Men and horses sweated alike under the brazen sky as the long caravan wound slowly down the pass to the desert-like plains below. Adding to their discomfort was the faint sound of running water: the ravine off to the left of the road was of the Kha river. Dedanius, the caravan master, had declared there would be no stopping until the plains, where the caravan could be halted and all barrels filled and animals watered.
Dedanius heard a hail from the van, warning of riders, and walked his doughty Kushite steed up to see what he could of the travelers. Three riders, four horses: none lame. Not Zuagirs. Mercenaries? Bounty killers? If this was an ambush, it was an odd one, as none of the three could race their mount down the craggy slopes to the wagons.
“Allow them to close: I will have to speak to them and see what they want” – Dedanius
The lead rider, he of two mounts, appeared to be an experienced northern mercenary, one of many such in these parts. From the look of his equipment, he favored mounted combat with bow and lance. By contrast the middle rider was garbed for foot warfare: a great-sword’s pommel rose proud above his shoulder. Something about his blue eyes – a rarity in these lands – suggested the barbaric. The last rider might have some Corinthian or even Zamorian ancestry. He, too, lacked bow or lance.
“We seek to join your caravan, as there’s safety in numbers. We are experienced in warfare and will aid in defense. I can hunt to add to the pot. My name is Vorel. These are Bardic and Morath” – Vorel, who now has 4 Diplomacy
“Bardic Morath and Vorel?!? Yes, you can join us, of course. It will be our honor” – Dedanius
After introducing himself Dedanius offered the three renowned killers the choice of van or rear. They opted to take rearguard. As he trotted his horse back up the column to inform the other wagon-captains, Dedanius privately decided that someone was probably on their back-trail.
Regardless of Dedanius’ foreboding, the three companions rode at ease as they drifted to the rear. They studied the wagons and pack-beasts as they passed. A mixture of camels, donkeys, mules and horses, all with a great jumble of gear, for the Hyborians of Koth traded vigorously with the people of the southern realms. The exception to this was a large enclosed tent-wagon, guarded by both male and female guards. A brawny, square-chinned woman sat next to the teamster on the driving seat. Her gaze was tinged with suspicion.
“The last time I saw one of those, it sheltered Avron Nistarin” – Morath
“It’s not the same one is it?” – Vorel
“No… they’re all pretty similar but this has some fancy stitching on the felt” – Morath
Marking the wagon down as noteworthy the three drifted into the drag position and commenced eating the dust thrown up by the hundreds of hoofs and dozens of wheels. The wagon immediately ahead of them was so dust-covered they could make out nothing of its original cargo. Its guards appeared to be among the poorest: all were foot guards, armed with a mish-mash of bow and spear or sword. Rumor of their identities had raced ahead of the three and the guards’ eyes, visible through the patina of dust coating each face, rolled admiringly back at them.
Dust on the horizon
Morath’s eagle eye spotted a drift of dust on the dry hill to right-rear. By the time Vorel switched mounts and drew his bow from its case, the one plume had become two: the second lower and closer to the trail. By the time Morath had ridden up-column to tell Dedanius of the oncoming threat a third plume of dust, this on the trail, was visible. Morath returned with Dedanius.
“I make out groups of five or six riders” – Morath
“See what you can do. I leave this to you. I will stay near the middle of the column” – Dedanius
Vorel decided to stay mobile and match his powerful Hyrkanian bow against what he suspected would be inferior local versions. He worked his way up-slope while the three troops were still widely scattered. Bardic meanwhile hitched his horse, and bullied the nearby guards into a rough line, archers to the fore. One guard alone seemed enthusiastic: he drew an immense curved sword from his back, waved it and roared something cheerfully at Bardic, a huge white grin splitting his dust-grimed face. His broad-lipped, dust-covered features suggested a Kushite.
Vorel mis-judged. By choosing the up-slope troop, he lost all advantage he could have gained from his superior bow, and his only consolation as he rode back bleeding and with an arrow struck right through his thigh into the saddle was that he had put down the two archers in the troop. The remaining three were lancers!
He discovered the rearguard had already lost a man: undeterred by Vorel’s attentions, the enemy archers had showered the forlorn hope at extreme range. The lancers picked up their pace and closed in.
Vorel switched his aim to the lancers and dropped one: but now the eight lancers were all closing on the last few wagons of the caravan.
“I’m going up-column to hide. Good luck” – Vorel the heroic
“I’m going to hide as well. Good luck Bardic. By the way: that Kushite is speaking trade-talk, he said he will fight for you” – Morath
Callously leaving the archers to be cut down, Bardic jogged up-column to use the left-rear wheel of the nearest cart as cover from the oncoming riders. His defenders broke and ran but were speared down. By Bardic, the black swordsman Rollo watched for his cue. The light-horsemen were riding closer, following up on the lancers’ heels.
Poised as best he could behind the wheel of a moving wagon Bardic watched for his moment. The timing would be split-second. The lead left-flank lancer galloped over the bodies of the fallen, leveling his lance for another target. He spotted the Cimmerian! His lance easily reached over the cover the wheel afforded and painfully cut down past Bardic’s fine chain shirt of Kothic steel and across his bicep. Then the rider was past.
With a bellow of rage Bardic leaped after him, smashing his two-hander diagonally across and down, knocking the armored lancer from his saddle. Bardic wheeled swiftly, ready for the next rider. The man kept his horse’s speed up: the lance head feinted high then dropped. With uncanny timing, Bardic stamped the lance-head into the trail and jumped high, cutting the rider down! Then landed, jogging back towards the rear, where his new follower was in action.
The Kushite, bellowing a war-cry, charged out at one of the light horsemen and swept his two-hand Ghanata blade around – as the tricky Shemitish pony cut left, leaving Rollo flailing the air! Two arrows thumped into the Kushite. Then Bardic arrived! He too was thrown by the wily horse’s stepping – but swung the tip of his sword just a little further than expected and wounded the rider. The two barbarians then boxed the Zuagir in and cut him down, and turned their attention to his partner in archery.
Back up-column a few wagons, Vorel settled his lance and buckler. Beyond the occasional skirmish with Hyrkanians he’d not had the chance for horsed combat, and never demonstrated his prowess to his fellows. Choosing his target Vorel rode out clear of the wagons. The man saw him, signaled his willingness to cross lances, and the two kicked their steeds into the gallop!
Vorel was the swifter, in spite of the rawness of his mount. His lance swept under the other man’s shield and punched through the scale, wounding the man terribly. He rode on a few more yards then fell off. Another arrow slammed into Vorel. The horse archers might have held off in respect of their lancers but they had returned to the job!
Morath, like Bardic, watched for his moment. As a lancer finished a caravan guard the Zamorian leaped from a wagon to land behind the lancer, ramming his short-sword down through the man’s ventail and into his vitals. Morath pitched the body out of the stirrups and gained saddle and reins in one swift move. Kneeing the war-horse into a good pace, he selected another lancer, drew his legs up, and leaped over to land in the lancer’s lap. The two grappled madly, until Morath’s superior strength won out and he threw that lancer off as well.
Gaining the saddle and turning himself right-way round, Morath reined in and menaced the archers scrambling their ponies among the rocks up-slope. They drew off nervously, but loosed back at him in reply, and one caught him.
Uncertain what to do, but knowing he had no chance to catch the lighter ponies, Morath reined his horse back into as much cover as he could. Then caravan guards and attendants ran screaming past him, rearward.
With the last couple of horse archers now at far range, Bardic and Rollo, now mounted, caught up with Morath and Vorel and hastened towards the van. Three clumps of beings were closing in on the van, up from the plain below. The lead wagons and beasts had stopped – most abandoned by their attendants! And the reasons were soon deduced.
Each clump was composed largely of a swarm of reddish-hued beings the size of a small man. Even at that range, their actions bespoke agony, as though earthly climes were inimitable. A gibbering and meeping, as of souls tormented to the extremes of insanity, carried up to the onlookers. These lesser beings appeared to be driven on by a being the size of a tall man, bearing a pole-glaive, dark of shaft and with serrated blade. A certain suggestion of scaliness about the larger being was all that suggested something uncanny.
Shaking off the uneasiness they always felt at dealing with beings summoned from whatever hell they came from, Bardic urged the others to act aggressively. He knew his surging blood would soon ebb into torpor and the same would be true of the Kushite.
Vorel snatched off a dozen arrows: the nearest clump of red gibbering meepers melted away.
“The meepers are easily slain – but the big fellow seems immune, or something” – Vorel
Switching his target as Bardic Rollo and Morath dismounted and jogged the last few dozen yards, Vorel had the satisfaction of seeing his last seven shafts send most of the next group of meepers back to hell. He few his lance from out of its boot and adjusted his buckler.
Bardic charged, Rollo at his flank. The Kushite proved the faster by a shade, ducking under the hideous being’s glaive, but missing in his eagerness. Bardic did not miss! He gave mental thanks to Crom that his sword was so exceptionally good, as the blow was like chopping wood. A stream of black ichor flowed from the creature’s flank. It grinned and snarled something in a language Bardic had never heard.
“He’s saying his master will be pleased when he lays your heart before him” – Morath
“Same old same old then” – Bardic
Morath nimbly rolled behind the creature and rose ready to stab it – then leaped aside: it had a tail! And something about the red, scaly tip made Morath sure he did not want to be touched by it.
The creature’s glaive cut into Bardic’s thigh, leaving a jagged wound that bled freely. Then with a thunder of hooves, Vorel charged his steed behind Morath, lancing into the creature. The lance shivered to pieces but it staggered, clearly badly hurt. Bardic knew there was no time to waste. Already the next group of demons was in charge range. He and Rollo cut the thing down! As it fell, it appeared to melt into the sands – along with its glaive. The wound it left did not go away – indeed it continued to bleed.
Vorel galloped back up to the wagons – he knew there was more than one enemy lance lying beside the caravan. He hoped he would be in time!
Bardic gestured to Rollo, signaling his new ally to wait. The Kushite was tiring, and further efforts might exhaust him. The demons were approaching – they had but to wait for the last moment, then strike.
The few gibbering wretches flung themselves up at Bardic as he cut lustily through them, ignoring their claws that scratched and tore at his flanks. His huge blade sheared part-way through the scaly-faced master’s arm. Then Rollo stepped forward and Morath stepped in across from Rollo, so the tail would not so easily menace him. The Zamorian thrust shrewdly then stepped back with a lurid curse: his sword simply could not penetrate the creature! Rollo’s blow was similarly ineffectual.
The creature sliced into Rollo, cutting a light gash, then turned its attention to Bardic. The two exchanged blows, but Bardic’s was the heavier, and this creature joined its fellow back in hell. The two bleeding barbarians prepared for the final group!
Vorel glanced back over his shoulder as, lance in hand, he galloped his mount at full speed back up-column to aid his fellows. Some kind of disturbance mid-column? Dedanius seemed to be there though, so not something to worry about right now.
The Bossonian leveled the lance and thundered down towards the last fight. Bardic had cut his way through, bleeding from a dozen small wounds, and he and the last demon were about to do battle. Morath was hanging back and the Kushite was struggling back to his feet and walking forward. Wasting no time, Vorel spitted the demon, the lance plowing deep through the thing and ripping it from this earth.
Then the screaming drew their attention back to the caravan.
The Maw of the Gatherer!
With a rumbling of falling rock, an immense crab-like being unearthed itself from its place of concealment on the slope above mid-column. Caravan guards below, only just breathing a sigh of relief to see the threat at the van dealt with, screamed in horror, unmanned by the unearthly sight! The thing supported itself on four of its eight limbs, moving forward rapidly towards the tented wagon. Its other four limbs ended in huge scythe-size claws. It appeared to be able to see by means of six eye-stalks positioned above a great mandible-armed maw.
Dedanius braced himself and encouraged the bodyguards around the wagon, male and female, to stand their ground. Then he was engulfed by a fiery beam that struck from one of the eyes! His screams were horrid, but mercifully brief. Another man was struck by some sort of icy ray, that crystallized his body; a woman was blasted with arcing electricity, and another man, turning to flee, was turned to stone!
Heedless of their own deaths, the wagon guards shot at the thing or attempted to fend it off with spears. The huge claws ripped down at them, cutting two in half. The other claws reached out for the wagon and sliced down. The thick felt sheltering the wagon occupants was being torn asunder!
Vorel attacked first. The ground he was attempting was extremely broken. Few riders could have managed it, but Vorel was determined to make his lance count. Aiming at one of the hind legs’ joints, he got as much speed as possible out of the mount, and struck! His point went in true, the vast creature staggered.
An eye-stalk swiveled backward and Vorel shivered as some unseen force covered him. He guessed that he had just had a very close shave!
The pause afforded by the crab-like creature’s eye-attack gained precious seconds for Bardic Morath and Rollo to arrive on borrowed mounts. All three flung themselves off: this creature, which almost seemed like a statue given life, was terrifying to horses.
“I’ll take it from the rear!” – Morath
“Gnnhhee hee hee!” – Bardic, being childish
By the time they had readied weapons and Vorel had ridden his horse up into a good position for another lance attack the creature had done what it had been sent for: it reared up out of the wagon, a beautiful woman clutched in its maw! The last defender was chopped in two by its claws.
Morath vaulted up onto a leg, then scrambled up onto the thing’s back. Judging as best he could from its body-shape, the Zamorian rammed his dagger down into an area that ought to connect brain to body.
Then Vorel struck again! This time, his aim was a little off: the leg on the same side sagged but did not collapse. Bardic aimed his own blow at it, and it fell away. Rollo bellowed his battle cry and cut deep into the carapace. Whether it was this final blow, or Morath’s dagger, cannot be known – but whatever sorcery had imbued it with power was cut off – and the thing collapsed in a jumble of inert limbs! The woman trapped in its maw was thrown clear, to land in a tangle of lithe, rounded limbs and expensive silks.
They hurried to her, along with the square-jawed woman that had guarded her wagon, Hobrieca by name. As they raised her carefully, it was obvious that this was a woman of wealth and nobility, judging from the jewelry on her face and neck, and the proudly unashamed way she carried herself. She spoke, though they barely understood her accented words.
“You have saved Aasiyeh Hotep, once Queen of Koth. Now, Queen of Nothing.”
Queen Hotep may have become a queen without a country, but she knew men. She begged protection from Bardic and Vorel, and gave Morath a gold bangle. Her need was to reach Zamboula, where she had a brother she named Burit. Until then, or perhaps even then, her identity must be secret.
“We’ll call you Rani” – Morath
Bardic, his bleeding stanched by a salve the Queen had applied on his wounds, assembled the wagon-captains and asked them if they wanted him as caravan master. They unanimously preferred to elect their own (thanks very much) but asked him to act as captain at arms, in charge of the defense.
Loot was to be had from among the possessions of the fallen enemy. Morath, Bardic and Vorel all claimed a warhorse, and Rollo a sturdy pony. At the least, these could be sold.
The long journey was completed without further incident. Some of the caravan stopped in Shushan and some split off to Kuthchemes, so a much smaller number of wagons and animals slowly made their way through the winding streets of Zamboula to the main caravanserais of the city.
Zamboula is the crossroads of nations. Here, Hykanians, Iranistanis and Turanians from the east mingle with Kothites and Kharanians from the north, Shemites and Stygians of all shades from the west and any number of Kushite tribes and sub-tribes.
Bardic grinned in appreciation as a shameless dusky-skinned harlot, clad in a mere wisp of silk fore and aft, lifted her plump boobies and rolled them together. Then glanced guiltily over his shoulder: but the tented wagon was still closed securely. Hobrieca’s stern gaze reproved him, but “Rani” was none the wiser.
“It’s been a long time between drinks, by Crom!” – Bardic
But it was not merely half-naked wenches that caught the Cimmerian’s eye. Zamboula was the most diverse, cosmopolitan city he had ever wandered through. Ragged beggars lifted beseeching hands towards the caravan; naked or nearly-naked urchins tugged at the skirts of the wagon captains, urging them to this or that hostel; courtesans in silken kirtles and pearl-stitched shawls peeped from canopied litters carried by massive girdled Kushites; wealthy merchants sweated in khalats trimmed with ermine; and a wide variety of armed men shouldered their way past all. Skin color ranged from deepest black to fine ivory. A cacophony of dialects and tongues resounded: business was conducted everywhere, not just in sober guild-halls. His impressions were interrupted by Ginnoc, the caravan master.
“Bardic, I wonder if you would accompany me to negotiate for stall and feed. These towns can be hard, and I do not have poor Dedanius’ repute” – Ginnoc
Bardic shrugged his agreement. He turned to speak quietly to his companions.
“We should find out where Rani wants to stay too – about her brother, that sort of thing” – Bardic
“I’ll put out feelers. I have a feeling Rollo will help too. He seems very happy to please you” – Vorel
“I’ll speak to Miss Gruff’n’butch and see what Rani wants” – Morath
A face from the past
Bardic returned from “negotiating” – in which he had grunted menacingly at various pointy-headed market thugs – to find that Rani wanted to remain anonymous until more was learned about her brother; and that Rollo had produced another black man. Vorel explained that this was Buto, a scout and a man Rollo trusted. Apparently there was a man camped outside of the city who might have news.
It was good to get the old girl out of storage, Vorel mused as he strung his massive Bossonian longbow and slung it and a quiver over his shoulder. Checking the hang of his broadsword and short-sword, now arranged for foot use, he followed Buto out of the city.
It was past nightfall by the time the Kushite led the Bossonian to a dead forest. The skeletal remains of branches poked up through the sands, suggesting that once, the region had been cooler or wetter. After checking his bearings against the stars, Buto walked softly in. Alert to any hint of treachery, Vorel followed.
At length, the flickering of a campfire became visible, first as light on the occasional higher branch; then as a distinct glow. Buto pointed. A cloaked figure was seated alone at the fire. The man pushed back his cloak’s cowl and spoke:
“Welcome to my campfire. It’s been a while.”
It was Celo.