Ease on down the what?
Walking the Blade Road
by M. Frank Darbe ©2007
Lying on his stomach in sweltering mud, under flickering willow-wisp soul lights, with the randy green smell of sword grass and rotting dagger bush torturing every breath, Talbot Dineh swore to the thirty thousand gods of Rhuud M’Thel that he would never again take the blade road.
He lied, but not even the thirty thousand gods could blame him.
A splash disturbed the raucous chorus of lamp frogs. Talbot jerked his head up and scanned for Choorsa Mhoog. Sulfur yellow mist drifted among skeletal trees. Spears of sword grass shifted in and out of view under the willow-wisp light.
Might be a fish,Talbot thought. Only evil lamp frogs and glide-spiders big as loons lived in the black-green stagnant pools. That something might be Choorsa.
His mind slipped back along the trail of their past recalling a memory of her dancing on that Tavern Temple’s alter-stage in the city of Moharaquesh. Her white veils drifted like a cloud around her body. Silver bells hanging on tiny chains from the hems of her veils rang in time to the raga band blowing mad and wild on seven different types of pipehorn flute. Her black hair drifted about her head like shadow. Her eyes, big, luminous, and green white as the lesser moon inspired an aching familiarity.
Laying there with a hundred different varieties of muck flea chewing his skin, that memory stirred Talbot. He clenched his teeth, narrowed his eyes, and spat a curse-prayer to Cjalaster of the bitter blood.
Choorsa Mhoog would not make a fool of Talbot Dineh and leave him to die in Darkdevil Bog.
He grabbed a five-cubit sounding poll, pushed the end into the muck, and levered his torso half up while fighting the weak skeletal hands pulling him deeper into the bog and pain from the wound near his groin. He had almost managed to get up that time. Nothing about that attempt had changed from the dozen previous times he tried to tear himself free from the bogs lethal grip except his anger at Choorsa Mhoog.
Anger was a good tool he could hone for use against the ache of his wounds, the burn of betrayal, and the weak inexorable deadly pull of the skeletal hands. He only needed to find a point in memory that could act as a grinding stone to sharpen his anger. He had that point within his grasp. It was, of course, the sounds of that first meeting.
Sound called him into Dorylatheam’s Cask on that first night; wild banging drums and the pipes, ricocheting sound through the street, like the war drums and the murder pipes of armies. Talbot thrust himself next to the stage where a Whore Priestess danced. He gulped bitter aquavit and watched Choorsa coil her body around windpipes, hornpipes, raga pipes, and totem pipes. Three times, she arched around a crossbeam and caught his gaze with a come-hither look.
Finished, she raked up the dozen silver rupalles thrown around her feet and fled. Talbot followed through the curtain, dreaming of a bit of the old in out in. He estimated the cost at two moon pearls from Dhoam. How could he guess that door behind the stage in Dolytheam’s Cask opened into the middle of the Blade Road?
The scent of perfume swirled through her open door. Choorsa stood with her veils spread across the floor, while she hacked off chunks of her black hair with a knife. She wore leather riding breaches, a black tunic, and greatcoat. A large silver broach hung round her neck and tiny monkey with sapphire dragonfly wings clung to her arm.
“What do you know about Darkdevil Bog?” She asked.
Talbot pushed the door shut with his foot, leaned against the wall, whistled, and said, “What most know. Nasty place.”
“I've heard,” She smiled. “That you led the Cyclasion Mercenary Cavalry when the Emir of Immerslee trapped them against the bog a year ago next Wednesday. Only you survived to make your way through the bog, and out the Gate of the Dreaming Dead. They say the Emir of Immerslee sent seven assassins to take your head and you sent their hands back to him in an onyx box.”
“Who told you that?”
“A confidence is a confidence.” She hung he bag over her shoulder. “I’ll pay you to lead me back to the gates.”
"There are five laws that guide mercenaries who walk the blade road. The first law requires the purchase of our loyalty. Until I see a tithe in gold or other coin, I can neither lead nor follow."
She pulled three jade ring coins from her long fingers and tossed them.
Talbot snatched them from the air, licked them to check their authenticity, and wove the jade into his warriors braid.
Choorsa smiled, “Take me through Darkdevil Bog, to the Gates of the Dreaming Dead, and through them to a place of my choosing.” She walked toward the back door to the street.
"The second law states I’m not bought until I know what we face or the deal is off and the pay forfeit."
She looked back over shoulder and lifted an eyebrow. “I’ve bought your loyalty. I make the rules."
"What do we face?"
"You know the objective, Darkdevil Bog and the Gates of the Dreaming Dead. I’ll pay more money than you would imagine."
She hawked green phlegm into her palm and offered to shake and seal the deal.
“I can imagine a lot." Talbot looked into her eyes. "Once we reach the Gates, its guardians will send you anywhere you wish, or bring anyone you desire to you. You won’t need me. What do we face along the way? What do you really want?”
“Protect me from the hazards of the road. You will take me from the gates to where I wish to go.”
He considered asking again, and specifically he asking what hazards she expected. How much trouble could this woman add to a road that was all but certain death?
Talbot spat in his palm and shook her hand, sealing a contract that he could not break.
He pushed himself up again, this time reaching his knees before the pain of the wound stopped him. Gritting his teeth, he shifted his armor and prodded the arrow. It had passed through the flesh of his thigh, the head missing the artery in his leg. Gritting his teeth snapped off the end and pulled it through. He removed a pouch of wound bindweed from his belt, plugged the wound, and watched in silence as the vine grew around his leg, stopping the bleeding and driving tendrils into his flesh to eat out the poisons and putrescence that accompanied such wounds.
While the bindweed did its work, he thought about their last night on dry ground. Choorsa sat by their campfire while Talbot regaled her with tales of the blade road. She laughed at all the right places. From the look in her eyes, Talbot thought Choorsa might have been in Moharaquesh.
She'd glance down at the bog, where Willow-Wisps flitted in the tendrils of fog. Her hand clutched at the locket on a worn gold chain hung round her neck, snapped it open, looked inside, and shut it then went to sleep.
When the second moon rose, Talbot fed another log to the fire, then took a walk into the dark to relieve himself. Coming back, he noticed her face shiny with sleep tears under moonlight. He knelt close picked up the locket from the cleft between her breasts, and snapped it open. On one side, he saw the too familiar face of a boy with Choorsa’s black hair and big green white eyes. On its other, he saw a coat of arms, the Griffon of Immerslee with the snake intertwined in its claws against a crescent moon.
He pulled his knife, thinking she was the loveliest assassin he would ever kill. Choorsa’s winged monkey glided down out of the dark with a huge winged moth in its mouth. It peeled the brilliant wings from the insect's long body and watched Talbot. He considered her neck across the naked blade. She paid him good money. Her locket implied betrayal but proved nothing. Until she broke their contract, he could not move against her.
Within hours of entering the bog, Talbot heard the first distant footfalls and half-heard voices in the sibilant tongue of Immerslee.
Choorsa pretended not to notice. After the fourth splash, she glanced back, her big eyes wide with something like fear. In the shadow of a rude stone arch rising up from the bog, Talbot tapped her on the shoulder while she worked with a broken bootlace.
"You lied to me."
Her eyes glanced along their back trail, then at the broken lacing that she had just managed to tie together. "Why say that?"
"Someone’s sniffing us out. Our contract required you to tell what we faced. You lied to me then and that breaks our contract."
"I tell you, Talbot, I don't . . ."
His hand pistoned out and he grabbed her by the shoulder. "The Emir of Immerslee put a price on my head. If you think you are pretty enough to fool me and collect, then you will soon be keeping company with the dead under the bog."
Choorsa shrugged his hand away. “I don’t work for the Emir.”
Talbot turned his head and pointed his chin at that last sound. “Immerslee’s men are back there.”
The arrow hit him low and hard, entering through a gap in his groin armor. She hit him with her staff, about the time he landed on his knees, his hands clutched on the shaft of the arrow in his thigh. The bulbous head took him right behind the left ear. That was how he had ended up laying in the mud, cursing to the 30,000 gods.
Talbot prodded the mud ahead with a pole. Over centuries, the bog had swallowed its share, and those dead remained restless as flickering willow-wisps, moaning skulls and clutching skeletal hands.
With the day fading into night he came to a place where green water dropped away deeper than his pole could reach. He searched along the water’s edge for a way across and stumbled upon a dead tree that had grown around a stone pillar with a ring of gray metal that hung from the stone. The bitter ends of a rope dangled from the ring.
Damn Choorsa’s pretty eyes. From his first passage through the bog, he remembered boats built of ribbed gray metal resembling leaves of some hoary, aged tree. Wherever they came from, he only found them moored where a narrow stretch of water had to be crossed.
He grabbed hold of the tree and leaned out far as he could. Almost beyond sight in the mist, the boat floated against a crumbled wall. He could back track, work his way around the swamp and find another way into the deeper paths where the mounded stone ruins and the ancient flooded roads rose above water.
Every road led to the Gates of the Dreaming Dead. In maybe just a few wet, moldy hours he would be out there, closer to Choorsa who no doubt carried that dammed winged monkey and all their food and water in her backpack. It might take more than hours. Often paths through the bog followed a circuitous route. Without water or food, Talbot would join the other dead in the bog, grasping at the ankles of the next poor sod to walk by.
Night was no time to wander in Darkdevil Bog. He pulled himself up into the dead tree whose lower branches twisted out into the mist. Willow-wisps played in the branches, their fire popped, cracked, hummed, and whispered in a language the he could almost understand.
Why had Choorsa brought him here, and for what? He didn't think gold had anything to do with it.
Talbot woke with a snap of his neck as his head rolled of the branch. Somehow, he had slept and not fallen out of the damned stone tree. A willow-wisp hovered a hands breadth form his face.
He gasped and jerked his head back from the cold fire. The ‘wisp flew backwards; following the curving twists of the long branching dead tree, out over the deep arm of the bog. Before reaching the end of those limbs, it dropped away and hovered above the boat before fading away.
Talbot worked his way along the branch across brown hanging moss and a slippery gray fungus. Half way to the drop, point the limb popped, swayed, and jerked then cracked right off. Talbot leaped towards the boat.
His outstretched hands slammed against the bow, but the rest of him sank like a stone into murky water. Weighed down by armor, weapons, mud, and muck fleas, he hung by his fingertips in cold black water. Bringing his face up, he sucked in a deep breath of the warm foul air. Something grabbed his left foot and pulled hard.
Talbot kicked with both feet and jerked himself half onto the boat. He wanted to lay there and simply breathe after finding himself in the black world under Darkdevil Bog. He opened his eyes and found him self seven inches from a Lamp frog.
Lamp frogs grow big as cats; have gray green rubbery flesh with a glowing wattle of lose skin under their pointed tooth filled jaws. The frog hunched its legs to leap on his face. Boney hands grabbed his legs and jerked hard.
Talbot kicked away the hands, and lifted his arm to cover his face. The frog leaped. Choorsa’s winged monkey dropped out of the mist and snatched the frog mid leap. Talbot pulled himself into the boat, away from the clutching fingers of the dead, and rolled onto his back. The monkey dropped the frog into the black water.
The little creature landed on bow, cocked his head and said, “Help, Choorsa,” in squeaky, skittering voice.
“Why should I help her, Monkey? She broke our contract. She lied.”
The tiny creature shrugged.
Talbot shook his head. Choorsa Mhoog left him laying face down in the Mud with an arrow in his thigh. Killing him would have been both the easy and smart thing to do. She just grabbed their packs and ran. Whatever reason she had for being here, killing him for the reward had no part of it. Her flight drew off the followers, saving his life.
Now she sent her little monkey creature to ask him for help. Had Immerslee’s men found her? No straight path existed in Darkdevil bog. Some paths ran truer than others. Darkdevil Bog possessed a sort of malignant guile, if not intelligence. Enemies in the bog had a bad habit of running into each other at the worst times. Again, Talbot could not understand why he should care. Choorsa Mhoog broke their contract.
The third law of Blade Road stated, ‘A contract is a contract. Step not off the Blade Road until the work’s done, the word is broken, or the walker is dead. Judge completion of a work, by the letter of the law, but judge the wholeness of the word with the spirit. Leave death to take of its own.’
Had he judged Choorsa Mhoog with the letter of the law? What would a councilor say in a Court of the Blade? Choorsa had not been entirely honest. He had not insisted on that honesty. The strict letter of the law condemned her. In the spirit of the law, he could not expect something from her that he had not demanded.
He glimpsed the monkey thing, sitting on a tree branch, holding a spider by its mottled green fur, while it ripped the legs free. It watched him with bright green eyes and sucked at the bulbous body of the spider, then tossed the corpse at his feet.
“So where is she?”
The creek of a taught rope led Talbot to Choorsa. The monkey settled on his shoulder and placed its mouth against his ear. "Immerslee's four men wear black and bear a raven tattoo on bald pates."
The Raven marked them as Chosen of Immerslee, sworn to the path of murder or death.
"How are they armed?"
"Straight knives in hands a Flame knife sheathed against stomachs."
The Fourth Law of the Blade Road stated that assassins were brethren and deserved respect as dealers in death. Face them openly, without guile.
Talbot checked that the straps on his buckler were tight, held the hilt of his sword in his left hand and his axe in the right.
After a dozen deep breaths, he charged into the mist. His armor jingled and leather boots slapped the road.
Three assassins stood guard, forming a triangle around the fourth that stood with his back to Talbot while Choorsa swung head down from a tree. "You disobeyed your husband. Your life is forfeit." He calmly laid out his flaying knives on the road at his feet.
The two nearer assassins pulled daggers and threw, then circled left and right in to flank him.
Talbot swept the bracer up and across his body, catching the knives. He tossed his axe overhand. It passed left of the fourth assassin and to the right of Choorsa, taking the assassin on watch beyond her in the back.
The horns of the bull remained the best tactic for two men fighting one, provided they were both at an equal distance from their target. The assassin to the right was closer by four steps, and Talbot turned on him, charging with his broad sword held in both hands, the point low in a move to draw the assassins attack high.
The man lunged and swept the knife at Talbot's open-faced helmet, extend his arm to its maximum reach, to counter the reach of the sword. Talbot swept his sword up and caught the assassin full in the gut, driving the blade through and through, then lifting him off the ground, and tossed the sword and assassin to the side.
A thrown knife snapped past Talbot’s ear, and another caught in his byrnie and lodged in the rings.
The assassin had taken a knife fighters stance, feet spread for balance, leaning forward, menacing with the dagger.
Talbot charged in, taking the assassin thrust on his buckler, then sweeping the knife arm, trapping it between his arm and chest.
He smashed the heal of his right hand into the assassins face, breaking his nose and driving he shards up into this brain.
The fourth assassin had cut Choorsa's leathers away in long strips. He placed his flaying knife at the base of her spine and drew a line down to her neck. He never looked back, supremely confidant that he would finish his work or die.
Talbot cut the head from his shoulders.
“Now why,” Talbot asked, “is Immerslee sending killers after you?”
“Cutting me down would be a good beginning.” Blood dripped into the mud of Darkdevil bog. A bloated fungus grew in that red flood.
“Moharaquesh was for good beginnings. I made contract with you. Though it seemed that you broke that contract, I came because I judged your words with the spirit of the law, not its letter. You are the wife of the Emir of Immerslee?”
“I am his seventy-fifth wife.”
“A wife is still a wife.”
“Before you first walked through Darkdevil bog, why were you in Immerslee?”
“You are not in a position to ask questions.”
“Your answers and my answers are related.”
Talbot thought about the picture of that boy on her locket. “I walked the Blade Road for the Emir, taking a monster in a covered wagon to a place called L’Mut for execution by hanging from an iron gibbet. By accident, I discovered that the monster was the boy pictured in your locket. The fifth law of the Blade Road states that a Walker is a Warrior not a murderer. Kill only for a reason, and defend those who others would murder. The Emir’s lie nullified our contract; an innocent child isn’t a monster. The Emir took the boy. You know the rest.”
“The boy is my son.”
Talbot cut her down.
“You owe me Talbot Dineh”
“I didn’t kill your son.”
“My son isn’t dead.” She pushed herself away from him. After catching her balance, she opened up their leather bags and removed a linen tunic.
“I am going through the gates of the Dreaming Dead. And ask them to bring Sevarnadir to me.”
“If you intend to assassinate Sevarnadir I could have devised a method more likely to succeed.”
“I don’t want you to kill him.”
“You expect to kill him with your own hands? Sevarnadir of Immerslee will take a lot of killing.”
“I want him alive. The guardians of the gate will bring him to me, and you will take us through the Gates of the Dreaming Dead to the circle of L’Mut. I’ll hang him from the iron gibbet and bring my son home.”
“Your son is dead.”
“My son is of the blood of the Emirs of Immerslee. For one year, he sleeps on the gibbet. At the end of a year, a messenger of the thirty thousand gods will devour him, granting Immerslee another year of existence.”
“This was not what we bargained for.”
“What about vengeance? Haven’t you dreamed of it, thirsted for it?”
“Business is business.”
“And blood is blood. Sevarnadir lied to you and cast you into the Bog. He took my son back to L’Mut and hung him from the iron gibbet. He murdered all of your friends after you stood on principle. I deceived you. In the judgment of the court of the blade, which violation is worse?”
The Gates of the Dreaming Dead gaped from the side of a round green hill. Talbot led Choorsa through the leftward gate. Inside a thousand, thousand dead floated in air. Some of the dead appeared freshly killed with blood bright red upon their corpses; others seemed collections of bones held together by stray sinew, and a few cerement wrapped mummies floated in air. They spoke with one voice. "A sword brother and an Emir's wife? How delicious."
Choorsa’s hand felt stiff, cold, and damp in Talbot’s palm.
"Show no fear. They will use it."
Choorsa dropped his hand then licked her lips. "By rite of travel to this place I claim your boon."
"And what is the request!" The thousand, thousand dead spoke.
"Bring me the Emir of Immerslee."
A thousand, thousand voices whispered, gasped, cajoled, moaned, and sobbed.
Choorsa covered her ears, for all the good that did. Talbot grabbed her and pulled her close, sheltering her.
"Sevarnadir is protected by the thirty thousand gods. He cannot come to harm by our hand.” The thousand, thousand dead nodded shrugged and creaked their ascent.
"That is my wish."
“Not even the dead may set aside the will of gods. The punishment meted out to the soul is beyond the grasp of those yet living.”
Choorsa frowned and shifted from foot to foot. Talbot laid a hand on her shoulder, cautioning her to silence. “Our intent is not to harm him here. This is a waypoint only. I take them elsewhere as my boon.”
Again the dead broke their unanimity, whispering, hissing, chortling, and gasping to one another. When at last they finished, the dead once again turned to regard them. “Where do you take him?”
“L’Mut in the Shinboan.”
The laughter of the dead roiled over them, like breeze out of hell.
“Very well. Open your arms and receive that which you have asked.”
Talbot stepped back. A dimple formed in the air and opened into Sevarnadir’s elaborate bath. With a blast of scented air, Sevarnadir fell through the dimple into the circle of Choorsa's arms, his body covered with unguents and oils, the scepter of office hung around his neck on a gold chain. Talbot lunged close, swept the right arm underneath the Emirs armpit and behind his neck. He slammed the left fist into the Emirs temple then grabbed Choorsa’s wrist as the world changed
Sevarnadir lay beneath Talbot, gray dust and sand mixing with the scented oils. Choorsa stood over them. The searing midday heat of Shinboan turned the mud caking Talbot’s armor into a cracked glaze. The stark white pillars of L’Mut stood like tortured ghosts around the black iron gibbet, from which hung a cloth wrapped body of a child.
On the far side of the L’Mut, a gaunt weathered man sat in a natural seat of stone. He wore a stripped headdress that flared out across his shoulders. Creased parchment dry skin covered his bones.
Choorsa Mhoog ran to the gibbet and wrapped her arms around the child’s legs, and strained to lift him from the hook that cut cruelly through the wrappings behind his neck.
Talbot dragged Sevarnadir between the pillars. Dried bones and flesh littered the ground. “He’s dead Choorsa.”
“No!” She hissed at him. “The Messenger has not taken him. We must hang Sevarnadir in his place.”
The man on the seat watched the shadow of the gibbet on the dust.
Talbot reached for the boy, expecting to find desiccated flesh. The limbs under his hand remained soft, supple. The chest rose with the faint respiration of the dreaming. He lifted body off the rusted hook and lowered him to he ground.
Choorsa took the child in her arms, pulling the dry stained linen from his face. He opened his eyes and said, “Mother?”
“Hand me Sevarnadir’s scepter.”
She point to the gold device that now lay in the dust while Sevarnadir lay blinking into the dry heat. Talbot ripped the chain over Sevarnadir’s head and tossed it to Choorsa.
She hung the Scepter around the boy’s neck.
The shadow of the gibbet disappeared and the gaunt man pushed himself up and strode silently over the gray ash. Talbot reached over his shoulder to draw the blade and stepped in front of Choorsa Moog.
“I am Nyarlatyu, messenger and voice of the thirty thousand gods. Who among you bears the blood of the Emirs of Immerslee?”
Choorsa Mhoog mouth twitched in a smile and said to Talbot. “You are released from our agreement.”
Sevarnadir pushed himself up on his hands. Blood ran from his ears and mouth.
“I am Choorsa Mhoog, daughter of Astaulant, Eleventh Emir of Immerslee. This is my son, Revenant, Thirteenth Emir of Immerslee who bears the scepter of asps. My cousin, Sevarnadir, lies beside us.”
Nyarlatyu raised his slender hand and held it palm out, Choorsa collapsed into the dust beside Sevarnadir. Nyarlatyu looked down at the boy. “This is unheard of.”
Revenant turned his head to look up into the god’s eyes and his mouth shook. Talbot smiled at his courage.
“For a year you have hung as my sacrifice. Now you bear the scepter. What am I to make of this? What do you expect of the gods?”
“I am Emir of Immerslee.”
“Who pays for last year’s existence?”
“Take him.” Revenant pointed at Sevarnadir.
Nyarlatyu’s body stretched through the intervening space. His mouth opened, the jaw distended, and he engulfed Sevarnadir’s head and neck while huge fangs pierced his chest. The mouth opened again and more of Sevarnadir’s heaving body disappeared into its maw. In moments, the former emir was a bulge in the Messengers neck. Turning back towards Choorsa Mhoog, Nyarlatyu opened its mouth and Talbot saw the foot of the emir sliding down the back of its throat.
“The gods have feasted. Who hangs from the gibbet for next years feast?”
Revenant’s eyes never left the horrific mouth of Nyarlatyu. “Take him.” He nodded towards Talbot.
“Cjalaster’s balls,” Talbot spat on the ashen ground. “I won’t go down your gullet so easily,”
Nyarlatyu stepped close to the boy, his mouth gaping open. “The warrior is not of the Emirs blood. Will you give payment, or will you forfeit your life and the lives of every soul in Immerslee.”
Revenant glanced at Choorsa Mhoog, “Mother,” he whispered.
Nyarlatyu leaned close. He grabbed Revenant’s scepter. “She cannot help you, boy. Women cannot rule. Sacrifice or die.”
“Take her.” Revenant screamed then buried his face in his hands.
Choorsa Mhoog’s eyes flew wide. She reached for Revenant. The stained linen wrappings darted towards her, wrapping first her feet but moving upwards with terrible speed. In seconds she lay wrapped, only her eyes open. Nyarlatyu hung her body on the hook then walked quietly back to his seat.
Revenant pushed himself up from the dust; his eyes skittered away form his mother’s body. He tipped his face up towards Talbot’s, and smiled. “I am the Emir of Immerslee. Return me to my throne and I will pay you.”
Talbot looked across the circle where Choorsa hung from the gibbet, only her eyes visible. They closed as he watched, and her breasts rose and fell with the ponderous breath of the dreaming.
He shook his head, “I am a mercenary. The first law of the blade road states that my loyalty is paid for, so until I see gold, or some other mutually agreed coin, I can neither lead nor follow”
“But I have nothing here.” A tear coursed half way down his cheek before evaporating into salt.
Talbot opened Choorsa’s packs and removed the precious bottles of water. He tossed one Revenant. “You had your mother’s love, boy. Immerslee lays half a days travel beyond that pass. Wait until nightfall and follow the road and you might live to reach it.”
Talbot shouldered, turned his face past the ring of white stones, and walked toward the edge of L’Mut.
“I’ll be traveling the other way.”
x x x
Mr Darbe is a writer after my own heart—that is, a technical writer who fancies himself a bard. In his case, he’s probably right. At least, I think so—and this story seems to prove it. What do you think, anotherealmers? Comments to our BBS, please.