“Drink. Please…you must.”
Reluctantly, the slave turned his head to meet the water bearer’s pitiful gaze, squinting and raising a hand to shield his own fair elfin eyes from the torturous sun. Having stared too long at the shadowed patch of earth over which he’d been toiling since daybreak, he grimaced in pain at the sudden influx of light.
“Quickly!” the elf-child urged, thrusting the bladder forward before stealing a glance over her shoulder at the nearest gray-robed taskmaster. That gruesome walking corpse stood but a few paces away from them, seemingly boring a hole in the girl’s back with its glazed white, pupilless orbs that stared from beneath a drawn, tattered cowl. If the slave hesitated much longer to accept what meager sustenance was offered out here in the unforgiving desert, one of these zombies would surely take note and report him to the overseer.
Then the real hell would begin. Sanisar the Usurper, Lord of Agrigoth, did not allow his valuable elfin thralls to give up on living.
Fighting out of his stupor, the slave grabbed the bladder and began to drink from it slowly, all the while covertly surveying the scene about him with rapidly adjusting sight. The hillside mineshaft opened a short distance off to his left: that gaping black mouth through which a steady stream of his fellow slaves came and went with their baskets, busying themselves with removing quarried rock. Even those working deep within were closely supervised, he knew…just as the elders and children—and known troublemakers like himself—were being observed out here. He’d rather have been slinging a pick in the dark, cool tunnels all day than bent over a mortar in this searing heat; but he was hardly in a position to request a transfer.
"Enough!" rasped the taskmaster, taking a step forward and raising its nine-tailed whip threateningly. The minion’s voice was like a boot scraping over dry gravel, as if its throat was packed full of the sand at its feet.
Hastily the slave pushed back the bladder and looked away to hide his face, fighting down an almost irresistible urge to assault the foul creature. Not long ago it would’ve been him shouting orders. To servants and priests. To soldiers and slaves of men. And when he wasn’t issuing commands he would’ve been idling in luxury like the overseer was just now beneath his erected canopy—not shrinking from this shriveled automaton that smelled as if it’d been rolling in putrid, days-old meat.
Yes, the overseer’s condition was markedly better than that of his elfin crew. By the number and quality of attendants and warriors in his entourage alone, not to mention his rich, purple-dyed clothing and lavish jewelry, it was obvious that he was a member of the wealthy ruling caste. There he sat atop cushions spread over an intricately-patterned carpet, enjoying the shade provided for him by the wide awning overhead. A pair of serving girls were waving fronds to fan him, and several others knelt nearby with pitchers and trays of succulent delicacies in hand. He might as well have been Lord Sanisar himself, for all the pomp.
And it didn’t stop there. His five assigned bodyguards were a far cry above the common soldiers of this land. One stood vigil at each corner of the canopy, and the last had stationed himself hardly a step from his charge’s side. They all wore wicked-looking masks and sheathed, curved swords but little in the way of clothing or armor—for such apparel would only impede their movements. These men were blademasters. Members of a sect trained nearly from birth to wield the swords they carried with blinding speed and deadly precision. The slave could attest to their prowess personally, having lost a contest with one of them: despite the fact that in another land he’d been considered a peerless swordsman as well. Perhaps if there’d been only the one nearest the overseer, he would’ve tried his luck again by now. But five together…and no one to aid him but his wretched kin brandishing mere stones, pickaxes, and hammers?
“Grind!” shrieked the taskmaster, lashing out with its whip to lick the slave’s shoulder and arm.
"Ah!" the elf flinched in pain, cursing himself for a fool as he plopped down in the sand, snatching up the pestle to resume his work. Why had he let himself get caught up in a flight of fancy? There’d be no rebellion this day. Nor the next. Nor any day to come. He might as well get used to it.
Still… he thought, busying himself so as not to attract further attention. If I could just get close enough to rip that string of bones from the overseer’s neck…
Another scream filled the air just then, longer and shriller than the slave’s cry of a moment before. Disregarding the warning thought that said he’d likely be whipped again for it, the elf straightened his back and craned his neck towards the shout’s source.
No! his mind raged, muscles tightening at what he saw. Another taskmaster further away had a familiar elfin female’s hair twisted in one hand as it dragged her through the dust, repeatedly striking the maiden with its whip—as if it were actually experiencing some sick pleasure of its own from the torture. Almari! the slave shouted again in his mind, feeling his hands ball into fists. He’d known her when they were children…before the easterners had come to carry him back with them beyond the mountains. But now one of these stinking abominations had the innocent woman in its grasp, yanking her along as it strode ever closer to the overseer’s canopy.
I won’t let them harm you! The slave stood defiantly then, eyes radiating pure hatred in the direction of the awning. It seemed there would be a rebellion today, after all. A pitiful insurrection of likely one elf alone, extremely short-lived.
The same taskmaster that’d whipped him caught his motion and raised its ninetail again, preparing to deliver a harder lash than before. The elf shifted his weight, ready to counter the impending blow…
But the whip’s crack never came. In the same instant that the minion pulled its arm down from the zenith, the creature’s hooded skull nearly exploded before the slave’s eyes: crushed like an overripe melon behind the devastating force of a hurled stone!
The man who’d thrown the chunk was just leaping into view from behind one of the nearby outcrops as the slack-jawed elf retraced the stone’s trajectory to its source. An imposing figure—tall and muscular with long, dark hair flowing behind a black-armored torso—crossed the distance to his teetering foe in but a few powerful strides and deftly spun, sending a gleaming steel blade soaring in an arc that instantly severed what remained of the minion’s ruined head. The gray-robed body dropped to its knees, lingered in that position for a heartbeat, then toppled and slammed hard into the ground.
Several things followed in quick succession while the dazed elf struggled to make sense of it all. Even as the unlooked-for assailant met his wide-eyed gaze, the slave caught sight of several more suddenly-revealed warriors rushing in on the man’s heels. Who were these people? And why had they come? Were they savage raiders here to slaughter taskmaster and slave alike in their lust for ore—or might they be looking to acquire the elfin thralls along with it? The first man certainly could’ve hacked the hesitating slave to pieces before hurling himself at the next undead minion. But he didn’t—and it appeared his companions would follow suit.
A rough tally formed in the elf’s settling thoughts: about two dozen attackers in total were now weaving through his startled, cowering kin, foolishly targeting the mindless taskmasters first. Their outlandish appearance marked them as foreign invaders instead of native bandits. They don’t know what they’re up against—and they’ve wasted the element of surprise! He supposed any one blademaster was a match for half their number now that the bodyguards had been given a chance to rally. And as for the overseer…
Once more Almari’s desperate cry rang out, cutting through the noise of the growing tumult to resound in the slave’s ears—and suddenly he had a choice to make. Should he take up the suicidal race to spare a single member of his kin or else gamble with all their lives by trying to aid these bizarre foreigners?
Dropping to one knee, he gripped the fallen minion by the arm and flipped the corpse over, tearing aside its robes to reveal the long, curved knife that he’d hoped from experience would be there. “Rise up!” he shouted then, standing to thrust the blade in the air for those about him to see. “Now’s your chance!” He made frantic gestures with both arms to indicate them joining him on their feet. “Arise! Make them pay for your suffering!”
The elf didn’t wait to see how many would heed his call. Turning his gaze to the awning, he took off on a mad dash for it, spinning or shoving past anyone in his way. He was nearly upon the threshold without challenge, and his spirits rose at what he saw ahead. The hated overseer was cringing helplessly behind a human shield of serving girls, and even the nearest of his bodyguards had been drawn out and was engaged some distance off! Now was the moment to…
Movement in the corner of one eye…and the slave instinctively rolled to the other side out of harm’s path. Yet when he attempted to leap right back up into a ready stance to meet his assailant, he fell flat on his face instead. A terrible pain lanced up his right thigh. Crying out, he involuntarily gripped at the laceration and brought his hand back smeared with blood.
So this is the end, he thought, rolling over in the sand to face his slayer. Was there a grin of triumph behind that hideous mask looming inverted in his line of sight? Time seemed to slow as the blademaster’s sword rose point-down over his crippled body—and, closing his eyes, the elf awaited the final thrust that would feed his soul to the earth.
Yet it wasn’t the slave’s own death wail that forced his eyelids back open an instant later: it was a bestial snarl that ripped through the air above, followed by a dark mass that knocked the guard aside like a leaf caught up in a storm wind. Then it was the blademaster’s turn to scream in agony as the huge, pouncing black tiger sunk its fangs into the man’s throat and stole his life away.
Shocked as he was by the sting of his wound and the sight of such an exotic, savage animal coming to his rescue, what the elf saw next eclipsed both. A lean, stunningly beautiful she-elf suddenly appeared at his side, kneeling hurriedly to inspect his spurting thigh with a curious mixture of emotions. Anger? Concern? She was dressed as one of the invaders, not a slave. And surely he would’ve recalled that striking face had he seen it before. “Who are you?” he managed, gritting his teeth as the woman snatched up his fallen knife and began to cut his pant leg away.
Ignoring the question, she tore a strip from the bloody material, wrapped it around his leg above the gash, then used the knife as a handle to twist it tight.
The slave cried out again at the intense pressure of the application, and for a moment his sight went dim.
The tiger had leapt off of its kill now and was crouched at the she-elf’s back, growling low as a warning to any would-be assailant. “You’re the one from his vision,” the woman spoke as she finished the makeshift tourniquet. “I can’t let you die before he’s spoken to you…”
“Leave me!” her patient growled, fighting through the shock and pain. “The necromancer…” He jutted his chin at the canopy behind her. “He’s controlling them all!”
The she-elf followed his gaze to where the overseer had last been seen hiding behind his servants. A desperate fight had broken out there—and the invaders were incurring losses. With a glance at the cat, the woman made to rise…
“His necklace…” the slave grabbed at her arm, pulling her attention back to him. “Each bone on it binds a minion…and there’ll be more coming up from the mine! Strip the thing from his corpse…and stomp it into the ground!”
Nodding understanding, the woman wasted no more time. She leapt to her feet and was off in a flash, a long knife of her own gleaming in hand.
Pushing himself up on his elbows to get a better view, the slave was instantly wracked by another violent wave of pain. He let himself fall back with a groan; and when he finally blinked his eyes open again, he saw black dots swimming in his vision.
Such pretty things, he thought, confusion rapidly setting in.
Then the world faded as he lost consciousness.
“Nine slain. Five crippled.” The lean, brow-scarred marshal shook his head following the report, breaking eye contact with Dragan to inspect their remaining men. The few Haxûdī who’d lived through the conflict with only minor wounds were either busily tending less-fortunate companions or dragging corpses to a cleansing pyre. Some of them had fished out crude talismans from beneath their clothing, superstitiously handling them as if they could ward off any curses one might receive from touching the unholy dead.
Dragan frowned at the self-blame written on Ûladriss’ face. It had been his own decision to strike immediately with this scouting party rather than wait for their full force to break camp. Not the marshal’s. And Fashra had even warned him about the masked guards—yet he’d merely scoffed at the threat.
Were his warriors not the best the world had to offer, after all? That had been his first thought upon hearing her words. But now it seemed this desert realm extending east from Agrardob might be the gateway into a new world all its own. One where the rules were different than they were back home.
One where even the Black King might find himself in over his head.
" Gavix!” Dragan called, choosing his former retainer over Ûladriss to carry out his next commands. He wished the marshal to remain by his side, for he and Fashra were about to question the elf who’d drawn them to this place.
The confident young man who approached at Dragan’s summons bore little resemblance to the lad who’d once scraped and stuttered under his lord’s hot gaze. The son of Jedan Mûran now had more of his father’s bearing than that of a timid youth—as well as the fallen rearguard captain’s rank and weapon. There was a soaked red cloth wrapped tight around Gavix’ right triceps as he came into view: yet the wound did nothing to prevent his hand moving involuntarily to the forked pommel of his sword as his sharp eyes met Dragan’s own.
Will he unsheathe it against me one day? Dragan thought, recalling the hatred in the youth’s gaze on that momentous evening in Gethod not so very long ago. At least part of him still blames me for his father’s death…
“My lord?” Gavix was standing at attention.
“Gather up their provisions and weapons—and any tools that may be of use to us—and have what can be carried on their donkeys and our horses ready for packing. See to litters for the wounded—then have someone make a sweep of the mine. I don’t want anyone left hiding out here who could speak our tale.”
Just as the young captain was turning away, Fashra and Erroth strode up to take Gavix’ place. The steward’s familiar—that same massive black tiger that had fought so ferociously in today’s battle—now padded lazily beside the man, happily swishing its tail as if it were no more than an overgrown kitten. Placing a hand on the beast’s neck to scratch it behind the ear, Erroth spoke first:
“I’ve dressed the cut and given him trellin leaf for the pain, but it was your she-elf’s quick thinking that saved his life and his leg.” He gave an appreciative glance and nod to Fashra. “You should hurry, though. The herb will soon drag him to sleep.”
Gone was the dark mask that’d once muffled the steward’s speech and hid his cleanly-shaven, angular face from prying eyes. The man was at last “reborn” under a new master’s rule…and Dragan was glad to have that strange ceremony ended. Erroth’s haunting green eyes never smiled—even in those rare moments when a grin touched his face—yet his words were often as these now had been, belying his appearance of one haughty and unkind.
“What has he told you already?” Dragan looked to Fashra as he started off, leading the pair—with Ûladriss following not far behind—to the spot where the wounded elf lay.
“He thanks us for freeing his people but warns us not to linger here. He says the necromancer may’ve used his dark art to warn the Usurper before I slew him. Other than that…only that he’s agreed to speak with you.”
Dragan eyed the woman suspiciously. “You’re holding something back.”
Fashra frowned and came to a halt, pulling Dragan aside to stop the group’s procession. They were in earshot of the prostrate elf now, so she lowered her voice in confidence. “No more than a feeling. He may speak of gratitude and concern for his kin…but mark carefully his words. There’s something else lurking behind them. A side of him he doesn’t want us to know.”
Dragan simply nodded as one satisfied then moved on, halting a few steps from the object of their brief discussion. Another attractive elf woman—this one a member of the liberated slaves—was kneeling over Erroth’s patient, tenderly wiping sweat from his brow with a look of concern on her face. She gazed up at the onlookers then down again questioningly, whereupon her kinsman nodded as if to indicate it was acceptable for her to leave him.
As soon as the female stood to depart, Dragan greeted the male: “I’m told you’re to thank for today’s victory—or at least for saving what’s left of my scouts. What’s your name?”
“Cirad.” The elf’s voice came out weakly, and after speaking he gritted his teeth in discomfort.
"Cirad,” Dragan repeated the name, pausing a moment as if rolling it over in his mind. “I’m sorry for your hurt. Erroth here…” he indicated the steward with a gesture, “…says you need sleep, so we’ll be brief. My name is Dragan Saedus, and these are the foremost of my followers. You must be wondering why we’ve come.”
Cirad’s eyes flicked to Fashra as he replied. “She says a vision led you to this land. That you saw me here before departing your home, far to the west. Is this true?”
“It is. I saw you standing before the throne of the one you call the Usurper, whose identity Fashra here helped me decipher. You didn’t look very pleased.” Dragan showed a wry grin. “But that was at the end. First I beheld you in a different realm: a coastal marshland spreading beneath a wide, clear blue sky. You were standing there alone at the base of a beautiful white tower, deep in thought, slowly running a finger down the metal slab barring entrance. Then time shot forward, and you were replaced in that very spot by another man: lean, dark-haired, with intense eyes. He held a baby in the crook of one arm, and his free hand reached out to touch the door. There were others there to support him, standing close behind; yet I sensed an evil taint on the scene. One that I’ve felt before.” He sighed, glancing to Erroth as if for support. “If that baby’s who we think he is, then I must protect him from that evil. No matter the cost.”
The elf’s eyes and mouth had opened wide as he listened to all of this. There was no need for him to confirm belief with words. The look on his face made it plain for all to see. “What is it you want from me?” he asked instead, eyelids suddenly drooping from the strain of holding them up. Just as quickly he snapped them back open, eyeballs rolling back into focus on Dragan’s face. He didn’t have much time left, it seemed, before sleep came. “You wish me to lead you to this tower?”
“Why else would the vision have shown me your face? Do you deny having been there before?”
“No. It’s there, just as you said—far to the east, in the land of Kagnus.” The elf’s gaze briefly touched the horizon behind Dragan. “You’ve marched an army into this desert? You said these men were scouts…”
“Then I shall be your guide: on one condition. Finish what you started here! Help me free the rest of my kin who toil in Sanisar’s palace. Lead your warriors against him before he has time to prepare!”
Dragan gave no immediate response to this, only furrowing his brow at the proposal. Thus Cirad pressed on:
“The Usurper sits his throne, not two days’ walk from here, preparing to invade the forest realms where you’d have me lead you. He doesn’t think of threats at his doorstep and might be taken unaware—just as the overseer was today. A swift victory’s within your grasp!” Excitement must’ve made the elf’s muscles tense, for he clenched his jaw again in pain, cutting off any words that might’ve followed.
“And what would I receive in return for taking such a risk,” Dragan replied at last, “…besides your service as guide? There are others beyond the mountains we could find for the task.”
Cirad needed no pause to consider his answer. “The debt of my people! We are many…and would be free to join your cause. The vision was of me, not some other beyond the mountains. Aren’t you afraid that without me you’ll fail? The last of his words faded into little more than a mumble as the elf’s handsome face sagged to one side. He appeared barely awake now. His eyelids had begun to blink slowly closed and back open, remaining shut a bit longer each time. “I too know of the evil you speak,” he continued in a near-whisper. “I know it all too well…”
“And how do I know they’ll choose to join me?” Dragan frowned, distracted momentarily in surveying the work of his scouts. “Are you their leader, that you might speak for them without deliberation? Or perhaps you’ve something quite different in mind for my men once we’ve finished your dirty work?”
Receiving no response to his question, the Black King looked back to Cirad. Slumber had claimed the weary elf at last. His eyes were closed—and mouth slightly parted—as his chest rose and fell in an easy rhythm.
“They won’t,” answered Fashra in his place. “And even if they did, what use are a multitude of untrained slaves? More mouths to feed. More corpses to bury on the road.”
For a moment Dragan was surprised Fashra didn’t share Cirad’s desire to see members of their common race rescued from bondage—but then he remembered who he was dealing with. Fashra had sworn an oath of fealty, and like the others who’d crossed over into this new world with him, she’d place that oath above all else. He suddenly felt a wave of pride that was only slightly diminished by what she said next:
“And don’t forget what I told you, lord—proven true here today. Sanisar’s ruling caste is filled with such powerful sorcerers guarded by elite swordsmen. Whether he’s prepared for us or not, such a course of action may likely spell our undoing…before we ever set foot in the land you seek!”
Releasing another sigh, Dragan turned this time to Ûladriss with an impish grin and raised eyebrow. “What say you to that, marshal?”
Shaking off his previous disheartened look, the Haxûdī managed a smile of his own when he saw Dragan’s change of expression. “I’d say no matter which path you choose, it looks like we’re in danger. Yet again.”
“Always, my friend,” Dragan laughed aloud. “Always.”
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