Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure



The Bride of Arlic
(Conclusion)

By Kevin Lumley
About the author


A  HUGE SIMIAN FIGURE LEAPS DOWN from the wall and shambles across the open courtyard. Under the light of the moon, the Kozak can clearly make out the form of Ilsa clutched under a shaggy arm.

Half heard tales from the hill towns and marketplaces return to him with a sickening clarity. Men whisper of the giant grey apes, said to haunt the highest and most remote peaks of these mountain ranges. Ferocious and flesh-eating, with a malignant intelligence, Jarn had believed the creatures to be little more than a tale to frighten small children.

Cursing savagely, Jarn clambers over the wall and hangs by his fingers. He lets himself drop and lands rolling onto the ground below. In an instant he is back on his feet and running in the direction that the monstrous ape has taken with its captive. Up ahead he can make out the shambling form of the thing as it bounds across the rocky terrain.

The Kozak lengthens his stride. He is gaining on the creature.

Suddenly the simian form stops and whirls around to face its pursuer. Sword in hand Jarn slides to a stop a dozen paces in front of it. Under the light of the full moon the two face each other. It is indeed a dull grey colour, half again the size of a full-grown man, it has a thick, shaggy pelt and slightly bowed legs. The arms are long and corded with muscle; a thick neck is topped by a wide, low browed head. Bestial yellow eyes stare at the Kozak above flared nostrils and a gaping mouth, full of long, pointed teeth.

Still clutched in the foul thing's embrace, Ilsa screams once more as she struggles to free herself.

The great grey ape looks from the captive female under its arm to the sword-wielding figure before it. A deep throated growl issues from the beast. Without warning it drops Ilsa to the floor and rushes at the Kozak warrior!

Jarn knows that to be caught up in the embrace of the monstrous creature will be certain death. He has no doubt that the thing is quite capable of tearing him limb from limb.

With long arms outstretched and taloned hands reaching for him, the Kozak darts to one side and brings the razor sharp scimitar down in a lighting fast sweep. The sword bites deep into the grey ape's lower arm, half severing the thick limb! The huge animal howls in pain and turns to rush Jarn once more. Again he leaps aside, again the sword slices deep into an extended arm.

The creature stops and pants deeply; it gazes in puzzlement at its damaged limbs. Blood pulses out of the massive wounds with each beat of the ape's huge heart. The bestial yellow eyes glare in hatred at the smaller figure before it. With a chilling shriek it again rushes at the Kozak warrior.

This time Jarn is not fast enough and a clawed hand catches hold of him. Instead of trying to pull away as the beast expects, he throws himself forward and thrusts the scimitar through the ape's throat. The beast has attempted to grasp Jarn with its other arm, but the deep wound inflicted by the sword has done too much damage; the limb is almost severed and has become useless.

The monster crushes the man against its wide chest. Jarn has been forced to let go of the sword; it stays embedded in the brute's throat. Struggling within the grasp of the shaggy horror the Kozak pulls his wide-bladed poniard free and stabs it into the ape's chest, again and again!

The creature reels backwards and drags Jarn with it. The bowed legs stumble and, unable to right itself, the ape topples over with Jarn still wrapped in its deadly embrace. Still the Kozak stabs and stabs into the hairy breast of the beast beneath him. A great shudder runs through the huge frame...

"Jarn, Jarn."

Dimly, through a red haze the Kozak becomes aware of a voice calling out to him. He stops thrusting the poniard into the chest of the creature and raises a hand to wipe blood out of his eyes. The beast's blood, he realises. He is covered in it. He stares into the face of the thing and knows that it is dead. The yellow eyes stare sightlessly up at the moon overhead; the fang filled mouth is locked in a silent rictus of death.

He pushes himself off the corpse of the great gray ape and staggers to his feet. Ilsa rushes to his side and puts an arm about his waist to support him.

"Oh, Jarn, are you badly hurt? There is so much blood."

"Most of it belongs to the ape," he mumbles. "Help me over to the well."

With Ilsa's help Jarn reaches the well. Without ceremony he leans over and thrusts his head and shoulders beneath the surface. The water is clear and sweet and chilled by the night air. For long moments Jarn remains submerged, then throws back his head and takes several deep breaths.

He scoops more water up with his hands and drinks with gusto. Ilsa is at his side; wide eyed she looks at him with concern.

The Kozak laughs at her. "I'm all right, lass. We'll wash this blood off me and you'll see that I'm fine."

She half laughs and half sobs as she embraces him.

"By the Gods," he exclaims. "I could do with a flagon of ale -- killing oversized monkeys is a thirsty business!"

***

It proves unneedful for Jarn to waylay a passing Hillman for his horse. Scouting around at the bottom of the plateau later in the morning the Kozak comes across two cavalry horses that have fled the massacre at Jaygr Pass.

Mounted and cautious, he and Ilsa make their way carefully through the twisting trails that lead out of the rocky wilderness and down towards Crenella. Another night spent inside a large cave and the next day finds them riding out of the mountains and across rolling fields of verdant grassland. Topping a rise and reining the horses to a halt, the pair look at each other.

"Crenella is only a league or so distant," Ilsa points out.

The Kozak nods. "Aye, girl, I know that."

Ilsa looks around awkwardly before returning her gaze to his. "No one must ever know what occurred between us in the mountains, Jarn.  They would seek to kill you, and I would doubtless be disowned. If not worse."

The other laughs. "Have no fear of my loose tongue, Ilsa.  I am not one to prattle about private matters."

The girl smiles at him.

Jarn gestures towards the trail in front of them. "Should we not continue. Doubtless you are looking forward to fresh clothes and a hot bath."

"I am wishing we could be together, my Kozak. Suddenly I have no desire to be wed to Prince Arlic or indeed to have anything to do with Crenella."

Jarn is touched. "Now see here, Ilsa, you are used to a life of comfort and luxury. I am a soldier, a freebooter, a wanderer. I could offer you nothing that resembles the life you have led. No, girl, best you don't think of me. Make the best of it with the prince; I don't doubt that he will adore and cosset you."

Her head hangs and the Kozak watches a tear trickle down her cheek.

His voice is gruff. "Hey, now, none of that."

He leans over and tousles her hair. She takes his hand in hers and brushes it against her lips. Her eyes meet his. "We are not in Crenella yet," she points out.

Jarn grins.

***

Prince Arlic is generous in his thanks to Jarn for the rescue of his bride to be.
A banquet is arranged the night after their safe arrival and Jarn is feted as the guest of honour. In the huge main hall of Castle Arlic, surrounded by nobles and ladies of the court, the Kozak is toasted and praised. Ilsa has several times been asked to retell the story of the warrior's battle with the grey mountain ape.

Prince Arlic himself is only some ten years older than Ilsa -- a tall, lean man, with flowing black hair and a lean, saturnine face. If he takes note of the wistful looks that his future bride casts at the figure seated before them, he makes no comment.

Jarn for his part throws back flagon after flagon of the best ale in Crenella and stuffs himself full of the richly flavoured food. Several ladies of the court have cast admiring glances his way. Many of the noblemen have heaped praises on him. The Prince himself has offered Jarn a position in his personal guard. The banquet and entertainment goes on late into the night. Eventually the Prince stands and bids his guests goodnight.

Taking Ilsa's arm, he nods once at the Kozak and makes his departure from the hall. Taking their cue from their lord, the nobles murmur their farewells to Jarn and slowly retire to their rooms. Jarn pushes himself up from the long wooden table and bows to those still present.

"Ladies, gentlemen, I bid you goodnight."

With hardly any sign that the ale or the food has had any affect on him, the Kozak turns and makes his way up the curving stairwell towards the rooms that the Prince has put aside for him.

Once inside he removes his shirt and throws himself down on the large, four-poster bed. A knock on the door attracts his attention.

"It's open," he says loudly.

The door is pushed open by one of the serving girls from the banquet. She has caught Jarn's eye several times throughout the night. Slim and full breasted, with a mass of red tresses, she was one of his most obvious admirers.

She raises a large bottle of dark wine. "I thought perhaps you might wish to try Crenella's best vintage."

Jarn grins. "I never turn down a good goblet of wine."

She walks over to him and seats herself on the edge of the large bed. "I am Tarae," she says. She looks at him with half closed eyes and leans towards him.

***

The ale and the rich food, combined with the heavy bout of lovemaking with Tarae, has put Jarn into an unaccustomed deep slumber. He is sprawled across the wide bed and gradually becomes aware of someone shaking and prodding him.

"Jarn, Jarn, wake up. Oh, please, wake up."

More urgent shaking and Tarae's pleading voice finally rouse him. "Ye Gods, girl, what is it?" His head pounds as he attempts to focus on the face before him.

"The Prince has sent men to murder you!"

"What?" Jarn surges to his feet and staggers on unsteady legs.

Tarae stands naked before him. "I awoke feeling hungry and stole back down to the banquet table to get some of the leftover food. I heard men talking and so, being naked, hid in the shadows on the balcony above. Prince Arlic has discovered you lay with Ilsa in the mountains. He went into a savage rage and has ordered his guards to kill you while you sleep." Tarae clutches his arm. "You must flee, Jarn, quickly -- before they arrive."

"I think it is a little late for that," says a voice from the doorway.

Two black-clad figures have entered the room. Both are armed with long daggers.

"What about the girl?" asks one figure of the other.

"Too bad she's here.  Now she'll have to die as well."

Jarn mumbles something and drunkenly staggers to one side and leans on a chair.

One of the would-be assassins chuckles. "Poor fool can hardly stand up straight."

Tarae has moved behind Jarn. To her credit, she does not scream or sob or beg for mercy. She watches the black-clad killers carefully.

"Lets get it over with," says the first.

He walks towards the Kozak with the dagger held loosely in his fist. Jarn peers stupidly at the figure and burps. The assassin laughs and takes one step closer. He draws his arm back and thrusts his dagger at Jarn's stomach. There is a terrible groan and the man steps back towards his companion.

"I'll take care of the wench," the other says.

He walks past his partner in Tarae's direction. It is then he realises that something is not right. The Kozak is still standing. It is his companion in murder who is sinking to the ground; the groans are coming from him! The hilt of his own dagger protrudes from his belly; both the man's hands are clasped around it in a futile attempt to stop his life's blood flowing out onto the carpet.

Even as the second killer's eye widen in shock, Jarn has raised the heavy chair high overhead and, leaping forward, smashes it down upon the second man's head.
There is a sickening crunch and the black-clad figure collapses next to his partner. Without mercy the Kozak leans down and wrenches the dagger out of the dying man's stomach. Before the assassin can manage a scream, Jarn has slit his throat.

He turns to observe Tarae.

The serving girl stands beside the bed; she raises her right arm and drops the poker she has picked up from the fireplace onto the floor.

Jarn gives her an admiring grin. "Good girl."

She lets out a sigh of relief. "I knew you were not as drunk as you made out."

"Did you now?" He is pulling on his leather breeks.

"All night Ilsa has been telling everyone how you slew one of the giant apes with nothing but a sword. These two were fools to think they could kill you so easily."

Jarn is pulling on his boots. "You seem remarkably calm, considering they intended to kill you as well."

Tarae smiles and reaches for her own clothes. "Things are not always what they seem, my dear Kozak."

Jarn is pulling a black shirt over his head. A thought strikes him. "You're not a serving maid at all, are you?"

A shake of the head. "The Duke sent me here ahead of Ilsa to ensure all went well when she arrived. The marriage is important to him. It will strengthen ties between the King and House Karesh."

Jarn looks at her with renewed interest. "Are you a spy, Tarae?"

The red head laughs softly. "That title will do as well as another." Fully dressed she glides over to the Kozak. "If the Prince has sent men to slay you, we must ensure Ilsa's safety."

Jarn nods "Aye, I was just about to ask you where she is quartered in the palace?"

"Come."

Tarae walks over to the balcony doors and pushes them open. She points to the level above. "Her room is there, only one removed from the Prince's own chambers. Can you climb this wall?"

The Kozak warrior grins. "I've climbed rock faces in the Steppe that make this wall look like a ladder."

"Good, we must make haste -- it won't be long before the Prince will be expecting a report of your death from these two."

"Where will you be?"

"I shall procure us horses from the stables. I believe you should encourage Ilsa to accompany us back to House Karesh. I cannot but think she may be in as much danger as you now."

Jarn shakes his head. "She had every intention of honouring her father's wish and marrying Prince Arlic."

"You don't understand, do you, Kozak. Like most of these damned nobles, Arlic is proud and arrogant. Doubtless the thought that Ilsa has bedded and fallen in love with a common soldier irks him greatly."

Jarn is astonished. "Who says she's in love with me? We had a tussle or two in the mountains but that was all."

"Are all men of the Steppe as dull as you, Jarn? She couldn't take her eyes off you at the banquet and talked about you constantly. Did you think people -- especially the Prince -- would not notice?"

Jarn mutters something.

Tarae shakes her head. "We must make haste; I fear too much time has passed already."

The Kozak springs lightly up onto the balcony railing. A sudden thought comes to him. "What brought you to my bed?"

"What better place to keep an eye on Ilsa's secret lover. Besides, you are not without a certain attractiveness."

***

Jarn swings a leg over the balcony and steps to one side. He peers carefully into the bedchamber that has been given to Ilsa. There is no movement from within. He moves over to the door and finds it unlatched; silently he slips inside the room.

Apart from the occupant in the silk covered bed, the room appears empty. Ilsa sleeps with the covers almost covering her face. The Kozak stands next to the bed and reaches down to gently move back the silken sheets. He uncovers her head -- and the blood freezes in his veins!

There are bruises on Ilsa's beautiful face. Her right eye is blackened and, with her mouth open, he can clearly see she is missing her front teeth. Her eyes gaze sightlessly at the ceiling and her mouth is open in a silent scream of terror. The red silken cord with which she has been strangled is embedded deeply in the soft skin of her throat.

Jarn reels backwards.

***

He has tenderly closed the lids over Ilsa's terrified eyes. He has brushed the tangled blonde hair back from her face. He can do nothing to erase the rictus of horror on the rest of her features.

He has removed the red silken cord from around her throat. A slow murderous rage has been building within him all this time.

He remembers Tarae's directions. "Her room is there, only one removed from the Prince's own chambers."

He looks once more at the body of his dead lover before gently pulling the silk sheets back over her head.

He returns outside and judges the distance to the next balcony. He steps up onto the railing and looks down beneath his feet. It is a long drop to the courtyard below. He flexes his legs, bends at the knee and leaps across the gap. His hands catch hold of the top of the brickwork opposite and levers his body up and over. Silently he drops onto the balcony of Prince Arlic and stands to one side. The balcony doors are open and within he can hear voices.

"Have no fear, Captain, the Duke will never suspect me. I shall tell him how the wild Kozak had fallen in love with Ilsa and was enraged when she refused his crude advances. How he crept into her bedchamber and raped and abused the poor girl before throttling her to death with the cord ripped from her own nightgown." The Prince laughs. "I tell the story so well I could easily come to believe it myself."

The Captain of his personal guard, dressed in black and silver livery, chuckles himself. "And when we went to arrest the Kozak, he put up such a struggle that we were forced to kill him."

"Exactly, my dear Galinn, exactly."

"Can you imagine," the Prince continues, "the whore spreads her legs for an outlander from the Steppes and then expects me to marry her."

"When did you know?" asks the Captain.

"Oh, I suspected as soon as I saw them together. Ilsa could hardly keep her eyes off him whenever he was nearby. Talked about him incessantly." Arlic grins slyly. "After the banquet, when I escorted her back to her room I asked her directly. Of course she denied it. Silly bitch. A couple of slaps and a few good blows got her to confess though." The Prince hands Galinn a goblet of wine. "Shouldn't we have heard back from the two you sent to the Kozak's room?"

Galinn raises the goblet to his lips. "Aye, you're right; they are taking their time. I'll be off and check on their handiwork."

"Seek them out in Hell," a voice beside him whispers.

Galinn arches up and gasps in pain as a long bladed dagger is thrust between his ribs. It is twisted and jerked upwards and the Captain dies with a look both of agony and surprise on his face.

Prince Arlic cries out in shock at the sight of the Kozak he had supposed to a corpse by now.

Grimly, with dripping dagger in hand, Jarn advances towards him. The Prince turns to flee and has almost reached the door to his chambers when the weight of the Kozak lands upon his back and carries him to the floor. Jarn takes hold of the Prince and turns him about. Arlic raises his hands and yells incoherently as the other rains heavy fisted blows onto his upturned face. For long moments Jarn strikes the lean features beneath him. The lips are pulped and teeth smashed, a cheekbone breaks, an eye swells shut. Blood covers the man's face like a crimson mask. Every frenzied breath produces a froth of blood from the broken mouth. Arlic is moaning with pain and terror.

"Look at me, you whoreson bastard. Look at me, I say!"

Through his one good eye, Prince Arlic focuses on the man astride him.

"Do you recognise this, you dog?" In his hands Jarn holds the red silken cord with which the Prince had murdered Ilsa.

Arlic's eye bulges and he tries to speak. Slowly, without haste, Jarn wraps the red cord around Prince Arlic's throat. The Prince jerks and struggles but is powerless to free himself from the Kozak's grip. He tries to scream but only a gurgle makes it past the constricting silk. Slowly, oh so slowly, Jarn draws the garrotte tighter and tighter. Arlic's eye bulges and turns back in its socket. His feet beat an off key pattern on the carpeted floor. Jarn's cold rage suddenly turns white hot and he jerks mightily on both ends of the silken cord. Arlic's hands pound for a moment on his killer's broad back before they drop away, never to move again.

Jarn gives one last, tremendous pull, and the cord almost disappears in the swollen flesh of the dead nobleman's neck!

***

True to her word Tarae is waiting in the stables below.

She looks askance at Jarn when he arrives dripping in sweat but without the Duke's daughter. Swiftly he tells her his grisly tale of murder and revenge. Tarae's eyes widen in shock at the conclusion of the warrior's revelations.

"We must flee here at once, Jarn. By sunrise you must be well clear of the province. I must return to the Duke and tell this horrid tale. Better he hears it from me than another."

She looks at her recent lover. "I am so sorry, Jarn. Better had Ilsa run off with you as she wanted."

Jarn turns a cold eye on the woman. "If wishes were horses then beggar's would ride. Fare thee well, Tarae of the red hair; mayhap we shall meet again in better circumstances."

With that the Kozak kicks his heels into the horse's flanks and gallops out of the courtyard and away from Arlic Castle.

The End.




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The Bride of Arlic is copyright Kevin Lumley. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)