The light at the end of the next tunnel suggested we had reached our final destination. It was the same silvery blue, but far more intense. And in the very definite shape of a doorway, from where a dull roar emanated like the crash of surf on a stormy beach.
“What kind of temple is this?” asked Allard.
Once we passed through the doorway, we found ourselves in an enormous cave. Unlike the passages we had travelled through to get here, this chamber looked naturally formed.
There were no altars or religious statues. Large rocks and boulders littered the uneven floor between shallow puddles of luminescent water.
The clang of metal punctuated the ever-present roar that echoed off the walls, interspersed by the shouts of desperate men. We sneaked from boulder to boulder, some of which towered over even Allard, until we were close enough to see the middle of the cavern where a large pool of water gave off an intense light.
Standing next to this pool, two of the shield party fought the Dalyan spider-witch.
Big Boy was holding the giant shield over his head. Sheltering under it with him was one of the spearmen. It looked like the other was watching from behind a group of rocks until I noticed his body lying on the ground. It was just his decapitated head sitting on top of a boulder.
The Dalyan swooped down from the darkness above. She wore a helmet with a ring of spikes around the top and a face-plate moulded into the visage of a many-fanged, multi-eyed demon.
Her body glimmered in a way that suggested some kind of metal armour, although it must have been made of a very thin material to fit the curves of her body so closely.
She struck the shield with metallic talons attached to her hands. The force of the blows were enough to buckle Big Boy’s knees.
The remaining spearman jumped out from under the shield and thrust at her with his spear, but he was too slow. She sprang back into the air, leaping higher than humanly possible, then swooped down again, sending him scurrying back under.
“Are we going to get involved?” Allard said, champing to get stuck in.
“In a minute. I just want to get a better bead on how she’s moving like that.”
“Magic?” suggested Allard.
“I don’t think so. Looks more like she’s swinging from a rope.”
Allard narrowed his eyes. “Yes, I see it. A thread attached to her back.”
I focused my sight but couldn’t see anything, but had no reason to doubt Allard’s observation.
The higher up you looked, the darker it got, and if she was hanging by a thread, it was impossible to see where it went or how she was managing to jump away, almost like she was falling upwards.
She came down feet-first, landing on the upheld shield with enough force to knock Big Boy flat on his back. The little spearman was exposed and looked lost. He froze as she dived towards him, then recovered his wits and launched his spear.
His aim was good and it hit her in the abdomen, but glanced off her armour without leaving a mark. The Dalyan didn’t react to the blow at all. She landed on the spearman, closed her metal claws around his throat, and lifted into the air with only his head.
The body remained standing for a moment, blood spurting from the neck. Then it toppled like a tree chopped down.
The dull roar swirling around us escalated into a mighty din, sounding like screams and yells.
I looked up, but all I saw was blackness. “Did you hear that?”
Allard peered into the darkness above. “I think there’s people up there.”
Big Boy was up and let out a battle cry, or maybe it was a wail of grief for his fallen comrades. Either way, it got the spider-witch’s attention. She dropped the spearman’s head and dove down to meet the challenge.
Allard lay on the ground and stretched out his arms and legs as though he was practising how to swim.
“What are you doing?”
“If you swung a sword every now and again, you’d know the dangers of going into battle without warming up.” He carried on with his stretching.
The Dalyan was relentless, striking sparks off the shield with every attack. I ducked back down and took a crossbow bolt out of the quiver. I dripped a tiny amount of jupp juice onto an arrowhead. If I could hit her while she was distracted, perhaps I could end this fight without having to risk life and limb.
A sound like a gasp filled the cave and the light dimmed. When I peeked over the rock, the water in the pool had disappeared. What had appeared to be a shallow pond was actually a deep hole. There was a rumbling, and I ducked down as a plume of water shot out of the hole, high enough to wash shit off a giant’s arse, as the saying goes, raining water on top of us.
The distraction caught the shielder off guard, but the Dalyan didn’t seem to notice. She landed on the shield, grabbed it around the edges, and jumped back into the air, pulling it out of Big Boy’s grasp. She tossed it away, leaving him defenceless.
Allard got into a crouch and drew his two swords. “Right. Time to strike.”
Before I could say anything he was off, loping from boulder to boulder, then leaping on top of a large rock formation jutting out of the ground.
The Dalyan was ripping the shield carrier to pieces. His shrieks echoed around the cave and were answered by what sounded like applause.
Allard launched himself from the rock, both swords raised overhead like a ditch viper baring its fangs.
The Dalyan looked up from her kill and leapt to meet Allard. She grabbed the incoming swords by the blades and rose into the air, taking Allard with her. He struggled to free his swords from her grip, but she held on tight, rising higher and higher with him dangling beneath her. Then she started kicking him in the face. He wouldn’t be able to hold on for very long.
I took aim and pulled the release lever. My aim was good, but at the last moment she let go of the curved sword and with a swift jerk of her arm she plucked the bolt out of the air. She stared at it in her hand, then tossed it aside and looked down at me.
Allard struck at her with the freed sword, but it bounced off her leg without reaction. Her focus now on me, she let go of Allard’s other sword and he dropped, but at the last possible moment, he released his swords and grabbed onto her foot.
He hung there, swaying wildly as she struggled to shake him off and get at him with her talons. The muscles and sinews in his arms stood out as he dug in with the tips of his fingers and clambered up her back.
Once he was high enough, he took out a small dagger from his belt, the one he kept for shaving the hairs off his chest, and sliced it through the air.
There was indeed something holding her aloft, as Allard had said, because there followed a twang like the sound of lute string snapping, and then they plummeted to the ground.
Allard twisted and turned so she was under him. They landed with a crunch that didn’t sound very healthy. I jumped on top of the nearest rock to get a better view.
The Dalyan was already up, although she didn’t look too steady on her feet. Allard was out cold.
I whistled to attract her attention and then let fly with another bolt. As expected, she caught it. With no time to use the gears and pulleys, I stood on one end of the crossbow and reset the string by pulling it up as hard as I could. I fired a second shot, which she caught in her other hand. She attempted to throw the arrows away, but this time I hadn’t dipped the tips in jupp juice, I’d coated the shafts in beetle glue. The Dalyan tried to shake off the arrows but only managed to spread the glue around her hands.
The crossbow was gummed up and useless, but it had served its purpose. Big Boy’s shield lay on the ground not too far away. I jumped down and grabbed it. I managed to get it upright and charged at the distracted spider-witch, although the size and weight of the thing meant I stumbled more than ran.
She saw me coming, of course, and grabbed the shield before I could ram into her, ripping it out of my grip. This was what I had hoped she would do. She now had both her hands stuck on either side of the shield, putting her spine-severing talons out of commission. She struggled to see past the wall between us, allowing me time to catch my breath.
The only way for her to see me was to raise the shield above her head. I was too quick for her to kick and every time she attempted to strike with the shield, she would obscure her own vision and not be able to see which way I sprang.
We danced around the glowing pool in this manner as I tried to ascertain any chinks in her armour, which was a beautifully crafted mesh of a type I’d never seen.
After a couple of laps, she stopped chasing me and planted the shield in the ground. I moved to the far side of the pool to get a better angle on what she was doing back there. She was standing on one foot, the other raised and aimed at the shield. With a mighty kick, she sent the shield flying, taking her taloned gloves with it, revealing two large, very un-ladylike hands which she raised in my direction. Then she leapt across the pool, arms outstretched.
Her exposed palms came hurtling towards me. One hit was all I needed. I crouched in readiness, a dagger in hand.
She landed in front of me and reached for my throat. I feigned to her left, then lunged to her right, guiding the tip of my dagger — covered in cheem tree sap — towards the palm of her right hand.
I was not nearly fast enough.
Her hand darted past mine, grabbed me by the wrist and bent it down and back on itself, forcing the dagger out of my hand and excruciating pain up my arm. She held me in place just by the pressure on my wrist, clamped me by the throat with her other hand, and squeezed my neck like she was attempting to pinch my head off my body.
She would have most likely succeeded if Allard had not chosen that moment to leap on her back, throwing her off balance and allowing me to slip from her grasp.
He wrapped himself around her torso and jerked backwards, toppling them both. With him under her, his arms slipped through hers and his hands clasped behind her neck, her arms were splayed wide and her body open, limbs waving like an upturned insect.
I landed heavily on her right arm, pinning it under my knee, another dagger already in my hand which I used to slice open her bare palm.
What should have happened was a swift and agonising death. What actually happened was nothing.
A cut appeared on her palm, then healed itself of its own volition without a single drop of blood being spilt. I tried a different dagger; same result. I tried them all.
“Hu-hu-hurry,” Allard said, straining every muscle to keep the spider-witch locked in his embrace.
I leapt on top of the Dalyan’s chest and grabbed her helmet by the horns, which were sharper than they looked, and attempted to get it off. This proved very difficult. I had to put a knee in her stomach and use all my strength to yank it off her head. Something inside, a strap maybe, snapped, and I tumbled off with the helmet in my hands.
Dalyan spider-witches, the ones the minstrels sing about anyway, were said to be maidens of near-perfect beauty. The first thing I noticed about this one was that she was very definitely not a maiden. The beard was a dead giveaway.
Engorged pupils skittered wildly around the bloodshot whites of his bulging eyes. His face was emaciated and shrivelled. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound left his lips. He struggled to get out of Allard’s hold, clearly intent on killing us no matter what.
I took out a large pinch of mong fish and stuck my fingers in his face.
He convulsed so violently he broke free of Allard’s hold. I prepared myself for the next assault, but even the most ardent bloodlust can’t compete with vomiting and shitting at the same time. Our invincible assailant lay writhing on the floor, gushing from both ends.
“How come ...” said Allard, getting to his feet. “How come ...” He grimaced as he struggled to move his battered body. “How come you never get hurt?”
“I got hurt,” I said. I held up my left hand to show him a nick from the horned helmet. “That’s real blood. Smarts like you wouldn’t believe.”
Allard laughed. Rather manically, truth be told. “Victory!” he called out. “We claim our reward!” He continued laughing. It was noticeable that his voice was now the only sound echoing around the cavern.
“Do you feel all right?” I asked him.
“Of course. I feel amazing. I could defeat a hundred more.”
“Good. Only, the look you’ve got in your eye looks a little familiar.”
“What do you mean? The look of a winner?” He laughed again.
“No. Similar to the look in his eyes.” I pointed at our whimpering friend on the floor.
Allard stopped laughing. The smile fell off his face. He could see the humour in most things, but not when it came to his appearance.
He took a long look at the state of our foe. “The desert pears?”
I nodded. “I think so. They prob—”
Torches flared into life above us. The entire cavern filled with light, revealing a gallery running around the roof. Sitting on terraces that seemed to go on forever were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. It was like we were inside a hollowed-out mountain where the whole population of Brume watched men fight to the death. This wasn’t a temple, it was an arena.
Rock scraped against rock as a section of wall behind us moved aside to reveal a large opening. A dozen soldiers armed with spears ran out, followed by two more on the backs of giant moles.
Giant for moles, that is. They were about the size of large pigs, their riders’ boots scraping against the ground. The men formed a circle around us. Behind them stood Mayor Grantham, his face red and contorted.
“You’ve ruined everything!” He waved his arms around. “Drop your weapons! Drop them now!”
In the legends of yore, one or two heroic individuals very often fought off an army, or at least carved a path through them to escape. Sadly, in real life such things are not possible.
You might be able to fight off two assailants if you’re a capable swordsman facing poorly trained foe — I’ve seen Allard do it a few times — but once you get over a three to one ratio you can forget it, unless they very generously decide to attack one at a time.
We dropped our weapons.
“All of it,” barked the mayor. “Strip.”
I’m pretty sure this was aimed at me, my penchant for keeping weapons hidden about my person being well known, although Allard also began to disrobe. He didn’t need to be asked twice to get naked, even when there weren’t a dozen spear tips pointed at him.
“Look what you’ve done,” screamed the mayor. “This is the first time in a hundred years that we’ve ended up without a champion. This is a disaster!”
I stood there, naked. “How did we ruin anything? You wanted your problem taken care of — there you go.”
The Dalyan — or whoever he was — lay on his back, gasping for air. The cave was silent now. No roar from above, only the mayor’s shrill voice.
“You were supposed to kill him. A fight to the death. Where’s the sport in this?” The man on the floor began vomiting again.
“What about you? You intentionally misled us. You used traps to weaken us so this maniac could rip us apart.”
“Those traps weren’t meant to weaken you! They were there to get you stimulated for the fight. If you had eaten the pears like you were supposed to, the traps would have got your blood flowing, activating their power. They would have made you equal to our champion, but this ... this barbarian had to go and eat them all.” The mayor gave Allard a look of disgust. “How are you unaffected?”
“Barbarian? That’s how you address me?” said Allard. “Where are all your pretty niceties now? Finally, we see your true colours. You racist bastard! I might have known. All your polite words and good manners count for nothing. Didn’t I tell you, Grin?”
Allard seemed genuinely offended, even though he wasn’t actually a barbarian. People often assumed he was because of his size and tendency to walk around in hardly any clothes. In fact, he was from a well to-do First City family who did a very nice business in silks and textiles.
“If you hadn’t stuffed your face with all our pears, everyone would have had a fair chance in a fair fight,” said the mayor. “And we wouldn’t be left with three of you still alive.”
“These pears,” I said, “they provide extra strength and speed, and what else? Aggression? A high tolerance for pain?”
“Yes. They make you a great warrior.”
“And then they drive you crazy. Look at him.” I pointed at their champion dry-heaving in front of me. “That’s your idea of a great warrior?”
I’ve encountered many herbs and berries that can induce unnatural strength on a temporary basis. They all have one thing in common, they all require a heavy price to be paid. Weakness and illness in the short term, death and insanity in the long. A constant diet of pears, as I’m sure this poor man had been subjected to, might have made him a near unstoppable killing machine, but his mind had long ceased to function on anything other than a primitive level.
“This man has been our champion for five seasons. He has entertained us and brought us great pleasure. Thank you, Demark of Tolooth. Your service will be remembered with honour.” The mayor took a spear from one of his men, placed the tip over the ear of the prostrated champion, and buried it in his skull.
Demark of Tolooth gave one last spasm and was still.
“Now you two will fight each other.” The mayor threw open his arms. “The winner will be our new champion. Great rewards will be yours if you win.”
A roar went up.
“Fight! Fight! Fight!” the crowd chanted, men, women and children all baying for blood.
“No!” shouted Allard, his voice louder than theirs. An uncomfortable silence descended. Now that he had an audience he was only too happy to take centre stage. Nude.
“I’m never going to fit in that dinky armour. And why have you got the poor bastard pretending to be a woman?”
“Have you any idea how difficult it is to entice anyone here during the hot season?” said the mayor. “We had hoped news of a mythical warrior might attract a better quality of hero. Instead, we got you.”
Impatient cries for us to get on with it filtered down. By now, I was getting pretty annoyed. I’d come all this way, and their temple was nothing more than a large fighting pit with no secrets to be gleaned from the spider-witch. I certainly had no intention of putting on a show for these idiots.
“This is your idea of entertainment? You pass the time watching drugged men engage in mortal combat? You people are sick. Luckily, you won’t have to worry about this anymore. You can kill us if you wish, but we won’t fight for you, and you won’t be forcing your silly games on anyone else.”
“And what makes you so sure about that?” asked the mayor.
“Because I poisoned your water supply. The lake is now undrinkable. Even a sip will kill in a few seconds.”
Disbelief, shock, anger all rolled into one long hissing sound circulated above us.
“He lies!” called out the mayor. “This is what he’s known for. Grin the Cheat. Grin the Liar.” He glared at me. “Why would he poison the water? You didn’t know. You were here for the reward.”
“People have a tendency to welch on agreements once the job is done. I like to make sure they honour their word. And remember, I am also Grin the Childkiller, Grin the Spoiler, Grin the Death. I kill for fun. You don’t believe me? Drink the water.”
“And I suppose you happen to have an antidote to this poison. We let you go, you purify our water, is that how it works?”
“Yes,” I said. “The source of your wealth, the only reason anyone comes here, it’s all tainted. There’s nothing you can do about it. Killing us won’t help.”
The mayor blinked. “He’s bluffing! Don’t be fooled!” he cried.
Voices broke out into shouts and arguments. It wasn’t possible to hear them clearly, but most of them seemed to be aimed at the mayor, and not in favourable terms.
I pointed at the pool. “This water, it’s linked to the same source as the great lake, isn’t it? Try some.”
The mayor gave a barking laugh. “This is the source. Even if you poisoned the lake, you couldn’t send your foul concoction all the way into the bowels of the earth and back up here.”
“No? What if I used a little sorcery?”
The mayor’s face paled. He stood there not saying anything, his bald head sweating.
“That’s right,” I continued. “Dark, bitter sorcery that costs a man a piece of his soul. Very difficult to achieve, but easily tested.” I cupped my hands around my mouth. “Someone throw down a goblet.”
There was a moment of silence, and then a golden cup came hurtling down. Allard reached up and caught it, making sure to hold the pose slightly longer than necessary before handing the cup to me.
I dipped it into the pool of water and handed it to the mayor. He stared at the goblet.
“What?” I asked him. “If I lie, then drinking the water won’t harm you. If I tell the truth, then you brought me here. You are responsible for destroying the reason this city exists. Everyone will have to leave — that’s if they can cross the sands without any water. Do you think these people will let you live?”
“Drink!” the crowd chanted, “Drink! Drink!”
I stood there, naked, holding out the cup.
He snatched the goblet and drank from it until it was empty. He flung the cup away and held his arms wide.
“You see? He lies. He is—”
He dropped to his knees, clutching his throat. Blood streamed from his eyes, from his ears. Foam dribbled from his lips. He fell to the ground, dead.
All was silent, and then there was a gasp. The pool emptied. The soldiers guarding us looked uncomfortably at each other. The rumble of the soon to arrive water began, and the guards ran for the exit, those on the giant moles whipping their mounts to move faster. Water shot out of the hole.
People started screaming. Those sitting on the lower terraces scrambled to get higher, terrified of what a single drop of water might do if it landed on them.
Obviously, I didn’t really poison the entire water supply. Even if I had thought of it, I didn’t carry enough toxins to infect such an enormous body of water, and I certainly didn’t know any sorcery.
My favourite uncle, my mother’s brother, taught me how to make myself immune to toxins. He was considered a drunk by most everyone, including my parents. In truth, he was too poor to afford ale or wine, but he would catch ditch vipers and drain their venom into a cup and drink it. He claimed the intoxicating effects were superior to anything you could buy in a tavern. Plus, it made him immune to viper bites, which he received regularly.
After my family had been killed, I hid in the wetland forests and foraged for food. I managed at first, but the winter ice froze everything that grew. Everything but jupp berries, which thrived in any temperature. They grew like weeds.
Like all children, I knew the dangers of eating jupp berries: instant death. But a slow, lingering death from starvation didn’t appeal to me either, so I used the same technique as my uncle with his snakes. The first few times I was very ill and very nearly died, lying in the cave I called home, unable to move for days. I recovered. Eventually, I was able to eat jupp berries by the handful. Surprisingly tasty.
What I didn’t realise until later was that the toxin, even though it no longer affected me, was still present in my blood. So much of it, that when a rat-wolf attacked me, no doubt thinking a child my size, all alone, would put up little fight, the first nip it took out of my leg was enough to kill it.
It was an easy task to let a few drops from my bleeding hand fall into the goblet once I’d scooped up some water for the mayor to drink.
The tower of water fell back to earth, drenching me and Allard. Our clothes and weapons were still on the ground. I quickly got dressed. Allard took his time.
“The water will purify itself in a few years,” I called up to the people who hadn’t scurried away. “But there is an antidote I’d be happy to share with you, if you let us go. And compensate us for inconveniences caused.”
“How do we know you’ll keep your word,” called down a voice.
“Can we not act like civilised people and show a little faith? Believe me, we could probably fight our way out if we had to, and you horrendous people certainly deserve the agonising, skin-peeling, face-melting death I am more than capable of providing, but it’s been rather a long day. Shall we call it dishonours even?”
So, I gave them a fake antidote. They tested the water on the animals first and when none of them died, they let us go. They complained that the water didn’t taste the same as before, but either they imagined it or the new flavour was down to Allard’s contribution.
I don’t know if they continued their underground fighting — I assume they had to entertain themselves somehow during the long sun-sieged days — but, for me, Brume became another place where my presence was no longer welcome. No great loss. Although I never did get that big stick back.