Edition 17: Serial Fiction: The Morland Basking Plain (Book III of III) by Arthur Davis
The final straits of the charge through the Moreland Plain are taking their toll on both the pursued and pursuer. It’s a death march to the end, and only one will come out victorious. Will Marcos Xzen and the Sartrap finally run down Logan Drewry? SY
As the suns fell beneath the horizon, the distance between the pursued and pursuers slowly and inexorably narrowed, though neither party knew this with any degree of certainty. By daylight all that remained of their provisions and energy could be measured by the fact that three men had fallen from Xzen’s formation during the night. He disregarded their deaths, turning only to inspire his troops onward while encouraged that he had three horses to rest until they were needed. And with every step and hoof beat, he cursed Logan Drewry.
How simple it would have been if his advanced patrols had come back to report they had found the shredded, vulture-covered carcass of the man and his steed. At least that would have put an end to this infernal torture.
The idea for the deep desert command had come from the Grand Satrap himself. It was his way of demonstrating to his people that his empire would and could strike out at all intruders and traitors alike, no matter where they came from, There was to be no escape from his lethal rule.
Logan was living out the same thoughts as Marcos Xzen. He had no idea how much longer he could go on as the desert floor heated up for another unbearable day. Without maps or water, one stumble could mean the end. Both men dismissed the idea of failure and pushed on hoping they would not be overcome before they completed their mission.
Marcos Xzen had already figured out that their training, rigorous as it was, and their measures to prepare for such a pursuit were wholly inadequate to the task. They needed more horses in reserve, larger water flasks, at least three times the murl for each man, and had to expose the men of the desert command to the beasts themselves before he could be assured of their combat readiness. Then again, he concluded somewhat forgivingly, they never expected that their first campaign was going to be against Logan Drewry and a horse whose stamina seemed as unrelenting as the fire of the desert itself. Xzen vowed that the next time he led a command into the Morland Basking Plain he would do so with enough strength and reserves to march north and render a lethal strike at the exposed underbelly of the nation of Tunduria.
By noon one of the strongest scouts reported that he could make out the small dot of Logan Drewry leading his horse in ever smaller and smaller steps.
“We have him,” Xzen announced to his men upon hearing the news. There was no time left to wait. He had to strike now or lose whatever energy or courage remained. It no longer mattered how far Logan was ahead of them. It only mattered that if they waited another minute all possibility of capturing or killing him might well be lost. “Mount up.”
Logan too considered the dangers of slowing down. Maybe he had mistaken the landmarks Grogan’s men had given him that marked the Morland’s narrowest point and now misjudged the distance to the northern boundaries of Tunduria. Maybe he would never reach the safety of his land and would perish, as had his ancestors? In another few hours, he would succumb to the desert heat. He had to find the courage in himself and in his horse to make one final effort to push north. He told this to Rampart whose eyes glazed with exhaustion, their normal fiery light having faded to a faint flicker as dawn broke.
The sight of his stallion, this great and powerful beast, reduced to such a depleted state distressed him more than anything. A thick dust column rising two or three leagues back over Rampart’s weary rump confirmed Logan’s belief that Marcos Xzen also realized it was time to strike. Logan estimated that at a full gallop he would extend the time it would take before he was set upon by maybe two hours. Slightly more. Such a final, desperate dash might also kill Rampart. But the idea that any other horse could best his friend was too difficult for Logan to accept. He also couldn’t abide the sight of Rampart being cut down by a hail of Marcos Xzen’s arrows.
“I need whatever you have left,” Logan implored, turning Rampart around to see the ominous cloud rise in the late morning heat. As if to signal his understanding, Rampart reared back and whinnied. Logan swung himself over the animal’s slick, wet back and slammed his heels into the beast’s sides.
Rampart took off as though he had been awakened, edgy and eager from a long night of sleep. He ate up great distances of the desert floor with each thundering stride. What he and Logan didn’t know was that Xzen had fed the last drop of murl from all of his warrior’s flasks to ten of his best mounts, leaving another dozen men and the balance of their spent reserve horses to catch up to them, when and if they could. The stimulant filled the bloodstream of the beasts, propelling their hearts, lungs, and muscles to heights of unimagined sacrifice. They raced along the desert floor at a terrible pace. The ten clung to their horses as if to do otherwise would surely send them from their saddles to the desert floor below.
Logan turned and was surprised at the sight welling up against the horizon behind him. They had made up half a league in less than an hour. That was impossible. It simply couldn’t be, Logan insisted to himself. Unless they were riding fresh horses and then, acknowledging Rampart’s powerful and consistent stride, it still couldn’t be done.
Maybe it was a desert mirage. Maybe it wasn’t the desert command either. Maybe Xzen had been granted some kind of tyne to help him achieve the impossible. Logan cursed the Satrap, the resistance, political intrigue in general, even the Vizier himself. Most of all, he cursed Marcos Xzen who he had brawled with in a tavern so long ago that the incident, and who had thrown the first insult, took some effort to recapture. Logan let loose a stream of howling profanities that Rampart knew and understood, and which sent him forward with even greater resolve.
Another hour and nine men could be made out only a league behind. Ahead, as if Logan needed to confront another apparition, was the faint formation, a rocky outcropping of land rising above the choking heat of the desert floor. The irregular shape increased in height and breadth as Rampart drew closer to what Logan was now positive was the southernmost boundaries of Tunduria.
“See there ahead? Home, boy. Our home. Another league at most,” he urged, knowing that the salvation of cool air and fresh water and nourishment would also serve the interests of his pursuers.
Another turn and another quarter of a league had disappeared between Logan and his enemies. But this time there were only eight men on mounts. It was still difficult for Logan to comprehend the possibility that he could be overtaken by anything except by animals who were fresh to the hunt and who hadn’t spent the last four days slowly dying under the brutal desert suns. It was a race to the green shores.
Logan thought he sensed a slight change in temperature right before an arrow fell to the desert a half dozen yards off to his right. Another landed to his left, about as exhausted as the men shooting them. There was no point in dodging what he couldn’t see. There would be time enough to return their fire.
He grabbed Rampart’s mane and urged him into one final burst of energy. Maybe he would find a village from which to take a stand. Somewhere to take shelter. Somewhere where there was water and a crest of shade under which to replenish his body. He was so close to collapse now that he wasn’t certain he could even wait for Rampart to make up the distance to the shoreline. Logan could feel the great beast’s heart pounding beneath him. The animal would surely die for his master, as would his master sacrifice his life for him.
Another arrow landed, this time two or three horse length’s out ahead of him. Xzen’s men had found the range and were clearly gaining. Logan didn’t want to turn but he had to know what perils lay in his future. Seven dark red warriors along with the man who he now recognized as Marcos Xzen were slashing their whips against their horse’s heaving sides.
The Satrap was brilliant. Send a madman to avenge himself and you’ve increased the command’s efforts by a factor two. Xzen would kill or capture him, or die and take his men with him in the process.
The dark green land rose and spread out before him as the measure of the bleached white desert faded, overtaken by life-giving water. Logan could feel Rampart’s pace slacken, the power of his gallop eased as the thunder within his ribcage increased uncontrollably.
A few hundred yards from the boundary that separated Southern Tunduria from the Morland Basking Plain Logan Drewry pulled back on the reins. “Enough. We will take a stand here.” As he slowed and wheeled the great beast around, one of Xzen’s party slowed and stopped in his tracks. The scout looked up at the scorching sky trying to recapture a moment of his past when he had not suffered so greatly and fell exhausted from his saddle. In another moment, his horse collapsed, nearly on top of him.
The seven remaining warriors pulled back on the reins and finally, seeing Logan Drewry turn to face them, came to a standstill at a safe distance from their prey. Desert dust clung to their burnished, sweat soaked skin. Too exhausted to count their fears, the remnants of the desert command recognized the verdant shore, with its promise of water, nourishment, and safety. Two men stood in the way of their salvation. Both were unmatched warriors and neither would turn their backs on their mission for the promise of living another hour of another day.
Logan Drewry and Rampart also looked like pale ghosts. Logan continued to pat and speak softly and reassuringly into Rampart’s ear. If the beast’s heart didn’t slow down soon it might never. He retrieved his bow and quiver, which were lashed to Rampart’s sides, slipped to the ground and slapped the side of the beast sending him into a short trot away from what Logan knew would be the target of Xzen’s next salvo.
Logan steadied himself, strung his bow, set an arrow, and slowly drew back, silently asking the gods for whatever it took to slay his pursuers. The warriors of the desert command saw what lay ahead of them. No one spoke, not even Marcos Xzen, who knew of Logan Drewry’s skill as a marksman. It was the measure of this man’s reputation that led him into the fray at the tavern some two years ago. Marcos Xzen overheard the tales and, disbelieving what Logan was saying to a friend and to those seated around him, cautioned the three men caught up in the giant warrior’s story that such ridiculous fabrications would turn their ears to stone. Logan stood to the challenge and announced that the intruder was not welcome at their table, nor was his ignorance. The fight that broke out between these two men nearly demolished the tavern and wounded several bystanders.
Marcos Xzen watched in disbelief. He was as winded as the rest of his men and their mounts when Logan Drewry dismounted and Rampart moved off to the side. The scout who had stopped to let loose several ranging arrows had fallen nearby. There was little time to move closer and take down Logan. Xzen’s plan to make one final chase after wearing Logan down had paid off. In lagging back an extra day he had insured his success. Another minute or two and he would move up and issue a final warning to Logan Drewry to throw down his arms and surrender or be cut down where he stood.
Logan took aim, tightened his grip, took a deep breath, and let loose his arrow. The shaft made up the distance to its target in blinding speed. One of the warriors seated next to Donig suddenly glanced down at his midsection in utter shock. They had seen Logan Drewry pull back on his bow, though none could swear they had seen him release the arrow, or witnessed the distance it had traveled. Marcos Xzen did not know what to say, or how to respond as the warrior slumped dead from his saddle.
“Draw your bows,” he finally commanded the remaining five men and pressed them the final dozen yards ahead to where he knew their fire would be in range.
Logan set another arrow in its nock. He recognized the smaller scout and the imposing Marcos Xzen. He had enough arrows to take out the forward party of the desert command. If he were Marcos Xzen would he have threatened to kill the horse if Logan Drewry did not throw down his arms? There was no way he could protect himself and Rampart at the same time. It was his error. He should have forced Rampart to continue on at all cost.
“You have given us a great chase,” Marcos Xzen yelled out across the expanse that separated the two adversaries. When Logan did not respond, Xzen questioned, “Will you drop your bow to your side, or do you think you can dance between five arrows at the same time?”
“I want the last warrior in your ranks to dismount, collect the weapons from the rest, and bring them to me, or you will all die,” was Logan Drewry’s tempered response.
There was an unsteady stirring in the ranks. Each man considered how far they had come, the men they had lost in the chase, and the fact that Logan Drewry stood alone and unharmed, seemingly untouched by the ordeal.
“At this distance, I could kill you where you stand.”
“And in the time it took, I would take down three of your men, maybe every one of them, whose carcasses I would leave for the vultures to gut,” Logan said, drawing back on his arrow.
“It would be worth it to know that you went to hell with me.”Xzen returned.
“Last warning, Xzen. I’ll cut you down where you sit. You and your men. All your lifeless souls; slaves to the dishonor of your master. I will say it only once more. A warrior from the rear must collect the weapons, now.”
Xzen was exhausted. He knew if he was so tired, then the rest of his men were barely alive. He could feel his horse, as well as the one under the warrior at his right, begin to sway, the lethal results of the murl finally taking its toxic toll. Yet there were five in his command facing the threats of one. He simply couldn’t relent. “Surrender or I will have you killed,” he said, and directed his men to draw their bows.
Logan wanted to unsheathe his sword. The sword of his father, and his father’s father. He wanted to feel the movement in his hands, the blade in the air, the reality of man against men, not separated by indifferent distance. “You’re so willing to sacrifice your men. And for what? To satisfy a madman? I will cut all of you down and feed your hearts to the vultures. You may ask one of your own if I am a man of my word.”
Several warriors turned back to Donig who was so spent he could barely hear what was being said. They were all so depleted they doubted they could pull back on their bow strings with enough energy to send an arrow the distance to subdue this desert devil. They wanted either resolution or death, and right now there was little advantage of one over the other. Without being questioned, Donig responded loudly, “He’s a man of his word.”
With those words Marcos Xzen, enraged and desperate for an end to this torture, spun around and threw his dagger at the scout. The tip of the blade glanced off Donig’s shoulder, sending him from his mount. “If another of you disobeys my orders, I will cut you down where you sit.”
“Are the rest of you willing to die in the service of the Grand Satrap; defiler of women, butcherer of your brothers. A man so evil he has laid waste to so many villages that I would wager that every one of you has, in the past, lost a friend or relative. Can any of you tell me I am wrong?”
Marcos Xzen’s rage, fed by the dissention within his command, presented ample time and distraction for Logan Drewry to fire another arrow. A splinter of time between firing and finding flesh, and the warrior closest to Marcos Xzen gasped, and grabbed the shaft that ripped into his tunic.
The scout clutched the arrow, uncertain what to do with it. He could barely speak, utter a curse or register the shock and fiery pain he felt. He could do nothing but stare in disbelief. He turned, praying to the gods, his lips trembling in silence, almost in relief, and he fell to the desert floor.
Consumed with fury and disbelief, Marcos Xzen jerked around toward Logan Drewry. He started this pursuit with a full command and over five days saw his men decimated by the giant savage. He was outthought and outfought. Xzen summoned what remained of his strength and pledged not to die alone and for nothing. If all he could claim was Logan Drewry’s steed, it was better than losing all his men and the mission for nothing. He set an arrow to his bow, as did Logan Drewry.
Donig watched the last warrior fall from his saddle, surprised to have survived for so long. He was also surprised that Logan Drewry had not killed Marcos Xzen with the last arrow, after which the remains of the deep desert command would have surely surrendered. “It no longer matters,” he said to the remnants of the command, pointing to the hills behind Logan Drewry.
Above the crest where desert transformed into an undulating, grassy hillside, a legion of men spread along the range. A force of arms that could only have been summoned by the Vizier himself. Rampart reared back and whinnied, except this time it was with relief, not fear. Following the lead of their commander, two of Xzen’s most fanatical fighters were slowly pulling back on their bowstrings as the air in front the troop exploded with a high-pitched whine. A flight of arrows from the Vizier’s lead archers split the distance between Logan and his aggressors, punctuating the desert floor with a solid wall of arrows so intimidating that both men quickly threw down their bows and quivers.
Marcos Xzen was as surprised and unable to respond as Logan. A small detachment stormed down from the crest of the slopes as another volley of arrows from the Vizier’s troups punctuated the first. Twenty warriors lashed their steeds on with unrelenting fury. They had been commanded to find and defend Logan Drewry at any cost. They understood what that meant and knew well the legend of the man they were riding to save.
By the time they arrived, Logan Drewry was certain he had mustered enough strength to remount Rampart, ride out and reach into Marcos Xzen’s chest to tear out his living heart.
Their tunics clad in the gold emblem of the Vizier, the captain and his men spread out behind Logan Drewry—half had arrows ready to let fly toward the ragged remains of the Satrap’s deep desert command.
“I am Constantine Tuk, Captain of the Vizier’s Imperial Guard. I welcome you to Tunduria. We have been searching the Morland for two days in the hope of finding you and bringing you back alive.”
Still disbelieving, Logan drew in the sight of the heavily armed troops. “Captain, my respects. And I’m glad to know somebody wants me alive.”
“The Vizier will be pleased.”
“How did you finally find us?”
Slightly uncomfortable with his logic, the captain replied, “We decided it would be more practical to watch the skies than the horizon.”
“Vultures,” the captain replied. “They have been gathering and trailing you for a day and a half. We were afraid they would find you before we did.”
Captain Tuk eyed Marcos Xzen suspiciously. The condition of the handful of warriors was appalling. Each man looked a breath away from death. Their horses were about to collapse in place. Even Marcos Xzen wouldn’t last the hour without food and water.
“Frankly, from what we could see of your crossing, we are surprised to find you alive.”
“As am I Captain. As am I.”
Marcos Xzen knew defeat when it presented itself in such overwhelming force. Even with a fistful of the Satrap’s magical tynes, it would have been impossible to defeat the force which confronted him, and certainly Logan Drewry himself who for days behaved more like the pursuer than the pursued. Xzen glanced in Rampart’s direction. The huge black stallion stood as though carved from stone. His chiseled chest and shoulders still possessed enough energy to ripple with excitement. At that moment Marcos Xzen envied Logan Drewry the beast he rode more than any battle he’d won.
“What do you want me to do with these?” the Captain asked, pointing his sword toward Xzen and his men.
“Those who would take up with us we should welcome. Those who want to return home should be sent back on their way and only with what they have brought,” Logan said, as Rampart made his way back to his master.
Examining the men and recalling the Vizier’s orders not to return without Logan Drewry, the Captain responded. “I don’t know that I would show such mercy.”
“Killing these fools will solve nothing. The desert will do it for us,” Logan said as one of the Captain’s men came up beside him and handed over a full flask of murl and one of water. Logan directed the warrior to let Rampart drink too. “Post your men along a line of three leagues from this point to the east and west. Station them in close intervals for two days. Xzen has a dozen or more men out there. Shoot any of the Satrap’s men you find trespassing on our land.”
The captain gave the order to one of his men who rode in the direction of the main force.
“Any one of you who drops your weapons and comes forth now to join us as honest men will be granted freedom. Those of you who wish to do so may return to where you came from,” Logan said, mounting his horse. Without hesitation Donig, staunching the cut from Marcos Xzen dagger, followed by another warrior, dropped their weapons and walked through the thicket of arrows.
Marcos Xzen sheathed his sword and straightened his weary body. He couldn’t reconcile the outcome of his mission with his suppressed fury and the sentence he had been given. He knew that if his reserves did not make up the distance soon he would die before evening, which might be a far better fate than returning to the Satrap without the head of Logan Drewry.
However, his mission could not be deemed a total failure. With the Imperial Guard racing to Logan Drewry’s defence, Xzen now had some idea of why Drewry had been in Ultar. Xzen was positive that he had most likely come to meet with the resistance that Xzen and the Satrap knew were forming. That, in itself, along with the possibility of the involvement of Melonious Bradisher would mean a great deal to the Satrap.
Then again, if he did make it back to Ultar, he would be the only man to cross the Morland Basking Plain twice without leaving the desert. That is, if any of his men survived to confirm the heroic effort.
“We will meet again Logan Drewry.”
“My regards to Anistov Gar,” Logan said, mentioning the given name of the unmentionable; the Grand Satrap who, it was said, could hear people utter his name, even from the netherworld.
Marcos Xzen turned his horse south, followed by his remaining men. Logan was too tired to watch them disappear over the horizon and swiveled Rampart back toward the Captain. As he came closer, he patted his friend and brought up what had been on his mind since he fought his way out of the slave market of Ultar.
“Come, I must meet with the Vizier, we have to work quickly if we’re going to save the resistance.”
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.