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The Loire Valley - September 1960
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Gently, ever so gently, he probed the edge of the road with his bayonet. Sweat was rolling down his spine despite wearing little more than shorts, combat boots, a t-shirt, and a broad brimmed bush hat. It was hardly full uniform but regulations tended to be fairly lax when it came to mine clearance teams. You tended to want such people in a comfortable and positive frame of mind when they were doing their job.

"Bayonets. Why is it bayonets? You'd think with all the fucking technology we have running around in the fucking desert right now they'd have some useless fucking way of finding fucking mines that don't involve us fucking poking them. Fuck!"

The tirade came from further down the road and, though it was a common refrain, no one rose to the bait of once again debating the merits of other types of mine clearing tools. They were of course the heavily armoured tanks with chain flails on the front, but those blew the mines up, meaning the road would then have to be repaired. Metal detectors worked great for metal mines, but this region of France had been sown with plastic mines near the end of the war. Fucking great.

The tip of his bayonet struck something solid and he froze. Nothing clicked or whirred. Stupid really, of course nothing did, but one always expected it to. The only sounds were the slow scrapping of other bayonets, the continued grumbling of a soldier here or there, the buzz of the cicadas in the heat. He breathed a small sigh of relief as nothing happened and then began to slowly dig out around the object.

The roadway verge was all gravel and shot through with short spikey grass that had to be carefully dug away. If the mine was an anti-personnel one he would set a small charge, clear everyone away and blow it. They didn't make much of a hole and could quickly be repaired with a basket of gravel from a nearby dump truck. If it was an anti-tank mine... Well, they would have to dig it out by hand and then carefully move it off into the dith before blowing it up. Not a fun task, but one that should be perfectly safe for a man to do, unless of course there was an anti-personnel mine buried beneath that mine, in which case, you wouldn't even know you'd died, and probably killed a half dozen buddies as well. It was a thankless job, but it paid well enough and the French countryside was beautiful this time of year. There were worse places to die. Algeria for example.

More scrapping revealed a curved plastic casing painted a drab green colour. He breathed a little easier when he saw a yellow tab appear. It was an anti-tank mine. At least it wouldn't just explode from him moving the dirt off it. He began to work a little faster, clearing away rubble before remembering to set his flag. He paused, pulling a small yellow flag from his rucksack where it sat nearby, a dragonfly zipping away as he disturbed its rest. He planted the flag next to the mine.

"Anti-tank!"

A chorus of acknowledgements came from around him. Already a small forest of flags were scattered along the roadway behind his platoon. Their job was to find the mines and mark them. The platoon coming behind would have to remove them. No one could agree on which job was worse.

Nearby, boot heels propped on the flipped down windshield of his Viasa, the dishevelled looking company officer looked up from his lunch. He was as dirty and bearded as the rest of his company but none of them begrudged him taking a break. He was one of the "good ones". He worked hard, he dug for mines, and he never asked them to do something he would not. He was the last man to eat that day so they would save some good natured ribbing for another time.

The sound of an approaching engine brought the hundred or so heads up quickly as hands reached for weapons. Nominally they were in Spanish territory but the Warlords who inhabited parts of France there days didn't necessarily see it that way.

They relaxed as another Spanish Viasa roared into view, two men inside. The driver was clean shaven, his uniform neatly pressed, and his beret perfectly formed, but he was nothing compared to the vision who rode next to him in immaculate dress uniform and rakishly cocked hat.

"Fuck..." They all heard the company commander swear as he swung his tired feet down from the hood of his vehicle to watch the new arrival. The young soldiers in his company had quickly learnt that there were two basic types of officers in the Spanish army. The first, and their favourite, were those who had worked their way up through the ranks and so been promoted since Delgado seized power. Men who knew their trade and were damn good at it.

The second, and far less popular group, where the young men who had gone through the Military Academy under the King and thought they had a right to lead men. Some certainly made good officers, but enough of them were so useless as you'd notice.

The Viasa came to a halt, a dust cloud drifting over the silently watching Engineers as they glowered at the newcomers. The newly arrived officer sprang from his vehicle and walked purposely toward the small cluster of vehicles that served as the companies moving headquarters. They could see from the silver on his cuffs that he was a Captain, and a very junior one judging by his age. Granted the men who watched him from the ditch were not much older, but they had seen combat and looked like it.

"I'm looking for Captain Valentina." Even the mans tone was cultured. Probably from Madrid. Fuck.

"That would be me." Valentina, still sitting on the edge of his Viasa raised a hand slightly without bothering to get up.

"Captain Diego." The new arrival extended his hand and, after a pause, Valentina shook it.

"My fellows will be coming up to relieve you in a day or two and I thought I ought to take a look around."

"Hope in," Valentina jerked his head at the other side of his jeep. "I'll give you the grand tour."

He didn't bother to issue any orders to his men as the Viasa rumbled to life. The Sergeants knew how to do their jobs and the men wouldn't begrudge him taking a drive.

The immaculate Captain Diego didn't hesitate as he sat in the dust covered seat. He glanced at Valentina, eyeing his dishevelled appearance then a sly grin crossed his face. He quickly stripped off his cap and jacket, tossing them into the back of the vehicle before rolling up his sleeves.

"Godamn I love the Engineers."

Valentina laughed, shifted the Viasa into gear and turned the vehicle back down the road.
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"Have you been to La Zona Roja before?" Valentina asked. He was sitting on the hood of the Viasa, a bottle of beer held loosely between two fingers as he stared out over the countryside.

"Nope. Never been out of Spain before." Diego took a drink of his own beer. His shirt was soaked with sweat and he had lost his tie and rolled up his pant legs.

"It's a weird damn place. Warlords, Communists, Anarchists, Republicans, Nationalists, Bonapartists, the Junta, and us. Everyone trying to carve out their piece. Language is an issue, Italian, Spanish, French obviously, German, English, and so on. What a cluster fuck."

"And yet here we are..."

"Yea, here we are. Slowly clearing years of unexploded ordnance, clearing mines, and getting into running gun battles with warlords and standard bandits because the Junta government are to fucked up to sort their own shit out.

"Bandits?"

"Yes, no shortage of them. We are well protected enough being an army unit. The main railway is running well into Bordeaux and Marseille at the moment. There are some smaller regional ones working as well but nothing north of the Loire River. At the moment, it's pure chaos. The Junta is useless. The old King set it up so it didn't look like he took over. French police, French uniforms, French government, etc. I don't see Delgado putting up with it very long, he seems short on patience for bullshit." Valentina drained his beer and reached for another.

"Sounds promising..." Diego muttered. He too finished his beer and took the last from the case, looking at it ruefully for a moment before removing the cap with his knife. "It looks strange to me. The blue roofed houses, the very very French Chateaus."

"Funny you mention that, we're billeted in that one down there." Valentina pointed down into a nearby valley where a pair of blue roofed turrets flew a Spanish flag. "It's comfortable, even with a hundred or so of us. You'll have your own room. I took a small one and the lads are sharing the larger rooms."

"I like it." Diego was nodding slowly. It was vastly different than Spain. The heavy lush forest still rich with old growth trees was like nowhere in their homeland.

"Well, make sure you watch your step when you wander into the woods. Much of the unexploded shit around here is ours from The Intervention back in the day."

Diego nodded. His father had been serving with the Royal Dragoons when France collapsed and the Spanish government had been "invited" to send troops north of the Pyrenees to crush help Communist forces. It was like a reversal of the 18th Century. The Spanish found France weak and helpless, so they had stayed.

A local saying was commonly heard, "The Spanish came for the Communists and stayed for the food." Intense fighting had taught the Spanish military some hard lessons already learnt by other nations who had a stake in the Great War. Several thousand war dead had been a bitter pill to swallow for a country that never officially went to war.

"Reap what you sow eh?" Diego said with a sigh as he drained his beer.

"Heh. Yes, exactly." The two men lapsed into silence again as the sun began to touch the distant horizon. The great tree's turned a deep green and the air took on that sharp cool smell that always came with the end of the day. It went unsaid, but both men were very glad they had not been shipped to Algeria.

Down below them a long line of grey painted trucks rumbled toward the Chateau. The rest of the platoon was coming in for the night. The roadway they had cleared so far would be carefully watched by the Military Police to ensure no one snuck back in to rebury anything. A helicopter had even clattered its way overhead an hour before, forever looking like it was about to drop out of the sky.

"Well, we'd best get in for the night. The locals hereabouts aren't always friendly. I would say we should be alright but believe me, when we're on our way, you don't trust the Frenchies at all. The local police are corrupt as all hell. They'll steal your Visasa themselves if you leave it unattended." Valentina sighed as he stood and stretched his arms above his head.

"Sounds like a great place to work." Replied Diego with a trace of sarcasm.

"Buddy, believe me, we both know there are far worse places to be."
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Cuenca, Spain
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She sat next to the window, the sole occupant in her small but comfortable cabin two carriages back from the engine, dressed in a dark brown sweater and tall knee high leather boots. A small duffle bag was across her knee. The sway of the train set the small loose hairs about her face moving gently but she paid them no mind. The broken clouds were red and pink the blue of the sky as the sun began dip below the horizon.

The brown sweater was warm against her throat, her black overcoat already unbuttoned, her hat crumpled in one hand as she idly tapped a foot on the floor of the carriage. Beyond the windows the Spanish landscape was slowly taking on the soft golden glow of the days’ final light.

She could feel the train begin to slow as it curled around the base of the cliffs that held the town of Cuenca. By pressing her face to the glass she could just see to the top of the cliffs where a tall curtain wall of stone enclosed the ancient Moorish fortress and town

“Cuenca Station! All passengers for Cuenca Station!” A conductor, his red and white pillbox hat thrust sharply forward over a fantastic moustache, was making his way through the carriage sliding open compartment doors as he went. He spared her a brief smile as he passed.

She jammed her short cap onto her head, swung her duffle bag onto her shoulder, and stepped into the passage. Several other people appeared in the corridor, their feet muffled by the green carpet. They formed a small cluster at the door behind the conductor. She ignored the quiet stares she received from several of the other passengers. Black people where still pretty thin on the ground in Spain and she tended to attract looks wherever she went.

The conductor paused, opened the door, and stepped onto the cobblestone platform. She followed behind him, her boots making a “tock” sound as she stepped a modern platform. Heavy duty concrete had been poured to replace the ancient cobblestone station that was now abandoned just north of them, covered in graffiti and already being reclaimed by nature. A sturdy metal roof covered the platform and the tracks on both sides, protection from the small rocks that came loose from the cliffs above.

She thanked the conductor, handed him a twenty peseta note, waved away his thanks and hurried toward the platform exit. It was simple enough, a flight of concrete stairs down to a covered driveway where a long row of taxis waited, their multicolour sides muted in the dying light. She stepped into the first one, closed the rear door and sat back in a torn and pitted leather seat that smelled strongly of cigarettes and cologne.

“Where to senorita?” The driver glanced at her, or she thought he did, from eyes almost hidden beneath bushy eyebrows a massive black beard that almost appeared to run together. His tone was friendly but resigned, the tone of a man who drove folk about every single day.

She pulled the small envelope from inside her jacket and passed it across to him. He took it, glanced it over, nodded, and then shifted the old taxi into gear. It coughed, sputtered, and then they were lurching along the recently laid concrete roadway.

Cuenca was only an hour by train from Madrid and improvements had begun several years ago to make it more accessible to tourists. The railway, train station, and most of the motorways had been repaved. Only in the town itself had little been changed so that the cobblestone streets and brick buildings might maintain their historic roots.

The road the driver took did not climb into the town however but rather passed into the countryside. The darkness here became more pronounced as they left behind the bright lights of civilization. She cranked down the window and rested her head on her arm, allowing the fresh night air to play across her face, escaping the stench of the taxi.

The drive was less than ten minutes, the landscape sinking into blackness so that she could only see the verges of the motorway as the headlights played over them. She saw the startled faces of sheep, the guilty glances of young lovers beneath a tree, and occasionally the flash of passing lights as an automobile whisked past them in the opposite direction.

“Here we are.” The driver sounded unsure as he began to slow, turning into a car park just in front of a small white clad church. A single light burned on the front step. There was no on else around. A small barn was the only other building. A wall of olive trees hemmed it all in on three sides. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, thank you.” She paid the fare, adding an extra bill for which the man thanked her profusely before he started up the taxi and turned back onto the motorway toward Cuenca. It was none of his business if his passenger wanted to be left in the middle of nowhere.

As the red taillights faded into the distance she became aware of how vast the silence around her seemed. She could make out the distant glow of light where Cuenca perched on its rocky hilltops, and the odd glimmer here and there told her of farmers cottages. High above her an aircraft droned steadily toward Madrid. A horse whinnied somewhere in the darkness as she sat on the stairs and stretched her long legs out in front of her to wait.

She did not wait long. She had mentally counted to one hundred and twenty when two men appeared from the shadows. They wore simply farmers garb but had the lean muscled size you rarely saw in farmers, but was common among soldiers. One held an image in his hand that he held up and compared it to her as he shone a torch on her. She blinked in the bright light but didn’t look away.

“Senorita Letizia.” The man said her name without question but she nodded anyway. Behind him an engine rumbled to life and the doors of the small barn opened to allow an immaculate black car to creep out onto the gravel. “This way.” The man gestured to the car.

She climbed into the back seat and found herself alone save for the driver who offered her a smile and nod from the front seat. The other two men faded back into the darkness and in a moment the little churchyard was empty again.

“Welcome to Cuenca, Senorita.” The driver was not much older than she was and clearly did not mind chatting to this woman he had waited in the dark for. “How was your journey?”

“Well, thank you.” She leaned forward slightly to better hear him, the cars engine was as loud as it was powerful it seemed. “How far is it? I have been needing to take a pee since halfway here on the train.”

The driver laughed, a flash of white teeth in the blue light, then pointed toward a small hilltop where she could see soft yellow lights glowing through the trees. “Just there. Only a few minutes.”

She could wait a few minutes. She settled back into her seat and felt the knot in her belly growing slightly. For the past month she had sat in Madrid, wandering the ancient streets, pretending to be a British university student, living in cheap lodgings, waiting for something to happen. When she had come to Spain from Rhodesia, at the discreet invitation of Delgado himself, she had expected action right away. There had been only silence until two days ago when she was sitting down to a dinner of oxtail soup and stuffed mushrooms.

A pretty Spanish girl with long black hair had sat down next to her and casually inquired if she had ever been to the Tower of London. It was a casual enough question but it was also part of Delgado’s prearranged code. The two women had flirted lightly and then Spanish girl laughing passed her a card with her telephone number. When Sara had dialed the number a voice on the other end had given her the address of the little church.

The car climbed the small hill through a grove of Spanish oaks, the headlights playing off the heavy branches thick with leaves and huge wooden trunks. Small animals, deer mostly, vanished in fright into the darkness, their white tails bobbing ludicrously until the forest swallowed them.

A gate and wall, topped with sharpened black spikes, loomed suddenly out of the forest and two men with machine guns slung across their chests stepped into the headlights, hands raised to stop the car. They spared a nod for the driver and then a bright torch snapped on as another picture was compared to her face. Despite the light she caught sight of a pair of floppy ears and great drooling jowls at the edge of the light. Security was tight.

“Bienvenidos a la casa del silencio.” Said the soldier as he stepped back and waved the driver onward. The gate in front of them slowly began to open at a shouted order and the car drew through. The concrete roadway continued toward the distant light and she found herself whistling quietly as they drew closer.

There were any number of old and ancient villas throughout Spain that would have cost a fortune to buy or restore. It seemed that Delgado had decided to build one from scratch and she found herself gaping at the clean lines and masonry of a modern two story villa.

The car stopped at the edge of the drive and her driver leapt out, popped open her door and gestured toward the villa.

“You’re to go right up. They’re expecting you, but don’t ask me where you’ll find them.”

She turned in surprise at the last statement but the driver was already back in the car and shifting into gear to head back down the driveway. As the heavy engine faded into the distance she looked over the villa. She was clearly at the side of the building since no door opened out to greet her but a staircase of fitted blue, white, and yellow tile marched up and away around the corner of the house.

Hefting her duffle bag, half expecting another soldier to appear from the brush, she began to walk up the stairs. Her shoes clicked pleasantly on the tile as she went, a marble balustrade on her left, a wall of falling ivy on her right, turning and rising until she stepped onto a patio that took her breath away.

In front of her, pouring over the edge, was a large pool that glimmered with a deep blue colour. Soft lights glowed everywhere here, highlighting tall strong columns that supported a roof of dark brown tile. The pool was the focal point though and she admired the small fountain that fed it before it emptied at the far end, the water falling into another pool several feet below. It would give any swimmer the impression of a never ending swim into the darkness.

A strong breeze hinted that the trees had been cleared here and she was able to make out an expanse of lawn that carried into the darkness. Everywhere she looked there was well fitted stone and marble trimmed with dark wood. Huge windows, like she had never dreamed of, rose from floor to ceiling to show the inside of the house and she felt her heart skip a beat. Never in her wildest dreams had she expected to see such luxury.

Directly across the pool from her a large room dominated by a semi-circular bench covered in red cushions played host to three men, all of them white, and she was suddenly very conscious of her black skin. She brushed some wrinkles out of her jacket and made her way, now soundless, around the pool until she could easily see the sitting area, lit pleasantly by three electric lamps. She raised a hand and knocked on the wooden frame where windows could be fitted for the window.

“Ah, Senorita Reicker, welcome. Please come in.” Delgado stood as he spoke, a warm smile on his face. He did not wait for her to come to him but rather he took two strides and embraced her in the Spanish fashion with a kiss on either cheek. “Please, be seated.” He gestured to his own place as he took her jacket and placed it across the back of the red cushions before pouring her a small glass of wine from the decanter on the table.

“Thank you, Viceroy. This is a lovely home you have.” She could barely tear her eyes away from the interior of the house now that she could see it. It was nothing like the gaping 18th Century Palaces of Madrid, or the “new” buildings of her native Rhodesia.

“I would like to take credit, but all I did was pay for it.” He replied with a smile, and then indicated the other two men, both of whom likewise stood to greet her. “General Marc Marginedas of the Cazadores, and Manuel Casal of the Servicio Nacional de Investigación. Gentlemen, this is Sara Reicker of whom I have told you.”

“You are as dangerous as you are beautiful the Viceroy tells us, Senorita.” Said Casal with a small bow.

“Thank you.” The compliment had been well given without being to forward. This was perhaps the reason she had liked Delgado so much the first time she met him, that fact that she was a woman, and a black one at that, did not appear to bother him at all.

“Wine.” It wasn’t a question as Delgado passed her a small glass of the red liquid. She had no palate for wine and would not have known a good one if it slapped her in the face, but she sipped it anyway, nodding her thanks.

“To business then.” Delgado continued as he carried a chair into the room from the nearby dining area, placing it so he could face the other three. She noted that there were no papers on the heavy wooden table in front of them and, as far as she could tell, no one else anywhere nearby.

“You three have been gathered here to help me with a delicate problem, shall we say. Spain is an Empire that is perched on a dangerous precipice. Spain herself, Portugal, and the Midi-Pyrenees are firmly in the control of officers and men loyal to me. The bulk of the army posted to Africa and charged with subduing Algeria, however, is not. We took great care to ship most of the Royalist officers loyal to our young King over with the invasion force to keep them occupied.”

He glanced up at the others to see if they were following. Sara was privately wondering what on earth this had to do with her but she was starting to get some inkling as Delgado continued.

“With most of Algeria under our control those officers are going to be looking to come home, and their men with them. That potentially places a well armed and experienced fighting force in a position to destabilize the country.”

“Señor Casal, who has been keeping an eye on the mutterings for me, has informed me that our much beloved Head of the Inquisition has been in touch with these enterprising officers and suggested that they might do Spain a great favour by removing me. I do not have to tell you how a civil war would devastate this country. The Old King did a fine thing keeping us out of the Great War and look how we have prospered. But now we are faced with the possibility of ending up like Ethiopia with a young idiot in charge backed by very enthusiastic supporters who see their own means easily brought to fruition by propping up that same weak leader and using him to their own end.”

Delgado turned his deep green eyes on Sara and she felt the power of his personality bear down on her. The man was charismatic as anyone she had ever met, and his handsome Spanish features did a lot for her.

“This is where you come in Senorita. The Royalists are planning to have a victory parade in Algiers in two weeks’ time, and it is well deserved. However, there is also a planned staff meeting the day before with the majority of the Royalist officers invited.” Casal has easily taken up the thread of conversation. “Your mission, Sara, will be to ensure that those who attend that meeting do not survive.”

That was a lot to think about all of sudden and Sara stared at the three men in silence for a moment. She had certainly killed before, but never multiple men, and never military ones, at the same time. “Did you have a plan in mind?”

“No.” Delgado answered simply. “I will admit I had suggested we just drop a bomb on them but that might just give the Royalists more ammunition to say I am not to be trusted.” He shrugged at her bemused smile.

“You will have a free hand, an unlimited budget, and all the resources of the Cazadores and the SNI at your disposal. This is our top priority at the moment, including even the problems in Portugal.” Casal was speaking again.

“You will allow me to do this however I want?” Sara was acutely aware of the tremendous amount of power that was being placed in her hand, and the ramifications if she failed.

“Yes.” Delgado smiled. “And I don’t need to say something as cliché as “Tell anyone and we kill you”. Instead I will offer you this. When you succeed you will be paid a sum of one million pesetas and, if you wish to, a top role in the SNI.”

For an orphan from the depths of Africa, the sum of money Delgado had just offered Sara was staggering. She could a city in Rhodesia for that kind of money. She blinked a couple of times as her mind began to race. Money and a desk job, she wouldn’t have to risk her life in the field anymore. It was an offer that no sane person in her position could refuse. She leaned forward and raised her glass.

“We had best begin working on a plan.”
"Ready oars!" The crashing bark echoed throughout the hull, snapping him out of his reverie. His face was wet from the waves and his tongue tasted salt as he ran it along his upper lip. For the last hour he had lain quietly against the hull enjoying the sensation that was like a slow heartbeat inside his chest. It had been so long since such an immense power had been near at hand and he wanted it, wanted it badly enough that he missed the call to "Out Oars" and so took a heavy lash across the shoulders.

His assailant did not say a word but simply turned and lashed out at another chained victim. The slaver crew, many of whom had been on the ship twenty years fewer than he, had long ago learnt that he did not feel pain as they did, was not afraid of their lash, and healed far quickly than some of the others. They often joked, calling him "Elder", which was fair enough. Some even developed a bit of a rapport, bringing him extra food, and listening to his stories of far away lands. He did little to cause trouble and never joined in any agitation from the other slaves. The slavers had noted his reluctance to get involved and gave him some leeway as a result.

Rippling biceps flexed and his shoulders bulged as he dug the heavy oar into the sea, pulling with the beat of the drum. His fear, for the last few days, had been that the stone was in another vessel and would begin to draw away again. But those fears had been laid to rest when he had glimpsed the land on the horizon and the pull of the jewel grew more powerful. He was getting closer.

The drum beat was steady and ceaseless. Above him he could hear the rush of feet as sailors brought the sails rippling down, the galley turning into the wind for its find approach to a yet unseen city. Though he had seen much of the world before this would be his first visit to the far south and he was curious despite himself. There was no shortage of legends about the beauty of the women here, the wealth of the great city, the extravagance of its Marharaja.

Even if he hadn't been feeling the power of the stone growing, he would have enjoyed other changes that were being brought on by the nearness of such a powerful artifact. His senses were slowly heightening. He could see more clearly than he had in decades, his hearing was more acute, and his sense of smell told him that the city had recently seen some heavy rain. It was maddening that he was still chained in the stinking hulk of a ship.

Therein lay his ultimate problem. While he might heal more quickly, feel less pain, and have ever improving senses, he was still mortal. He could be killed like any man or elf. There was no protection against a sword through the ribs or having your head hacked off without some powerful magic and at the moment the best he could do was even less than a con-artist magician. It was infuriating.

He chided himself quietly. Counselling patience. He had been this way for almost four hundred years, forty of them on this damn boat. Another few days, weeks, months, even years, would not matter. He would have his revenge.
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The Territories, Rashidun
-----------------------------

Pain was her companion, from the tips of her toes to the top of her head, her limbs felt like they were on fire, her chest felt as though she were being crushed, her breath came in ragged gasps and sweat stung her eyes, leaving trails in the dust that caked her skin. She was oblivious to the strong breeze that was blowing in from the mountains and strong scent of spice that came with it, the sweet inviting smell that had destroyed so many lives in the little town below her.

One foot in front of the other. She kept repeating it over and over again to herself as she ran, eyes focused on the narrow goat track in front of her. Her long black hair seemed to float behind her like a dark cloud despite an emerald green clasp at the back of her skull. One hand held a short spear, the other a light shield, and she wore only a thin white robe for protection from the thorny branches that tore at her as she passed.

Birds burst into the air screaming in protest as she tore through a small clearing, her footsteps loud as they echoed back from a small rock face decorated with a shrine to some local deity. She glanced up. The summit was nearing, one more bend and it was a straight sprint to the top. She tucked her chin down, summoned all her courage, and picked up her pace.

Her legs were screaming at her, every fibre of the muscles that rippled through her shapely body seemed ready to burst at any moment but she could not, would not stop. Her shoulders ached from carrying the shield and spear. Her feet hurt, bruises already well formed on the soles. Even her abs felt as though they simply wanted to give up. She gloried in it. The pain meant she was getting stronger.

The final bend dropped away and she found herself on a straight section of path. It was flanked on either side by short grass and small purple flowers that grew in abundance throughout the mountain meadows. Ahead of her was a small pool, no more than a table in size, with stones that stood about it like a wall. She had built that wall to give herself to have a bit of privacy when she exercised and now, as she saw it, she poured the last of her energy into a headlong sprint.

The remaining distance seemed to fall away in a flash as she powered through her last few strides. She passed the outer edge of the wall at a full sprint, almost tripping relief as she dropped the spear and shield with a clatter. It took her several yards to come to a complete halt, her breath coming in desperate gasps as she nearly toppled onto the ground. She steadied herself on the wall and took deep breathes in through her nose, aware for the first time of the spice. It was a faint but still pleasant scent that mingled strangely with that of her own sweat. She wiped at the moisture running down her face and managed only to rub dirt into her eye. She cursed and rubbed at it some more, still gasping for air.

Dirt somewhat under control, she straightened her back, pulled off her sweat soaked robe and tossed it to one side. The breeze, ignored until now, felt wonderful on her naked skin as she stood, arms spread, face to the sun, taking deep breaths to calm her body. She stood that way for several minutes, eyes closed, her breathing slowly returning to normal. When she felt sufficiently recovered she began a stretching routine.

At length she opened a pair of midnight black eyes and looked around her. She was on the top of a small mountain that rose above her village. It was no name, it was simply a smaller part of a much larger peak behind her. She could see small figures moving about between the houses below and she fancied that at least one of them might have seen her but she didn't care. She didn't plan to stay for much longer.

Beyond the village the long range of mountains marched into the hazy distance. A great forest carpeted the lower slopes and only a handful of sparsely inhabited villages were betrayed by the small curls of blue wood smoke that rose above them. The folk here were a simple lot, raising sheep and pigs, harvesting wood to sell in the lowlands, but only enough to get by. No one here had much ambition. The world seemed to stand still at the best of times.

But not for Aharish. She was her parents only daughter and she wanted to fight. Even as a little girl she had sought out conflict with the boys her age and, though she took some beatings, she quickly began to win. Her parents, like most of the locals, had been impressed. Was the Queen's own guard not filled with such women? They had encouraged her and her father often gloated about her fighting ability.

To Aharish it was only natural, the desire to be the fastest, the strongest. She had not even been aware of life beyond her little valley until she was old enough to witness the arrival of the Heralds. The two, for they always travelled in pairs, had come to help settle a land dispute. They attended the remote regions like hers every several months to mediate disputes, pass judgements, and bring news from the Queen.

Aharish had been spellbound as the two riders, clad all in white and riding white horses, had rode into town. As was custom the Heralds had been fed by the village Headman and then a long table was set before the small temple. The Heralds sat behind it while the villagers brought forward grievances, real or imagined. Aharish did not remember what had been discussed that day but she had never forgotten the awe she felt when looking upon the Heralds. They were both women, superbly fit, and clad, she discovered, not in white cloth, but fine white leather armour, specially crafted to fit them individually, taken from rare beats that lived deep in the Caliphates interior.

Aharish had been to shy to approach the pair but they returned again six months later and her mother had pushed her forward to speak to them. Her mother had hurriedly explained how her daughter was the toughest child in the village and they had laughed but one of the Heralds, the taller of the two, had taken a knee to speak to the little girl. She had hair like Aharish, jet black, and her cream coloured skin glowed with the warmth of the days late sun. She had been beautiful to Aharish.

The little girl and the Herald had spoken for some time. Aharish learnt more in the short time about the world beyond her valley and from that moment on knew that she was going to be a Herald one day. The other children had laughed and teased her but as she grew older and her body developed she began to train, and train hard. Once a week she travelled to a nearby Temple where a Priest, once a soldier, trained her in what weapons he knew. To her delight, and his admiration, she was a natural born fighter.

Now, as she turned and walked toward the small pool, she could feel all the aches and pains, the bruises and broken bones, that she had suffered in the twelve years since she first saw the Heralds. She could feel the burning in her lungs from all of the running she had done. She could see the scars on her arms and legs suffered during any number of activities. But most of all she could feel the burning desire deep down inside of her, the desire to be the best.

She dipped a toe into the pool and smiled to herself. It was warm. The black rock that formed the mountains in this region were volcanic and many small pools like this were heated by water coming from deep within the earth. She gingerly lowered herself into the pool, the heat instantly relieving some of her aches. The bottom was smooth, though covered in small rocks, but nothing else grew in the water. She had wondered if it was unsafe but a travelling Chemist had assured her that it was simply heavy copper deposits in the mountains that, once leaked into the water, proved poisonous to plants. Though he did advise she not drink any of it.

She lay back until her whole body was submerged save for her face, her black hair floating around her like some strange cloud. The sky above her was a shocking blue colour, completely devoid of any smoke or clouds, a pure and stunning colour. The Heralds would be returning in the next month and when they came she would submit herself for examination.

This meant a physical inspection and the Trials. The Trials. They had no other name but they were legend throughout Rashidun, and a closely guarded secret. Every Herald or Maiden, the Queens elite guard, were required to undergo them before even being considered for the actual selection tests that took place in the capital, Rashidun. Those who failed died.

Rashidun, there was another unknown. Aharish had never left the valley, rarely even her village save for the Temple. She had heard of Rashidun of course, the capital. A million people. A million! She couldn't even begin to fathom the number. She had seen flocks of sheep numbering in the hundreds, those had seemed a large enough number for anyone.

She closed her hands into fists and then stretched her fingers out, letting the warmth ease the tension she felt in every fibre of her being. She closed her eyes and began to relax. She would be ready when the Heralds returned.
@Dinh AaronMk If its a vote, I say no discord
@Duck You could hit up a Rhaetian merchantman or two. Think Xebec in design.
@Letter BeeSolid passive aggressive start. Just join. Yeesh.
@CrusadeMap link ain’t working bru


The Rashidun Caliphate




History:
The Khurasanid Highlands were, for thousands of years, ruled by a collection of smaller Kingdoms and Empires who saw it as a region to exploit for its fantastic creatures, wide spread vistas, and huge old-growth forests that stretched beyond the sight of any mortal. Mineral wealth washed down from the Highlands, bringing great luxury to regions like Jonaçoat, and only the bravest climbed into the deep woods. That was until the rains came.

When the Great Deluge began there was a single city, Rashidun, translated into the common tongue as "The Smoke that Thunders", perched on the edge of the Highlands, surrounded on all sides by mighty rivers. As the rain hammered down the rivers and their nexus at a mighty series of waterfalls ultimately saved the city. As the kingdoms of men in the lowlands began to drown, the displaced citizens began to force their way into the highlands only to find a great delta forming that thwarted their attempts to master it.

King and Emperors demanded that Rashidun throw open her gates but the folk within refused and, led by their Queen, Māwiyya, they fought a spirited defense until the rivers at last grew to much for their enemies, forcing them to withdrew in disorder. The people of Rashidun began to pray that day, to give thanks, as they had not done in many hundreds of years, a call to the gods for their deliverance. One, Kibibi, heard their prayers, and the raging waters never pierced the city walls.

When the rains faded and the sun came out once again, Rashidun still stood and the populace erected a great temple to honour the gods on the cities southern edge, offering yearly human sacrifice to Kibibi for her favour. Even as the city was saved, the Highlands themselves began to drain into the ocean and the mighty delat and swamps that had saved Rashidun revealed a new and wonderful landscape to be claimed by those who had survived.

As another day dawns, the people of Rashidun have grown to become a powerful Caliphate, ruled still by the bloodline of Māwiyya that saved them so long ago. The Highlands, once isolated from the lowlands by towering cliffs, maintains a stunning vista of white sand beaches protected by the savage rock formations below surface. Only a few safe harbours allow ships to drop anchor and they are closely guarded by the Rashi. The island is a fortress unto itself with with a yearly Moonsoon that sweeps the interior, and heavy fog that rolls through, clinging to the mountains and treetops. The locals say that the fog are the spirits of those who drowned when the world was reborn. It is a constant reminder of how close they, as people, came to extinction.

Post Catalogue:
1. Training for the Trials


The Khurasanid Highlands




History:
The Khurasanid Highlands were, for thousands of years, ruled by a collection of smaller Kingdoms and Empires who saw it as a region to exploit for its fantastic creatures, wide spread vistas, and huge open savannahs that stretched beyond the sight of any mortal. Mineral wealth here washed down from the Highlands, bringing great wealth to regions like Jonaçoat, while seeing little human interaction. That is until the rains came.

When the Great Deluge began there was a single city, Mosi-oa-Tunya, translated into the common tongue as "The Smoke that Thunders", that sat at the edge of the Highlands, surrounded on all sides by the mighty rivers that swelled to even greater strengths with the rain. As the kingdoms of men in the lowlands began to drown they forced their way into the highlands only to find a great delta forming that thwarted their attempts to master it.

King and Emperors demanded that Mosi-oa-Tunya throw open its gates but the folk within refused and, led by their Queen Kibibi, they fought a spirited defense until the rivers at last grew to much for their enemies who withdrew in disorder. It is said that the people of Mosi-oa-Tunya began to pray that day as they had not done in many hundreds of years, pray to the gods for mercy. Perhaps one took pity on the piety of the people, or perhaps nature itself found a way, but the raging waters never pierced the city walls.

When the rains faded and the sun came out once more Mosi-oa-Tunya still stood and the populace erected a great temple to honour the gods on the cities southern edge and yearly they offer human sacrifice to the gods for their favour. Even as the city was saved, the Highlands themselves began to drain into the ocean and the delta that had saved Mosi-oa-Tunya now saved it once again as its people moved out to claim the great expanse.

As another day dawns, the people of Mosi-oa-Tunya have grown to be known as the People of Khurasanid, ruled still by the bloodline of Kibibi that saved them so long ago. The Highlands, no longer isolated from the lowlands by towering cliffs still maintain a rugged coastline with few safe harbours. It is a fortress unto itself with a yearly Moonsoon that sweeps the interior of the Highlands, bringing life to rivers and lakes gone dry through the summer months. It is a constant reminder of how close they, as people, came to extinction.
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