“Morgan, sign ’em up and show ’em the ropes.”
“But sir, I really think you should at least talk to…”
“I said sign ’em up,” Haldimar interrupted. “They’re your people, they’re your job.”
The merchant master abruptly turned and strode away from Morgan, leaving her with the nine people, applicants to the caravan, in the muddy fields just outside the walls of Selenica. By “your people”, he had meant “adventurers”, that is, “people without proper station, position, or reputable occupation”. Morgan’s face burned until her cheeks were the color of her dark red hair – she was not an adventurer – she had a steady, regular job as a caravan guard, even a sergeant of sorts for Haldimar did trust her. But still he saw her as an outsider. Just like everyone else. Growing up in an elven village as Morgan Silverthorn, her playmates had taunted her by using “your people” to mean humans. Now that she worked as a caravan guard under the name Morgan the Red, Darokites used “your people” to refer to elves. And here was yet another use. All of them designed to show that for whoever was speaking to her, Morgan was always considered “one of them”, never “one of us”. She had been an outsider all her life. So it didn’t take her long to master her feelings, not long for the color to fade from her cheeks. She turned to look at the nine applicants.
That Haldimar liked to have adventurers along in his caravans she had long known. As she had worked with him, she came to understand why. Regular guards had to be paid, and wages were fixed by merchant house custom (which, in Darokin, was akin to saying by law). But adventurers made private contracts with the merchant master, and Haldimar paid food for the passage, a spot by the fire, and nothing else. Sure, he always promised “and a share of any treasure taken,” but what did that mean? He kept the adventurers on a close rein and “treasure” rarely meant more than a handful of coppers from the pockets of a dead bandit. By using adventurers to help secure his caravan, Haldimar could hire fewer guards and turn more of a profit for his house. And making a profit for his house was the nearest thing to divine grace that was to be found in Darokin. So here she was, supposedly “interviewing” applicants but in reality with a mandate to accept any and all comers and it falling on her shoulders if any of them didn’t measure up.
Wolfbane, Odleif, and Hazrad she simply told to bivouac with the other guards – their acceptance was a formality since she already knew them. Wolfbane was a contracted Darokite mage, and had been with the caravan ever since it left Darokin City. Young and inexperienced, she was free to work as a caravan guard. If she survived long enough to become powerful, her house would surely reassign her to something both safer and more lucrative. Odleif was a taciturn woodsman from the Canolbarth. They had picked him up soon after they had entered the forest and he had proven a capable and trustworthy scout.
Hazrad she had met just the day before. Although Morgan had worked the caravan route between Darokin City and Selenica for more than a year, she had never been farther east than Selenica, and now they made to cross the Alaysian Desert. She had insisted to Haldimar that she wanted someone who knew the way (he did, of course – but what if he were incapacitated?). Haldimar had given her permission to recruit a Ylaruan and she had wandered the foreign quarter of Selenica all the day looking for “the right one” before finding Hazrad. He did attest to knowledge of both the route specifically and to navigation by stars in general, so he seemed a good choice. Other than that, she didn’t much like him. She supposed he thought himself courteous, after the manner of his people, but she just found him obsequious. She had obtained from Halimar permission to pay him the pittance of a copper a day in addition to his food, as recognition of his status as guide. When she had said to him, offhand, that she was sorry it was not more, he had protested. “No, no, no, my lady. I am grateful for every coin, al-Kalim be praised!” and then had bowed so low she was embarrassed. ‘My lady’ indeed. She had heard what the other Ylaruai had called her when she found Hazrad in the tea parlor that doubled as a gambling den when the imams were not looking. Precious few words in Ylaruai she knew, but “demon” was one of them, for that is how they referred to elves. Doubtless he felt the same, though his “manners” would never permit him to show it to her face. Again, she was “the other”. No matter.
Morgan turned her attention to the seven remaining people, interviewing them each in turn. Ember was a priestess from the northern Jarldoms, and was accompanied by a hulking brute who watched over her. “He is Thrud, ya?” she smiled, “he protect me,” and Thrud grinned foolishly. Then Ember reached forward to take a handful of Morgan’s hair and hold it to her own forehead. Aghast at the woman’s forwardness, Morgan backed away, and the young priestess frowned. “It is a sign of the goddess, no?” she said. Morgan would later come to learn that Ember was a priestess of Glöð, the Jarldom’s goddess of home, hearth, and fire. For her, Morgan’s red hair was a sign that she had been “touched by the goddess.” Although Morgan then understood her actions, it didn’t make her less uncomfortable with the stranger having the audacity to touch her person like that. No wonder the Darokites considered the northerners to be barbarians.
After the pair of northerners, Morgan spoke with the Atruaghin, Jon Speardragon. It wasn’t a long conversation, as Jon’s mastery of Common was monosyllabic and his Darokite was non-existent. She supposed he fancied himself a mercenary, if that was what “I kill thing – make heap gold” meant. He was handsome enough, anyway. She permitted herself a wry smile.
“Heel, Spell, heel!” a young woman’s exasperated tone broke Morgan’s meditation on the man’s copper skin. “Mal chien!” The robed woman was struggling with a massive war dog, who looked like he wanted nothing more than to chase after the dog of another one of the adventurers, an elf. Finally the elf, realizing that Morgan was waiting, gave a short and throaty bark, at which the young woman’s dog winced and settled down. Morgan touched her fingertip to her temple, a sign of respect for the elf’s skill, and the elf nodded back. Oblivious to the exchange, the human woman continued to speak. “Spell, ’e is not like thees, non? ’e is bon chien, I promise! We go to desert, oui?”
“Glantrian?” Morgan asked the woman, though her accent made it obvious.
“Oui…I mean, yes!”
“Mage?” Morgan continued, though again, her robes and lone dagger were unmistakable.
“Alright, put your tent over there,” Morgan gestured at where she had sent the others. “And try to stay near the priestess. Some of these guards have rather mistaken notions about the morals of women from Glantri.”
“Oh, I know! Theese men, they ar’ ’orrid, non? I have been in caravan for months now, and they are all the same! This is why Spell, ’e sleep in my tent!” The woman bustled off, dog following. Was that a cat peeking out of her backpack? It wasn’t until later that Morgan learned the woman’s name – Hope – or, as she said it, ’ope.
Morgan turned to the halfling woman, trying not to stoop as she spoke. The Hin hated that. “And you are?”
“FluffyKitten,” said the halfling, grinning broadly.
“Well, Miss Kitten…”
“No, no Miss Kitten. No family name. No family. Mama, Papa, dead.” She shrugged. “Just FluffyKitten. Me cook. Me mend. Me use this, sommy time.” she said, patting the blade in her belt. Morgan pointed her to the camp.
There was just one woman left, an elf. Morgan had deliberately saved her for last, though she wasn’t sure why. She fell into Elven to address her; it had been a while since she had used the tongue. Her name was Iris. Her dog lounged peacefully at her feet, a marked contrast to the Glantrian woman’s frantic hound. She was an Alfheim elf, though of a different clan than Morgan’s mother. Her coming-of-age vision had told her to travel to Selenica. Now she was here and didn’t know why. She couldn’t stand another day in the ugly, noisy city but she hadn’t learned whatever it was she was supposed to learn about humans to fulfill her vision, so she figured signing on with the caravan and leaving the city behind was a good idea. “Although,” she said, incredulous, “have you seen the way they treat the mules and camels? Just strapping those heavy loads to them, without even asking them? It’s so cruel! Honestly, I just don’t understand…”
Morgan braced herself, preparing for the inevitable, “your people”.
Morgan smiled. It was the first good thing that had happened to her all day. Maybe this desert crossing wouldn’t be so bad after all.