Insects and Insight

This is a snippet from my Sword, Sorcery, and Sandal Epic Fantasy. Strategos Amuhan, the narrator, is the “Hannibal” of my pseudo-Punic Wars plotline. Which is fairly close to the beginning of the arc here. Enjoy!
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If I would have been forced to describe the last day’s march on Trystwy in a single word, it would’ve been ‘swarmed.’ Never have I seen so many ways to be attacked by relentless, blood-sucking insects. Leeches waited in the swamps our march skirted. Mosquitoes and black-winged moths both descended on us in fast-moving clouds, as maddening as Shahrak Horse Archers. Even Shayla, whose ebullient mood had proven infectious since joining us, frowned and muttered, “Khepra Himself must have planted His seed in this bog.”

As a third mass of bugs appeared, thick enough to conceal the sun, Tiernan dismounted from his horse snarled, “Erebus take this!”

“Run faster!” Spiros taunted. “Maybe we can use you as bait!”

When Tiernan arrived at the bank, he didn’t dive into it, instead he reached into the mud with both hands and slathered it over his exposed arms and face. Clumps rolled down his short beard and tumbled back into his hands. The Thunderbolts hooted, but Shayla leaned forward on her pony like a cat being teased until its rump raises and wiggles. He returned to the ranks with a wide, lips-sucked-in grin that resembled a matron’s toothless effort. Even I found it impossible not to shake my head at the bard.

He had the last laugh, for as the bugs feasted on us, he rode through them without so much as a flick of the finger. When next we passed a spring with sufficient bank, half the host dove for the mud. I found myself tempted to join them, but as Strategos, my duty was to bear every burden without flinching. No matter how trivial it might seem. So I contented myself with swatting those insects that slipped beneath my hood or up the sleeves. With the low shoulders of Shayla’s gown, I knew that she had to be suffering worse, despite her cloak. So I cleared enough space with a hand for me to talk. Then I asked, in a tone I thought gentle, “I’m assuming Tiernan’s remedy is part of your folklore. So why didn’t you avail yourself to it, Shayla?”

She turned up her nose at me and harrumphed, turning her pony around and disappearing into the ranks behind as I gaped until a moth found its way to my tongue. That cost me much in military decorum. Tiernan covered his mouth and chortled. “The Chief didn’t lie when he said taming that one is like saddling the wind. Be thankful she’s infatuated with you.”

I feigned a blink as we resumed our march. “What convinces you she is?”

“Gods Amuhan!” His chest quivered. “Her eyes never leave you. Even now, she watches your back. Her hand ‘accidentally’ finds yours whenever it can, and brushes your arm or leg when it can’t.”

I tucked my head further into my cloak to hide my blush as another cluster of dried mud fell from the bard’s smirking face. “But you knew this already. Because while most Gods have favored you, Telas did not. You’re no better lying than the child caught with a chunk of bread from the oven.”

Snickering, I looked back at Shayla. Her head turned and dipped, like she was unaware of where I was. But before I returned my gaze to the road, her golden eyes belied the claim of disinterest. “Yes I did know,” I affirmed. “Though hearing you say it encourages me. One never is quite certain if a man’s heart isn’t playing tricks on him when it comes to the affection of a woman. Still, there’s something strange about her family.”

My bannerman’s face narrowed into a line. So I leaned a hand on my knee. “Let me guess: You know because it echoes the story about why you left your mother’s people?”

Tiernan winced. “I’d hoped you hadn’t seen my reaction to your analogy.”

“I did, comrade.”

After glancing over his shoulder to ensure Shayla’s pique hadn’t passed yet, the bard said, “Lord Amuhan, I’ll tell you my story. It’s up to her to tell you how close it is to her own. But I’m certain the same law is involved.”

“What law is this?” I drummed a finger on my thigh. Then flicked at another mosquito.

“Our people have a custom when duels are fought. To prevent retaliation, the victor must take the surviving spouse and any children into their own family.” His eyes flicked to Shayla again.

“That explains why she and Carii are so different in temperament and looks.” I stroked my chin. “So the Chief became her husband to guard the daughter. And she took up her training because Shayla possesses talent as well.”

“Probably,” Tiernan conceded. “I was accepted among the Lexovi because of my Mother’s talent. She had birthed me before becoming Beien Ciall to them. But another challenged and defeated her. All such duels are to the death. If there isn’t a death blow, the victor carves out the loser’s heart. “ He paused and cleared his throat, and I glimpsed a sheen over the big man’s eyes.

“And by law, you had a new mother,” I finished.

He nodded grimly. “Understand, most of the time, such ‘adoptions’ go well enough. However, in my case she didn’t want a ‘half-breed’ for a son. So I became an outsider in truth. And if a boar’s tusks were laced with poison, would any think to look before I died?”

“No, they’d never know,” I replied with a shake of the head. “They’d assume you succumbed to the wounds. So how did you—?”

“I’m not a bard because I have a strong voice and love to collect stories that can be put to song,” he answered dryly. “Mother taught me much of herblore and natural remedies. She also taught me a good deal about ritual magics.”

My eyes rounded. “Why didn’t you say this when Toi was poisoned?”

Tiernan shook his head. “You forget, he walked away. We thought it little more than a scratch. It wasn’t until the Priestess couldn’t heal him that she even thought to look for poison. By then, Toi was already dead. Besides, the chemist seemed to do a thorough enough work in identifying it. And I had never seen it before either.”

I closed my eyes and remembered the yellow ball and black bile extracted from his body. The bones broken from convulsions and contorted expression on his face as the poison killed him. There wasn’t a pit in Erebus deep enough for his murderer. And I wasn’t certain the order to kill me had come from Davos either. “I appreciate you telling me this, Tiernan. It couldn’t have been easy.”

“I’ve gone this far in disclosing the ways of Mother’s people,” the bard said with a deep frown. “You should know, even if Shayla were Carii’s birth daughter, eventually the two would become rivals. And only one could remain in the tribe.”

I hung my head. Rain Dancer sensed my distress, mincing his steps as I looked over first one shoulder, and then the other for the wilder woman. I caught a glimpse of her blond mane near Captain Spiros at the front of the Hundred Hands. A stab of jealousy pricked my side, though if I had been the newcomer, I’d be as curious as Shayla to learn of the new cultures.

“The condor was hers? Or Carii’s?”

“Hers,” Tiernan answered without hesitation. “She’s the curious one. And the birds are already bound to her arms.”

I pivoted and made an interrogative grunt. He shook his head. “Now I am getting perilously close to discussing secrets Mother made me swear I’d never share. If she wishes, Shayla will explain herself.”

With a sigh, I answered, “For an explanation, this isn’t helping me understand her very much.”

Tiernan chuckled. “Lord Amuhan, I may be a bard. And I certainly know the ways to woo women. But I’ve never made claim to understand them.”

I laughed so hard, I nearly swallowed a mosquito.

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