Chapter 35: Sketchy Negotiations
The coast line was dark, with only the pale beach standing out in a thin strip of gray against the dark scrub and sparse trees of the land. Just a short ways of the island was a small, unassuming boat bobbing in the surf. The boat was mostly empty. The only sign of inhabitance was a lone earth pony with his hat tucked back behind his ears playing a game of cards with two others.
"How long we supposed to be waitin' here for?" Blackjack asked.
Whirl glanced towards the beach, "As long as it takes. Could be a while."
"Well, as long as I just get to relax here and wait." He tossed a few bits onto the portable table they'd brought up, "Raise ya twenty bits."
Whirl looked cross, "Fold!" He threw down his cards.
"Ha ha ha," Blackjack flipped over his cards, just a two and a three, and raked in the small pile of currency between them. "Pleasure doin' business with ya, who's up for another round?" The other two groaned.
Not far away, where the water met the sand, two clawed paws crept out of the gentle surf and quietly up on land. Swift crouched, her ears perked up and alert. When she didn't detect anything, she reached for her throat. "The beach is clear and the land silent."
High above, two dark shapes circled lazily amongst the moon drenched clouds. "Copy that, looks all clear from up here."
Behind Swift Paws, four more figures rose from the water; two on two legs and two on four, and waded up onto the beach. "Ok," Jackson spoke into his mic, "dry off as best you can and move up cautiously. We don't know wether or not these guys will be friendly, so don't attack unless you are attacked."
The team joined Swift Paws, who immediately shook her fur violently, sending droplets of salty water everywhere. Other than a slightly miffed Mayfield, they moved on to dry land without incident. The land itself was strange on its own, with mostly rocky outcroppings and few, if any, dense areas of foliage they could exploit for cover.
Off in the distance, a low glow on the earth could be seen. It was their destination, at the main settlement on the island. The plan was to get as close as possible without being challenged. Then Jackson, Cray and Iron would announce themselves and hopefully enter the village peacefully. Mayfield, Swift, Redflare and Kai would remain out of sight on overwatch, just in case.
They started off towards the settlement, Swift Paws leading the way with her keen hearing and sharp sense of smell. Jackson and Cray followed close behind, cautious of their rear. Jackson glanced at his watch, the time it displayed felt at odds with the perpetual night they endured. "It's 1437, we'll approach the village and try to make contact at 15. If for some reason shit goes sour and you don't hear from us by 1530, bug out and regroup at Blackjack's boat."
"Gotcha Jacko." Mayfield replied in his ear. "Got a top spot up here, setting up and keeping two on you. By the way, keep an eye out yourself, movement around perimeter, could be sentries."
"Thanks for the heads up. We're moving in, keep it cool."
"No worries there, mate. I'll just sit here with a cuppa and watch you get your block knocked."
"Just keep an eye out, will ya?"
They kept up their pace towards the village, taking it slow. Jackson briefly wondered if it might be a better idea to announce their presence and avoid spooking the inhabitants, but thought he'd rather face off with them in a place where he could grab some cover than out in an open field. Up ahead, Swift Paws signaled for a stop. Jackson and Cray halted and knelt down in the short scrub while the Diamond Dog stealthily forged ahead.
"Something the matter?" Cray asked.
Jackson briefly sighted up on the village with his optics. There was no movement, just a few low camp fires. "Probably not, but better to be safe."
"We should be really careful when we make contact in there."
"Why so?" Jackson asked, squinting into the darkness.
"Lotkin are particularly fond of testing their strength in battle, it's how they move up in their society." Cray explained.
"Yeah? Didn't notice." Jackson said mockingly.
"Yeah, well because of this, they're always looking for an excuse to fight, especially with outsiders. There's about three different ways to say 'thank you' in their language and about a hundred times as many to challenge somepony."
Jackson cocked an eyebrow, "You speak it?"
Cray's chest swelled up in pride "Well, not entirely fluently, but pretty good I guess." He gloated.
"Good, you're my interpreter. Don't fuck up."
Cray shrank a little and swallowed hard, "I'll try not to."
Then out of the darkness, they heard a short yelp. The two of them snapped rigidly alert. Jackson keyed his radio, "Swift, you ok? Swift, talk to me."
Then, his radio crackled painfully in his ear, "Jackson, you gotta move, now! They— oh, fu—" Mayfield's voice abruptly cut off.
Jackson pressed two fingers to his ear. "Dammit. Toph, what was that? Topher?"
"Hey, Chief?" Cray said nervously.
"Shh!" Jackson responded tersely.
"Chief, they're here."
Jackson rounded on the mustang patterned unicorn, harsh words on the tip of his tongue, until he looked up. They were surrounded, about eight of them. Eight craggy, chiseled Lotkin, their dappled gray and green skin blending with the scrub brush of the island and the pale light of the moon. The tips of their spears and crossbow bolts glinted in the soft light, all aimed at Jackson's and Cray's necks.
"Well, fuck." Jackson grunted, slowly raising his empty hands, letting his weapon dangle on it's strap. He nudged Cray with his foot. "Your time to shine. Tell them we mean no harm and we want to speak to who ever's in charge."
"That's not gonna sound so good armed as we are."
"Just do it!" Jackson hissed.
Cray winced and cleared his throat, "Uh...Mani afgha zabt mahmoor. Lashka, zu daski aaghah mani bas aiid."
The largest one of their group, presumably the leader, snorted angrily and jabbed his spear at Jackson's Mk 43. "Che sakht! Che sakht jra zesh dask onj aiid?"
"Chon Sojaht-ha bardem. Vali mani afgha zabt mahmoor! Lashka-"
"Cray, if you get us killed..." Jackson muttered.
The group leader shoved Jackson and held its spear point to his throat. "Zabt spak!" He made a motion to two of his subordinates and they moved forward and started taking Cray's and Jackson's weapons. "Zu Gen'da bas gohzarand!" He barked. Once stripped of their weapons, they were turned around and shoved towards the village. Jackson and Cray took the hint and started marching forward.
After a few steps, they were joined by Swift Paws, also suitably disarmed. None of them spoke and instead marched in silence, the cruel looking weapons of their captors never once pointed anywhere but at their throats. Jackson wondered at the cut-off message from Mayfield and hoped he was ok.
In quick time, they made it into the village, finding it less lively than expected. Jackson scanned his surroundings and was puzzled at the lack of activity until he saw a face dart from a window in one of the many large stone huts. It was a cramped place, many of the huts were built closely together, squished into any space or slot they could fit into. This, added to their enormous size made for a very foreboding traped-in feeling, like the entire place was a constantly a moment a way from collapsing on top of them all.
The face Jackson had seen intrigued him. It was small and rounded, nothing like the pointy, angular features of the Lotkin holding him captive. He wondered if he had glimpsed a child or maybe one of their females before he was shoved hardily forward again and the thought was jarred from his mind. He turned briefly to scowl at the culprit, but then moved on.
Their entourage brought them closer to the center of the village and eventually to a massive stone building, one much larger than any of those around it. Like most of the houses, the entrance to this one was adorned with a single cloth made of thick, scratchy wool. One of the warriors moved forward to pull it aside and Jackson and his two teammates were rudely pushed in.
They were now in an enormous rounded space, in the center blazed a fire six feet wide and almost as tall. Smoke curled up towards the conical roof and out a small hole in the very top. On the other side was a great throne, for that was obviously what it was, made of thick rough-hewn granite and sharp edges. It was sparse of any kind of cloth or padding and looked very uncomfortable to sit in, to say the least.
In fact, the rest of the room was mostly Spartan in nature, with only few decorations of painted cloth and skulls of large animals. The floor was simple packed earth and there the three of them were made to kneel, the crackling fire between them and the rocky throne. Their guards posted themselves around the room, three remained behind to stand watch over their prisoners, one went to another large doorway set in the stone wall behind the throne. The weapons Jackson, Swift and Cray had carried were dumped unceremoniously in a corner, well out of reach.
The Lotkin that had retreated to the back room returned shortly and took up a post by the throne. Then came subtle vibrations from the ground. Something massive was making its way near. In the back, a scarred and gnarled hand appeared on one side of the curtain and drew it aside. Out stepped another Lotkin, enormous in stature and certainly extremely dense in weight. Jackson put the new arrival at about ten-foot-nine, head and shoulders above the rest.
In its hands it carried something like a giant stone club. It must have been well carved and taken care of, for the weapon was covered in scenes and figures carved directly into it, it also showed signs of use in battle. Such a weapon must have been made extremely well to stand up to the stress of combat without shattering.
As large as this Lotkin was, it didn't move slowly. It had the lithe grace of a warrior and quickly reached the throne, sinking into the uncomfortable seat and looking down on them with an expression of contempt. Dark lanky hair, tied up in knots, settled over its shoulders like a royal mantle. Through jagged teeth and a voice like a grindstone, it spoke, "Raq Gen'da bard! Che jra zesh dask onj aiid?"
Jackson leaned close to Cray, "What did he say?" He whispered.
Without looking away from the large warrior, Cray whispered back, "He says his name is Gen'da and he's asking why we're here."
"Well, tell him why."
Cray cleared his throat and doing best to conceal the nervousness of his voice said, "Mani Sojaht-hai Equestrii. Raq Cray bard. Anza Swift ji Chief Jackson bardem. Mani carzj reskboden. Mani daski hilfjaht bas porsa'at."
The great big war chief snorted. Then his shoulders began to shake and he started laughing, a sound like a rock slide. "Equestri? Mani'i hilfjaht bas porsa'at?" Then suddenly his demeanor became serious. "Pas cherat aan inj bardimd!?" He spat angrily. He gestured violently towards the entrance. Jackson, Cray and Swift turned their heads and watched as three new arrivals were shoved hard onto the dirt by the fire.
It was Mayfield, Redflare and Kai. Mayfield was a little battered and bloodied, as if he had put up a good fight. The latter two had their wings bound tightly to their sides while Mayfield got up and flailed vehemently as his captors struggled to keep him down. "Oi you ugly cunts, let me up and I'll—" he was silenced as one of the Lotkin struck him heavily across the mouth. Undeterred, Mayfield sat up and looked the perpetrator right in the eye, "You're gonna pay for that one..."
Redflare stood smoldering in anger at his situation, but Kai looked at Jackson in apology. "My regrets," he said, "but they would have hurt him further had we not subdued ourselves."
"Don't blame yourself." Jackson told him. "It happens." Turning his attention to the chieftain sitting in his throne, Jackson radiated disgust. "So, is this how the mighty free Lotkin welcome guests?" He shouted angrily. Beside him, Cray quickly translated his words, though with an expression of anxiety. What he was saying was purely insulting. "We've caused you no harm and all we've done is come asking you for help. Such a strong and honorable race." He said mockingly. "I had thought much, much better of you."
The chieftan's flinty eyes narrowed, annoyance and outrage clearly showing on his blocky features. He raised a hand. Behind Jackson, one of the warriors tightly gripped a spear and began to draw it back. Then, the chieftain started to drop his arm.
"Shtlad!" The chieftain paused, his arm still hanging in the air. His eyes darted back towards the door way behind the throne. "Aan Sohjat-ha salri man bardimd!" The curtains parted and out stomped a heavily scarred Lotkin, sporting only one eye and an intricately curved and twisting mark upon his brow.
"Garthogh! Che jra zesh barda!?" The chieftain growled, slowly returning his arm to rest on his weapon. Behind Jackson, the Lotkin warrior lowered his weapon as well.
"Aan Equestri-ha zhistami." He circled around the fire to stand by Jackson and the others. "Aan Sohjat-hai Equestri rhistvati sehrst bardimd. Aans jra zesh barat aiin man jra zesh barda."
"Garth, what the fuck are you doing here?" Jackson asked in astonishment.
Garth marched around the fire and stood by him, arms crossed behind his back. "Attempting to gain what you came for." He said, glancing down at Jackson. Turning back to the chieftain Gen'da, he spoke, spinning an argument for the prisoners and their cause in the rough tongue of his people.
After a length, Gen'da growled and raised a hand, cutting off Garth's speech. "Zaal! Mani Equestri'i ra hilfjaht bas giton. Vaska dar daski sar, Garthogh. Dirst daski rhistvat-ha." He proclaimed begrudgingly.
Garth's mouth lifted in the beginning of a grin. Jackson looked towards him in askance, "What'd he say?"
"He will help, but only at the promise of great battle. And that of our lives if it should prove otherwise."
"I don't very much like the sound of that." Mayfield complained angrily, jumping to his feet. This time, his minder did not step in to restrain him.
"Do not worry much." Garth replied with a stony chuckle. "They will give you the chance to fight."
Garth's words didn't seem to put Mayfield at ease, but he relaxed a little, straightening his vest and gear. "Well, in that case, at least I'll get a chance to brain ugly here." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Lotkin that had been rough handling him earlier.
"Hmm, maybe that you will."
"Krast bas spaktid!" Gen'da suddenly announced with a wave of his arm. "Goz bas gazind!" Around the room, the rest of the Lotkin made throaty cheers and struck their chests.
"What's that about?" Jackson asked.
Garth laughed and helped Jackson to his feet. "Now we feast!"
A short time later, they found themselves seated at a wide table, with what seemed like half the tribes warriors. All around, it was lit by flickering torches. At it's head sat Garth, Jackson and his team, as well as Gen'da. Their weapons hadn't yet been returned, except for their combat knives, and they all felt very uncomfortable sitting at the table as the Lotkin rushed about, readying the feast. Except of course Garth, who was thoroughly enjoying his time among his own people.
Cray was examining the flatware a morbid expression. Jackson took a look himself. The the forks only had two tangs and were made of iron, there was no knife. The plate however, seemed to be made of bone. He didn't want to imagine what from. One of the Lotkin marched up to the table and leaned over Jackson's shoulder. He flinched, but relaxed when he saw the Lotkin had only placed a large pot filled with some strange dark and viscous fluid in the center.
Garth glanced over and halted his conversation with the warrior next to him. "Ah! Gen'da truly honors us tonight!" He picked up a small wooden bowl and scooped out some of the liquid.
"What is it?" Redflare asked, wrinkling his nose at the concoction.
"It is sirlagh, it is for strong warriors. Drink, it is good!" He punctuated his statement by taking a large gulp from his bowl, draining it and afterward releasing a satisfied pah.
Jackson cast a skeptical glance at Mayfield. "That shit looks poisonous."
Mayfield smirked. "I"m game if you are."
Cray nudged Jackson, "you should do it, you'll insult our host if you don't." He whispered.
"How do you know all this stuff?"
"I like to read a lot. You'd be surprised at how many books on their culture has come out over the past few years. At least from those that survived their encounters with these guys."
"I know some one you might wanna meet."
"Psst, Jacko! Here." Mayfield was leaning over the table towards him, wooden bowls filled with the strange drink in his hands. He handed one to his friend. "Cheers, mate." He said. He and Jackson knocked the bowls together and took a swig.
Jackson nearly gagged. The stuff was extremely bitter with an after taste of sickly sweetness. Miraculously, he managed to keep it down. Across from him, Mayfield nearly spit his out. Watching this, Garth roared with laughter, slapping Jackson on the back with his heavy hand. "It is good, yes? Do not worry. You will get used to sirlagh. But watch that you do not drink too much, else you become sluggish and overconfident!"
"No worries there, mate." Mayfield said, placing his bowl back down by his plate. Further down the table, Iron sputtered and coughed as he tried it himself. This only elicited more laughter from the Lotkin sitting around them. Cray, watching their reactions, merely pretended to sip his, though the smell of it was obviously causing him discomfort.
Gen'da then pounded the table with a massive fist, silencing everybody. Clapping his hands together, he said, "Goz bas gerda!"
There was a flurry of activity as Lotkin rushed forward with platters made of the same dense bone. In front of the ponies, plates of scraggly grass and thin plains flowers were set. But to everyone else, including Jackson, Mayfield, Kai and Swift, chunks of steaming meat was served onto their plates. Iron, Redflare and Cray each tensed. "Goz bas essent!" Gen'da barked and all the Lotkin began digging in, pulling out small daggers and using them to cut the meat.
Mayfield sniffed the food, "I have.. no idea what this is."
"It is a type of large plains rodent." Swift said. "I recognize the scent." She began to tear voraciously into her meal, as did Kai in stoic silence. "It is prepared well."
"What is wrong, brother?" Garth said, noticing the two humans' hesitation. "Is the feast not to your liking?"
"No, it's just..." Jackson guiltily to Cray.
The unicorn sighed, "It's ok. There isn't anything we could do now and we wouldn't want to insult Gen'da."
"Well I'm not gonna feel bad about it. Been a good while since I've had a good roast." Mayfield said, taking out his knife and cutting into the meat. He stabbed a piece with his primitive fork and took a bite. "Mhm, this is pretty good for grass rat."
Shrugging, Jackson followed suit. He found the meat delicious, especially after so long without it. After a few mouth fulls, he turned to Garth. "So what's the plan?"
"What are we gonna do with Gen'da's forces?"
"Ah. Earlier I had spoken with him. He will take his warriors to the main land and attempt to liberate the cities from under the yoke of the renegades." Garth explained, scooping up more meat and shoveling it into his mouth.
"What about us?"
"We have the privilege of attacking where ever we chose!" Garth proclaimed with zeal.
"I want to take Canterlot. We need to knock this out fast."
Garth paused in his eating. "Ambitious, it will gain us much glory. In twelve of your hours, Gen'da will gather his warriors and make for the coast. We will try to arrive in the capitol before then."
Jackson took on a curious expression. "How are we gonna do that? For that matter, how did you get here?"
Garth grunted in amusement. "When I left for this place I.. acquired one of the Clipper flying ships."
"Ha. Acquired, huh?"
"Yes, figuring out the controls was a challenge, but ultimately fruitful. Soon, we fly."