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from The Legend of Deathwalker
the huge crowd bayed for blood, Sieben the Poet found himself staring
around the vast colosseum, its mighty columns and arches, its tiers and
statues. Far below on the golden sand of the arena two men were fighting
for the glory of their nations. Fifteen thousand people were shouting
now, the noise cacophonous like the roaring of some inchoate beast. Sieben
lifted a scented handkerchief to his face, seeking to blot out the smell
of sweat that enveloped him from all sides.
was a marvelous piece of architecture, its columns shaped into statues
of ancient heroes and gods, its seats of finest marble covered by cushions
of down-filled green velvet. The cushions irritated Sieben, for the color
clashed with his bright blue silken tunic inset with shards of opal on
the puffed sleeves. The poet was proud of the garment, which had cost
a suitably enormous amount of money and had been bought from the best
tailor in Drenan. To have it beggared by a poor choice of seat covering
was almost more than he could stand. Still, with everyone seated, the
effect was muted. Servants moved endlessly through the crowd, bearing
trays of cool drinks or sweetmeats, pies, cakes, and savory delicacies.
The tiers of the rich were shaded by silken coverings, also in that dreadful
green, while the very rich sat in red-cushioned splendor with slaves fanning
them. Sieben had tried to change his seat and sit among the nobility,
but no amount of flattery or offers of bribes could purchase him a place.
To his right
Sieben could just see the edge of the God-King's balcony and the straight
backs of two of the Royal Guards in their silver breastplates and white
cloaks. Their helms, thought the poet, were particularly magnificent,
embossed with gold and crested with white horsehair plumes. That was the
beauty of the simple colors, he thought; black, white, silver, and gold
were rarely upstaged by upholstery, no matter what its color.
he winning?" asked Majon, the Drenai ambassador, tugging at Sieben's
sleeve. "He's taking a fearful battering. The Lentrian has never
been beaten, you know. They say he killed two fighters last spring in
a competition in Mashrapur. Damn, I bet ten gold Raq on Druss."
lifted the ambassador's fingers from his sleeve, brushing at the bruised
silk, and forced his gaze away from the wonders of the architecture to
focus briefly on the combat below. The Lentrian hit Druss with an uppercut,
then a right cross. Druss backed away, blood seeping from a cut over his
left eye. "What odds did you get?" asked Sieben.
ambassador ran his hand over his close-cropped silver hair. "Six
to one. I must have been mad."
at all," said Sieben smoothly. "It was patriotism that drove
you. Look, I know ambassadors are not well paid, so I will take your bet.
Give me the token."
possibly ... I mean, he's being thrashed out there."
course you must. After all, Druss is my friend, and I should have wagered
on him out of loyalty." Sieben saw the glint of avarice in the ambassador's
if you are sure." The man's slim fingers darted into the pearl-beaded
leather pouch at his side, producing a small square of papyrus bearing
a wax seal and the amount wagered. Sieben took it, and Majon waited with
bring my purse with me," said Sieben, "but I will hand over
the money tonight."
of course," said Majon, his disappointment obvious.
I'll take a walk around the colosseum," said Sieben. "There
is so much to see. I understand there are art galleries and shops on the
don't show much concern for your friend," said Majon.
the criticism. "My dear ambassador, Druss fights because he loves
to fight. Generally one saves one's concern for the poor unfortunates
he faces. I will see you later at the celebrations."
from his seat, Sieben climbed the marble steps, making his way to the
official gambling booth. A gap-toothed cleric was sitting inside the recess.
Behind him stood a soldier, guarding the sacks of money already wagered.
wish to place a wager?" asked the cleric.
I am waiting to collect."
have bet on the Lentrian?"
I bet on the winner. It's an old habit," he answered, with a smile.
"Be so good as to have sixty gold pieces available, plus my original
chuckled. "You bet on the Drenai? It will be a cold day in hell before
you see a return on that investment."
I do think I sense a drop in the temperature," Sieben told him with
In the heat of the arena the Lentrian champion was tiring. Blood was seeping
from his broken nose, and his right eye had swollen shut, but even so
his strength was prodigious. Druss moved in, ducking beneath a right cross
and thundering a blow to the man's midsection; the muscles of the Lentrian's
stomach were like woven steel. A punch smashed down onto Druss' neck,
and he felt his legs buckle. With a grunt of pain he sent an uppercut
into the taller man's bearded chin, and the Lentrian's head snapped back.
Druss hammered an overhand right that missed its mark, cracking against
the man's temple. The Lentrian wiped blood from his face, then hit Druss
with a thundering straight left followed by a right hook that all but
spun Druss from his feet.
was baying, sensing that the end was close. Druss tried to move in and
grapple, only to be stopped by a straight left that jarred him to his
heels. Blocking a right, he fired home another uppercut. The Lentrian
swayed but did not fall. He countered with a chopping blow that took Druss
behind the right ear. Druss shrugged it off. The Lentrian's strength was
fading; the punch lacked speed and weight.
the moment! Druss waded in, sending a combination of punches to the Lentrian's
face: three straight lefts followed by a right hook that exploded against
the man's chin. The Lentrian spun off balance, tried to right himself,
then fell face first to the sand.
A sound like
rolling thunder went up, booming around the packed arena. Druss took a
deep breath and stepped back, acknowledging the cheers. The new Drenai
flag, a white stallion on a field of blue, was hoisted high, fluttering
in the afternoon breeze. Striding forward, Druss halted below the royal
balcony and bowed to the God-King he could not see.
two Lentrians ran out and knelt beside their fallen champion. Stretcher
bearers followed, and the unconscious man was carried from the arena.
Druss waved to the crowd, then walked slowly to the dark mouth of the
tunnel that led through to the bathhouses and rest areas for the athletes.
thrower Pellin stood grinning at the tunnel entrance. "Thought he
had you there, mountain man."
was close," said Druss, spitting blood from his mouth. His face was
swollen, and several teeth had been loosened. "He was strong. I'll
say that for him."
The two men
walked down the tunnel, emerging into the first bathhouse. The sound from
the arena was muted there, and around a dozen athletes were relaxing in
the three heated pools of marble. Druss sat down beside the first. Rose
petals floated on the steamy surface of the water, their fragrance filling
Pars swam across to him. "You look as if a herd of horses has run
across your face," he said.
Druss placed a hand on top of the man's balding head and propelled him
down beneath the surface. Pars swam clear and surfaced several yards away;
with a sweep of his hand he drenched Druss. Pellin, stripped now of his
leggings and tunic, dived into the pool.
off his leggings and slid into the warm water. The relief to his aching
muscles was instant, and for some minutes he swam around the pool; then
he hauled himself clear. Pars joined him. "Stretch yourself out and
I'll knead the aches away," he said. Druss moved to a massage table
and lay facedown, where Pars rubbed oil into his palms and began to work
expertly on the muscles of his upper back.
down close by, toweling his dark hair, then draping the white cloth over
his shoulders. "Did you watch the other contest?" he asked Druss.
Gothir man, Klay, is awesome. Fast. Strong chin. That plus a right hand
that comes down like a hammer. It was all over in less than twenty heartbeats.
Never seen the like, Druss. The Vagrian didn't know what hit him."
I heard," Druss grunted as Pars' fingers dug deeply into the swollen
muscles of his neck.
take him, Druss. What does it matter that he's bigger, stronger, faster,
fitter," put in Pellin. "They say he runs five miles every day
on the mountains outside the city."
I forgot fitter. Younger, too. How old are you, Druss?" asked Pars.
old man," said Pellin with a wink at Pars. "Still, I'm sure
you'll win. Well ... fairly sure."
up. "It is good of you youngsters to be so supportive."
we are a team," said Pellin. "And since you deprived us of Grawal's
delightful company, we've sort of adopted you, Druss." Pars began
to work on Druss' swollen knuckles. "More seriously, Druss, my friend,"
said the runner, "your hands are badly bruised. Back home we'd use
ice to bring the swelling down. I should soak them in cold water tonight."
three days before the final. I'll be fine by then. How did you fare in
second and so will contest the final at least. But I'll not be in the
first three. The Gothir man is far better than I, as are the Vagrian and
the Chiatze. I cannot match their finish."
might surprise yourself," said Druss.
not all like you, mountain man," observed Pellin. "I still find
it hard to believe that you could come to these games unprepared and fight
your way to the final. You really are a legend." Suddenly he grinned.
"Ugly, old, and slow--but still a legend," he added.
"You almost fooled me there, laddie. I thought you might be showing
some respect for me." He lay back and closed his eyes.
Pellin strolled away to where a servant stood holding a pitcher of cold
water. Seeing them coming, the man filled two goblets. Pellin drained
his and accepted a refill, while Pars sipped his slowly. "You didn't
tell him about the prophecy," said Pars.
did you. He'll find out soon enough."
do you think he'll do?" asked the bald runner.
"I have known him only for a month, but somehow I don't think he'll
want to follow tradition."
have to!" insisted Pars.
his head. "He's not like other men, my friend. That Lentrian should
have won, but he didn't. Druss is a force of nature, and I don't think
politics will affect that one jot."
wager twenty gold Raq you are wrong."
not take that bet, Pars. You see, I hope for all our sakes that you are
From a private balcony high above the crowd the giant blond fighter Klay
watched Druss deliver the knockout blow. The Lentrian carried too much
weight on his arms and shoulders, and though it gave him incredible power,
the punches were too slow and easy to read. But the Drenai made it worthwhile.
find the man amusing, Lord Klay?" Startled, the fighter swung around.
The newcomer's face showed no expression, no flicker of muscle. It is
like a mask, thought Klay, a golden Chiatze mask, tight and unlined. Even
the jet-black hair, dragged back into the tightest of ponytails, was so
heavily waxed and dyed that it seemed false, painted onto the overlarge
cranium. Klay took a deep breath, annoyed that he could have been surprised
on his own balcony and angry that he had not heard the swish of the curtains
or the rustle of the man's heavy ankle-length robe of black velvet.
move like an assassin, Garen-Tsen," said Klay.
my lord, it is necessary to move with stealth," observed the Chiatze,
his voice gentle and melodic. Klay looked into the man's odd eyes, as
slanted as spear points. One was a curious brown, flecked with shards
of gray; the other was as blue as a summer sky.
is necessary only when among enemies, surely," ventured Klay.
so. But the best of one's enemies masquerade as friends. What is it about
the Drenai that amuses you?" Garen-Tsen moved past Klay to the balcony's
edge, staring down into the arena below. "I see nothing amusing.
He is a barbarian, and he fights like one." He turned back, his fleshless
face framed by the high, arched collar of his robe.
his dislike of the man growing, but masking his feelings, he considered
Garen-Tsen's question. "He does not amuse me, Minister. I admire
him. With the right training he could be very good indeed. And he is a
crowd pleaser. The mob always loves a plucky warrior. And by heaven, this
Druss lacks nothing in courage. I wish I had the opportunity to train
him. It would make for a better contest."
will be over swiftly, you think?"
his head. "No. There is a great depth to the man's strength. It is
born of his pride and his belief in his invincibility; you can see it
in him as he fights. It will be a long and arduous battle."
you will prevail? As the God-King has prophesied?" For the first
time Klay noticed a slight change in the minister's expression.
beat him, Garen-Tsen. I am bigger, stronger, faster, and better trained.
But there is always a rogue element in any fight. I could slip just as
a punch connects. I could fall ill before the bout and be sluggish, lacking
in energy. I could lose concentration and allow an opening." Klay
gave a wide smile, for the minister's expression was openly worried.
will not happen," he said. "The prophecy will come true."
carefully before answering. "The God-King's belief in me is a source
of great pride. I shall fight all the better for it."
Let us hope it has the opposite effect on the Drenai. You will be at the
banquet this evening, my lord? The God-King has requested your presence.
He wishes you to sit alongside him."
is a great honor," Klay answered, with a bow.
it is." Garen-Tsen moved to the curtained doorway, then swung back.
"You know an athlete named Lepant?"
runner? Yes. He trains at my gymnasium. Why?"
died this morning during questioning. He looked so strong. Did you ever
see signs of weakness in his heart? Dizziness, chest pain?"
said Klay, remembering the bright-eyed garrulous boy and his fund of jokes
and stories. "Why was he being questioned?"
was spreading slanders, and we had reason to believe he was a member of
a secret group pledged to the assassination of the God-King."
He was just a stupid boy who told bad-taste jokes."
it would appear," agreed Garen-Tsen. "Now he is a dead boy who
will never again tell a bad-taste joke. Was he a very talented runner?"
Then we have lost nothing." The odd-colored eyes stared at Klay for
several seconds. "It would be better, my lord, if you ceased to listen
to jokes. In cases of treason there is guilt by association."
remember your advice, Garen-Tsen."
minister had departed, Klay wandered down to the arena gallery. It was
cooler there, and he enjoyed walking among the many antiquities. The gallery
had been included on the arena plans at the insistence of the king--long
before his diseased mind had finally eaten away his reason. There were
some fifty stalls and shops there, where discerning buyers could purchase
historical artifacts or beautifully made copies. There were ancient books,
paintings, porcelain, even weapons.
the gallery stopped as he approached, bowing respectfully to the Gothir
champion. Klay acknowledged each salutation with a smile and a nod of
his head. Though huge, he moved with the easy grace of an athlete, always
in balance and always aware. He paused before a bronze statue of the God-King.
It was a fine piece, but Klay felt the addition of lapis lazuli for the
pupils was too bizarre in a face of bronze. The merchant who owned the
piece stepped forward. He was short and stout with a forked beard and
a ready smile. "You are looking very fine, Lord Klay," he said.
"I watched your fight--what little there was of it. You were magnificent."
think your opponent traveled so far only to be humiliated in such a fashion!"
was not humiliated, sir, merely beaten. He had earned his right to face
me by competing against a number of very good fistfighters. And he had
the misfortune to slip on the sand just as I struck him."
course, of course! Your humility does you great credit, my lord,"
the man said smoothly. "I see you were admiring the bronze. It is
a wonderful work by a new sculptor. He will go far." He lowered his
voice. "For anyone else, my lord, the price would be one thousand
in silver. But for the mighty Klay I could come down to eight hundred."
two busts of the emperor; he gave them to me himself. But thank you for
away from the man, and a young woman stepped before him. She was holding
the hand of a fair-haired boy of around ten years of age. "Pardon
me, lord, for this impertinence," she said, bowing deeply, "but
my son would dearly like to meet you."
at all," said Klay, dropping to one knee before the boy. "What
is your name, lad?"
sir," he replied. "I saw all your fights so far. You are ...
you are wonderful."
indeed. Will you watch the final?"
yes, sir. I shall be here to see you thrash the Drenai. I watched him,
too. He almost lost."
think so, Atka. He is a tough man, a man of rock and iron. I wagered on
can't beat you, though, sir. Can he?" asked the boy, his eyes widening
as doubt touched him.
"All men can be beaten, Atka. You will just have to wait a few days
and smiled at the blushing young woman. "He is a fine boy,"
said the champion. Taking her hand, he kissed it, then moved away, pausing
to study the paintings on the far wall. Many were landscapes of the desert
and the mountains; others depicted young women in various stages of undress.
Some were of hunting scenes, while two, which caught Klay's eye, were
of wildflowers. At the far end of the gallery was a long stall behind
which stood an elderly Chiatze. Klay made his way to the man and studied
the artifacts laid out so neatly. They were mostly small statuettes surrounded
by brooches, amulets, bracelets, bangles, and rings. Klay lifted a small
ivory figurine, no more than four inches tall. It was of a beautiful woman
in a flowing dress. There were flowers in her hair, and in her hand she
held a snake, its tail coiled around her wrist.
is very lovely," he said.
Chiatze nodded and smiled. "She is Shul-sen, the bride of Oshikai
Demon-bane. The figurine is close to a thousand years old."
can you tell?"
Chorin-Tsu, lord, the royal embalmer and a student of history. I found
this piece during an archaeological survey near the site of the fabled
Battle of Five Armies. I am certain that it is no less than nine centuries
old." Klay lifted the figurine close to his eyes. The woman's face
was oval, her eyes slanted; she seemed to be smiling.
was Chiatze, this Shul-sen?" he asked.
spread his hands. "That depends, lord, on your perspective. She was,
as I told you, the wife of Oshikai, and he is considered the father of
the Nadir. It was he who led the rebel tribes from the lands of the Chiatze
and fought his way to the lands now ruled by the Gothir. After his death
the tribes roamed free, warring on one another, even as now. So if he
was the first Nadir, then Shul-sen was ... what? Nadir or Chiatze?"
said Klay. "And beautiful, too. What happened to her?"
shrugged, and Klay saw sorrow in the dark, slanted eyes. "That depends
on which version of historical events you happen to believe. For myself
I think she was murdered soon after Oshikai's death. All the records point
to this, though some stories have her sailing to a mythic land beyond
the sea. If you have romantic leanings, perhaps that is the story you
should cling to."
to hold to the truth where I can," said Klay. "But in this case
I would like to believe she lived happily somewhere. I would guess we
will never know."
spread his hands once more. "As a student I like to think that one
day the mists will be opened. Perhaps I might find some documentary evidence."
you do so, let me know. Meanwhile I shall purchase this figurine. Have
it delivered to my house."
wish to know the price, lord?"
sure it will be a fair one."
it will, sir."
away, then swung back. "Tell me, Chorin-Tsu: How is it that the royal
embalmer runs a stall of antiquities?"
lord, is my profession. History is my passion. And as with all passions,
they must be shared to be enjoyed. Your delight in the piece brings me
on through the gallery arch and to the Hall of Cuisine. Two guards opened
the door to the beautifully furnished dining room of the nobility. Klay
had long since lost any sense of nervousness on entering such establishments,
for despite the lowliness of his birth, his legend was now so great among
the people that he was considered higher than most nobles. There were
few diners present, but Klay spotted the Drenai ambassador, Majon, engaged
in a heated discussion with a fop in a bejeweled blue tunic. The fop was
tall and slim and very handsome, his hair light brown and held in place
by a silver headband adorned with an opal. Klay approached them. Majon
did not at first notice the fighter and continued to rail at his companion.
think this is unfair, Sieben. After all, you won--" At that moment
he saw Klay, and instantly his face changed, a broad smile appearing.
"My dear chap, so good to see you again. Please do join us. It would
be such an honor. We were talking about you only moments ago. This is
Sieben the Poet."
heard your work performed," said Klay, "and I have read with
interest the saga of Druss the Legend."
gave a wolfish smile. "You've read the work, and soon you'll face
the man. I have to tell you, sir, that I shall be wagering against you."
you will forgive me for not wishing you luck," said Klay, sitting
you watch today's bout?" asked Majon.
indeed, Ambassador. Druss is an interesting fighter. It seems that pain
spurs him to greater efforts. He is indomitable and very strong."
always wins," said Sieben happily. "It's a talent he has."
is particularly pleased today," Majon put in icily. "He has
won sixty gold pieces."
also," said Klay.
bet on Druss?" asked Sieben.
I had studied both men and did not feel the Lentrian had the heart to
match your man. He also lacked speed in his left, which gave Druss the
chance to roll with the punches. But you should advise him to change his
attacking stance. He tends to duck his head and charge, which makes him
an easy target for an uppercut."
be sure to tell him," promised Sieben.
a training ground at my house. He is welcome to use it."
is a very kind offer," put in Majon.
seem very confident, sir," said Sieben. "Does it not concern
you that Druss has never lost?"
more than it concerns me that I have never lost. Whatever else happens,
one of us will surrender that perfect record. But the sun will still shine,
and the earth will not topple. Now, my friends, shall we order some food?"
from The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend
by the undergrowth, he knelt by the trail, dark eyes scanning the boulders
ahead of him and the trees beyond. Dressed as he was in a shirt of fringed
buckskin, and brown leather leggings and boots, the tall man was virtually
invisible, kneeling in the shadows of the trees.
The sun was
high in a cloudless summer sky, and the spoor was more than three hours
old. Insects had crisscrossed the hoofmarks, but the edges of the prints
were still firm.
laden with plunder ...
back through the undergrowth to where his horse was tethered. He stroked
the beast's long neck and lifted his swordbelt from the back of the saddle.
Strapping it to his waist, he drew the two short swords; they were of
the finest Vagrian steel and double edged. He thought for a moment, then
sheathed the blades and reached for the bow and quiver strapped to the
saddle pommel. The bow was of Vagrian horn, a hunting weapon capable of
launching a two-foot-long arrow across a killing space of sixty paces.
The doeskin quiver held twenty shafts that Shadak had crafted himself:
the flights of goose feather, stained red and yellow, the heads of pointed
iron, not barbed, and easily withdrawn from the bodies of the slain. Swiftly
he strung the bow and notched an arrow to the string. Then looping the
quiver over his shoulder, he made his way carefully back to the trail.
have left a rearguard? It was unlikely, for there were no Drenai soldiers
within fifty miles.
was a cautious man. And he knew Collan. Tension rose in him as he pictured
the smiling face and the cruel, mocking eyes. "No anger," he
told himself. But it was hard, bitterly hard. Angry men make mistakes,
he reminded himself. The hunter must be cold as iron.
he edged his way forward. A towering boulder jutted from the earth some
twenty paces ahead and to his left; to the right was a cluster of smaller
rocks, no more than four feet high. Shadak took a deep breath and rose
from his hiding place.
the large boulder a man stepped into sight, bowstring bent. Shadak dropped
to his knee, the attacker's arrow slashing through the air above his head.
The bowman tried to leap back behind the shelter of the boulder, but even
as he was dropping, Shadak loosed a shaft which plunged into the bowman's
throat, punching through the skin at the back of his neck.
ran forward, this time from Shadak's right. With no time to notch a second
arrow, Shadak swung the bow, lashing it across the man's face. As the
attacker stumbled, Shadak dropped the bow and drew his two short swords;
with one sweeping blow he cut through the neck of the fallen man. Two
more attackers ran into view and he leapt to meet them. Both men wore
iron breastplates, their necks and heads protected by chain mail, and
they carried sabers.
not die easily, you bastard!" shouted the first, a tall, wide-shouldered
warrior. Then his eyes narrowed as he recognized the swordsman facing
him. Fear replaced battle lust--but he was too close to Shadak to withdraw
and made a clumsy lunge with his saber. Shadak parried the blade with
ease, his second sword lancing forward into the man's mouth and through
the bones of his neck. As the swordsman died, the second warrior backed
didn't know it was you, I swear!" he said, hands trembling.
you do," said Shadak softly.
word the man turned and ran back toward the trees as Shadak sheathed his
swords and moved to his bow. Notching an arrow, he drew back on the string.
The shaft flashed through the air to punch home into the running man's
thigh. He screamed and fell. As Shadak loped to where he lay, the man
rolled to his back, dropping his sword.
pity's sake don't kill me!" he pleaded.
had no pity back in Corialis," said Shadak. "But tell me where
Collan is heading and I'll let you live." A wolf howled in the distance,
a lonely sound. It was answered by another, then another.
a village ... twenty miles southeast," said the man, his eyes fixed
on the short sword in Shadak's hand. "We scouted it. Plenty of young
women. Collan and Harib Ka plan to raid it for slaves, then take them
"I believe you," he said at last.
going to let me live, yes? You promised," the wounded man whimpered.
keep my promises," said Shadak, disgusted at the man's weakness.
Reaching down, he wrenched his shaft clear of the man's leg. Blood gushed
from the wound, and the injured warrior groaned. Shadak wiped the arrow
clean on the man's cloak, then stood and walked to the body of the first
man he had killed. Kneeling beside the corpse, he recovered his arrow
and then strode to where the raiders had tethered their horses. Mounting
the first, he led the others back down the trail to where his gelding
waited. Gathering the reins, he led the four mounts back out onto the
about me?" shouted the wounded man.
in the saddle. "Do your best to keep the wolves away," he advised.
"By dark they will have picked up the scent of blood."
me a horse! In the name of Mercy!"
not a merciful man," said Shadak.
from In the Realm of the Wolf
had been running for slightly more than an hour. In that time she had
covered around nine miles from the cabin in the high pasture, down to
the stream path, through the valley and the pine woods, up across the
crest of Ax Ridge, and back along the old deer trail.
She was tiring,
heartbeat rising, lungs battling to supply oxygen to her weary muscles.
But still she pushed on, determined to reach the cabin before the sun
climbed to its noon high.
was slippery from the previous night's rain, and she stumbled twice, the
leather knife scabbard at her waist digging into her bare thigh. A touch
of anger spurred her on. Without the long hunting knife and the throwing
blade strapped to her left wrist she could have made better time. But
Father's word was law, and Miriel had not left the cabin until her weapons
had been in place.
is no one here but us," she had argued, not for the first time.
the best, prepare for the worst," was all he had said.
And so she
ran with the heavy scabbard slapping against her thigh and the hilt of
the throwing blade chafing the skin of her forearm.
a bend in the trail, she leapt over the fallen log, landing lightly and
cutting left toward the last rise, her long legs increasing their pace,
her bare feet digging into the soft earth. Her slim calves were burning,
her lungs hot. But she was exultant, for the sun was at least twenty minutes
from its noon high and she was but three minutes from the cabin.
moved to her left, talons and teeth flashing toward her. Instantly Miriel
threw herself forward, hitting the ground on her right side and rolling
to her feet. The lioness, confused at having missing her victim with the
first leap, crouched down, ears flat to her skull, tawny eyes focusing
on the tall young woman.
mind was racing. Action and reaction. Take control!
knife slid into her hand, and she shouted at the top of her voice. The
lioness, shocked by the sound, backed away. Miriel's throat was dry, her
heart hammering, but her hand was steady on the blade. She shouted once
more and jumped toward the beast. Unnerved by the suddenness of the move,
the creature slunk back several more paces. Miriel licked her lips. It
should have run by now. Fear rose, but she swallowed it down.
Fear is like
fire in your belly. Controlled, it warms you and keeps you alive. Unleashed,
it burns and destroys you.
eyes remained locked to the tawny gaze of the lioness, and she noted the
beast's ragged condition and the deep angry scar on its right foreleg.
No longer fast, it could not catch the swift deer, and it was starving.
It would not--could not--back away from the fight.
of everything Father had told her about lions: Ignore the head--the bone
is too thick for an arrow to penetrate. Send your shaft in behind the
front leg, up and into the lung. But he had said nothing about fighting
such a beast when armed with only a knife.
The sun slid
from behind an autumn cloud, and light shone from the knife blade. Instantly
Miriel angled the blade, directing the gleam into the eyes of the lioness.
The great head twisted, the eyes blinking against the harsh glare. Miriel
of fleeing, the lioness suddenly charged, leaping high toward the girl.
For an instant
only Miriel froze. Then the knife swept up. A black crossbow bolt punched
into the creature's neck just behind the ear, with a second slicing into
its side. The weight of the lioness struck Miriel, hurling her back, but
the hunting knife plunged into the beast's belly.
very still, the lioness on top of her, its breath foul on her face. But
the talons did not rake her, or the fangs close on her. With a coughing
grunt the lioness died. Miriel closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and
eased herself from beneath the body. Her legs felt weak, and she sat on
the trail, her hands trembling.
A tall man,
carrying a small double crossbow of black metal, emerged from the undergrowth
and crouched down beside her. "You did well," he said, his voice
up into his dark eyes and forced a smile. "It would have killed me."
he agreed. "But your blade reached its heart."
flowed over her like a warm blanket, and she lay back, breathing slowly
and deeply. Once she would have sensed the lioness long before any danger
threatened, but that talent was lost to her now, as her mother and her
sister were lost to her: Danyal killed in an accident five years earlier
and Krylla wed and moved away the previous summer. Pushing such thoughts
from her mind, she sat up. "You know," she whispered, "I
was really tired when I came to the last rise. I was breathing hard, and
my limbs felt as if they were made of lead. But when the lioness leapt,
all my weariness vanished." She gazed up at her father.
and nodded. "I have experienced that many times. Strength can always
be found in the heart of a fighter, and such a heart will rarely let you
at the dead lioness. "Never shoot for the head--that's what you told
me," she said, tapping the first bolt jutting from the creature's
and grinned. "I missed."
not very comforting. I thought you were perfect."
getting old. Are you cut?"
think so ..." Swiftly she checked her arms and legs, as wounds from
a lion's claws or fangs often became poisonous. "No. I was very lucky."
you were," he agreed. "But you made your luck by doing everything
right. I'm proud of you."
were you here?"
needed me," he answered. Rising smoothly to his feet, he reached
out, drawing her upright. "Now skin the beast and quarter it. There's
nothing quite like lion meat."
think I want to eat it," she said. "I think I'd like to forget
forget," he admonished her. "This was a victory, and you are
stronger for it. I'll see you later." Retrieving his bolts, the tall
man cleaned them of blood, returned them to the leather quiver at his
going to the waterfall?" she asked him softly.
a little while," he answered, his voice distant. He turned back to
her. "You think I spend too much time there?"
she told him sadly. "It's not the time you sit there nor the effort
you put into tending the grave. It's you. She's been ... gone ... now
for five years. You should start living again. You need ... more than
but she knew she had not reached him. He smiled and laid his hand on her
shoulder. "One day you'll find a love, and then we can talk on equal
terms. I do not mean that to sound patronizing. You are bright and intelligent.
You have courage and wit. But sometimes it is like trying to describe
colors to a blind man. Love, as I hope you will find, has great power.
Even death cannot destroy it. And I still love her." Leaning forward,
he drew her toward him, kissing her brow. "Now skin that beast. And
I'll see you at dusk."
him walk away, a tall man moving with grace and care, his black and silver
hair drawn back into a tightly tied ponytail, his crossbow hanging from
he was gone, vanished into the shadows.
was narrow, no more than six feet wide, flowing over white boulders in
a glittering cascade to a leaf-shaped bowl thirty feet across and forty-five
feet long. At its most southern point a second fall occurred, the stream
surging on to join the river two miles to the south. Golden leaves swirled
on the surface of the water, and with each breath of breeze more spiraled
down from the trees.
pool grew many flowers, most of them planted by the man who now knelt
by the graveside. He glanced up at the sky. The sun was losing its power,
the cold winds of autumn flowing over the mountains. Waylander sighed.
A time of dying. He gazed at the golden leaves floating on the water and
remembered sitting there with Danyal and the children on another autumn
day ten lifetimes earlier.
been sitting with her tiny feet in the water, with Miriel swimming among
the leaves. "They are like souls of the departed," Danyal had
told Krylla. "Floating on the sea of life toward a place of rest."
again and returned his attention to the flower-garlanded mound beneath
which lay all he had lived for.
fought a lion today," he said. "She stood and did not panic.
You would have been proud of her." Laying his ebony-handled crossbow
to one side, he idly dead-headed the geraniums growing by the headstone,
removing the faded, dry red blooms. The season was late, and it was unlikely
they would flower again. Soon he would need to pull them, shaking dry
the roots and hanging them in the cabin, ready for planting in the spring.
she is still too slow," he added. "She does not act with instinct
but with remembered learning. Not like Krylla." He chuckled. "You
remember how the village boys used to gather around her? She knew how
to handle them, the tilt of the head, the sultry smile. She took that
out, he touched the cold rectangular marble headstone, his index finger
tracing the carved lines.
the pebble in the moonlight
was shaded by elms and beech, and there were roses growing close by, huge
yellow blooms filling the air with sweet fragrance. He had bought them
in Kasyra, seven bushes. Three had died on the journey back, but the remainder
had flourished in the rich clay soil.
going to have to take her to the city soon," he said. "She's
eighteen now, and she needs to learn. I'll find a husband for her."
He sighed. "It means leaving you for a while. I'm not looking forward
grew, with even the wind in the leaves dying down. His dark eyes were
distant, his memories solemn. Smoothly he rose and, taking up the clay
bowl beside the headstone, moved to the pool, filled the bowl, and began
to water the roses. The previous day's rain had been little more than
a shower, and the roses liked to drink deep.
low in the bushes, his crossbow loaded. How easy, he thought, unable to
suppress a smile.
and kill him. He had to admit that the prospect of such a hunt had frightened
him. After all, Waylander the Slayer was no mean opponent. When his family
had been slain by raiders, he had roamed the land until he had hunted
down every one of the killers. Waylander was a legend in the Guild, a
capable swordsman but a brilliant knife fighter and a crossbowman without
peer. More than that, he was said to possess mystical abilities, always
sensing when danger was near.
the crossbow at the tall man's back. Mystical abilities? Pah. In one heartbeat
he would be dead.
The man at
the graveside picked up a clay bowl and moved toward the pool. Kreeg shifted
his aim, but his intended victim crouched down, filling the bowl. Kreeg
lowered his bow a fraction, slowly letting out his held breath. Waylander
was side-on now, and a sure killing shot would have to be to the head.
What was he doing with the water? Kreeg watched the tall man kneel by
the roses, tipping the bowl and splashing the contents around the roots.
He'll go back to the grave, thought Kreeg. And once there, I'll take him.
So much in
life depended on luck. When the kill order had come to the Guild, Kreeg
had been out of money and living off a whore in Kasyra, the gold he had
earned from killing the Ventrian merchant long since vanished in the gambling
dens of the city's south side. Now Kreeg blessed the bad luck that had
dogged him in Kasyra. For all life, he knew, was a circle. And it was
in Kasyra that he had heard of the hermit in the mountains, the tall widower
with the shy daughter. He thought of the message from the Guild:
a man named Dakeyras. He has a wife, Danyal, and a daughter, Miriel. The
man has black and silver hair and dark eyes and is tall, close to fifty
years of age. He will be carrying a small double crossbow of ebony and
bronze. Kill him and bring the crossbow to Drenan as proof of success.
Move with care. The man is Waylander. Ten thousand in gold is waiting.
Kreeg had despaired of earning such a fabulous sum. Then--blessed be the
gods--he had told the whore about the hunt.
a man with a daughter called Miriel who lives in the mountains to the
north," she had said. "I've not seen him, but I met his daughters
years ago at the Priests' School. We learned our letters there."
you remember the mother's name?"
it was something like Daneel ... Donalia ..."
he had whispered, sitting up in bed, the sheet falling from his lean,
it," she had said.
had gone dry, his heart palpitating. Ten thousand! But Waylander? What
chance would Kreeg have against such an enemy?
a week he toured Kasyra, asking about the mountain man. Fat Sheras the
miller saw him about twice a year and remembered the small crossbow.
very quiet," said Sheras, "but I wouldn't like to see his bad
side, if you take my meaning. Hard man. Cold eyes. He used to be almost
friendly, but then his wife died--five ... six years ago. Horse fell,
rolled on her. There were two daughters, twins. Good-looking girls. One
married a boy from the south and moved away. The other is still with him.
Shy child. Too thin for my taste."
tavern keeper, a thin-faced refugee from the Gothir lands, also remembered
him. "When the wife was killed, he came here for a while and drank
his sorrows away. He didn't say much. One night he just collapsed, and
I left him lying outside the door. His daughters came and helped him home.
They were around twelve then. The city elders were talking of removing
them from his care. In the end he paid for places at the Priests' School,
and they lived there for almost three years."
uplifted by Goldin's tale. If the great Way-lander had taken to drinking
heavily, then he was no longer to be feared. But his hopes evaporated
as the tavern keeper continued.
never been popular. Keeps to himself too much," said Goldin. "But
he killed a rogue bear last year, and that pleased people. The bear slaughtered
a young farmer and his family. Dakeyras hunted it down. Amazing! He used
a small crossbow. Taric saw it. The bear charged him, and he just stood
there, then, right at the last moment, as the bear reared up before him,
he put two bolts up through its open mouth and into the brain. Taric says
he's never seen the like. Cold as ice."
Taric, a slim blond hostler, working at the earl's stables.
tracked the beast for three days," he said, sitting back on a bale
of hay and drinking deeply from the leather-bound flask of brandy Kreeg
offered him. "Never saw him break a sweat--and he's not a young man.
And when the bear reared up, he just leveled the bow and loosed. Incredible!
There's no fear in the man."
were you with him?"
"I was trying to pay court to Miriel, but I got nowhere. Shy, you
know. I gave up in the end. And he's a strange one. Not sure I'd want
him for a father-in-law. Spends most of his time by his wife's grave."
soared anew. That was what he had been hoping for. Hunting a man through
a forest was chancy at best. Knowing his victim's habits made the task
slightly less hazardous, but to find out that there was one place the
victim always visited ... that was a gift from the gods. And a graveside,
at that. Waylander's mind would be occupied, full of sorrow, perhaps,
and fond memories.
So it had
proved. Kreeg, following Taric's directions, had located the waterfall
soon after dawn that morning and had found a hiding place that overlooked
the headstone. Now all that was left was the killing shot. Kreeg's gaze
flickered to the ebony crossbow still lying on the grass beside the grave.
in gold! He licked his thin lips and carefully wiped his sweating palm
on the leaf-green tunic he wore.
man walked back to the pool, collecting more water, then crossed to the
farthest rosebushes, crouching once more by the roots. Kreeg switched
his gaze to the headstone. Forty feet away. At that distance the barbed
bolt would punch through Waylander's back, ripping through the lungs and
exiting through the chest. Even if he missed the heart, his victim would
die within minutes, choking on his own blood.
anxious for the kill to be over, and his eyes sought out the tall man.
He was not
The clearing was empty.
missed your chance," came a cold voice.
trying to bring the crossbow to bear. He had one glimpse of his victim,
arm raised, something shining in his hand. The arm swept down. It was
as if a bolt of pure sunlight had exploded within Kreeg's skull. There
was no pain, no other sensation. He felt the crossbow slipping from his
hands and the world spinning.
thought was about luck.
It had not
changed at all.
knelt by the body and lifted the ornate crossbow the man had held. The
shoulder stock of ebony had been expertly crafted and embossed with swirling
gold. The bow itself was of steel, most likely Ventrian, for its finish
was silky smooth and there was not a blemish to be seen. Putting aside
the weapon, he returned his scrutiny to the corpse. The man was lean and
tough, his face hard, the chin square, the mouth thin. Waylander was sure
he had never seen him before. Leaning forward, he dragged his knife clear
of the man's eye socket, wiping the blade across the grass. Drying the
knife against the dead man's tunic, he slipped it once more into the black
leather sheath strapped to his left forearm.
A swift search
of the man's clothing revealed nothing save four copper coins and a hidden
knife hanging from a thong at his throat. Taking hold of the leaf-green
tunic, Waylander hauled the corpse upright, hoisting the body over his
right shoulder. Foxes and wolves would fight over the remains, and he
wanted no such squabbles near Danyal's grave.
made his way to the second waterfall, hurling the body out over the rim
and watching it plummet to the rushing stream below. At first the impact
wedged the corpse against two boulders, but slowly the pull of the water
exerted itself and Kreeg's lifeless form floated away facedown toward
the distant river. Retrieving his own crossbow and taking up the assassin's
weapon, Waylander made his way back to the cabin.
lazily drifting up from the stone chimney, and he paused at the edge of
the trees, staring without pleasure at the home he had crafted for Danyal
and himself. Built against the base of a rearing cliff, protected from
above by an overhang of rock, the log cabin was sixty feet long, with
three large shuttered windows and one door. The ground before it had been
cleared of all trees, bushes, and boulders, and no one could approach
within a hundred feet without being seen.
was a fortress, yet there was beauty also. Danyal had covered the corner
joints with mottled stones of red and blue and had planted flowers beneath
the windows, roses that climbed and clung to the wooden walls, pink and
gold against the harsh ridged bark.
scanned the open ground, searching the tree line for any second assassin
who might be hidden, but he could see no one. Carefully keeping to cover,
he circled the cabin, checking for tracks and finding none save those
made by his own moccasins and Miriel's bare feet. Satisfied at last, he
crossed to the cabin and stepped inside. Miriel had prepared a meal of
hot oats and wild strawberries, the last of the season. She smiled as
he entered, but the smile faded as she saw the crossbow he carried.
did you find that?" she asked.
was a man hidden near the graveside."
believe so. This bow would cost perhaps a hundred gold pieces. It is a
beautifully crafted weapon. I think he was an assassin."
would he be hunting you?"
shrugged. "There was a time when I had a price on my head. Perhaps
I still have. Or maybe I killed his brother or his father. Who knows?
One thing is certain; he can't tell me."
She sat down
at the long oak table, watching him. "You are angry," he said
He shouldn't have gotten that close. I should have been dead."
was hidden in the undergrowth some forty paces from the graveside, waiting
for the killing shot. When I moved to get water for the roses, I saw a
bird fly down to land in the tree above him, but it veered off at the
could have been a fox or any sudden movement," she pointed out. "Birds
it could have been," he agreed. "But it wasn't. And if he'd
had enough confidence to try for a head shot, I would now by lying beside
we've both been lucky today," she said.
but did not answer, his mind still puzzling over the incident. For ten
years they had lived without his past returning to haunt him. In these
mountains he was merely the widower Dakeyras. Who, after all this time,
would send an assassin after him?
And how many
more would come?
The sun was
hanging over the western peaks, a blazing cooper disk of fire casting
a last defiant glare over the mountainside. Miriel squinted against the
too bright," she complained.
But his hand
swept up, the wooden chopping board sailing into the sky. Smoothly she
brought the crossbow to her shoulder, her fingers pressing the bronze
trigger. The bolt leapt from the weapon, missing the arcing wood by little
more than a foot.
it was too bright," she repeated.
failure and it will happen," he told her sternly, recovering the
me throw it for you, then."
not need the practice--you do!"
couldn't hit it, could you? Admit it?"
into her sparkling eyes and noted the sunlight glinting red on her hair
and the bronzed skin of her shoulders. "You ought to be married,"
he said suddenly. "You are far too beautiful to be stuck on a mountainside
with an old man."
try to evade the issue," she scolded, snatching the board from him
and walking back ten paces. He chuckled and shook his head, accepting
defeat. Carefully he eased back the steel string of the lower bow arm.
The spring-loaded hook clicked, and he inserted a short black bolt, gently
pressing the notch against the string. Repeating the maneuver with the
upper bow arm, he adjusted the tension in the curved bronze triggers.
The weapon had cost him a small fortune in opals many years before, but
it had been crafted by a master and Waylander had never regretted the
up and was about to ask Miriel to throw when she suddenly hurled the board
high. The sunlight seared his eyes, but he waited until the spinning board
reached its highest point. Extending his arm, he pressed the first bronze
trigger. The bolt flashed through the air, hammering into the board, half
splitting it. As it fell, he released the second bolt. The board exploded
man!" she said.
He made a
low bow. "You should feel privileged," he told her, holding
back his smile. "I don't usually perform without payment."
again," she ordered him, restringing the crossbow.
wood is broken," he pointed out.
the largest piece."
his bolts, he hefted the largest chunk of wood. It was no more than four
inches across and less than a foot long. "Are you ready?"
With a flick
of his wrist he spun the chunk high into the air. The crossbow came up,
and the bolt sang, plunging into the wood. Waylander applauded the shot.
Miriel gave an elaborate bow.
are supposed to curtsey," he said.
they are supposed to wear dresses and learn embroidery," she retorted.
he conceded. "How do you like the assassin's bow?"
has good balance, and it is very light."
ebony, and the stock is hollowed. Are you ready for some swordplay?"
"Is your pride ready for another pounding?"
he admitted. "I think we'll have an early night." She looked
disappointed as they gathered their weapons and set off back to the cabin.
"I think you need a better swordmaster than I," he told her
as they walked. "It is your best weapon, and you are truly skilled.
I'll think on it."
you were the best," she chided.
always seem that way," he said dryly. "But no. With bow or knife
I am superb. With the sword? Only excellent."
so modest. Is there anything at which you do not excel?"
he answered, his smile fading.
his pace, he walked on, his mind lost in painful memories. His first family
had been butchered by raiders, his wife, his baby girls, and his son.
The picture was bright in his mind. He had found the boy lying dead in
the flower garden, his little face surrounded by blooms.
years before, having found love a second time, he had watched helplessly
as Danyal's horse had struck a hidden tree root. The stallion had hit
the ground hard, rolling, trapping Danyal beneath it and crushing her
chest. She had died within minutes, her body racked with pain.
there anything at which you do not excel?"
keep alive those I love.
from Winter Warriors
night sky over the mountains was clear and bright, the stars like diamonds
on sable. It was a late winter night of cold and terrible beauty, the
snow hanging heavy on the branches of pine and cedar. There was no color
here, no sense of life. The land lay silent except for the occasional
crack of an overladen branch or the soft, whispering sound of fallen snow
being drifted by the harsh north wind.
rider on a dark horse emerged from the tree line, his mount plodding slowly
through the thick snow. Bent low over the saddle, he rode on, his head
bowed against the wind, his gloved hands holding his snow-crowned gray
cloak tightly at the neck. As he came into the open, he seemed to become
a focus for the angry wind, which howled around him. Undaunted, he urged
the horse on. A white owl launched itself from a high treetop and glided
down past the horse and rider. A thin rat scurried across the moonlit
snow, swerving as the owl's talons touched its back. The swerve almost
carried it clear.
In this frozen
place "almost" was a death sentence. Everything here was black
and white, sharp and clearly defined, with no delicate shades of gray.
Stark contrasts. Success or failure, life or death. No second chances,
As the owl
flew away with its prey, the rider glanced up. In a world without color
his bright blue eyes shone silver-gray in a face as dark as ebony. The
black man touched heels to his tired mount, steering the animal toward
the woods. "We are both tired," whispered the rider, patting
the gelding's long neck. "But we'll stop soon."
at the sky. It was still clear. No fresh snow tonight, he thought, which
meant that the tracks they were following would still be visible come
dawn. Moonlight filtered through the tall trees, and Nogusta began to
seek a resting place. Despite the heavy hooded gray cloak and the black
woolen shirt and leggings, he was cold all the way to the bone. But it
was his ears that were suffering the most. Un-der normal circumstances
he would have wrapped his scarf around his face. Not a wise move, however,
when tracking three desperate men. He needed to be alert for every sound
and movement. These men had already killed and would not hesitate to do
reins over his pommel, he lifted his hands to his ears, rubbing at the
skin. The pain was intense. Do not fear the cold, he warned himself. The
cold is life. Fear should come only when his body stopped fighting the
cold, when it began to feel warm and drowsy. For death's icy dagger lay
waiting within that illusory warmth. The horse plodded on, following the
tracks like a hound. Nogusta hauled him to a stop. Somewhere up ahead
the killers would be camped for the night. He sniffed the air but could
not pick up the scent of woodsmoke. They would have to light a fire. Otherwise
they would be dead.
in no condition to tackle them now. Swinging away from the trail, he rode
deeper into the woods, seeking a sheltered hollow or a cliff wall where
he could build his own fire and rest.
stumbled in deep snow but steadied itself. Nogusta almost fell from the
saddle. As he righted himself, he caught a glimpse of a cabin wall through
a gap in the trees. Almost entirely snow-covered, it was nearly invisible,
and if the horse had not balked, he would have ridden past it. Dismounting,
Nogusta led the exhausted gelding to the deserted building. The door was
hanging on one leather hinge, the other having rotted away. The cabin
was long and narrow beneath a sod roof, and there was a lean-to at the
side, out of the wind. There Nogusta unsaddled the horse and rubbed him
down. Filling a feedbag with grain, he looped it over the beast's ears,
then covered his broad back with a blanket.
horse to feed, Nogusta moved around to the front of the building and eased
his way over the snow that had piled up in the doorway. The interior was
dark, but he could just make out the gray stone of the hearth. As was
customary in the wild, a fire had been laid, but snow had drifted down
the chimney and half covered the wood. Carefully Nogusta cleaned it out,
then relaid the fire. Taking his tinderbox from his pouch, he opened it
and hesitated. The tinder would burn for only a few seconds. If the thin
kindling wood did not catch fire immediately, it might take him hours
to start a blaze with knife and flint. And he needed a fire desperately.
The cold was making him tremble now. He struck the flint. The tinder burst
into flame. Holding it to the thin kindling wood, he whispered a prayer
to his star. Flames licked up, then surged through the dry wood. Nogusta
settled back and breathed a sigh of relief, and as the fire flared, he
looked around, studying the room. The cabin had been neatly built by a
man who had cared. The joints were well crafted, as was the furniture:
a bench table, four chairs, and a narrow bed. Shelves had been set on
the north wall. They were bare now. There was only one window, the shutters
closed tight. One side of the hearth was filled with logs. An old spiderweb
stretched across them.
shelves and lack of personal belongings showed that the man who had built
the cabin had chosen to move on. Nogusta wondered why. The construction
of the cabin showed a neat man, a patient man, not one to be easily deterred.
Nogusta scanned the walls. There was no sign of a woman's presence there.
The builder had been a man alone. Probably a trapper. And when he had
finally left--perhaps the mountains were trapped out--he had carefully
laid a fire for the next person to find his home. A considerate man. Nogusta
felt welcome in the cabin, as if greeted by the owner. It was a good feeling.
from Hero in the Shadows
moved warily across the killing ground, examining the
hoofprints left by riders who had come upon the scene later. Twenty, maybe
thirty riders had entered the wood and left in the same direction. All
around the site were the bodies of scores of birds. He found a dead fox
in the bushes to the north of the wagons. There were no marks on it.
deeper into the woods, he followed the trail of dead birds and ice-scorched
grass, coming at last to what he believed to be the point of origin. It
was a perfect circle some thirty feet in diameter.
Waylander walked around it, picturing as best he could what must have
happened there. An icy mist had formed in the spot, then had rolled toward
the west as if driven by a fierce breeze. Everything in its path had died,
including the wagoners and their families.
then, were the remains of the bodies, the discarded bones,
the shredded clothing?
toward the wagons, he stopped and examined an area where bushes had been
crushed or torn from the ground. Blood had seeped into the earth. This
was where one of the dead horses had been dragged.
Waylander found more deep imprints of taloned feet close by. One creature
had killed the horse and torn it from its traces, pulling it deeper into
the woods. The blood trail stopped suddenly. Waylander squatted down,
his fingers tracing the indented earth. The horse had been dragged to
this point and then had lost all body weight. Yet it had not been devoured
here. Even if the demon had been ten feet tall, it could not have consumed
an entire horse. And there were no signs that others of the creatures
had gathered around to share a feast. There were no split and discarded
bones, no guts or offal.
rose and reexamined the surrounding area. The tracks of taloned feet just
beyond this point were all heading in one direction, toward the lake.
The demons, having slaughtered the wagoners and their horses, had returned
to where he now stood and had vanished. As incredible as it seemed, there
was no other explanation. They had returned to wherever they had come,
taking the bodies with them.
was beginning to fail. Waylander returned to the steeldust and stepped
into the saddle.
caused the demons to materialize in the first place? Surely it could not
be chance that they had happened upon a convoy. As far as he knew, there
had been two attacks: one on Matze Chai and his men and the second on
these unfortunate wagoners. Both parties had contained large numbers of
men and horses.
Or, looked at from another viewpoint, a great deal of food.
headed the steeldust away from the woods and began the long ride around
the lake. In the years he had dwelt in Kydor there had been no such attacks.
The sun was
setting behind the mountains as he skirted the lake. A feeling of unease
grew within him as he headed toward the distant ruins. Lifting his crossbow,
he slid two bolts into place.
sword had begun to shine, Yu Yu Liang had been frightened. Now, an hour
later, he would have given anything he possessed to be merely frightened.
Clouds had obscured the moon and stars, and the only light came from the
blade in his hands. From beyond the ruined walls and all around him he
could hear stealthy sounds. Sweat dripped into Yu Yu's eyes as he strained
to see beyond the jagged stonework. Twice he had tried to wake Kysumu,
the second time shaking him roughly. It was like trying to rouse the dead.
Yu Yu's mouth
was dry. He heard a scratching on the stony ground to his left and swung
toward it, raising his sword high. As the light shone, he saw a dark shadow
disappear behind the rocks. A low growl came from somewhere close by,
the sound echoing in the night air. Yu Yu was petrified now. His hands
began to tremble, and he was gripping the sword hilt so powerfully that
he could hardly feel his fingers.
just wild dogs, he told himself. Scavenging for scraps. Nothing to fear.
that could make the Rajnee blade shine?
With a trembling
hand he wiped sweat from his eyes and glanced back toward the horses.
They were tethered within the ruin. The gray mare was shivering with terror,
her eyes wide, her ears flat back against her skull. Kysumu's bay gelding
was pawing the ground nervously. From there Yu Yu could just make out
the line of hills and the slope he had ridden down only a few hours before.
If he ran to the mare and clambered into the saddle, he could make that
ride again and be clear of the ruins within moments.
was like cool water to a man dying of thirst.
a glance to the seated Kysumu. His face, as ever, was calm. Yu Yu swore
loudly, feeling his anger rise. "Only an idiot goes seeking demons,"
he said, his voice sounding shrill.
him the clouds parted briefly, and moonlight bathed the ghostly city of
Kuan Hador. In that sudden light Yu Yu saw several dark shapes scatter
to hide among the rocks. As he tried to focus on them, the clouds gathered
once more. Yu Yu licked his lips and backed across the ruin to stand alongside
up!" he shouted, nudging the man with his foot.
shone once more. Again the dark shapes scattered. But they were closer
now. Yu Yu rubbed his sweating palms on the sides of his leggings and
took up his sword once more, swinging it left and right to loosen the
muscles of his shoulders. "I am Yu Yu Liang!" he shouted. "I
am a great swordsman, and I fear nothing!"
taste your fear," came a sibilant voice.
Yu Yu leapt
backward, catching his leg on the low wall and falling over it. He scrambled
to his feet.
At that moment
a huge black form came hurtling toward him, its great jaws open, long
fangs snapping for his face. Yu Yu swung the sword. It slashed into the
beast's neck, slicing through flesh and bone and exiting in a bloody spray.
The creature's dead body cannoned into him, hurling him from his feet.
Yu Yu hit the ground hard, rolled to his knees, then surged to his feet.
Smoke began to ooze from the carcass alongside him, and a terrible stench
filled the air.
of the beasts came padding toward the ruin, clambering over the broken
stones and forming a circle around him. Yu Yu saw that they were hounds,
but of a kind he had never seen before. Their shoulders were bunched with
muscle, their heads huge. Their eyes were on him, and he sensed a feral
intelligence in their baleful gaze.
To his left
the gray mare suddenly reared, dragged her reins loose of the rock, and
leapt over the wall. The bay gelding followed her lead, and the two horses
galloped away toward the hills. The huge hounds ignored the horses.
came again, and he realized it was somehow speaking inside his head. "Your
order has fallen a long way since the Great Battle. My brothers will be
pleased to hear of your decline. The mighty Riaj-nor, who once were lions,
are now frightened monkeys with bright swords."
show yourself," said Yu Yu, "and this monkey will cut your poxy
head from your poxy shoulders."
cannot see me? Better and better."
but I can see you, creature of darkness," came the voice of Kysumu.
The little Rajnee stepped up alongside Yu Yu. "Cloaked in shadow,
you stand just out of harm's way."
Yu Yu glanced
at Kysumu and saw that he was staring toward the eastern wall. Yu Yu squinted,
trying to make out a figure there, but he could see nothing.
hounds began to move. Kysumu had still not drawn his sword.
there are still lions in this world. But lions can also die."
rushed in. Kysumu's blade flashed left and right. Two of the beasts fell,
writhing on the stones. A third struck Yu Yu, fangs closing on his shoulder.
With a cry of pain Yu Yu rammed his sword deep into the beast's belly.
In its agony the hound opened its jaws, letting out a ferocious howl.
Yu Yu tore the blade clear and brought it down on the hound's skull. The
sword tore through bone and wedged itself there. Desperately Yu Yu tried
to haul it clear. The last two beasts rushed at him. Kysumu's sword sliced
through the neck of the first, but the second leapt for Yu Yu's throat.
In that instant
a black bolt materialized in the creature's skull, a second lancing through
its neck. The hound fell at Yu Yu's feet. Freeing his sword, Yu Yu swung
around to see the Gray Man upon his steeldust gelding, a small crossbow
in his hand.
to go," the Gray Man said softly, pointing toward the east.
A thick mist
was moving across the ancient city, a wall of fog slowly rolling toward
them. The Gray Man swung the gelding and galloped away. Yu Yu and Kysumu
followed him. The pain in Yu Yu's shoulder was intense now, and he could
feel blood flowing down his left arm. Even so he ran swiftly.
he saw the Gray Man still riding away. "A pox on you, bastard!"
back, he saw that the wall of mist was closer, moving faster than he could
run. Kysumu also glanced back. Yu Yu staggered and almost fell. Kysumu
dropped back to take his arm. "Just a little farther," said
... can't ... outrun it."
nothing, and the two men moved on in the darkness. Yu Yu heard hoofbeats
and looked up to see the Gray Man riding back toward them, leading the
gray mare and the bay gelding. Kysumu helped Yu Yu into the saddle, then
ran to his own mount.
was very close now, and Yu Yu could hear bestial sounds emanating from
mare needed no urging and took off at speed, Yu Yu clinging to the saddle
pommel. She was panting heavily by the time they reached the slope, but
panic gave her greater strength and she fought her way up the steep incline.
ahead, the Gray Man swung the steeldust, gazing back down toward the plain.
was swirling at the foot of the slope but not advancing. Yu Yu swayed
in the saddle. He felt Kysumu's hand upon his arm and then passed into