From amidst a jagged jumble of red sandstone, a dozen arrows thrummed from the bows of a pack of deserters who, though lightly dressed and armored in a nod to the heat, were heavily armed in a nod
to their nature. Through the heat-wavered air of the Yanos Desert, the feathered missiles streaked toward the infamous Honed killer, Dolos Gyall.
The deserters' captive scout, Cudalil Randur, couldn't fault the timing of the ambush. Not because the arrows might hit Gyall, but because one could strike the notorious killer's packhorse.
Cudalil, squatting amongst the stones with his captors, could have told the deserters Gyall wasn’t the only one they had needed to surprise. There was the sorcery-enhanced hearing and comprehension
of Gyall’s Imbued pony, Chuckle, with which to contend.
A moment after the bowstrings twanged, the dun pony lunged for the shelter of a slanted sheet of red sandstone, its muscular body generating so much power it yanked the packhorse tethered to it
into a stumble that had the beast's shoulder bash into boulder.
Dolos Gyall’s head whipped toward the rock jumble. With Gyall’s round brown face naught but shadow beneath his flop-brimmed hat, Cudalil could only imagine the man’s perpetual the-world-amuses-me
mien as Gyall drew his whirlblades.
The dull black of the whirlblades stood out against the short, but powerfully built, man's sand-colored attire. The two triple-bladed weapons looked like a crazed combination of a hand ax and a
pair of longknives, with the ax head replaced with a dagger blade, and all three blades set at odd angles. The look of them screamed their provenance — the Old World.
Cudalil expected Gyall to sever the packhorse’s tether so he and Chuckle could ride to safety. Perhaps, given his druthers, the notorious Honed warrior would have, but Chuckle had his own priority.
The pony wheeled about and leaped between the packhorse and the oncoming arrows. Cudalil nodded, seeing what he had only heard spoken of in awed tones. The Imbuement that had increased
Chuckle’s intelligence, endurance, and healing, had also enhanced his herd instincts. Chuckle would no more abandon a wounded herd mate than a brave man would a friend.
Fortunately for Chuckle, the packhorse, and Gyall, most of the deserters were decent with a bow. Thus the arrows were streaking towards the spot Chuckle and Gyall had vacated to shield the
packhorse. Still, their new location was mere feet from the old. Three missiles that would have been errant were now accurate.
Gyall nonchalantly knocked an arrow away with either whirlblade. But the third was beyond his reach. Cudalil winced at the sound of the packhorse’s scream.
Gyall, moving with the blurring speed and precision of one of the Honed, sheathed his whirlblades, pulled the six-inch haft of his Meknos Articulating Bow from where it was affixed vertically to
the center of his chest. He snap-twisted the haft so that the telescoping bow arms shot out of both ends and the string drew taught, and then loosed arrow after arrow at the
The skills of the Honed in general, and Dolos Gyall, in particular, were renowned. But knowing that and experiencing that was the difference between an acorn and an oak.
Cudalil had heard the deserters speak dismissively of the Honed, thinking the legends of their near mystic martial skill mere mummery, and that the Honed were no more than excellent warriors.
Cudalil could’ve corrected them on that point, but why would he assist his captors even if they would listen to him? Hardened deserters, like these men and women who wore their leathers and linen
armor like a second skin, wouldn't believe until they saw. That was too late. They had assumed an unanticipated arrow barrage would end the man, living legend or not. Now they were the
ones contending with a barrage.
One of Gyall’s arrows streaked through a crevice between rocks no larger than a man’s head and hammered into the face of a lean crook-backed deserter who complained constantly. Used to complain
constantly. No more complaining for him. No more anything.
A curly-haired female deserter leaned out from behind a slab of sandstone to shoot back at Gyall. Brave but foolish. The woman was merely a competent archer. Dolos Gyall was the master of master
archers. An arrow scored a bloody furrow down her exposed forearm. Cursing with shock and pain, she leaned to the side, further out from behind the cover, holding her arm. Two deserters yelled for
her to get down, but she did not heed. An arrow thunked into her chest. She fell, curling around it coughing blood, her eyes unfocused and rolling she repeated nonsensically, “I’m sorry. I’m
Another arrow caromed off a triangular chunk of red sandstone, sending shards of it into the eye of the leader of the deserters, Laron. “Omun’s black ass!” The large bearded man cursed and grunted,
but unlike the curly-haired woman remained behind cover.
A lean, long-haired deserter stumbled back and fell to the ground, hands clutching the arrow that had rattled through a space between rocks no larger than a man’s hand to bury itself in his throat.
Laron squat walked over to the man who was now clutching the arrow in his throat with one hand, blood seeping between his fingers, and pounded the sand with his other. He gripped the back of the
man's neck and drove a long knife up between his ribs and into his heart saying, "Go on now, lad. Go on now."
Wide-eyed and weeping, the wounded curly-haired woman feebly turned away from him, but she made no other move to get away. Instead, she clenched her eyes shut and waited.
“Ah, it’s all over now,” Laron said, clutched her shoulder with one hand while driving the knife into her back with the other.
All the while arrow after arrow came with little pause between, thumping into sand between stones, skittering across boulders inches from their hidden heads, ricocheting from rock to rock causing
stone shards and wood splinters to keep faces down and eyes pressed shut.
Cudalil risked a glance between a finger-wide slit between two stones to see Chuckle grab the pack horse’s reins in its mouth and struggle to lead the wounded screeching and skittish animal toward
the safety of the stone-sheltered the trail. Atop Chuckle, Gyall's archery was seemingly unhindered by the pony's herky-jerky attempts to guide the packhorse.
“Stay squattin' til he runs out of arrows,” Laron grunted as he pulled out a strip of cloth and a lump of cotton and fashioned a makeshift bandage and eyepatch.
“Runs out of arrows?” thick-bodied Eudia snarled in her usual foul temper. “He has a Dyad-damned twin quiver. How’s he going to run out of arrows when he’s got a twin quiver?”
"'Easy coin'," said Gusan, the deserters' jokester in imitation of Laron's drawl. "'Honed or not, what can one man do against a bunch of arrows what he don't even know is comin'?'"
“Maybe we see what you can do with the sword that you know is coming, eh?” Laron drawled, placing his hand on the pommel of his longsword.
The arrow fusillade stopped, and Gusan took great interest in studying the trail up which Dolos Gyall and his equines had escaped.
Face averted, Cudalil grinned at their groaning self-recrimination. They hadn’t ambushed Gyall just for the bounty. His Meknos Bow, whirlblades, twin quiver, and Imbued pony were each worth a
fortune. But the deserters hadn’t thought it through. The weapons and pony were so valuable because of their devastating effectiveness in combat. Easy coin, eh?
Everything depended on the packhorse’s condition. The deserters needed it wounded enough to slow Gyall, but not so injured that it died quickly. Chuckle wouldn’t let him abandon a live herd-mate,
but a dead one yes. Without the packhorse, it would be a race against an Imbued pony, which was no race at all.
Hope blossomed with a tightening in Cudalil's chest. This could be it. Maybe they’ll give up this madness. The blossoming hope sprouted thorns. The deserters had kidnapped him to force
them to track Gyall. There was law back in Huvan. The deserters couldn’t afford to leave Cudalil alive to tell his tale. They had to kill him. The question was if he could get away from them before
Laron pointed at Cudalil. “Get on after him.”
The deserters had ensured Cudalil didn’t use his knowledge of the desert to escape by allowing him to carry neither weapons nor water and giving him the slowest horse and trussing him up at night
and in the day there was no way he could get far enough out of sight to hide.
Cudalil nodded to Laron and started his horse across the sandy expanse to the trail the switchback trail Gyall had taken. He didn’t bother with precautions against ambush. Now that Gyall knew he
was hunted, there was little Cudalil could do to protect himself. If Gyall killed him, he killed him. Besides, it was unlikely that Gyall would ambush just him. If he were going to attack, he would
do it when they were all grouped when, with his speed and accuracy, he could annihilate their ranks in seconds.
The searing landscape through which Cudalil and the deserters pursued Gyall was brutality incarnate. The Yanos Desert was a collection of incongruities. Dictated by more than the happenstance of
geology and climate, the mind-bending terrain of the Yanos was the sun-scorched panorama of a God both insane and furious.
There was even a beetle that nested in dung, the dungbuzzer, with a sting that could be fatal. The entire Yanos was antithetical to human life, but here was Cudalil forced to track a man
considered by many to be, himself, antithetical to human life, or at least human lives that he wished to cease.
Thinking of Gyall's skill, Cudalil scrutinized the area and shook his head. Not even a master of the sneak-and-stab style of fighting of the Yanos, where a master of camouflage was accounted as
much ja--the strange twisty version of honor used by the denizens of the desert--as a master warrior.
Spotting no sign of the man, Cudalil looked behind him to see his companions hundreds of yards back.
As tracker, Cudalil would be in front regardless, but that didn't mean he wasn't also bait. There would be no fleeing for Cudalil Boren, nor was he fool enough to believe they would share in the
windfall that would come with killing Dolos Gyall.
The man was a walking treasury, not that he carried enormous amounts of coin or jewels. His ensorcelled weapons and imbued pony were worth enough to make any man wealthy, and there was a bounty on
his head in the Abissarran Dominion to the south that would earn twice as much. Even after divvying up the windfall, Laron's deserters would get more money than any of them could have made in ten
Besides, Gyall's reputation was fearsome enough that none believed he would be killed without doing some killing himself before he breathed his last. That meant more for those who lived. Cudalil
grinned wryly at the thought of at least some of his captors' likely imminent demise. At least I won’t be the only one of us to die a stupid useless death in the desert. He wondered how
many of the deserters had figured out that the moment Gyall died they would cease being a helpful comrade and become someone whose continued existence cost everyone else coin. Whoever was, at that
moment, hindmost tended to come out ahead.
Driven by greed and fear their quarry would escape, Laron had ordered the deserters to ride through the night, increasing the risk of breaking a horse's leg and subsequent injuries done to the
deserter then thrown from the wounded animal’s back, for the advantage of closing the gap unexpectedly. They'd lost one pack horse but gained eight hours and caught up with Gyall at the base of the
hill to disastrous consequence.
Now Cudalil reached the top of the hill. There he saw a slight slope that led to a mini-plateau upon which lay the packhorse's corpse. He scanned the hill crest for a moment, and only a moment,
because that's all it took. It was naught but a gently rolling expanse of sand, its rises and declivities in six-inch gradations Dozens shin-height greenish gray scrub bushes dotted the area,
adding a light honeyish scent to the desert air, along with scores of craggy sand sandstones ranging from the size of a man's hand to his head for at least a mile in either direction. Even if Dolos
Gyall had a mind to set an idiotic ambush against overwhelming numbers when he could effortlessly outpace his pursuers upon his imbued pony, there was no cover.
Cudalil trotted over to the hill’s edge and confirmed his suspicion. The mini-plateau at the hill's crest created an overhang that the switchback trail ran beneath. Anyone on it would be invisible
Cudalil turned his attention to the equine corpse and saw, at a glance, no water or food strapped to the animal. Anyone who knew the desert would take such essential supplies from the horse's
corpse. In fact, the critical supplies would be strapped so that you could free them in seconds.
The distant clopping of horse hooves came from below. Gyall was on the trail below. It was a bit strange that he was walking his horse instead of at least trotting, but perhaps the terrain didn't
allow for it. Nevertheless, he'd reach the base well before his pursuers. There he'd give Chuckle his head and leave the deserters far, far, behind.
The Honed had saved himself, but that didn't help Cudalil one Dyad-damned bit. In fact, it put him under the glare of black-grinning Omun. The moment the deserters figured out their fortune had
fled, was the moment their need for a tracker ended. At that point Cudalil was nothing but a witness to the crime of kidnapping, what with him being the victim of it. Asua avert. He needed a way
out of this predicament now.
Cudalil slid from his horse and rifled bags on the dead pack horse. He wasn't looking for valuables, but for weapons, specifically a bow and arrows. He had no intention of using them against Dolos
Gyall, but here on the high ground, he could perhaps dissuade the deserters from following him the top of the hill. With a bit of luck, they would assume Gyall had killed him, that the Honed master
of master archers was raining death from on high. Then they would do the wise thing, flee, or at least fallback and wait, assuming Gyall would abandon his advantage in favor of flight and then they
could continue the chase hoping that perhaps Chuckle was too injured to reach to his potential. Either outcome would work for Cudalil.
Digging into the last pack, he found a well-crafted Caracan bow. The following discovery was one of such cruel irony he had to laughto keep from crying.
© Copyright 2023 knighthawk. All rights reserved.