Wrath of the Dawn Reaver
Quiet heart of vengeance
I’m unprepared for the sheer scale of Bellion. He is a tower of a man. His calves bulge from the soft hide of his longboots. His bloodwood armor, crafted with artisanal care, rides atop his massive shoulders. His long brown locks flow from his head in twisted braids that would seem more effeminate if worn by a man of lesser stature. The orange-and-silver robes falling from his collar lend him an undeniable panache.
This doesn't feel right. This is no way to arrange a truce. This is no way to treat your adversaries - the adversaries with whom you supposedly want peace. But here we are. Waiting. For over an hour. Staring at each other across the no-man's-land of this quiet little river inlet. And His Grand Exalted Holiness, General Berrion Bellion, is nowhere to be seen.
The Lavalon gushes onward, just beyond the narrow, rocky corridor that sets this lagoon apart from the main artery. The serenity of this backwater starkly contrasts the rapids that ravage the riverbank less than 200 meters away. But the lush cover of the forest dampens all sound from the torrents crashing through the valley beyond.
Praetor sits with a preeminence that leaves me envious. He is perched right at the edge of this laconic pool. He does not fidget. Nor is he resting in any way. He surveys everything. Aware. Alert. But motionless. Outwardly serene. At times, I wonder if he has dozed off. But when my shuffling rises to unacceptable levels, he places a silent hand on my shoulder. The soothing effect is preternatural.
Bellion's men – the lower ranks of the Charian horde - stalk the far edge of the pond. I’m keenly aware that they are even more nervous about his tardiness than I am. They pace to and fro. They try to conceal their wonder - their fear - but they can’t help but gawk every time their gaze passes over the far shore – our shore – and they're confronted with the reality of our assembled force. It’s obvious to me now that most of them have never seen the Nokkmeun in broad daylight. The fresh recruits – the boys and the rank amateurs – have probably never seen the Nokkmeun in any context. Not in battle. Not in passing, through the edge of the forest or the cusp of a snyre. Nowhere. Ever. I would probably look no more foreign to them if I had three heads, or if I spewed rainbows from a bullhorn shoved up my arse.
When I realize that General Bellion is approaching, it’s not to the credit of my own senses. I don’t hear him. Nor do I see any evidence of his impending arrival. But I feel the turn in Praetor's demeanor. His relaxed awareness transforms to anticipation. He scans the far shore with a keen eye.
It’s several more minutes before Bellion's own men realize someone is arriving behind them. They shuffle about. For a scant moment, they ready their arms, lest the visitor is not whom they are expecting. But it soon becomes clear that the visitors are: Bellion himself, and his sizable entourage.
The Charians foment into a buzzing hive of disorganized fervor. Some go to great lengths to demonstrate their love and loyalty to Lord Bellion. Others affect postures indicating that they themselves should somehow be associated with his court.
The activity on our side is decidedly different. Once it becomes clear that the Charian general is finally here, the entirety of my Nokkmeun brethren stand at attention. After we’ve established our position, there is no more movement from our bank. We are a unified whole. A single flank of hooded warriors ready to end this conflict and return home to our ontorlands.
Identical barges rest on each side of the water. One is for Praetor, the other for Bellion. Praetor places a hand on my shoulder and motions for us to embark. The barge is little more than a modest pair of canopeia canoes, lashed together and covered with planks. It's simple, but it creates a reasonably stable platform on which to stand. It's especially so, given that it must only support Praetor and myself, with the placid waters of the lagoon beneath us.
Bellion's contingent is far more turbulent. He ushers his entire entourage onto their basic vessel. There must be at least a dozen of them, jockeying for space on the cramped platform as it pitches, back and forth, under the undulating force of its cargo. As I use the pole to propel us to the center of the lagoon, I can’t help but wonder if Bellion's song will end with him, and all of his advisers, drowning in this modest backwater, deep in the Greywold, and far from the ocean swells of Leviaton Sound.
It is less than 50 meters to meet in the middle. It’s a journey that requires mere minutes. But it seems that the trek spans hours. As the distance between our barges shrinks, a random flash of Greywold predator snags my attention. The pestilent buzz of a bottonfly fills my ears. The relative force of Bellion's entourage expands in my mind.
We meet, as planned, exactly at the center. A Charian lackey swiftly latches our vessels together and drives his pole deep into the muddy waters below, effectively anchoring us all to this spot. And here we are: Praetor, and the legendary Charian general, face-to-face for the very first time.
I’m unprepared for the sheer scale of Bellion. He is a tower of a man. His calves bulge from the soft hide of his longboots. His bloodwood armor, crafted with artisanal care, rides atop his massive shoulders. His long brown locks flow from his head in twisted braids that would seem more effeminate if worn by a man of lesser stature. The orange-and-silver robes falling from his collar lend him an undeniable panache. Although we are all unarmed, it is easy to envision him swinging the epic ebny battle axe that he’s famous for wielding in battle.
I'm aware of my own growing sense of inadequacy – in myself, in our group, even in Praetor. Bellion looms nearly a meter over both of us. He dragged a veritable war council to the middle of this little lagoon – but the Nokkmeun are represented by nothing more than Praetor and me, his lowly assistant. Even our men, assembled behind us on the shore, look unremarkable in comparison. But before my doubt can fester, Praetor touches my arms and flashes a subdued smile.
Praetor: You’ve guided us here, faithfully. Just as I asked.
And that’s the thing with him. A few words. A subtle smile. And everything seems somehow… better. My latent anxiety evaporates.
Bellion strides onto our barge with the confidence of a field marshal. This is not an act of aggression – there is no more room on his own barge. Praetor stands before him – diminutive, but firm, and unbowed. His deathly-pale skin nearly glowing from deep within the shadow of his hood. Bellion makes no attempt to hide the fact that he’s sizing Praetor up. Praetor waits patiently for the general to complete his assessment.
Bellion: After all these years. All these battles. We finally meet.
Praetor: That we do.
Bellion motions over Praetor like he’s unveiling a fabled beast, displayed in captivity for the first time.
Bellion: So this… this is it?
The vague query strikes me as rude, but it's not my place to speak. Praetor remains still – calm and silent – until he realizes that Bellion will not continue until he receives some sort of reply.
Bellion releases a hearty chuckle. His entourage follows suit - like they'd been awaiting permission to do so.
Praetor: Oplander names are for oplander tongues. I don’t know, nor can I control, how your own people choose to refer to me.
A disapproving snort escapes Bellion's maw and it’s clear that he’s not entirely satisfied with this answer. But he dismisses it and moves on.
Bellion: It matters not. We have business to attend to.
Praetor: That we do.
This is apparently a cue. A henchman steps forward and produces a prodigious scroll. He allows it to flop outward, holding it aloft as a trophy for both of the military leaders' perusal. It is laden from top to bottom with copious ink, superfluous flourishes, and needlessly-highlighted names. Bellion spends no time actually reading it, but beams with pride over its presentation.
Bellion: Well there you go, Mister… umm… Mister Reaver. Probably no reason to draw this out. Let’s get our marks on this treaty and get the hell outta here. Put this whole damn war behind us. Go home. Go back to downing vintage and makin’ babies.
Praetor's proclamation stuns everyone on the combined barges – including myself. It hardly appears that he’s had any time to read the document, let alone dissect its contents. But he makes no attempt to correct himself, staring quietly, confidently at Bellion. It takes Bellion a long moment to gather his bearings, after trading confused looks with all of his party.
Bellion: I… I beg your pardon?
Praetor: That document lays out the terms of a treaty between the Charians and the Nocterns. We are not Nocterns. We are Nokkmeun.
Bellion: Oh, glory be! You must be joking!!
Praetor's countenance is stoic and unmoving.
Praetor: I don’t joke about matters of war and peace.
Praetor: We know full well what is implied by your use of Noctern. We are not Nocterns. We are Nokkmeun.
Bellion makes no attempt to subdue his glowering frame. He lords over Praetor, imparting a great turbulence on our makeshift barge and challenging my sense of balance. But Praetor is a statue.
Bellion: You’re willing to discard a peace treaty? That could save thousands of lives. Over differences in… translation?!?!
Praetor: I probably don’t need to explain to you that many of my troops have very colorful names for your people. Names other than “Charians”. And most of those names cannot be used in a respectful setting. Would you sign a peace treaty where we had referred to your people as something other than “Charians”?
Bellion: But there’s no malice! No evil agenda! We've always called you Nocterns. It’s simply our name for your people!
Praetor: I am authorized to sign a treaty on behalf of the Nokkmeun people. If you don’t want to consider an agreement with the Nokkmeun, we will completely respect your position. We will return to our camp and send word to our arbyrkin that the hostilities have not ceased.
Bellion proceeds to work himself into a lather. His face cycles through spectacular shades of red. He openly stomps on the rickety boards of our makeshift barge and the vessel lurches violently under the force. He spits a collage of half-formed syllables at all of his advisers. I don’t believe they understand a word of what he’s saying, but they all nod dutifully. They even bow on several occasions.
He retreats back to his barge and huddles with his counsel, with his back toward us. Arms flail and hands wave as everyone in his party tries to make sense of the situation.
I retrieve the navigating pole, assuming that we may be heading back to our side of the lagoon. But Praetor gently raises a hand and shakes his head slightly. I’m perplexed, but I would never disobey him. So I return to my corner of the barge and wait patiently. After several more minutes of blatant histrionics, Bellion's advisers manage to scratch out, with quill and ink, all the references in the document to Nocterns and replace them with Nokkmeun. They scribble furiously. At one point, a portion of ink escapes the well and splashes across the scroll. His men hover over the document as though they expect it to perform some magical feat. When they are finally finished, he snatches the scroll from their hands, steps back over to our barge, and thrusts it forward with a huff and a snort. His lieutenant extends a quill toward Praetor.
The fancy document is now a complete mess. The quills they brought are ill-equipped for such major revisions. Pond water splashed onto the scroll and smeared key sections. If I didn't fear exceeding my station, it would be easy to burst into laughter.
I don’t honestly know what will happen. Praetor displays his usual paucity of emotion. I can’t tell if he’s working Bellion for a reaction, or whether he’s legitimately perusing the newly-hacked-up document. Finally, he accepts the quill, leans over the bottom of the scroll, and makes his mark.
He stands upright again and pushes the quill toward Bellion. The general nearly leaps backward in horror. It’s obvious that he has no desire to actually touch the same item that has just now been sullied by the Nokkmeun. Praetor simply stands there, hand extended, offering the quill, while Bellion backs away as though it’s an explosive. The tension only alleviates when the lieutenant offers Bellion a fresh quill. This keeps him from having to touch the tainted one in Praetor's hand.
Having a new writing implement seems to break Bellion from his tantrum. He stops, stands up straight, takes a couple of deep breaths, and allows a modest smile to colonize his face. He wasn’t prepared for the distinction in terminology, but with Praetor's signature on the document, relief spreads over him. It occurs to me for the first time that Bellion needs this treaty. With his lieutenant holding the scroll, he looks back to Praetor and flashes a broad grin.
Bellion: You know, now that we're putting this whole thing behind us, I'm really hoping to get down to those pits of yours and take in some of that fancy cave art.
He says cave art in the same tone that others might say deadly pestilence. He slashes his mark across the document and motions for his lieutenant to roll it back up. And that’s when I see it. Bellion didn’t see it. And even if he had, he wouldn’t have known what he was looking at. But I’ve been aide de camp to Praetor for a long while now. And I know when he has that subtle flash. That flash of… of emotion. It’s a flicker. A tiny quirk that most would never recognize. But I saw it. And there was no mistaking it. It was there.
I subconsciously tighten my grip on the navigating pole, fearing that this may be the only weapon at my disposal if something breaks out, right here, on the barges. Praetor senses even this minute shift and he gives me the slightest of head shakes. He extends a hand to Bellion to shake on the deal that’s just been consummated. Bellion looks for a moment at Praetor's outstretched offering - the soft glow of his fingertips - then turns around and motions for the barges to be unhitched.
Bellion: We’ll file the treaty with the cognoscenti in Vien. I know that… your kind doesn’t get to the cities much. But if there’s ever any doubt about what was agreed upon today, they’ll have a record of this in the klyster. To resolve any disputes. Let’s hope that we never have to see each other again, Dawn Reaver.
He speaks Dawn Reaver in a tone identical to cave art. His henchmen unhitch the barges and, before I can really process what just happened, they’re already floating back to their side of the pond. Praetor motions to begin our own retreat back to our shore.
I’m stunned. I don't wish to displease Praetor, but I'm stunned. I just stand there, watching that arse-wipe as they head back to their side of the lagoon. The spell is only broken when Praetor puts his hand on my shoulder.
Praetor: Don't trouble yourself with the likes of him. Our comrades are waiting for us.
I didn’t realize then just how prophetic Bellion's words would be. He never saw the Dawn Reaver again. For that matter, he never made it to Vien. Nor did he have a chance to down any more vintage, or to make any more babies. In fact, it would be months before any of the Charians truly realized what had become of their impressive military force, or its legendary commander.
Having secured an end to the Charian's long, bloody, and expensive conflict with the “Nocterns”, Bellion threw a wild celebration for his troops that night. His entire force was encamped a mere ten kilometers from our rendezvous point. By the time that the first Nokkmeun arrow flew into their camp, there was barely a sober soul amongst them. And once we got close enough for spears, it became a tutorial in how best to filet an oplander.
When the treaty signing commenced, Bellion had 2,300 men in his army. A day later, there was no Bellion, and the Charians had no army. I’ve seen a handful of fanciful oplander accounts from haggard survivors who claim to have escaped the carnage. But those accounts are fairy tales. Every last one of them. I know, because I was there. We hunted down every straggler who tried to escape into the Greywold that night. And when dawn came upon us, we were confident that there were absolutely no survivors.