A story whispered by Ditrius Bartol
The Red Hands of Yajur… yes, I have heard of them before. Seen them too, back south, in Shem.
Selcides and I had been left in Eruk by the caravan from Stygia. With us was the mute Darfar and the girl Selcides had adopted in Stygia. They followed him like dogs. It was up to me to make all the decisions, as usual. Stygia was a strange and haunted land, filled the sorcerers, ruins and snakes, but at least you always knew where you stood there. You could count on the dark nature of the priests of Set and decadence of the nobility. Shem is different. There all words are covered with honey, even as the speaker plots to part a man from his coin or life. The men of Shem are all liars and the women…they are much worse.
It was thus a great joy to hear my favorite language of the world – Nemedian – in the inn we stayed for the night. I met Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus there for the first time. The two, at first, were a sight hard to miss, dressed as they were in gold and silk. Noam’s attire was especially outlandish, with a huge silk turban decorated with a golden scorpion with small rubies for eyes. His insane obsession with scorpions became clear during the following weeks – perhaps the desert heat had boiled his brains. I had seen it happen to men often enough.
Still, we – Selcides and I – thought them to be amiable enough. We found out they were just about to leave Eruk for Akbitana and then proceed west to Messantia. It was agreed we would travel together, for there was safety in numbers. Tyrus warned us that a powerful enemy had sent assassins after them and thus their company might not be very safe. I cared not about such trivial matter and Selcides agreed that Mitra would protect us. No barbarian heathen from the dark east could harm one protected by true faith.
The journey to the City of Steel was dusty and uneventful. Asshuri patrolled the caravan routes and no bandits troubled us. Our new companions were paranoid to the extreme. They kept eyeing every passer-by suspiciously and insisted on keeping double guard at night. Yet no assassin troubled us and if we were followed, our shadows were very stealthy and unnoticeable.
The City of Steel was just another Shemite city-state to me. Stout walls, hedonistic temples, shining ziggurats, exotic gardens and glittering bazaars – the details vary, but the noise, the filth, the strange smells and sights always remain the same. Merchants from far and wide had come there to bargain for the famous weapons. There was even a group of merchants from the mythical land of Khitai camped outside the city proper. Our new companions declared they would stay in the city for at least two weeks. For reason or another, they had decided to face the assassins in Akbitana instead of the open road. Alcemides used the time to order a customized sword from the master smith, spending a whole bag of gold as payment. I agreed that we had time to stay with them, for my own reasons.
The Khitan merchants interested the trio very much. They sought their aid against the assassins. Indeed, the merchants had a very rare poison – purple lotus, I was told – in their possession. However, they demanded outrageous sums of silver to part with it. Much to my amazement, Noam and Tyrus each bought a dose, for over a thousand silver each. For two hundred gold, they could have hired a company of asshuri to guard their backs, instead of oriental cantrips of questionable effect. I still thought them wise to trust their sword-arms rather than hired foreigners.
Thus their next decision appalled me somewhat. In the same inn with us stayed three strange Hyperboreans, two men and a woman. Two of them – a man and a woman – were cold and featureless creatures, the infamous Witchmen. The third spent his time completely drunk, but was still in command of the others. It turned out he was waiting for some special delivery to complete, something to take up north to the cold, dark realm. I don’t know who came up with the idea, but the trio ended up hiring the Hyperboreans as their bodyguards. I can see it was a good deal for their leader – he would have more money to drink without losing anything. Ever since then, the two cold human-shaped creatures followed us everywhere we went. Strangest still was how Alcemides seemed to quite fancy the cold, hostile woman.
Yet time passed and the assassins did not come. Tired of waiting for them, Alcemides, Noam and Tyrus finally ventured out on the streets again. It must have been what the Red Hands had been counting on all along.