Edition 15: Serial Fiction: The Morland Basking Plain (Book I of III) by Arthur Davis
Logan Drewry begins his escape into the desolate Morland Basking Plain in a desperate bid to outrace the troops of the Grand Satrap. His foolhardy decision may not only cost him is life, but the cause of the people he is trying to flee. Old enemies and new will attempt to take their shot at the famous warrior, but will it be the desert that finally claims victory over him? SY
Logan Drewry stood on the shallow overhang and stared out absently at the southernmost shore of the Morland Basking Plain. The sea of parched desert wasteland stretched from the vastness of the Jascent Green in the west to the Fermoil Embankment, and beyond to the Cuniois Seas in the east that it was said led to the Frozen Horizon.
He dismounted and checked his leggings, loosened the sheath of his sword around his waist, unstrung his bow and unhitched his flask of murl and finished off its biting contents. “The last drop for the last man,” he said, with a shrug.
He remounted, patted Rampart’s mane and gave the horse a firm kick in the flanks with the heel of his boots. They made their way down the scrub cliff to the border where verdant land met what some ancient tribes called the beginning of the end of the world. “We can do this boy,” Logan said, reassuring his horse as well as himself.
Rampart was hands taller at the shoulder and measurably larger than horses from which his fighting breed had descended. A match for Logan Drewry’s seven feet, four inches, the silvery-black beast was capable of feats of endurance and agility that would be difficult for any skilled rider in the ancient world of Carmodia to believe, except as myth. The trek they had been on would have overtaken the best of steeds but Rampart was generations ahead of the best of his kind. Logan gave him full rein to make his way down to the crusty fringe of the Morland Basking Plain knowing that there was a good chance neither of them would survive the crossing.
He also knew that to remain in Ultar would mean certain death at the hands of the Satrap’s Legions or, more certainly, the Desert Guard that had been pursuing them since his trail swung north towards the Morland. This time they were closer and well equipped and Logan sensed they would be eager to capture or kill man or beast. Either would be a singular prize, especially if returned alive to the Grand Satrap.
“We’re in this together my friend,” he said, communicating the full measure of his concern. The last ration of their food and water were consumed last night. This was the first time since sneaking through the Legion’s encampment outside the city walls of Ultar undetected that they had a real opportunity to pause under the withering glare of the twin suns. Even with the likelihood of killing desert hares and giant moles the size of a man’s foot, or catching foul-tasting lime fish upon which every desert beast prayed, they still needed water to survive.
By now, the string of the Satrap’s outposts throughout the Jascent Green and the Fermoil Embankment must have been alerted to Logan’s presence. The commander who made the capture or kill would certainly advance to a command post, in addition to being granted any number of tynes. He could take their life or enslave their children, or they could earn tynes or wishes, through which they could fulfill momentary desires.
If he could get back to Tunduria on the far northern side of the Morland Plain Logan knew he would be safe. Even the Satrap knew his men wouldn’t survive the marauding tribes that controlled the mountains and deep impenetrable valleys of Tunduria. If Logan were to be taken by the Satrap’s desert command it would be in the hell of the Morland.
“Beware the Dragons of Eden, for they will surely consume your soul as you sleep in the night,” Logan said, invariably referring to the winged devils that plagued northern Tunduria by sucking their prey’s spirit while they slept, whenever he was in a dangerous and impossible situation.
He took the reins and stepped out across the rutted surface that would soon degenerate into a maze of unmapped natural hazards over which few men had survived.
“Beware,” he began then softened his tone so the horse would not pick up his fear.
Though there was no sign of the Satrap’s troops. They couldn’t be more than a half a day’s lag behind which meant that advanced reconnaissance scouts could be less than an hour off his trail. He had to travel during the day. The commander, whoever he was, would eagerly sacrifice any number of his men to get a precise reading and location on one of the Satrap’s most reviled enemies.
Marcos Xzen listened as his scouts reported back, their red skin ablaze with the fire of pursuit, their long jet-black hair soaked with the expectation of the kill. He had trained these men. They would endure for him or die in the effort. They knew they would be the first to fight, the first to die or first to face him and the consequences of their impudence and cowardice. They would follow him into the devil’s cauldron, just another name for the Morland Plain. They would do whatever it took to bring back Logan Drewry. And they understood few would return from the pursuit.
“We spotted him four leagues from the southern crest of the Morland,” one of the scouts reported. “I left two of my men to mark his trail while I returned with these five for new troops. I lost two in the chase.”
“What of Altermar?” Xzen questioned.
“One of the two shadowing Drewry.”
“And of Rampart?”
Knowing his commander’s passion for horseflesh, the warrior responded thoughtfully. “His strides are twice the length of any of my best steeds, sir. You would think he was traveling without a rider.”
“I don’t know which I want more, Logan Drewry or that black demon,” Marcos Xzen openly confessed, ordering a fresh platoon to speed out ahead of the column and advising his commanders that they would be engaging Logan Drewry before sunset.
Some were enthused by the warning and finished off their murl in anticipation of the battle. Others would have preferred it otherwise. Marcos Xzen absently touched the long scar that traced a three-inch streak down his right cheek. A present from his last encounter with Logan Drewry. That was over two years ago when he was a Captain commanding a small garrison in the southern part of the Jascent Green. Now he was less than a day from returning the gift, and more.
The Satrap had commissioned Marcos Xzen, one of his most dedicated commanders at the head of his finest desert unit to bring back, “the head or the soul of Logan Drewry” and Xzen was prepared to sacrifice every man in his quest.
Logan moved ahead of Rampart without the reins. They had trained together, lived, and fought together. Sometimes he thought the animal understood what was on his mind even before he did. Hopefully he was wrong. The last time he turned back to pat the beast he noticed a small swirl of desert dust over the crest of the rim of the Morland. It had to be deep desert scouts reconnoitering ahead of the main column. As long as Rampart didn’t know the impossibility of their position, he would fight when the time came, as though they had a chance of winning. Logan hefted his sword out of the long leather sheath and casually flipped the long blade over his shoulder. Rampart immediately recognized this as a sign that they weren’t in danger.
The two scouts of the deep desert patrol stood at the crest engaged in a fiery debate. They knew Drewry was one or two leagues ahead. In a forced, undetected dash, they might catch him if he was on foot. Donig, the smaller of the two, wanted nothing to do with the irresponsible act. Altermar, the taller and more aggressive of the pair, with his hair ornately decorated into a long black glistening ponytail, insisted they go for the kill.
“Think of the prize for his capture or death,” Altermar urged his cautious companion.
Both men were seven feet tall and weighed over three hundred fifty pounds. They were seasoned warriors, trained by Marcos Xzen to obey orders, though they were also taught the importance of using initiative if and when the situation merits.
“Think of what the Satrap will grant us if we bring back the head of Logan Drewry.” Altermar was already pulling his sword from his scabbard as if he were about to do battle. His horse reared up and whinnied. The excitement was contagious. “Come my friend, we will make history.”
Donig was a simpler soul, having taken to the life of a warrior when life as a farmer no longer made sense. He was tough, trusted and battle hardened and had no trouble imagining the tynes and honors bestowed on the two of them if they succeeded. Or the cloud of vultures swarming over their gutted carcass if Logan Drewry was half the man of his legend. “Or we will die.”
“You may, but I have other plans,” Altermar yelled back, and smacked the flat side of his broadsword against his horses flank propelling him over the crest of the Morland. Donig cursed his luck and followed.
Logan soon spotted the trail of dust rise over the horizon behind him. The thin strip snaked a hundred feet into the late afternoon sky. Three or four men at most, Logan estimated. There was at least a five or six day trek ahead of him and, with no food or water or murl left, it was doubtful that he or they would reach the other side of the Morland anyway. If the heat and dehydration didn’t get them, then the giant desert vipers and rapine vultures surely would. Logan wanted to believe that with his skill and resourcefulness, he could find and live off the meat from a giant mole or a few hares and even a lime fish or two. However, hunting them while trying to elude a heavily armed command of desert troops may have been more unrealistic then he first envisioned.
This was an ideal opportunity to take a stand and take the fight to the outnumbered pursuit party, the resources of which he had already made plans to appropriate. “You feel like a fight, boy?” he asked, taking Rampart’s muzzle in his hand and bringing it close. A few slaps on the side of the animal’s chest signaled the possibility of a fight. “A chance to have our way with a few of the Satrap’s desert scum?” Rampart gave a deep whinny and instinctively turned around to face the oncoming enemy.
A half league away the two scouts drove on at a fierce gallop. “Horse killers,” Logan said, indifferent to see their diminished number and continued to pat Rampart’s neck and whisper into his ear. It was the same lyrical poem his father whispered to him to calm his fears when he was a child. It told of honor and great kings, of noble deeds and greater courage. It told the just always prevailing over the malevolent. When the two scouts were a few hundred yards away Logan mounted Rampart, moved to where the sun was at his back but did not give his customary war cry or charge. He waited for them to draw even closer and to make sure they were not followed by another two, or twenty.
When the two were a few dozen yards away, Altermar began to wield his sword overhead and yelled across the bleached white Plain, “It’s your turn to die, Logan Drewry.”
Donig moved his horse off to the left to distract and give Drewry two different targets. The man was as imposing as his horse. Donig had been born to the eastern edge of the Fermoil Embankment. He had seen many traders on foot and in caravan in his travels. They were of all sizes and skins. There were fierce, menacing men who would take your head as quickly as they would take your woman. As he soured of life and became more amenable to the Satrap’s recruiting efforts, he developed a sense of the possible and the improbable. He wanted to call Altermar back from his foolhardy affront. He also wanted to see how the dark-skinned Drewry, who was so unadorned considering his reputation as a savage fighter, would respond to the challenge.
Logan finished his poem in silence and tightened his legs against Rampart’s sides.
“Are you afraid? There are only two of us?” Altermar continued with contempt.
This bothered Donig. He had no illusions about what they were up against. But his companion was without doubt the strongest and most skilled of Marcos Xzen’s desert warriors. Perhaps there was a chance against a man who it was told could slay two men as quickly as ten.
“How much do you value your lives?” Logan said in a voice so soft and calm it was nearly drowned out by the still wind.
“The only thing I value is your head at the end of my sword.”
Logan turned to the other scout. “Are you as witless as your friend?”
“You speak with me, not with him, Logan Drewry,” Altermar demanded, as Drewry gently turned Rampart around so only his right flank would be showing towards the larger scout. Small gold and silver metals adorned the red warrior’s long ponytail. From his size and agility as a horseman, this was not a soldier to be trifled with. Logan did not intend to take the man’s fighting abilities for granted, only his pride. He could have taken him and the other scout down with two arrows long ago if he had so desired. It was just not wise to waste or damage arrows he knew he would need later in the chase.
Logan kicked back his heels. Rampart gave a lurch, as he had on so many occasions, as Logan’s left hand unleashed a rapier from the sheath in his left boot hidden by the horse’s body. The silver dagger spun out so quickly that the smaller scout, not being in the line of fire, noticed it first. Altermar spotted the blinding metallic flash coming out of the sun when it was only one full turn away. By then there was no chance to defend himself. The tip of the wavy, foot-long blade punctured the side of his neck as he tried to spin away. The impact of the throwing dagger was so powerful that it sent him back and over the hindquarters of his horse and he splayed out on the baking desert floor.
Altermar staggered to his feet, looked back at Logan Drewry who, it seemed had not moved, and then at his partner, as if that single gesture would save his life. Green blood covered his thick woven leather tunic and spilled down the side of his leg. He collapsed onto his knees, his eyes wide in shock and disbelief. He swore he would repay Drewry tenfold for this insult. He tugged at his sword, struggling until he could no longer command his body, and the gurgle of his own blood could no longer be heard. A small rabbit darted out of its burrow chasing a dung beetle, stopping short of the large warrior’s still body. The rabbit looked up then quickly scurried back into its hole.
Logan turned to the other scout, “Bring me my dagger.”
Donig’s first thought was to turn and run, but then realized that where there was one dagger that could cut through the air and nearly slice a man in two, there were probably more. He also knew that Drewry was an expert marksman with bow, though it remained slung across his broad back. Moreover, out here there was no place to run. No place to hide. Altermar had learned that terrible lesson quickly, and too late.
Donig dismounted with the look of a man on the way to his own funeral. The only thing on his mind was that he hadn’t been with a woman in months. Then he pushed back the present and remembered the last time he was in a tavern and enjoyed a cold drink, savoring a fine piece of heavily seasoned meat.
He walked up to his dead companion. The faint trickle draining from the wound meant the large man’s heart no longer throbbed. The dagger was longer than Donig had first judged and was buried up to the hilt, half the shank protruding from the back of the warrior’s thick neck. It had to have been thrown from twenty, maybe thirty yards away. It was an impossible shot, much less to throw it with such force and accuracy from the saddle of a bolting horse. He wanted to ask Logan Drewry if he was going to kill him, but realized that such a question would be foolish, and its answer, obvious.
He held the side of Altermar’s head with one hand and withdrew the blade from the neck with the other. A gush of blood spilled out of the wound. The dead warrior did not stir from his position. The smaller man stepped away. The head scout was a formidable adversary. He had tangled with nearly every fighter in training and yet was so quickly outwitted and brought down by Logan Drewry that it hardly seemed a fair fight at all. Donig believed his death too would be unfair, even more so, and marched off the distance with a sense of finality. As he approached, he finally noticed the girth and deeply muscled contours of Drewry’s mount for the first time.
“He’s a beauty,” Donig commented and handed over the dagger to Logan’s outstretched hand.
From wrist to shoulder, Logan Drewry’s arm was a burnished, knotted mass of sinew and throbbing veins so compelling that it looked like it possessed a life all its own. The scout decided not to ask for leniency but noted, as he pulled away, the calm in the man’s crystal blue eyes. The dagger was cleaned and returned next to its mate inside of Logan’s left boot. Disregarding Donig, Logan rode over to both of the riderless horses, removed their full flasks of murl and water, and stripped their quivers of arrows. A small container of dried fowl meat was a welcome addition to Logan’s nonexistent supplies.
Doing waited and watched. The man seemed in no rush, displayed no emotion or sense of urgency even though it was understood that the heart of the patrol must quickly be closing the distance between them.
“What would you do to save your life?”
Donig stiffened defensively. “I am a soldier of the Grand Satrap,” he said, more out of habit than pride.
“You are being given two choices. To live or die. Death does not know of disgrace or honor. There is no murl or perfumed women in hell. There are no cool springs in which to soothe your wounds or fill your insides, just the stink of your own rotting carcass. Is that what you’re choosing?”
Donig was surprised. The question was not proffered with contempt or conceit and not made as a victor would to the vanquished. It was more a simple gesture and not a question that would determine the outcome of a man’s life. “What do you want?”
“I want you to remain with your companion as if you had gotten here too late to save him and too prudent to track me alone.”
“And not return to my troops and warn them?”
“In exchange for your life.”
“That’s not asking much. I had no intention of returning when they’re probably a few leagues back”
“Then why do you hesitate?”
“Because I didn’t expect mercy.”
“And I didn’t expect to find a fool,” Logan said, aware that every minute talking brought his adversary closer.
“I will wait and tell them that I was thrown from my horse during the fight and that your horse was as fresh as you were and that I believed with the food and water and murl you took from us, you had adequate provisions for yourself and your horse to make the passage in less than the turn of five suns. I will tell them you rode off in a gallop in twice the time it takes for them to get here.”
“Then you’ve earned your life.”
“I’ve only given you a small measure of what it’s worth to me.”
“I will not forget this.”
“And for that I am grateful,” the scout said.
“Another thing,” Logan began as Rampart became uneasy about the two mares tethered close by his side, “who is your commander?”
“Marcos Xzen,” Donig answered as Logan turned the large beast and moved away in an unhurried gallop. Donig stood there disbelieving the existence of his own life. What kind of warrior would offer a life for an enemy’s word? Marcos Xzen would need every one of his thirty to take down Logan Drewry, the scout concluded. He then considered how thirsty he was going to be before he was found and sat down, thinking that the reports of Logan Drewry’s great and terrible offenses against the Satrap might just be a convenient political fabrication.
The scout drew out his sword and waited for the sand vipers and rapine vultures to locate the carrion. It was a matter of luck whether Marcos Xzen would arrive before they did. Maybe it would be better that the commander see the one dagger wound in the throat of his best fighter? Maybe it would be better to tell Marcos Xzen that Logan Drewry bested the commander’s best after a savage fight, and only his arrival on the scene after the battle was concluded was enough to drive off the traitorous Drewry.
Donig measured the thirst on his lips, took hold of his sword as though he were under attack, and put enough distance between himself and his companion so that when the sand vipers struck they would not mistake carrion for coward.
“Stop acting like an ill-mannered gypid,” Logan warned, comparing Rampart’s glutinous thirst to the foul gypid pig, and cupped water in his hands so the stallion could drink. “We have to make this last. As it is, you and I are going to weigh a lot less if we make it across.” Rampart steadied his tongue and licked Logan’s hands dry. He smelled the nutritional stimulant murl even through the flasks. Logan gave his stallion a slap on the rump whenever he began sniffing around the potent liquid.
He hoisted himself up on the smaller scout’s mare. What a difference from straddling the massive girth of Rampart. The animal seemed fresh, but unsteady. He took the reins, immediately communicating who was in charge.
Logan sighted to his rear and then ahead into the parched land that lay before him, remembering the events that led up to his journeying down through the Jascent Green and into Ultar, the territory controlled by the Grand Satrap. He had no regrets about undertaking the dangerous journey. It wasn’t his first and, gifted as he was, he believed he should somehow pay back the gods for their generosity, by not only knowing the difference between right and wrong, but by doing something to clearly define the margins of both.
“You will be on your own until you reach The Horinth Vortex in the Green,” the Vizier of Tundria said, his pointer tracing out a detailed path through the tribes that were believed allied with the Satrap. “Here; this is where you’re to meet up with Grogan and his men. They’ll guide you down into Ultar.”
The map on wall of the Vizier’s chambers covered all known land and seas. There was the major continent of Carmodia, surrounded by a myriad of islands and vast oceans infested with hundred-foot long, fanged serpents and boiling whirlpools that it was said could drag down an entire armada. “You must get through. You must tell them that we are not ready. If they think we are and expose themselves too soon we will not be able to come to their aide. I won’t let them die for nothing.”
Logan was neither a politician nor a diplomat. He had survived, fending for himself, stealing food, learning how to fight and win at all cost, after his family and their tribe were decimated by legions of Tirpits that stormed out of the high North Country and sent many of his people fleeing into the Morland and, the few fortunate, into the Jascent Green. He was one of a hundred or so who survived of the thousands from his tribe. Those memories were now so faded and forgotten he regarded his parents and twin brothers as merely talismans of what he had left behind seventeen years ago.
Logan knew little of Attamore Grogan, only that he wasn’t friendly to the Grand Satrap, or anybody who couldn’t enhance his wealth. He was the most feared pirate and trader in the northern Green. Logan just wasn’t certain that meeting him so close to the deadly Horinth Vortex was such a wise idea. “What if I cannot link up with Grogan?”
“If you get to the Green, he will find you. He is the finest tracker, a master of disguise and has spies within some of the Satrap’s allies. Just get there and let him do the rest.”
“And the Vortex?” Logan said recalling tales of its unpredictability.
“Grogan is probably the only man with a sense of its movement. So don’t be alarmed by staying the course I’ve given you even if you think you’ll come into contact with the Vortex.”
That journey took nearly a month and ended in failure after Attamore Grogan took Logan as far south as he could. Successfully avoiding the Vortex was a simple task for Grogan, to whom Logan took an immediate liking. The two men shared food, murl, and tales of their conquests, and found a common bond in their orphaned childhood. They had grown into their reputations by surviving those who would see them sent to the netherworld. Within days after leaving Grogan, Logan sensed he was being followed. He just didn’t know why, or by whom.
The deeper he rode south into Ultar the more certain he was of being tracked, not hunted. Someone, most likely connected to the Satrap, wanted to find out what he was doing in Ultar. Such information would fetch a fair price to the right people. By the time he arrived in the center of the city he knew he would have to turn back in order to avoid exposing the members of the resistance who were also looking out for him.
After two days stalking him through the markets, the Satrap’s agents also realized that whomever he was going to meet had spotted them too and they were better off overtaking Logan Drewry now rather than losing his trail forever. There were proven, painful and most often fatal ways of making men talk. When the four men dressed as beggars approached him, a fight broke out. Three were killed; one was badly wounded along with two bystanders in the confines of the narrow streets leading to the slave market, which was where he was supposed to link up with the resistance.
After the incident in the slave markets of Ultar, he fought his way out of town and rode north to the southern rim of the Morland Plain and was faced with the impossible choice of going on, or being taken and tortured to death, or worse, made a spectacle of in the annual games, before being fed as sport to giant fanged beastrons.
Scanning the horizon while consuming a tasteless strip of the scout’s dried fowl, Logan knew there was nothing he could do about his tracks. If the wind picked up it might erase his steps, though the markings of three horses in the dry wasteland would require many hours of sustained wind to erase completely. If not, Marcos Xzen would have no trouble in tracking him down. Of all warriors, it had to be Marcos Xzen. No wonder the Satrap chose him for this command.
Logan thought of the red-skinned scout he had just killed, the man whose life he had spared, the reality that he could perish in this godforsaken inferno and, that which had been a persistent image over the last few days, the vision of Jemaliah, the woman from the slave market, seen while he was trying to evade the Satraps agents.
She had to be the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, possessing a figure voluptuous and full of promise. She had spotted him darting through the crowd near the vendor’s stalls, teeming with fruit and vegetables brought in fresh from the outlying farms. Most people stood back from the man a half a foot taller than their tallest. And yet, she had not pointed him out to the agents.
He might never see her or the rolling green hills of his home again. He would rot in the stinking heat of this foul land that wouldn’t even let bones rot long enough to last a season.
Without notice or reason, the ground underneath the horse’s hooves went from caked and dry to a slippery yellow glaze. In parts there were broad, broken areas covered with small glazed stones that reflected the fire of the two suns. Logan couldn’t decide whether they were put there, by man or beast or god.
Whatever god had designed this hellhole must have been stricken senseless by the very yellow fury he had created. Logan understood green valleys, thick forests stretching to the horizon and rich brown soil. He understood man’s attraction to that life-giving land. Most of the northern and central lands of the Jascent Green were similar to his homeland.
Logan was feeling sorry for himself when he felt a tug at the reins. He turned. There were no vultures in the sky indicating the position of the scout he left behind to mark his dead companion’s place, or other signs of the Satrap’s troops. Yet Rampart was uneasy and yanking back the reins clutched in Logan’s grip. The other mares were also agitated. “What is it boy?” Logan asked softly, pulling in both animals and offering them more assurance. “What’s the matter?”
They had passed a school of frenzied, thrashing lime fish some time back but gave no thought to chasing after the puny, foul tasting desert dish. No desert storms rose on the steamy, undulating horizon; those you could see build in their blackness and twist their way across the desert floor long before they struck. Not that it mattered. There was so little under or behind by which to protect yourself that, except for a few distant stone outcroppings, this part of the Morland looked like it had been scoured smooth by the stiff hand of Tyr, god of war, himself.
Rampart gave another nervous whinny. Then another. The animal he was riding was so spooked she kicked up her hind legs and a torrent of sand as though she were fighting off invisible devils.
Logan freed Rampart’s reins along with the other horses, jumped from the scout’s mount, pulled his sword from his scabbard and stepped away. He had hoped to avoid such a battle but now there was no choice. There certainly was no place to run. Finally, he felt the ground vibrating beneath his feet as Rampart and the other horses had apparently been sensing for some time. There was no way to tell from which direction they were going to attack or how many there were. Only that it was only a matter of time before the giant sand vipers struck. Logan now understood the lime fish were as panicked as his three horses.
He turned around on his heels trying to position himself. There was no good place to stand, no safe place to hide. This was one reason why so few ventured out onto the Morland, or even hunted along its shores. Whoever did rarely returned, including his family and many of his people after the Tirpits struck.
Some said the green and black vipers were hundreds of feet long. Logan wouldn’t have long to find out the answer. The two scout horses took off in a panic. Fortunately, he had already firmly lashed the murl and water flasks to Rampart who reared up, kicking out at invisible demons. There was no way to calm him over the thunder that was building around them. Logan was thinking he would rather have the stallion live, and be sacrificed himself if necessary, when the face of the desert split open.
The head of the giant desert viper broke through the surface baring two curved white fangs, each as long as Logan’s broadsword. It arched fifty feet overhead and dove back into the sand, coming up again in half the distance so quickly its tail had not yet risen from the spot from which it first appeared.
“Mother of the mountains,” Logan declared, more surprised by the sheer size of the beast than in fear for his life. He stepped back a few paces as Rampart veered off to the right and galloped away.
Logan hefted his father’s sword. It had held up against the finest metal ever crafted; its blade cut through heavy branches as though they were a man’s midsection, plucked birds out of the air, and never needed sharpening. But here, in the open desert against an adversary hundreds of times its master’s measure, Logan believed it would be of little value. If he got close enough to use it, he would probably wind up trying to cut open a hole out from within the putrid wash of poisons in the animal’s festering gut.
Logan thought of calling to Rampart to retrieve his bow and arrows. But what good would the flicks of an arrowhead be against an animal with skin thought to be as thick as the stone walls that protected Ohem, the ancient capital of Tunduria.
Logan held his ground as the viper arched up again, paused and centered its attack. “At least there’s only one,” Logan said, half-jesting. His fingers tightened around the hilt, his heels dug themselves into a final stand. If he was quick enough to sidestep the beast, he would get only one cut of his blade to do any damage. If the animal was so stupid, or if he were that fortunate. Whatever he had fought before now, this animal was far and away one who had never met defeat.
He hefted the sword into position, held his body taught and looked the devil in the eyes when suddenly the viper swerved sharply away, as if an invisible hand had struck it down.
“Coward. There is only one of me. Not much of a meal for a hideous dragon like you,” he said trying to figure what the serpent was up to and spun around the sword overhead until the blade was a silver and gold blur.
He steadied his sword, briefly blinded by the reflection of the sun off its polished, broad surface. He thrust it away as if it had bitten him and not the viper. “Is that it?” he asked himself and, without really thinking, dropped to his knees, set the tip of the blade vertically into the ground and pivoted the metal shaft back just so slightly so that the reflected sunlight shot out from its gleaming surface.
The fiery yellow beam flared out for hundreds of yards. But this time the viper’s attack came quickly and struck a lot closer. The ground underneath Logan’s feet buckled and split, throwing him far from the sanctuary of his logic. The viper’s head broke through the surface but in the turmoil of desert dust, it couldn’t locate its victim. It sank back slowly then sighted Rampart standing at some distance. When Logan saw the viper set its sights on his stallion, he jumped up, flashed his sword overhead, and screamed to get the monster’s attention. When it finally worked, the viper did not charge, but shifted its head from side to side as though it were inspecting the measure of its next meal.
“Come on you slithering gutless bastard. Take me,” Logan cried. As if the creature understood his insult, it raised up its body a dozen more yards from the hole in the desert floor then dropped down until it had covered half the distance to where Logan was standing.
This time Logan did not think or pause. He simply shifted the blade until he saw the yellow beam shoot across the desert surface racing as fast toward the beast as the dragon lunged toward it. When the blinding swath of light struck the eyes of the viper it reared back jerking its head from side to side trying to avoid the torment of light. It bared its fangs in frustration and pain, and pulled back and slowly disappeared back down into the desert sea.
Logan held the blade steady, perfectly positioned so that the yellow beam clung to the viper’s eyes until the animal was fully concealed beneath the floor of the Morland Plain.
From where Marcos Xzen stood looking out through his primitive scope, except for the dust cloud kicked up by the fight, the sight before him made no sense. The desert viper was a hundred times the size of the horse that carried his enemy and yet the man fought back the great monster without so much as a blow. His captains tightened ranks around him asking what he had seen.
“We must get down to the scouts,” he answered sharply, lowering his view through the glass scope to the scout sitting alone as far away as possible from the kneeling body of Altermar, once one of his most decorated warriors.
Xzen raised the scope once more and watched the faint speck of Logan Drewry continue his journey north trailed by his horse as if nothing had happened. At least the two scout horses were nowhere to be found—food for the vipers if the vultures didn’t rip them apart first. Xzen rammed the fragile instrument into his saddlebag, cursed himself for not taking twice the men, and raced down from cliff following the tracks of his scouts with his men not far behind.
Logan gave Rampart an extra measure of water, two gulps of murl for himself, shared the remainder of the fowl and they pushed on welcoming the cool evening that was upon them. It wasn’t the mountains of his youth; this was a strange and forbidding land. It was populated by men who preyed on each other’s lives, spirits, and souls. They thought nothing of enslaving, as was the custom of the Tirpits, the most northern and vicious of Tunduria’s tribes.
However, that was so many years and battles ago. Long before he learned to wield a broadsword, ride a horse without a saddle as deftly any man with one, fire an arrow to its mark a hundred yards out, swim underwater the width of a small lake and live off the land as no other man could. Many of these skills came freely to him from the memories that filled his head. They told him of stories, of places of reason and unreason, of the differences between reality and falsehoods. Between good and evil.
However, there were no memories about how to defend against a desert viper. And there were no accounts of any such successes because those who went into the Morland rarely, if ever, returned. He patted the hilt of his sword, a blade that could apparently render such a horrific monster fearful of his next attack. He had subdued a giant sand viper; he reviewed the encounter over and over, not as a matter of pride but as a matter of complete wonder.
Several times before they rested again the ground underneath trembled. But the sound and its message came from a distance that was too far to measure or be of concern. He was fortunate. Finding the power of reflection would tame such a monstrous apparition was too close a call to be of any great satisfaction. Logan Drewry lived and would perish by what he did with the hand he had been dealt, not what the fates had predicted. Moreover, as he pushed on, he regretted losing the scout’s fine mares. They would have helped. He simply couldn’t bring himself to have Rampart chase them across the desert, sapping what strength he and his horse had left.
After an hour, he paused again and stood facing south. The south and his enemies. Of the Grand Satrap, of Marcos Xzen, the desert warrior who he expected would have drawn closer by now. For whatever reason, they remained out of sight. His luck had held. However, by tomorrow morning and certainly by the following nightfall, both he and Rampart would be feeling the effects of hunger, their rations lost in the first flurry of the initial chase, Logan thanked the gods for what murl, meat, and water they had won from the battle with the two scouts. But letting the vassal of his enemy live, because of his comment about Rampart’s great beauty and power? What was that foolhardy act about?
Logan walked on into the night humming his father’s poem, as unsure of tomorrow as he was of yesterday. He wondered if he would come across the Scales of Corinth, that the northwestern Morland legend held was marked by vast areas covered with flattened, lifelike eruptions the size of a grown gypid which poked up from the surface like scales of a giant sea serpent.
Logan also wondered if this was his last night alive.
Marcos Xzen’s encampment was a cautious as it was comfortable. He allowed his men an extra few hours of much needed sleep, an extra ration of murl and did not press his scouts for any further encounter with Logan Drewry. Altermar died of a single wound from the thin blade of a dagger thrown by all accounts from over fifty feet away. From that distance, it was thought to be impossible to be accurate or hit with any appreciable impact. Certainly not with enough power to have it fly so quickly, that a skilled warrior such as Altermar would not be able to dodge.
So much for the expectations that governed such encounters. If he was going to best Logan Drewry, it would take more than a platoon of trained, dedicated fighters; and apparently even more than a good size desert viper.
And, from Donig’s accounts, having arrived too late to help his comrade, Logan Drewry was heavily laden with both water and a rack of fresh killed desert hares dangling from the side of his great horse. Marcos Xzen wished for an opportunity to meet the man face to face again; this time on an open plain, without horse, dagger, or bow and not in a crowded, dimly lit tavern. Two men and two broadswords. He was a half a foot smaller, fifty pounds heavier and, he believed, a great deal more skilled than he was when they first met. He quickly questioned whether he was that confident of his talent as a warrior, or too eager to redress the humiliation of that first encounter.
“It has been too long,” the Vizier said, pacing the width of his quarters. “Too long without a word from Drewry.”
His commanders tried to assure him that the messages from Attamore Grogan that he had delivered Drewry into Ultar were authentic. That he accepted as truth.
What was not so clear was whether Drewry had found Melonious Bradisher, leader of the underground in Ultar, and given him the message. If he had, then the mission had been a success. If he had and was killed returning with the response, then Tundria would have suffered a great loss. If he hadn’t gotten through, then the Satrap might well be in a position to quash the uprising even before it began.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business, on New York TV News Channel 1, taught at the New School University, testified before United States Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, and appeared as an expert witness on best practices before The New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. He has written 11 novels and over 130 short stories. Over 40 stories have been published online and in print.