*I am Lady Jozhande Tanimury. This is a tale of my travels, one of many.
It is very easy to weave legends out of straw.
My favorite uncle told me that long ago, on the veranda of our family longhome in Pharazion. I did not know what he meant at the time, imagining perhaps toy figures made of dried rushes, or the patterned mats we sat on while eating or resting. It was only years later, when I left my home and went out into the world, that I realized what he meant: the stories we love to hear, the ballads we sing to, are based on events and personalities as dead and dry as stalks and reeds, and as colorless; it is only in the weaving that they gain life and texture.
All but one. That legend is my own.
I look around at your faces, all of you bright and curious as we gather in this quiet inn tonight, and wonder how many would know the hero who stands before you now as the callow mercenary I once was, the young swordswoman who, long ago, traveled the lands north of the rift in search of adventure. Legend speaks of me now as the Black Pearl of Pharazion, for Pharazion is the land of my birth, with the pearl, I have heard, referring both to the color of my skin and its dark, gleaming texture, but I have not always had that name. This is the story of how I received it.
I remember the day well when my adventure began. It was hot, the drought season of the scabrous uplands I rode through. The terrain was drab and featureless, consisting of fields of yellow-gray wheatgrass which had parched in the heat. The sky was a pale blue, a few wisps of clouds stitching its emptiness. I had no particular destination in mind as I rode, merely exploration of a part of the world I had not seen. My forest homeland, and my people, lay many hundreds of miles behind me.
In the late morning I saw a cloud of dust in the distance. It did not advance, which meant it was going away from me and not coming towards me. I had seen nothing so far in this land that would indicate either traders' caravans or a sizable militia. Curiosity urged me forward. As I rode the cloud grew larger; slow as my pace was in the heat, the marching legs or turning wheels were slower.
When I had caught up to the cloud I rode to the side of the road to have a clearer view of what was within. What I saw was something very different than the caravaneers I had imagined.
It was a line of slaves. They were all naked, an equal number of young men and women coffled together in four parallel lines of fifty individuals each. The chains of the slaves at the front of the column were fastened to a bar yoked across the backs of two oxen that plodded with inexorable slowness, setting the pace for the stumbling captives. They were so cowed they looked up only rarely, their hair hiding their faces. Whip-wielding guards patrolled the columns, but they needn't have bothered; the slaves were so well secured escape was impossible. They were chained neck to neck, their arms cuffed behind them. Not only that, taut chains connected their neck collars crosswise across the columns so they were forced to march in a grid formation. Their right and left ankles were each strapped to two bamboo poles that ran the length of the each column so they were forced to march in step with their fellows. One might faint from fear or exhaustion, yet still be carried along with the others.
Though the presence of the guards ensured they would make no trouble during their trek, there was a bit of sobbing, snuffling and cursing that came from the assemblage that not even the snapping whips could dispel.
I rode my horse to the side of this parade, bypassing it, my jaw threatening to fall open in disbelief. I had never seen human beings treated so badly, like animals being driven to market. We do not keep slaves in my homeland. Looking at them as they marched--dusty and weeping, unable to shield their breasts or genitals from the sting of the whips--a strange feeling grew within me. It was at once a desire for justice and a sheer fascination with their plight. Their buttocks switched in unison as they marched, the breasts of girls bobbing with each step. I estimated they were all between the ages of 16 and 25. They also exemplified the racial type of these lands: skin of a medium tone with a hint of bronzed gold in it, jet black hair, a voluptuous roundness to the limbs.
I shook my head, realizing how pointedly I had been staring. The guards only gave me a cursory glance; they must be used to foreigners. I dug my heel into the sides of my horse and rode on without looking back.
Towards midday I came upon an inn. It was a lonely place at the side of the road, a few farmhouses and fields scattered behind it. I decided to stop for a meal. I tethered my horse and entered the building.
The few inhabitants regarded me with astonishment, then quickly went back to their food or ale. I smiled to myself. These people were not used to dark-skinned Pharazii. I stand well over 6 feet and am slim as a rail, with the taut, coiled muscles of a python. As dark as my skin is, my hair is darker, and I wear it in a series of finger-thick, woolly plaits. If I untied them, they would reach my waist, but I usually keep them bound in a queue between my shoulders. I wore boots and dusty traveling leathers. The laced vest I wore hugged my breasts tightly, leaving my arms, with their ropes of hard muscle, bare.
I flipped a coin to the innkeeper. "What can you recommend to soothe a traveler's parched throat?"
He caught the coin and nervously pocketed it. Like the slaves on the road, he had dusky gold skin and black hair. He was more dressed more than they, however, wearing a linen shirt and trousers, along with a stained apron.
"The mare's milk is the best, my Lady," he said, using the only term of respect he knew for a woman of my sort. This was understandable. From what I had seen of this land women did not become sell-swords, although the presence of other females in the inn attested they were traders and merchants of note. This cheered me. In some countries, females are treated like chattel and not permitted to have business in the public sphere at all.
"I'll have a mug of that. And what sort of food do you offer?"
He rattled off a brief list of native delicacies. I ordered something vegetable. I had long learned to stay away from meat dishes in lands I was unfamiliar with.
My mug arrived, and I took a seat by the window. Though my dress and sword intimidated the more staid users of the inn, for another class of individual they were a magnet. Fellow mercenaries can always recognize one another, and soon I had a companion to drink with.
"Sebri Daxyr," my new friend said. He was a large man, a bit like a bear, with a very bushy black beard.
"Lady Jozhande Tanimury," I replied, choosing to use the honorific the innkeeper had chosen for me. "I come from the employ of the Mischievous Empress, late of her campaign against the Arg-Farid tribes."
"Ah, the Empress," he said, and I deduced he was familiar with her. "Though I could hardly call Gandrys an empire anymore. What brings you to these lands?"
"Money," I said dryly. "Like you, I am a sell-sword, and I need coin to continue my existence as a sell-sword. Do you know of any worthy employers?"
"You might apply to Her Majesty," Sebri said lightly, then noted my confusion. "You know nothing of what has happened here, don't you," he said, somewhat more seriously.
"Should I?" I said, feeling defensive all of a sudden.
My pronouncement had a deep effect on Sebri. He leaned closer to me and kept his voice low. The sounds of the inn seemed to muffle themselves around us. "Not ten days ago this inn, and these lands, were part of the city-state of Bontatris. They now belong to the Witch-Queen of Obn-Dhregni."
I had heard that name before. Obn Dhregni: the City of Carnality. In my land it was spoken of in whispers, referred to with blushes and giggles by the younger folk, longing by their elders. It was a place of total sensual abandon, a place where any erotic fantasy might be slaked. But in all my travels, I had never heard of the witch-queen. "Who is she?" I said.
"Her name is Shezrine Caramaithzes, and she is building an empire," Sebri explained. "She has many prime positions for skilled mercenaries such as yourself. I've heard she pays most generously. And there are certain...advantages to living in her city, and being one of her favorites, if you get what I mean."
I was about to ask what they were when sudden noises from outside distracted me. I turned to look. The slave traders had come to the inn, bidding the weeping slaves to halt. The guards undid their leg bars and the chains that bound them crosswise. I was disgusted to see them roughly fondle their charges as they did so. Then they led them, in long columns, to the fountain in the inn's courtyard where they might drink. The other guests moved their horses and livestock aside in some annoyance. The chained slaves leaned precariously over the rim of the basin and drank, dusty buttocks high. When they had their fill, they were jerked away and the next column led over.
Sebri noticed me staring. "They belong to Queen Shezrine," he said. "She demands tribute from those she has conquered. They are probably the sons and daughters of the ex-rulers of Bontatris. They will be her slaves, and be auctioned off in her marketplaces like any other fine piece of flesh."
I watched as the column was led to a large, open shed where they might have shelter from the sun. The guards made them sit and tossed them pieces of bread and fruit. They had to pick up their meal from the dirt with their teeth, as their arms were still chained behind them.
"Clever," Sebri said. He sounded like he approved. "A good way to keep them from stealing each other's food."
My own food came, but I could not eat it, even though my appetite had been strong. "They keep slaves in Obn Dhregni?"
"They do. The city wouldn't thrive without their labor, and the slaves provide pleasure and entertainment as well. In all of Shezrine's kingdom it is so."
I was not inclined to find this practice appealing, but I did need to find a new employer soon. If the Queen was hiring mercenaries for her wars, it was likely I would serve her well. "She must have mighty generals, to be able to conquer a city-state in less than 10 days," I said.
"She is a sorceress. Undoubtedly she had spells and devices to abet her. I did not serve in her armies; I come from Karam-Karam, and am on my way home to my village to take up a settled life. But I have heard from others of the destruction she dealt. Her warriors were mounted on giant brass scorpions, with spears that shot shafts of red light that melted stone and metal. She had inhuman troops that had the bodies of armadillos but the heads of lizards, and other fell beasts she summoned by sorcery. It only took them one day to bring Bontatris down.."
I had a few experiences with sorcerers before, most of them bad. It was much better to be allied with them than against them. "You've told me much," I said. "I believe I will go to the Queen of this city, and offer my services to her. Can you give me directions?"
He pulled out a map of rough paper he kept folded in his pack. "The city lies to the southeast on the edge of the Rift. There is rich trade between the Uplands, Canyonlands, and Shadowlands there."
I nodded. The Rift is the foremost geologic feature of my world, a twisting, jagged scar in the earth that stretches for hundreds of miles. It is as deep as the highest mountains are high, and so wide in places you cannot see the other side. The cities that cling to its walls are called the Canyonlands. As the interior of the Rift is moister and more fertile than the lands above these cities are many and populous. Commerce between them is maintained by animal-operated furniculars, traders on flying beasts, bridges of wood and of stone, and dangling walkways that run for miles. Deeper still are the Shadowlands, those cities that are placed so far down in the Rift they rarely, if ever, receive the rays of the sun.
"How far is it?"
"A journey of three days, I'd guess." He let me study the map a few minutes more, then folded it up again. "There are signs posted along the way. The Queen wants it known that 'All roads lead to Obn Dhregni.' "
"My road will, too," I said. "I thank you for you information."
"A pleasure," he said, with a hint of a leer in it. He wouldn't dare proposition me, I knew. I gave him a hard stare. He noticed my reaction and hurriedly aimed his gaze outside, pretending he'd been ogling the naked slaves.
By this time it was past midday and I thought it wise to be off. I saw no more strange processions, no marching slaves. Low mountains took shape to the north as I rode steadily eastward. The yellow-brown land looked as if it had never known either peace or war; it existed free from human concerns, the same way the twisted juniper trees did. As the day grew hotter I put on my eyeguards, which were carved of dark horn, to eliminate glare from the sun, and bound my long braidlocks on top of my skull to keep my back cool.
In midafternoon I came to a lightly forested area and stopped by a spring to water my horse. A sign proclaimed the pool was under Queen Shezrine's protection. It was marked with a sigil I had never seen before...her royal glyph, I guessed...the curving figure of a lizard, tail coiled loosely, limbs akimbo. A forked tongue emerged wickedly from its mouth. I dismounted and let my horse drink from the shallow pool. The westering sun stained the dust the color of honeyed yams, while the rocks themselves turned many shades of cinnabar rose.
I heard voices coming down the road and peered carefully through the pines: a group of five soldiers, marching on foot. By their sturdy mail, plumed helmets and rough, casual laughter I knew them as the Queen's men, victors of the recent battle Sebri had spoken of. If any looked up the rise they would see me, but they would have to take their attention from the road to do so, and that they seem disinclined to do.
They dragged a bound captive behind them.
The soldiers had not been gentle with him. His clothes were ripped and stained with the yellow dirt that marked this region, and his hands and elbows were firmly bound behind his back, secured even further by tight loops of rough hemp rope that wound around his midsection. They jerked him along by another crude rope tied to his neck, like an animal being taken to market.
I swallowed. Plainly this was no ordinary prisoner of war. As I watched he stumbled in exhaustion and the soldiers cursed, pulling him on again with a vicious yank that made him retch briefly before he caught himself. He raised his head, shaggy tangles of dark hair sliding over his shoulders, and looked right at me through the trees.
I froze. He paused, staring at me; he knew I was there. Then his warden jerked him on again, lifting his sword with a curse.
I waited until they had passed before moving, and many more minutes before I resaddled my horse. They were Queen Shezrine's men; that I knew by the lizard-glyph that decorated their armor. Where were they taking their captive? Why had they treated him with such uncommon cruelty? I knew no one would buy a slave with dried blood and purple contusions on his face, and that told me the prisoner had already been condemned, and they were taking him to his death.
I shook my head. Whatever drama this was, it was not my place to interfere. Yet still I was haunted. The prisoner had been an uncommonly handsome one, in spite of the dirt and dried blood that caked his face; well-formed, lean yet graceful of limb. But though I did not like the treatment the Witch-Queen afforded her captives, I also knew it was no better and no worse than any of the other acts of war I had seen. Being a mercenary means never making judgments; your loyalty belongs to the one who pays you.
I rode down the rise. If I met the five soldiers and their prisoner again, I would ride far to the side of them, across the flat plains, to avoid another encounter. However, they must have ridden off the road soon after, for though I rode several more hours at a brisk pace, I did not seen them again.
The sun grew low, painting the flat plains and low, stony hills in terra cotta shades. As sunset approached I saw a farmhouse in the distance and I rode towards it. Peasants are often very receptive to a foreigner with tales to tell; for folk in this arid land it must be the only bright spot in their lives. For a few stories I could easily secure a night's lodging.
I approached the main buildings through the trees and dismounted, leading my horse by the reins. I did this in order to not spook the family by a direct approach, as I looked very much a warrior with my battle-mount and sword; they might think me a brute out to demand food or livestock. It was a good thing I had done so, as it kept my profile smaller.
As I came closer I saw something was wrong. I heard the frightened cries of animals, men's shouts and curses, a woman's screams that dissolved into sobs of fright. I peered through the screen of trees, bidding my horse to be quiet.
The soldiers had gotten to the farm before me. One of the officers pinioned the farmer's wife as she struggled uselessly, her face reddened, the grain-masher she had wielded in defense lying on the ground. Her man was desperately swinging a pruning hook against another soldier. The soldier toyed with him as he fought for his life, holding back on his swordplay to prolong the farmer's fear or tease him into thinking he could win. But the farmer was not fooled, and neither was his wife. Yet they fought desperately before the two overcame them and bound them to the dusty corncrib that lay at the side of the dirt courtyard.
Anger boiled up from the pit of my stomach, raging through my limbs. How dare they! I had been looking forward to serving the Queen, but now my mind started to turn. What kind of discipline did she maintain in her men that they should try to claim the rights of conquest from a demoralized and obviously terrified peasant family? I had always served with honorable legions who would never do such a thing. Now I can tell you I have seen worse behavior, but then, I had not.
A ruckus came from inside the house and a flock of chickens suddenly tumbled out the front door, feathers flying. Two soldiers burst through the squawking mass, dragging a youth of maybe 16 behind them whom I surmised was the couple's son. He had put up a fight, for fresh blood and bruises marred his face. They dragged him by the hair into the yard and threw him into the dirt, kicking his ribs.
"Don't touch him!" the woman screamed.
"Be quiet, bitch," the soldier guarding the couple said, and turned to slap her. "It's your turn next."
I saw what he had meant when the grinning soldiers ripped off the boy's trousers, keeping his face pressed into the dirt, and pulled his ankles apart. One roughly stroked his buttocks while the other thrust his knee between the boy's shoulders, pulling his arms back at painful angle. They meant to rape him, while the parents watched.
The prisoner watched too, his expression just as glazed and helpless as I imagined mine to be. The last soldier, the fifth one, pressed the sharp blade of a dagger against his throat. His other hand wound into the prisoner's hair and gripped tightly, holding his head so he could not look away.
I could take no more. I drew my sword without thinking (Pharazii steel, much finer..and sharper...than the crude blades the soldiers bore) and jumped on my horse. He knew what I wanted of him. I heeled him into a gallop, a full charge, and drove him into the heart of the sickening tableaux. In the language of my homeland I shouted, flashing my sword. "N'yuenje! N'gyen!" It was the battle call of the warrior maidens, the Akkidri, the order I had once been slated to join and would be in today were it not for the carnal attentions of my half-brother. It was a dramatic cry, and it served me well.
I jumped off the horse as he reared, slashing with his hooves. The soldiers scattered, the two in the act of rape the most vulnerable. My sword found the gut of the one as he struggled to his feet, weaponless save for the one that wagged between his legs, which was useless to him now. He gurgled, and died.
I spun to catch the other man a glancing blow, and a fuller one on the side, but he was too quick, and lunged for his shield and weapons before I could wound him further. The boy had the sense to scrabble away, taking up the dead man's sword. "See to your parents!" I hissed, not wanting an innocent to get caught up in my battle. The boy could hardly even carry the sword, much less wield it, but it got him out of the way.
The other man, though wounded, gave me hard fight, and I could see I had underestimated the skill of these louts. Fortunately, the confusion in the yard worked to my favor. We matched steel for several seconds before I stabbed him in the thigh, sending him down.
I spun as a blade whirled over my head. I had taken on too many. I could have flung myself back on my horse and bade a retreat, but that was the coward's way out, and I have never been a coward. Even if this battle should be my last I would engage in it fully, to the best of my ability and honor. I somersaulted through the air, cutting the captain hard upon his forearm, then whirled to dodge another blow. One man I had killed and another wounded, but three were yet ready to fight.
But I was not alone.
They had left the prisoner unguarded. The way his eyes moved, following the battle, convinced me he was a skilled fighter himself. A hope dawned in me. If I freed him, he might fight by my side. After all, if he was merely an outlaw, the soldiers would not have forced him to watch their rough sport; why torture a criminal who committed similar acts?
I cut the captain another slash, dodged another sword thrust, then vaulted ahead to the tree where the prisoner had been tied.
He saw me coming with my sword out and winced, perhaps thinking I meant to kill him, but I merely slashed through his tether. He was so surprised he nearly fell, caught off balance. I quickly cut through the rope binding his arms so he was free. He shook out his hands and wrists, which must have been cramped horribly, and looked at me with amazement.
"Do you see that pruning hook on the ground, the one the farmer was holding?" I said quickly, not waiting for him to answer. "Take it, and use it, or else we are both dead!"
I hadn't been sure he would understand the common tongue--he could have been a foreigner like myself--but apparently he did, for he dodged the oncoming soldier with a quick, athletic grace and took up the hook, slashing it in a way that confirmed my belief he'd had experience with polearms before. The wicked curved blade whistled in a semicircle before slicing through the soldier's armor, and with another flick of the long pole, the soldier's throat had been opened, a fountain spraying dark carnelian against the dusky sky.
"Guard my side!" I ordered, but I didn't have to, really, as he was spelling me already. It was as if he'd been trained to combat all his life. The two remaining soldiers came forward, with a fresher respect, and our weapons danced with eagerness and joy. The odds had been leveled.
On to Chapter 2
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