Of Drums and Thunder
by Travis J. Gates
part 1 of 2
Saviin awoke in pain.
The body of the horse, now just dead meat swelling in the rain, pinned him against the trunk of the thick jungle tree. As his head swam and his eyes sought focus, he became dimly aware that his feet were unshod and he lay nude from the waist up.
The unruly mane of slate gray hair was cemented to his throbbing skull by the endless torrent of water from the sky. His thick beard was matted with dirt and blood. It, too, was gray, not a mark of age but a pigment that spoke of his heritage of the cliffs.
He could smell the damp leaves and fronds around him and he instinctively knew that it was dusk, though the sky was dark and tumultuous.
With no small effort, Saviin tightened his muscles and shoved the carcass of his mount off his side and sat up. For many moments, all he heard was the slap of the raindrops upon the canopy of the jungle and his own ragged breathing.
His eyes adjusted to the growing darkness and he saw the three crude arrows, their whittled shafts sticking out of his horse’s neck. He noted without emotion the great black equine eye as it reflected the lightning and pooled with rain that the heat had made warm as blood.
Saviin felt oddly exposed, though he was used to going unshod and shirtless. It took a moment for him to identify the source of the strange feeling: his great broadsword and dagger no longer rested in their sheaths.
“Gods take this life,” the burly man cursed. As there was nothing he could do until his strength returned, the heavily muscled youth began to piece together the chain of events that had led him to these straits.
* * *
Fleeing the wrath of the Tohrine city guard, Saviin had sought employment as a hired sword for caravans along the countries of the south. Finally settling in a small city in southern Fruchland, he had contracted as security for a trade delegation that sought to go to Egile and the frozen wastelands to the north.
The caravan had been nearly underway before it was made known to the mounted guards that part of the cargo was Balithia, the daughter of a Fruchlandian nobleman and token of goodwill to a minor Egilian king, thus securing further trading deals for the future.
“Aye, like we didn’t have enough trouble without playing nursemaid to a wench,” commented Yrisir, the grizzled leader of the mercenary troop. His orange hair and stern visage proclaimed him as one of the Lirschmen, but his good nature betrayed his countrymen’s reputation.
Despite his subordinate’s youth, the scarred old captain had taken quite a liking to Saviin. They both sensed in each other that which cannot be put to words but what one warrior’s soul can see in another.
“Gold is gold,” said Saviin. “We are being paid to make sure this cargo gets to Fruchland without thieves’ fingers dipping in the pot. I guess that goes for the wench as well.” They both enjoyed a hearty laugh as the wagons and horses began the slow trek north.
The rain started that day.
Never had any among them seen such a torrent. The priests of Joss and Milaak who joined the caravan as it went parallel to their own pilgrimages looked up at the sky hatefully and made strange gestures across their chests. No one felt the storm was natural, but no one dared utter aloud the dark thoughts that lurked in their minds.
By noon on the fourth day, the scouts reported what Saviin and Yrisir had both already suspected. The dense clouds and sheets of rain had put their party far off course. Clemit, the small yellow-skinned point man, stated it directly to his captain, though he kept his voice low as to not let either the pilgrims or the noblewoman hear.
“Sir, the terrain should have warned us. We are no longer in Fruchland.” He shook his greasy hair in disgust. “In fact, we no longer travel north at all. I fear we are very near to both Darkar and Syllampia.”
Yrisir spat at the mention of both of those accursed lands. “By the eye of Milaak! How could we have strayed so far off course?”
Saviin, who knew enough of his commander to recognize the rhetorical, kept silent. Clemit, however, thought that his lord bade him explain the poor turn of events.
‘Sir, it is this storm. By all that mine eyes have witnessed in my travels, this deluge reeks of sorcery!”
Though unseen under the thick oiled poncho he wore, Saviin bristled at the word. Never had he liked being around magic or the strange little beasts who practiced it.
“Stay your tongue, dog!” growled their orange-haired leader. “Do you want to cause a panic? Methinks it’s about two full glasses until sundown. Order all to strike camp. We’ll bed down here and hope this rain lets up in the morning.”
And so it was done.
All huddled in the common tent for warmth, as none could even hope to make a fire. The priests prayed, but the gods were busy elsewhere and no help came. The two great spheres of the moons were vaguely outlined in the dark gray clouds. An hour after camp, a strange sound began to echo through the jungle.
“Gods! Is that thunder?” A nervous Balithia, an exotic beauty made even more so by her damp hair and glistening cheeks, huddled next to the captain. “I have never heard the like!”
All fell silent as the others in the group struggled to discern what she had heard from the common noises of the storm.
“Nay, my lady,” Yrisir said glumly, catching Saviin’s eye. “That is the sound of drums.”
Saviin’s purple eyes held his superior’s green counterparts for a short moment before they both seemed to have the same thought. Saviin straightened, his hand going to the well-worn hilt of his sword.
“Saviin, I think a check of the perimeter is in order.”
The big man nodded and trotted to his horse. Once mounted, he pulled the reins and kicked the animal into action. He did not like the feel of this at all.
He wasn’t far from the camp when he heard the sound of steel striking steel above the storm’s cacophony. With a curse to the Dark Lord of Lies and Battle, Saviin spurred his horse back.
The sheets of rain blinded him and confused his steed. The trip back took much longer than the trip hence. The torrent was losing him in the jungle.
Sorcery, Saviin thought grimly. If they weren’t so wetted down, the hairs on his nape would have stood complaining to him of the danger.
His thoughts elsewhere, he didn’t notice the arrow shots until the second was already draining his horse’s life. The third sped the process along and his mount reared and collapsed, half-pinning the man’s thick leathery bulk under its weight and ensuring that his head was bludgeoned by the rude bark of a nearby tree.
Consciousness waned and Saviin could still hear the drums and the sound of screams.
Then all went dark.
* * *
Saviin flexed his hands and feet, willing the blood to circulate. He had endured harsh, bloody winters as a child, so the chill of his sodden flesh and pants did not vex him much. He slowly stood and searched his immediate area.
The horse had been stripped clean of saddle, blanket and bags. Even the tack was missing. Saviin grunted. Obviously whoever had attacked the camp had thought him as dead as his mount and taken everything of use they could. He noted grimly that he was lucky that his trousers had been hidden by the horse’s corpse.
He turned in a circle twice, trying to get his bearings. Nothing, and the night was almost fully upon him. Remembering his roots, he stood still and closed his eyes, letting his primitive, animalistic instincts take over. Without his vision and reason to distract him, he intuited the direction of the camp and took off at a brisk pace in that direction.
He didn’t have long to run.
The jungle parted, revealing the rough clearing that Yrisir had chosen for the camp, but all was not as Saviin had left it. Tents and supplies were strewn about, the wagons were toppled, and dead horses were scattered amongst the debris. Methodically, the young lieutenant slowly worked his way around the camp, noting the dull pink of watered-down blood on the oilskin tent flaps.
There were no weapons discarded and there were no bodies. Saviin had come to know and respect Yrisir and his caravan guard well, there should have at least been a body of one invader in the muck. But he saw none, friend or foe. He thought for a moment to make a tunic out of one of the tents, but he lacked a sharp tool to fashion it. He shrugged. What to do now?
For the briefest of moments, he considered leaving the doomed members of his party to their fate and making his way east where surely the Fruchlandian border lay. He dismissed the thought almost immediately. He had a duty and a contract with Balithia, not to mention his friendship with his Lirchish captain. He would at the very least try to ascertain what had happened.
Then Saviin realized something. What he had at first thought of only as the pounding in head where he had hit the tree, he now realized was the drums the noblewoman had spoken of. They were still beating, and he could follow their sound.
Half-nude and unarmed, Saviin set off towards the drums in the west.
* * *
The cliff rose through the darkness before him like the walls around the palace of an agoraphobic king. He knew there must be a pass the raiders had taken, but he had no patience in finding it. With a determined grunt, Saviin began to scale the rock face in the darkness.
His calloused fingers and toes sought every crag and crevice, no matter how slight. Slowly he ascended. It is true that he climbed better in the dark than most men would have in the light of day, the rain notwithstanding.
As a boy raised in the rough-hewn cliff dwellings of the southern peninsula, it had been the simplest of feats for him and his playmates to climb steep, jagged spires in search of rabbits or other small game of the mountains. He reflected now that this cultural trait had saved his hide more times than he could count.
The sound of the drums continued.
The ascent was slow and hard. His corded muscles stood out on his back, causing rivers of rain to flow down his rough, tanned skin. Every now and again he would have to hug the sharp rocks as the storm wind picked up and threatened to send him tumbling down into the jungle far below. But he did not relent.
Soon, the world opened up anew and he found that he had reached the summit. He swung his massive frame over the ledge and granted himself a moment’s respite before he peered down the western slope. There, like the pin pricks of stars on the black velvet of a clear, calm night, Saviin saw many fires set in a circle.
The clearing was deep in the jungle, but he knew he would soon be near their warmth. He did not need it now, however, for the hot blood of revenge boiled in his veins.
He slowly began his descent of the western face.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Travis J. Gates