The Devil's Due

by D.K. Latta

This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for
commercial purposes without his permission. 


Chapter One: Treachery in Camotahl

The sun blazed off the silken cloaks of two men as they rode their horses lazily through the winding street.  One was a tall, gaunt man of middle years with a black beard that descended past his chest.  The other was slightly younger, a handsome, broad-shouldered man with a trim brown beard.  Upon his high brow was draped the tiara of a king.

"Who is that woman, Ehkiballah?" asked the king, squinting up.

The other man gazed up the high wall to where sentries stood silent watch as the king and his advisor made their way through the narrow avenues of the city.  Ehkiballah scanned the dozen armoured men, then focused on the object of the king's interest.  A woman crouched on the lip of the wall.  She sported metal plates over either shoulder, but no more in the way of armour.  Instead, she was dressed casually in a vest and the briefest of loin-cloths.

She was uncommonly beautiful, both men could tell even at this distance, with a shock of sandy hair twisting in the sultry breeze.

"She is called, Neekin, I believe," Ehkiballah said quietly.  "Recently employed by the captain-of-the-guards.  A barbarian girl."

Distracted by the entrancing vision, and the way her loin-cloth fluttered teasingly in the breeze, the king did not see the black-garbed figures spring from doorways on either side of the street.

"My lord!" hissed Ehkiballah, his startled horse rearing.

The king turned, cursing, his sword springing from its scabbard.  The six newcomers were armed, their faces veiled.  Then Ehkiballah's mount shouldered into his own horse and the advisor clumsily rammed against him, throwing the king from his saddle.

Above was pandemonium.

The king's rounds were generally without incident, and the king himself invariably refused an armed escort.  Only a poor leader needs protection from his own people, he had once remarked.  His soldiers, therefore, watched him from afar.  The men scrambled frantically for the stairs, knowing that once they reached the ground they must backtrack a block before coming to the first passage leading onto the alley.  The assassins had chosen their ground well.

Neekin, however, responded instinctively.  She pounced, though the distance to the ground was too great a drop.  Instead, she leapt across.  She struck the building on the opposite side of the alley where an improper laying of the stones had left a ragged facade.  Her fingers and the toes of her bare feet gripped thin crevices as she scrambled down a short way and leapt again.  She hit the ground, rolled, and came up with steel gleaming in either hand.  Her right hand bore a sword, her left a strong-bladed hunting knife.

Lips curled back from white teeth, she struck the first man across the back of the head with the flat of her sword, sending him tumbling to the dirt.

Startled, the assassins turned.  Two came at her, leaving three to face the king, obviously taking her to be the lesser threat.

It was true that in size and strength she was not necessarily a match for some hardened man who had the better of her by weight and sheer brute strength.  But she rarely relied solely on brute strength.  Not when she had speed, agility, and skill to supplement it.

The first man made to clove her head from her body, but she ducked easily beneath the clumsy stroke, twirled and kicked out, imbedding her heel just below his ribs.  As the air exploded through his lips Neekin, in a single fluid movement, launched herself at his comrade.  The second man's eyes registered the figure flying at him, but his arm was too slow in raising to meet her.  Suddenly blood was in his mouth as Neekin slammed the pommel of her sword into his face.

She miscalculated and landed awkwardly, her ankle twisting, and she tumbled to her knees.  Her opponent, despite his pain, saw his opening.  He ran at her, her back still to him, and stabbed.  Neekin twisted toward him, the edge breezing by her side as she clamped the sword between her arm and ribs and continued her twist, wrenching his weapon from his hand and sending him sprawling.

She gained her feet just as her first attacker came again.  She threw up her hunting knife, not to block the downward crush, but to deflect it.  His strike unexpectedly twisting off to the side, the assassin's own feet tangled under him and Neekin split him open with her sword.  Blood vomited at her feet.

She whirled to find the king still fending off two men; the third lay dead at his feet.  She embedded her sword half-way through the neck of one of the attackers, sending blood spattering across the wall.  His companion turned, startled, and the king plunged his sword through the would-be assassin's breast.

Neekin swung around, but the men who were still alive had fled.  Then her ears detected the clank of armour and the king's sentries came storming down the narrow avenue.

*     *     *

Camotahl, Neekin understood, had been founded one hundred years previous by a tribe of ethnic G'Natians driven from Zoufestaff during a xenophobic era in that land's history.  They had considered returning to the land of their forefathers, but knew that just as the Zoufestaffians had seen them as undesirable G'Natians, true G'Natians would see the refugees simply as Zoufestaffian interlopers.  Homeless, they wandered for many months until entering the land of the Karo -- mythical winged men.  Here the weary refugees decided to make their stand.  Under the canny leadership of the present king's great-great-grandfather, the refugees drove away the Karo, supposedly with the aid of the advisor/sorcerer Ehkiballah.

Neekin well knew that such histories liberally mixed half-truths with out-right propaganda.  None of the current generation had ever seen one of the supposed winged people.  As well, the notion that Ehkiballah was over a hundred years old did not strike her as the most plausible of tales.  Yet, she was not ready to dismiss it entirely.

The Spirits themselves knew of the weird and sorcererous things she had seen in her travels.

All this went through her mind as she entered the king's chambers.  She still wore only a vest and loin-cloth, though she had discarded her shoulder-plates and her sword.  It would seem inappropriate to answer the king's summons armed.

The blue carpet tickled the soles of her bare feet as she waited, weight on one foot, hands on the swells of her hips.  The room was luxurious without being excessive; a king who enjoyed his position, without abusing it overmuch.  An obsidian table over to one side was set with goblets and an urn of spicy wine and a bowel of water with which to mix it.  A wide bed dressed with crimson sheets sat next to the tall, tapered window.  Looking out she could view the low roofs of the city, dressed lightly with the ivory wash of the full moon.  In the distance was the jagged black wall of the mountains that hemmed the city in a crescent embrace.  Embroidered drapes rustled gently with a light, warm breeze.

A door opposite her opened and the king entered.  She waited as he approached.
 

King Bwroan surveyed the beautiful young woman.  Her eyes, he realized for the first time, were oddly matched, with one green and the other pale blue.  She stared at him without demure, seeming not overly impressed by his rank or accidents of birth.  A smile touched his lips.

"Some wine for my saviour?" he asked, going to the obsidian table.

"I don't generally drink alcohol," she answered.  She spoke proper Zoufestaff, not the dialect that had evolved in Camotahl, and even then spoke it with an accent.

He hesitated, then poured her a glass of the water intended for diluting the wine.  He filled his own glass with a liberal mixing of the two, then handed to her her drink.

"Do you know why those men attacked you?"

He shrugged.  "I'm not without my flaws, but I don't think I'm too great a fool when I say I know of no discontentment sweeping my people.  It bewilders me."  Unmeaning to, his gaze dropped to her vest.  The garment did not meet in the front, being held together by laces, and the inner curves of her generous breasts swelled alluringly from under the constricting fabric.  He drained his goblet in a single gulp and looked away.

"Why am I here?" she asked abruptly.

He stopped and smiled, a little sheepishly.  "You saved my life.  Besides, a king who does not trouble to know his staff is one who is insular and perhaps deserving of that ambush today."  Her weird eyes darted past his shoulder and he followed her gaze -- to his bed.  Bwroan coughed as he set down his glass.  "Let there be no misunderstanding.  I need not exert my, uh,  influence to secure companionship.  If you feel uncomfortable, or compromised, at any time," he gestured behind her at the door, "you may leave.  And fear no reprisals."

"Good to know," she said neutrally.

He laughed.  "I have very little say over the decommissioning of my soldiers in any event.  Either Ehkiballah or the captain-of-the-guards sees to that."  He smiled disarmingly.  "But I had hoped to get to know you a little better."

She regarded him through hooded eyes, then sauntered toward the window.  Her firm buttocks swayed maddeningly beneath her brief loincloth.  "I know a little about you already."

"Indeed?"

"As you said, your people are not discontented, which is surely the only measure of a leader."  She turned and shrugged.  "The rest I can learn later."

He approached her, somewhat confused by her words.  "What-?"

Her foot hooked behind his ankles and she shoved against his chest.  He fell backward and landed with an "oofh" upon his bed.  Nimbly, she straddled him.

"Ye gods, girl," he gasped.

She cocked her head at him, her full lips turned slightly in a smile, her eerie eyes sparkling mischieviously.

"Do you mean to ravish me?" he demanded with mock indignity.

"Perhaps you should call for your guards."

"Aye.  Perhaps I should."

She tugged playfully at the laces of her vest.

"Later," he added, a little hoarsely.

She unthreaded the laces and the garment fell open, allowing her full breasts to surge free.  She shrugged out of the vest.

"You are not like the ladies of my court," he muttered.

"The ladies of your court did not almost die today," she said, suddenly serious.  "Nor are they likely to die tomorrow in any other alley.  If I do not take what I want when I want, how do I know the opportunity will come again?"  Her hands slipped inside his silk shirt, stroking his hard chest.

Bwoarn rolled her warm breasts in his hands and a sigh escaped her lips.  "Still, methinks this isn't the first time you've shared a king's bed," he said ruefully.

"Nor a queen's for that matter."

"Eh?"

But Neekin silenced him with a kiss...

*     *     *

"Fools," hissed Ehkiballah as he ducked into the subterranean chamber deep beneath the castle.  Torches sent slithering patterns of bloody light and murky shadows warring across the walls.  At the farthest end of the chamber, a great vat simmered languidly.  He cast a scathing glance at the armoured man awaiting his next words.  "I should pluck your still-beating heart from your chest."

The man stiffened.  "Lord, I-"

"The king lives!  Your men either died or fled.  What have you to say to that, eh?"

"The woman," he objected.  "She fought like a jungle cat."

For a moment Ehkiballah's eyes glinted like black marbles in the lambent crimson glow, then he waved his long, bony fingers.  "Wait outside."

"Aye, lord," mumbled the armoured man, relieved.

Once alone, the sorcerer stood motionless, his black cloak like wings about his body, his crafty brain turning slowly in his skull.  Then he strode toward the simmering vat, beside which was a table arrayed with vials of obscene powders.  He sprinkled a touch of dried blood upon the breast of the slowly bubbling brew.  "Your humble servant calls..." he whispered.

The water churned and seethed, bubbling frenziedly as the foaming liquid cascaded over the sides.  Ehkiballah stepped back, fearful of being scalded.

A figure rose out of the water.

The sullen torchlight glanced off eerily black skin, unable to illuminate it.  Only red eyes and rows of needle-like teeth gleamed in the shifting glow.

"Yes?" the creature said, its voice the ominous echo of distant thunder.

The sorcerer hesitated.  "There have been...delays, my lord."

The red eyes flared, but the rumbling voice was controlled.  "A century  ago, I aided you and the first king of Camotahl in driving out the Karo.  In return, I demanded complete dominion be given over to me after the passage of one hundred years, and I granted the both of you immortality to insure you would keep our bargain."  The head canted on bull shoulders.  "But the king thought twice about bargaining with his people's future, and slew himself.  Reneging.  Do you now renege as well?"

"No," he squeaked, then coughed.  "Camotahl shall be yours.  But the rightful king must die, else the people will resist when you come to claim your right."

"And the king now has a protector."

"Only this morning," countered Ehkiballah, amazed at his master's omnipotence.  "A chance occurrence."

"And what of tomorrow?" asked the creature, sinking slowly into the water again.  "And the day after that, and after that?"  Then he was gone, leaving no sign he had even been.

Ehkiballah frowned, unsure of the meaning of his master's mocking irony.  Hesitatingly, he waved his hands over the bosom of the steaming liquid and an  image crystalized of the king's chambers.  His black eyes narrowed.  The king lay upon his bed, entwined with a nude woman.  A woman he recognized after a  moment as the warrior Neekin.

His thin lips curled in a sneer.  Neekin was now the king's lover, it seemed.  The task of getting him alone, where he could be slain easily, and without suspicion falling on Ehkiballah, had just become more difficult.

Obviously, the advisor realized, the girl must be disposed of first.

*     *     *

Roused from a peaceful slumber by a tapping at his door, the king drew on a jade robe before admitting his late caller.  A serving girl bowed.  "My lord, Ehkiballah requests your presence."

"At this hour?"

"He did say immediately."  The girl glanced past him, curious.  Neekin sprawled upon the sheets, slumbering obliviously.  Moonlight gleamed off the exquisite roundness of her buttocks.

Grinning ruefully, the king quickly ushered the fascinated servant toward the door.  "Take me to him."

Neekin slept on.

If she registered the sound of a door opening some time later, her mind, still snuggled blissfully in the warm realm of dreams, attributed it to her new lover.  Until something inside her registered more than one set of steps, that is, and her sensitive nose failed to recognize the king's scent.  Neekin's eyes snapped opened, though even she was unaware of why her body was suddenly tense and alert.  Unaware, that is, until a damp cloth was clamped over her face and she inhaled a foul sorcerer's brew.  She struggled, but big hands pinned her down.

In moments, the fumes had once more pulled the hood of sleep over her eyes.

Next:The Land of the Karo

Back to the Neekin Chronicles