The Morland Basking Plain
by Arthur Davis
The ancient world of Carmodia is surrounded by uncharted continents and oceans infested with fanged serpents and boiling whirlpools. Carmodia's tribes are in constant conflict.
Vizier Sing Tzu engages Logan Drewry to contact the forces preparing to rebel against the rising power of Grand Satrap Anistov Gar. Drewry must prevent the rebels from starting the uprising before the Vizier’s armies are ready to support them.
Logan Drewry's mission is a forbidding one. Starting at the southernmost edge of the Morland Basking Plain, he surveys a desert infested with giant moles, desert hares, swarms of foul lime fish, giant vipers and vultures. The Plain stretches from the vast Jascent Green in the west to the Fermoil Embankment. Armed with sword and bow, he sets out.
Chapter 4: Marcos Xzen
Xzen thought he saw Logan dismount, but his battered scope gave him distorted images. Three more of his men had been left behind. All told, he had already lost more than a quarter of the thirty in his command to the chase and, except for a headstrong Altermar, hadn’t yet engaged Logan Drewry. He knew that numbers alone would not be enough.
He was counting on an ally he had not at first thought to bring into the fray. The longer he could outlast the warrior before they reached the other side of the Morland, the weaker would be his adversary. Confident of his own stamina, Xzen felt no urgency.
Marcos Xzen was willing to postpone the confrontation another day, even two, and possibly lose another dozen men if only to reach Logan when he was so weak that Xzen could walk up to him and yank his sword from his wobbly hands then chain him to his own horse. He wanted to bring Logan back alive and claim Rampart as an equally uncommon prize.
The Grand Satrap would be especially appreciative to have the giant warrior to torture and taunt, to exhibit in the main square or feed to the beastrons that swarmed in the arena during the annual games. But Xzen would take no unnecessary chances. He didn’t want to wind up with a dagger in his throat, a mortal wound from a blade he wouldn’t see coming, or turn his back on Logan Drewry and suddenly find the blade of a hunting arrow sticking out of his chest.
Another hour had passed when his lead scout reported that Logan was “afoot.” A sudden thrill embraced his men. The idea that Logan Drewry was walking his animal meant many things, all good news to the deep-desert commander. He took a moment to rest and engage them in a brief, encouraging talk. In hindsight, it may have been a mistake.
Had they been on their horses instead of resting on their bedrolls, they might have been more prepared, not only for the rapine vultures that had been stalking them thousands of feet above since they found Altermar’s body, but for the other natural hazards the Morland offered those who intruded into its sacred desolation.
That none of them had thought to glance up and back was a testimonial to the confines of their training as well as their arrogance. Although if they did look up, what could they do? Go forward in fear or turn back in failure, or set their ears to the desert floor, as Drewry did every so often, as a way to anticipate the obvious.
They had tracked down the scent and feasted on the dead scout, and now a family of vultures, thick with the taste of fresh carrion, pursued the warriors in a compact hunting swarm.
They hadn’t noticed the one warrior and his giant horse moving northward just above the shimmering horizon. Every so often, they were intrigued by how the desert seemed to split open and giant slithering beasts appeared and then vanished as quickly. Had the vultures considered the direction the snakes were headed, they might have moved at a more hurried pace toward the herd of men and mounts they, too, were pursuing.
Xzen was not the first to notice, only the first to mount his horse and give the command to follow. The rumbling underfoot came as a quick and powerful shock, unsteadying several of the sun-weakened troops. In a blinding flash, the ground tore open and out heaved a great desert viper only slightly larger than the one that had attacked Logan Drewry. It seized two warriors where they were standing and turned and flipped back into the sand, which swallowed them like a pool of calm lake water.
The smaller viper was slower and behind its larger mate; it gave the desert guard time to get into formation. Watching the first viper lunge at one warrior then another, their faces froze in masks of terror. Lashing out without effect as the beast’s mouth and fangs closed in around their upper torsos would last forever in the hearts of the shocked soldiers. Two more were taken without a fight in the time it took the remainder of the command to steady and mount their horses and draw their swords.
“Wait until they charge,” Xzen bellowed, his sword cutting the air overhead as his troops forced their unsure steeds into a tight circle with their commander standing at the center. The outer circle of the defensive ring was studded with warriors with their bows drawn. Inside the knot of fighters, a dozen men on horseback also had their hunting arrows ready. The flight of so many heavily shafted, short-range arrows with thick, splayed metal cutting blades was designed to disable even the most ferocious sand viper.
Every man in the circle knew that, while these tactics had been practiced and refined, there was no real way to know if there would be enough firepower to bring down or even deter such a monster. Perhaps with five or ten times the force, such a formation might have proved an effective defense. A few of the men were wondering if Logan Drewry had sent these beasts to attack them. They were that certain that his power extended to calling upon Tyr to outwit and crush his enemies.
Desert vipers were as ill-sighted from living underground as they were rapacious above it. The formation held as the second serpent reared up, raised its head, and bore down toward the center of the formation. On Xzen’s signal, the troops fanned out from the circle to a kneeling phalanx supported by riders on their mounts and fired when Xzen slashed his sword down in the air.
Twenty-three heavy arrows shot out from the group. Half met the head of their target. Only three penetrated the thick-skinned, green-and-black monster. The rest missed entirely or faded in flight. The viper made another charge and was met by another hail of tearing arrows. This time twice as many met their target, and one shaft sank into the side of the beast’s lower jaw.
Nothing could have prepared the men of the command for the beast that hissed and hovered before them. Each had heard reports of such monsters. Their training was designed to thwart or kill. Only there was a difference between training and trying to steady your mount while aiming a heavy hunting arrow at a moving target a hundred yards away who could strike down at you even before your arrow left the bowstring.
“To your swords,” Xzen yelled as the dozen kneeling men broke formation and returned to their mounts and, along with the others, drew their swords overhead and began to scream and yell like deranged mountain wolves.
Blood seeping from a number of small wounds around its face, the viper darted its head back and forth, trying to loosen the sharp barbs. The wounds burned as no others the beast had encountered. The sharp blade that remained in its jaw made closing its mouth difficult. It had already been nearly blinded by one of these puny creatures in an earlier encounter. Its hunger just sated by a thousand lime fish fry, and now two warriors already being digested in the pungent acids of its elongated gut, the monster hesitated uncharacteristically.
Knowing the beast could not sustain itself long in the fiery daylight, Xzen urged his men to even greater heights of bellicose hysteria until the desert rang with their insane, savage cry. The serpent swayed from side to side then stopped and slowly withdrew back into the hole in which its rear half was still buried. The powdery desert sand closed in around the beast as though it had appeared out of thin air instead of the honeycombed bowels of the Morland.
After some silence and near certainty that the monster wouldn’t spit out of the hole again and seize up two and twenty more men, a cheer went up among his troops which Xzen quickly tried to squelch. The men held their ground for a while longer. Then, one after another dropped his sword to his side as fear succumbed to relief.
The last warrior in the rear of the now looser formation sheathed his sword just as the smaller viper quietly slipped up behind the phalanx and snatched him and his mount before anyone could react. It happened between breaths, between the blink of an eye: horse and man gone so quickly that the only evidence that would have indicated there was such an attack was the soldier’s sword, which flew out over the once compact formation until it came to rest a few yards in front of Marcos Xzen: a warning that one who celebrates too quickly is often the first to die.
The shock of the smaller viper’s attack, the loss of warrior and steed whole, struck terror in their bravest. There was no chance of escape, of survival. The common thread of their fear was that all their training and bravado were ineffective in the face of such an enemy. Their arrows and swords were of another world. This was a different reality, a different enemy whose size, cunning and ferocity would eventually claim every man in their troop.
The silence of their shock was broken when one of the warriors finally caught sight of the vultures circling overhead. He dropped from his horse and began to pray frantically. His tenor spooked the horses and instilled greater fear into the now considerably smaller band.
Marcos Xzen jumped from his horse, walked up to the front of the man who was shaking uncontrollably with fear and praying in his native tongue. Xzen grabbed him and tried to shake him to his senses. He cursed and pummeled the warrior who could no longer accept the reality of logic or confront more desert demons. When Xzen realized he had lost the man and that his panic was undermining what remained of his men’s resolve, he pulled a dagger from his hip sheath and drew the finely honed blade across the throat of the weeping warrior.
A quick and certain stillness overcame the men and their mounts.
“I will cut out the heart of every last man here who thinks we cannot kill a few fat snakes and stinking birds, or the brigand we are pursuing. I will kill you all, to the very last man. Are there such men left in my command?” he asked, making eye contact with every man before the question was completely answered.
Xzen knew he had made a serious tactical error in not continuing his arrow attack. He had plenty of arrows and another two or three salvos might have made a difference. He couldn’t let his men know he was second-guessing himself. He couldn’t let them know he had made a wrong decision and that it had cost lives and undermined the morale of his men.
The dying warrior stopped speaking and looked up, as Donig recalled, with the same surprised expression as when Logan Drewry’s dagger sliced into the throat of another of their comrades. The smaller warrior looked away. He had already seen too much death and bloodshed for one chase. Though trained tough, and as well regarded as any of his brothers, Donig was becoming less sure of his interest in defending the Grand Satrap against those who rose against him.
Before they moved on, Marcos Xzen instructed his men to leave the slain warrior where he fell. “Let the vultures have him. The coward will not be given a warrior’s burial as we gave Altermar. His carcass will rot out here and feed the beasts of this land and, without proper honor, his soul with not be accepted by Tyr.”
The men had never known a warrior to be purposely left to the beasts.
* * *
Logan Drewry dismissed rumblings under his feet several times as the afternoon waned. He couldn’t run, and there was nowhere to hide. Now he was really hungry and had been questioning his decision not to take at least a passing shot at the giant mole. He couldn’t recall the last time he had torn meat from a shank of bone or the rump of a gypid, a tasty mountain piglet.
He had been looking out for desert hares but still could not bring himself to look down at their tracks and slow his pace. He considered what a rapine vulture would taste like, realizing of course that where there was one there was probably many times that number, and no matter how fine an archer he was, those odds were not encouraging.
Logan expected Marcos Xzen to have closed some distance behind him by now. The dust whirls that danced up behind him every now and then told an entirely different story. They revealed the hooves of a scout’s horse, maybe two or three, hardly the main body of the desert command. Logan had no way of knowing how many warriors made up that troop or the strength of their reserves or their morale. As long as he could put one foot in front of the other and repeat the sequence, he was satisfied with his progress.
He would make up more distance this night in a forced and dangerous march that should bring him closer to the northern fringes of Tunduria by another two turns of the suns. He knew the ground beneath their feet could change in an instant and cripple them both, but he had to take drastic measures to improve their chances for survival.
Every so often, as the sun set, he turned, more to make sure how Rampart was holding up rather than assessing his position against the rapine vultures that had been amassing high behind them. Perhaps he might get his chance to pick one off. Then again, had he really the time or kindling to cook up a meal?
Logan loosened his tunic and leggings. He wanted to feel the cool breeze sweep about him, drench himself in a cold valley pool. He wanted to drink cold mountain water until he burst. Logan wanted to make sure that Rampart would never be subjected to such harsh treatment, but he knew himself better than to believe in that fantasy. He wanted to report to the Vizier, spend the next week getting drunk, and ravish the most beautiful women in the land.
Of course, he had no money with which to pay them. That left charm and flattery, weapons no self-respecting adventurer should ever be without.
A speckled white and yellow cloud burst out over the western desert, then disappeared just as quickly as it had formed. A black cloud had been following him for hours. Logan knew it was a matter of time before he was overtaken by either the desert command or vulpine vultures.
He paused, considering why he hadn’t chosen to march around to the western perimeter of the Morland until he reached the rough terrain of the Fermoil Embankment, then travel north from there. It would have added three days to the trip, and he was willing to sacrifice himself and steed so that the information got back to the resistance as quickly as possible. It was a dangerous and risky venture. Logan still wasn’t certain it had been the right choice.
Another full day passed with little else of consequence to report but the swarm of vultures off to the far west and a steady but distant rise of desert dust to the south. Logan walked as often as he rode, whispered to Rampart as often as he could muster enough spit to speak. There was little to say and less to do but fight back the urge to succumb.
The only things to be grateful for were the foolhardy act of the dark-eyed scout, whose death provided him with a shaving of meat and some water and murl, and the fact that he had followed the escape route planned by the Attamore Grogan’s advisors and had managed to enter the Morland at the narrowest point of its north/south width, thus shaving off at least two days from what was becoming a death march.
But he was, by all estimates, over two-thirds to the shores of Tunduria. “We’re almost home, boy,” he said, patting the horse’s weary, froth-soaked flanks. How much easier it might have been if they had shared one more meal, a mouthful of anything rich and succulent.
A raw desert hare would have tasted like duck right about now. Speaking of feeding, the vultures were probably feeding off the horses he had taken from the smaller scout, a nice enough fellow with a sound appreciation of horseflesh, Logan decided, not like the dark-eyed, more combative of the two, but a man caught up in serving the wrong master.
That happens, Logan surmised, then knelt and set his ear to the desert floor. Even if he had little chance of surviving an attack from one of the smaller vipers in the dim haze that was now enveloping the twin suns, at least he wanted to be prepared.
Logan had no way of knowing how close he was to the shores of Tunduria or how badly the vipers had savaged the men and morale of Marcos Xzen’s troop. Even with the threat from their commander hanging over their head, they moved along, now hesitant of everything. Their training had been thorough and rigorous, but inconsequential when compared to the hell in which they had been plunged.
As the legend of the desert beasts became a reality and the command forced themselves forward, the image of Logan Drewry, who obviously had gone on without such an encounter or, worse, had mastered both vipers and vultures, only made their efforts seem pointless and punishing.
Xzen was also feeling the sting of defeat undermine even his pernicious resolve.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2020 by Arthur Davis