Coffee Break Read – The City of Alfor

The city of Alfor was an impressive sight. Rearing proudly up from the low rolling hills at the edge of the Wasteland, it was protected by strong, high walls and encircled by two concentric rings of earthworks in which were built five small forts. On these were set a peculiar assortment of heavy artillery which ranged from locally cast muzzle-loading cannon, to an ancient solar-charged pulse laser that was probably less accurate and more unreliable than the local weapons.
In the south the ground rose to where the castle crouched, dominating the city and to the north lay a river, providing a natural moat. There were only two paths through these defensive fortifications – raised paved causeways, leading to the great gates in the eastern and western walls. The roads met in the middle of the city, becoming a vast plaza where once a year caravans, stalls, entertainers, slave-pens and corrals for animals competed for space with the throng of merchants, townsfolk and sight-seers at the time of the Alfor Fair.
Many cities held annual fairs, but Alfor, sitting as it did at the heart of the Western continent and at the hub of many trade routes, held the longest, the largest and the best.
Caer found himself feeling almost buoyant as the caravan made its way down the Western Causeway towards the massive steel-bound gates, each half the width of the broad road and six times the height of a man. It was as though he had shed a great burden, and in a way he had. The responsibility of bringing Alexa’s caravan safely to Alfor, with its concealed treasure intact, would have been no easy task for an experienced Zoukai captain with a full complement of seasoned men. He had done so on his first command with too few Zoukai and most of them unseasoned or worn out. But now it was over and the delights of the city at Fair time awaited him as a well-earned respite. Caer felt like a conquering general leading a victorious army home from battle. He even smiled at the sour-faced sergeant who accosted him at the gates demanding a toll and asking the size of the caravan, before they could be admitted.
“We have forty Zoukai and thirty-four wagons.”
The sergeant glanced along the causeway and nodded sullenly.
“Livestock to trade?”
“One hundred and eighty-seven animals – including twenty-eight slaves.”
Inevitably enough, the sergeant asked for twice the amount due and equally inevitably Caer haggled until it was reduced to its proper proportions together with a handsome personal payment for the sergeant. At last it was settled and the cavalcade of people, wagons and animals went forward through the gates and into the city.
Being late arrivals it was not an easy task to find space on the main plaza and for once Caer was glad that the caravan was so small. Had it been much larger they would have had to seek a less favourable site on the edge of the city where the caravans normally lay up for the winter, which would have made their trading much more difficult. As it was, they finally camped down beside the corrals and slave-pens where the stench was at its worst and the wagons had to be set so close as to be touching wheel to wheel. There was scant room for any tents, but that could not be helped. A handful were pitched with weights, around Alexa’s pavilion. For the rest, even the Zoukai would have to sleep in or under the wagons.

From The Fated Sky, part one of Transgressor Trilogy, a Fortune’s Fools book by E.M. Swift-Hook

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