Authors: Karl Edward Wagner
Tags: #Fiction.Fantasy, #Fiction.Dark Fantasy/Supernatural
Karl Edward Wagner
For John F. Mayer-
Colleague and friend,
Brother in infamy...
For miles uncounted the forest stood supreme. Giant trees reached their branches heavenward, fighting for sunlight and fresh air. Beneath their dense foliage existed another world than that of the open sky above--the twilight of the forest floor. There the cool gloom was broken only by scattered rays of sunlight that crept through the ceiling above, to melt upon the thick bed of leaf mold and pine needles which covered the floor. No undergrowth flourished, except in spots where an arboreal giant had fallen and torn a gap in the forest roof, through which yellow sunlight streamed. Then for a short time a cerement of underbrush might thrive on the rich humus beside the decaying trunk, until the branches above refilled the gulf and strangled the life-giving rays.
But the floor was far from a lifeless desert. A myriad of animal life, great and small, scrambled through the forest. Insects rustled through the carpet and up the trunks of the great trees. Serpents glided along the ground searching for rodents, whose dens were among the tangled roots. Several species of small furry animals picked their way through caves and grooves in the moss-hung debris of fallen branches and cast-off leaves of many seasons. High above, birds chattered gregariously, and somewhere a squirrel cursed in rage over some unseen affront. In the distance a crow croaked nervously and was still.
The doe heard its half-hearted call of warning and froze in the shadows, her fawn pressed against her flanks, shivering on extraordinary legs. Her wide eyes swiveled in alarm, and her taut ears tensed for sounds of danger. Cautiously she drew breath through sensitive nostrils, seeking a scent of wolf or bear or other predator. For minutes she paused, searching for some evidence of danger. None appeared, and visions of meadow clover beckoned. She stepped from the shadow of the trees once again, her fawn close behind.
Packed loam of the path recorded her pointed hooves but a few steps when a hissing arrow tore through her ribs. Gasping in agony, the doe staggered, then plunged along the path in blind flight. The fawn paused only a second before instinctive terror supplanted bewilderment, and on his stilt-like legs he pounded, after his mother. A chorus of crows caught the scent of blood, of fear, and raised a raucous protest.
The hunter jumped from his concealment alongside the trail, another arrow nocked and ready. Bounding onto the gametrail, his patient eyes recognized the stream of blood, and he grinned jubilantly. "Lung at least--maybe heart, too by the blood! Run while you can, bitch--you won't go far!" He drew a long knife and followed confidently the glistening trail.
Her hoofprints quickly left the path, but marks of the doe's passage were obvious by the crimson blotches splashed upon the forest floor. As the hunter surmised, she had not run more than a few hundred yards before death pulled her down. She lay in a sudden depression in the ground--a cavity ripped from, the floor a few years earlier when an enormous tree had been uprooted. Her breath rattled now through red-foamed nostrils, and her eyes seemed already glazed.
He clambered into the depression gingerly and cut her throat. Wiping the knife across her flank, the hunter cast about for the fawn. No sign of him. Something would get him by morning, probably, so at least he would not starve. He felt some slight remorse over killing a doe with fawn, but the day had been long, and his family in Breimen came first. Besides, he was paid to bring in deer for the market, not to observe forest idylls.
He sat against the bank with a tired but satisfied grunt, wiped his face on a dirty sleeve, and looked about him. A minute's rest--then gut her, rig up a drag, and pull the carcass into Breimen. And that would about finish it for this afternoon.
The bowl in which the huntsmen rested was several yards across, for the tree that had wrenched loose was ancient one of immense size. Bare soil still scarred the depression, although material had begun to slide down from the edges. Something glittered upon the bottom of the hole. A lance of sunlight shone down from above to spear something bright, embedded in the humus--some object that cast back a silver reflection to the hunter's eyes. Mildly intrigued, he rose to get a closer look. The object that lay there in the dirt made him grunt in puzzlement and squat down to make astonished examination.
A ring lay embedded in the dirt. Around it the loam was streaked with white, crumbling material that seemed to be rotted bone, and reddish splotches which might represent rusted iron intermingled. Brushing away the loose surface, he discerned a few greenish lumps, recognizable only as corroded brass or copper. The body of some ancient warrior, possibly--although how long it had moldered here beneath the forest defied his imagination. Long enough for bones and accoutrements to crumble away--and the tree that had overgrown the grave was centuries old.
With unsteady hand the hunter pulled the ring free of its bed of tainted clay and brushed loose the tenacious fragments that encased it. He spat and polished it against his leather trouser leg, then raised it to his eyes for appraisal. The metal was silvery in appearance, but seemed far harder--and silver should have tarnished black with antiquity. It seemed to be set with a tremendous cabochon-cut bloodstone--rich, deep-green stone with red veins traced throughout its depths. But it was a superb example of that gem, he judged, holding it to a ray of light. For the colors were somewhat more intense, and there appeared to be a quality of translucency to the stone that made it distinct from the normally opaque gem. The stone was huge--abnormally large for a ring--and it seemed to fuse cunningly into its setting. Carefully he scraped free a last few stubborn flakes of bone-streaked clay from the inside of the ring and held it before his finger. Whoever had worn this ring lost centuries past must have been a giant, for its girth was several sizes too great for any normal finger to hold.
Uneasily the hunter recalled legends told by the Selonari of giants and demons who had stalked the forests even before they had settled here. And there were tales among his own people regarding the savage Rillyti, who supposedly never strayed far beyond the slimy shelter of their swamp.
But the hunter had a solid, practical mind. Saying a prayer to Ommem for protection, and to the spirit of the rotted skeleton for pardon, he dropped the ring into his pouch. Mechanically he began to gut his kill, all the while speculating pleasantly as to the price his find might bring him at the jewelers' market in Breimen.
An ominous black shadow in the leaping firelight, the big man crouched enswathed in his cloak and moodily sipped wine from a crockery mug lost in his huge fist. His close-fitting shirt and trousers of dark leather were freshly stained with sweat and blood, and the right sleeve was rolled back from a scarlet-streaked bandage encircling an arm thick with corded muscle. A belt bright with silver studs crossed his massive chest, holding fast an empty sword scabbard behind his powerful right shoulder. The sword itself stood before him, its point embedded in a gnarled tree root. Absently running a knuckle over the short red beard that framed his rather brutal face, he brooded over the many nicks and red brown smears that defaced the blade and cast shadows of violent combat by the flickering light. Seemingly he was oblivious to the others as they greedily spread out the loot to divide among themselves.
The Ocalidad Mountain Range that guarded the northern coasts of the forestland now called Wollendan had been infamous for its bandits long before the blond seafarers of the coast migrated through its passes to carve out cities from the great forests of the south. The dark-haired forest-dwellers who grudgingly yielded ground to their iron-guarded advance had made free use of the countless caves and unassailable fortresses the mountains provided, before the intruders had ever landed on their shores. Never in the memory of those who held the land had it been safe for a caravan to cross theOcalidadMountains. Yet commerce must flow from seacoast inland and back again, and the rich trade with the fabled cities across the seas made the gamble worth the effort. So men with wealth crossed the mountains, where men with swords waited to strip them of it, and the history of their measures and countermeasures was as long and colorful as it was bloody.
Earlier today this band had attacked a somewhat modest, pack train crossing from the south under a small guard of armed men. The ensuing battle had ended little better than a draw for the bandits, who lost a good number of men before the survivors of the caravan broke through the ambush to safety. In fleeing, however, several loads of goods had been left behind by the merchants, and the brigands were content to fall upon this booty and abandon further efforts against the remainder of the caravan. Retreating to their camp as nightfall overtook them, the bandits were now engaged in the difficult and dangerous business of dividing the spoils.
"A fine lot of jewelry here in this one pack," observed their leader, a scar-faced giant named Hechon. "Someone's out a bundle of money here. Wonder what it was all going for. Hey... maybe all the rumors are true about Malchion hiring some more troops to attack Selonari."
"That old tale's been blowing around these hills in one form or another long as I can think back," scoffed someone.
The contents of the jewel merchant's bag were carefully poured out on a blanket, where they tossed sparkles of firelight back into the circle of greedy eyes. A dozen pairs of hands twitched in eagerness to seize the treasure, but the bandits held back while Hechon fingered through the loot calculatingly. His would be the final word as to how everything would be divided among his band.
"Damn! Here's something interesting now!" muttered Hechon. A three-fingered hand reached down and lifted a ring into the firelight. Experienced eyes weighed the object. "Huh! Thought this looked strange! Ring's way too big for most people, and I can't quite call this metal. Not right for silver--too hard. Wonder if this is maybe platinum--that's a costly metal and hard as iron. I've heard tell they work it up north or somewhere. Thought this gem was bloodstone at first; too, but it don't look like any I ever seen. See how the light seems to shine into it a ways... you can almost follow the veins of red down into the gem."
"Let me see that ring." The big man seated apart from them spoke at last; Hechon's discovery of the ring had aroused him from his brooding aloofness.
Eyes turned at his low voice. Hechon looked toward him in shrewd calculation, and after a pause he tossed the bloodstone ring to him. "Sure, Kane. Take a look, then. If you're too tired to come stand around with the rest of us."
Kane caught the object in his left hand and held it before his eyes. In silence he studied the ring, carefully turning it about in the light, as if he saw a legend inscribed on its surface. He seemed lost in thought for a long while, then announced abruptly, "I want this ring as part of my share of the booty."
Hechon rankled at his tone. He had had second thoughts about accepting Kane into his band since the red-haired stranger had come to him two months before. He brought along a handful of others--all that survived when their old gang of outlaws had been surprised by a troop of mercenaries sent out by the coastal cities to make the mountain passes safe for commerce. Where Kane had come from before that, Hechon neither knew nor cared. However, of Kane's deadly skill in battle the bandit leader did know, for the awesome might of the stranger's sword arm quickly made his name feared throughout theOcalidad Mountains. And although Hechon immediately recognized the threat Kane posed to his leadership, he had judged his position among his own men too secure for the other to challenge outright... and in a raid Kane was worth a dozen lesser rogues.
Now Kane's confident appropriation of the bizarre ring struck resentment in Hechon's shrewd mind. Best to assert command now, he decided, before the others began to accept Kane's wishes as law in other matters. "I decide how the take gets split up," he growled. "Anyway, that's a valuable ring, and I've taken a liking to it myself."
Kane frowned slightly and continued to examine the bloodstone ring speculatively. "Bloodstone is scarcely a precious gem, and this ring's value is only that of a curiosity," he offered reasonably. "Still, I find it somewhat intriguing, and it looks like it might not be much too large for my hand. So maybe it's just a whim, but I want it. As to its dubious monetary worth, I'll take a big chance and accept this ring in lieu of the rest of my share of the spoils. That's leaving you others with an extra slice of obvious value to split up."
"You're not fool enough to gamble like that unless you maybe got some other ideas on that ring's worth," Hechon pointed out, now genuinely suspicious. "And like I say, I'm boss here, and I decide who gets what. So pass that damn ring back, Kane, and we'll get on with business. You'll take what I decide on, and right now I'm telling you that ring's going to be mine." The menace in his tone was a grating note.