Across the Narrow Sea
The guards barely acknowledged the youth as he exited the city gates- much traffic passed through them into Braavos, but most coming into the city through this gate were not travelling alone, so they had not much to do. He remembered his commander as he told him what he intended.
"Resign your commission? Why would you do such a thing? You have your whole life ahead of you, and a promising future here!" His face was serious, very much unlike what Niko was used to. Though harsh, the Wall was not as impersonal as his name sounded. No, that name had been given to the Commander for his ability to hold against all odds. Himself, he was rarely serious other than when talking of war, and even then, he managed to inject his lust for life into the planning sessions. And so it was that Niko's well planned speech dropped away unsaid, as he listened to his mentor's words. "I know that war and money are not the only things in the world," he said in the bastardized valyrian used in everyday language. "For those like us, the money is not all- I see that in you. But we offer everything here- soon you will command. No matter your prowess, you need seasoning and age under you before you command men. Such has it always been. Learn. Grow strong. And above all, be patient," he said, his eyes as much as his words aimed at persuading the young man.
"You know me better than any other I think," Niko said. "But you cannot truly know my heart, for I do not know what it holds. But more than this, I think. I shall not find my destiny here. I know that. I must go on- there is a new day dawning."
"Where will you go? For those such as we, there are many options, and few. Many companies, but not many as great as this."
"There." He pointed towards the east. "There is where I must go."
"There is nothing there but wilderness!" the Wall exclaimed. "What do you see there?"
"No," Niko replied simply, still looking off into the distance. "Beyond."
The Wall frowned, then stood, realization dawning on his face. "To the Sea?"
Niko said nothing, waiting.
"You can't be serious! There's nothing there but death! The barbarians will rip you apart as soon as look at you! You've seen how they are when we must fight them!"
"Yes," Niko said. "I have seen."
"I have seen, truly seen. Not been told," he said. He turned back to his commander. "Have you truly looked into their eyes? Truly seen the magnificence of them?" His eyes shone as he continued. "How can one call them barbarians? Just because we do not understand them?"
"No. We understand them well enough," the Wall said.
Niko shook his head. "I think you think you do. And therein lies the problem."
The Wall looked at him quizzically.
"There is much more to them than the simple title of barbarian. Much more. And that is what I need."
He bowed to his former commander. "What you have done for me is more than I can ever say." He stood. "But my path lies elsewhere."
The Wall was nothing if not a good judge of men. Which is why he took Niko as his protégé, for he saw to the core of the boy- no the young man. His knowledge of men is why he knew this day would come- he had seen it for a while, now. But still, he hoped he could forestall it.
But he knew that was a futile hope. And so he returned Niko's bow. Then held out his hand, grasping Niko's own and pulling him into the embrace of an equal. "I will see you again," he said. His mind told him that this youth could not survive the Sea alone. But his heart overrode that, as he repeated himself. "I will see you again!"
The ride had been long, as Niko left the safety of the city far behind him. The sun set its face upon him several times as he rode through the rough terrain, the vegetation becoming sparser as the lands changed from the sandy terrain around the city to more rocky ground. It slowed him as he made his way, and though he had brought plenty of food and water with him, he began to wonder if it would be enough. He had long ago passed the last travellers- no one ventured in this direction; most caravans skirted the cities as they attempted not to stray inland.
Though he had a rough idea of direction, distance eluded him, so it was with some surprise that he crested a ridge, and before him stretched a great vast plain, the green grasses rippling in the barely present wind. He sat there for a moment, stroking his horse as he surveyed the beauty of the landscape before him. Then smiling, he spurred his horse to the right, riding to find someway down into the Sea.
By nightfall he had reached the lowlands. Though the plains stretched farther than the eye could see from above, here, he truly was lost in the immensity of it. Deciding that he could push farther since he didn't have to worry about broken land, he rode for almost an hour more before stopping. There he came upon a small stream, and stopped to camp beside it, watching the stars as he fell asleep for the night.
But he was not to sleep undisturbed.
At first, he was not sure what had awakended him. A sound? The call of a night bird? It seemed there was nothing save the beating of his heart ...
And then he realised - for it was coming almost in time with his heart beats and it took him a little while to understand. It was as though the earth itself were beating, a deep, heavy rhythm that had crept into his dreams, his body as he slept, almost becoming one with him - something that he could only have become aware of as he lay, stretched full length on the ground.
What was it? Hoof beats? No ... for who would travel so late at night?
And then he realised.
It was drums, deep drums that beat out a proud message, drums too distant for his waking ear to hear - a beat that resonanted on a deeper level, drawing him through the land itself, calling him to the khalasar.
With his pussiant skill at arms, his accustomed seriousness brought about by a hard life, and the full growth that had come upon him in these three years, it was easy to forget what Niko was at heart - a 14-year-old boy. And though he could not afford the frivolousness that one born to a more sheltered environment might have been able to, that did not mean that the same desires didn't beat in his heart.
Realizing that he was close to his goal, the giddyness of his age fully came upon him, as he leapt to his feet, bounding upon his horse almost in the same movement. Urging his startled horse onward, the grin on his face widened to an unaccustomed smile as the rush of the charge ripped a laugh from his throat. He fully gave himself to the call of the khalasar letting it draw him in as he raced across the plain, the rippling grass seeming to lead him along to his destination.
At first it was a terrifying mad ride through blackness - with only the cold stars above to guide him, the only sounds those of the hoof beats and and the soughing of the night wind in the long grasses. But then - in the darkness it was hard to be sure. But he must have crested a ride for there, still some five miles away as best he could tell, the dispersed lights of a khalasar camp were burning brightly, welcomingly.
For all of his excitement, Niko was no fool, and reined in his horse as he began to get close. He looked to see if he could see any rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the camps- he had his doubts, but if they were separate, where he rode into could have a distinct impact on the reception he received.
In any case, this choice of camp was not a limiting factor- he had come this far, and wasn't going to let decorum stop him at this point. So whether or not he could discern a prime candidate to ride towards, he would choose one camp, and slowly head towards it, attempting not to travel directly into the light, but to keep his night vision and the small advantage he'd have coming from the dark into light of the camp.
The largest group of fires seemed to be the direction the fierce drumming that had attracted his attention was coming from and - by the light of the fire, he could see figures moving ... slowly, then faster.
From a distance, he thought they were fighting. As he moved closer, he thought they were dancing.
Closer yet - and he could no longer be sure.
A series of low growls were Niko’s first greeting, making his mount uneasy. Pairs of golden eyes, dozens perhaps, floated in the darkness like hideous fireflies. Wild dogs, he realized, drawn in by the heady stink of roasted horse flesh. They were wary enough to keep their distance, but he could sense their agitation. A fight broke out somewhere in the darkness, a feral gnashing teeth and barks that ended abruptly with a submissive squeal.
Beyond the line of dogs, the khalasar rose from the plain like a living thing. The Dothraki structures were an amalgamation of felt, wood, and grass. They were surprisingly large and their ingenious construction offered comfort and protection against the harsh winds that swept the valley. The entrance of each yert consisted of a wooden arch and leather door. Intricate carvings decorated each archway; an ancestral narrative of the family within. Piles of rags huddled around the base of each yert. It was only when one of them moved that Niko realized they were actually human. The slaves regarded him with a mixture of fear and hopelessness.
Another cry came from the center of the khalasar and Niko glanced up just in time to see a naked man crumple to the ground. Arterial spray colored the grass as he desperately clutched his throat and thrashed in an ever-slowing struggle against the inevitable. Another man, dressed only in his victim’s blood danced around and hollered in victory. His ecstatic joy stood out for all to see and would have made more refined women blush and most men envious.
Even before the fallen man expired, the victor savagely cut the braids from his head; removing an ear in the process. The victor began to dance around, swinging the braids above his head and inciting further delight from those gathered. A bare breasted woman rushed into his arms and kissed him with a dark hunger. She salaciously grabbed him between the legs and used his manhood as a rein to lead him off to his other “reward.”
The crowd itself consisted of perhaps a hundred or more Dothraki men and women. Debauchery appeared to be the flavor of the evening. Slaves roasted meat over the fires and quickly filled the wooden plates with spicy stews and meat pies. Fermented mare’s milk was the drink of chose and its intoxicating effects were obvious. Drummers pounded out a raucous beat on leather drums, driving the dancers into throes of wild abandon. While most contented themselves with watching the festivities or joking with their companions, many couples were openly engaged in lovemaking; a very loosely used word considering their animalistic manner. The Dothraki were without fear, without shame, and none took notice of the new arrival to the khalasar.
She stood away from the fires, silent and still as the moon. Unlike the other women, she wore a delicate dress of white sandsilk. Its sheer fabric draped loosely over her body, outlining her full breasts and ample hips. Thin lengths of felt hung from a corded belt, each of which ended in a silver or golden bell. A wave of raven hair flowed over her muscular shoulders and framed her alluring face. Copper-skinned, she wore mineral paint to accentuate her features and darken her almond-shaped eyes.
She regarded Niko coldly, unfazed by his appearance; as if she had expected him all along.
Seen by only one, Niko approached her. He returned her gaze frankly, and walked boldly into the midst of the khalasar, showing no trepidation or hesitation. When he stood in front of her, he looked her up and down as the Dothraki he had seen on rare occassions did, remaining silent for long moments. In truth, he used those moments to think of what he would say- he only saw his coming, never what he would do when he arrived. Then seeing that he must say something he spoke in High Valyrian. "I am Nikomedes Sakellaris. I come to claim my place in the khalasar."
The woman closed the distance between them, the bells swishing back and forth silently. He now recognized them as the ritual bells Dothraki warriors typically wore in their hair. She soon stood within inches of his body. It appeared that the concept of personal space held little weight with the Dothraki. Indeed, she was so close he could smell the perfumed oil on her skin; a subtle scent of heather and rain.
Eyes like polished glass flickered while she studied him, her head swaying with serpentine interest. To his surprise, she placed her hand against his chest and felt the beating of his heart. She closed her eyes and appeared to listen to an inaudible music, her dark lips moving without sound. After a moment, she smiled as if in approval of something left unsaid.
“The winds said you would come,” she said; her voice the very essence of shadow.
Her fingers played over his chest, slithering upward until they coiled around his chin. “Presumptuous you are, but brave. A dangerous combination, yes? Your heart brings you to us, says the wind. But will it be strong enough for what lies ahead, Akerke wonders.”
And with that, Akerke turned from him and began walking toward the camp. As if feeling a cold chill, the Dothraki glanced up with trepidation in their faces. Her approach opened a path in the crowd like the wind parting the golden grasses. Even the men backed away slightly from this beautiful creature; hardly the conduct of such a prideful warriors, who refused to defer to any female.
Oblivious to the others, Niko followed in her wake, enchanted as only a boy can be. He didn't notice the stares he was drawing himself as he did. The bells in her hair were unusual, but it hadn't clicked yet how unusual she must be- he was enraptured by her obvious beauty, and the strength he had sensed in her.
Akerke wound her way silently through the crowd; her passage dampening the passions of those around her. The stranger interested them, more so because of his guide than his origins. It was doubtful he would have passed through their ranks so easily otherwise. But the Dothraki possessed a startlingly short attention span and returned to their bawdy festivities.
The woman led Niko toward a group of men, who start on a raised platform of bend wood and grass matting. Sitting on this platform must have been a sign of status, for it put them above the other Dothraki. Indeed, any man or woman that passed by them bowed their head reverently. The men themselves were copper towers of corded muscle and unrepentant hostility. They drank and boasted with one another, pounding their bare chests to punctuate their claims. The bells hanging from the braids of their oiled hair rang out every time they moved, filling the air with a haunting music. At the center of the group, an impressive young man sat upon a simple throne.
Akerke bowed her head reverently, and then looked at Niko to do the same. “Sain bainuu, Khal Khono. Burkhan orshoo butin chinee sakhal urga.” She slid over to Niko and ran her fingers through his hair, caressing his cheek with the back of her hand. “This is the one that the wind whispered of. I give him to you now, Adughun Aav, but he is mine once you bless him with your wisdom. Whatever the outcome.” She bowed again and stepped away from the men; much to the relief of many.
The Khal would be a tall man, it seemed, when he stood; but as they approached it was obvious that he had drunk much of the fermented mare's milk. Khono had dark eyes, slightly glassy, but they fixed on the pair when Akerke spoke. All of his boasting of moments before was forgotten. He had a long braid of oiled, dark hair, and the bells sounded as he shook his head.
"You said a stranger to the khalasar," he said. "You did not say the wind told you of a stranger to our people." He fixed Niko with a steady, piercing gaze.
"No stranger am I," Niko interrupted, standing tall, fixing the Khal with a gaze of his own. "I have fought against you on many an occasion, and yet I live, and many of yours lie as an offering to the Sea." His eyes softened somewhat as he struggled to communicate what he felt. "Live, and yet am not alive. I felt when I fought against you, I fought against kindred, not enemies."
"This," he said, motioning to the khalasar, "is where I belong." Though his skin contrasted with the others' burnt complexion from the sun in the firelight, the blaze in his eyes matched the fierceness shared among the Dothraki. "Not among the stink of the cities, but among those who understand the true meaning of strenth and honor, of blood and steel."
Akerke did not look away, but met Khono's gaze respectfully. Her sanguine lips curled up at the edge, "Forgive me, Adughun Aav, but you know as well as I that the winds are not always speak as we do. They only spoke of the one that would come to us, not whence he came."
She took Niko's hand and held it up for the Bloodriders to see. "Pale he may be, but his fingers are calloused and he smells of horse sweat. This is a man before you, Dothraki or no. The wind has touched his cheeks, the earth has bared his weight. We think his voice is worthy of your ears."
Akerke's eyes locked on Niko's, as a snake would hypnotize a mouse. He could tell from her expression that this was a defining moment in his life. She had spoken for him, for whatever reasons she might have. It was up to him to live through the next few minutes. She slid away to rejoin the shadows, her gaze releasing him to his fate.
"Pale," a young man sitting next to the Khal smiled at Niko, somewhere between a grin and a sneer. "He's one of the Milk Men." It appeared he, too, had been drinking the fermented milk freely. The young man's braid tinkled and glittered in the firelight, though it was not as long as the Khal's, nor had as many bells. He wore a painted leather vest over a bare chest and a necklace of many-colored beads. "What good is a Qartheen? He's pale because he's still drinking his mother's milk."
The crowd surrounding Niko twittered at the man's jibe.
"Words on the wind," Niko answered before the tide of things could turn against him. He understood too well what was going on. "But if you have more to offer, come dance with me." He looked away from the Khal to lock eyes with the man. "Then death will make you paler than I, and your bells will jingle in my hair."
The man stood, lowered his chin, and grinned ferally at Niko. "You have no bells for me to take," he proclaimed loudly. "I suppose I will have to settle for making your teeth into a rattle for the younger children to play with."
More laughter rippled through the crowd as the man jumped down from his seat. He stood before Niko, broader through the shoulders and a good half-head taller. No doubt his reach would be longer as well.
Even though the man's brazen words were slurring a moment ago, there was no indication now of intoxication in his eyes as they regarded Niko across the flattened grass. He shook his head slightly, causing his many bells to tinkle. "Come dance with me, Milk Man," he said in a singsong voice. "Come dance with Jommo."
Muscles rippled as Jommo pulled out his curved dagger and sank into a fighting stance.
Even before the man pulled his blade, Niko had drawn the paired shortswords he carried on his back, the only legacy of the life he had left behind him. Though not Valyrian steel, the blades were of such fine craftsmanship that they closely approached the quality if the fabled blades, and gleamed in the firelight. He knew that he could not afford to take long on this one- his victory must be unquestioned.
With that in mind, even as his opponent readied himself to fight, Niko's lightning reflexes took over as he quickly feinted a slash towards the older man's head. But this blow had no weight behind it.
Jommo recognized the feint for what it was and shifted his position inward, risking the other blade, needing to get inside the range of the short swords where his dagger was more effective.
[Niko] had been known for his fluidity in combat, and the speed at which he moved from blow to blow, and this was shown with no doubt as he glided in range of his opponent, slashing with the second blade at his midsection from an oblique angle.
Jommo brought his dagger up to parry but Niko's second slash was a feint too, leaving Niko a split second of opening while Jommo readjusted.
Watching intently, Khono raised his hand up, palm outward. It had two effects; first, the area around them grew noticeably quieter. And second, one of the riders produced a drum and began to tap out a low, slow rhythm.
Sliding further inward, Niko lashed out quickly with his right leg, aiming for his opponent's kneecap. He missed the clean strike, as Jommo moved a bit too quickly for it to land. But he felt bone give as he contacted the front of the man's shin, dancing out of reach of the knife. He settled in a crouch, his weight on his back leg as he assessed the response to his strike.
Niko had hit an old break that had never quite healed properly. Jommo staggered with the blow before regaining his stance and it was apparent he now favored the leg. He didn't cry out and his expression didn't change, but Niko saw the realization in Jommo's eyes--he knew how this was going to end.
Although injured, in some ways this realization made Jommo more dangerous than before. Niko now had a warrior in front of him who knew he was about to die and wanted to take as much of Niko's blood with him as he could. He would not shy as before from Niko's blades, afraid of a mortal wound, and in his desperation could be capable of feats beyond that of a normal man.
Jommo snarled at Niko and waved at him to attack, playing a purely defensive game now. Niko wasn't sure if Jommo could put his full weight on the leg or not.
More mobile than his hapless foe, Niko danced in and around him, scoring cuts on his opponent as he did. But Jommo was more wary now, and purely on the defense; his blade kept Niko at bay. The trampled ground was stained crimson, but the blood was from shallow grazes rather than telling wounds. Eventually, Jommo would bleed out. But Niko couldn't wait for that. Not only would the Dothraki demand more, but his opponent deserved better. So Niko stopped circling, and assessed his opponent with great intensity. The drums picked up their pace, even as the crowd picked up their shouts. But Niko heard none of that- at this point, his focus narrowed to include only himself and the Dothraki before him. He nodded once to his opponent, receiving only a snarl from Jommo in return.
Suddenly Niko bolted forward, pouncing like cheetah bringing a gazelle to heel. Sliding to his right at the last moment, he leapt, flying into recklessly into Jommo's defensive range. Ignoring any moves towards defense the older man mustered, Niko spun, but Jommo made no moves towards defending himself. He spun on his good leg, following Niko as the younger man passed him on his left side. His mind was not on defense- the time for that had come and gone. Niko's right blade flickered below Jommo's drooping moustachios, slicing through their very ends, even as Jommo accepted his fate raising his left arm so the blade would not catch in the bone and the slice through his belly would be clean and deep. Even so, he sunk the dagger in his right hand into Niko's back in passing as Niko completed his spim, coming to rest in a crouch before the raised podium the Khal sat on, his left blade across his body, his right blade still fully extended.
After a long moment, blood began to drip from the outstretched blade.
"Showoff," Jommo muttered, then thumped dead to the ground.
A sharp pain, like the sting of a bee, burned in Niko's back.
He waited, focussing his breathing, sure that the wound was not exceptionally bad to hurt so much. Letting out a deep breath, he stood, sheathing his blades in one smooth motion. He felt the pain more intensely because of his motion, but the only sign he gave was a sharp intake of breath, awaiting the Khal's judgement.
The Khal was silent, a long moment- then he raised his hand again.
"Tend him," he said. "See to Jommo- he died a man's death."
His eyes fixed on Niko. "Blood is the price. Blood is a greater test than any man can give. The gods speak through blood. It is said."
"That price I have paid," Niko responded through gritted teeth. The effort of holding himself up was showing, as sweat beaded on his forehead. "Here, and before." He tried to resist the urge to reach back to the wound- he knew that the motion would most likely only make it worse.
He pondered the words of the Khal to take his mind off the pain- he was going to speak more, but held his peace, pensive. The words seemed to be some almost ritualistic phrase. But if they were, he didn't know a response, so instead stood silent.
Akerke slipped from the shadows, her crimson lips curled with feline amusement. She stepped over the corpse as if it weren~Rt even there. The hem of her dress turned the color of her lips as it drank deep from the wetted grass. She touched Niko~Rs shoulder, examining him with cool indifference. Her finger touched something on his back, transforming the bee sting into a hot poker. She snorted faintly, unimpressed.
"This will need healing, yes?" she announced. "Or the Dance will claim two soon enough."
She gestured to the body, addressing Niko gravely, "Claim your prize before the jaqqa rhan claims theirs."
As Akerke touched him Niko's legs almost buckled from underneath him. His face lined with effort as he forced strength back into them, sweat beading on his brow. He nodded to her, untrusting of his ability to control the pain if he spoke. Moving slowly toward the body, the coppery smell of blood assaulted his nose as he gingerly crouched, by the corpse. In one hew of his unbloodied sword he cut through the dead man's braid, holding it up as he stood. Waves of dizziness greeted his rise, but he ignored them, and the feeling of wetness on his back as he held it up before the khal.
"If nothing else I know... This I know," he said, jingling the bells. "And this," he said, raising his blade. "After all this, everything else follows."
The khal stood. "Summon Jokol," he said. "Have him meet with me at Akerke's tent. Akerke... take him to be healed. Welcome our new brother."
Niko bowed his head in acknowledgement of the Khal's words, then slowly turned at the dismissal to Akerke. His vision swam, and started to go gray around the edges as he let Akerke lead him where she would, putting himself in her care.
Akerke bowed her head, “It shall be done, Adughun Aav.” She took Niko’s hand in her own and led him like a child through the camp and away from the fires and prying eyes. In the dark shadows, she finally leant him her strength, which was surprising considering her slight frame. Her eyes glimmered in the night, “You did well considering your lack of training. But the winds said you would and who am I to question their design, yes? Come, come… you shall stay with Akerke until you are well enough to claim your true home.”
Niko wanted to bristle at the statement, but he lacked even the strength to do that. His eyes were somewhat glassy- though the wound had not been fatal, the time that he stood there allowed him to go into shock as blood loss took it's toll.
She led him to a large yert that sat apart from the remainder of the camp. Unsettling symbols had been painted over its door flap, the dark inks catching the moonlight as if they were still wet. A horse stood to the side, its bone-white skin ghostly and unpleasant. It pawed the ground at their approach and whined. The sound stirred someone inside and a small hand pushed back the felt flap. A rounded face with fearful eyes stared out at them; the girl child outlined by the ruddy light within the tent.
“Ruan,” Akerke snapped, “Make your self useful and fetch me some clean water.”
The girl cringed, but didn’t move until Akerke lashed out at her with a sandaled foot. “Now, damn you!” The girl scurried by them with no further complaint.
Akerke helped Niko inside the comfortably warm yert and closed the flap behind them.
A singular rest area dominated on end of the yert. The bedding was surprisingly opulent for such a small khalasar, let alone one woman. Silk pillows and fine furs were surrounded by a sheer netting to keep out biting insects. Even the sitting areas for guests contained expensive divans and pillows, arranged around a low table with silver goblets and plates. Tapestries decorated the walls, depicting battles and stories Niko did not recognize. In all, this was not the domicile one would expect of a rustic folk.
The other end of the yert contained short bench and shelves of highly polished wood. Bottles of various colors lined the shelves, along with scrolls and books. Medical tools and salves were aligned in perfect order on a workbench. Herbs hung from the ceiling to dry, along with animal skins and bone. A subtle perfume hung in the air, emanating from the bronze brazier that sat in the middle of the room.
Akerke picked up small blue bottle and sprinkled sweet smelling oils onto the glowing coals.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to the workbench. “And remove your clothing.”
He sat, somewhat heavily, then let out a hiss as the dagger made its presence known again. The room spun in his vision, and he almost passed out- it was only stubborn pride that made him slowly struggle through removing his clothes before blood loss finally claimed his consciousness and his graying vision became black.