The strong are strong for a reason, usually not a good one. ~ saying of the Patharki Tribe
Gendahl laughed as Hin Lol teased Medu about riding into a low tree branch and falling off his horse during the boar hunt. Medu was taking the teasing well, even knowing that his blunder would be exaggerated when retold at that night’s banquet.
The dangerous boar had led them all on a merry hunt. Gendahl and his dear companions had tracked it through the Espen Forest for three days, beneath the leafy canopy of patch-worked greens that crowned the ancient trees. After hitting many dead ends, they had joked that the hefty boar had magic with which to elude them. Then, late yesterday afternoon, Gendahl and his warriors had cornered the boar in a canyon, and the tasty animal had ceased to possess the craft to avoid their spears. Gendahl and Hin Lol had thrust the killing blows, skewering the beast from both sides. They had slain the boar beside a dead oak tree, whose bulky skeleton stood with its bare gray branches spreading against a bright blue sky. Tiny green sproutlings and saplings populated the sunlit circle around the dead tree, and, from a perch in the brittle treetop, a gold-feathered eagle had watched the boar die with an interested gaze.
Gendahl looked forward to celebrating that night with his fellow hunters who were as close to him as the brothers he had never had. These warriors were his Infoh, sworn bodyguards to the Lord of the Lin Tohs Tribe. They came from families that had served Lin Tohs leaders for the eight generations since Gendahl’s illustrious forefather, Axerpen, had founded the tribe.
It would be tomorrow before the roasting fires transformed the boar into a splendid main course. Then Gendahl would feast with his entire household, indulging in the joys of hearth and home. There would be meat and drink, his baby son to brag about, and his fine wife to bed as he pleased. When these luxuries grew boring, he and his Infoh would arrange another amusing adventure in their remote realm.
Gendahl switched the reins of his mount back and forth in his hands as he shrugged out of his leather jacket. This was the first year that the blue-dyed bull skin jacket had fit him with perfect comfort. Three years ago his late father had given him the jacket as a present for his manhood year, and it had taken that long for the leather to mold itself over Gendahl’s well-muscled shoulders and firm chest that had all the lean strength of youth without the bulk of later manhood.
Gendahl handed the jacket to his nearest servant, who spread it carefully across his lap as he rode. Gendahl shook out his loosely woven red linen shirt that was clinging to his sweaty bronze skin. He had emerged from the forest into the outlying pastures of his domain, and the noon-time summer sun pressed down bright and hot.
Riding at the fore of his sprawling hunting party, Gendahl was the first to see the horizon scarred by columns of smoke. An unconscious tug on the reins slowed his horse.
“No,” Gendahl whispered like a little prayer to Jayshem that he knew could not be answered. The smoke came from exactly where his fortress, Do Tohsall, stood.
His Infoh began to shout. “My Lord!” “Lord Gendahl.” “Curse them. It must be the Patharki!”
Gendahl grasped the hilt of his sword and called for his armor. His body servants jumped from their mounts and ran to the pack horses to grab his helmet and body armor.
Medu and Hin Lol stopped their horses alongside Gendahl. Almost in unison, each man drew his copper-trimmed bronze helmet over his head.
Hin Lol said, “My Lord, Den will be holding the walls. We can strike our attackers at their backs.”
Medu added, “We can rouse villagers to the defense between here and Do Tohsall.”
Their voices came to Gendahl’s ears like the whispers of concerned relatives talking in the next room about his incurable disease. Already he felt as if his heart had been ripped from his chest and icy water poured in the hole. The rising smoke came from big fires — fires that had been burning while he had been frolicking deep in the Espen. Fires of victory.
His wife and small son were at Do Tohsall. Had a grim fate already claimed them while they had no man to protect them?
The irresistible despair that assailed Gendahl surprised him with its strength. He had never expected to feel so deprived of hope and courage when a dark day came to test him. Gendahl only found his resolve because his loyal men looked to him for leadership. He must fight and show his good men the hope that had already been stripped from him like an avalanche wiping clear a stand of pines.
Gendahl dismounted so that two servants could swiftly outfit him for combat. He donned again his blue leather jacket. A helmet settled over his head. The metal cap gave him strength as the padded interior gripped his skull and the lapis lazuli beads rattled on the fringe. Next, a heavy net of small diamond-shaped bronze plates joined by chain links was pulled over his shoulders and torso and bound tightly around him with strong cords of braided leather. The servants adjusted the side slit in the flexible armor so that Gendahl could grasp the handle of his sword strapped to his hip.
He did just that, and drew out his blade made of the new metal, the iron that the forge masters made hard and sharp. Gendahl thought of how Axerpen had carved a noble name for himself and his descendants. Now Gendahl meant to defend that legacy, his family….
He looked at the bleary horizon where a sweet summer breeze smeared the dark smoky bars of the dungeon door closing in on him. This smoke was born of burning buildings where many things burned, like furniture, rugs, linens, foods, oils, animals…people.
Gendahl whispered the names of his wife and son. His dread pained him. All of his youthful confidence seemed already to be burning on the fires of Do Tohsall. He felt too young. His small experiences in battle now inadequate. His prowess at sport, at riding, at loving, at speaking was now useless.
Armored and mounting up, his Infoh were ready. There weapons rattled and their squealing horses reflected their anxiety. Gendahl shouted orders. He designated a group of six warriors to ride for the nearest villages and rouse the peasants to the fight while he and the rest of the Infoh raced straight to Do Tohsall.
But instead of hearing them shout with desire for battle, Gendahl heard curses and watched horror goad their ugly rage. He pivoted in his saddle and saw what they saw: armed warriors pouring through the gaps in the closest hedgerow. Men in black cloaks and smooth round helms, polished and bright in the sunshine, rode hard toward Gendahl and his Infoh. After the riders galloped through the hedgerow, they regrouped into a daunting charge line, prickly with spears and swords. Long thin red banners with white symbols and fringe streamed over grim warriors and marked them as Patharki.
Ginjor Rib, the Patharki King, had harried the Lin Tohs for several years because he coveted the developing farmlands and ore mines in the foothills that Gendahl controlled. At last the desire of Ginjor Rib had matured into outright invasion. Gendahl had hoped to cure this threat one day with marriage treaties, but Ginjor Rib had decided to rape him instead. The Patharki had grown too big and greedy to dicker with the modest forces of the Lin Tohs.
“Fight!” Gendahl shouted. “Fight!”
Gendahl raised his sword and turned toward the charge. More warriors came through the hedgerows, darkening the pasture like flies over a dead bird. Ginjor Rib had sent a surplus of warriors to hunt down and destroy the Lord of the Lin Tohs who had so inconveniently been absent from the destruction of his stronghold. Gendahl saw little chance of hacking his way to escape, but then he met with his first foe, and his thoughts were reduced to the next swing of the blade.
A Patharki warrior died swiftly on Gendahl’s sword, and the screaming spray of blood urged Gendahl to greater fury. He blocked blows. He killed and rushed on to confront the next warrior. For an unknown time, Gendahl existed in battle ecstasy that let him dream of winning, but his warriors were falling around him and his enemies were pressing hard. Gendahl’s brief offensive collapsed as he whirled his horse and deflected weapons from all sides. Without any thought of his pride, Gendahl retreated.
The Patharki chased him and his scattered knots of Infoh into the shady edge of the Espen. The servants who had attended the warriors on the hunt were run down and killed as the fight swept over them.
It was cooler and quieter beneath the old trees. The thud of hooves and the grunts of fighting men were softened by the forest into the subdued beat of a funeral drum.
Gendahl knew the Espen well, and he and his Infoh gained a lead from their pursuers. The surviving Infoh reunited with their lord, and they sought a rougher trail that looped to the east and then out of the forest. Gendahl’s goal remained to reach his stronghold and join with his people who still gave battle, if any did.
The noise of warriors rushing through the forest warned Gendahl that the Patharki were close again. Their numbers allowed them to spread through the trees and throw a wide net to find the Lin Tohs.
The Lin Tohs warriors urged their tiring mounts eastward. Each man knew how to get to the trail. As they fled with the Patharki bashing through the forest behind them, the Lin Tohs had a sad moment in which to notice those comrades who did not ride beside them any more. Already half of them were dead or dying in the trampled pasture.
The Patharki ranks thickened and cut Gendahl off before he could reach the hidden trail. The Patharki had known that their quarry would know the forest well and sufficient numbers had been dispatched to ensure the capture of the Lin Tohs lord.
When the black-cloaked riders appeared in front of Gendahl, he cursed them. They popped up amid the trees like mushrooms after a week of rain. Horns brayed all around as the Patharki signaled that they had found their victims. Patharki warriors abandoned the dragnet and rushed toward the wailing horns.
Medu came to Gendahl’s side. Blood seeped from wounds on both arms of the loyal bodyguard, and his fun spirit had been extinguished from his twinkling brown eyes.
“My Lord, keep going. We will cover your escape. Alone, you can elude these dishonorable dogs,” Medu said.
“I will fight with you,” Gendahl declared.
Two more of his Infoh urged him to heed Medu. They were drawing arrows from their quivers. Iridescent green feathers fletched the pale wooden arrows that were being set to bows. Both men insisted that it was their duty and privilege to fight while he made it away from danger.
“It’s why we are here, my Lord,” Medu insisted. “It’s your duty to live and find vengeance for our tribe.”
“You are bold to tell your lord his duty,” Gendahl scolded.
The two Infoh beside him shot arrows at two advancing Patharki. True shots both, and the riders fell from their mounts.
“Go now while you can, dear Lord Gendahl,” Medu pleaded.
More Infoh were firing arrows, keeping the Patharki back as long as possible before they degenerated into hand-to-hand combat with the overwhelming force.
Gendahl looked into Medu’s eyes, knowing suddenly with awful certainty that he would never look upon that face living again. Such a short time ago they had ridden on a path toward merriment, roast pork, and the arms of warm sweet wives. But that path was gone, washed away by flooding fates.
With the sorrow of their final parting twisting his face, Medu said, “My dear Lord, let us not fight and die and not have you escape. An Infoh could know no greater cruelty.”
Gendahl wanted to say goodbye to them, to praise their courage and express his love, but words were now meaningless and time was everything. He yelled to his horse and slapped the reins. He galloped by the freshly dead warriors with arrows protruding from throat and chest. Forest litter sprayed from the hooves of his horse. Infoh rushed through the trees at his flanks, confronting Patharki with arrows, spears, and swords. The fighting pressed closer, and he heard the shouts of great effort, failure, and death bash through the trees.
Utterly alone, Gendahl spurred his horse up the slope toward the trail on the ridge. The steed labored upward, but in his desperate haste he had chosen a poor spot to ascend, and the animal lost its footing in the loose leafy litter over the rocky soil. The horse fell, and then rolled sideways as it tried to regain its feet on the treacherous slope. When the horse started to roll over, Gendahl grabbed a sapling and pulled himself from the saddle as the horse rolled away. It crashed through underbrush before righting itself amid flapping leaves. Battered and panicked, the horse skittered down the slope.
Gendahl swore at the animal. Through a few gaps in the foliage, he saw Patharki warriors advancing on him. Then three Infoh overtook the Patharki, rushing like angered merchants chasing down a shoplifter in the market square. Two of them were mounted and one was on foot. When Gendahl heard their battle cries and watched them engage their enemies with furious metal, he rushed unthinking to give them aid. His booted feet took long strides down the slope, leaving long gashes in the carpet of leaves and exposing moist soil.
He recognized the Infoh warrior on foot as Temdi, who confronted his mounted foe with the strength of a granite cliff. In an extraordinary move he chopped off the rider’s hand that held his sword, and then Temdi hacked at the rider’s torso and knocked him from the saddle. He tried to grab the horse’s bridle and claim the mount, but more Patharki attacked and he had to dodge behind trees.
Expecting to see another attacker, Temdi whirled when he heard someone behind him. Surprise flashed on his face and he halted his bloody blade.
“My Lord!” he cried. “Go away from us.”
Just then a man cried out as a mortal blow fell upon him, and one of the mounted Infoh slumped across his horse’s neck. His blood gushed into the animal’s amber mane, darkening it with wet gore.
Dismayed by his gathering defeat, Gendahl was drained of the will to go on. He desired only to die fighting with his Infoh, who were better than kin. But Temdi was driven by a different duty. He grabbed Gendahl and started pulling his lord up the rough slope with great speed. Gendahl ran with him. Fleeing with a companion felt better.
They reached the trail that threaded its way along a wooded ridge. The narrow path gripped by tree roots disappeared in both directions into pleasant secretive shade. They started east but were soon confronted by riders on the trail. Their helmets sparkled in the green-dappled sunlight and their black cloaks joined with the forest shadows. Some men whacked leafy branches out of their way, whetting their blades’ appetite for noble blood on the sap of Lin Tohs wood.
Temdi grabbed his lord again and led him in the opposite direction, deeper into the Espen forest. They ran for their lives, and for a while their armor was light on their bodies, but eventually it taxed their stamina, and both men puffed and sweated with mounting exhaustion. Riders thudded and clanked behind them.
Gendahl and Temdi realized that they could not stay on the trail. Beckoned by the comparative safety of the forest, they dashed into the trees. They ran farther up the slope and grabbed small trees, roots, and branches to haul themselves up. They reached the top of the ridge, and Gendahl stopped to catch his breath. He leaned against a gnarled old maple with his sword drooping in his hand.
Temdi needed the break too, and he reluctantly stopped beside his lord. Perhaps it was best to gather the last of his strength for the final fight. Although the treetops masked the riders below them on the trail, Gendahl could hear them slowing and talking. They would see where their victims had left the trail. Gendahl and Temdi had blundered up the slope without any craft, and a half-blind old man born of the town could have tracked them.
The Patharki tongue was not so different from the dialect of the Lin Tohs, and Temdi and Gendahl heard the shouted orders for warriors to dismount and pursue them up the slope.
“We must go on,” Temdi said.
Gendahl nodded, but he paused to survey the land from his vantage point. The ancient stretches of the Espen forest unfolded around him and climbed gradually into the foothills of the Tymelo Mountains. The mountains were tall, massive, behemoths of blue stone that guarded the sky with their icy peaks. So much older than men. So much more beautiful than women. Gendahl admired the landscape and saw its beauty as only a man about to die can see such things.
Then he was running again, following Temdi along the ridge, weaving among the trees. He had no shame in fleeing now. Patharki warriors were swarming up the slope. When the first four Patharki warriors reached Gendahl and Temdi, they fought with the ferocity of cornered beasts. They killed the four warriors and felt the joy of giving pain to their enemies. Lord Gendahl of the Lin Tohs had bid up the price of killing him.
Although their brief battle had been victorious, it had slowed them, and now dozens of Patharki warriors had overtaken them. Gendahl and Temdi swerved down the opposite side of the ridge. Two Patharki engaged Temdi, and he whirled to fight them. Gendahl tried to stop and help his Infoh in this final struggle but the slope was too steep. He skidded and tripped. He flailed his arms, seeking balance, but the slope turned into a cliff and he fell. Trees branches and trunks blurred by him and then he hit the ground. Bones snapped and he shrieked with pain. He rolled down another small slope and came to rest on a sun-warmed slab of rock beside water. Pain sickened him, and he groaned and writhed.
In great contrast to his agony, he had landed in a lovely spot. A waterfall rained over a cliff and the waters collected in a deep pool. Not far away a burbling creek quickened as it flowed away from the pool. Old trees and smooth rock embraced the pool that reflected fluffy white clouds.
A wonderful place to die. I can accept this, Gendahl thought.
His pain spiked and he grabbed at his thighs. His weapon fell from his grasp, forgotten and useless anyway. He knew that he could not even attempt to stand. The pain made it hard enough to breathe.
He heard a scream through the trees and then the metallic crash of an armored body rolling over the cliff and down the slope just as he had. Gendahl saw Temdi flop and then stop in the crook of a tree root. Temdi was dead, bloody from a dozen wounds, and an arrow was broken off in his hip.
Seeking a way down the cliff, the Patharki shouted different suggestions to each other until someone finally decided to use a rope to descend the cliff and confirm the death of Gendahl, as Ginjor Rib had commanded.
Tormented by waves of swelling pain, Gendahl awaited them. They were taking forever to reach him. He expected that he was too miserably injured for them to bother hauling him out of the forest for prolonged torturing. They would give him the killing blow and rightly punish him for being such a failure. He had lost what his family had created over eight generations. For a time, he would be remembered as the man who let the Lin Tohs be destroyed, and then no one would even remember that the Lin Tohs had ever existed.
Gendahl tried to unstrap his helmet. To feel a bit of the cool breeze through his sweaty hair would be a final mercy. But his gloved fingers lacked any dexterity, and he gave up after a feeble attempt. Groaning, he clawed at the stone. He tried to move his legs, but flexing his muscles smacked him with terrible pain.
“Come get me. I’m here,” he called, thinking that he was shouting, but his voice was really only a hoarse mumble.
Water dripped on his face, and he opened his eyes lazily.
Over him stood a vision of some spirit daughter of Gyhwen. Long black hair, shiny like spider web strands of spun volcanic glass, hung wet around her face. Water dripped from the spiraling ends of her hair and splashed onto him like sweet rain. Her eyes were black and seemed as if they could see all the secrets that darkness had ever hidden. Her skin was blue, like the sky, no…. like the mountains. She was a spirit daughter of the Tymelo Mountains that had looked over the world of men since their beginning and would be there to watch their end. Her body exemplified feminine beauty. Her perfect shoulders, her breasts, muscled stomach, curving hips and thighs possessed no flaw, and droplets of water sprinkled her skin like dew on morning glories.
Indigo blue cloth woven of fantastically thin fibers bound her breasts. The fabric was so fine and wet it did nothing to hide her nipples. Her short pants were made of the same fabric and the clinging thin pants mocked the concept of modesty. The thick leather belt at her waist only accentuated her lack of clothing and gear.
She looked deeply into his eyes. Gendahl realized that he could not blink, nor did he want to. Her curious penetrating gaze pulled the pain out of him. Gendahl sighed with relief and relaxed. Pale blue fire began to burn in her eyes, blazing brighter the longer Gendahl stared at her. He felt like he looked at the sun but was not blinded.
Somehow he heard the stomp of booted feet and rattle of gear as Patharki warriors scrambled down the cliff, and he remembered that he was a broken man lying on the world of Gyhwen. Gendahl finally looked away from her and saw four men standing around Temdi’s body. He glanced back up at the blue female, wondering what her reaction would be, but she had not shifted the focus of her glowing eyes and showed no awareness of the warriors.
One of the Patharki squatted next to Temdi and shook his head. He spoke, but Gendahl did not catch his words. The others warriors were looking around. Two men broke off from the group to search under trees, and a third walked out onto the slab of stone where Gendahl lay at the feet of the mountain daughter. The warrior apparently had no awareness that his quarry was only two steps away. Dark blotches of drying blood were visible on the shiny studs of his gauntlets. His sword was sheathed. The leather binding on its handle was faded and worn smooth. Veteran warriors had been sent to hunt down the Lord of the Lin Tohs.
Rage suddenly boiled inside Gendahl, forcing away the queer peace that he had found in the eyes of the blue female. Pain returned to him as well when he looked on the flat brown face of his enemy, whose comrades were no doubt mopping up the destruction of Do Tohsall.
Gendahl was about to yell an insult, but a strong will stifled his words.
“Speak not, human man.” The command echoed in his mind. He let the female voice soothe him and his pain receded into only a warm fever.
The closest Patharki warrior walked by Gendahl and his mysterious guardian. The warrior walked along the water’s edge and looked into the clear pool. He moved up and down the bank and passed Gendahl several times. Each time that Gendahl glimpsed the warrior’s face, it bore an increasingly troubled expression.
He cannot see me, Gendahl thought although it was difficult to believe. He started to wonder if he had already died and all this was a confused vision misinterpreted by his soul.
Gendahl watched the warriors assemble beside Temdi. They all shook their heads and gestured with frustration.
“We have to find him!” declared the warrior who had walked by Gendahl.
The warriors searched again. This time going farther through the trees and even wading into the pool to check whether the clear water had played tricks and hidden the body of Lord Gendahl.
A fifth warrior eventually appeared, huffing from his descent of the cliff. Gendahl noticed red tassels on the warrior’s cloak and belt, which marked him as a captain. He glanced at Temdi’s body with irritation and then stepped onto the sunlit stone bank. He shouted for the other warriors and waited with his hands on his hips for them to come to him. He scanned the waterfall and let his eyes follow the flowing water.
As the four warriors returned from their fruitless searching, he listened to their reports with a deepening frown. The body of Gendahl could not be found.
“I saw him go over that cliff myself,” the captain insisted.
“We have looked all around, even in the water,” a warrior insisted and then suggested that the current may have carried away the body of the vanquished lord.
The hypothesis did not seem to impress the captain. Gesturing at Temdi, he asked if they were certain that this body was not Gendahl.
“His is an Infoh,” a warrior said. “See, he wears the bodyguard badge around his neck.”
The captain squatted and tore the amulet on its silver chain from Temdi’s neck and threw it into the water. “Fools,” he chided, standing up. “His bodyguards would have sought to mislead us. Gendahl switched gear with this bodyguard so we would not know who was who during the fight. Take this man’s head and be done with it. I want out of this forest before dark.”
“We should check his hands,” a warrior suggested, but the captain narrowed his eyes at him menacingly. His men had no place discussing things with him. The captain kicked one of the gloved hands and grunted that the Lin Tohs were probably too ignorant to mark their leader with proper tattoos.
The gathered warriors considered what their captain had said, which seemed reasonable. It did explain why they could not find Lord Gendahl’s body, but it would be perilous to risk a mistake with Ginjor Rib.
Gently, another warrior said to his captain. “Sir, I believe that you have undone this riddle, but our Lord might know the face of Gendahl from the descriptions of our spies. Are you sure this is the head that we should take to him?”
The captain gave the questioning warrior a sour look. For an answer he raised his foot and smashed twice with his heel at Temdi’s face. For good measure, he gouged a dead eye with his spur.
“Take his head,” the captain ordered. “And let us be done with this task. The Lin Tohs are no more.”
Obediently, a warrior lifted his blade and, after taking aim, hacked the head from the body. Stabbed with grief to witness the defiling of Temdi’s body, Gendahl growled wordlessly. Abruptly, the Patharki captain and two of his men turned their heads toward the sound.
Becalmed by the female voice in his head, Gendahl stayed silent. The eyes of the Patharki roved the area, but still they did not see. The waterfall tumbled and splashed, and the wind chattered in the trees.
Gendahl watched a warrior lift Temdi’s dripping head. Even if it was not the head of the Lord of the Lin Tohs, Gendahl still saw his own death in the ruined face of Temdi.
The Patharki warriors departed with the head, and only one of them looked back wonderingly before disappearing amid the gloomy trees.
With the Patharki gone, Gendahl suddenly felt as if he had left the world entirely. His domain was surely conquered, and he sprawled helpless at the feet of a mysterious creature. She now kneeled beside him, willing to claim that which cruel fate had chewed but spit back.
“How did they not see us?” he asked her.
The water had dried from her hair and a few lovelocks fluttered in the breeze. Her hair looked soft and inviting, and Gendahl wanted to touch it. At first, he did not think that she understood his language, but eventually she replied. Her voice was as lovely as the burbling creek but possessed a timbre that suggested it could speak with the force of the waterfalls.
“Because I did not want them to see us, human man,” she said.
She released the strap of his helmet and slid it off his head. The helmet clanked against the stone and rolled a half turn closer to the water. She ran her hands over his thighs, examining his injuries.
“Who are you?” Gendahl asked.
She looked straight into him with her magical eyes. Sparks of blue fire pulsed in her pupils. “Onja,” she said.