The windswept, rust-tinged plains of Tharsis fell behind Tosh, formally of the House du'Vaul, as his rented saurial mount plodded along the Ancient's Road. The dark green of the dome-headed mount clashed with the red-orange sand of Mars. The wastes that swept outward from the dark Ancient's Road on either side were dry, dreary, and deserted. The road they followed was the Ancient's Road, set down and sealed so that no sand, nor wind, nor foot, or wagon wheel could damage the dark, midnight-blue stone path, winding its way from Gods' Home to the Tharsis Crossroads, Lotus, Tharsis Prime, and eventually, End Road. The road was a merchant's dream with its well-stocked way stations positioned every fifty leagues, and with no need to have them maintained, no road tax or travel tax. The stations themselves were stocked by some ancient magi-tech that none in the Mercantile League dared exploit for fear of breaking the wonderful way-station and losing a place to stay. Yet Tosh did fear one thing the road brought.
The ancient foe had harried merchants like Tosh since the invention of commerce, whether on Earth using the ancient horse and sword, bow, or firearms or after the secrets of rocketry and space flight were gained by humans. Space pirates and banditry on other planets had become the way of life for those not rich enough to afford the Gate, or the price for using the Guild to travel. Bandits were a constant harassment.
Looking back over his small merchant caravan, the tri-horn behind him bellowed. It made Tosh wary. What is he bellowing about? Tosh turned in his saddle to look at the tri-horn pulling the bulk of his cargo. His domehead mount held his personal belongings and a few odds and ends he might have needed for barter if Tosh came across a fellow merchant… or savages of the Southern Martian tribes. The packs on the tri-horn that were tethered to his mount held provisions as well as the bulk of Tosh's trade goods for the southern villages and cities. It was a cornucopia of farming tools, machine parts, a handful of the latest entertainment cubes, and old-fashioned wooden toys. "One never knew what one needed. Customers never do," his uncle and one-time head of House Du'Vaul echoed in Tosh's mind. The rest of the bulk of the tri-horn cargo was the most precious commodity in the desert climes of Mars.
Water was held in small jugs and big clay urns that ringed the mammoth beast, creating bulges of ceramics. A large tanker was also strapped to the tri-horn, trailing behind the mule-stubborn creature. The tanker also held the four guards that Tosh had paid for with the last of his coin. He had to make money on this trip, or he would be destitute, and his family would disown him. Well, more like complete the disowning. Since his uncle's death, when his father took over, Tosh wasn't welcome. This journey was Tosh's one and only chance to prove he could be a merchant like the rest of the men of the family. And my choices in other personal matters haven't helped.
He looked up to see the faint light of the Daystar Jove off near the horizon. He had been to Mars many times, usually with his father. The dark red dot on the horizon was an omen, he believed. A sign that he would have success with his endeavors in Tharsis Crossroads. He tried not to look for Deimos, where one of his family’s manors stood. There would be no help if bandits attacked.
Turning, he looked upon the grim, dark-eyed men and women in piecemeal armor and a hodgepodge of weapons. It was the best Tosh could afford, from Deke, whose whole body bristled with hilts of blades, to Sophie, whose single spear was serpent-quick and twice as venomous. The leader of the four sell-swords was Isa-Bal-Mu'hal, a near-human from Io if Tosh had to guess. Isa kept himself covered in a dark cloak with hands and feet wrapped in rags to hide his scaly skin. But the large-bore long gun he doted over like a babe was intimidating and spoke more than his sibilant speech.
Then, there was Zella.
Zella was from the Northern Tribes, twice as comely as any tribeswoman he'd been with before. Bearing the tribal knots of a Darken Tribe, one of the more ruthless of the Northern tribes, he knew that his money was well spent with her around. She glanced at Tosh, and for a moment, he felt a shiver run down his spine and tried to stop his hand from running over his bearded cheeks. Though her eyes were too far apart, the gunmetal grey of her eyes still haunted him from their first meeting in Gods' Home.
Tosh had been with many tribesman and women from both hemispheres, yet there was something about her that was intriguing and disquieting. She spoke no more than ten words to him on the trip to the Tharsis Crossroads. He was sure if it wasn't for the coin and the water he provided, she would as likely gut him and take what she wanted from his corpse than help. She had come to his bed on more than one occasion. With his treatments, Tosh made her cry out more than once with pleasure. She was much more of an aggressor than any lover Tosh had had before. Or thought possible. She's skilled, but I'll be glad when we part ways. Zella and her slender sword and dagger had helped with three attacks on the journey South. I wonder how many more before we reach End Road? Or even before we reach the Crossroads.
Pushing his thoughts from maudlin and morbid things, he turned back in his saddle to watch the large peach-and-ochre domes that encased the city of the Tharsis Crossroads. Small blue minarets sprouted from the domes at pleasing angles. Supposedly to help the Caliph's Oasis, it kept the moisture and the vegetation lush on the inside of the enormous polished central stone dome. The oasis itself was a place Tosh had been once. He had been with his father. Tosh had learned that it was best to be quiet and not present much of a target when he was younger. When Tosh had last been to see the Caliph, his father had tried to sell the youthful Tosh for a few bars of gold. Tosh's uncle had stepped in to forbid the sale.
Tosh chuckled to push the fear away. "If this deal goes well, I might see the oasis again. And this time, it will be as a friend of the Caliph." He heard his father's mocking laugh in the back of his head that burned his cheeks and darkened his mood again. His eyes went to the tattoo gauge on his wrist. The serpent biting its own tail. Three-fourths of it was green, meaning he had time before his next injection.
A moment later, he heard the blare of a horn used by his guards. He sawed the reins of the domehead to make it stop, and the creature stopped after a few more plodding, irritated steps. Tosh started to look around, trying to see where the danger was coming from.
The sands shifted on either side of the Ancient's Road, where the forms of several bandits in sand cloaks sprang from the ground, crying out in a din of hoots and undulating cries. Most of them held swords or crossbows; but the leader, who strode into the path of Tosh and his mount, held an ancient-looking pistol of some kind in one hand and a dagger in the other. It looked as though it had been bodged together from at least three different firearms. Tosh heard the whine of the battery from the device. A ray gun? Wonderful…He didn't trust ray guns and half-hoped the thing would blow up in the leader's hand. Tosh didn't want to depend on the flight of fancy for his safety. Tosh kept his hands where they could be seen.
The leader had a strange leather-like mask on, with small bars of bone to protect his mouth. Tosh could only see the sun-darkened, cracked lips of the leader, the rest of his form wrapped in bandages and leathers. The eyes were hidden by smoked-glass goggles. "Please my friend, do not struggle, don't react poorly." The hodgepodge ray gun held on Tosh never wavered as the leader spoke in a charming baritone. "We have come for a few things, nothing more. Give them to us and we will let you go without harm. Sound good?"
Tosh smiled. Fools. He turned his head to look at his guards with a grand flourish of his hands. "Why should I? I hired the best—"
He stopped in mid-sentence when his guards dropped off the water wagon, and clasped hands with and slapped the backs of several raiders, as if greeting lifetime friends after a long absence.
A laugh came from the leader as the tall barbarian Zella strode past Tosh, staring at him with her gunmetal-cold eyes and stepped behind the leader of the bandits. A small smile pulled at the scar of her face, making the smile look more vicious and cold than Tosh thought possible.
Tosh felt panic sweep over him. Only one word tumbled from his mouth over and over. "What…what…what…"
"You were tricked, my friend. I am sorry," the leader said. "You will live. I swear by my name, Azal Kamir."
"It is business," the leader said. The leader then nodded towards Tosh.
He turned a moment too late. A sharp strike from the hilt of one of Deke's sword pommels took Tosh hard, slamming him into unconsciousness.