Dax read children’s stories by the light of his breakfast fire. Mara and the Three Kings, Len and Merk. The Horn of Valere, Birgitte Silverbow, Artur Hawkwing, Jain Farstrider. Somewhere in the Grey Tower -wherever that may be- this very book sat on a shelf with a host of other well-loved books for children. He had read every word within it to the twins three times over. Reading it now he could pretend he was home again for a little while.
Light, I have a home. It was painfully ironic that he hadn’t realized it until he didn’t know how, or even if, he could get back. Then again, that’s how it always was in the stories, wasn’t it? Humans had an uncanny ability to miss what was right in front of their faces.
Shaking his head, Dax flipped to the beginning again, back to the story of the First of Mayene and the snake people. He studied the picture thoughtfully, fingers tracing the outline of the door with care. Living with Elia had taught him one thing: if the stories said an object existed, it very likely did. Whether it did as specified was considerably less certain, but the thing did exist. Therefore...
He set the book aside and fished in his bag for the rolled up map at the bottom. He spread it on the ground then glanced up, consulting the sky before turning his attention back to the map. He didn’t really need to do either because he knew exactly where he was, but the confirmation was comforting. His finger tapped the map just south of Cairhien, in the rough area of his camp.
I should have taken a ship. Except that ships took money and he had abandoned his work for House Damodred, so that idea had been wholly impossible from Cairhien. He could win enough coin in Aringill to get a ship from there, however, hopefully one that would take him straight to Mayene.
The good humor brought about by his plan carried him through the morning, but by early afternoon drudgery began to descend again, the same as it always did when traveling alone. He sang to himself, he thought of home, he retold the stories he’d read. He talked to his mount -he and horses had never been friends, but Thunder seemed friendly enough- and he planned the next leg of his journey. Again and again.
It was two hundred leagues or more from Cairhien to Aringill, and not all of it flat road, so the journey seemed to take forever. It rained sometimes and other times the sun shone so bright it hurt his eyes. Sometimes he walked for a change, ignoring Thunder’s surprised looks. Eventually (and blood and ashes, it felt like it had been a year and a day) he crested a hill and looked down at the port city where Senclar had found him.
Drawing nearer, he soon realized the city was overflowing with travelers. Some seemed excited while others seemed downright horrified, but none were interested in sharing the reason. Dax stopped asking questions the third time someone threatened to draw a knife; while he could certainly beat a farmer with a pigsticker, it seemed best to avoid the issue altogether. One thing did become clear, however: space on a ship was at a premium. Therefore, the Tairen sold his horse, bought an overpriced meal at a tavern, and went looking for a fight.
There were multiple ways to win quick money with his fists. The first was to enter into competitive fights organized in the city’s fight rings. In those Dax would be matched against someone of similar skill and if he beat that person, he moved on to fight another. That was the ‘right’ way, the honorable way, the way he had won his herons. There were also more rules that way, less money involved, and more risk that he wouldn’t get paid at all. Therefore, the Gaidin preferred the other, less organized option, even if he walked away bloodier.
He spent the day staggering from tavern to tavern, acting more belligerent with each door he pushed through and heavily favoring his left leg. He flirted with every woman he saw and even, after a moment of thought, with some of the men. He made lewd jokes about the Queen, he insulted the tavern keeper’s wife, and he spilled beer on anyone who came within arm’s length. Eventually a burly man with blonde hair took exception to his behavior. Dax hid his smile behind his mug as he took another drink of beer, then rose to meet the stranger eye to eye.
“Whatter ye gonna do, fight me?” he slurred with his chest pushed out and weight resting heavily on his toes.
“I would destroy you,” the blonde. “Get out.” He had his hands on his hips, all radiant confidence. It was surface-level bravado, little else. Dax was familiar with the act.
“Yer jus scared,” Dax taunted. “I bet,” and he paused to fumble in his belt purse, clumsily counting out coins with overt care, starting over twice when he ‘lost count’. “I betcher five silver coins I beat yer bloody face in.”
“You’re wasted, man.” The man certainly did not waste words.
Dax laughed into his drink. “You are scared. Y’are, don’t deny it! Look at this, people, prince charmin’ here’s afraid of an ol’drunk.” Faces turned, voices rose, interest grew, and Dax continued to taunt. The Tairen saw the exact moment that reason gave way to irrational pride, like a sweeping hand over the other man’s face. He straightened, squared his shoulders, dark eyes glaring at Dax in frustrated annoyance.
“It’s your life...or death, I suppose. Outside.”
The Gaidin stumbled over his cloak as he stood. “Wherever ye like, ye big blonde buffoon,” he chortled. As they pushed to the exit, and others followed suit, Dax gathered more bets from amused spectators. He also learned the other man’s name was Henri, and he was from Amadicia. Of course he’s from bloody Amadicia. That echo of what Dax had begun to refer to as his “real life” seemed strangely appropriate for the game he played.
When Dax made to draw his sword, a bystander interjected exactly as he had hoped. The end result was that he faced off with Herni bare-handed. Even better: if anyone asked, it wasn’t even by his own requirement. Not that it mattered, all things considered. The man before him presented little challenge either way.
“Ready,” he huffed in a mocking tone- then braced himself for pain. It was not long in coming.
It was important to lose this fight. Every instinct in his body screamed for him to block Henri’s strikes, to follow through on the openings in the other man’s defenses, to annihilate this strange insect that dared to invade his personal space. The alcohol he had consumed both helped and hindered his efforts. It helped in that it blurred the shock of the blows he let through. It hindered in that by the third blow, dark shadows had already begun to creep into his vision and he could feel howling rage building within his gut. Do not kill the bloody fool, he reminded himself shortly.
He put up just enough of a fight to be believable, then allowed Henri to pin him face down in the mud. He didn’t hand over the money, however. When his opponent came to collect, he suggested a rematch with boisterous aggression. When Henri declined, Dax needled him for a moment, then looked around as if just noticing the people around him. “Anyone here braver than prince charmin’? I bet..ah...” he fumbled at his purse again, spilling silver like rain on the ground below. “Ah, I bet all of this here,” he said with a goofy smile, “that I can beat any four a’ye.”
It was a good amount of money, apparently easily won, in a city reeking of desperation. As Dax scrambled about shoving the dirty bits of metal back where they belonged, he saw onlookers pass each other calculating glances. It only took a little more prodding and posturing for four men to accept the offer, pooling their own money to match the Gaidin’s. Others added to it, all save one betting against the foolish drunkard.
That man, Dax decided, was the only person with a brain in the entire bloody country.
The Tairen’s mouth settled into a feral smile as he faced off against his victims. Poor bastards, some distant part of his mind murmured. He ignored it. When they moved forward, so did he.
The minutes after were a bloody, battered, shadowy blur. He fought like an animal, pent up rage boiling out of him with every strike. He heard their surprised yelps at the difference, and his smile broadened. He barely noticed when two of the four drew knives, even when one blade raked across his shoulder leaving a line of icy fire in its wake. Soon enough he caught the arm that wielded the weapon, jerked it about and yanked, felt bone shatter in his fist.
It did not take much longer for silence to fall. The gathering had fallen back, wide-eyed and silent. Dax stared up at them from where he crouched over his last opponent, blue eyes glinting in the fading daylight. He pushed himself to his feet without a word, strode to where the money had been piled, and swept it into a fold of his cloak. “You, with me,” he said to the shrouded figure who had bet with him.
“That seems wise,” the other said amiably. He pushed his hood back as he spoke and Dax choked, nearly dropping his prize as he stared down into a pair of black eyes that were entirely too familiar.
The Tairen bit back a demand to know Jaryd’s business in Aringill. This world had no Grey Tower; whatever this version of the Altaran was, it certainly wasn’t Asha’man of the Red Ajah, and he clearly didn’t know Dax from any other drunken Maule rat. Unless he does. It was always a possibility, given the reputation the name Torellion had in this world.
Mind reeling, deeply regretting the alcohol he had consumed, Dax led them away from the crowd before it could get itself together enough to rightfully accuse him of cheating.