A four-part tale of swordplay and sorcery
The trail was hardly more than a faintly beaten path that wound tortuously among the quagmires and thickets of the marsh. Zhangi of Nuh followed it cautiously. He was mindful that a careless step, a slip of his horse’s hoof, could plunge mount and rider into a sucking, grasping bog.
They advanced one pace at a time, through a cold mist that dragged wetly on his cloak. He could see only the immediate way ahead. All beyond, on every side, was obscured by a ghostly veil of mystery and menace.
“Curse you, Zhangi, and curse the folly that brought us here,” said Toqahe Skull-Cleaver, the faithful but blunt, close behind him. “I can see no farther than the reach of my hand, and here we are on the edge of the Yorl Edobik’s domain, prey for any imperial troops who may wish to lift our heads.”
“We have a summons and a promise of safe conduct from Edobik,” Zhangi reminded him.
“Hah! I begin to fear that you were too ready to trust that jackal.”
“Well, if there are any troops in this fen, they are as blind as we,” Zhangi replied tranquilly. “And if you can see as far as the reach of your hand, ye can see to smite a foeman should any appear within sword range.”
Toqahe subsided, muttering and tugging at his forked beard. Zhangi smiled wolfishly. He had forced composure into his voice, but his mind roiled with uneasiness. His free hand rested on the hilt of the curved tulwar under his red cloak, as if he could draw reassurance from the blade. His companion had called it folly, the errand that had brought them here – and perhaps it was; perhaps the objective he followed was no more tangible or real than the eerie, shifting features of the landscape in the fog.
He and his companion had entered the marsh from the north, following the River Kaer from its headwaters in the Mountains of Kites. On the long journey they had skirted the caravan road, following instead the more obscure trails known to their fellow outlaws of the Lynx and Fox clans. An hour ago, when they first pushed into the fen, the sun had been shining from a watery saffron sky. And then the fog had crept in, slithering on wispy tendrils. At first, it had been thin and inconsequential, subtly growing heavier and more plentiful, until it thickened unnaturally into the curtain that now lay impenetrably around them.
On the instant he heard a muffled thump of hoofbeats ahead. He motioned for Toqahe to halt, then slid his sword half out of its rich, jacinth-encrusted scabbard. A rider loomed ahead out of the fog and came to a stop too, reining in his fine bay, as he saw the red-cloaked horseman in his path.
“You are Zhangi?” the stranger asked. He wore a shirt of chain-mail, decorated with a poised falcon worked into the links – the emblem of the Melgwenian Empire whose ruler was the Yorl Edobik. A crested helmet protected his head, the nasal of the helmet obscuring his face. The crest proclaimed him an officer in the imperial guard.
Another newcomer lurked behind the officer, a sergeant in a morion and mail coif, spectral in the fog. Zhangi was conscious that Toqahe had edged forward behind him, ready to draw and strike if provoked.
But the officer gestured peacefully enough as he dismounted from his pony and invited Zhangi’s company. There was an arm of higher ground here, to the right of the trail; the foxes and opossums of the fens had cleared the area of the rank marsh grass, leaving a clear space. The Melgwenian drew a wineskin and cups from his saddle-bag, crouched in the clearing and poured, offering a drink of exquisite vintage as Zhangi dismounted in kind.
“Ye are two,” the newcomer said.
“And you.” Zhangi tasted the wine appeciatively. “Such was the message I had, on the parchment signed by the Yorl and secured with his seal. A parlay in the marshes of the River Kaer – the Yorl would send two trusted riders, and I could bring a man of my own. And the meeting place chosen so that neither would be tempted to bring a larger retinue. What use for a mounted force or archers in a bog where there is no room for maneuverings and charges?”
“And no clear field of vision in this blind mist, for which you may thank the Yorl’s court shaman,” the officer said. “He gave me a spell to bring the fog for a few hours, long enough to obscure our meeting from any spying eyes. It will lift when my sergeant and I leave.”
“And they call you …?”
“Ruom, a captain of the guard.” He pulled off his helmet, revealing a youthful face. His long moustache was braided in the style favored by the languid dandies of the imperial court, but above, his eyes were incongruously hooded, watchful. He stretched out his hand, and Zhangi, after a moment, clasped it briefly. The red-cloaked outlaw was little older in years than Ruom, but his hard existence of banditry had left its marks in the lines that scoured his face, in the savage twist of his lips.
“Now that you’re properly introduced, we’d better be to business, before our companions become restless,” Zhangi suggested. He eyed the impatient set of Toqahe’s shoulders, the wary tilt of the sergeant’s mailed head, as the two warriors faced each other on horseback.
“My business is easily stated. The gist was written in the message from the Yorl, which was sent to you by secret ways. Edobik wishes a favor. In return, he promises payment in gold – ten thousand pieces of gold – and a truce with your outlaws of the Lynx clan.”
Zhangi shrugged. In the old days, the people of the Lynx had lived peacefully in the foothills, raising horses and cattle. They had been treated equitably by the old emperor, Merander. Then Merander had died, his only child – a daughter – had disappeared on a diplomatic mission, and the Yorl Edobik, his councilor, had seized power. Striking ruthlessly a year ago, Edobik sent his army into the foothills to claim the land on which the Lynx clan had lived from time immemorial as free subjects to Melgwen. Families had been killed, settlements burned, and the survivors had retreated into the mountains, turning renegade to eke out an existence in the harsh highlands.
“Do we need a truce?” the outlaw mused. “It is true that Edobik dealt us a hard blow, but we of the Lynx have learned to hold our own since then. Of late, the merchants of Melgwen have fared worse than we. Less than a month ago, we and our brothers of the Fox clan plundered a rich convoy, and laughed at the cavalry that was dispatched after us. And the punitive expeditions against us bid to lessen now that Edobik needs his troops elsewhere. You Melgwenians face far greater threats from the pirates on the Sea of Crius to your west, and the fanatic reavers from the desert to the south.”
“True, peace on the northern marches would give us a measure of respite, but there are also benefits for your folk. Edobik also would consider further concessions – restoring land that the empire seized last year, for example. And ten thousand pieces of gold would buy you many comforts. Surely that must be enticing for one who has had to endure a meager existence on the backbone of the world for these past winter months.”
“And to earn these comforts – what would I have to do, captain?” Zhangi asked.
“Go to the fortress of the pirate king Iochos on the Sea of Crius, rescue a woman from captivity, and restore her to Melgwen,” Ruom replied lightly. He laughed at the skeptical expression that crossed the other’s face. “Oh, I didn’t say it would be an easy mission, Master Zhangi. On the other hand, there are certain features that make it less difficult than it might seem at first glance.”
“Who is the woman?”
“The Princess Cimele, daughter of the late Emperor Merander.”
“When Cimele disappeared on a diplomatic mission to the southern kingdom of Khoreshi, it was supposed that robbers or rebels had kidnapped her. It was also rumored –” Zhangi watched the officer narrowly – “that Edobik had engineered the disappearance to ease his seizure of the throne.”
“The rumor about the Yorl was false, but the supposition about robbers was true. She was waylaid by a band of desert brigands in a moment of carelessness by her escort. The brigands ambushed the party, butchered the bodyguard, and secretly sold the princess to the pirate king Iochos. He has had her locked away these many months while he tries to determine how best to use her to further his own ambitions. A spy in his retinue sneaked word to Edobik as to her whereabouts.
“There is no likelihood that Iochos would admit an official delegation from Melgwen. And with our enemies watching us closely from the south, we frankly cannot afford a military offensive. But a potential ally from the Lynx clan, offering partnership to Iochos against their common enemy Edobik, is likely to find welcome.”
“And once in, would I find it as simple to get out again with the princess in tow?”
“I said that we have a spy in the pirate’s court,” Ruom reminded him. “He will facilitate your departure. He knows he too will be well paid for doing so.”
“Who is this spy, and how will I recognize him?”
“In truth, we don’t know his name, but his information has always been reliable. He will identify himself by showing you a ring on which the figure of a kraken is graven.”
“I like it not, Zhangi,” snarled Toqahe, looming above on his horse. “How can we trust these curs of the empire? And what of the poor princess? Is captivity in Melgwen any preferable to captivity among the pirates?”
“Edobik will treat Cimele with respect,” the captain responded, “for he knows the affection that her subjects hold for her. As for the other question, we are prepared to establish good faith in a most tangible way.” He nodded to the sergeant.
Moving slowly to avoid provoking Toqahe’s sword, the sergeant reached into a saddlebag and drew forth a heavy leather purse. He tossed the purse to the ground. Zhangi leaned forward and undid the strings of the purse. Gold glinted dully in the eerie half-light that filtered through the mist.
“Ye may wish to use a measure of that to buy your way into Iochos’ throne-room,” Ruom suggested. “But the rest can be considered partial payment for your services.”
“Well, Toqahe?” Zhangi asked.
The other outlaw huffed and wrenched at his horse’s reins. The animal danced nervously. “Go if you will, Zhangi. I mislike this transaction. I’ll return to the mountains and ask your kin to light a funeral fire for you.”
Zhangi locked stares with him for a moment, then nodded and counted out a double fistful of coins from the purse. These he transferred to his own pocket. He redid the strings on the purse and tossed it up to his companion, who caught it deftly.
“Farewell, then, but light not a funeral pyre. Instead, kindle a beacon fire to mark my way home. Give our chief the gold and tell him to expect more.”
“May the gods watch over you.” Toqahe nudged his mount into a cautious walk. Within moments, he had disappeared into the mist.
Zhangi rose to his feet and swung into the saddle with an easy movement. “I am on to Crius. For the mission you propose, I may as well ride alone anyway.” He drew a knife from his boot, sliced a thin cut along the back of his hand, and shook a few oozing drops of blood onto the ground. “Ye know the ritual pledge that we of the Lynx swear when we undertake an obligation? This is my oath to you. I will succor the princess and bring her to you. Now … once I leave Iochos’ keep, where should I meet you, captain?”
“Where the river loops away from the caravan road, there is an ancient ruin, a temple of the Olden Ones – you know the place, I suppose. I’ll meet you there in a week, for it will take you that long to travel to the shore of Crius and back. And tarry not on the way; two raven-haired sisters await my return in the capital.”
The outlaw lifted his hand in a brief gesture before he too sidled into the devouring mist.
* * * * *
Unhurriedly, Ruom remounted and listened intently, then nodded at the faint thump of hoofbeats receding into the distance. After a moment, he edged closer to the sergeant. In a low voice: “Follow Zhangi’s man and kill him. Follow for a day, two days, as long as needed to catch up with him. He must not be allowed to reach home. Then return to the Yorl, gather a troop to meet me at the temple of rendezvous, and say that I will deliver the princess soon.”
“You are certain that this outlaw of the Lynx clan will uphold his end of the bargain, captain?”
“Yes. He gave his pledge in blood, after all; his
sacred oath that he will uphold our bargain or die trying. And just as
surely, he will deliver the princess, for he is a resourceful and brave
man. It is a pity, but necessary, that when we meet at the rendezvous
next sen’night – he must die.”
on to Chapter II
Blood of the Lynx is copyright by Fred Blosser. 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.)