The Concord

Six Hands of the Concord watched the big ship burn that had carried them across the sea. They had lost one of their number in the crossing when the crew of the ship thought seven obviously rich but blind men an easy prey. The attack had not been a surprise to the Hands, who never assumed they were safe, nor was it an advantage to attack in the dark since the Hands already were blind and light or dark mattered nothing to them.

Under normal circumstances even a pair of Hands would have been an easy match for the entire crew of the ship, but not evidently a single one of them. It was not a show of skill by the sailors though, but a lack of training of the Hands. In a country that was far from any large body of water their soldiers weren’t trained to fight aboard ships, and they were not familiar with the ways in which that environment could be turned against them. At a crucial moment the crew had managed to slam down a trapdoor to the deck and separate one of the seven Hands from his fellows.

The ship’s crew had still paid a high price to kill the Hand they had isolated, but in the end the uncertain footing on a deck of a ship in rough seas and the longer reach of their weapons had left them victorious. By the time the other Hands broke free from their trap their brother was already thrown overboard, critically injured.

The Hands had left no survivors, though a few of the crew had survived just long enough to teach them the rudiments of sailing.

The burning of the ship was a necessity. The Hands always burned their dead by decree of the Sun Lord. And if the bodies could not be recovered for that ritual they burned the place of their death to ashes. And then burned the very possibility of life out of those ashes. Over the centuries the neighbouring countries had learned that even in the fiercest battles they should return with all honours and under flag of truce, the body of a Hand that was slain. There were several places that once, before that lesson was learned, had held sprawling and prosperous cities that where now, after centuries still, nothing would grow.

The ship burned with the same unnaturally hot blue-white fire that had utterly consumed those cities and the lands they had been built on. Had it been possible to burn the sea, there was little doubt that it would now be in flames.

The six Hands watched the scene with unseeing eyes, their minds turned towards prayer, while their divine senses took in the conflagration and gained strength from it.

Eventually, and in a far shorter time than a natural fire would have sunk the ship, the last of the burning remains disappeared under water. The fires still clung to the remains of the ship, even entirely under water and cast an eerie blue glow far into the sea. The six waited until even that light had faded to nothing and true night had fallen. Only then — with their duty towards their fallen brother fulfilled — did they turn away from the sea and towards the Barren Lands that lay beyond the coast.

They had been warned that the Barren Lands were aptly named, and that it was bone-dry wasteland of shattered rocks, smoking mountains and poisonous air. There were three towns that clung precariously to life on the coast where a rare stream of sweet, if muddy, water bubbled up in the steep hills that formed the edge of the Barren Lands, and trickled down to the rickety cities. Water there was more precious than gold and in times of drought could not be traded for any amount of wealth. The only reason those cities existed at all, was because they were a necessary stop for the trade caravans heading north past the Barren Lands to the desert kingdoms and from there to yet more exotic and barbaric lands that nobody had even heard a rumour of.

Passage through the rocky waste was possible, but the road was a secret that was zealously guarded by the strange tribe of the Stone Folk. Smallish, stocky figures, dressed in robes the same dark grays and browns as the land they knew the way through, and deep cowls pulled far over their heads, nobody knew what they looked like. And nobody was interested to find out. All cities had strict laws against interfering with the Stone Folk. They rarely ventured into the cities, but if they did they just wandered around for a while, silent, before leaving. Sometimes they took something that caught their attention and the law was there would be no objection nor attempt to reclaim whatever they took. In the past violence against the Stone Folk had been answered with them leading their caravans to other cities until all inhabitants of the offending city were either dead or had left across the sea. And precarious as life was in the cities, it didn’t take much to make the ships with their water barrels stop coming to their harbours, if the cargo wasn’t shipped through a city any more.

The Stone Folk rarely took travellers with them, and generally only traders who had worked for decades to earn the trust.

All this was common knowledge the Hands had gleaned from listening to conversations while waiting for a suitable ship to come into port that could take them and their horses and packs across the sea. Some of that information had even made it as far south as the Concord, a two months of hard travel away from the port city from which they had set sail to cross the northern sea. This knowledge had allowed them to separated probably truth from fanciful tale, and taught them what to prepare for.

“Discuss” the putative leader of the Hands said. He was the one who had initially been given the task to stop the messenger. In truth though they had little in the way of formal organisation and no need for leaders or commanders. In fact they now considered themselves Hands of the Sun Lord first and foremost, and servants of the Concord only as an afterthought. This was not greatly different from what they believed in the Sun Temple, but there it was not politic to state such beliefs out loud. And of course they accepted the right of the Doyenne to order them. They were merely the Hands, the Doyenne was the Voice and the Will of the Sun Lord. But here, with only the Sun Lord to guide them, there was no need among themselves for pretence.

The oldest of the Hands present — he was close to retiring as trainer and tutor in these peaceful times — spoke up first. He would be the second in rank, if there had been any system that formal between them.

“It would be wise for us to disappear,” he said “I’m not without misgivings about the cause of the attack on us.”

“You see in it the hand of the Turnean Empire?”

“Nothing that I can be certain of. Only that the timing of it is suspicious.”

“That is true, but we expected to obtain brimstone masks before heading out in these Barren Lands.” said the youngest of the Hands, his relative lack of experience making him slightly more rash to speak his mind and to press for quick decisions.

Two other hands nodded their assent, but kept quiet. The last Hand was as contemplative as the youngest one was rash, and he took some time to formulate his answer. “We’re far to the north, and none in that port recognised us for what we were.” He said, his voice halting as he formed the words as he formed his thoughts at the same time.

“The Turnean Empire does not claim that city,” the first Hand said “but it is conceivable, even likely because of that, they have agents in that city to guard its interests.”

After a brief pause to allow others to say something, he continued “Even so, I can not see it as anything but exploiting an opportunity. Their agents would see our presence as a threat, but should this alter our plans?”

The second answered “It should not. But the heathen empire must have agents in these towns. The trade is valuable to them.” the word valuable was spoken with a distaste that was actually visible to the other hands.

“True, we must expect an attack. And another treason.”

“Should we avoid the towns entirely?” asked one of the Hands who generally remained silent.

All six of them turned their attention to the lands beyond the narrow strip of sand and pebble that marked the coast. While granted superior senses by the Sun Lord, they were still essentially blind and their ability to get a feel for the nature of the terrain was severely limited. Much of what they could sense was tied in with the presence of life. Humans and stranger creatures, animals and even to a minute extent plants, all left an imprint on the world around them that the Hands were made aware of.

There wasn’t much of that in the Barren Lands. Just rock, more rock and a rare scraggly shrub clinging to live stubbornly in the shadow of yet more rock.

“We can do it” the youngest of the Hands said, but he sounded uncertain.

“If need be,” the leader corrected him “but it would take a long while and it is by no means certain we would all survive. With proper equipment and a guide our journey will be swift and more secure.”

“You are concerned about the time?” the oldest Hand asked, though from the colour of his emotions he already knew the answer.

“As do you,” was the reply “From here on we enter lands we know nothing of. And we will not speak the language, most likely. And most certainly before too much longer. It will slow us down and none of us have any idea how far we have yet to travel.”

“But the Sun Lord was certain we could make the journey in a span of eight moons and eight days.”

“That may be the case, but we already used more than a moon to get only this far. We should not fear a mere town of ordinary folk. But we should fear failure.”

After a long pause for deliberation the oldest finally answered “I concur.”

One by one the others then also agreed to the reasoning of their informal leader. Which was how the Hands always agreed on a course of action, and why they rarely travelled in groups larger than a pair. Each of them needed to match any decision against their understanding of the Sun Lord’s will. And since they might be blessed by Him but were still essentially human, no two Hands could have an identical understanding. With difficult decisions or far reaching plans it could take a long time for all of them to agree.

Considering their decision would affect them for months to come and with the survival of the Concord itself at stake, they had positively rushed to a decision. Normally agreeing on a course of action this monumental might well have taken a days instead of half an hour.

That one of them had suggested skipping the nearest town entirely bothered the leader some, though, and he added “We’ll consider the town hostile and get the masks first so we can leave at a moment’s notice. I don’t want to burn the heretics of that town if we’re not forced to.”

The contemplative hand had the last word, which was as unusual as the situation they found themselves in “These are not lands where the Sun Lord holds dominion. We should not be complacent for the comforting sight of Him above all of the world.”

This was almost blasphemous for one whose faith was unshakable and the other Hands turned to him with various feelings of surprise and mild outrage.

“These lands are the dominion of rock and the fires of the world. They are lesser than the Sun Lord above us, but up close they are greater than us nonetheless. We should not forget this as we travel further and further from the lands of the Concord.”

With those sobering words the Hand turned right and set off along the coast to where they assumed they would eventually find a town, and a caravan of Stone Folk to guide them through the Barren Lands. Leaving it to the others to follow him, or not.