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Volume 3169
Princess of Az-Lium
by Den Valdron

CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE


 

The Spiderlings had dispersed, so we resumed our journey out of the Jagged Lands.  There was a somberness to our travels.

I supposed that our minds were elsewhere, Japh Leah, Vadak Eth and Aspar Aguus plotting the next trajectories of their lives, preparing their departure.   Me, I felt rootless.    Perhaps this was a natural state for these red men of the outer world, an existence of aimless drift, to which some part of them would always long to return.

But we Orovars were creatures of purpose, I could not be like them.  I looked upon their departure with some trepidation.  I think Ton Sabat felt much the same.  He might not be of Az-Lium, but we were both alone in this strange outer world.

I hoped at least that they would miss us.

The tortured rock gave way to lumpy foothills and mounds, and then to slopes rising and falling.  The dried and cracked fields which had once been mud flats.

“It has been quite an adventure,” Japh Leah grinned at me.

“Adventure?”  I said angrily.   “Adventure.  This is no adventure.  This is just one horrible thing happening after another, its all murder and bloodshed, disgusting food and long stretches of boredom.  It’s been falling into one awful situation after another, surrounded by cruelty and ignorance, never more than minutes away from ending up in a ditch with my throat slit, or being gang raped by smelly barbarians, or eaten by horrible monsters.   This isn’t an adventure, this is a nightmare.”

“Adventures, in stories its all about boon companions and triumphing over villains.  In adventures no one ever worries about going hungry, or having to eat slimy mollusk or dried sadok, or trying to find a place to go to the bathroom, or having your bones jerked to pieces by Rodals, or tedium and terror, or dragging a sled until your bones ache, or climbing over rocks until your hands are raw and bleeding, and nothing ever gets resolved, one awful situation simply turns into another.  It’s all just horrible, horrible, horrible.”

I felt emotions welling up, my eyes grew wet.  I felt like I was about to burst into tears.

Japh Leah’s smile vanished, he looked desperately at our companions.  Vadak Eth and Ton Sabat looked genuinely frightened.  Even Aspar Aguus seemed nonplussed.

“Oh,” said Japh Leah.  He looked stricken.  His eyes wide and childlike.

“Not you guys,” I said quickly, gauging their reactions.  “You men have been fine, wonderful.”

“Well, gang rape...”

“Oh, no, no,” I said, “I wasn’t thinking.  You were all fine, it was perfectly wonderful.  I enjoyed that.   And you didn’t smell at all.  I was talking about some other smelly barbarians –“

I felt vaguely frustrated that I had to be distracted from a satisfying bout of self pity to look after the tender feelings of these hardened killers.

It was so unfair.

“I do like you all, really...”

“Do you see?”   Aspar Aguus asked, breaking in suddenly.

“What?”  Japh Leah asked, seeming relieved by the distraction.

“Strangers,” he replied.  “On mounts.  Slidars by the look.”

“Bandits or nomads,” Vadak Eth asked.

“Is there a difference?”

“Perhaps we can talk to them?”  I said.

“Perhaps,” Aguus replied, with a flat and final tone.

I could see what was coming.

“Fine,” I said.  I put my pack down and sat on it.  “Come back when you’re finished.”

I watched them stride purposefully towards the gathering cloud.

I sighed.

Men.

**********************

When you ride a Rodal, I found, their uneven, cantankerous two legged gaits leave you bruised and aching in all sorts of unpredictable places.  With every step the Rodal takes, you have no idea what’s going to hurt next.  A Slidar, six legged, reptilian and altogether obstinate, it hurt in exactly the same place over and over.

A Rodal was an intelligent creature.  It occupied its time thinking of ways to make you miserable.  Its hatred of its rider gave it a purpose for living.    A Slidar had no purpose in life, no drive, merely a placid conviction that you would some day die a horrible death, and it was prepared to wait.  In the meantime, it was content to share the grinding relentless misery of its existence with its rider, confident that it could stand it more than we could.

I kind of missed Rodals.   Still, it was better than walking while dragging heavy sleds laden with supplies.

To be fair, I reflected the bandits had been the first to raise arms.

Their mistake.

“There is a city ahead.”  Aspar Aguus stated.

“Impossible,” replied Vadak Eth.   “Yukhara is not nearly so close to the Jagged Lands.  We should still be at least two or three days ride.”

“Perhaps we took a short cut?”  Ton Sabat suggested.

“Ruins perhaps, an abandoned city?”  Japh Leah asked.

Aguus shrugged.

There was nothing to do but keep on heading towards it.

As the day wore on, the endless fields of broken rock and silt were parted by an ancient stream bed.  We followed this for hours as it became a thin and uneven trail.

The trail, in turn, slowly became a path, preserved by ages of disuse.   And finally, the path joined with a road.

“Strangers,” Aguus said.

“Your eyes are quite remarkable,” I said.  Over and over, I’d noticed that the Orgus sight could spy things in the distance that were invisible to the rest of us.

“Bandits,” Japh Leah asked.

“No,” he said thoughtfully,   “They raise too much dust in their passage.  An army perhaps.  Or a green man horde.”

“Charming,” replied Japh Leah.  “Will they miss us?”

The great Orgus shrugged.   “No, they travel towards the city as well.”

“Then,” Vadak Eth said, “it’s not a horde.  They stay well away from cities.”

“Unless they’re about to sack it,” Japh Leah remarked.

“No,” Aspar Aguus said, “their numbers are not sufficient.  Were that the case, they’d raise far more dust.”

“It’s a mystery,” I said.  “One I feel no desire to solve.  Best to leave them alone.”

“Agreed,” replied Vadak Eth, “we should leave them well alone.”

This produced a general round of consensus, which piqued me mildly, as it was my idea, but they all acted as if they’d thought of it.

“Perhaps we should not approach the city at all,” Japh Leah suggested.

“We need trade and provisions,” Aguus rumbled, “if we are to go our separate ways.  I would prefer it sooner than later.”

As we discussed it, it was eventually agreed that we would proceed towards the city, but follow in the path of the larger force and at a distance.  Whatever they were about to do, we might take advantage of whatever confusion they wrought.

Unfortunately, the best of plans are victims of capricious fate.

That evening, as we made camp, Aguus head snapped up.

“Someone’s coming.”

Sadly, his remarkable vision did not work so well in the dark,  and almost before we could reach our weapons, we were surrounded by mounted men with rifles.

“Well,” said the leader among them, leaning over the shoulder of what I thought must be a Thoat,  “This is a surprise, he said cheerfully.  I was expecting that we had finally caught up with the group of bandits that has been shadowing us.”

“We know the ones you speak of,” Japh Leah replied, “they have dogged our trail too.  They lie much further back.”

Lie?  I thought.  More like a very careful half truth.  They lay back there, indeed.  In shallow graves.

“Indeed,” the thoat rider said cheerfully.   His light played over our jeweled harnesses.

“You don’t look like bandits,” he said, “I’ll grant that.  Altogether too well dressed.  But Slidars are odd mounts for such a wealthy group.”

“We’ve been skirting very harsh county, too harsh for Thoats.”

His light fell upon me.

“An Orovar,” he said, “and not in chains?  How peculiar.  It seems somehow inappropriate.”

A thought seemed to occur to him.

“You wouldn’t happen to be a Princess, would you?”  he asked.   His men seemed to chuckle at that.

Cold sweat suddenly ran down my back.

“There are fanciful stories about,” he confided, “of an Orovar girl running about in the company of an Orgus Jed and a group of red bandits, pretending to be a Princess.”

As he cast his eyes over our group, it seemed to me that the stories were slightly less fanciful to him than they had been a moment ago.

“Who is it that addresses us,” I asked with cold aloofness.

“Fan Kuzar,” he replied, “Chief Scout in the service of Haja Obohl, Master and Trader of slaves.”

This didn’t seem good at all.

“And what are your intentions?”  I demanded.

“A little of this, a little of that,” he said, “keeping bandits at bay, collecting stray slaves, perhaps having a little fun and profit on the side.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ton Sabat tensing to leap, Japh Leah preparing to fade into the darkness.   My companions were lethally effective, perhaps much more than the men who confronted us.  But I did not fancy the prospect of being caught in a bloodbath, even if we won.  There was too much chance of some of it being mine.

“You called me an Orovar?” I said.  “Then are we near the lost city of Asigan?”

For a second, he seemed confused.

“You mean Az-Lium?”

“Asligim?”  I responded, with a mixture of aloofness and barely concealed eagerness.   “Do you know its whereabouts?  I demand you reveal it now.  Is it close?  Is it ahead?”

“Az-Lium,” he corrected me again, “Who are you that searches for it?  Are you lost .... Princess.”

Princess?  I didn’t like the sound of that.

“Upon pain of your immortal soul, if you know the dwelling of the Orovars, Linku Lans, High Priestess of the Holy Reformed Cult of Iss, demands you reveal it.”

This took him aback.

“Don’t you mean the ‘Holy Faith of Iss, Reformed’”  he asked.

“Speak not of heretics!” Vadak Eth swore loudly, and spat.  I felt a shiver of relief.  At least he got it.  I maintained my imperious demeanor.  How would a High Priestess act?  Probably even more arrogantly than a Princess.

“You are evasive,” I pressed him, better to be the interrogator than the questionned, “we demand an answer now.”

“Only Markath Khan knows the secret of the Orovar city.  But if you’re looking for members of the white race, you are on the right path.  There are thousands for sale up ahead.”

He spurred his Thoat forward a little, examining me carefully.   I met his gaze with apparent fearlessness.

“You claim to be a Thern Priestess, do you?” he said.

“I make no claims, like some common merchant.  I am.”

“A Thern Priestess alone in the company of an Orgus, and a band of Red Men.  How unusual.”

He reached out towards me.

“Ah, but Therns are bald, both male and female, and that hair looks altogether too real.”

“Vadak Eth,” I said, “this creature appears intent on soiling a sacred holy wig that has been sacrosanct for nine generations.   If he touches it, cut off his hand.”

Fan Kuzar paused.

“I am not a believer in the faith of Iss.”

“In that case, cut off the whole arm,” I shrugged.

Vadak Eth stepped forward, his sword drawn.

“As you command, Holiness.”

Japh Leah and Aspar Aguus drew their swords, while Ton Sabat laid casual hands upon the sledge.  Fan Kuzar’s warriors raised their weapons.


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