Desert Dogs

Grey Lands Book 1

GREY LANDS – BOOK 1

 A peaceful desert clan – slaughtered without mercy.

A survivor  –  looking for revenge – and answers.

A chance discovery in a market town.

The man they call Grey, survivor of the Es-Cal clan, is systematically hunting down the mercenaries employed to kill his people when he stumbles upon a clue that sends him out into the unforgiving desert in pursuit of a murdering kidnapper – a pursuit that might lead him to answers about himself.  Because he cannot remember who he is, where he came from, and how he came to be here on this blighted planet.  And maybe that will turn out to be important.  Because something ugly is coming.

If the idea of ‘swords and sandals meets science fiction’ appeals to you, then you’ll enjoy

Desert Dogs, the opening volume of the Grey Lands trilogy

Read on for an excerpt from ‘Desert Dogs’

Copyright ©  2019 David Wallace

Chapter 1

 

A solitary mustellidont emerged from the rocky hole where it had been stripping the flesh off some fingers. Its head twitched around, back and forth, sniffing the air and assessing the possibilities. The sky above flickered, an ever-changing light-show of reds, greens and blues. Microscopic collisions between charged particles of descending debris and the gases of the atmosphere threw off photons, whose movements were shaped and formed by the planet’s magnetic field into curtains and rivers of light, emitting a dim glow onto the desert beneath. The mustellidont cared about none of that.

Dawn announced its coming with a light that was born dim orange before maturing to glow yellow-white. The night feeders lingered, reluctant to leave. The day-feeders grew in numbers.

A slight change, a suggestion of a breeze,  brought a hint of fresh blood to its tiny nostrils. Its black eyes focused on a brown trail that was becoming visible in dawn’s growing light, and the mustellidont darted forward to follow it

Foraging creatures were out in unusual numbers, navigating by sight and scent to the bounty scattered across the sand. Here, a solitary nightcat squalled, trying to frighten off a group of hog-vultures that refused to be scared into flight. There, a small family of painted canids disputed ownership with a little tribe of flat-headed vulpines. Omnivorous rats darted in and out, snatching bloody little morsels to consume under the rocks in relative safety, where their only competitors were each other.

They all knew that, soon, the feast would be over, and they would have to disperse back across the grey desert. They were determined to feed for as long as they could before the corpses were reduced to mere bone. It was not every day that the sands served up such a choice dish of the dead.

A slight change in the gentle breeze brought the definite smell of fresh blood to its tiny nostrils. The mustellidont paused, lifted its forelegs, sniffed, looked around, and darted forward again. It was too wily to rush straight to the source; it maintained a careful watch for larger predators. It repeated the process – dart; pause; sniff and look; dart again – until it came to a huge carcass, part propped against a grey rock. Miracle! It was not already swarming with scavengers! It darted forward.

The fine-tuned sense of danger that had kept this animal alive to reach the grand old age of seven years, warned it of movement, warned it to jump back; something huge crashed into the sand in front of its twitching nose. It darted back into the lee of a rocky shelter.

“I know, little weasel, you need to eat,” a hoarse voice croaked. “But I’ll thank you not to eat me.”

A man lay there. With an effort, he lifted his sword back from its near-miss with the mustellidont’s nose and leaned it against his shoulder so that gravity would assist its next swipe to warn off the next forager to come his way. His eyelids fluttered as he fought to stay awake. He had to, else the next forager to come his way might be the last he would meet. He was weak, bloody, in great pain. But at least he had had the foresight to drag himself across the sand and prop himself in a corner that would be shaded as the sun came up. It would be unfortunate if he survived the fight only to succumb to the heat of the day. For he knew that he would survive the wounds inflicted by his late adversary, the man that he could see providing a meal for the canids. He already felt the itching sensation that marked his healing process.   Surviving was – well – it was just what he did. He had no idea why, but he was fairly sure that he was incapable of dying.

 

 

 

The Father of the Clan had sent him on a mission. He realised now that he had been sent away because the old man had seen the end coming, and wanted him gone, so he would live. He had been dubious when he left with a string of pack animals, but nobody argued with the Father of the Es-Cal, not when he issued his orders in a such an uncharacteristically sharp tone, and not when he swore you to silence about what you were doing, where you were going, and when you would be back.

As instructed, he had arrived at the border of Carlin’s Land, in Edge, the wetland town named – with a complete         lack of imagination – for its location at the edge of the grey desert. And, also as instructed, the pack animals were no longer with him. Father had warned that things had changed in Edge, that it might be dangerous. And so, it was.

He had ridden up the slope of the escarpment that separated the dry grey plain from the wet green forest and tied up his horse at the Jumpoff Inn. As was customary, he had entered the common-room to swap news, only to find it strangely quiet.

“Armon,” he greeted the innkeeper. “Well met. No customers today?”

“Grey,” replied the innkeeper. “It’s been quiet these past few days, given what’s happened.”

Grey had to duck under the wooden beams of the Inn’s common-room, because he was tall, standing a head higher than most, and thin. To those who did not know him, he looked frail. To those who knew him well, he looked wiry. To everyone, though, he looked odd. His hair was grey, though he was not old. His eyes were grey, too, and his skin had a pale grey tinge that contrasted with the olive-complexioned natives of the region. Even his clothing was grey, the colour of desert sand. It was no surprise that he had been dubbed ‘Grey’ by the Es-Cal clansmen who had found him in the deep desert, hard by the Hot Rocks, grievously injured and lacking in memories. They named him ‘Grey’ as a joke, but once he had learned to talk – so bad was the memory loss – he accepted it as a name. He was, he said, undoubtedly very grey.

 

Armon poured out a light beer – it was safer than the water around here – and handed it to the traveller.

Grey took a long draught from his beaker. “What’s happened? Something bad for trade, I suppose.”

“Aye, the High King’s passed away, may he rest well under the turf. It was sudden – a fall from a horse, broken bones, ruptured organs. They say he never regained his senses.”

Grey frowned. “Who might ‘they’ be?”

A grimace crossed Armon’s face. “One of his sons was with him. Him and a friend. The King had his bodyguard with him, Randall. All we know is, the King’s dead, so’s Randall and the prince’s man.”

“What happened to Randall?”

“Gross neglect of duty,” said Armon bitterly. “If a King dies under the nose of his bodyguard, then the bodyguard naturally gets the blame. The prince sentenced him on the spot, and there was a judicial duel. Two against one. They say the prince’s man was a fencing master, but Randall took him down before the prince got him.”

“Interesting,” mused Grey. “We only have the prince’s account of what happened, then. Let me guess, it was Rogan, and now he’ll be King Rogan.”

“You guessed well. The lad’s brother … well, nobody’s seen him. He’s in mourning, so they say, and too upset to come out.”

“There’s that ‘they’ again. I suppose ‘they’ also say Raluf is delighted to accept his brother as High King?”

Armon let out a grunt of laughter, a bitter look on his face. “Of course, ‘they’ would say that, wouldn’t they?”

Grey swallowed the last of his drink and dropped a silver coin on the table. “I’d best be getting on. I have business with the jewellers’ guild. Anything I should know?”

“Carlin’s Land is on the brink of chaos, if you ask me,” Armon answered. “There are a lot of powerful men who feel they could – let us say, help – King Rogan. They are already said to be squabbling for political positions, and if you ask me, it won’t take much for them to start open warfare over their places at Rogan’s court. As for Edge, well, you should know the town’s a mess of confusion.” Armon scowled. “Over the past two days, we had a lot of coming and going. Rogan has put his own man in the keep, and he, in turn, has filled the place with his own men. Including a new head in the jewellers’ guild.”

“A great pity. We got along well with old Bartos.”

“The new man has a greedy look, and sticky fingers too.” Armon smiled, in genuine humour this time. “So ‘they’ say,” he added.

Grey laughed. “I’m sure ‘they’ would, Armon. Well, I’ll pass by on the way home in a day or two, I expect.”

“Live well, Grey.”

“You too.”

 

 

 

Edge was in many ways typical of a frontier town in Carlin’s Land. It was a market town for the surrounding area and boasted a grey stone keep, a modest garrison, a busy marketplace and a thousand or so people in simple wooden dwellings. It was not large enough to warrant a gated wall, not even a wooden one, but Grey’s destination was the one place that was important and rich enough to boast its own defenses and was Edge’s one claim to uniqueness – the jewelers’ guild.

The guild was housed in a cluster of stone buildings that formed an enclosure around a pleasant rose garden. It could be accessed through a single iron gate and a tunnel that pierced the guildhall, the only part of the complex with windows facing outwards, allowing visitors to be monitored. The garden was surrounded by ten open-fronted workshops arranged in a rough horseshoe, each with living quarters above and storage beneath. The buildings were linked by a sheer stone wall, turning the jewelers’ guild into a miniature walled community.

Grey crossed the rose garden and walked to the workshop directly opposite the gate. A couple of apprentices were busy there, packing things into wooden crates under the watchful eye of a thin, elderly man. When he saw Grey approaching, he hobbled out to greet him.

“Master Grey, well met!” he called out.

“Well met, Master Bartos,” Grey answered politely.

“I presume you have business to transact?” said Bartos. “For I have to tell you, my friend, things have changed here.”

Grey inclined his head toward the apprentices. “Forgive my bluntness, but are you packing up to leave? I heard talk that there’s a new guild master.”

Bartos scowled briefly, but then groomed his expression back to neutrality and looked over at the windows of the guildhall. “It is – ah – time for me to retire,” he said. His gaze passed over the workshops around them. Grey followed his eyes and observed that half of the workshops were shuttered. “The new master is introducing new ways,” Bartos continued. “Being an old dog, I do not feel inclined to learn new tricks. I am sorry to say it, but you will have to take your business to the new man.”

“Very well,” said Grey. “I will do so. What can you tell me of him?”

Bartos considered his answer carefully and glanced more than once in the direction of the guildhall. Finally, he said, “The new king appointed his own man to take over the lordship of Edge, namely one Brandon Long. He, in turn, appointed his brother, Bandar Long, to be guild master. The two of them were old companions of Rogan’s, and – well – their life experience, let us say, is not in commerce or jewel craft.”

“Who advises Master Bandar, then?” asked Grey.

“He has a deputy, one Cardoc Burn, that he brought along with him. This deputy has a woman, and the woman has a fair quantity of jewels.” Bartos dropped his voice to a low murmur. “I’m told she earned her jewels mainly through her lingual dexterity and eagerness to put her unparalleled sphincter control to profitable use.” Grey’s eyebrows rose, and Bartos shook his head in disgust. “That’s right, the guild is being managed according to the tastes of Cardoc’s whore. You will want a fair price for the produce of your mines, but I am afraid that the typical raw gemstone is unlikely to appeal to the average blanket-dancer, so I wish you luck with that!”

“In other words, I am not going to be offered a fair price for the clan’s stones.”

“I find it unlikely,” snorted the old jewel smith. “Neither Bandar nor Cardoc would have the least idea of what a fair price might be.”

Grey glanced across at the guildhall once more. “Well. I had better pay my respects to the new guild master,” he said.

“Respects!” snorted Bartos. “When you are done, let me know whether you think they deserve any. Respects, indeed!”

 

Grey took the gravel path across the center of the garden and walked in through the open door into the atrium of the guildhall. A pair of guards waited within.

“Your business?” asked one.

“My business is with the master of the guild,” replied Grey politely. “I represent the Es-Cal clan, who mine for metals and gemstones under the Iron Mountain.”

The second guard stepped through the door to the room Bartos had always used as his office. He returned a moment later and nodded to his colleague.

“Leave your weapons here,” said the more talkative guard.

“Really?” asked Grey.

“Really.”

Grey shrugged and removed his sheathed sword and dagger, placing them gently on a table by the door.

“Anything else?” asked the guard. “Knife in a boot, maybe?”

Grey stooped and withdrew a knife from a sheath strapped above his ankle.

The guard grinned at him and checked the other leg.

“Come,” he said, and led the way through to the office.

The master’s office used to be more like a sitting-room, with comfortable chairs surrounding a low table, the walls hung with matching drapes and shelves full of books, many of them ancient and valuable. Now, however, the room was empty but for a crude wooden table, a single comfortable chair, and a number of wooden crates. IT seemed to Grey that anything of value was being systematically stripped from the building.  The chair was occupied by a grossly overweight, richly dressed man. Grey advanced to the table with a polite bob of his head but stopped as a pair of heavily muscled guards fell in on either side of him.

The fat man spoke. “You’re the Es-Cal.”

“Yes,” replied Grey. “Men call me Grey.”

“I can see why,” the man sneered.

“I presume I have the honor of meeting the new master of the guild?” asked Grey. “Master Bandar?”

Bandar grunted. “What do you want, dust-man?”

“As I am sure you are aware, Master Bandar, the mines of the Es-Cal produce the finest of gemstones. For many years, we have been the premier supplier of gemstones to the craftsmen of Edge. It is a long-standing arrangement that has always been mutually beneficial. Quite simply, sir, I have a quantity of uncut stones to offer for sale to the guild.”

Without turning his head, Bandar shouted, “Cardoc! I want you in here!” He gestured to the table in front of his chair. “Come, desert-rat.   Show me what you have.”

From beneath his outer robe, Grey brought out a small cloth bag and tipped out a score of dull grey rocks onto the table top. Bandar stirred the pile of rocks with a finger.

“What’s this supposed to be?” he demanded.

“Raw gemstones,” Grey answered. “They need to be cleaned, cut, shaped and polished by an expert to produce a lustrous gem.” He leaned forward to separate out three stones. “These three are rubies, the remainder are blue sapphires.”

A younger man entered the room. “You called, Master Bandar?”

“Cardoc, there you are. Look – what do you think of these?”

Cardoc picked up stones, one by one, and held them to the light from the window. “Hm,” he said, thoughtfully. “Raw gemstones. Quite big, maybe the smiths can save enough to make some use of them. I suggest you offer him ten thallers for the lot.”

“Sir, you are mistaken,” said Grey, softly. “Each stone is worth at least one hundred. A skilled jewel smith can produce a dozen pieces from each one, and each piece will fetch at least twenty thallers. You are looking at a potential profit considerably in excess of one hundred percent for the guild.”

Cardoc scoffed. “Where did you find these, dust-man? Thrown away in the mine tailings? They are close to worthless. Ten thallers for your stones is a generous offer.”

“There you are, nomad,” said Bandar with a smirk. “We are in a generous mood. Ten thallers.”

Grey nodded gravelly. “If that is your view, Master Bandar, then I will take my leave, and my stones.” He reached out towards the table.

“Stop!” snapped Bandar. “Hold him!” The two guards flanking him seized his arms. The fat man stood. “That’s it?” he asked, his eyes narrowed. “No protestations? No attempt at haggling? You’re in a terrible hurry to get away, aren’t you? Maybe you stole these?”

“No sir,” said Grey. “They are not stolen. They are the property of the Es-Cal clan, and I am stand here as representative of the Father of the Clan. If you have any doubts about that, I suggest that your predecessor, Master Bartos, could set your minds at ease.”

Bandar snorted in derision. “I should take the word of a senile old fool that I’ve thrown out of the guild? I think not. In fact, he’s probably your accomplice! If not for Cardoc and I, the pair of you would no doubt have made off with a small fortune. I’ve heard enough!” He smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. “I’ll confiscate these stones, and as for you …” He looked at the guards. “Slit his throat and toss him out with the rest of the trash.”

“That would be a mistake,” said Grey slowly. “My clan…”

“Is not, nor will it ever be, in a position to do anything about it!”

But Grey had a few unique tricks that nobody else knew about. He focused on diverting energy into his electrocytes – stacks of muscle cells in his limbs that could each store a small electrical charge. It took no more than a second for the charge to build to a useable level. As the guards tightened their grip to force him out the door, his mind released the neurotransmitter that triggered the electrocytes to discharge. It was enough to take the men by surprise – with small yelps they loosened their grip.

Grey moved fast, wrenching his arms free. The rudimentary search at the door had missed two throwing knives in his tunic. He pulled them and flicked them through the air with a fluid motion, hitting Bandar in the throat and Cardoc in the eye. He twisted to one side, head-butting the guard on his left. He grabbed at the man’s belt and swung him round to impede the other. His hand snapped up in a vicious palm-strike that drove the heel of his hand into his adversary’s face below the nose, smashing bones and driving the shards in deep. He snatched at the guard’s longsword, whipped it out and slashed into the man’s face. The sword was blunt, but it was heavy, and it caved in his face. He whirled the opposite way and his angular momentum was enough to sweep off the other guard’s head despite the sword’s lack of a decent edge.

It had taken only a couple of seconds. All four men in the room with him were down. Bandar was feebly clutching at his neck, struggling to make a sound. Cardoc was flat on his back, a knife through his eye socket. Grey retrieved his knives and made sure they were dead.

The noise of a scuffle had not gone unnoticed. The outer door opened, and the atrium guard looked in. His eyes went wide at the scene in the master’s office.  He drew his sword and attacked with a howl.

Grey brought the borrowed longsword up. The guard ran straight at him and launched himself forward in a fast lunge. Grey side-stepped to avoid him and parried, pushing the blade away to his right. He turned the motion into a spin to gain momentum and slammed his fist into his attacker’s face. As the man staggered back, Grey thrust into him, pushing the point of his sword deep under the guard’s breastbone until he could feel it scrape along the man’s spine.

 

Before he left the guildhall, Grey gathered up his gemstones and all the coins he could find. There were a great many – so many he gave up counting them. He took some and left the rest in the office.

He crossed the garden to Bartos’ workshop where the old man was waiting. Bartos took one look at him and shook his head.

“From the bloodstains, I deduce your price negotiations went poorly, and as a result that the guild of jewelers needs a new head.”

“It does,” said Grey. “I’m sorry for the inconvenience this is going to cause you.”

“Not me,” said Bartos. “I have retired. I am taking myself off to the Free Towns, because this place is finished. What do you have there?”

“Coins,” said Grey, emptying the bag onto the workbench. “Gold ones. There’s more in the guildhall, but, you know, gold’s quite heavy, so I left it there.”

Bartos gave a little snort of amusement. “The fat slug had been liquidating anything of value he could lay his greedy hands on, whether it belonged to the guild or not. What are you going to do with your stones?”

“Do you want to take them?” asked Grey. “On behalf of the guild. I’d take a thousand thallers for them.”

“Hm. That’s not enough. Take fifteen hundred.” The old man swiftly swept some of the gold coins back into the bag. “Now I suggest you get on the road home, my friend, and don’t delay. I’ll discover the bodies in the guildhall some time tomorrow when I stop in to say farewell to the guild master.” He laughed. “I wonder who will have killed them? It will remain a mystery, if you ask me.”

 

Grey was back at the Jumpoff Inn before nightfall. He barely said a word, but Armon drew all the conclusions he needed from the look in his eye and the stains of blood on his robe.

Armon asked for news, but the response was, “Best you know nothing.” Grey left him a bright, shiny gold coin, that Armon was sure he had not possessed earlier, took up a bag of food and a flask of drink, and headed out onto the grey sand.

   The southern tip of Iron Mountain was usually considered to be four days’ travel from the Jumpoff Inn. On this occasion, Grey had covered the distance in less than two. He had a very bad feeling about what he would find at home.

The Father of the Clan had been evasive about why he wanted Grey to travel to Edge, taking what he took, and above all, why now. He had seemed distressed, pre-occupied, and even a little confused. He had talked vaguely of destiny, and more specifically about Grey’s destiny, and how it must inevitably diverge from that of the clan. He had been clear that changes were about to happen in the wetlands – changes whose nature Grey now knew all too well. But he had also hinted at changes in the clan’s isolated community at the Iron Mountain.

Father had been right about the wetlands. He had his own ways of finding things out, of piecing together intelligence, and he frequently acted as an information broker to the clans of the desert and the kingdoms of the wetlands. If he had been right about what was happening four days’ march away, Grey thought, he was certain to be right about what was happening under his own roof.

Also, Grey had been left distinctly uneasy by Bandar’s last words. The clan would never be in a position to do anything…? What did that mean? Nothing good, was his guess.

He had seen a delicate, indistinct smudge, like a fragile wisp of grey lace, floating high in the sky. It was too faint for most to see, but Grey had, among other attributes, exceptional eyesight, and he knew that it was smoke from burning wood. He saw it when he was still distant from home, but he had shuddered at the sight, certain it rose from the Es-Cal community, and he feared what it meant. He had immediately picked up his pace, adjusted his course to approach indirectly, and resolved to travel through the night.

And so, he covered four days’ ground in two. By the end, he had ridden his horse to death, but in a carefully judged, cold and calculating way – the animal gave out, and he slit its throat out of compassion, less than one hour’s walk from the entrance to the hidden canyons.

He had approached the canyons under cover of darkness. His angle of approach was calculated so he could see the clifftop guard post without being seen. He had observed it to be deserted. Nobody was watching the road to Edge. That was ominous.

He picked his way carefully through the hidden canyons. The entrance to the Es-Cal’s village had been eroded by the centuries and modelled by the hands of expert stoneworkers into a labyrinthine maze that was overlooked all the way by clifftop guard posts and barred at several points by huge gates. Gates that stood wide open.

As if the state of the defences had not been enough warning, there was the smell and the sound. He had caught it from well outside – the reek of putrefaction and the stench of incinerated flesh. He heard the hum of swarming insects, the cries of squabbling carrion birds. He saw the bodies of his clan, heaped up and part-burnt, in a huge pile. He dropped to his knees, shocked by what he saw. It was not just the able-bodied men that had been slaughtered and burnt. He could tell from the sizes and the shapes of the bones that the butchery had extended to the women and children of the clan. Tears flowed freely down his face.

He found the elders of the clan in the remains of the moot house, Father among them. They had been tortured, as evidenced by broken fingers and other bones. The moot house had then been set alight around them. Grey hoped they had been dead before the fire reached them.

He guessed what the killers had wanted. He advanced further through the wreckage and found the strong room door, exposed and ajar. He noted that the door was undamaged beyond a few scorch marks, which meant that it had been opened with a key. He walked inside. The clan’s treasury was empty. But then Grey had already known it would be.

Who had lived? He asked himself the question but knew the only way to answer it was going to be the stuff of nightmares. More nightmares, he reminded himself, because his nights were often disturbed already, with vague frightening visions of blood, fire and pain. He set to work, transferring burnt bodies from the obscenity that was the pile inside the gate, reverently laying them in a new cremation pit he had dug off to one side. As he worked, he did his best to identify as many as he could, or at least to count and categorise those he could not. Father and the other elders of the clan had maintained impeccable records of births and deaths, and comings and goings.

Grey added dry kindling and fragrant flammable oil to the pit. After the last of the bodies had been laid out, after he completed a careful search to see that all had been accounted for, then he lit the pyre, and not knowing what else to do, softly recited the ancient poem, ‘The Song of Man’.

Leaving the pyre to consume the clan, Grey made his way up the cliff paths and across the guard-bridges to the watch station overlooking the Edge road. His tally of the dead had revealed two survivors. One was himself, naturally. He settled down at the top of the cliff to wait for the other.

 

  

The voice reached him from the dark. “Little cousin! Have you been waiting long? I am here, little cousin!”

Calling him ‘cousin’ was a deliberate insult, which Grey assumed was meant to anger him. The man below meant that he was a cousin in the same way that the grey apes from the far south were cousins to homo sapiens. Grey, however, felt no anger. The jibe had long ago lost any sting, and even when fresh, it had carried little hurt, no matter how ill-intended. He knew perfectly well that he was different. Grey scanned the darkness, using all his senses.

“What, cousin, have you fallen asleep? Not to be wondered at, I’m sure you’ve been working hard all day, tidying up the mess that I left for you. You never lost your knack for women’s and children’s work, did you?”

Another taunt, meant to sting. Before he could understand and be understood, Grey had needed to earn his keep, and at first it had involved menial tasks that could be taught by gesture and example. The sort of work usually falling to young children.

His night vision was excellent, and he was able to pick out shapes of men among the shadows of the flickering night. His hearing, likewise, was remarkable, and he could discern footsteps here, stones rattling there, a sword being loosened in its scabbard and a bow creaking as it bent.

“Canid got your tongue, cousin? Or perhaps you’re just sulking? I know you’re up there, I mean, where else would you be? Not laying asleep in the dormitory, I’m sure. No, you’re up there, waiting and watching, aren’t you?”

Grey’s senses went beyond those of other men, something that the Father had cautioned him, years ago, to keep secret even from the clan. He could sense the life below him. Men, sneaking closer to the outer gate, glowed in his enhanced vision. He could even distinguish the faint specks of animals taking shelter among the rocks and hollows at the foot of the cliff. He was sure that he had located all the men beneath, and it was time to act. To begin taking revenge for the massacre of the clan.

He had already knotted ropes, long enough to reach the foot of the cliff, and had tied them off at the top. He had oiled the upper lengths to reduce friction. Now, he gently began to let down a line, careful to make no noise. But before descending, he wanted to reinforce the belief that he was at the guard post. He needed to focus everyone’s attention up here.

“It’s you, Hunter,” he called out. “You are responsible for the madness here, I take it.”

“Ah! There you are! I was sure you were up there,” came the reply. “But you never were the talkative type, so my friends were starting to wonder.”

By the time the Hunter ended his sentence, Grey had silently slid most of the way down to the ground, on oiled cordage.   His moccasins reaching the dry length slowed him just short of the ground and he dropped the remaining metre or so, slipping quickly, unseen, into the undulations of the cliff wall. He slipped his bow from his left shoulder, nocked an arrow, picked out a target and loosed. He heard the arrow strike with a low thud, and the target toppled. He already had a second arrow nocked and swung his body to his right to pick out a target and loose again. Another thud, another man down. With the luxury of short range and stationary targets, Grey had hit both men in the neck, leaving them choking on blood.

Someone realised that something was happening and let out a warning shout. All the figures, glowing with life, that Grey had identified from the clifftop began moving, and calling out to each other. They were not sure where he was at first: a couple of arrows flew up toward the top of the cliff.   Another of Grey’s arrows hit a target, but this time slammed into armour plate with a clang, and from the shouts he could tell that they knew he was at ground level.

Grey slipped away from the cliff, and crouch-ran out into the open desert. He did not want to be trapped with his back against the cliff, rather he preferred space to manoeuvre. He paused on one knee and loosed three more arrows, taking down two targets, before he moved farther into the open. He quickly circled round to his right, shooting then moving, shooting then moving. Quiver empty, he dropped the bow and pulled out his sword.

For a moment he wished he had brought more arrows, because he was now going to have to get up close to do damage to his adversaries. But he had not; live with it, he told himself. He circled a little further, and then crept towards the hidden canyons, and the closest target. Ten metres off, and no-one had seen him. Eight, and no-one had heard him. Six. Four. The warrior in front of him spun round toward him, swinging a longsword, alerted by some sixth sense, or slight sound, or flicker of shadow, or something. Grey ducked under the swing and rammed the point of his own sword up into the man’s groin. He jerked it out, dropped, rolled, and came up in a fighting stance. Another warrior came at him from his left, and Grey first swayed back out of range, then thrust forward, arm outstretched, catching the man in the throat. He dropped and rolled again, and this time retreated into the night.

Someone was yelling furiously about forming a shield wall, about not letting Grey get behind them. The enemy were disorganized, and Grey wanted them to stay that way, so he swung his head from side to side, located the noise of the shouting man, and made straight for him.

Once again, they had lost him in the darkness. He suddenly popped up in the middle of a group of half a dozen men and lashed out left and right with sword and dagger, landing strikes and weaving away from counterstrokes with bewildering speed. The man trying to organize the shield wall was the first to go down, slashed across the face. Grey once again swayed out of reach and ducked into the darkness.

So far, Grey had kept the upper hand, thanks to his exceptional vision and ability to sense his targets’ life force in the dark. But the enemy were closing in, they were moving around him fast, and he was suddenly shocked out of complacency as one of them loomed right in front of him and hammered a fist into his face. He was lucky; the man seemed just as shocked as he, and was a brawler rather than a warrior. He had reacted to Grey’s sudden appearance out of the dark with an instinctive punch rather than a stab or a slash. Grey reacted with the dagger in his left hand, which caught the man across the sword-hand. Sword and fingers flew, and Grey’s knee came up into his groin.

Grey realized that his field of vision was acting oddly. The images of his adversaries began variously to blur, to flicker and to fade. Panic gripped him – for the first time that he could ever recall, a part of his brain registered with surprise – and he back-pedalled furiously, swinging his sword wildly. By some miracle, the sword caught someone and brought him down, letting Grey slip into the darkness.

Targeting overload.” Grey was shocked by words coming, unbidden, into his mind. “Resetting targeting system.” What?   He fought the panic and tried, desperately, to focus on the images in his field of vision. “Base system overload. Base system reboot starting.” He had no idea what was happening. The strange words came to him in a voice that in his head sounded female and comforting, but he was anything but comforted as his vision deteriorated, his hearing dulled, and he felt inexplicably sore and tired.

“He’s here!” Another voice, this time from outside his head. He saw shapes moving, a deeper black against the night. They were coming for him. He dropped to one knee, avoiding a sword swinging for his head, and, consciously drawing on his training, he rolled forward, springing up and planting his sword firmly into someone’s chest. What had, only minutes ago, been unconscious reflex was now an effort of recollection and conscious will. He parried, parried, ducked, parried and thrust, and then did it all again. He felt his sword hit bodies, but then gasped in pain as others’ swords sliced his arm, his leg, his face.

His dagger became embedded in bone and was wrenched out of his hand by a falling body. He collapsed onto one knee, fighting for breath, and frantically looked about for his next adversary.

“Little cousin, little cousin,” came the Hunter’s voice. “I have to say, you surpassed all my expectations. I knew you were quite a capable fighter, but you have outdone yourself.”

A brief auroral flare illuminated the Hunter’s sardonic face, as Grey collapsed, gasping and bleeding, onto the ground. “Do you know, I brought eighteen fellows tonight. Eighteen! And now you and I are the only ones left standing.” He gave a derisive snort of laughter. “All right, I am left standing. You seem to be sniveling on the ground like a worm.” He walked around Grey shaking his head. “Look at you. I mean, just look at you. Are you going to die on your belly, little cousin?”

“Why?” It was all Grey could do to get the word out.

The Hunter laughed. “Why? Well, why not? I don’t expect you to understand. Actually, I don’t need you to understand. All I need from you is a simple answer.” He leaned forward, and a glare of malevolence transformed his face. “Where is it?

Grey grimaced. “Gone.”

“I know it’s gone, you half-wit. I could see it was gone the minute I opened up the damned vault. What did you do with it?” The Hunter leaned over him and placed the tip of his sword on Grey’s stomach.

“The mine is exhausted,” said Grey, but the Hunter interrupted him.

“Don’t tell me what I already know, you idiot,” he spat. “Yes, I know, the yield from the mine is way down. The treasury is going to be the clan’s only resource, and our stupid elders wanted to use it to subsidize our traditional way of life in the middle of damned dusty nowhere, forever and ever. They want us to be true to the spirit of our ancestors.” He spoke in a sneering, contemptuous tone. “The ancient Es-Cal always lived here so those idiots decided we should always live here. Well, that’s not what I want! I know, just as you know, that there is more to life than dried fruit, smoked lizard and filtered water. The difference between us is that I intend to have more.”   The Hunter began pacing impatiently. “Things are changing. Things have changed. There’s a new king over in the wetlands, and he wants to work with the coming men of our generation. All I need is a stake to buy in, and Edge is mine! Who knows what comes next? With the customs revenues, I could be at the right hand of High King Rogan when he unites the wetland kingdoms.”

The Hunter turned back to Grey and again put his sword-tip on his stomach. “But you went off with the contents of the vault, didn’t you!  Now, for the last time, where is it?

“Father knew,” said Grey. “He sent me off to keep it safe. He knew the king would fall, and that you were his son’s man. He thought you couldn’t be trusted with the fate of the clan.”

The Hunter applied weight, just a little, so that the sword tip penetrated Grey’s skin, making him wince. “Last chance, little ape, and then you die, slowly and painfully, for my amusement. Just tell me where it is, and you can die fast. I won’t make the offer again, so come on, tell me.”

Grey started to chuckle. He knew things that the Hunter didn’t. He laughed. Things about himself. The Hunter simply stared at him in disbelief. Then he shook his head and started to lean more weight on his sword.

Grey stood up.

The Hunter stepped back in shock, because Grey stood up, his motion driving the sword right through his own body and out the back. Pain seared through Grey’s body. Blood gushed out, front and back, and he laughed, spraying blood with his breath into the Hunter’s horrified face.

“What -” the Hunter started to say, but Grey’s left hand clamped onto his throat and stopped him.

“Goodbye, Hunter,” said Grey. He had a knife in his right hand, and he plunged it straight into the Hunter’s eye, and pushed it through the back of the socket, and deep into his brain.

 

  

The lean grey man lay quietly, propped against the cliff in a shaded corner, and waited to heal.

At some point – he had no idea when – that strange comforting voice in his head told him to sleep, that she would keep watch. Whatever she might be. But he knew, from the change in the heat of the sun, that he had slept, and somehow no scavengers had disturbed him.

So, he lay there, and waited, and wept for his lost clan.


 

 

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