We are alive, and better than that: we are welcome. A little silver passed between hands didn’t hurt.
In approaching Graylag we were spotted by outposts long before we ever reached the ruins. A large troop of men came out to meet us brandishing all manner of spears and swords. They were as motley a crew as any band of pirates I have ever seen.
But as they came towards us they stopped short, just out of Starlark’s range. They demanded to know who we were, first in their local tongue then in the common. I shouted back that we were sent by Bantish, and looking for a man called Prestorn.
A man stepped forward and beckoned us near. “I am Prestorn,” he said so loudly there may as well have been no distance between us. “And it is lucky that you have found me first.”
Prestorn is indeed good friends with Bantish, and had already received word of what we had done for him against the Mentalists. He took us under his protection and walked us back into Graylag. Not without a well-expected gift, but to be honest we anticipated spending much more than he seemed happy to receive.
His protection was indeed helpful, if not necessary. It turns out that there are four warlords who share control of Graylag in a loosely held alliance. Each is strong, but not strong enough to overthrow any of the others on his own. This tenuous balance is held together only by a shared distrust. None of them trust any of the others enough to ally against a third.
Apparently one such alliance had been formed some years back, but the conspirators were slain by their own lieutenants, fearing war would break out and leave them vulnerable to the uninvolved party. The original leaders were thus immediately supplanted and balance restored.
It is a strained peace they maintain, but an effective one. Had I been greeted by any of the others, Prestorn said, they would have most certainly attacked us for our gear. As his guests, we were safe. Mostly. He said not to let our guard down at any point, just to be certain.
We were taken immediately to his stronghold for refreshments, and he pumped us for information on the outside world. He seemed most interested in the KoraKora and Bangara. The Bangara, he told us, was a pest bordering on menace.
I found it interesting to call a giant, invulnerable, man-eating lizard a pest, but I kept that thought to myself.
He told us that they often stalk men for days without being seen, only to pounce upon them with no warning and consume as many as they can capture.
Prestorn seemed disturbed by our encounter with the KoraKora. The man I killed, he said, must have been a great leader to command such mourning. For the KoraKora, blood is the toll to enter the next life. For a man to pay it himself is to be condemned to wander for eternity, so they bathe the dead in blood of their own to ensure safe passage.
He shuddered at the thought of the KoraKora much as I did and then moved on.
Bantish, he said, was a very fortunate find indeed. Their relationship started when Prestorn was only a boy. He had been pressed into the service of some older warlord and was on his first raid beyond what he referred to regularly as “the territory.” Bantish’s village, apparently, lies just beyond that.
Prestorn got lost during the raid. He fell sick with a fever, which he says was as much because of the terror in his stomach as any illness, and soon collapsed. Bantish found him and nursed him back to health. He tried to pull Prestorn from the life he had been forced into, but Prestorn said he was too young, too foolish, and too scared to listen to the wise old man.
They remained in loose contact over the years, however, and Prestorn learned as much as Bantish could teach him whenever they crossed paths. The most important lesson Bantish taught him, he said, was how to hide when sought. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it earnestly.
We were lucky, he told us, on all counts. Between disease, poisons, and predators he seemed certain we should have died already. No Imperial had made it so far into the Nanten in living memory. None, he said, except for Salisir.
I was about to start asking my own questions when we were interrupted. The other warlords had gathered, we were told, and expected us to make an appearance to beg their leave to stay. Prestorn said it was a formality, but an important one.
“To tread on the pride of the small is to entice a wrath most large,” he told us.
The council was long-winded, and involved a lot of yelling and arguing that Prestorn opted not to translate for us. The basic idea, he said, was to appear strong and mean. It kept the peace.
The warlords drank the entire time that they argued, and as the drinking continued the shouting grew louder, then subdued, until finally, on some cue unknown to us, they all decided it was time to feast. I have not eaten so well in months.
There were all kinds of meat and even a bread of some sort. There was palm wine and fried fruits… we ate until we were sick, and then we ate some more.
The warlords lounged more than sat. They wore the strangest garb, collections of a variety of different styles and incomplete sets of armor. Still, they appeared formidable. They were flanked by their lieutenants and served by spindly servant girls who they grabbed at will for their pleasure.
Many of them came alongside Balthandar and sized themselves up against him. This seemed a game more than any threat, as they would puff out their chests and try to make themselves as large as the spearhand. But most would dissolve into laughter and stumble away after a few moments. The others Balthandar just shoved back and ignored.
Among my companions, only Bolton seemed to grow increasingly tense as the evening wore on.
Prestorn showed us to the quarters in his stronghold that had been set aside for us. I told him I needed to hear what he knew about Salisir, but he said there would be plenty of time in the morning. He left no room for argument, and then abruptly left.
I suppose my questions must wait another night. Where Salisir went, and what he did around here to make himself known… but for now I am contented with a full belly and a warm welcome. We will maintain a watch tonight, as tempting as it is not to, for these men remain thieves and murderers and I doubt that their hospitality truly means much.
However I am intrigued by their customs, and look forward to investigating more as we discover our clues to Salisir’s path through these parts. Perhaps spending time with these brigands will teach us what we need to know to survive their kind throughout this lawless jungle.
I feel strangely hopeful. Perhaps once we have refitted ourselves here we will stand a real chance of finding Brin Salisir’s corpse and ending this quest alive.