Once again, the prolific pen of "Long"
John Outram transports us to the land of the savage Waren and
his sword-wielding protag, Kavlar.
(Who you will no doubt recall from his previous fistful forays such
as Money For Old Rope, A Trick of the Night, and the serial, Kavlar's
Boast.) In this sinister sword and sorcerer, nasty deeds are
indeed afoot and it ain't gold in them thar hills...
it's something far, far worse...
The Cave Dweller
(Part 1 of 2)
By John Outram
About the author
HIS CAMP a few miles short of the western foothills. There he relieved
his mule of his burden of skins, furs and baggage, and used his broad
brimmed leather hat to water the beast from a nearby stream. That done,
he kindled a fire of pine branches and as the sun sank behind the
distant treetops, he set a pot beside it and began to mix a stew of
jerky and fiddleheads.
His sharp ears told him nothing of the stranger's approach, but some sixth sense warned him another's eyes were upon him. He quickly snatched up the crossbow that he kept cocked and loaded at his side, and backed away from the fire, crouching low.
“Peace, friend,” said a voice, speaking the Ranger argot with the slightest accent. “I only wish to share your fire.”
The speaker stepped into the circle of light. He was a tall, savage figure, dressed only in a leather breech-cloth, buckskin boots and strings of bear claws and teeth that decorated his chest and long hair. His fair skin and blond hair made it clear he was no Pict, but he was no civilised man either. Leainne squinted in the firelight and recognised Kavlar, a Waren barbarian who partnered Alleas the Cutter in the trapping fraternity of the Elk River. That he was a fellow trapper relieved Leainne's fears a little, but not entirely, for not all trappers were honest men and in the lonely forest it was a simple matter to cut a man's throat and steal his cargo of pelts. Nonetheless, the laws of hospitality did not go unheeded in the wilds, so he gestured to the younger man to join him.
The look of this Waren youth was not one to inspire trust and confidence. Though barely grown to full manhood, a year or so shy of twenty, he was already strong and muscular and stood well over six feet tall. He wore at his belt a long hunting knife such as all trappers carried, but strapped to his back was a scabbarded longsword, the weapon of a soldier or an outlaw. There were throwing daggers sheathed in each of his boot-tops and another strapped to his right forearm. On his back he carried a bow of black wood that was unmistakably of Pictish make, although the trapping fraternity shunned contact with those savage, painted denizens of the woods.
But Leainne had confidence in his crossbow and the speed of reaction that a long life in the wilds had bred into him. Moreover, Kavlar's black bow had brought down a brace of teals, and Leainne had lived on jerky long enough to be tempted by the offer of fresh meat.
“It's early to be heading east,” Kavlar commented with a glance over Leainne's stock. “You've had better luck with your traps than Alleas and I, but your mule looks less than half loaded.”
Leainne grunted: “I can't complain. I'll cross the pass to Matraban before the weather changes. That way I can be back before winter sets in.”
“The weather will hold off a while yet. Why go so early? If you are short of supplies, Alleas and I can help you out, at a fair price. We trappers are a brotherhood! We have plenty to spare, salt and alum both.”
“I am well enough stocked,” replied Leainne with a glance east towards the pass, now hidden in shadow.
Kavlar followed his gaze. A thick, dark column seemed to be rising in the twilight, swirling this way and that, dispersing as it climbed higher.
“Smoke, do you think?” asked Leainne.
Kavlar shook his head: “I have seen this thing three nights since, and wondered the same. But see how it winds and twirls this way and that, heedless of the winds. They are bats you see, a great host of them. The Matraban pass is not one I know well, but I should say there is a great cavern somewhere near that serves them as a lair.”
Leainne shuddered. He had no love of bats, although he had never heard that one ever did harm to a man. Among the superstitions of the Kelds, bats and night-birds were accounted creatures of ill-omen, servants of the Darker Gods. The thought of them in thousands upon thousands filled him with unease.
“A good cave would make a good shelter, could it be found,” mused Kavlar. “Still, you and I have no wings. A bat might find a roost where no human could set foot. Perhaps it would be worth my while to explore this pass, even so.”
“I'll keep an eye open,” said Leainne gruffly. “With good speed I will make the pass tomorrow.”
Kavlar laughed and set to his meal. As soon as he was done he lay down and slept – or seemed to sleep. Leainne sat up and watched him until the fire had burned out. He kept to hand his own hunting knife, a fair thing with a hilt of carved stag-horn bound with silver and set with a pommel of amber. Fifteen inches long, the blade was honed to a razor edge. Leainne felt he could pit that knife against any man or beast, even one as strong and agile as the young barbarian. But though he watched half the night, the youth did not stir. Though sleep at last took him in, he opened his eyes to the dawn with the youth still sleeping and both their throats uncut.
The following nightfall caught Leainne and his mule
less well prepared
as they struggled up the narrow path. The sun was sinking behind them
and the fold of the mountain already shadowed them. The path was so
precarious that Leainne could not choose to turn back, so he elected to
go on, hoping to find a place wide enough for him to stop and make some
sort of camp. As his road grew longer and the light failed, Leainne
began to regret his rashness to go on so late, knowing that behind it
lay his desire to put as many miles as possible between himself and the
Despite the youngster's seeming friendship, Leainne had been no more inclined to trust a son of the Havmar Waren than he would a painted Pict. He had not liked Kavlar's questions, nor his penetrating blue gaze. He distrusted a trapper who felt the need to carry a sword. Now tired, hungry and thirsty, drawing a reluctant mule that voiced it's similar complaints, Leainne was at leisure to review his judgement of Kavlar.
It was while engaged in these thoughts that he saw ahead of him the light of a fire. The evening before he had thought he had seen a column of smoke near this spot; Kavlar had assured him what he saw was bats issuing from a cave. Well here was a cave, but there was unmistakably firelight.
“For a lonely trail, this is a busy spot,” he muttered to his mule, but still he dragged the creature onward. No Picts or other savages were known to inhabit these hills. Leainne hoped he might find trappers or other pioneering folk here; and so it proved.
“Ahoy, stranger!” cried a voice as he drew near the mouth of the cave. Leainne saw that the light in fact came from a large pinewood torch that lit the entryway. “Come in, come in! It's late to be struggling along the narrow ways when there is fire and hot broth within. Come in! Come in!”
The speaker was a tall, black-bearded fellow dressed in a rag-tag coat that seemed to be made up of the skin and fur of every forest animal, and trousers of a similar patchwork effect. There was something wild in his manner, but he seemed friendly enough, and given his current plight Leainne had little choice but to accept the situation.
Within the cave – and by the light of several oil lamps hung in its various chambers, Leainne became aware of the extent of the cavernous shelter – he was amazed he to see a wood-stove blazing, several beds made of pine branches and dried ling, and stores of furs, barrels, biscuit boxes, jugs and jars laid in the side caverns. Two other humans holed within: a thin, black-haired girl and a burly, greying man who had too much of the Pict about him for Leainne's liking.
“Ah, this is Ongur here, and this sweet thing is Tamsin, dear little Tamsin,” explained the black-beard, indicating his companions. “And I am Mohab, for my sins, and these are my cavemates, and this my cave! Come, come, let me see to this good beast, and Ongur shall take your coat and Tamsin shall fetch you some broth!”
Somewhat reluctantly, Leainne found himself surrendering to their ministrations. Stripped of his heavy buckskin coat, he sat down on a convenient boulder while the girl placed in his hands a steaming wooden bowl and a crudely carved spoon.
“Cruach's teeth, but you have enough here to furnish a chandler's store!” he exclaimed.
“A store, oh yes, heh heh!” cackled Mohab. “The first, indeed, on this side of the mountains. It's little enough custom we get as yet, but all welcome. We have stores, tobacco, spirits, steel traps, anything you want to trade, besides food and a warm bed. We cannot offer you Matraban prices, no! There is no-one here to pay for a fur coat for our little Tamsin! But we will give you a fair price, yes!”
“Here, leave that be!” growled Leainne as Ongur started to appraise the furs on his mule-pack. “Just set it down. So, Mohab, what would you call a fair price for a pelt this side of the mountains?”
So familiar a pastime as haggling set Leainne at ease very quickly. The broth finished, along with a good portion of biscuits, Leainne allowed Mohab to furnish him with a mug of raw spirit. Alcohol was hard to come by in the wilderness, and firewater like this harder. He was reassured that Mohab and Ongur also set to with gusto, and while Mohab and Leainne talked the taciturn Ongur brought out a three-stringed fiddle and played a merry jig to accompany their banter. All the while the girl waited upon them, eating and drinking nothing, but she seemed in good humour and swayed her hips to the tune in a fetching manner as she went back and forth at their bidding.
A more critical eye than Leainne's might not have called her fair. She was a skinny thing, more bone than flesh, her hair not so much lustrous as greasy, her face half hidden by soot and smut, her smile marred by uneven, discoloured teeth. But Leainne had not seen a woman for more than six months and even this rag-doll in her rag-thin dress seemed a beauty, a veritable goddess.
“Is this your daughter?” he asked Mohab.
“Heh heh! My daughter, yes, and other things besides!” cackled the cave dweller. “A sweet and useful thing she is. We got her on the slave block at Anfald, Ongur and I, five years ago when she was just a chit of a girl, and see how she's bloomed under our caring hands! Tamsin, my sweet girl, pour out some more of this fiery stuff. It lifts the spirits and makes glad my heart!”
Leainne, a cautious man, declined more spirit until the bargain was concluded. He gave up two of his excellent mink pelts, but in return he wanted a good supply of trail provisions, more than enough to get him to Matraban.
“That's a fair knife at your belt, sirrah Leainne!” exclaimed Mohab. “I have a hankering for a belt knife just like it! Add that to the bargain in lieu of one pelt and I will add a barrel of alum.”
“My father gave me this knife,” scowled Leainne. “It is not for sale. Alum I can buy cheaper in Matraban, and save myself the trouble of carrying it there and back.”
“As you wish,” shrugged Mohab. “We have a bargain on two pelts! Girl, get here with that jug! We'll seal the trade with another drink.”
Burly, silent Ongur, who had drunk as much as the other two together, curled up quietly on the floor of the cave and went to sleep. Mohab continued to laugh and talk nonsense for a while, but Leainne lost interest in his babbling and was glad when he too fell silent. He had made sure to drink less than his hosts, but the firewater was a potent brew and he could feel his head swimming a little.
Mohab began to snore. Leainne was fairly sure those snores were genuine, though he resolved to keep watch a little longer. Meanwhile the girl, since Ongur had ceased to play, stood in the corner, still idly swaying her hips from side to side and watching Leainne intently.
“I have something to show you!” she whispered suddenly.
“What?” he asked.
Without replying, she took a torch from the wall and padded silently over to one of the side caverns, beckoning him to join her. Not sure what to expect, but more than a little drawn to the eagerness in her voice and the promise in her eyes, Leainne lurched to his feet and followed, somewhat unsteadily, to a narrow split in the rock which led to yet another cave.
She beckoned again, winding her body through the gap. He followed after a moments wary hesitation. He was not a slim man, even after a season in the wilds, and it was no easy thing for him to pass where she had gone.
“Where are you taking me, you minx?” he growled as he forced himself through. “This had better be worthwhile...”
“You will see!” she tittered. “Come, come, stranger. There is a pit beyond, you must take the rope bridge. Hold the torch, I will cross first and steady the ropes for you.”
Leainne saw that the floor of the next cave gave way to a deep chasm, crossed by a simple rope bridge bound to a wooden structure at either end. The bridge looked none too steady. He cursed as he set foot on it and it swayed away from him.
“Are you less eager than you seemed?” she teased.
“Damn it, this isn't easy with one hand. Here, take the damned torch.”
“Come halfway and I will.”
Leainne lunged forward, and stretched the torch towards her. She took it, grinning broadly, and with her other hand pulled a pin from the bridge supports. He heard her malicious laughter as he plunged sideways and into the darkness of the pit.
How far he fell he could not tell. It seemed an age – it could not have been more than a few moments – but instead of the bone-crushing impact he expected, he found himself caught in a net suspended across the chasm. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he looked up. A faint patch of light indicated the mouth of the pit. He saw the torch swinging briefly, heard Tamsin's laughter, and then his world darkened as she withdrew. Cursing her roundly, he tried to reach for his knife, but the net that held him bound his limbs securely. He struggled in vain, shouting profanities into the black spaces. There was nothing he could do but wait for them to fetch him down.
Then, in the darkness, he saw a faint, feral gleam, as of many eyes upon him. They grew closer. He felt the net give way to a weight upon its outer edge. And then, blinded though he was, the full horror of his plight came to him, and he screamed, once and long, before his awful ending...
On to the Conclusion
Table of Contents
The Cave Dweller is copyright by John Outram. It
may not be copied or
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