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Lady of Shadows: Part 2

Part 2 of the Lady of Shadows fiction


By Duskweaver

Prologue - Part 1

The sky blazed a deep crimson, the sun gaping like a bloody wound as it sank toward the horizon. Above, the sky had already deepened to the livid blue-black of bruised flesh. The rocks still shimmered as they radiated back the day’s scorching heat. It would be hours before the chill of the night reached this place.

Bayl had wrapped me in a pale desert robe, clean but somewhat threadbare. My own clothes, as well as the horned diadem and dragon’s-eye brooch that marked me as a wife of the Shadow King, were presumably still back at the sand devils’ lair. As I hauled myself into a sitting position against the rocks – my limbs still felt weak, my muscles and tendons torn – my hand brushed against a familiar shaft of rune-etched wood.

Smiling, I lifted the weapon, watching the last rays of the sun glinting upon the smooth crescents of sharpened bone affixed to each end. With a murmured word, I drew a little magic from the earth and air around me, focusing it upon the runes that spiralled along the weapon’s four-foot wooden haft. Tightening my grip and shifting my posture to give my arm more room, I swung the weapon hard against a boulder the size of a man’s head. There was a flash of blue light and a sharp crack, then the boulder fell into two cleanly-shorn halves. The lotulis’ crescent blade was untouched. Satisfied, I laid the weapon back down beside me. Whatever the sand devil had done to me, my magic seemed unaffected. I would not have to rely on Bayl as my only protection on the journey back to Nibenay.

As if conjured by my thoughts, the mul loomed over me. “Fire?” he grunted.

I shook my head. I had no idea how far he’d brought me from the sand devils’ lair but, even if they were not still hunting us, a fire could attract other scavengers, humanoid or otherwise. The rocks would keep us warm enough until near dawn, I reckoned, and I at least could see well enough to spot any approaching danger. Ral was only two nights past full, and its sickly greenish light, when it rose in an hour or so, would be enough for my half-elven eyes. These eyes were probably the only things of any use my worthless father had given me, after all.

Suddenly irritated, I said sharply, “You don’t need to talk like that here. There’s only the two of us.”

Bayl looked at his sandaled feet. “Sorry.” Then, after a few awkward moments, “It’s force of habit. I’d not have survived the arena if not for how easy it is to underestimate a big, dumb brute of a mul.” He pronounced the word the way even I would never dare to do in his hearing. The old insult recalled the foolish myth, either that all his race were sterile, or that childbearing invariably killed the mother. Yet his voice was wry rather than bitter. One might almost have forgotten what he’d done to the last person brave or stupid enough to insult him in that way.

Regretting my sharpness, I glanced around. We were in a sort of shallow crater, some twenty yards across, its floor scattered with broken chunks of reddish stone. We would be sheltered enough from the chill night air, or even from a sandstorm should one come upon us. Pulling the robe around my shoulders and leaning on my lotulis, I hauled myself to my feet, wincing as my torn muscles and wracked joints rebelled. Bayl reached forward, obviously meaning to help, but I glared at him and he thought better of it. I would be mistress of my own body again. I needed, and wanted, no tenderness. Perhaps, I hoped, the purely physical pain and rage would dull the echoes of the awful violation done to my mind and soul.

I picked my way through the jumble of rocks, clambering up to the lip of the crater. Every movement sent daggers of pain through my limbs. My head ached too, as though I’d drunk a whole cask of broy.

“We will reach the road tomorrow morning. We should be at Bremil Pass in three days at the most. Sooner if I don’t need to carry you.”

“I can walk,” I said, not at all surprised that he had once again managed to come up behind me without making a sound. “Do you think they followed us?” I asked, hearing the tremor of fear in my own voice and biting my lip in fury at my weakness.

Bayl shrugged. “There wasn’t much I could do to hide our trail. A lot depends on how long it took them to realise you’d gone. If they’re close, then they’ll probably attack tonight.” He paused. “You might be able to get away if I…”

“No,” I cut him off. “I can walk, but running is out of the question. If they attack, then we both fight. Either we kill them or they kill us. But I won’t risk being taken alive again.”

The night grew lighter as Ral’s pale, mottled face crawled slowly above the eastern edge of the crater. I have never liked the green moon. It reminds me too much of my mother’s sunken and sickly features in the last days before the fever took her from me.

I shivered, despite the heat radiating from the rocks around us, turning back to Bayl. “I don’t suppose anyone else survived?” I asked.

Bayl shook his head. “Morg and Brithis went down trying to keep those fiends away from you,” he said. “I think Gorrem tried to run away, but he got a scimitar in the back for his trouble. The others must have died after I took that poisoned dart in the leg. It all got blurry after that. But I counted the bodies before I went to find you. They might just have been mercenaries, but they fought bravely. Well, except for Gorrem, but screw that desert rat anyway.”

I was glad that the darkness hid my smile. Bayl had never liked or trusted Gorrem, perhaps for the same reason I’d never trust one of my father’s people. In truth, I wasn’t particularly surprised to hear the dwarf had tried to run away. The only thing that had ever struck me as reliable about him was his greed, and I suppose he saw little chance of being paid once I was out of the fight. Still, I supposed I ought to be grateful to the others. Of course, with the reputation of the sand devils being what it was, it was entirely possible the mercenaries fought so well simply out of desperation to avoid being taken captive. But I have always been cynical about the motives of others.

“Is there food and water?” I did not feel particularly hungry, for my stomach was still knotted with the after-effects of terror, but I knew I needed to restore my strength.

Bayl nodded. “The sand devils didn’t seem too interested in looting our baggage,” he said. “They killed the kanks, though. I carried as much water as I could, and I managed to catch a couple of jerboa just before you woke up. That’s why I suggested lighting a fire. I’ve eaten jerboa raw before, but it’s not exactly appetising.”

“Fine. A small fire only. With Ral near full, the light shouldn’t be too obvious down here, so long as you keep it in the shelter of the rocks.”

He nodded and moved away silently. I remained, gazing out across the rocky barrens toward the distant mountains that ringed the Dragon’s Bowl, standing there, gritting my teeth against the pain in my thighs and calves until I felt my strength beginning to return. My arms were still as weak as a kirre cub’s paws and I was not at all certain Bayl wouldn’t end up having to carry me after all on the morrow, but any sign of recovery was welcome. I had known slaves, punished by being hung from their arms like I was, who were crippled for the rest of their life by the experience.

At last, Bayl called softly to me, and I hobbled over to share in his meagre, greasy feast.

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Raddu

Original creator of The Burnt World of Athas back in 1995 or so...