Amudr knew that their time in Tua was coming to an end. He was probably alone among the Blackswords in regretting it. The city was not large, but it was a cultured place, with booksellers and libraries, and good discourse to be found in its taverns. Soon he would be living on horseback again, and earning his way by stitching and cauterising the awful rewards of battle, or by easing its victims’ onward journeys to the Halls of Yats. At least they would be well-supplied with the smooth black wine for which the city was known, and they planned to return there when the campaign was concluded. The Barony of Minessor, of which it was the capital, was closely allied to Amudr’s home city of Megano, and he had the feeling of being in one of that metropolis’ more salubrious quarters (with little fear on account of the gambling debt that made him an exile).
His morning’s work had been pure pleasure, riding into the city to buy medicinal supplies from a herbalist he had known for years, a humane and educated man who had seen most of Rogadol in his youth, and many lands beyond. They had shared salcha, dry fennel biscuits dipped in sweet aromatic wine, and talked for more than a watch; Amudr had been glad to think of something other than his friends who had not returned from Dorna. Every man who made his life in war bore that burden alone, for all that he knew his comrades bore it too.
The smell of his purchases rose from his saddlebags, and the sun rose towards noon, driving Tua’s citizens to the shaded south side of the streets. When he had returned to the camp and stabled his horse, he made his way to Ukhand’s tent, still carrying his saddlebags; the commander’s erratic verge escapement clock showed First Wind Watch nearly over, but it was prone to run fast. Aluagos was in the tent with Ukhand and his brother, ready to begin.
‘We’ve decided to make a bonus payment to the men that stayed here,’ said Ukhand, as he entered. ‘There’s enough coin here to stand it, and still make a good purse for those that went to Dorna.’
Amudr frowned. ‘We haven’t counted it yet,’ he said, gesturing to Aluagos, who was setting up his balance. ‘To the foot as well?’
‘No of course not to the fucking foot,’ snorted Rajir. ‘Just to the Blackswords. And to you two, and Sentuin, of course.’
Aluagos, the company’s bursar and engineer, needed no assistance to count the take from Dorna, but it was the established practice to weigh all coin in the presence of at least four senior men, and Amudr’s long years of scholarship could be of use in identifying any unusual coins or notes. Amudr had glanced inside the chest, and there was enough coin, of enough varieties, to make four pairs of hands useful in sorting it; it was always worthwhile to divide the currency according to type, so that a guess could be made at the metal’s purity before it went on the scales. Amudr had already had a glance inside the chest, which was filled with mixed silver coinage, a few pieces of gold among it, and three large pouches of Meganid gold marks on top.
They set to work methodically, placing piles of like coins together on the tabletop, Aluagos weighing them whenever the piles grew large enough, chalking a running total on the table. Nearly half the coins had been minted in Dorna, whose money had been debased as its rulers accrued more debt, but fortunately in size rather than purity; there were also a good number of Suluf coins that must have made their way to Dorna from Saramet, as well as a predictably large proportion of Meganid coinage, and a scattering of coins from other nearby countries. They also found a ten ounce bar of silver from the Megano Treasury Mint, covered with elaborate curlicues to expose any attempt to shave it. It was painstaking work, so they took a moment’s rest to drink some wine and admire the bar.
Rajir hefted it, seemingly more impressed by its weight than its beauty. ‘Enough to pay your debts for you?’ he asked Amudr, grinning.
Amudr shook his head ruefully. ‘Half the chest would pay the principal,’ he said, ‘but there would be interest and punitive fees, and I have no inkling what they might amount to…’
Rajir gave a low whistle.
‘How did you come to owe so much?’ asked Aluagos, amazed. ‘You weren’t a rich man, to play for such stakes.’
‘No,’ smiled Amudr, ‘I was a fool. I thought I could make a great win and wipe the slate clean; but then the Boatmen’s Magister caught wind of my situation and bought up all my debt from my various creditors.’
‘But why? Surely he knew you could never pay it?’
‘Oh, he’d have found some way to extract the value from me; I am a skilled healer, after all. No citizen of Megano can be enslaved there, by law, so he’d have sent me to Herakh or some such place, and forced me to sell myself to him. Then everything I could earn, every benefit I could offer in my life would be his.’
‘And that is of considerable value,’ said Ukhand, ‘as I can attest. If he’d had the sense to excuse the debt, he’d have had Amudr’s gratitude and his service, as I do.’
Aluagos’ large brown eyes were wide. Although he was a fine scholar, and his mind encyclopaedic, he was perpetually amazed and frightened by all he learned of men’s misdeeds.
‘Service that has been well rewarded at every step of the road we have taken together,’ said Amudr, ‘although it was earned in the moment you saved my life.’
Rajir laughed. ‘That we did for diversion!’ he exclaimed. ‘It was nothing but pleasure to show some guttersnipe footpads what real steel tastes like.’
‘I have never drawn sword for pleasure, or for diversion.’ Ukhand favoured his younger brother with a dark look, which Rajir ignored.
‘Let’s continue,’ suggested Amudr, wary of the petulant fury into which Rajir was prone to fly when chastised.
When they had sifted through a few more handfuls of coin – Aluagos found a handsome gold ring set with a garnet – Rajir tipped the chest to remove its contents more easily. As the coins slid to one end, they exposed a silver rod that had been concealed beneath them.
‘Is that silver rod such as a smith uses?’ wondered Amudr aloud as he reached for it, but he suspected not, as the metal was faintly patinated with age. As he pulled it from the chest he saw that the further end of the rod was decorated. He laid it on the table.
Ukhand peered at it with interest. ‘This is very fine work,’ he observed.
The rod was plain, circled with a gold band two-thirds of the way from its base, beyond which it splayed into four narrow flanges in imitation of the blades of a mace; the flanges came to points at the top, resembling a crown around a delicately made gold figure of a dolphin that surmounted the central shaft. Just beneath the dolphin was set a single large white crystal, opaque and rough textured.
‘Oh,’ said Aluagos, ‘these are the symbols of the Roganid people: salt and a dolphin. What can it mean?’
‘It is a badge of office,’ said Ukhand, taking the rod and turning it carefully in his hands; ‘or a mark of authority, such as might rest on a judge’s bench.’
‘May I?’ Amudr took the rod from Ukhand and examined it closely, frowning. It really was utterly plain, quite out of character with the precision of the craftsmanship and the value of the materials. The style of the dolphin was elegant, but archaic. ‘I believe this to be extremely old,’ he said at length.
Aluagos glanced at Amudr, who passed him the rod for a closer examination. The younger man nodded in understanding.
‘Such plain work was made in this style by the ancient Roganid, under the influence of the Baisurti Empire, when they first came north and crossed the sea to Oighahar,’ he said. ‘It might almost be Suitenda work, but the dolphin is in the childish manner my people brought from the south.’
‘So how old does that make it?’ asked Ukhand.
‘Oh, I couldn’t say… it is old certainly, but… to be certain…’ Aluagos appeared flustered, unwilling to commit himself.
‘It is over two thousand years old, at the least,’ interjected Amudr. ‘But it could be up to a thousand years older than that. More or less.’
There was a long silence. Rajir broke it.
‘So what’s it worth?’
‘Most importantly,’ said Ukhand at last, ‘whose is it? And what is it doing in this chest?’
Amudr furrowed his brow and thought. It was clearly not anything that might be included in a soldier’s pay: even as booty it would be a prize for a general, not something to throw in a chest with some coin for the benefit of whoever might find it.
‘I’m sure the gate commander knew it was there when he passed this chest to Irtain. My guess is that he wished at all costs to avoid it falling into the hands of the pretender. It must be a symbol of some importance in Dornid politics.’
‘But surely…’ Rajir lifted the rod again. ‘It must have been an act of final desperation. How many places must there be to secrete such a trinket, in a whole city? Could he trust nobody among the men he’d served beside for years?’
Ukhand nodded. ‘Desperation indeed. This is a sceptre; such things are more than symbols. They carry power with them.’
A shadow fell across the entrance to the tent.
‘What have you woken in here?’ the voice was Maghîllin’s. He sounded amused.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Amudr sharply, turning to face him. He did not trust the Shallu lancer, but he respected his knowledge, and his sensitivity to the hidden world.
Aluagos had covered the sceptre with a cloth. Maghîllin entered, Ukhand beckoning him with a gesture.
‘I feel something: first there is nothing, then quickly I feel a strong intention. I came here to find it.’
Rajir snorted. ‘Spare us your savage’s superstitions, lancer. You heard something, something that clinks when it’s handled, and you came here to look at it.’
Ukhand held out a hand to quiet his brother. ‘What did you feel? What do you mean by an “intention”?’
‘Something big; something old. There something here that matters to the… to the big tides. The old powers. Prophecy stuff. It’s under that cloth.’
Aluagos reached out unconsciously to take the corner of the cloth, then caught himself and hesitated. Amudr nodded to him, and he drew it back. Maghîllin looked at the sceptre without recognition.
‘This is old; must be important.’ He shrugged, and looked around to take in the scene. ‘What you do to wake it up?’
Rajir grabbed it and waved it in Maghîllin’s face. ‘It’s not awake, you fuckwit, it’s a piece of metal.’
‘It was hidden.’ Maghîllin placed his hand on the treasure chest, and smiled in understanding. ‘This box, it is made for hiding. Could be useful too.’
Ukhand looked at the chest with some interest, then closed the lid, some quantity of coin still inside, and pushed it to the end of the table as though to remove it from the discussion. ‘Let me be sure I understand you; we have already ascertained that this piece is very old, but you say it has… what? Magical power?’
Maghîllin laughed. ‘All thing have “magical power”. I say this thing part of some story; some big story, with kingdoms and battles. Maybe good for our trade.’
‘And would this make it valuable?’
Maghîllin laughed louder. ‘Don’t try to sell, or it will bite you. You part of the story now; if you want rid of it, you have to find where it goes next.’
Rajir snorted with derision. Ukhand looked dubious.
‘I have heard that said of objects of power,’ said Amudr. ‘I guess it is worth considering. At the least it is worth considering that such objects do not often go unnoticed, and that if anyone is looking for it, they may trace it to us.’
‘What?’ Rajir was incredulous. ‘By the Mother and her dragons, what use is this thing to us? Of course we sell it, when we can find the right price. An educated collector will pay a fortune for something so old.’
‘Finding an educated collector will take time, and it’s not something we can attend to until after the campaign in Levos, so it comes to much the same thing.’ Ukhand made his observation sound like a decision.
‘Keep it in this box if you want it stay secret,’ suggested Maghîllin, pointing to the chest. ‘One beacon to the great powers is enough, I think; two is asking trouble to come.’
Four pairs of eyes were suddenly fixed on him. He looked quite unlike the people of Rogadol, hawk-nosed, with high cheekbones, copper skin and and his black topknot pulled tight above his shaven pate; as usual he was impassive, unreadable.
‘What do you mean by “two”?’ demanded Amudr. ‘What other artifact is there in our baggage train to bring trouble on us?’
Maghîllin smiled his predatory smile, with no softening of the eyes or sense of friendship. ‘Not a thing: a man. This new recruit; the one that call himself Falcon. He doesn’t know it, I think, but there’s a dark mark on him. Something very powerful interested in that man, some great intention. He bound to be in a story, a big one. You should keep him close too; good man to have on battlefield.’