Sample text for Sorcery in Shad / Brian Lumley.

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Chapter One

“Your gold or your gizzard!” a hoarse, desperate voice called out through sooty twilight, from bushes at the foot of the bottleneck up ahead, where the pass cut through a stony cleft. “I can slit either your purse or your throat, so take your pick---only quick now, ‘cos my finger’s itchy on the trigger of this crossbow!”

“Hold!” the lone camel rider sent back a shout, reined in his jittery beast. “Now hold there, friend!” He made a dusky silhouette against the indigo sky with its first fistful of stars. And he’d have made a fine target, too, if his ambusher had a crossbow! That wasn’t the case, but no way the rider could know it.

“Put up your hands,” the would-be thief now commanded, “so’s I can see there’s no weapon in ‘em.”

“What?” his intended victim replied. “And would you really take a man’s life for nothing? Highwayman, you’ve picked a wrong ‘un tonight, I’m afraid---where loot’s concerned, anyway. Man, I’m broke! So stay your hand on that weapon. I’ve a loaf we can share, if you like, and a skin of passable wine. But that’s all . . .”

The ambusher’s ears pricked up: he was starving! And there was something in this lone wayfarer’s voice, too. Memories stirred, of a time not too far past in Chlangi the Doomed . . . “Who are ye, sitting there so nice in my sights?” he hoarsely inquired.

Astride his camel, the Hrossak tried to locate the other; no good, he was a shadow in the darker shadows of the bushes. But where- and whoever he was, his voice had seemed strangely familiar. He could be any one of a dozen brigands the rider had tangled with along his mazy way.

The steppeman had put his hands up on the other’s barked instructions; but behind the right one, hanging down along his wrist from a point trapped between index and next finger, a balanced knife poised for swift release. Only let him get a precise fix on his ambusher’s whereabouts, and---

“What’s your name, I said?” the furtive owner of the gruff voice once more demanded.

“I’m a Hrossak,” the rider replied, shifting a little in his saddle. Was that a movement there in the bushes, by the bole of that gnarly tree? Aye, it was that---the outline of a crouching man! “Khash, by name, after my father, naturally,” he continued, letting his throwing arm drift back a little, “---though the gods alone know why, for he never had any either!”

A gasp from the gloom. “Tarra Khash!”

Tarra threw himself forward and out of the saddle, threw his knife, too. Only at the last, hearing that gasp and the other speaking his name, had he managed to deflect knife’s flight---else the lurker in the bushes were a goner. Then he was rolling in dust, hurling himself headlong into the blackest shadows, snarling his rage in the darkness even as he snaked the curved ceremonial sword from its scabbard strapped to his back.

In another moment he crashed through brittle bushes, found a boulder and slid himself over to its safe side, there came to a crouching halt . . . Close at hand, a wheezy, frightened panting. The Hrossak listened, grinned a humourless wolf’s grin, called out: “And now it’s your turn, friend. Seems you know me, which might or might not be a good thing. So in the dozen or so heartbeats you’ve left to live, best tell me who you are. That way I’ll be able to say a few words over you, to let the gods know who I’m passing their way.”

“Stumpy,” the unseen other gasped at once. “Stumpy Adz, great lump! So called for a missing right hand---aye, and very nearly an ear, too! Come free me, quick! I daren’t move my head for fear I slice my neck!”

Tarra took his first real breath in what felt like hours, lofted his scimitar and sheathed it unerringly in its scabbard, so that its jewelled hilt stood up behind his left shoulder where it curved into his neck. He put a hand on the boulder and vaulted it, glided soundlessly into the bushes and up to the twisted bole of the gnarly tree. And sure enough there stood Stumpy Adz, his head immobilized between a rough branch and the long, thin, razor-edged blade of Tarra’s knife where it pinned his tatty collar to the bole.

“Old fool!” growled Tarra, snatching his knife free---but minding it didn’t cut Stumpy’s leathery flesh. “Some desperado you---hah! And what if it hadn’t been me at all but some nighthawk, eh? And what if he really did have a crossbow? Indeed, a miracle of coincidence that it is me! Now what’s this all about? What, you, a highwayman? At your age? And why the hell anyway? The last time I saw you, in Chlangi, I gave you gems to last a lifetime . . .” Eyes growing accustomed to the dusk, he glowered at the other, noticed his scrawny, down-at-heel condition. Stumpy was thin and bent as old Gleeth the crescent moon where he rode above the ridge.

“First you’d try to skewer me,” the old man grumbled, gingerly fingering his unmarked neck, then sighing his relief when his fingers came away clean, “and now you’d have me talk myself to death---if you don’t beat me to it! Well, I’ll cut it short, Tarra Khash: hard times, my friend, hard times---which called for harsh measures. I knew I took a chance, but better dead than marooned out here, miles from anywhere, and slowly shrivelling to bones!”

Tarra noticed Stumpy’s leanness, couldn’t mistake his trembling, which wasn’t alone reaction to his narrow escape. He whistled for his beast, which came at the trot. “Are you hungry, Stumpy Adz?”

The other groaned. “Hungry? I could eat the saddle right off your mount’s back! Or you can keep the saddle and I’ll wrap my gums round the camel instead!”

Over his own shock now, Tarra grinned. “Well, you fed and sheltered me once when I was in need,” he grasped the other’s frail shoulder. “So I suppose it’s only fair I return the favour. Where can we make camp?”

Stumpy wearily led him to the face of the cliff, showed him a shallow cave---more a scoop out of the rock---where a great boulder had rolled free in ages past. Indeed the very boulder lay shattered now, a broken wall of jagged rock fronting the cave, which should shelter their fire and hide its light. “I was going to sleep the night here,” said Stumpy. “With a little luck I’d wake with the morning, and with a great deal of luck I wouldn’t!”

Tarra tethered his camel, started to gather up dry sticks and dead branches. But:

“Who needs a fire?” Stumpy muttered. “I’ve got my own, burning through the wall of my stomach! Stop torturing me and give me some food.”

“Don’t you want to see what you’re eating?” Tarra frowned at him, struck hot sparks from his flint. The tinder caught at once.

“Just lead me to it and let me touch it,” Stumpy grunted. “If it’s edible I’ll know it---and then stand well back!”

Yellow firelight flared as Tarra took down a saddle-bag. He opened it, produced apples, dried meat, a little cheese. Stumpy, hands shaking with hunger, seated himself upon a flat rock and fell to it. There were tears in his one good eye (the right one) as he got his few remaining teeth working on a piece of meat.

Tarra squatted down by the fire, warmed his hands, bit into an apple. He’d eaten earlier---a rabbit, taken on the plain with a well-aimed stone---and wasn’t so hungry. But to watch Stumpy Adz going at it . . .

“How long?” Tarra asked.

“Four days,” the grizzled oldster mumbled around mouthfuls, “maybe five. I’ve dreamed of this for so long, it’s---umf!---hard to say if I was awake or---umf!---sleeping. Tarra, but this is good! Er, didn’t you mention wine or some such?”

The Hrossak put on a surprised expression, shook his head. “No.”

“Yes you---umf!---did!” Stumpy was indignant. “When you thought I had you in my sights, you offered me---umf!---half a loaf and some passable wine.”

“But you didn’t have a crossbow,” said Tarra.

“What difference does that make?” Stumpy scowled.

Tarra shrugged. “Well, neither did I have the wine!”

But as Stumpy groaned his disappointment, so the Hrossak relented. He took out a small wineskin from the saddle-bag, uncorked it and took a swig, passed it over. Stumpy held up the skin, expertly squirted a quenching stream into his gaping maw. “Hhh!” he said. And, “Ahhh!” again. Tarra reached out, neatly separated him from supply.

Now the Hrossak tossed his apple in the direction of the tethered beast, ate just a bite of cheese, took another pull at the skin’s tube before plugging it. “Eat first,” he told Stumpy, “and then I’ll let you wash it down. But don’t make such a pig of yourself that you get the cramps. There’s water in the other pack for later.” Then he said no more but let the old man get on with it.

While Stumpy wolfed his food, so he looked Tarra up and down. What he saw was this:

A big-hearted man, open as a book; an inveterate wanderer, with feet which wouldn’t stop itching while yet there remained a hill unclimbed, or view unviewed; a great adventurer---the latter not so much by inclination as by accident. For troubles, trials and terrors, in forms numerous as the fingers on his hard hands, had seemed to dog the Hrossak’s heels since the day he’d left his steppes. With one adventure leading into the next, sometimes it had seemed he’d been born under a cursed star. Or perhaps a lucky one? For here he was hale and hearty, come through it all with scarce a scratch.

Tarra Khash was young, maybe twenty-five or -six, and bronzed as the great idols of jungled Shad. They weren’t much known for their guile, these steppemen, which meant he’d most likely be trustworthy; indeed in Chlangi, Stumpy had discovered that to be a fact. And it was of old repute that once a Hrossak befriends a man, then that he’s his friend for life. But on the other hand, best not to cross one; their memories were long and they didn’t much care for scores unsettled.

As for the physical man himself: he was a tall one, this Tarra, and for all that he was lean and narrow in the hip, still his muscles rippled under the clinging silk of a dark shirt and the coarse weave of his tight, calf-length trousers. Hair a dusty, tousled brown, and eyes of a brown so deep they verged on black; long in the limbs, with shoulders broad as a gate; strong white teeth in a mouth never far from a grin . . . aye, he was a likely lad, the steppeman. But in no wise a fool, and ever growing wiser in the ways of the world.

Tough? Oh, he was that all right! That curved wand of death he wore across his back, for example: the merest silly sliver of a sword when Stumpy saw it last. For all the hilt’s pretty jewels, it hadn’t been much to mention as a weapon. Ah! But didn’t it hold fond fighting memories for the Hrossak? It must, for he’d risked his life for it! King Fregg Unst I of Chlangi had stolen that from him in Shunned City; and Tarra, against all odds, had taken it back! And what of Fregg now? Best not ask . . .

No rings adorned Tarra’s fingers, nor the lobes of his ears. There were thieves in Theem’hdra who’d take a man’s entire arm just for a gemstone in a ring on his smallest finger! Stumpy’s eyes went lower, to Tarra’s soft leather boots where they came up almost to his knees---and the sheath stitched into the outside of the right-hand boot, which housed his throwing knife. Aye, and with that he’d be deadly accurate! Too true, thought Stumpy, fingering his neck again.

For his part, Tarra had likewise been looking Stumpy over. The old lad was a failed thief, as witness his stump for right hand. They were hard on light-fingered types in certain parts, and even harder in others. This had probably happened in Kl?hn, a fairly sophisticated city. In Thinhla they’d have hanged him, and in Khrissa pegged him out on the frozen mud-flats at the mouth of the Marl with the tide rising.

Stumpy was tiny, old, gnarly as the tree Tarra’s knife had pinned him to; but he’d been a fighter, too, in his time. Now he wore a patch over his left eye; or rather, he wore it over the empty socket. Grizzled and brown from all weathers, white-whiskered and with a couple of snaggy yellow fangs for teeth, he looked like some sort of dwarfy pirate! But Tarra knew that despite his telltale stump, eye-patch and all, still the oldster had a good heart. And a far too-healthy appetite!

“What are you gawping at?” Stumpy growled now, wincing a little and holding his belly.

“Cramps?” Tarra inquired.

“Likely,” Stumpy grimaced again. “I suppose I ate too fast.”

“Warned you,” the Hrossak nodded. “All right, sit still and I’ll see what I can do.” He brought a blanket from his beast’s back, spread it over Stumpy and tucked him to his chin, then picked him up gentle as a child and put him in a spot close to the fire, with his back to a warm sloping rock. Then he brought him a sip of water.

“But no more wine,” he said, “for that’ll only make it worse. It’s your guts complaining about neglect and ill-treatment, that’s all. So just rest easy for now and tomorrow you’ll be all right.”

It was night now and the sky aglow with stars, and old Gleeth riding high like the blade of a silver scythe. Tarra sipped wine, chewed on a morsel of meat, waited until the fire’s warmth worked through to Stumpy’s bones and softened them up a little. Finally the old lad stopped grimacing and groaning, vented a ringing fart and a somewhat gentler sigh, and:

“I suppose you’ll want to know how come I’m here, penniless and all, after you left me rich just a four-month gone in Chlangi?”

“In your own time, Stumpy,” said Tarra. “Tomorrow will do, if you’re not up to it now.”

“Oh, I’m up to it,” the other growled. And in a moment: “Well, it was mainly the fault of that lass Gulla!”

Gulla was Stumpy’s daughter, whom Tarra had met in Chlangi---but only “met” there, and that was all. He remembered her now and winced a little, but not so much that Stumpy would notice. She’d been a big girl, right enough: comely about the face but built like a fortress. It had bruised Tarra’s ribs just looking at her! He’d considered himself lucky to escape unscathed.

“So,” Stumpy continued, “she reckoned it was coming up to her marrying time, and she didn’t much fancy the local stuff. Couldn’t blame her, really. Pickings weren’t much in Chlangi, unless she’d settle for a pockmarked pirate or warty son of mountain scum out of Lohmi; Fregg’s lot were a right old riff-raff, as you’ll doubtless recall. Anyway, I’d waited around until then---you know?---to let it be seen that I was still just poor old Stumpy, who never had two buttons to rub together. For if that gang of yeggs and sharpers had suspected for one minute that I’d been with you against Fregg that night---that I’d helped you, and been well paid for it---well . . .” he shrugged and let it tail off.

“Oh, they wouldn’t give a toss for Fregg, but gemstones are something else again! And me with a king’s ransom buried under my dirt floor, eh?” He chuckled, then asked: “Incidentally, what did happen to Fregg? They never found him---not that anyone looked too far! But unlike him to run off and leave his long-accumulated treasure-trove bursting at the seams like that, all for the taking. And his old runecaster, too, Arenith Han: they reckon he was less than mincemeat!”

Tarra nodded. “Lamia got ‘em,” he said, but very quietly, and glanced narrow-eyed all about in the shadows beyond the fire’s light. “Orbiquita! She had a grudge against both. Settled it there and then. But for Orbiquita, I’d likely be there now---broken bones in a shallow grave . . .”

“She took scum like them and not you?” Stumpy wriggled bushy white eyebrows in undisguised inquiry. “Funny! I thought she was supposed to lust after hot young bloods like you?” He shrugged again. “Anyway, I’d heard as much: that it was Orbiquita got ‘em. And she didn’t just take them two, neither. The way I heard it she killed a dozen that night, tore ‘em to bits with her bare hands!”

“Not bare,” Tarra shook his head, shuddered. “Scythes! Hands like scythes, and feet to match. Don’t ask about her teeth . . .”

“Seems you’ve your own tale to tell,” said Stumpy, wide-eyed now and mouth agape.

“Some other time,” Tarra answered, “but not tonight. Night’s the wrong time to be talking of lamias and such. And anyway, I’m more interested in what you’ve got to say.”

“Well, then---” Stumpy continued, “---so there I was with a lass who wanted a man, and only a handful of cut-throats to choose from. So I bided my time until the whole town was drunk one night, then stole a camel and got while the getting was good. It wouldn’t have done to buy a beast, for then they’d wonder where I got the money and come after me. But we were clean away, and we headed for the pass through the Great Eastern Peaks.”

“On your way to Kl?hn,” Tarra nodded.

Stumpy shook his grizzled head. “On the route to Kl?hn,” he said, “but I’ve something of a rep there,” (he waved his stump) “so that wasn’t our destination. I’d set my heart on a little house in one of those white-walled villages at the foot of the Eastern Range, where sweet water comes down off the mountains and there are lots of green things to grow. That was all I wanted: peace and quiet, a house and garden, and a place to watch my grandchildren grow up fat and happy.”

Tarra picked a scrap of meat from between his strong teeth. “Sounds about right,” he opinioned. “So what went wrong?”

“Nothing, not right then. Got through the pass and cut south, eventually found us a village halfway down the Eastern Range, snuggled between twin spurs a mile across. A place with a stream and good, loamy soil in its gardens. An old boy had recently died there, and so we bought his home where it sat right at the edge of the water. I could fish right out of the window, if I wanted to! Women were scarce there and Gulla got courted for the first time in her life---by three of ‘em! After a week she knew which one she wanted: the only one of ‘em who was bigger than she was!” He grinned a gummy grin, Tarra smiling with him.

“So the both of you were well fixed up,” the Hrossak nodded. “Now tell me the worst.”

Stumpy’s grin turned sour. “It was a queer thing, that,” he said. “So queer I’m still not sure about it! But this is the way I remember it:

“Gulla and Robos---her lad---had gone off on touch-and-taunt. That’s the local term for it, anyway: when just before marriage a young couple try it out, as it were, to see if all will fit properly and who’s to wear the apron, etcetera. A week spent high up in the hills with only the goats and the clouds for company, where they’d build a shelter for two and do all their fingering and fighting, their oohing! and aahing! and . . . you know? All of that stuff.

“They’d been gone, oh, a day or two. I woke up early one fine morning and thought: `fish!’ It was the sort of morning when you can feel ‘em rising---the fish, I mean. So I took line and hooks, a blanket to stretch out on, a slice of stale bread to chew and roll into little balls for bait, and headed upstream. I climbed through the foothills and time lost all meaning to me, climbed till I found a pool in a rocky basin, with the water filling it and trickling over the rim. Perfect! I took a dozen small fish inside an hour, determined to have three for lunch turned on a spit, the rest to take home and smoke for later.

“Now, in that high place I could see for miles. Oh, I’ve only one eye, but it’s a sharp ‘un! And the air so clear and all.

“I fancied I could even see the Eastern Ocean, more than two hundred miles away, but that was probably just the flat, shiny horizon, or maybe a mirage. But I was sure I could see the ruins of old Humquass on the plain, which was once a vast fortress city so big its walls had roads built on top of ‘em! Now the ruins lie to the south-east, and as I’m looking at ‘em---at that far smudge of ancient jumble---I notice a cloud of drifting dust. Coming from that general direction but much closer. I watch and wait, and I keep fishing; though in all truth I’ve started to lose interest in the fish, for this new thing has trapped my attention. Dust, aye, rising up from a long straggly line that inches its way like a troop of ants along the eastern borders of Hrossa.”

“A caravan?” said Tarra. “From Hrossa? Unlikely! Not much on commerce, my lot, and when they do trade it’s usually by sea. No, they keep to themselves, mainly---er, with the odd exception, of course.”

Stumpy raised an eyebrow, glanced at the other with old-fashioned expression on his leathery face. “The very odd exception, aye . . .”

And at last he continued. “Anyway, from Grypha or Yhemnis I can’t say, but caravan certainly. At first sight, anyway. I fix a fire, cook my fish and maintain a watch. As I eat, the dust cloud gets bigger and closer all the time; and now, because the wind’s in my direction, I can even hear the distant tinkling of bells, the snorting of beasts, the creaking of leather and clatter of wooden wheels striking pebbles. And I think: why, they’re heading straight for Haven’s Hollow!---that being the name of the village.

“And me perched half-a-mile up, so to speak, I get a bird’s-eye view of it: I can even make out the beasts and their several burdens, and something of the masters who prod ‘em along. Ah, but damned strange caravan this, Tarra Khash! Decked out to look like one, aye---but a ship under false colours for all that, be certain! Indeed, a pirate!”

“Not a caravan?” Tarra gawped. “Then what?”

“Raiders!” Stumpy spat the word out. “Slavers!”

Tarra felt the hairs come erect back of his neck. “Blacks?” he growled. “From Yhemni jungles, or Shad across the straits, d’you think? Scourge of Grypha and the southern coast all the way to Thinhla, those lads---but busy with their miserable, bloody work so far north? Unheard of!”

“Blacks there were,” Stumpy nodded curtly, “and their leader a curlyhead, too---but others among ‘em more bronze than black . . .” He looked accusingly at Tarra.

“Well I wasn’t there!” the Hrossak protested. “I was in Kl?hn, and beset by problems of my own, believe me!”

“Oh, I do,” said Stumpy. “No, not you, Tarra, but Hrossaks certain for I saw them with my own eye.”

Steppemen, slavers? It was hard to swallow. But no reason why Stumpy should lie, so Tarra would have to accept it. And anyway, he’d met outcast Hrossaks before however small a handful: outlaws, banished for their evil ways.

“Get on with it,” he growled, somewhat surly now.

“It was their wagons and beasts that sent me scrambling back down the rocks and scree slides,” said Stumpy. “They were no more than a mile or two away by then, and suddenly I was sore afraid---not for myself, but for all the new friends I’d made in that pretty little village down there. Friends and neighbours, farmers most of ‘em, whose only iron implements were scythes and ploughshares. And hope against hope, even as I clambered down that too long way, still I prayed I was wrong.”

“Something about their wagons, their beasts? Make sense!” said Tarra, but he felt something of the sick terror glimpsed in the old lad’s fire-dappled mien.

Finally Stumpy blinked, scowled and got on with it:

“Well, they had a few ponies, rare enough in these parts,” he said, “and a string of camels and yaks---but their real beasts of burden were great lizards! Hrossak lizards, Tarra Khash, which only steppemen have ever been able to control or master. But even so, the lizards and the camels weren’t the only poor beasts toiling in that caravan. For chained to the long---the too long---wagons were slaves galore, taken I imagine from all the villages farther down the foot of the range. I could hear their moaning and crying now, and the clanking of their chains.

“I was halfway down from the pool by then, and that was when it happened.” He paused, perhaps for breath.

“Well?” said Tarra, impatient now.

Stumpy hung his head. “Lad, it was a horrible sight. And nothing I could do about it. The raiders had come in sight of the village, and no longer any need for subterfuge. Now they could stop being a caravan. Slow-moving to this point, as soon as they saw the village and smelled blood the mask fell away. And then they were like hounds unleashed!

“The long wagons---five of ‘em, the longest things on four pairs of wheels each I’ve ever seen---were left behind with a handful of overseers, who worked on the chained slaves with whips to keep ‘em quiet. The ponies set off at a gallop, kicking up the dust, throwing a wide half-circle around the village. Camels took on two armed raiders apiece, went trotting into town where their riders quickly dismounted. This much I’ll say: there were no Hrossaks in on the raping and blood-letting. No, for they’d mainly stayed behind to tend the big hauling lizards. But the blacks and a handful of coarse-maned Northmen . . .” He broke off, shook his head.

“Northern barbarians, too?” Tarra could see it all in his mind’s eye, and he knew from personal experience that the reputation of the Northman wasn’t just idle gossip.

Stumpy nodded. “Blacks and Northmen, aye,” he answered grimly. “There were maybe two dozen families in that village. Lots of burly lads, all completely untried in combat, and a few pretty wives and daughters. But mainly the women were old---thank all that’s good! As for heads of families: farmers and greypates, like myself.

“Now I’m three-quarters down from the heights and shouting myself hoarse, and people out in the fields looking up to see what all the commotion’s about. The ponies and riders tightening their net and closing in on the village, and in the main street itself---butchery!”

“But why?” Tarra was aghast at visions conjured. “I thought you said slavers? What good are dead slaves?”

“Young ‘uns, they wanted,” Stumpy told him with a groan. “Young lads and only the prettiest maids---and of the last there were only two or three in Haven’s Hollow, be sure. As for the rest: death for the aged of both sexes, rape and yet more rape for the girls, until the dogs had had their fill and put an end to it with their swords. Aye, damned few lasses and young wives, Tarra, and two dozen or more blacks and maned barbarians. I’ll not draw you any pictures . . .”

The Hrossak ground his teeth, drove a balled fist into the palm of his hand. “Slave-taking’s bad enough,” he finally growled, “but what you describe is---”

“Devil’s work!” Stumpy cut him off. “And that’s what they were, those butchers: spawn of the pit!” And after a moment: “Do you want to know the rest?”

Tarra shook his head at first, then nodded, however reluctantly. “Aye, best tell me all and get it out of your system.”

“My house was burning when I got down,” said Stumpy. “The whole village was burning, and blood everywhere! The blacks and barbarians were in the alehouse, smashing barrels and pouring it down. I saw it all: the bodies in the fields, the naked, raped, gutted lasses, the lads bludgeoned senseless and shackled, and the blood and the fire---and I think I went a little daft. I came across a Northman in the shadow of a burning house, still having his way with some poor girl. She was dead---of terror, I suppose, with her eyes all starting out of her head---but he didn’t seem to mind that. I minded it. I picked up his great sword and sliced the dog right down his sweaty, hairy spine!

“And that was it, what I needed! Killing him had given me pleasure, an amazing relief! I was transformed---into a berserker! Me, old Stumpy Adz, roaring in a blood frenzy! I rushed into the alehouse with my bloody sword, and cursed them all in their own heathen tongue---then skewered a frizzy through his gizzard. They’d laughed at me at first, but that stopped ‘em. Then someone got up behind me and clonked me hard on the head. For me, that was the end of it. Everything went black and I knew I was going to die, and it didn’t bother me much . . .”

“And yet they didn’t kill you!” Tarra shook his head.

“Oh, they did,” said Stumpy, “but only on the inside. Why didn’t they kill me? But I was mad, wasn’t I? A crazy man! The Yhemnis have a thing about madmen: they won’t kill a loony, for if they do they have to care for his needs and carry him on their back for eternity in the afterlife. That’s their belief. No, safer far to maroon him somewhere to die all on his own---which is what they did to me.”

Tarra marvelled at the old lad’s hardiness. “So they dumped you here, where for four or five days you’ve just wandered, eh?”

Stumpy shrugged. “I found a few berries, the wrong sort, and they made me sick. I got a little water from a spiky cactus, and that made me sick, too! Until at last I was sick of everything, not least life. Then I heard your beast coming clip-clop up the pass, and I thought: Stumpy, one way or the other, this misery ends right here.”

Tarra nodded. “Fortunate for you it wasn’t the other!” he said. He moved about in the glow of dying embers, found more branches and tossed them on the fire. And finally, turning again to Stumpy, he said: “Aren’t you tired yet?”

For answer Stumpy buzzed like a nest of wasps. Tarra saw that his chin was on his chest, noted the steady rise and fall of the blanket. Out like a candle snuffed! That was good . . .

Or was it? The night had come in chilly and Stumpy had Tarra’s blanket. He sighed, went to where his beast had gone to its knees, lay down along its flank. And using saddle-bags for a pillow, he quickly fell asleep---

Copyright © 2006 by Brian Lumley

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