Two men stood side-by-side by the edge of a sluggish river. It was clear, and they could see the bottom. “It’s shallow.” the younger declared. “I could walk to the other side.” He looked across the wide expanse of moving water. “This spot on the river is probably a very good place to make the fording we need.” He shaded his eyes with one hand and smiled. “Shall we?”
The older male shook his head. “No. It is too deep, Rickard.” He smiled knowingly at the startled glance the younger man shot him.
“But I can see the bottom!” Rickard objected.
“And I can see very big fish.” The older man pointed to a very large fish. “Those are bottom feeders.” he explained. “They do not like shallow water, because it is too thin.”
“It’s just a fish, what difference does it make?” Rickard demanded. “It’s probably from a deeper part, and came to look for food.” The man was quickly becoming grumpy over his elder’s nit-picking. “We need to cross, and it’s shallow enough that I see the bottom. I’m going.”
“Fine, but leave your horse and your gear. If I am right, you will need to swim quite a distance, and the pots and pans you carry are quite expensive.”
Rickard growled as he threw his pack aside and dismounted. “Anything else I should remove, sir?” he demanded icily.
“Your attitude, and likely that heavy chain mail you wear.”
The young man threw his hands up. “Sod on that, there are enemy swordsman around!” he objected, then began to wade across. His pace was quick, until the water began to rise on his legs. He made no effort to lessen his splashing, and soon became tired of his own impulsive pace. He was only thirty feet in, when a dropoff nearly drowned him. He panicked, and instead of stripping his heavy boots and mail, he tried to swim up. Bubbles came from the bottom.
The older man sighed and stripped. He took his time, and folded his clothes with efficiency, then dashed in and dove after the idiotic other male.
With deceptively-strong limbs, he pulled Rickard from the water, and swam with the weakly-struggling young man to the shallows. “Your temper may get you killed, Rickard.” he warned as the younger coughed water from his lungs.
Rickard glared burning knives at his mentor, but had enough shame to keep his mouth shut.
“We will camp here for the night, then walk our horses through the shallows to lose trail for a time until we can find a real ford. You will meditate on your anger, and how it almost killed you this day.” The man pulled a few towels from his own pack, then tossed one to his student while he dried himself off. “Your clothes need to be stripped and hung to dry near the fire, and your mail needs to be dried quickly.”
The rest of the day passed quickly. During the night, both men took turns taking watch for the enemies that followed. When morning came, they ate a hasty meal and disguised their campsite, then began to ride off. For the next several days, the two traveled in silence, breaking only to eat or sleep,and riding in the shallow parts of the river. Rickard meditated, while his older companion reflected on their situation.
Their people, the long-eared people of Kristo were being hunted out by those who served the Queen. Each left ear brought in meant the lucky hunter was given a bag of coins. Because most people were greedy and hated the Kristo, it was a very successful campaign. Many of the hunted were evacuating. There were no family groups, and nobody traveled in a company larger than two or three people. Some were captured alive– men and women, and the occasional children. He did not want to think about what fate lie in store for them. Somewhere, Rickard’s wife and infant child were travelling with a stranger. He hoped the child did not give away their location, wherever it was.
Suddenly, he yanked himself from his reverie as he noticed minnows feeding on the bottom of the middle of the river. “We’re crossing here.” he instructed. For once, Rickard was silent. The crossing was filled with the sound of splashing, but the river was level, and they crossed without incident. “According to that map I saw, the border should be ahead. We just have to sneak past the border patrols, and then we will be free of this stupid hunt.” he murmured as he placed a reassuring hand on Rickard’s shoulder.
Rickard managed a smile. “Yeah, and I can finally be rid of you, Jacoby.” he teased halfheartedly. Something in his belly felt like it was made of stone. He could not shake the feeling that something horrible was going to happen.
It wasn’t long before Jacoby stopped Rickard. The border crossing to Koresei was just ahead. The two Kristo had no weapons, but the men guarding the road had several apiece. The region surrounding the crossing was recently cleared, save the stumps. It would be hard to ride their horses through. The two moved away, and quickly loaded up small packs. Rickard soon found himself loaded with most of the important gear, while Jacoby held the heaviest. The two waited in silence for night, and abandoned their horses, all but one cookpan, and any spare clothes they owned. They left the horses tied to the side of the road, in sight of the guards once morning came, and they each crawled among the stumps, avoiding the camp fire.
Suddenly, an outcry came from one of the guards, and they rushed to where they saw movement just as Rickard crossed the border and stood to run for safety. The young man paused on the other side and waited for Jacoby to make an appearance. He soon settled in, and sleep overcame him. When dawn woke him, he saw no sign of the older male, and assumed the worst. He said a silent prayer, then followed the road. He was home free, though it felt hollow.
The rest of his journey into Koresei left him quiet, and when he finally arrived at the capital, he found enough money in his bag to buy a small, run-down house and some clothing. He inwardly thanked Jacoby for his deft, sneaky hands, and soon found a job. His life felt like it was transparent. He was simply alive, though there was no vigor in it. When his neighbors scorned him for how he decorated his home, he did not care.
Finally, after five years, word came that he was being searched for by a woman and child. He was reunited with them before long, and soon bought a larger house after the tiny house he originally bought became too filled with his children. He owned his own small trading company, and his family was happy, healthy, and growing.
In Rickard’s former homeland, on the same day that the man’s first child reached adulthood, the twisted people who hunted Kristo for fun were celebrating a new pasttime– Kristo execution-by-combat.
A deceptively-strong man in his forties stood on a packed-dirt ring in an arena. One of his arms was broken, and his hip was deeply bruised. He reached for the large staff he was allowed as a weapon. For a moment, he imagined his youth as a monk, and the movements came fluidly once again.
Crack! The bricks broke at a jab from his staff.
Slam! He burst open a heavy bag of sand with his first hit.
There was a faint shout, probably some children playing, and he held his staff in two hands, upright above the ground, then slammed it down. His eyes faced forward as he heard his former teacher praise him, and a smile lit his face.
As his vision ended, he looked on disinterestedly as arrows pierced his unfeeling body. The hot-headed son of a noble lay dead on the ground in front of him. The noble’s son was barely even a man. He tilted his head, curious about the boy’s death.
His body finally became limp as an archer from the stands hit his mark and severed the man’s neck with an arrow. The old man fell, unaware that his last moments were spent killing a man who had the misfortune of battling a man about to die.