Doves and Falcons
The next morning, Garrick and his fellows were rustled from bed at dawn. They began the day with a thorough scrubbing of their bodies; given the high risk of scratches and small wounds, it was imperative to keep clean. Afterwards, they lined up for food, keeping the same pecking order as established yesterday; as last time, only the veterans among the fighters received bread and could sit down while eating. Each time one of the new slaves tried to claim a vacant seat, he was pushed away. Those that persisted received an elbow to the chest or face; once again, the guards had to intervene to prevent an outright brawl from breaking out. With the hierarchy among the slaves reconfirmed, the meal was finished. The experienced fighters began their training straight after, practising well-known patterns while taking care not to push themselves beyond their limits.
As for the newcomers, they were herded to the rooms serving as the sickhouse in the compound. The physician awaited them, questioning each slave about any physical weaknesses, examining their bodies if needed, and ensuring that yesterday’s training had not unduly exerted them. Advice was given out along with a raised finger and demand for caution; one was to spare his ankle, another his knee, a third was told to keep a looser grip on the hilt, and so forth.
To Garrick’s luck, the physician spoke a few words in Mearcspeech. “Pain?” he asked.
Garrick shook his head. “None. Just sore.”
“Yeah, tired. My legs and arms. They’re tired after yesterday.”
“Take more breaks. Sharp pain?”
“No, I told you, no pain anywhere.”
“Many scars. Old wounds still hurt?” The physician traced his finger over a few of the faded marks on Garrick’s chest.
“No, they’re all healed.”
“Good. Get wounds when you train, come now. Not wait.”
“I won’t,” Garrick promised.
“Good.” The old man nodded towards the amulet that Garrick wore around his neck. “Your god?”
Garrick closed his hand around the wooden pendant. “Yes. Rihimil.”
“Yes, he is.”
“Good. Pray before fight. Go now. Train.” The healer waved him off to examine the next.
At Hiram’s estate, the daughters of the Kabir had an entire wing at their disposal. This allowed them private bedrooms, a parlour for receiving visitors, and a dinner chamber where they took breakfast under the watchful, silent gaze of Salim, their mamluk protector.
“You would not mind staying home today, would you?” asked Dalia. “I want Salim to take me to visit Maharbal.”
“I could have guessed,” Jana replied. “It is fine. I will stay and talk with Saif once he returns from hunting.”
“It is good that our brothers are finally here to provide you with some company. Since you do not seem so keen to spend time with Lord Hiram,” Dalia cautiously said, peering at her sister while sipping cold soup.
“He is a fine man,” Jana remarked tonelessly, breaking bread into small pieces. “We simply do not have much to converse about.”
“But Jana, dearest, what will you do when the two of you are married?”
“I do not see how that would change much. I doubt Lord Hiram would begrudge me to continue living in this part of his estate. He does not lack space.”
“You would live as strangers?” asked Dalia, sounding slightly horrified.
“Is that much different from the relationship between our father and our mothers?”
“Perhaps,” Dalia granted reluctantly, “but that is bound to happen to lesser wives. You will be Lord Hiram’s only wife! And he adores you, I know it.”
Jana coughed. “Sure.” She swallowed a glass of cider.
“I only want you to be as happy as I am with Maharbal,” Dalia expressed with concerned eyes. “If only you could feel the way I do, you would understand!”
“Thank you, Dalia,” her sister replied curtly. “You need not worry yourself about me.”
“I know you are not a stranger to such emotions,” Dalia continued with a sly look. “As I recall, before we had to leave Alcázar, you were quite infatuated with a boy.”
“Yes, thank you. I am done eating. Give Maharbal my regards,” Jana said in hurried fashion, getting up.
“But you hardly had anything!” Dalia called out, left behind to watch Jana’s swift retreat to her own chambers.
Under the eyes of the weapons master, Garrick was made to practise his swordsmanship. Besides a blunted blade, he was given a round shield to fight with. Majid served as his opponent, armed with a shorter blade and bigger shield.
“Move your feet faster!” Majid roared at him, making a sweeping blow aimed at Garrick’s ankle.
The blow landed.
“Don’t just block, push my sword aside!” he reproached the northerner.
Garrick attempted to do so, but found only air.
“Use that opening!” he commanded.
Garrick swung out, but missed.
“Too late! Look out!” Majid pushed the edge of his shield against Garrick, knocking the wind out of his opponent.
Wheezing for breath, Garrick tried to strike back.
“Too slow! Again!”
Garrick sneered and did so, hitting only shield and receiving a blow to his shoulder in return.
“Enough,” Majid finally declared. As Garrick caught his breath and drank deep from a barrel of water, Majid left to confer with the weapons master.
Looking around the courtyard, Garrick saw his own exertions reflected by the other pairs of fighters. There was a marked difference between those with experience and the newcomers. Only the mamluk who had been bought at the same time as Garrick was able to hold his own against his opponent. Seeing the northerner’s gaze upon him, the mamluk made a crude gesture towards Garrick.
His observations were disrupted by the return of Majid. “The weapons master and I agree.”
“I can’t wait to hear this,” Garrick mumbled.
“You are out of practice, clearly,” Majid told him. “Like a knife grown dull from lack of use. Your reactions are slow, and you hesitate before each attack. You would last mere moments on the sands, which provides poor spectacle for the audience.”
“That’s more important than whether I survive, I take it.”
Majid laughed. “You need not be concerned with that. You offer so little resistance, no true warrior of the sands would kill you. They’d simply knock you down, and you’d be smart to stay down.”
“I thought these fights were to the death,” Garrick mumbled.
“Did I not tell you? You will stand upon the sands in Labdah. You’re not fighting in the pits in Gadir!”
“Well, until a month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the two apart!”
“Then you better learn quickly!” Majid impressed upon him. “The games begin in but a few days, and by then I will have your dull edge sharpened! Nothing will keep me from being champion this year, or may Haktar curse us both!”
Commotion disrupted all activity in the yard. Hanno appeared with several guards. He spoke a few words, and his men crossed the enclosure with determined steps towards some of the fighters. Anxiety erupted among those in their path until the guards singled out one of the slaves, seizing him.
He was dragged to wooden poles that served only one purpose in the yard; they had stains of miscolour upon them from years of dried blood. Once the victim was tied up, one of the guards began the flogging. The slave screamed in pain while the others stared with a variety of expressions; sympathy, fear, disdain, or indifference could all be seen.
While the punishment took place, Hanno gave a brief speech to the audience. “What’s he saying?” asked Garrick.
“This slave spoke of escape,” Majid explained. “He tried to make plans with someone else to flee. The other slave told Master Hanno.” He licked his lips. “A good reminder not to trust anyone in this place.”
Meanwhile, the lashes continued.
A carriage left Hiram’s estate to cross the city. Its destination was another palace, no less grandiose. As the visitors arrived, they were welcomed and seen to with customary routine; while stable hands took care of their horses and equipment, wine was served in the reception hall.
“I shall inform my master of your arrival,” the steward declared, leaving Dalia to take a seat with her glass of wine while Salim sent watchful looks in every direction.
Soon after, a young nobleman appeared. “Dalia, darling!”
“Maharbal, my dove!”
Ever silent, Salim looked away pointedly with a strained expression.
“Had I known you were coming, my dearest, I would have prepared a celebration,” Maharbal claimed.
“I thought a surprise would be sweeter,” Dalia told him. They touched hands and cheeks in greeting; as their touch lingered, Salim cleared his throat until they broke away. “You must excuse Salim. He has been in a bad mood for days,” she said in reproach.
“Good Salim, what on earth is the matter?” Maharbal asked the mute warrior.
“He is grumpy that our brothers have arrived from Alcázar, because it means his task in Labdah will soon be done, and he must return home,” Dalia replied on his behalf.
“Yes, I heard of their arrival. At last,” Maharbal smiled. “I have already informed my steward to make the preparations for a wedding.”
“After last year’s delay, I was starting to lose hope,” Dalia admitted, biting her lip.
“Lose hope? Never, my blossom,” Maharbal told her, squeezing her hand. Since Salim was currently looking away again, the young man was not chastised for this. “They could never keep us apart forever.”
“How right you are!”
“Now let us step inside and be comfortable. I am sure Salim would prefer us sitting down and less – excitable,” Maharbal spoke with a smile as he turned and gestured for his guests to follow him. “Tell me of your brothers. Are you happy to see them?”
“It is funny,” Dalia said as she and Salim walked into one of the many chambers for entertaining guests. “I was so thrilled for them to arrive, but already life at Lord Hiram’s estate seems dull again. Both of them are busy, and Jana seems sullen – you know how she is.”
“Your brothers are busy preparing for their meeting with the Council, no doubt,” Maharbal considered, taking a seat after Dalia had done so. Salim remained standing behind her. “I look forward to meeting them.”
“That is true, you will meet them for the first time!” Dalia clapped her hands in excitement. “I forgot you were on the Elder Council. I always think of grave, old men with long, white beards when I hear that name. You are much too young and interesting.”
Maharbal laughed. “My father would have fit your description. Alas that I had to inherit his seat already. I bless him for his wisdom, though, in seeking an alliance with yours.”
“What if he had not?” Dalia asked with sudden concern. “Would we not be engaged? Would we never have met?”
“Fear not, my blossom,” Maharbal reassured her. “I am sure our fates would have been entwined regardless.”
With deep exhalations, Salim kept his eyes on the wall, studying the intricate tilework.
Hanno’s fighters spent the afternoons with its unbearable heat in relaxation between sparring. Their bodies and any possible injuries were tended to, and they ate hearty meals to fuel their training. Porridge from barley and oat, beans and other vegetables kept them better fed than most slaves or even free men in Labdah. There was a variety of fruit as well, but like with the bread, there was only enough for some to eat their fill.
Unable to communicate much with the other fighters, Garrick stuck to Majid during the meal. “I’d kill for some meat,” he grumbled.
“Meat makes you a slug,” Majid chastised him. He was sitting on a bench while eating, whereas Garrick stood against the wall. “You must be quick.”
“Quick enough to run away from this food,” Garrick muttered, stabbing his porridge with a spoon. “Don’t you ever miss meat?”
“I’ll grant you that. In fact, when I am free, I’ll probably eat a whole cow,” Majid grinned.
“You expect to be free?”
“Of course. When I am made champion of the sands,” Majid explained. “Has nobody explained this to you?”
“If you haven’t, who would?”
“Right. Well, the winner of the last game at Evenday, in which we’ll fight, will be granted his freedom,” Majid elaborated.
“And we fight together,” Garrick added. “So if we win –”
Majid laughed, looking up from his seat at his companion. “Don’t leave harbour without sails. Only the experienced fighter may be champion. The masters don’t buy slaves to immediately let them win their freedom,” he grinned.
“It has taken me twelve years to rise to the position of being Master Hanno’s champion. Twelve years I have laboured for this. With luck, you may one day accomplish the same.”
“In twelve years.” Garrick pulled a face. “Why do you call him master? There’s nobody here who’ll understand you.”
“Why should I not?”
“He made you a slave! He makes a profit on your captivity!”
“Master Hanno didn’t make me a slave. War did,” Majid corrected him. “I was taken in battle, and my own refused to ransom me. I could have been sold to the mines or the fields, but Master Hanno saw potential in me. Here, I am treated better than many free men in Labdah, and I have the chance to earn my freedom. Why should I not respect him?”
“You have risked your life for twelve years, all so he can make coin!” Garrick argued, pointing down at Majid with his spoon.
“So does a soldier guarding a merchant’s caravan,” Majid countered. “In the mines, I would have been put to work until death. Here, I have purpose and a future. Here, I am valued.”
“I’d rather be poor and free,” Garrick declared. “What will you do when you’re free, then? Apart from eating a cow,” he added with a laugh. “Return to Alcázar?”
“I imagine so. These men of Labdah are not fond of men from Alcázar. Defeating them in war will do that.”
Garrick’s eyes darted towards the guards before looking at Majid again. “Would you be able to bring a message along?”
Majid shook his head. “Such is forbidden.”
“Just send them word that I’m alive,” Garrick implored him.
“Enough!” The exclamation made those nearby turn to stare at Majid, even if they did not understand the words exchanged. “Do not forget this morning’s lesson,” he spoke through gritted teeth. In the yard, the flogged slave still remained, bound to the poles.
Nearby stood the mamluk, who was a newcomer like Garrick and thus equally low in the hierarchy. He walked over to exchange words with Majid in Suthspeech, who eventually laughed. With a contemptuous look towards Garrick, the mamluk licked his porridge spoon and walked away.
“What did he say?”
“He asked why I don’t let my friend sit next to me,” Majid explained.
“What did you answer?”
“I told him you’re not my friend.”
“Throwing me to the wolves? That fellow’s got a bad eye on me,” Garrick growled.
“I told you. You stand or fall on your own in this place. If he can gain the respect of others by pushing you down, he has every right to do so,” Majid told him.
“Fine. Let him try,” Garrick declared. “I’ve had plenty of men trying to kill me in my day, and I’m still standing.”
Majid gave a sardonic smile. “Few men like him, I wager. He is a mamluk – already years ahead of you in training.”
“What in Himil’s name is a mamluk? You keep using that word.”
“Your primitive tongue has no word for it.” Majid licked his lips. “He is a – a slave made soldier. Taken as a child, he has been trained all his life to fight. For him, life in this place is nothing new.”
Garrick looked in the direction that the mamluk had gone. “I was a man-at-arms in the Order. I don’t fear someone who’s lived his whole life a thrall.”
“You should. I’d bet my coin on him.” Majid rose up. “It’s not just about training. He understands the rules of this place, and he has the strength of will as required by those rules. You, you’re too timid.”
“Go to Hel.”
Majid smiled without warmth. “Enough talk! Back to training. Evenday is soon.”
Like any estate of its size, Hiram’s palace grounds contained extensive gardens and orchards with a variety of trees to provide shade. Surrounded by pear trees, Saif and Jana sat on a bench. As spring had barely arrived, nothing was yet in bloom, and the evening sun illuminated their faces with its remaining warmth.
“How was the hunt?” asked Jana.
“Excellent. Father sent Lord Hiram his best falcon, and it proved a worthy gift. Lord Hiram was most pleased. We shall have a taste of its prey at next meal.”
“Where is Dalia?” asked Saif.
“Visiting her intended,” Jana replied. “Where is Jalil?”
“Who knows. Exploring Labdah, I imagine, or possibly with Lord Hiram.”
Saif sent her an inquisitive look. “You seem – strained when hearing his name. I noticed the same each time he spoke to you during the meal.”
“I have no cause to be,” Jana told him. “I am treated with the utmost courtesy.”
“You may have no cause, but it seems to be the case nonetheless. You are not happy here.”
“Labdah is not Alcázar. I miss home, that is all,” Jana explained with a mirthless smile. “I would have liked to see my mother again before it was too late.”
“I am sorry you did not get the opportunity,” Saif expressed with sympathy. “But Lord Hiram seems to treat you well.”
“He does, even if I suspect he has eyes for Dalia.”
Saif’s demeanour darkened. “Has he said anything to that effect?”
“Not in the slightest,” Jana was quick to reply. “I could certainly be wrong. Enough about me! Tell me of yourself and Alcázar, please.”
“I would be happy to. My mother bade me send you her regards.”
“She has always been kind.”
“To you because you are no threat to me,” Saif said wryly. “She is not pleased that Jalil was sent with me to Labdah.”
“She cannot honestly think your position is threatened?”
“I am quite sure that has been the only thought in my mother’s mind ever since our father had more sons than me,” he remarked dryly.
“But you are the eldest and born to our father’s first wife. Surely none can take your place. Least of all Jalil.”
“I appreciate your confidence, but Father seems less certain. He has always found ways to make Jalil and me compete against each other. This journey to Labdah is simply another test,” Saif explained.
“At least you are not facing the strongest competition.”
This made Saif laugh. “I hope you are right. Jalil prides himself on his swordsmanship, but when does a ruler have need for such? The last time Father saw battle was twelve years ago.”
“They still speak of those battles here. Sentiments towards Alcázar are hostile,” Jana spoke. “You will not find the Elder Council to be friendly in your negotiations.”
“We come well prepared,” Saif assured her.
“Indeed, your retinue is far larger than I expected. You certainly have a high number of guards.”
“As you say, this city is hostile.”
“You should be worried about the wine in your cup rather than a blade in your chest,” Jana cautioned him. “I have never seen any of these people eat or drink anything unless their own taster could guarantee it was harmless.”
“That is unpleasant to think of. I shall be glad to be back in Alcázar once the negotiations are concluded,” Saif admitted. “I mean –”
Jana raised a hand to calm him. “I have had several years to grow accustomed to the thought. Alcázar, Labdah – my life will be much the same regardless.”
“Once the negotiations are concluded, I shall extend an invitation to Lord Hiram to visit Alcázar,” Saif proposed. “It will strengthen our ties and lessen any lingering animosity. He will have to bring his new bride, of course.”
Jana gave a hollow smile. “Of course.”
The fighters finished their training in similar manner to how it was begun, by cleansing their bodies. Whereas it was a coarse scrubbing in the morning, baths were at their disposal in the evening, providing them with one of their few comforts. A loud, whistling sound from the weapons master gave the signal to conclude the training and enter the baths; as soon as they heard it, the veteran fighters visibly relaxed and seemed joyful from anticipation alone. Stowing their blunt weapons and equipment, they hurried towards the baths; the newcomers followed their example.
The bathhouse for the slaves was a structure of its own with several chambers to fulfil its purpose. Worn from their exertions, the fighters first entered the cold room of the bathhouse directly from the yard. They stripped naked, placing their dirty tunics in a pile to be washed, and proceeded to line up for the troughs of cold water. Garrick stood patiently waiting behind the veteran fighters when a hand on his shoulder pulled him back. A foot extended behind his ankle sent him tumbling to the ground while all others laughed; among the southerners, none had sympathy for the Mearcian, and the other slaves moved past him to begin their own washing.
“You stand or fall on your own, Ajama,” Majid reminded him, moving to the next chamber. Forced to wait among the last, only sweaty rags and dirty water was left when Garrick could finally clean himself. Having done his best, he continued to the warm room, which had a pool of heated water. Once more, he was forced to stand and wait until his turn.
When at last he could lower himself into the hot water, he gave a sigh of relief, stretching his arms and muscles. The other fighters did likewise, all enjoying the relaxing effect of the heated pool. It was tempting to remain in the warm water, but a bath attendant kept sharp watch, ushering the men to the next room.
The third chamber was the sweat room. The air was kept hot, and the men, already warm from the water in the previous room, quickly began to sweat as they walked around. A pool was placed here as well, but its water was unheated; once the fighters felt they were done sweating, they would enter the water to cool themselves before leaving the bathhouse.
As before, Garrick entered the sweat room as the last. The other fighters were already done, leaving one after the other; the exception was the mamluk, waiting in the pool. Keeping eyes on him and distance between them, Garrick remained wary. The other fighter gave a scornful smile, seeing Garrick’s apprehension. He emerged from the water and stared at the northerner; retaining his expression, the mamluk relieved himself in the pool before leaving the bathhouse as well.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.