Authors: Clayton Emery
“Would you sit beside, me?” The girl looked up at him, her green eyes pleading. “I’m still cold.”
Sunbright felt his knees turn to water. This was magic, for sure, but perhaps only normal man-woman magic. He tried to answer, but only croaked like a frog.
“What?” she breathed. Her eyes were soft, her lips moist. “I can’t hear; you’ll have to come closer.”
Twisting a surprisingly strong hand into his bearskin jerkin, she pulled his face downward. His legs failed, and the rest of him followed, collapsing on the camp bed next to her. She bent over him and placed her mouth on his.
She’s not cold, the barbarian thought groggily as he gave himself up to her eager ministrations. Not cold at all.
And this was bound to be better than dying in combat.
Sunlight stabbed into his eyes, and Sunbright sat bolt upright on his blanket. He’d overslept.
Rubbing his eyes, he simultaneously searched for his sword, his possessions, and the girl. The first two were where he’d dropped them, the last gone without a trace. No, there was one trace, for her delicate footprints showed in the scalped dirt around the dead campfire.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” he wondered aloud. “Either they suck your soul or lift your purse.” But everything was here, including an ache at the base of his spine. It had been the most delightful night of his life.
So where was she? And who was she?
The name Ruellana tolled a bell in his mind. At some point in the evening, he’d remembered to ask her name. She’d gasped it at the time, and the memory set him to wondering.
Why would she love him half to death and depart? There were no stories where a man got boundless joy and didn’t pay dearly for it. But that seemed to be the case. Standing, legs apart, sword in hand, he followed her tracks a ways, but they quit at a deer trail that pointed toward Augerbend. Had she gone that way? Or flown into the sky, or slid inside a tree? Would he ever see her again? He certainly hoped so. Maybe in the village, since it was the only human settlement around.
Whistling, eager now to get to Augerbend, the barbarian threw together his meager camp, hoisted his pack and bow, and swung off.
“Ruellana of Augerbend, here I come.”
He was still whistling, and breaking every other rule about moving through enemy territory, as he left the deer trail for a rutted road, then passed the first farm. It was a fortified cabin with a double-barred door, thick log walls, and a slate roof that would not burn. The door stood open this bright spring morning, and from inside Sunbright heard a woman singing. Dogs ran up the road and barked furiously, but the young man only waved at them graciously and bid them good day. A girl chivvying geese with a switch looked up, saw the wanderer, and ran for the house. In a moment the woman came to the doorway. Sunbright waved, but she only jerked the girl inside and slammed the door.
Touchy folk, the young man thought. No doubt Ruellana lives elsewhere.
Before he knew it, he was threading cabins on both sides of the road, then came to a crossroads where four matched maples cast a green tint from early spring leaves filtering sunlight. The barbarian saw now that the village occupied land that jutted squarely into a small river. Hence its name, for the river made a bend like an auger brace used for drilling holes. A nice place, Sunbright thought, if Ruellana lived here.
There were few people about, for most were in the fields, tilling and planting. Another dog barked, but the barbarian spoke to it and it stilled. “Hush, you. Where’s the inn? Ah!”
Facing a flattened stretch of earth and the river was a squat building that streamed smoke from a thatched roof. Above the low door hung a sign crudely drawn with a brimming mug. That, Sunbright understood.
Whistling again, the curious dog still trailing and sniffing along behind him, the warrior shifted his pack on his back and ducked through the low door. It was black inside, for there were no windows, but he heard voices and smelled meat and fruit pies that set his stomach growling. It was time, he thought, to test whether Chandler’s coins were good.
As his eyes were adjusting to the dimness, something whizzed by his head like an angry bee, then shattered on the lintel. Crockery and ale splashed his shoulder.
“By the yellow god,” roared a bleary voice. “A barbarian!”
“He’s got a nerve!”
“Get his sword!”
Surprised by the hostility and unused to being indoors, Sunbright hesitated for a moment. Better to lurk in the dark, warned one teaching. Better to get outside in the clear, warned a contradiction.
And in that second, someone hammered his head into the young man’s midriff.
Grunting, Sunbright cannoned backward into the doorjamb. The uneven threshold, worn by generations of feet, tricked his heel, and he stumbled. The man pressing him grappled clumsily, enfolding Sunbright in ale fumes. They probably wouldn’t attack if they weren’t drunk, the barbarian thought evenly. He dug an iron thumb into the man’s neck to make him gasp and let go.
Meanwhile, a second man reared from the dark den and swung a meaty fist at the barbarian’s face. Sunbright shifted his head coolly, but banged it against the jamb, and the roundhouse punch smashed his lips against his teeth. Damn it, he thought, he hated being indoors!
While being hugged around his middle, Sunbright avoided the next blow. The assailant’s fist smashed into the jamb. He heard a knuckle snap. But a third man rose from the dark like a smoky wraith, and he had a knife that flashed in leaking sunlight.
“Enough!” the barbarian bellowed. But they didn’t hear, for the men were shouting as if the pub were on fire.
Scooting a hair, he drove his knee straight up into the grappler’s gut. The man oofed, relaxed his grip, then grabbed hold again. The puncher reached with two hands to drive thumbs into Sunbright’s eyes, but the warrior flicked his head, caught a thumb in his mouth, and bit to the bone. The man howled. With the puncher trapped, the knife wielder couldn’t close.
Seeking to disengage the grappler, Sunbright bent one knee, then smashed as hard as he could upward with the other. The grappler urped, then vomited hot, stinking ale and stomach juice all over the barbarian’s shirt.
That made Sunbright furious. Spitting out the howler’s thumb, he gave, a battle shriek that raised hackles and set dogs barking all over the village.
Ten minutes later, his tackle torn from his shoulders, his topknot spilled down around his face, his knuckles skinned and bleeding, his shirt torn, Sunbright was bashing the head of the last man standingactually, he’d found him cowering behind the short baragainst the bar, yelling in time with the thumping, “Never, never, treat me that way again! You hear me? Never”
A sharp whistle cut him off. He squinted at the doorway. A lumpy shape filled it sideways, but left the top half full of sunlight. Not a man, the barbarian thought dazedly.
The squat shadow asked, “You Sunbright?”
“Aye.” He let go of the barkeep’s ears.
“Someone wishes to speak with you.”
“Oh. Thank you.” Creaking, groggy from battle lust and the following weakness, the warrior combed back his yellow hair, picked up his tackle, and ducked low under dark beams, heading for the door.
The squat shadow was gone.
Outside, the sun had retreated behind some clouds, and Sunbright smelled rain coming. A party of traders ill-dressed for traveling milled awkwardly at the ferry crossing. A handful of capable-looking bodyguards were busily strapping bundles and bedrolls to a dozen pack animals. The squat figure who’d summoned him stumped in that direction: a dwarf, the first real one Sunbright had ever seen.
With the party was Chandler, the plain-dressed steward of the local castle, who’d sauntered into Sunbright’s camp thirteen leagues hence with gifts and odd propositions. Now he left the party and walked over, but halted when he got a whiff of the barbarian’s scent.
Looking at his jerkin and shirt, Sunbright found vomit, ale, candle wax, blood, and other fluids. He strode to the riverbank and, notwithstanding an audience, stripped and washed his shirt and himself. On his forearm he discovered a deep bite he didn’t recall getting. Chandler stood nearby and talked.
“I’ve chosen a task for you,” said the erstwhile steward. “I wish you to travel with this party. They seek audience with a would-be emperor in the east called the One King.”
Sunbright wrung out his shirt, scattering curious minnows in the rippling water. He thought it over, knew the party would have directions and such, so asked only, “Then what?”
“Eh?” Chandler, really Candlemas, was startled by the barbarian’s cutting to the heart of the matter. The groundling was not slow-witted. If he survived the journey and audience with the One King, which was unlikely, Candlemas hoped to send him for Lady Polaris’s benighted book. “Uh, find out all you can about this One King and come back. Would I were one of those cloud-living wizards who can see down into the world at a snap of the fingers, but alas.”
Shrugging on his shirt and lacing his jerkin, Sunbright squinted. “I thought your master, the lord of the castle, wanted information about local grain prices. What’s a foreign ruler got to do with that?”
Chandler almost smiled. The barbarian wasn’t that bright, and lying was a wizard’s specialty. “Oh, quite a bit. People hoard food in times of trouble, so prices go up. If armies attack from the east, there’ll be a greater demand there than locally. So it might profit to freight the grain down the river, for instance.”
“I see.” The barbarian didn’t, really. His people lived by barter. Chandler’s coins in his pouch were the first he’d ever owned, and he couldn’t comprehend their value. How could disks of metal be worth a set price when everything was negotiable? Nor did he believe all Chandler wanted was information, but then wizards were supposed to be devious and mysterious. And dangerous, so it wouldn’t do to rile this one with too many questions. It would be best to keep on his good side.
He shrugged as he whipped his hair through its topknot. “Very well. What will I be paid when I return?”
That, Chandler thought, was not a worry. So he lied, “A twentieth part of the profits, perhaps? Or a flat fee? Or would you prefer some magical item?”
The words gave Sunbright pause. Seeing his piqued interest, Chandler pulled from a belt pouch a small corked vial. “I thought you’d welcome that idea. Give me your sword.” Sunbright slapped his hand on the pommel so fast the wizard backstepped. “Uh, wait. This will make your weapon more potent! I’ll just pour it on the blade, and then the sword can wound enchanted beings!”
The barbarian glared from under blond brows. “You’ll spoil the temper.”
What a moron, thought Chandler, as if he’d reforge the blade here by a riverside. “Look, may I demonstrate? Just ease the blade out a hair. Watch.”
Fooling a peasant would be easy. Laying his left thumb on the sharp edge, Chandler pushed hard enough to dent the skin. “See there? I’m only a hedge wizard, but I’ve enough power to shield myself from harm.” He pulled the cork and tipped the clear fluid onto the edge, then reapplied his thumb. Instantly, the razor edge split the skin. A tiny trickle of blood stained the steel. “See?”
Despite himself, Sunbright was impressed. Trying to hide his eagerness, he drew the sword and held it while Chandler poured the liquid from the vial all along the blade. The potion ran like water and dripped off. “Do I rub it in or let it dry?”
“Oh, just wipe it off. One touch is enough, as I showed you. Now your blade is enchanted and can rend the flesh of any magical creature: harpies, liches, bugbears, anything.”
“And I’ll receive more enchantments when I return?” Carefully, Sunbright dried Harvester with a rag, then slowly slid it home in the sheath. “That’s a promising reward. Thank you. I’ll do my best to get your information on the One King.”
“Please do.” Chandler raised his left hand in farewell, his right hanging at his side.
Sunbright turned toward the party of traders, then suddenly whirled. “Oh, I almost forgot. You must know everyone here. Where lives a girl named Ruellana?”
Chandler frowned. He didn’t know any of these peasants, but was supposed to command them. To stall, he asked, “Ruellana? There are so many young women here. How does she appear?”
“Curves like a walrus tusk. Green eyes, red hair.” Lust dripped in his voice.
Red hair? A warning flag rose in the wizard’s mind. Was Sysquemalyn sticking her oar into his machinations? “Uh, I’m not sure. I’ll ask around, and see she’s available when you return.”
Thwarted, Sunbright frowned, but nodded curtly and, without another word, turned to go.
Chandler, or Candlemas, was glad to see him leave. The enchanting, of course, was a trick. He’d simply shielded his thumb from the first cut, relaxed it for the second. The “magic potion” had been river water this morning. Humans were easy to fool, and barbarians more so than most, it seemed. Still, the groundling was a fast learner, He wouldn’t be tractable forever.
Right away, Sunbright saw problems.
The party milling by the ferry head didn’t look or sound right. Travelers would normally be busy, preoccupied, a little nervous, giddy at the thought of adventure. This group milled like cattle in a slaughter pen: cursing each other and the packhorses, bickering with the bodyguards, screaming orders at locals fetching supplies, weeping openly and crying to the gods for protection. Many wore gaudy long robes, impossible for walking any distance, and slippers on their feet instead of shoes or boots. But these were lowlanders, the barbarian told himself, and so were soft in the arm, rump, and head.
He began to walk toward the dwarf, who was quietly organizing things, but a woman intercepted him with a glare as hard as glacier ice. “What do you want?”
The warrior lifted his chin. “I want nothing. I’m to join your party.”
Sunbright blinked, nonplussed by her rudenessand the exotic looks of a half-elf. Her face was as pale as milk, with high arching brows and pointed ears, her hair jet black, drawn straight back into a braid intertwined with silver wire and rawhide. She wore a shirt of silk rife with white embroidery, boiled and molded leather armor of a glistening emerald green and breeches of the same color, with a wide black belt and boots. She looked like a brilliant banded lizard from the southlands that Sunbright had once seen at a market stall. An ornate sword with a basket hilt, very slim, jingled at her belt with a matching dagger, and on her back was a black bow as slender as a fox’s rib.