by Den Valdron
IN WHICH A DUEL TO THE DEATH
ACTUALLY TAKES PLACE
As the encounter ended, I stepped forward from the antechamber which had born witness to my ruin and degradation. I felt quite good actually. Cheerful, brisk, fresh. It felt like a beautiful day.
Some of the bandits seemed to wobble as they walked. But they smiled in different ways, shyly or happily, as I smiled at them. The encounter had changed things between us. I was no longer their captive, but now something different. Friend, confidant, partner.
But not their captive, not their subject or victim. In the right circumstances, these men would give their lives for me. Perhaps this would not last, perhaps time and circumstance would undermine it.
But for now, it made me smile.
One Eye was surly, he too knew things had changed, and he did not like it. He stalked about, pouting.
“The Orgus is to dangerous to bring with us,” he announced finally, “and we cannot leave him behind. He must die.”
“But you promised!” I exclaimed.
“Promises to a slut,” he sneered, “bind no man.”
Some of the men had the decency to look embarrassed.
“That's not right,” one said.
“The girl is right,” Vadak Eth stood, “we gave our word...”
“Shut up,” Bayl snapped.
Japh Leah reached for his sword, rising to a crouch.
“Orso, Mathis,” he ordered, two of his henchmen stood back with rifles ready, “cover them. I want no interference from these fools.”
Jaff Leah froze. Vadak Eth sat down carefully. As the bandits eyes flickered from one to the other, gauging, weighing their chances, I took advantage of the moment and grabbed up a close rifle. I held it aimed at One Eye, approaching him carefully.
“Back off,” I ordered.
One Eye sneered contemptuously.
“You're holding it upside down,” he told me. “You don't even know where the trigger is.”
Uncertain, I glanced at it, and as I did so, he rushed grabbing at the barrel, and yanking it from my hands. I felt a ringing blow against my cheek, and the next thing I knew I was hurled to the ground. I tasted blood in my mouth.
“It wasn't even loaded,” he sneered. “Your games are over, ‘Princess.’ Once I've dealt with your little pet, then I'll see to teaching you your proper place among us.”
I looked around helplessly, my eyes pleading. But despite the distress and chagrin on many faces, no one moved to rescue me. Mathis looked unhappy, but Orso's face was like stone, and neither of them wavered.
One eye turned back to the prisoner. Young Ton Sabat stood in his path.
“It's not right,” Ton Sabat said in his broken way, “to kill prisoners.”
“Sir?” Orso asked.
“I'll deal with this one myself,” he told his henchman.
One eye regarded Ton Sabat sternly.
“Move,” he ordered.
Ton Sabat shook his head in his own brain damaged fashion.
“You do not understand whelp, the Orgus has to die. And as for you...” he spoke with that serpent like coolness I had come to know and fear, “I don't need you any more!”
And with that, he brought his sword around in a blur. But Ton Sabat had already made a prodigious jump backwards, and the sword bit empty air. One Eye rushed forward, swinging wildly to cleave his target, but Ton Sabat merely backed skipping away from him as if weightless. There was a pause, Ton Sabat drew his own sword. Mirthlessly they grinned at each other. And then they rushed forward.
What happened then was the most astonishing display of swordsmanship I had ever seen. For Ton Sabat was utterly incompetent. He was breathtakingly inept. His blade danced like a poorly made carpenter's level, it swung and dipped, completely swinging past One Eye who did not even bother to dodge. He stumbled, he floundered, his sword flopped about like a limp rope. Only purest accident allowing it to knock against One eye's flashing blade. I'd never seen anything quite like it, it was as if he'd never held a sword, as if he'd never even seen swordsmanship.
One eye opened cut after cut, but somehow, Ton Sabat's speed and agility saved him from a killing blow.
He seemed to bounce around the room like some great insect, or perhaps a rubber ball thrown with force, careening off walls and around statuary. At one point, he seemed to leap entirely over One Eye's head, a feet so impossible I could not credit but that my eyes had deceived me. Still, a gifted swordsman against a bouncing idiot? There could only be one outcome.
Astonishingly, Ton Sabat threw his sword at One Eye, who batted it contemptuously aside as the men closed upon each other.
But even as he drew his blade back to murder my poor champion, Ton Sabat stepped in towards him, seizing his wrist on the sword return. I imagined I heard the sound of bones cracking.
At that moment, Ton Sabat came forward with a mighty sweeping punch to One Eye's head, which impossibly flew from his body and bounced across the room, landing in front of me, a half pulped ruin.
One Eye's body fell from Ton Sabat's grasp, as we all stared at the disembodied head in shock and horror. I did the only thing I could in that moment. I screamed.
An instant later, all the rest of the men began to scream.
In the end, it was only Aspar Aguus’ laughter which brought us to our senses.
“Well,” said Vadak Eth with more rationality than any of us could truly lay claim to, “it looks like we shall need a new leader.”
That said, as the discussions wore on, it became clear that there was no proper candidate. Ton Sabat, under normal circumstances, might have claimed the position, but his obvious mental incapacity ruled that out. Aspar Aguus, now free, was the most natural leader among us, but still a stranger and untrusted. Vadak Eth had his supporters, Jaff Leah his own, but neither were prepared to challenge the other. Somehow, at the end of it all, I found myself chosen as the chieftain of the bandits.
The irony was scarcely lost upon me. My whole world had been destroyed by brigands, my existence been reduced to a succession of desperate flights and despairing captivities. But now, strange fortune had catapulted me to the post of a Queen of Brigands.
“It is simplicity itself, of course,” Vadak Eth, explained, “you alone know the route through the Jagged Lands to Az-Lium.”
“Of course,” I replied, with a sinking feeling.
I did know the route, in theory. The mountain trails and passes which had formed the highway between Az-Lium and Tazor Ylan was well known to every schoolchild, as were the rest of the passes. But those maps I had grown up studying were ten thousand years old.
“It is to be certain that somewhere along that route, we shall find the fabled Jewels of Power.”
“Of course,” I replied.
He smiled beneficently.
“I, of course, have no interest in such super-weapons. Personally, I shall leave the conquest of the world to sorts like Markath Khan, who seem fascinated with that sort of thing. The Jewels of Power shall be yours, to liberate your homeland.”
With this, he glanced at Aspar Aguus, who stared stonily back, and at Japh Leah who seemed rather more interested in the Jewels of Power, for which I decided to despise him. Ton Sabat, of course, merely smiled placidly in his idiotic way, with not a trace of a thought apparent in his head.
“That would be best,” I agreed, starting to sweat.
“I am a man of simple tastes, we all are. Simple rewards are all we ask for our modest services. Palaces to live in, something tasteful but well supplied, a modest amount of wealth in gold and silver, slaves of course, and a few noble titles.”
“Of course,” I agreed, “upon liberation, you will be heroes, loved by all. I see no obstacle.”
“Excellent,” he said, “then we shall prepare our expedition, forthwith. Princess, no more sledge pulling for you, we have adequate Rodals.”
“Good,” I said, because there was nothing else I could say. And smiled, because I had no other choice. “The road will be hard, and we've already lost one expedition on the way. There is no way to tell where the first expedition fell, or what became of the Jewels. I can guarantee nothing.”
“With your leadership,” Japh Leah, unctuously pronounced, “we are sure to succeed.”
The despicable little parasite, I swore mentally. Real life was not nearly so satisfying and straightforward as the stages of Az-Lium. My champion was an alien monster, my leading man was an imbecile with superhuman strength, my followers were at best thieves and robbers motivated by greed, and we were expected to set off on a fools mission along a ten thousand year abandoned trail, if we could even find it, to recover a weapon which did not exist, to liberate my homeland, whose rape and pillage was all too real.
I could not decide whether it was comedy or drama, but were this a performance for Az-Lium's stage, then leading role or not, I would have wanted to punch the writer for being a miserable, lonely, pathetic sadist scribbling degenerate and hateful fantasies in his mother's basement.
I allowed myself a sigh.
Here I was now, a Princess of Bandits, but I was still a captive.
A captive of my own lies.
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