Edition 16: Serial Fiction: The Morland Basking Plain (Book II of III) by Arthur Davis
Logan Drewry flees deeper into the Morland Basking Plain followed by the irascible Marcos Xzen, leader of the deep desert command. But the desert will present its own challenges to the invading force… SY
Anistov Gar, the Grand Satrap of Ultar, was pondering similar, equally impenetrable questions. What was Logan Drewry’s mission and what had the Vizier—who his informants suspected was the connection—offered the brigand to make such a perilous journey? Had he completed it before he was discovered by agents coming out of the Jascent Green with the news of Logan’s whereabouts?
Gar lay back in his quarters surrounded by three handpicked waiting women who were draped in layers of brightly colored, translucent silks. Two other, more robust women sat on large cushions on each side of his bed pulling up and down on overhead ropes that kept the fans going above his bed and circulated the warm air that bedeviled his living quarters no matter the season.
He knew the time would soon be right to strike against the Vizier, but before then he had to find and eradicate the rebel bands and the sympathizers they had recruited who had been playing havoc with his trade routes. Because of his increased tax levies and what some of the good citizens of Ultar viewed as harsh civil ordinances, there was a growing unrest. He felt contempt for the people; the ignorant tradesmen and farmers, the hordes of pestilential rabble and beggars who should have been grateful for the protection he provided from marauding tribes; those he had given unity and a nation to claim as their own. His rage festered as he considered the intentions of Logan Drewry, who had bested one of his finest commanders some years earlier.
Conquering the northern territory would present even more of a challenge; bringing the Vizier to his knees, his most dangerous enemy a far greater prize. Having conquered the south and made great inroads into the tribes of the Jascent Green, Anistov Gar’s grand design was to link Ultar with the northern territories, make peace with the smaller, garrulous tribes, and simply eradicate those who stood against him. He fought back his anger, waved his hand and all three women disrobed and descended upon him.
They fought to please him knowing that the one who failed, who showed less enthusiasm for her duty and desire, would be sent down to the officer’s quarters as a present from their leader. Anistov Gar was hoping Jemaliah, who was presented to him as a gift by the slave trader Timmian Ak, would win the contest, though he cared little who was most eager so long as he was satisfied.
The Vizier, Sing Tzu, was a tired old man whom some said had long ago faced his hundredth year. Time marched against him as steadfastly as the rise of the Grand Satrap, a man half his age and with twice his cunning. A man who had risen from the poorest, most violent circumstances, wandered through the Jascent Green until he had claimed the sympathies of outcasts and criminals, and then found a home in the south where the Sing Tzu’s power was the weakest.
Sing Tzu knew he had to reach out to the resistance if he was to wrest control of Ultar from Anistov Gar’s strangling grip. He had to ally himself with those who banded together for relief and safety; who had suffered at the hands of the tyrant. The Satrap was so bold and contemptuous of the truth that he claimed he was the direct descendent of Tyr; a magician who some claimed could grant tynes; who tortured some while blessing others, whose speeches galvanized and mystified the masses; a man whose agents enslaved the wife and sold the three children of Melonious Bradisher to tribes living beyond the Great Prominence of the Fermoil Embankment, sending the once-prosperous spice trader into a life of revenge and piracy so audacious he led attacks against the Satrap’s own spoil-laden caravans.
The Vizier slumped into a chair in the middle of his silent chamber. He felt he had little time left to build his forces, rally his allies, and convince the doubtful of the Satrap’s malignant intentions. He felt he had not respected the ruthlessness of his enemy’s regime until it grew and gained power and influence in the south.
What men were gathering in the land of Ultar to rise up against the Satrap would need support or their efforts would certainly fail. He now realized he had waited too many years to stop the Satrap’s rise to sovereignty, and control of the trade routes that brought him riches and power. He should have swept down in force and destroyed the villain years ago. He chastised himself for his lack of perception in the face of his advisor’s persistent urging.
He believed in Logan Drewry. You only had to meet the man once to know that the strength of his arms was matched by the character in his heart. The message he carried was crucial to the peace for all of Carmodia. It had to get through. Logan Drewery had to be found.
The Vizier rang for his commanders. He could wait no longer. He had to make sure Melonious Bradisher knew to postpone the uprising. He had heard nothing from the patrols he had sent out. If he had to take a command through the Jascent Green or directly down the Morland Plain himself, he would not let the resistance fail.
Logan Drewry watched Juno and the lesser sun, Calypso, climb up from the desert floor at the same time as he spotted the haze rise into a funnel cloud some half dozen leagues behind him. Not wanting to waste time wondering why Xzen had not overrun him in the night, he spoke into Rampart’s ear, and mounted the great animal. How long could they last before the water and Rampart gave out and the baking suns forced them to a standstill.
It would take almost twice that time for Xzen’s men to cover the same ground. He would have rather made the ride at night but without markers, moons, or stars to guide him, traversing the unforgiving desert floor in pitch darkness, it was a dangerous waste of time and what remained of their resources.
The great black stallion sped on at a steady gallop for some time; his reins almost limp around his muzzle as Logan gave him freedom to move as fast as his heart and spirit would permit. A giant mole scurried across his path but Logan didn’t bother to set an arrow. He had no time to catch and cook the mole, even though it would have been welcome nourishment for himself as well as Rampart. There was no place to go but forward, and at whatever pace both could endure.
Logan didn’t like fighting on the open plain. There was no way to use the land to his advantage. No way to outwit your enemy who he usually encountered in far greater numbers. In his travels from the Fermoil Embankment to the Jascent Green, he had heard songs, both praising and striking fear into the hearts of the bravest. Some romanticized the barrenness of the desert, its unpredictability, and harshness but Logan now experienced the reality of those tales.
The Morland was a formidable, forbidden land with its abrupt, shallow canyons, unpredictable sands, howling winds, eroded troughs and sand ridges which could snap the bones of both man and beast in an instant, and was no place to dwell upon, romantically or otherwise.
Rampart moved on while Logan pondered how the afternoon would play out. The deep desert troops were trained and prepared for this kind of pursuit, with additional fresh horses, reinforced flasks, heavy doses of murl, and special hot weather gear to wear and store meat. By the time they were upon them both he and his horse would be so exhausted there would be little left in either of them to lift up their heads, much less put up a fight.
So be it, Logan concluded. Life had a way of answering these questions regardless of how mortals tried to intercede or prevail. Every now and then, he turned to see if they were gaining on him and chided himself for letting the two mares get away.
Logan preoccupied himself with thoughts of his childhood, his family and especially his baby brothers. He couldn’t recall when their tribe was driven out of the mountains but knew they had, at some point, been forced to enter the Morland from the north, the direction he was heading.
The Vizier would be wondering how he fared. Not well, he concluded. Failure is the same in any language. That there had been a leak from the Vizier’s inner circle of advisors to the Grand Satrap’s men was no longer in doubt. He was trailed for too long, even before he linked up with Attamore Grogan he believed, for it to be a coincidence. Though the size and grandeur of his steed often evoked curiosity, in a land of strange animals and danger at all turns, another larger than life beast should not have gained such attention.
His thoughts turned then to Jemaliah, the slave woman. How often had he been so captivated and aroused? He had always had good fortune with women. They were drawn to his good looks and bravery, his ability to best the best. Just in passing, seeing her body lashed tightly to the slave-post, the slave trader Timmian Ak boldly directing the crowd’s attention to her full breasts and hips for bearing children, her long legs for work in the fields, and a face that would surely enslave the master who purchased her. Logan was already her slave and he hadn’t spent a cent on her behalf. Half the crowd would be leaving the main square with just that reaction, he had thought to himself.
Logan Drewry had a dream that had visited him several times since entering the Morland—a vision of him standing in the heart of Ohem, the ancient, lost capital of Tunduria. He saw himself leading a small band of men, finding the city, and resurrecting its greatness. He vanquished those who would keep the city and its riches to themselves. He led a great force into battle, but the outcome remained as unclear as the location of the city itself. He just never saw himself perishing in the belly of this endless inferno.
“Okay, let’s walk a little,” he said, dismissing the fantasy and vaulting one leg over the back of his horse, slipping down the other side. He uncorked a flask and let Rampart drink from his hands. “Good boy. Drink up,” he said, knowing that he had one flask left for each of them and a half a flask of murl that he was trying to keep for at least another cycle of the suns.
His red-brown burnished skin glistened with dust-caked sweat. His long shag of hair rained over his shoulders. He had to laugh; he must have looked like some of the wilder tribes that he had heard lived on the eastern side of the Great Prominence. They marked their faces with red and yellow dyes and let their hair grow and spoke to each other with grunts and threatening hand gestures.
He thought he saw a haze in the distance behind him but discounted it as a mirage from the two-headed fire that raged overhead. A desert ghost he concluded, patted Rampart and they began to move north again on foot.
Xzen thought he saw Logan dismount but his battered scope gave him distorted images. Three more of his men had been left behind. All told, he had already lost more than a quarter of the thirty in his command to the chase and, except for the headstrong Altermar, hadn’t yet engaged Logan Drewry. He knew that numbers alone would not be enough.
He was counting on an ally he had not at first thought to bring into the fray. The longer he could outlast Logan before they reached the other side of the Morland, the weaker his adversary would be. Confident of his own stamina, Marcos Xzen was willing to postpone the confrontation another day, even two, and possibly lose another dozen men, if only to reach Logan when he was so weak Xzen could walk up to him and yank his sword from his feeble grasp. He wanted to bring Logan back alive and claim Rampart as an equally uncommon prize.
The Grand Satrap would be especially appreciative to have the giant warrior to torture and taunt, to exhibit in the main square or feed to the beastrons that swarmed in the arena during the annual games. But Xzen would take no unnecessary chances. He didn’t want to wind up with a dagger in his throat, a mortal wound from a blade he wouldn’t see coming, or suddenly find the shaft of an arrow embedded in his chest.
Another hour passed when his lead scout reported that Drewry was “afoot.” A sudden thrill embraced his men. The idea that Logan Drewry was walking his animal meant many things, all of them good news for the deep desert commander and his men. He took a moment to rest and engage them in a brief encouraging talk. In hindsight, it may have been a mistake.
Had they been on their horses instead of resting on their bedrolls they might have been more prepared, not only for the rapine vultures that had been stalking them thousands of feet above since they buried Altermar’s body, but also for the other natural hazards the Morland offered to those who intruded onto its sacred desolation. That none of them had thought to glance up and back was a testimonial to the rigidness of their training, as well as their arrogance. Although, if they had looked up, what could they do? Go forward in fear or turn back in failure; or set their ears to the desert floor, as did Drewry every so often, as a way to predict the obvious.
They had tracked down the scent, ripped the body from the sands, and feasted on the dead scout and now a family of vultures, thick with the taste of fresh carrion, pursued the warriors in a compact swarm high overhead. They hadn’t noticed the one warrior and his giant horse moving northward just above the hot, shimmering horizon. Every so often, they were intrigued by how the desert seemed to split open and giant slithering beasts appeared then vanished as quickly. Had the vultures considered the direction the snakes were headed they might have moved at a more hurried pace towards the herd of men and mounts they were following.
Xzen was not the first to notice, only the first to mount his horse and give the command to follow. The rumbling underfoot came as a quick and powerful shock unsteadying several of the sun-weakened troops. In a blinding flash, the ground split open and heaved, releasing a great desert viper only slightly larger than the one that attacked Logan Drewry. It seized two warriors from where they were standing, and flipped back into the sand, which swallowed them like a pool of lake water.
The smaller viper was slower and further behind than its larger mate and gave the desert guard time to get into formation. Watching the first viper lunge at one, then another warrior, the warriors’ faces froze in a mask of terror, lashing out without effect as the beast’s mouth and fangs closed in around their upper torsos. Two more were taken without a fight in the time it took the remainder of the command to steady and mount their horses and draw their swords.
“Wait until they charge,” Xzen bellowed, his sword cutting the air overhead as his troops forced their unsure steeds into a tight circle, their commander at the center. The outer layer of the ring was studded with warriors on foot, their bows drawn. Inside the knot of fighters, a dozen men on horseback also had their arrows notched. The flight of many heavily-shafted, short-range arrows with thick, splayed metal cutting blades should deter or disable even the most ferocious sand viper.
Every man in the circle knew that while these tactics had been practiced and refined, there was no real way to know if there would be enough firepower to bring down or even deter such a monster. Perhaps with five or ten times the force such a formation might have proved an effective defense. A few of the men were wondering if Logan Drewry had sent theses beasts to attack them. They were that certain that his power extended to calling upon the gods to crush his enemies.
The formation held as the second serpent reared up, raised its head, and bore down toward the center of the circle of men. On Xzen’s signal the troops fanned out into a kneeling phalanx supported by riders on their mounts, their bows drawn and fired when Xzen slashed his sword down in the air. Twenty-three heavy arrows shot out from the group. Half met the head of their target. Only three penetrated the thick-skinned green and black monster. The rest missed entirely or faded in flight. The viper made another charge and was met by another hail of tearing arrows. This time twice as many met their target and one shaft sank into the side of the beast’s lower jaw.
Nothing could have prepared the men of the command for the beast that hissed and hovered before them. Each had heard reports of monsters, and they had trained to thwart or kill such animals. Only there was a difference between training and trying to steady your mount while aiming an arrow at a moving target that could strike you down even before your arrow left the bowstring. As it was, most of the warriors were grateful for lasting as long as they had.
“To your swords,” Xzen yelled as the dozen kneeling men broke formation and returned to their mounts and, along with the others, drew their swords overhead and began to scream and yell like deranged mountain porcupine.
Blood seeping from small wounds around its face, the viper’s head darted back and forth trying to loosen the sharp barbs. The wounds burned as no others the beast had encountered. The sharp spine that remained in its jaw made closing its mouth difficult. Living in darkness much of its life, it had already been nearly blinded by one of these puny creatures and with its hunger earlier sated by a thousand lime fish fry and the two warriors already in the pungent acids of its elongated gut, the monster hesitated.
Knowing the beast could not sustain itself long in the fiery daylight, Xzen urged his men to even greater heights of bellicose hysteria until the desert rang with their insane savage cry. The serpent swayed from side to side, before it stopped and slowly withdrew back into the hole in which its rear half was still buried. The powdery desert sand closed in around the beast as though it had appeared out of thin air instead of the unpredictable bowels of the Morland.
After some silence and the certainty that the monster would not spit out of the hole again and seize up two and twenty more men, a cheer went up among his troops, which Xzen quickly squelched. The men held their ground for a while longer until one after another, each warrior dropped his sword to his side as fear succumbed to relief.
The last warrior in the rear of the formation sheathed his sword as the smaller viper quietly slipped up behind the phalanx and snatched him and his mount before anyone could react. It happened between breaths, between the blink of a frightened eye. Horse and man gone so quickly that the only evidence that would have indicated there was such an attack was the soldier’s sword, which flew out and over the once compact formation until it came to rest a few yards in front of Marcos Xzen—a warning that one who celebrates too quickly often lives to regret it.
The shock of the smaller viper’s attack, the loss of warrior and steed, struck terror in their bravest. There was no chance of escape, or survival. The common thread of their fear was that all their training and bravado was ineffective in the face of this enemy. An enemy with the size, speed and ferocity to claim every man in their troop.
The silence of their shock was broken when one of the warriors caught sight of the vultures circling overhead. He dropped from his horse and began to pray frantically. His tenor spooked the horses and instilled greater fear into the now considerably smaller command.
Marcos Xzen jumped from his horse, walked up to the man who was shaking uncontrollably with fear and praying in his native tongue. Xzen grabbed him and tried to shake him to his senses. He cursed and pummeled the warrior who could no longer accept logic, or confront more terrors. When Xzen realized he had lost the man and his panic was undermining what remained of his men’s resolve, he pulled a dagger from his hip sheath and drew the finely-honed blade across the throat of the weeping warrior.
A quick and certain stillness overcame the men and their mounts. “I will cut out the heart of every last man here who thinks we cannot kill a few fat snakes and stinking birds, or the brigand we are pursuing. I will kill you all, to the very last man. Are there such men left under my command?” he asked, making eye contact with every last man before the question was completely answered.
Xzen knew he had made a serious tactical error in discontinuing his arrow attack. He had plenty of arrows and another two or three salvos might have made all the difference. He couldn’t let his men know he was second-guessing himself and that his wrong decision had cost lives and undermined the morale of his men.
The dying warrior stopped speaking and looked up with the same surprised expression Donig recalled as when Drewry’s dagger sliced into Altermar’s throat. The smaller warrior looked away; he had already seen too much death and bloodshed for one chase. Though trained tough, and as well regarded as any of his brothers, Donig was becoming less and less sure of his interest in defending the Grand Satrap against those who rose against him.
Before they moved on, Marcos Xzen instructed his men to leave the slain warrior where he fell. “Let the vultures have him. The coward will not be given a warrior’s burial as we gave Altermar. His carcass will rot out here and feed the beasts of this land and without proper honor his soul will not be welcomed by Tyr.”
The men had never known a warrior to purposely be left to the beasts.
Logan Drewry dismissed rumblings under his feet several times as the afternoon waned. He couldn’t run and there was nowhere to hide. Now he was really hungry and regretting his decision not to take at least a passing shot at the giant mole. He couldn’t recall the last time he had torn meat from a shank of bone or the rump of a gypid. He had been looking out for desert hares but still could not bring himself to look down at their tracks and slow his pace. He considered what a rapine vulture would taste like, realizing of course that where there was one there was probably twenty times that number and no matter how fine an archer he was, even those odds were not encouraging.
Logan expected Marcos Xzen to have closed some distance between them by now. The dust whirls that danced up behind him every now and then told a different story. They revealed the hooves of a scout’s horse, maybe two or three. Hardly the main body of the desert command. Logan had no way of knowing how many warriors made up that command or the strength of their reserves or their morale. As long as he could put one foot in front of the other and repeat the sequence, he was satisfied with his progress.
He decided to make up more distance this night in a forced and dangerous march that should bring him closer to the northern fringes of Tunduria. He knew the ground beneath their feet could change in an instant and cripple them both but he had to take drastic measures to improve their chances for survival. Every so often as the suns set, he turned, more to make sure how Rampart was holding up rather than assessing his position against the rapine vultures that had been amassing behind them. Perhaps he might get his chance to pick one off. Then again, had he really the time or kindling to cook up a savory meal?
Logan loosened his tunic and leggings. He wanted to feel the cool breeze sweep about him, drench himself in a cold valley pool. He wanted to drink icy mountain water until he burst. Logan wanted to make sure that Rampart would never be subjected to such harsh treatment, but he knew himself better than to believe in that wish. He wanted to report to the Vizier, spend the next week getting drunk, and ravish the most beautiful women in the land. Of course, he had no money with which to pay for any of it. That left charm and flattery, weapons no self-respecting adventurer should ever be without.
A speckled white and yellow cloud burst out over the western desert, and then disappeared as quickly as it had formed. A black cloud had been following him for hours. Logan knew it was a matter of time before he was overtaken by either the desert command or the vultures.
He paused, giving consideration to why he hadn’t chosen to march around to the western perimeter of the Morland until he reached the rough terrain of the Fermoil Embankment before traveling north from there. That trip would have added an extra three days, and instead, Logan was willing to sacrifice himself and steed so that the information got back to the Vizier as quickly as possible. It was a dangerous and risky venture and Logan still wasn’t certain it had been the right choice.
Another full day passed with little of consequence but the swarm of vultures off to the far west, and a steady but distant rise of desert dust to the south. Logan walked as often as he rode, whispered to Rampart as often as he could muster enough saliva to speak. There was little to say and less to do but fight back the urge to succumb. The only things to be grateful for were the foolhardy act of the dark-eyed scout whose death provided him with a shaving of meat and some water and murl, and that he had followed the escape route planned by the Attamore Grogan’s advisors, managing to enter the Morland at the narrowest point of its north-south width which had shaved off two days from what was becoming a death march.
He was, by all standards, over two-thirds to the shores of Tunduria. “We’re almost home boy,” he said, patting the horse’s weary, froth-soaked flanks. How much easier it might have been if they had shared one more meal, a mouthful of anything rich and succulent. A raw desert hare would have tasted like duck right about now. Speaking of feeding, the vultures were probably feeding off the horses he had taken from the smaller scout.
A nice enough fellow with a sound appreciation of horseflesh, Logan decided; not like the dark-eyed, more combative of the two possessed; but a man caught up in serving the wrong master. That happens, Logan surmised, and then knelt and set his ear to the desert floor. Even if he had little chance of surviving an attack from one of the smaller vipers in the dim haze that was now enveloping the twin suns, he wanted to be prepared.
Logan had no way of knowing how close he was to the shores of Tunduria or how badly the vipers had savaged the morale of Marcos Xzen’s troops. Even with the threat from their commander hanging over their head, the men moved along now with hesitancy. Their training had been as thorough and rigorous as could be conjured, but the reality of the desert, even with their schooling along its primitive edge, was nothing compared to the fear and certainty of death into which they had been plunged.
As the ferocity of the desert beasts became a reality and the command forced themselves forward, the image of Logan Drewry, who obviously had gone on without such an encounter or worse, mastering both vipers and vultures, only made their efforts seem pointless and punishing. Xzen was also feeling the sting of defeat undermine his pernicious resolve.
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.