The Swordsman Kavlar in...

Kavlar's Boast

A 6-Chapter Sword and Sorcerous Saga!

by "Long" John Outram
About the author

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Episode 3: The Hell Hound


  C ROUCHING IN THE DARKNESS, Gulo suddenly realised that the giant hound was unchained - or rather, that the chain around its neck was fixed to nothing. There was barely time to throw himself aside before its great jaws snapped on empty air where he had been.

Kavlar, dropping into the compound, had hardly regained his balance when he saw that the dog was free. It raced past him to attack Gulo, missed, and swung its head to and fro, deciding between its two enemies. Gulo was on his back, scrambling to get to his feet again. Kavlar had no weapon to hand, only the lamb bone he had brought to distract the beast, and looking into its red maw and bright eyes his plan seemed very foolish. But since it was all he had to hand, he stuck the lamb bone into the dog's face. And the dog seized it and tore it from his grasp.

Gulo was up, but the dog turned to face him. It dropped the bone between its paws and let out a long, low growl that chilled the blood. Its muscles convulsed as it twice barked a warning, and then it tensed for a spring. Without thinking, Kavlar flung himself forward. His hands closed on the long fur around the dog's neck, and even as it leaped for Gulo he wrenched its head sideways.

Now Kavlar held two hundred and fifty pounds of angry dog in his hands. It whirled on him, teeth snapping at him as he twisted away breathlessly. He had not imagined it would be so strong. Kavlar knew that the dog's only weapon was its bite, and as long as he kept behind its head he was safe; but every dog learns to chase his tail, and now Pennarg's dog turned and twisted so fast that Kavlar could hardly keep up.

From the barn, a dozen canine voices added their support to the furious growling and barking the dog was making. Kavlar remembered that Pennarg had more than one dog, though he had not built this into his plan. He saw Gulo, white-faced, making for the gate.

Suddenly a great clump of hair came away in his fist, and he lost his grip and was thrown clear. The dog leapt upon him. Its mouth gaped, and he felt its hot breath on his face.

With the huge dog pressing him down, fangs reaching for his throat, Kavlar had no time to think. He lashed out instinctively with a wild punch. He hit the dog squarely on the nose with enough force to knock a full-grown man off his feet.

Afterwards he was never really sure which of them was the more surprised, but he was first to recover. His fingers found the collar under its fur, and driving up with his legs he overthrew the beast. Then, with all his strength, he pinned it down while Gulo fumbled the sack over its head and pulled the drawstring tight.

"It's done," said Gulo.

Kavlar was too breathless to reply. He was not sure he had remembered to breathe for a minute or two.

"Ho! What goes on out there!" cried a voice from within.

The Waren boys cursed and let go the dog. Muffled growls and barks came from inside the sack as it tried to shake itself free, running in frantic circles. The door of the house was open and light shone forth from a lantern.

"Pennarg!" called Kavlar, abandoning stealth. "We are stealing your dog!"

"Like Hell you say!" roared the man in the doorway. He had a naked sword in his hand as he rushed out. But Gulo's arrow flew faithfully and felled him on the doorstep. The lantern smashed in the doorway, spilling burning oil. Another armed man appeared, still in his night-shirt. Gulo's second arrow struck him as he hesitated before the flames. But more men were coming, with weapons drawn, two through the doorway and two through a window. Kavlar had found his bow, but realised it was too late for that. He drew the dagger from his buskin and threw it, catching the first of the Penvale men as he stood blinking in the darkness beyond the circle of fire. Then he drew his sword just in time to parry a bright, Keldish sword. For the first time he found himself exchanging sword strokes with an enemy bent on his life, but there was no time to think of that, only to parry, dodge and launch his own counter-blows with all his strength.

Gulo had shot down a third man with his bow, but now his knife was drawn as he grappled on the floor with the last of the Valemen. They were matched in strength, but Gulo twisted and turned like an eel, and his knife was better for close fighting than the Valeman's sword.

Kavlar, meanwhile, fought for his life. He was tall and strong for a youth, and he had practised swordplay from an early age. But the man he fought was a veteran warrior, not in the flower of youth but strong and wily nonetheless. For this was Pennarg himself, and seeing four of his men slain he was determined to be revenged on the raiders. His sword was heavier than Kavlar's and his strokes were harder. He drove the Waren youth back step after step, until Kavlar stumbled and fell. Pennarg raised his sword for the killing stroke. Perhaps he was still hazy from sleep, or perhaps his eyes had not adjusted to the darkness, but he failed to see Kavlar's upward thrust until it caught him below the ribs. Kavlar pushed until two feet of steel jutted from the Valeman's back.

Gulo struggled to his feet with a victorious whoop and a bloody knife. If any more men remained in the house, they showed no signs of coming forth, in spite of the flames that now licked at the timber frame.

"If they wish to burn, let them burn," scowled Kavlar.

The dogs in the barn howled fretfully, but the giant dog seemed to have lost his spirit. Kavlar took hold the chain and hauled it after him. He felt tired and sick from the fight. The dog's claws had torn his arms and legs, and Pennarg's sword had scraped his ribs twice. But when he looked at Gulo, he saw reflected his own triumphant smile. They had lived up to his boast and won their prize.

***

While Gulo watered their ponies, Kavlar read the tracks in the soft sand by the water's edge. They had ridden for two days since the raid at Penvale but made less speed than they had hoped. Disoriented and hungry, Pennarg's dog was docile now but Kavlar still did not dare remove the hood, and they could only pull the beast at a stumbling pace on its chain. There was no sign of pursuit, but they were still wary in this land where the Waren knew a thousand enemies.

But the tracks in the sand were those of Waren-bred ponies, and more specifically the ponies which on Grechan and Skallar had set out. There were other tracks too, iron-shod horses such as the Kelds and Helmings rode. Skallar had passed here recently, and watered his horses. Whether he knew it or not, the other riders were close behind him. In spite of their rivalry, Kavlar never doubted his duty to his kinsmen. They were Havmar Waren, and their enemies were his enemies.

"If we ride hard we may come upon them from behind," suggested Kavlar, showing Gulo the tracks.

"With Sack-Head here in tow we will go slowly," replied Gulo. "Leave him behind and come back for him."

Kavlar shook his head: "It might be a difficult return, if Skallar and Grechan are pursued. As for the dog, he is slow but he will cross any country, smooth or flat. Skallar will go by the valleys, especially if he has Thorvald's daughter with him."

"Then if we ride by Harriers' Swoop we will reach the passes before him," said Gulo. A spur of the mountains divided the valleys here, and the road passed in a wide loop. The path Gulo suggested was steep and narrow, but would cut their journey by a day if their ponies did not go lame in the rocky defiles. They would also need to cross the River Kar, but here it was shallow enough for them to wade across. The dog might choke and splutter a little, but they reasoned it would swim if it had to.

They made the crossing with little difficulty, and headed into the high mountains. The clear, cool air lent them confidence as they picked their way northwards. The high mountains were Waren territory. Here they felt safer than in the wooded vales and rolling plains of their enemies. Though the going was hard, they were mountain bred, and had trod such paths since childhood. Even strong men of other races might have quailed at the near-sheer cliff faces that opposed them, and no steeds could have mounted such rocky obstacles as did the stout Waren ponies. Onward they climbed, and as day departed a bright half-moon lit their way. They did not stop for food or rest until they had reached the top of the pass, and all the valleys stretched before them and behind them. Here on Harriers' Swoop they could imagine themselves birds indeed, gazing down on the world below them. From this height they felt themselves masters of all the world, and bathed in the pale moonlight that gleamed in their hair and skin they seemed indeed like beings of another world, spirit-folk of the mountains. Kavlar felt the urge to shout from the mountaintops, to affirm that Waren warriors indeed ruled this high place and therefore all the world beneath.

But he did not, and when morning came they descended the northern face of the spur with stealth and caution. Leading their mounts downslope presented more of a problem than had their ascent, and several times they had to pit all their strength against a pony that threatened to slip headlong down the steep path. Yet it was not long before the path opened out and drew level, so that they could mount again. Now the birds of prey soared overhead, where in the early morning they had gazed down on them from the rocky heights. Stunted trees, twisted by wind and weather, struggled for life around them, and below they could see the clustering woods amid the boulder-strewn valley. The sun climbed up behind them, casting the mountain's shadow over them like a cloak, but the valley was green and resplendent in the sunshine.

Far over the sward, far below them, they saw tiny ant-like figures crossing the valley. Two Waren ponies and their riders were followed by two larger horses. The riders of these were cloaked, but even at this distance Kavlar and Gulo could see the sun glinting on the pale golden hair of a woman.

"Skallar and Grechan?" asked Gulo.

"And Thorvald's daughter," Kavlar affirmed. "But who is the fourth? Another prisoner? Skallar and Grechan don't seem to be leading them."

"Perhaps Skallar has given her something to make her come willingly," smirked Gulo. "The other is her maid, and Grechan has given her something similar."

"Grechan? I doubt it," muttered Kavlar, shading his brow and looking east.

"Ah," said Gulo, looking the same way.

"Ah," repeated Kavlar. They had seen four black-cloaked riders further down the valley, riding at an easy pace but still gaining on Skallar's party. A helmet glinted as they came on. There could be no doubt - this was a war-party.

"They will catch our clansmen before the sun reaches its zenith," said Gulo. "Four against two? We fought worse odds at Penvale, but night and surprise were on our side. Would the elders condemn us if we teamed up with Grechan and Skallar before the month is out?"

"We may warn them, at least," said Kavlar. "No-one will condemn us for that. Afterwards, if the Helmings attack us we will fight them - if not, Skallar and Grechan must fend for themselves."

Gulo grinned. Kavlar had judged the situation wisely.

"Sack-Head will slow us down, still," he warned. The dog had slipped and slid after them most unhappily. His paws were raw and bloody, his claws cracked and split, and he whimpered more than he growled now as he stumbled after them.

"You ride after Skallar with all speed," ordered Kavlar. "I will ride into the valley and keep an eye on their pursuers. If they come too close I will give the Havmar war-cry, and ride back for you. Bring Skallar back, if he will come, and together we will send these Helmings to Hell!"


Back to Episode 2 :Kavlar's Quest

On to Episode 4 :The Cloaked Riders


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Kavlar's Boast is copyright by John Outram. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)