Sairaw isn’t a city, it’s an ailment without a cure.
– The Proverbs of Shedey’uwr
Why did the winds have to blow in Sairaw night and day, every day of every year, Tab wondered morosely, as thousands people before him must have wondered?
Sairaw, which everyone pronounced say-ruh´, wasn’t called the City of the Winds for nothing he grumbled under his breath as the scarf over his face pulled free and flapped against his left ear, stinging it with its whip-like movements. He grabbed for it, tucking it back into the long length of it looped around his neck. The horses felt the reins go slack and immediately took advantage of it to try turning around and going back.
“Hey!” Cess punched him in the shoulder. “What are you doing?”
Tab grabbed at the reins. The horses, having tasted a moment of freedom were loath to give it up but he managed to keep them on course toward the caravan waiting for them outside the walls of the city. “Sorry. My scarf came loose.”
The burly guard glared at him through the slit in his own protective scarf. “I don’t care if your pants came loose. Keep ‘em on track.”
Tab just nodded. Cess was one of the halfway decent guards at the Sorgo Wagon Guild and he didn’t want to antagonize him. The caravan was bringing rare desert spices from Midbar and the Basemath Spice Guild was paying the Wagon Guild to bring them into the city since the caravan was much too large for the narrow city streets. The winds were partially alleviated inside the city but out here where there was no protection, they were ferocious and unrelenting. Like Cess, he just wanted to collect their cargo as quick as possible so they could get back to the protection of the city walls.
He considered pulling his thieving hood up over his head for added protection from the wind but decided against it. The magical hood, which his father had taken off a dead thief during one of the endless guild wars which plagued Sairaw, turned his face grayish-black, rendering him unrecognizable to anyone who saw him. It had front and black flaps falling about halfway down his chest and back. That, along with short sleeves on either side held it securely in place, but the real advantage from Tab’s point of view was that once it was on, it wouldn’t come off again unless he deliberately pushed it back. That tiny bit of magic made it invaluable in Tab’s estimation. But guards like Cess, with their suspicious attitudes didn’t like not being able to recognize his face when he wore it. The fact his scarf obscured his face just as much as the hood did meant nothing to them.
He squinted against the tears in his eyes from the biting wind as a caravan guard waved them to a halt.
“What are you here for?”
Cess leaned down. “Picking up five crates of Midbar spice for the Basemath Spice Guild. We’ve got the payment.” He held up a money bag.
The caravan guard nodded. “About time you got here. We spent two weeks waiting out by Lake Mound in this stinking wind and I’m ready to get out of it. The Wagon Master is back there.” He waved toward the middle of the long line of wagons. He mounted a horse. “Follow me.”
Tab slapped the reins as he grinned behind his scarf. The winds out by Lake Mound weren’t as fitful and vicious as the winds in Sairaw, but coming from Midbar as they were, they were blisteringly hot. If the caravan had waited two weeks in that baking heat, everyone on it was probably fit to be tied. The people in Lake Mound must be crazy to live there. It didn’t occur to him to wonder what people in the rest of Gaia thought about those who lived in Sairaw.
The guard led them to a large, middle-aged man with a neatly trimmed beard, shot through with gray. A barbarian guard towered over him protectively, a sword sheathed on either hip. Several more guards stood behind them. The middle-aged man approached them, his barbarian guard drifting along silently behind him. “I’m Wagon Master Ramor. You’re picking up for Basemath Spice Guild?”
Tab kept his mouth shut. It was up to Cess to conduct all the business. He was just the driver.
Ramor wasn’t in the mood for small talk. “25 crowns.”
Cess tossed the money bag to him. “There’s a 125 sovereigns in there.”
Since there were five silver sovereigns to one gold crown, it represented payment in full. Ramor didn’t open the bag, he merely passed it to his towering guard. “Storm? Count it.” The guard who’d led them to Ramor held out a counting board and Storm emptied the bag on it then counted swiftly.
Tab was dumbfounded as he watched. Who ever heard of a barbarian who could count? He saw Cess looking at him in astonishment, clearly thinking the same thing.
Storm nodded at Ramor. “It’s all here.” He scooped the silver coins back into the bag then tossed it to one of the guards. “The rest of you, go get the spice shipment from Midbar. There should be five crates.” They nodded and turned away.
Tab found himself wondering who was really in charge around here? Ramor claimed to be the Wagon Master but Storm was the one giving all the orders.
Ramor must have seen something in his body language which prompted him to address him. “Got a problem, driver?”
Tab shook his head empathically. “Just surprised, that’s all.”
Ramor laughed. “Storm is the best guard commander I’ve ever had. I was lucky enough to steal him away from Wagon Master Rogar last year. He’s expensive but worth it.” If the barbarian felt any pride in the compliment he hid it well.
Tab held up a placating hand. “Fine by me.”
The returning guards, carrying crates full of spice, saved him from any more. Cess clambered into the back of the wagon and they passed the crates up to him one at a time while Tab held the horses steady. They finished quickly and Cess climbed back into the seat. He waved a hand at Ramor. “Until roads come round.”
Ramor nodded absently. “Until roads come round.” He turned back to his men. “Round ‘em up and get ‘em moving, Storm. The sooner we’re outta of this wind, the better.”
Tab shrugged at their abrupt dismissal, then slapped the reins. The horses, sensing they were heading home, were more than willing to be turned around, taking off at a brisk walk that was almost a trot.
Cess, holding on to the side rails, noticed it. “They’re anxious to get back to their stalls,” he chuckled.
“Yeah well, they’re going to be disappointed. We have to drop off at Basemath before we head for the barn,” Tab snorted. “They’re going to fight me every step of the way when we don’t turn on Tanner Row.” Tanner Row, named for the tanning shops up and down the street, was the shortest route from the city gates back to Sorgo, a fact the horses were intimately acquainted with.
Cess shrugged. “Your problem, not mine. I’m just here to guard the spice.”
“I thought you were supposed to be guarding our guild wagons?”
Cess made a dismissive gesture. “The wagons and whatever cargo they’re carrying, which right now, is the spice.”
Tab gave it up. Cess was one of the better guards but better was a relative term. Compared to dimwitted, arrogant bullies, a bully who was merely dim was “better” but still nothing to brag about.
True to Tab’s prediction, as soon as they entered the city gates and approached Tanner Row, the horses wanted to turn onto it. When he pulled the reins the other way they tossed their heads and bucked, trying to take the bit in their teeth and head for the comfort of their stalls. He was forced to crack the whip on them, snapping it in the air beside their heads in the direction they kept trying to go. They reared back from the vicious crack in the air and skittered in the direction he wanted them to go but it was a constant battle. They knew where home was and if he was taking them away from it, it meant they weren’t done working for the day.
In a way, he didn’t even blame them that much. They’d been hitched up since dawn, ferrying loads around the city and the sun was heading for the horizon. They knew it was almost time for them to be done and they wanted it so bad they could taste it. He wanted it too for that matter, but this last load had to be delivered before they could call it a day so he yelled and cracked the whip harder, just as other drivers were doing around him.
Halfway to Basemath they ran into a roadblock in the form of an overturned wagon. He and Cess both sat up, concerned it belonged to Sorgo, but once they saw it was from Mountain Tip Freight, one of their competitors, they lost interest and turned their attention to finding an alternate route to Basemath.
Tab got the horses to back up with some difficulty. They hated the maneuver and he couldn’t fault them for it, it wasn’t his favorite either. Once they were clear of the tangle of traffic, he turned them down Tall Pine street, chewing his bottom lip as he debated with himself on the best route. River Run was always crowded this time of day and Granite Street would be impossible. That left Corregidor, named after the royal family, but the king and his chief rival, Duke Blaine Stoddarde had been sparing in the streets lately, especially around the king’s stone working guild which was prominently located on Corregidor.
Cess, as familiar with the streets and situation as him, glanced sideways. “Thinking about Corregidor?”
“What else is there? Unless you want to take the long way around on Wall Street.” Wall Street, so named because it ran alongside the wall surrounding the city, was also known as the Outer Loop. It was actually the stone-paved bailey built to protect the city from flaming projectiles hurled over the walls by any attacking forces but no one had attacked Sairaw in centuries, so the huge space, nearly 75 cubits wide, had increasingly been used as an extra-wide street circling the city until someone named it Wall Street and the name stuck.
He and Cess had dropped their scarves from their faces inside the city. It was still windy of course but not enough to require protection from flying sand and debris. The guard frowned. “We won’t get there until after dark if we go that way.”
Tab nodded. He wanted to get back to his bed as much as the horses did, and Cess, for all his dimness, obviously felt the same. He slapped the reins. “Corregidor it is.”
Cess nodded. “Just hope Stoddarde and the king aren’t feuding in the streets today.”
Tab noticed Cess hadn’t invoked the protection of any of The Six. Each of them had temples in the city, of course. The Lord of Light even had a temple in town, known as Haven House, but Sairaw was one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities on Gaia, predating the Chaos Wars, and the gods had never been popular in it. Most people in Sairaw thought the gods were more trouble than they were worth and avoided them whenever possible.
The horses, who had finally quit fighting the reins, plodded along with their heads drooping, resigned to their fate of another long day in the traces. Their earlier brisk pace was gone but they turned onto Corregidor soon enough. They hadn’t gone half a block before Tab noticed something was wrong.
The street was empty and windows in the buildings on either side of them were shuttered. It was eerie after the hustle and bustle of the rest of the city. “Where is everyone?” He was whispering but even so his voice sounded too loud in the unnatural quiet.
Cess shook his head. He pulled his sword cautiously and stood up, holding his shield in front of him. On the face was the logo of the Sorgo Wagon Guild. He turned it back and forth toward the buildings on either side in hopes it would be seen and they’d be regarded as neutral parties in whatever was about to happen.
It was a vain hope.
Armed men suddenly erupted, shouting and screaming, from the seemingly empty buildings on their left and Cess turned quickly, holding up his shield to show them the embelm on it. Just as he did, the buildings on the right vomited warriors into the street as well. One of them, armed with a crossbow, took aim at his charging enemies but one of his fellows jostled his elbow and the bolt went astray, hitting Cess squarely in the back. The powerful crossbow drove the bolt all the way through him until nearly half of it was sticking out of his chest. He looked down at it blankly for a moment, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he fell over on Tab.
An instant later, warriors from both sides crashed together, with Tab caught in the middle.