Of Drums and Thunder
by Travis J. Gates
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
The drumbeats grew louder as Saviin approached the ring of fire. The constant slapping of the rain against the foliage masked any noise he might have made, but he stalked quietly anyway, on all fours like a beast of the wild.
As he neared, he saw a great trench lay between him and the raiders’ camp. It was slowly filling with rain water. Silently, he slipped into its shallow depths, feeling his bare feet sink into the mud of the bottom. Many logs and other assorted shapes floated in the trench. He kept close to the floating camouflage as best he could, nudging its bobbing bulk along when he had to.
Upon one such nudge, the log he had pushed emitted a strange sound, like that of a cornered snake. Willing his surprise down, Saviin peered at the shape.
When he saw what it was, he forgot himself and where he was momentarily.
“Hellfire!” he gasped.
The shape floating before him was that of his friend and captain, Yrisir of the Lirschmen. Face upturned and eyes closed, he floated in the muddy water. Every few moments he convulsed slightly, and a ragged breath escaped his lips.
Holding his friend’s cold arm, Saviin looked at the other shapes floating in the immense trench. Indeed, they were all the bodies of his comrades. None looked alive.
Widening his stance to sink no further in the muddy bed of the new lake, Saviin pulled Yrisir close to him, so that his upturned face was adjacent to Saviin’s mouth.
“Pray tell me what befell you, friend and captain,” he said, hoping the dual title would spur the orange haired man to lucidity.
“S-Saviin?” Yrisir stammered, holding his eyes tightly shut against the hammering of the rain. “Is that you? I thought they had killed you, lad.”
“Nay, though it should have been so. Either chance or the whim of a god saved my life this night.” Saviin peered toward the camp. The drums continued.
“They were on us so fast... we had no time to draw a sword. Like demons, shrouded in this cursed rain. They shot arrows and bore strange swords. We killed a few, but there were just too many. Those that we killed were thrown in here with us, no respect for their fallen at all! I was wounded in the back, quite badly. I feel the life going from me even now.”
“Brave Yrisir, tell me: what of the Lady Balithia? Did they slay her as well?”
“Nay, Saviin. It seemed that it was she and only she that they truly wanted. Their leader, an evil sort with the red feathers of some strange bird entwined in his hair, took her and bound her... then they marched here.”
The older man coughed a bit and Saviin saw a droplet of blood erupt from his mouth, to be quickly carried off by the ever-present rain.
“I must save her from these savages, but you said there were so many...”
“Their army and archers moved off to the distance, whence the sound of those thrice-cursed drums comes from! The leader stays in the ring of fire. Methinks he has the Lady there.”
“Do you have one last battle in you, friend? I need your courage and wits with me now.”
“Saviin, nay. I cannot move and I will die ere dawn, here in this pit of carrion. Help me, my friend. Let me not die as so.” Then Yrisir opened his green eyes and stared at the gray bearded savage. His intention was clear.
“Very well, Yrisir, a credit to the Lirschmen — indeed, all men!” Without any more ceremony than that, Saviin took his friend’s head and plunged it under the surface of the dark water. The great captain kicked once, and then was still. Without a further thought, Saviin again began his swim to the opposite bank.
* * *
Crawling through the mud and muck, Saviin kept the fires in his sight. Slowly he made his way and at last found himself ten feet from the nearest brazier. He saw that a lone sentry stood, but the guard had not noticed the dirt-covered man moving up on his left.
With the speed of the great cats of the plains, Saviin leapt to his feet and snapped the neck of the guard. Gently and slowly he laid the still-jerking corpse at his feet. He found one of the strange swords in a scabbard of what seemed to be human flesh hanging from the sentry’s belt. He drew it out and his eyes widened.
It was not steel at all, but the sharpened and honed thigh bone of a grown man. Saviin took the sword and felt its weight and balance, all the while cursing this evil people to all the gods he knew. He crept forward.
There, in the center of the ring, knelt Balithia. Nude except for the human leather straps that bound her to a post, her eyes stared vacantly in the rain. Her long black hair hung in wet bundles on her pale shoulders, terminating just above her bared breasts.
Around her danced another of the raiders, also naked but for the long red feathers entwined in his matted hair. He was well-muscled and he wore a necklace laced with the rotted fingers of men. His flesh was scarred in strange patterns, obviously deliberate. He held a staff of bones with the skull of a child at its top. The rain flowed over him. He smiled and chanted and danced about in it, giving thanks to the heavens.
Saviin stood, now fully illuminated in the strange fires, and roared at the shaman. The raider turned. A look of surprise crossed his face for but a moment and then was replaced with an evil grin of glee. He spoke and Saviin had to decipher the pidgin language, a mishmash of Egillian and Shoorish.
“We left one alive?” He spat between rotted teeth. “No matter, now there will be two sacrifices to Grahid this night.” He raised his staff and screamed to the rain. Saviin began his charge, but stopped short at a thundering noise behind him.
He spun to see a massive, vaguely humanoid shape erupt from the trench. The main part of its flesh was mud, but here and there a bare human arm protruded from its mass. Its eyes were the blankly staring heads of his friends. Its mouth was the jagged ribcage of a man.
It roared and leaped for Saviin, who had the presence of mind to dive to the side. Where he had stood, the creature brought down a massive fist, each finger the leg of a slain man, down hard into the wet earth.
Saviin was instantly up in a defensive crouch. He slashed at a groping hand with his bone sword, neatly severing the appendage from the main body. It fell to the ground with a wet slap. Saviin then watched astonished as the hand reformed at the end of the creature’s arm.
“Hells alive!” He ran about, narrowly escaping the grasp of the huge demon from the muck. The bone of a splintered arm gouged his thigh, bringing forth a wellspring of blood. Saviin grunted and kept on the move.
Between the towering legs of the creature, Saviin saw the shaman. He chanted and writhed in a dance and Saviin realized that the mage controlled the foul beast from the earth. Ignoring the pain in his skewered leg, the warrior dove between the wide stance of the abomination and rolled, bringing his sword up at a wicked angle.
The shaman danced on for a moment later, before he realized that he had been opened up from thigh to chest, his entrails spilling into the mud and mixing with the torrent of rain. His eyes grew wide as he fell, his body half-sinking into the mud.
Saviin turned and saw the behemoth lose shape and splatter into the wet ground, now nothing but a heap of sodden earth and swollen human parts.
He spun back around and with one quick slash severed the taut cord that bound Balithia to the post. She seemed finally to become aware of her surroundings before fainting into his muscular arms. Saviin dropped the sword and eased her to the ground, keeping her head to the side so rain didn’t get in her eyes and mouth.
Then he heard the sick, squelching sound behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the head of the beast and one arm struggling to find cohesion in the mud. He looked down and he saw the now-pale face of the shaman, still barely alive, his fingers waggling.
“Grahid... take you...” he groaned.
“So,” Saviin said, “your god is the rain and the earth made into one. And he wants a sacrifice.”
He laced his thick fingers around the shaman’s neck. “So be it.”
Grunting, the half-naked soldier strangled the shaman, pushing the weakening form down into the soft earth. Mud flowed up around the shaman’s cheeks, then into his nostrils and mouth. In the end, the mage drowned in the stew he had called forth.
Once the magician’s body was completely submerged, Saviin knelt and picked up Balithia’s unconscious form. Abruptly, the rain stopped and the clouds parted. Saviin was surprised to learn that it was dawn.
* * *
In the light of day, he found the pass through the cliffs easily. Having made it back to camp, Saviin used his bone sword to fashion a crude tunic for himself and the catatonic noblewoman.
Then, once he had salvaged all he could from the doomed caravan, Saviin began the long journey north to Egile.
He had a delivery to make.
Copyright © 2010 by Travis J. Gates