NINE NATIONS

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ROMASKAN
Arian Aliesend, the Redeeming Son

          The small wooden building was two stories tall, with a merry orange glow in its windows and a line of gray smoke rising from a brick chimney.  It sat, squat and brown, nestled comfortably between a bakery and a tailor’s shop at the end of a cobblestone street.  Above the door, hung from iron hinges, a carved oaken sign swung gently in the breeze.  The soft indigo of twilight muted the garish reds and blues of the sign, but it was obviously a bear, dressed as a jester, drinking from a mug and dancing.  This was the Hairy Jig, the alehouse in Iglheall most widely reputed for the quality of its mead and the garrulity of its owner.  Many claimed the bear on the sign was a rendition of Ham Drynce, the innkeeper, who did nothing to dispute the rumor.  Drynce was monstrously fat, generous with his mead and his laughter, and almost as hairy as the wooden bear that greeted his customers.

          Inside the Jig, the air was thick with the aromatic smoke of a score of pipes, mingled with the smells of mead and beef stew.  Drynce sat at a round table near the back, playing Fif with a company of four Arians.  Drynce was a decent Fif player, but he found losing at the card game was often better for business than winning.  Most of the copper mynets he lost at Fif found their way back into his pockets in exchange for drink and dinner.  Drynce played with merchants on their way from Kindor Port and preparing to cross the Range and enter Imperial Oepacia, or those returning.  He had played with young Cobalt Mages from Ealor, with itinerant clerics, and local Iglheall businessmen.  Most often, though, he was the fifth player with groups of Arians.  Arians were the honor knights of the realm, and traveled in gedraegs, companies of four.  They roamed about the countryside, enforcing King William’s peace.  They often found their way to Iglheall, the town being situated on the great Westway, eight leagues west of the mountains that marked the eastern border of the realm of Romaskan, and ten leagues east of the green city of Turf Gill.

          Drynce had come to know many of the Arians of the realm.  Tonight, he was hosting the gedraeg of Arian Aliesend, the Redeeming Son, of Oxmouth.  Aliesend was the second son of his Lord Father, the late Lord Haelo.  His older brother was Lord Aerest, who now ruled Oxmouth.  All those called Arian were second sons.  To be the firstborn son of a Liege Lord was to be nobility, lord heir to the father’s lands, title, and comforts.  To be a second son was to earn the life of the sword, the horse, and the eagle.

          Arian Aliesend was a large man, with a muscular build that had increasingly and disquietingly begun to settle around his midsection.  There was still swiftness in his sword arm however, despite the flecks of grey that had crept into his long brown moustaches.  His still-thick hair was the dark brown of fallen oak leaves, as were his eyes.  His nose sloped to a point, a trait his family could trace back centuries to their Oepacian heritage.  Aliesend was past his fortieth winter, and was Commander of this gedraeg.  He sat next to his old friend Drynce, with a pile of copper mynets on the table before him that had shrunk pitifully in the last few hours.  Arian Aliesend was a graduate of the War Academy of Arnborough, a veteran of Highgard Crossing, was Holder of the prized Hacod of Kindor, but a notoriously inept Fif player.  He looked once more at the cards arrayed on the table and swore loudly.  He had been well on his way to Fif when Arian Gedyr had revealed his five white maidens and declared, “Fif by Convent!”

          “Lord Derian misnamed you, Gedyr,” Aliesend bellowed.  “You should have been the Lucky Son.  Damn you.”            Arian Gedyr, shorter than Aliesend by more than a full head’s height, laughed merrily.  He was the Daring Son of Linwick, a city on the rocky coast of the Fierlan Sae, many leagues to the west.  Gedyr was twenty-two, had not yet served his tenure at Highgard Crossing, and was a favorite among the ladies of the realm.  His face was as slender as the rest of him, topped with coppery red hair that had come from the northern Llan woman his father had taken to wife.  Gedyr had dark green eyes, smooth white cheeks, and a wit like lightning.

          “Alie, if your Lord Father had known what a poor Fif player you would turn out to be, he would certainly have named you the Penniless Son.”  The other knights around the table broke into good-natured laughter at the jest, while Ham Drynce chuckled jovially.  Aliesend had to join them.  Gedyr’s wit was only rivaled by his well-known skill at Fif.

          “Gedyr, if the wenches at Meodu’s brothel knew you as well as we do, you’d have to pay for your trysts with mynets rather than honeyed words,” replied Aliesend, beckoning Nydora, the serving girl, to refill their mugs.  She poured the yellow-brown honey beer into the wooden mugs, studiously ignoring the eight sets of eyes that strayed to her bodice.  Only Drynce’s gaze was disinterested; Nydora was one of his many daughters who waited tables at the Jig.

            “Fortunately for me, my fellow Arians, I have both aplenty.”  Again, Gedyr got the best of the banter.  With long, nimble fingers, he flipped one of the round mynets to Nydora.  Without looking up from her task, and without spilling a drop from the pitcher in her right hand, she caught the copper piece gracefully with her left.  She risked a glance at Gedyr, in time to catch the wink he directed at her.  “As you’ve seen, my lady, there’s more where that came from.  Come, let our good Arian Aliesend’s incompetence at Fif buy me your favors tonight.”

            Drynce’s young, raven-haired daughter sidled around the table, her blue linen shift snug enough to do more than suggest the goods Gedyr sought to purchase.  She smiled the patient, practiced smile of a girl who had poured for many men, including countless Arians such as these.

            “Oh, Arian Gedyr,” she purred, a hand on his thigh.  “My poor, gallant knight.  You confuse me with one of your innocent countryside buttermaids or vacuous city courtesans.  I am neither a whore for sale, nor a stupid girl so clumsily seduced.  Save your mynets, good Arian, for the washerwoman.”  With that, she tapped his full mug so that it fell squarely on his lap.  Arian Aliesend chuckled at the girl’s gall and good sense, while his fellow Fif players Arian Duguo and Arian Brimhyrde grinned, awaiting Gedyr’s response.  Ham Drynce winced and hoped it would be in good humor, and he was not disappointed.

            “Nydora,” breathed the glib knight in mock dismay, “you have doused my breeches but never my desire.  By your hands, although not in the fashion I had hoped, my pants are undone.”

            Drynce and the Arians roared their approval of Gedyr’s riposte, and even Nydora had to giggle as she kissed Gedyr on the cheek and scurried off to the kitchen, calling for a boy to bring rags and a mop.  Arian Aliesend slapped the table and raised his mug, shaking his head at his friend.

            “Gedyr, I take back what I said earlier.  Your sire named you truly and well.  You are indeed the Daring Son.  For good or ill, you are indeed.”  Gedyr’s handsome face returned the smiles of his comrades. 

            “That hardly dries my lap, Alie.  Lytel!” he called, and in a moment a dark young man of no more than fourteen years appeared, as if out of nowhere.  Standing, Gedyr waved his hand, dismissing the unasked questions of the tavern lad, another of Drynce’s countless progeny.  “Lytel, we must find me some dry breeches.  Run next door and wake the tailor, then bring what you acquire to my room.  Then, you must take these,” he indicated his wet clothes, “to a washerwoman.  Preferably a comely one, who will wish to deliver them in person, with great curiosity about their usual contents.”  He shoveled his pile of mynets into a leather pouch and bowed deeply to the others.  “Good evening Arians, my generous Drynce.  I fear our night of Fif is ended, and likely none too soon for some of you.  I will see you on the morrow.”  Arian Gedyr, the Daring Son of Linwick, then departed for the rented rooms upstairs, trailed by the bemused Lytel.  He left behind an empty chair with a puddle of mead on the seat.

            “Imagine the WestWay,” rasped Arian Duguo, “without Gedyr.  It would be unimaginably dull.”  The Valorous Son of SouthClyff took a draught from his mug, white foam clinging to his black beard.  Duguo was stout and balding, and of an age with Aliesend.  The two had trained together at Arnborough, and served their decade of tenure at Highgard Crossing at the same time.  His home town of SouthClyff was carved from the mountains where Southrange met the northern edge of Oldface Bay.  Traveling west from SouthClyff, the rocky shores gave way to stony beaches and then the brown sands of Aliesend’s Oxmouth, where the waters of the Oxburn emptied into Oldface.  Aliesend smiled.  Many thought Arian Duguo to be dull, but he had a place in the heart of the Redeeming Son.  He was dependable and constant, two valuable commodities on the road.  For all Arian Gedyr’s bravado and panache, Aliesend would rather command a gedraeg of Duguos. 

            Aliesend had known Duguo forever, and had served with Gedyr’s uncle, when Gylp the Proud Son had been Arian from Linwick, and commander of this gedraeg.  He remembered when Gedyr had been a bulge in Lady Jocea’s belly.  Of the men under his command, only Arian Brimhyrde was a mystery to Aliesend.  He was the Sea Guardian Son, from the town of Westwatch.  The northernmost settlement of Romaskan, Westwatch was built many centuries ago on the Point of Seals, to guard against oceangoing incursions by Llan raiders and pirates.  The tall grey towers of Westwatch were carved from the granite cliffs of the Battered Coast when Romaskan had still been part of the vast Oepacian Empire.  Over the years the cold northern tides of the Fierlan Sae had eaten away at the Point, and portions of Westwatch were now underwater.  The west face of the Seagard Citadel had foundations below the waves. 

           Arian Brimhyrde’s features well- suited his home.  He was completely bald, and thick reddish stubble covered craggy cheeks with deep scars from a childhood pox.  He was powerfully built, with strong hands and broad shoulders.  Sharp blue eyes seemed to penetrate the souls of those he locked with his gaze.  He had joined Aliesend’s gedraeg six months before, when Arian Hefigan, the Burdened Son of Fyrgenholt, had laid down his sword to assume the Lordship of his mountain home when his older brother died without a male heir.  Hefigan was wise beyond his thirty-four winters, and Aliesend missed his counsel and company.  Brimhyrde had been a dour and gloomy addition at first, but had become more cheerful over the weeks and months on the road.  Aliesend suspected that was Gedyr’s influence.

          All the same, Aliesend had not yet made up his mind about Arian Brimhyrde.  With the exception of a handful of tavern brawls and the odd highway brigand, the gedraeg had not been tested since Brimhyrde replaced Hefigan.  He thought about the rolled parchment in his tunic, and about the orders written there.  He knew Brimhyrde had excelled during his training at Arnborough, but he also knew that, like Gedyr, the man had not yet served his ten years at Highgard.  In itself this was not unusual; it was common for Arians to complete their Highgard tenure either directly after leaving Arnborough, or much later, near the end of their careers.  Aliesend simply preferred veterans of the mountain pass.  He wished he knew more about this man from the bleak, hard north.  For that matter, he hoped that Gedyr had the courage to match his bold tongue.  The parchment had been written by the Captain of the Arians, Arian Beotlic, the Arrogant Son, of Kindor Port.  The orders sent Aliesend and his gedraeg over the Range and into the heart of the Oepacian Empire.