Pursuit: Seven

Sabit’s long arms pushed against the cut, stripped tree branch to propel the little boat away from the shallows, out into the current of the river. Allamu leaned over the back of the cramped craft, using a round plate lashed to the end of a branch as a makeshift paddle. Qays and Qaansoole huddled in the middle of the boat, staying low to keep the overloaded vessel from tipping.

Before long, the watery susurrus of rapids grew louder. The boat bobbed in the quickening current. Ahead of them, caps of white crowned a scattering of boulders beneath the water’s surface.

“Push faster!” Allamu shouted as he cut hard into the water with his makeshift paddle. Sabit stabbed her pole into the riverbed as though she were plunging a spear into a fat boar on a hunt. Thews rippling beneath the dark brown surface of her skin, Sabit hauled the little boat swiftly toward a gap between the rocks, where the water was smoother.

With a mad rush, the boat sped over the rapid. Another billow of white water loomed ahead, and to the left, and to the right. Allamu and Sabit battled the water for control of the craft, fighting with all their strength to keep it upright. As they bounced from rapid to rapid down the river, Qaansoole found herself continually grabbing the leg of one rower or the other to keep them from being flung overboard.

The river calmed for a moment. Sabit and Allamu let their tired arms sag as they caught their breath. Qaansoole looked around. “How could the bandits’ crude raft have survived those rapids?” she asked.

Allamu answered in a soft voice, but his words were drowned out by a building thunderous roar of water. Looking downstream, they saw a solid wall of whitewater ahead of them. Beyond the frothy caps, the river seemed to vanish into a cloud of mist beyond the waterfall.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Pursuit: Six

Qaansoole pulled the bow from her back. Nocking a wet arrow from her submerged quiver, the archer aimed at the approaching shape. Moving slowly through the reeds, it was nearly upon her. Her legs were still held fast in the thick silt of the riverbed. Qaansoole took aim, drawing the arrow to her cheek.

There was movement. Atop the shape, a head appeared, turned, looked at her.

“We found a boat, mother,” chirped Qays happily, climbing onto the prow of the small, carved boat gliding through the reeds. Qaansoole lowered her bow.

“It has some scratches and no oars,” Allamu said from within the boat, “but I don’t see any leaks.”

“Then we cut some branches for poles and give chase,” Sabit answered, approaching along the riverbank. “I will not let those thieves escape.” She braced her feet against a large rock and extended the butt of her spear to Qaansoole.

“They obviously know the terrain,” Qaansoole said, grasping the spear and slowly pulling herself from the river muck. “And they have such a lead on us that I doubt we’ll catch them. Why does the loss of such a bauble wound you so? You said you found that necklace by chance in a river.* Why not let chance deliver it into the hands of another?”

Sabit helped Qaansoole onto dry land, looming more than a head taller than the archer. “I protect that which is mine. No matter the cost.”

 

*-Sabit’s finding of the silver necklace is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Blossom of Ruin.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Pursuit: Five

Qaansoole climbed a large, gnarled birch tree, the smooth bark offering her hands and feet little purchase as she dangled over the water below. Bow strapped to her back and quiver of arrows by her side, the nimble woman made her way as high as the branches would allow. This tree grew at the curve of the river and offered the best chance to see further downstream, so long as the branches held. One hand grasping the smooth birch bark, Qaansoole leaned out into the void, poking her head through brilliant green leaves to survey the wide river below.

“They are heading towards the canyon, but are not within its mouth yet,” Qaansoole called down to Sabit, who stood, dripping, at the base of the tree trunk. “Their raft doesn’t look sturdy enough to withstand the rapids I see ahead of them.”

“The death of fools will do nothing to restore to me my property!” Sabit snarled. “Is there any clear foot path around the canyon?”

Qaansoole leaned out still further, craning her neck for a better view.

With a sudden crack, the branch beneath her feet gave way. Qaansoole plummeted downward. Instincts honed by a lifetime’s danger spurred her arms wide, her hands nimbly grasping branches wherever they came near. Although each branch snapped in turn, the archer managed to slow her descent before plunging into the water.

The near section of the river was slow-moving, nearly stagnant, and overgrown with a thick crop of reeds. Qaansoole tried to stand, only to find herself sinking hip-deep into the soft, black silt of the river bottom.

Looking around for Sabit, Qaansoole saw movement upstream. The rushes dipped and bent before a large, dark shape surging out of the shadows that clung to the shallows. The archer scrambled to reach the solid shore, but the silt held her fast. Qaansoole was immobile as the dark shape loomed closer and closer.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Pursuit: Four

Sabit ran through the forest, the underbrush scratching at her long, brown legs and catching in the winding leather straps of her sandals. Pushing through the thick foliage, she dodged low-hanging tree branches and dashed over gnarled tree roots. Spear butt braced against the now-sharply slanting ground, the warrior woman scrambled down a steep incline toward the rushing sound of a river below.

Over the river’s churning noise rose the voices of several men, urging one another to their tasks. Sabit sped her descent through the thick flora of the river bank, even as the slope offered disaster with every step. The spear woman leaped from rocky outcropping to patch of slick mud to twisted tree root with the nimbleness of one born to the rough places of the world.

Bounding from the underbrush onto the very edge of the river, Sabit saw three men paddling a rough boat—barely more than a raft—into the center of the river’s channel. Their tattered clothes and and sun-leathered skin stretching taut over ropey muscles spoke of a hardscrabble life.

The raft was a full four fathoms from shore when Sabit spotted it. With no overhanging tree nearby to aid her pursuit, the spear woman plunged into the chill water and was soon waist-deep. Still several fathoms from the raft, Sabit pulled back her spear arm and took aim at her quarry.

The current spun the raft slightly. Sabit could target no more than two of the bandits with her spear. And then what? The third would make off with her spear as well as her precious silver necklace.

Eyes locked with a hate-filled glare at the receding raft, Sabit lowered her spear.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Pursuit: Three

“Illi, I would not have figured you for the domestic life,” said Baza, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. “How can you stomach the quiet after hearing the cheering crowds in the arena?”

“Those crowds only wanted blood and death,” Illi replied. The big man stepped closer to the slave-catcher, towering over his bald foe. “I have a life in this place. I’ll not let you take it from me.”

Baza lunged quickly, landing two closed fists to Illi’s knee at the exact spot he had hit during their battle in the Magistrate’s house.* The former champion staggered slightly, but refused to fall. With a wide, backhanded swing, he caught Baza under the ribs and sent him flying.

Quickly regaining his feet, Baza circled his massive quarry, looking for a way through Illi’s defenses. Baza struck several times, but Illi’s greater reach kept him from getting close, and the tall man’s solid bulk absorbed every punch that landed. Baza’s ribs and back ached from the strikes that Illi had already landed upon him.

With a loud shout, Baza launched himself at Illi’s throat. Ducking the former champion’s massive fist, he leaped into the air, hand outstretched.

Illi brought both arms in and wrapped them around Baza, crushing him against the broad expanse of his chest. “We will bury you with the other slave-catchers.”

“Not today,” Baza replied, his voice soft due to the arms squeezing the breath from his body. His right arm was still half-free, his hand near Illi’s throat. The arcane tattoos upon the hand began to roil across his flesh, thrumming with power. Even though his single hand could not span a third of the former champion’s neck, Baza laid his right hand on the big man’s throat.

With a sudden gurgle, Illi’s huge arms dropped uselessly to his sides. Baza stepped away from the big man as the former champion collapsed to his knees. Three heartbeats later, Illi fell to the ground, like a massive tree felled by a tiny axe stroke.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Pursuit: Two

The three slave-catchers stayed the night at the crossroads house. They regaled the throng of local farmers and foot-weary merchants with tales of their dangerous exploits. Baza told of the time a wiry, young escaped slave had seized his then-long hair from behind. Lowering his collar, he revealed a thin, white scar along his throat—a constant reminder to keep his head shaved smooth and hairless.

“But what if one grabs you by those long mustaches?” asked one of the farmers.

Baza smiled. “If they do that, they aid me greatly. The bounty for an escaped slave is not reduced if I return them with only nine fingers.” He and his fellows laughed heartily at the joke.

Tafa, the daughter of the master of the house, winced at such a cruel jest. The round-faced young woman with soft, brown eyes, continued her duties in silence. She filled drinking horns and platters for Baza and his men without a flicker of complaint.

Early the next morning, as Taja returned from the well with two heavy buckets hanging from a yoke upon her neck, Baza came upon her suddenly. “You wear your hair as does a woman married but not yet a mother. Yet, I have heard no mention of your husband.”

“He has gone to the town to purchase supplies at the market,” Taja replied, bowing before the slave-catcher so she could shrug the yoke off her shoulders.

Baza stepped close and grabbed the yoke in the two places where Taja’s hands touched it, clamping her thumbs painfully to the smooth wood. Her face twisted in pain.

“I came through the town,” hissed Baza. “None there know you for a married woman. None of the regulars here will speak about your husband. You will show him to me!”

“He will show you himself,” came a voice from behind as a mighty blow landed on Baza’s back. The slave-catcher was thrown sideways, tumbling to the ground. As he rolled and regained his feet, he saw his attacker looming over him: A pale-skinned man, massive in size with a long, dark beard. His right arm bore a tattoo of Verq, the lady of justice.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Pursuit: One

“You’re far from the first flesh-mongers to make their way through here,” the old man said to the three cloaked figures looming over him on the threshold of the common house. “A crossroads house like this sees all kinds.”

“What makes you think we are slavers?” asked the shortest of the figures.

“Your horses are weighed down with too much rope, but you’re too strong to be ropemakers. Your saddlebags smell of the leaves used to dim the senses and bank the fires of resistance in captives,” the old man said as stable boys unloaded the horses. “As I said, you’re far from the first, but be grateful you’re not the last lot to come through.”

“Why?” asked the short slaver. “What became of them?”

“They’re napping,” replied the old man with a wry chuckle. “Nearly a dozen of them—napping beneath the dirt behind the stable.”

The two shorter figures immediately produced weighted clubs from beneath their cloaks and stood on their guard. “You are unwise to threaten us, old man,” said the shortest.

“I do not threaten you,” the old man said, showing his palms to the cloaked figures. “I merely buried them. It was their own quarry that killed them. A small group of tough-looking travelers. Two women—one tall like a tree, one quick like a fox—and two men—one of noble bearing, the other like a mountain on legs—and a boy-child. The big one had a tattoo of Verq, lady of justice, along his right arm.”

The tallest of the figures pulled back his hood to reveal a clean-shaven head, keen eyes, and long, trailing mustaches. “Was one of them called ‘Sabit’?”

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Pursuit is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Tumult: Twenty

Allamu and Sabit worked together to haul Illi out of the river and onto the ship. The massive champion’s throat was bruised and bloodied from where he had tried to strangle himself to feed the hunger of the ghosts. Qays handed his mother, Qaansoole, a scrap of cloth to press against the big man’s wound.

The ship’s captain, Melcior, made what room he could aboard the stout ship. Several of the former hostages had drowned in the tunnel. The Magistrate had not been the only one to offer up his own life to the bottomless appetite of the ghosts. A number of champions had died by their own blades, consumed by the loathing within their own hearts.

In the distance, a plume of black smoke rose from the Magistrate’s house. The sounds of battle echoed through the ruins of Vert as the mercenary bands turned on one another to claim the most valuable loot.

Sabit watched the smoke, like an ugly scar across the sky, grow smaller as the ship made its way downstream.

Allamu laid his hand on her shoulder. “I saw such terrible things in that tunnel, Sabit. But they were not true. Lies in the dark cannot stand the kiss of daylight.”

Sabit’s face remained impassive. “Those visions bit so deeply because they were grown from the seed of truth.”

“Truth may have been the tiny seeds that gave rise to those awful sights,” Allamu replied, “but it was secrets that provided the fertile ground for them to root.”

“We all have secrets,” Sabit said, a weariness in her voice like one who has been awake so long that she has forgotten the feel of the sweet kiss of slumber.

“Perhaps we do,” said Allamu, “but I would have one less. Let me tell you the real reason I brought us to Vert.”

—END—

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Tumult is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Tumult: Nineteen

No matter how many battles Sabit had won, the people she loved most were always the ones to suffer. Fighting never solved anything. Yet, fighting was all that Sabit could do. It was what she always did, even in the face of oblivion.

Oblivion was here. Sabit could see the skeletal faces of the ravenous ghosts coming for her. Sinking down beneath the cold water did not deter them, their lipless grins only grew wider. Her chest burned for air.

Sabit’s hand brushed against cold metal. Her fingers quickly grasped the bar sticking up from the stone floor. She pulled, but the metal did not move. The ghosts pulled closer. A roar rose in her ears.

Turning from the ghosts, Sabit grabbed the bar with her other hand. Planting her feet on solid rock, she heaved with all her might. The metal refused to bend.

But the ancient mortar fastening the bar to the rock cracked and crumbled. The bar came loose. Before Sabit could swing her improvised weapon at the ghosts, a surge of water and crying, screaming bodies washed over her. Sabit fell backwards through the opening that was no longer blocked by the metal grate.

She splashed into the river, beneath the open sky.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Tumult is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/

Tumult: Fourteen thru Eighteen

Note: I have been under the weather recently, thus am posting an entire week’s flash fiction at once. Enjoy!

14

CONTENT WARNING: Violence against children

Qaansoole the archer made her way carefully and quickly through the watery tunnel. She knew that the champions behind her relied upon her leadership, but they were strong. Her son, Qays, had been with Allamu—whose scream had already echoed through the tight space. Sabit had charged after him only to let forth a cry of anguish as well. Qaansoole’s heart filled with dread.

Despite her fear and worry, Qaansoole moved with care, making certain her sandals did not slip on the wet stones. She had learned the hunting arts at her father’s knee and knew that skill filled more cookpots than did strength or speed. Even Qaansoole’s marriage to the warlord Athar—Qays’ father—had arisen from a skillful negotiation. Her voluntary sacrifice had kept his rampaging war-band away from the forested home of her people. Qaansoole could feel the smooth bark on her bare feet as she recalled perching on a tree branch, talking down to the mounted warlord below.

Qaansoole was several years and hundreds of parasangs away from her homeland when she learned the true character of Athar. Qays was just mastering the use of his legs when the war-band held its first culling. All the children who had seen six summers were gathered, armed with knives crafted for their tiny hands, and herded into a corral. Only when half the young lay slain upon the ground was the corral opened and the survivors welcomed to the war-band. Athar rejoiced that his son would know his mother’s fierceness and prosper in the culling.

During the culling festival, Qaansoole had taken Qays and fled—across plain and forest and desert to ensure that no son of hers would hold murder in his heart. Qaansoole felt once more every struggle and sacrifice she had made for her beloved son.

Catching sight of him ahead, she hurried to his side. Qays turned to her, bloody knife held high, a grin of joy on the boy’s face.

Qaansoole screamed.

 

15

In the delirium of his twisted memory, Allamu fell to his knees, awash in horror at his deeds. The foul tricks and wicked lies he had used to steer Sabit to this wretched city of Vert weighed upon his heart like a stone dragging him to the unfathomable depths of the ocean.

Before his fevered eyes, Allamu saw Sabit’s body aflame as she fought in the arena as one of the Magistrate’s champions.* The numberless crowds of spectators roared their adulation like surf pounding on a rocky shore. He could not pull his gaze away from the feats of strength and skill she performed, although her every moment was wracked by fiery suffering.

And yet, no flame bit deeper than the betrayal Allamu could see in Sabit’s eyes when his grandest lie played out before her. As Allamu posed as Qaansoole’s lover, he could see Sabit’s face consumed by more than just the flame. The agony in her eyes burned like acid, dissolving Sabit from within.

Allamu had been the one to put it there. It was his fault their group had ever come to Vert. After all the times Sabit had saved Allamu’s worthless life, he repaid her heroism with lies and betrayal. The exultant crowds at her toppling of the Magistrate let out cheers that rang out hollow.

«What does a man deserve when he has betrayed those he loves ?» came a voice formed of roaring crowds and churning waters and ancient hate.

Allamu had no words weighty enough to answer—only action. Pitching forward in the waist-deep waters of the narrow tunnel beneath the Magistrate’s house, Allamu threw himself beneath the surface, the silence engulfing him. He felt metal bars ahead.

Wedging his head beneath the bars, Allamu waited to end the curse of his betrayal, to drown, to join the hungry ghosts that whispered in his ears.

 

*-Sabit’s time as a champion is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Broken Justice.

 

16

Qaansoole leaped through her twisted memory, arms reaching for her son, Qays. Taking the boy in her arms, she tried to pry the bloody knife from his grasp. Qays’ small fingers held the weapon with the strength of stone. Qaansoole’s grip could find no purchase, her hands slipping in the gouts of blood covering the boy’s hands.

“Qays, you are no murderer,” Qaansoole cried out, trying to reach the kind soul that she knew lay behind the boy’s hate-filled smile.

“Of course I am,” replied Qays, gleefully. “I am my mother’s son. I have learned your ways well.”

In a flash, Qays hurled the bloody knife. Qaansoole recognized the grace and power of the movement: they were her own. The flying blade lodged itself in the Magistrate’s neck, and he crumpled to the ground.

Qays lifted Qaansoole’s bow and let loose an arrow. Embedding deep in Sabit’s eye, the shaft drove the spear woman backward until she landed on the hard stone, unmoving. The next arrow struck Allamu through the heart.

As Qaansoole’s former betrothed collapsed in bloody, twitching agony, she heard a watery voice—thick with agony and envy. «What else could the boy have learned from you besides the art of killing? How much more murder do you want to teach him?»

The blood from Qays’ slaughter ran deep and strangely cool around Qaansoole’s waist. She had poisoned her son’s heart with her each word and every touch. Qaansoole would set him free. Throwing herself head-first into the coursing stream of blood, Qaansoole buried herself beneath the heap of corpses and waited to die.

 

17

Sabit’s twisted memory of holding Ishum’s skull in her hands was filled with cacophony. Her throat ached from screaming. The roar of the wind surrounded her—howling through the rocky badlands where Ishum had died. The churn and splash and gurgle of the water flowing around her legs echoed in the tight tunnel beneath the Magistrate’s house. Sobbing and screams from her fellow champions and the former hostages seemed to reach her ears from an unfathomable distance.

Pulling the skull up from its undignified grave amidst the roots, Sabit begged for that which could never be. “Ishum, you must not love me. I betray all who trust in me.”

The roaring of the water grew louder, like the flooding caverns of the god Batuul beneath a distant island.* Washing past her feet, Sabit saw the drowned corpse of stubborn Wensa, who had never been tempted by Batuul’s empty promises. Sabit had led the young woman into danger and it was at Sabit’s feet that the blame of her death came to rest.

Stumbling backward, Sabit fell upon Qaansoole. Her lifeless body was curled around the innocent corpse of her son—the archer was another who had often questioned Sabit and was now condemned to die for Sabit’s failure; her son was another innocent youth whose life Sabit had snipped before it could blossom.

“Allamu!” Sabit cried. A strangled cry of agony answered. Turning, Sabit saw the prince of Urom’s face twist into a mask of agony as a mercenary cut him down from behind. The bald warrior with the long moustaches—the one Sabit had failed to kill during the siege—stepped over Allamu’s bloody corpse.

«You fail to defeat your enemies, and visit suffering upon your friends. Is it any wonder you are hated and feared by all?» came a voice as old and warped as the stones themselves.

Sabit fell upon her back before the approaching foe, into the rushing water. Her arms flailed blindly behind her, the spear woman’s hands seeking a weapon, a tool, a rock—anything to fend off her attacker and his dead-eyed stare.

Her hands found neither spear nor sword nor stone. But each stretch of her arms pulled Sabit deeper beneath the water, every effort to protect herself drew her closer to a watery grave.

 

*-Sabit’s encounter with Batuul is detailed in Wayfarings of Sabit: Isle of the Wicked.

 

18

Vert had not always been the city of justice. Tribes of fishermen and herdsmen had made their homes in this valley for ages unnumbered before the tradesmen brought coin and commerce from afar. When the trade had grown lucrative enough, the Vertan invaders caught the scent of wealth. Conquering the expanse of the valley, the foreigners constructed the splendor of the city and enshrined Verq, their patron lady of justice, as the true and only goddess.

For the simple folk whose roots in this land went deep, the broad, paved thoroughfares and glittering arcades and bustling forum held no place for them. Those people and their old gods were not welcome upon the surface. Far from the sight of the lady of justice and her rich, fat followers, the old ways found a new home—in the deep places, in sewers and catacombs and stinking piles of offal.

Even the gods and their ways change with time. The richer the Vertan conquerors grew, the more spiteful grew the teachings of the old gods, and the more envious grew the hearts of the conquered people. While Vert was at its height, they buried their dead in the secret, sacred places, deep beneath the city. Consecrating their graves with stark songs of hatred, they buried the wasted bones of their families, and kindled an unending hunger in their restless ghosts.

As Vert fell, the hungry ghosts relished every ounce of suffering wrung from their oppressors. But a thirst for suffering cannot be slaked by something so simple as the fall of a city, the collapse of a civilization, of an enemy’s defeat. The desperate need for pain goes on, ceaseless in its yearning.

Now, this fresh crop of outsiders suffered well. Long-dead ghosts feasted upon their fears, cracked open their hearts to devour the doubts within like the rich marrow of bones. Some were young, crackling with strong, bright terrors. Some were old, steeped in decades of regret. Some were strong, but their strength only fed their despair. Some were clever, but their skill only sharpened the barbs of hopelessness.

As this fresh crop of outsiders huddled in the murk of the tunnel, the hungry ghosts feasted. A banquet of anguish lay spread before the hungry ghosts as the living crawled under one another in the stream under the Magistrate’s house–bodies crushing bodies against the metal grate stretched across the opening to the river, nothing but thin bars blocking their way to the open sky. The dark dreams of the living kept them from seeing their plight, and drove them relentlessly toward the gullets of the hungry ghosts.

 

—–

Wayfarings of Sabit: Tumult is copyright (c) 2017 by Michael S. Miller. All rights reserved. New chapters post every weekday. You can support this and other stories on Patreon: https://patreon.com/michaelsmiller or http://ipressgames.com/fiction/