A second story in my fantastical alternate history world; this one follows Jerome at a younger age, as he travels to trade with the Northmen.
* * *
It was one of those late summer days when the weather somehow thought it was late fall, and Jerome huddled into his wool cloak as the wind forced rain into his eyes. A truly miserable day to be riding north into the hills on a narrow and winding dirt trail. He had to manage the wagon as his team of oxen laboriously pulled it over every rut and stone they could find. The rain had soaked through to his skin several hours back, shortly after he had broken camp with his retainers, and not one of them looked comfortable. His uncle had neglected to mention anything like this.
Jerome let one hand drop from the reins to pat at his belt pouch, trying to reassure himself. It was just as waxy and slick as ever, slick with the wet but almost certainly dry inside. He didn’t open it to check. It held his letter of introduction to the Boniseuri clan, the one that his uncle had so kindly written up for him about a month ago. He hadn’t paid much attention at the time, but as he thought back on it while creaking along these terrible roads he thought that perhaps his uncle’s smile had been just a bit too wide, too knowing. Water streamed down Jerome’s face, running in cold rivulets over his lips and blinding him as it caught in his eyelashes. At least no one else with me is less miserable, he thought to himself with glum satisfaction. There was a certain pleasure to be taken in being no more miserable than his companions. He made a little half-smile as he looked briefly to the men trudging along the path on either side of the wagon, soaked just as he was.
He was sure that his mother would be warm at home now, in her study that smelled of old books and rare spices. She’d be teaching little Patricia the beginnings of managing the family’s accounts while a fire crackled in the grate. But since he had reached his majority this summer and received his Means, Jerome had to be out traveling, doing the family’s business while his sister learned to manage it all from the center. It made some sense of course, since Patricia would inherit and would have to run the family’s concerns someday, while he served the family’s interests or married into another family to extend his own’s connections and reach, but couldn’t he be somewhere else? On a nice sea-voyage, to travel to far off lands and bring home spices, or fetching home furs and amber from the Windswept Sea like those that his uncle was in pursuit of just now? And why hadn’t his uncle warned him? The family had long been among the best wool merchants of London, but why did they have to go by land to trade with the Northmen?
Nor was knowing his destination a comforting thought. It was well known that the Northmen were fearsome barbarians, for all that they claimed to still serve the Good Masters. In the Great War, it had been orcs like the Northmen who had so ruthlessly brought destruction to the cities. His uncle had told him stories about the Northmen when he was little, stories from his travels all around the world. Jerome could remember those evenings in the parlor, almost feel the heat of the fire as it seeped into his bones, when he’d have to roll over because his skin had become too hot and nearly taut on the fire-facing side. The stories had transported him, and he’d dreamed of being in his uncle’s place. He had never imagined that he’d have to go through such misery as this before he got there.
Those stories had been full of loyalty and rage, the unquestioning obedience and faithfulness of the orcs as well as their propensity for casual violence. The tales also told of how his uncle had finally gained his acceptance among the Northmen by traveling with them to the New Sea, across the ocean, where they had gone raiding until their ship could hold no more loot before making their long and arduous trip back. Jerome was simply the next in a long line of those who had traded with the Northmen; at least this time he would have the good word of his well-known uncle to lead the way.
But not even fondly remembered stories were enough on a day like this. Jerome knew, as he began to shiver in the cold and wet, that they would simply have to find some place to hole up and shelter through the terrible weather. Why, he thought, watching the lashing veils of rain as they swept across the cold green hillsides, did I ever go north?
The morning came as a welcome change. Drips fell slowly from the mouth of the cave in which Jerome and his men had sheltered, splattering with a slick sheen on the stone that sloped away from the entrance. The whole world was still wet, soaked through from the day and night of rain which had come before, but now it glistened with bright sunshine. There were stunningly blue gaps in the clouds overhead.
Jerome had marveled at their fortune in finding this place last afternoon. Brendan, one of the shepherds he had brought north to help drive the sheep on their return, had spotted the cave despite the deep gloom brought on by sweeping curtains of heavy rain. It was large enough for them to simply pull the wagon into its mouth and slip inside. Now, as he stood by the end of the wagon looking out, Jerome could feel his enthusiasm returning. He hadn’t enjoyed curling up with the oxen to share their body heat, nor had he appreciated being unable to start a fire for lack of dry fuel. But being out of the rain had done him a world of good.
The morning’s journey was easy enough, and much better for no longer being sodden and miserable. The goods he’d brought with them to trade were still dry in the back of the wagon, kept safe by the tarpaulins and oilskins. He could happily ignore the jolting and rocking of the wagon, and instead lost himself in the heady smells of fresh wet grass and musky heather. He could feel himself relax despite the constant shifting of his hard seat, luxuriating in the beauty of the land around him. He was still in a good mood when he crested a hill and was suddenly face to face with a group of orcs.
They were well armed, each carrying a crossbow as well as a hatchet or mace or backsword. And they all had their crossbows pointed at him and his companions. Jerome could feel his eyes widen in shock, taking in the glint of sunlight on the orcs’ steel and the wide toothy smiles that bared their tusks against their deep leathery-green skin. As the crossbows went up to the orcs’ shoulders, Jerome dropped the reins and threw himself sideways, diving off the seat of the wagon and landing roughly on his hands in the hard dirt. Jerome yelled, something like “Bandits!” But it may have simply come out in a shriek as he heard the flat unmusical note of a crossbow being fired. His companions likewise dove for cover towards some of the rocks on either side of the path, and he thought he heard one of them cry out as the orcs’ footsteps crunched quickly towards him over the rocky dirt.
Jerome scrambled off to the side and went belly-down behind a small outcropping of stone, ignoring the wet grass which slowly soaked him yet again. Brendan was hunkered down there as well, hissing through his teeth as his hands felt around the crossbow bolt sunk into his right buttock. Jerome risked a brief glance up over the outcropping, catching sight of the orcs getting up onto the wagon itself, driving the oxen forward once more while covering their retreat with their crossbows. Jerome pulled his head back down as one of the crossbows swung his way, and he lay cursing in the wet grass by the roadside. His companions’ misery no longer reassured him, and all he could think was What am I supposed to do now? He seethed at his impotence as he listened to the wagon rumble away, carrying with it traces of orcish laughter.
Jerome soon lost sight of the orcs in the folds of the rocky, grassy hills. He tried to track them, as his uncle had once spoken of doing, but the rocky ground and goat-cropped grass held no trace that he could follow. Jerome could feel himself freezing up in the moment, his body still watching the hills while his mind ran in useless circles. He bit his inner lip in consternation. Brendan was lying face down over a rock while Edward tried to do something about the crossbow bolt. The few other men that Jerome had hired for this trip were all looking around nervously, and sometimes staring at him with something like resentment.
Turning back towards his retainers, he looked them over briefly. They looked damp, a bit cold, and very unhappy. Brendan still had the crossbow bolt in him, and Edward now looked like he was searching for something on the ground around them, unsuccessfully. Edward nodded, decisive, and walked up to Jerome. He spoke quietly, “Sir, Master Jerome, we’ve no way to make a stretcher from around here. I can’t see any wood nearby. The best we’ve got,” he gestured meaningfully towards a clump of bushes downslope a ways, “isn’t enough and isn’t the right size or shape.” Jerome pursed his lips and nodded, trying to look like he knew what he was doing.
“Well, Edward, do you think you can move him? How far can he go?”
Edward shook his head. “Not far, master.” He looked torn. “He’ll be moving slowly and the longer he stays upright the more blood he’ll lose. And that’d be the end of him, I think. It’d be slow, but…” He looked around at the sparse cover of the hilltop, with its scattered rocks, thick grass and occasional brush. “But if we don’t get him somewhere better he’ll probably die up here too. He’s going to need shelter soon.”
Jerome nodded, feeling decisiveness return with the problem set before him. “Well, we’re only a little ways short of our destination I think, and would have made it earlier today if we hadn’t been laid up in that storm. I’ll get there, and see if I can’t trade on my uncle’s good name to get some help for Brendan.” Jerome looked around him at the tense and anxious faces of the other five members of his ‘trading expedition.’ He shook his head. “Are there any of them in particular that you want to have stay with you while you wait here with Brendan?” The fewer unreliable men he had to deal with on his trip, the better.
Edward glanced over the rest of the group, taking in their tight expressions as they stood around, dew-soaked and shivering. Their tension and resentment washed off them in palpable waves and raised the hackles on the back of Jerome’s neck. “Um, not really master. But I’ll take Billy just in case. He’s the least likely to do something foolish if you catch my meaning, master.” Jerome scowled, but he nodded in understanding.
The trek to the village only took another few hours. Mulling over his predicament had left Jerome locked in a foul mood, only able to appreciate the good weather for its being better for the trip. They had all left their cloaks with Edward, Brendan and Billy, giving what they could to keep the wounded man comfortable while they went in search of help. They hiked hard enough to work up a sweat, but the occasional breeze left them shivering as they crested each hill. So it was that they arrived tired, hungry and disheveled. Hardly appropriate, Jerome grumbled to himself, for making a good impression.
Jerome was too frustrated to appreciate the neatly organized fieldstone structures laid out in a regular grid ahead of him, with their central green looking more like a well cared for mustering ground in the middle of a winter army camp. Instead, as he reached the top of the hill on which the town was built, a large squarish hill that had almost certainly been made for this settlement many years before, he scowled. All he could see was how poor everything looked, nothing like the richly appointed townhouses he’d grown up in. Where he was used to fresh plaster and polished wooden beams, he saw instead bare stone. In place of shingle or slate roofs, there was turf or else more rocks. There were no hedges, no flowers, and the only ornamentation he could see came in the form of short cords hanging beside woven rush doors, with varying numbers of small tight knots. But even the cords were plain and utilitarian.
It was mid-afternoon, the sun peering from behind spotty clouds, and throughout the village Jerome could see orcs hard at work. Some were tending the small gardens which sprang up beside every house, others looked to be tanning hides, or shaping and fitting barrel staves. From the high point of the village’s hill, Jerome could see flocks of sheep moving about on the hills to the east and west, exactly what he had come here to trade for.
With his now slightly nervous followers in tow, Jerome strode through the village towards the center green. The orcs around him watched as he passed, but none of them tried to stop him. If he’d been paying more attention, he might have realized that they must have seen him much earlier and had been following his approach for some time now. A squad of armed orcs shadowed his group one avenue over, staying out of his line of sight but staying in close proximity.
Jerome came to the green and crossed it, striding quickly towards a slightly larger fieldstone building with a sod roof. It dominated the far side of the mustering ground, twice as large as any of its neighbors but still small by his family’s standards. Still in a foul mood, Jerome could remember his uncle’s instructions: present yourself before the chief when you arrive, show your letter of introduction, begin trading. He’d know which house was the chief’s because it was bigger. All of which was well and good, except when your goods were already stolen, possibly by those supposed to trade with you, and one of your men was injured and left behind on the trail. He intended to get some help, whether these … Northmen wanted to give it or not. The house looked deserted.
He announced his arrival at the front door with a yell, calling out to the house “Chief of Clan Boniseuri! My name is Jerome of Elbin, and I come here to claim guest right and to trade!” He stared at the door, gritting his teeth in frustration as he waited. He was certain that whoever was inside was waiting just to show him that he was beneath their notice. So the voice that came from behind him was a tremendous surprise.
“Welcome, Jerome of Elbin.” It was more of a growl than a greeting, and Jerome jumped before he turned around. The speaker was a very large orc, standing at the head of several other fairly large orcs. The leader’s skin was a dusky shade of green, and darker than that of most of the other orcs by his side. His lips barely hid protruding lower canines in a strong and slightly underslung jaw, showing just the threatening tips. Jerome was very tall, and stood a few inches higher than his confronters, but he still felt small by comparison. The orcs were all carrying weapons. The leader continued, his voice grim, “You are a very rude guest, if that is indeed what you are.” His sour frown exposed more of his fearsome canines, “The proper form of address is Chief Boniseurikan. If you’re trying to challenge one of us, you’re doing it wrong.” If anything, the smile that followed was worse than the frown. “We can rectify that.”
The fear was enough to shock Jerome out of his funk for a few moments, and he scrabbled at the pouches on his waist to pull out his letter of introduction. “Er, ah, Chief Boniseurikan,” he stumbled over his words, “my apologies, and may I present you with a letter of introduction from my uncle, Perkins of Elbin.” He gave his best approximation of a courtly bow, proffering the folded piece of parchment. His men had switched sides of him and were now cowering up against the stone walls of the chief’s house.
Bemused, the Chief reached out and plucked the paper from Jerome’s hand. Unfolding it and looking it over, he glanced up at Jerome. “So,” he raised an eyebrow, “where exactly are the things you brought to trade?”
Jerome straightened up. His voice was hard, “They were stolen, not more than three hours walk from here. One of my men was wounded, and requires assistance which we could not give without your aid.” He looked the orc chief in the eyes. His own were dark and angry. “I would,” he paused briefly for a calming breath, “… greatly appreciate it if you would lend some assistance in recovering my man.” With a little special emphasis, he added “And my wagon.”
The chief looked at him, cocking his head on its side by just a bit. His eyes narrowed. “Yes, certainly, you came to trade with us so we will help you with your man, but…” He looked like he suddenly understood something, and burst out laughing. “You think WE stole your wagon?” He bent over, one hand resting weight on his spear, the other holding his stomach as he laughed harder and harder. Jerome stiffened, then stood very still as the orc to the side of the chief locked her eyes on him. Her steady gaze reminded him of where he was, and what he’d just done.
Demanding guest right was hardly polite, even when you had a letter of introduction to back it up. Requesting help for a comrade was understandable, but insulting your new hosts by implying that they had stolen from you was … incredibly rude. Potentially suicidal. Too late, Jerome remembered the grisly end to one of his uncle’s stories; his uncle had raced another merchant to one of the more distant clans along the Windswept Sea, but he had fallen behind after the dastardly competitor had kindled a fire in his uncle’s ship’s rigging while they were both in port. When Jerome’s uncle finally arrived, and offered his greeting gifts and introductions, the orcs had held a party in his honor. He had only learned several hours into the party that the skull the chief was drinking from was a new acquisition, and that the bone flutes being played were recent gifts from the chief to the clan’s best musicians. His predecessor had beaten him to the village, but had been too rude, pushy and presumptuous to make it back.
Jerome was absurdly lucky that the chief had found his implied accusation amusing instead of offensive. Being stripped of their belongings and thrown out of the town would have been a stroke of luck and a sign of mercy. Instead the orc was laughing, as one might at a puppy surprised when barking didn’t scare a bigger dog. The chief’s guards were clearly not amused. Jerome swallowed nervously, and gave a weak smile. “Hah, yes. I, uh,” his mouth felt so dry, yet he was sweating with fear, “I thought maybe, um, someone you might know had had a hand in raiding us.” He left his hands resting on his thighs in plain sight, very still. Even if he’d had the sword his tutors had insisted he learn to use, he wouldn’t have dared to draw it while facing these warriors.
The chief stood up straight once more, wiping away tears of mirth from his dark green face, his lower canines protruding very slightly as he smiled at Jerome. “You are very funny, Jerome of Elbin.” The smile faded slightly. “You said a man of yours was hurt? We shall go and bring him back. Is he unable to march?”
Jerome nodded cautiously. “Yes, he, ah, was shot in the right buttock by orcs with crossbows. When my wagon was stolen.” He looked worried. “He’s been with my family for years, I need to make sure that he’s taken care of.”
“Crossbows? Well.” The chief shook his head. “That couldn’t have been us, then. Not even your uncle traded crossbows to us. It’s a shame, really.” He became more serious as he continued, “But yes, we will fetch your man if you will lead the way. A good superior must care for their subordinates.” He looked meaningfully at the female orc who had been staring down Jerome, and she nodded back. “My daughter here, Rosaka, will organize the squad that goes with you. But you should know that if you have nothing to offer us, we will not simply give you wool and sheep. Think on that while you fetch your wounded man.”
Though he was otherwise the model of hospitality, the chief of the Boniseuri refused to even negotiate possible terms with Jerome without some proof that Jerome would be able to deliver. While Brendan slowly recovered in the house that had been lent to Jerome and his companions for the duration of their stay, Jerome wandered about the village, his patience growing thinner with each day. He couldn’t fault the chief for failing to provide for his guests, and any further missteps might be construed as an unforgivable insult, but Jerome had no way forward. With only his retainers and no trade goods, he felt stranded and alone. It wasn’t as though he could rely on his companions for advice, not without relinquishing what little command he still had. Only Edward and Brendan were still openly respectful towards him, and Jerome suspected that that was at least partly through force of habit.
His nights had been surprisingly comfortable, as the houses were far better made than he had assumed from their exteriors, but this night, much like the others, his anxiety had kept him awake. Unable to sleep, he forced himself to lie in his bed of straw and stare upwards into darkness, his ears filled with the snores of his companions. As he pondered over their predicament for the third night in a row, the solution came to him; his uncle had made a name for himself by going raiding with the clan, surely he could do the same thing. Or, he thought, he could even recover his wagon himself. He slept soundly for the first night since the theft of his wagon.
The next morning saw Jerome smiling at his men, a wide and happy smile that was so unexpected as to make them uncomfortable. Jerome gladly accepted the common gruel that was shared amongst the early-rising shepherds before they took out their flocks. Where he had thought it tasteless before, now he delighted in it, licking his common-bowl clean before helping to clean up the breakfast. After grabbing a small pack he had packed upon waking that morning, he followed the shepherds as they moved towards their charges to begin their day’s work.
“So, Grikgor,” he started as they walked towards the rising sun, “what’s the closest other settlement around here that isn’t part of clan Boniseuri?” He smiled, feeling the warmth of the sun as it began to break up morning fog and sparkle on the dew that encrusted the hills all around the town.
The orc shepherd looked quizzically at Jerome, obviously puzzled by his complete change in demeanor. “You seem, ah, much happier today clan-friend.” Jerome nodded beatifically in response. Everything seemed so simple to him now, almost even easy. Grikgor shrugged, “The holding of clan Tiltani lies that way,” he pointed east, towards the sun, “and is only a few days from here. We trade with them every so often, and when the Clan Exercises come we fight along side them.” He grinned, showing off his large lower canines as they gleamed against his dark green skin, “But we keep them on their toes otherwise. We are good neighbors, after all.”
Jerome nodded as though he understood all that that implied. “How many days exactly? And are there any routes that you could take by wagon between here and there?”
Grikgor looked at him in surprise. “You think they took your wagon?” They had by now left the other shepherds as they split the town’s flock to take to different grazing pastures. Grikgor smiled at Jerome’s lack of response. “You intend to find out, eh?” Jerome smiled guiltily.
“And what will you do if you find that they did take it? What will you do then?” Girkgor prodded Jerome with the butt of his spear. “You are only one man, and those friends of yours are not so tough, are they?”
Jerome scowled for a moment before his confidence overpowered his brief lapse of faith in the world. “I’ll think of something. I’ll get it back somehow.” Grikgor’s eyes widened. Jerome continued defensively, “Well I can’t just let them get away with taking my things, can I?”
Grikgor smiled again, wider this time. “It is nice to see you show some spine, southerner.” They continued walking in amiable silence for a while longer. Jerome walked with Grikgor all the way out to the day’s pasture, some ways from the town and in the folds of one of the easterly valleys. The sheep spread out, ambling over every nook and cranny to find the sweetest grass. The sun had come up far enough to light even the bottom of the valley when Jerome simply nodded to himself and stood from the rock where he had settled beside Grikgor.
“It’s been a pleasure Grikgor, and I’ll hope to see you in a few days.” Jerome began trudging up the hill to the east, shrugging his bundled cloak up to the top of his small backpack.
Grikgor stood as well. “You’re going now? Without any companions?” His disbelief was clear in his voice.
Jerome smiled and waved back, “You wouldn’t want to bring them with you if you were going, would you?”
Grikgor silently shook his head. As Jerome turned back and continued up the slope, Grikgor called out “At least take this with you!” He untied the satchel he’d brought his lunch in from his belt and tossed it underhand up to Jerome. Jerome caught it with a grin.
“Thanks!” He gave one last wave, “I’ll be sure to bring you back some lunch when I return!”
Jerome came to regret his decision to strike out on his own over the next few days. Somehow, in the course of sleeping indoors for several nights, he had forgotten just how miserable it could be to travel alone over rocky hills. He had filled his small pack with a few essentials, things like a bundled oilskin, a jar of oil, a small chunk of flint, a steel striker, some food. But he had never traveled in the northern hills before, and never so late in the summer. Each morning saw him wake chilled, his limbs stiff from cold as he moved carefully to keep the dew from soaking him despite the oilskin.
He collected brush when he could find it, keeping it as fuel for an evening fire. He even fashioned a walking stick from a deadfall found in a copse where he had sheltered overnight. But when he crested the last hill and finally saw the settlement that he was sure belonged to clan Tiltani, all he could feel was a sense of relief. He settled down on his haunches, crouching at the edge of a patch of gorse to hide from any clanspeople that might be on watch. Jerome had left without any real plan in mind, simply hoping that he’d come up with something by the time that he arrived, but nothing had come to him. He sat down to wait and think, enjoying the sun and gnawing on his last bit of jerky.
Jerome had plenty of time to appreciate just how much effort had to have gone into constructing these clan villages. Both Clan Boniseuri’s and Clan Tiltani’s had been built atop what looked to be their own hill, leveled and expanded to accommodate what looked like an army camp done in fieldstone. From what he could tell, the construction and layout was the same between the two of them, following some sort of standard. But Clan Tiltani’s hill had an added set of embankments running around the edge of it, bristling with what looked like short stakes. A long path wound its way up one face of the dun, entering the village at a gap in the surrounding embankment and changing into an avenue to the square at the center of the village. The dun itself was well outside of bowshot from any of the surrounding hills, and it was very nearly as high as the hill that Jerome was on. Jerome thought he could understand why they had put their dun where they did; the hill that he was on was far rockier than anything he’d want to try reshaping. The dun looked to be of mostly earthen construction.
Jerome spent the rest of the day trying to come up with a way to recover his wagon. Chewing on a stem of grass as the sun began to sink behind him, he discarded all of his ideas and started over once more. His stomach growled, and he added finding food for his return to his growing list of problems. Evening saw the Tiltani shepherds bringing their flocks back, urging them up the path to the break in the embankments, and Jerome still musing over his trouble. He felt certain that he could get into the village in the middle of the night; one man on his own would be far more likely to gain entry than a larger party. But he still couldn’t settle on what to do once inside. Brows furrowed in concentration, he began poking at the ground with his walking stick and trying to make some sort of map. He was so focused on the problem before him that he didn’t hear the shepherdess coming up behind him until it was too late.
Jerome froze as he heard the grass shift without the wind, whipping his head around and coming to his feet, walking stick at the ready. There was a burly looking orc staring down at him from the crest of the hill, standing not more than fifteen feet from him. The orc lifted her spear, holding it in her right hand, ready for the throw. She spoke, “You’re an unwelcome guest, human. Surrender yourself and I will let you live.”
Jerome looked at her holding the spear, glanced down at his own meager walking stick, and sighed. He tossed down the stick and raised his hands as it clattered on the ground. “Fine.” He continued as the shepherdess approached, shifting her spear to be ready for a quick thrust instead, “But have you seen a wagon arrive recently, pulled by oxen and laden with many fine packages?”
The shepherdess paused a few feet from Jerome. He had by now settled his hands on the back of his head, and could hear the flock approaching from over the far side of the hill, another shepherd calling out and chivvying the sheep. The shepherdess looked at him askance. “And what if I have?”
Jerome smiled. “Then I know I’ve come to the right place to get my wagon back!”
The shepherdess grunted, smiling mirthlessly. “Sure. I’ll enjoy watching you try,” she nudged him with the spear’s tip, urging him down the hill, towards the dun of Clan Tiltani.
Jerome was brought to the center of the village, herded along with the last flocks as they entered the hill town. It was an altogether different experience from his first entry to the dun of Clan Boniseuri. There he had been too angry and cocksure to realize the trouble that he was in until he had already wedged his foot in his mouth through his presumptuous introduction. Here, in the midst of Clan Tiltani, he was uncomfortably aware of just how much danger he was in. He had no introduction, could not claim any guest-right, and had been found watching the dun from cover, clearly trying not to be seen despite being so bad at it.
But Jerome remembered Grikgor’s smile as he had complimented Jerome on showing some spine, so though he kept his hands on his head he stood up straight and tall. He wasn’t as bulky as the orcs that stared at him, but he was as tall as or even taller than most of them. He kept a smile fixed on his face, desperately quashing the roiling unease that had seized his belly. And when they reached the central green and the shepherdess waved over a more important looking orc, he looked back at his captor and asked her a question. “So, who do I challenge around here to get my wagon back?”
The shepherdess scoffed. “You want it back, twig-boy? Go ahead. Challenge our chief, she’ll break you like a rotten stick.” Jerome blanched and felt his insides try to knot themselves up even further, like they were trying to burrow a hole inside him in which they could hide. The important looking orc with an intricately patterned wool tunic was pushing his way through the flocks of sheep.
Jerome looked around, seeing the shepherds conferring, giving the total count of their flocks to make sure that none of their charges had escaped notice. And then he thought he saw an orc that he recognized. Give him a crossbow, a mean looking smile… yes, thought Jerome, that’s one of them. Jerome nodded his head over towards the orc, where he was talking and laughing by the door of one of the houses on the square. “What about him? He’s one of the ones that took my wagon in the first place, shouldn’t I fight him instead?”
The shepherdess looked where he was pointing and shrugged. “Makes no difference to me. Tell it to Helkrup,” she nodded towards the orc that she had waved over.
By the time Helkrup reached them, Jerome had made up his mind. There were only two ways that he could see things going at this point, and he’d rather take his chances in a fight than simply let them strip him and throw him out of the dun. He lowered his hands to his sides and nodded at Helkrup, speaking before the orc could. “I understand that you’re the one I should talk to about challenging him,” he pointed at the orc he had recognized, moving slowly so as not to be stabbed in the back by the shepherdess, “and getting back my wagon and goods.”
Helkrup tugged his tunic away from the grasping teeth of the sheep clustered around them. “Really? One of our shepherds brings you in and you want to challenge someone?” He frowned. This wasn’t what he’d expected in the slightest. He jutted out his chin pensively, clearly unconscious of thoughtfully running his tongue over his upper teeth. Finally, he nodded to Jerome. “You’re no member of our clan, and you don’t know the proper phrasing, but you clearly wish to challenge him like a civilized person.
“Very well, you stay right there. Nunat will keep an eye on you,” his eyes flicked to the shepherdess that had brought Jerome in, “and I’ll go let Iseler know that he’s been challenged.” As he began to push away through the flock of sheep, Jerome could hear him mutter, “I’ll have to tell the chief.”
Jerome was terrified, but he felt better for having committed himself. He smiled over at the shepherdess, and the smile felt real for the first time since he’d entered the dun. “So, Nunat? My name is Jerome.” She gave him a half-smile, clearly more out of amusement at what he’d just done than at any joy in meeting him. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” Jerome gave her his best bow, flourishing his arm and only remembering too late that the sheep would nip at his sleeves. His struggles with the sheep brought a real laugh from Nunat.
As he finally freed his sleeve from the sheep, Nunat spoke up. “You’re funny, twig-boy. Challenging Iseler? Very funny.” She smiled.
Jerome was alarmed. “Uh, why? What’s funny about challenging Iseler?”
Nunat looked pointedly over at where Helkrup was speaking to Iseler. “You see how Helkrup is so respectful to him? Iseler has made a name for himself among the raiders of the clan. He’s not future chief material, not yet, but if he continues to improve like he has…” she let the sentiment hang for a while, their silence interrupted by the bleating of sheep. “He could be chief one day. If Peraka doesn’t make it herself.”
Jerome looked uncomfortable. “Oh.” He said it very quietly.
Nunat laughed again, harder this time. “Yes, twig-boy, ‘oh’ is right. Of course,” she paused for another chuckle, “you might get lucky with the right choice of weapons.”
“In what way?” Jerome’s interest was clear in his voice. “Are there any that he doesn’t know well?”
“Perhaps,” Nunat smiled. “Though you might want something that you can actually use more than something that he can’t use.” She eyed Jerome’s lanky frame skeptically, “Don’t pick a mace, for example. Those are sergeants’ weapons, and he’s had plenty of practice with them. And you’d be more likely to break yourself than him.”
“There’s no chance that he might pick rapiers, is there?” Jerome’s wistful question was simply answered with a snort.
Iseler and Helkrup had clearly finished talking, and Iseler was obviously in a cheerful mood. He was joking with the other orcs around him, gesturing casually towards Jerome. The other orcs laughed. Helkrup made his way back through the sheep towards Jerome and Nunat. The flocks had finally started to disperse, being walked off towards their folds for the night, and the green at the center of the village was emptying out again.
“Southerner!” Helkrup called out to Jerome as he approached. “Your challenge to trial by combat has been accepted by Iseler. Protocol demands that victory goes to whomever draws first blood, and that the defendant chooses weapons. Iseler has chosen bare hands.” He finally stood alongside Nunat and Jerome. Nunat gave Jerome a shrug and an ‘at-least-you-tried’ look. Helkrup spoke again, more quietly, “Now is also your last opportunity to back down. If you do, we’ll turn you out now for trespassing and Iseler will be considered the victor, but since you came here to press a claim honestly we won’t strip you.” He eyed Jerome speculatively. “You might wish to save yourself the broken bones.” He continued in a casual tone, “You’ll probably be crippled for life.”
Jerome froze for several very long seconds. The offer was tempting, but even if he escaped unscathed he’d still be alone in the wild with no food. He finally shook his head nervously. “No, I came here to get my wagon back. I’ll do it.”
Helkrup nodded. Nunat shook her head, adding “Good luck. You’ll need it.”
The fight had drawn a large crowd, possibly the whole village. They sat, kneeled, and stood in ranked circles around the ring where the fight was to take place. Jerome had been told that they marked the edge of the circle and that they would force him back in if he fled or was thrown. Helkrup had given him a quick rundown of what would be expected of him, the ritual challenges and their answers. They’d fled Jerome’s mind nearly as soon as he’d learned them. Jerome wasn’t certain, but he thought that the whole village was there to watch the fight. As the crowd grew quiet and still, Helkrup motioned for Jerome to begin with his challenge.
He went through the motions of it, feeling stiff at first but then slowly letting the words flow off his tongue. Iseler was perfunctory in his replies at best, grinning at the crowd around them and obviously looking forward to thrashing Jerome in front of everyone. Jerome finished his challenge, stripping off his tunic and feeling goosebumps rising on his skin in the cool evening air. The sun had gone down and the moon already hung high in the sky, but most of the light came from torches held by those standing around the ring. Iseler finished his response and stripped his own tunic, revealing the powerful and stocky body of one who works all day every day. Jerome felt scrawny by comparison.
Jerome settled into an empty-handed en garde, hoping that his training with a blade might give him some skill in a fistfight. But while Jerome was still thinking about how tough the fight would be, Iseler quickly strode across the ring. He cocked his right fist back, and with his left he reached out and grabbed Jerome’s upper right arm, to hold Jerome in place. Jerome was shocked. There weren’t any grabs in the fencing taught him by his tutors. He struggled feebly in the orc’s grip, trying to free his right arm. He had barely even realized that the match had fully started.
Iseler continued as quickly as he’d begun, and his right fist was now flashing towards Jerome’s face. Jerome brought his hands snapping up and slammed his chin into his chest, hoping that he might deflect the blow at the last moment or at least cause it to skid off his head without hitting solidly. Jerome’s hands batted ineffectually at Iseler’s arm as the orc’s blow landed; it struck square on Jerome’s forehead and wrenched his head back again, but he swore he heard cracking sounds from the orc’s fist.
Jerome staggered backwards, trying to get his bearings as the orc let him go. He could hear Iseler cursing in pain, but it sounded almost as though he were underwater. Spots were dancing across his sight, and only one eye was focused. He felt vaguely nauseous.
As his sight and balance returned to him, he could feel hands supporting him from behind. He must have staggered all the way to the edge of the ring. With a little push from the spectators, he levered himself back to his feet and stood, wavering, trying to shift back into en garde. Iseler was grimacing, his expression made even more frightening by the way it made his lower canines stand out almost like tusks. His left hand was gently squeezing and probing the fingers of his right while he stared at Jerome. The orc clearly winced each time he touched his right hand.
Jerome was pretty certain that he’d just gotten a concussion, but he didn’t know what to do about it beyond trying to keep his distance from the orc. He slowly circled to his left, trying to stay on the orc’s injured side while giving himself more time to think. Even thinking hurt, and he noticed his head throbbing slightly with each step he took. He caught himself just in time to keep from shaking his head to clear it.
Iseler turned slowly, moving to keep Jerome on his left. He let his right hand hang by his side, taking a deep breath and no longer trembling or wincing. Without the shirt over the orc’s deep green skin, Jerome could see that Iseler bore the most ornate tattoo he’d ever seen. It covered his chest and back, inky trails running across themselves in intricate interconnections. Jerome was sure that he’d heard his uncle tell of these tattoos, the ones worn by all Northmen as a symbol of their manumission by the Good Masters in the Great War, and he was sad that he’d only get to see one now, while he was concussed and trying to win what seemed like an impossible fight. As he was distractedly circling, thinking of his regrets, Iseler twisted himself around to face Jerome with his right shoulder. Then he charged.
Jerome was surprised yet again by the speed with which Iseler covered ground, but this time when Iseler reached out with his left hand Jerome dropped to a squat. Iseler’s grab passed by over Jerome’s head, and Jerome launched himself up into Iseler’s belly, pounding Iseler’s stomach with his fists as his arms came to full extension, almost as he had been taught to do in the salle. Jerome surged upright, continuing Iseler’s momentum and letting the orc go over Jerome’s back, arms and face-first into the ground. There was a yelp of pain as Iseler caught himself with his right hand, then Jerome felt an arm grab his calves and tug, toppling the lanky human to the ground. He fell away from the orc and caught himself on his hands and knees, only to feel the powerful orc swarming up his back.
Jerome rolled, trying to shift his weight and get himself free, but Iseler shifted with him. Jerome’s back was no longer in contact with the ground, resting instead on the orc. Jerome fought to get some purchase with his feet, with his hands, but the orc’s strong right arm snaked up around his throat. Despite his broken hand, Iseler’s arm was perfectly sound. And Jerome found himself trapped in a chokehold as the orc brought his balled up left fist down on Jerome’s face again and again, clearly trying to spill his blood by breaking his nose if Iseler couldn’t choke Jerome into submission first.
Jerome fought back, bringing his forearms up to shelter his face, trying desperately to find some way out of the orc’s chokehold. He couldn’t get any purchase on the orc’s snake-like arm, especially with one arm still trying to keep Iseler’s left fist from smashing in his face. His head rang from the repeated blows, throbbing in pain, and he could feel things starting to get fuzzy around the edges, his vision blurring and dimming, tunneling in as he lost sight of his peripherals.
In his left hand he grabbed the orc’s fist, in his right he gripped at the orc’s arm. With one heaving gasp, he dug his fingers into Iseler’s forearm and pulled, trying to get himself a little more breathing room. He felt his fingers slip, his fingernails tugging as they found and lost purchase on the orc’s skin. His face was turning red, and his arms growing weaker. He scrabbled for another try as the orc tried to crush him tighter around the throat.
Jerome’s left arm was weakening and Iseler shook his fist free, bringing it up for the deciding smash that would crush Jerome’s nose and likely end the fight. Then Helkrup was there, tapping Iseler’s upraised arm with a solid wooden baton. Iseler looked up in confusion, letting his eyes focus on something more distant than his challenger for just a moment. Jerome was making little gasping and gagging noises, struggling weakly against Iseler’s still-strong grip.
Helkrup shook his head as he looked at Iseler. “Let him go. You’ve lost.” Iseler’s arm went slack in shock and Jerome slumped off of him to the ground, pulling in huge blubbering gulps of air. Helkrup pulled up Iseler’s right arm by the wrist and pointed the baton to the furrows in Iseler’s skin. They were slowly leaking blood, little more than deep scrapes made by Jerome’s nails as he had tried to force Iseler’s arm from around his neck.
More loudly now, Helkrup addressed the rest of the gathered crowd. “First blood has been drawn. The Southerner, the challenger, is the victor of the duel.”
Jerome poked gingerly at his sore face, certain that the bruises would stay with him for the rest of his life. His cheeks were puffy, swollen and tender, and though he hadn’t had a chance to see how he looked he could only guess that he was blotchy and purple. The Tiltani had guested him overnight, and the Chief was to speak with him soon, before he left for the Boniseuri village with his wagon. He still didn’t know how it was that he had managed to win. All he could remember was the horrible choking sensation as he had tried to claw Iseler’s arm away from his throat, but apparently the other orcs were satisfied with his victory. Which was funny, since he didn’t think he’d been winning in any meaningful sense of the term.
His head still twinged in pain every so often, and he kept his eyes mostly shut against the brightening light of the sun as it rose over the hills and shone down into the dun. It was a blessing to step into the dim interior of the Chief’s house and leave the sun outside. The Chief sat on a small folding chair at the far side of a well made lightweight table. All of the furniture that Jerome could see looked like it would be easy to pack up quickly, and with the exception of the few chests it all looked light and easy to carry.
“Welcome, Jerome,” the chief spoke, waving Jerome to sit in the chair across the table from her. “I am sorry that I do not know your clan. Nunat told me your name last night, but said that you had not given her your family name.” She smiled toothily, “I thought I should wait until you were feeling better before I started asking you too many questions.”
Jerome nodded slowly, trying to make no sudden movements with his head. “Thank you, Chief Tiltanikan, you honor me by speaking with me.” He cleared his throat and winced at the way it made his head vibrate. “I am Jerome of Elbin.” He paused again, unsure of himself, “May I ask what it is that you wish to speak with me about?”
The chief chuckled quietly. “I simply wanted to let you know that we will be returning to you your wagon, along with all of your supplies and your oxen. And that if you had any interest in trading with us, we’d be willing to make you a competitive offer…” She trailed off, speculatively.
Despite his throbbing headache, Jerome smiled. He was finally going to be able to do what he’d come north for in the first place! He began slowly, “Well, I was admiring the quality of your fleeces as I was coming in yesterday…”
The rain had settled in yet again. If anything, it was colder now than it had been a week or so earlier. Wind teased the shepherds’ cloaks back when they didn’t hold them down, and cold water ran down Jerome’s face, soaking into the wool of his trousers. But this time it ran over a grin, and Jerome couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of the sight before him. A larger flock than any his uncle had ever brought back, heavy with wool. And with a little work, enough to add to the family’s estates.
Watching the gray veils of rain wash across the green hills, feeling every last bump come through the seat of the wagon, Jerome still smiled. He’d managed to trade with two orcish clans on his very first trip, more than even his uncle could claim to have done. He’d be bringing back more sheep and wool than his family would know what to do with, and he’d established another meeting with both clans for next year. Maybe next time he’d have some crossbows to give to the Boniseuri. He was sure that he could get an even better deal that way.
He was shivering and soaked through, and the happiest he’d been in ages.
Jerome Goes North by Henry White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.