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Lady of Shadows: Part 4


We heard the cry of the lookout, perched upon his small platform near the top of the skimmer’s mainmast, and saw the vessel alter course towards us.


Prologue and Previous Parts

Part 4

By: Duskweaver

We heard the cry of the lookout, perched upon his small platform near the top of the skimmer’s mainmast, and saw the vessel alter course towards us.

We must have seemed a very strange pair, standing there upon our boulder at the edge of the crater. Bayl was large, even for one of his race, and more heavily muscled than anyone else I have ever seen. His skin was a burnished copper colour, crisscrossed by a spider’s web of pale scars, and entirely hairless. He still wore the armoured harness that had preserved his life for years in Nibenay’s arena. Heavy plates of kank chitin protected his wide shoulders, while multiple layers of cured hides covered his abdomen, with a knee-length kilt of leather and kirre skin hanging to his knees. Greaves made up of the thighbones of those he had slain in the arena, lashed together with rawhide strips, covered his lower legs. He wore his alhulak tied about his waist like a belt, its stone and head hanging at his side, wrapped in a piece of tembo hide to prevent the sharp kirre horns lashed to the stone weight from lacerating his thigh.

I have already mentioned my short stature. Standing beside Bayl, my head barely reached his chest. And, while I might be leaner, fitter, and certainly tougher than the simpering, self-indulgent daughters of my city’s decadent nobility, I have never had any claim to real physical strength. I have my mother’s olive skin and straight, raven-black hair, and my father’s slanted, almond shaped eyes, the brilliant blue colour of lapis. As a templar-wife, I should radiate majestic authority at all times. Barefoot and dressed only in a ragged, sweat-stained desert robe, belted with rope, and with the kirre skin draped over my shoulders, I did not feel particularly majestic. I suppose I must have looked like some mad desert wise-woman, one of those superstitious primitives who worship the spirits of Athas. At least my still-healing scars were mostly hidden beneath the robe.

The skimmer was not a large one, barely forty feet from the ivory carving at its prow to the raised quarterdeck at the stern. The azure wyrm of House Mentsu seemed to crawl across the shimmering white silk of the lateen-rigged mainsail as the wind billowed it out from its yard. Upon the smaller mizzen-sail was the same device as the skimmer’s figurehead: a bare-breasted woman with coiling hair and the lower body and tail of a snake, holding a widow’s knife in one hand and a pomegranate in the other. Weathered and wary faces stared down at us.

After several tense moments, a tall, thin, rather gangling young man clad in a loose grey jubba appeared at the gunwale and peered down at us, shielding his eyes from the sun with a pale hand. “Hello?” he called. “Are you lost?”

I had expected his voice to be as thin and reedy as his body, but it was surprisingly deep and melodious. Even with the uncertainty his questioning tone implied, he sounded like someone used to being obeyed without hesitation. Even without knowing his name, I knew he must be the noble whose skimmer this was.

“We…” I hesitated, wondering if perhaps it would be best to simply announce my name and status and hope that the young noble believed me even without my brooch and diadem, or at least that he would be uncertain enough not to risk the Shadow King’s wrath by denying us his aid. But some unconscious impulse stopped me. There was something about House Mentsu, or one of its scions; something I could not quite remember. Perhaps I had read of some suspicions in a report by one of the Temple’s agents. I wasn’t sure.

“We are simple travellers, but our party was attacked by bandits in the mountains yonder. We have skills to trade in return for passage to Nibenay.” That was close enough to the truth.

The young noble nodded. “Yes, we have heard the road near the rim of the Dragon’s Bowl has grown dangerous.” He gazed down at us, frowning slightly as if deciding what to do about us. It was difficult to read his expression, but the fact that he had not simply dismissed us as beneath him was probably a good sign.

A massive form loomed over his right shoulder suddenly: a half-giant woman clad in armour stitched from a patchwork of vividly-coloured animal hides. She looked much less friendly than her noble-born companion. The two conferred in urgent whispers for a few moments, the half-giant with her hands on her hips in an attitude of exasperated impatience, the noble seemingly trying to calm or reassure her.

“King’s Beard, what a beauty,” Bayl breathed, his eyes fixed on the half-giant, his expression a mixture of awe and honest lust.

“Don’t get your hopes up, Bayl,” I whispered. “I don’t think she likes us.” Despite the precariousness of our situation, I felt myself cheered by the big mul’s openness. Bayl was not stupid by any means, but his honest simplicity was one of the reasons I had chosen him as my servant. His presence was always a refreshing respite from the twisted intrigues of the Shadow King’s court.

At last, the half-giant threw up her hands in frustration and stormed off. The young noble shrugged, then turned back to us. He looked slightly startled for a moment, almost as if he had forgotten we were still here, or perhaps just surprised that we had not gotten tired of waiting and wandered off.

“Lower the boarding steps!” he called. With the creaking of giant’s-hair ropes, a tall, narrow section of the skimmer’s hull opened up and dropped jerkily to the ground.

Bayl and I scrambled down from our boulder and made our way up the steps. The young noble waited at the top, smiling a little uncertainly. The half-giant woman had reappeared behind him, scowling down at us. I had to admit that Bayl had a point. She was a magnificent specimen: tall and muscular as you would expect for one of her race, though she seemed more tough and athletic than brawny. To my eyes at least, many half-giant women appear rather coarse-featured, even mannish, but her obvious physical power only enhanced her beauty. The markings adorning her granite-grey skin were so dark as to be almost black, their pattern somewhat resembling the hide of a tembo. Eyes the colour of malachite glared out at us from within a wide dark band that ran across her face beneath her heavy brows.

The noble’s smile was warm and eager, and seemed genuine enough even to my cynical gaze. Seeing him close up, I realised he was even younger than I had thought, his short reddish beard almost comically sparse. His eyes too were green, though of a much less vivid shade than his companion’s.

“Welcome aboard! I am Neren. Neren of Mentsu,” He inclined his head slightly to Bayl and I in turn, the proper attitude of a Nibenayan nobleman towards someone whose station he does not know. “And this is Enamdis, my… uh… I suppose ‘bodyguard’?” He laid a slender white hand on the half-giant woman’s folded arms, glancing up at her with obvious fondness.

She favoured us with a wide grin, though there was no friendliness in it. “Anyone tries to hurt His Lordship, I get to snap them in half.”

Now, I have heard plenty of threats in my time. Generally, I find them tiresome, pathetic, sometimes even comical. I have never had much time for braggarts and blusterers. But this didn’t sound like a threat at all, but rather a simple statement of fact.

In most circumstances, anyone who even hinted at presenting some threat to my person would find Bayl’s alhulak tied round their neck before they could even finish a sentence. But these were hardly normal circumstances. I knew without even turning around that Bayl was now staring at the half-giant woman in reverent wonder. This was a complication I could have done without.

“I am Ysuun,” I said, hoping my voice sounded more amused than annoyed. “I have some skill with healing, though I am afraid my cures and potions are probably being misused by the scum who robbed us even as we speak. This large slab of muscle is Bayl. He…”

“Ex-gladiator,” Enamdis interrupted. “I know the look.” She was obviously still suspicious of us. Not even the suggestion of a smile touched her lips, but something in her startlingly green eyes told me she was aware of Bayl’s admiration for her and was not at all displeased. “Nice scars,” she said, a trace of irony in her voice. “You’re tough, but you don’t protect your right side well enough. We should spar sometime. Maybe you’ll learn enough to avoid walking into any more spears.” She nodded to a particularly nasty scar that puckered the flesh just to the right of his heart.

Neren glanced from mul to half-giant and back again, then shrugged and smiled at me. Awkward and gangling he might have been, but his smile made him seem almost handsome. “We should get underway. I would like to be well away from the Dragon’s Bowl by sunset. Come, you two look half-starved. We’ll get you fed and watered, then we can discuss how exactly you’re going to pay for your passage.”

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Raddu

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