This is the putative beginning of a story that features some characters created for other tales. Seusea has her own tales here on these pages, and I plan to do more with our Four Gladiator friends who feature here. Anyhow, this is where Seusea and the four men meet.
The island of Seit lay equidistant from the Three Rivers mainland and the rugged west coast of Stanov, smack in the middle of the most corsair-infested waters in the world. Nobody innocent or caring ever wanted to sail to Seit as it was inevitably a one-way trip for the puny and meek, assuming the unfortunate sap made it there alive at all. The island’s name to fame was gold, and of that commodity it had plenty.
Nobody knew the name of the sorceress who controlled Seit, and even fewer people ever saw her, but from her high fortress in the centre of the island, she ruled with an adamantine fist and her word was both law and command. Every pirate in the region was under her sway and the various masters and satraps of the coastal cities and towns in the region paid her tribute. Even the mighty Bacchante, Arch-duke of Telxerxes did nothing to antagonise her.
She was the Hand and to run afoul of that hand was an oppressive lifetime of toil in the mines if one was lucky, or a torrid death from hellfire if luck was not an option. The Hand knew no mercy, and her servants were equally as brutal in chastising those who crossed her or her interests.
Yet some did flout her interests. Thu’un-Jarahad or simply Jarad to those who knew him, stood on the bluff overlooking the road from the pirate’s town of Riaelo, tapping his teeth with the hilt of a dagger. A large spider crawled across his shoulder and he brushed it away absently. There was a sound behind him, and he turned slightly to see Horoth push through the bushes. ‘I hate this place, boss,’ the blond man said. ‘I hate bein’ this far fuckin’ south.’
‘How far off is the caravan?’ Jarad asked, accustomed to his friend’s complaints.
‘’Bout five minutes. Quoony will give the signal when it rounds that corner yonder. I got Bos camped across the way. We’ll pincer ‘em when they get here.’
‘How many guards did you count?’
‘Three caravan guards, one driver and one porter. All bully boys and not a real man amongst them.’
‘Five then,’ Jarad said. ‘This Hand bitch doesn’t expect much resistance, does she? She has this whole steaming corner shivering in their shoes.’
‘Could be one of the guards is a wizard. They’re common as dog’s balls down this way.’ Horoth saw the spider Jarad had disposed of and skewered it with his sabre. The creature made an odd hissing sound as its eight legs curled up. ‘The size of these creepin’ fuckers. I wonder if you can eat ‘em?’
‘I wouldn’t,’ Jarad answered. ‘Everything’s poisonous about here, and like you buddy, I’ll be glad to head north again.’
Horoth grinned and shook his trouser seams theatrically. ‘I’m surprised I have any fuckin’ nuts left with all this freakin’ sweat. How’s a soul to live here?’
‘They’re used to it down here.’ He met Horoth’s eyes. ‘You think there is a wizard among them?’
‘Qoony’ll fix him if there is.’
Jarad nodded. ‘Good. There’s too many of those down here too. Everywhere you go…sorcerers and wizards. Be glad to turn my back on them as well.’
Both men were silent for a while, eyes glued on the rutted trail through the jungle below them. A few minutes later, two mounted men came into view along the road and paused as a large carriage drawn by a train of six-legged reptilian beasts of burden. Jarad struggled to remember what they were called, but couldn’t think for long as Quoone’s high-pitched whistle shot out of the jungle. Jarad and Horoth snapped into action, racing down the slope, sabres drawn. The nearest guard died without knowing who or what hit him. The second turned to face the onrushing form of Horoth and had his sword halfway out of its scabbard as the blond man struck him a fearful blow across the neck. Gurgling, the man slid from the saddle and was already dead when he landed on the red mud of the trail.
It took Jarad a split second to assess the remaining threat. There was a middle-aged yet lithe-appearing woman in a sheeny blue tunic, standing four-square on top of the carriage and holding an elaborate staff in one hand. Two other men were rushing around from the rear of the carriage. Bos stepped out from the jungle and took one fellow’s head clean off with a mighty swing of his zweihander. The surviving guard threw down his sword and stood dumbly, his face ashen. Quoone struck him over the head, knocking him senseless. The sorceress spun about jerkily, her staff held out in front of her. ‘Who are you people? You don’t know what you’ve done.’
‘Get down from the carriage, wizard,’ Jarad ordered. ‘Unless you want my dagger to fulfil its romance with your heart.’
Bos nimbly climbed up to the roof. The wizard turned in a panic, to find the edge of the zweihander at her neck. ‘I yield,’ she muttered.
‘Good lady,’ Jarad said. ‘Get her down from there.’
Quoone kicked at the comatose form of the surviving guard. ‘What do I do with him?’
‘His paymistress doesn’t like failure, so he’ll seek his fortune elsewhere I imagine.’ Jarad knelt by the fellow and took custody of his weapons and what scant money he had. ‘Not even the price of a warm lager on him. This Hand cow doesn’t pay well, no?’
‘He’s a slaver,’ the bald man said, spitting. ‘Should meet his maker like the rest. This bitch too.’
‘He surrendered,’ Jarad countered, walking around the captured sorceress. ‘Either the Hand or the jungle here will take care of him. He’s not our problem any more.’ He stood in front of the wizard, who eyed him malevolently, her dark eyes smouldering. ‘But you lass, I’m not so sure to let you walk away. Your kind have this habit of turning up unannounced.’
‘Your mother didn’t know your father,’ the woman spat, eliciting gales of laughter from the four men.
‘You’re right,’ Jarad said, with a wink. ‘She didn’t. Hold this one, Quoony while I check out the cargo.’
The carriage was sealed save for a small rear door braced with iron bandings. The windows were barred and covered with a heavy black cloth. Curious, thought Jarad. Scared of what gets out, or what can get in? ‘Bring the wizard here,’ he ordered. When she was led to him, he pointed at the lock on the door, which seemed to glitter with an unholy light. ‘That got any wards on it?’
The sorceress did nothing but glare.
Jarad pulled out his dagger and seized the wizard’s right hand. ‘Your pinky will go first, so let me ask again.’
More defiance and silence. Jarad shrugged and with a single deft movement, sliced off the wizard’s left little finger. The wizard cried out in angry pain and tried to snatch her hand away, but Jarad’s grip was too strong.
‘The ring finger is next, lady.’
‘To Hjoll with you!’
‘You first.’ Another slash, another digit fell bloodied to the muddy road. The wizard screamed and buckled at the knees.
‘What are you gonna do when you run out of fingers?’ Horoth asked, grinning hugely. ‘Cut her toes off, mate!’
‘She’ll see things our way before then. Well wizard, what will it be?’
With her free hand, the wizard gestured strangely at the lock. At once, the glamour on it vanished. ‘There,’ she panted. ‘It’s done.’
Jarad sliced her throat open with a quick strike, and let her corpse sag to the ground. ‘Told you, you go to Hjoll first.’ He pried at the crude lock with the tip of his dagger, getting a satisfying click when the bolt shot open. He thrust the door open while his three companions watched. There was nought inside but a single person, trussed up with strong cords, a black hood over their head.
‘All of this for one slave?’ Bos asked, peering inside.
‘Looks that way,’ murmured Jarad as he got inside. The prisoner was a slightly-built woman from her shape, attired in dark brown form-fitting leathers and a pair of supple black boots on her feet. Jarad lifted her up under the shoulders and shimmied her out of the carriage, where he took off her hood. Underneath was a very pretty woman in her late twenties, slender of face, full of lip with a striking pelt of almost silvery white hair, standing out markedly against the tawniness of her skin. Her clear blue eyes flicked over the four men and a corner of her mouth turned up.
‘Things you find in the back of carriages,’ Bos remarked.
Jarad wiped his dagger on the clothes of the dead wizard. ‘Thought we’d find more. You understand our lingo, lass?’
‘Plain enough,’ was the answer. She glanced down at the cords binding her arms and thighs. ‘Do I get these off me?’
‘Sure.’ Jarad signalled, and Horoth sliced her bonds loose. ‘Why did the Hand place such a high value on you?’
‘May I ask who you lot are?’
Jarad gestured to himself and his companions. ‘I’m Jarad, this tall streak of glum misery is Bosvaran or Bos to his buddies, this bald toad here in Quoone and the happy, smiling giggler over there is Horoth. We have what you could call an aversion to slavery and the fuckers who practise it and I guess you could say we’ve made it our business to free people from their shackles and send their owners expediently to Hjoll.’
The woman glanced about at the corpses and nodded approvingly. ‘You did well, and I thank you. My name is Seusea and from the looks of you, you’re not from these parts.’ She studied the jungle either side of them. ‘Wherever these parts may be.’
‘The hot fucking parts,’ Horoth commented, flapping his blouse. ‘I admire your pluck, lass, wearing that tight getup. I’d melt inside that.’
‘I was born to this climate,’ Seusea said, smiling faintly. ‘Well, the last thing I can remember before that witch there caught me that I was heading for a place called Seit. Apparently I am of some interest to the tyrant who rules there.’
‘Real interest, if five are posted to guard one,’ Jarad said. ‘Seit is an island out east somewhere, and it’s run by a woman called the Hand, a sorceress of ability from all the talk we’ve heard. She has thousands of slaves working in her gold mines on the island and the poor buggers never see the hearth of home again so we’ve been foraying along this road for a few months now, staying low when needed and freeing folks such as yourself when the opportunity comes around.’
‘Again I thank you,’ Seusea said. ‘But it’s plain from your skin and speech you’re from parts faraway.’
‘That we are, and possibly places you haven’t heard of. Whence do you hail?’
‘Fenstre,’ Seusea answered. ‘And where that is from here, I don’t know. This could be somewhere thereabouts.’
Jarad shook his head. ‘Don’t think so. We’ve heard of no place named that. The nearest joint of any size is Riaelo, about a week’s ride west down this track. Miserable little pest-hole it is too.’
‘I have no idea where that is,’ Seusea said.
‘Marvellous,’ Quoone said. ‘None of us know where we are!’
‘Yeah I do, we’re in the rainy hell of the world,’ Horoth commented. ‘Look at those fuckin’ clouds comin’ over…is there a day it doesn’t rain around here?’
‘During the dry season, it only rains every other day,’ Seusea said with a smile. ‘You men are out of your element around here.’
‘Weather-wise maybe, lady,’ Jarad said. ‘But unfortunately the human element is the same wherever you go. Anyways Horoth, let these lizards free and we’ll get this carriage off the road. Let’s hide our tracks a little, and then we’ll discuss what comes next.’
Horoth went up between the row of beasts and freed them from their halters and tackle. With sibilant hisses, they scurried off into the jungle, elated to find themselves their own masters again. The four companions, with Seusea’s help, disposed of the bodies. The surviving brigand they set free, though he showed no proclivity to leave.
‘Where would I go?’ he asked. ‘I’m never gonna work for the Hand no more. She don’t like caravan guards who can’t guard if you get my meaning.’
‘I get it well,’ Jarad said. ‘What can you do?’
‘I worked on a banana farm.’
‘Go find another one, and don’t leave it this time. The grass isn’t greener, mate.’
The guard took to his heels. Bos watched him go, scowling. ‘He’ll go running to somebody.’
‘I don’t think so,’ Jarad said. ‘I think he’s just got a large dose of wisdom and he might actually heed it. Alright lady, you got a tale to tell.’
‘I think you gentlemen should go first,’ Seusea said, grinning. ‘Your lives are probably more interesting than mine.’
‘We freed you,’ Jarad said, matching her smile. ‘You owe us.’
‘Well, as I said, I’m from Fenstre and the fact you’ve never heard of my city tells me you must come from very far away. I’ve been told it’s one of the biggest places in the world. I was born in low circumstances, like most of the Society – what we call ourselves – and life was a struggle for me as a kid. One day, I was set upon by a group of men in a back alley and let’s just say that moment was a turning point in my life. My brother introduced me to the Hallilan, who are the thieves guild of Fenstre, among other things. In fact, calling them a thieves guild is a bit glib. Anyhow, my brother Lothmire trained me in their ways and after a few years, I was adept enough to work on my home, housebreaking and robbing. But I fell in love with the wrong man.’
‘Didn’t think women were that dumb,’ Horoth commented. ‘I thought only men did that.’
‘No, it doesn’t discriminate,’ Seusea answered. ‘This wrong man is powerful civic leader of Fenstre. At the time he had another woman, a Dyne by the name of Gladei Townmure. Gladei didn’t appreciate the attention I gave Thenson and bailed me up once and made it clear that if I continued to pursue Thenson it’d go badly. Well, what happened then was complicated. Gladei made life difficult for herself as because she was a Dyne, the men who rule Fenstre weren’t happy about that.’
‘Whoa stop lady,’ Bos said. ‘What’s a Dyne?’
‘Are there no magicians where you’re from?’ Seusea asked.
‘Not as many as there are around here, no. In fact, they’re quite rare in our part of the world. Only now a few, and none were women.’
‘Explains why you’ve never heard of the Dyne. They’re women – only women can be Dyne – and they ascribe to what sages call the Field of Peace, but I can tell you if they believe in peace, I definitely don’t want to see war. They’re as bloody as any tyrant. Gladei not so much, she was more subtle with her sorceries and…well, as I said, it’s a complex thing what happened next. Fenstre got invaded – sort of – by a different kind of magician and things went to hell a bit. But Gladei disappeared, and out of Thenson’s life, though things between myself and Thenson aren’t what they could be.’
‘Nope, they never are,’ Bos commented. ‘It’s why I’m single, lady.’
‘It’s because you’re ugly,’ Quoone put in.
‘Let Seusea continue, please,’ Jarad said.
‘I mentioned Lothmire,’ Seusea went on. ‘He’s my brother in the sense that we share a mother. Our fathers are different. He doesn’t know his father, and as for mine? That’s complicated as well. My father is from the land of Oloi, which is far to the northwest of here somewhere. It turns out my father is a Werra – a sorcerer and instead of inheriting his abilities, I have an immunity to magic. It simply doesn’t do anything to me.’ She sighed. ‘Which is why this Hand woman wants me, I suspect. To see what makes me tick.’
‘Is the Hand a Dyne?’ Jarad asked.
‘I would say so,’ Seusea said. ‘It’s rare for women to be anything else. Sometimes they’re mesmerists or obairai, and there’s been a few who have served the Attuned Wind, but most are Dyne, yes.’
‘I have no idea of anything you just said,’ Horoth said. ‘Except there’s a whole bunch of wizards around here of various stripes.’
‘Yes, there are,’ Seusea agreed.
‘What will you do now?’ Jarad asked.
‘I need to find out where I am and where Fenstre is, then try to make my way home.’
‘Only for this Hand woman to snatch you again.’ Bos said.
‘I won’t be that stupid the next time. And you gentlemen? What’s your story?’
‘We’re from the far north,’ Jarad said. ‘The nation we were born in is called Zamaria and I’ve been a gladiator since I was nine. Same with my three fellows. We freed ourselves from slavery and we’ve worked as soldiers as fortune ever since, with a particular liking for weeding out slavers and those who keep people in thraldom. After a few boat rides, we’ve found ourselves in this hot and wet corner of the world and there seems to be no shortage of slaves to free or their masters to deal with.’
‘So you are warriors?’ Seusea asked.
‘We like to think we’re a bit better than the common or garden foot soldier,’ Quoone said. ‘So far, we’ve been right. We’re still alive.’
‘What are your plans now?’
‘We’re going to do away with this Hand bitch,’ Bos said. ‘She seems to be the nastiest kind of bugbear around here. A girl that’s immune to magic and was trained as a footpad? Feel like helping us out?’
‘Sure,’ Seusea agreed. She broke out into a huge smile. ‘I’m certain I can put off going home for a bit.’