by Den Valdron
THE TEMPLE OF SKULLS
Sadly, my reprieve lasted only a short time. By the third nightfall, the tireless plodding of the giant birds had brought us to the Temple.
It was a single, vast stone building sitting on a featureless plain, its stone columns carved in the likeness of tusked skulls. There was a medley surrounding it, canvas tents of traders, giant walking birds of all sizes from swift small runners to those for a single rider, to towering stately behemoths. Moaning slaves marched back and forth in chains, almost all of them of the red race, but here and there were blacks, whites and even bearded yellow men.
As we passed by, a hawker advertised his wares, a line of crudely painted masks or bags, with crude false tusks carelessly glued to them.
"Feel like the most virile of Jeddaks! Slip one of these bags on them, you'll have a beauty all your own. Transform a flat faced, tuskless hag into a vision of love. Look at the tusks, the crafstmanship," he shouted, "and it's as if you have your own Princess...."
We camped within sight of the forbidding building. As dawn broke, the call of criers roused both the Orgus and their animals, there was a stirring and general groaning, and we all lined up to see the Great Jeddak of Jeddaks, Hedo Letus.
As we passed the threshold of the Temple of Skulls, I saw that the building was but a cavernous shell inside. I looked up into vast darkness, punctuated only by lights. Orgus lined the sides of the immense chamber, with a central clearing leading up to a raised platform. Atop the platform, a grotesque and corpulent figure, his horns grown into wild profusion, even as they cracked and broke, one tusk a rounded stump, the other replaced by a golden spearhead, he sprawled easily on a cushioned throne, his every twitch and shudder attended by solicitous females who were more nurse than concubine.
“Have them all killed,” he snapped petulantly, at the previous supplicants. “And tortured. Have them killed, and then tortured. And killed again... And give them each a gold coin as a token of my fond regard.”
“The Great Jeddak,” Gyal Borhus whispered proudly, “tough, but fair!”
Our turn came up.
“Who is this?” The great Jeddak asked peevishly, squirming on his cushions. One of his concubines popped a small round fruit into his mouth. He chewed noisily, juices running down his cheek.
My captor stepped forward.
“I am Gyal Borhus,” he announced smoothly. “The 9th J–“
“I know who you are idiot,” the ruler snapped, “who is this, and why have you brought her to me.”
“She claims to be a Princess of the lost Orovar city of Az-Lium, my lord.”
“Hmmm,” the ruler's jaws worked, “the latest conquest of Markath Khan? I understood that the royal family was put to the sword, and the population enslaved. Az-Lium is no more. Forgotten by history, it lost to time, no past, no future, only blood for a present.”
“Have her put to death!”
“What?” I cried.
“Have her put to death,” he repeated. “Are you hard of hearing?”
“That's it?” I said.
For the first time, he looked uncertain.
“Is there more,” he glanced at his nurse, “did I miss something? The torture? The dismemberment? The gift of fruit and trinkets?”
“I'm quite sure it's death,” he told me.
“But don't I have a say,” I cried desperately. “May I not plead?”
“Whatever for?” corpulent monster said reasonably. “Your city is fallen, your family executed, your people sold into slavery. You have no hope of aught but misery and torment. You can plead for death all you want, but I've already offered it.”
“Well, what if I don't want to be killed?”
There was a small gasp from the audience.
“Oh, now this is insupportable, the arrogance of the young surpasses all. What do you want? To be burned alive? Torn asunder by Toruks? Eaten by Banths? The torment of a thousand blades? I've seen it all, and let me tell you, at the end of it, you're just as dead.”
“But I don't want to be dead!”
“My dear, be sensible. If you're burned alive or torn asunder, you will be die, it is a natural consequence,” he chuckled then, drooling a little.
“I want to live?” I cried out.
“I don't care.”
“I can offer you wealth and treasure, all the treasure of Az-Lium.”
“Don't need it. And you don't have it. You have nothing to offer.”
“I could be your concubine?” I offered desperately.
There was a titter of rough laughter from the assembled throng. Despite my mortal fear, I felt vaguely insulted. This wasn't right. All Barbarian warlords, no matter how depraved and inhuman, sought a concubine. How many productions of ‘The Tyrant of Tith’ and ‘Sporg the Unholy’ had I suffered through in supporting roles. This couldn't be happening.
“Well, why not?”
“Well, those things, to start with,” the senile warlord replied, gesturing somewhere in the direction of my chest.
I looked down.
“What's wrong with them?” I demanded.
“Some people like them like that,” I protested.
“They look unpleasantly firm,” he shuddered. “Maybe if they had a little length to them, some sway...”
One of the nearby concubines blouse's stirred, a small arm reached out and popped another small red fruit into the tyrants mouth. There was a stir of lascivious excitement. Tiny delicate fingers waved before they disappeared beneath the silk. The creature seemed to smirk around its delicate tusks.
This was appalling. How am I supposed to compete with that?
Nipples had always been good enough!
“I suppose with a bag over your head....” He seemed to ponder the thought.
From the audience a voice called out, “I have an excellent assortment of bags.”
“Kill him,” the grotesque tyrant said, “but first make sure you haggle before you buy anything from him. Oh, and try and see if he's got anything with gold brocade, and those filigreed lady tusks. I like those.”
He straightened up, focusing with an effort of will, his eyes were merciless. He glanced at me.
“No,” he said. “It's the death for you. What's a good death?”
A concubine whispered in his ear.
“Ahh, you will be torn to pieces by starving beasts in the arena circle, very traditional. Noon today.”
The concubine whispered again.
“My apologies,” he told me, “turns out it's impalements all day. Three days hence?”
He nodded to himself.
“Take her to the rocks of contemplation. Honestly, Gyal Bohors, you can't manage these things yourself? Why did I make you a Jed?”
I was struck speechless. My mind raced through a thousand hears of soliloquies and monologues. These were untutored brutes. Surely, I could sway them.
“I can please you in other ways,” I cried out.
“Watching someone being torn to pieces is very entertaining,” he replied.
I can sing!” I cried out. He seemed to think about it, and then shrugged.
Brutal hands were laid on me, and I was pulled by the fierce Orgus warriors from the temple.
“And dance!” I screamed. “I can dance! And play a variety of instruments!! I'm a multifaceted entertainer, it says so in my portfolio!!!”
As I was dragged kicking from the darkness of the temple into daylight, I finally broke, I merely screamed and screamed and screamed in terror and anguish.
After all that, the stones of contemplation were something of a let down. I was carried out, kicking and screaming, to a cluster of standing stones at the edge of the plain. The great temple of skulls was small in the distance, the jagged hills loomed above. Without speaking, ignoring my protests and futile struggles, my chains were fixed to the rock and I was left alone with nothing more than a skin of water to sustain me. I spent the rest of the day weeping at the vagaries of cruel fate.
Night fell, and with it the cold came. I huddled and shivered against the rock. There was no sound but the soft sigh of winds. Perhaps one of the wild beasts of this depraved land would claim me here at these stones.
Morning brought hunger. I occupied myself tugging at my chains. When that did not work, I pounded links with rocks until they cracked against the steel. The afternoon, I passed in a despairing funk, too weary even to cry. They could at least feed me, I thought sourly. Chained to a rock in the middle of nowhere, terror and despair were becoming dull. Who knew?
This wasn't like the stories or plays at all. If this were a proper drama, there would be a handsome prince coming to my rescue, and he'd do it before I missed a meal, so I wouldn't be hungry. Or at the very least, I would have a knife to defend myself against villains with evil designs or animals... None of which were actually in evidence, they obviously hadn't read the scripts either. But I still wanted a knife. Or a key. In the stories, a clever heroine who was brave and independent would lift a key from her jailers, carefully waving it behind his back so the audience could appreciate her subtlety. Or steal it when it falls as a result of a villain's comic pratfall.
I was a fool through and through. I had no weapons, no tools, no money or treasures. Why hadn't I taken the time or opportunity to grab something, anything. All I had for resources was a stage costume for the Princess Asutra, with its awkward gold plated wire torc.
I thought about that for a moment.
Then my fingers traced the lock of the prisoners collar around my neck, and then I inspected the locks of the manacles. Crude and uncivilized in the utmost. With a little effort, a child with a piece of stiff wire could pick them. In the entire run of Hearts and Bondage, I'd spent most of my time picking locks on stage. I'd had excellent reviews, by the way. Surely, with my life depending on it, I could free myself.
Stripping wires from the torc, I set to work, labouring well into the evening. As night fell, the first manacle sprang open. With renewed enthusiasm, I went at the other one. Exhaustion claimed me, I slept fitfully. I woke with a start at the dawn's earliest light, filled with panic. Was it the third day? No, only the second. Patiently, I laboured over the collar, and as it fell from me, I stood, a free woman for the first time in days.
I gazed at the Temple of Skulls in the distance, the retinue of monsters and animals surrounding it, all of it only just waking. Assuming no one came to inspect the stones, I had a day and a night to flee before I was discovered. I picked up the half-full water skin, and turned to march up into the rocky hills.
The words of the Orgus ruler rang in my ear. My city fallen, my people enslaved, my world lost and now forgotten, I was alone without friends or allies, without resources. Perhaps I should have waited for death. What was there to live for? What could I hope for but suffering and pain and misery and eventual cruel fate. Tears began to stream down my face, and as I walked and stumbled up into the lifeless hills and boulders, I wept quietly, for myself and for all that had been lost forever.
But I kept walking.
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