by J. Richard Jacobs
Verdan Shak had not spoken since they left the bloodied Field of Honor. He just sat slumped over in the saddle, rocking with the rhythmic movement of his mount as it ambled along the cobbled trail. There was no sound but the feet of their mounts pounding on the stones and the occasional rattle of armor as it bounced in an uneven rhythm against the animal’s rump. He contemplated what seemed, for him, an impossible future. He dreamed the incredible dream of peaceful days and quiet nights with a pleasant and properly plump woman by his side, maybe even a child or two to help tend the garden he would plant. They would need trade goods for use as bargaining tools with the local village hunters to purchase meat and skins. The meat to keep his family’s bellies full and skins to shield their bodies from the cold of long winter nights.
Nonsense. What right have I to think about such things? I was born to be a Yerdo warrior and a Yerdo warrior I shall remain, till some simple savage from the Clemong Heights puts an end to it for me. I have been fortunate to have survived this long, I think. Besides, what woman, unless almost blind, would give a second glance at such a spent man as I have become? Look at me—bent, disfigured, scarred, and…old far before my time. Better to think of other things. But, still….
The din of battle, the cries and moans of the wounded, now two days ride behind him, lay muted by distance. The screams of pain and anguish, the weeping, shallow groans of the soon to die as the final darkness crowded them, images of dull, blank stares of the fallen who saw nothing, shrank more from his mind with each passing moment, yet they continued to haunt him. His back twisted, his body crisscrossed with white lines that served him as grim reminders of mistakes made during struggles past—so many lines that they left little room for the new ones he knew would come in later days, in future battles for the clan’s supremacy over the rich meadowlands sunsrise of the Yerdo line so coveted by the savages of the Clemong Heights. Lands the Yerdo Clan protected at dear cost, he being one of the coins in that purse.
Scars, interrupting the flow of wrinkles deepening on his face, ran like tortured rivers of white froth. They coursed across his pronounced brows and high cheekbones covered with tight skin tanned dark and dried stiff from years in the suns. His right ear, only partly there, gave his face an off-balance look. His mouth rested in a jagged line beneath a nose broken more times than he could or would count. No woman, he felt sure, could ever want such a man at her table, less even in her bed. As a warrior, the people of the Yerdo villages cheered when they saw him ride past. But he knew that they feared him. They would, in their inborn timidity, scatter and run for shelter should he stop to greet them. So, too, would any woman he came near. No, he thought, I shall be forced by my wont and the clan’s traditions to stand as a warrior, till my end comes and I am troubled no more by such foolish ramblings.
Experience served him well in battle when his aging, reluctant body would not, but that would not last forever. He knew without a doubt that there would come a time, probably soon, when a young one would slip past his guile with a quick and final thrust or an eviscerating slash. He would join the remains of other fallen warriors in the field, his blood coloring the grass beneath his lifeless carcass. But the grass would grow to erase the blemish on its face of jade, and the scavengers that roamed the night would drag away whatever still lay there to gnaw on at their leisure. A meal so easily had. Soon after, the memory of Verdan Shak would fade from the minds of his fellow clansmen like the setting suns allowed the night to come in still silence. In the clan’s history, he would have been no more than a gossamer wisp of smoke adrift in a stiffening breeze—remembered by none. He shuddered at the thought of his impermanence, and his mind slid back to his ridiculous dream.
For the first time since leaving the field of battle, he felt confident enough to sheath his blade, a blade that had served the Clan Yerdo for as long as he could remember, a blade forever stained to the hilt with the brown tinge of life’s essence from the bodies of vanquished foes. Foes whose memory visited their fellows no more, just as his memory would vanish from the Yerdo. Any clear thoughts for his future, whatever it might hold, stood blurred in the reality of his present. He sighed a heavy sigh of the infinitely weary and looked with tired eyes—eyes that had seen too much—at the rider by his side.
“You know, my dear friend Gambol, I am getting much too old for this,” he said. “I am thinking…I am thinking it is time for me to take a woman and build a home in the Yerdo to house the screaming, snot-dribbling cretins our union will create. Ha! What do you say to that, old man?”
His companion, Gambol Kam, gave a single, quick nod in silent agreement, then looked off to the horizon where the suns of Karmon were moving down to kiss the rapidly purpling mountains of the Yerdo. The sky, the color of rich cream, spotted with pink and gray blotches of filmy cloud painted on in delicate strokes by a mad artist with a soft brush, would soon darken. Night would seep in like a pall of consuming black being pulled over their heads.
There will be no moons this night and that will be to our good, Verdan thought, but we shall also be forced to make camp in the open long before we reach the safety of the forest at Yerdo Crossing where none of the outland clans dare go.
“The suns will hide behind the mountains soon,” he observed, speaking more to the chill of the coming night than his companion.
“Uh, that they will. Don’t like being caught out here on the flat like this,” Gambol said in the raspy voice given to him a year ago when a youngster from the Clan Malak dragged a blade across Gambol Kam’s throat before he could get his shield up. The lad paid for his valiant effort with his miserable life, but he had scored well on Gambol Kam before he went to meet his ancestors.
“Nor do I, my friend,” Verdan replied. “It would be a shorter ride to safety if we were to make for the wood line to the south, rather than staying on this road. What do you think?”
“You’re crazy, is what I think. That’s the Black Wood over there, man. I think I’d rather do blind night battle with whatever survivors of this day’s glory may be foolish enough to follow us, and follow us they will, as surely as the suns will ere long leave us out here in the dark. Those who pursue would delight in hoisting our heads on their standards and parading them through the streets of their own rotten little villages in the Clemong and Draal, you know. Your head especially. They have priced you high. A grand prize that would make, eh, Verdan, parading your head on a pole through the streets lined with their drooling kinsmen?”
“True enough, but why is it you don’t want to make for the Black Wood? It is close by and dense enough for two to fade in the shadows.”
“The stories that are told about that place, man. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard them? They say…they say there are things that live in there.”
“Oh? Is that what they say? Of what things do you refer, my gallant friend?”
“Don’t know. Things, you know. Things. Awful things.”
“What I know is that we waste what light we have left to us while we discuss your unknown, unseen things.” With that, Verdan yanked on the reins and turned his animal south, urging it across a gently rolling field of long-bladed grass punctuated with small, delicate gatherings of white and yellow flowers. Off he raced toward the edge of the Black Wood.
Verdan heard Gambol’s grunt of reluctance at the road, then the muffled sound of clobnaur feet pounding into the soft grass behind him and he smiled his crooked smile. Being born to the Warrior Class of the Clan Yerdo, you never showed your true feelings, certainly not fear—it was not allowed of any soldier of the clan and would bring swift, harsh retribution from the Captains if they saw you. But being out here, alone and far from public view, brought a welcome change to all that. Emotions could climb to the surface to parade themselves in full view, and old Gambol’s hesitation at the road shouted out his feelings as no words could. Verdan laughed quietly to himself. Things in the wood, indeed, he thought.
Tales to keep the children out of the Black Wood, that’s all they are. Tales invented by doting mothers, then embellished and exaggerated by drunken fathers, whenever they saw fit to come home from the inns, to keep their little ones from straying too far from the home fires. Utter nonsense. Things. Gambol is a great warrior and a good friend, but he is also an old woman who fears the dark and believes the lies of fools.
When he reached the line of dark and gnarled trees, he drew his mount to a stop and turned in the saddle to cluck at Gambol like a brooding hen herding a clutch of brainless chicks.
“Do you show me fear of an enemy that may be no more than a product of overactive and inebriated imaginations, friend Gambol?”
“Bah! I show prudent concern over stories told and retold by enough folk over the years that there must be some truth hiding in them…nothing more. A truth hidden under the words as spoken. It is said that the frequency and longevity of a story speak to truth. The tales speak to a truth that bides just below the surface—shrouded in the mist of times past and forgotten, a truth that is carried only between the lines of a fable where they lie in wait for discovery by those who look closely enough—and I think it is wise to pay attention to such notions, lest we meet our end without honor. Without the test of the warrior’s mettle and his metal. That is all I say.”
“My, my, my, Gambol, a poet dwells within you. All right, then we shall go in only far enough that the light of our humble fire will not be seen from the road by any but the keenest of eyes. If your things should make their presence known to us, we shall be close enough to the meadow to make a hasty and prudent, but cowardly escape. Will that make you feel better?”
“Cowardly escape? Bah! It will do, but I warn you, my doubting friend…sleep with one eye open, your shield on your chest, and your blade in hand—lest you awaken at sunsrise dead.”
On foot, they led their mounts through a dense maze of black-barked, grotesquely shaped trees until they came to a reasonably open area. The clearing in the forest framed a spot just large enough to lay out their bedrolls and leave safe room for a small fire between them.
After they ate their fill of the game that Gambol had trapped earlier in the day, they sat and drank what precious little remained of their ale. They spoke loudly in half drunken voices of the recent battle that the Yerdo clansmen won with little cost on their part, while great numbers of the invading force lay staring blindly into the suns. Verdan squeezed the last drops from the skin into their common cup. He pushed the stopper back into the neck with an exaggerated slap of his massive palm and threw the empty container to his side. He mentioned again that he was thinking of retiring from his role of warrior to take a woman and live the remainder of his life peacefully in the Yerdo. His friend of many years and far too many battles laughed aloud, the alcohol having eradicated what little etiquette he had any knowledge of.
“Forgive me for laughing, but it is quite close to impossible for me to envision you being satisfied, sitting by the fireplace with a fat old woman at your side and little, sniveling, whimpering, totally dependent creatures crawling around your feet like puppies, demanding your attention all the time. It would not take much of that, I don’t think, before you longed for the look of surprise in your enemy’s eyes after a quick stroke of your blade spilled his innards to the ground. The smell of blood in the air, and the clangor of sword against sword filling your—”
“Perhaps you are right, Gambol. Perhaps you are right. It is…part of me, isn’t it? Part of all of us, to be sure. But it grows late, my friend, and we still have a long trip ahead of—”
She drifted into the circle of dancing light as quietly as a snowflake settles to the ground as if she materialized out of nothing. Verdan rubbed at his eyes with scarred fists and looked again as reassurance that the ale had not taken his mind and stuffed his head with images unreal. There she stood, genuine as the warmth of the fire, smiling down at the two of them. Dressed in a dark gray cloak that reached all the way to the forest floor, sweeping dead leaves this way and that. It appeared as if she floated there. The hood of her cloak lay thrown back so that her blue-black hair tumbled down her back in long waves that seemed alive with slow movement as if being nudged by a zephyr…but no breeze stirred in the wood. Utterly still, the dark leaves of the forest hung from twisted branches, motionless as death itself. Her dark eyes flashed yellow and orange in the flicker of the tiny, dwindling fire. To Verdan, she was the most beautiful woman he had yet seen. A longing drummed mightily in his chest and pulsed in his loins. Thoughts of his future, his forbidden and ridiculous future, returned with great force.
“If she is one of your things, Gambol, I would gladly remain in this wood forevermore.”
Gambol said nothing. He sat with his mouth agape, a string of spittle dribbling down one side of his chin.
“And who might you be, my sweet?” Verdan asked.
She said nothing in return. She just stood there and began to change while Verdan and Gambol sat in the dim, unsteady light of the fire, watching, enchanted by the apparition of beauty that slowly moved and morphed before them.
Five riders, attracted by rude and unrecognizable wailing sounds coming from the stand of trees to their south, silently dismounted at the edge of the Black Wood, took their weapons in hand and ever so cautiously, quietly, moved in on foot. The strange sounds they heard from the road had faded into the darkness of the night, so they followed the almost imperceptible, undulating orange glow of a waning fire in the forest. None of them spoke and their leader motioned to them with his palm down to remain silent and to watch where they stepped. When they arrived at the small clearing, the fire had all but died away and only the dull glow of amber embers revealed that there were two twisted bodies half-covered in fallen leaves and undergrowth, the evidence of a recent and violent struggle everywhere about them.
“Stoke that fire,” the leader said, “so that we may see what we have here.”
The four others gathered dried leaves and twigs from the forest floor and teased the coals into a crackling, hot, sap-spitting blaze. As soon as the light of the new flames provided adequate illumination for them to see, their leader broke into a growling, howling laugh, sounding more akin to a wild animal after a fresh kill than a man.
“What we have here, my friends is the great Verdan Shak in the flesh if not in spirit. I would recognize that shield and curved blade of his anywhere. The other one must be his obedient and ever-present pet, Gambol Kam. I will take Shak’s blade as my reward and you men may share whatever is left. You…take off their heads so that we may carry them aloft on our victorious return. I’m sure that, between us, we can come up with a fitting tale of our heroism that will please the Elders and gain us favor in the Master’s eyes, not to mention impressing the womenfolk. What do you say?”
All of them shouted out their agreement and set to the gruesome task at hand. The men rolled the two bodies, first one way, then the other to free them from the tangle on the forest floor, while their leader strapped on Verdan’s scabbard and slid the huge, gracefully shaped blade into place, then removed it for all to see his prize from a battle not waged. One of the group looked up from the contorted remains and said, “I see no fresh wounds. What do you suppose killed them?”
“I don’t know,” he replied as he admired his new acquisition and how it glinted in the dancing firelight, “but from the startled look on their faces, I would dare say they died from fright.”
“Fright? What is there so dreadful as to take the life of a brave and powerful warrior like Verdan Shak?” one of the men said, while he neatly removed the head of Gambol Kam from his lifeless shoulders with a clean slash of Kam’s own heavy blade. He dropped Gambol Kam’s head unceremoniously into a coarsely woven sack.
“Now, how would I know that? All I can say is, that is not the look of a courageous warrior who died of a mortal wound in honorable combat or of old age, now is it?”
She came into the circle of pulsing yellow light as quietly as a soft breath of wind rattling and rustling blades of long grass before it. She seemed to have appeared out of the air itself. She gave them a beguiling smile.