Monday, May 25, 2020

RoH: Identities

"Two days out," said Dandris, and Remant nodded. They'd come off the high road that crossed above the thress-grass a day earlier, and were following the cruder paved-stone way that led on towards Doblim. The way here was hillier, and the road twisted and curved, rose and fell, while the sky alternated sun and cloud-shade overhead. In addition to the cover of the hills, there was more shelter here: patches of brush and low trees, following the lines of streams and rivers. The grasslands had held their own dangers, but if they were going to be ambushed by bandits it would be here: far enough out from the city to be unnoticed, but near enough that the bandits could sell whatever they took.

Ikara rode up beside them, her domek towering over their horses. "Worried?" she asked, and they both nodded. "I'll take lead. You two scout ahead."

The domek was thick-skinned and heavy, strong and difficult to injure. It couldn't match a horse's speed, but then Ikara's job was to stay steady and call orders, not to charge into battle. Remant checked his weapons, then strung his bow and nodded to Dandris, who had done the same. They nodded back, bow in one hand and reins in the other, ready.

They nudged their horses into a trot, moving up the road and extending their distance from the caravan.

"Ikara expects us to scout and report back," observed Dandris. Their expression was neutral, their voice quiet.

"You have another idea?" asked Remant.

Dandris nodded. "We go forward, draw any trouble to us. We clear the way." Dandris glanced at him. "You may need to do things you don't want the others to see. I may as well."

Remant felt his shoulders tighten. "What is it that you think I'm going to do?"

Dandris raised one shoulder, then let it drop. "When we served under the mage-lord of Kordiva," they said, "we were put into crystals and given new bodies, each with its own crystal. I am Botur, who speaks to you now. When my companions' bodies were slain, I gathered their crystals and added them to my flesh. The mage-lord is dead and her growing-tanks demolished, so here they remain. I am not one; we are many. And we think we recognize you."

Remant said, "Ah." He'd been introduced to Dandris as someone whose gender was fluid; he hadn't realized that it was because they were a collective, their gender varying by which individual had taken the lead in any given situation. He doubted anyone else in the caravan knew either. "One of you is a sensitive."

"Kila was our mage-ensign," Dandris said. "You were... unmistakable."

He would be, to even a half-competent battle-mage, if they were paying attention. And a mage caught in a single body with several other individuals might choose to turn their attentions to the more esoteric aspects of the world around them, rather than trying to assert control over the body or the group inside it. "I'll keep your secret if you'll keep mine," Remant said quietly.

"That," answered Dandris, "was the plan."

They rode in silence for nearly an hour before they came to the place where a tree had been felled across the road. Remant didn't need more than a glance to see that it had been cut; he'd been expecting something of the sort. Stones, perhaps, if the hills had been higher around them. He sighed and raised his bow, picking out targets in the brush. A dozen, two... a handful more than that.

He exchanged a quick glance with Dandris, then lifted his bow and began killing. Dandris was doing the same. Between the two of them, he thought they took down six before the others charged and he had to draw his sword.

Dandris had been right. It was better that they were alone. When the robed figure stood and called forth some horrible shade, Remant was able to throw himself in front of it and let his blade carve into it as if it were ordinary flesh, while Dandris speared the mage with a lance of fire from their hand. When two of the bandits caught him at once, Remant was able to catch a blade in his left hand and wrench it aside so that he could cut its owner in half. Dandris fought behind an odd, blurring effect that made them hard to see and harder to hit. And when the last half-dozen bandits broke and fled, Remant and Dandris were both breathing hard and looking satisfied.

"It's good not to have to hide," Dandris said.

"Dangerous," said Remant.

"But good," said Dandris, and Remant found himself nodding in agreement.

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