The Morland Basking Plain
by Arthur Davis
Chapter 2: The Slave Markets of Ultar
Logan hefted his father’s sword. It had held up against the finest metal ever crafted. Its blade cut through heavy branches as though they were a man’s midsection, plucked birds out of the air, and never needed sharpening. But here, in the open desert against an adversary a hundred times its master’s measure, Logan believed it would be of little use. If he got close enough to use it, he would probably wind up trying to cut open a hole out from within the putrid wash of poisons in the animal’s festering gut.
Logan thought of calling to Rampart to retrieve his bow and arrows. But what good would the flicks of an arrowhead be against an animal with skin thought to be as thick as the stone walls that protected Ohem, the ancient capital of Tunduria?
Logan held his ground as the viper arched up again, paused, hissed and centered its attack.
“At least there’s only one,” Logan said, half-jesting.
His fingers tightened around the hilt; his heels dug themselves into a final stand. If he was quick enough to sidestep the beast, he would get only one cut of his blade to do any damage; that is, if the animal was so stupid or he were that fortunate. Whatever he had fought, this animal was far and away one who probably never tasted defeat.
He hefted the sword into position, held his body taut, and looked the devil in the eyes when suddenly the viper swerved sharply away, as if it had been struck down by an invisible hand.
“Coward. There is only one of me. Not much of a meal for a hideous dragon like you,” he said, trying to figure what the serpent was up to and spun the sword around overhead until the blade was a radiant silver and gold blur.
He steadied his sword and, briefly blinded by the reflection of the sun off its polished broad surface, turned it away.
“Is that it?” he asked himself and, without thinking, dropped to his knees, set the tip of the blade into the ground, and pivoted the long metal shaft back just so slightly so that the reflected sunlight shot out from its gleaming surface.
The fiery yellow beam flared out for a hundred yards. But this time, the viper’s attack came quickly and struck closer. The ground underneath Logan’s feet buckled and split, throwing him far from the sanctuary of his logic.
The viper’s head broke through the surface but, in the explosion of desert dust, couldn’t locate its victim. It sank back slowly, then sighted Rampart standing at some distance.
When Logan saw the viper set its sights on his stallion, he jumped up, flashed his sword overhead, and screamed to get the monster’s attention. When it finally worked, the viper did not charge but shifted its head from side to side as though it were inspecting the measure of its next meal.
“Come on, you slithering gutless bastard, take me!” Logan cried.
As if the creature understood his insult, it raised up its body a dozen more yards from the hole in the desert floor, then dropped down, quickly covering much of the distance to where Logan was standing.
Logan shifted the blade so that the flat side was at right angles to the beast and saw the yellow beam shoot across the desert surface, racing as fast toward the beast as the dragon lunged toward it. When the blinding swath of light struck the eyes of the viper it reared back, jerking its head from side to side, trying to avoid the torment. It hissed wildly, bared its fangs in frustration and rage, and pulled away, slowly disappearing back down into the fathomless desert sea.
Logan held the blade steady, perfectly positioned so that the yellow beam clung to the viper’s darting eyes, until the animal disappeared beneath the floor of the Morland.
* * *
From where Marcos Xzen stood looking out through his primitive scope, except for the dust cloud kicked up by the fight, the sight before him made no sense. The desert viper was a hundred times the size of the horse that carried his enemy, and yet the man fought back the great monster without so much as a blow. His captains tightened ranks around him, asking what he had seen.
“We must get down to the scouts,” he answered sharply, lowering his view through the glass scope to the scout sitting alone as far away as possible from the kneeling body of Altermar, once one of his most decorated warriors.
Xzen raised the scope once more and watched the faint speck of Logan Drewry continue his journey north, trailed by his horse as if nothing had happened. The two scout horses were nowhere to be found: food for the vipers, if the vultures didn’t rip them apart first. Xzen rammed the fragile instrument into his saddlebag, cursed himself for not taking twice the men, and raced down from the cliff, following the tracks of his scouts, with his men close behind.
* * *
Logan gave Rampart an extra measure of water and took two gulps of murl for himself. He shared a remainder of fowl, and they pushed on, welcoming the cool evening that was upon them. It wasn’t the mountains of his youth, the cool springs that scored the land, the thick, nearly impenetrable forests in which he and his brothers had played along with the other children of his tribe. This was a strange and forbidding land populated by men who preyed on each other’s lives, spirits, and souls. They thought nothing of enslaving, as was the custom of the Tirpits, the most northern of Tunduria’s tribes.
That had been so many years and battles ago, long before he learned to wield a broadsword, ride a horse without a saddle as deftly any man with one, fire an arrow to its mark a hundred yards out, swim underwater the width of a small lake, and live off the land as no other man could.
Many of these skills came freely to him from the memories. His head was filled with them. They told him of stories, of places of reason and unreason, of the differences between reality and falsehoods. Between good and evil.
However, there were no memories about how to defend against a desert viper. He patted the hilt of his sword, whose fire blade could apparently render such a horrific monster fearful of his next attack. He had subdued a giant sand viper. He recalled the encounter over and over, not as a matter of arrogance but as a matter of complete wonder.
Several times before they rested again, the ground underneath trembled. But the sound and its message came from a distance that was too far to measure. He was fortunate. Finding the power of reflection would repel such a monstrous apparition was too close a call to be of any great satisfaction.
Logan Drewry lived and expected to perish by what he did with the hand he had been dealt, not what the fates had predicted. Moreover, as he pushed on, he regretted losing the scout’s fine mares. They would have helped. He simply couldn’t bring himself to have Rampart chase them across the desert, sapping what strength he and his horse had left.
After an hour, he paused again and stood facing south, the south of his enemies: of the Grand Satrap, of Marcos Xzen, the desert warrior who he expected would have drawn closer by now. For whatever reason, they remained out of sight. For whatever reason, his luck had held.
By tomorrow morning, and certainly by the next nightfall, both he and Rampart would be feeling the effects of heat and hunger. Their rations lost in the initial chase out of Ultar, Logan thanked the gods for what murl, meat, and water they had salvaged from the battle with the two scouts.
And letting the vassal of his enemy live, more because of his comment about Rampart’s great beauty and power? What was that foolhardy act about?
Logan walked on into the night, humming his mother’s favorite song, as unsure of tomorrow as he was of yesterday. He wondered if he would come across the Scales of Corinth, a part of the northwestern Morland that legend held was marked by vast areas covered with flattened, lifelike eruptions the size of a grown gypid, which poked up from the surface like the scales of a giant sea serpent.
He wondered if the Dragons of Eden would take his soul as he slept. And he wondered if this was his last night alive.
* * *
Marcos Xzen’s encampment was as cautious as it was comfortable. He allowed his men an extra few hours of much needed sleep, an extra ration of murl, and did not press his scouts for any further encounter with Logan Drewry. Altermar had died of a single wound from the thin blade of a dagger thrown, by all accounts, from too far away to be a threat. From that distance, it was impossible to be accurate or throw with any appreciable impact, certainly not with enough power to have it fly so quickly that a skilled warrior such as Altermar would not be able to dodge.
So much for the rules that governed traditional encounters. If he was going to capture or kill Logan Drewry, it would take more than a platoon of trained, dedicated fighters and, apparently, even more than a good-sized desert viper to subdue the man from the North.
And, from Donig’s accounts, having arrived too late to help his comrade, Logan Drewry was heavily laden with both water and a rack of fresh-killed desert hares dangling from the side of his great horse. Marcos Xzen wished for an opportunity to meet the man face-to-face again, this time on an open plain, without horse, dagger, or bow, and not in a crowded, dimly lit tavern.
Two men and two broadswords. Xzen was a half a foot smaller, fifty pounds heavier and, he believed, a great deal more skilled than when they first fought. He quickly questioned whether he was that confident of his talent as a warrior, or too eager to redress the humiliation of that encounter.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2020 by Arthur Davis