He opened his eyes to a curious sense of déjà vu. Although the darkness before him was as deep as that behind his eyelids, he stared intently, striving to recall the dim and unpleasant memories that lurked in the gloom.
Jundag, he thought hesitantly, then more strongly as the name resonated; it felt right. I am Jundag.
He tested his bonds, but already knew that they were secured to the stone. He started to rise, then stopped, remembering that the ceiling was too low for him to stand upright. He heard a skittering noise and instantly knew it was a rat, and that if he was not vigilant, the rodents would feast on him while he slept. Additional memories began to seep into his tortured mind as rainwater seeps through a leaky roof, first a drop or two, then a torrent. He remembered hours spent in back-breaking labor, and hours more in blessed solitude. He remembered the jeering roar of a crowd, and the peal of cruel laughter.
But most of all, he remembered pain.
He felt again the lash of a whip, the burn of hot coals, the searing cut of a knife parting his flesh. He felt a heavy weight smash onto the bones of his fingers, the inflexible tension of the rack as it dislocated his shoulders. He felt the agony of molten metal dripping onto his skin.
And he remembered waking after the pain, time and time again, his fingers whole, his shoulders firm and strong, and his skin intact, albeit scarred. Hale, as he was now. He squeezed his eyes shut and saw afterimages of jet-black hair, pale skin, and flashing white teeth. And he felt his soul sink…as he remembered her.
Jundag heaved a sigh and was surprised by a rattling cough that left his sides aching before it subsided. Reeling in his thoughts from the tumultuous sea of memories that threatened to drown him, he concentrated on himself, and realized that not all was as he remembered. He felt a deep-seated ache in the very marrow of his bones which, along with the cough, told him that something was different this time.
He heard the familiar rattle of keys and the clank as the door to his cell was thrown open.
A flood of torchlight nearly blinded him, but he managed to squint through it to see the figure in the doorway. It was muscular and bent, curved tusks upthrust from its lower jaw. It stooped into the confines of the cell and quickly worked a key into his manacles. Even as he rubbed his wrists, the burly beast snatched him by the arm and hauled him out into the light of the passage. The beast (Tredgh is its name, he thought) then let him go, turning to close the cell door.
Jundag took his chance immediately, more by reflex than through any conscious thought. Pretending to slump to the opposite wall, he turned and planted his feet, preparing to launch himself into his jailer and smash him against the door.
“Stop!” a voice ordered, halting him in mid-lunge.
He stumbled, wondering why he had complied with the command, then his hands shot to his neck, grasping the delicate gold circlet there. That voice… Jundag turned, and the worst of his nightmarish memories were rekindled.
“Welcome back to the world of the living, Jundag,” Calmarel said from where she stood beyond the glare of a wall-mounted torch, draped in shadow. “I have missed you, my temperamental pet. It’s been far too long since you last died, but I was…busy, and hadn’t had the chance to revivify you until now.”
“I wish you would leave me dead!” Jundag seethed, ignoring Tredgh’s threatening growl. This woman incited such loathing and disgust in him as he had never imagined he could feel. The memories of her various tortures slipped and slid like eels though his mind, too slick to fasten onto, yet leaving slime in their wakes. And something else… Something important… He snarled in frustration as the memory he sought eluded him.
“Well, after so many revivifications, I’d expect you to be a bit tamer,” Calmarel declared in response to his outburst, “but I see that your strength is undiminished. Good! Tredgh, clean him, feed him well and make sure he’s completely recovered from the revivification. I’ll be away for a few days, but when I return, I will be in need of relaxation. And I believe,” she teased as she wagged her finger at him, “my pet is in need of another obedience lesson.”
She turned and walked into the darkness. Jundag wrinkled his brow as he watched her go. Something about her looked…wrong, but try as he might, he could not discern what.
Tredgh pushed him roughly forward, tempting attack, but Jundag knew it would be futile. With the collar, a word from Calmarel would restrain him, and he would only pay for it later. Besides, he was too distracted by elusive memories that fluttered on the edge of his mind…then flitted away.
The barest rustle of fern and bough marked the passage of the stalker as she crept through the woods. Like a large predatory cat, she slid through the darkness undetected even by the wild and watchful beasts of the forest. But this stalker was human, with a soot-blackened face and sword, and softly rustling armor covered by supple garments of dark leather. The light of the half moon through a thin overcast guided her precise steps, but it was light from a clearing a few hundred feet ahead that pulled her like a moth toward its warm yellow glow.
Avari was on the hunt.
The distance to the clearing’s edge took more than an hour to traverse. As she neared, she stooped to a crouch, then crept the last few yards on her belly, eyes downcast to hide their whites, ears straining as she moved solely by touch. The voices of her prey rumbled within the clearing, harsh and rasping over the soft pop and crackle of their fire, setting her nerves aflame with the rush of adrenalin. Edging forward, she nudged her face into a damp patch of ferns around the thick bole of an oak, and finally saw them.
Five men occupied the camp: two lay on blankets, their chests moving in the rhythmic rise and fall of sleep; two sat, talking across the fire; and one strolled about, his back to the fire, his eyes on the forest. A steady breeze from her left ensured that her scent would remain undetected, and kept the fire smoke out of her eyes, exactly as she had planned.
One of the two-dozen horses staked to her left nickered; Avari examined them for a moment and spied a distinctive brand on one sleek flank. Yes, these were the animals she was looking for, although their theft was only one reason she sought these men. Her clear thoughts clouded for a moment, overpowered by vivid memories of a charred farmhouse, a man beaten nearly to death, a woman pierced through the stomach with an arrow and left to die in horrible agony, and the vacant stare of a little girl only twelve summers old. A little girl who had been left battered, naked and bleeding after these five men had finished with her.
Whitened knuckles popped and her sword hilt’s leather wrapping creaked in her furious grip. The noise snapped her out of her murderous rage, fearful that she had given herself away. The men, however, remained as oblivious as before. The one presumably on watch, the only one paying any attention to their surroundings at all, strolled to within five feet of her. Killing him would have been child’s play, but Avari wanted them all. And for that she required a diversion.
When the sentry had passed, Avari eased a blackened dagger from its sheath. She gauged the man’s movement, then whistled a complex twitter and began to count slowly. Her whistle attracted only one man’s fleeting attention, but he quickly returned to his conversation. When Avari reached five, the sentry was almost across the clearing from her. When she reached ten, her muscles tensed and the bushes on the far side of the clearing rustled violently. The three men reacted immediately, rousing their sleeping companions and whirling toward the disturbance, exactly as she had planned.
Avari emerged from the foliage silently, not breaking into a sprint until free of the restricting undergrowth. She hit the men at a dead run. Just as one was starting to turn toward her, all her strength and momentum drove the pommel of her sword into his jaw, smashing it into splintered ruin and dropping him to the ground unconscious. He was the luckiest.
Another whirled and raised a weapon to parry, but Avari’s stroke met his forearm instead of his blade. Her sword clove his arm and still had momentum enough to slash through half his neck. He thrashed violently, then stilled; he would be dead in moments.
Avari spun to confront her remaining three foes, and found them quietly backing out of striking distance. They stood silently gauging her attack and confidently considering their response.
This, she thought with a brief twinge of worry, is not as I planned. The plan called for disorganization and confusion on their part, efficiency and vindication on hers. Her worry deepened when she noted that one man bore no weapon. He instead reached for a belt pouch while muttering unintelligibly. Her plan did not include facing a wizard. The true value of a plan, however, is how well it can accommodate changing circumstances, and Avari’s plan was a good one.
Avari charged the robed figure with a yell, wildly swinging her sword over her head. He continued his incantation—tiny motes of energy began swarming between his hands—but his eyes were drawn up to her blade, which caused him to miss the flick of her wrist that sent her dagger plunging into his abdomen. He folded over, grasping the hilt and gasping in pain, errant sparks of magical energy spilling harmlessly to the ground. Avari kicked him in the throat, crushing his larynx to ensure that he would cast no more spells, then whirled her attention to the other two.
Surprisingly, they had not attacked while she was busy with their companion; they were not following her plan at all. They stood well apart, each gripping two weapons comfortably; one held two short swords, and the other a longer blade and a dagger. They smiled dangerously at her and immediately circled to gain the advantage.
“I don’t know who you are, mister,” one chided, “but you just killed three of our friends.” They circled more closely as Avari stepped away from the fallen men. “Now, they weren’t exactly close friends, but we been ridin’ together fer near two months, and it’s got Jubal an’ me a bit riled, ain’t it Jubal?”
“It was a downright unfriendly thing ta do, all right,” Jubal agreed, rasping his two short blades together and squaring off his stance professionally.
“First,” Avari said coolly, adjusting her posture to keep them both at bay, “I’m a miss, not a mister.
“Second,” she continued, enjoying their surprise as she dropped her guard drop just enough to invite a careless attack, “I only killed two of them. The tall one will live…long enough to reach the headsman anyway.”
Her taunt scored. The men lost their relaxed poses and tightened their grips on their weapons; they knew the penalty for horse thievery, not to mention murder and rape. Avari relaxed her stance even further, dropping the tip of her blade and drawing a kerchief from her belt to wipe her brow.
“And third,” she said with a predatory smile, “the family you destroyed six days ago were neighbors and friends of mine.” She waited a heartbeat to let the information sink in. “And I’m going to take great pleasure in killing you for what you did.”
At some unseen signal the two men sprang simultaneously, but they had already made the fatal error of allowing Avari time to prepare. She flung the kerchief, which was filled with sooty ashes, into the face of the man on her left, blinding him. She blocked Jubal’s predictably high attack, dropped and rolled into his shins, inflicting a sizeable gash to his knee in passing. The two men collided, but managed to avoid stabbing one another. They lost their balance, even while Avari regained her feet. She leapt to the attack, intending to end it quickly. It was her first real mistake.
Avari had not noticed how closely Jubal’s hand lay to the blazing fire. Now a burning log spun at her face as she lunged. She managed to knock the fiery missile aside with the flat of her blade, but the shower of sparks and cinders blinded her.
She back-pedaled madly, swatting the burning embers, knowing their next move would be to rush her while she could not see. She tried a crossing slash, and was rewarded by a clang of sword against sword. Short sword, her trained mind clicked with the tone, Jubal’s short sword. This gave her a good idea where his other blade was, and she managed to knock that aside with a quick twist of her weapon, and step inside his guard. A knee to his groin and an elbow to his face sent him sprawling, but she dared not finish him while her other opponent was unaccounted for.
Avari backed away, whirling her blade in a defensive arc while shaking her head and blinking to clear her eyes. Tears streamed down her cheeks, helping to wash away the painful bits of burning ash, but it was her ears that saved her. The scuff of his boot was not loud, but to her it resounded like a thunderclap. She whipped her sword behind her in a vertical arc. Her enemy’s thrust was deflected just enough to send the sword’s tip grating through the chainmail of her upper arm instead of between her shoulder blades.
Pain exploded down her arm, her hand numbed. Avari ignored her screaming nerves and spun to defend herself, dropping her sword into her off-hand. Her opponent pressed in hard with a quick four-stroke attack, but he overestimated his advantage. Avari’s vision had cleared, and he stared in astonishment as his last stroke was met with a lightning stop-thrust, which passed easily through his abdomen and out his back. His sword dropped to the grass as he gripped the pommel of Avari’s blade, stabbing desperately at her with his dagger. She tried to kick him off the blade, but the descending dagger demanded her attention, and her right arm hung useless. Reluctantly, she loosed her sword and snatched his wrist before his blade pierced her neck.
For the span of a heartbeat they were face to face. He struggled weakly, trying to push the dagger into her, while she strove to make her numb hand grip her sword hilt and finish the job. Then his eyes flicked beyond her, and she remembered Jubal.
Avari shifted her stance instantly, pulling the skewered man off balance toward her. Dropping to the ground, she planted a foot on his stomach, just above her sword hilt, and rolled back. His own momentum, aided by the strength of Avari’s leg, launched him over her and backward—right into Jubal.
Jubal managed to not skewer his friend, but caught the full weight of the flung body squarely in the chest. His eyes widened in surprise as the foot of steel protruding from the man’s back plunged between his ribs and into his heart. The two fell dead to the ground, killed, as it was, by a single thrust of Avari’s sword.
Avari struggled to her feet, gripping her upper arm tightly to staunch the flow of blood, and stood over the dead thieves. The luminous moon reflected in their rapidly glazing eyes, but Avari saw only the blank stare of a battered girl, and did not pity them in the least. She tried to pull her sword free, but her numb hand wouldn’t close on the hilt.
“I am in the understanding of your anger with the vileness of these men, Miss Avari,” Hufferrrerrr said from behind her, startling her despite her fatigue, “but you should not be one of taking such chances as you are. I would have been more than in the willingness in helping to dispatch such evil foulness as these.”
“It wasn’t much of a risk,” she assured her leotaur friend, giving up on dislodging the sword. “I knew if things got too sticky, you’d break your promise and come rushing to my rescue.”
“That I very well might have been doing, Miss Avari,” he agreed, drawing a metal flask from a satchel and pointing to the steady stream of blood flowing from her elbow, “but I am thinking that things did indeed be getting into a bit of the stickiness, as you call it. Please to be drinking some of Master Szcze-kon’s potion before all of the life fluid in your body is being on the ground.”
Avari released her grip on her arm and watched the blood pulse from the wound.
“Damn.” She had not realized that it was so severe. She took the flask from Hufferrrerrr and drank greedily, enjoying the wash of wellness that instantly pervaded her to the core. The bleeding stopped and the wound slowly closed, her fingers tingling with renewed nerves even as Hufferrrerrr wiped away the mess with a cloth. In a short time her arm would be as good as new, with only a thin pink scar and a lot of drying blood.
Lucky it was my arm and not my neck! she thought. “Anyway,” she said aloud, “hunting down scum like this is the only exercise I get anymore, since I went back to being a horse farmer.”
Hufferrrerrr’s hissing laughter startled the horses, and he moved to comfort them, ignoring Avari’s glare. Granted, she had been busy during the last year since the defeat of Iveron Darkmist. The wealth she had accumulated during her adventures had allowed her to purchase an expanse of wilderness bordering the coast about twenty-five leagues south of Fengotherond. With the help of the devoted leotaur and a number of hired hands, they had cleared sections of forest and used the wood to build a house, stables and corrals. Searest, she called her new home. She had bought several brood mares and a stallion, and begun training them as her father had taught her. So, although her tasks of felling and chopping trees, building fences, training horses, and tossing hay bales had kept her muscles in shape, she hadn’t had a good fight in gods knew how long. And she missed it.
She flipped over the dead wizard with her toe, and rifled carefully through his pockets. She gathered a number of trinkets to present to Shay the next time she saw him, repayment for the curative potions he had insisted she accept. The thought of her friend tugged at her heart. It had been more than a season since they last had last met, and she missed him terribly.
Avari began tying the fingers of the surviving thief together behind his back, yanking the thin leather thongs mercilessly tight. She then bound his wrists, elbows, knees and ankles, making sure the knots were out of reach. She poured a small amount of the curative potion into his smashed mouth; it was a crime to waste it on him, but she needed him alive, if only barely, to face the consequences of his actions. The private deaths of his companions gave her satisfaction, but only a public execution would deter other would-be thieves. She gave the last knot a particularly vengeful yank, and looked up to see Hufferrrerrr watching her with a thoughtful look on his broad, feline face.
“I am in the thinking,” the leotaur ventured, “that The Thallon may have been being in the correctness. Perhaps it is that you would be making a better warrior than a horse farmer.”
“And I’m thinking,” Avari snapped, instant anger flushing her face red, “that I told you never to mention that…that…man again!”
“I am in the understanding, but—”
“No ‘buts’, Huffer!” she spat, wiping the last of the soot and caked blood from her sword and snapping it into its scabbard. “The last thing of interest to me is some guard captain’s opinion of my potential! Now go get our things. We’ll make camp here.”