a…a man-wife?” she volleyed. Between each asking the redhead looked recklessly away, and then back at him- as if backminded to look him in the eye.

The beats were off, somehow. This boiled him, and he began looking for leave to get away from her. Then he marked her dress, which was very clean and crimson, lined with sable. Maybe she waited on one of the rider’s ladies. Maybe she could have him flogged or banished, if he didn’t heed her. “Mudboy,” he mumbled.

“Without a rider? You’ll be broken and die alone,” she said with full feeling, as if it was written in stone. “The games are foolish,” she followed quickly, as if he would run away if she didn’t get all her words out. Her left hand held a feather, which she twiddled between each finger. “It’s not about preparing for war, like they say, and it’s not even about winning. Dullards. Anyone with wit can see, and me, I looked at them a long time, because I’m truth-full worried about Sprekkland. If a Brother is laid low by some other rider, all the Brothers get together and talk about how it wasn’t fair, and the splitters are all shieldbearers for the Godriders, so they find ways to back their man. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it! I have folk counting, you know. We count who wins what in every game, and we count the number of turnovers. There are more turnovers when a Brother loses, did you know that?” She took a few long strides back and forth. “Nobody listens. It’s gearworks that win wars, and they don’t let gearworks in the game, besides as a stage, like it’s a prop for an uprightedness mask, and only the splitters get to say how the gearworks do, so everyone learns what the splitters like to see and gives them that, instead of what they would do if their life were to be lost. Even the bows! Did you know…I crafted a roodbow! For the games! With sheepgut-covered clay quarrel-heads, but they wouldn’t have it. No worthiness, they said. If all the shooters got together and loosed at once, a lot of the games would look otherworldly, but everyone breaks that up, shames the shooters and beats them later for giving the big dull oxes a bad showing.” She gasped a deep breath, and then she was striding off, just like that.

The Nackstei are so outlike, Laft thought. He’d never met anyone who talked or walked like she did. What did this woman know, she wasn’t a rider or a warrior, but something about what she’d said plucked at his brow for the next season. He began to see her around the games from week to week, watching. Counting. Word was she was a Lady, with some thorps in a far-off highland fastness somewhere, but her standing was all that kept her from being shoo’d off like a nosy old witch. No one seemed to know what to make of her.

The Prophet was said to be the best warrior that the wasteland had ever known. After all, he taught his hero not only in the ways of gods and leeches, but also in the ways of war. Laft, who had been a companion of the hero, also got these lessons. He was meant to be one of The Band. The Hero’s Band. All fierce fighters. All legends in their own name, all once names that brought fear up the necks of the legionnaires of the Kingdom of the People. Besides, Laft could not even best his sister. He had been given the training. He had spent every day hitting sticks and trying to hit other boys and getting hit. And yet, and yet, for all those hours spent out in the hot sun, getting five bruises a day, each with its own name. For all that time spent, Laft had nothing to show for it.

Or so it seemed. He was there, in Nackstei. Month in, month out in that mud. Many of the other mudboys were landthralls, farmers. It made wit that they did not know how to fight. It made wit that the riders around them made short work of them. Laft was meant to know better. Not only had he been given wisdom from the mightiest warrior the wasteland ever knew, the Prophet- he had also been given training from the Kingdom of the People, the very folk who had won over his land. The folk whose coin covered the world. He had the best teachers, the best openings to learn to fight and yet he was shit. Utter shit. He could not gather why. He paid mind to everything his teachers had said. He spent days pouring over each shifting, wondering how to get it just right, and chastising himself every time he got it wrong. Until he saw again, until he let stand that maybe he was no fighter. Which is why the Prophet had taught him to read and write. Which is why he fought a war with a quill, while all his family and all his friends had either died as heroes or fled, known to be threatening, threatening even to the Kingdom of the People itself. He knew he was quick witted, he knew he could sum things up and down. So surely this must be worth something. Yet he was not rich. He was not known as a scholar or a preacher. He was not known for anything really. Besides as someone who picked up tongues a little quicker. And yet, since he was no trader, that was not worth much either. As a mudboy, here, losing every week, being beat every week. Here, it was, finally, too much. It wasn't even a true war. These were not even true skirmishes. And yet, and yet, this was when Laft decided that he was done. He was done losing. In Nackstei, in the games, in life, in the world. He was done losing. There was no Prophet. There was no Hero, and his family would never see themselves with him, after he went over to The Kingdom of the People. It was live or die in the dirt, on his own legs.

Laft did not know it at the time, but Maksym liked him. In the months that followed his first game, he ran into the man here and there. In one game they were lying around the fire, still panting from the work of the day. Laft thought Maksym a highbred always. As it turned, he'd been a mudboy for a long time. Just like Laft. And while his family had coin and some land, Maksym lacked the lore and learning that many riders had. He made up for it with strength and sweat. Laft asked him, “What can I do to become a better fighter? What can I swing a blade in a way that it hits the other man more often than it hits me?” Maksym looked bewildered with the very thought, and said “you just hit the other man, knave”. He laughed at the very thought of such an asking. Laft, who worked only to heed folk who could spell out themselves, did not heed Maksym. Even so, Maksym did better in the games. Maksym’s mace still got him, when he found himself on the other side. Laft tried to use what he backminded of the guards that the Prophet had taught him. Middle, out, in, hanging-out, and hanging-in. Jackal, camelopard, gazelle, downburst, and devil. They were guards meant for swords that curved half-way up the blade, all the better for cutting from the draw. These swords were straight, but the truths of wielding them seemed alike nonetheless. He tried to yoke what he knew to what he was doing, tried to make sure his hips were in the right spot, that his feet stayed straight alongside at times and staggered at others. He felt slow. Maybe. Maybe, Maksym was right. Maybe fighters just did the thing instead of drafting it out, but Laft could not stop drafting. He was taught letters at a young age. He was taught to tell others what he was doing, before he did it.

3: Nothing to Do But Learn

The shame of his thwarting led him to a new will. He went to some of the masters that popped up around the games, who offered behest for a fee. Laft could not gather enough to pay their fee. They did give a little bit of schooling for a little bit of cleaning on days they were hungry. He spied on their schools as they worked in their yards. They were led in lines. The master would yell a word. All the students would take berths of a kind, working through the stands and the guards. They shifted their feet to a set rhythm. This backminded Laft of the legionnaires of the Kingdom of the People. He had been an auxiliary so he did not get the full working of legionnaires with their square camps and their marching in lines. But he did watch them and their ways. Even though they'd made fun of legionnaires in the wasteland for shifting like turtles, the legionnaires had won in the end.

Laft set time under a tree. Whenever he could find a tree, he went through the shifts. The dances that the Prophet had taught him, as best he could. He gave himself the biddings. He gave himself the bidding that he backminded from dead folk.

Minding what the redheaded lady said about counting, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to figure. So he carried some sticks to tally with everywhere he went, and whittled lines for every loss and win he heard of. Muddy at first, the likeness came after a season. Most of the riders won about as much as they lost, give and take. There were only a few who won most of the time. Brother Drite, who favored the pole-axe. Polemis and Falakros, who were what remained of some long dead burgh. Camp, a leader of the Company of the Wing, and Dexi Gutei Nokukumiwe, a legionnaire. He could not find Polemis or Falakros. On a day that smelled of donkeys and madder root, he found the tents of the Company of the Wing. For this, he got a beating from a shooter and a man-at-arms. Nokukumiwe told him to come back when he’d learned enough to spar. Brother Drite sent him to a Master Bobben, with a mind to make him godsworn.

Master Bobben showed him the sword for prayers, for he took pity on him. Laft could say whatever it took to get the man to teach him how to swing a sword. Most of the working was against bales of hay that had been set up to look like men with wooden swords. “No, not like that! You’re swinging too strong with your hands. Swing quickly, quickly, quickly now!” Laft’s swings seemed to get better. Though, it was like he had to start the whole driving of his body only so, or it did no good. There was once, in a game, that he found himself in just the right berth to swing, like he'd been taught. And it worked. So he came back to Master Bobben for more. The Master spent all day in wardwear and helm, wearing it like others wore their tunic and hat. Laft never saw his face. Probably he stank under it, but everyone stank around the games. How he stopped the itch, no one could say.

“No one can defend himself without threat,” Bobben backminded Laft like a rumbling gut. The Master struck him in the face with the point of a wooden rod, again and again. Bobben hit him slowly, surely, and never in the eye- his rod would shift at the last beat, knocking Laft’s forehead. “This is my Snake,” he said. “If you can thwart it, you will thwart all strikes”. He showed Laft the guards of the armsword, for, as it turned, the working of these did shift some from the curved blades of his childhood.

These guards were proved by the masters for many years. They wrote it in their books. It was said that these were masters, these were the folk that the highbreds paid to teach their sons. They had a way. They derived these shifts from reason, they said, and from the grace of God. Laft took them like a statue, mimicking what he thought he saw Bobben doing. Surely, this was what they were trying to get him to do, but his body would not work. He felt cramped, tight, and weighed by stone after every bell with Bobben. He felt in the end that he was just bad. Man-to-man lessons from Kazmer, the godrider, did no good. Longsuffering Kazmer, who shifted Laft’s feet around every time he got it wrong, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “here is the way” whenever his slash did not seem strong, whenever his slash did not look like what a good slash should be. Even that left him worse, it seemed, than when he started. And for truth Kasmer told him to stop drafting every shift before he shifted. This sat with Laft for some time. It backglassed what he had thought. It backglassed what he had underlooked, after the exchange with Maksym. He'd spent all this time thinking, looking at letters, and summing up sums that he had forgotten that he had never learned how to look properly at a face or how to let his body do what it was meant to do. In its stead, he knew that trying was a good thing. Because folk did give him mind for trying. And so he tried. He tried, but it never helped him win in the games really, besides, oh, that time between the hills when his feet were just so or the other time with Maksym himself, when they came upon some stairs. Maksym had been on the stairs, and he’d been higher. The high ground was his. But Laft knew to point his sword upward in the way that he'd been taught by Kazmer, he did know to stab upward with one body like water, just as he had backminded. Even with no feast, that was such a merry day- the first time he got Maksym.

So Laft spent many a night, going over his reading of what the masters said. Put a foot over here, put a shoulder over there. He did it with the utmost strength to try and shove himself to do what he wasn't doing. Every time he missed, a pang of anger swelled in his heart and he told himself that he was weak. That he was made to die. After all, the hero had died. The Prophet had died. The band was scattered. His sister melted like mist, to gods knew where, yet here he was, here he was alive. This was his wreaking. This cold, wet, gray-skied, green-hilled pissing-race. The land of the folk who spoke the tongue of the folk. What the Kingdom of the People called the Nackstei. He was cursed to lose. It wasn't a true war, he did not even have the goodwill to go to the grave.

There was an evening where Laft had been caught on one mouth of a bridge, and there was a man they were all looking for: the last man from the other side. Dark fell with speed, a tiring night following a winding day. When they finally found him under the bridge, this shadow of a man slammed his little mace onto the head of the boldest rider who closed on him and put him in the water. With mercy, he made that the rider didn't drown. Then he did it to the man’s friends as he came out from under the bridge. Like a bear-charmer he played them, so they chased him round with much sound. Next to Laft, the other mudboys called the running man a balls-less whimperer, for all his twirling. He did not wear wardwear, even though there was word that he had been a rider or something like it. He was full-cloaked in wool dyed black, for it was cold. In between sightings, he shifted around. Folk were lured into following him and as they followed him, when they overreached, he turned around and hit them. This went on until they cornered him on the bridge. Laft couldn’t help but chuckle, the black-wrapped man made fools of them all. And he ran and did not seem to onrush more than just one of them at any time. Fleeing, lurking, waiting for his beats, and his beats alone- not theirs. He thought like ten men, attacking one then the other. Even kicked a spearman, throwing some knives as he was, and other’s weapons as he found them. In the end, he was cornered on the bridge and bogged down by the throng.

When later that day his wool mask came off, Laft saw him for one of the Kingdom of the People. He'd been a legionnaire, he said. His name was Shigeriwe, he said. And now he'd come here. He saw Laft for the man he was. He bid a report later, hidden. Laft agreed, and told him of all he learned. Shigeriwe had been here a while, learning the ways of this land. Word was that Laft’s folk had been fighting back in the wasteland after all. The wasteland was not worth much, it did not have much of worth. So the Kingdom of the People were letting it lie holy, letting it go slowly. The people's heart was not in that conquest after all. But here, here the land was green and rich. Forests bigger than any of the plains. Rwiz had forests bigger than Laft’s own wasteland home, and so much land for farming. So they looked here, north, for far more, in the hopes of building a northern republic. They were told, these outlanders like Laft, to set a bond, since the Nackstei played their games more than they played at war. Legionnaires thought this would be smooth. After all, in the Nackstei games, did not Shigeriwe already beat them at their own game? Well. Shigeriwe was not known for his worthiness by the riders, who would rather fight on horseback, man-to-man. Well, when he was asked in the right way, Shigeriwe would fight man-to-man. He did not do this for everyone and Laft did not understand why he did not do this for everyone. Why somebell he would fight men, one on one, and other times he did not. Until one day Laft asked, and Shigeriwe told him,of the ring: “how can you understand the Nackstei without understanding that there is a game within the games, a different game that we all play?” So Laft asked the other mudboys, and got an answer here and there. Those who did well in the games tended not to think much of it, other than as a passing jest or a one-time field to mark out their might when they had no other field to mark themselves out.

4: A Game Within the Game

There was a crowd, a crowd that set itself apart from both the riders and the mudboys, though they were riders, mudboys, men-at-arms, craftsmen, and even a farmer or two. These were men who yearn for war, a full war. They were often men who'd been there and come back. Much like Laft had, though, in truth, he’d done it with a quill. These men gathered before and after all the games. Many of them traveled not for the game, but for this gathering itself. They gathered in rings, watching, never raising their voices. Each of them faced the other. One against one, man against man, often naked but for the highest among them, who came from every walk of life. These marked themselves out with sharp blades, as if they were fighting to the death. In this ring, in this world, it didn't matter. It did not matter how much coin a man had. He had enough to get there. It did not matter how well he did in the games. It only mattered how willing he was to stand in the middle. Whether he fought the other man in front of him or not. Between washing and cleaning the wardwear of rich riders for bread and meat, Laft found enough to stand in the ring. On the day of his first ringing, the men were shouting, jostling, and laughing around him. He was pushed to the middle by rough hands. They began to chant, “TWO TWO TWO TWO TWO”. For every man’s first ringing, they made noise. For every ringing after, it was hushed.

The man across was a little shorter than him, but more than a little wider. He had a face like a baby, with blonde wispy locks. Eyes the bly of a cloudless sky, and a befuddled smile. Laft was ready. He knew he’d been training for years, learning the ways of sword and staff for far longer than this farmer. He could see the way the fight would go, now, as his teachers taught him. He would strike from the top, then step to the lef–.

The grassless ground, underneath. There was a cloud in the sky that looked like a fox. Laft felt heavy. Why was he lying on the ground? Did he fall asleep here? One of the old timers, another blonde man, but with a squarer jaw and arms as round as his legs, looked down at him with his lower lip jutting out, as if he had just been chewing cud. “You taste like shit,” he shouted with his nose wrinkling. “Get up! Out of the way!” The man spun around, shouting at the rest of the ring. “You have to be bold, men. Bold!” Laft did not know how he fell. They said his witherling simply bashed past his guard and knocked him roundly in the jaw with the tip of his waster. He was covered in dirt and snot, and his mouth felt full of linen and salt. They had a laugh at his weakness, but everyone besides the old-timer clapped him on the back after.

Laft lost more than he had ever lost, again and again and again. At least in the games, folk could say that it was because the other men had other men on their side. They had more men on their side. They had better weapons, they had better wardwear, they did not have any injury. They had better food, or one didn’t have enough food that day. They had horses, they had women, they didn’t have women, they were women- there were all these leavings. Leave to fail. Leave to lose, leave to spend more coin on beer instead of more time learning. But here in the ring, it was just man against man. Eye to eye. There was no leave, it was just a man and his witherling of five parts of the bell. So Laft came to that spot, that holy spot. Whatever his errand had been, it was set below this spot. Whatever his gods had been in the wasteland, this was his god now.

Now, here, body against body, staff against staff, mind against mind. In between the fights, the other men would share their findings. In the fights, they shared their will. They did not ask for coins or goods like the many swordmasters that came to the games to hawk their schools, like so many fishwives hawking fish. They did not charge coins, at least. The price was will. Was he willing, after a long day, fighting a skirmish at the game, was he willing, after days without food, was he willing, after a day in the stocks, was he willing to stand in the ring? Whenever one was called to the ring- in the rain, in the snow, even when the games stopped playing. Did he show his brow? To that ring? Would he look the other man in front of him in the eye as his staff, as his fist, as his blade found his body? Laft found he did. It was not sore with him, how many times he had lost, though it did pay to count, if only to get better. He knew he had lost over two hundred fights, between the first thaw and the day the sun reigned longest. Seemed at times that he learned nothing. And at other times he learned everything, about who he was, and why he was. For a few heartbeats, he tasted the flush of winning.

He wintered in Kepplvur, because it was said that they had ringers there, who stood the ring through the winter, even when the games slumbered. They ringed outside the southern wall of the burgh, where the sun baked the wall and a few trees stayed green. In that season he tallied the ringers. There were a few of them who did this, though there was a worry that this may lead to betting, which would sully the ring. It did lead to betting, but the bets made them mind what they said about who would win and when. The tallying gave a clue of how some winners were unlike others. They gave as much mind to what they did without weapons. These were ringings that had no staff, no waster, no club. In wardwear, after all, much of the fighting came to hugging- where a sax could find an eye, or the soft underjaw.

Laft was slammed, thrown, covered, trapped, and ground down under the shoulders, chests, arms, hips, and legs of the men in the ring. He found himself a mouse in a snake’s mouth. As bad as he was with sword and spear, he could do almost nothing against these men without some weapon to keep them away from him. Every twelfth he gave was taken, and it took his arms being cranked over and over again, his neck being yanked over and over again, for him to even feel that they were taking these twelfths every time he gave a twelfth to them.

One such part, his head was on another man’s chest. It seemed there was nothing he could do, the man was behind him, and his arms were yanking away at his nose, his jaw, his neck. Finally, he gave up, though not enough to tap the man to tell him he had yielded. When he gave up, he felt what he could drive. He could not drive his feet, his witherling kept them off the ground. He could not drive his hips, the man kept them closed with his thighs. He could not drive his shoulders, they were pinned by the other man’s arms. But he could drive his neck a little, and moreover, he could pay mind to the air going in and out of his nose. His body loosened. As Laft’s body loosened, his witherling’s body tightened, trying to find the streams of blood in Laft’s neck, so he could close them off. Trying, he failed. Laft slipped downward, let his back hit the ground, and shifted what he could shift, like a worm crawling through sod. He didn’t win, but the other man didn’t get him to yield, either.

“Anyone can cease another from striking him,” said Docheo when he saw Laft’s new thew of bewildering others. “Arete for a fighter is in whether he can offend his antagonist enough to make him submit.” Docheo was said by some to be the best man-on-man fighter in the world, so much so that many thought he was taken by a ghost. His ringings were so fast, few could follow them. So Laft minded the man’s words, rider or not. It was far less tiring to sit still and stop his witherlings than it was to shift enough to make them yield. Once he made to shift, his body wanted to sit in it, to stay with where he bid his body go. It took many a beating to let him see that he had to shift, to hunt, instead of sitting and waiting for his witherling to do the hunting. Every heartbeat he tried to flee was a heartbeat spent playing his witherling’s game, instead of his own. When something didn’t work, he couldn’t sit, he had to go ever onward, shifting to the next nook. There was always something he could drive, even if it was the smallest goat to drive- whether that was just a toe against the ground, his breathing, or letting go of his minding. He dreamt of the work of the ringing every night, and marked how every thing he did swayed what he did in the ring. The way he ate, the way he rested his neck on the ground, the way he walked, and even how he looked at the world around him.

Spring came, and so the games. One day they were loping down a narrow valley, between two hills with piles of rocks strewn about like giants had been playing with dice. The sun was almost gone. Orange on brown, with streaks of purple and deep red. They needed to get a nabprice or their side would lose. In their need for the winnings, Laft, Thistle, Maksym and Kazmer flew down the middle without taking heartbeats to hide behind each boulder. Bobben yoked them, though he dragged behind.

There was one game caught there in between all those boulders. A man dressed in link, simply shod, just one man with a sword and a shield. He came at them all. He did not try to run away or hide. In fact, he seemed happy to see them. And he came down from one of the hills, picking up the stride. Yelling, “good to see you brothers!” even though he wore the cloth of the other side.

All thought the lone man would yield, but he did not. Maksym scoffed at him, told him to lay down his sword or else and the man said, “No, I will not”. And so Maksym went out to meet him. He made out that he would do it alone. And so he did. They circled each other for a beat. But only a beat, for Maksym was short-suffering and hungry. So he shifted forward quickly. He was bigger after all, than this man, this man in link-byrnie. He raised his mace high into the air and came down with it. As he did, the man met the mace with a shield at an angle, not in the front, just enough of an angle to throw the mace off. Slammed the blunt blade against Maksym’s neck. Maksym did not yield- his wardwear held. But they had drawn closer. The man swung his armsword, left to right. When Maksym shifted to block it, the man’s left knee slid forward to the ground, right in between Maksym’s legs, just as he dropped his shield. His head to the left of Maksym’s hip, his arms around Maksym’s legs, he toppled the bigger man rightward and slammed him down to the ground. Maksym’s strong hand loosened in the fall, and his mace fell. The man of war (for that is what he was) slid up on to Maksym’s chest, picked his sword back up, and raised it, as if to smash Maksym’s helmet with the pommel. So Maksym yielded heavily. Something changed in the air, tenderly, even as the sun was coming down- quietly.

Bobben, Kazmer, Thistle, and two others made a ring around this man. The man rose up, gathered his shield, and met Laft, for it was known somehow that Laft should be the one to go next. As Laft came at him, he backminded his working in the ring. He felt good. He knew what he was meant to do. It seemed like for the first time he knew. Left foot forward, right foot back, with his pommel pointed toward the sky, his blade hidden behind his back, ready to swing around, so that the other man could not see as clearly. He swung. His sword beat the other man's blade to the ground, kenned the shield just so, to aid his elbow slamming into the man's face, wardweared as it was. This hurt his elbow. The ache did not stop him. He did not mark it until later. In truth, he kicked at the man's knee after feinting a lunge. The man dropped his shield. This was a bit of a joke to the man. He caught Laft’s blade near the end with his edge, slid down and held it in front of Laft’s neck. Without wardwear, Laft surrendered.

The man without a shield made quick work of Kazmer, even though Kazmer was a full rider, with much gleaming wardwear. Thistle next. Thistle shifted around like a fly, bobbing and weaving to and fro, and it seemed like Thistle was too quick for this man, too fast. Yet with the smallest of shiftings, the man arced the front of his blade onto Thistle’s head, just as Thistle was shifting toward him. It was like he was living in a far time, where he knew, in fine grain, how Thistle would shift.

Last came Bobben. It seemed that Bobben knew this man and this man knew Bobben. They took off their helmets and grinned. The grins of old brothers. Bobben put his shield down. He preferred a sword in one hand, but his sword in one hand was very long. Almost as long as the bastard sword some of the other men carried. This was longer than the other man's blade. They shifted slowly at first. Like they were having a walk by a pond in a garden in some highbred castle, measuring each other slowly, their blades barely touching the tips. Flirting, searching and there was a clash. The Man of War parried. Bobben slashed and stabbed and the Man of War stepped to the side, to slash. Bobben almost never actually cut with a slash. All his slashes were to lead into thrusts. They were so fast. It appeared to be a slash, but it was a thrust and he always aimed at the eyes. That was Bobben. So Bobben got a blade, the tip of his blunt blade against the other man's forehead. The man’s blade was at Bobben’s neck, in beat akind.

Everyone witnessed it, and knew they were both fallen. But for worthiness, they gave it to the Man of War, who Laft learned was named Polemis. Bobben had been silent as the night. He did not tell too many stories, like the others. Of the small wars they fought, now and then, or even of the games that everyone fights. No, he often sat, tongue still by the fire. Sometimes he said a word here or there. And all would listen carefully. He liked his nods and smiles, which said enough. But that day in the night, when they were all making dinner together, Laft listened. He listened to Polemis and Bobben, bickering about the merits of each of their weapons, and the merits of each of the men that fought in the games. They were, it seemed, complaining about this way for men to use large messers and larger axes. Since a blunt blade does not do much harm when it's drawn across the skin, but a blunt axe blade does some harm when it is slammed onto a helmet. They said this was blind to the ghost of the games. For in battle, a sword drawn across the neck at the right time will let a man bleed to death. A rider did not always have mud boys in battles. Often in these small wars, they did. But there was the war that had happened between the Godriders and the Fallen riders some tenyear ago. In that last big war not everyone had shieldbearers or mudboys to tend their gear. One never knew when someone was a godrider, or a fallen godrider. They both yelled loudly, wore wardwear akind, prayed and cursed at the one book, and taxed their landmen. Even though they looked out for a godwar against the heathlanders, there was a smooth rest because everyone was folk. It was all akind. So a man had to go into the burghs, into the towns, into the thorps. And one could not always carry a spear inside. They agreed that a spear was the higher weapon in war, but not in town. And on and on. They talked like this for hours. At length it seemed to Laft that these men worked together in more than just the games. They gathered at times, in hushed havens in between the fieldwicks to hone their craft, to hone their sportsmanship, to hone their characters. For that is what they were most caring about.

5: The Beatings Bear Fruit

The first time Laft beat a rider was because the rider, there in the ring, took off his wardwear and put away his blade in favor of the staff. The first time he beat such a man, he felt a joy in his heart, a song that got louder and carried him through the games. He began to see that he was outliving others in the games.

Soon, some of the other mudboys looked to him. When he shifted away from their rider, whoever their rider of the day was, they sometimes followed him. Sometimes in the misty battle-dream of the game, he could tell which one of the mudboys was a ringer, a man who stood in the ring, and he would follow them. When one ringer knew another, they would often make fun out of riders. Poking at them from a length with their pitchforks and long staves, only to run, as if they were caught up in fear. Well, another lay in wait to ambush the rider. This, many riders called out as gutless.They often railed against them, if a rider paying them found out, he would withhold their pay, but it didn't matter. They were paid by the fun of catching men who fled like antelope. They were paid by their learning. In the ring, when he learned from the other men, what Laft learned was that he did not trust himself. And that if a fighter did not trust himself, if he did not trust his own body, his own feet, his own views, his own thews, his own wrists, then why should his body trust him? So when a man told it both what to do, and how to do it, that fighter was showing his body that he did not trust it. In the same way that Laft came to feel that some riders were bold leaders of men and others were not, he came to see that some men were good leaders of their body, and others were not. Bold riders like Kazmer of Rebach, Bobben, Polemis, Raundon, and Anders led their bodies well. For when a bold rider told his boys what to do, he did not tell them how, he did not harangue them, he did not harass them like some childless scold, he did not curse them. Instead, he led from the front. Flank them over the ridge, he would say. And then he would rush there himself, without looking back and trusting that his lads would follow. And these men did better in the games than the others, even if the scoring of the games did not always push them on top. Bold riders backminded Laft of The Hero, who everyone wanted to die for, knowing that he would die for them. Die he did. There were many evenings that Laft sat, watching sunsets under a shady oak. In those evenings, he saw his thoughts, laid out like words on a tablet. This is where he found his bitterness. He wanted what Jaq, the Hero, had. It did not seem fair that Jaq, who seemed so free, so strong, could win at much when he, Laft, tried so hard- only to fail, again and again. When Jaq died at Mezfelt, a part of Laft took gladness in it. They had not listened to him, these warriors. They needed to die for their assheadedness, their lack of asking. In his bitterness, in his smallness, in his clinging to what he thought was his craft, Laft failed to learn, when he had the best showing of what it meant to be kingly. To be highbred, even among goatherds. So he talked to the Hero and the Prophet there, under the tree and in the ring. When he misdeemed the length of the tip of a blade, when he felt anger at the way of another, or when he made his feet square when they were best staggered, or staggered when they were best square. He’d heard the words hundreds of times, he’d heard the lessons, but now, when they were long dead, he knew he’d never really heard them. Now that they were dead, they were only with him all the time. And this time he listened. He listened.

These men, these bold riders did better than those like Maksym, who had shouted and harangued their men. Those bloating men who, even though they may get more of the glory for a single game, over time they did not win as much as those who honed the wills of their men. When a bloating man won, it was their might. When they lost, it was the weakness of their men. So their men did not take care of them. In the ring, Laft was taught. He was taught well. He felt in his anger, and his ache of losing over and over again, that whatever he was doing was not working. His state of war with himself, his state of war with his body, of telling himself that he was not good enough, that he was a weak fighter, that he was pathetic, that he was a heathen, with no home, that all these things were not helping him fight. And so mastered by bruises and welts of loss in the ring, he learned to have faith in his body, just as those bold riders had faith in their men. He learned, when he learned, to quietly ask his body for what he wanted it to do, which is to say, to watch the point of the other sword, not with his eyes, but with his being. To make lifting easier, to feel for footing, to touch the land between his feet, between his toes. To do this all without telling his body how to do it. He did not need to choose that for his body- his body was wise, it was quick, it was blessed with the minds of all the dead warriors who’d once led him. Blessed to keep track of all these things without paying too much mind to any one thing. He learned that in doing this, he thwarted some of his opponents over time And they would get angry at his speed. And they would say that he was so fast, like the old god of the messengers, like a plains-cat, like a snake before the bite. Laft knew he was not always faster than they were, on foot. It was just something about the way they were thinking and the way he was thinking. With trust, his witherling’s ways opened up to him. So it was the smoothest thing in the world. It was the smoothest thing in the world for him to meet them where they were. To meet them where they were going to be, since did not the way they shifted their foot, did not the way they took in air in their noses, did not the eyes tell him where they were going to be next. He amused himself, and played into the legend of his speed. He took to wearing wool that was dyed in the bly of the highbred of his home wasteland: the blue once worn by the Hero himself. It did not matter how much shit had to be shoveled or how many brigandines needed to be mended for him to gather the coin to get that dye. The stories of him grew. And so he found himself in that room, where he was neither rider nor mudboy, but something else. An armed man. A sword with no loafward, less what only he knew- that he was sent here to be an eye of The Kingdom of the People. He did not pay mudboys to follow him, but they followed him. The other men who ringed, the other men who knew themselves in this way, they did not pay each other. But they helped each other in the games. And when they won a trophy, they split the prize amongst themselves. Sometimes when one of them was on the other side, they let him go. When they got a rider, they nabbed him for themselves, and got goods for giving him back. It was a good living.

6: A Summer's Hearing

In the early summer, greenery grew to spread sideways, up, down, and all over. It was a wonder they did not find a way to rise up and cover every shifting thing, so fast did they grow. Every year during this time, he helped farmers seed eating-roots, beans, wheat, and bere. This time, he went to get worts and soggy berries from the woods, for alewives. Bowa, a northern heathen who found work as a mudboy when poaching gave no meat, taught him all this. Lush as the land was, they filled their packs. Laft, who rushed here and there still, caught his pack on a blackberry bush, which tore it apart when he tugged on it with strength. “Unseen’s Balls!” Laft cursed. Bowa, longsuffering as he was with all those from settled lands, took the time to show him how to peel the bark off a birch tree, and sew a new bag. The lag from this working let them come upon a busy road, filled with bands of riders, and then, a kindred smile. Fiq guarded traders, and he’d been the one to first show Laft around the burghs of Nackstei. Like Laft, he came from a hot and dry wasteland, though he was old enough to have white hairs in his beard and a brow as dried as a sunned plum. They hugged and kissed. Bowa and Fiq took a quick liking to each other, and the three walked together alongside the bickering trader’s carts. “You must come with us,” Fiq said. “There is so much trade around The Feast of Holy Mercubaki, you’ll be able to sell your worts and berries there. Besides, it’s got the biggest game of the year. You’ve never been, have you Laft? There are so many kings, loafwards, stirrers, and warbearers you could nab someone to pay for your whole next year.”

Bowa agreed, but he didn’t want any part in the games this summer. There were lots of deer and boar about.

The train of dwimmered wagons and riders was so sundered and blithe, Laft was backminded of the city of Rwiz. Rwiz, with its dyed marble, grand promenades, and triumphant celebrations. Fiq marked out which riders could pay the most, if they were nabbed. There were all manner of speeches and merryings, until the Godrider-Father himself, Grolle, held a gathering to smooth the bickerings. The gold lion of the godriders flew by many of the tents. Laft began to wish he had never come, with all this waiting on a soggy, hot day. In the wasteland he had known the sun well, and so the heat, but it was never this wet. Hot and wet was something else, like dwelling in a fiend’s armpit. He knew that if he just left, someone or other would mark it, and they would treat him as an othertongue. He was in Nackstei, so he followed their way. Polemis spotted him before long, and he was called to stand with the Apomnar- those who were left after the fall of a far-off and storied city. There was Mesano, whose javelins flew more true than anyone’s, with a two-dyed hood that all knew him by. At first, Laft had loathed the man whenever he saw him in the games, knowing a big blunt stick would find its way to his breast, but they came to see eye-to-eye, as Laft often snuck up on him just so he wouldn’t have to deal with the thrower anymore. There was Tukrates, the wise old leader of the Apomnar who was once a warlord of the warm and rich lands around the Rwizan sea, or so they said. Falakros, whose curved blade and big round shield struck fear to anyone in the games. Docheo, the man who won the most ringings. And many others, all names that every mudboy knew. After some King made a fool of himself by asking Grolle to shame his Queen for the riders that met her, the crowd was hushed by a horse of a woman who shouted at them all. Laft saw her for who she was- the outlike redheaded woman who had talked at him all those months ago. He asked the Apomnar about her. “That’s Lady Keslyn of Kyrlat,” Mesano gave him.

“You don't know it, but we are all going to be unmade, shattered as if we never were. There is an army bigger than anything you have ever seen, and they are coming here, to Sprekkland. My land is Kyrlat. Few of you have been there, but it is in the shade of the peaks to the northeast. Over the peaks are the Snikjana, a folk who keep to themselves, but I talk to them when they come over the peak to trade furs for swords. And that's how I know. They’ve warned us- there is a great army coming, and it wants our green, wealthy home. We must stop these games and make ready to beat them back. We should go over the peaks and bring the fight to them, before they ever set foot on our fields and burghs,” Lady Keslyn spoke quickly, as if she had to get it all out in that heartbeat. Her eyes crashed all over the crowd, and her right hand shifted like a broken green branch flapping in the wind. There was no nimbleness to the way she talked: her body was so rough with words. “I have heard many things akind from the traders that come from the east. Many thousands gather beyond the eastern peaks, pushing folk out as they go. They are fleeing. No one knows where their hunters came from, but they do say they’re there. I wrote all this down, and looked at where everyone’s words cross, and where they don’t. I have been doing this for years, and I never saw this much agreement on the parchment. The crossings speak the truth! The dice don’t lie, I bet my life on it!”

Herweis, a mayor of a great burgh and a man with much coin, asked, “Lady, please. How can we take what they say for truth? Every month some churl mistakes five wretches for a warband, and a Fallen waylaying party of two-score for an army of fiends from duzakh itself.”

“Yes,” added Bradden of Darra, the only man to lead a full war in the last year. “We’ve got fights of our own. In spring we took Provas Castle from the riders of Noog, with the help of the Company of the Wing. The Noog have not been quelled- and they are many. If we were to go over the eastern peaks, the Noog would surely swell to take my land back.”

“The Fallen lie in wait for just such a time,” said Brother Kazmer for the Godriders, as the Lion-Father Grolle looked down from his perch. “You all know Beecham.” Beecham was once Grolle’s greatest rider, who gained a name for knocking men off their horses with his lance. It was said that he was darkened by the lies of a monk who was tempted by the fiends of duzakh, and many godriders fell with him to lives of thievery and wanton lusts. “They are the very scorpions they wear. Should we fail to ward Sprekkland, they will strike with atter. Where are the loafwards asking for help? Who else has written to us? Surely the fathers of every satrapy would have written us of this threat. Help us, Lady Keslyn. We want to give truth to your word, but you are making it most hard.”

Arlkin, the commander of King Plazyk’s host, laughed heavily. It seemed he took Kazmer’s kindness as overly giving to Keslyn. Plazyk and Arlkin were of Dazisc, which had only in the last tenyear been brought to the faith by the godriders. They had fought their war in the fields, with much given to the worthy ways of man-to-man fighting on horseback. They had said they were so shifted by the Godrider’s worth, that they yielded to God their lands and allegiance. In so doing, they kept their self-standing, having only sworn an oath to God, and the Great Father was in the holy land, too far to tell the Dazisc how to live. Though Grolle did at times speak with the Great Father’s authority, and the Dazisci let the fathers live among them. Yet Arlkin still wore his hair as his forefathers had done, with the top shaved besides a knot in the front, and Plazyk still wore his beard long and wild, with bones to braid them.

“Elder Lysjezek,” Kazmer called. “Your land lies by the peaks, close to Kyrlat.” Lysjezek was a renowned rider of Dazisc, having felled many a godrider in the holy war. “Tell us, have you heard anything?”

Lysjezek glanced at his King, Plazyk, before resting his eyes on Kazmer’s. “No, the ground is hard for sewing this year, and that is all the pligh-”

“I know what I know!” Keslyn burst with fire. “How can you even trust them?”

Arlkin spat at the ground and rolled his eyes. “We have given over to God. Anyone can see that.”

“So this Army,” Plazyk rose out of his chair, walking toward Keslyn in the manner that befit his kingship. Slow, measured, and with a goal. He was covered in steel wardwear dyed and polished to look green and red, but for his face, which was unadorned. “Which you have not seen- this army is coming for us,” he stopped a beat, to let the words sink. “Which no one has seen but some heathen cliff-goat hunters off by a peak, the same hunters who know no letters, who cannot even shape iron, let alone steel.” He looked around at the godriders in the crowd, as if to welcome them into his asking. “Hunters who worship untrue gods trapped in wood, who think every rock has a soul.” Plazyk gave a great sigh. “I knew your father, girl, and it is for backminding him that we even listen to you now.”

“Once lost, the ear of kings is hard to get,” Tukrates said under his breath to the Apomnar and Laft, wondering at the stumplikeness of this redheaded woman.

Keslyn took a deep and ragged breath, stabbing toward Plazyk with her finger. “How dare you!”

Many in the makeshift deem-ring began to shake their heads and mutter on how long-suffering all the leaders gathered were, with this witch of a woman.

“These men are truly our elders,” said Saltso, an Apomnar known for the swing of his big two-handed sword.

A tall woman with high cheeks and tightly coiled hair stood up. She was as dark as Laft, but with a bluer hue that marked her as one of the Kingdom of the People. She stepped forward to the middle of the ground ringed by the throng. “I am Loni Zvakei Kunyengwe, of the Most Resplendent Republic of Rwiz. You have come to us for assistance before, and we have lent our technology and our capital for all to succeed. Indeed now as it ever will be, our vias extend through all the clean and refined lands. ‘All roads come from The Republic’, as it is said. We have been in every court, just as I am positioned before you now. We have heard nothing of a mysterious army, or a grand migration, and you know, we have communicants in every major city. Yet, the Most Magnanimous Republic of Rwiz is a patient mother who cares for all people, regardless of tribe or language.” Laft knew that name- Kunyengwe. Kunyengwe! It was she who was his handler, though he had yet to find her for a direct report. Loni, who had been looking at every leader in equal measure, shifted her eyes to Lady Keslyn. “And so, if a strange legion of hundreds of thousands is conjured out of nothing to rape Sprekkland, rest assured that The Republic will come to your assistance.” The Head Grain Collector of Nackstei smiled in dismissal at the provincial Lady. It was telling that she used the local name for Nackstei. “Of course, why would Sprekkland need any assistance? It has the The Melee! It has tournaments in every burgh! It has the games! It has the best warriors the world has ever seen, who travel here from every civilization to prove their metal!”

Many of the riders, and soon all the crowd, stood up to clap and cheer at Kungyengwe’s words on their worthiness.

“No. No. No,” Keslyn said again and again, shaking her head like a washerwoman’s bucket. “NO! You cannot make me a fool. I will not have it!”

“Seems like she does that all on her own,” marked Arlkin. The crowd laughed hard at his wit.

Keslyn turned to Grolle, for one last plea.

The Godriders’ bannerspeaker Adlich looked sorry as he stopped her from another speech. “We’ve heard you, Lady Keslyn of Kyrlat,” he said as an ending.

“End it, then!” The redhead shouted, a shrill sound breaking in her throat. “I’m done! I’m tired of this mask-play, I will gather warriors myself!” She turned to hurry away, and then stopped just as she was about to leave the crowd to scream “You can all die in a scorching, for all I care!” With that, she left.

A ring of trader’s wagons marked their stead for the night. Laft gazed at the splinter that stabbed his palm, as Fiq was coughing around the smoky fire that he was stewing dinner with. He’d been oiling his waster, heavy with the morning’s waiting and the afternoon’s game, when his weapon bit. Using his teeth, he plucked some of it out, but a shard stayed nonetheless.

“Did any of you see Espess today?” Tenne asked, his dun hood masking his eyes. Tenne was the man every trader’s guard listened to, having once guarded wagons going to the storied land of King Taisson, where the coat of the vegetable-lamb was shorn for silk.

“Holy Sogdan’s prick,” swore Bjarki, another trader’s guard. “You’re right! I’ve never been to a feast of Mercubaki without seeing Espess.”

“Heard he was warding with Yash of Inegen,” offered a warmly wrapped trader with a pocked nose.

Fiq looked up from the pottage he was sniffing, eyelids flapping from the smoke-tears. “I saw Colier in spring, on the goose road. He said Yash had headed out to Bomera, past the Eastern Peaks.”

Laft lay down, turning the log that was his seat into a headrest. He looked at the stars, smelled the burning wood, and thought of the woman with red hair.