For weeks, daily life was uneventful in preparation for this summer’s last big raid, the one that would essentially fuel the migration south for the winter. Rovaalian senior always liked to move early, especially with rumors coming from the capitol about Greenskins coming down from their holes in the north where it was dark. Rovaalian hadn't ever seen a greenskin, but Stu had tried to explain them to him once.
"They're the ugliest little blighters you'll ever see, boy!" he said. "They've got nasty green skin, and greasy black hair that they weave with the bones of their enemies!”
"Have you ever fought one?" Rovaalian had inquired curiously. Stu laughed.
"I would have, boy, I would have! The little shit was too much of a coward. The troupe ran into a whole pack of 'em! They're powerless without their leader, boy! As they should be. A leaderless pack is a dumb one. Dumb is dead." he said. Rovaalian didn't quite understand, so he had just nodded, as though in thought.
The summer, however, was reaching its hottest day. It was supposed to be on the solstice, but dry weather had kept the temperatures rising and rising. Insects tormented the whole troupe day and night, pestering them with bites to which only Guss was exempt. Where on others large red welts were left from mosquito bites and spider bites, Guss received neither a mark nor an itch.
“It’s a gift!” He would proclaim loudly. But after a long while, not even the immunity to itchiness was solace against the blistering heat. Everyone complained about it, even the early mornings too hot for a cloak.
And today was just another day that Rovaalian had to rise early to stop merchants on the road, and kill them.
His dreams grew ever more vivid with each face he added to them, each adding it’s own voice to the chorus of whispers. But they didn’t trouble him while he waked, at least not for the past few weeks. However, his shoulder did trouble him. It hadn’t festered, as he feared, when nobody went to look at it, but it was still stiff and sore, and a scar was forming where the lion had bit him. They had offered to let him keep it in his room, but he gave it away as a “gift” to Rovaalian senior. For the rest of that day, he received praises from the whole camp. He still felt a pang of sadness every time it was brought up. Red Garret in particular had come to the habit of calling him “Lion slayer”. Guss had creatively named him “Bringer of Breakfast” as a jest, and asked frequently when he would go hunting again, and whether next time he would bring in a boar, or a wolf, or a bear.
Over time he grew to ignore them. But he could not ignore his nightmares.
The halfhearted clangs of Stu’s gong woke him instantly. His shoulder ached, as did his neck. He didn’t bother don his cloak; it would be to hot later, he knew. He put on the lightest shirt he owned, one with no sleeves. He was around thirteen now, since it was late summer and his birthday was suspected to be in March or May, and his arms were well cut, if a little thin. He could fight better than some of the other men in the troupe, he knew. Sighing groggily, shaking his head clear of thoughts, he donned his swords and threw open the flaps of his tent.
Breakfast was hare, courtesy of the ever generous Red Garret, stewed by who else but Stu. Rovaalian noted this, slightly satisfied with his clever pun. Rovaalian senior had come up behind him, and he stood there impatiently. Finally, he put his hand on Rovaalian’s bad shoulder and squeezed hard. Rovaalian winced at the sudden pain. He hadn’t seen Rovaalian Senior standing there.
“It’s time for you to go to work.” He said, his mock kindness evident even in Rovaalian’s drowsiness. He quickly woke up. “Go to the east road. There will be a merchant train transporting a lot of supplies that will be necessary if we are to make this big raid. And we are going to make this big raid.” He dug his fingers into his shoulder. Rovaalian Junior rose and made his way uncaringly to the east road, where they did all of their jumps. Red Garret and Guss were both there with him, along with a lot of the other no-names of the troupe. They waited calmly in the trees, crossbows loaded and weapons drawn, hiding as best as they could. The sweltering heat left them sweating before the train even came into view. There were three wagons, transported by six or seven fat merchants dressed in long silks that stuck to their skins from the heat. But there was one thing that Rovaalian found most disturbing. There were no guards. None. Not one of the merchants even carried steel on them.
As they passed by, the troupe opened fire nonetheless, and they didn’t even have time to scream. They didn’t seem to do anything as they passed by this spot. They opened the wagons carefully, for fear of an ambush, but there was nothing. Just stacks of armor, swords, shields and helms, spears and maces and other such pointed objects. In the second wagon they checked they found only chests full of books, and papers, among yet more arms and armor. But in the third wagon, they found several strange, thick clay jars, capped with a cork that had a string leading out of it, sizes ranging from the size of apples to that of melons.. When one was opened, a strange black powder was inside. Guss looked and his eyes lit up, his face going pale. Despite his shock, he managed a gleeful smile. “Black powder. These are Grenades!” he said eagerly.
“What’s a grenade?” Rovaalian asked. Red Garret and the others seemed to share his ignorance. None of them had ever seen such an object before. “What does it do.
“This string,” Guss began, pushing his hair from his forehead. “Carries a spark into the grenade when you light it. Then you throw it. When the spark gets inside the grenade… KABOOM!” he made a wild gesture with his hand, nearly throwing the grenade. “It explodes, sending bits of razor sharp clay everywhere! They say just one of these little ones can blow through three brick walls!” As he held it in his hand admiringly, clutching it as a boy clutches his toys. Everyone accept for him seemed keen on shying away from this wagon, including Red Garret and Rovaalian. Rovaalian laughed despite himself when everyone suggest that he take the wagon back to camp himself. In the end, they ended up making him do it with him.
Guss was different, though. Rovaalian had never thought him a smart person, but he seemed to know everything about everything to do with fire. “It breathes, boy! Did you know that?” he told him while he and Rovaalian loaded a large wheelbarrow, tethered to one of the horses that originally pulled the wagons. “It breathes the air just as we do, and grows just as we do. It lives, I swear it!” he said. Rovaalian absorbed all of this information voraciously, never more fascinated by fire than when Guss described it.
“What is the black powder for? Does that cause the explosion?”
“You’ve got it right on the head, boy. Black powder is an explosive, and is likely to explode if fire get’s near it. It’s a good thing they trusted me with the ‘nades.” he said, puffing out his chest. He was obviously overjoyed at having found such a prize. The ability to break through castle walls… Rovaalian pictured this in his mind. He could see the stones crumbling, the sound of the explosion, and it daunted him. Nonetheless, they had several more trips to make before the Grenades were all safely at camp, if you could use the word ‘safe’ to describe them.
When at last they did arrive, the camp was almost as bad as the raid; it was almost totally uneventful. He didn’t have lessons, since Red Garret was hunting and Rovaalian senior was busy trying to get Guss to demonstrate the use of a grenade to no avail. What Rovaalian junior wanted to know was why there were three unguarded merchants trafficking a weapon that could potentially level an entire wall. He voiced this to Stu, who looked at him confusedly.
“You’re a bit young to be questioning war, boy.” he said, stroking his beard. “My guess is that war’s brewing faster than we thought. That could be good news… or bad news.”
“What would happen in times of war?” asked Rovaalian. At this, Stu looked gravely at the ground, his voice lower than before.
“We would be able to recruit deserters, loot wagons that carry more arms and siege weapons. However, there’s always a chance of getting caught in crossfire. People die in war. Like reaping a field of wheat, so do armies destroy each other.” he said grimly.
Rovaalian thought about this. “Why do armies go to war?” he asked.
“That, boy,” Stu said, patting him on the head. “Is a fantastic question, the answer to which I know not. I don’t understand why people don’t just band together like we do. Go get some water, will you?” he said, tossing Rovaalian a large wooden pale. Rovaalian nodded, and took the pale off into the woods. Looking back, Rovaalian saw Stu’s eyes. They were sorrowful.
The walk was long, a full half mile to the stream from which Rovaalian was often sent to fetch water. Doing nothing all day often made men thirsty. Rovaalian, being the smallest, and probably weakest, was obviously the perfect person to send off to fetch the water. Despite this, however, Rovaalian found the walks to be peaceful, and quiet. Also, the stream was shallow, and cool. It was for this reason that he often times took an hour or more to fetch water. He loved to play in the stream, clothes and all, rolling around in the frigid water until he couldn’t feel his fingers, allowing his light clothes to get nice and wet to keep him cool for the next hour, before they dried.
This time was no different. He removed his swords, placing them carefully on the same boulder he always placed them on, and waded into the stream. It was shockingly cold, and he was gasping as the water came to his knees. He lay in the water, counting the seconds he could hold his breath. The cold water soothed the ache in his shoulder, the pain becoming first a dull ache before receding to near nothing. He reached fifty three seconds before bursting from the stream gasping for air, his face red with the effort. He looked up just in time to see a startled bird fly away. He laughed as he put rolled over and put his face in the water to take a long drink. It was heaven, the icy water chilling his bones as he voraciously gulped it down. The water was hard with iron as well, giving it a pleasant mineral taste. This was another perk of fetching the water: Rovaalian faced the privilege of getting the first drink.
Rovaalian rose from the stream, dripping with water, the sun slowly working warmth back into his skin. He shook his head, water spraying around him as his hair flapped around his face, falling over his eyes. He wiped away his hair and bent down to pick up the pale, only to discover that it had washed away. He looked downstream and, sure enough, there it went, slowly picking up speed as it washed away.
“Wait!” he called feebly. He cursed as he ran downstream to catch up with the pale. Luckily, the stream was rather slow, but it soon picked up speed. and here the stream was deep; he would have to swim to retrieve the pale. Nonetheless, he jumped into the stream once more, and swam for the bucket.
He caught the bucket ‘round the handle with his fingers as he dove into the river. He then surfaced and made his way to shore. As he wiped the hair out of his eyes, gasping for breath, his foot caught on something and he fell over, the pale rolling off to the side. As he got up, he noticed that what he had tripped over was a length of rope. He pulled on it, and it held firm. It led into the stream. He pulled harder, but to no avail. It would be impossible to shift this rope. Instead, he grabbed onto the rope and followed it out into the stream. It went deep, and he had to put his head down and keep his hand on it to keep from being swept away. He followed it all the way down to the river bed, blind as he was.
As he reached for the rope, his lungs screaming for air, his hand hit wood. He felt around. Wood… Metal… A chest! He had found a chest at the bottom of the river. He felt for the latch, and instead found a lock. His head was swimming now. He had to go up for air. He pushed hard off of the riverbed and burst through the surface of the water, and gasped for air, swimming to the shore as he did so. A chest? At the bottom of a river? He crawled onto shore and shook his hair off once again, looking out to the place where he estimated he had surfaced. Something was down there, he knew. Something heavy enough to keep a rope taught against all his strength. He looked at the rope again. It was tied off to a tree. Somebody, he thought, is hiding something. What could it be? But he knew the answer. Only gold could be that heavy and be worth hiding under a river. Gold could not rust or tarnish. A river bed must be an excellent hiding place. But why? He figured who ever had hidden it must want to come back for it. And the lock… That meant there was a key. He took the pale and walked back to his swords, which were right where he left them. He put on his belt, and filled the pale. As Rovaalian walked back to camp, he briefly contemplated telling Stu, or even Rovaalian senior. But as soon as he thought of it, he perished the thought. That would be a sure way to tip the chests owner off, and he may flee. Rovaalian decided to make it his little secret…
Upon returning, he was almost totally dry. “What took you, boy? We’ve been thirsty!” Stu asked, the others sharing in his impatience. Rovaalian smiled his best.
“So was I! You lot are lucky I saved enough water in the whole river to fill this bucket!” he said, putting it down on the ground and wiping his forehead. The others leapt up for the water, filling tankards and drinking deeply. They were so satisfied with the water that several of them offered to refill it, no doubt tempted by the idea of being the first to drink his fill. Rovaalian only hoped that none of them went downstream.