The Wandering Kingdom by Trevor Gulliver

Before I was a historian, I was a scribe owned by a minor mercantile house. Before I recorded the deeds of great men, I scribbled notes on debts owed, paid, and promised. My life changed on one day with one choice—my first choice freely made. My life as an historian began when I first met my new owner. This was also the beginning of my life as a free person.

A human woman and a dwarven man purchased me on behalf of their master, the Lord of Five Tents. They pointed me to a crate on the back of their already overloaded wagon and we set off westward on paths traveled only by military patrols, fools, and fugitives. I was not yet sure which we were.

Our passage through the orc-ruled lands of the Hold of Belkzen was eventful but I have written of it elsewhere. The demure but eccentric elderly human woman bartered with the bellicose orcish tribal chiefs with surprising ease. Called Khar-Tanok by the orcs, she had a remarkable facility with both the orcish language and culture. The orcs gazed upon the dwarven priest, Varin, and me with obvious disgust but left us alone when Khar-Tanok was near.

By the time we left the Hold, our wagon dragged heavily through the mud, overloaded with the curious mix of shoddy merchandise that we received from the orcs in trade for high quality goods. When I asked Varin why we exchanged well-made wooden barrels full of wine, good axes, and thick, wool blankets for bundles of stone-tipped arrows, bags of red sand, ropes of shredded rags, and clay kegs of undrinkable alcohol, he only smiled and nodded to the woman with a shrug. “Ask the witch,” he said. I did not ask.

Our destination, Varin told me, was an encampment on the constantly shifting border between the Worldwound and the Realm of the Mammoth Lords. I had heard stories of both places but believed little of what I had heard.

We approached the camp from the east. “Friends,” boomed a cheerful voice as a muscular figure leapt up onto a small rise to the left of the trail. Silhouetted with sun at his back, he struck a heroic pose. “As Lord of Five Tents, I bid you welcome.”

Squinting up at the man I knew would be my new master, I made out little of his features. He nodded to the dwarf and the human woman. Varin chuckled through his beard and made a loose and mocking salute, “As you ordered, my lord, one slave who can write, sing, and tell tales, but does not embellish unless needed or necessary.”

“Ha! Well, halfling, greetings. I am your master and, as such, by the laws of most lands, I can free you if I choose. I choose to do so now. You are free. Go where you wish.”

He paused, no doubt to enjoy the startled look on my face, then continued “I invite you, however, as a free person with the right to choose your own destiny, to join us; join Five Tents as its scribe. If you decline, we will pay you for your service of the last week, which largely consisted, I hope, of keeping your head down and saying little. You will go with our thanks for your time and apologies for the bad company you were forced to keep. If you accept, however, we promise you irregular pay, unpredictable cooking, and adventures worth writing about. Which do you choose?”

It did not occur to me at that instant that being permitted to wander free but alone in an unknown land, far from any familiar habitation, just north of the hostile Hold of Belkzen was not much of a choice. At that point, I was so impressed with this magnificent, generous noble that I would have chosen to follow him regardless. Had he made me the same offer outside of a Calistrian temple with my pockets full of gold, I would have still chosen to follow him rather than linger in the warm embrace of the priestesses. I bowed a little and then spoke, “I’ll be your scribe but I don’t know much beyond keeping account books. My words are common and I write simply.”

He stepped down and took my hand, drawing me close. I tried to hide my surprise at the bestial features that marked him as half-orc. “Just write what you see,” he said. “And, you will see much. I am Skaldwell, Lord of Five Tents.”

Satisfied and amused, he turned from me now to the human woman, and asked, “What else have you brought me?”

“Things you will soon find you need,” answered Khar-Tanok as Varin signaled for me to leave them and follow him into the camp.

Five Tents struck me as oddly named at first, as there were, at that time, fifteen tents. The tent at the center of the camp was not the largest but was the most grandiose. Its colorful pennants and streamers flapped in breeze calling out for attention. The boastfulness of the tent alone marked it as that of Lord Skaldwell. Four other tents had as much character, though each in their own way. These belonged to the four other founders of the camp, two of which, the priest and the witch, I had come to know a little on my journey. Around these five tents were smaller tents that borrowed their style and character from the larger tents they neighbored and several purely functional tents that held supplies and were left unadorned.

I soon stopped short as my eyes fell upon a massive fur covered creature with a trunk like the elephants on Garundi pottery. A tattooed Elven woman clad in armor made from the scales of what must have been a fairly large reptile stood beside it. “Is that a mammoth?” I asked Varin.

“Other mammoths don’t think so,” answered Varin with a laugh urging me onwards. “They think he’s a pint-sized imitation of a mammoth, which is probably why they forced him out of the herd. We call him Tarphut.”

Tarphut cocked his head, swung his trunk, and blew up a cloud of dust in warning to the dwarf.

“Speaking of sickly, ill-tempered runts cast out from the mighty Realm of the Mammoth Lords, where’s the cavalier?” the dwarf asked.

“Tarphut does not know,” said the Elven woman, Arna. “He left camp with three of his riders scouting for a creature that wandered out of the blasted wound. Only Tarphut returned. This was four days ago.” I later learned that Arna and the cavalier they spoke of were the other two founders of Five Tents.

“Four days?” the dwarf grimaced as if physically hurt and stared east for a few moments, into the growing shadows. “And what are we doing about it?”

“We are preparing to hunt the demon he was pursuing,” said Skaldwell, joining us. “With luck, we’ll find the cavalier riding its back, trying to tame him as a mount. Scribe, embellishment will be neither needed nor necessary, for this promises to be the greatest of hunts!”

The dwarf seemed satisfied but remained sunken into his own thoughts after this.

The camp bustled with activity. Despite the apparent loss of one of its beloved founders, this community of thrillseekers, holy warriors, and hunters was excited at the battle they prepared for. Besides Varin, Khar-Tanok, Skaldwell, and the elf, there were fourteen retainers. Of diverse ancestry and talents, they had two things in common: a gleam in their eyes when they spoke of tomorrow’s hunt and an obvious affection for the half-orc.

Several of these retainers sought me out in the days that followed, wishing to advise and guide me in my new role as the scribe for this community. That Lord Skaldwell had purchased (and freed) me so that I could write of his adventurers did not strike any of them as pompous or flamboyant. Each of them seemed to hold their leader in as much awe as I did – as much awe as he held himself in. Skaldwell’s obsession with adventure, his enthusiasm for the hunt, and his certainty that tomorrow held greatness was so infectious that each member of this tiny community believed themselves at the beginning of a story worth telling. Their lives were becoming myths as they lived them. Although Skaldwell referred to this little encampment as ‘Five Tents,’ others called it ‘The Wandering Kingdom’ in anticipation of events to come, events with which you, my reader of histories, are no doubt familiar. “Describe things as you see them,” the camp’s cook advised me. “It will make a better tale someday if they know how it all started. Describe him as he is … describe his humble origins.”

The Wandering Kingdom continues in Part 2