The tavern hall was crowded that night, with raucous voices raised in laughter or contention and the thick sweet smell of acrid violets in the air that spoke of intoxicants other than ale and wine. Zaira the singer moved through the press of people, accepting their accolades and compliments for the performance that she had just finished. She had sung of bold heroes and far away places, of love and loss, and the crowd had cheered or groaned by turn, and filled her bowl with coin. Not enough coin of course, to Zaira there was never enough coin. She was a beautiful woman, dark and lithe and she had earned her living in this tavern and others like it in the city of Telek Tarim and had always dreamed of leaving behind the riverside wharves and the stink of poverty in favour of a new and perfumed life elsewhere. Never enough coin for that, but always ways of obtaining more.
Zaira had noticed the stranger as she had sung. He was a massive man, strong and wide shouldered, sitting with his back to the farther wall of the tavern hall, but leaning forward with both his brawny forearms on the table before him. His eyes had not left her as she had performed and her gaze had met his more than once and she had been intrigued by the intensity of his stare. Now she slid through the tavern to his side, finding him alone at his table with a full mug of ale before him and an empty one overturned on the table by its side.
“You liked my song,” she told him, smiling a sweet smile with those dark painted lips. The stranger glanced up at her from beneath his brows and shrugged. It was not a promising start, Zaira decided, but she could persevere. “You enjoy tales of daring and romance.”
He did not agree or disagree, but he sat back and stared at her with such an intense gaze of scrutiny that Zaira felt the prickle of his attention on her skin.
“Sit down if you want,” he said, “But I won’t pay for another song.”
Zaira returned his sullenness with a warm smile of delight and slid onto the bench beside him. She rewarded his invitation with an arm around his neck and a kiss on the cheek which he turned away from. She slipped the cloth purse from where it hung from his belt with her free hand and spirited it into hiding beneath her silk wrap quicker than her heart beat.
“No need to pay,” she told him, “I am Zaira.”
“Chultek,” said the stranger, automatically, “Of Kabor.”
Kabor was not a place she knew, but Zaira guessed both from his rugged appearance and the harshness of his name that he was one of the Cheldrim, the folk who settled the fertile valleys that sliced here and there through the desert. They were a strong people, and lacked the polish of her own folk, the Gatim who raised up tall stone cities on the coast. She had always found the Cheldrim to be simple and uninteresting, herdsmen and traders of no account or ambition. This Chultek was different. The scars on those hefty arms betokened someone who had fought often and lived through those fights, and he was wearing a hauberk of overlapping bronze scales. No herdsman bore such a burden of armour, no trader needed such strength as Chultek’s frame displayed.
“And why are you here in Telek Tarim, Chultek of Kabor,” said Zaira, her voice cooing with interest, “Are you here to seek your fortune?”
Chultek snarled with a sudden ferocity that made Zaira flinch back from him. “A plague on fortunes, woman. I am here to drink. To drink and to forget. But there is not ale enough in all this stone labyrinth to gift me that peace.”
Zaira had been scared by his sudden anger and was tempted to get up and flee, but his anger was such she knew that if he reached for his purse and found it missing he would surely pursue her. She had to mollify him with sweet words and keep him from draining his mug so swiftly he would need to pay for another.
“Forgive me Chultek of Kabor,” she said with practiced meekness and a downcast face, peeping at him through the black fringe of hair that fell over her eyes. “What do you seek to forget?” Some woman she suspected, and she was both right and wrong in this estimation.
“A woman,” he said, “and may the gods blast the memory of her from my mind. I pray that I never look upon her again.”
“Tell me of her,” Zaira suggested. When Chultek shook his head and reached for his mug, clearly tired of this talk and eager to depart, she laid a hand upon the steel hard muscles of his arm and said softly, “Please. A wise healer told me once that to share a burden of memory can ease the pain of it. I will listen without judging and you will feel freed of it.”
Chultek looked at her with suspicion and a little grudging hope. He relaxed back into his seat and nodded.
“Very well then.”
“It began when I joined a mercenary company, hired by a sorcerer of Nan Tarim,” Chultek said, not looking directly at the rapt expression worn like a mask by the singer. “A plague on sorcerers too. And on that foul city of spiders. I would not take another job with such a paymaster be the promised reward ten times the paltry amount this one paid.”
He considered this for a second.
“For ten times the amount, perhaps. Perhaps I would. But I would begrudge it. But this sorcerer, Halas-Kim is his name, he wanted us to clear some land of the desert jackals. The Tokrim had set up their camps there and ranged throughout it. A foul race of thieves he considered them, and they were too close to interests of his in that area. So he said.”
“Did you doubt him?” asked Zaira.
“I doubt everyone, wench,” said Chultek, and Zaira kept herself from covering with her hand the small bulge in her silks where she had stowed the mercenary’s purse. “But sorcerers most of all. They keep no oaths to any living man, and all their words are cunningly wrought. I know the Tokrim as thieves yes, but they steal to survive. We have fought them at Kabor many times but they have honour of their own sort. This Halas-Kim paid for them to be driven off or slain though so why would we debate the point.”
He reached for his mug and drained just a little before replacing it on the table.
“We sought the Tokrim in the land we’d been sent to clear, but they were wily and dangerous as they always are, and they knew every boulder and dune. Their archers and skirmishers took a toll on our column as we marched and melted away from every advance we made against them. They may travel in small bands, but every man of them can take up arms and fight. And some of the women too. Strong women, not like these city girls.”
Zaira who was glad to be a city girl made no reply.
“At length though we found their encampment and prepared our attack. I was to fight on the flank, one of the encircling arms of our formation, to circle around their force as they clashed with the shield wall. They do not fight like we do, and drew up their numbers in small groups, with archers and spearmen mixed in with armoured men with great axes and swords, and swift riders with javelins upon those giant running hell birds they use as mounts. It would be no great challenge we thought. Gods of the river though, how wrong we were!”
Chultek’s eyes narrowed as he looked into his memories.
“They have magic of their own, these desert dogs,” he said, “Not sorcerers such as you Gatim have, nor yet the wise men of my own people. Their witch folk make compacts with the cruel spirits of the waste places. And they had such a one with their army. I spied him as the lines were drawn up, a scrawny wretch wise enough to keep far beyond our furthest bow-shot. He was dressed in tatters and there were colourful tattoos upon his body. I knew he would be a danger to us. I mistrust such people.”
Chultek sat forward in his chair, reliving the tension of the battle’s opening.
“Our lines began to advance,” he said, “the great shield wall at the heart of the formation stepping forward, forward, forward to the beat of the drummers. We of the flanks kept pace, but more spread out. The Tokrim gave their barbaric war cries and began to charge, piecemeal, disorganised. And then… then that foul spirit speaker of theirs worked his magic. I saw him raise his arms high above his head and even at so great a distance I heard his warbling cry. And the sandstorm came upon us from nowhere.”
He clenched his jaw as he recalled the moment and there was such anger in his eyes that Zaira felt alarmed for her own safety. There was no fear in Chultek’s recollection though, just a rage at having been dealt such a blow.
“It blew from all directions at once, cutting at my flesh, blinding me. My comrades fared no better and I heard them cry out in pain and alarm. And the Tokrim were upon us then. The hellish storm touched them not, and they moved through it as though the day was clear and peaceful. To me though they were but shadows in the storm. I grabbed at the nearest man in my company, one of your folk, a Gatim sell-sword but no less of a man for that. His name was Arleth, tall and courageous. Hah, he was too stupid to be fearful. ‘Stand with me, man,’ I told him, ‘Or we will be cut down.’ He knew I spoke true and we fought together back to back against every damned Tokrim that came within reach of our blades.”
“How we fought,” Chultek continued, “I do not know how many men I slew, for it would be the work of a peaceful mind to keep count. In that blinding inferno of flying sand there was only survival, one moment to the next. I remember a figure came leaping through the storm at me, a giant of the desert-men, his head shaven, his face painted, and the axe he bore was swung with ease by his great arms despite it being the largest I have seen. My shield was sundered and I was knocked to the ground, my shoulder numb from the blow. Arleth turned and spitted the man with his spear, driving it clean through his breast-bone and out of the jackal’s back.”
The mercenary smiled grimly at the recollection of a blow well struck.
“I repaid the debt almost at once,” he said, “Barely had Arleth begun to draw out the spear, one foot upon the giant’s chest for purchase, when a great scream tore the air and a hurtling beast came from the blinding sand curtain and knocked the Gatim champion down. It was one of the Mera, the foul devil birds of the burning wastes. As tall as a horse, with black and crimson feathers and a beak like a steel axe. It shrieked as such creatures do and began to tear at the fallen warrior with its clawed feet, drawing back its head the better to plunge at him and tear him apart with that dreadful beak. I had barely regained my own feet but the sight of the monster, riderless from some earlier encounter in the battle no doubt, about to slay my shield brother put new life into me. I leapt for the bird, my arms around its scaled neck and I bore it over to the ground. By the hells though, how it struggled. It struggled for its life, and so did I. If it managed to turn its head enough to tear at me with that axe of a beak it would have been the end of me, so I poured all my strength into my grip and kept that foul thing locked in my elbow, both hands clenched around its head. When I heard its neck crack I think the last of my strength had been spent.
“Arleth tugged me upright. ‘Take up thy sword again, brother,’ he said, ‘This battle is lost. Let us flee and live.’ It was not my desire to abandon the battle but through the gaps in the sandstorm I could see he spoke true. Every glimpse there was of our company showed the butchery that the Tokrim had wrought upon us. ‘I’d give a ransom to come at that spirit-priest,’ I said and Arleth smiled at that. ‘Another day,” he told me.”
“For the first time, Chultek of Kabor fled the field of battle,” he said grimly, “But the worst of the day was yet to befall.”
Zaira listened to the tale and thrilled at the thought of the battle in the magical storm. She had never ventured beyond the secure walls of the city of Telek Tarim and to her the stories of the Tokrim might as well have been stories of ghosts or spirits from another world. She knew enough to fear them, and had heard of their cruelty and barbarism, even without the whispers of their spirit magic. She was about to answer the mercenary when a shadow fell across the table and a voice she knew all too well spoke up.
“Sweet Zaira,” said Balthos, whom men called Balthos the Blade, whose expensive clothing and excellent manners were as well known as his skill with a knife, “I was hoping you’d spend the night in my company. Yet here I find you with a common rogue.”
Balthos looked at Chultek, deliberately goading him. The Gatim dandy was always happy to provoke a brawl and claim after he had bathed his daggers in blood that he had been the injured party and acting only to defend himself. He clearly mistook Chultek for some bravo or penny-hire thug.
“You can have her for the night,” said Chultek in a low voice, “If she desires it. But I am minded to finish my tale.”
Balthos pouted theatrically, and ran a hand through his oiled curls. “That is ungenerous of you,” he said.
“I will be generous,” said Chultek, “let me finish my tale and I will pay you.”
The cut-throat sneered at such a craven concession. He would claim insult rather than defence as his excuse for murder tonight. “What coin could one such as you pay me?”
“Your life,” said Chultek, “If you go now without another word, I gift you your life.” He looked directly into Balthos’ eyes and held his gaze unblinking. Balthos opened his mouth to answer, to retort with a cutting provocation that would bring the Cheldrim mercenary to arms… but his mouth was suddenly dry. He knew instinctively that he had walked blindly to the very edge of a cliff over which a fall would be instantly fatal. Balthos had killed six men in his life and had boasted of each one afterward. He knew in his heart that he would not be able to boast again unless he obeyed. With a sickly attempt at a smile to show that all was in jest, Balthos the Blade turned away from the table and did not even glance at Zaira as he departed into the tavern crowd.
Zaira who had found this exchange amusing beyond reason laughed in delight at the dandy’s flight and rewarded Chultek by caressing his shoulder with her fine fingers.
“Tell on,” she said, “of what came after the battle,”
“Horror,” said the mercenary and his eyes darkened as he scowled.
“Arleth and I left the battlefield by the shortest route. It was away from the route of our approach but to flee by the way we had come would have taken us through the heart of the storm and the Tokrim raiders. We travelled almost blindly until the light began to fail, and gods be praised the storm was far behind us. Ahead of us rose great cliffs, rock walls that I had seen earlier in the day as we approached this region, but now so much closer and larger it seemed that we had reached the border of the world itself.
“Arleth was unhappy about being caught in the open. ‘Those desert wraiths know this land better than we do, brother,’ he said, ‘Look there though, a gap in the rock beyond that great white hand.’ I looked where he pointed, wondering at his words, and there was a white hand indeed. I think it was pale rock against the dark, or fallen pillars, I know not. But it was vast and halfway up the great cliff wall. It appeared like the bones of a hand emerging from the darkness, with great white finger bones curled and gripping at the air.”
He took another draught of the ale and held the cup for a few silent moments as he pondered his memory.
“It must have been a made thing,” Chultek said, “for it was not shaped like a man’s hand, and it was vast, too vast to have belonged to any living creature. But that is not to the point. There was a gap in the cliff where Arleth was now walking toward, just beyond where that monstrous clutching hand was showing. ‘Come brother,’ he called, ‘we can shelter in here, be it cave or crevice.’
“I saw no cause to disagree. Shelter from sight and wind would be welcome and I followed my comrade into the opening in the rock. It was dark beyond of course, for the sun had now set and we had no lights with us. It felt though, yes it felt as though that cave extended further back than was comfortable. I did not think I would sleep easily in a place where the darkness at my back was vaster than at my front. I said as much to Arleth and he laughed and made jests as you Gatim will, and called me as easily frighted as his old mother. I allowed this as a joke. We had fought alongside each other and insults like this mean little to your people. But I was not easy in my spirit as we settled down.”
Zaira was horrified as Chultek fell silent, for the great man before her had just shivered visibly, a shudder running through his body and his shoulders and his arms. Something had scared the warrior so profoundly that even his memory of it drew fear back into his body.
“I was right to be uneasy. Arleth heard it first and sat upright, clutching at me. ‘Hear thou?’ he said, ‘Hear thou the song in the darkness?’
“I heard nothing at first and was about to damn him for a dreamer when, gods of the river protect me, I did hear it. A song from deep within the cave, a song sung by a voice so beautiful that I would have given my soul to continue hearing it. May the memory of it be struck from my mind!” He pounded on the table so fiercely that the wood jumped and many patrons nearby looked around. Seeing the fierce look upon Chultek’s face they wisely kept their own counsel.
“With the song came light,” Chultek of Kabor continued, “in the darkness beyond us there was a light, a pale and greenish light whose source I did not know. Arleth rose and crept toward it. I would have called him back, but I knew he would not heed me. For desire for that voice drew him on beyond reason, and I followed him, helpless to resist the song in the night. It was louder now and clearer, though I did not know the words of that song. I still recall every sound of it though. I knew it must be in some tongue long lost to the lore of man. And then as the light grew brighter and the song clearer… We saw her.”
“Her?” said Zaira, caught up despite herself, “Who?”
“A woman in the heart of the dim light,” said Chultek, his eyes seeing the far away scene anew. “She was beautiful and dark, as naked as the new day but unashamed. She had gold dusted upon her brow and her cheeks, and she sang on as we saw her and opened her arms to await our approach.”
“All men think with their loins,” said Zaira.
“I have been such a philosopher,” said Chultek with a haunted flicker of a smile, “But not that night. It was the magic of her voice that drew us on. I cannot speak for Arleth but there was no lust in my heart for her, but rather awe. Arleth was ahead of me by several paces, and that haste of his cost his life.”
“His life?” Zaira said, gasping.
“The very air grew thick around us,” said Chultek, “I do not know how else to say it. The air grew thick and moved. It lifted Arleth from his feet and pulled at him a dozen different ways. I saw my shield-brother lifted from the ground and his body contorted in the invisible grasp of the heavy air. The woman in the shining light stopped singing now and looked with hunger upon the scene. I heard Arleth’s bones break and he screamed such a scream as I have never heard before. And then the air itself turned red around his corpse as he was opened in a score of different places. I thank all the gods of river and valley that the woman stopped her singing to feast upon the air, for when the song stopped so did the unnatural compulsion to approach her. I fled. Chultek of Kabor fled like a craven from the scene and I did not look back. Arleth was already dead and no weapon I could wield would ever be able to harm such a foe as that.”
Zaira swallowed hard and felt her heart beating rapidly in her chest. She did not doubt the warrior’s tale at all for she could see its truth in every line in his face, in the tension in those powerful shoulders.
“And what then,” she said quietly.
“I wandered out of my wits in the desert wastes,” Chultek said simply, “at length I was found on the edges of a Cheldrim township and they took me in and calmed me until my mind returned. And I returned to my work.” He tapped the hilt of the heavy blade he carried at his belt. “I hoped in battle to find distraction enough to forget that woman, that song in the darkness. But I cannot. The more I try to put her from my mind, the more that infernal song haunts me. I drink, and I brawl, I carouse and I spend nights wenching and gaming, but it haunts me still.”
He took up his mug again and drained it.
“I will return soon to that place beyond the white hand,” he said, “I know I will. For I must hear that song again.”
“You will die,” said Zaira.
“I will die,” Chultek agreed. He sat back and exhaled, looking up at the ceiling. Zaira rose, disturbed and alarmed by the awful tale she had heard.
“You may keep the purse you took,” Chultek said without turning to look at her, “I’m not so raw as to keep more than a few coppers in my purse when I drink among the Gatim. If I see you again I will slay you. I have no love for thieves.”
Inspired by the prompt here:
Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it. –Michel de Montaigne
Finn’s first novel A Step Beyond Context is available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com and a few others as well. It’s a punchy genre-busting mystery with a heroine who is a Regency lady, a high tech mercenary and much more.