Thus began Baldo’s journey with Godon Zarcos.
It was spring.
The mountains were lush.
Though born to nobility, Godon voiced not a single complaint to the rough conditions of camping in the wilderness or of eating simple meals.
These places Godon knew like the back of his hand now took on an entirely different hue to the man, caught up in the joy of travel, and he talked without pause the entire time.
After around twenty days did the two arrive at the domain of Tuolim.
Tuolim was located just between the greater Podomos and Excela regions.
Such a place would normally not take twenty days to reach, yet the two took a rather large detour, for Godon did not wish to cut through the center of Podomos.
Baldo no longer knew where exactly he was.
“Tuolim historically has been a producer of fine wheat.
In fact the grain we harvest in our very own domain grew from seedlings gifted to us by the lord of Tuolim five generations prior,”
Upon entering Tuolim, however, greeted the two a sight that could not have been further from their expectation.
The many wheat fields of the villages were in utter disarray, and the eyes of the farmers were dull and lifeless.
Few were the livestock, and the ones that remained were emaciated and on the verge of death.
Even when visiting the town that housed the lord’s castle was there nary a wisp of activity to be seen.
Though the roads were wide and the shops plentiful, no one seemed eager for their business.
Rather, the two of them received naught but dark glares of distrust.
“What an oppressive mood there is here, senior.”
Truly, agreed Baldo.
Though Godon had initially tried to address Baldo as “master” and “teacher,” he ended up switching to “senior” upon hearing him grunt his dissatisfaction.
Baldo did not want to tarry long in this place, but he needed to secure some food first.
They located a local gants and ordered meals.
The food was expensive and hardly palatable.
Baldo recalled the conversation he had with the mountain bandits he had caught several weeks prior.
The three had told him they were woodcutters from Tuolim.
In Tuolim were the taxes exorbitantly high and the tax collection harsh, thus did the poor grow ever poorer, so the story went.
The women and children of families that could not pay were taken and sold off.
Resist the tax collectors and one would meet a terrible end.
Then there appeared a man named Emba with a chivalrous heart who protected the villagers from the unjust tax collectors.
Many other men who idolized this Emba came together and created a militia to save those with no means to protect themselves and provide food for the starving.
Those three men as well had been taken by Emba’s strength and manly spirit, thus they pledged their loyalty to him.
Yet one day, the lord of this domain hired two guards of incredible strength to serve at his side.
Emba was slain by these guards, and so too were his underlings killed off one by one.
Those three men had been in hiding for many a year since then, finally making their way past Meyzia where they stole items and foodstuff from passersby to barely scrape by, so the story went.
This was that very Tuolim domain.
Baldo and Godon left the gants as quickly as they could.
The two rode side-by-side on their horses.
Approaching them from the front came a group of people on horseback as well.
There were three of them.
Baldo noticed a peculiar thing at that moment.
There was someone atop the roofs.
The man in question hid himself the best he could, gazing with intensity at the street below.
Gazing at the three approaching men on horseback, it appeared.
As the three men passed, all the people in the streets scurried to the side and prostrated on all fours.
It’s the lord! Quick, it’s the lord! were the whispers from their lips.
So this was the lord of Tuolim, then.
The two behind him must be the rumored guards in his employ.
One of the guards suddenly moved in front of the lord.
Perhaps he had noticed something.
Even were that the case did their gait remain unchanged.
The man atop the roof then retrieved something from his person.
It was a bow!
He meant to assassinate the lord.
I must warn them, thought Baldo, but he soon realized such action was unnecessary.
The guards were clearly privy to the situation.
The attacker fired an arrow.
There was not only one such assassin, in fact.
There was another archer in a location Baldo could not see, and the two shot simultaneously.
The arrows never reached their target, however.
For the guards struck down the projectiles midair.
From amidst the crowds on either side of the road suddenly rushed three men, charging at the lord.
In each of their hands was a sword.
Swords were simply not something the everyday commonfolk could get their hands on.
These were certainly warriors.
One of the men swung up with the sword in his right hand.
One of the men thrust his sword forward from the hip.
One of the men gripped his sword in both hands and brandished it up to the right.
The two guards demonstrated swordplay like a flash of lightning.
The necks of all three of the assailants were sliced cleanly through, and they died on the spot, blood spurting from the wounds.
The two men on the roofs had notched another round of arrows and were about to fire again.
One of the archers was struck by a dagger launched from a guard, and he fell to the ground with a scream.
The other guard had his horse kick the house the remaining archer was atop with its hind legs.
The walls and roof of that house fiercely shook, and the man atop lost his balance, falling to the street as well.
The guard quickly made his way to where the man had fallen.
So too was his throat slit.
The first archer was alive yet, dagger protruding from his chest.
He stood up with an indomitable will, pulling the dagger from his chest, and made a mad dash for the lord.
“Just let me cut the bastard once!”
he shouted, yet his desperate pleas were all for naught.
With a strike to the head from the guard’s hilt, the man sank to the ground unconscious.
The guard retrieved his dagger, wiping the blood from the blade with the archer’s clothes, and he hid it once again on his person.
The lord watched all of this transpire without the slightest emotion.
Nay, it wasn’t quite entirely without emotion.
There was a sadistic smile on his lips.
He told a nearby man who looked to be a local official of some sort to carry the unconscious assailant back to his castle and continued on his way.
When the trio passed by Baldo and Gordon, the two of them stole a glance at the guards.
Though they did not berate Baldo and Godon for remaining atop their horses before the lord, neither did they offer anything in the way of a greeting, electing to ignore the duo altogether.
Never did they even spare the two a glance.
It was clear, however, they remained on alert the entire time.
Once the three men were out of sight did the townsfolk start to talk amongst themselves.
“H-Hey, wasn’t that—?”
I’m fairly sure that was the boy of that one lumber merchant, the one who had his entire estate seized and committed suicide a while back.”
“The one who was taken into that noble family when he was younger?”
“That’s the one.
He must’ve been trying to avenge his birth father.”
“Now they’re gonna make short work of that noble family too, I reckon.”
“The blood’s going to start flowing again.
What a wretched place this is.”
Baldo and Godon left the town behind.
After traversing another mountain would they arrive in the domain of Goza.
They would have no choice but to set up camp in the wild since they left the town at such a time of day, yet the two of them preferred it this way.
What frightening technique those two guards exhibited.
Such swordsmanship could be said to have reached the pinnacle of the human-slaying arts.
So too did Godon appear intrigued by the skills of the guards as he boldly said to Baldo,
“Those men were incredibly skilled.
Would you be able to best them, senior?”
My chances would be slim to be sure, were I to face both of them at the same time,
replied Baldo with a touch of boastfulness.
By saying it would be difficult to fight both of them at the same time was he implying a one-on-one match to be a simple affair.
In reality, the guards were more skilled with the sword, even in a one-on-one.
Yet in an actual fight, Baldo was confident he would have the means to secure victory.
Baldo had the feeling for whatever reason that those two men were not as invincible as they might have appeared.
It was possible Baldo would not have felt this way had he not met Venn Ulir.
Since he had met such an unparalleled talent, and had engaged the same man in life and death combat, he could see through the lack of profundity in the guards’ strength.
Both before and after the ambush did the guards display the full extent of their strength for all to see.
Yet next to Venn Ulir, before and after their fight, Baldo could not grasp the true strength of this man.
One hears no sloshing from a barrel filled to the very limit.
It did not matter how sharp their blades were if they could not hide the many openings in their combat, thought Baldo.
“I must say, they always seemed to slit the throat.
Does there exist such a swordsmanship?”
By slicing the throat with the tip of the sword could one minimize the wear and tear of the weapon.
Yet Baldo suspected this was not the motive of the two.
Though slitting the throat robbed the victim of the ability to fight back, it did not grant them a quick death.
Rather, it was a slow and laborious death, one of weak breathless whimpers, pained thrashing, and gushing blood.
They would have quickly perished had the cut been deep enough to sever the bone, but the method earlier had been purposely shallow.
That is the swordsmanship of those who delight in the suffering of man,
whispered Baldo back.
The good-natured Godon knew not what to say.
This was likely the pastime of the lord of this land.
After serving him for so long did the hearts of those two guards likely grow wicked as well.
Just as Baldo surmised that the area around such a lawless town must be similarly teeming with lawless villains did he hear this cry from nearby.
Baldo and Godon were currently in the mountains.
The sun was just about to set.
The two of them had climbed down to a nearby stream and were in the midst of preparing dinner and camp.
It seemed as if a merchant was being attacked.
Perhaps he too had come to the stream for a sip of water.
A single bandit stood there with what looked to be a machete in hand and was swinging it down at the merchant.
Let us help him,”
To Baldo did his voice almost sound as if containing a wisp of excitement.
As the two of them were about to slide down the slope, they suddenly heard the sound of something spinning at high speeds.
Baldo discerned the identity of the noise in an instant, having been proficient with the weapon himself in his younger days.
A small object seemed to strike the bandit’s stomach, and the man doubled over, clutching the spot.
Three figures suddenly appeared.
All of them seemed to carry weapons of some sort, but Baldo could not see them well due to the distance and dim surroundings.
As soon as the three figures swarmed the bandit, however, did he immediately fall to the ground lifeless.
So that’s what it was.
The traveler saw these three people, thus did he call for help.
Yet not only did the traveler fail to thank the three figures, he instead picked up a stone and threw it at them, grabbing his belongings and running with panic in the direction of town.
Witness to such an unbelievable turn of events, Gordon exclaimed,
“Never have I seen such ungratefulness!
I can scarcely believe one would do such a thing to their saviors.
Still, I must commend those three on their extraordinary display of coordination.”
Baldo was of the exact same opinion.
The two of them approached the trio.
They approached and were met with a great surprise.
The three of them were all terribly ancient.
There were two men and one woman.
The three of them were all terribly short.
Their bodies were emaciated and covered with deep wrinkles at every point—the very definition of skin and bones.
They wore tattered beast furs like uncivilized peoples might.
Their hair was white and matted, falling out at every part of their heads.
They were clearly malnourished.
Their skin was black with mud and grime.
The three of them stared at Baldo and Godon with raised caution.
“The three of you performed admirably.
You saved that traveler in wonderful fashion.
Yet, what an ungrateful wretch that man was!
To think he showered you not with appreciation but with a rock!
Do you have some bad history between you, perhaps?”
asked Godon, to which the three people showed visible signs of relaxing.
We humble folks just live here in the mount’ns, and we’s never seen that man before.
Such is how it is, the village folks see us ‘n scream that the mount’n ghosts have come t’ get’m.”
“That must be hard.”
Not at all.
We humble folks always live here in the mount’ns, so we don’ mind.
We folks’r happy to see them villagers running away.”
I see, I see.
By the way, has that bandit died?”
Certainly has enough.
We folks’r thinkin’ of strippin’ the man for his tools and goods and buryin’ him, if that’s good to you.”
“That is a fantastic thing to do.
Allow us to help you.”
Baldo and Godon helped the trio with the burial.
The three elderly people took the tools and goods that the bandit carried with him, though they did not touch his clothing.
After burying the bandit did the three go to their knees and bring their hands together in prayer.
Whatever the circumstances of their birth, it appears these people know to pray for the souls of the departed,
thought Baldo, and he too prayed for the safe passage of the soul.
Baldo invited the three of them to supper afterwards.
Though shocked to hear such a thing, the three discussed the idea amongst themselves and took him up on the offer in the end.
“T-This is what’sn all call alcohol?
So good, so good.
You brought sum’in good round this way.
Wha’tuh great man.
It’suh good thing, this alcohol.”
“Here’s never tried it too.
So strange, so strange.
Can die happy now, I can.”
“And this’n? Smoked deer, you say?
So yummy, so yummy!
Ah! We folks’r very thankful.”
The five took their supper around a crackling campfire.
While waiting for the soup in his pot to be ready, Baldo retrieved an assortment of foods from his sack and handed them to the elderly trio.
Having received no shortage of excellent dried food from the Zarcos estate, Baldo was traveling in surprising culinary luxury.
They seemed to be quite taken with the alcohol, drinking it with gusto for the first time in their lives.
The three of them were siblings as it turned out.
The elderly sister was a small little thing, and her eyes sparkled with joy at every new food, innocent like a child.
Though her voice was hoarse and raspy, Baldo found a curious charm in it before long.
Above all else did this elderly woman fancy the raisins.
House Zarcos had sent him on his way with three kinds:
One was a pale green.
One was a purplish red.
One was black, with traces of crimson.
Each had a unique flavor of its own.
Yet they were all sweet and delectable.
She placed one into her mouth and squealed with delight, placed another in her mouth and quickly told her brothers of the wonderful experience.
“This is the first time you’ve tasted alcohol, you say?
As such an age?
I can scarcely believe it.
Even the humblest of farmers will drink on special occasions.
You mean to tell me the waterskin at your side does not contain any spirit?
Yet you seem to be treating it with such care.”
“Sir warrior’s correct.
It only has a, well, a juice we use fer our works.”
The pot was relatively small, so they couldn’t make soup enough for five people with it.
Yet the three elderly siblings had a terribly small appetite.
It was not that they were trying to be polite.
Baldo had the feeling their stomachs had all shrunk after years of malnourishment.
“I must say, you three took care of that bandit with aplomb.
Have you ever received combat training before?”
“Certainly not, you jest.
We folks learned from runnnin’ and runnin’ round the mount’ns, chasin’ round the beasts,”
they answered, waving their hands in front of their faces.
They were terribly dirty, scar-ridden hands, yet not with as many wrinkles as one might expect.
The trio went quickly to sleep.
It brought a smile to the face, seeing the three embrace slumber with their bodies huddled together.
These siblings truly loved one another.
Such had probably been the case ever since they were young.
Even as they slept, however, did their caution show no signs of dispersing.
Their bodies would twitch in response to every of Baldo and Godon’s movements.
The three of them left before the sun rose the next morning.
Baldo was awake when they did, but he pretended to be asleep nevertheless.
The siblings bowed to the motionless Baldo and Godon countless, countless times before heading off in the direction of Tuolim.
The two of them returned to their travels once Godon awoke.
They arrived in Goza before noon.
Upon securing a room at the local gants did they wash their bodies and have a meal.
“Your magnanimity knows no bounds, senior.
I was shocked to see you willing to part with so many delicacies.”
Godon appeared a tad dissatisfied with Baldo’s actions the night prior, handing out the precious foods given to him by his sister and brother-in-law to the elderly trio so liberally.
“I was shocked by their appearances, but it was the smell that nearly did me in.
I thought my nose was about to fall off, to tell the truth!
What a waste of perfectly good food, to eat it in the presence of such a stench.
Not to mention serving those three from your own pot!
Does it not turn your stomach?”
Even Baldo did not clearly understand why he had wanted to feed those three siblings.
Perhaps he felt sorry for them, to be turned on by the very man they saved.
Perhaps he wanted to at least assure them that their kindness wasn’t for naught.
They truly had miserable appearances, the three of them.
To such an extent that it almost seemed to scorn the pity of others.
Yet they had put themselves in harm’s way to save the life of a traveler.
Had they been after the money would they have simply killed the traveler themselves after taking care of the bandit.
Yet they did not, thus was there proof of the virtue in their actions.
And such virtuous action went without reward.
Having witnessed this, Baldo wished to at least treat them to a single meal.
Such was the meaning behind his actions.
Though Baldo came to such a conclusion in his heart, he chose to mention nothing of it to Godon.
“B-Big news everyone!”
came a loud shout from a man who suddenly barged into the gants.
All of the patrons looked over to the entrance.
The man appeared to be a friend of the proprietor as he walked over, and he continued in a great voice,
“That bastard of a lord in Tuolim’s finally been done in!”
There was immediately a commotion that rose amongst the visitors.
The biggest of reactions was that of Godon’s.
What! he shouted and immediately strong-armed the man who delivered the news to sit at their table.
pressed Godon, drawing closer to the man.
Though clearly flustered by such a response, he downed a cup of water and took a deep breath before going into detail.
“Get this, big guy.
It was revenge.
That’s right, revenge.”
So it was the lumber merchant’s son!”
What are you on about?
It was Emba’s kids.”
Who on earth is that?”
“The ringleader of the resistance.
The one who was killed six years back.
He was kind and strong—a real man among men.
He was killed by the lord’s guards, and his lady—well, it was a terrible thing what happened to her.
He had three kids, the eldest being twelve, and rumor had it they all escaped into the mountains.
Then today they appeared in front of the lord who was on his usual patrol.
We are the children of the righteous Emba, come to carry out his will and strike down the wicked lord! they said, cutting down the man in the street!
I didn’t see it for myself, course.
But apparently the three of ‘em were as dirty as they come.
Unbelievably shriveled up too—everyone was saying they thought the three were in their hundreds.”
“A group of three who looked to be elderly?
D-Did those three best the guards in combat?”
“Now hold on.
Two of the old guys—I mean kids—they rushed the guards.
There was a bit of a scuffle, and they managed to keep the guards busy for a bit.
Though they were both eventually cut down.
While that was happening, the third of the kids swung at the lord.
That one was killed too, but the lord sustained a frightful wound.
Ended up expiring in the street not too long after.”
“So then the two guards live yet?”
“Now hold on.
The guards yanked the kid off the lord and sliced him something good.
It was a proper fountain of blood, apparently.
A lot of that blood landed on the guards, and they suddenly started to squirm about, dying soon after.”
After listening at this point did Baldo suddenly come to a realization.
He thought back to the overpowering stench that came from those three the day before.
Amongst those myriad smells was a particular one that Baldo couldn’t help but find familiar.
Now he remembered.
That was the smell of wolmegye1 venom.
A drop to the eyes would render you forever blind.
A drop in the mouth would rip the soul from your body.
It was one of the three legendary poisons capable of even slowing the movements of a kaejel.
It was that very smell.
That was the true nature of the liquid inside their waterskins.
The three siblings each had something wrapped around their necks.
Baldo had assumed it was something simply to ward off the cold, but it appeared he was incorrect.
Might that not have been something like hardened leather?
What if the three knew their opponents would without fail attempt to finish them off with a shallow cut to the throat.
By protecting that spot for even a single moment could they find the opportunity to rush in.
And what if they hid the waterskins containing the wolmegye venom at their necks as well.
Doing so would surely shower the attacking guards in the liquid.
No doubt did they coat the weapon with which they struck at the lord in the poison as well.
Those three buried the bandit after killing him.
Had they not buried him would it have become evident the man died of poison.
They simply needed to protect this secret for but one more day.
Thus did they bury the man.
Still, to think that trio was able to hold back such frighteningly skilled guards, even if for a moment.
How much grueling effort and training must one go through to accomplish such a feat.
A mere twelve year old boy, having likely never known a trained warrior in his life, with his younger brother and sister.
What days and months they must have seen, holed up in those recesses of the mountains.
What grueling training they must have gone through, with beasts their only opponent.
Never having known the happiness of a normal life.
With no one to properly train them and not a single bit of proper equipment to their name.
They struggled and struggled.
Forever trying to find a way to slay their bitter enemy.
The cruelties of their life were carved into their very skin, making them look as if they’d lived a hundred painful years.
And what eloquence.
To speak not of their pain or of revenge for their father.
We are the children of the righteous Emba, come to carry out his will and strike down the wicked lord!
Truly a fine declaration.
Baldo was struck by an inexplicable melancholy, and for a good while was his body rooted to the spot.
Godon was the same.
Finally he spoke, his voice trembling ever so slightly,
“My nephew is eighteen.
My niece is surely similar in age to their little sister as well.
How they enjoyed such meager dried foods.
They even it was enough to die happy.”
There was a moment of quiet, and he added,
“If only I could have given them something even more delicious.”