This chapter from Eskkar & Trella – The Beginnings, is one of my favorites. We meet Eskkar when he is in his early twenties and reaching full maturity. He’s lived and traveled alone for almost ten years, since being forced to leave his barbarian clan. That event thrust him into the lands of his hereditary enemies (picture a lone Mongol forced to live in 12th century Europe). Feared and hated because of his background, he’s learned to survive on his own, living day to day, with sudden death always close at hand.
Now chance brings him into contact with another wandering mercenary and thief, the quick-witted Bracca the Sumerian. Bracca allows the author to paint Eskkar in a different light, with diverse strengths and weaknesses, as Bracca teaches his more cautious companion how to survive in yet another new and hostile environment. But can two distrustful fighters join together to survive? And if so, for how long?
Eskkar trudged up another rolling hill, one of an endless number the playful gods had placed in his path to confound him. After two days of walking, his legs ached from the unaccustomed slow progress over the uneven ground, his steps made more difficult by the gear he carried distributed over various parts of his body. The sword, of course, still hung down his back, but a second, shorter weapon dangled from his waist, where it slapped against his left thigh at every opportunity. Both blades grew heavier with each step.
In addition to the swords, his long copper knife seemed to have increased in weight as well, and the big water skin felt no lighter, no matter how much he drank. Two blankets, one for the horse he no longer possessed and another for himself, formed an awkward bedroll that hung over his left shoulder. His sagging belt supported a pouch full of the small necessities every traveler needed, such as the flint chip needed to start a fire, a sharpening stone for his sword, and half a loaf of stale bread.
The pouch, however, contained no other food and no coins, not a single copper, which Eskkar convinced himself helped keep the weight down. Everything else, including his cooking pot, he’d abandoned over the course of the last two days. What remained of his worldly possessions, such as they were, now burdened his body. Mounted on a good horse, those same articles had seemed but a trifle.
Cursing his usual bad luck and the fate that made the horse go lame in the middle of nowhere, Eskkar plodded slowly upwards. Not that the horse had been much of a prize, but he’d paid the last of his coins to buy it, and the stupid animal had gone lame three days later, unable to put any weight on its right foreleg, not even able to hobble more than a few steps. One look at the swollen knee told Eskkar that it would take at least a week, maybe two, before the horse could carry any weight. Just as likely, it would never recover. In a fit of anger, he cursed his fate, the crafty trader who sold him the unsound beast, and the even the pitiful horse, before packing up his things and starting to walk, leaving the poor brute behind to forage as best it could.
The hill grew steeper near the top, but Eskkar gritted his teeth and kept climbing, taking care not trip and fall. He’d done that twice since yesterday. This time, leaning forward, he crested the hill without mishap and stopped to catch his breath and survey the land beneath him.
A good-sized stream lay only a few hundred paces ahead, the clear water flowing sluggishly along its crooked path. Lining the water’s edge, he saw a tangled border of green bushes on both banks, with scattered sycamore, willow, and even an occasional date palm providing shade that nearly covered the width of the stream. Thick vegetation gave the river a cool appearance that made Eskkar wipe the sweat from his brow. At least he wouldn’t die of thirst.
According to the ignorant dirt eater who’d given Eskkar directions, he should have reached this stream yesterday. Instead, the water that marked the trail to Dilmun had turned out to be a good twenty miles of hard traveling further west. Still, Eskkar now had his bearings once again. He didn’t even need to cross over, just follow the flowing water to reach his destination.
With a sigh of relief, he started down the hill, which sloped a bit more gently toward the stream. Nevertheless, he stepped with care. A fall, especially one that resulted in a sprained ankle or broken leg, would be serious, and Eskkar had no intention of hobbling around helpless or dying of starvation.
He reached the outer fringe of greenery that grew beside the brook, and followed along the bank until he reached an opening that gave easy access to the water. Old tracks marked this place as a ford, but the more Eskkar examined them, the more he relaxed. No one had crossed here in several days. He dumped his possessions and dropped to his knees at the water’s edge. First he quenched his thirst, then scooped handful after handful of the cool water over his face and neck. With most of the travel dust removed, he leaned over for another drink, but then stopped, his attention attracted to movement on the opposite bank.
A pair of horsemen . . . no, one man riding and leading a second horse, approached the stream from the other side. The rider apparently planned to cross the stream. Eskkar rose to his feet and made sure the sword over his shoulder moved easily within its scabbard.
The stranger looked up in surprise, saw the gesture, and halted at the edge of the stream where his horses could lower their heads and drink.
For a moment, the two men stared at each other, separated by less than twenty paces of water. By now Eskkar noted that the man carried no sword, only a knife on his belt. More interestingly, he carried nothing else, no water skin or food pouch, and the second horse carried no possessions, not even a blanket. The rider, a small man with the darker complexion that accompanied those from the southern parts of Sumeria, looked fit enough. He wore a tunic with colorful stitching that might have once belonged to rich merchant, but now a torn sleeve and numerous stains left the garment barely wearable. Despite the lack of weapons, Eskkar guessed the man was a fighter. He didn’t move or act like most dirt-eaters, and his gaze met Eskkar’s without fear.
“How’s the water?” The voice, a deep, resonant bass, seemed out of place coming from the man’s smaller stature.
“Good enough,” Eskkar answered.
“Then I’ll try it,” he said, swinging smoothly down from the horse, patting it on the neck before stepping into the stream to cup his hands and quench his own thirst. “I have to cross here anyway.” He drank again, then stepped back onto the bank and mounted the horse, which took a step into the water and continued drinking.
Eskkar shrugged at the words, but said nothing.
“I’m on my way to Dilmun. Is that where you’re headed?”
“Perhaps.” Eskkar didn’t intend to discuss his plans with an unknown rider.
“I’ll cross over now,” the stranger said. “You won’t be thinking about using that sword on me, will you?”
Eskkar smiled at the man’s caution. “Not as long as you cross straight over and keep going.” But to make plain his peaceful intentions, Eskkar moved aside, stopping only to pick up the second sword he’d tossed on the ground beside the rest of his things.
The stranger gathered the halter from the second horse and touched his heels to his own, keeping, as Eskkar noticed, the extra mount between the two of them.
Keeping his eyes on Eskkar, the rider splashed through the stream, the horses stepping slowly as they waded with care through the knee-high water. When they reached Eskkar’s side, the stranger kept the horses moving, guiding them through the shrubs and trees, heading for higher ground.
Eskkar watched them go. For a moment, he’d been tempted to ask for a ride, since both men were heading to the same village. But his barbarian caution prevailed, and he didn’t want to have to watch his back during a long ride to Dilmun. Instead he concentrated on the horseflesh as it moved away. The rider’s mount looked strong and well-fed. The other animal appeared well past its prime, dull of eye and drab of coat.
As Eskkar watched, the stranger halted about thirty paces away and turned his horses around. He rode back, stopping a dozen paces away from where Eskkar still stood. “I see you have an extra sword. Is it bronze?”
So the man had a quick eye as well. Eskkar didn’t bother answering the foolish question. Only a fool or some ignorant farmer would lug a copper sword on foot.
“Perhaps you’d be willing to sell it.”
“I plan to, in Dilmun,” Eskkar said.
“Dilmun is a good day’s ride from here.”
Damn these villagers and their constant urge to state the obvious. “So you say.”
“Perhaps we could make a trade. I need a good sword, and you look like you could use a horse.”
Eskkar’s eyes flickered back to the horses for a moment. “The sword’s a good one, well made from the finest bronze. It will fetch ten silver coins in Dilmun, more than enough to buy a good horse.”
The man ran his hand over his face, then swung down off his mount. He paused for a moment to link the two halters, using a quick hitch knot that showed he knew his way around horseflesh.
Eskkar used the time to study the man’s face. A dark beard grew sparsely over his cheeks and chin. A crooked nose gave evidence of more than a few encounters with fists or other solid objects, and a jagged scar stretched its way down half the man’s cheek. A dirty headband kept the hair away from his dark eyes that now met Eskkar’s gaze.
“My name is Bracca. What’s yours?”
“Of no concern to you,” Eskkar said. By dismounting, the man had shown he had plenty of nerve or an unusual amount of stupidity. Still, the stranger remained beside his horse, and if Eskkar suddenly decided to rush forward, one good hard slap on the animal’s rump would launch it forward and give the man plenty of time to draw his knife.
“You don’t like to talk much, do you?” Bracca said, a wide smile exposing a mouth still full of white teeth that contrasted with the dark skin and facial hair. “No matter. Let me see the sword.”
Eskkar obligingly drew the short blade from its scabbard, and held it up.
“Doesn’t look like it’s worth ten silver,” Bracca said.
“I thought you said you wanted ten.”
“It’s worth twelve, but I’ll probably have to settle for ten,” Eskkar said. That was true enough. Over the years, he rarely got the better of any bargaining with villagers. Or people with quick tongues like this Bracca. Eskkar had learned to pick his price in advance and stick to it, walking away from the deal if necessary.
“The horse is worth ten silver, barbarian,” Bracca said, again smiling. “And he’s right here, ready to save you a long walk to Dilmun.”
Sheathing the short sword, Eskkar looped it over his belt, taking his time to make sure he attached the scabbard securely. “You’re right. The horse is worth the sword. Your horse, not the nag.”
Bracca’s eyes widened in surprise, then he burst out laughing, his white teeth flashing. “Not my horse. He’s worth three of your swords. And he’s not for sale.”
“Better be on your way, then . . . Bracca.”
“Let me see the sword.”
“You’ve seen it.”
“I mean, hold it out, let me get a feel for it.”
“I know what you mean,” Eskkar said, his innate caution warning him to take care. The man showed too much interest in the weapon and not a trace of worry about Eskkar’s size and bulk. Surely there would be swords for sale in Dilmun. Or maybe Bracca thought he would need the sword on the journey. Any man riding the countryside with two horses and no sword made for a tempting target, and the thought made Eskkar wonder if he should kill Bracca and take the animals. But the horses might be known in Dilmun, and Eskkar didn’t need more trouble than he usually encountered when arriving in an unfamiliar village. With his barbarian heritage stamped on his face, villagers needed little encouragement to make trouble. “If you want to look closer, walk over here.”
Bracca hesitated, clearly unhappy about the prospect of leaving his horses and venturing within Eskkar’s reach.
Eskkar waited. If the man came forward, he must be truly desperate.
It took only a moment. Bracca smiled again, this time showing even more teeth, and let the halter rope hang down. He took a step forward.
Taking his time, Eskkar reached up and drew his own sword from over his shoulder.
Bracca stopped, his hand on his knife. “Why the sword, barbarian?”
“You didn’t think I was going to hand you a sword, did you, without my own in hand? Suppose you decided to try and use it on me?”
“Why would I do that . . . what is your name? I hate talking to someone without a name.”
With his left hand, Eskkar drew the short sword from its scabbard, then flipped the weapon in his hand, switching his grip from the hilt to the guard. He extended his left arm, letting Bracca see both the blade and the hilt. At the same time, he lifted his long sword in his other hand, pointing it straight at Bracca.
“You’re not a very trusting man, are you . . . why won’t you tell me your name? Do you think I’ll cast a spell on you, or put a demon on your trail?”
“My name is Eskkar.” Anything to stop the questioning. “Now, do you want the sword or not?”
Bracca edged closer, but stopped about three paces away. He peered at the short sword, tilting his head as if trying to make up his mind. “No, not for my horse.”
“Then I’ll offer you a different deal,” Eskkar said. “I’ll ride with you into Dilmun on your nag. Then after I sell the sword, I’ll give you a silver coin.”
“Give it to me now.”
“I don’t have even a copper,” Eskkar said, for the first time giving Bracca the benefit of his own smile.
Bracca considered that for a moment. “No, I need a sword now, and one coin won’t buy me a good bronze blade. The sword for the horse is what I’m offering.”
“Why turn down a chance to earn a piece of silver, Bracca?”
Without taking his eyes off the man, Eskkar slid the short sword into its scabbard, then lowered his own weapon, letting the tip rest on the ground between them. “It appears we both have the same problem, a lack of coins. But one silver coin, plus what you can sell the nag for, might buy you an old copper weapon. Or you can sell your own horse, and buy a decent sword in Dilmun. Either way, looks like you’re going to lose your horse.”
“Then at least two silver coins for the ride in . . . Eskkar.”
“I’m in no hurry,” Eskkar said. “I’ll walk.”
“No horseman enjoys walking,” Bracca said. “And you don’t look as if you got any extra food in your pouch. Not to mention that you’ll look foolish trying to sell your barbarian skills in Dilmun if you don’t even have a horse. Even Jorak won’t pay anything to a barbarian without a horse.”
“Who’s Jorak?” Eskkar cursed himself as soon as the words left his lips. He should have waited, let Bracca keep talking.
“Ah, you don’t know the name? You do know about Dilmun, don’t you?”
“I’ve heard talk,” Eskkar said.
Bracca threw back his head and laughed. “You’re a bad liar, barbarian.” He shook his head, this time at the expression on Eskkar’s face. “Everyone in these parts knows all about the fighting at Dilmun. Jorak is the village elder there, calls himself the Noble One. Insists that everyone bow when they greet him. He’s hiring every man who can hold a sword to help him wage his war with Tuttul.”
A loud sigh escaped Bracca lips, as if astonished at the scope of Eskkar’s ignorance. “Jorak of Dilmun is waging a blood war against the village of Tuttul,” Bracca explained. “That’s another two days ride further south of Dilmun. Jorak has been feuding with the ruler of Tuttul for years, but a few months ago, Jorak’s son got himself killed raiding the farms around Tuttul. Jorak has decided to avenge his son’s death by wiping the village from the earth.”
Another blood feud. The worst kind of fighting, Eskkar knew. Even in his clan days with the Alur Meriki, such feud could wreak disaster on families. Endless killings and retaliation, until one family or another ceased to exist – unless the clan leader intervened and put an end to the fighting.
“Jorak is paying three copper coins a day for experienced fighting men, and promising more when Tuttul is destroyed. He’s already got dozens of men ready to fight for him.”
“And that’s why you’re going there?”
“Of course. Did you think I was going there to shovel pig shit on some farm? And what are you planning to do in Dilmun? Just sell the sword, and move on? To Tuttul, perhaps?”
Eskkar opened his mouth, then closed it. Bracca was right. Eskkar might sell the sword easily enough, and for a good price, if fighters were gathering there. But a village full of eager warriors wasn’t going to let a well-armed and mounted fighter just ride away. They’d take his sword and his horse, if nothing else, but just as likely kill him, on the off chance that he might end up fighting for the other village.
Still, Eskkar couldn’t go back the way he’d come. It would take him close to three days to reach the nearest village, and he’d find no welcome there, only trouble. Here along the fringe of the desert, Dilmun was one of the last settlements before the wastelands closed in. With no food, no horse, and no copper, Eskkar needed to go to Dilmun.
Bracca waited a few moments, letting Eskkar digest the information. “Take the old horse for the sword, barbarian. Then we can both ride in. If we sell our services together, we can ask for more copper than we’d get alone. I know how to use a sword, and I’ve fought in these kinds of quarrels before. Besides, we can protect each other, if things get ugly.”
The man’s words made sense, but whenever Eskkar trusted anyone, he’d always come to regret it sooner or later. He’d journeyed this far in life mostly alone, and he didn’t intend to change now.
“No. I’ll trade you the sword for your horse. It’s either that, or one silver coin for the ride in. Take your pick, or be on your way.”
“Your head is thicker than bronze, barbarian. There won’t be any horses for sale in Dilmun, not now. You’ll be stuck there and end up fighting for Jorak anyway, just to stay alive. Either that, or find your throat slit the first night for whatever you get for the sword.”
Eskkar didn’t like his options, but he wasn’t going to give up a valuable sword for a horse worth not even one silver coin.
Bracca waited, but when Eskkar remained silent, Bracca lifted both hands up to his shoulders, then let them drop. He took three long strides back to his horses, and led them away from the stream before he mounted and cantered away.
Watching the man depart, Eskkar wondered if he’d made the right choice. If he walked until nightfall and started again at dawn, he might get to Dilmun by noon tomorrow. “Damn all villagers and dirt-eaters,” he said, angry at his never ending bad luck.
He quenched his thirst from the river, then rinsed the water skin, but didn’t fill it. The stream ran all the way to Dilmun, and there was no sense carrying water with a stream nearby. Gathering up his things, Eskkar followed along the tracks left by Bracca. By the time he’d climbed the first hill, sweat again covered his brow, and he wondered if he’d made a mistake not offering two silver coins for the ride, though paying such a large amount for so small a service would have rankled Eskkar for months. Nevertheless, he still didn’t understand why Bracca hadn’t accepted his offer. Another stubborn and ignorant Sumerian dirt-eater, Eskkar decided.
Keeping the river on his right, he selected the easiest ground for walking, which happened to mark Bracca’s trail. One mile passed, then another, until Eskkar crested one more of the apparently endless rolling hills and saw Bracca and his horses a quarter mile ahead. The man lay under the shade of a poplar tree, taking his ease, the two animals grazing nearby.
Eskkar straightened up and tried to stride with purpose, as if the long walk meant nothing to him. A gentle slope led down to level ground, and Eskkar covered the remaining three hundred paces to where Bracca rested. This time the man didn’t bother to get up as Eskkar approached. Instead, he propped himself up on one arm, watching Eskkar’s slow progress.
“It took you long enough to catch up. Good thing I didn’t ride any farther. You’d probably have gotten lost.”
Despite himself, Eskkar smiled. “You know, Bracca, you’re really tempting me to kill you and take both horses.” Once again, he dumped his possessions on the ground and moved under the shade of the same tree that sheltered the Sumerian.
“If you wanted to kill me and steal my horses, you would have tried back at the stream. I’d have killed you, of course, if you attempted anything so foolish.”
Easing himself down to the ground, Eskkar leaned back against a rock, a few paces from where Bracca still reclined. “You and your little knife? I’d have gutted you before you could fumble it out of your sheath.”
“I’ve killed better men than you with it, men who didn’t annoy me half as much. But all in the past, that, and not worth wasting words over. Two silver coins, and you can ride into Dilmun. We’ll be there by nightfall, if you’ve got half the wits of a dead dog. I’ll even buy you a mug of ale.”
“One silver coin,” Eskkar said, “ and I’ll buy you the ale. Don’t forget, we’re two miles closer now.”
“You ARE duller in the head than a dead dog, friend Eskkar,” Bracca said. “And you drive a hard bargain, but I might accept it, with one condition.”
Eskkar frowned at the thought of any more complications. “What condition?”
“You lend me the sword just before we ride in, and you sell it to me for nine silver coins. That’s the same as the ten you’d get in the market, less the coin you’ll owe me. I’ll even throw in the nag, and promise to pay you for the sword within two days.”
“Why do you need to borrow the sword, friend Bracca?” Eskkar could guess the reason, but he had to ask.
“There are some men who owe me a few silver coins, and they may not be eager to pay what they owe. We had something of a disagreement when we parted. So I’d prefer not to have to argue with them, at least not without a good sword handy. Once I get the silver, I’ll pay you, and you can trade the nag and the coins for a better mount. If there’s anything better to be had in Dilmun.”
Eskkar thought about Bracca’s offer for a moment. He’d be taking a chance, lending the sword, even if he waited until they reached the outskirts of Dilmun. “Suppose your friends kill you and take the sword from your dead body, friend Bracca? Then I’d be out my silver.”
“They’re not going to kill me, trust me on that. They’ll pay as soon as they see me and the sword.”
Eskkar took his time thinking. Bracca had been clever enough to let him walk a few more miles, before offering his deal. Still, Eskkar’s feet hurt, and the thought of tramping all the way to Dilmun seemed even less appetizing than before.
“Well, Bracca, I might consider your offer, but I’ve one condition as well. You lend me your horse, not the nag, for the ride to Dilmun. That way, if by some chance you do get yourself killed, at least I’ve got a decent horse, and the villagers will remember who rode him in. As you said, if I have to join up with this Jorak, it wouldn’t look right for a horseman from the steppes to ride in on a old plow horse, while you’re strutting around on such a fine beast. When you pay me the silver, we can exchange horses.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good arrangement,” Bracca said. “Suppose we . . .”
“Look, if I have to ride the nag, I’ll slow us both down, and we won’t get to Dilmun by nightfall. If we have to camp out overnight, one of us will end up killing the other. Besides, the plow horse can carry your puny weight easier than mine.”
Bracca rubbed his lips with the back of his hand while he considered the offer. “Enough! I thought the steppes people were supposed to be slow-witted fools who don’t know how to barter. Instead, you’re taking my good horse, and making me pay you for the privilege. It seems you’re getting the better of the bargain.”
“You know what the merchants say – someone complains after every trade.”
“You talk like a merchant yourself,” Bracca said, softening the insult with a grin. “I only hope you know how to fight half as well as you barter.”
“Let’s get started, then,” Eskkar said, rising to his feet, already invigorated at the prospect of riding a fine horse.
It took only moments to get his gear onto the big horse. “And friend Bracca, you won’t mind riding in front, just in case you decide to change your mind about our agreement. Not that I don’t trust you, but we barbarians get nervous when strangers draw too close. And you look like the kind of man who might know how to throw a knife.”
“If I ever decide to throw it, you’ll be the first one I aim at, I swear it on the gods, my good friend Eskkar.”
Eskkar waited until Bracca had kicked the nag into motion and moved a dozen paces ahead before relaxing his own halter and moving forward. Bracca had already started complaining, about the horse and the price for the sword. Eskkar guessed that by the time they reached Dilmun, his ears would be numb, and Bracca’s voice would be grating on his nerves. Still, the man appeared unlike any other that Eskkar had met in his wanderings. The chance meeting seemed like a stroke of luck, but whether for good or ill, only time would tell.