Leos looked over at his partner, sprawled next to him in the dust of the gully ridge. Agris had little patience at the best of times, and these were certainly not the best of times.
“Give me a moment, ‘Gris,” he whispered back. He poked his head around the rock he was sheltering behind, trying to see down into the dry gully where Brokeneck Ashby had disappeared. There was silence, and not much else. Even the river was silent, dry and dead in the summer heat. Leos wasn’t far off that himself. He hated being so far out in the scrub this far south, with no shelter. It was an inhuman place.
“Nah – no sign.” He sat back for a moment, and checked his knives in their sheathes, like he always did when he was anxious. “He’s down there, though. Got to be.”
“Got to be, got to be,” Agris nodded his agreement. He looked at Leos, and a tic rippled down his broad, scarred face. Leos noted the man’s skin was red and peeling from the sun, though he seemed not to know, or care.
Not for the first time, Leos wondered if the rumours about his partner were true. It was said in the stews and taverns of the frontier towns that Agris had been stung by a bone scorpion when he was a small child. Instead of killing him, as it should, the poison had warped his mind and dulled his senses, making him less than a full stack of Karashi tiles when it came to thinking, but also a man who seemed a stranger to pain. It had given him a bastard of a temper as well. He’d seen him tear apart entire bar-rooms before, over some inferred minor insult. He was a dangerous partner, but Leos knew how to handle him. For the most part.
“What should we do then, do?”
That was another unfortunate effect, if the poison tale was true. Agris was always bloody repeating himself.
“He’s trapped down there,” Leos said thoughtfully. “He’s no ride now, and the gully is too steep to climb upstream.”
They had come across Brokeneck’s horse a few leagues back, dead from exhaustion, and had tracked him to the gully. Their own horses were hobbled a half league away, to give them some element of surprise if needed. Brokeneck was a dangerous man. Half a dozen dead soldiers could attest to that.
“If he’d come out on the far side we’d have seen him.” He sighed. “I don’t want to wait though.” It was too hot for that. Six days of hunting in the baking sun and freezing nights was enough. Damn the bounty.
Leos drew his dirk, the long knife he favoured for close-up work. “I’ll head down first. If I don’t come back, you follow when I whistle, or after a count of two hundred, regardless.” He set off without waiting to see if Agris understood. The man had a habit of asking endless questions.
He dragged himself over the dusty stones of the ridge to the edge, where he could look down the dry river bank to the equally parched bed of the river.
Lying in the crook of a bend in the creek, where a drift of sand and silt had built up, was Brokeneck. He was face down, arms splayed to either side.
Leos cleared his throat. “Brokeneck?” he called. “Brokeneck Ashby?” Nothing. “We’re here to earn the bounty due. It’s better if you come with us quiet-like.”
The wind blew down the gully, stirring the sand, but Brokeneck was as still as the grave.
Leos crept up to the man, and saw his face turned to the side, eyes and mouth wide open. When he got close enough, Leos leapt forwards and jammed his dirk into the man’s leg, before hopping away again.
The blood that came out of the puncture he’d made was thick, and purple. He looked at his dagger, and the thin film of blood retained on the blade smoked in the sun.
“Damn!” He threw the dirk to the earth as if it could bite him. He moved closer to Brokeneck so he could see his face more clearly. The features were swollen and bruised, patches of purple around the throat, chin and cheeks. The protruding tongue was as thick and red as raw steak.
Leos cursed again, under his breath. Dead, after all this time. The bounty would be less if he was dead. Two hundred flints, to his recollection. Still a decent haul, though perhaps not much for six days out here.
He heard the patter of falling stones behind him, and turned to see Agris sliding down the riverbank. Stealthy as always, Leos thought.
“What’s happened then, happened?” Agris had his scimitar in his hand, ready as ever to fight. Not that there was any need, now.
“He’s been bitten, looks like.” Leos crouched closer to the corpse. “Maybe a funnel spider, or a whip snake? It must have happened soon after he got down here, we were pretty close behind him.”
Agris grunted, and then amused himself for a moment by scraping his foot through the stones, scaring up a dust cloud. He turned back to Leos. “We can still get the reward.”
Leos looked at the swollen body doubtfully. “We’ll need the head. And that’s going to be a real beautiful treat to carry back to Water Haven. Six days with a stinking, pus-filled head. I’m not sure that’s worth the two hundred flints.”
It was though, and they both knew it. They were just about broke, and they had debts to pay back in Water Haven. Important debts. The kind that, if left unpaid, might see them imprisoned. Or dead. Leos sighed again.
“Let’s use your scimitar. It’s the sharpest thing we’ve got.”
Agris wandered over and looked at their prize. “Get the sack ready,” he commanded, and raised the blade.
A shrill whistle cut across the wind.
They both looked around, surprised at the intrusion.
On the other side of the channel, a woman was walking down the bank with slow, sure steps. She was wrapped in light, sand-coloured robes against the desert heat, and only her brown face and a frame of black curls showed beneath her hood. In her hand she held a short stick of some kind, the length of a forearm.
“Hold your steeds, heroes,” she said in a thick accent. “That’s my corpse you’re about to chop up.”
After a moment’s stunned silence, Leos regained his senses. “All apologies miss, but this is ours. We’ve been tracking it – him – for days. He’s–”
“Brokeneck Ashby, yes. Called so because he was hanged and left for dead, but the soldiers that did it botched the job. I’ve been following him for longer than you.” She had stopped moving now, at a respectful distance away from the two men. Her eyes held on Leos, but flicked to Agris occasionally, as if she expected him to rush at her suddenly.
“Well, that’s as may be, but we got him first.” He looked down at the bloated face. “Well, after whatever bit him, I suppose.”
“That was me.” She smiled, coyly. “I bit him. I am the deadly snake.”
Agris giggled, and covered his hand with his mouth. That was a bad sign, Leos knew.
“I met him on the hillside tracks last night. Just another traveller, going the opposite way. We shared some food I had. I guess it didn’t agree with him.”
“Last night? Why didn’t you just kill him then?”
“Because he is – he was – a dangerous man. He’s killed scores of people, that’s why the bounty is so high. It’s easier to kill with a fine meal than a dirty fight. Especially when you are the weaker sex.” She stepped forwards again, and her eyes flashed. “So back off! The money is mine.”
Leos hesitated. They desperately needed the money, and it hurt his pride to give in to a woman. But something about this one made his senses scream at him that she was dangerous. It was too risky. There had to be something that made her confident enough to challenge two killers all by herself.
It was Agris who made the decision for them both. With a shriek that could have come from an excited little girl, he charged at the woman, scimitar whirling. She’d read him well.
The woman crouched, and brought the stick up to her mouth. Agris stumbled as a dart struck his leg, and then seemed to lose his footing altogether. He crashed to the dry riverbed, scattering stones in his wake. He lay still.
Leos was already diving for shelter. He rolled behind a weathered boulder that must have fallen from the hills above the gully a long time past, tucking his body in tight. After a heartbeat he peered around, searching for the woman.
A dart bounced off a cobble near him. He sat back against the rock and drew another of his daggers. His breath was coming in fast gasps, and though he tried to listen for the sound of footsteps approaching, he could hear nothing above his own heaving lungs.
He risked another glance. She was slowly making her way across the channel, blowpipe lifted to her lips, watching the boulder he crouched behind. She carefully stepped over Agris, who was now as still as Brokeneck. Leos tightened his grip on his knife. If he rushed at her now, and she missed, he might be able to–.
Agris’s arm flew up and wrapped itself around the woman’s leg, pulling her down into a crushing hug. The blowpipe skittered across the stones. The woman howled and thrashed, kicking Agris hard in the gut, while he tried to pin her with his considerable weight.
Leos sprinted across the distance between them, knife slippery in his hand, half-blinded with sweat.
The woman’s face held a look of shock and outrage as she struggled with the big man. Leos saw her hand disappear into her robe, grasping for something. He was almost there. He opened his mouth to call out a warning, but had no breath to spare. Agris shifted his weight.
The woman’s hand emerged holding a small curved knife, just as Agris’s forehead crashed into her jaw. Her head snapped backwards and she slumped to the stones, still.
Leos stumbled to a stop in front of his big friend. Agris’s eyes were wild, bulging from his head. He tried to stand, but sank back to his knees and lay down on the stones. Purple spit leaked from his mouth.
“’Gris?” Leos said uncertainly. The big man managed to smile.
“Ghost spider…” he said, his voice slurred and a touch different from its usual tone. “They used to make me take it…” His eyes closed. “Half a day…” he whispered. “Half a day.” Much to Leos’s surprise, he started to snore.
Leos moved to the woman, who had a large red welt across her jaw that would bruise badly, but seemed to be breathing normally. He took the shackles he had brought with him to detain Brokeneck Ashby from his belt, and locked her wrists and ankles tight. Then he dragged them both into the meagre shade of the riverbank and went to find her horse. She must have one, he reasoned, to be all the way out here alone. He hoped it wouldn’t be far.
It was the horse itself that announced the location of the woman’s camp. Its faint whickering brought Leos gratefully towards a sandstone outcrop that jutted from the hills like an errant fist. He picked his way around the scattered boulders at the base of the rock, thankful for the shade it provided. He’d been wandering in the scrub for far too long.
He slowed his pace as his rounded the outcrop. He’d assumed that if the woman had any accomplices then they would have been with her at the gully, but Leos had survived these many years by being a cautious man above all.
He froze when he heard talking. Holding his breath, he strained to hear. Not talking. Singing. A lone voice, singing softly to itself. Another woman, he felt sure. He edged forwards.
The horse came into view first. A dappled desert mare, worth a good number of flints by his reckoning, at least from this distance. Only a single horse, though. That was odd.
Then he saw the child. Small and thin, balancing on a tall sandstone rock, arms spread as he – she? – twirled and sang, the words indiscernible. Leos couldn’t see the kid’s face, just some red hair poking from beneath a conical hat that looked to be made from dry grass. He was all alone, as far as Leos could tell.
Children. They always complicated things. He walked his hand to his knife belt, but then hesitated. This had already been a bastard of a day. He wasn’t sure he could stomach making it any worse.
And Agris… well, the big man was oddly sentimental when it came to kids. Perhaps this one was a necessary complication, then. Leos cursed silently.
He stepped from behind the outcrop, hands held out wide. “That your horse, lad?”
The boy squealed, and plummeted from the rock to the gravel below. He was quickly back on his feet, looking wildly around.
Leos waved, his hands held out to the side. “No need to fear, son.” He pointed to the mare. “That your horse?”
His composure regained, the boy regarded him calmly, face tilted back, features shaded by the hat.
“No. And I’m a girl.”
Leos nodded. He always backed the wrong horse. It was the story of his life.
“We met your mother,” he ventured, not entirely sure how best to talk to children. Though once he’d said it, he realised how wrong it sounded. The girl had light, freckled skin – tanned though it was – and red hair. She seemed unlikely to be the offspring of the dark-skinned hellcat who had confronted them.
“That’s Tamalain. And she’s not my mother.”
Leos approached the girl, cautious as ever. When he was close enough, he reached out and flicked her hat off. A pale freckled face that had long been a stranger to water, eyes light green under the shag of coarse red hair. And on her forehead, a slaver’s mark. Three interwoven circles with her owner’s initials inside. It seemed unnecessarily cruel of the owner, to have branded it right on her face like that.
“You’re her slave?”
“We were both slaves. Now we ain’t.” Her bottom lip poked out a little in defiance.
Thoughts stampeded through Leos’s mind. Fugitives, then. He could imagine how someone with a poisoner’s skills and a killer’s instincts might not remain captive for long. But the girl was seven or eight years old at most. Why was she here?
He dismissed the question. Whatever the reasons, fugitives meant money.
By his estimation the nearest trading post was Promise Heights, perhaps four days’ ride west. It had a small slave market, and a court. The bounty for bringing in escaped slaves was always high, to discourage frontier folk from sheltering them. They were a rare prize. The child alone would be worth a couple hundred flints, more if she was sold outright. The woman, well… that would depend on what her story was. Might not be much of a happy ending there.
The girl was staring at him, and Leos thought for a moment that she had read his thoughts. She gave him a sad smile that, for a brief moment, made him feel just about as noble as a squashed turd. He sighed.
“What’s your name, lass?”
“Lenya.” She spat it like a curse.
He led her to the dappled mare.
The next morning they rode west. Agris had recovered remarkably well from the poison that should have left him a bloated corpse. No-one had been more surprised than Tamalain, who had stared at Agris like he was the walking dead. Leos now suspected the man’s story was a bit different to the oft-told tale of the small child stung by a scorpion. Maybe he’d raise it, sometime. One day when his partner was in a stunningly good mood. Perhaps.
Lenya sat just behind Agris, her hands bound in front of her, holding onto his jacket. The two seemed to have hit it off some, and chatted quietly together like old friends. Maybe his partner’s intellect was on the girl’s level, Leos reasoned. Or not much below, at least. Their burgeoning friendship might present a problem when they got to the trading post, though. He’d have to keep an eye on that.
Tamalain was less sanguine about her situation. Slung across her mare, she hissed a chorus of curses and insults through the cloth that gagged her.
Leos sympathised, but was prepared to do little more than that. He was cheerful this morning. It looked like maybe the gods had stopped pissing on him, for a time. He led the party on into the drylands, the sun rising steadily at their backs.
They left Brokeneck Ashby in the gully, his head still on his shoulders.
Leos stared into the fire and tried to imagine he was home again, back on the cattle farm where he was raised. Sitting in front of the hearth and toasting a chunk of bread on a fork, safe from the night and all it held. The only sounds the cracking of the burning wood and the soothing snores of his parents.
But the real world would not be denied this evening. His cooking knife held a scraggly lizard, already crisped and smoking and stinking like an old boot. Above his head, clouds had gathered with the chilling promise of a torrential downpour. And across from him, the formidable form of Agris was still trying to get the child’s bloody rhyme right, concentration smeared across his face.
“The shy sheep shocked the, shocked the shy, shearer, when the shearer, er, the sheep…”
All the while, Lenya giggled happily at his partner’s efforts to repeat the tongue tease she had taught him, but there was no malice in it. They both seemed genuinely delighted by his efforts.
“It’s ‘the shy sheep shocked the shearer when the shearer shackled the shy sheep to the shed’” Lenya scolded, in mock admonition. Leos failed to see the humour in it, though long experience with Agris’s unfortunate speech pattern was probably at least partly to blame.
Leos cast his eyes to Tamalain, who sat, hands and feet still shackled, staring out into the night. Her cursing and spitting had stopped two nights into the journey from the gully that was now Brokeneck’s final resting place. For the last day, she hadn’t said a word. She ate the food that Leos held to her mouth and tipped her head back for the water he poured from his skin, but would not speak to any of them. She would watch Lenya, especially the little girl’s engaged conversations with Agris, and sometimes Leos would catch her mouth creeping upwards in a smile. But though Lenya talked to Tamalain, the fearsome woman never once replied. As Leos watched, she dragged her feet beneath her and slowly lay down on the hard earth to sleep.
Leos turned to Agris and nodded. “Time for a rest ‘Gris. You too Lenya. I’ll take the first watch.”
He stood and made his way from the firelight into the darkness. He chewed gingerly on the roasted lizard, but it tasted worse than it smelled. With a sigh, he flicked it off the point of the blackened blade, watched as it spun into the scrub. Then he slid out his favourite dirk, and began to walk the perimeter of their tiny camp.
The day after next they would reach Promise Heights, and then they would see what they could get for the living treasure they had found. As far as Leos was concerned they couldn’t get there fast enough. Agris was already grumbling about trading Lenya in for cash, preferring to keep her with them for company, maybe train her in the art of ranging. Leos had pointed out several times that they were hardly suitable parents for a small child, and that their lives were far from stable and safe. The best he’d been able to suggest was that they would try – if possible – to see if both Tamalain and Lenya could be sold to the same slaver with an agreement that they would remain together in the event of any future sale. It seemed unlikely.
The fire burned low, and Leos’s patrol route spiralled wider and narrower as he sought to keep himself interested and awake. By the fifteenth time he’d passed the same tar tree, his eyes were getting heavy.
A sharp pain in his leg made him curse and stumble back towards the camp. He looked around wildly, but there was no sign of anything that could have bitten him. The strength leached from his leg in a moment and Leos plunged to the ground, landing hard on his rump. In the flickering light he stared in horror at the two bloody punctures in his right shin, just above the worn leather of his boot. Already he could feel a burning sensation crawling up his leg, and seeing the evidence of what was clearly some kind of bite made his heart race. His throat tightened.
“Agris!” Leos howled, the cry jerking everyone awake. “Shit, Agris, something bit me!”
The big man was up and racing across to Leos in moments, but already the burning had spread to his groin. He couldn’t move his leg at all. He looked at Agris, but no words would come.
Agris’s face announced his shock, but he seemed unsure what to do. He drew a knife and gripped Leos’s leg, but then hesitated. The big man looked in mute appeal at Lenya, wide-eyed and seemingly on the verge of tears, and then at Tamalain. The dusky woman had her eyes narrowed thoughtfully but her expression was as still and hard as ever.
“A moonsnake.” Agris stated helplessly, staring at Tamalain. “Right? Right?”
The woman nodded silently.
“Will he live?”
She shrugged, and Leos felt a spike of fear at the lack of enthusiasm in the response. “Moonsnake venom speeds up the heart until it bursts.” She paused for a long time and looked at him, while Leos felt his heart begin to gallop like a horse in fear for its life. “If the pulse can be slowed, the poison will eventually pass.” She looked away, disinterested.
“Tamalain!” To Leos’s surprise, he saw real anguish in Lenya’s expression, and tears rolling down her cheeks. “Help him, please. He’s Agris’s friend. They’re both lost, just like us. Remember what you were, once.”
Tamalain scowled, then turned her gaze on Agris. “If you still have my saddlebags, I have something that may help. Of course…” she motioned at her shackles meaningfully. “I can’t help much like this.”
Leos opened his mouth to warn Agris not to fall for the woman’s tricks, but all that came out was a strangled squeak like a stillborn fart. Leos wondered if that would qualify as a last word.
Agris nodded and rose, bounding away across the camp to their supplies. Tamalain looked at Leos levelly in the soft glow of the fire, and her mouth twitched slightly. He thought she might have said something to him, but the blood was pounding in his ears now, too loud for anything to reach him. He felt faint.
As the night bled into total darkness, the last thing he saw was Agris crouched next to Tamalain, shackle key in hand. He thought of home, and toasting bread by the fire.
Sunlight seemed to be burning into his skull even before he opened his eyes. When he did, Leos had trouble remembering where he was and why he hurt all over. He was lying in the meagre shade of a tar tree, and the scarred slab of meat that served as Agris’s face was hovering uncomfortably close to his own.
“Ah, awake at last. Awake.” Agris nodded in satisfaction. “You slept for two days. Your heart was so slow I thought it might stop, I thought.” He tilted a skin to Leos’s mouth and the water that passed his lips tasted better than anything Leos had ever drunk in his life. Then Agris’s hand was on his shirt, hauling him to his feet. “We should go.”
The world twirled sickeningly around Leos for a moment, and then he pitched to the ground again, pressing his forehead into the dirt against a rising wave of nausea.
“Where’s Tamalain? And the kid?” Leos breathed deeply, dreading the answer.
“Gone,” Agris confirmed. “That was the price for saving you, the price. I was glad to pay it. And they shouldn’t be slaves, those two. They’re not the type.” Agris nodded seriously, as if that settled the issue for good.
Leos groaned. “We needed that bounty, ‘Gris. We can’t go back without Water Haven without the bailiff’s money. They’ll hang us.”
Agris shrugged his huge shoulders. “No cares, Leos, no cares.” Leos found himself hauled to his feet once more, and Agris clapped him on the shoulder hard enough to raise a cloud of dust. “At least you have your life. That’s a fine enough bounty. We can keep looking for the money, keep looking. I wonder if Brokeneck is still where we left him.” Agris smiled, a rare event which made him look like he was in severe pain but very much enjoying it.
Leos stared at his partner for a long moment, then nodded gloomily. Perhaps his simple-minded friend had it right. Life was its own reward and so on.
He found the thought gave him little comfort as he limped to his horse. It seemed the bladders of the gods were quite capacious, after all.
© October, 2015 Rob Francis
Rob Francis is a British writer and academic. He has publish numerous non-fiction works. His fiction has recently appeared in SpeckLit and Everyday Fiction.