Daian occupied herself with slapping dust from her clothes while she waited for her blinking, watering eyes to adjust. In the far distance a few puffy clouds floated idly, but otherwise there was no relief from the ferocious light. She rubbed her eyes, then grimaced and spent several minutes trying to clear grit out of them.
She turned to look back at the tunnel and grimaced again at the stone columns supporting the blocky lintel. They were not particularly remarkable columns, lacking any artistic finishing, but they were also unmistakable. This was the southernmost gate of Farsis. The difficulty was, Farsis wasn’t in the middle of a desert. Given, Farland wasn’t exactly a damp country, but there should at least be grass and a few trees. And where was the road? An entire road didn’t just get up and walk away.
If she really had walked out of Farsis, there was at least a reasonable possibility she knew where to find some water before nightfall. If she was mistaken about the gate then she could very well wander until the desert did her in. It was a simple choice, really. Daian frowned at the columns one last time, made another futile pass at her dusty clothes, and started walking. After she found some water she could start trying to fit facts together.
There was very little in the way of landmarks to help her fix her position. It was hot, and it only got hotter; she estimated it was an hour or so before noon when she’d begun, leaving her walking during the worst of the day. She’d thought about waiting until a more congenial time, but traveling at night had its own dangers, and she decided risking sunburn and heatstroke was better than likewise risking stepping off a cliff in the dark.
The enormous pile of sand she’d thought of as dunes gave way rapidly to an even more featureless plain of unpleasantly sharp small rocks. Heat billowed up from the unforgiving surface and obscured the distance in a dizzying flux. Long black shadows wavered ahead. At first she thought they were simply a form of mirage, then some trick of the plain brought an unusual sound to her ears. A man’s voice.
There were people. This could be bad.
Some part of Jemith’s mind, probably the logical part that had never done him much good, insisted on contemplating the problem that now presented itself to him. Really, it was a question of simple arithmetic: six men plus six swords minus all scruples equaled a serious problem for a lone magician traveling on foot. Unfortunately, from there it progressed into algebra: he wanted to compute X, where X equaled a removal of the threat posed by these men. Since they’d moved their horses to surround him, geometry now entered into the question. He had a nagging suspicion that the answer to his problem lay in some realm of higher mathematics that he had not studied yet.
Bereft of a solution, he resorted to a habitual classroom tactic: stall!
“I truly don’t believe I have anything to interest you gentlemen”—gentlemen! Pfaugh! That word was so divorced from anything resembling truth that he was amazed he could say it without stuttering—“unless, that is, you care for a demonstration of the subtle arts. I am but a simple traveling performer, a magician, and I have neither coin nor goods to be of value to you! I am too stringy even to eat!”
A hundred plagues on all guilds, schools, societies and associations of swordsmen, anyway! He thought furiously. On the whole wretched breed! A thousand plagues on this vile sand pit! And ten thousand on Ehmammin for sending me out here in the first place!
“We could always sell him,” one of the bandits muttered in a bored voice.
“Ha ha!” Jemith burst out desperately. “It pleases my lord to jest! Look at my narrow chest, my shrunken arms . . . no one would buy a slave so tiny and pathetic! I would not even be worth the cost of feeding! Frankly, your generosity in even stopping to converse fills me with”—horror, he almost said, and stammered slightly before continuing—“joy, that I have somehow merited the attention of such worthy gentlemen as yourselves!”
Why, oh why did there have to be SIX of them? Now, if I use my poison cloud on that one and my last lightning crystal on the two in front of me, that only leaves THREE to cut my head off . . .
“Can we just kill him already?”
“It’s bad luck to kill a magician,” announced the one that was most likely their leader.
He’s superstitious! That might give me an edge . . .
“The prophet says that all magicians are unholy infidels and must be purified by the flames. We chould turn him over to the prophet’s men in Beserrib.”
“Will they pay us for him?”
“If he really is a magician. He might just be one of those--what’s the word-- pretigators.”
“Prestidigitators,” Jemith corrected automatically, then cursed himself for a fool. The bandits stared at him, shocked.
“That’s what I said,” their leader snarled.
“Of course, of course. How rude of me.”
“Well, do some magic, then.”
Jemith blinked. “Let me see if I understand you correctly: if I do some magic you’re going to turn me over to the prophet’s soldiers to be executed?”
“If I don’t do any magic, are you going to let me go?!?”
The man scowled, his scarred face and bristly beard contorting unpleasantly. “If you don’t do any magic I’m going to cut your head off.”
“But if I do you’re going to take me off to be tortured and executed!”
“Are you volunteering to get your head chopped off?”
“This is ridiculous. You can’t possibly be serious.” So much for diplomacy. Ehmammin would be SO proud of you at this moment. Jemith groused mentally. He imagined what they might say at his funeral. Beloved Jemith talked himself to death while suffering from a lack of mathematics. If only he’d learned some patience. If only he’d studied his mathematics harder. If only he hadn’t left his FIRE SPELL in his BACKPACK. There was no way he could get to it before they slaughtered him.
The leader drew his sword with a vicious scraping sound. Joy, a rusty sword. There’s consolation for you, Jemith; if he doesn’t succeed in chopping your head all the way off you can die from the tetanus!
“Last chance to perform some magic!”
“Fine! But I have to get something out of my pack!” Genius!
“Not a chance! You’ve got to have some kind of little spell ready. I don’t know what you’ve got in that bag.”
Ten to the fifteenth curses upon his unsanitary head! Figures he’d pick NOW to develop some sense. Face it, Jemith; it’s over. Poison cloud and lightning it is. He reached down and slid the vial from its holder on his belt, holding it up to sparkle in the glaring desert sunlight as though standing in the spotlight on a stage.
“Sir, do you require some assistance?” asked a woman’s grave and polite voice. Jemith jumped and fumbled his grip, nearly dropping the bottle at his own feet. Needless to say, that would not be an optimal outcome.
“Where did she come from?!” the leader bellowed. The other bandits scrambled madly, trying to hide their surprise and deflect his wrath with a frenzy of activity. In short order they had stopped surrounding Jemith and were arrayed facing this new person. Jemith took advantage of the confusion to step aside, turning slightly so that he could observe the interloper.
He could not, at first, discern her features; they were obliterated by her too-bright coloration, by the vivid contrast between her crystal-blue eyes, sun-gold hair and ruby red lips. Her cheeks, too, were red, from exposure to the sun, most likely. Her tunic was fashioned from tiny links of silvery metal and glittered like the skin of a lizard. Or, it did in the places where it wasn’t blotched with dust. On second appraisal her appearance was much less comforting; she had numerous cuts, scrapes, and bruises, and she was even dirtier than the bandits. The hilt of a sword protruded over her shoulder.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Kill her!” the leader roared. His men drew swords and clapped spurs to their horses’ flanks.
Jemith watched as her facial features resolved suddenly into perfect clarity, drawn into sharp relief as her expression tightened in anger. Then she reached casually over her shoulder and pulled on the protruding hilt. A line of liquid fire grew from the motion of her hand, silvery metal seizing hold of the sunlight and giving it shape.
Jemith watched, hypnotized by the insane spectacle, as the first bandit to reach her reeled back and toppled from his horse, his guts spilling from a slash in his abdomen. It was as though the cut appeared without transition; the air sparkled, blood exploded, a man screamed and fell. She grabbed the confused horse’s reins and sprang onto its back; facing the bandits now on a more equal footing.
The other horses backed and shied in confusion, reacting to their riders’ horror. The bandit leader shouted, waving his sword, and they made a few feints in the woman’s direction. Her horse jogged backwards as she pulled on the reins and they stopped again, afraid to commit themselves to an attack across that distance.
Abruptly, she grinned. Then she bowed in the saddle, her hand on the reins drawing the horse’s head downwards so that it, too, bent its knees slightly and executed a bow. Her sword swept up and back in a flourishing salute, a gesture of antiquated courtesy, leaving her defenseless for a moment. The bandits, stunned and confused, failed to take advantage of it. She glanced up at them and her face tightened once more, this time in contempt. Then she slammed her heels to the horse’s sides and charged straight into their raised weapons.
Jemith realized then that he was still holding the poison cloud spell. He stared at it, feeling ridiculous, and then smashed it on the ground under the leader’s horse. Jemith covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve and danced back out of the way as the cloud of yellowish gas expanded. The horse screamed and collapsed almost instantly; the man choked and twitched for a few moments longer before he also succumbed. Satisfied that he’d done something useful, he turned to see how the mad swordswoman fared against four opponents.
Two more of the bandits were down, one headless and the other crushed under the weight of a flailing horse. One of the remaining bandits swung his sword desperately; his blade encountered only air and the swordswoman hacked him down dispassionately. The last man attempted to flee. Jemith was of a mind to let him but the woman shifted her grip on her sword--which Jemith realized was slightly curved— and flung it overhand. It impacted with an unpleasant meaty noise and the bandit flopped on the ground.
She turned to regard Jemith. He found himself grinning nervously under her level gaze. Her eyes, he realized, were not quite blue, but some strange color that shifted with the light. For some unknown reason the sight filled him with dread. He bowed. “Good timing! If you’d waited any longer I would have taken care of them myself, and then what would you have done?”
Daian gave the man a perplexed look. He was an odd specimen, with black hair and eyes and dark skin that had a faintly yellow undertone to it. He’d used magic, which might explain why he didn’t carry a weapon, but he wasn’t carrying a lot of magician’s paraphernalia, either. Then again, that loose, filmy black robe could hide anything. He looked harmless, but she had the impression that he might explode without warning; his expression was pinched and irritated.
She dismounted and patted the horse’s sweating, shivering neck gently, and then stooped to begin methodically searching the corpses.
“If you mean to rob me as well I’ll tell you what I told these fools; I have nothing worth the effort of stealing. You will find me quite a bit more of a challenge if you wish to attempt it!” Daian turned her head and looked up at him again. The man made no sense.
Under the woman’s level look of polite acknowledgement Jemith felt his bravado leaking away. She finished searching the bodies and approached him; he was hard-pressed to stand his ground. She offered him a leather pouch with a diffident gesture. “Your half.”
“If you think I’m going to touch . . .” he began. Her gaze brought the sentence stumbling jerkily to a halt.
“If you don’t want it, I’ll leave it here. It’s rightfully yours.”
“I’m not a thief!”
She rolled her eyes. “They were going to kill you, you know.” Shrugging, she dropped it on the ground at his feet. “Do whatever you want with it, I don’t care.”
“Heh, so you aren’t really a bandit, after all!” he attempted a cheerful smile. He certainly did not feel it.
She glanced his way. It was distressing, how she waited until well after he’d finished speaking before she responded. She left his words to stand on their own, adding nothing to prop them up or disguise the assumptions they implied. It was, he thought, the most extraordinarily cruel method of conversation he had ever encountered.
“No,” she said softly, “I am not a bandit.” She turned towards the horses, making vague soothing noises.
Jemith slumped, more exhausted by his brief conversation with this strange woman than by the entire day’s journey. He felt terribly bereft, alone in a vast and threatening expanse of desert. Suddenly he didn’t want her to leave, a horrible sensation he did not want to examine too closely. He summoned his courage to approach her one last time . . . and realized he had nothing to say. He looked down at the ground helplessly.
“Wait . . . um, look, do you have a name? Something I can call you? I mean, if that would be all right with you.” He stammered helplessly, feeling naked and vulnerable and hating it.
“What is your name?”
“Oh! I am Jemith.” He smiled tentatively. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
She shook her head gravely.
“Ah, yes. I . . . I suppose I didn’t think that you would. Er, I mean, that you would have heard of me. Not that I’m not famous . . . at least a little bit, but you don’t seem like a local. You don’t seem like you’d come from anywhere at all. Who are you?”
He frowned. “And where are you going?”
“Out of this sun.” She opened her mouth and hesitated, then added, “if I haven’t gotten turned around too badly, there’s an oasis of sorts not far from here.”
“Um.” Jemith said decisively.
“Perhaps I can . . . accompany you?” He winced internally. Have you lost your mind? Oh, well.
“Well, you saved my life once already, and I’m, that is to say, I’m not entirely certain precisely where I am. Not that I’m lost,” he hurried to add. “It’s just that, well . . . if you have a better idea of where we are, then I might as well go with you.”
“And there might be more bandits.”
“I can’t say that consideration hadn’t occurred to me.” Jemith was relieved when she rolled her eyes and chuckled wryly.
“Good enough, Jemith.” She pointed. “That way.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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