Tale of Greenheart

“The elders picked their village site well,” Slavec said to the gathered children. “We have chosen to call these the Young Days. They are your days. The days when the children of man walk in the sun.”

One of the children squirmed in her seat, listening to Slavec the gatherer. His hands were knobbly from working the hard labor of tree cutting. But their bellies were full of the roasted birds they gathered from the endless flocks in the nearby forest.

“Our scouts have returned and report there are fields of wild grain just to the south, and fruit growing in the trees. You children have never had fruit, have you? Not you poor souls born in the long dark. But Mokosh is kind. There will be plenty of food. And from the fruit and grain we will make great dishes that honor our goddess. We shall call them ‘pie’ and we will eat our fills.”

The children squirmed excitedly and Slavec took a long draw from his pipe. The smoke circled up to the thatched roof. None of the children were wise enough to pick up on Slavec’s worried look. They were the children of the Young Days when worry had not yet come to Greenheart.

But Slavec had seen the faces of the returning scouts. He had seen the looks they had cast to each other. He had heard them whisper.

“We are not alone,” they had said.

“This would not be so easy without Lutoslav,” Apolonia said. In front of them, the warriors were dragging the last of the giant bee corpses towards the fire. The hive had been raided and burned to the ground. No more of the creatures would menace Greenheart. At least not from this direction.

“A hunter does make it easier,” Commander Lubo said, “but at the end it’s grit and guts. Driving into the heart of the enemy once our ambush has been lain is a warrior’s job.”

Apolonia sniffed and folded her arms. As a gatherer, she had little to say when it came to the fighting. Her job, as the chief of foragers, was to pick the spots where they could camp and decide who would be assigned to which of the resources. The warriors would man the perimeter and keep the monsters off. Once it grew dark, there were always monsters. Other than that, Apolonia had little use for the warrior caste.

“Our food stores have increased dramatically in recent days,” she said. “We will soon need to concentrate on other things.”

“There’s more to life than food?” Lutoslav grinned at her over the corpse of a giant bee. He slit it open with his bone knife, searching inside for the precious amber.

“Men,” she groaned, rolling her eyes.

“Pick a spot, Apolonia,” Commander Lubo insisted. “Night is not far off.”

“I already have,” she returned. “Just to the east lies furs and fruit. I’ll have the roster set up by the time we reach it.”

“And bloody near that tomb!” Lubo roared. “Are you trying to get us killed, woman?”

As the two fell to bickering, Lutoslav shot his brother Martislav an amused glance. The pair were always at it. The two most crucial activities that Greenheart had to contend with, and both of them were at it hammer and tong from sunrise to sunset, and sometimes after.

“Don’t let it bother you, boys,” Deodora the gatherer said, coming up behind Lutoslav and goosing him with the butt of her spear. He jumped and his eyes went wild at the sport of it. “They’ll be in the sack afore too long. Trust me on this one.”

“Old Ironhand and the Pie Lady?” Martislav laughed. “I’ll kiss a striga first.”

“Bet,” Deodora said. She spit in her palm and thrust out her hand at the lanky lumberjack.

“He’s in his cups again,” Dusan said, wiping down the table top. It was the front of his hut, but it served Greenheart well as a small pub. He motioned over to where a figure sat slumped, holding a bottle.

“Hope he’s not like that in the field,” Dusan said, his lip turning up in a sneer.

Quick as lightning, Martislav reached across the table and hauled Dusan up by the front of his leather jerkin. The other eyes in the tavern drifted their way, but no one was going to intervene. Not for Dusan.

“Commander Lubo is as sober as an old oak tree in the field,” Martislav snarled in Dusan’s face. “It weren’t his fault. You weren’t there. You’re never there. You stay here in the village. You’ve never been out there.”

He let Dusan go and the man slunk back against the wall, his eyes wide. Martislav turned to the gathered group. “It’s our job to clear the tombs,” he said loudly. “And we do it. But it goes bad sometimes. Nobody’s fault. Certainly not Ironhand’s.”

His face changed as he remembered that fateful day. “That tomb was half-filled with water. Nobody wanted to go in there. Nobody. But you know how it is. If we don’t clear them out, they spawn things. Horrible things that will be at our gates before long. It’s our job.”

He turned towards Commander Lubo who hadn’t moved or made a sound. “The utopiec. They aren’t always in there, you know? Spirits of the drowned. Hard to kill. Strong. Deodora went down first, and then my brother Lutoslav trying to pull her out. Commander Lubo waded right into that water with his sword. Never hesitated. Wasn’t much hope for someone the utopiec has pulled under, but he went in anyway.”

A low moan came from the corner where the commander sat. Everyone’s eyes turned to him briefly but he didn’t stand. He didn’t offer another sound to confirm Martislav’s tale. It was the first the villagers had heard it spoken. No one who returned that day had ever spoken of it before.

“It grabbed him too and he very nearly went down,” Martislav continued. “Until Apolonia … she went in to pull him out.” The figure in the corner began to rock back and forth, his shoulders shaking as soundless sobs shook his great chest.

“An utopiec can’t grab two at once,” Martislav said after a moment. “It’s going to take someone on the left or right. Now he’s here and she isn’t so I guess you know how it came out.” Martislav went to his commander’s side and gently pried the man’s hands off the bottle. He helped him to his feet and supported the larger man as they walked towards the door. No one said a word as they went out into the night.

“Who is she?” Ironhand asked as he peered out across the field. Amongst the gatherers he had spotted a new face. A bent crone was plucking birds on the processing line, handing the naked carcasses off to the next villager.

“A witch,” Dusan said with a shrug. “Says she’s got magic.”

“I’ve had a belly full of magic out there,” Ironhand said. He spit on the ground in front of him. “And she’s old.”

“Came out of the wilds, she did,” Goslava said, picking up a basket of grain from the expedition pile. “Been living out there on her own.”

“Probably since the time of the dark,” Ironhand said. He ran a hand across his chin, feeling the tangled beard there. A lot more gray was visible in it than used to be. He never shaved anymore. Not since he’d lost her.

“Might be useful,” Martislav said. “Magic on our side, for a change.”

Ironhand turned and peered at his second for a long moment. Martislav was the last one he’d expected to say such a thing.

Across the field, the old woman looked up and turned towards Ironhand, feeling his gaze upon her. In the wilds, you didn’t live long if you couldn’t tell when you were being watched.

“What’s she go by?” he asked.

“Didn’t give a proper name,” Dusan answered. “We just been calling her the witch.”

“Tell her she’s going out on our next trip,” Ironhand said to Martislav. “And see this stuff gets stowed away proper. Someone died for it, you know.”

“Where are you going?” Martislav asked.

“To get a drink,” Ironhand snarled.

“Been nine days,” Slavec grumbled. He always grumbled. If he said he was having a nice day, he grumbled. But Slavec had not been having many nice days of late.

“I knew his drinking would be a problem,” Dusan said.

Slavec turned and gave him a hard look.

“Not that it ever stopped you from selling him as much as he wanted,” he snarled. “I swear, Dusan, I’d have you kicked out of the village if I could. But it’s not our way.”

Dusan opened his mouth but shut it again. He realized he’d burned up about the day’s quota of good will in just one sentence. He turned and headed for his hut. There was some grain left and he’d run it through his small still. Grain had many purposes in Greenheart but Dusan believed it was a sin against Mokosh to simply use it for pies. Not when it could serve a nobler cause.

“That boy there,” Vaclava said to Slavec. She motioned with a nod of her head to where a muscular young man was splitting firewood.

“He’s not ready,” Slavec grumbled. “Too soon.”

“We’ve got no warriors. It’s him or nobody.”

“Lost a whole expedition. The people, their gear, all that food. How do we recover from that?”

Vaclava shrugged her shoulders.

“Do we fold up and die?” she asked. “What? Do you want to go back in time to just before we sent them out? Maybe give them more grain? Don’t torture yourself, Slavec. Fate gives us one chance and that’s all we got. We press on. That’s what we do. We’re the children of Mokosh.”

“Mokosh. Bah. The forgotten goddess.”

“She still cares for us,” Vaclava argued. “We’ve been well fed and we’re well positioned for the future.”

“We’re a fat peach ripe for the picking,” Slavec countered. He turned and clamped his teeth down hard on his pipe stem. He started to walk away but then stopped.

“What’s the lad’s name?” he asked without turning around.

“Lubovid,” Vaclava replied. “Should I prepare for the rites?”

“Aye. I’ll be in the smithy.”

“You don’t want to attend?”

“No,” Slavec grumbled. “Boy is going to need a good hammer.”

A gurgling scream split the night as the goblin died on the point of Captain Misia’s sword. She gave it a twist before pulling it free from the twitching corpse and turned to see how the rest of the fight was going.

To her left, Barnim the thug was slashing at one of the goblins. One of the bandits who had joined their village, Barnim used poison weapons to cause extremely painful wounds on his foes. Misia wasn’t sure about that tactic, but in these grim days the villagers of Greenheart felt that Mokosh approved of anything that kept her people alive.

To her right, Zofia the mild-mannered gatherer loosed an arrow at the remaining goblin. The shaft sank into the goblin’s chest up to the fletching just as Jadzia’s club brought the creature down. It died twitching at the edge of the firelight.

“Any wounds?” Captain Misia shouted, panting heavily from the exertion. Only Jadzia had taken a hit from the goblin weapons and it wasn’t severe. It would heal up well enough by morning.

Misia had taken over from Lubovid when he’d died in a crypt. Other warriors had come to join their village, as well as some bandits. They still lacked a hunter, but they had a potent medic who was keeping them alive after some of the worst of the battles.

“This area is clear,” she said, opening up the cloth map. Lairs and resources were marked in charcoal but she hardly needed it at this point. The area they had been traversing was well known to the expedition. In the village they were called “Misia’s Rangers”. They would come out of the wild just long enough to drop off what they’d collected and to pick up more food. Occasional newcomers joined them and so there numbers were growing.

“Where to next then?” Zofia asked. “Back to the village?”

“No,” Misia said, folding the map and putting it into the pocket of her fur jacket. “We’ll head along the north shore of the lake. Slavec asked us to bring back some spider silk from there.”

Zofia sighed and rubbed a bruise where a goblin club had skimmed her arm.

“Where does it all end, Captain?” she asked. “Do we ever force enough of them back to be able to take it easy?”

“Never,” Misia said. “Greenheart is taking a much more aggressive stance now. We have to. This is our territory, claimed for our Mother Mokosh. Goblins and other filth are not allowed here. We’ll make them fear our names.”

Misia glanced at her gatherer friend and saw that she wasn’t getting it. Few had the vision.

“Zofia,” Misia expained. “This is a new era. We’re the chosen ones. Not long before we were hanging on by our toenails, but now we’re growing. Every piece of metal, every scrap of hide. It all goes into our construction. More weapons, higher walls, more armor. Greenheart is growing. We’re going to make it.”

“That doe-eyed boy,” Zofia said. “I never even learned his name.”

Misia frowned. She hadn’t known the boy’s name either. Gertislav or Burtislav or something like that. From one of the older families. He’d died of his wounds when their patrol swept them through the forest and they ran into some of the undead. Always the undead.

“You don’t think …” Zofia began, but Misia cut her off.

“We buried him deep,” the captain replied. “There’s not a chance.”

“But the striga and the utopiecs and all these other skeletons and walking dead. They come from somewhere.”

“Failed villages,” Barnim said, sitting down beside them. He clutched some of their last stash of jerky in his hands. It was like chewing on an old boot. Dusan was the worst cook the village had ever known.

“I’ve seen ’em”, Barnim continued. “Whole villages gone to rot. Fallen apart as their gods abandoned them. The dead walk the streets and when the buildings finally rot away in the damp, the dead go out hunting.”

“Get some sleep,” Misia said, knowing that Barnim could come up with enough tall tales to wind up the crew for the rest of the night. “We’ve got a lot of miles to cover when the sun comes up.”

And left unspoken was the reason they didn’t travel at night. Thea wasn’t entirely their world. Not yet. Out in the mists, out beyond the watchtower … Thea still belonged to the darkness.

Night fell across Thea and the village of Greenheart slept. On the stockade walls, guards patrolled. Nights were rarely peaceful but with Misia’s Rangers out in the wild, few monsters made it close enough to the village to threaten them. Thanks to the blood, muscle, and steel of the rangers, the villagers were enjoying a relative time of safety.

A dark figure inexpertly made its way between the huts, trying to be stealthy. As it moved from building to building, two more figures followed it with much more skill.

“That fat sack of striga dung,” Slavec growled. “We’ve got him now.”

“Could be a perfectly good reason he’s out at night,” Mihu replied. “Maybe he’s going to the outhouses.”

“Dusan? Hardly. He’s as big of a coward as ever walked Thea. He locks himself in at sunset and doesn’t show his head until morn, just in case something gets by the guards. He’s stealing food. You wait and see.”

The first figure finally reached its destination. It approached the back door of one of the shabbier huts in the village. Small and rundown, it was the type of hut newlyweds lived in until they had their first child. The husband would add on to the hut as the family grew. But instead of growing, this one had become more and more dilapidated.

Dusan placed a small sack on the back doorstep, gingerly arranging the folds of the cloth. Steam was rising from the sack. He reached into his fur coat and pulled out something small and placed it to the side. The two figures watching from the distance could not make out what he was doing and so they waited. After a moment, Dusan rapped gently on the back door and then hurried off into the night.

“That’s Mira’s hut,” Slavec said, slightly confused. “What’s he doing bothering the widow?”

Mira and Bartislav had been married within days of their rites of passage. He joined the warriors and soon set out on his first expedition with the rangers. He had not returned. Mira put on a brave face and mourned, but as the months went by her belly swelled. A child was born that would never know its father.

The ways of Greenheart were that everyone shared equally what they had for everyone worked for the village’s survival. A widow and a young child would not go hungry. Mokosh approved of the care of others.

After a few moments, the door opened a crack and light shone forth. A tired face peeped out and saw the sack. Mira looked both directions into the darkness but could not see anyone. Slavec and Mihu were well hidden behind the corner of another building.

From the sack she pulled forth a steaming fruit pie and a roasted chicken. Food was something the entire village shared, but they ate what was available. Dusan had been holding back his own rations to prepare something extra. Something different than the standard fare available to the village at this time of year.

A young girl pushed past Mira and through the darkness the watchers heard her squeal with delight.

“A doll, Mama! A doll!”

She picked up the hand-carved wooden doll and pressed it to her breast.

“So that’s what he’s been carving for weeks now,” Mihu said. “He would hide it anytime anyone came too close.”

“I suspected a totem to the dark gods,” Slavec muttered. “Not a doll.”

The young widow and her daughter took their gifts inside and shut the door behind them. Slavec could hear the scrape of the heavy board used to bar it from the inside. A light went past the window.

“Back to the wall then,” Slavec whispered. “Not a word of this to anyone.”

“But, chief,” Mihu said. “Everyone thinks the worst of Dusan, and here he is doing good for that dead boy’s wife and child.”

“And what would everyone think if it were known?” Slavec grumbled. “A fat old man doing a kindness for the pretty young widow? No. They didn’t see him slip away so that he wouldn’t be discovered and they’d suspect him of being even worse than they do now. We’ll keep this to ourselves. And for Mokosh’s sake, don’t let on to Dusan that you know!”

“Just goes to show,” Mihu replied, “that you never do get to know some people.”

“Know the porcupine by its quills and the skunk by its scent,” Slavec muttered.

“And the eagle by its feathers,” Mihu said, completing the ancient proverb.

Slavec put his foot into the strap of his crossbow and leaned back against the stockade, bending the prod as the cord slipped into the lever’s notch. His hands shook as he loaded the quarrel. Blood had made his fingers slippery. Most of it was his own.

“Can’t afford to miss,” he grumbled to himself.

Of all the trash that roamed Thea, other humans were the worst. Scavengers survived out in the wild, barely hanging on, but they were a threat to any human settlement. Half-starved and desperate, they’d refused offers of food, deciding instead that they could take all of Greenheart since most of its defenders were out in the wilds. Why take some food when shelter, firewood, weapons, and women were all up for grabs?

The scavengers were preparing for their third rush against the walls. Their leader, a burly man wearing armor which had probably once fit him before months of starvation had set in, raised his axe and let out a ragged howl. Some of Mira’s arrows were sticking out of the raider’s shield.

“They have no concept of tactics,” Mihu said, keeping low behind the crenel. The scavengers had archers as well. “They should have split up by now and hit the wall in two places.”

“Yell a little louder, why don’t you?” Slavec shouted back. “Maybe they didn’t hear you.”

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” he grumbled, hefting his crossbow up to rest it atop the wall. “We’re down to four. The next rush and they have us.”

By the stairs, Mira had been positioned. He could see from where he stood that she had three arrows left in her quiver, plus the one she had nocked in her crude bow. When the scavengers came again, she would go down the stairs, take the children and lock everyone in the smokehouse. It had the stoutest walls. If the scavengers weren’t content with just looting the village and tried to break down the doors to the smokehouse, the bone knife Mira wore on her belt would give a last bit of mercy to the children and to herself.

Over to Slavec’s left, Dusan heaved a mighty sigh and blood spurted from his mouth. He was laying against the wall. Slavec had thought he was already dead, killed in the last rush. The scavengers had gained the wall and one of them had grabbed Mira by the arm, trying to pull her over. Dusan had fought like a berserker, knocking two of the scavengers from the wall and forcing the others back until the young woman made it to safety. He’d paid for that with several arrows and a sword thrust to the gut.

“Slavec,” Dusan gasped, his eyes darting about. “Slavec.”

“I’m here, you fat fool,” Slavec said, moving to the side of the fallen crafter. “Lie still. We’ll tend to your wounds after the fight.”

“No you won’t,” Dusan said with a choking laugh. His bloodied hand caught Slavec’s and he gripped him tight. “No, don’t pull that sword out. It’s the only thing keeping my guts in.”

“Oh, Dusan,” Slavec grumbled. “You’re too old and fat to be a hero.”

“Yes. I see that. Hey, it’s a fine sword they stuck in me. Good steel. When I’m gone, make sure it makes it to the armoury.”

“I’ll do that,” Slavec answered.

“And make sure someone takes care of Mira. I know, our laws make sure nobody goes hungry, but she deserves a little extra, you know? And the child.”

“I know you’ve been taking care of her, Dusan. You fat fool. You kept it hidden from everyone else. Why?”

“Because sometimes charity ought be done in private, that’s why, Slavec, you bearded troll.”

Dusan gave a mighty shudder and blood foamed at his lips.

“I can see it, Slavec,” Dusan gasped out, his hand squeezing Slavec’s so hard that the knuckles stood out white against the blood. “Her sacred groves.”

“Mokosh?” Slavec asked.

“There’s green trees, and it’s warm, and there’s so much food. I’m safe. She’s there. She’s beckoning to me.”

“Go to her, Dusan,” Slavec whispered. “Go to her.”

A horn blew in the distance as Dusan’s eyes closed for the last time. Slavec thought the scavengers had launched their final attack but he could hear Mihu shouting.

“The rangers! Captain Misia’s rangers! They’ve returned!”

“Mira!” Slavec called through the rising wind. “The storm!”

Rain drove in blinding sheets against the stockade walls and the howling wind cut to the bone as it bit through leather and furs. The storm coming off the lake carried with it all the fierceness of Thea. The small village of Greenheart had been caught off guard, so sudden had the tempest swept in.

“The children!” Mira called back, ignoring Slavec’s beckoning hand.

The other villagers were huddled in the smokehouse, the strongest structure in the village. Amidst loops of dried sausages and hanging braids of garlic, they prayed to Mokosh that the storm would pass them by. The herds up on the slope were watched over by the orphans of the village, who contributed their small labors to the survival of the group. There had been no time to gather them in.

“Get her, Slavec!” Bedgost called out from the darkness of the smokehouse. “She’s going to break for it!”

“It’s her life to spend as she will,” Yania the crafter hissed. “You have no right to interfere.”

The rain quickly was turning to hail and whatever Mira’s response to the mayor had been it was lost in the rising wind. She darted out into the fury of the storm, pushing towards the gate. Bent against the wind, she pulled herself along the log walls of the huts. Her own daughter was safe inside the smokehouse, but the pair of orphans on the hillside had no such protection.

The rain blinded her and the hail mixed with it sliced at her exposed skin and flesh. She heard a tree branch break and a dark shape hurtled past her to crash against the wall of a hut. Had it hit her she would have been crushed like a snail on an anvil.

“Mokosh,” she cried, pulling herself to her feet and throwing her body against the might of the wind. “Preserve us!”

She reached the gate which had been left open, so swift was the retreat before the storm. From deeper in the village she heard one of the huts disintegrate, the walls and contents becoming part of the deadly storm as it swirled about them. She pushed away from the wall, clawing her away along the gate but when she let go the storm blew her down. She lay sprawled on the ground, crying out in helpless horror. She lacked the strength to go into the heart of the storm.

A shadow appeared out of the raging storm. Strangely shaped, it reached down and hauled her to her feet with seemingly no effort. As she turned her head she caught a brief glimpse of Milodrog the Mute. A giant of a man, he had been with bandits before joining the village. He never spoke. A thick, purple scar around his neck revealed the cause. He had been hanged, the rope damaging his throat but failing to do its job properly. The hulking bandit had survived the ordeal but forever lost his voice.

Clinging to his front was one of the orphans, skinny arms and legs wrapped around his thick torso. On his back was the other, face buried in the thick red hair of the mute and thin arms clinging to his neck. Against the fury of the storm, even Milodrog’s great strength was tested. He hauled Mira along by the arm, making straight for the smokehouse. Lightning crashed against the top of the stockade, the instant boom of the thunder deafening them for a moment.

For a moment, it seemed Milodrog had faltered. He went down on one knee, his strength failing at last. Mira had lost her bearings, unable to see further than a few feet in front of them. The ice and rain cut at her exposed flesh. A feral snarl erupted from the giant man as he pushed himself up with one last effort. He had been all the way to the hillside and back, running before the storm to pull the children out of danger.

Out of the rain came two more figures. It was Slavec and Misia, the ranger. They grabbed at the children, and pulled Mira to safety. Misia led the giant along by the arm and he stumbled forward like a stunned ox. They made it into the shelter of the smokehouse and the door slammed behind them. Someone pressed a drink into her hand and in the wavering light of the oil lamp she saw Milodrog sink down against the wall in sheer exhaustion.

The drink burned her throat. Dusan’s own brand of fiery homebrew revived her briefly. She turned and met Milodrog’s eyes. The big man gave the slightest of nods.

The storm wasn’t over. Instead it was growing in fury. Outside they could hear the destruction of some of the other huts. The thick walls of the smokehouse trembled. Whatever their fate, they would meet it together. Greenheart was more than the buildings. It was the people.

“They’re coming back,” Zofia said, limping to the gate. She was still on crutches. Her leg was badly damaged, but the red line of infection had stopped creeping up her thigh and the fever had broken several days before. The herbs had done their work.

Slavec glanced at her leg a moment and remembered a time when they had no medic and no herbs and she would have lost the limb.

“I see three,” he grumbled, staring out at the distant figures on the horizon. A red cloth waved briefly in the air. It was the signal that the expedition team was bringing in wounded and needed immediate medical care.

“Maybe they split the party,” Zofia said hopefully. “Sent the wounded back to the village.”

“Misia wouldn’t have done that. Ever.”

It had grown too dangerous even for a party of ten out there. The teams were moving out towards a mithril vein that had been discovered in the hills, but they retreated from the onslaught more often than not. The crafters would have liked them to spend several days onsite, harvesting the valuable metal, but that had not happened yet.

“Get Katherina,” Slavec growled, referring to Greenheart’s medic. “And have Mira get some food warmed up.”

He rubbed his hands together and blew into them. The air had turned chill and the leaves were starting to drop off of the trees around the village. Winter was coming to Greenheart, and it would be the first one in awhile where they had plenty of food and plenty of firewood. New people always came in winter, brought out of the wilds by the increasing danger of Thea and the sight of hearthfires sending their smoke up into the cold winter sky.

The guards on the stockade were shouting encouragement to the returning expedition. Slavec stared at them for a long moment, wondering if the warriors had been as young back in the early days. It took him a moment to understand what they were shouting.

“Oh, Misia,” he said with a sigh. “You brave, brave fool. Now I’m the only one left.”

The visitors were approaching from across the fields under the green banner of Mokosh. The guards shifted nervously. This trick had been used before. The group didn’t look like bandits. They looked like your ordinary group of villagers, though a little more down at the heels than the folk of Greenheart. However they had seen before that entire villages turned to banditry when the winters were too rough or their population had fallen too low to protect their crops.

“Get him,” Captain Miroslav said, and his second, Jadzia, snapped back a salute before leaving.

Greenheart’s guards would not leave the walls to meet the incoming group. The old wooden stockade had been torn down and a tall granite wall and been put in place with steel girders. Atop the wall the archers had their bows ready, made from the ancient logs of the elder forests. The visitors could see this, as well as the shine of the steel chainmail the guards wore. They did not approach but instead waited patiently in the field.

Soon the bent figure emerged from the depths of the village. His hair, what remained of it, was a crown of white around his head. One eye was milky white but the other was still bright. No one knew how old he was. Neither did he. What was known was that he had been born in the time of the dark and there were none of those left. Slightly more in number were those who had been born in the starving, desperate times that came after. They were treated with a deference and respect by the youth of Greenheart, who had never missed a meal or known fear within the tall stone walls.

“Who are they?” Slavec grumbled as he reached the gate where he could see the visitors.

“The scouts reported they’re from a village on the far side of the lake,” the captain replied, shifting his position. His mithril armor glistened in the sun. Most of the veterans wore that now and even rookies were in chainmail. It extended their life expectancy.

“Come with hat in hand to beg for food,” Jadzia said disdainfully.

Slavec fixed his one good eye on her and she blushed.

“We’d have begged plenty of times in the old days,” he pointed out, “if there’d been anyone to beg. Not all have been as blessed as we have. Have some charity.”

“Charity aside,” the captain added, “the other three villages that have put themselves under Slavec’s leadership are now doing well and we’re receiving regular shipments of goods from them as tribute. Our patrols cover their territory now and they fly the green flag of Mokosh.”

It was true. Just that morning the outriders had escorted in a convoy of wagons bearing grain and smoked meat. Others brought wool and other fibers, and the coveted ancient logs from which so much could be crafted. Food was the currency of Thea and for a week’s ride in any direction that currency was backed by the mithril swords and iron wills of Greenheart.

“There’s talk of a kingship,” Jadzia said proudly. “For you, Slavec.”

“Three villages don’t make a kingdom,” Slavec grumbled back. “There hasn’t been a kingdom on Thea for who knows how long.”

“You’re fielding expeditions larger than most villages,” Captain Miroslav argued. “In dwarf-forged battle kit. You have permanent mining operations on mithril and gold sites and people trek for days across zmey infested wilderness to beg for your protection.”

“Begging for protection.” Slavec leaned over and spit into the damp soil by the paved road leading in and out of the village. “When we can beat a trail to them and offer our protection freely we can call it a kingdom.”

He stared out at the visitors. They were approaching the village now, led by the rider who had went out to meet them. They would be wanting food and shelter, but also to speak to him about taking over leadership of their village in return for regular protection. He hated the idea. Leading people he had never met in a place he had never seen. It seemed improper somehow.

“Offer them the usual terms,” he said to the captain. “Get a map from them and extend the patrols to cover their village. And assign a regular levy of young warriors from their village to start training here. They ought to be protecting themselves within a year.”

“It’s like we’ve beaten Thea,” Jadzia said, pleased that another village would fall under Greenheart’s sway.

“You don’t beat Thea,” Slavec said, his gaze piercing and his voice unwavering. “You survive it.”