As most of you know, I'm working on multiple book projects. When health and/or pain issues (the first transitory, the second pretty much a daily occurrence) slow me down on one of them, I switch to another, in an attempt to keep my mind fresh and continue producing work to earn my living even when my body wants nothing of the sort. It's a work-around, but I've produced a lot over the past year, and I'm close to publishing books again.
Here's an experimental project that I started on a whim, but which looks like going all the way. It's a fantasy, using the theme of a soldier from one culture whisked away by magical means and dumped into a land and culture he doesn't know at all. How he learns his way around, and deals with the many challenges that will confront him, form the thread of the tale. Bonus points to those who can identify his origin from clues in the text below.
I've chosen an early armed encounter from the book, in which our hero is being sought by enemy patrols who are alert to his arrival, and are determined to find and kill him before he can learn enough to threaten them.
The rain was indeed heavier, the man decided. The light was almost gone now, and he wanted to be able to see where he was going on his approach to the campsite. Tonight, for sure, there'd be no light from the sky at all.
He eased through the creepers at the cave mouth, turned, and carefully replaced them, to leave no sign of where he'd come from. He mentally marked the cave mouth's position in relation to the finger rock, so that he could find it again. He had donned the darkest pair of breeches and shirt in his pack, and knew that once they were soaked with rain, they'd be invisible against the night. Now he gathered mud from the ground and smeared it across his cheeks and forehead. He'd repeat that as necessary. He felt his upper left arm, making sure the amulet was securely tied in place against his skin beneath his sleeve. It might be sorcerer's work, but he needed it, so he'd decided to make the best of a bad situation. His spatha and dagger were at his belt. In the dark, at close range, his bow and arrows would be useless.
Like a shadow he flitted silently across the grass to the finger rock, and peered around it. The six men were some fifty yards below and to the right, seated around a small campfire. Two lean-to shelters of branches were arranged on either side of the trunk of the tree behind them. Three packs stood beside each shelter. The man nodded approvingly. If these men were as well trained as they looked, two would be in the shelter, lying head-to-toe, so that either could be awakened and wriggle out for his turn on sentry duty without disturbing the other. The sentry coming off duty would take his place in the shelter. That arrangement would also make it easier to deal with them, of course… but first he'd have to neutralize the sentries.
He took a step away from the rock – and froze. From near his foot came a harsh, buzzing, rattling sound. He swiftly withdrew his foot, and looked down. He could see nothing. Puzzled, he bent to look more closely. There was a windblown drift of leaves against the side of the rock, and as he watched, some of the leaves seemed to move. Gradually, the outline of a snake came into focus, almost perfectly camouflaged by its skin pattern against the dead brown leaves. It was coiled in a circle, its tail vibrating and producing that strange noise, its head raised and poised to strike.
The man smiled. He didn't know the snakes of this place, wherever it was, but from its readiness to strike, this one was probably poisonous. Its head was a more pronounced, wider, flatter arrowhead shape than the adders of his homeland, but basically similar.
He looked around, and picked up a forked twig from where it had been blown against the rock. Stripping the sodden leaves from it, he hefted it experimentally. It would do. He drew his dagger, reversed his grip to hold it by the tip of the blade, and carefully extended the hilt towards the snake. It rattled and buzzed angrily, then suddenly shot out its head in a strike at the pommel. Equally swiftly, the man brought down the stick in his other hand, pinning the snake's head to the ground. It thrashed against his restraint, and the thin twig trembled. He dropped the dagger, and grasped the snake firmly behind the head with his free hand, holding it so that it couldn't strike. Its body coiled and writhed, thrashing in the leaves. If they'd been dry, they would have made a noise loud enough to be heard by those around the campfire below: but because all were sodden, the noise was dampened.
He picked up and sheathed his dagger, then ran his other hand down the snake's body, grasping its tail, cutting off the rattling sound. It writhed in his hands as he worked his way closer to the fire, flitting from rock to bush to rock. He was no more than twenty yards from the group, the light almost gone, when he noticed an unpleasantly familiar odor. Wrinkling his nostrils, he looked around for its source. It came from a rock some five yards to his right, balanced on top of three or four smaller rocks. Before it were three heaps of human ordure. Clearly the soldiers had chosen that spot for their latrine.
Looking at the mess, a sudden idea came to his mind. He glanced down at the snake, and whispered softly, “Patience, little brother. Soon you'll have softer things to bite than the hilt of my dagger!”
He crossed to the toilet spot, moved around behind it, and wriggled up beneath the rock. The gap between the edge of the rock and the ground narrowed to no more than a few inches, and it was pitch black beneath it. He would not be observed. He ignored the stench in his nostrils. He'd smelt the same from the sewers of Miklagard, and worse on many a battlefield. He wouldn't have to endure it for long – or so he hoped.
He wasn't disappointed. Within a few minutes one of the men by the fire stood, stretched, and turned towards him. A couple of jeering comments from the others followed him as he approached, loosening his belt and breeches. He dropped them to his ankles, turned, and squatted, his back to the rock, his buttocks no more than a foot from it. His male organs drooped between his legs as he grunted and strained.
The hidden man flicked the snake out from under the rock, tossing it directly beneath the soldier in front of him. With a frenzied buzz of indignation, the snake fastened its fangs onto the temptingly dangling target before it, and bit deep. The soldier shrieked in shock and pain as he jerked upright, his bowels forgotten, and slapped frantically at his groin. Around the fire, the other five also came erect, staring in shock, then ran towards him, drawing their swords.
The hidden man didn't wait for them to arrive. He wriggled rapidly backwards, clear of the rock, and darted soundlessly over to another clump of bushes and rocks some distance away. He made sure he was out of sight, then listened carefully.
The five soldiers slowed as they approached, faces aghast as they saw what was clinging to their comrade's manhood. The Sergeant cursed, stepped forward, and prodded carefully with his sword. The snake dropped to the ground, and he chopped down at it again and again. The rattling ceased.
“Timber rattler.” The Sergeant's voice was grim. “Better make your peace with your gods, Gurutz. You'll be seeing them within minutes. He got you good.”
“B – But, Sergeant… nooooo!” The man's agonized wail was almost hysterical. “C – can't you suck out the poison?”
“Out of that? Forget it, Gurutz. You're gonna die!” The others shuddered and nodded. Clearly none of them were willing to apply their lips to so intimate a portion of anatomy, even if it was their comrade's. “Besides, I'd have to open up the bite, to get more blood flow. You really want me to use my dagger on your manhood?”
One of the others spat a sudden curse. “We'd better pick a new spot for the latrine – out in the open, far away from rocks an' bushes!”
The Sergeant nodded. “Yeah. To hell with privacy, if those things are around here! I didn't expect to find them this high up. Check your shelters good before you get into them tonight.” The others nodded.
“What the hell are you talking about?” the injured man screamed. “To hell with your new latrine, and your shelters! What about me?”
“Your choice, Gurutz,” the Sergeant said impassively. “You know what timber rattler venom will do. You'll be dead in ten, maybe fifteen minutes, out of your mind with agony: or I can give you a quick, merciful end now. Which d'you want?”
“I – I –…” The soldier gobbled incoherently as he sank to his knees, holding himself, beginning to drool.
“Aw, hell, Sergeant, give him a quick and peaceful death!” another growled. “He's in no fit state to answer you, an' we don't need to listen to him howlin' at the rain until he dies.”
The Sergeant nodded, stepped forward, and thrust once. His sword point entered the soldier's breast, midway between his nipples, and sank deep. Gurutz stiffened, gurgled, and slumped sideways as the Sergeant withdrew his blade. Blood pumped out, staining his shirt, swiftly mingling with the rain falling from the sky. The others stood and watched for a full minute as his breathing grew more ragged and labored, and the blood poured… then he stiffened one last time, and went limp.
The Sergeant wiped his sword on the wet grass, dried it on his shirt beneath his rainproof covering, then sheathed it. “Luken, Zorian, bring his body to the fire. We'll divide his purse an' his pack amongst ourselves. No sense in leaving 'em for the vultures back at base!”
With eager murmurs of assent, two of the soldiers grabbed the arms and legs of their late comrade and lifted him. The group trooped slowly back to the fire.
Behind his bush, their unseen, unsuspected enemy grinned.
Five to go.
* * * * *
The night was pitch-black now. The only light came from the flickering campfire, no more than ten yards in front of the rock behind which the man crouched. Two figures huddled beside it, cursing the rain softly, feeding more wood to the flames. The man had little sympathy for them. At least the spreading branches of the huge tree kept most of the rain off them. He was out in the open, soaking wet. He ignored the damp and the cold, his whole being focused on the task that lay before him.
His glance flickered to the two shelters on either side of the trunk. Two men lay in one of them, head to foot as he'd surmised, and the third alone in the other. Their snores and heavy breathing carried to him faintly, and he almost snorted aloud in disgust. They'd clearly never been subject to raider discipline, where a snore might alert an enemy lookout or patrol. On the other hand, they wouldn't live long enough to learn, so he supposed it didn't matter.
At last one of the two by the fire stood. “Time to do rounds again. Don't let the Grim eat you while I'm gone!”
His companion snorted. “Try not to fall over so many trees this time! If the Apparition's out there, he couldn't help but hear you, you clumsy ox!”
The other made a rude remark, picked up his spear, and walked out of the firelight, moving up the slope.
The watcher smiled in satisfaction. He'd observed for three hours, learning that one of the two sentries made rounds every half an hour, taking fifteen to twenty minutes to pass around the camp site in a circle, moving very slowly, listening, checking. It was a good plan, but didn't allow for an enemy already being inside the loop of the patrol. He'd waited for this particular man to do the rounds, too, because he was the clumsiest in the woods, and talked to himself in a constant soft monotone to ease his fears. His own noise would mask the sounds of any fuss back at the camp, and hopefully he wouldn't hear them.
He waited three minutes, giving the patroller time to get well uphill from the firelight, then eased out from behind his rock and crept forward. The other guard, reaching for another stick to lay on the fire, didn't hear or see a thing.
Dagger in hand, the man crept nearer. As the guard stretched, arching his back to ease the ache in it, he struck. His left hand came over the guard's face, blocking his nose and mouth, while his right hand stabbed silently, deeply into his back, just to the right of the spine, then cut across savagely, severing the spinal column and its nerves. The guard jerked once, spasmodically, violently, then went limp. He'd made no sound.
The man eased the body to the ground, then crossed the open space to the nearest lean-to shelter, feet noiseless on the wet grass. He sank to his knees at the corner of the shelter, bent his head to ground level, and listened. The breathing of his next victim told him that his head lay next to the trunk of the tree, with the feet of his comrade next to him, nearest the descending branches of the shelter.
Wasting not a moment, the man crept to the trunk of the tree. His left hand extended delicately, fingers poised to catch the first brush of his next victim's hair. As soon as he felt it, he halted his hand, then moved it from side to side, figuring out the direction in which the head was turned. In the pitch blackness, his eyes could tell him nothing. Satisfied, his hand again snapped over the nose and mouth of the soldier, while his knife plunged into the base of his skull, just above the hairline. The man jerked once, his legs twitching involuntarily, then went limp. Again, he hadn't made a sound.
The attacker tried to withdraw his dagger, but it was stuck in the victim's skull. If he tried to lever it out, the bone might break and make a noise. He couldn't risk that. Cursing soundlessly to himself, he reached down the dead man's body and located his sword and dagger, placed ready to hand next to his bed of branches. Drawing the dagger from its sheath, he moved around to the other side of the shelter.
Within five minutes, all three soldiers in the shelters were dead. The body of the man bitten by the snake lay to one side. He let those in the shelters lie where they had died for now, returned to his second victim, and recovered his own dagger, levering it out of the skull with a crack! of splintering bone. He cleaned it on the wet grass, dried it on his victim's shirt, and sheathed it, doing the same for the soldier's own dagger.
Hurrying back to the fire, he hoisted the dead guard effortlessly in his arms and carried him over to the far side of the tree. Laying him down, he stripped off his leggings and boots. They were slightly too small for him, so he went to the Sergeant's body, which was closer to his size. To his pleasure, the man's leggings and boots fit him very well, and he hastily donned them. He took the Sergeant's helmet, thick undervest and heavy woolen shirt as well, stripping off his own sodden clothing, drying his torso roughly with the guard's leggings, and pulling on the new clothes, sighing with pleasure at the warmth they imparted.
He slipped the strange waterproof covering over his head, making sure it hung as he'd seen the others wearing it, and ensuring that his sword and dagger were easily accessible to his hand; then he moved back to the fireplace. He squatted with his back to the direction from which the patrolling guard would return, and threw a little earth on the fire, reducing its light. He kept his ears peeled for any sound of the soldier's return. Drawing his sword, he thrust it into the grass in front of him, ready to grasp, turn and thrust when the time came. His torso, carefully positioned, would hide it from the approaching sentry until it was needed. From behind, in the dark, his silhouette against the now-dimmed firelight would look like that of any other guard.
He closed his eyes, the better to preserve his night vision, and listened intently. Sure enough, within three minutes he heard the faint sounds of approaching feet, and the soldier's endless muttering to himself. He tensed, grasped the hilt of his sword, and waited.
The man came up. “It's black as pitch out there. Nothing's moving. I've – ”
His words ended in a strangled gasp as the attacker lunged to his feet, whipped around, and placed the tip of his sword at the soldier's throat, beneath his chin.
“Don't move if you want to live, boy!”
The attacker blinked in surprise even as he spoke. He had spoken instinctively, framing his words in Norse, but the sounds coming out of his mouth were nothing like any language he'd ever learned. It was the effect of the amulet, he realized. His speech was being translated into the local tongue.
He stretched out his left hand and seized the spear in the soldier's right hand. He wrenched at it, but the hapless soldier's hand was frozen onto the shaft in shock as he goggled. His mouth opened, but all he could stutter was, “Wh – who – wh – what – I – ”
“Let go of the spear!” He tugged at it again, and this time it came free. The soldier staggered, falling back half a pace, and the man instantly followed him, dropping the point of his sword to his chest. “I said don't move, dammit!” The soldier froze once more, and the man nodded in satisfaction. “You'll be Urke, if I heard aright. If you want to live, do as I say and answer my questions.”
The soldier asked, trembling, “Wh – who are you?”
The man grinned, showing his teeth. “I believe you called me 'the Apparition' earlier this afternoon.”
“Oh, Gods above!” The terror in the soldier's voice was unfeigned. “I'm a dead man!” He glanced towards the shelters.
“Don't look for your friends to help you. I've already dealt with them. As for you being a dead man, not necessarily. Answer my questions, do as you're told, and I'll let you live.”
The soldier's shoulders slumped. “No. Even if I do that, I'm dead. The sorcerer will know as soon as he scries me during his mid-morning sweep of the mountains tomorrow. He always knows if someone's turned traitor. He'll kill me, and he'll see to it that my parents and brothers and sisters die too, slowly and painfully. They'll be a lesson to the other Guards. That's what always happens to traitor's families.”
“What do you mean, 'scries' you?”
“You don't know?” The soldier's voice was astonished. “It's some sort of far-seeing spell. He can stay in the tower at the Castle and see all these lands, whenever he wishes, as if he were a bird flying above them. We know he's got a regular schedule whenever an Apparition's supposed to arrive. He checks this part of the mountains at mid-morning and late afternoon. We're supposed to lay stones and sticks in a pattern on the ground if we have anything to report. The Sergeant has the message book with the patterns.”
“How does this sorcerer know if you've turned traitor?”
“I don't know. He does, though. He always knows.” The man's shoulders straightened. “At least if I die fighting you, he'll know I wasn't a traitor!” His hand flashed to his sword hilt.
In reflex reaction, the attacker lunged forward. His spatha stabbed deep into the soldier's chest, and he instinctively twisted the blade a quarter-turn as he withdrew it, widening the wound, allowing air to enter and blood to flow out. A gush of red liquid stained the soldier's shirt, clearly visible in the firelight, showing that his point had found the massive blood-vessels above the heart.
The soldier gasped, clutched at his chest, and sank to his knees. In a trembling, weak voice, he asked, “W - who are you?”
“A – a man sh – should know who k – killed him.”
The attacker considered. “You may have a point. Very well. My name is Sigurd Haraldsson.”
“S – Sigurd? Haralds – son? Those aren't like any n – names I heard b – before… ” The soldier's voice was growing weaker, and he sagged forward to the ground, supporting himself on his hands as he tried to hold up his head.
“Well, you've heard them now. I'll tell my Gods how you died, and ask them to tell your Gods the same, boy. I hope this sorcerer of yours will know that, too, for your family's sake.”
“I – I… ”
The soldier's head dropped, and his arms folded beneath him as he crumpled to the turf. He coughed once, breathed twice, heavily, shuddered, and lay still.
Sigurd looked down at him as he cleaned his sword blade on the grass, dried it on his shirt, and sheathed it.
“You died game, boy, I'll say that for you. You may not have been much of a soldier, but you did better than your comrades.” He looked up at the sky. “Thor Thunderhammer, you and I understand one another. Tell this man's gods, whoever they are, that he died trying. If they've prepared something like Valhalla for their warriors, perhaps that'll be enough to get him inside.”
Lightning flickered, and a peal of thunder rumbled across the sky. Sigurd smiled.
There you have it. Please let me know what you think of it in Comments. It won't be the first to be published - Maxwell Volume 6 is next up in the sci-fi queue, and there are several others in line to follow it - but I'm enjoying where this story is going.