Disturbed, Jak poked a stick into his still steaming scat and gave it a good stir.
Where was it? The small sapphire he’d swallowed yesterday should be in his excrement somewhere. Was it too big to pass? Perturbed, he set aside the potentially painful thought, and the dirty twig, before burrowing beneath the snarl of vines obscuring the opening to a rocky alcove. With a sweaty heave he rolled away a large rock, revealing a crevice, the northernmost of his four forest caches. As close to the Ankan lands as Jak dared get, it was like enough the western-most cache too, only a short hike east from his final swampy stand. Satisfied he was out of sight; Jak dropped his bundle and unfurled the bounty his battle had won.
The crevice contained another bow, a quiver, and a sack containing a coil of rope, a small pouch of herbs for cooking and healing, plus several swads of deer jerky. He chewed a salted-venison stick as he emptied both his sacks on the ground. Jak placed a pair of boots, a belt, the dagger and Ishak's bejewelled sword beside the bow in the hidey-hole. Then he hefted his three purses - Ishak's by far the heaviest - onto a rock shelf and counted the contents.
Zounds, more coins than he’d ever seen before. Over thirty pieces, including two goldies! Even though only gold-plated, Jak had never held one and now he owned two! Jak had little concept of the value of money, having no need of it in his daily life. He only knew that each gold coin was worth ten silver ones, and each silver worth the same amount of copper coins. He added the two coppers in his own purse and had thirty five pieces altogether. Although several were Sarkian senarii, they were still legal tender and spendable though not of the realm. To make trade between the empire and the kingdom easier, Perugia had based their own pence on the Sarkian system casting their coins with the same weight, composition and value. However, no-one ever said "pence" except Westcott. Everyone else, the common people, referred to them by their colour.
Jak divided his ill-gotten gains into three piles of pelf, approximately the same worth - one gold, two silvers, with either five or six coppers - then put them back in the purses. He dropped Ishak's ornate purse into a boot in the crevice, the second into a sack to be deposited at another cache, and pocketed his old purse. The one his gran had made. It didn't have a gold piece but twelve silvers instead and only five coppers. No point getting greedy all of a sudden.
He recollected one particular town trip when he was eleven, seeing a small sword, just his size, hanging in the smithy. It cost three silvers six and he'd craved it so badly. When he told his gran later, she just laughed.
"Of course you want a sword," she said, hugging him. "It's in your nature. But that blade's not meant for you."
"Can't we afford it?" he'd asked forlornly.
"No, that's not it at all," she smiled, pulling him closer.
"A tradesman needs a tool not a toy. An artist uses a brush, not a broom. When it is needed, a fine sword will be in your hand. For now, if you behave, I'll teach you the elven sword dance.”
He immediately promised to behave, but hadn't really, he suddenly realised. He wished he could go back. She'd taught him anyway. He was so sorry.
"In the meantime, what we can do is carve some wooden swords that you can swing to make your wrists strong."
She did and they were. Now he had three steel-forged swords. All foreign though, and one far too fancy for his tastes.
Even after two years of daily sword-dancing, alternating right and left until his arms failed, he still needed a teacher. All his doubts were confirmed by his bout with the crippled captain. Gods above, he'd stabbed him in the back and still almost lost. It wasn't physical prowess he lacked, it was technical skills and tactics. Now that he thought about it, he should have fought with his left hand as well. At this stage in his career, they were interchangeable for him…Unfortunately he was equally inept with both. Basic bloody tactics...
He sighed and shunted the boulder back in place with a grunt. He put his bundle back in the sack, the jerky in his cloak pocket, and slithered back under the vines into the forest. Next stop a stream to fill his water sack, then the Swamp Bridge. Hopefully the coast was clear, so he could chuck the corpse into the Torrence and make his way to his next cache.
Saidah slept-in. He'd tossed and turned all night then overslept. Probably for the best, he reasoned. Let a few hours pass to make sure Tarak was actually on duty.
Despite its greasy foreignness, he scoffed his tavern breakfast. No bacon, of course, but eggs fried in rancid lard wiped up with grainy bread. He also refused the ale. It was barely ten o’clock in the morning. Anyhow Sarkians didn’t drink or partake of swine. The barkeep still, of course, charged him full price. This country!
The foggy morning was an unfamiliar and unsettling occurrence for him. Saidah didn't fancy standing around in the spiralling cold, alone, waiting for Tarak to show up. If he was smart, he'd be sleeping-in too. He straightened his sword, shouldered his backpack, and set off across town towards the Swamp Bridge trail. It was near eleven by the time he could hear the thrum of the Torrence, but the fog still hadn't lifted its icy grip. Chilly wisps of white whirlpooled in all the low points, particularly settling over wet spots like the stream.
"Sergeant Tarak?" he called, all overly formal for some reason. "Tarak are you there?" To his ear his voice sounded subdued and weak. Hopefully it was the fog dampening it down. No reply. The mist swirled and shifted and he thought he glimpsed the shape of a prone form. He peered again and there it was, still. Could he be asleep? He drew closer recognising the standard issue soldier's cloak.
At that moment, he wanted nothing more in the world than for his sergeant to be sleeping, but for some reason he couldn't raise his voice beyond a whisper to wake him.
"Tarak are you okay?" Dead silence. Saidah took another step and gave the shape a gentle prod with his boot. When the dead-weight didn't give, he knelt and flicked the cowl back revealing Tarak's pallid features locked in a death mask. He forced himself to inspect his former friend for injuries and could find only two. A vicious sword strike through the throat and a second deathblow to the heart - no other sword nicks were evident. All the appearances of an efficiently ended and strangely lopsided duel.
Sergeant Tarak was highly trained, "top of his class" - as he always told them - and twice the swordsman Saidah was. Only the very best of blades could have done this. Or a demon. Saidah shivered. Tendrils of mist curled hypnotically around his boots mimicking the queasy dread circling his insides. An eerie creak came from the bridge, startling him. He spun around, trembling fingers feeling for his sword. The misty shadows coalesced into a hard-eyed spectral teen carrying a sack - standing straight in front of him.
"Who goes there?" the corporal croaked.
The ghost stalled... Then answered: "Zak". Filtered by the fog, to his Sarkian ear, "Zak" sounded a little like "Jak" with a soft "J". Was the demon boy toying with him? Teasing him? He frantically searched his memory for the proper Perugian pronunciation, but in seconds was drowning in obscure semantics, confusing himself further. Frazzled and afraid, he looked up to find the devil child was furtively feeling around in his sack. No doubt for some foul magic.
Spooky! Somehow, Jak's honest attempt to threaten Emperor Rakkesh had gone awry. The messenger had actually balked at accepting his mission. He had, in fact, fled. Would the message still get through? Better safe than sorry… Jak resolved to keep the severed head until he heard something more.
He supposed he was lucky to be alive. A fresh soldier was a far cry from Captain Delirious, who, even hamstrung by serious injuries, still had his measure. Hence, Jak's plan had always been to duck any fight. And duck he did when the spy first called out.
Halfway across the bridge, caught betwixt and between, he'd dropped into a crouch under cover of murk. Hearing nothing more, he'd crawled forward, keeping the blanket of fog between them, hoping to disappear up the trail into the mist. He'd made it across, but was betrayed by a swirl of fog, skittering aside at the last second, and was spotted. And questioned. Why he said his name was "Zak", he would never know. He must have mixed the truth and a lie together, forming a stillborn half-truth. The spy appeared almost as confused as he was.
They were still a score of yards apart, enough of a gap to scarper or draw his bow. So with a safety net in place, he'd decided to deliver the nephew's noggin and be done with it.
The Sark stared suspiciously as Jak reached into his sack. Having retrieved the cloak-wrapped package, he bowled it underarm toward the startled soldier. The cloth chose to unravel as it rolled, and stopped a yard shy, revealing the grisly winking visage of Ishak. The stunned spy gave him a slack-jawed look of horror, eyes agog, then turned tail and took off towards the town.
Perturbed, Jak re-wrapped his gory prize and plopped it back in the sack. He almost set off himself, before the soldier changed his mind and came charging back or worse brought reinforcements, but decided to ditch the body to be safe. Maybe no-one else had seen it? It had been foggy, and few if any ever travelled up the Terron Trail, so he gritted his teeth and dragged the stiffened corpse towards the roaring Torrence.