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 5: Tunduria
As the suns fell beneath the horizon, the distance between the pursued and pursuers slowly, inexorably narrowed. Neither party knew this with any certainty. By daylight, all that remained of their provisions and energy could be measured by the fact that three men had fallen from Xzen’s formation during the night. Xzen ignored the loss, turning only to inspire his troops onward while encouraged that he had three more horses to rest until they were needed.
And with every step and hoofbeat, he cursed the very existence of Logan Drewry. How simple it would have been if his advance patrols had come back to report they had found the shredded, vulture-covered carcass of the man and his steed. At least that would have put an end to this infernal torture.
Xzen had never crossed the desert. The idea for the deep desert command had come from the Grand Satrap himself. It was his way of demonstrating to his people that his empire could and would strike out at all men, no matter where they were or where they came from, intruders and traitors alike. There was to be no escape from his lethal rule.
Logan Drewry was living out the same thoughts as Marcos Xzen. He had no idea how much longer he could go on, as the desert floor heated up for the fourth unbearable day. Without maps or water, one stumble could mean the end. Both men dismissed the idea of failure and pushed on, hoping they would not be overcome before they completed their mission.
Marcos Xzen had already figured that their training, rigorous as it was, and their measures to prepare for such a pursuit were inadequate to the task. They needed more horses in reserve, better and larger water flasks, and at least three times the food and murl for each man. And he had yet to expose the men of the desert command to the desert beasts themselves before he could be assured of their combat readiness.
Then again, he concluded somewhat forgivingly, they never expected that their first mission was going to be against Logan Drewry and a horse whose stamina seemed as unrelenting as the fire of the desert. Xzen vowed that the next time he led a command into the Morland Basking Plain he would do so with enough strength and reserves to march north and render a lethal strike at the exposed underbelly of the rebels of Tunduria.
By noon, one of the strongest scouts reported that he could make out the small dot of Logan Drewry leading his horse in ever smaller and smaller steps as they forced themselves north.
“We have him,” Xzen announced to his men upon hearing the news. There was no time left to wait. He had to strike now or lose whatever energy or courage remained in his men. It no longer mattered how far Logan was ahead of them. It only mattered that if they waited any longer, all possibility of capturing or killing him might well be lost.
Logan, too, considered the dangers of slowing down. Had he mistaken the landmarks Grogan’s men had given him on where to enter the Morland at the narrowest point, and had he now misjudged the distance to the northern boundaries of Tunduria? Would never reach the safety of his land, and would he now perish, as had his ancestors?
In another few hours, he would succumb to the desert. He had to find the courage in himself and his horse in order to make one final effort to push north. He told this to Rampart, whose eyes glazed with exhaustion, their normal fiery light having faded to a faint flicker as dawn broke.
The sight of his stallion, this great and powerful friend reduced to such a depleted state, distressed him more than anything. The sight of a thick dust column rising two or three leagues back over Rampart’s weary rump confirmed Logan’s belief that Marcos Xzen also realized it was time to strike.
Logan estimated that at a full gallop he would extend the time it would take before he was set upon by maybe two hours. Slightly more. Such a final, desperate dash to safety might also kill Rampart. But the idea that any other horse could best his friend was too difficult for Logan to accept. He also couldn’t abide the sight of his horse being cut down by a hail of Marcos Xzen’s hunting arrows.
“I need whatever you have left,” Logan implored, turning Rampart around to see the ominous cloud rise in the late morning heat. As if to signal his understanding, Rampart reared back and whinnied. Logan swung himself over the animal’s slick back and slammed his heels into the beast’s sides.
Rampart took off as though he had been awakened, edgy and eager from a long night’s sleep. He ate up great distances of the desert floor with each thundering stride. What he and Logan didn’t know was that Xzen had fed the last drop of murl from all of his warrior’s flasks to ten of his best mounts, leaving the most weakened men and the balance of their spent reserve of horses to catch up to them, when and if they could.
The powerful stimulant filled the bloodstream of the beasts propelling their hearts, lungs, and muscles to heights of unimagined sacrifice. They raced along the desert floor at a terrible speed. The ten warriors clung to their horses as if to do otherwise would surely send them from their saddles to the desert below.
Logan turned to the sight welling up against the horizon behind him. They had made up half a league in less than an hour. That was impossible. It simply couldn’t be, Logan insisted to himself. Unless they were riding fresh horses and then, acknowledging Rampart’s powerful and consistent stride, it still couldn’t be done.
Maybe it was a desert mirage. Maybe it wasn’t the desert command either. Maybe Xzen had been granted some kind of tyne to help him achieve the impossible. Logan cursed the Satrap, the resistance, political intrigue in general, even the old Vizier himself and now, most of all, Marcos Xzen, whom he had brawled with in a tavern so long ago and who had thrown the first insult, took some effort to recapture. Logan let lose a stream of howling profanities that Rampart understood, and sent him forward with even greater resolve.
Another hour and nine men could be made out only a league behind. Ahead, as if Logan needed to confront another apparition, was the faint formation of land rising above the choking heat of the desert floor. The irregular shape increased in height and breadth as Rampart drew closer to what Logan was now positive was the southernmost boundaries of Tunduria.
“See there, ahead? Home, boy. Our home. Another league at most,” he urged, knowing that the salvation of cool air and fresh water and nourishment would also serve the interests of his pursuers.
Another turn and another quarter of a league had disappeared between Logan and his enemies. But this time there were only eight men on mounts. It was still difficult for Logan to comprehend the possibility that he could be overtaken by anything except by animals who were fresh to the hunt and who hadn’t spent the last four days slowly dying under the brutal desert suns.
It was a race to the green shores. Logan thought he sensed a slight change in temperature right before an arrow fell to the desert a half dozen yards off to his right. Another salvo landed to his left, about as exhausted as the men shooting them. There was no point in dodging what he couldn’t see. There would be time enough to return their fire.
He grabbed Rampart’s mane and urged him into one final burst of energy. Maybe he would find a village where he could take a stand, somewhere where there was water and a crest of shade under which to replenish his body. He was so close to collapse now that he wasn’t certain he could even wait for Rampart to make up the distance to the shoreline. Logan could feel the great beast’s heart pounding beneath him. The animal would surely die for his master, as would his master sacrifice his life for him.
Another arrow landed, this time two or three horse lengths out ahead of him. Xzen’s men had found the range and were gaining. Logan didn’t want to turn, but he had to know what perils lay in his future. Seven dark-red warriors, along with the man who he now recognized as Marcos Xzen, were lashing their whips against their horses’ heaving sides.
The Satrap was brilliant. Send a madman to revenge himself and you’ve increased the command’s efforts by a factor of two. Xzen would kill or capture him, or die and sacrifice his men in the process. The dark-green land rose and spread out before him as the measure of the bleached white desert faded, overtaken by life-giving water. Logan could feel Rampart’s pace slacken; the power of his gallop eased as the pounding thunder within his rib cage increased uncontrollably.
A few hundred yards from the boundary that separated Southern Tunduria from the Basking Morland Plain, Logan Drewry pulled back on the reins.
“Enough, my friend. Enough.”
As he slowed and wheeled the great beast around, one of Xzen’s party slowed and stopped in his tracks. The scout looked up at the scorching sky, trying to recapture a moment of his past when he had not suffered so greatly. He fell from his saddle. His horse collapsed at his side.
The remaining warriors pulled back on the reins and finally, seeing Logan Drewry turn to face them, came to a standstill at a safe distance from their prey. Desert dust clung to their burnished, sweat-soaked skin. Too exhausted to count their fears, the remnants of the desert command recognized the verdant shore, the promise of water and nourishment, and safety. Two men stood in the way of their salvation. Both were unmatched warriors, and neither would sacrifice their mission for the promise of living another hour of another day.
Logan Drewry and Rampart also looked like pale ghosts. Logan continued to pat and speak softly and reassuringly into Rampart’s ear. If the beast’s heart didn’t slow down soon, it might never. He retrieved his bow and quiver, which was lashed to Rampart’s sides, slipped to the ground, and slapped the side of the beast, sending him into a short trot away from what Logan knew would be the target of the command’s next salvo. Logan steadied himself, strung his bow, set an arrow, and slowly drew back, silently asking the gods for whatever it took to slay his pursuers.
The warriors of the desert command saw what lay ahead of them. No one spoke, not even Marcos Xzen, who knew of Logan Drewry’s skill with bow and arrow. It was the measure of this man’s reputation that led him into a fray at the tavern some two years ago.
Marcos Xzen had overheard the tales and, disbelieving what Logan was saying to a friend and indirectly to those seated around him, warned the three men caught up in the giant warrior’s story that such ridiculous fabrications would turn their ears to stone.
Logan stood to the challenge and announced that the intruder was not welcome at their table, nor was his ignorance. The fight that broke out between these two men nearly demolished the tavern and wounded several bystanders.
Marcos Xzen watched in disbelief. He was still as winded as the rest of his men and their mounts when Logan Drewry dismounted and Rampart moved off to the side. The scout who had stopped to let loose several arrows had fallen nearby. There was little time to move into range and take down Logan at their leisure. Xzen’s plan to make one final chase after wearing Logan down had paid off. In lagging back an extra day, he had ensured his success. Another minute or two and he would move up and issue a final warning to Logan Drewry to throw down his arms and surrender, or be cut down where he stood.
Logan took aim, tightened his grip, held a deep breath, and let loose his arrow. The shaft made up the distance to its target in blinding speed. One of the warriors seated next to Donig suddenly glanced down at his midsection, along with his comrades, in utter disbelief. They had seen Logan Drewry pull back on his bow, though none could swear they had seen him release the arrow or had witnessed the distance it must have traveled.
Marcos Xzen did not know what to say or how to respond as the warrior slumped dead from his saddle. “Draw your bows,” he finally commanded the five remaining men and pressed them the final yards ahead to where he knew their fire would be killing.
Copyright © 2020 by Arthur Davis