This tale takes place after Seusea goes north with the Four Gladiators. It’s a cold and windy night, an ideal setting for a tale.
The four sat around the table, and were soon joined by a fifth. Seusea, resplendent in her black leathers, wheeled a wooden cart over, and seated herself. Soon, drinks and food were being passed around, while a chill wind blew out of doors.
Seusea shivered, still not accustomed to these temperate climes, and threw a scowl at a slatted window that was rattling in the wind.
‘Don’t worry, lass,’ Jorad said. ‘It won’t get in.’
‘That doesn’t worry me, Jorad,’ she said. ‘What bothers me is why we’re heading up this way. I thought the action was scant around here.’
‘It is, but…’ Jorad gestured to Bosvaran, who was eating quietly. ‘I think he’d like to nose about for a bit. He’s left some memories in these parts.’
Quoone nudged Bos with a huge grin. ‘It’s a woman, ain’t it? There’s an old flame lurking around here somewhere.’
‘Ah, the mystery girl,’ Horoth put in. ‘You said that tale would be epic in the telling, Bos. On a cold night like tonight, I reckon you should spill it.’
‘I asked Jorad if we could hang in these parts for a while,’ Bos said. ‘At least till summer. Then we’ll head west.’
‘How far west?’
‘To the coast, then we’ll take a spring-time ship to Logisorde,’ Jorad said. ‘We’ll stay here until Bos gets word of…well, he can tell you the story.’
‘Now I am curious,’ Seusea put in. ‘It’s a woman we’re talking about, right?’
Bos nodded slowly. ‘Yes.’ He took a swill of his drink. ‘It is.’
‘What happened to her?’
The tall man shrugged. ‘We had a falling out, I suppose you’d put it. About the worst damned day of my life.’
‘Don’t tell me you were rude to her?’ Seusea asked. ‘I can’t imagine you being put out with a woman.’
‘Plenty are put out with him though,’ Quoone said, roaring with laughter. Horoth joined in, and even the usually reserved Jorad managed a brief smile.
‘Yeah well, I told her to go her own way, and she did.’
‘Here in Sirasau?’ Horoth asked.
‘Where was she from?’ Seusea asked.
‘That was a mystery I never solved,’ Bos said. ‘She had a northerner accent, so she was from somewhere up here. She knew this place like the back of her hand.’
‘This is a big place,’ Horoth commented. ‘For a shit-pile.’
‘You lot don’t know what a shit-pile is,’ Seusea commented. ‘Until you come to Myre with me.’
‘No thanks,’ Quoone said. ‘I’ve sweated enough for ten lifetimes.’
‘You get used to it,’ she said with a wink.
Bos coughed to get the conversation back on track. ‘If she’s not here, then I don’t know where she’d be.’
‘Where else would she go?’ Horoth asked.
‘The world,’ Bos said. ‘One town isn’t big enough for her.’
‘All right,’ Seusea said. ‘What was her name?’
Bos sighed. ‘Cythala. Most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Well, this is how we met…’
I was doing guard work for a merchant up near Tilander, and we were going to follow the edge of the Khuyor eastward until we got to Lobbain Ford. It was an easy run, good weather, no dramas and so I got complacent. A gang of bravos ambushed us along the desert’s edge barely half a day outside of Tilander. They got me with a paralysis dart before I could even blink, then they scored the loot and bundled us off to their hideout in the bluffs above the sea.
Bosvaran paused for a moment. ‘I tell you, it’s no fun to lie on your side, and all you can do is breathe. I couldn’t even scratch my ass. To cut it brief, it turned out we were to be sold into slavery. The bandit chief was a mean bastard who went by the name of Dhogan. He ran the gang with his missus, who was one of the least charming women I’ve met.
I was laid out stiff as a plank for days. Just breathing, blinking and pissing myself, staring at the world sideways. One by one, the gang carts out the paralysed men to a nearby slave broker. They seem to think I’m special and I remember a gaggle of them standing around, making comments about my worth and mettle. For whatever reason, I’m the last one left captive.
Then the gang all goes out, leaving me alone with a single bandit. This one sits beside me and tilts her head to meet my eyes. I’ll never forget her. At first, I thought she was a bloody boy with her mop top. So what does she do? She licks my damned face! Then wriggles her hand down my trousers and gives the family jewels a friendly squeeze. Not too hard, mind you, but enough to blur my vision.
Cackled like an old witch, she did. That’s when I knew she was a woman. Well, I thought she was a kid at the time, but I’m ahead of myself. But to top it off, she does the darnedest thing. She sits me up, props me against a wall, and wets my lips with water.
‘I didn’t sign up for this,’ she says. ‘It’s one thing to rob people, but make slaves of them.’ She wets my mouth again. ‘That’s something else, ain’t it?’
Being paralysed, I couldn’t yea or nay to that one, but I was thinking some pretty odd things by then. I’m no ladies’ man, but I don’t sit in a corner and suck my thumb either. In my experience, girls simply do not grab your junk the way she did. Or lick your friggin’ face. Right away, I knew I was dealing with a weird one. Boy, wasn’t I right about that?
‘They’ve gone back into Tilander to cash in on the plunder,’ she says. ‘Dhogan’s woman has the antidote to your stiffness somewhere.’ She grins at me. Beautiful white teeth too. She used her piss to clean them with. Reckoned it worked better than anything she ever tried.
‘I’m gonna find it, give you some, and then we’re out of here.’ She says, tweaking my nose. ‘You like that idea, huh?’ Then she plays with my lips like they’re a kazoo. I’m telling you guys, there’s nobody in the world like this girl. Nobody. I suspected at the time she was a bit daft upstairs, maybe lacking in some of her faculties. No, she was just smarter than practically everyone else and in a realm of her own there.
About now, I was beginning to feel a little hopeful. Five minutes later, she comes back and instead of giving me the antidote, she lies down beside me and starts staring. After a few confused moments, she rubs the ends of my nose, scratches my cheek and ruffles my hair, which was already ruffled enough. For good measure, she licks my face again.
‘I’m judging you to be a harsh but fair man,’ she says eventually. ‘Though I think you tend toward fairness more than hard. I’m taking a risk by freeing you, but what’s life without risks, hey?’ She kisses my nose, her breath smelling of celery. ‘Death! That’s what it is.’ She pries my mouth open, and puts a dab of bitter powder on my tongue, followed by a spot of water. A few seconds later, I feel tingling in my toes and fingers, and I can flex my hands.
Cyth gets up and stands away, watching me with curiosity. In short moments, I can move my legs and arms, and I’ve gotten myself in a sitting position. It took me a couple of goes to stand without toppling, but I did it. Finally there I was, recovered from the poison I was zapped with. My first thoughts were to find food and drink, as I was ravenous and thirst. I lurched toward a section of the cave I’d heard pots and pans in earlier, losing my footing twice.
Cyth was following me cautiously. ‘It’ll take an hour for the neutralised venom to leave your body. Then what will you do, I wonder?’
I never said anything, being too preoccupied with feeding my face. The gang had a goodly stocked larder. Lots of salted and spiced meat, and tuns of clean and fresh water. I gorged myself like a starving thing, tearing off chunks of meat with gusto. I must’ve eaten enough for five men before I was done.
At last, I took note of my benefactor. She was sitting on a chair in the kitchen area, cleaning her fingernails with a poniard. Instead of thanking her like a decent man would’ve, I asked, ‘Who are you?’
‘Was I right about you?’ she says. ‘Are you going to be grateful for your release, or are you going to exercise the will of a man far from the meddling eyes of anyone that cares?’
‘Huh?’ was my intelligent response.
She giggled. ‘I’m Cythala. What do they call you?’
‘Bosvaran. Bos mostly.’
‘That’s a southeastern accent. Where are you from?’
‘Tunqvist or Ornmia. I’m not sure. Nobody’s ever told me.’
Another huge giggle. ‘I take it your mother didn’t know your father?’
‘Nope. I barely knew my mother either.’
‘I don’t know either of my folks,’ she says. ‘Well, Bos of Tunqvist or Ornmia, what do we do now?’
‘We?’ I asked. I was having a hard time being polite. ‘I dunno about you, but I’m gonna track down this Dhogan fellow and teach him a lesson or six.’
Cyth was unfazed. ‘Then that’s what we’ll do.’
‘Girl, you don’t look like you can handle a kitchen knife let alone tangle with a bandit chieftain.’
‘Girl?’ she screeched. ‘I’m twenty-three, you oaf!’ She screws up her eyes. ‘Or perhaps twenty-four. I should settle on a date and count from then. But that depends on whose calendar system we use, I guess.’ Quick as a flash, she’s jabbing me in the chest with a skinny finger. ‘But I’m no girl, mister!’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘You’re no girl.’
She sticks her face in mine, and I get another lungful of celery. ‘I knew you wouldn’t be grateful. All you merc types are the same.’
I kissed her on the nose. ‘There you go. Thank you, Cythala.’
‘That’s Cyth to you.’
‘Cythala it is, then.’
‘You’re an inveterate smart-ass, as well as ungrateful.’
‘Yes, and this merc type is grateful. Just needed to take stock, is all.’
‘Have you taken it? Can we leave now?’
It was early morning when we left the hideout. There was a strong breeze blowing off Mialta, and a hint of the oncoming season was in the air. The hideout was well-disguised with its entrance hidden among a jumble of rocky boulders, but positioned good enough to that any observer camped out could see for miles.
‘Where’s Tilander from here?’ I ask.
Cyth skips past me, fluttering her arms as she goes. ‘If you come over here, you can see it. It’s about ten miles, if that.’
There was a grand vista where Cyth led me. We were on the edge of a tall escarpment overlooking a barren plain that rolled away westward to the blue murk of Mialta. I could see the thin ribbon of a road snaking north-south a few miles inland of the sea, and the northward extent of this crossed over a long arched bridge and went into the walled dump that is Tilander.
My eyes are good, but not great enough to spot individual people five or six miles away, but Cyth did. Excited and jumping like a possessed thing, she pointed out Dhogan. ‘That’s him. They’re just about to head into town. They’ll be back at sundown, so they said.’ She turns to me, her big goofy grin on display. ‘What’s our plan, boyo?’
The open air and the youth of the day had quelled some of the desire for revenge. Maybe this Dhogan jackass could keep, and I said as much to Cyth.
She was easy with that. ‘OK then, Bos of Tunqvist or Ornmia, what do we do now? Go to Tunqvist or Ornmia?’
‘Nope. I was gonna cross the Khuyor, probably to Moloskir or somewhere, and hang there for a season. Not keen on the cold up here in winter.’
‘Moloskir is a hole!’
‘So are Tunqvist and Ornmia. You have any better ideas, lady?’
‘None, but I ain’t going to Moloskir.’
‘You must’ve had something in mind when you were through with these jackals?’
A big sigh escapes her lips. ‘More like when they were through with me. Always had to have eyes in the back of my head. Especially with Olsa.’
‘Who is Olsa?’
‘Dhogan’s woman. She’s a mesmerist, and not an outstanding one, but good enough to addle your head if she’s of a mind to do so.’
‘That’s great,’ I muttered. So now not only did we have to deal with a cadre of thugs, but a sorceress too. ‘I hate wizards.’
‘I don’t wish them well either.’ She comes over to me, and sits down, a bony elbow jutting into my side. ‘We need to make our minds up, buddy! We can’t just linger here.’
And so there we were. Epitomes of indecision. I’m thinking that in spite of how I ended up where I was, it was a damned nice day. Cyth made it nicer by giving me the rest of her celery, and sitting beside me. So, like a good rabbit, I munched on that. I wasn’t hungry, and it had an odd taste, but I had to humour her. Already this early into our acquaintance, I knew she was volatile, and more flighty than a wrack of clouds over the desert.
I knew Jorad and the other boys were down Real Movier way, so about now I was entertaining the idea of going into Tilander and finding passage south. For all of Nae’s alleged lawfulness, there’s no dearth of mercenary work down there. Always some merchant or dunghill cock potentate wanting a hired hand. Plus, in Tilander, I might encounter Dhogan and give the bastard an education.
I put the idea to Cyth and she readily agreed. ‘Ain’t been to Nae. Lots of green hills and stuff, right?’
‘Lots of people with loads of dough too.’
She gets up, then immediately crouches down again. I saw why she did. A small knot of people had crested a nearby rise and were making their way to the hideout entrance. At their head was a diminutive woman who strode with a very determined step.
‘Olsa?’ I ask Cyth.
‘That’s her.’ Then she winks at me. ‘Lie low, I’ve got an idea.’
Before I could say a damned word, she whacks herself in the cheek with a rock, drawing a nice line of blood. Her eyes cross, and she totters, but before I could reach out and steady her, she’s off at a run.
‘Olsa!’ Cyth screams. ‘Olsa! The prisoner, he escaped!’
Now I thought I’d been set up, and that Cyth played me for a moron. I can tell you I saw several shades of red before it sank in what she was doing. Olsa ordered her lackeys to spread out and search for me, which was fine, as it isolated her.
Which was exactly what Cyth intended.
One came my way, an ugly fellow, even uglier than Quoone here. I waited for him to head down the escarpment a little, before I jumped him. He went down without a sound, for which I was grateful. All that enforced lying on my side had taken a bit of my edge away. I was in no condition to wrestle with any idiot today.
Now I had a weapon, if only a cheap sword that looked like a metal pole someone had bashed into shape. The main thing was it was sharp.
Cyth and Olsa had disappeared into the hideout. Apart from these two, there were still three goons out looking for me, and I found myself a better vantage point that overlooked the hideout entrance. One came by a few minutes later, and his head and body went separate directions shortly afterwards. I told you that sword was sharp.
This fellow was carrying a better one though, so I took it up and went prowling for the remaining two thugs. I found one relieving himself and he joined his mates in death moments later. The other heard the cries of the dying and came to investigate. After a few halfhearted swings, he realised I was his better, and took to his heels.
With the goons dealt with, I went to help Cyth. I strolled casually into the hideout, thinking that Cyth had things under control. Strolled straight into the lambent gaze of Olsa the mesmerist. My fingers went cold, and the sword clattered to the cave floor. I froze on the spot.
Olsa was a southerner, maybe from Real Movier or Tosban or somewhere close by. She was dark-skinned, and her narrow face was lined with strange ritual scarification, but those fucking eyes of hers! Almost colourless they were, but to me then, they were two beaming orbs of wonder I couldn’t avert my own eyes from. They held me better than any steel shackle.
‘The girl here tried to tell me you freed yourself,’ she says. ‘How remiss of her. Lies sing to me, stranger, but it’s plain to a cretin you had help, namely her. What did you two hope to accomplish?’
As I was under her spell, I couldn’t utter a word. Somewhere, in some pit of my mind, I tried to fight it, but it was useless.
‘From the blood on that sword, I’d say you bested my men. Very adept of you. You have the carry and appearance of a gladiator. Which arena did you fight in? Scaragest? Ornmia? Speak.’
My voice returned, though I was still stiff as a statue. ‘Ornmia.’
‘And you were set free by your lanista? I doubt that.’
‘I won my freedom.’
‘Did you? Dhogan was right to keep you alive. You are worth a fortune.’
‘If you’ve hurt Cyth, I’m going to kill you slowly.’
A thin smile appeared on her scarred face. ‘Bravery and spirit.’ Without removing her evil eyes off me, she bound my hands with a thong. Then I was guided to the ground. With that, she looked away, and my mind felt as if it had been thawed out. By Etos’s right ball, being under that kind of sorcery is terrible.
Alas for me, she was as good with her knotcraft as she was deranging minds. I couldn’t get any purchase on my binds. I figured if I could get to my feet, I could barrel the bitch over before she snared me again.
She was reading my mind, I was sure of it. We locked eyes again, and all will fled from me. Where Cyth was I didn’t know. In the few moments my brain was my own, I couldn’t see her anywhere.
And Cyth said Olsa was an average mesmerist. I dread the day I meet an exceptional one. ‘We’ll wait for Dhogan to return, then we’ll move down the coast,’ she says. ‘Reconso runs a tidy slave market down there, and you won’t be escaping from his barracoon. The Oloii will pay your weight in silver.’
‘I make a poor slave,’ I said.
‘Truly?’ Olsa snaps her fingers, and to my matchless relief, Cyth appears from a side cave. Her expression is wooden, and eyes downcast though, and she walks like a sleepwalker. ‘You’ll be dosed with the same mixture I gave this trollop. Open your mouth.’
I struggled, but her sorcery was too good. Ere long, I was kneeling on the ground, mouth open like a newborn babe awaiting his mother’s teat.
Crack! Olsa staggered, and blood poured down her face. She croaked something inarticulate, then fell dead on her face, a machete wedged firmly in the back of her skull. I blinked like a fool as my senses were mine again, and Cyth stood over me, grinning in her mischievous way. ‘Being a slave isn’t on our horizon today, buddy.’
‘Thank fucking Etos for that.’
It eventuated that the celery Cyth was gobbling contained some kind of counter to the mind poison. Of course, she was able to put on a good act, and so won the day for the both of us.
This time I was grateful for her saving my life. We spent the rest of the morning cavorting in Olsa’s big bed, and I won’t go into the details, but she was as cheeky and inventive in her lovemaking as she was everything else.
And that’s how we met.
‘That wasn’t quite epic in the telling,’ Horoth commented. ‘But it helped pass a windy evening.’
‘You tell the next tale then,’ Bos retorted. ‘We’ll decide which is more epic.’
‘You’re on. Remember my jaunt to Girkent Miel a couple of years back? I met an interesting umm…individual on the way.’
‘That blood-sucking thing you raved on about?’ Quoone asked.
‘It’s a bit rough to describe Juonte like that, but that’s the essence of it.’
‘I look forward to hearing your miserable and inept recounting of it.’
Seusea put up an interjecting hand. ‘One thing I want to know. Did you get Dhogan?’
‘No, but Cyth did. Got him with the same potion Olsa was gonna use on me, and she sold him in turn to Reconso the slaver. Reconso probably had Dhogan’s balls cut off that very afternoon.’
‘And when did you two sunder your relationship?’
‘That’s another epic tale,’ Bos said sourly.
The slats on the windows rattled again, and Jorad threw them a glance. ‘We’re not going anywhere in a hurry, so spill your guts, Horoth. Let’s hear it.’