The leader was a tubby man with one hand inside his matted fur vest, scratching at his stomach. In the other hand he held a rusty sword that looked like it would be more effective as a bludgeon than a cutting instrument.
To one side of him stood a short, rat-faced man with a large axe. He gripped the handle with both hands and rested the axe-head on his shoulder. On the other side, a sickly man, yellowing with some kind of illness, wheezed each breath like it was about to be his last. He had a large knife chained to his wrist so he wouldn’t lose it, I suppose.
“Do you have any food or water?” I asked as pleasantly as I could. “The lady here is famished, and the only way to stop her constant complaining is to feed her.”
“I’ve got something she can put in her mouth,” said the yellow man with the knife, sniggering.
The leader turned on his man, his face darkening with anger. The man cringed and backed away, but the leader caught him by the throat one-handed and choked him until his face began to turn blue.
He hurled him against the ground and kicked the fallen man with a concentrated viciousness that sent him rolling away, howling in pain, towards the hole. As soon as his outstretched hand felt the void beside him, the man yelped and scrambled away like the hole was actively pursuing him.
“Ignore him,” said the leader, “he has no manners. Let us speak like civilised men. How much for a go on your whore? We have a small camp not far from here. We can provide you with refreshment and a bed for the night.” He smiled, and brown teeth appeared at irregular intervals from behind his lips.
“Bedding’s a bit lumpy,” said the one with the axe, which set off the other one to sniggering again, although very quietly and still with one eye on the hole.
“He’s right,” said the leader, “but don’t worry about that. I’m sure we can help flatten the lumps between the three of us. Ain’t that right, boys?”
Sofiere took a step closer to me, although I have no idea why she thought that would help.
“You better stay back,” she said unsteadily. “This man is a mighty warrior.”
It took me a second to realise she was talking about me.
“Is he now?” asked the leader. “Going to dispatch all three of us, are you? You don’t even appear to have a sword.”
I put my hand into one of the pouches on my belt and all three of them raised their weapons.
Sofiere stepped away from me as though expecting some kind of altercation to ensue.
I took out a handful of berries. “Don’t get excited, I’m just peckish. Want some?” I offered them some of the berries I had collected in the forest.
“Oh, very clever,” said the leader. “You’re one of them thinkers, aren’t you? Don’t look like much, but up here,” he tapped himself on his scabby head with a finger, “sharp as a Golan scimitar. You get us to eat some of those jupp-jupp berries and we all drop dead for you. Only, a child of three knows not to eat those particular fruits of the forest.”
“Fair enough, “ I said. “Just means more for me.” I tipped my hand over my mouth and converted the handful to a mouthful. If you disregard the lethal side-effects, they really are quite refreshing.
The bandits watched with mouths hanging open.
“Why aren’t you dying?” asked rat-face.
The leader narrowed his eyes. “There’s only one man I ever heard of who could eat jupp-jupp berries with no ill effects. But he’s supposed to be a huge fellow, all muscles and a shaved head.”
“Sounds like a friend of mine,” I said. “Me, I’m not much of a fighter.”
“You’re Grin the Shit!” piped up the yellow one with the knife.
“You’re not going to let him insult you like that are you?” said Sofiere, obviously eager to see some action.
“Actually, that is one of my names. West of Gingle they call me nothing else.”
“I’m from Gingle,” said Yellow. “You killed Old Man Duffer and all his men. Left his soft-hearted wife in charge.”
“An improvement, I hope.”
“Course it wasn’t!” screeched Yellow. “With no one to keep order, the place fell apart in a week. That’s how I ended up doing this.”
The leader puffed out his chest and pointed his sword at me. “Look, we don’t want no trouble with you Master Grin, so you leave Big Nose with us and you can go, no worries.”
“Big Nose?” cried out Sofiere. “Why did he call me Big Nose? What’s wrong with my nose?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just some swelling. Look before we get into this, are you sure you wouldn’t rather go with them?”
“What do you mean?” said Sofiere. “Why would I want to go with them?”
“I don’t know. You aren’t so happy with me, and there’s three of them. Better protection, plus, they know the area. I don’t want to go through all the rigmarole of running around stabbing people and getting blood stains on my clothes, which are murder to get out, and then discover you would have been happier with them.”
“Of course I wouldn’t be happier with them.”
The three bandits watched us bickering with bemused looks on their faces.
“Sorry,” I said. “Looks like we’ll have do this the hard way.”
The leader shrugged his shoulders.
I opened my jacket and took out a dagger. The men all began laughing.
“My,” said the leader, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that small. It’d make a fine toothpick.”
“It would,” I said, “if the blade wasn’t coated in vespine. You know what that is? It’s made from the crushed stings of vespa wasps. The slightest nick will drive you insane, and make your brain pour out of your ears like melted wax. It’s strong stuff. Even I’m not immune to its effects, that’s how nasty it is.” I threw the dagger at the leader.
He leapt backwards; his men scattered. The dagger, which I hadn’t thrown very hard, hit the leader in the stomach, handle first, and fell to the ground. The leader stood staring at the spot on his belly where he’d been struck. His garment showed no signs of damage.
“How are you feeling?” I asked him.
“Fine. I don’t think it cut me.”
“Only takes the faintest of nicks.”
He felt around his stomach. “No. You hit me with the wrong end.” His eyes lit up, and he revealed his haphazard brown teeth again. “Looks like it’s my turn.” He bent down and picked up my dagger. He pointed it at me, took one step forward and then collapsed into a heap on the ground.
“Oh, I forgot to mention, I also cover the hilts of my daggers with poison. In this case, cairnshroom. It’s absorbed through the skin and petrifies you from the inside out. You fall into a deep sleep, and then you gently pass away. It’s a very peaceful death. There is an antidote, of course, but I don’t think you’ll be needing that.”
I knelt down beside him. His eyelids still fluttered, but other than that there was no movement. Then, with what must have taken superhuman effort, he lunged with my dagger still in his frozen grip. I knocked the blade out of his hand, slicing open my finger in the process. I stuck my finger in my mouth and sucked on it.
“Was that really necessary?” I said.
The leader fell back, a gurgling laugh in his throat. “Just a nick,” he mumbled.
“Of course,” I said, “when I told you I wasn’t immune to vespine, I was lying.”
The leader’s laughter turned into throttled rage. “That’s… that’s…”
“Cheating?” I picked up the dagger and plunged it into his heart.
The other two watched me kill their leader without moving. The advantage in outnumbering your foe three to one is in attacking together. Apparently, this life lesson had passed these men by.
As their leader convulsed on the ground, pink slime oozing out of his ears, they
rushed into action. The one with the axe charged towards me, yelling something unintelligible, while the other leapt to grab Sofiere.
This suited me fine.
Two against one would still probably have been more than I could handle. As it was, I easily side-stepped the incoming axe, pulled out another dagger and raked the blade along my attacker’s trailing arm, opening a large gash. He dropped the axe and stared at his arm like he’d never seen it before.
His eyes widened in terror as he grabbed the injured arm and tried to pull it out of its socket.
“Get away from me,” he screamed as he tried to back away from his own arm. His arm refused to obey and remained attached to his body. He turned and ran, straight off the top of the mountain.
The last bandit stood behind Sofiere with his knife at her throat.
“Drop your weapon,” he yelled. “Drop it or she’s done for.”
“What?” said the bandit.
“What?” said Sofiere.
“If you’re going to kill her go ahead. But then what? You won’t have her to hide behind, and we both know I’m going to kill you.”
“But you don’t want any harm to come to her, do you?” He lifted the knife a little higher, forcing Sofiere to raise her chin.
“To be honest, I’m not that bothered. Mind you that knife doesn’t look very sharp.” I put my fingers up under my chin. “Lots of gristle under here, you really have to saw at it to cut all the way through. Best to use a razor if you’re going in for throat-cutting, you know, for future reference.”
“I’ll do it! I mean it!”
“Get on with it, then. Come on, hurry up!” I took a step forward.
He stumbled backwards, dragging Sofiere with him, knife pressed against her skin. He pulled her down as he bent to pick up the dropped axe. He tossed it at my underarm, and I skipped aside to avoid it. He scuttled over to his dead leader, Sofiere nearly tripping over herself as she went with him. He picked up the rusty sword, and threw that too, but it sailed harmlessly over my head.
Then he reached down and pulled the dagger out of his leader’s chest, raised it to throw, and collapsed as the poison from the hilt entered his body. Clearly, he hadn’t been paying attention. As he fell, he pulled Sofiere down on top of him.
They lay there together for a moment, and then Sofiere wriggled out from under his arm and struggled to her feet.
“You were really going to let him kill me,” she said with an accusing finger thrust at my face.
“Of course not. It was just a ploy.”
“What if he’d cut my throat?”
“Then I guess my ploy would have failed.” I poked the deceased leader with the end of my boot as I looked around. “Tubby here said they had a camp. Where did they come from?”
I walked all the way around the outside of the plateau, peering over the edge for some indication of where the bandits had come from. I was so intent on not missing cleverly crafted handholds or maybe another ledge that I wasn’t watching where I was going, caught my foot on the uneven ground, and tumbled over.
Sofiere thought this was highly amusing. I brushed myself off and inspected the ground as though it must have been something special to trip up Grin the Upright. And it turned out it was.
I put my fingers in a cleft in the brown grass and, with a little difficulty, heaved up a scrub-covered trap door.
Underneath was not a dark, dank hole, but a well-lit hollow. Stone steps led me down to a large cave in which a sturdy oak dining table, chairs and many closets, cabinets and chests of drawers were piled high on three sides.
There was no fourth wall, just a large opening in the mountainside that was like a window on the world. The forest roof spread out below, giving way to grasslands in the distance. I still saw no sign of a way down.
“Where did all this furniture come from?” Sofiere said from the stone steps.
I ran my hand over a bureau made from a rich red wood. It had been a quality piece, once.
“They must have taken them off passing shipments over the years. Although, it can’t have been an easy task getting them up here, certainly not if there were only three of them.”
Sofiere started going through drawers and cabinets. Then she opened a wardrobe with a mirror attached to the inside of the door.
“My nose!” she screamed. “What have you done to me? How can I get married with this thing on my face?”
“It’s just a little swollen,” I said in my most reassuring voice. “It’s already a lot smaller than it was. And nowhere near as purple.”
Eyes ablaze, she grabbed a chair and tried to lift it up over her head, but the back came away in her hands.
She smashed it against the oak table. It split in two. She dropped the smaller piece. The larger part she held like a club, and then she came at me.
“What are you so upset about?” I retreated towards the steps. “You’ll be wearing a veil at the wedding, won’t you?”
I scampered up the steps ahead of the flying piece of wood aimed at my head.
Back on the plateau, I searched the bandit leader’s pockets. A map of secret tunnels would have been nice, but all I found were three brass buttons.
The other bandit had even less to offer, but he was still breathing. I removed the knife he had chained to his wrist and tossed it down the hole — it made no sound of hitting bottom. Then I dragged him across the plateau by his feet.
He had started to stiffen, a side-effect of the cairnshroom. I lined him up with the trapdoor and shoved him through headfirst. He slid down the stairs like a sled down a hill.
Sofiere’s eyes smouldered as she watched me manoeuvre the bandit towards the far end of the cave. She was still mad at the world in general, and me in particular.
“Is he dead?” she demanded.
“Not yet,” I said amiably.
I put a foot on his stomach and took out the dagger in my boot. I bent down and opened up his shirt to reveal a puny, scabby chest. With a quick jab, I stuck him with the point of the thin blade — not deep enough to do any great harm, but enough to draw blood.
“Why did you do that?” asked Sofiere, her animosity tempered by curiosity.
“I gave him the antidote. There’s a way off this rock, and he knows what it is.”
My seventh blade was covered in a rather unpleasant secretion obtained from the hog-nosed bear. As well as being useful for creating more hog-nosed bears, it had the side-effect of neutralising most poisons. Assuming it didn’t kill you first.
I rolled the bandit over to the side of the cave and left him there. “It’s going to take a little while for him to come round.”
I sat down on the lip of the opening, my feet hanging over the long drop to the forest below. After a while, Sofiere sat down next to me and handed me a flagon of tart wine she had found in one of the cabinets. Dusk was settling, and red campfires winked in a thin line along the road to Fort Cardom.
Plaintive howls drifted through the air. As we watched, smaller points of light set out across the plain. They were sweeping eastward from the road, obviously expecting us to make a break for the fort under cover of night — which would have been an excellent idea if we hadn’t spent most of the day travelling in the opposite direction.
“We won’t be able to get through them,” said Sofiere.
“There’s enough open land for us to slip past. Maybe. It’s the wolves that are going to be a problem. Once they get your scent, it’s near impossible to shake them off. Of course, we could just stay here and wait them out.”
“No. We have to get to Cardom by tomorrow.”
For someone with no desire to get married, she seemed very eager to get to the church on time.
Night rapidly descended, and the cloudless sky filled with swirls of white stars like salt spilled on a black tablecloth. The string of torchlight continued moving east. Soon they would be in line with our position and then past it. If we could just find a way to get down, we would have the perfect opportunity to sneak past behind their backs.
Sofiere pressed in closer to me. “So cold,” she murmured, even though it was quite a mild evening. Her head found its way onto my shoulder and her hand into my lap.
“What do you think you’re doing, my lady?” I kept an eye on her other hand, in case she produced a blunt object from somewhere and tried to brain me.
“There’s a good chance we will not live to see another night,” she said. “We could be caught and killed anywhere between here and Cardom. I do not wish to leave this world without having known what it is to be loved.”
She leaned in with lips puckered. I leaned away. Not that I’m averse to kissing a pretty woman — even one with a large purple conk — but I also have a heightened sense of when someone is trying to pull a fast one.
“But what if we do make it to Cardom?” I asked her.
She fumbled with the buckle on my belt as she kissed my neck. “They’ll have to call the wedding off. The bride has to be pure. There are ways of checking.”
“And what will they do to me?”
“Oh, I won’t tell them it was you.”
“What if they make you swear on the Brother Stone?”
She stopped kissing my neck. “Then I would…” She sat back and glared at me. “Do you not find me desirable? Aren’t you willing to take the risk?”
“I’m sure you’d be very tearful at my execution, but no thank you. Although, our friend in the corner is still under the effects of the cairnshroom. He’ll be stiff as a board until it wears off, and I mean stiff all over. Feel free to avail yourself of his services.”
“I’m offering myself to you. Do you not feel anything stirring? What kind of a man are you?”
“The kind who likes to stay alive. If you really didn’t want to marry this man, why didn’t you just run away? Or kill yourself? Girls have been throwing themselves off the tops of tall towers to avoid getting married for centuries.”
“I can’t. You don’t understand. They have my mother as hostage.”
“Ah,” I said. “They took your mother as the Fanchetti collateral.”
The Fanchetti have an ancient custom of sealing all deals, big or small, with the claiming of a hostage. Then, if obligations aren’t met, the life of the hostage is forfeit. Of course, that’s rarely the case. It’s seen as a quaint tradition by most. Until, that is, you fail to deliver.
“They didn’t take her, she volunteered. It’s her way of making sure I don’t let the family down. She wants me to get married before I turn into an old maid. I’m nineteen! She’ll be with the retinue when they arrive at the fort in the morning. If I’m not there, her life is forfeit. They’ll do it. They’re animals.” She turned to me, tears streaming down her face. “Please, just stick it in me a couple of times. Just the tip. I won’t tell them it was you, I swear. I’ll say we were attacked and it was one of the bandits, and that you saved me. You’ll be a hero.”
So frantic was her pleading that for a moment I was tempted to give in. But then the bandit groaned and I jumped up to see to him. Which is to say, I woke him with a kick to the ribs.
His eyes opened, wildly dancing around as he tried to grasp his situation.
“Unless you want to end up like your friends,” I said, “I suggest you answer my questions. And bear in mind, if you don’t have anything interesting to tell me, there’ll be no reason to keep you around.”
He squeezed his eyes shut and tugged at his lank hair. “My head, my head.”
“Don’t worry about that, it’ll pass in a moment. Here, look at me. Are there any more of you?”
He shook his head.
“Where is everyone? I thought this place was meant to be a crawling with bandits.”
He sat up whimpering and pushed himself against the cave wall. “All gone. Everyone roundabout these parts avoids going through the Knuckle. Or they’re armed to the eye teeth with men. Slim pickings. Used to be a whole bunch of us. All gone. Or they…”
He seemed more recovered now, and his gaze darted about the cave, like he was looking for something. Probably a weapon or a way out.
I took out the largest of my daggers to get his attention. “Or they what?”
“Or they got themselves killed.”
I sensed he wasn’t telling me something, although his shiftiness was so deeply ingrained, maybe he naturally seemed that way.
“Is there a way down from here?”
“Over there.” He moved his head, indicating the mouth of the cave.
I yanked him up by the collar and guided him to the edge, where there seemed to be nothing but a sharp drop.
He was still stiff from the cairnshroom and moved at barely a shuffle. He turned around, so he was facing back into the cave and then nodded over to the left.
The opening in the rock wasn’t immediately obvious. It looked no more than a crack, but on closer examination there was an overlap, a front wall covering a crack in the rock. An opening that lead into the mountain.
“Where does it go?”
“Down to the bottom.”
“What else? Out with it.”
“Nothing. We use it all the time. It comes out down there.” He pointed down at the forest. “Are you going to kill me now?”
“No,” I said. “You’re going to be our guide.”
He met this news with a delighted clap of his hands. “Yes, yes. I’ll show you the way. And then you’ll let me live, because I helped you, yes?”
“Sure,” I said.
He lurched out of my grip and with a surprising burst of energy he rushed over to a dresser and opened the bottom drawer. I watched him carefully, in case he had a weapon hidden in there, but what he pulled out was a raggedy old cloak which reeked like mouldy leaves. It was plain black with a large hood. He wrapped himself in it like he was preparing to enter blizzard country.
“Do you have to wear that?” Sofiere said, making a face. “Ugh. It smells vile.”
“I’m very sensitive to the cold,” he said. “Come, hurry. The sooner we go, the sooner I’ll be free.” He opened another drawer and pulled out some torches. “Here.” He handed a torch to me and one to Sofiere. “Follow me.”
His instructions were so firm and his manner so eager, it was easy to forget he was the captive and we the captors.
We slipped through the opening and lit the torches. They flared into life off the first spark from my flint, their sputtering orange glow revealing a deep shaft with a narrow ledge that wound around the outside, the mirror image of the ledge on the outside of the mountain we had used to climb up.
Above us was the opening in the plateau, and the starry sky.
“This way,” said our interim leader. “Take care not to slip.”
We edged our way down. The long, winding path was narrow and it was slow going. I had a torch in one hand, and my eyes on the man ahead of me. I knew he wasn’t to be trusted, but my thoughts were preoccupied by what we were going to do once we got out in the open.
Bloodwolves had the keenest sense of smell of any animal. One whiff of Sofiere’s scent on the wind and they’d be all over us.
It took Sofiere’s constant complaining about our guide’s offensive odour to realise the solution was right in front of me. I put a hand on the bandit’s shoulder and turned him around. “Take off that cloak.”
“What?” He flinched out of my grip and backed up against the wall. “Why?”
“Your stinky rag will help mask her scent from the bloodwolves on our trail. Hurry up.”
“This is mine.” He drew the cloak about him as though against a chill wind. “There are more in the cave. Go back and get your own.”
I slapped him on the head. “Just give it to me.” I reached out to pull it off him, but he jumped back, crying, “No!” and then he turned and fled, racing down the path with no regard for his safety. I pursued as fast as I dared.
Round and round we went, slipping on loose shale and kicking showers of tiny rocks into the darkness below.
Our panting breaths echoed around us.
He reached the ground well before me. Ahead of him was a cave mouth curtained by vines, but he turned away from it and ran to where the shaft continued into the bowels of the earth. He stood so close to the edge of the hole, the slightest breeze might have knocked him into it.
I dropped my torch on the sandy floor, where it continued to burn, and approached him with a dagger in each hand. I had no idea why the cloak meant so much to him — it wasn’t even that cold — but I was determined to relieve him of it.
“Fool,” he cried out, wheezing hard. “You should’ve escaped while you could. Now you will die.”
There was a rumbling sound that shook the ground beneath our feet. From behind the bandit rose two lithe, ophidian limbs.
They danced like black shadows in the flicker of the torchlight, high overhead, two enormous tentacles rippling and pulsing under the skin.
The tips were shaped like snouts, and they sucked in the air in long breaths that sounded like the rush of water through a narrow creek.
Sofiere screamed, and the bandit let out a braying laugh which turned into a coughing fit. I edged backwards. Sofiere was still high on the ledge, frozen in terror.
The two tendrils shot forward, ignoring the bandit. One rising high towards Sofiere, the other aimed straight at me.
Sofiere swung the torch in front of her, keeping her snaking assailant at bay.
Mine came flying at my head, but stopped short. The snout hung at eye-level, sniffing hard. I raised my daggers and the tentacle reared back, and then leapt away to join its twin.
Sofiere tried to dodge them both, but one caught her round the ankle and she dropped the torch. Then the second hooked onto her other leg. She grabbed an outcrop of rock, and the tentacles raised her legs into the air as they attempted to pluck her off the wall. Somehow she clung on.
I turned my attention to the bandit. His bravado had deserted him. “No, please. It should have…” He looked around desperately.
“Give me the cloak,” I said.
“I can’t!” He ran forward, trying to bundle past me, but I tripped him, ripped the cloak from his shoulders, and sent him spinning onto the ground. He screamed and lunged at me, fists flailing, but I brought my knee into his groin, and he collapsed. Two more tentacles rose out of the pit.
They darted forward, one wrapping itself around the bandit’s feet, the other around his neck. Then they raised him into the air and tore him apart, spattering the walls with fragments of his innards. His constricted throat prevented him from screaming.
Both halves disappeared into the dark hole.
Sofiere landed with a thump, finally prised free, and now she was being dragged towards the hole. She dug her nails into the sandy floor, but there was nothing to hold onto. As she slid past, she grabbed onto my foot, knocking me to the ground. Now we were both being dragged into the pit.
“Let me go,” I yelled at her.
“No. If I die, so do you.”
I attempted to break free of her grip, but she was stronger than she looked.
“I can’t save you if you don’t let go of me,” I yelled.
She locked eyes with me, and for a moment I was convinced she intended taking me with her out of spite. Just as I was about to kick her in the face with my free foot, she released me.
I scrambled to my feet and jumped ahead of her, slicing the tentacles. The skin was thick and reptilian, and the cut was barely a scratch from which a little black ichor oozed out, but the blade was coated with vespine. There was a honking bellow from somewhere deep in that dark abyss. The tendrils released her and snapped back into their nest.
And then reemerged with half a dozen siblings.
I threw the cloak at Sofiere. “Quick, put that on.”
For once, she complied without argument. The tentacles came slower this time, spreading out and dancing and weaving towards us from above and below, and both sides.
Once Sofiere was wrapped in the cloak, I pulled her close. I worked myself into the cloak with her and the tentacles suddenly became confused, searching and sniffing in every direction. Our bodies entwined, our faces pressed cheek to cheek, we shuffled towards the vine-draped opening.
We thrashed our way past the vines, pushed through a screen of branches and collapsed, gasping, onto the forest floor. Bloodwolves howled in the distance.
Lambent insects and fluorescent lichen provided a dim glow as we stumbled from tree to tree. Fortunately we only had to traverse a thin strip of woodland before we broke through onto the open plains, the star-filled sky providing a wash of light in comparison to the forest.
“Down!” I said to Sofiere, who immediately dropped to all fours, swamped in the big cloak. I stepped up onto her back and managed to see the intermittent red glow of firelight on one side and the distant pinpoints of torches receding into the distance on the other before she collapsed under me and I tumbled to the ground.
She crawled over me, her face directly above mine, teeth bared. “Why did you do that?”
“I needed to see which way to go.”
“Can’t you tell by the stars?”
“No. Can you?”
“Of course not. Why would I need to? How do you know how to get anywhere?”
“I ask people for directions. They’re generally very helpful.”
We kept low and hurried through the tall stalks of grass with me leading the way and Sofiere close behind, but the gruelling exertion of our flight and the weight of the stinky cloak wore her down. Soon we were reduced to a walking pace.
Sounds drifted across the veldt, sometimes the snuffle or snort of a grazing beast, other times a yowl of one of the large cats that roamed these lands.
We veered away from signs of life, trying to keep roughly parallel to the road, but we made a poor job of it and abruptly found ourselves out in the open, with a campfire and four men directly ahead of us.