A/N: I'm in the process of revising this story. The new version of the story is now being posted, so feel free to check it out. As to why the first chapter is still up, I'm a sentimental person at heart.
Year 1129 of the Clans
"I once thought that all that mattered dwelt in the past. It wasn't until I looked to the future that I realized that all I had done meant nothing." Alban Rekkus
Raban was something else. It was the first big city I'd ever seen. The northern trade town, Hiban, didn't even compare. A massive castle served as the center of the city and the buildings around it were stacked on top of each other three or four stories high. Back home it was a surprise to see a house with an attic. On the way here people I met couldn't stop talking about Raban, like it was the center of their lives. Clan Bear was proud of their capital.
I was a little envious. We didn't have stuff like this back home.
Over in the market everyone was buying and selling. The only thing keeping me from joining in on the fun was the very stubborn fact that I was broke. I'd tried reasoning with it on several occasions but my deflated purse was adamant about staying empty.
I made my way through the marketplace asking for work. A man stood on the edge of the path with a plate filled with a dozens of perfumes and soaps. There was so much it almost made me gag at the overpowering scents. Wealthy men strolled the streets displaying their prosperity in fine cloth and gold beads sewn into them. Others were a mite quieter about their bulging purses. Pickpockets moved noisily, jostling elbows and bumping into the richer men to make themselves a mite richer. I felt someone reach into my pocket. It didn't occur to me to try and stop them, no reason to. They weren't getting anything and I wasn't losing anything.
Everyone was moving and moving fast. No time for a foreigner who didn't know where to go or what to do. Some even went out of their way to shove me out of the way, after the last handful of invaders got kicked out people in Bear held a certain amount of animosity towards the other Clans. I stood out like a sore thumb with my pale northern complexion against the darker skin tone of Bear's natives. I was a little disgusted with them, but I'd done similar things in my own home town. Add to that, I was broke. Not even enough money to pay a street kid to lead me to the nearest inn, let alone for the inn itself.
I couldn't afford to stay in the city but I couldn't afford not to. Countryside was getting too dangerous for the likes of me. Some of the rumors out there scared the shit out of me. One of them had Jormungander the Poisoner picking off people like flies.
The shops I begged for work had the owners refuse to let me in. Apparently it was a slow season, though I couldn't guess what a fast one would be like. Stores were full of customers. Perhaps it had more to do with the owner's innate craving for overflowing pockets than a waning economy. Or maybe he just didn't want to hire a foreigner.
I'm glad I'm not from this land. Even back home I couldn't remember it being this bad. Cheap labor was generally appreciated with only mild abuse.
I wandered for hours, trying to find my way through city, getting lost with no where to go. The architecture, at the least, was familiar. Everything looked like it'd been stacked on top of an older building. In some places bits of the old houses had been stolen to provide supplies for the new ones. There were a lot of collapsed buildings in the poor distract where the thieves had been a bit overzealous.
All my life I'd had something to do, somewhere to go. When I was moving from place to place, town to town, I'd usually hitched on with a group heading in the direction I was going. None of those guys had stopped in the city. It finally hit me that, after a month of travel, I was all alone and I couldn't do anything. No skills to speak of, no real talent. I'd always been a bit on the small side but I tried the local watch station instead.
"Sorry, lad," the nearsighted head of the Easterview staion said when I asked. "Times're a bit too lean to be taking new hands on."
"What are you talking about?" I all but shouted. It wasn't the first guard house I'd been to. "The chapter house in the southern quarter just took on six! You can't find room for one more?"
The chapter head stood up, there was a nice sized knife sticking out of the back of his pants. There were four other men in the chapter house, none of them seemed interested. Two had a deck of cards out and were playing a game of josh. "Listen, boyo. Southside's been getting riots from the poor schmucks down there 'cause there ain't enough work. They'd need those six to keep the poor-boys in line, understanding? This guard chapter don't get enough funds for us to be hiring whenever a some kid comes up from Southside looking for work. Got it?"
I gritted my teeth and nodded. "Are there any places that might be hiring?"
The guy in charge shrugged. "Southside needed it the most. Clan Lord hasn't seen fit to be giving the guard more funds so we can go recruiting. Hell, the rat fucker gave a fucking mage to the north crew, ain't that right, Buck?"
"You could always try with those mercenary shits down in Westerview," one of the guards playing josh said, looking up from his hand. "They're always willing to take on an odd hand here or there. Way I hear, they've been looking harder the last few days."
"Might've got a job somewhere else, then," the other guard playing josh said smugly. "Be good to get them off the streets, then. They've just been sitting around since their deal with the Clan Lord dried up, then."
"The brewers have been alright about it. They're loading off all their cheap shit on the mercs," the first said.
"My brother Ringy works for down at the Badger Bar near their camp. He's getting rich of those poor bastards."
"Who cares," the first said. "They ain't Bear."
The chapter head nodded at me while the other two bickered. "There you go, lad. Same kind of work you were looking for, just different bosses. The two pretty boys who command the sell swords are supposed to treat their men pretty good. Bunch of nancy boys if you ask me, but hey."
"I'll keep that in mind," I mumbled angrily. I'd been a part of the local militia back home. Enough to be qualified, in my mind, as a city guard. Not enough to be a professional soldier. Going to the mercenaries would just be another disappointment.
"They take anyone with a pulse," the first guard assured me. "Take 'em in and turn out good soldiers. If nothing else you'll get meal in ya."
I forced a smile. If nothing else, though I'd try a few other places first.
The boss guard pressed a few coins into my hand. He said, "Find a place to stay for the night, boyo. Wouldn't be good to spend you're first night out of Southside back on the streets."
"Thanks," I said gratefully as I left. "But I'm not from Southside."
The man swore as I left about wasting money on a bloody foreigner.
I checked at a few more places before turning in a small, shoddy inn by the name of The Drinking Ass in Easterview. It even had a picture of a donkey with its mug in a mug. They put me in a room with six other travellers. I was lucky enough to get the rug by the fire for what I was paying. The money the chapter head had given me was enough to buy me a place on the floor, but enough to buy a meal. All I had left was a bit of what I'd left home with, and that soon disappeared but the growling stomach that plagued me for weeks didn't.
The city was a pretty easy place to figure out. It kept the poor bottled up in one section while the rich inhabited Northside. Everything else was in Easterview and Westerview. The castle in the center where the good Lord Bear sat on his iron throne. The people here were more patriotic than they were back home. My own family was more likely to ignore Clan affairs than be involved in them. People in Bear looked about the same as every other Clan but they treated themselves like a completely different species. My da used to say people like that were at the start of a good war.
I awoke the next morning thinking I was back home. I smelt bacon being burned and my stomach growled even more. I wondered why my mother was burning the bacon. Pigs were rare enough that you didn't let any of it go to waste. Especially not something as delicious as bacon.
My stomach's roar reminded me where I was. Not at home but on the floor of some flea-bitten inn.
The inn keeper came in to shoo me out. "Come on, lad, I got others wanting the room for the night."
"What if I chopped firewood for you?" I pleaded. "Could I stay another night then?"
The inn keeper shook his head vigorously, saying harshly, "Sorry lad, I got ten men willing to do that who have their own homes. They come all the way from Southside for it and I'm not about to give their job to a some poor bloke from gods know where."
I walked out, pushing over a neat stack of wood as I left. I stopped by his stable and pulled a carrot out of the donkey's bin. Sure enough, the ass swayed like a man who'd had too many drinks and his trough smelled like beer. I reminded myself to come back later that night to steal another meal off the poor ass.
I returned to my search for work, offering to do anything. Chop wood, clean chimneys, anything and everything. I even asked if they needed anyone to kill rats, figuring I could get a meal out of it. But no, they could do it themselves, they couldn't afford to pay me, they already had someone to do it, they wouldn't pay a bloody foreigner to do it.
I hated the intense nationalism Raban's inhabitants had. Patriotism be damned if your stomach's empty.
I couldn't move on to another city, either. The closest, Soban, was supposed to be another trading city to the south that had good relations with Clan Bird, meaning good relations with foreigners. It was two hundred miles away and I didn't have a way to get there. I was stuck here unless I could find some money, or pick it off someone.
I applied at the Southside guard station again. They'd taken on another three since yesterday and still refused to hire me. I was more than a little annoyed, and began seriously considering what the guard in the Easterview guard chapter had said. With dread in my heart, I made my way to the west side of the city and began to look for the mercenaries.
It wasn't hard to find them, unfortunately. I couldn't pretend they weren't there and go back to looking for work.
They had a large, spacious tent in the middle of the quad with a bright banner proudly proclaiming who they were and what they'd done. Why anyone would be proud of being a sell-sword, I don't know. They had a fitting name. The Saber Ranks. Their tent and its flashy colors made them look more like a circus than what they really were. I wasn't even sure what they really were behind the banners and proud titles.
I dusted myself off as best as I could, trying to get rid of the dirt and grime that had plagued me since my last bath over a month ago. I longed for one, now.
While the outside of the tent was a motley of colors taken wherever they could be got, the inside wasn't much better. A long table near the entrance and a short row of bunks on the far wall. Despite the few dozen beds, soft, comfortable beds you could just fall asleep on that immediately made me more amiable to these professional soldiers, there were only two men in there.
One I could have passed off as any man I'd seen before, he was that plain looking. On the other hand, the second man was immediately burned forever into my mind because of one simple thing. Dark, sultry brown wings that sprouted from his back like some great bird.
I'd heard stories from travelers going northward that the Bird Clans were blessed with flight, and I knew that men with wings existed in that land and a few others. But I'd never seen a man blessed with wings before. He was beautiful in my mind, with those lovely, dark brown wings that could soar through the sky like any other bird.
The winged man pointed his companion in my direction with a nod, his extra appendages spreading out to make him look larger and more impressive. I wondered if he did it on purpose. The overshadowed man, the undistinguishable one, looked over his shoulder and nodded at me. "I'll be there in a second," he called shortly.
I waited, trying not to gawk at those wonderful, brown-feathered wings. The Dragon Clan was supposed to have long, scaly wings like a flying lizard. I wondered how it could compare to these beautiful things that could only be thought of in an artist's dream. The pinions arced gracefully down to the floor, gently sweeping dust as the winged man walked towards me.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," the undistinguishable man said pleasantly. He even smiled. "My name is Fjalar Hahn, how may I help you?"
I licked my lips. Nervously, the words came out. "Someone told me you were looking for recruits? They said you could pay? How often"
Hahn's eyes showed amusement, but it was quickly stifled as his manner drastically changed. "Name," he said smartly.
"Grothanin Janan?" I started, unsure what tone of voice I should have used. Should I have barked like a dog the way my questioner did, or should I have responded normally?
"Was that a question, sir?" Hahn barked again. "I asked for your name not a suggestion."
"Grothanin Janan," I repeated, hopefully with a bit more steel behind the words and closer to the way Fjalar Hahn spoke.
"Congratulations, Master Janan," Hahn said harshly. "The Saber Ranks are just desperate enough to need the likes of you."
The winged man came up behind Hahn, a small smile playing across his face as he watched Hahn roar at me. I thought I saw a faint design of darker feathers on each wing, providing unnatural shadows and highlights. It drew my attention away from the center part of the wing and outwards to the edge.
Hahn leaned so far forward into my face I wondered if he'd fall. No, the man's center of gravity seemed to be in his ankles.
"What kind of experience do you have in this line of work?" he asked.
"My Clan Lord required all fit men to volunteer in the militia twice a year," I offered. "And I went with my father when he went hunting."
"So not much then, then," the winged man said, jotting what I said down on a small piece of paper from behind Fjalar Hahn.
"Any special skills to speak of?" Hahn quipped. "Metalworking, book keeping, money lending, gambling, strategy, farming, animal tending, stealing, acquiring items off the black market. Chopping wood?" he asked when I replied negatively to all the other items he'd drawn from no where.
"I have chopped wood before."
"Can you read or write?" he asked impatiently.
"Some, mostly in Nord though I can do pretty good Sood if I have to."
Hahn raised an eyebrow. "You speak Sood?
I smiled. Finally, something I could answer positively. "My mother taught me. I can also do a bit of Ost from an uncle, though I couldn't read that chicken scratch if my life depended on it." My mother had demanded all her children have at least some education in a few of the other languages. The youngest of my brothers had been going through a rebellious phase and completely refused to learn. His loss. We used to tease him about it all the time.
Hahn threw his body forward, halting just inches away from my face, inspecting me like he would a champion horse. "Good man," he said, his body recoiled like a spring and he was standing up straight again, ready to pounce at any moment. "How well can you speak Sood?" The winged man flexed his wings awkwardly.
"Passing, I suppose," I replied before adding a hasty, "Sir. My mum speaks it natively, and she taught my brothers and me as much as we could learn."
The winged man stepped forward, asking in Sood, "How much can you understand?"
The words he used were odd. Nothing like what my mother had taught me. Different grammar, I suppose. It was recognizable, just…odd.
"Everything my mum said, I could understand," I replied in the same fashion, though I didn't try and imitate the weird way he shaped his words.
He looked at me funny, his wings tilting backwards to steady himself, before speaking to Fjalar Hahn in Nord. "He'll have to go to the linguist's tent before we'll know anything. I got what he was trying to say, but he said it funny."
"I could say the same thing about you." The words flew out of my mouth before I could say anything. Immediately, Hahn's face was in mine, spittle flying at me telling me how I was not allowed to speak unless spoken at. Never to. I was an object who would serve a purpose and could serve that purpose if it had no discipline.
"Where was your mother from?" the winged man asked.
Hahn glanced at him. He said to me, "Don't say a specific Clan, boy. Be vague."
I was puzzled to say the least. Keeping true to his words, I said, "A coastal Clan." There was only one coastal Clan that spoke Sood. If the winged man thought about it for more than a second he'd figure it out.
The winged man grunted in understanding. "Different dialect. Probably only a few minor changes and young Master Janan will be speaking good enough. Probably better than Haut does, the way he mutilates it."
Hahn nodded approvingly, grabbing a piece of paper from the table and making several marks with a crude pen. He said, "You are very fortunate, young mister Granan." I didn't bother to correct him. "The Ranks are in desperate need of translators, particularly in Sood, which it seems you can do nothing but." He looked up at me and actually smiled. "We've hit a lucky streak recently. We've been offered a contract in the Bird states, specifics will become apparent later. For now, you are to report to the training camp outside of the city walls and be reshaped into whatever Lord Soth Maore demands of you. We used to do it here but they've already started packing up back at base." He played with the pen, rolling it back and forth between two fingers.
The pen flew at me, ink splattering against my cheek. "Did I say you could talk?" he roared in my face, spittle flying into my open mouth.
I suffered his glare for what felt like hours before he backed away, ever so slowly.
"One of the commanders," the beautifully winged man behind Hahn offered amiably, his dark brown wings drawing closer to his body. "Lord Soth Maore is the general of the Ranks. Him and his comrade, Alban Rekkus."
"When will I meet Lord Maore?" I asked.
"Lord Soth Maore," Hahn growled. "'s one names. The title is optional in private. Rise high enough doing whatever you end up doing and you might meet the man. Don't count on it, though. I'm a sereant and I still haven't. Only seen him." He pointed at the beautiful winged man. "Mathis here will escort you to the camp, show you around, and get you a hot meal before we get you sorted out tomorrow. It'll probably be a few days until we have enough new recruits to start a new training group, so you'll have to wait until then to be formally trained."
"He probably won't need it," the winged Mathis man said. "How often you hear about translators getting down'n'dirty?"
I privately rejoiced. For the meal. Not the prospect of work. Hell, for the meal, I'd do anything even resembling work.
The winged man led me outside the city. I wasn't the only one gawking horribly at the feathery protrusions coming out of his otherwise normal back. Apparently winged men weren't common even here.
"Vleugels Mathis," the winged man said absently.
"I'm sorry? Sir?"
"My name," he said, irritated. "Sergeant Hahn didn't introduce me before. Vleugels Mathis."
"Where are you from? Sir?" I asked, trying to get the hang of speaking to people with authority. "I mean, which Bird state?" Wouldn't have done me any good. Never seen a map of Bird before.
Vleugels stopped in his tracks, his wings stretching out in front of me to keep me from moving on as well. He smiled abrasively at me. "You're not supposed to ask," he said. "Part of the Saber Rank code. Doesn't matter where you came from, all that matters is the Ranks. Soth Maore is a prime example."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
Vleugels started walking again. "If you ever get a chance to see him, you'll understand," he said cryptically. "And Hawk."
I nodded. Bird had somewhere between five and seven different states, all clamoring for dominance. Hawk was supposed to be one of the more aggressive states. Or the one with the most territory. One or the other, I couldn't remember.
The camp itself wasn't bad. Vleugels with his lovely brown wings seemed intent on showing me where everything else was before he showed me where to get the food. Either way, the food was what I really wanted out of this.
Vleugels would occasionally tell me to swallow when he felt I was eating at too fast a rate, but I didn't care. For the first time in a month, my stomach was full.
It wasn't until I lay down to sleep that I wondered why I was alone in a large tent.