PDF welcomes Darryl Crawford who brings us this non-stop, action packed sword and swashbuckler! Nick the Knife takes on slimy slavers and rescues some definitely delectable damsels in dis-dress! But, when all is said and done, a man's best friend is his jhang...
Rendezvous in the Ruins
By Darryl Crawford
About the author
KNIFE WAS HALFWAY up the high wall.
Then a crossbow quarrel shattered beside his head, sending flecks of mortar into his eyes. Voices raised in anger below him. He cursed and looked down, dangling like a sitting duck from the line attached to the grapple above. A second bolt tugged at his cloak. He felt blood running down his side. Below him he caught a glimpse of two archers winding fresh bolts into their weapons.
One of them shouted: “Intruder on the south wall.”
In the courtyard an alarm bell began to clang.
What to do? His mind raced and heart pounded. He felt a sick sensation creeping from his stomach to his loins. Trying to quell his fear he cautioned himself not to panic. Easier said than done with death only a bowshot away. He kicked away from the wall with his bare feet to enable himself to swing from side to side.
Better a moving target than a sitting duck!
A spearman appeared on the parapet above, mere feet from the grappling hook. He could cast his spear or cut the line. While the man wondered what to do, Nick spotted a small window cut into the face of the wall. He swung more forcefully in order to get within reaching distance. Then the spearman above began shouting too.
Nick missed on his first try, fingertips scraping against the stone inches from the edge of the window. Again he kicked away from the wall in order to swing toward the window as another quarrel sped by his face. The man above decided to hurl his spear instead of sawing through the knotted line with his sword blade. Perhaps that bought Nick another minute of life. The difficulty of spearing a target below one instead of ahead of one made for a poor cast. The spear missed Nick and spoiled the aim of the bowman below as he leapt back to avoid it, cursing.
The voices seemed to shout from everywhere. Nick would be lucky to wind up in a dungeon if not falling victim to an arrow or spear point first. Or breaking his neck from the height he fell when the guard on the parapet gathered the presence of mind to cut the rope.
Nick abandoned his attempt to reach the window. The bowmen on the ground were reloading again but he felt the line quivering as the man above went to work with his dagger. Nick pushed away from the wall again, let the rope whistle through his gloved fists as he plunged downward. He tightened on the line to slow his falling, kicked out once more, clenched his fists to check his dangerous descent.
He repeated kicking, falling and bringing himself to a stop twice before the final strands of the rope parted. Nick plummeted through thin air. One of the men on the ground was bent over his crossbow fitting another quarrel in the guide when Nick landed squarely on top of him. That broke Nick’s fall instead of a leg, or his neck, and rendered the fellow underneath him senseless. The second man lashed out at him, using his empty bow like a club. Nick caught a glancing blow to the head, felt an immediate knot rise and warm blood stream into his eyes.
Hoofbeats sounded on the cobbled street. Panic flooded Nick’s senses. He stumbled on the hem of the heavy cloak he wore and lost his footing. Nick fell backward. The man who clubbed him advanced to further menace him. When he raised the crossbow again Nick saw red; not blood in his eyes but a beserker’s crimson coloring his vision.
In a flash of anger, without thinking, he yanked his
knife free and threw.
Pounding hooves reverberated through the street under him but no more blows fell. Pushing himself up by the elbows he dragged a glove across his eyes. He heard the ponderous thump of a body hitting the ground before he saw the man writhing on the paving, clutching at his throat.
Throwing his knife had been the only thing he’d done right since entering the kingdom of Pala-Daj under cover of night. Crumstein would not be pleased. To hell with Crumstein!
No time for idle thoughts; the approaching riders would appear any second. Nick scrambled on hands and knees over to the dying man and retrieved his only weapon, the knife.
The alarm bell kept on clanging.
A lone rider on a jhang hurtled around the corner. The spearman on the ramparts continued shouting to attract attention to Nick. He struggled to his feet as the rider reined his mount to a halt beside him.
Jhangs are almost mythical creatures; he had seen only one other in his lifetime.
Nick shouted at the rider. “Thank the seven green gods you’re here,” he gestured at the fallen archers in the street; “these two rogues have tried to rob the sacred temple!”
The rider looked from Nick’s bloody face up to the guardsman yelling atop the wall. Confusion clouded the eyes under the rider’s helmet just as Nick had hoped. He took advantage of the hesitation of the man on the jhang. When the rider looked up, Nick hauled him off the small saddled animal. His helmet rolled across the cobbles. Nick seized the rider by his long greasy hair and smashed his unprotected head into the street until the struggling man ceased to struggle.
As Nick rose to his feet, several riders astride huge woolly ylandros appeared from around the corner of the temple. He felt the rumbling of their mighty hooves in the stones beneath his feet. On the ramparts the spearman continued to shout: “He’s the one you want! Stop that man!”
Nick made a rude hand signal at the man above. Pointless, he knew, but he felt some small satisfaction at the gesture. The jhang was young, the soft point of a horn only beginning to thrust from its forehead indicated it a female. She regarded him without fear, with innocent brown eyes. He spoke softly and wordlessly to the creature.
Much to his surprise she made no objection when he gathered the cumbersome cloak around him to clamber into the saddle. He touched his heels to her flanks. She shot forward like an arrow in flight.
Helpless to do anything from where he stood, the guardsman pointed frantically at Nick and bawled at the soldiers: “Get him! Stop the thief!”
Jhangs are swift little beasts, much faster than ylandros; obviously the reason the first rider appeared alone ahead of all the others. Nick urged the creature onward. The soldiers of Pala-Daj followed in hot pursuit on their ylandros, outdistanced by the jhang but undeterred.
The fleet animal moved with tremendous speed, hooves a-clatter on the twisting streets leading away from the temple. Nick crouched low in the saddle. The wind whipped his hair and his cloak billowed out in back of him like a cape. A couple of arrows streaked past. He made a corner and no more missiles flew but they reminded him he’d been struck earlier. No time to worry about his wounds now. He and the jhang fled. Once again Nick saw his pursuers behind him as the elephantine ylandros rounded the corner. Another arrow arced his way but he was out of range. But for how long?
The soldiers at his heels would know the city better than he, a stranger in town. What if the next turn carried him into a cul-de-sac? The galloping of the jhang threatened to unseat him. What if he fell?
At that rate of speed he’d break bones crashing to the ground, before being trampled beneath the cleft hooves of the ylandros. He shoved those terrifying thoughts from his mind, tried to ignore the blood which had soaked the waistband of his trousers. Racing through the night air made the blood feel cold instead of warm. His head hurt with every bound of the jhang. He gripped the reins tighter and dug his bare feet into the stirrups.
He let the beast go where it wanted while he kept watching behind.
The animal charged through a tangle of streets ahead of the soldiers but never out of their sight. At least they’d stopped shooting at him.
At an intersection, a peasant’s cart drawn by a dromendary trundled into his path. Suddenly the jhang reared, squealing; Nick hung on, frozen in fear. He heard the mad dancing of the nimble creature’s hooves on the cobblestones and the faces of the buildings whirled around and around before his eyes. After what seemed like a long time, his mount stopped circling on her hind legs and was on all fours again.
The peasant cursed him; the cries of the soldiers not far off. An arrow thunked into a plank of the cart in front of him.
Nausea boiled to the top of his throat but, before he could be sick, his inspired mount darted down a narrow alleyway. He smelled the garbage and human detritus. Bums, startled from their sleep, hugged the walls forming the alleyway or scattered left and right before the flight of the jhang. Shadows wavered in the murky distance.
Nick wanted to close his eyes but dared not to. He felt a lessening in the headlong pace. What had been a gallop slowed to a canter, to a walk, to a stop. A wall loomed ahead and blocked the way.
The alley proved too narrow for the ylandros. Nick heard soldiers swearing as they dismounted, the scuff of boot heels on the littered cobbles. The jhang snorted; beneath the tawny pelt Nick felt her twin hearts laboring against the inside of each of his thighs.
“You had a good run,” he reassured the beast. Chest bellowing, she squealed and tossed her mane in defiance. Then she turned and trotted in the direction of the oncoming soldiers who moved toward them in single file.
Nick started to dismount, to try to scuttle over the wall and make his escape on foot, but, when the animal squealed and shook her proud head, he remained in the saddle. Some of the soldiers were in range; close enough to shoulder their crossbows. He heard their taunts.
They fell back however when the jhang charged them. Then the magnificent animal wheeled and raced at full speed back toward the blocked exit.
Even such a superb creature could not clear the top of the wall with its mightiest leap.
Regretting his decision not to dismount and flee, Nick saw at the last second what the beast intended. A jhang’s night vision is like no other. Obviously she had discerned the cartons and crates piled against one side of the wall whereas Nick had not. On sure feet, the jhang climbed the discarded boxes like stairs. Pausing for a scant moment to see what lay beyond, she carried them over the wall as if possessing wings.
Had they landed on the hard stones of a street the slender legs of the jhang certainly would have splintered and broken. But such was not to be! An almost wet thud sounded in Nick’s ears and he realized they’d descended onto the forgiving turf of a muddy field, soft from recent rain. He heard a snort and a squeal and the animal picked her way carefully through the mud at first, then began to trot. Soon she raced through the dawn.
By sunrise, the turrets and spires and walls of Pala-Daj were not even in sight.
After miles of grassy plains, the greenery of the lush jungle loomed ahead. Rider and mount soon were engulfed in a rich verdant forest. Nick guided the jhang now that he knew where he was. He steered her toward some crumbling ruins overgrown with vines and vegetation. He was supposed to meet Crumstein there. That had been the agreement. Banished from Pala-Daj for various crimes, Crumstein had hired Nick to enter the kingdom in his stead. His mission to pilfer an enchanted scepter Crumstein desired from the altar of an unguarded temple was scrubbed when guards discovered Nick.
Perhaps Nick’s employer had faulty information. Or maybe wanted Nick out of the way for reasons unknown. Either way, Nick intended to have a firm conversation with the double-dealing Crumstein.
Jungle birds squawked at their presence and took to
the skies when the jhang and
he came upon the ruins. Nick’s bedroll, his sword and a pack
containing his meager possessions were missing. So was Crumstein.
The jhang bent her horned head to water at one of the puddles in the deserted ruins. At last Nick slipped from the saddle to have a look at himself.
During the ride he’d peeled off his gloves and tucked them in the disgustingly empty pouch on his belt beside his knife. He rubbed at the knot on his head, picking at the crusted blood. Though his head hurt from the blow the bump had subsided considerably. When Nick stripped off his cloak, he found the crossbow quarrel still snarled in the heavy fabric. Upon closer examination, he saw the point had just grazed his side without puncturing a vital organ, his worst fear. He’d only bled profusely from a superficial wound. Removing his belt he inspected his trousers. The waist line and right leg were sopping with blood, his loincloth too.
Nick had forgotten that before scaling the wall he’d tied the thongs of his sandals together and looped them around his neck. He uttered thanks to the seven green gods; they had spared him from strangling himself during last night’s wild ride. He draped the sandals on the saddle horn and climbed onto the jhang’s back.
They trudged onward for another mile before encountering a clear running stream. The animal sipped at fresh water and Nick got down and drank too. He decided to clean the blood from his garments and body.
After wringing the clothing downstream until the redness ceased to color the water, he arranged his garments on a nearby boulder to dry. He then immersed himself in the cold water to wash away the sweat and grime and blood of the night’s adventures.
He unsaddled the jhang and undid the bridle. She wandered over to a patch of tall grass and grazed languidly. Nick splashed more water on his face to ease his headache then lay down on his cloak.
He fell asleep immediately, confident the animal would be there when he awoke.
How long he slept he knew not, but he opened his eyes to the sound of laughter. He jerked his head up, noticed the jhang’s ears straining high on her head, listening. Nothing out of place. From out of the jungle, more laughter emerged, almost musical. Nick fetched his loincloth and wrapped it about him. As he glided quietly through the grass and underbrush toward the sounds, he strapped on his belt. Squatting down, he made his way between the trees, the jhang close behind him on the trail.
Sounds can carry a long way through primeval quiet.
Nick covered a great distance before he heard quiet conversation not unlike children talking, more laughter. When he smelled water, the sounds became louder. On his belly, he crawled across the sward. He came to a halt at a stand of tall grass. When he parted the greenery his eyes beheld two nymphs bathing in a pond in the glade. Only their heads appeared above the water, one blonde and one redhead. Both had beautiful faces, breathtaking enough to elicit delight from any man, especially one as young as Nick.
For the time being he chose not to announce himself.
The redhead stood up in the pool, water running like quicksilver down the contours of a statuesque figure. She beckoned to the other girl who rose like a goddess from the water too. The blonde giggled.
She had a very pronounced pudenda, shaven bare, like the redhead’s.
They stood close enough that the tips of their plump young breasts touched. They kissed one another deeply; the blonde sighed when the redhead placed an intimate hand on her.
“Let us lie down, Kel Lee,” the redhead said in a throaty voice.
She took the blonde by the hand and led her to the edge of the pool. They sprawled on brightly colored silks spread out on the far bank. Their bodies intertwined as they kissed. Kel Lee smiled wickedly as the redhead licked her nipples. Her tongue moved down to the blonde girl’s navel before traveling down farther still. And lingered at length.
Long moments passed. Nick watched with dry throated fascination. He shifted uncomfortably several times as the loving tableau unfolded across the pond.
“Oh, oh, I love you, Stella,” gasped the blonde. She wrapped her thighs around her friend’s head and cried out but Nick knew she was not in pain. “I love you so, I love you so!”
Stella looked up at last at Kel Lee as she shuddered and sighed, arched her back on the tangled silks. When she finally regained a measure of her composure, Kel Lee grinned at her friend, now seated with her long legs wide apart, leaning back with her arms supporting her from behind. In this position the curves of Stella’s breasts thrust forward in a splendid profile.
Nick needed a drink of water. Yet he dared not move lest he betray his presence to the young maidens. He wanted to make their acquaintance, to be sure, but wanted not to intrude upon so private a moment as the one transpiring only a few yards away.
Kel Lee knelt at Stella’s widespread knees, lips prepared to kiss their way up those long legs -- when her blue eyes went wide. “Oh my god!” she gasped in surprise, not pleasure. She pointed a finger in Nick’s direction.
At first Nick thought she’d spied him through the tall blades of grass. He’d forgotten all about the jhang, which stood unconcealed behind him but displayed no less curiosity than he. She pawed the soil with one hoof and snorted at being so abruptly noticed.
Stella’s red head swiveled as she cast a glance over one lovely shoulder. Both of the girls were already smiling but their smiles got bigger upon spotting the jhang. They murmured in excitement as they got to their feet, their smooth flesh jiggling and shining richly, not yet fully dry from their bath.
Kel Lee called to the jhang. “Come here, baby, come to us.”
The girls joined hands, made a slow approach so as not to frighten the beautiful animal away. The jhang whinnied and pawed the ground some more.
“Maybe we can ride it,” Kel Lee spoke in hushed tones.
“Come here, precious,” Stella said softly. “Isn’t it beautiful?”
Much to Nick’s surprise, the jhang took tentative steps toward the females. He huddled in the grass, unseen. The beast left his side and walked around the water’s edge. Within moments Kel Lee and Stella were stroking her fur and combing their fingers through the animal’s mane. He heard them speak, their voices musical, of the extreme rarity of jhangs, how they were the descendants of unicorns. As they discussed the nature of the beast, he remembered he’d seen only two jhangs now in his life.
Nick prepared to make his presence known and introduce himself -- but apparently his hadn’t been the only eyes watching the two beauties frolicking in the pond.
A heavily accented voice barked from the glade beyond, “Exactly what’s going on here?”
Both girls jumped, startled. The jhang made a low sound, ears and tail lifted.
Two giant ebony skinned men in pantaloons and turbans emerged from among the trees. One of them drew a scimitar large enough to behead a ylandro. He spoke in an accent as thick as the first man, his sarcasm evident:
“Well, well, isn’t this charming?”
“Who are you?” both girls demanded, the jhang forgotten in their fright. They hugged one another for protection.
“We are your new masters,” a third superior voice proclaimed. A man unlike the first two strode into view. Hook-nosed and oily, clad in a burnoose and desert headgear, he wore a sword diagonally across his back.
Nick recognized the voice and the man.
Stella and Kel Lee were too scared to move. Before the captain could instruct the two men in turbans to grab the females, they had them surrounded. The jhang looked with uncertainty, yet unmoving, upon sighting the newcomers.
Nick almost swore, clutched the hilt of his knife.
Crumstein admired the naked flesh until he got a good look at the animal. “By the blue beard of Sardonnicus! A jhang. Put away that cleaver, you damned fool, and bring me the coil of rope from the tent.”
The big man holding his scimitar scowled but replaced his weapon in a sash wound about his middle. He disappeared into the fronds and underbrush mumbling indignities.
“You going to try and catch that pony, captain?” asked the other tall man in a turban who remained at the captive girls’ sides.
“You’re a lot smarter than Kyle,” muttered Crumstein. “Chain those wenches and try not to frighten off the animal doing it, Rad.”
Stella winced in pain as Rad thrust a rough hand into her hair. He seized Kel Lee by one wrist. Anger coursed through Nick as the giant prepared to drag the girls away.
“Two new slaves that didn’t cost me a copper,” said Crumstein with a cruel laugh. He rubbed his hands together without taking his eyes off the jhang. “And this creature will sell for two hundred gold lankas in Pala-Daj, more in Rishi-Kedj.”
The girls were unable to struggle but they protested vehemently.
“Rest your tongues, sluts,” spat Crumstein; “you’ll be using them much more later, that I promise. Hurry with the rope, Kyle!”
The jhang eyed the man in the burnoose with trepidation but took not a step in retreat. Kyle reappeared with the rope, one end already fashioned into a lasso. The fearless animal issued a derisive snort when Kyle passed the rope to Crumstein. Nick had no illusions about Crumstein’s ability to snare the jhang. He’d seen the slaver rope a female prize with his lasso before. Indeed the captain was a past master of the rope, and the whip; Nick well knew.
“Go around the other side of the pond, Kyle, so we can box in the beast if it runs,” the captain ordered. He started to spin the lasso over his head, feeding out more length for the long cast he intended to make.
“Don’t hurt her,” Kel Lee cried out.
Rad twisted her arm up between her shoulder blades; her scream echoed across the glade. He jerked Stella by the hair and the naked redhead lost her footing. She screamed too as Rad dragged her by the tresses into the jungle. The look on his face indicated how much he enjoyed manhandling the girls.
The jhang finally bolted in Nick’s direction, delicate legs pumping across the sward. He heard the whooping of air as the rope whirled in Crumstein’s expert hands. The lasso sailed through the early morning sunlight, settling perfectly around the jhang’s neck. She reared on her hind legs with a screech, fighting the rope. Kyle raced around the pond with scimitar in hand; in seconds he would be at the squealing animal’s side.
And right on top of Nick.
With Crumstein fully occupied, Nick burst from his hiding place. Kyle, caught off guard, shrieked in fright at his sudden emergence.
Nick brought the giant down with a ferocious tackle. An arterial spray of gore splashed him as he slit the man’s throat. The body jerked in its death throes but Nick had already rolled off the corpse and grabbed the scimitar from where it landed on the ground.
He sprinted toward the slaver.
Crumstein had his heels dug in and both hands frantically groping to reel in his prey but was having a hard time of it. Preoccupied with the jhang, he had not seen the demise of Kyle which had occurred out of his line of sight and without a sound. A foul oath broke from his lips at the unexpected, unwelcome appearance of Nick, but he did not release his grip on the rope.
A stroke of the scimitar in Nick’s hand severed the line; the jhang skittered to freedom and the captain fell ignominiously on his arse. Nick slammed a knee in his chest and put the point of his bloody knife on the cruel slaver’s bobbing Adam’s apple. “Just twitch, you ruddy buggerer, and you’ll get what Kyle got.”
Crumstein looked up at him and stammered, “Wh-what-what are you doing here?”
Nick smiled at the look on the man’s oily face. “Funny, that was the same question I had for you.”
“Why are you threatening me? I thought we were in business together?”
“Is that what business partners do, steal from one another? My gear is missing from the ruins. That’s my longsword you have across your back. And now you want to steal my jhang, too?” As he spoke, Nick laid the scimitar aside and unhooked his sword from the diagonal belt the slaver wore.
Seeking to distract Nick, and avoid the question, the desperate captain asked, “Did you get the scepter from the temple for me?”
“It’s here in my pouch,” lied Nick. “Why did you appropriate my belongings from the ruins?”
“I thought you were dead,” came the unconvincing reply; “that’s why I took your things. You can have them back.”
“You are correct about that, you toad.”
“Don’t talk like that -- I’m glad to see you alive.”
“Right! And I’m the crown prince of Pala-Daj.”
“Old friends don’t treat each other this way.”
The new confidence in Crumstein’s voice warned Nick. He pushed away from the slaver in time to save his head from being split asunder on the razor edge of Rad’s scimitar.
The big man had sought to creep up on him, sliding like a serpent on his belly through the grass. Nick cursed himself for not cutting Crumstein’s throat when he had had the chance. Now he faced two foes.
The slaver glanced at the discarded scimitar gleaming among the waving blades of grass. He reached suddenly toward it at the same instant Rad lunged forward. Nick flung his knife at the captain’s hand while dodging the murderous thrust of the scimitar. The curved blade whistled so close to Nick’s face that it lopped off a hank of his long brown hair. The toss of his knife went awry, caroming off one of the big rings on Crumstein’s fingers. He got a satisfying glimpse of spurting crimson before needing to focus his full attention on Rad.
The forward lunge unbalanced the slaver’s big henchman but he managed to avoid a slash of the longsword. Nick held the scabbard in one hand, his sword in the other.
As Rad turned, the leather scabbard caught him across the bridge of his nose. A sickening crunch of bone was audible over the din of Crunstein’s curses. Blood ran in torrents from the nostrils of Rad’s broken nose, yet he raised his scimitar in defense. Nick smacked the wide blade away with a forehanded stroke and struck off the giant’s head with a furious backhanded blow.
The headless body staggered about and Nick twisted to get out of its way. He expected Crumstein to stick a scimitar in his back at any given second as he threw himself away from what had once been Rad.
The corpse toppled hard. Nick tumbled through the grass and felt the cold steel of the scimitar on the ground beneath him. When he looked around he saw the back of a burnoose plunging out of sight into the dense jungle.
Nick let out a deep breath, too exhausted to give chase to the fugitive Crumstein. Over by the pond the jhang shook its mane and whinnied, the lasso still dangling from her neck. A pitiful wailing of the girls reached Nick’s ears. Crawling over to the body, he found a key ring in Rad’s sash, keys that would open a slaver’s chains.
The girls’ voices raised in a pathetic moan carrying through the jungle. Nick jingled the ring of keys and smiled. The sun beat down on his naked shoulders. The day was young and full of promise.
With a bounce in his step he rounded the pond.
A stillness returned to the glade. Except for the snort of a jhang.
Table of Contents
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