/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Drenai Tales

The First Chronicles Of Druss The Legend

Gemmell David


antiqueGemmell,DavidThe First Chronicles Of Druss The LegendenGemmell,Davidcalibre 0.8.5224.5.2012cbf73623-84df-4cf0-8890-720b1790d02e1.0

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

BOOK ONE: Birth of a Legend

Prologue

Screened by the undergrowth he knelt by the trail, dark eyes scanning the boulders ahead of him and the trees beyond. Dressed as he was in a shirt of fringed buckskin, and brown leather leggings and boots, the tall man was virtually invisible, kneeling in the shadows of the trees.

The sun was high in a cloudless summer sky, and the spoor was more than three hours old. Insects had criss-crossed the hoof-marks, but the edges of the prints were still firm.

Forty horsemen, laden with plunder…

Shadak faded back through the undergrowth to where his horse was tethered. He stroked the beast’s long neck and lifted his swordbelt from the back of the saddle. Strapping it to his waist he drew the two short swords; they were of the finest Vagrian steel, and double edged. He thought for a moment, then sheathed the blades and reached for the bow and quiver strapped to the saddle pommel. The bow was of Vagrian horn, a hunting weapon capable of launching a two-foot-long arrow across a killing space of sixty paces. The doeskin quiver held twenty shafts that Shadak had crafted himself: the flights of goose feather, stained red and yellow, the heads of pointed iron, not barbed, and easily withdrawn from the bodies of the slain. Swiftly he strung the bow and notched an arrow to the string. Then looping the quiver over his shoulder, he made his way carefully back to the trail.

Would they have left a rearguard? It was unlikely, for there were no Drenai soldiers within fifty miles.

But Shadak was a cautious man. And he knew Collan. Tension rose in him as he pictured the smiling face and the cruel, mocking eyes. “No anger,” he told himself. But it was hard, bitterly hard. Angry men make mistakes, he reminded himself. The hunter must be cold as iron.

Silently he edged his way forward. A towering boulder jutted from the earth some twenty paces ahead and to his left; to the right was a cluster of smaller rocks, no more than four feet high. Shadak took a deep breath and rose from his hiding-place.

From behind the large boulder a man stepped into sight, bowstring bent. Shadak dropped to his knee, the attacker’s arrow slashing through the air above his head. The bowman tried to leap back behind the shelter of the boulder, but even as he was dropping Shadak’s shaft plunged into the bowman’s throat, punching through the skin at the back of his neck.

Another attacker ran forward, this time from Shadak’s right. With no time to notch a second arrow Shadak swung the bow, lashing it across the man’s face. As the attacker stumbled, Shadak dropped the bow and drew his two short swords; with one sweeping blow he cut through the neck of the fallen man. Two more attackers ran into view and he leapt to meet them. Both men wore iron breastplates, their necks and heads protected by chain mail, and they carried sabres.

“You’ll not die easily, you bastard!” shouted the first, a tall, wide-shouldered warrior. Then his eyes narrowed as he recognised the swordsman facing him. Fear replaced battle lust - but he was too close to Shadak to withdraw and made a clumsy lunge with his sabre. Shadak parried the blade with ease, his second sword lancing forward into the man’s mouth and through the bones of his neck. As the swordsman died, the second warrior backed away.

“We didn’t know it was you, I swear!” he said, hands trembling.

“Now you do,” said Shadak softly.

Without a word the man turned and ran back towards the trees as Shadak sheathed his swords and moved to his bow. Notching an arrow, he drew back on the string. The shaft flashed through the air to punch home into the running man’s thigh. He screamed and fell. As Shadak loped to where he lay, the man rolled to his back, dropping his sword.

“For pity’s sake don’t kill me!” he pleaded.

“You had no pity back in Corialis,” said Shadak. “But tell me where Collan is heading and I’ll let you live.” A wolf howled in the distance, a lonely sound. It was answered by another, then another.

“There’s a village… twenty miles south-east,” said the man, his eyes fixed on the short sword in Shadak’s hand. “We scouted it. Plenty of young women. Collan and Harib Ka plan to raid it for slaves, then take them to Mashrapur.”

Shadak nodded. “I believe you,” he said, at last.

“You’re going to let me live, yes? You promised,” the wounded man whimpered.

“I always keep my promises,” said Shadak, disgusted at the man’s weakness. Reaching down, he wrenched his shaft clear of the man’s leg. Blood gushed from the wound, and the injured warrior groaned. Shadak wiped the arrow clean on the man’s cloak, then stood and walked to the body of the first man he had killed. Kneeling beside the corpse, he recovered his arrow and then strode to where the raiders had tethered their horses. Mounting the first, he led the others back down the trail to where his gelding waited. Gathering the reins, he led the four mounts back out on to the trail.

“What about me?” shouted the wounded man.

Shadak turned in the saddle. “Do your best to keep the wolves away,” he advised. “By dark they will have picked up the scent of blood.”

“Leave me a horse! In the name of Mercy!”

“I am not a merciful man,” said Shadak.

And he rode on towards the south-east, and the distant mountains.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter One

The axe was four feet long, with a ten-pound head, the blade flared, and sharp as any sword. The haft was of elm, beautifully curved, and more than forty years old. For most men it was a heavy tool, unwieldy and imprecise. But in the hands of the dark-haired young man who stood before the towering beech it sang through the air, seemingly as light as a sabre. Every long swing saw the head bite exactly where the woodsman intended, deeper and deeper into the meat of the trunk.

Druss stepped back, then glanced up. There were several heavy branches jutting towards the north. He moved around the tree, gauging the line where it would fall, then returned to his work. This was the third tree he had tackled today and his muscles ached, sweat gleaming on his naked back. His short-cropped black hair was soaked with perspiration that trickled over his brow, stinging his ice-blue eyes. His mouth was dry, but he was determined to finish the task before allowing himself the reward of a cooling drink.

Some way to his left the brothers Pilan and Yorath were sitting on a fallen tree, laughing and talking, their hatchets beside them. Theirs was the task of stripping the trunks, hacking away smaller branches and limbs that could be used for winter firewood. But they stopped often and Druss could hear them discussing the merits and alleged vices of the village girls. They were handsome youths, blond and tall, sons of the blacksmith, Tetrin. Both were witty and intelligent, and popular among the girls.

Druss disliked them. To his right several of the older boys were sawing through the larger branches of the first tree Druss had felled, while elsewhere young girls were gathering deadwood, kindling for winter fires, and loading them to wheelbarrows to be pushed downhill to the village.

At the edge of the new clearing stood the four workhorses, hobbled now and grazing, waiting for the trees to be cleaned so that chain traces could be attached to the trunks for the long haul into the valley. Autumn was fading fast, and the village elders were determined that the new perimeter wall would be finished before winter. The frontier mountains of Skoda boasted only one troop of Drenai cavalry, patrolling an area of a thousand square miles. Raiders, cattle thieves, slavers, robbers and outlaws roamed the mountains, and the ruling council in Drenai made it clear they would accept no responsibility for the new settlements on the Vagrian borders.

But thoughts of the perils of frontier life did not discourage the men and women who journeyed to Skoda. They sought a new life, far removed from the more civilised south and east, and built their homes where land was still free and wild, and where strong men did not need to tug the forelock nor bow when the nobles rode by.

Freedom was the key word, and no talk of raiders could deter them.

Druss hefted his axe, then thundered the blade into the widening notch. Ten times more he struck, deep into the base of the trunk. Then another ten smooth, powerful strokes. Three more axe-blows and the tree would groan and give, wrenching and tearing as she fell.

Stepping back he scanned the ground along the line of the fall. A movement caught his eye, and he saw a small child with golden hair sitting beneath a bush, a rag doll in her hand. “Kiris!” bellowed Druss.”If you are not out of there by the time I count to three I’ll tear off your leg and beat you to death with the wet end! One! Two!”

The child’s mouth dropped open, her eyes widening. Dropping her rag doll she scrambled clear of the bush and ran crying from the forest. Druss shook his head and walked forward to retrieve the doll, tucking it into his wide belt. He felt the eyes of the others on him, and guessed what they were thinking: Druss the Brute, Druss the Cruel - that’s how they saw him. And maybe they were right.

Ignoring them, he walked back to the tree and hefted his axe.

Only two weeks before he had been felling a tall beech, and had been called away with the work almost completed. When he returned it was to find Kiris sitting in the topmost branches with her doll, as always, beside her.

“Come down,” he had coaxed. The tree is about to fall.”

“Won’t,” said Kiris. “We like it here. We can see for ever.”

Druss had looked around, for once hoping that some of the village girls were close by. But there was no one. He examined the huge cleft in the trunk, a sudden wind could cause the trunk to topple. “Come down, there’s a good girl. You’ll be hurt if the tree falls.”

“Why should it fall?”

“Because I’ve been hitting it with my axe. Now come down.”

“All right,” she said, then started to climb down. The tree suddenly tilted and Kiris screamed and clung to a branch. Druss’s mouth was dry.

“Quickly now,” he said. Kiris said nothing, nor did she move. Druss swore and, setting his foot to a low knot, levered himself up to the first branch. Slowly and with great care he climbed the half-felled tree, higher and higher towards the child.

At last he reached her. “Put your arms around my neck,” he commanded. She did so, and he began the climb down.

Half-way to the ground Druss felt the tree shudder - and snap. Leaping clear he hugged the child to him, then hit the ground, landing awkwardly with his left shoulder slamming into the soft earth. Shielded by his bulk, Kiris was unhurt, but Druss groaned as he rose.

“Are you hurt?” asked Kiris.

Druss’s pale eyes swung on the child. “If I catch you near my trees again, I shall feed you to the wolves!” he roared. “Now begone!” She had sprinted away as if her dress was on fire. Chuckling at the memory now, he hefted his axe and thundered the blade into the beech. A great groan came from the tree, a wrenching, tearing sound that drowned out the nearby thudding of hatchets and the sawing of boughs.

The beech toppled, twisting as it fell. Druss turned towards the water-sack hanging from a branch nearby; the felling of the tree signalled the break for the midday meal, and the village youngsters gathered in groups in the sunshine, laughing and joking. But no one approached Druss. His recent fight with the former soldier Alarm had unsettled them, and they viewed him even more warily than before. He sat alone, eating bread and cheese and taking long, cool swallows of water.

Pilan and Yorath were now sitting with Berys and Tailia, the daughters of the miller. The girls were smiling prettily, tilting their heads and enjoying the attention. Yorath leaned in close to Tailia, kissing her ear. Tailia feigned outrage.

Their games ceased when a black-bearded man entered the clearing. He was tall, with massive shoulders and eyes the colour of winter clouds. Druss saw his father approach, and stood.

“Clothe yourself and walk with me,” said Bress, striding away into the woods. Druss donned his shirt and followed his father. Out of earshot of the others, the tall man sat down beside a fast-moving stream and Druss joined him.

“You must learn to control that temper, my son,” said Bress. “You almost killed the man.”

“I just hit him… once.”

“The once broke his jaw and dislodged three teeth.”

“Have the Elders decided on a penalty?”

“Aye. I must support Alarin and his family through the winter. Now I can ill afford that, boy.”

“He spoke slightingly of Rowena and I’ll not tolerate that. Ever.”

Bress took a deep breath, but before speaking he lifted a pebble and hurled it into the stream. Then he sighed. “We are not known here, Druss - save as good workers and fellow villagers. We came a long way to be rid of the stigma my father bequeathed our family. But remember the lessons of his life. He could not control his temper - and he became an outcast and a renegade, a bloodthirsty butcher. Now they say blood runs true. In our case I hope they are wrong.”

“I’m not a killer,” argued Druss. “Had I wanted him dead, I could have broken his neck with a single blow.”

“I know. You are strong - you take after me in that regard. And proud; that I think came from your mother, may her soul know peace. The gods alone know how often I have been forced to swallow my pride.” Bress tugged at his beard and turned to face his son. “We are a small settlement now, and we cannot have violence among ourselves - we would not survive as a community. Can you understand that?”

“What did they ask you to tell me?”

Bress sighed. “You must make your peace with Alarin. And know this - if you attack any other man of the village you will be cast out.”

Druss’s face darkened. “I work harder than any man. I trouble no one. I do not get drunk like Pilan and Yorath, nor try to make whores of the village maids like their father. I do not steal. I do not lie. Yet they will cast me out?”

“You frighten them, Druss. You frighten me too.”

“I am not my grandfather. I am not a murderer.”

Bress sighed. “I had hoped that Rowena, with all her gentleness, would have helped to calm that temper of yours. But on the morning after your wedding you half-kill a fellow settler. And for what? Don’t tell me he spoke slightingly. All he said was that you were a lucky man and he’d like to have bedded her himself. By all the gods, son! If you feel you have to break a man’s jaw for every compliment he pays your wife, there won’t be any men left in this village to work at all.”

“It wasn’t said as a compliment. And I can control my temper, but Alarin is a loud-mouthed braggart - and he received exactly what he deserved.”

“I hope you’ll take note of what I’ve said, son.” Bress stood and stretched his back. “I know you have little respect for me. But I hope you’ll think of how Rowena would fare if you were both declared outcast.”

Druss gazed up at him and swallowed back his disappointment. Bress was a physical giant, stronger than any man Druss had ever known, but he wore defeat like a cloak. The younger man rose alongside his father.

“I’ll take heed,” he said.

Bress smiled wearily. “I have to get back to the wall. It should be finished in another three days; we’ll all sleep sounder then.”

“You’ll have the timber,” Druss promised.

“You’re a good man with an axe, I’ll say that.” Bress walked away for several paces, then turned. “If they did cast you out, son, you wouldn’t be alone. I’d walk with you.”

Druss nodded. “It won’t come to that. I’ve already promised Rowena I’ll mend my ways.”

“I’ll wager she was angry,” said Bress, with a grin.

“Worse. She was disappointed in me.” Druss chuckled. “Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is the disappointment of a new wife.”

“You should laugh more often, my boy. It suits you.”

But as Bress walked away the smile faded from the young man’s face as he gazed down at his bruised knuckles and remembered the emotions that had surged within him as he struck Alarin. There had been anger, and a savage need for combat. But when his fist landed and Alarin toppled there had been only one sensation, brief and indescribably powerful.

Joy. Pure pleasure, of a kind and a power he had not experienced before. He closed his eyes, forcing the scene from his mind.

“I am not my grandfather,” he told himself. “I am not insane.” That night he repeated the words to Rowena as they lay in the broad bed Bress had fashioned for a wedding gift.

Rolling to her stomach she leaned on his chest, her long hair feeling like silk upon his massive shoulder. “Of course you are not insane, my love,” she assured him. “You are one of the gentlest men I’ve known.”

“That’s not how they see me,” he told her, reaching up and stroking her hair.

“I know. It was wrong of you to break Alarin’s jaw. They were just words - and it matters not a whit if he meant them unpleasantly. They were just noises, blowing into the air.”

Easing her from him, Druss sat up. “It is not that easy, Rowena. The man had been goading me for weeks. He wanted that fight - because he wanted to humble me. But he did not. No man ever will.” She shivered beside him. “Are you cold?” he asked, drawing her into his embrace.

“Deathwalker,” she whispered.

“What? What did you say?”

Her eyelids fluttered. She smiled and kissed his cheek. “It doesn’t matter. Let us forget Alarin, and enjoy each other’s company.”

“I’ll always enjoy your company,” he said. “I love you.”

Rowena’s dreams were dark and brooding and the following day, at the riverside, she could not force the images from her mind. Druss, dressed in black and silver and bearing a mighty axe, stood upon a hillside. From the axe-blades came a great host of souls, flowing like smoke around their grim killer. Death-walker! The vision had been powerful. Squeezing the last of the water from the shirt she was washing, she laid it over a flat rock alongside the drying blankets and the scrubbed woollen dress. Stretching her back, she rose from the water’s edge and walked to the tree line where she sat, her right hand closing on the brooch Druss had fashioned for her in his father’s workshop - soft copper strands entwined around a moonstone, misty and translucent. As her fingers touched the stone her eyes closed and her mind cleared. She saw Druss sitting alone by the high stream.

“I am with you,” she whispered. But he could not hear her and she sighed.

No one in the village knew of her Talent, for her father, Voren, had impressed upon her the need for secrecy. Only last year four women in Drenan had been convicted of sorcery and burnt alive by the priests of Missael. Voren was a careful man. He had brought Rowena to this remote village, far from Drenan, because, as he told her, “Secrets cannot live quietly among a multitude. Cities are full of prying eyes and attentive ears, vengeful minds and malevolent thoughts. You will be safer in the mountains.”

And he had made her promise to tell no one of her skills. Not even Druss. Rowena regretted that promise as she gazed with the eyes of Spirit upon her husband. She could see no harshness in his blunt, flat features, no swirling storm-clouds in those grey-blue eyes, no hint of sullenness in the flat lines of his mouth. He was Druss - and she loved him. With a certainty born of her Talent she knew she would love no other man as she loved Druss. And she knew why… he needed her. She had gazed through the window of his soul and had found there a warmth and a purity, an island of tranquillity set in a sea of roaring violent emotions. While she was with him Druss was tender, his turbulent spirit at peace. In her company he smiled. Perhaps, she thought, with my help I can keep him at peace. Perhaps the grim killer will never know life.

“Dreaming again, Ro,” said Mari, moving to sit alongside Rowena. The young woman opened her eyes and smiled at her friend. Mari was short and plump, with honey-coloured hair and a bright, open smile.

“I was thinking of Druss,” said Rowena.

Mari nodded and looked away and Rowena could feel her concern. For weeks her friend had tried to dissuade her from marrying Druss, adding her arguments to those of Voren and others.

“Will Pilan be your partner at the Solstice Dance?” asked Rowena, changing the subject.

Mari’s mood changed abruptly, and she giggled. “Yes. But he doesn’t know yet.”

“When will he find out?”

“Tonight.” Mari lowered her voice, though there was no one else within earshot. “We’re meeting in the lower meadow.”

“Be careful,” warned Rowena.

“Is that the advice of the old married woman? Didn’t you and Druss make love before you were wed?”

“Yes, we did,” Rowena admitted, “but Druss had already made his pledge before the Oak. Pilan hasn’t.”

“Just words, Ro. I don’t need them. Oh, I know Pilan’s been flirting with Tailia, but she’s not for him. No passion, you see. All she thinks about is wealth. She doesn’t want to stay in the wilderness, she yearns for Drenan. She’ll not want to keep a mountain man warm at night, nor make the beast with two backs in a wet meadow, with the grass tickling her…”

“Mari! You really are too frank,” admonished Rowena.

Mari giggled and leaned in close. “Is Druss a good lover?”

Rowena sighed, all tension and sadness disappearing. “Oh, Mari! Why is it that you can talk about forbidden subjects and make them seem so…so wonderfully ordinary? You are like the sunshine that follows rain.”

“They’re not forbidden here, Ro. That’s the trouble with girls born in cities and surrounded by stone walls and marble, and granite. You don’t feel the earth any more. Why did you come here?”

“You know why,” said Rowena uneasily. “Father wanted a life in the mountains.”

“I know that’s what you’ve always said - but I never believed it. You’re a terrible liar - your face goes red and you always look away!”

“I… can’t tell you. I made a promise.”

“Wonderful!” exclaimed Mari. “I love mysteries. Is he a criminal? He was a book-keeper, wasn’t he? Did he steal some rich man’s money?”

“No! It was nothing to do with him. It was me! Don’t ask me any more. Please?”

“I thought we were friends,” said Mari. “I thought we could trust one another.”

“We can. Honestly!”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

“I know,” said Rowena sadly. “But it would spoil our friendship.”

“Nothing could do that. How long have you been here - two seasons? Have we ever fought? Oh, come on, Ro. Where’s the harm? You tell me your secret and I’ll tell you mine.”

“I know yours already,” whispered Rowena. “You gave yourself to the Drenai captain when he and his men passed through here on patrol in the summer. You took him to the low meadow.”

“How did you find out?”

“I didn’t. It was in your mind when you told me you would share a secret with me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I can see what people are thinking. And I can sometimes tell what is going to happen. That’s my secret.”

“You have the Gift? I don’t believe it! What am I thinking now?”

“A white horse with a garland of red flowers.”

“Oh, Ro! That’s wonderful. Tell my fortune,” she pleaded, holding out her hand.

“You won’t tell anyone else?”

“I promised, didn’t I?”

“Sometimes it doesn’t work.”

Try anyway,” urged Mari, thrusting out her plump hand. Rowena reached out, her slender fingers closing on Mari’s palm, but suddenly she shuddered and the colour faded from her face.

“What is it?”

Rowena began to tremble. “I… I must find Druss. Can’t… talk…” Rising, she stumbled away, the washed clothes forgotten.

“Ro! Rowena, come back!”

On the hillside above, a rider stared down at the women by the river. Then he turned his horse and rode swiftly towards the north.

Bress closed the door of the cabin and moved through to his work room, where from a small box he took a lace glove. It was old and yellowed, and several of the pearls which had once graced the wrist were now missing. It was a small glove and Bress sat at his bench staring down at it, his huge fingers stroking the remaining pearls.

“I am a lost man,” he said softly, closing his eyes and picturing Arithae’s sweet face. “He despises me. Gods, I despise myself.” Leaning back in his chair he gazed idly at the walls, and the many shelves bearing strands of copper and brass, work tools, jars of dye, boxes of beads. It was rare now for Bress to find the time to make jewellery; there was little call for such luxuries here in the mountains. Now it was his skills as a carpenter which were valued; he had become merely a maker of doors and tables, chairs and beds.

Still nursing the glove, he moved back into the hearth room.

“I think we were born under unlucky stars,” he told the dead Arithae. “Or perhaps Bardan’s evil stained our lives. Druss is like him, you know. I see it in the eyes, in the sudden rages. I don’t know what to do. I could never convince father. And I cannot reach Druss.”

His thoughts drifted back - memories, dark and painful, flooding his mind. He saw Bardan on that last day, blood-covered, his enemies all around him. Six men were dead, and that terrible axe was still slashing left and right… Then a lance had been thrust into Bardan’s throat. Blood bubbled from the wound but Bardan slew the lance wielder before falling to his knees. A man ran in behind him and delivered a terrible blow to Bardan’s neck.

From his hiding-place high in the oak the fourteen-year-old Bress had watched his father die, and heard one of the killers say: “The old wolf is dead - now where is the pup?”

He had stayed in the tree all night, high above the headless body of Bardan. Then, in the cold of the dawn he had climbed down and stood by the corpse. There was no sadness, only a terrible sense of relief combined with guilt. Bardan was dead: Bardan the Butcher. Bardan the Slayer. Bardan the Demon.

He had walked sixty miles to a settlement, and there had found employment, apprenticed to a carpenter. But just as he was settling down, the past came back to torment him when a travelling tinker recognised him: he was the son of the Devil! A crowd gathered outside the carpenter’s shop, an angry mob armed with clubs and stones.

Bress had climbed from the rear window and fled from the settlement. Three times during the next five years he had been forced to run - and then he had met Alithae.

Fortune smiled on him then and he remembered Alithae’s father, on the day of the wedding, approaching him and offering him a goblet of wine. “I know you have suffered, boy,” said the old man. “But I am not one who believes that a father’s evil is visited upon the souls of his children. I know you, Bress. You are a good man.”

Aye, thought Bress, as he sat by the hearth, a good man.

Lifting the glove he kissed it softly. Alithae had been wearing it when the three men from the south had arrived at the settlement where Bress and his wife and new son had made their homes. Bress had a small but thriving business making brooches and rings and necklets for the wealthy. He was out walking one morning, Alithae beside him carrying the babe.

“It’s Bardan’s son!” he heard someone shout and he glanced round. The three riders had stopped their horses, and one of the men was pointing at him; they spurred their mounts and rode at him. Alithae, struck by a charging horse, fell heavily, and Bress had leapt at the rider, dragging him from the saddle. The other men hurled themselves from their saddles. Bress struck left and right, his huge fists clubbing them to the ground.

As the dust settled he turned back to Alithae….

Only to find her dead, the babe crying beside her.

From that moment he lived like a man with no hope. He rarely smiled and he never laughed.

The ghost of Bardan was upon him, and he took to travelling, moving through the lands of the Drenai with his son beside him. Bress took what jobs he could find: a labourer in Drenan, acarpenter in Delnoch, a bridge-builder in Mashrapur, a horse-handler in Corteswain. Five years ago he had wed a farmer’s daughter named Patica - a simple lass, plain of face and none too bright. Bress cared for her, but there was no room left for love in his heart for Alithae had taken it with her when she died. He had married Patica to give Druss a mother, but the boy had never taken to her.

Two years ago, with Druss now fifteen, they had come to Skoda. But even here the ghost remained - born again, it seemed, into the boy.

“What can I do, Alithae?” he asked.

Patica entered the cabin, holding three fresh loaves in her arms. She was a large woman with a round pleasant face framed by auburn hair. She saw the glove and tried to mask the hurt she felt. “Did you see Druss?” she asked.

“Aye, I did. He says he’ll try to curb his temper.”

“Give him time. Rowena will calm him.”

Hearing the thunder of hooves outside, Bress placed the glove on the table and moved to the door. Armed men were riding into the village, swords in their hands.

Bress saw Rowena running into the settlement, her dress hitched up around her thighs. She saw the raiders and tried to turn away but a horseman bore down on her. Bress ran into the open and leapt at the man, pulling him from the saddle. The rider hit the ground hard, losing his grip on his sword. Bress snatched it up, but a lance pierced his shoulder and with a roar of anger he twisted round and the lance snapped. Bress lashed out with the sword. The rider fell back, and the horse reared.

Riders surrounded him, with lances levelled.

In that instant Bress knew he was about to die. Time froze for him. He saw the sky, filled with lowering clouds, and smelled the new-mown grass of the meadows. Other raiders were galloping through the settlement, and he heard the screams of the dying villagers. Everything they had built was for nothing. A terrible anger raged inside him. Gripping the sword, he let out the battle-cry of Bardan.

“Blood and death!” he bellowed.

And charged.

Deep within the woods Druss leaned on his axe, a rare smile on his normally grim face. Above him the sun shone through a break in the clouds, and he saw an eagle soaring, golden wings seemingly aflame. Druss removed his sweat-drenched linen headband, laying it on a stone to dry. Lifting a waterskin, he took a long drink. Nearby Pilan and Yorath laid aside their hatchets.

Soon Tailia and Berys would arrive with the haul-horses and the work would begin again, attaching the chains and dragging the timbers down to the village. But for now there was little to do but sit and wait. Druss opened the linen-wrapped package Rowena had given him that morning; within was a wedge of meat pie, and a large slice of honey cake.

“Ah, the joys of married life!” said Pilan.

Druss laughed. “You should have tried harder to woo her. Too late to be jealous now.”

“She wouldn’t have me, Druss. She said she was waiting for a man whose face would curdle milk and that if she married me she would spend the rest of her life wondering which of her pretty friends would steal me from her. It seems her dream was to find the world’s ugliest man.”

His smile faded as he saw the expression on the woodsman’s face, and the cold gleam that appeared in his pale eyes. “Only jesting,” said Pilan swiftly, the colour ebbing from his face.

Druss took a deep breath and, remembering his father’s warning, fought down his anger. “I am not… good with jests,” he said, the words tasting like bile in his mouth.

“No harm done,” said Pilan’s brother, moving to sit alongside the giant. “But if you don’t mind my saying so, Druss, you need to develop a sense of humour. We all make jests at the expense of our… friends. It means nothing.”

Druss merely nodded and turned his attention to the pie. Yorath was right. Rowena had said exactly the same words, but from her it was easy to take criticism. With her he felt calm and the world had colour and joy. He finished the food and stood. “The girls should have been here by now,” he said.

“I can hear horses,” said Pilan, rising.

“They’re coming fast,” Yorath added.

Tailia and Berys came running into the clearing, their faces showing fear, their heads turning towards the unseen horsemen. Druss snatched his axe from the stump and ran towards them as Tailia, looking back, stumbled and fell.

Six horsemen rode into sight, armour gleaming in the sunlight. Druss saw raven-winged helms, lances and swords. The horses were lathered and, on seeing the three youths, the warriors shouted battle cries and spurred their mounts towards them.

Pilan and Yorath sprinted away towards the right. Three riders swung their horses to give chase, but the remaining three came on towards Druss.

The young man stood calmly, the axe held loosely across his naked chest. Directly in front of him was a felled tree. The first of the riders, a lancer, leaned forward in the saddle as his gelding jumped over the fallen beech. At that moment Druss moved, sprinting forward and swinging his axe in a murderous arc. As the horse landed the axe-blade hissed over its head, plunging into the chest of the lancer to splinter his breastplate and smash his ribs to shards. The blow hammered the man from the saddle. Druss tried to wrench the axe clear, but the blade was caught by the fractured armour. A sword slashed down at the youth’s head and Druss dived and rolled. As a horseman moved in close he hurled himself from the ground, grabbing the stallion’s right foreleg. With one awesome heave he toppled horse and rider. Hurdling the fallen tree, he ran to where the other two youths had left their hatchets. Scooping up the first he turned as a raider galloped towards him. Druss’ arm came back, then snapped forward. The hatchet sliced through the air, the iron head crunching into the man’s teeth. He swayed in the saddle. Druss ran forward to drag him from the horse. The raider, having dropped his lance, tried to draw a dagger. Druss slapped it from his hand, delivered a bone-breaking punch to the warrior’s chin and then, snatching up the dagger, rammed it into the man’s unprotected throat.

“Look out, Druss!” yelled Tailia. Druss spun, just as a sword flashed for his belly. Parrying the blade with his forearm, he thundered a right cross which took the attacker full on the jaw, spinning him from his feet. Druss leapt on the man, one huge hand grabbing his chin, the other his brow. With one savage twist Druss heard the swordsman’s neck snap like a dry stick.

Moving swiftly to the first man he had killed, Druss tore the felling axe clear of the breastplate as Tailia ran from her hiding-place in the bushes. “They are attacking the village,” she said, tears in her eyes.

Pilan came running into the clearing, a lancer behind him. “Swerve!” bellowed Druss. But Pilan was too terrified to obey and he ran straight on - until the lance pierced his back, exiting in a bloody spray from his chest. The youth cried out, then slumped to the ground. Druss roared in anger and raced forward. The lancer desperately tried to wrench his weapon clear of the dying boy. Druss swung wildly with the axe, which glanced from the rider’s shoulder and plunged into the horse’s back. The animal whinnied in pain and reared before falling to the earth, its legs flailing. The rider scrambled clear, blood gushing from his shoulder and tried to run, but Druss’s next blow almost decapitated him.

Hearing a scream, Druss began to run towards the sound and found Yorath struggling with one raider; the second was kneeling on the ground, blood streaming from a wound in his head. The body of Berys was beside him, a blood-smeared stone in her hand. The swordsman grappling with Yorath suddenly head-butted the youth, sending Yorath back several paces. The sword came up. Druss shouted, trying to distract the warrior. But to no avail. The weapon lanced into Yorath’s side.

The swordsman dragged the blade clear and turned towards Druss. “Now your time to die, farm boy!” he said.

“In your dreams!” snarled the woodsman. Swinging the axe over his head, Druss charged. The swordsman side-stepped to his right - but Druss had been waiting for the move, and with all the power of his mighty shoulders he wrenched the axe, changing its course. It clove through the man’s collarbone, smashing the shoulder-blade and ripping into his lungs. Tearing the axe loose, Druss turned from the body to see the first wounded warrior struggling to rise; jumping forward, he struck him a murderous blow to the neck. “Help me!” called Yorath.

“I’ll send Tailia,” Druss told him, and began to run back through the trees.

Reaching the crest of the hill he gazed down on the village. He could see scattered bodies, but no sign of raiders. For a moment he thought the villagers had beaten them back… but there was no movement at all.

“Rowena!” he yelled. “Rowena!”

Druss ran down the slope. He fell and rolled, losing his grip on the felling-axe, but scrambling to his feet he pounded on - down into the meadow, across the flat, through the half-finished gates. Bodies lay everywhere. Rowena’s father, the former book-keeper Voren, had been stabbed through the throat, and blood was staining the earth beneath him. Breathing hard, Druss stopped, and stared around the settlement square.

Old women, young children and all the men were dead. As he stumbled on he saw the golden-haired child, Kins, beloved of all the villagers, lying sprawled in death alongside her rag doll. The body of an infant lay against one building, a bloodstain on the wall above showing how it had been slain.

He found his father lying in the open with four dead raiders around him. Patica was beside him, a hammer in her hand, her plain brown woollen dress drenched in blood. Druss fell to his knees by his father’s body. There were terrible wounds to the chest and belly, and his left arm was almost severed at the wrist. Bress groaned and opened his eyes. “Druss….”

“I am here, Father.”

“They took the young women…. Rowena… was among them.”

“I’ll find her.”

The dying man glanced to his right at the dead woman beside him. “She was a brave lass; she tried to help me. I should have… loved her better.” Bress sighed, then choked as blood flowed into his throat. He spat it clear. “There is… a weapon. In the house… far wall, beneath the boards. It has a terrible history. But… but you will need it.”

Druss stared down at the dying man and their eyes met. Bress lifted his right hand. Druss took it. “I did my best, boy,” said his father.

“I know.” Bress was fading fast, and Druss was not a man of words. Instead he lifted his father into his arms and kissed his brow, hugging him close until the last breath of life rasped from the broken body.

Then he pushed himself to his feet and entered his father’s home. It had been ransacked - cupboards hauled open, drawers pulled from the dressers, rugs ripped from the walls. But by the far wall the hidden compartment was undiscovered and Druss prised open the boards and hauled out the chest that lay in the dust below the floor. It was locked. Moving through into his father’s workshop, he returned with a large hammer and a chisel which he used to pry off the hinges. Then he took hold of the lid and wrenched it clear, the brass lock twisting and tearing free. Inside, wrapped in oilskin, was an axe. And such an axe! Druss unwrapped it reverently.

The black metal haft was as long as a man’s arm, the double heads shaped like the wings of a butterfly. He tested the edges with his thumb; the weapon was as sharp as his father’s shaving-knife. Silver runes were inscribed on the haft, and though Druss could not read them he knew the words etched there. For this was the awful axe of Bardan, the weapon that had slain men, women, and even children during the reign of terror. The words were part of the dark folklore of the Drenai.

Snaga, the Sender, the blades of no return

He lifted the axe clear, surprised by its lightness and its perfect balance in his hand.

Beneath it in the chest was a black leather jerkin, the shoulders reinforced by strips of silver steel; two black leather gauntlets, also protected by shaped metal knuckle-guards; and a pair of black, knee-length boots. Beneath the clothes was a small pouch, and within it Druss found eighteen silver pieces.

Kicking off his soft leather shoes, Druss pulled on the boots and donned the jerkin. At the bottom of the chest was a helm of black metal, edged with silver; upon the brow was a small silver axe flanked by silver skulls. Druss settled the helm into place, then lifted the axe once more. Gazing down at his reflection in the shining blades, he saw a pair of cold, cold blue eyes, empty, devoid of feeling.

Snaga, forged in the Elder days, crafted by a master. The blade had never been sharpened, for it had never dulled despite the many battles and skirmishes that filled the life of Bardan. And even before that the blade had been in use. Bardan had acquired the battle-axe during the Second Vagrian War, looting it from an old barrow in which lay the bones of an ancient battle king, a monster of Legend, Caras the Axeman.

“It was an evil weapon,” Bress had once told his son. “All the men who ever bore it were killers with no souls.”

“Why do you keep it then?” asked his thirteen-year-old son.

“It cannot kill where I keep it,” was all Bress had answered.

Druss stared at the blade. “Now you can kill,” he whispered.

Then he heard the sound of a walking horse. Slowly he rose.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Two

Shadak’s horses were skittish, the smell of death unnerving the beasts. He had bought his own three-year-old from a farmer south of Corialis and the gelding had not been trained for war. The four mounts he had taken from the raiders were less nervous, but still their ears were back and their nostrils flaring. He spoke soothingly to them and rode on.

Shadak had been a soldier for most of his adult life. He had seen death - and he thanked the gods that it still had the power to stir his emotions. Sorrow and anger vied in his heart as he gazed upon the still corpses, the children and the old women.

None of the houses had been put to the torch - the smoke would be seen for miles, and could have brought a troop of lancers. He gently tugged on the reins. A golden-haired child lay against the wall of a building, a doll beside it. Slavers had no time for children, for they had no market in Mashrapur. Young Drenai women between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five were still popular in the eastern kingdoms of Ventria, Sherak, Dospilis and Naashan. Shadak touched heels to the gelding. There was no point in remaining in this place; the trail led south.

A young warrior stepped from one of the buildings, startling his horse which reared and whinnied. Shadak calmed it and gazed upon the man. Although of average height he was powerfully built, his huge shoulders and mighty arms giving the impression of a giant. He wore a black leather jerkin and helm and carried a fearful axe. Shadak glanced swiftly around the corpse-strewn settlement. But there was no sign of a horse.

Lifting his leg, Shadak slid from the saddle. “Your friends leave you behind, laddie?” he asked the axeman. The young man did not speak but stepped out into the open. Shadak looked into the man’s pale eyes and felt the unaccustomed thrill of fear.

The face beneath the helm was flat and expressionless, but power emanated from the young warrior. Shadak moved warily to his right, hands resting on the hilts of his short swords. “Proud of your handiwork, are you?” he asked, trying to force the man into conversation. “Killed many babes today, did you?”

The young man’s brow furrowed. “This was my… my home,” he said, his voice deep. “You are not one of the raiders?”

“I am hunting them,” said Shadak, surprised at the relief he felt.

“They attacked Corialis looking for slaves, but the young women escaped them. The villagers fought hard. Seventeen of them died, but the attack was beaten off. My name is Shadak. Who are you?”

“I am Druss. They took my wife. I’ll find them.” Shadak glanced at the sky. “It’s getting dark. Best to start in the morning, we could lose their trail in the night.”

“I’ll not wait,” said the young man. “I need one of your horses.” Shadak smiled grimly. “It is difficult to refuse when you ask so politely. But I think we should talk before you ride out.”

“Why?”

“Because there are many of them, laddie, and they do have a tendency to leave rearguards behind them, watching the road.” Shadak pointed to the horses. “Four lay in wait for me.”

“I’ll kill any I find.”

“I take it they took all the young women, since I see no corpses here?”

“Yes.”

Shadak hitched his horses to a rail and stepped past the young man into the home of Bress. “You’ll lose nothing by listening for a few minutes,” he said.

Inside the building he righted the chairs and stopped. On the table was an old glove, made of lace and edged with pearls. “What’s this?” he asked the cold-eyed young man.

“It belonged to my mother. My father used to take it out now and again, and sit by the fire holding it. What did you want to talk about?”

Shadak sat down at the table. “The raiders are led by two men - Collan, a renegade Drenai officer, and Harib Ka, a Ventrian. They will be making for Mashrapur and the slave markets there. With all the captives they will not be able to move at speed and we will have little difficult catching them. But if we follow now, we will come upon them in the open. Two against forty - these are not odds to inspire confidence. They will push on through most of tonight, crossing the plain and reaching the long valley trails to Mashrapur late tomorrow. Then they will relax.”

“They have my wife,” said the young man. “I’ll not let them keep her for a heartbeat longer than necessary.”

Shadak shook his head and sighed. “Nor would I, laddie. But you know the country to the south. What chance would we have of rescuing her on the plains? They would see us coming from a mile away.”

For the first time the young man looked uncertain. Then he shrugged and sat, laying the great axe on the table-top, where it covered the tiny glove. “You are a soldier?” he asked.

“I was. Now I am a hunter - a hunter of men. Trust me. Now, how many women did they take?”

The young man thought for a moment. “Perhaps around thirty. They killed Berys in the woods. Tailia escaped. But I have not seen all the bodies. Maybe others were killed.”

“Then let us think of thirty. It won’t be easy freeing them.”

A sound from outside made both men turn as a young woman entered the room. Shadak rose. The woman was fair-haired and pretty, and there was blood upon her blue woollen skirt and her shirt of white linen.

“Yorath died,” she told the young man. “They’re all dead, Druss.” Her eyes filled with tears and she stood in the doorway looking lost and forlorn. Druss did not move, but Shadak stepped swiftly towards her, taking her in his arms and stroking her back.

He led her into the room and sat her at the table. “Is there any food here?” he asked Druss. The young man nodded and moved through to the back room, returning with a pitcher of water and some bread. Shadak filled a clay cup with water and told the girl to drink. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

She shook her head. “The blood is Yorath’s,” she whispered. Shadak sat beside her and Tailia sagged against him; she was exhausted.

“You need to rest,” he told her gently, helping her to rise and leading her through the building to a small bedroom. Obediently she lay down, and he covered her with a thick blanket. “Sleep, child. I will be here.”

“Don’t leave me,” she pleaded.

He took her hand. “You are safe… Tailia. Sleep.” She closed her eyes, but clung to his hand, and Shadak sat with her until the grip eased and her breathing deepened. At last he stood and returned to the outer room.

“You were planning to leave her behind?” he asked the young man.

“She is nothing to me,” he said coldly. “Rowena is everything.”

“I see. Then think on this, my friend: suppose it was you who had died and it was Rowena who survived hiding in the woods. How would your spirit feel if you saw me ride in and leave her alone in this wilderness?”

“I did not die,” said Druss.

“No,” said Shadak, “you didn’t. We’ll take the girl with us.”

“No!”

“Either that or you walk on alone, laddie. And I do mean walk.”

The young man looked up at the hunter, and his eyes gleamed. “I have killed men today,” he said, “and I will not be threatened by you, or anyone. Not ever again. If I choose to leave here on one of your stolen horses, I shall do so. You would be wise not to try to stop me.”

“I wouldn’t try, boy, I’d do it.” The words were spoken softly, and with a quiet confidence. But deep inside Shadak was surprised, for it was a confidence he did not feel. He saw the young man’s hand snake around the haft of the axe. “I know you are angry, lad, and concerned for the safety of… Rowena. But you can do nothing alone - unless of course you are a tracker, and an expert horseman. You could ride off into the dark and lose them. Or you could stumble upon them, and try to kill forty warriors. Then there’ll be no one to rescue her, or the others.”

Slowly the giant’s fingers relaxed, the hand moving away from the axe haft, the gleam fading from his eyes. “It hurts me to sit here while they carry her further away.”

“I understand that. But we will catch them. And they will not harm the women; they are valuable to them.”

“You have a plan?”

“I do. I know the country, and I can guess where they will be camped tomorrow. We will go in at night, deal with the sentries and free the captives.”

Druss nodded. “What then? They’ll be hunting us. How do we escape with thirty women?”

“Their leaders will be dead,” said Shadak softly. “I’ll see to that.”

“Others will take the lead. They will come after us.”

Shadak shrugged, then smiled. “Then we kill as many as we can.”

“I like that part of the plan,” said the young man grimly.

The stars were bright and Shadak sat on the porch of the timber dwelling, watching Druss sitting beside the bodies of his parents.

“You’re getting old,” Shadak told himself, his gaze fixed on Druss. “You make me feel old,” he whispered. Not in twenty years had a man inspired such fear in Shadak. He remembered the moment well - he was a Sathuli tribesman named Jonacin, a man with eyes of ice and fire, a legend among his own people. The Lord’s champion, he had killed seventeen men in single combat, among them the Vagrian champion, Vearl.

Shadak had known the Vagrian - a tall, lean man, lightning-fast and tactically sound. The Sathuli, it was said, had treated him like a novice, first slicing off his right ear before despatching him with a heart thrust.

Shadak smiled as he remembered hoping with all his heart that he would never have to fight the man. But such hopes are akin to magic, he knew now, and all men are ultimately faced with their darkest fears.

It had been a golden morning in the Delnoch mountains. The Drenai were negotiating treaties with a Sathuli Lord and Shadak was present merely as one of the envoy’s guards. Jonacin had been mildly insulting at the dinner the night before, speaking sneeringly of Drenai sword skills. Shadak had been ordered to ignore the man. But on the following morning the white-robed Sathuli stepped in front of him as he walked along the path to the Long Hall.

“It is said you are a fighter,” said Jonacin, the sneer in his voice showing disbelief.

Shadak had remained cool under the other’s baleful stare. “Stand aside, if you please. I am expected at the meeting.”

“I shall stand aside - as soon as you have kissed my feet.”

Shadak had been twenty-two then, in his prime. He looked into Jonacin’s eyes and knew there was no avoiding confrontation. Other Sathuli warriors had gathered close by and Shadak forced a smile. “Kiss your feet? I don’t think so. Kiss this instead!” His right fist lashed into the Sathuli’s chin, spinning him to the ground. Then Shadak walked on and took his place at the table.

As he sat he glanced at the Sathuli Lord, a tall man with dark, cruel eyes. The man saw him, and Shadak thought he glimpsed a look of faint amusement, even triumph, in the Lord’s face. A messenger whispered something in the Lord’s ear and the chieftain stood. “The hospitality of my house has been abused,” he told the envoy. “One of your men struck my champion, Jonacin. The attack was unwarranted. Jonacin demands satisfaction.”

The envoy was speechless. Shadak stood. “He shall have it, my Lord. But let us fight in the cemetery. At least then you will not have far to carry his body!”

Now the hoot of an owl brought Shadak back to the present, and he saw Druss striding towards him. The young man made as if to walk by, then stopped. “I had no words,” he said. “I could think of nothing to say.”

“Sit down for a moment and we will speak of them,” said Shadak. “It is said that our praises follow the dead to their place of rest. Perhaps it is true.”

Druss sat alongside the swordsman. “There is not much to tell. He was a carpenter, and a fashioner of brooches. She was a bought wife.”

“They raised you, helped you to be strong.”

“I needed no help in that.”

“You are wrong, Druss. If your father had been a weak, or a vengeful man, he would have beaten you as a child, robbed you of your spirit. In my experience it takes a strong man to raise strong men. Was the axe his?”

“No. It belonged to my grandfather.”

“Bardan the Axeman,” said Shadak softly.

“How could you know?”

“It is an infamous weapon. Snaga. That was the name. Your father had a hard life, trying to live down such a beast as Bardan. What happened to your real mother?”

Druss shrugged. “She died in an accident when I was a babe.”

“Ah yes, I remember the story,” said Shadak. Three men attacked your father; he killed two of them with his bare hands and near crippled the third. Your mother was struck down by a charging horse.”

“He killed two men?” Druss was astonished. “Are you sure?”

“So the story goes.”

“I cannot believe it. He always backed away from any argument. He never stood up for himself at all. He was weak… spineless.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You didn’t know him.”

“I saw where his body lay, and I saw the dead men around it. And I know many stories concerning the son of Bardan. None of them speaks of his cowardice. After his own father was killed he tried to settle in many towns, under many names. Always he was discovered and forced to flee. But on at least three occasions he was followed and attacked. Just outside Drenan he was cornered by five soldiers. One of them shot an arrow into your father’s shoulder. Bress was carrying an infant at the time and according to the soldiers he laid the babe behind a boulder, and then charged at them. He had no weapon, and they were all armed with swords. But he tore a limb from a tree and laid into them. Two went down swiftly, the others turned and fled. I know that story is true, Druss, because my brother was one of the soldiers. It was the year before he was killed in the Sathuli campaign. He said that Bardan’s son was a black-bearded giant with the strength of six men.”

“I knew none of this,” said Druss. “Why did he never speak of it?”

“Why should he? Perhaps he took no pleasure for being the son of a monster. Perhaps he did not relish speaking of killing men with his hands, or beating them unconscious with a tree branch.”

“I didn’t know him at all,” whispered Druss. “Not at all.”

“I expect he didn’t know you either,” said Shadak, with a sigh. “It is the curse of parents and children.”

“You have sons?”

“One. He died a week ago at Corialis. He thought he was immortal.”

“What happened?”

“He went up against Collan; he was cut to pieces.” Shadak cleared his throat and stood. “Time for some sleep. It’ll be dawn soon, and I’m not as young as I was.”

“Sleep well,” said Druss.

“I will, laddie. I always do. Go back to your parents and find something to say.”

“Wait!” called Druss.

“Yes,” answered the swordsman, pausing in the doorway.

“You were correct in what you said. I wouldn’t have wanted Rowena left in the mountains alone. I spoke in… anger.”

Shadak nodded. “A man is only as strong as that which makes him angry. Remember that, laddie.”

Shadak could not sleep. He sat in the wide leather chair beside the hearth, his long legs stretched out before him, his head resting on a cushion,.his body relaxed. But his mind was in turmoil - images, memories flashing into thoughts.

He saw again the Sathuli cemetery, Jonacin stripped to the waist, a broad-bladed tulwar in his hands and a small iron buckler strapped to his left forearm.

“Do you feel fear, Drenai?” asked Jonacin. Shadak did not answer. Slowly he unstrapped his baldric, then lifted clear his heavy woollen shirt. The sun was warm on his back, the mountain air fresh in his lungs. You are going to die today, said the voice of his soul.

And then the duel began. Jonacin drew first blood, a narrow cut appearing on Shadak’s chest. More than a thousand Sathuli onlookers, standing around the perimeter of the cemetery, cheered as the blood began to flow. Shadak leapt back.

“Not going to try for the ear?” he asked conversationally. Jonacin gave an angry growl, and launched a new attack. Shadak blocked a thrust, then thundered a punch to the Sathuli’s face. It glanced from his cheekbone, but the man staggered. Shadak followed up with a disembowelling thrust and the Sathuli swayed to his right, the blade slashing the skin of his waist. Now it was Jonacin’s turn to jump backwards. Blood gushed from the shallow wound in his side; he touched the cut with his fingers, staring down amazed. “Yes,” said Shadak, “you bleed too. Come to me. Bleed some more.”

Jonacin screamed and rushed forward but Shadak side-stepped and clove his sabre through the Sathuli’s neck. As the dying man fell to the ground Shadak felt a tremendous sense of relief, and a surging realisation. He was alive!

But his career was ruined. The treaty talks came to nothing, and his commission was revoked upon his return to Drenan.

Then Shadak had found his true vocation: Shadak the Hunter. Shadak the Tracker. Outlaws, killers, renegades - he hunted them all, following like a wolf on the trail.

In all the years since the fight with Jonacin he had never again known such fear. Until today, when the young axeman had stepped into the sunlight.

He is young and untrained. I would have killed him, he told himself.

But then he pictured again the ice-blue eyes and the shining axe.

Druss sat under the stars. He was tired, but he could not sleep. A fox moved out into the open, edging towards a corpse. Druss threw a stone at it and the creature slunk away… but not far.

By tomorrow the crows would be feasting here, and the other carrion beasts would tear at the dead flesh. Only hours ago this had been a living community, full of people enjoying their own hopes and dreams. Druss stood and walked along the main street of the settlement, past the home of the baker, whose body was stretched out in the doorway with his wife beside him. The smithy was open, the fires still glowing faintly. There were three bodies here. Tetrin the Smith had managed to kill two of the raiders, clubbing them down with his forge hammer. Tetrin himself lay beside the long anvil, his throat cut.

Druss swung away from the scene.

What was it for? Slaves and gold. The raiders cared nothing for the dreams of other men. “I will make you pay,” said Druss. He glanced at the body of the smith. “I will avenge you. And your sons. I will avenge you all,” he promised.

And he thought of Rowena and his throat went dry, his heartbeat increasing. Forcing back his fears, he gazed around at the settlement.

In the moonlight the village still seemed strangely alive, its buildings untouched. Druss wondered at this. Why did the raiders not put the settlement to the torch? In all the stories he had heard of such attacks, the plunderers usually fired the buildings. Then he remembered the troop of Drenai cavalry patrolling the wilderness. A column of smoke would alert them, were they close.

Druss knew then what he had to do. Moving to the body of Tetrin he hauled it across the street to the meeting hall, kicking open the door and dragging the corpse inside, laying it at the centre of the hall. Then he returned to the street and began to gather one by one, all the dead of the community. He was tired when he began, and bone-weary by the finish. Forty-four bodies he placed in the long hall, making sure that husbands were beside wives and their children close. He did not know why he did this, but it seemed right.

Lastly he carried the body of Bress into the building, and laid it beside Patica. Then he knelt by the woman and, taking the dead hand in his own, he bowed his head. “I thank you,” he said quietly, “for your years of care, and for the love you gave my father. You deserved better than this, Patica.” With all the bodies accounted for, he began to fetch wood from the winter store, piling it against the walls and across the bodies. At last he carried a large barrel of lantern oil from the main storehouse and poured it over the wood, splashing it to the dry walls.

As dawn streaked the eastern sky, he struck a flame to the pyre and blew it into life. The morning breeze licked at the flames in the doorway, caught at the tinder beyond, then hungrily roared up the first wall.

Druss stepped back into the street. At first the blaze made little smoke, but as the fire grew into an inferno a black column of oily smoke billowed into the morning sky, hanging in the light wind, flattening and spreading like an earth-born storm cloud. “You have been working hard,” said Shadak, moving silently alongside the young axeman.

Druss nodded. “There was no time to bury them,” he said. “Now maybe the smoke will be seen.”

“Perhaps,” agreed the hunter, “but you should have rested. Tonight you will need your strength.” As Shadak moved away, Druss watched him; the man’s movements were sure and smooth, confident and strong.

Druss admired that - as he admired the way that Shadak had comforted Tailia in the doorway. Like a father or a brother might. Druss had known that she needed such consolation, but had been unable to provide it. He had never possessed the easy touch of a Pilan or a Yorath, and had always been uncomfortable in the company of women or girls.

But not Rowena. He remembered the day when she and her father had come to the village, a spring day three seasons ago. They had arrived with several other families, and he had seen Rowena standing beside a wagon helping to unload furniture. She seemed so frail. Druss had approached the wagon.

“I’ll help if you want,” offered the fifteen-year-old Druss, more gruffly than he had intended. She turned and smiled. Such a smile, radiant and friendly. Reaching up, he took hold of the chair her father was lowering and carried it into the half-built dwelling. He helped them unload and arrange the furniture, then made to leave. But Rowena brought him a goblet of water.

“It was kind of you to help us,” she said. “You are very strong.”

He had mumbled some inanity, listened as she told him her name, and left without telling her his own. That evening she had seen him sitting by the southern stream and had sat beside him. So close that he had felt remarkably uncomfortable.

“The land is beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.

It was. The mountains were huge, like snow-haired giants, the sky the colour of molten copper, the setting sun a dish of gold, the hills bedecked with flowers. But Druss had not seen the beauty until the moment she observed it. He felt a sense of peace, a calm that settled over his turbulent spirit in a blanket of warmth.

“I am Druss.”

“I know. I asked your mother where you were.”

“Why?”

“You are my first friend here.”

“How can we be friends? You do not know me.”

“Of course I do. You are Druss, the son of Bress.”

“That is not knowing. I… I am not popular here,” he said, though he did not know why he should admit it so readily. “I am disliked.”

“Why do they dislike you?” The question was innocently asked, and he turned to look at her. Her face was so close that he blushed. Twisting, he put space between them.

“My ways are rough, I suppose. I don’t… talk easily. And I… sometimes… become angry. I don’t understand their jests and their humour. I like to be… alone.”

“Would you like me to go?”

“No! I just… I don’t know what I am saying.” He shrugged, and blushed a deeper crimson.

“Shall we be friends then?” she asked him, holding out her hand.

“I have never had a friend,” he admitted.

“Then take my hand, and we will start now.” Reaching out, he felt the warmth of her fingers against his calloused palm. “Friends?” she asked with a smile.

“Friends,” he agreed. She made as if to withdraw her hand, but he held it for a moment longer. “Thank you,” he said softly, as he released his hold.

She laughed then. “Why would you thank me?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It is just that… you have given me a gift that no one else ever offered. And I do not take it lightly. I will be your friend, Rowena. Until the stars burn out and die.”

“Be careful with such promises, Druss. You do not know where they might lead you.”

One of the roof timbers cracked and crashed into the blaze. Shadak called out to him. “Better choose yourself a mount, axeman. It’s time to go.”

Gathering his axe, Druss turned his gaze towards the south. Somewhere out there was Rowena.

“I’m on my way,” he whispered.

And she heard him.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Three

The wagons rolled on through the first afternoon, and on into the night. At first the captured women were silent, stunned, disbelieving. Then grief replaced shock, and there were tears. These were harshly dealt with by the men riding alongside the wagons, who ordered silence and, when it was not forthcoming, dismounted and leapt aboard the wagons dealing blows and brutal slaps, and issuing threats of whip and lash.

Rowena, her hands tied before her, sat beside the equally bound Mari. Her friend had swollen eyes, both from weeping and from a blow that had caught her on the bridge of the nose. “How are you feeling now?” Rowena whispered.

“All dead,” came the response. “They’re all dead.” Mari’s eyes gazed unseeing across the wagon, where other young women were sitting.

“We are alive,” continued Rowena, her voice low and gentle. “Do not give up hope, Mari. Druss is alive also. And there is a man with him - a great hunter. They are following us.”

“All dead,” said Mari. They’re all dead.”

“Oh, Mari!” Rowena reached out with her bound hands but Mari screamed and pulled away.

“Don’t touch me!” She swung round to face Rowena, her eyes fierce and gleaming. “This was a punishment. For you. You are a witch! It is all your fault!”

“No, I did nothing!”

“She’s a witch,” shouted Mari. The other women stared. “She has powers of Second Sight. She knew the raid was coming, but she didn’t warn us.”

“Why did you not tell us?” shouted another woman. Rowena swung and saw the daughter of Jarin the Baker. “My father is dead. My brothers are dead. Why did you not warn us?”

“I didn’t know. Not until the last moment!”

“Witch!” screamed Mari. “Stinking witch!” She lashed out with her tied hands, catching Rowena on the side of the head. Rowena fell to her left, into another woman. Fists struck as all around her in the wagon women surged upright, lashing out with hands and feet. Riders galloped alongside the wagon and Rowena felt herself lifted clear and flung to the ground. She hit hard, the breath knocked out of her.

“What is going on here?” she heard someone yell.

“Witch! Witch! Witch!” chanted the women.

Rowena was hauled to her feet, then a filthy hand caught her by the hair. She opened her eyes and looked up into a gaunt, scarred face. “Witch, are you?” grunted the man..”We’ll see about that!” He drew a knife and held it before her, the point resting against the woollen shirt she wore. “Witches have three nipples, so it’s said,” he told her.

“Leave her be!” came another voice, and a horseman rode close alongside. The man sheathed his knife.

“I wasn’t going to cut her, Harib. Witch or no, she’ll still bring a pretty price.”

“More if she is a witch,” said the horseman. “Let her ride behind you.”

Rowena gazed up at the rider. His face was swarthy, his eyes dark, his mouth part hidden by the bronze ear-flaps of his battle helm. Touching spurs to his mount the rider galloped on. The man holding her stepped into the saddle, pulling her up behind him. He smelt of stale sweat and old dirt, but Rowena scarcely noticed it. Glancing at the wagon where her former friends now sat silently, she felt afresh the terrible sense of loss.

Yesterday the world was full of hope. Their home was almost complete, her husband coming to terms with his restless spirit, her father relaxed and free from care, Mari preparing for a night of passion with Pilan.

In the space of a few hours it had all changed. Reaching up, she touched the brooch at her breast…

And saw the Axeman her husband was becoming. Deathwalker!

Tears flowed then, silently coursing down her cheeks.

Shadak rode ahead, following the trail, while Druss and Tailia travelled side by side, the girl on a bay mare, the young man on a chestnut gelding. Tailia said little for the first hour, which suited Druss, but as they topped a rise before a long valley she leaned in close and touched his arm.

“What are you planning?” she asked. “Why are we following them?”

“What do you mean?” responded Druss, nonplussed.

“Well, you obviously can’t fight them all; you’ll be killed. Why don’t we just ride for the garrison at Padia? Send troops?” He swung to look at her. Her blue eyes were red-rimmed from crying.

“That’s a four-day walk. I don’t know how long it would take to ride - two days at the least, I would think. Then, if the troop was there - and they may not be - it would take them at least three days to find the raiders. By then they will be in Vagrian territory, and close to the borders of Mashrapur. Drenai soldiers have no jurisdiction there.”

“But you can’t do anything. There is no point to this pursuit.”

Druss took a deep breath. “They have Rowena,” he said. “And Shadak has a plan.”

“Ah, a plan,” she said derisively, her full-lipped mouth twisting in a sneer. “Two men with a plan. Then I suppose I am safe?”

“You are alive - and free,” Druss told her. “If you want to ride to Padia, then do so.”

Her expression softened and she reached out, laying her hand on Druss’s forearm. “I know you are brave, Druss; I saw you kill those raiders and you were magnificent. I don’t want to see you die in some meaningless battle. Rowena wouldn’t want it either. There are many of them, and they’re all killers.”

“So am I,” he said. “And there are fewer than there were.”

“Well, what happens to me when they cut you down?” she snapped. “What chance will I have?”

He looked at her for a moment, his eyes cold. “None,” he told her.

Tailia’s eyes widened. “You never liked me, did you?” she whispered. “You never liked any of us.”

“I have no time for this nonsense,” he said, touching heels to the gelding and moving ahead. He did not look back, and was not surprised when he heard the sound of her horse galloping off towards the north.

A few minutes later Shadak rode up from the south. “Where is she?” asked the hunter, letting go of the reins of the two horses he was leading and allowing them to wander close by, cropping the long grass.

“Riding for Padia,” answered Druss. The hunter said nothing for a moment, but he gazed towards the north where Tailia could be seen as a tiny figure in the distance. “You’ll not talk her out of it,” Druss said.

“Did you send her away?”

“No. She thinks we are both dead men, and she doesn’t want to risk being taken by the slavers.”

“That’s a hard point to argue with,” agreed Shadak. Then he shrugged. “Ah well, she chose her own road. Let us hope it was a wise one.”

“What of the raiders?” asked Druss, all thoughts of Tailia gone from his mind.

“They rode through the night, and are heading due south. I think they will make camp by the Tigren, some thirty miles from here. There is a narrow valley opening on to a bowl-shaped canyon. It’s been used by slavers for years - and horse thieves, cattle stealers and renegades. It is easily defendable.”

“How long until we reach them?”

“Some time after midnight. We’ll move on for two more hours, then we’ll rest and eat before switching horses.”

“I don’t need a rest.”

“The horses do,” said Shadak, “and so do I. Be patient. It will be a long night, and fraught with peril. And I have to tell you that our chances are not good. Tailia was right to be concerned for her safety; we will need more luck than any two men have a right to ask for.”

“Why are you doing this?” asked Druss. “The women are nothing to you.” Shadak did not reply and they rode in silence until the sun was almost at noon. The hunter spotted a small grove of trees to the east and turned his horse; the two men dismounted in the shade of several spreading elms beside a rock pool.

“How many did you kill back there?” he asked Druss as they sat in the shade.

“Six,” answered the axeman, taking a strip of dried beef from the pouch at his side and tearing off a chunk.

“You ever kill men before?”

“No.”

“Six is… impressive. What did you use?” Druss chewed for a moment, then swallowed. “Felling-axe and a hatchet. Oh… and one of their daggers,” he said at last. “And my hands.”

“And you have had no training in combat?”

“No.”

Shadak shook his head. “Talk me through the fights - everything you can remember.” Druss did so, Shadak listened in silence, and when the axeman had finished his tale the hunter smiled. “You are a rare young man. You positioned yourself well, in front of the fallen tree. That was a good move - the first of many, it seems. But the most impressive is the last. How did you know the swordsman would jump to your left?”

“He saw I had an axe and that I was right-handed. In normal circumstances the axe would have been raised over my left shoulder and pulled down towards the right. Therefore he moved to his right - my left.”

“That is cool thinking for a man in combat. I think there is a great deal of your grandfather in you.”

“Don’t say that!” growled Druss. “He was insane.”

“He was also a brilliant fighting man. Yes, he was evil. But that does not lessen his courage and his skills.”

“I am my own man,” said Druss. “What I have is mine.”

“I do not doubt it. But you have great strength, good timing and a warrior’s mind. These are gifts that pass from father to son, and on through the line. But know this, laddie, there are responsibilities that you must accept.”

“Like what?”

“Burdens that separate the hero from the rogue.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“It comes back to the question you asked me, about the women. The true warrior lives by a code. He has to. For each man there are different perspectives, but at the core they are the same: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.”

“This is your code?” asked Druss.

“It is. And there is more, but I shall not bore you with it.”

“I am not bored. Why do you need such a code to live by?”

Shadak laughed. “You will understand, Druss, as the years go by.”

“I want to understand now,” said the younger man.

“Of course you do. That is the curse of the young, they want it all now. No. Rest a while. Even your prodigious strength will fail after a time. Sleep a little. And wake refreshed. It will be a long - and bloody - night.”

The moon was high, and a quarter full in a cloudless sky. Silver light bathed the mountains, rippling on the river below, making it seem of molten metal. Three camp-fires burned and Druss could just make out the movement of men in the flickering light. The women were huddled between two wagons; there was no fire near them, but guards patrolled close by. To the north of the wagons, around thirty paces from the women, was a large tent. It gleamed yellow-gold, like a great lantern, shimmering shadows being cast on the inside walls; there was obviously a brazier within, and several lamps.

Shadak moved silently alongside the axeman, beckoning him back. Druss edged from the slope, returning to the glade where the horses were tethered.

“How many did you count?” asked Shadak, keeping his voice low.

“Thirty-four, not including those inside the tent.”

“There are two men there, Harib Ka and Collan. But I make it thirty-six outside. They have placed two men by the river-bank to prevent any of the women trying to swim to safety.”

“When do we go in?” asked Druss.

“You are very anxious to fight, laddie. But I need you to have a cool head down there. No baresark warfare.”

“Do not concern yourself about me, hunter. I merely want my wife back.”

Shadak nodded. “I understand that, but now I want you to consider something. What if she has been raped?”

Druss’s eyes gleamed, his fingers tightening on the axe haft. “Why do you ask this now?”

“It is certain that some of the women will have been violated. It is the way of men such as these to take their pleasures where they want them. How cool do you feel now?”

Druss swallowed back his rising anger. “Cool enough. I am not a baresark, Shadak. I know this. And I will follow your plan to the last detail, live or die, win or lose.”

“Good. We will move two hours before dawn. Most of them will be deeply asleep by then. Do you believe in the gods?”

“I never saw one - so no.”

Shadak grinned. “Neither do I. It puts praying for divine help out of the question, I suppose.”

Druss was silent for a moment. “Tell me now,” he said at last, “why you need a code to live by.”

Shadak’s face was ghostly in the moonlight, the expression suddenly stern and forbidding. Then he relaxed and turned to gaze down at the camp of the raiders. “Those men down there have only one code. It is simple: Do what you will is the whole of the law. Do you understand?”

“No,” admitted Druss.

“It means that whatever their strength can obtain is rightfully theirs. If another man holds something they desire they kill the other man. This is right in their minds; this is the law the world offers - the law of the wolf. But you and I are no different from them, Druss. We have the same desires, the same perceived needs. If we are attracted to a woman, why should we not have her, regardless of her opinions? If another man has wealth, why should we not take it, if we are stronger, deadlier than he? It is an easy trap to fall into.

“Collan was once an officer in the Drenai lancers. He comes from a good family; he took the Oath as we all did, and when he said the words he probably believed them. But in Drenan he met a woman he wanted desperately, and she wanted him. But she was married. Collan murdered her husband. That was his first step on the road to Perdition; after that the other steps were easy. Short of money, he became a mercenary - fighting for gold in any cause, right or wrong, good or evil. He began to see only what was good for Collan. Villages were there merely for him to raid.

“Harib Ka is a Ventrian nobleman, distantly related to the Royal House. His story is similar. Both lacked the Iron Code. I am not a good man, Druss, but the Code holds me to the Way of the Warrior.”

“I can understand,” said Druss, “that a man will seek to protect what is his, and not steal or kill for gain. But it does not explain why you risk your life tonight for women you do not know.”

“Never back away from an enemy, Druss. Either fight or surrender. It is not enough to say I will not be evil. It must be fought wherever it is found. I am hunting Collan, not just for killing my son but for being what he is. But if necessary I will put off that hunt tonight in order for the girls to be freed; they are more important.”

“Perhaps,” Druss said, unconvinced. “For me, all I want is Rowena and a home in the mountains. I care nothing about fighting evil.”

“I hope you learn to care,” said Shadak.

Harib Ka could not sleep. The ground was hard beneath the tent floor and despite the heat from the brazier he felt cold through to his bones. The girl’s face haunted him. He sat up and reached for the wine-jug. You are drinking too much, he told himself. Stretching, he poured a full goblet of red wine, draining it in two swallows. Then he pushed back his blankets and rose. His head ached. He sat down on a canvas stool and refilled his goblet.

What have you become? whispered a voice in his mind. He rubbed at his eyes, his thoughts returning to the academy and his days with Bodasen and the young Prince.

“We will change the world,” said the Prince. “We will feed the poor and ensure employment for all. And we will drive the raiders from Ventria, and establish a kingdom of peace and prosperity.”

Harib Ka gave a dry laugh and sipped his wine. Heady days, a time of youth and optimism with its talk of knights and brave deeds, great victories and the triumph of the Light over the Dark.

“There is no Light and Dark,” he said aloud. “There is only Power.”

He thought then of the first girl - what was her name, Mari? Yes. Compliant, obedient to his desires, warm, soft. She had cried out with pleasure at his touch. No. She had pretended to enjoy his coarse love-making. “I’ll do anything for you - but don’t hurt me.”

Don’t hurt me.

The chill winds of autumn rippled the tent walls. Within two hours of enjoying Mari he had felt in need of a second woman, and had chosen the hazel-eyed witch. That was a mistake. She had entered his tent, rubbing at her chafed wrists, her eyes large and sorrowful.

“You intend to rape me?” she had asked him quietly.

He had smiled. “Not necessarily. That is your choice. What is your name?”

“Rowena,” she told him. “And how can it be my choice?”

“You can give yourself to me, or you can fight me. Either way the result will be the same. So why not enjoy the love-making?”

“Why do you speak of love?”

“What?”

“There is no love in this. You have murdered those I have loved. And now you seek to pleasure yourself at the expense of what dignity I have left.”

He strode towards her, gripping her upper arms. “You are not here to debate with me, whore! You are here to do as you are told.”

“Why do you call me a whore? Does it make your actions more simple for you? Oh, Harib Ka, how would Rajica view your actions?”

He reeled back as if struck. “What do you know of Rajica?”

“Only that you loved her - and that she died in your arms.”

“You are a witch!”

“And you are a lost man, Harib Ka. Everything you once held dear has been sold - your pride, your honour, your love of life.”

“I will not be judged by you,” he said, but he made no move to silence her.

“I do not judge you,” she told him. “I pity you. And I tell you this: unless you release me and the other women, you will die.”

“You are a seer also?” he said, trying to mock. “Are the Drenai cavalry close, witch? Is there an army waiting to fall upon me and my men? No. Do not seek to threaten me, girl. Whatever else I may have lost I am still a warrior and, with the possible exception of Collan, the finest swordsman you will ever see. I do not fear death. No. Sometimes I long for it.” He felt his passion ebbing away. “So tell me, witch, what is this peril I face?”

“His name is Druss. He is my husband.”

“We killed all the men in the village.”

“No. He was in the woods, felling timbers for the palisade.”

“I sent six men there.”

“But they have not returned,” Rowena pointed out.

“You are saying he killed them all?”

“He did,” she told him softly, “and now he is coming for you.”

“You make him sound like a warrior of legend,” said Harib uneasily. “I could send men back to kill him.”

“I hope you do not.”

“You fear for his life?”

“No, I would mourn for theirs.” She sighed.

“Tell me of him. Is he a swordsman? A soldier?”

“No, he is the son of a carpenter. But once I dreamt I saw him on a mountainside. He was black-bearded and his axe was smeared with blood. And before him were hundreds of souls. They stood mourning their lives. More flowed from his axe, and they wailed. Men of many nations, billowing like smoke until broken by the breeze. All slain by Druss. Mighty Druss. The Captain of the Axe. The Deathwalker.”

“And this is your husband?”

“No, not yet. This is the man he will become if you do not free me. This is the man you created when you slew his father and took me prisoner. You will not stop him, Harib Ka.”

He sent her away then, and ordered the guards to let her remain unmolested.

Collan had come to him and had laughed at his misery. “By Missael, Harib, she is just a village wench and now a slave. She is property. Our property. And her gift makes her worth ten times the price we will receive for any of the others. She is attractive and young - I’d say around a thousand gold pieces’ worth. There is that Ventrian merchant, Kabuchek; he’s always looking for seers and fortune-tellers. I’ll wager he’d pay a thousand.”

Harib sighed. “Aye, you are right, my friend. Take her. We’ll need coin upon our arrival. But don’t touch her, Collan,” he warned the handsome swordsman. “She really does have the Gift, and she will see into your soul.”

“There is nothing to see,” answered Collah, with a harsh, forced smile.

Druss edged his way along the river-bank, keeping close to the undergrowth and pausing to listen. There were no sounds save the rustling of autumn leaves in the branches above, no movement apart from the occasional swooping flight of bat or owl. His mouth was dry, but he felt no fear.

Across the narrow river he saw a white jutting boulder, cracked down the centre. According to Shadak, the first of the sentries was positioned almost opposite. Moving carefully Druss crept back into the woods, then angled towards the river-bank, timing his approach by the wind which stirred the leaves above him, the rustling in the trees masking the sound of his movements.

The sentry was sitting on a rock no more than ten feet to Druss’s right, and he had stretched out his right leg. Taking Snaga in his left hand, Druss wiped his sweating palm on his trews, his eyes scanning the undergrowth for the second sentry. He could see no one.

Druss waited, his back against a broad tree. From a little distance to the left came a harsh, gurgling sound. The sentry heard it too, and rose.

“Bushin! What are you doing there, you fool?”

Druss stepped out behind the man. “He is dying,” he said.

The man spun, hand snaking down for the sword at his hip. Snaga flashed up and across, the silver blade entering the neck just below the ear and shearing through sinew and bone. The head toppled to the right, the body to the left.

Shadak stepped from the undergrowth. “Well done,” he whispered. “Now, when I send the women down to you, get them to wade across by the boulder, then head north up into the canyon to the cave.”

“We’ve been over this many times,” Druss pointed out.

Ignoring the comment, Shadak laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder. “Now, whatever happens, do not come back into the camp. Stay with the women. There is only one path up to the cave, but several leading from it to the north. Get the women moving on the north-west route. You hold the path.”

Shadak faded back into the undergrowth and Druss settled down to wait.

Shadak moved carefully to the edge of the camp. Most of the women were asleep, and a guard was sitting by them; his head was resting against a wagon wheel, and Shadak guessed he was dozing. Unbuckling his sword-belt, he moved forward on his belly, drawing himself on his elbows until he reached the wagon. Slipping his hunting-knife from the sheath at his hip, Shadak came up behind the man - his left hand reached through the wheel, fingers closing on the sentry’s throat. The knife rammed home into the man’s back; his leg jerked once, then he was still.

Moving back from beneath the wagon, Shadak came to the first girl. She was sleeping close to several other women, huddled together for warmth. He clamped a hand over her mouth and shook her. She awoke in a panic and started to struggle.

“I am here to rescue you!” hissed Shadak. “One of your villagers is by the river-bank and he will lead you to safety. You understand? When I release you, slowly wake the others. Head south to the river. Druss, the son of Bress, is waiting there. Nod if you understand me.”

He felt her head move against his hand. “Good. Make sure none of the others make a noise. You must move slowly. Which one is Rowena?”

“She is not with us,” whispered the girl. They took her away.”

“Where?”

“One of the leaders, a man with a scarred cheek, he rode out with her just after dusk.”

Shadak swore softly. There was no time for a second plan. “What is your name?”

“Mari.”

“Well, Mari, get the others moving - and tell Druss to follow the original plan,”

Shadak moved away from the girl, gathered his swords and belted them to his waist. Then he stepped out into the open and strolled casually towards the tent. Only a few men were awake, and they paid little heed to the figure moving through the shadows so confidently.

Lifting the tent-flap he swiftly entered, drawing his right-hand sword as he did so. Harib Ka was sitting on a canvas chair with a goblet of wine in his left hand, a sabre in his right. “Welcome to my hearth, Wolf-man,” he said, with a smile. He drained the goblet and stood. Wine had run into his dark, forked beard, making it shine in the lantern light as if oiled. “May I offer you a drink?”

“Why not?” answered Shadak, aware that if they began to fight too soon the noise of clashing steel would wake the other raiders and they would see the women fleeing.

“You are far from home,” remarked Harib Ka.

“These days I have no home,” Shadak told him.

Harib Ka filled a second goblet and passed it to the hunter. “You are here to kill me?”

“I came for Collan. I understand he has gone?”

“Why Collan?” asked Harib Ka, his dark eyes glittering in the golden light.

“He killed my son in Corialis.”

“Ah, the blond boy. Fine swordsman, but too reckless.”

“A vice of the young.” Shadak sipped his wine, his anger controlled like an armourer’s fire, hot but contained.

“That vice killed him,” observed Shadak. “Collan is very skilled. Where did you leave the young villager, the one with the axe?”

“You are well informed.”

“Only a few hours ago his wife stood where you now stand; she told me he was coming. She’s a witch - did you know that?”

“No. Where is she?”

“On her way to Mashrapur with Collan. When do you want the fight to begin?”

“As soon as…” began Shadak, but even as he was speaking Harib attacked, his sabre slashing for Shadak’s throat. The hunter ducked, leaned to the left and kicked out at Harib’s knee. The Ventrian crashed to the floor and Shadak’s sword touched the skin of Harib’s throat. “Never fight drunk,” he said softly.

“I’ll remember that. What now?”

“Now tell me where Collan stays in Mashrapur.”

“The White Bear Inn. It’s in the western quarter.”

“I know that. Now, what is your life worth, Harib Ka?”

“To the Drenai authorities? Around a thousand gold pieces. To me? I have nothing to offer - until I sell my slaves.”

“You have no slaves.”

“I can find them again. Thirty women on foot in the mountains will pose me no problem.”

“Hunting is not easy with a slit throat,” pointed out Shadak, adding an extra ounce of pressure to the sword-blade, which pricked the skin of Harib’s neck.

“True,” agreed the Ventrian, glancing up. “What do you suggest?” Just as Shadak was about to answer he caught the gleam of triumph in Harib’s eyes and he swung round. But too late.

Something cold, hard and metallic crashed against his skull.

And the world spun into darkness.

Pain brought Shadak back to consciousness, harsh slaps to his face that jarred his teeth. His eyes opened. His arms were being held by two men who had hauled him to his knees, and Harib Ka was squatting before him.

“Did you think me so stupid that I would allow an assassin to enter my tent unobserved? I knew someone was following us. And when the four men I left in the pass did not return I guessed it had to be you. Now I have questions for you, Shadak. Firstly, where is the young farmer with the axe; and secondly, where are my women?”

Shadak said nothing. One of the men holding him crashed a fist against the hunter’s ear; lights blazed before Shadak’s eyes and he sagged to his right. He watched Harib Ka rise and move to the brazier where the coals had burned low. “Get him outside to a fire,” ordered the leader. Shadak was hauled to his feet and half carried out into the camp. Most of the men were still asleep. His captors pushed him to his knees beside a camp-fire and Harib Ka drew his dagger, pushing the blade into the flames. “You will tell me what I wish to know,” he said, “or I will burn out your eyes and then set you free in the mountains.”

Shadak tasted blood on his tongue, and fear in his belly. But still he said nothing.

An unearthly scream tore through the silence of the night, followed by the thunder of hooves. Harib swung to see forty terrified horses galloping towards the camp. One of the men holding the hunter turned also, his grip slackening. Shadak surged upright, head butting the raider who staggered back. The second man, seeing the stampeding horses closing fast, released his hold and ran for the safety of the wagons. Harib Ka drew his sabre and leapt at Shadak, but the first of the horses cannoned into him, spinning him from his feet. Shadak spun on his heel to face the terrified beasts and began to wave his arms. The maddened horses swerved around him and galloped on through the camp. Some men, still wrapped in their blankets, were trampled underfoot. Others tried to halt the charging beasts. Shadak ran back to Harib’s tent and found his swords. Then he stepped out into the night. All was chaos.

The fires had been scattered by pounding hooves and several corpses were lying on the open ground. Some twenty of the horses had been halted and calmed; the others were running on through the woods, pursued by many of the warriors.

A second scream sounded and despite his years of experience in warfare and battle, Shadak was astonished by what followed.

Alone, the young woodsman had attacked the camp. The awesome axe shone silver in the moonlight, slashing and cleaving into the surprised warriors. Several took up swords and ran at him; they died in moments.

But he could not survive. Shadak saw the raiders group together, a dozen men spread out in a semi-circle around the black-garbed giant, Harib Ka among them. The hunter, his two short swords drawn, ran towards them yelling the battle-cry of the Lancers. “Ayiaa! Ayiaa!” At that moment arrows flashed from the woods. One took a raider in the throat, a second glanced from a helm to plunge home into an unprotected shoulder. Combined with the sudden battle-cry, the attack made the raiders pause, many of them backing away and scanning the tree line. At that moment Druss charged the enemy centre, cutting to left and right. The raiders fell back before him, several tumbling to the ground, tripping over their fellows. The mighty blood-smeared axe clove into them, rising and falling with a merciless rhythm.

Just as Shadak reached them, the raiders broke and fled. More arrows sailed after them.

Harib Ka ran for one of the horses, grabbing its mane and vaulting to its bare back. The animal reared, but he held on. Shadak hurled his right-hand sword, which lanced into Harib’s shoulder. The Ventrian sagged, then fell to the ground as the horse galloped away

“Druss!” shouted Shadak. “Druss!” The axeman was pursuing the fleeing raiders, but he stopped at the edge of the trees and swung back. Harib Ka was on his knees, trying to pull the brass-hilted sword from his body.

The axeman stalked back to where Shadak was waiting. He was blood-drenched and his eyes glittered. “Where is she?” he asked the hunter.

“Collan took her to Mashrapur; they left at dusk.”

Two women emerged from the trees, carrying bows and quivers of arrows. “Who are they?” asked Shadak.

“The Tanner’s daughters. They did a lot of hunting for the village. I gave them the bows the sentries had with them.”

The tallest of the women approached Druss. “They are fleeing into the night. I don’t think they’ll come back now. You want us to follow them?”

“No, bring the others down and gather the horses.” The axeman turned towards the kneeling figure of Harib Ka. “Who is this?” Druss asked Shadak.

“One of the leaders.”

Without a word Druss clove the axe through Harib’s neck. “Not any more,” he observed.

“Indeed not,” agreed Shadak, stepping to the still quivering corpse and pulling free his sword. He gazed around the clearing and counted the bodies. “Nineteen. By all the gods, Druss, I can’t believe you did that!”

“Some were trampled by the horses I stampeded, others were killed by the girls.” Druss turned and stared out over the campsite. Somewhere to his left a man groaned and the tallest of the girls ran to him, plunging a dagger into his throat. Druss turned back to Shadak. “Will you see the women get safely to Padia?”

“You’re going on to Mashrapur?”

“I’m going to find her.”

Shadak laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder. “I hope that you do, Druss. Seek out the White Bear Inn - that’s where Collan will stay. But be warned, my friend. In Mashrapur, Rowena is his property. That is their law.”

“This is mine,” answered Druss, raising the double-headed axe.

Shadak took the young man’s arm and led him back to Harib’s tent where he poured himself a goblet of wine and drained it. One of Harib’s linen tunics was draped over a small chest and Shadak threw it to Druss. “Wipe off the blood. You look like a demon.” Druss smiled grimly and wiped his face and arms, then cleaned the double blades.

“What do you know of Mashrapur?” asked Shadak.

The axeman shrugged. “It is an independent state, ruled by an exiled Ventrian Prince. That’s all.”

“It is a haven for thieves and slavers,” said Shadak. The laws are simple: those with gold to offer bribes are considered fine citizens. It matters not where the gold comes from. Collan is respected there; he owns property and dines with the Emir.”

“So?”

“So if you march in and kill him, you will be taken and executed. It is that simple.”

“What do you suggest?”

“There is a small town around twenty miles from here, due south. There is a man there, a friend of mine. Go to him, tell him I sent you. He is young and talented. You won’t like him, Druss; he is a fop and a pleasure-seeker. He has no morals. But it will make him invaluable in Mashrapur.”

“Who is this man?”

“His name is Sieben. He’s a poet, a saga-teller, and he performs at palaces; he’s very good as a matter of fact. He could have been rich. But he spends most of his time trying to bed every pretty young woman who comes into his line of vision. He never concerns himself whether they are married or single - that has brought him many enemies.”

“Already I don’t like the sound of him.”

Shadak chuckled. “He has good qualities. He is a loyal friend, and he is ridiculously fearless. A good man with a knife. And he knows Mashrapur. Trust him.”

“Why should he help me?”

“He owes me a favour.” Shadak poured a second goblet of wine and passed it to the young man.

Druss sipped it, then drained the goblet. “This is good. What is it?”

“Lentrian Red. Around five years old, I’d say. Not the best, but good enough on a night like this.”

“I can see that a man could get a taste for it,” Druss agreed.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Four

Sieben was enjoying himself. A small crowd had gathered around the barrel, and three men had already lost heavily. The green crystal was small and fitted easily under one of the three walnut shells. “I’ll move a little more slowly,” the young poet told the tall, bearded warrior who had just lost four silver pieces. His slender hands slid the shells around the smooth barrel top, halting them in a line across the centre. “Which one? And take your time, my friend, for that emerald is worth twenty golden raq.”

The man sniffed loudly and scratched at his beard with a dirty finger. “That one,” he said at last, pointing to the centre shell. Sieben flipped the shell. There was nothing beneath it. Moving his hand to the right he covered a second shell, expertly palmed the stone under it and showed it to the audience.

“So close,” he said, with a bright smile. The warrior swore, then turned and thrust his way through the crowd. A short swarthy man was next; he had body odour that could have felled an ox. Sieben was tempted to let him win. The fake emerald was only worth a tenth of what he had already cheated from the crowd. But he was enjoying himself too much. The swarthy man lost three silver pieces.

The crowd parted and a young warrior eased his way to the front as Sieben glanced up. The newcomer was dressed in black, with shoulder guards of shining silver steel. He wore a helm on which was blazoned a motif of two skulls on either side of a silver axe. And he was carrying a double-headed axe. “Try your luck?” asked Sieben, gazing up into the eyes of winter blue.

“Why not?” answered the warrior, his voice deep and cold. He placed a silver piece on the barrel head. The poet’s hands moved with bewildering speed, gliding the shells in elaborate figure eights. At last he stopped.

“I hope you have a keen eye, my friend,” said Sieben.

“Keen enough,” said the axeman, and leaning forward he placed a huge finger on the central shell. “It is here,” he said.

“Let us see,” said the poet, reaching out, but the axeman pushed his hand away.

“Indeed we shall,” he said. Slowly he flipped the shells to the left and right of the centre. Both were empty. “I must be right,” he said, his pale eyes locked to Sieben’s face. You may show us.” Lifting his finger, he gestured to the poet.

Sieben forced a smile and palmed the crystal under the shell as he flipped it. “Well done, my friend. You are indeed hawk-eyed.” The crowd applauded and drifted away.

“Thank you for not exposing me,” said Sieben, rising and gathering his silver.

“Fools and money are like ice and heat,” quoted the young man. “They cannot live together. You are Sieben?”

“I might be,” answered the other cautiously. “Who is asking?”

“Shadak sent me.”

“For what purpose?”

“A favour you owe him.”

“That is between the two of us. What has it to do with you?”

The warrior’s face darkened. “Nothing at all,” he said, then turned away and strode towards the tavern on the other side of the street. As Sieben watched him go, a young woman approached from the shadows.

“Did you earn enough to buy me a fine necklace?” she asked. He swung and smiled. The woman was tall and shapely, raven-haired and full-lipped; her eyes were tawny brown, her smile an enchantment. She stepped into his embrace and winced. “Why do you have to wear so many knives?” she asked, moving back from him and tapping the brown leather baldric from which hung four diamond-shaped throwing-blades.

“Affectation, my love. I’ll not wear them tonight. And as for your necklace - I’ll have it with me.” Taking her hand he kissed it. “However, at the moment, duty calls.”

“Duty, my poet? What would you know of duty?”

He chuckled. “Very little - but I always pay my debts; it is my last finger-hold on the cliff of respectability. I will see you later.” He bowed, then walked across the street.

The tavern was an old, three-storeyed building with a high gallery on the second floor overlooking a long room with open fires at both ends. There was a score of bench tables and seats and a sixty-foot brass-inlaid bar behind which six tavern maids were serving ale, mead and mulled wine. The tavern was crowded, unusually so, but this was market day and fanners and cattle-breeders from all over the region had gathered for the auctions. Sieben stepped to the long bar, where a young tavern maid with honey-blonde hair smiled and approached him. “At last you visit me,” she said.

“Who could stay away from you for long, dear heart?” he said with a smile, straining to remember her name.

“I will be finished here by second watch,” she told him.

“Where’s my ale?” shouted a burly farmer, some way to the left.

“I was before you, goat-face!” came another voice. The girl gave a shy smile to Sieben, then moved down the bar to quell the threatened row.

“Here I am now, sirs, and I’ve only one pair of hands. Give me a moment, won’t you?”

Sieben strolled through the crowds, seeking out the axeman, and found him sitting alone by a narrow, open window. Sieben eased on to the bench alongside him. “Might be a good idea to start again,” said the poet. “Let me buy you a jug of ale.”

“I buy my own ale,” grunted the axeman. “And don’t sit so close.”

Sieben stood and moved to the far side of the table, seating himself opposite the young man. “Is that more to your liking?” he asked, with heavy sarcasm.

“Aye, it is. Are you wearing perfume?”

“Scented oil on the hair. You like it?”

The axeman shook his head, but refrained from comment. He cleared his throat. “My wife has been taken by slavers. She is in Mashrapur.”

Sieben sat back and gazed at the young man. “I take it you weren’t home at the time,” he said.

“No. They took all the women. I freed them. But Rowena wasn’t with them; she was with someone called Collan. He left before I got to the other raiders.”

“Before you got to the other raiders?” repeated Sieben. “Isn’t there a little more to it?”

“To what?”

“How did you free the other women?”

“What in Hell’s name does that matter? I killed a few of them and the rest ran away. But that’s not the point. Rowena wasn’t there - she’s in Mashrapur.”

Sieben raised a slender hand. “Slow down, there’s a good fellow. Firstly, how does Shadak come into this? And secondly, are you saying that you single-handedly attacked Harib Ka and his killers?”

“Not single-handedly. Shadak was there; they were going to torture him. Also I had two girls with me; good archers. Anyway, all that is past. Shadak said you could help me to find Rowena and come up with a plan to rescue her.”

“From Collan?”

“Yes, from Collan,” stormed the axeman. “Are you deaf or stupid?”

Sieben’s dark eyes narrowed and he leaned forward. “You have an appealing way of asking for help, my large and ugly friend. Good luck with your quest!” He rose and moved back through the throng, emerging into the late afternoon sunlight. Two men were lounging close to the entrance, a third was whittling a length of wood with a razor-sharp hunting-knife.

The first of the men moved in front of the poet; it was the warrior who had first lost money at the barrel head. “Get your emerald back, did you?”

“No,” answered Sieben, still angry. “What a bumptious, ill-bred boor!”

“Not a friend, then?”

“Hardly. I don’t even know his name. More to the point, I don’t want to.”

“It’s said you’re crafty with those knives,” said the warrior, pointing to the throwing-blades. “Is it true?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Could be you’ll get the emerald back if you are.”

“You plan to attack him? Why? As far as I could see he carries no wealth.”

“It’s not his wealth!” snapped the second warrior. Sieben stepped back as the man’s body odour reached him. “He’s a madman. He attacked our camp two days ago, stampeded our horses. Never did find my grey. And he killed Harib. Asia’s tits! He must have downed a dozen men with that cursed axe.”

“If he killed a dozen, what makes you think that three of you can deal with him?”

The noxious warrior tapped his nose. “Surprise. When he steps out, Rafin will ask him a question. As he turns, Zhak and I will move in and gut him. But you could help. A knife through the eye would slow him up some, eh?”

“Probably,” agreed Sieben, and he moved away several paces to seat himself on a hitching rail. He drew a knife from its sheath and began to clean his nails.

“You with us?” hissed the first man.

“We’ll see,” said Sieben.

Druss sat at the table and gazed down at the shining blades of the axe. He could see his reflection there, cold-eyed and grim. The features were flat and sullen, the mouth a tight, angry line. He removed the black helm and laid it on the blades, covering the face in the axe.

“Whenever you speak someone gets angry.” The words of his father drifted up from the halls of memory. And it was true. Some men had a knack for friendship, for easy chatter and simple jests. Druss envied them. Until Rowena had walked into his life he had believed such qualities were entirely lacking in him. But with her he felt at ease, he could laugh and joke - and see himself for a moment as others saw him, huge and bear-like, short-tempered and frightening. “It was your childhood, Druss,” Rowena told him one morning, as they sat on the hillside overlooking the village. “Your father moved from place to place, always frightened he would be recognised, never allowing himself to become close to people. It was easier for him, for he was a man. But it must have been hard for a boy who never learned how to make friends.”

“I don’t need friends,” he said.

“I need you.”

The memory of those three softly spoken words made his heart lurch. A tavern maid passed the table and Druss reached out and caught her arm. “Do you have Lentrian Red?” he asked.

“I’ll bring you a goblet, sir.”

“Make it a jug.”

He drank until his senses swam and his thoughts became jumbled and confused. He remembered Alarin, and the punch which broke the man’s jaw, and then, after the raid, hauling Alarm’s body into the meeting hall. He had been stabbed through the back by a lance which had snapped in half in his body. The dead man’s eyes had been open. So many of the dead had open eyes… all accusing.

“Why are you alive and we dead?” they asked him. “We had families, lives, dreams, hopes. Why should you outlive us?”

“More wine!” he bellowed and a young girl with honey-blonde hair leaned over the table.

“I think you’ve had enough, sir. You’ve drunk a quart already.”

“All the eyes were open,” he said. “Old women, children. The children were the worst. What kind of a man kills a child?”

“I think you should go home, sir. Have a little sleep.”

“Home?” He laughed, the sound harsh and bitter. “Home to the dead? And what would I tell them? The forge is cold. There is no smell of fresh-baked bread; no laughter among the children. Just eyes. No, not even eyes. Just ashes.”

“We heard there was a raid to the north,” she said. “Was that your home?”

“Bring me more wine, girl. It helps me.”

“It is a false friend, sir,” she whispered.

“It is the only one I have.”

A burly, bearded man in a leather apron moved in close. “What does he want?” he asked the girl.

“More wine, sir.”

“Then fetch it for him - if he can pay.”

Druss reached into the pouch at his side, drawing out one of the six silver pieces Shadak had given him. He flipped it to the innkeeper. “Well, serve him!” the man ordered the maid.

The second jug went the way of the first and, when it was finished, Druss pushed himself ponderously to his feet. He tried to don the helm, but it slipped from his fingers and rolled to the floor. As he bent down, he rammed his brow against the edge of the table. The serving maid appeared alongside him. “Let me help you, sir,” she said, scooping up the helm and gently placing it on his head.

“Thank you,” he said, slowly. He fumbled in his pouch and gave her a silver piece. “For… your… kindness,” he told her, enunciating the words with care.

“I have a small room at the back, sir. Two doors down from the stable. It is unlocked; you may sleep there if you wish.”

He picked up the axe, but it too fell to the floor, the prongs of the blades embedding in a wooden plank. “Go back and sleep, sir. I’ll bring your… weapon with me later.”

“He nodded and weaved his way towards the door.

Pulling open the door, he stepped out into the fading sunlight, his stomach lurching. Someone spoke from his left, asking him a question. Druss tried to turn, but stumbled into the man and they both fell against the wall. He tried to right himself, grabbing the man’s shoulder and heaving himself upright. Through the fog in his mind he heard other men running in. One of them screamed. Druss lurched back and saw a long-bladed dagger clatter to the ground. The former wielder was standing alongside him, his right arm raised unnaturally. Druss blinked. The man’s wrist was pinned to the inn door by a throwing knife.

He heard the rasp of swords being drawn. “Defend yourself, you fool!” came a voice.

A swordsman ran at him and Druss stepped in to meet him, parrying the lunging blade with his forearm and slamming a right cross to the warrior’s chin. The swordsman went down as if poleaxed. Swinging to meet the second attacker, Druss lost his balance and fell heavily. But in mid-swing the swordsman also stumbled and Druss lashed out with his foot, catching his assailant on the heel and catapulting him to the ground. Rolling to his knees, Druss grabbed the fallen man by the hair and hauled him close, delivering a bone-crunching head butt to the warrior’s nose. The man slumped forward, unconscious. Druss released him.

Another man moved alongside him and Druss recognised the handsome young poet. “Gods, you reek of cheap wine,” said Sieben.

“Who… are you?” mumbled Druss, trying to focus on the man with his arm pinned to the door.

“Miscreants,” Sieben told him, moving alongside the stricken warrior and levering his knife clear. The man screamed in pain but Sieben ignored him and returned to the street. “I think you’d better come with me, old horse.”

Druss remembered little of the walk through the town, only that he stopped twice to vomit, and his head began to ache abominably.

He awoke at midnight and found himself lying on a porch under the stars. Beside him was a bucket. He sat up… and groaned as the terrible pounding began in his head. It felt as if an iron band had been riveted to his brow. Hearing sounds from within the house, he stood and moved to the door. Then he halted. The sounds were unmistakable.

“Oh, Sieben… Oh… Oh… !”

Druss swore and returned to the edge of the porch. A breath of wind touched his face, bringing with it an unpleasant smell, and he gazed down at himself. His jerkin was soiled with vomit, and he stank of stale sweat and travel. To his left was a well. Forcing himself upright, he walked to it, and slowly raised the bucket. Somewhere deep within his head a demon began to strike at his skull with a red-hot hammer. Ignoring the pain, Druss stripped to the waist and washed himself with the cold water.

He heard the door open and turned to see a dark-haired young woman emerge from the house. She looked at him, smiled, then ran off through the narrow streets. Lifting the bucket, Druss tipped the last of the contents over his head.

“At the risk of being offensive,” said Sieben from the doorway, “I think you need a little soap. Come inside. There’s a fire burning in the hearth and I’ve heated some water. Gods, it’s freezing out here.”

Gathering his clothes, Druss followed the poet inside. The house was small, only three rooms, all on the ground floor - a cook-room with an iron stove, a bedroom and a square dining-room with a stone-built hearth in which a fire was blazing. There was a table with four wooden chairs and on either side of the hearth were comfort seats of padded leather stuffed with horsehair.

Sieben led him to the cloakroom where he filled a bowl with hot water. Handing Druss a slab of white soap and a towel, he opened a cupboard door and removed a plate of sliced beef and a loaf of bread. “Come in and eat when you’re ready,” said the poet, as he walked back to the dining-room.

Druss scrubbed himself with the soap, which smelled of lavender, then cleaned his jerkin and dressed. He found the poet sitting by the fire with his long legs stretched out, a goblet of wine in one hand. The other slender hand swept through the shoulder-length blond hair, sweeping it back over his head. Holding it in place, he settled a black leather headband over his brow; at the centre of the band was a glittering opal. The poet lifted a small oval mirror and studied himself. “Ah, what a curse it is to be so good-looking,” he said, laying aside the mirror. “Care for a drink?” Druss felt his stomach heave and shook his head. “Eat, my large friend. You may feel as if your stomach will revolt, but it is the best thing for you. Trust me.”

Druss tore off a hunk of bread and sat down, slowly chewing it. It tasted of ashes and bile, but he finished it manfully. The poet was right. His stomach settled. The salted beef was harder to take but, washed down with cool water, he soon began to feel his strength returning. “I drank too much,” he said.

“No, really? Two quarts, I understand.”

“I don’t remember how much. Was there a fight?”

“Not much of one, by your standards.”

“Who were they?”

“Some of the raiders you attacked.”

“I should have killed them.”

“Perhaps - but in the state you were in you should consider yourself lucky to be alive.”

Druss filled a clay cup with water and drained it. “You helped me, I remember that. Why?”

“A passing whim. Don’t let it concern you. Now, tell me again about your wife and the raid.”

“To what purpose? It’s done. All I care about is finding Rowena.”

“But you will need my help - otherwise Shadak wouldn’t have sent you to me. And I like to know the kind of man I’m expected to travel with. You understand? So tell me.”

“There isn’t a great deal to tell. The raiders…”

“How many?”

“Forty or so. They attacked our village, killed all the men, the old women, the children. They took the younger women prisoner. I was in the woods, felling timber. Some killers came to the woods and I dealt with them. Then I met Shadak, who was also following them; they raided a town and killed his son. We freed the women. Shadak was captured. I stampeded their horses and attacked the camp. That’s it.”

Sieben shook his head and smiled. “I think you could tell the entire history of the Drenai in less time than it takes to boil an egg. A story-teller you are not, my friend - which is just as well, since that is my main source of income and I loathe competition.”

Druss rubbed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, resting his head on the high padded leather cushion. The heat from the fire was soothing and his body was weary beyond anything he had known before. The days of the chase had taken their toll. He felt himself drifting on a warm sea. The poet was speaking to him, but his words failed to penetrate.

He awoke with the dawn to find the fire was burned down to a few glowing coals and the house empty. Druss yawned and stretched, then walked to the kitchen, helping himself to stale bread and a hunk of cheese. He drank some more water, then heard the main door creak open. Wandering out, he saw Sieben and a young, blonde woman. The poet was carrying his axe and his gauntlets.

“Someone to see you, old horse,” said Sieben, laying the axe in the doorway and tossing the gauntlets to a chair. The poet smiled and walked back out into the sunlight.

The blonde woman approached Druss, smiling shyly. “I didn’t know where you were. I kept your axe for you.”

“Thank you. You are from the inn.” She was dressed now in a woollen dress of poor quality, that once had been blue but was now a pale grey. Her figure was shapely, her face gentle and pretty, her eyes warm and brown.

“Yes. We spoke yesterday,” she said, moving to a chair and sitting down with her hands on her knees. “You seemed… very sad.”

“I am… myself now,” he told her gently.

“Sieben told me your wife was taken by slavers.”

“I will find her.”

“When I was sixteen raiders attacked our village. They killed my father and wounded my husband. I was taken, with seven other girls, and we were sold in Mashrapur. I was there two years. I escaped one night, with another girl, and we fled into the wilderness. She died there, killed by a bear, but I was found by a company of pilgrims on their way to Lentria. I was almost dead from starvation. They helped me, and I made my way home.”

“Why are you telling me all this?” asked Druss softly, seeing the sadness in her eyes.

“My husband had married someone else. And my brother, Loric, who had lost an arm in the raid, told me I was no longer welcome. He said I was a fallen woman, and if I had any pride I would have taken my own life. So I left.”

Druss reached out and took her hand. “Your husband was a worthless piece of dung, and your brother likewise. But I ask again, why are you telling me this?”

“When Sieben told me you were hunting for your wife… it made me remember. I used to dream Karsk was coming for me. But a slave has no rights, you know, in Mashrapur. Anything the Lord wishes, he can have. You cannot refuse. When you find your… lady… she may well have been roughly used.” She fell silent and sat staring at her hands. “I don’t know how to say what I mean…When I was a slave I was beaten, I was humiliated. I was raped and abused. But nothing was as bad as the look on my husband’s face when he saw me, or the disgust in my brother’s voice when he cast me out.”

Still holding to her hand, Druss leaned in towards her. “What is your name?”

“Sashan.”

“If I had been your husband, Sashan, I would have followed you. I would have found you. And when I did I would have taken you in my arms and brought you home. As I will bring Rowena home.”

“You will not judge her?”

He smiled. “No more than I judge you, save to say that you are a brave woman and any man - any true man - would be proud to have you walk beside him.”

She reddened and rose. “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride,” she said, then turned away and walked to the doorway. She looked back once, but said nothing; then she stepped from the house.

Sieben entered. “That was well said, old horse. Very well said. You know, despite your awful manners and your lack of conversation, I think I like you. Let’s go to Mashrapur and find your lady.”

Druss looked hard at the slim young man. He was perhaps an inch taller than the axeman and his clothes were of fine cloth, his long hair barber-trimmed, not hacked by a knife nor cut with shears using a basin for a guide. Druss glanced down at the man’s hands; the skin was soft, like that of a child. Only the baldric and the knives gave any evidence Sieben was a fighter.

“Well? Do I pass inspection, old horse?”

“My father once said that fortune makes for strange bedfellows,” said Druss.

“You should see the problem from where I’m standing,” answered Sieben. “You will travel with a man versed in literature and poetry, a story-teller without equal. While I, on the other hand, get to ride beside a peasant in a vomit-flecked jerkin.”

Amazingly Druss found no rising anger, no surging desire to strike out. Instead he laughed, tension flowing from him.

“I like you, little man,” he said.

Within the first day they had left the mountains behind them, and rode now through valleys and vales, and sweeping grassland dotted with hills and ribbon streams. There were many hamlets and villages beside the road, the buildings of whitewashed stone with roofs of timber or slate.

Sieben rode gracefully, straight of back and easy in the saddle, sunlight gleaming from his riding tunic of pale blue silk and the silver edging on his knee-length riding boots. His long blond hair was tied back in a pony-tail, and he also sported a silver headband. “How many headbands do you have?” asked Druss as they set off.

“Pitifully few. Pretty though, isn’t it? I picked it up in Drenan last year. I’ve always like silver.”

“You look like a fop.”

“Just what I needed this morning,” said Sieben, smiling, “hints on sartorial elegance from a man whose hair has apparently been cut with a rusty saw, and whose only shirt carries wine stains, and… no, don’t tell me what the other marks are.”

Druss glanced down. “Dried blood. But it’s not mine.”

“Well, what a relief. I shall sleep more soundly tonight for knowing that.”

For the first hour of the journey the poet tried to give helpful advice to the young axeman. “Don’t grip the horse with your calves, just your thighs. And straighten your back.” Finally he gave up. “You know, Druss, my dear, some men are born to ride. You on the other hand have no feel for it. I’ve seen sacks of carrots with more grace than you.”

The axeman’s reply was short and brutally obscene. Sieben chuckled and gazed up at the sky which was cloudless and gloriously blue. “What a day to set off in search of a kidnapped princess,” he said.

“She’s not a princess.”

“All kidnapped women are princesses,” Sieben told him. “Have you never listened to the stories? Heroes are tall, golden-haired and wondrously handsome. Princesses are demure and beautiful, spending their lives waiting for the handsome prince who will free them. By the gods, Druss, no one would want to hear tales of the truth. Can you imagine? The young hero unable to ride in search of his sweetheart because the large boil on his buttocks prevents him from sitting on a horse?” Sieben’s laughter rippled out.

Even normally grim Druss smiled and Sieben continued. “It’s the romance, you see. A woman in stories is either a goddess or a whore. The princess, being a beautiful virgin, falls into the former category. The hero must also be pure, waiting for the moment of his destiny in the arms of the virginal princess. It’s wonderfully quaint - and quite ridiculous of course. Love-making, like playing the lyre, requires enormous practice. Thankfully the stories always end before we see the young couple fumbling their way through their first coupling.”

“You talk like a man who has never been in love,” said Druss.

“Nonsense. I have been in love scores of times,” snapped the poet.

Druss shook his head. “If that were true, then you would know just how… how fine the fumbling can be. How far is it to Mashrapur?”

“Two days. But the slave markets are always held on Missael or Manien, so we’ve time. Tell me about her.”

“No.”

“No? You don’t like talking about your wife?”

“Not to strangers. Have you ever been wed?”

“No - nor ever desired to be. Look around you, Druss. See all those flowers on the hillsides? Why would a man want to restrict himself to just one bloom? Just one scent? I had a horse once, Shadira, a beautiful beast, faster than the north wind. She could clear a four-bar fence with room to spare. I was ten when my father gave her to me, and Shadira was fifteen. But by the time I was twenty Shadira could no longer run as fast, and she jumped not at all. So I got a new horse. You understand what I am saying?”

“Not a word of it,” grunted Druss. “Women aren’t horses.”

“That’s true,” agreed Sieben. “Most horses you want to ride more than once.”

Druss shook his head. “I don’t know what it is that you call love. And I don’t want to know.”

The trail wound to the south, the hills growing more gentle as the mountain range receded behind them. Ahead on the road they saw an old man shuffling towards them. He wore robes of faded blue and he leaned heavily on a long staff. As they neared, Sieben saw that the man was blind.

The old man halted as they rode closer. “Can we help you, old one?” asked Sieben.

“I need no help,” answered the man, his voice surprisingly strong and resonant. “I am on my way to Drenan.”

“It is a long walk,” said Sieben.

“I am in no hurry. But if you have food, and are willing to entertain a guest at your midday meal, I would be glad to join you.”

“Why not?” said Sieben. “There is a stream some little way to your right; we will see you there.” Swinging his mount Sieben cantered the beast across the grass, leaping lightly from the saddle and looping the reins over the horse’s head as Druss rode up and dismounted.

“Why did you invite him to join us?”

Sieben glanced back. The old man was out of earshot and moving slowly towards them. “He is a seeker, Druss. A mystic. Have you not heard of them?”

“No.”

“Source Priests who blind themselves in order to increase their powers of prophecy. Some of them are quite extraordinary. It’s worth a few oats.”

Swiftly the poet prepared a fire over which he placed a copper pot half filled with water. He added oats and a little salt. The old man sat cross-legged nearby. Druss removed his helm and jerkin and stretched out in the sunshine. After the porridge had cooked, Sieben filled a bowl and passed it to the priest.

“Do you have sugar?” asked the Seeker.

“No. We have a little honey. I will fetch it.”

After the meal was concluded the old man shuffled to the stream and cleaned his bowl, returning it to Sieben. “And now you wish to know the future?” asked the priest, with a crooked smile.

“That would be pleasant,” said Sieben.

“Not necessarily. Would you like to know the day of your death?”

“I take your point, old man. Tell me of the next beautiful woman who will share my bed.”

The old man chuckled. “A talent so large, yet men only require such infinitesimal examples of it. I could tell you of your sons, and of moments of peril. But no, you wish to hear of matters inconsequential. Very well. Give me your hand.”

Sieben sat opposite him and extended his right hand. The old man took it, and sat silently for several minutes. Finally he sighed. “I have walked the paths of your future, Sieben the Poet, Sieben the Saga-master. The road is long. The next woman? A whore in Mashrapur, who will ask for seven silver pennies. You will pay it.”

He released Sieben’s hand and turned his blind eyes towards Druss. “Do you wish your future told?”

“I will make my own future,” answered Druss.

“Ah, a man of strength and independent will. Come. Let me at least see, for my own interest, what tomorrow holds for you.”

“Come on, lad,” pleaded Sieben. “Give him your hand.”

Druss rose and walked to where the old man sat. He squatted down before him and thrust out his hand. The priest’s fingers closed around his own. “A large hand,” he said. “Strong… very strong.” Suddenly he winced, his body stiffening. “Are you yet young, Druss the Legend? Have you stood at the pass?”

“What pass?”

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen.”

“Of course. Seventeen. And searching for Rowena. Yes… Mashrapur. I see it now. Not yet the Deathwalker, the Silver Slayer, the Captain of the Axe. But still mighty.” He released his hold and sighed. “You are quite right, Druss, you will make your own future; you will need no words from me.” The old man rose and took up his staff. “I thank you for your hospitality.”

Sieben stood also. “At least tell us what awaits in Mashrapur,” he said.

“A whore and seven silver pennies,” answered the priest with a dry smile. He turned his blind eyes towards Druss. “Be strong, axeman. The road is long and there are legends to be made. But Death awaits, and he is patient. You will see him as you stand beneath the gates in the fourth Year of the Leopard.”

He walked slowly away. “Incredible,” whispered Sieben.

“Why?” responded Druss. “I could have foretold that the next woman you meet would be a whore.”

“He knew our names, Druss; he knew everything. Now, when is the fourth Year of the Leopard?”

“He told us nothing. Let’s move on.”

“How can you say that it was nothing? He called you Druss the Legend. What legend? How will you build it?”

Ignoring him, Druss walked to his horse and climbed into the saddle. “I don’t like horses,” he said. “Once we reach Mashrapur I’ll sell it. Rowena and I will walk back.”

Sieben looked up at the pale-eyed young man. “It meant nothing to you, did it? His prophecy, I mean.”

“They were just words, poet. Noises on the air. Let’s ride.”

After a while Sieben spoke. “The Year of the Leopard is forty-three years away. Gods, Druss, you’ll live to be an old man. I wonder where the gates are.”

Druss ignored him and rode on.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Five

Bodasen threaded his way through the crowds milling on the dock, past the gaudily dressed women with their painted faces and insincere smiles, past the stallholders bellowing their bargains, past the beggars with their deformed limbs and their pleading eyes. Bodasen hated Mashrapur, loathed the smell of the teeming multitudes who gathered here seeking instant wealth. The streets were narrow and choked with the detritus of humanity, the houses built high - three-, four - and five-storey - all linked by alleyways and tunnels and shadowed pathways where robbers could plunge their blades into unsuspecting victims and flee through the labyrinthine back streets before the undermanned city guards could apprehend them.

What a city, thought Bodasen. A place of filth and painted women, a haven for thieves, smugglers, slavers and renegades.

A woman approached him. “You look lonely, my love,” she said, flashing a gold-toothed smile. He gazed down at her and her smile faded. She backed away swiftly and Bodasen rode on.

He came to a narrow alleyway and paused to push his black cloak above his left shoulder. The hilt of his sabre shone in the fading sunlight. As Bodasen walked on, three men stood in the shadows. He felt their eyes upon him and turned his face towards them, his stare challenging; they looked away, and he continued along the alley until it broadened out to a small square with a fountain at the centre, constructed around a bronze statue of a boy riding a dolphin. Several whores were sitting beside the fountain, chatting to one another. They saw him, and instantly their postures changed. Leaning back to thrust out their breasts, they assumed their customary smiles. As he passed he heard their chatter begin again.

The inn was almost empty. An old man sat at the bar, nursing a jug of ale, and two maids were cleaning tables, while a third prepared the night’s fire in the stone hearth. Bodasen moved to a window table and sat, facing the door. A maid approached him.

“Good evening, my lord. Are you ready for your usual supper?”

“No. Bring me a goblet of good red wine and a flagon of fresh water.”

“Yes, my lord.” She curtsied prettily and walked away. Her greeting eased his irritation. Some, even in this disgusting city, could recognise nobility. The wine was of an average quality, no more than four years old and harsh on the tongue, and Bodasen drank sparingly.

The inn door opened and two men entered. Bodasen leaned back in his chair and watched them approach. The first was a handsome man, tall and wide-shouldered; he wore a crimson cloak over a red tunic, and a sabre was scabbarded at his hip. The second was a huge, bald warrior, heavily muscled and grim of feature.

The first man sat opposite Bodasen, the second standing alongside the table. “Where is Harib Ka?” Bodasen asked.

“Your countryman will not be joining us,” replied Collan.

“He said he would be here; that is the reason I agreed to this meeting.”

Collan shrugged. “He had an urgent appointment elsewhere.”

“He said nothing of it to me.”

“I think it was unexpected. You wish to do business, or not?”

“I do not do business, Collan. I seek to negotiate a treaty with the… free traders of the Ventrian Sea. My understanding is that you have… shall we say, contacts, among them?”

Collan chuckled. “Interesting. You can’t bring yourself to say pirates, can you? No, that would be too much for a Ventrian nobleman. Well, let us think the situation through. The Ventrian fleet has been scattered or sunk. On land your armies are crushed, and the Emperor slain. Now you pin your hopes on the pirate fleet; only they can ensure that the armies of Naashan do not march all the way to the capital. Am I in error on any of these points?”

Bodasen cleared his throat. “The Empire is seeking friends. The Free Traders are in a position to aid us in our struggle against the forces of evil. We always treat our friends with great generosity.”

“I see,” said Collan, his eyes mocking. “We are fighting the forces of evil now? And there I was believing that Naashan and Ventria were merely two warring empires. How naive of me. However, you speak of generosity. How generous is the Prince?”

“The Emperor is noted for his largess.”

Collan smiled. “Emperor at nineteen - a rapid rise to power. But he has lost eleven cities to the invader, and his treasury is severely depleted. Can he find two hundred thousand gold raq?”

“Two… surely you are not serious?”

“The Free Traders have fifty warships. With them we could protect the coastline and prevent invasion from the sea; we could also shepherd the convoys that carry Ventrian silk to the Drenai and the Lentrians and countless others. Without us you are doomed, Bodasen. Two hundred thousand is a small price to pay.”

“I am authorised to offer fifty. No more.”

“The Naashanites have offered one hundred.”

Bodasen fell silent, his mouth dry. “Perhaps we could pay the difference in silks and trade goods?” he offered at last.

“Gold,” said Collan. “That is all that interests us. We are not merchants.”

No, thought Bodasen bitterly, you are thieves and killers, and it burns my soul to sit in the same room with such as you. “I will need to seek counsel of the ambassador,” he said. “He can communicate your request to the Emperor. I will need five days.”

“That is agreeable,” said Collan, rising. “You know where to find me?”

Under a flat rock, thought Bodasen, with the other slugs and lice. “Yes,” he said, softly, “I know where to find you. Tell me, when will Harib be back in Mashrapur?”

“He won’t.”

“Where is this appointment then?”

“In Hell,” answered Collan.

“You must have patience,” said Sieben, as Druss stalked around the small room on the upper floor of the Tree of Bone Inn. The poet had stretched out his long, lean frame on the first of the two narrow beds, while Druss strode to the window and stood staring out over the dock and the sea beyond the harbour.

“Patience?” stormed the axeman. “She’s here somewhere, maybe close.”

“And we’ll find her,” promised Sieben, “but it will take a little time. First there are the established slave traders. This evening I will ask around, and find out where Collan has placed her. Then we can plan her rescue.”

Druss swung round. “Why not go to the White Bear Inn and find Collan? He knows.”

“I expect he does, old horse.” Sieben swung his legs from the bed and stood. “And he’ll have any number of rascals ready to plunge knives in our backs. Foremost among them will be Borcha. I want you to picture a man who looks as if he was carved from granite, with muscles that dwarf even yours. Borcha is a killer. He has beaten men to death in fist fights, snapped necks in wrestling bouts; he doesn’t need a weapon. I have seen him crush a pewter goblet in one hand, and watched him lift a barrel of ale above his head. And he is just one of Collan’s men.”

“Frightened, are you, poet?”

“Of course I’m frightened, you young fool! Fear is sensible. Never make the mistake of equating it with cowardice. But it is senseless to go after Collan; he is known here and has friends in very high places. Attack him and you will be arrested, tried and sentenced. Then there will be no one to rescue Rowena.”

Druss slumped down, his elbows resting on the warped table. “I hate sitting here doing nothing,” he said.

“Then let’s walk around the city for a while,” offered Sieben. “We can gather some information. How much did you get for your horse?”

“Twenty in silver.”

“Almost fair. You did well. Come on, I’ll show you the sights.” Druss stood and gathered his axe. “I don’t think you’ll need that,” Sieben told him. “It’s one thing to wear a sword or carry a knife, but the City Watch will not take kindly to that monstrosity. In a crowded street you’re likely to cut off someone’s arm by mistake. Here, I’ll loan you one of my knives.”

“I won’t need it,” said Druss, leaving the axe on the table and striding out of the room.

Together they walked down into the main room of the inn, then out into the narrow street beyond.

Druss sniffed loudly. “This city stinks,” he said.

“Most cities do - at least in the poorest areas. No sewers. Refuse is thrown from windows. So walk warily.”

They moved towards the docks where several ships were being unloaded, bales of silk from Ventria and Naashan and other eastern nations, herbs and spices, dried fruit and barrels of wine. The dock was alive with activity.

“I’ve never seen so many people in one place,” said Druss.

“It’s not even busy yet,” Sieben pointed out. They strolled around the harbour wall, past temples and large municipal buildings, through a small park with a statue-lined walkway and a central fountain. Young couples were walking hand in hand and to the left an orator was addressing a small crowd. He was speaking of the essential selfishness of the pursuit of altruism. Sieben stopped to listen for a few minutes, then walked on.

“Interesting, don’t you think?” he asked his companion. “He was suggesting that good works are ultimately selfish because they make the man who undertakes them feel good. Therefore he has not been unselfish at all, but has merely acted for his own pleasure.”

Druss shook his head and glowered at the poet. “His mother should have told him the mouth is not for breaking wind with.”

“I take it this is your subtle way of saying you disagree with his comments?” snapped Sieben.

“The man’s a fool.”

“How would you set about proving that?”

“I don’t need to prove it. If a man serves up a plate of cow dung, I don’t need to taste it to know it’s not steak.”

“Explain it,” Sieben urged him. “Share some of that vaunted frontier philosophy.”

“No,” said Druss, walking on.

“Why not?” asked Sieben, moving alongside him.

“I am a woodsman. I know about trees. Once I worked in an orchard. Did you know you can take cuttings from any variety and graft them to another apple tree? One tree can have twenty varieties. It’s the same with pears. My father always said men were like that with knowledge. So much can be grafted on, but it must match what the heart feels. You can’t graft apple to pear. It’s a waste of time - and I don’t like wasting my time.”

“You think I could not understand your arguments?” asked Sieben with a sneering smile.

“Some things you either know or you don’t. And I can’t graft that knowledge on to you. Back in the mountains I watched fanners plant tree lines across the fields; they did it because the winds can blow away the top-soil. But the trees would take a hundred years to form a real windbreak, so those farmers were building for the future, for others they will never know. They did it because it was right to do it - and not one of them would be able to debate with that pompous windbag back there. Or with you. Nor is it necessary that they should.”

“That pompous windbag is the first minister of Mashrapur, a brilliant politician and a poet of some repute. I’m sure he would be mortally humiliated to know that a young uneducated peasant from the frontier disagrees with his philosophy.”

“Then we won’t tell him,” said Druss. “We’ll just leave him here serving up his cow-pats to people who will believe they’re steaks. Now I’m thirsty, poet. Do you know of a decent tavern?”

“It depends what you’re looking for. The taverns on the docks are rough, and usually filled with thieves and whores. If we walk on for another half-mile we’ll come to a more civilised area. There we can have a quiet drink.”

“What about those places over there?” asked Druss, pointing to a row of buildings alongside the wharf.

“Your judgement is unerring, Druss. That is East Wharf, better known to the residents here as Thieves Row. Every night there are a score of fights - and murders. Almost no one of quality would go there - which makes it perfect for you. You go on. I’ll visit some old friends who might have news of recent slave movements.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Druss.

“No, you won’t. You’d be out of place. Most of my friends, you see, are pompous windbags. I’ll meet you back at the Tree of Bone by midnight.” Druss chuckled, which only increased Sieben’s annoyance as the poet swung away and strode through the park.

The room was furnished with a large bed with satin sheets, two comfort chairs padded with horsehair and covered with velvet, and a table upon which sat a jug of wine and two silver goblets. There were rugs upon the floor, woven with great skill and soft beneath her bare feet. Rowena sat upon the edge of the bed, her right hand clasping the brooch Druss had fashioned for her. She could see him walking beside Sieben. Sadness overwhelmed her and her hand dropped to her lap. Harib Ka was dead - as she had known he would be - and Druss was now closer to his dread destiny.

She felt powerless and alone in Collan’s house. There were no locks upon the door, but there were guards in the corridor beyond. Yet there was no escape.

On the first night, when Collan had taken her from the camp, he had raped her twice. On the second occasion she had tried to empty her mind, losing herself in dreams of the past. In doing so she had unlocked the doors to her Talent. Rowena had floated free of her abused body and hurtled through darkness and Time. She saw great cities, huge armies, mountains that breached the clouds. Lost, she sought for Druss and could not find him.

Then a voice came to her, a gentle voice, warm and reassuring. “Be calm, sister. I will help you.”

She paused in her flight, floating above a night-dark ocean. A man appeared alongside her; he was slim of build and young, perhaps twenty. His eyes were dark, his smile friendly. “Who are you?” she asked him.

“I am Vintar of the Thirty.”

“I am lost,” she said.

“Give me your hand.”

Reaching out she felt his spirit fingers, then his thoughts washed over hers. On the verge of panic Rowena felt herself swamped by his memories, seeing a temple of grey stone, a dwelling-place of white-clad monks. He withdrew from her as swiftly as he had entered her thoughts. “Your ordeal is over,” he said. “He has left you and now sleeps beside you. I shall take you home.”

“I cannot bear it. He is a vile man.”

“You will survive, Rowena.”

“Why should I wish to?” she asked him. “My husband is changing, becoming day by day as vicious as the men who took me. What kind of life will I face?”

“I will not answer that, though probably I could,” he told her. “You are very young, and you have experienced great pain. But you are alive, and while living can achieve great good. You have the Talent, not only to Soar but also to Heal, to Know. Few are blessed with this gift. Do not concern yourself with Collan; he raped you only because Harib Ka said that he should not and he will not touch you again.”

“He has defiled me.”

“No,” said Vintar sternly, “he has defiled himself. It is important to understand that.”

“Druss would be ashamed of me, for I did not fight.”

“You fought, Rowena, in your own way. You gave him no pleasure. To have tried to resist would have increased his lust, and his satisfaction. As it was - and you know this to be true - he felt deflated and full of melancholy. And you know his fate.”

“I don’t want any more deaths!”

“We all die. You… me… Druss. The measure of us all is established by how we live.”

He had returned her to her body, taking care to instruct her in the ways of Spirit travel, and the routes by which she could return by herself in the future. “Will I see you again?” she asked him.

“It is possible,” he answered.

Now, as she sat on the satin-covered bed, she wished she could speak with him again.

The door opened and a huge warrior entered. He was bald and heavily muscled. There were scars around his eyes and his nose was flattened against his face. He moved towards the bed but there was no threat, she knew. Silently he laid a gown of white silk upon the bed. “Collan has asked that you wear this for Kabuchek.”

“Who is Kabuchek?” she enquired.

“A Ventrian merchant. If you do well he will buy you. It won’t be a bad life, girl. He has many palaces and treats his slaves with care.”

“Why do you serve Collan?” she asked.

His eyes narrowed. “I serve no one. Collan is a friend. I help him sometimes.”

“You are a better man than he.”

“That is as may be. But several years ago, when I was first champion, I was waylaid in an alley by supporters of the vanquished champion. They had swords and knives. Collan ran to my aid. We survived. I always pay my debts. Now put on the gown, and prepare your skill. You need to impress the Ventrian.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Collan will not be pleased and I don’t think you would like that. Trust me on this, lady. Do your best and you will be clear of this house.”

“My husband is coming for me,” she said softly. “When he does, he will kill any who have harmed me.”

“Why tell me?”

“Do not be here when he comes, Borcha.”

The giant shrugged. “The Fates will decide,” he said.

Druss strolled across to the wharf buildings. They were old, a series of taverns created from derelict warehouses and there were recesses and alley entrances everywhere. Garishly dressed women lounged against the walls and ragged men sat close by, playing knucklebones or talking in small groups.

A woman approached him. “All the delights your mind can conjure for just a silver penny,” she said wearily.

“Thank you, but no,” he told her.

“I can get you opiates, if you desire them?”

“No,” he said, more sternly, and moved on. Three bearded men pushed themselves to their feet and walked in front of him. “A gift for the poor, my lord?” asked the first.

Druss was about to reply when he glimpsed the man to his left edge his hand into the folds of a filthy shirt. He chuckled. “If that hand comes out with a knife in it - I’ll make you eat it, little man.” The beggar froze.

“You shouldn’t be coming here with threats,” said the first man. “Not unarmed as you are. It’s not wise, my lord.” Reaching behind his back, he drew a long-bladed dagger.

As the blade appeared Druss stepped forward and casually backhanded the man across the mouth. The robber cartwheeled to the left, scattering a group of watching whores and colliding with a wall of brick. He moaned once, then lay still. Ignoring the other two beggars, Druss strode to the nearest tavern and stepped inside.

The interior was windowless and high-ceilinged, lit by lanterns which hung from the beams. The tavern smelt of burning oil and stale sweat. It was crowded, and Druss eased his way to a long trestle table on which several barrels of ale were set. And old man in a greasy apron approached him. “You don’t want to be drinking before the bouts begin; it’ll fill you with wind,” he warned.

“What bouts?”

The man looked at him appraisingly, and his glittering eyes held no hint of warmth. “You wouldn’t be trying to fool Old Thorn, would you?”

“I’m a stranger here,” said Druss. “Now, what bouts?”

“Follow me, lad,” said Thorn, and he pushed his way through the crowd towards the back of the tavern and on through a narrow doorway. Druss followed him and found himself standing in a rectangular warehouse where a wide circle of sand had been roped off at the centre. By the far walls were a group of athletes, moving through a series of exercises to loosen the muscles of shoulders and back.

“You ever fought?”

“Not for money.”

Thorn nodded, then reached out and lifted Druss’s hand. “A good size, and flat knuckles. But are you fast, boy?”

“What is the prize?” countered the young man.

“It won’t work that way - not for you. This is a standard contest and all the entrants are nominated well in advance so that sporting gentlemen can have opportunities to judge the quality of the fighter. But just before the start of the competition there’ll be offers to men in the crowd to earn a few pennies by taking on various champions. A golden raq, for example, to the man who can stay on his feet for one turn of the sandglass. They do it to allow the fighters to warm up against low-quality opposition.”

“How long is one turn?” asked Druss.

“About as long as it’s been since you first walked into the Blind Corsair.”

“And what if a man won?”

“It doesn’t happen, lad. But if it did, then he’d take the loser’s place in the main event. No, the main money is made on wagers among the crowd. How much coin are you carrying?”

“You ask a lot of questions, old man.”

“Pah! I’m not a robber, lad. Used to be, but then I got old and slow. Now I live on my wits. You look like a man who could stand up for himself. At first I mistook you for Grassin the Lentrian - that’s him over there, by the far door.” Druss followed the old man’s pointing finger and saw a powerfully built young man with short-cropped black hair. He was talking to another heavily-muscled man, a blond warrior with a dangling moustache. “The other one is Skatha, he is a Naashanite sailor. And the big fellow at the back is Borcha. He’ll win tonight. No question. Deadly, he is. Most likely someone will be crippled by him before the evening is out.”

Druss gazed at the man and felt the hackles on his neck rise. Borcha was enormous, standing some seven inches above six feet tall. He was bald, his head vaguely pointed as if his skin was stretched over a Vagrian helm. His shoulders were massively muscled, his neck huge with muscles swollen and bulging.

“No good looking at him like that, boy. He’s too good for you. Trust me on that. He’s skilled and very fast. He won’t even step up for the warming bouts. No one would face him - not even for twenty golden raq. But that Grassin now, I think you could stand against him for a turn of the glass. And if you’ve some coin to wager, I’ll find takers.”

“What do you get, old man?”

“Half of what we make.”

“What odds could you bargain for?”

“Two to one. Maybe three.”

“And if I went against Borcha?”

“Put it from your mind, boy. We want to make money - not coffin fuel.”

“How much?” persisted Druss.

“Ten to one - twenty to one. The gods alone know!”

Druss opened the pouch at his side, removing ten silver pieces. Casually he dropped them into the old man’s outstretched hand. “Let it be known that I wish to stand against Borcha for a turn of the glass.”

“Asia’s tits, he’ll kill you.”

“If he doesn’t, you could make a hundred pieces of silver. Maybe more.”

“There is that, of course,” said Old Thorn, with a crooked grin.

Crowds slowly began to fill the warehouse arena. Rich nobles clad in silks and fine leathers, their ladies beside them in lace and satin, were seated on high tiers overlooking the sand circle. On the lower levels were the merchants and traders in their conical caps arid long capes. Druss felt uncomfortable, hemmed in by the mass. The air was growing foul, the temperature rising as more and more people filed in.

Rowena would hate this place, with its noise and its pressing throng. His mood darkened as he thought of her - a prisoner somewhere, a slave to the whims and desires of Collan. He forced such thoughts from his mind, and concentrated instead on his conversation with the poet. He had enjoyed irritating the man; it had eased his own anger, an anger generated by the unwilling acceptance that much of what the speaker in the park had said was true. He loved Rowena, heart and soul. But he needed her also, and he often wondered which was the stronger, love or need. And was he trying to rescue her because he loved her, or because he was lost without her? The question tormented him.

Rowena calmed his turbulent spirit in a way no other living soul ever could. She helped him to see the world through gentle eyes. It was a rare and beautiful experience. If she had been with him now, he thought, he too would have been filled with distaste at the sweating multitude waiting for blood and pain. Instead the young man stood amidst the crowd and felt his heartbeat quicken, his excitement rise at the prospect of combat.

His pale eyes scanned the crowd, picking out the fat figure of Old Thorn talking to a tall man in a red velvet cloak. The man was smiling. He turned from Thorn and approached the colossal figure of Borcha. Druss saw the fighter’s eyes widen, then the man laughed. Druss could not hear the sound above the chatter and noise about him, but he felt his anger grow. This was Borcha, one of Collan’s men - perhaps one of those who had taken Rowena.

Old Thorn returned through the crowd and led Druss to a fairly quiet corner. “I’ve set events in motion,” he said. “Now listen to me - don’t try for the head. Men have broken their hands on that skull. He has a habit of dipping into punches so that the other man’s knuckles strike bone. Go for the lower body. And watch his feet - he’s a skilled kicker, lad… what’s your name, by the way?”

“Druss.”

“Well, Druss, you’ve grabbed a bear by the balls this time. If he hurts you, don’t try to hold on; he’ll use that head on you, and cave in the bones of your face. Try backing away and covering up.”

“Let him try backing away,” snarled Druss.

“Ah, you’re a cocky lad, for sure. But you’ve never faced a man like Borcha. He’s like a living hammer.”

Druss chuckled. “You really know how to lift a man’s spirits. What odds did you find?”

“Fifteen to one. If you hold to your feet, you’ll have seventy-five pieces of silver - plus your original ten.”

“Is that enough to buy a slave?”

“What would you want with a slave?”

“Is it enough?”

“Depends on the slave. Some girls fetch upwards of a hundred. You have someone in mind?”

Druss dipped into his pouch, removing the last four silver pieces. “Wager these also.”

The old man took the money. “I take it this is your entire wealth?”

“It is.”

“She must be a very special slave?”

“She’s my wife. Collan’s men took her.”

“Collan takes lots of women. Your wife’s not a witch, is she?”

“What?” snarled Druss.

“No offence, lad. But Collan sold a witch woman to Kabuchek the Ventrian today. Five thousand silver pieces she brought.”

“No, she is not a witch. Just a mountain girl, sweet and gentle.”

“Ah well, a hundred should be enough,” said Thorn. “But first you have to win it. Have you ever been hit?”

“No. But a tree fell on me once.”

“Knock you out?”

“No. I was dazed for a while.”

“Well, Borcha will feel like a mountain fell on you. I hope you’ve the strength to withstand it.”

“We’ll see, old man.”

“If you go down, roll under the ropes. Otherwise he’ll stomp you.”

Druss smiled. “I like you, old man. You don’t honey the medicine, do you?”

“Does you no good unless it tastes bad,” replied Thorn, with a crooked grin.

Borcha enjoyed the admiring glances from the crowd - fear and respect from the men and healthy lust from the women. He felt he had earned such silent accolades during the past five years. His blue eyes scanned the tiers and he picked out Mapek, the First Minister of Mashrapur, Bodasen the Ventrian envoy, and a dozen more notables from the Emir’s government. He kept his face impassive as he gazed around the converted warehouse. It was well known that he never smiled, save in the sand circle when his opponent began to weaken under his iron fists.

He glanced at Grassin, watching the man move through a series of loosening exercises. He had to hold back his smile then. Others might believe Grassin was merely stretching tight muscles, but Borcha could read fear in the man’s movements. He focused on the other fighters, staring at them. Few looked his way, and those who did cast fleeting glances, avoiding his eyes.

Losers, all of them, he thought.

He took a deep breath, filling his massive lungs. The air was hot and damp. Signalling to one of his aides, Borcha told the man to open the wide windows at either end of the warehouse. A second aide approached him, “There is a yokel who wants to try a turn of the glass with you, Borcha.” The fighter was irritated and he surreptitiously studied the crowd. All eyes were on him. So the word was already out! He threw back his head and forced a laugh,

“Who is this man?”

“A stranger from the mountains. Youngster - around twenty, I’d say.”

“That explains his stupidity,” hissed Borcha. No man who had ever seen him fight would relish the prospect of four minutes in the sand circle with the champion of Mashrapur. But still he was annoyed.

Winning involved far more skills than with fists and feet, he knew. It was a complex mix of courage and heart, allied to the planting of the seeds of doubt in the minds of opponents. A man who believed his enemy was invincible had already lost, and Borcha had spent years building such a reputation.

No one in two years had dared to risk a turn of the glass with the champion.

Until now. Which threw up a second problem. Arena fights were without rules: a fighter could legitimately gouge out an opponent’s eyes or, after downing him, stamp upon his neck. Deaths were rare, but not unknown, and many fighters were crippled for life. But Borcha would not be able to use his more deadly array of skills against an unknown youngster. It would suggest he feared the boy.

“They’re offering fifteen to one against him surviving,” whispered the aide.

“Who is negotiating for him?”

“Old Thorn.”

“How much has he wagered?”

“I’ll find out.” The man moved away into the crowd.

The tournament organiser, a huge, obese merchant named Bilse, stepped into the sand circle. “My friends,” he bellowed, his fat chins wobbling, “welcome to the Blind Corsair. Tonight you will be privileged to witness the finest fist fighters in Mashrapur.”

Borcha closed his mind to the man’s droning voice. He had heard it all before. Five years ago his mood had been different. His wife and son sick from dysentery, the young Borcha had finished his work on the docks and had run all the way to the Corsair to win ten silver pieces in a warm-up contest. To his surprise he had beaten his opponent, and had taken his place in the tournament. That night, after hammering six fighters to defeat, he had taken home sixty golden raq. He had arrived at their rooms triumphant, only to find his son dead and his wife comatose. The best doctor in Mashrapur was summoned. He had insisted Caria be removed to a hospital in the rich northern district - but only after Borcha had parted with all his hard-won gold. There Caria rallied for a while, only to be struck down with consumption.

The treatment over the next two years cost three hundred raq.

And still she died, her body ravaged by sickness.

Borcha’s bitterness was colossal, and he unleashed it in every fight, focusing his hatred and his fury on the men who faced him.

He heard his name called and raised his right arm. The crowd cheered and clapped.

Now he had a house in the northern quarter, built of marble and the finest timber, with terracotta tiles on the roof. Twenty slaves were on hand to do his bidding, and his investments in slaves and silks brought him an income to rival any of the senior merchants. Yet still he fought, the demons of the past driving him on.

Bilse announced that the warm-up contest would begin and Borcha watched as Grassin stepped into the circle to take on a burly dock-worker. The bout lasted barely a few seconds, Grassin lifting the man from his feet with an uppercut. Borcha’s aide approached him. “They have wagered around nine silver pieces. Is it important?”

Borcha shook his head. Had there been large sums involved it would have indicated trickery of some kind, perhaps a foreign fighter drafted in, a tough man from another city, a bruiser unknown in Mashrapur. But no. This was merely stupidity and arrogance combined.

Bilse called his name and Borcha stepped into the circle. He tested the sand beneath his feet. Too thick and it made for clumsy movement, too thin and a fighter could slide and lose balance. It was well raked. Satisfied, Borcha turned his gaze on the young man who had entered the circle from the other side.

He was young and some inches shorter than Borcha, though his shoulders were enormous. His chest was thick, the pectoral muscles well developed, and his biceps were huge. Watching him move, Borcha saw that he was well balanced and lithe. His waist was thick, but carried little fat, and his neck was large and well protected by the powerful, swollen muscles of the trapezius. Borcha transferred his gaze to his opponent’s face. Strong cheekbones and a good chin. The nose was wide and flat, the brows heavy. The champion looked into the challenger’s eyes; they were pale, and they showed no fear. Indeed, thought Borcha, he looks as if he hates me.

Bilse introduced the young man as “Druss from the lands of the Drenai.” The two fighters approached one another. Borcha towered over Druss. The champion held out his hands but Druss merely smiled and walked back to the ropes, turning to wait for the signal to begin.

The casual insult did not concern the champion. Lifting his hands into the orthodox fighting position, left arm extended and right fist held close to the cheek, he advanced on the young man. Druss surged forward, almost taking Borcha by surprise. But the champion was fast and sent a thudding left jab into the young man’s face, following it with a stinging right cross that thundered against Druss’s jaw. Borcha stepped back, allowing room for Druss to fall, but something exploded against the side of the champion. For a moment he thought a large rock had been hurled from the crowd, then he realised it was the fist of his opponent. Far from falling, the young man had taken the two punches and hit back with one of his own.

Borcha reeled from the blow, then counter-attacked with a series of combination strikes that snapped Druss’s head back. Yet still he came on. Borcha feinted a jab to the head, then swept an uppercut into the young man’s belly, whereupon Druss snarled and threw a wild right. Borcha ducked under it, dipping just in time to meet a rising left uppercut. He managed to roll his head, the blow striking his cheek. Surging upright, he crashed an overhand right into Druss’s face, splitting the skin above the man’s left eye; then he hit him with a left.

Druss staggered back, thrown off balance, and Borcha moved in for the kill, but a hammer-blow hit him just under the heart and he felt a rib snap. Anger roared through him and he began to smash punches into the youngster’s face and body - brutal, powerful blows that forced his opponent back towards the ropes. Another cut appeared, this time over Druss’s right eye.

The young man ducked and weaved, but more and more blows hammered home. Sensing victory, Borcha increased the ferocity of his attack and the pace of his punches. But Druss refused to go down and, ducking his head, he charged at Borcha. The champion sidestepped and threw a left that glanced from Druss’s shoulder. The young man recovered his balance and Borcha stepped in. Druss wiped the blood from his eyes and advanced to meet him.

The champion feinted with a left, but Druss ignored it and sent a right that swept under Borcha’s guard and smashed into his injured ribs. The champion winced as pain lanced his side. A huge fist crashed against his chin and he felt a tooth snap; he responded with a left uppercut that lifted Druss to his toes and a right hook that almost felled the youngster.

Druss hit him with another right to the ribs and Borcha was forced back. The two men began to circle one another, and only now did Borcha hear the baying of the crowd. They were cheering for Druss, just as five years before they had cheered for Borcha.

Druss attacked. Borcha threw a left that missed and a right that didn’t. Druss rocked back on his heels, but advanced again. Borcha hit him three times, further opening the cuts that saw blood streaming into the young man’s face. Almost blinded, Druss lashed out, one punch catching Borcha on the right bicep, numbing his arm, a second cracking against his brow. Blood seeped from the champion’s face now, and a tremendous roar went up from the crowd.

Oblivious to the noise Borcha counter-attacked, driving Druss back across the circle, hitting him time and again with brutal hooks and jabs.

Then the horn sounded. The sandglass had run out. Borcha stepped back, but Druss attacked. Borcha grabbed him around the waist, pinning his arms and hauling him in close. “It is over, boy,” he hissed. “You won your wager.”

Druss jerked himself loose and shook his head, spraying blood to the sand. Then he lifted his hand and pointed at Borcha. “You go to Collan,” he snarled, “and you tell him that if anyone has harmed my wife I’ll tear his head from his neck.”

Then the young man swung away and stalked from the circle.

Borcha turned and saw the other fighters watching him.

They were all willing to meet his eyes now… and Grassin was smiling.

Sieben entered the Tree of Bone just after midnight. There were still some hardened drinkers present, and the serving maids moved wearily among them. Sieben mounted the stairs to the gallery above and made his way to the room he shared with Druss. Just as he was about to open the door, he heard voices from within.

Drawing his dagger, he threw open the door and leapt inside. Druss was sitting on one of the beds, his face bruised and swollen, the marks of rough stitches over both eyes. A dirt-streaked fat man was sitting on Sieben’s bed and a slim, black-cloaked nobleman with a trident beard was standing by the window. As the poet entered the nobleman swung, a shining sabre hissing from its scabbard. The fat man screamed and dived from the bed, landing with a dull thud behind the seated Druss.

“You took your time, poet,” said the axeman.

Sieben gazed down at the point of the sabre which was motionless in the air some two inches from his throat. “It didn’t take you long to make new friends,” he said, with a forced smile.

With great care he slipped the knife back into its sheath, and was relieved to see the nobleman return his sabre to its scabbard.

“This is Bodasen; he’s a Ventrian,” said Druss. “And the man on his knees behind me is Thorn.”

The fat man rose, grinning sheepishly. “Good to meet you, my lord,” he said, bowing.

“Who the Devil gave you those black eyes?” asked Sieben, moving forward to examine Dross’s wounds.

“Nobody gave them to me. I had to fight for them.”

“He fought Borcha,” said Bodasen, with the faintest trace of an eastern accent. “And a fine bout it was. Lasted a full turn of the glass.”

“Aye, it was something to see,” added Thorn. “Borcha didn’t look none too pleased - especially when Dross cracked his rib! We all heard it. Wonderful, it was.”

“You fought Borcha?” whispered Sieben.

“To a standstill,” said the Ventrian. “There were no surgeons present, so I assisted with the stitching. You are the poet Sieben, are you not?”

“Yes. Do I know you, my friend?”

“I saw you perform once in Drenan, and in Ventria I read your saga of Waylander. Wonderfully inventive.”

“Thank you. Much needed to be invention since little is known of him. I did not know that the book had travelled so far. Only fifty copies were made.”

“My Emperor acquired one on his travels, bound in leather and embossed with gold leaf. The script is very fine.”

“There were five of those,” said Sieben. “Twenty raq each. Beautiful works.”

Bodasen chuckled. “My Emperor paid six hundred for it.”

Sieben sighed and sat down on the bed. “Ah well, better the fame than gold, eh? So tell me, Dross, what made you fight Borcha?”

“I earned a hundred silver pieces. Now I shall buy Rowena. Did you find out where she is held?”

“No, my friend. Collan has sold only one woman recently. A Seer. He must be keeping Rowena for himself.”

“Then I shall kill him and take her - and to Hell with the law of Mashrapur.”

“If I may,” said Bodasen, “I think I can help. I am acquainted with this Collan. It may be that I can secure the release of your lady - without bloodshed.”

Sieben said nothing, but he noted the concern in the Ventrian’s dark eyes.

“I’ll not wait much longer,” said Druss. “Can you see him tomorrow?”

“Of course. You will be here?”

“I’ll wait for your word,” promised Dross.

“Very well. I bid you all good night,” said Bodasen, with a short bow.

After he had left Old Thorn also made for the door. “Well, lad, it were quite a night. If you decide to fight again I’d be honoured to make the arrangements.”

“No more for me,” said Druss. “I’d sooner have trees fall on me than that man again.”

Thorn shook his head. “I wish that I’d had more faith,” he said. “I only bet one silver piece of my share.” He chuckled and spread his hands. “Ah well, that is life, I suppose.” His smile faded. “A word of warning, Druss. Collan has many friends here. And there are those who will slit a man’s throat for the price of a jug of ale. Walk with care.” He turned and left the room.

There was a jug of wine on the small table and Sieben filled a clay goblet and sat. “You are a curious fellow, to be sure,” he said, grinning. “But at least Borcha has improved your looks. I think your nose is broken.”

“I think you are right,” said Druss. “So tell me of your day.”

“I visited four well-known slave traders. Collan brought no women with him to the slave markets. The story of your attack on Harib Ka is known everywhere. Some of the men who survived have now joined Collan, and they speak of you as a demon. But it is a mystery, Druss. I don’t know where she could be - unless at his home.”

The wound above Druss’s right eye began to seep blood. Sieben found a cloth and offered it to the axeman. Dross waved it away. “It will seal. Forget about it.”

“By the gods, Dross, you must be in agony. Your face is swollen, your eyes black.”

“Pain lets you know you’re alive,” said Dross. “Did you spend your silver pennies on the whore?”

Sieben chuckled. “Yes. She was very good - told me I was the best love-maker she had ever known.”

“There’s a surprise,” said Druss and Sieben laughed.

“Yes - but it’s nice to hear.” He sipped his wine, then stood and gathered his belongings.

“Where are you going?” asked Druss.

“Not I…we. We’ll move rooms.”

“I like it here.”

“Yes, it is quaint. But we need to sleep and - convivial as they both were - I see no reason to trust men I do not know. Collan will send killers after you, Druss. Bodasen may be in his employ, and as for the walking lice-sack who just left I think he’d sell his mother for a copper farthing. So trust me, and let’s move.”

“I liked them both - but you are right. I do need sleep.”

Sieben stepped outside and called to a tavern maid, slipping her a silver piece and asking for their move to be kept secret - even from the landlord. She slipped the coin into the pocket of her leather apron and took the two men to the far end of the gallery. The new room was larger than the first, boasting three beds and two lanterns. A fire had been laid in the hearth, but it was unlit and the room was cold.

When the maid had departed Sieben lit the fire and sat beside it, watching the flames lick at the tinder. Druss pulled off his boots and jerkin and stretched out on the widest of the beds. Within moments he was asleep, his axe on the floor beside the bed.

Sieben lifted the baldric of knives from his shoulder and hooked it over the back of the chair. The fire blazed more brightly and he added several thick chunks of wood from the log basket beside the hearth. As the hours passed, all sounds from the inn below faded, and only the crackling of burning wood disturbed the silence. Sieben was tired, but he did not sleep.

Then he heard the sounds of men upon the stairs, stealthy footfalls. Drawing one of his knives he moved to the door, opening it a fraction and peering out. At the other end of the gallery some seven men were crowding around the door of their previous quarters; the landlord was with them. The door was wrenched open and the men surged inside, but moments later they returned. One of the newcomers took hold of the landlord by his shirt and pushed him against the wall. The frightened man’s voice rose, and Sieben could just make out some of his words: “They were… honestly… lives of my children… they… without paying…” Sieben watched as the man was hurled to the floor. The would-be assassins then trooped down the gallery stairs and out into the night.

Pushing shut the door, Sieben returned to the fire.

And slept.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Six

Borcha sat quietly while Collan berated the men he had sent in search of Druss. They stood shamefaced before him, heads down. “How long have you been with me, Kotis?” he asked one of them, his voice low and thick with menace.

“Six years,” answered the man at the centre of the group, a tall, wide-shouldered bearded fist-fighter. Borcha remembered his destruction of this man; it had taken no more than a minute.

“Six years,” echoed Collan. “And in that time have you seen other men fall foul of me?”

“Aye, I have. But we got the information from Old Thorn. He swore they were staying in the Tree of Bone - and so they were. But they went into hiding after the fight with Borcha. We’ve men still looking; they won’t be hard to find tomorrow.”

“You’re right,” said Collan. “They won’t be hard to find; they’ll be coming here!”

“You could give his wife back,” offered Bodasen, who was lounging on a couch on the far side of the room.

“I don’t give women back. I take them! Anyway, I don’t know which farm wench he’s talking about. Most of those we took were freed when the madman attacked the camp. I expect his wife took a welcome opportunity to escape from his clutches.”

“He’s not a man I’d want hunting me,” said Borcha. “I’ve never hit anyone so hard - and seen them stay on their feet.”

“Get back out on the streets, all of you. Scour the inns and taverns near the docks. They won’t be far. And understand this, Kotis, if he does walk into my home tomorrow I’ll kill you!”

The men shuffled out and Borcha leaned back on the couch, suppressing a groan as his injured rib lanced pain into his side. He had been forced to withdraw from the tournament, and that hurt his pride. Yet he felt a grudging admiration for the young fighter; he, too, would have taken on an army for Caria. “You know what I think?” he offered.

“What?” snapped Collan.

“I think she’s the witch you sold to Kabuchek. What was her name?”

“Rowena.”

“Did you rape her?”

“I didn’t touch her,” lied Collan. “And anyway, I’ve sold her to Kabuchek. He gave me five thousand in silver - just like that. I should have asked for ten.”

“I think you should see the Old Woman,” advised Borcha.

“I don’t need a prophet to tell me how to deal with one country bumpkin and an axe. Now to business.” He turned to Bodasen. “It is too early to have received word on our demands, so why are you here tonight?”

The Ventrian smiled, his teeth startlingly white against the black trident beard. “I came because I told the young fighter that we were acquainted. I said I might be able to secure the release of his wife. But if you have already sold her, then I have wasted my time.”

“What concern is it of yours?”

Bodasen rose and flung his black cloak around his shoulders. “I am a soldier, Collan - as you once were. And I know men. You should have seen his fight with Borcha. It wasn’t pretty, it was brutal and almost terrifying. You are not dealing with a country bumpkin, you are facing a terrible killer. I don’t believe you have the men to stop him.”

“Why should you care?”

“Ventria needs the Free Traders and you are my link to them. I don’t want to see you dead just yet.”

“I am a fighter too, Bodasen,” said Collan.

“Indeed you are, Drenai. But let us review what we know. Harib Ka, according to those of his men who survived the raid, sent six men into the woods. They did not return. I spoke to Druss tonight and he told me he killed them. I believe him. Then he attacked a camp where forty armed men were based. The men ran away. Now he has fought Borcha, whom most men, including myself, believed to be invincible. The rabble you just sent out will have no chance against him.”

“True,” admitted Collan, “but as soon as he kills them the City Watch will take him. And I have only four more days to spend here; then I sail for the Free Trading ports. However, I take it you have some advice to offer?”

“Indeed I do. Get the woman back from Kabuchek and deliver her to Druss. Buy her or steal her - but do it, Collan.” With a short, perfunctory bow the Ventrian officer left the room.

“I’d listen to him if I were you,” advised Borcha.

“Not you as well!” stormed Collan. “By the gods, did he scramble your brains tonight? You and I both know what keeps us at the top of this filthy pile. Fear. Awe. Sometimes sheer terror. Where would my reputation be if I gave back a stolen woman?”

“You are quite right,” said Borcha, rising, “but a reputation can be rebuilt. A life is something else. He said he’d tear off your head and he’s a man who could do just that.”

“I never thought to see you running scared, my friend. I thought you were impervious to fear.”

Borcha smiled. “I am strong, Collan. I use my reputation because it makes it easier to win but I don’t live it. If I were to be in the path of a charging bull, then I would step aside, or turn and run, or climb a tree. A strong man should always know his limitations.”

“Well, he’s helped you know yours, my friend,” said Collan, with a sneer.

Borcha smiled and shook his head. He left Collan’s house and wandered through the northern streets. They were wider here, and lined with trees. Officers of the Watch marched by him, the captain saluting as he recognised the champion.

Former champion, thought Borcha. Now it was Grassin who would win the accolades.

Until next year. “I’ll be back,” whispered Borcha. “I have to. It is all I have.”

Sieben floated to consciousness through layers of dreams. He was drifting on a blue lake, yet his body was dry; he was standing on an island of flowers, but could not feel the earth beneath his feet; he was lying on a satin bed, beside a statue of marble. At his touch she became flesh, but remained cold.

He opened his eyes and the dreams whispered away from his memory. Druss was still asleep. Sieben rose from the chair and stretched his back, then he gazed down on the sleeping warrior.

The stitches on Druss’s brows were tight and puckered, dried blood had stained both eyelids and his nose was swollen and discoloured. Yet despite the wounds his face radiated strength and Sieben felt chilled by the almost inhuman power of the youth.

Druss groaned and opened his eyes.

“How are you feeling this morning?” asked the poet.

“Like a horse galloped over my face,” answered Druss, rolling from the bed and pouring himself a goblet of water. Someone tapped at the door.

Sieben rose from his chair and drew a knife from its sheath. “Who is it?”

“It is me, sir,” came the voice of the tavern-maid. “There is a man to see you; he is downstairs.”

Sieben opened the door and the maid curtsied. “Do you know him?” asked Sieben.

“He is the Ventrian gentleman who was here last night, sir.”

“Is he alone?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Send him up,” ordered Sieben. While they were waiting he told Druss about the men who had come searching for them the night before.

“You should have woken me,” said Druss.

“I thought we could do without a scene of carnage,” Sieben replied.

Bodasen entered and immediately crossed to where Druss stood by the window. He leaned in and examined the stitches on the axeman’s eyebrows. “They’ve held well,” said Bodasen, with a smile.

“What news?” asked Druss.

The Ventrian removed his black cloak and draped it over a chair. “Last night Collan had men scouring the city for you. Assassins. But today he has come to his senses. This morning he sent a man to me with a message for you. He has decided to return your wife to you.”

“Good. When and where.”

“There is a quay about a half-mile west of here. He will meet you there tonight, one hour after dusk, and he will have Rowena with him. But he is a worried man, Druss; he doesn’t want to die.”

“I’ll not kill him,” promised Druss.

“He wants you to come alone - and unarmed.”

“Madness!” stormed Sieben. “Does he think he is dealing with fools?”

“Whatever else he may be,” said Bodasen, “he is still a Drenai noble. His word must be accepted.”

“Not by me,” hissed Sieben. “He is a murdering renegade who has become rich by dealing in the misery of others. Drenai noble indeed!”

“I’ll go,” said Druss. “What other choices are there?”

“It is a trap, Druss. There is no honour in men like Collan. He’ll be there, right enough - with a dozen or so killers.”

“They won’t stop me,” insisted the axeman, his pale eyes gleaming.

“A knife through the throat can stop anyone.”

Bodasen stepped forward and laid his hand on Druss’s shoulder. “Collan assured me this was an honest trade. I would not have brought this message had I believed it to be false.”

Druss nodded and smiled. “I believe you,” he said.

“How did you find us?” enquired Sieben.

“This is where you said you would be,” answered Bodasen.

“Exactly where will this meeting take place?” asked Druss. Bodasen gave directions and then bade them farewell.

When he had left Sieben turned on the young axeman. “You truly believe him?”

“Of course. He is a Ventrian gentleman. My father told me they are the world’s worst traders because they have a hatred of lies and deceit. They are reared that way.”

“Collan isn’t a Ventrian,” Sieben pointed out.

“No,” agreed Druss, his expression grim. “No, he is not. He is everything you described. And you are quite right, poet. It will be a trap.”

“And yet you will still go?”

“As I have already said, there are no other choices. But you don’t have to be there. You owe Shadak - not me.”

Sieben smiled. “You are quite right, old horse. So how shall we play this little game?”

An hour before dusk Collan sat in an upper room overlooking the quay. The bearded Kotis stood beside him. “Is everyone in place?” asked the Drenai swordsman.

“Aye. Two crossbowmen, and six knife-fighters. Is Borcha coming?”

Collan’s handsome face darkened. “No.”

“He would make a difference,” observed Kotis.

“Why?” snapped Collan. “He’s already taken one beating from the peasant!”

“You really think he will come alone and unarmed?”

“Bodasen believes he will.”

“Gods, what a fool!”

Collan laughed. “The world is full of fools, Kotis. That is how we grow rich.” He leaned out of the window and gazed down on the quayside. Several whores were lounging in doorways, and two beggars were accosting passers-by. A drunken dock-worker staggered from a tavern, collided with a wall and slid to the ground by a mooring post. He tried to rise, but as he lifted his work-sack he fell back, and then curled up on the stone and went to sleep. What a city, thought Collan! What a wonderful city. A whore moved to the sleeping man and dipped her fingers expertly into his money-pouch.

Collan stepped back from the window and drew his sabre. Taking a whetstone, he sharpened the edge. He had no intention of facing the peasant, but a man could never be too careful.

Kotis poured a goblet of cheap wine. “Don’t drink too much of that,” warned Collan. “Even unarmed, the man can fight.”

“He won’t fight so well with a crossbow bolt through the heart.”

Collan sat down in a padded leather chair and stretched out his long legs. “In a few days we’ll be rich, Kotis. Ventrian gold - enough to fill this squalid room. Then we’ll sail to Naashan and buy a palace. Maybe more than one.”

“You think the pirates will aid Ventria?” asked Kotis.

“No, they’ve already taken Naashanite gold. Ventria is finished.”

“Then we keep Bodasen’s money?”

“Of course. As I said, the world is full of fools. You know, I used to be one of them. I had dreams, I wasted half my life on them. Chivalry, gallantry. My father fed me the concepts until my mind was awash with dreams of knighthood and I truly believed it all.” Collan chuckled. “Incredible! But I learnt the error of my ways. I become wise to the way of the world.”

“You are in good humour today,” observed Kotis.

“You’ll have to kill Bodasen too. He won’t be pleased when he learns he’s been tricked.”

“Him I’ll fight,” said Collan. “Ventrians! A pox on them! They think they’re better than everyone else. Bodasen more than most; he thinks he’s a swordsman. We’ll see. I’ll cut him a piece at a time, a nick here and a slash there. He’ll suffer well enough. I’ll break his pride before I kill him.”

“He may be better than you,” ventured Kotis.

“No one is better than me, with sabre or short blade.”

“They say Shadak is one of the best who ever lived.”

“Shadak is an old man!” stormed Collan, surging to his feet, “and even at his best he could not have faced me.”

Kotis paled and began to stammer out an apology. “Be silent!” snapped Collan. “Get outside and check that the men are in position.”

As Kotis backed from the room, Collan poured himself a goblet of wine and sat down by the window. Shadak! Always Shadak. What was it about the man that inspired men to revere him? What had he ever done? Shema’s balls, I’ve killed twice as many swordsmen as the old man! But do they sing songs about Collan? No..

One day I’ll hunt him out, he promised himself. Somewhere in public view, where men can see the great Shadak humbled. He glanced out of the window. The sun was setting, turning the sea to fire.

Soon the peasant would arrive. Soon the enjoyment would begin.

Druss approached the quayside. There was a ship moored at the far end; dock-workers were untying the mooring ropes and hurling them to the decks, while aloft sailors were unfurling the great square of the main-mast. Gulls swooped above the vessel, their wings silver in the moonlight.

The young warrior glanced along the quayside, which was almost deserted save for two whores and a sleeping man. He scanned the buildings, but all the windows were closed. He could taste fear in his mouth, not for his own safety but for Rowena’s should Collan kill him. A life of slavery beckoned for her, and Druss could not bear that.

The wounds above his eyes were stinging, and a dull, thudding headache reminded him of the bout with Borcha. He hawked and spat, then made for the quay. From the shadows to his right a man moved.

“Druss!” came a low voice. He stopped and turned his head to see Old Thorn standing just inside the mouth of a dark alleyway.

“What do you want?” asked Druss.

“They’re waiting for you, lad. There’s nine of them. Go back!”

“I cannot. They have my wife.”

“Damn you, boy, you’re going to die.”

“We’ll see.”

“Listen to me. Two have crossbows. Keep close to the wall on the right. The bowmen are in upper rooms; they’ll not be able to sight their weapons if you keep to the wall.”

“I’ll do that,” said Druss. “Thank you, old man.”

Thorn faded back into the shadows and was gone. Drawing in a deep breath, Druss moved on to the quay. Above and ahead of him he saw a window open. Altering his line, he moved in towards the walls of the moonlit buildings.

“Where are you, Collan?” he shouted.

Armed men moved out of the shadows and he saw the tall, handsome figure of Collan among them. Druss walked forward. “Where is my wife?” he called.

“That’s the beauty of it,” answered Collan, pointing at the ship. “She’s on board - sold to the merchant Kapuchek, who is even now sailing for his home in Ventria. Maybe she will even see you die!”

“In your dreams!” snarled Druss as he charged the waiting men. Behind them the drunken dock-worker suddenly rose, two knives in his hands. One blade flashed by Collan’s head, burying itself to the hilt in Kotis’s neck.

A dagger swept towards Druss’s belly, but he brushed the attacker’s arm aside and delivered a bone-crunching blow to the man’s chin, spinning him into the path of the warriors behind him. A knife plunged into Druss’s back. Twisting, he grabbed the wielder by the throat and groin and hurled him into the remaining men.

Sieben pulled Snaga from the work-sack and threw it through the air. Druss caught the weapon smoothly. Moonlight glittered from the terrible blades and the attackers scattered and ran.

Druss ran towards the ship, which was gliding slowly away from the quayside.

“Rowena!” he yelled. Something struck him in the back and he staggered, then fell to his knees. He saw Sieben run forward. The poet’s arm went back, then swept down. Druss half turned to see a crossbowman outlined against a window-frame; the man dropped his bow, then tumbled from the window with a knife embedded in his eye.

Sieben knelt alongside Druss. “Lie still,” he said. “You’ve a bolt in your back!”

“Get away from me!” shouted Druss, levering himself to his feet. “Rowena!”

He stumbled forward but the ship was moving away from the quay more swiftly now, the wind catching the sail. Druss could feel blood from his wounds streaming down his back and pooling above his belt. A terrible lethargy swept over him and he fell again.

Sieben came alongside. “We must get you to a surgeon,” he heard Sieben say. Then the poet’s voice receded away from him, and a great roaring filled his ears. Straining his eyes, he saw the ship angle towards the east, the great sail filling.

“Rowena!” he shouted. “Rowena!” The stone of the quay was cold against his face, and the distant cries of the gulls mocked his anguish. Pain flowed through him as he struggled to rise…..

And fell from the edge of the world.

Collan raced along the quay, then glanced back. He saw the giant warrior down, his companion kneeling beside him. Halting his flight, he sat down on a mooring-post to recover his breath. It was unbelievable! Unarmed, the giant had attacked armed men, scattering them. Borcha was right. The charging bull analogy had been very perceptive. Tomorrow Collan would move to a hiding place in the south of the city and then, as Borcha had advised, seek out the old woman. That was the answer. Pay her to cast a spell, or send a demon, or supply poison. Anything.

Collan rose - and saw a dark figure standing in the moon shadows by the wall. The man was watching him. “What are you staring at?” he said.

The shadowy figure moved towards him, moonlight bathing his face. He wore a tunic shirt of soft black leather, and two short swords were scabbarded at his hips. His hair was black and long, and tied in a pony-tail. “Do I know you?” asked Collan.

“You will, renegade,” said the man, drawing his right-hand sword.

“You’ve chosen the wrong man to rob,” Collan told him. His sabre came up and he slashed the air to left and right, loosening his wrist.

“I’m not here to rob you, Collan,” said the man, advancing. “I’m here to kill you.”

Collan waited until his opponent was within a few paces and then he leapt forward, lunging his sabre towards the man’s chest. There was a clash of steel as their blades met. Collan’s sabre was parried and a lightning riposte swept at the swordsman’s throat. Collan jumped back, the point of the sword missing his eye by less than an inch. “You are swift, my friend. I underestimated you.”

“It happens,” said the man.

Collan attacked again, this time with a series of sweeps and thrusts aiming for neck and belly. Their blades glittered in the moonlight and all around them windows were opened as the discordant clashing of steel echoed along the quay. Whores leaned out over the window-sills, yelling encouragement; beggars appeared from alleyways; a nearby tavern emptied and a crowd gathered in a large circle around the duelling men. Collan was enjoying himself. His attacks were forcing his opponent back, and he had now taken the measure of the man. The stranger was fast and lithe, cool under pressure; but he was no longer young and Collan could sense he was tiring. At first he had made several counter-attacks, but these were fewer now as he desperately fended off the younger man’s blade. Collan feinted a cut, then rolled, his wrist lunging forward on to his right foot. The stranger blocked too late, the point of the sabre piercing the man’s left shoulder. Collan leapt back, his blade sliding clear. “Almost time to die, old man,” said Collan.

“Yes. How does it feel?” countered his opponent. Collan laughed. “You have nerve, I’ll say that for you. Before I kill you, will you tell me why you are hunting me? A wronged wife, perhaps? A despoiled daughter? Or are you a hired assassin?”

“I am Shadak,” said the man.

Collan grinned. “So the night is not a total waste.” He glanced at the crowd. “The great Shadak!” he said, his voice rising. “This is the famed hunter, the mighty swordsman. See him bleed? Well, my friends, you can tell your children how you saw him die! How Collan slew the man of legend.”

He advanced on the waiting Shadak, then raised his sabre in a mock salute. “I have enjoyed this duel, old man,” he said, “but now it is time to end it.” Even as he spoke he leapt, sending a fast reverse cut towards Shadak’s right side. As his opponent parried Collan rolled his wrist, the sabre rolling over the blocking blade and sweeping up towards Shadak’s unprotected neck. It was the classic killing stroke, and one Collan had employed many times, but Shadak swayed to his left, the sabre cutting into his right shoulder. Collan felt a searing pain in his belly and glanced down. Horrified, he saw Shadak’s sword jutting there.

“Burn in Hell!” hissed Shadak, wrenching the blade clear. Collan screamed and fell to his knees, his sabre clattering against the stones of the quay. He could feel his heart hammering and agony, red-hot acid pain, scorched through him. He cried out: “Help me!”

The crowd was silent now. Collan fell face down on the stones. “I can’t be dying,” he thought. “Not me. Not Collan.”

The pain receded, replaced by a soothing warmth that stole across his tortured mind. He opened his eyes and could see his sabre glinting on the stones just ahead. He reached out for it, his fingers touching the hilt.

“I can still win!” he told himself. “I can….”

Shadak sheathed his sword and stared down at the dead man. Already the beggars were around him, pulling at his boots and ripping at his belt. Shadak turned away and pushed through the crowd.

He saw Sieben kneeling beside the still figure of Druss, and his heart sank. Moving more swiftly, he came alongside the body and knelt down.

“He’s dead,” said Sieben.

“In your… dreams,” hissed Druss. “Get me to my feet.”

Shadak chuckled. “Some men take a sight of killing,” he told the poet. The two men hauled Druss upright.

“She’s out there,” said Druss, staring at the ship that was slowly shrinking against the distant horizon.

“I know, my friend,” said Shadak softly. “But we’ll find her. Now let’s get you to a surgeon.”

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

BOOK TWO: The Demon in the Axe Prologue

The ship glided from the harbour, the early evening swell rippling against the hull. Rowena stood on the aft deck, the tiny figure of Pudri beside her. Above them, unnoticed on the raised tiller deck, stood the Ventrian merchant Kabuchek. Tall and cadaverously thin, he stared at the dock. He had seen Collan cut down by an unknown swordsman, and had watched the giant Drenai warrior battle his way through Collan’s men. Interesting, he thought, what men will do for love.

His thoughts flew back to his youth in Varsipis and his desire for the young maiden Harenini. Did I love her then, he wondered? Or has time added colours to the otherwise grey days of youth?

The ship lifted on the swell as the vessel approached the harbour mouth and the surging tides beyond. Kabuchek glanced down at the girl; Collan had sold her cheaply. Five thousand pieces of silver for a talent such as hers? Ludicrous. He had been prepared for a charlatan, or a clever trickster. But she had taken his hand, looked into his eyes and said a single word: “Harenini.” Kabuchek had kept the shock from his face. He had not heard her name in twenty-five years, and certainly there was no way that the pirate Collan could have known of his juvenile infatuation. Though already convinced of her talents, Kabuchek asked many questions until finally he turned to Collan. “It appears she has a modicum of talent,” he said. “What price are you asking?”

“Five thousand.”

Kabuchek swung to his servant, the eunuch Pudri. “Pay him,” he said, concealing the smile of triumph and contenting himself with the tormented look which appeared on Collan’s face. “I will take her to the ship myself.”

Now, judging by how close the axeman had come, he congratulated himself upon his shrewdness. He heard Pudri’s gentle voice speaking to the girl.

“I pray your husband is not dead,” said Pudri. Kabuchek glanced back at the dock and saw two Drenai warriors were kneeling beside the still figure of the axeman.

“He will live,” said Rowena, tears filling her eyes. “And he will follow me.”

If he does, thought Kabuchek, I will have him slain.

“He has a great love for you, Pahtai,” said Pudri soothingly. “So it should be between husband and wife. It rarely happens that way, however. I myself have had three wives - and none of them loved me. But then a eunuch is not the ideal mate.”

The girl watched the tiny figures on the dock until the ship had slipped out of the harbour and the lights of Mashrapur became distant twinkling candles. She sighed and sank down on the rail seat, her head bowed, tears spilling from her eyes.

Pudri sat beside her, his slender arm on her shoulders. “Yes,” he whispered, “tears are good. Very good.” Patting her back as if she were a small child, he sat beside her and whispered meaningless platitudes.

Kabuchek climbed down the deck steps and approached them. “Bring her to my cabin,” he ordered Pudri.

Rowena glanced up at the harsh face of her new master. His nose was long and hooked, like the beak of an eagle, and his skin was darker than any she had seen, almost black. His eyes, however, were a bright blue beneath thick brows. Beside her Pudri stood, helping her to her feet, and together they followed the Ventrian merchant down the steps to the aft cabin. Lanterns were lit here, hanging on bronze hooks from low oak beams.

Kabuchek sat down behind a desk of polished mahogany. “Cast the runes for the voyage,” he ordered Rowena.

“I do not cast runes,” she said. “I would not know how.”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Do whatever it is you do, woman. The sea is a treacherous mistress and I need to know how the voyage will be.”

Rowena sat opposite him. “Give me your hand,” she said. Leaning forward, he struck her face with his open palm. It was not a heavy blow, but it stung the skin.

“You will address me always as master,” he said, without any display of anger. His bright blue eyes scrutinised her face for any sign of anger or defiance, but found himself gazing into calm hazel eyes which appeared to be appraising him. Curiously he felt like apologising for the blow, which was a ridiculous thought. It was not intended to hurt, being merely a swift method of establishing authority-ownership. He cleared his throat. “I expect you to learn swiftly the ways of Ventrian households. You will be well cared for and well fed; your quarters will be comfortable and warm in winter, cool in summer. But you are a slave: understand that. I own you. You are property. Do you understand this?”

“I understand… master,” said the girl. The title was said with just a touch of emphasis, but without insolence.

“Very well. Then let us move on to more important matters.” He extended his hand.

Rowena reached out and touched his open palm. At first she could see only the details of his recent past, his agreement with the traitors who had slain the Ventrian Emperor, one of them a hawk-faced man. Kabuchek was kneeling before him and there was blood on the man’s sleeve. A name whispered into her mind - Shabag.

“What’s that you say?” hissed Kabuchek.

Rowena blinked, then realised she must have spoken the name. “I see a tall man with blood on his sleeve. You are kneeling before him…”

“The future, girl! Not the past.” From the decks above came a great flapping as if some giant flying beast was descending from the sky. Rowena was startled. “It is just the mainsail,” said Kabuchek. “Concentrate, girl!”

Closing her eyes, Rowena allowed her mind to drift. She could see the ship now from above, floating on a clear sea beneath a sky of brilliant blue. Then another ship hove into sight, a trireme, its three banks of oars sending up a white spray as it sheared through the waves towards them. Rowena floated closer… closer. Armed men filled the trireme’s deck.

Silver-grey forms swam around the trireme - great fish, twenty feet long, with fins like spear points cutting through the water. Rowena watched as the two ships crashed together, saw men falling into the water and the sleek grey fish rising up towards them. Blood billowed into the sea, and she saw the jagged teeth in the mouths of the fish, saw them rend and tear and dismember the helpless sailors thrashing in the water.

The battle on the ship’s deck was short and brutal. She saw herself and.Pudri, and the tall form of Kabuchek clambering over the aft rail and leaping out into the waves.

The killer fish circled them - then moved in.

Rowena could watch no more and, jerking her mind to the present, she opened her eyes.

“Well, what did you see?” asked Kabuchek.

“A black-sailed trireme, master.”

“Earin Shad,” whispered Pudri, his face pale, his eyes fearful.

“Do we escape him?” asked Kabuchek.

“Yes,” said Rowena, her voice dull, her thoughts full of despair, “we escape Earin Shad.”

“Good. I am well satisfied,” announced Kabuchek. He glanced at Pudri. “Take her to her cabin and give her some food. She is looking pale.”

Pudri led Rowena back along the narrow corridor to a small door. Pushing it open, he stepped inside. “The bed is very small, but you are not large. I think it will suffice, Pahtai.” Rowena nodded dumbly and sat.

“You saw more than you told the master,” he said.

“Yes. There were fish, huge fish, dark with terrible teeth.”

“Sharks,” said Pudri, sitting beside her.

“This ship will be sunk,” she told him. “And you and I, and Kabuchek, will leap into the sea, where the sharks will be waiting.”

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter One

Sieben sat in an outer room, sunlight slanting through the shuttered window at his back. He could hear low voices from the room beyond - a man’s deep, pleading tones, and the harsh responses from the Old Woman. Muffled by the thick walls of stone and the oak door, the words were lost - which was just as well, since Sieben had no wish to hear the conversation. The Old Woman had many clients; most seeking the murder of rivals - at least, according to the whispered gossip he had heard.

He closed his ears to the voices and concentrated instead on the shafts of light and the gleaming dust motes dancing within them. The room was bare of ornament save for the three seats of plain, unfinished wood. They were not even well made and Sieben guessed they had been bought in the southern quarter, where the poor spent what little money they had.

Idly he swept his hand through a shaft of light. The dust scattered and swirled.

The oak door opened and a middle-aged man emerged. Seeing Sieben, he swiftly turned his face away and hurried from the house. The poet rose and moved towards the open door. The room beyond was scarcely better furnished than the waiting area. There was a broad table with ill-fitting joints, two hard wood chairs and a single shutter window. No light shone through the slats and Sieben saw that old cloths had been wedged between them.

“A curtain would have been sufficient to block the light,” he said, forcing a lightness of tone he did not feel.

The Old Woman did not smile, her face impassive in the light of the red-glassed lantern on the table before her.

“Sit,” she said.

He did so, and tried to stop himself from considering her awesome ugliness. Her teeth were multi-coloured - green, grey and the brown of rotting vegetation. Her eyes were rheumy, and a cataract had formed in the left. She was wearing a loose-fitting gown of faded red, and a gold talisman was partially hidden in the wrinkled folds of her neck.

“Put the gold upon the table,” she said. He lifted a single gold raq from the pouch at his side and slid it towards her. Making no move to pick up the coin, she looked into his face. “What do you require of me?” she asked him.

“I have a friend who is dying.”

“The young axeman.”

“Yes. The surgeons have done all they can, but there is poison within his lungs, and the knife wound in his lower back will not heal.”

“You have something of his with you?”

Sieben nodded and pulled the silver-knuckled gauntlet from his belt. She took it from his hand and sat in silence, running the calloused skin of her thumb across the leather and metal. “The surgeon is Calvar Syn,” she said. “What does he say?”

“Only that Druss should already be dead. The poison in his system is spreading; they are forcing liquids into him, but his weight is falling away and he has not opened his eyes in four days.”

“What would you have me do?”

Sieben shrugged. “It is said you are very skilled in herbs. I thought you might save him.”

She laughed suddenly, the sound dry and harsh. “My herbs do not usually prolong life, Sieben.” Laying the gauntlet upon the table, she leaned back in her chair. “He suffers,” she said. “He has lost his lady, and his will to live is fading. Without the will, there is no hope.”

“There is nothing you can do?”

“About his will? No. But his lady is on board a ship bound for Ventria and she is safe - for the moment. But the war sweeps on and who can say what will become of a slave-girl if she reaches that battle-torn continent? Go back to the hospital. Take your friend to the house Shadak is preparing for you.”

“He will die, then?”

She smiled, and Sieben tore his eyes from the sudden show of rotting teeth. “Perhaps… Place him in a room where the sunlight enters in the morning, and lay his axe upon his bed, his fingers upon the hilt.” Her hand snaked across the table, and the gold raq vanished into her palm.

“That is all you can tell me for an ounce of gold?”

“It is all you need to know. Place his hand upon the hilt.”

Sieben rose. “I had expected more.”

“Life is full of disappointments, Sieben.”

He moved to the door, but her voice stopped him. “Do not touch the blades,” she warned.

“What?”

“Carry the weapon with care.”

Shaking his head, he left the house. The sun was hidden now behind dark clouds, and rain began to fall.

Druss was sitting alone and exhausted upon a grim mountainside, the sky above him grey and forlorn, the earth around him arid and dry. He gazed up at the towering peaks so far above him and levered himself to his feet. His legs were unsteady, and he had been climbing for so long that all sense of time had vanished. All he knew was that Rowena waited on the topmost peak, and he must find her. Some twenty paces ahead was a jutting finger of rock and Druss set off towards it, forcing his aching limbs to push his weary body on and up. Blood was gushing from the wounds in his back, making the ground treacherous around his feet. He fell. Then he crawled.

It seemed that hours had passed.

He looked up. The jutting finger of rock was now forty paces from him.

Despair came fleetingly, but was washed away on a tidal wave of rage. He crawled on. Ever on.

“I won’t give up,” he hissed. “Ever.”

Something cold touched his hand, his fingers closing around an object of steel. And he heard a voice. I am back, my brother.”

Something in the words chilled him. He gazed down at the silver axe - and felt his wounds heal, his strength flooding back into his frame.

Rising smoothly, he looked up at the mountain.

It was merely a hill.

Swiftly he strode to the top. And woke.

Calvar Syn patted Druss’s back. “Put on your shirt, young man,” he said. “The wounds have finally healed. There is a little pus, but the blood is fresh and the scab contains no corruption. I congratulate you on your strength.”

Druss nodded, but did not reply. Slowly and with care he pulled on his shirt of grey wool, then leaned back exhausted on the bed. Calvar Syn reached out, gently pressing his index finger to the pulse point on the young man’s throat. The beat was erratic and fast, but this was to be expected after such a long infection. “Take a deep breath,” ordered the surgeon and Druss obeyed. “The right lung is still not operating at full efficiency; but it will. I want you to move out into the garden. Enjoy the sunshine and the sea air.”

The surgeon rose and left the room, walking down the long hallways and out into the gardens beyond. He saw the poet, Sieben, sitting beneath a spreading elm and tossing pebbles into a man-made pond. Calvar Syn wandered to the poolside.

“Your friend is improving, but not as swiftly as I had hoped,” he said.

“Did you bleed him?”

“No. There is no longer a fever. He is very silent… withdrawn.”

Sieben nodded. “His wife was taken from him.”

“Very sad, I’m sure. But there are other women in the world,” observed the surgeon.

“Not for him. He loves her, he’s going after her.”

“He’ll waste his life,” said Calvar. “Has he any idea of the size of the Ventrian continent? There are thousands upon thousands of small towns and villages, and more than three hundred major cities. Then there is the war. All shipping has ceased. How will he get there?”

“Of course he understands. But he’s Druss - he’s not like you or me, surgeon.” The poet chuckled and threw another pebble. “He’s an old-fashioned hero. You don’t see many these days. He’ll find a way.”

Calvar cleared his throat. “Hmmm. Well, your old-fashioned hero is currently as strong as a three-day lamb. He is deep in a melancholic state, and until he recovers from it I cannot see him improving. Feed him red meat and dark green vegetables. He needs food for the blood.” He cleared his throat again, and stood silently.

“Was there something else?” asked the poet.

Calvar cursed inwardly. People were always the same. As soon as they were sick, they sent at speed for the doctor. But when it came to the time for settling accounts… No one expected a baker to part with bread without coin. Not so a surgeon. There is the question of my fee,” he said coldly.

“Ah, yes. How much is it?”

“Thirty raq.”

“Shema’s balls! No wonder you surgeons live in palaces.”

Calvar sighed, but kept his temper. “I do not live in a palace; I have a small house to the north. And the reason why surgeons must charge such fees is that a great number of patients renege. Your friend has been ill now for two months. During this time I have made more than thirty visits to this house, and I have had to purchase many expensive herbs. Three times now you have promised to settle the account. On each occasion you ask me how much is it. So you have the money?”

“No,” admitted Sieben.

“How much do you have?”

“Five raq.”

Calvar held out his hand and Sieben handed him the coins. “You have until this time next week to find the rest of the money. After that I shall I inform the Watch. In Mashrapur the law is simple: if you do not honour your debts your property will be sequestered. Since this house does not belong to you and, as far as I know, you have no source of income, you are likely to be imprisoned until sold as a slave. Until next week then.”

Calvar turned away and strode through the garden, his anger mounting.

Another bad debt. One day I really will go to the Watch, he promised himself. He strolled on through the narrow streets, his medicine bag swinging from his narrow shoulders.

“Doctor! Doctor!” came a woman’s voice and he swung to see a young woman running towards him. Sighing he waited. “Could you come with me? It’s my son, he has a fever.” Calvar looked down at the woman. Her dress was of poor quality, and old. She wore no shoes.

“And how will you pay me?” he asked, the question springing from the residue of his anger.

She stood silent for a moment. “You can take everything I have,” she said simply.

He shook his head, his anger finally disappearing. “That will not be necessary,” he told her, with a professional smile.

He arrived home a little after midnight. His servant had left him a cold meal of meat and cheese. Calvar stretched out on a leather-covered couch and sipped a goblet of wine.

Untying his money-pouch, he tipped the contents to the table. Three raq tumbled to the wooden surface. “You will never be rich, Calvar,” he said, with a wry smile.

He had sat with the boy while the mother was out buying food. She had returned with eggs, and meat, and milk, and bread, her face glowing. It was worth two raq just to see her expression, he thought.

Druss made his way slowly out into the garden. The moon was high, the stars bright. He remembered a poem of Sieben’s: Glitter dust in the lair of night. Yes, that’s how the stars looked. He was breathing heavily by the time he reached the circular seat constructed around the bole of the elm. Take a deep breath, the surgeon had ordered. Deep? If felt as if a huge lump of stone had been wedged into his lungs, blocking all air.

The crossbow bolt had pierced cleanly, but it had also driven a tiny portion of his shirt into the wound, and this had caused the poison that drained his strength.

The wind was cool, and bats circled above the trees. Strength. Druss realised now just how much he had undervalued the awesome power of his body. One small bolt and a hastily thrust knife had reduced him to this shambling, weak shell. How, in this state, could he rescue Rowena?

Despair struck him like a fist under the heart. Rescue her? He did not even know where she was, save that thousands of miles now separated them. No Ventrian ships sailed, and even if they did he had no gold with which to purchase passage.

He gazed back at the house where golden light gleamed from Sieben’s window. It was a fine house, better than any Druss had ever visited. Shadak had arranged for them to rent the property, the owner being trapped in Ventria. But the rent was due. The surgeon had told him it would be two months before his strength began to return.

We’ll starve before then, thought Druss. Levering himself to his feet, he walked on to the high wall at the rear of the garden. By the time he reached it his legs felt boneless, his breath was coming in ragged gasps. The house seemed an infinite distance away. Druss struck out for it, but had to stop by the pond and sit at the water’s edge. Splashing his face, he waited until his feeble strength returned, then rose and stumbled to the rear doors. The iron gate at the far end of the garden was lost in shadow now. He wanted to walk there once more, but his will was gone.

As he was about to enter the building he saw movement from the corner of his eye. He swung, ponderously, and a man moved from the shadows.

“Good to see you alive, lad,” said Old Thorn.

Druss smiled. “There is an ornate door-knocker at the front of the house,” he said.

“Didn’t know as I’d be welcome,” the old man replied.

Druss led the way into the house, turning left into the large meeting room with its four couches and six padded chairs. Thorn moved to the hearth, lighting a taper from the dying flames of the fire, then touching it to the wick of a lantern set on the wall. “Help yourself to a drink,” offered Druss. Old Thorn poured a goblet of red wine, then a second which he passed to the young man.

“You’ve lost a lot of weight, lad, and you look like an old man,” said Thorn cheerfully.

“I’ve felt better.”

“I see Shadak spoke up for you with the magistrates. No action to be taken over the fight at the quay. Good to have friends, eh? And don’t worry about Calvar Syn.”

“Why should I worry about him?”

“Unpaid debt. He could have you sold into slavery - but he won’t. Soft, he is.”

“I thought Sieben had paid him. I’ll not be beholden to any man.”

“Good words, lad. For good words and a copper farthing you can buy a loaf of bread.”

“I’ll get the money to pay him,” promised Druss.

“Of course you will, lad. The best way - in the sand circle. But we’ve got to get your strength up first. You need to work - though my tongue should turn black for saying it.”

“I need time,” said Druss.

“You’ve little time, lad. Borcha is looking for you. You took away his reputation and he says he’ll beat you to death when he finds you.”

“Does he indeed?” hissed Druss, his pale eyes gleaming.

“That’s more like it, my bonny lad! Anger, that’s what you need! Right, well I’ll leave you now. By the way, they’re felling trees to the west of the city, clearing the ground for some new buildings. They’re looking for workers. Two silver pennies a day. It ain’t much, but it’s work.”

“I’ll think on it.”

“I’ll leave you to your rest, lad. You look like you need it.”

Druss watched the old man leave, then walked out into the garden once more. His muscles ached, and his heart was beating to a ragged drum. But Borcha’s face was fixed before his mind’s eye and he forced himself to walk to the gate and back.

Three times….

Vintar rose from his bed, moving quietly so as not to wake the four priests who shared the small room in the southern wing. Dressing himself in a long white habit of rough wool, he padded barefoot along the cold stone of the corridor and up the winding steps to the ancient battlements.

From here he could see the mountain range that separated Lentria from the lands of the Drenai. The moon was high, half full, the sky cloudless. Beyond the temple the trees of the forest shimmered in the spectral light.

“The night is a good time for meditation, my son,” said the Abbot, stepping from the shadows. “But you will need your strength for the day. You are falling behind in your sword work.” The Abbot was a broad-shouldered, powerful man who had once been a mercenary. His face bore a jagged scar from his right cheekbone down to his rugged jaw.

“I am not meditating, Father. I cannot stop thinking about the woman.”

“The one taken by slavers?”

“Yes. She haunts me.”

“You are here because your parents gave you into my custody, but you remain of your own free will. Should you desire to leave and find this girl you may do so. The Thirty will survive, Vintar.”

The young man sighed. “I do not wish to leave, Father. And it is not that I desire her.” He smiled wistfully. “I have never desired a woman. But there was something about her that I cannot shake from my thoughts.”

“Come with me, my boy. It is cold here, and I have a fire. We will talk.”

Vintar followed the burly Abbot into the western wing and the two men sat in the Abbot’s study as the sky paled towards dawn. “Sometimes,” said the Abbot, as he hung a copper kettle over the flames, “it is hard to define the will of the Source. I have known men who wished to travel to far lands. They prayed for guidance. Amazingly they found that the Source was guiding them to do just what they wished for. I say amazingly because, in my experience, the Source rarely sends a man where he wants to go. That is part of the sacrifice we make when we serve Him. I do not say it never happens, you understand, for that would be arrogance. No, but when one prays for guidance it should be with an open mind, all thoughts of one’s own desires put aside.”

The kettle began to hiss, clouds of vapour puffing from the curved spout. Shielding his hands with a cloth, the Abbot poured the water into a second pot, in which he had spooned dried herbs. Placing the kettle in the hearth, he sat back in an old leather chair.

“Now the Source very rarely speaks to us directly, and the question is: How do we know what is required? These matters are very complex. You chose to absent yourself from study, and soar across the Heavens. In doing so you rescued the spirit of a young girl and led her home to her abused body. Coincidence? I distrust coincidence. Therefore it is my belief, though I may be wrong, that the Source led you to her. And that is why she now haunts your mind. Your dealings with her are not yet concluded.”

“You think I should seek her out?”

“I do. Take yourself to the south wing library. There is a small cell beyond it. I will excuse you from all studies tomorrow.”

“But how shall I find her again, Lord Abbot? She was a slave. She could be anywhere.”

“Start with the man who was abusing her. You know his name - Collan. You know where he was planning to take her - Mashrapur. Let your spirit search begin there.”

The Abbot poured tea into two clay cups. The aroma was sweet and heady. “I am the least talented of all the priests,” said Vintar sorrowfully. “Surely it would be better to pray for the Source to send someone stronger?”

The Abbot chuckled. “It is so strange, my boy. Many people say they wish to serve the Lord of All Peace. But in an advisory capacity: ‘Ah, my God, you are most wondrous, having created all the planets and the stars. However, you are quite wrong to choose me. I know this, for I am Vintar, and I am weak.’”

“You mock me, father.”

“Of course I mock you. But I do so with at least a modicum of love in my heart. I was a soldier, a killer, a drunkard, a womaniser. How do you think I felt when He chose me to become a member of the Thirty? And when my brother priests stood facing death, can you imagine my despair at being told I was the one who must survive? I was to be the new Abbot. I was to gather the new Thirty. Oh Vintar, you have much to learn. Find this girl. I rather believe that in doing so you will find something for yourself.”

The young priest finished his tea and stood. “Thank you, Father, for your kindness.”

“You told me she has a husband who was searching for her,” said the Abbot.

“Yes. A man named Druss.”

“Perhaps he will still be in Mashrapur.”

An hour later, in the bright sky above the city, the spirit of the young priest hovered. From here, despite the distance that made the buildings and palaces seem tiny, like the building bricks of an infant, he could feel the pulsing heart of Mashrapur, like a beast upon wakening; ravenous, filled with greed and lust. Dark emotions radiated from the city, filling his thoughts and swamping the purity he fought so hard to maintain. He dropped closer, closer still.

Now he could see the dock-workers strolling to work, and the whores plying the early-morning trade and the merchants opening their shops and stalls.

Where to begin? He had no idea.

For hours he flew aimlessly, touching a mind here, a thought there, seeking knowledge of Collan, Rowena or Druss. He found nothing save greed, or want, hunger or dissipation, lust or, so rarely, love.

Tired and defeated, he was ready to return to the Temple when he felt a sudden pull on his spirit, as if a rope had attached itself to him. In panic he tried to pull away, but though he used all his strength he was drawn inexorably down into a room where all the windows had been barred. An elderly woman was sitting before a red lantern. She gazed up at him as he floated just below the ceiling.

“Ah, but you are a treat to these old eyes, my pretty,” she said. Suddenly shocked, Vintar realised that his form was naked and he clothed himself in an instant in robes of white. She gave a dry laugh. “And modest too.” The smile faded, and with it her good humour. “What are you doing here? Hmmm? This is my city, child.”

“I am a priest, lady,” he said. “I am seeking knowledge of a woman called Rowena, the wife of Druss, the slave of Collan.”

“Why?”

“My Abbot instructed me to find her. He believes the Source may want her protected.”

“By you?” Her good humour returned. “Boy, you can’t even protect yourself from an old witch. Were I to desire it, I could send your soul flaming into Hell.”

“Why would you desire such a terrible thing?”

She paused for a moment. “It might be a whim, or a fancy. What will you give me for your life?”

“I don’t have anything to give.”

“Of course you do,” she said. Her old eyes closed and he watched her spirit rise from her body. She took the form of a beautiful woman, young and shapely, with golden hair and large blue eyes. “Does this form please you?”

“Of course. It is flawless. Is that how you looked when younger?”

“No, I was always ugly. But this is how I choose for you to see me.” She glided in close to him and stroked his face. Her touch was warm, and he felt a ripple of arousal.

“Please do not continue,” he said.

“Why? Is it not pleasurable?” Her hand touched his robes and they disappeared.

“Yes, it is. Very. But my vows… do not allow for the pleasures of the flesh.”

“Silly boy,” she whispered into his ear. “We are not flesh. We are spirit.”

“No,” he said sternly. Instantly he transformed himself into the image of the old woman sitting at the table.

“Clever boy,” said the beautiful vision. “Yes, very clever. And virtuous too. I don’t know if I like that, but it does have the charm of being novel. Very well. I will help you.”

He felt the invisible chains holding him disappear, as did the vision. The old woman opened her eyes.

“She was at sea, heading for Ventria when the ship came under attack. She leapt into the water, and the sharks took her.”

Vintar reeled back and cried out, “It’s my fault! I should have sought her sooner.”

“Go back to your Temple, boy. My time is precious, and I have clients waiting.”

Her laughter rang out and she waved her hand dismissively. Once more he felt the pull on his spirit. It dragged him out, hurling him high into the sky over Mashrapur.

Vintar returned to the tiny cell at the Temple, merging once more with his body. As always he felt nauseous and dizzy and lay still for a few moments, experiencing the weight of his flesh, feeling the rough blanket beneath his skin. A great sadness fell upon him. His talents were far beyond those of normal men, yet they had brought him no pleasure. His parents had treated him with cold reverence, frightened by his uncanny skills. They had been both delighted and relieved when the Abbot came to them one autumn evening, offering to take the boy into his custody. It mattered nothing to them that the Abbot represented a Temple of the Thirty, where men with awesome talents trained and studied with one purpose only - to die in some battle, some distant war, and thus become one with the Source. The prospect of his death could not grieve his parents, for they had never treated him as a human being, flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood. They saw him as a changeling, a demonic presence. He had no friends. Who wants to be around a boy who can read minds, who can peek into the darkest corners of your soul and know all your secrets? Even in the Temple he was alone, unable to share in the simple camaraderie of others with talents the equal of his.

And now he had missed an opportunity to help a young woman, indeed to save her life.

He sat up and sighed. The old woman had been a witch, and he had felt the malevolence of her personality. Even so the vision she created had aroused him. He could not even withstand such a petty evil.

And then the thought struck him, like a blow between the eyes. Evil! Malice and deceit walked hand in hand beneath the darkness of evil. Perhaps she lied!

He lay back and forced his mind to relax, loosening the spirit once more. Soaring from the Temple, he sped across the ocean, seeking the ship and praying that he was not too late.

Clouds were gathering in the east, promising a storm. Vintar swooped low over the water, spirit eyes scanning the horizon.

Forty miles from the coast of Ventria he saw the ships, a trireme with a huge black sail and a slender merchant vessel seeking to avoid capture.

The merchant ship swung away, but the trireme ploughed on, its bronze-covered ram striking the prey amidships, smashing the timbers and ripping into the heart of the vessel. Armed men swarmed over the trireme’s prow. On the rear deck Vintar saw a young woman dressed in white, with two men - one tall and dark-skinned, the other small and slightly built. The trio leapt into the waves. Sharks glided through the water towards them.

Vintar flew to Rowena, his spirit hand touching her shoulder as she bobbed in the water, clinging to a length of timber, the two men on either side of her. “Stay calm, Rowena,” he pulsed.

A shark lunged up at the struggling trio and Vintar entered its mind, tasting the bleakness of its non-thoughts, the coldness of its emotions, the hunger that consumed it. He felt himself becoming the shark, seeing the world through black, unblinking eyes, tasting the environment through a sense of smell a hundred, perhaps a thousand times more powerful than Man’s. Another shark glided below the three people, its jaws opening as it swept up towards them.

With a flick of his tail Vintar rammed the beast, which turned and snapped at his side, barely missing his dorsal fin.

Then came a scent in the water, sweet and beguiling, promising infinite pleasure and a cessation of hunger. Almost without thinking Vintar swam for it, sensing and seeing the other sharks racing towards it.

And then he knew, and his soaring lust was quelled as swiftly as it had risen.

Blood. The victims of the pirates were being thrown to the sharks.

Releasing control of the sea beast, he flew back to where Rowena and the others were clinging to the beam. “Get your friends to kick out. You must swim away from here,”, he told her. He heard her tell the others, and slowly the three of them began to move away from the carnage.

Vintar soared high into the sky and scanned the horizon. Another ship was just in sight, a merchant vessel, and the young priest sped towards it. Dropping to where the captain stood by the tiller Vintar entered the man’s mind, screening out his thoughts of wife, family, pirates and bad winds. The ship was manned by two hundred rowers and thirty seamen; it was carrying wine from Lentria to the Naashanite port of Virinis.

Vintar flowed through the captain’s body, seeking control. In the lungs he found a small, malignant cancer. Swiftly Vintar neutralised it, accelerating the body’s healing mechanism to carry away the corrupt cell. Moving up once more into the brain, he made the captain swing the ship towards the north-west.

The captain was a kindly man, his thoughts mellow. He had seven children, and one of them - the youngest daughter - had been sick with yellow fever when he set sail. He was praying for her recovery.

Vintar imprinted the new course on the man’s unsuspecting mind and flew back to Rowena, telling her of the ship that would soon arrive. Then he moved to the pirate trireme. Already they had sacked the merchant vessel and were backing oars, pulling clear the ram and allowing the looted ship to sink.

Vintar entered the captain’s mind - and reeled with the horror of his thoughts. Swiftly he made the man see the distant merchant ship and filled his mind with nameless fears. The approaching ship, he made the captain believe, was filled with soldiers. It was an ill omen, it would be the death of him. Then Vintar left him, and listened with satisfaction as Earin Shad bellowed orders to his men to turn about and make for the north-west.

Vintar floated above Rowena and the two men until the merchant ship arrived and hauled them aboard. Then he departed for the Lentrian port of Chupianin, where he healed the captain’s daughter.

Only then did he return to the Temple, where he found the Abbot sitting beside his bed.

“How are you feeling, my boy?” he asked.

“Better than I have in years, Father. The girl is safe now. And I have enhanced two lives.”

“Three,” said the Abbot. “You have enhanced your own.”

“That is true,” admitted Vintar, “and it is good to be home.”

Druss could hardly believe the chaos at the clearing site. Hundreds of men scurried here and there without apparent direction, felling trees, digging out roots, hacking at the dense, overgrown vegetation. There was no order to the destruction. Trees were hacked down, falling across paths used by men with wheelbarrows who were trying to clear the debris. Even while he waited to see the Overseer he watched a tall pine topple on to a group of men digging out tree roots. No one was killed, but one worker suffered a broken arm and several others showed bloody gashes to face or arm.

The Overseer, a slender yet pot-bellied man, called him over. “Well, what are your skills?” he asked.

“Woodsman,” answered Druss.

“Everyone here claims to be a woodsman,” said the man wearily. “I’m looking for men with skill.”

“You certainly need them,” observed Druss.

“I have twenty days to clear this area, then another twenty to prepare footings for the new buildings. The pay is two silver pennies a day.” The man pointed to a burly, bearded man sitting on a tree-stump. “That’s Togrin, the charge-hand. He organises the work-force and hires the men.”

“He’s a fool,” said Druss, “and he’ll get someone killed.”

“Fool he may be,” admitted the Overseer, “but he’s also a very tough man. No one shirks when he’s around.”

Druss gazed at the site. “That may be true; but you’ll never finish on time. And I’ll not work for any man who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“You’re a little young to making such sweeping comments,” observed the Overseer. “So tell me, how would you re-organise the work?”

“I’d move the axemen further west and allow the rest of the men to clear behind them. If it carries on like this, all movement will cease. Look there,” said Druss, pointing to the right. Trees had been felled in a rough circle, at the centre of which were men digging out huge roots. “Where will they take the roots?” asked the axeman. “There is no longer a path. They will have to wait while the trees are hauled away. Yet how will you move horses and trace chains through to them?”

The Overseer smiled. “You have a point, young man. Very well. The charge-hand earns four pennies a day. Take his place and show me what you can do.”

Druss took a deep breath. His muscles were already tired from the long walk to the site, and the wounds in his back were aching. He was in no condition to fight, and had been hoping to ease himself in to the work. “How do you signal a break in the work?” he asked.

“We ring the bell for the noon break. But that’s three hours away.”

“Have it rung now,” said Druss.

The Overseer chuckled. “This should break the monotony,” he said. “Do you want me to tell Togrin he has lost his job?”

Druss looked into the man’s brown eyes. “No. I’ll tell him myself,” he said.

“Good. Then I’ll see to the bell.”

The Overseer strolled away and Druss picked his way through the chaos until he was standing close to the seated Togrin. The man glanced up. He was large and round-shouldered, heavy of arm and sturdy of chin. His eyes were dark, almost black under heavy brows. “Looking for work?” he asked.

“No.”

“Then get off my site. I don’t like idlers.”

The clanging of a bell sounded through the wood. Togrin swore and rose as everywhere men stopped working. “What the… ?” He swung around. “Who rang that bell?” he bellowed.

Men began to gather around the charge-hand and Druss approached the man. “I ordered the bell rung,” he said.

Togrin’s eyes narrowed. “And who might you be?” he asked.

“The new charge-hand,” replied Druss.

“Well, well,” said Togrin, with a wide grin. “Now there are two charge-hands. I think that’s one too many.”

“I agree,” Druss told him. Stepping in swiftly, he delivered a thundering blow to the man’s belly. The air left Togrin’s lungs with a great whoosh and he doubled up, his head dropping. Druss’s left fist chopped down the man’s jaw and Togrin hit the ground face first. The charge-hand twitched, then lay still.

Druss sucked in a great gulp of air. He felt unsteady and white lights danced before his eyes as he looked around at the waiting men. “Now we are going to make some changes,” he said.

Day by day Druss’s strength grew, the muscles of his arms and shoulders swelling with each sweeping blow of the axe, each shovelful of hard clay, each wrenching lift that tore a stubborn tree root clear of the earth. For the first five days Druss slept at the site in a small canvas tent supplied by the Overseer. He had not the energy to walk the three miles back to the rented house. And each lonely night two faces hovered in his mind as he drifted to sleep: Rowena, whom he loved more than life, and Borcha, the fist-fighter he knew he had to face.

In the quiet of the tent his thoughts were many. He saw his father differently now and wished he had known him better. It took courage to live down a father like Bardan the Slayer, and to raise a child and build a life on the frontier. He remembered the day when the wandering mercenary had stopped at the village. Druss had been impressed by the man’s weapons, knife, short sword and hand-axe, and by his, battered breastplate and helm. “He lives a life of real courage,” he had observed to his father, putting emphasis on the word real. Bress had merely nodded. Several days later, as they were walking across the high meadow, Bress had pointed towards the house of Egan the farmer. “You want to see courage, boy,” he said. “Look at him working in that field. Ten years ago he had a farm on the Sentran Plain, but Sathuli raiders came in the night, burning him out. Then he moved to the Ventrian border, where locusts destroyed his crops for three years. He had borrowed money to finance his farm and he lost everything. Now he is back on the land, working from first light to last. That’s real courage. It doesn’t take much for a man to abandon a life of toil for a sword. The real heroes are those who battle on.”

The boy had known better. You couldn’t be a hero and a farmer.

“If he was so brave, why didn’t he fight off the Sathuli?”

“He had a wife and three children to protect.”

“So he ran away?”

“He ran away,” agreed Bress.

“I’ll never run from a fight,” said Druss.

“Then you’ll die young,” Bress told him.

Druss sat up and thought back to the raid. What would he have done if the choice had been to fight the slavers - or run with Rowena?

His sleep that night was troubled.

On the sixth night as he walked from the site a tall, burly figure stepped into his path. It was Togrin, the former charge-hand. Druss had not seen him since the fight. The young axeman scanned the darkness, seeking other assailants, but there were none.

“Can we talk?” asked Togrin.

“Why not?” countered Druss.

The man took a deep breath. “I need work,” he said. “My wife’s sick. The children have not eaten in two days.”

Druss looked hard into the man’s face, seeing the hurt pride and instantly sensing what it had cost him to ask for help. “Be on site at dawn,” he said, and strolled on. He felt uncomfortable as he made his way home, telling himself he would never have allowed his own dignity to be lost in such a way. But even as he thought the words, a seed of doubt came to him. Mashrapur was a harsh, unforgiving city. A man was valued only so long as he contributed to the general well-being of the community. And how dreadful it must be, he thought, to watch your children starve.

It was dusk when he arrived at the house. He was tired, but the bone-weariness he had experienced for so long had faded. Sieben was not home. Druss lit a lantern and opened the rear door to the garden allowing the cool sea breeze to penetrate the house.

Removing his money-pouch; he counted out the twenty-four silver pennies he had earned thus far. Twenty was the equivalent of a single raq, and that was one month’s rent on the property. At this rate he would never earn enough to settle his debts. Old Thorn was right: he could make far more in the sand circle.

He recalled the bout with Borcha, the terrible pounding he had received. The memory of the punches he had taken was strong within him - but so too was the memory of those he had thundered into his opponent.

He heard the iron gate creak at the far end of the garden and saw a shadowly figure making his way towards the house. Moonlight glinted from the man’s bald pate, and he seemed colossal as he strode through the shadowed trees. Druss rose from his seat, his pale eyes narrowing.

Borcha halted just before the door. “Well,” he asked, “are you going to invite me in?”

Druss stepped into the garden. “You can take your beating out here,” he hissed. “I’ve not the money to pay for broken furniture.”

“You’re a cocky lad,” said Borcha amiably, stepping into the house and draping his green cloak across the back of a couch. Nonplussed, Druss followed him inside. The big man stretched out in a padded chair, crossing his legs and leaning his head back against the high back. “A good chair,” he said. “Now how about a drink?”

“What do you want here?” demanded Druss, fighting to control his rising temper.

“A little hospitality, farm boy. I don’t know about you, but where I come from we normally offer a guest a goblet of wine when he takes the trouble to call.”

“Where I’m from,” responded Druss, “uninvited guests are rarely welcome.”

“Why such hostility? You won your wager and you fought well. Collan did not take my advice - which was to return your wife - and now he is dead. I had no part in the raid.”

“And I suppose you haven’t been looking for me, seeking your revenge?”

Borcha laughed. “Revenge? For what? You stole nothing from me. You certainly did not beat me - nor could you. You have the strength but not the skill. If that had been a genuine bout I would have broken you, boy - eventually. However, you are quite right - I have been looking for you.”

Druss sat opposite the giant. “So Old Thorn told me. He said you were seeking to destroy me.”

Borcha shook his head and grinned. “The drunken fool misunderstood, boy. Now tell me, how old do you think I am?”

“What? How in the name of Hell should I know?” stormed Druss.

“I’m thirty-eight, thirty-nine in two months. And yes, I could still beat Grassin, and probably all the others. But you showed me the mirror of time, Druss. No one lasts for ever - not in the sand circle. My day is over; my few minutes with you taught me that. Your day is beginning. But it won’t last long unless you learn how to fight.”

“I need no instruction in that,” said Druss.

“You think not? Every time you throw a right-hand blow, you drop your left shoulder. All of your punches travel in a curve. And your strongest defence is your chin which, though it may appear to be made of granite, is in fact merely bone. Your footwork is adequate, though it could be improved, but your weaknesses are many. Grassin will exploit them; he will wear you down.”

“That’s one opinion,” argued Druss.

“Don’t misunderstand me, lad. You are good. You have heart and great strength. But you also know how you felt after four minutes with me. Most bouts last ten times that long.”

“Mine won’t.”

Borcha chuckled. “It will with Grassin. Do not let arrogance blind you to the obvious, Druss. They say you were a woodsman. When you first picked up an axe, did it strike with every blow?”

“No,” admitted the younger man.

“It is the same with combat. I can teach you many styles of punch, and even more defences. I can show you how to feint, and lure an opponent in to your blows.”

“Perhaps you can - but why would you?”

“Pride,” said Borcha.

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ll explain it - after you beat Grassin.”

“I won’t be here long enough,” said Druss. “As soon as a ship bound for Ventria docks in Mashrapur, I shall sail on her.”

“Before the war such a journey would cost ten raq. Now… ? Who knows? But in one month there is a small tournament at Visha, with a first prize of one hundred raq. The rich have palaces in Visha, and a great deal of money can be made on side wagers. Grassin will be taking part, and several of the other notable figures. Agree to let me train you and I will enter your name in my place.”

Druss stood and poured a goblet of wine, which he passed to the bald fighter. “I have taken employment, and I promised the Overseer I would see the work done. It will take a full month.”

“Then I will train you in the evenings.”

“On one condition,” said Druss.

“Name it!”

“The same one I gave the Overseer. If a ship bound for Ventria docks and I can get passage, then I will up and go.”

“Agreed.” Borcha thrust out his hand. Druss clasped it and Borcha stood. “I’ll leave you to your rest. By the way, warn your poet friend that he is taking fruit from the wrong tree.”

“He is his own man,” said Druss.

Borcha shrugged. “Warn him anyway. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Two

Sieben lay awake, staring at the ornate ceiling. Beside him the woman slept, and he could feel the warmth of her skin against his side and legs. There was a painting on the ceiling, a hunting scene showing men armed with spears and bows pursuing a red-maned lion. What kind of man would have such a composition above the marital bed, he thought? Sieben smiled. The First Minister of Mashrapur must have an enormous ego since, whenever he and his wife made love, she would be gazing up at a group of men more handsome than her husband.

Rolling to his side, he looked down at the sleeping woman. Her back was turned towards him, her arm thrust under the pillow, her legs drawn up. Her hair was dark, almost black against the creamy-white of the pillow. He could not see her face, but he pictured again the full lips and the long, beautiful neck. When first he had seen her she was standing beside Mapek in the marketplace. The minister was surrounded by underlings and sycophants, Evejorda looking bored and out of place.

Sieben had stood very still, waiting for her eyes to glance in his direction. When they did, he sent her a smile. One of his best - a swift, flashing grin that said, “I am bored too. I understand you. I am a linked soul.” She raised an eyebrow at him, signifying her distaste for his impertinence, and then turned away. He waited, knowing she would look again. She moved to a nearby stall and began to examine a set of ceramic bowls. He angled himself through the crowd and she looked up, startled to see him so close.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said. She ignored him. “You are very beautiful.”

“And you are presumptuous, sir.” Her voice had a northern burr, which he normally found irritating. Not so now.

“Beauty demands presumption. Just as it demands adoration.”

“You are very sure of yourself,” she said, moving in close to disconcert him.

She was wearing a simple gown of radiant blue and a Lentrian shawl of white silk. But it was her perfume that filled his senses - a rich, scented musk he recognised as Moserche, a Ventrian import costing five gold raq an ounce.

“Are you happy?” he asked her.

“What a ridiculous question! Who could answer it?”

“Someone who is happy,” he told her.

She smiled. “And you, sir, are you happy?”

“I am now.”

“I think you are an accomplished womaniser, and there is no truth to your words.”

“Then judge me by my deeds, my lady. My name is Sieben.” He whispered the address of the house he shared with Druss and then, taking her hand, he kissed it.

Her messenger arrived at the house two days later.

She moved in her sleep. Sieben’s hand slid under the satin sheet, cupping her breast. At first she did not stir, but he gently continued to caress her skin, squeezing her nipple until it swelled erect. She moaned and stretched. “Do you never sleep?” she asked him.

He did not reply.

Later, as Evejorda slept again, he lay silently beside her, his passion gone, his thoughts sorrowful. She was without doubt the most beautiful woman he had ever enjoyed. She was bright, intelligent, dynamic and full of passion.

And he was bored….

As a poet he had sung of love, but never known it, and he envied the lovers of legend who looked into each other’s eyes and saw eternity beckoning. He sighed and slipped from the bed, dressing swiftly and leaving the room, padding softly down the back stairs to the garden before pulling on his boots. The servants were not yet awake, and dawn was only just breaking in the eastern sky. A cockerel crowed in the distance.

Sieben walked through the garden and out on to the avenue beyond. As he walked he could smell the fresh bread baking, and he stopped at a bakery to buy some cheese bread which he ate as he strolled home.

Druss was not there, and he remembered the labouring work the young man had undertaken. God, how could a man spend his days digging in the dirt, he wondered? Moving through to the kitchen, he stoked up the iron stove and set a copper pan filled with water atop it.

Making a tisane of mint and herbs, he stirred the brew and carried it to the main sitting room where he found Shadak asleep on a couch. The hunter’s black jerkin and trews were travel-stained, his boots encrusted with mud. He awoke as Sieben entered, and swung his long legs from the couch.

“I was wondering where you were,” said Shadak, yawning. “I arrived last night.”

“I stayed with a friend,” said Sieben, sitting opposite the hunter and sipping his tisane.

Shadak nodded. “Mapek is due in Mashrapur later today. He cut short his visit to Vagria.”

“Why would that concern me?”

“I’m sure that it does not. But now you know it anyway.”

“Did you come to give me a sermon, Shadak?”

“Do I look like a priest? I came to see Druss. But when I got here he was in the garden, sparring with a bald giant. From the way he moved I concluded his wounds are healed.”

“Only the physical wounds,” said Sieben.

“I know,” responded the hunter. “I spoke to him. He still intends to sail for Ventria. Will you go with him?”

Sieben laughed. “Why should I? I don’t know his wife. Gods, I hardly know him.”

“It might be good for you, poet.”

“The sea air, you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” said Shadak gravely. “You have chosen to make an enemy of one of the most powerful men in Mashrapur. His enemies die, Sieben. Poison, or the blade, or a knotted rope around your throat as you sleep.”

“Is my business known all over the city??

“Of course. There are thirty servants in that house. You think to keep secrets from them when her ecstatic cries reverberate around the building in the middle of the afternoon, or the morning, or in the dead of night?”

“Or indeed all three,” said Sieben, smiling.

“I see no humour in this,” snapped Shadak. “You are no more than a rutting dog and you will undoubtedly ruin her life as you have ruined others. Yet I would sooner you lived than died - only the gods know why!”

“I gave her a little pleasure, that’s all. Which is more than that dry stick of a husband could do. But I will think on your advice.”

“Do not think too long. When Mapek returns he will soon find out about his wife’s… little pleasure. Do not be surprised if he has her killed also.”

Sieben paled. “He wouldn’t…”

“He is a proud man, poet. And you have made a profound error.”

“If he touches her I’ll kill him.”

“Ah, how noble. The dog bares its fangs. You should never have wooed her. You do not even have the defence of being in love; you merely wanted to rut.”

“Is that not what love is?” countered Sieben.

“For you, yes.” Shadak shook his head. “I don’t believe you’ll ever understand it, Sieben. To love means giving, not receiving. Sharing your soul. But this argument is wasted on you, like teaching algebra to a chicken.”

“Oh, please, don’t try to spare my feelings with pretty words. Just come right out with it!”

Shadak rose. “Bodasen is hiring warriors, mercenaries to fight in the Ventrian war. He has chartered a ship which will sail in twelve days. Lie low until then, and do not seek to see Evejorda again - not if you want her to live.”

The hunter moved towards the door, but Sieben called out, “You don’t think very highly of me, do you?”

Shadak half turned. “I think more of you than you think of yourself.”

“I am too tired for riddles.”

“You can’t forget Gulgothir.”

Sieben jerked as if struck, then lunged to his feet. “That is all past. It means nothing to me. You understand? Nothing!”

“If you say so. I’ll see you in twelve days. The ship is called The Thunderchild. She will sail from Quay 12.”

“I may be on it. I may not.”

“A man always has two choices, my friend.”

“No! No! No!” roared Borcha. “You are still thrusting out that chin, and leading with your head.” Stepping back from his opponent, Borcha swept up a towel and wiped the sweat from his face and head. “Try to understand, Druss, that if Grassin gets the opportunity he will take out one - or both - of your eyes. He will step in close, and as you charge he will strike with a sudden thrust, his thumb like a dagger.”

“Let’s go again,” said Druss.

“No. You are too angry and it swamps your thoughts. Come and sit for a while.”

“The light is fading,” Druss pointed out.

“Then let it fade. You are four days from the competition. Four days, Druss. In that time you must learn to control your temper. Winning is everything. It means nothing if an opponent sneers at you, or mocks you, or claims your mother sold herself to sailors. You understand? These insults are merely weapons in a fighter’s armoury. You will be goaded - because every fighter knows that his enemy’s rage is his greatest weakness.”

“I can control it,” snapped Druss.

“A few moments ago you were fighting well - your balance was good, the punches crisp. Then I slapped you with a straight left… then another. The blows were too fast for your defences and they began to irritate you. Then the curve came back to your punches and you exposed your chin, your face.”

Druss sat beside the fighter and nodded. “You are right. But I do not like this sparring, this holding back. It does not feel real.”

“It isn’t real, my friend, but it prepares the body for genuine combat.” He slapped the younger man on the shoulder. “Do not despair; you are almost ready. I think your digging in the dirt has brought back your strength. How goes it at the clearing site?”

“We finished today,” said Druss. “Tomorrow the stonemasons and builders move in.”

“On time. The Overseer must have been pleased - I know I am.”

“Why should it please you?”

“I own a third of the land. The value will rise sharply when the houses are completed.” The bald fighter chuckled. “Were you happy with your bonus?”

“Was that your doing?” asked Druss suspiciously.

“It is standard practice, Druss. The Overseer received fifty raq for completing within the time allocated. The charge-hand is usually offered one tenth of this sum.”

“He gave me ten raq - in gold.”

“Well, well, you must have impressed him.”

“He asked me to stay on and supervise the digging of the footings.”

“But you declined?”

“Yes. There is a ship bound for Ventria. I told him my assistant, Togrin, could take my place. He agreed.”

Borcha was silent for a moment. He knew of Druss’s fight with Togrin on the first day, and how he had welcomed the defeated charge-hand back on the site, training him and giving him responsibility. And the Overseer had told him at their progress meetings how well the men responded to Druss.

“He is a natural leader who inspires by example. No work is too menial, nor too hard. He’s a real find, Borcha; I intend to promote him. There is a new site planned to the north, with difficult terrain. I shall make him Overseer.”

“He won’t take it.”

“Of course he will. He could become rich.”

Borcha pulled his thoughts back to the present. “You know you may never find her,” he said softly.

Druss shook his head. “I’ll find her, Borcha - if I have to walk across Ventria and search every house.”

“You are a woodman, Druss, so answer me this: If I marked a single fallen leaf in a forest, how would you begin to search for it?”

“I hear you - but it is not that difficult. I know who bought her: Kabuchek. He is a rich man, an important man; I will find him.” Reaching behind the bench seat, Druss drew forth Snaga. “This was my grandfather’s axe,” he said. “He was an evil man, they say. But when he was young a great army came out of the north, led by a Gothir King named Pasia. Everywhere there was panic. How could the Drenai stand against such an army? Towns emptied, people piled their possessions on to carts, wagons, coaches, the backs of horses, ponies. Bardan - my grandfather - led a small raiding party deep into the mountains, to where the enemy was camped. He and twenty men walked into the camp, found the King’s tent and slew him in the night. In the morning they found Pasia’s head stuck atop a lance. The army went home.”

“An interesting story, and one I have heard before,” said Borcha. “What do you think we learn from it?”

“There is nothing a man cannot achieve if he has the will, the strength and the courage to attempt it,” answered Druss.

Borcha rose and stretched the massive muscles of his shoulders and back. “Then let’s see if it is true,” he said, with a smile. “Let’s see if you have the will, the strength and the courage to keep your chin tucked in.”

Druss chuckled and placed the axe beside the seat as he stood. “I like you, Borcha. How in the name of Chaos did you ever come to serve a man like Collan?”

“He had a good side, Druss.”

“He did?”

“Aye, he paid well.” As he spoke his hand snaked out, the open palm lashing across Druss’s cheek. The younger man snarled and leapt at him but Borcha swayed left, his fist glancing from Druss’s cheek. “The chin, you ox! Keep it in!” he bellowed.

“I was hoping for men with more quality,” said Bodasen, as he scanned the crowds milling in the Celebration Field.

Borcha chuckled. “Do not be misled by appearances. Some of these men are quality. It really depends on what you are seeking.”

Bodasen stared moodily at the rabble - some in rags, most filthy. More than two hundred had assembled so far, and a quick glance to the gate showed others moving along the access road. “I think we have different views on what constitutes quality,” he said gloomily.

“Look over there,” said Borcha, pointing to a man sitting on a fence rail. “That is Eskodas the Bowman. He can hit a mark no larger than your thumbnail from fifty paces. A man to walk the mountains with, as they say in my home country. And there, the swordsman Kelva - fearless and highly skilled. A natural killer.”

“But do they understand the concept of honour?”

Borcha’s laughter rang out. “You have listened to too many tales of glory and wonder, my friend. These men are fighters; they fight for pay.”

Bodasen sighed. “I am trapped in this… this blemish of a city. My emperor is beset on all sides by a terrible enemy, and I cannot join him. No ship will sail unless it is manned by seasoned troops, and I must choose them from among the gutter scum of Mashrapur. I had hoped for more.”

“Choose wisely, and they may yet surprise you,” advised Borcha.

“Let us see the archers first,” Bodasen ordered.

For more than an hour Bodasen watched the bowmen sending their shafts at targets stuffed with straw. When they had finished he selected five men, the youthful Eskodas among them. Each man was given a single gold raq, and told to report to The Thunderchild at dawn on the day of departure.

The swordsmen were more difficult to judge. At first he ordered them to fence with one another, but the warriors set about their task with mindless ferocity and soon several men were down with cuts, gashes, and one with a smashed collar-bone. Bodasen called a halt to the proceedings and, with Borcha’s help, chose ten. The injured men were each given five silver pieces.

The day wore on, and by noon Bodasen had chosen thirty of the fifty men he required to man The Thunderchild. Dismissing the remainder of the would-be mercenaries, he strode from the field with Borcha beside him.

“Will you leave a place for Druss?” asked the fighter.

“No. I will have room only for men who will fight for Ventria. His quest is a personal one.”

“According to Shadak he is the best fighting man in the city.”

“I am not best disposed towards Shadak. Were it not for him the pirates would not be fighting Ventria’s cause.”

“Sweet Heaven!” snorted Borcha. “How can you believe that? Collan would merely have taken your money and given nothing in return.”

“He gave me his word,” said Bodasen.

“How on earth did you Ventrians ever build an empire?” enquired Borcha. “Collan was a liar, a thief, a raider. Why would you believe him? Did he not tell you he was going to give back Druss’s wife? Did he not lie to you in order for you to lure Druss into a trap? What kind of man did you believe you were dealing with?”

“A nobleman,” snapped Bodasen. “Obviously I was wrong.”

“Indeed you were. You have just paid a gold raq to Eskodas, the son of a goat-breeder and a Lentrian whore. His father was hanged for stealing two horses and his mother abandoned him. He was raised in an orphanage run by two Source priests.”

“Is there some point to this sordid tale?” asked the Ventrian.

“Aye, there is. Eskodas will fight to the death for you; he’ll not run. Ask him his opinion, and he’ll give an honest answer. Hand him a bag of diamonds and tell him to deliver it to a man a thousand leagues distant, and he will do so - and never once will he consider stealing a single gem.”

“So I should hope,” observed Bodasen. “I would expect no less from any Ventrian servant I employed. Why do you make honesty sound like a grand virtue?”

“I have known rocks with more common sense than you,” said Borcha, struggling to hold his temper.

Bodasen chuckled. “Ah, the ways of you barbarians are mystifying. But you are quite right about Druss - I was instrumental in causing him grievous wounds. Therefore I shall leave a place for him on The Thunderchild. Now let us find somewhere that serves good food and passable wine.”

Shadak, Sieben and Borcha stood with Druss on the quayside as dock-workers moved by them, climbing the gangplank, carrying the last of the ship’s stores to the single deck. The Thunderchild was riding low in the water, her deck crammed with mercenaries who leaned on the rail, waving goodbyes to the women who thronged the quay. Most were whores, but there were a few wives with small children, and many were the tears.

Shadak gripped Druss’s hand. “I wish you fair sailing, laddie,” the hunter told him. “And I hope the Source leads you to Rowena.”

“He will,” said Druss. The axeman’s eyes were swollen, the lids discoloured - a mixture of dull yellow and faded purple - and there was a lump under his left eye, where the skin was split and badly stitched.

Shadak grinned at him. “It was a good fight. Grassin will long remember it.”

“And me,” grunted Druss.

Shadak nodded, and his smile faded. “You are a rare man, Druss. Try not to change. Remember the code.”

“I will,” promised Druss. The two men shook hands again, and Shadak strolled away.

“What code?” Sieben asked.

Druss watched as the black-garbed hunter vanished into the crowd. “He once told me that all true warriors live by a code: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.”

“Very true, I’m sure,” said Sieben, with a dry, mocking laugh. “Ah well, Druss, I can hear the call of the fleshpots and the taverns. And with the money I won on you, I can live like a lord for several months.” He thrust out his slender hand and Druss clasped it.

“Spend your money wisely,” he advised.

“I shall… on women and wine and gambling.” Laughing, he swung away.

Druss turned to Borcha. “I thank you for your training, and your kindness.”

“The time was well spent, and it was gratifying to see Grassin humbled. But he still almost took out your eye. I don’t think you’ll ever learn to keep that chin protected.”

“Hey, Druss! Are you coming aboard?” yelled Bodasen from the deck and Druss waved.

“I’m on my way,” he shouted. The two men clasped hands in the warrior’s grip, wrist to wrist. “I hope we meet again,” said Druss.

“Who can say what the fates will decree?”

Druss hefted his axe and turned for the gangplank. “Tell me now why you helped me?” he asked suddenly.

Borcha shrugged. “You frightened me, Druss. I wanted to see just how good you could be. Now I know. You could be the best. It makes what you did to me more palatable. Tell me, how does it feel to leave as champion?”

Druss chuckled. “It hurts,” he said, rubbing his swollen jaw.

“Move yourself, dog-face!” yelled a warrior, leaning over the rail.

The axeman glanced up at the speaker, then turned back to Borcha. “Be lucky, my friend,” he said, then strode up the gangplank. With the ropes loosed, The Thunderchild eased away from the quayside.

Warriors were lounging on the deck, or leaning over the rail waving goodbye to friends and loved ones. Druss found a space by the port rail and sat, laying his axe on the deck beside him. Bodasen was standing beside the mate at the tiller; he waved and smiled at the axeman.

Druss leaned back, feeling curiously at peace. The months trapped in Mashrapur had been hard on the young man. He pictured Rowena.

“I’m coming for you,” he whispered.

Sieben strolled away from the quay, and off into the maze of alleys leading to the park. Ignoring the whores who pressed close around him, his thoughts were many. There was sadness at the departure of Druss. He had come to like the young axeman; there were no hidden sides to him, no cunning, no guile. And much as he laughed at the axeman’s rigid morality, he secretly admired the strength that gave birth to it. Druss had even sought out the surgeon Calvar Syn, and settled his debt. Sieben had gone with him and would long remember the surprise that registered on the young doctor’s face.

But Ventria? Sieben had no wish to visit a land torn by war.

He thought of Evejorda and regret washed over him. He’d like to have seen her just one more time, - to have felt those slim thighs sliding up over his hips. But Shadak was right; it was too dangerous for both of them.

Sieben turned left and started to climb the Hundred Steps to the park gateway. Shadak was wrong about Gulgothir. He remembered the filth-strewn streets, the limbless beggars and the cries of the dispossessed. But he remembered them without bitterness. And was it his fault that his father had made such a fool of himself with the Duchess? Anger flared briefly. Stupid fool, he thought. Stupid, stupid man!

She had stripped him first of his wealth, then his dignity, and finally his manhood. They called her the Vampire Queen and it was a good description, save that she didn’t drink blood. No, she drank the very life force from a man, sucked him dry and left him thanking her for doing it, begging her to do it again.

Sieben’s father had been thrown aside - a useless husk, an empty, discarded shell of a man. While Sieben and his mother had almost starved, his father was sitting like a beggar outside the home of the Duchess. He sat there for a month, and finally cut his own throat with a rusty blade.

Stupid, stupid man!

But I am not stupid, thought Sieben as he climbed the steps. I am not like my father.

He glanced up to see two men walking down the steps towards him. They wore long cloaks that were drawn tightly across their bodies. Sieben paused in his climb. It was a hot morning, so why would they be dressed in such a manner? Hearing a sound, he turned to see another man climbing behind him. He also wore a long cloak.

Fear flared suddenly in the poet’s heart and, spinning on his heel, he descended towards the single man. As he neared the climber the cloak flashed back, a long knife appearing in the man’s hand. Sieben leapt feet first, his right boot cracking into the man’s chin and sending him tumbling down the steps. Sieben landed heavily but rose swiftly and began to run, taking the steps three at a time. He could hear the men behind him also running.

Reaching the bottom, he set off through the alleyways. A hunting horn sounded and a tall warrior leapt into his path with a sword in hand. Sieben, at full run, turned his shoulder into the man, barging him aside. He swerved right, then left. A knife sliced past his head to clatter against a wall.

Increasing his speed, he raced across a small square and into a side street. He could see the docks ahead. It was more crowded here and he pushed his way through. Several men shouted abuse, and a young woman fell behind him. He glanced back - there were at least half a dozen pursuers.”

Close to panic now, he emerged on to the quay. To his left he saw a group of men emerge from a side street; they were all carrying weapons and Sieben swore.

The Thunderchild was slipping away from the quayside as Sieben ran across the cobbles and launched himself through the air, reaching out to grab at a trailing rope. His fingers curled around it, and his body cracked against the ship’s timbers. Almost losing his grip, he clung to the rope as a knife thudded into the wood beside his head. Fear gave him strength and he began to climb.

A familiar face loomed above him and Druss leaned over, grabbing him by the shirt and hauling him on to the deck.

“Changed your mind, I see,” said the axeman. Sieben gave a weak smile and glanced back at the quay. There were at least a dozen armed men there now.

“I thought the sea air would be good for me,” said Sieben.

The captain, a bearded man in his fifties, pushed his way through to them. “What’s going on?” he said. “I can only carry fifty men. That’s the limit.”

“He doesn’t weigh much,” said Druss goodnaturedly.

Another man stepped forward. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and wore a dented breastplate, two short swords and a baldric boasting four knives. “First you keep us waiting, dogface, and now you bring your boyfriend aboard. Well, Kelva the Swordsman won’t sail with the likes of you.”

“Then don’t!” Druss’s left hand snaked out, his fingers locking to the man’s throat, his right slamming home into the warrior’s groin. With one surging heave Druss lifted the struggling man into the air and tossed him over the side. He hit with a great splash and came up struggling under the weight of his armour.

The Thunderchild pulled away and Druss turned to the captain. “Now we are fifty again,” he said, with a smile.

“Can’t argue with that,” the captain agreed. He swung to the sailors standing by the mast. “Let loose the mainsail!” he bellowed.

Sieben walked to the rail and saw that people on the quayside had thrown a rope to the struggling warrior in the water. “He might have friends aboard the ship,” observed the poet.

“They’re welcome to join him,” answered Druss.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Three

Each morning Eskodas paced the deck, moving along the port rail all the way to the prow and then back along the starboard rail, rising the six steps to the tiller deck at the stern, where either the captain or the first mate would be standing alongside the curved oak tiller.

The bowman feared the sea, gazing with undisguised dread at the rolling waves and feeling the awesome power that lifted the ship like a piece of driftwood. On the first morning of the voyage Eskodas had climbed to the tiller deck and approached the captain, Milus Bar.

“No passengers up here,” said the captain sternly.

“I have questions, sir,” Eskodas told him politely.

Milus Bar looped a hemp rope over the tiller arm, securing it. “About what?” he asked.

“The boat.”

“Ship,” snapped Milus.

“Yes, the ship. Forgive me, I am not versed in nautical terms.”

“She’s seaworthy,” said Milus. “Three hundred and fifty feet of seasoned timber. She leaks no more than a man can sweat, and she’ll ride any storm the gods can throw our way. She’s sleek. She’s fast. What else do you need to know?”

“You talk of the… ship… as a woman.”

“Better than any woman I ever knew,” said Milus, grinning. “She’s never let me down.”

“She seems so small against the immensity of the ocean,” observed Eskodas.

“We are all small against the ocean, lad. But there are few storms at this time of year. Our danger is pirates, and that’s why you are here.” He stared at the young bowman, his grey eyes narrowing under heavy brows. “If you don’t mind me saying so, lad, you seem a little out of place among these killers and villains.”

“I don’t object to you saying it, sir,” Eskodas told him. “They might object to hearing it, however. Thank you for your time and your courtesy.”

The bowman climbed down to the main deck. Men were lounging everywhere, some dicing, others talking. By the port rail several others were engaged in an arm-wrestling tourney. Eskodas moved through them towards the prow.

The sun was bright in a blue sky, and there was a good following breeze. Gulls circled high above the ship, and to the north he could just make out the coast of Lentria. At this distance the land seemed misty and unreal, a place of ghosts and legends.

There were two men sitting by the prow. One was the slim young man who had boarded the ship so spectacularly. Blond and handsome, long hair held in place by a silver headband, his clothes were expensive - a pale blue shirt of fine silk, dark blue leggings of lambswool seamed with soft leather. The other man was huge; he had lifted Kelva as if the warrior weighed no more than a few ounces, and hurled him into the sea like a spear. Eskodas approached them. The giant was younger than he had first thought, but the beginnings of a dark beard gave him the look of someone older. Eskodas met his gaze. Cold blue eyes, flint-hard and unwelcoming. The bowman smiled. “Good morning,” he said. The giant grunted something, but the blond dandy rose and extended his hand.

“Hello, there. My name is Sieben. This is Druss.”

“Ay, yes. He defeated Grassin at the tournament - broke his jaw, I believe.”

“In several places,” said Sieben.

“I am Eskodas.” The bowman sat down on a coiled rope and leaned his back against a cloth-bound bale. Closing his eyes, he felt the sun warm on his face. The silence lasted for several moments, then the two men resumed their conversation.

Eskodas didn’t listen too intently… something about a woman and assassins.

He thought of the journey ahead. He had never seen Ventria, which according to the story books was a land of fabled wealth, dragons, centaurs and many wild beasts. He tended to disbelieve the part about the dragons; he was widely travelled, and in every country there were stories of them, but never had Eskodas seen one. In Chiatze there was a museum where the bones of a dragon had been re-assembled. The skeleton was colossal, but it had no wings, and a neck that was at least eight feet long. No fire could have issued from such a throat, he thought.

But dragons or not, Eskodas looked forward with real pleasure to seeing Ventria.

“You don’t say much, do you?” observed Sieben.

Eskodas opened his eyes and smiled. “When I have something to say, I will speak,” he said.

“You’ll never get the chance,” grunted Druss. “Sieben talks enough for ten men.”

Eskodas smiled politely. “You are the saga-master,” he said.

“Yes. How gratifying to be recognised.”

“I saw you in Corteswain. You gave a performance of The Song of Karnak. It was very good; I particularly enjoyed the tale of Dros Purdol and the siege, though I was less impressed by the arrival of the gods of war, and the mysterious princess with the power to hurl lightning.”

“Dramatic licence,” said Sieben, with a tight smile.

“The courage of men needs no such licence,” said Eskodas. “It lessens the heroism of the defenders to suggest that they had divine help.”

“It was not a history lesson,” Sieben pointed out, his smile fading. “It was a poem - a song. The arrival of the gods was merely an artistic device to highlight that courage will sometimes bring about good fortune.”

“Hmmm,” said Eskodas, leaning back and closing his eyes.

“What does that mean?” demanded Sieben. “Are you disagreeing?”

Eskodas sighed. “It is not my wish to provoke an argument, sir poet, but I think the device was a poor one. You maintain it was inserted to supply dramatic effect. There is no point in further discussion; I have no desire to increase your anger.”

“I am not angry, damn you!” stormed Sieben.

“He doesn’t take well to criticism,” said Druss.

“That’s very droll,” snapped Sieben, “coming as it does from the man who tosses shipmates over the side at the first angry word. Now why was it a poor device?”

Eskodas leaned forward. “I have been in many sieges. The point of greatest courage comes at the end, when all seems lost; that is when weak men break and run, or beg for their lives. You had the gods arrive just before that moment, and offer divine assistance to thwart the Vagrians. Therefore the truly climactic moment was lost, for as soon as the gods appeared we knew victory was assured.”

“I would have lost some of my best lines. Especially the end, where the warriors wonder if they will ever see the gods again.”

“Yes, I remember… the eldritch rhymes, the wizard spells, the ringing of sweet Elven bells. That one.”

“Precisely.”

“I prefer the grit and the reality of your earlier pieces: But came the day, when youth was worn away, and locks once thought of steel and fire, proved both ephemeral and unreal against the onslaught of the years. How wrong are the young to believe in secrets or enchanted woods.” He lapsed into silence.

“Do you know all my work?” asked Sieben, clearly astonished. Eskodas smiled. “After you performed at Corteswain I sought out your books of poetry. There were five, I think. I have two still - the earliest works.”

“I am at a loss for words.”

“That’ll be the day,” grunted Druss.

“Oh, be quiet. At last we meet a man of discernment on a ship full of rascals. Perhaps this voyage will not be so dreadful. So, tell me, Eskodas, what made you sign on for Ventria?”

“I like killing people,” answered Eskodas. Druss’s laughter bellowed out.

For the first few days the novelty of being at sea kept most of the mercenaries amused. They sat up on the deck during daylight hours, playing dice or telling stories. At night they slept under a tarpaulin that was looped and tied to the port and starboard rails. Druss was fascinated by the sea and the seemingly endless horizons. Berthed at Mashrapur The Thunderchild had looked colossal, unsinkable. But here on the open sea she seemed fragile as a flower stem in a river torrent. Sieben had grown bored with the voyage very swiftly. Not so Druss. The sighing of the wind, the plunging and the rising of the ship, the call of the gulls high above - all these fired the young axeman’s blood.

One morning he climbed the rigging to the giant cross-beam that held the mainsail. Sitting astride it he could see no sign of land, only the endless blue of the sea. A sailor walked along the beam towards him, barefooted, and using no hand-holds. He stood in delicate balance with hands on hips and looked down at Druss.

“No passengers should be up here,” he said.

Druss grinned at the young man. “How can you just stand there, as if you were on a wide road? A puff of breeze could blow you away.”

“Like this?” asked the sailor, stepping from the beam. He twisted in mid-air, his hands fastening to a sail rope. For a moment he hung there, then lithely pulled himself up alongside the axeman.

“Very good,” said Druss. His eye was caught by a silver-blue flash in the water below and the sailor chuckled.

“The gods of the sea,”he told the passenger. “Dolphins. If they are in the mood, you should see some wonderful sights.” A gleaming shape rose out of the water, spinning into the air before entering the sea again with scarcely a splash. Druss clambered down the rigging, determined to get a closer look at the sleek and beautiful animals performing in the water. High-pitched cries echoed around the ship as the creatures bobbed their heads above the surface.

Suddenly an arrow sped from the ship, plunging into one of the dolphins as it soared out of the water.

Within an instant the creatures had disappeared.

Druss glared at the archer while other men shouted at him, their anger sudden, their mood ugly.

“It was just a fish!” said the archer.

Milus Bar pushed his way through the crowd. “You fool!” he said, his face almost grey beneath his tan. “They are the gods of the sea; they come for us to pay homage. Sometimes they will even lead us through treacherous waters. Why did you have to shoot?”

“It was a good target,” said the man. “And why not? It was my choice.”

“Aye, it was, lad,” Milus told him, “but if our luck turns bad now it will be my choice to cut out your innards and feed them to the sharks.” The burly skipper stalked back to the tiller deck. The earlier good mood had evaporated now and the men drifted back to their pursuits with little pleasure.

Sieben approached Druss. “By the gods, they were wondrous,” said the poet. “According to legend, Asia’s chariot is drawn by six white dolphins.”

Druss sighed. “Who would have thought that anyone would consider killing one of them? Do they make good food, do you know?”

“No,” said Sieben. “In the north they sometimes become entangled in the nets and drown. I have known men who cooked the meat; they say it tastes foul, and is impossible to digest.”

“Even worse then,” Druss grunted.

“It is no different from any other kind of hunting for sport, Druss. Is not a doe as beautiful as a dolphin?”

“You can eat a doe. Venison is fine meat.”

“But most of them don’t hunt for food, do they? Not the nobles. They hunt for pleasure. They enjoy the chase, the terror of the prey, the final moment of the kill. Do not blame this man alone for his stupidity. He comes, as do we all, from a cruel world.”

Eskodas joined them. “Not very inspiring, was he?” said the bowman.

“Who?”

“The man who shot the fish.”

“We were just talking about it.”

“I didn’t know you understood the skills of archery,” said Eskodas, surprised.

“Archery? What are you talking about?”

“The bowman. He drew and loosed in a single movement. No hesitation. It is vital to pause and sight your target; he was overanxious for the kill.”

“Be that as it may,” said Sieben, his irritation rising, “we were talking about the morality of hunting.”

“Man is a killer by nature,” said Eskodas amiably. “A natural hunter. Like him there!” Sieben and Druss both turned to see a silver-white fin cutting through the water. “That’s a shark. He scented the blood from the wounded dolphin. Now he’ll hunt him down, following the trail as well as a Sathuli scout.”

Druss leaned over the side and watched the shimmering form slide by. “Big fellow,” he said.

“They come bigger than that,” said Eskodas. “I was on a ship once that sank in a storm off the Lentrian coast. Forty of us survived the wreck, and struck out for shore. Then the sharks arrived. Only three of us made it - and one of those had his right leg ripped away. He died three days later.”

“A storm, you say?” ventured Druss.

“Aye.”

“Like that one?” asked Druss, pointing to the east, where massive dark clouds were bunching. A flash of lightning speared across the sky, followed by a tremendous roll of thunder.

“Yes, like that. Let’s hope it is not blowing our way.”

Within minutes the sky darkened, the sea surging and rising. The Thunderchild rolled and rose on the crests of giant waves, sliding into ever larger valleys of water. Then the rain began, faster and faster, icy needles that came from the sky like arrows.

Crouching by the port rail Sieben glanced to where the unfortunate archer was huddled. The man who had shot the dophin was alone, and holding fast to a rope. Lightning flashed above the ship.

“I would say our luck has changed,” observed Sieben.

But neither Druss nor Eskodas could hear him above the screaming of the wind.

Eskodas hooked his arms around the port rail and clung on as the storm raged. A huge wave crashed over the side of the ship, dislodging several men from their precarious holds on ropes and bales, sweeping them across the deck to crash into the dipping starboard rail. A post cracked, but no one heard it above the ominous roll of thunder booming from the night-dark sky. The Thunderchild rode high on the crest of an enormous wave, then slid down into a valley of raging water. A sailor carrying a coiled rope ran along the deck trying to reach the warriors at the starboard rail. A second wave crashed over him, hurling him into the struggling men. The port rail gave way, and within the space of a heartbeat some twenty men were swept from the deck. The ship reared like a frightened horse. Eskodas felt his grip on the rail post weaken. He tried to readjust his hold, but the ship lurched again.

Torn from his position of relative safety, he slid headlong towards the yawning gap in the starboard rail.

A huge hand clamped down around his ankle, then he was hauled back. The axeman grinned at him, then handed him a length of rope. Swiftly Eskodas slipped it around his waist, fastening the other end to the mast. He glanced at Druss. The big man was enjoying the storm. Secure now, Eskodas scanned the deck. The poet was clinging to a section of the starboard rail that seemed none too secure, and high on the tiller deck the bowman could see Milus Bar wrestling with the tiller, trying to keep The Thunderchild ahead of the storm.

Another massive wave swept over the deck. The starboard rail cracked and Sieben slid over the edge of the deck. Druss untied his rope and rose. Eskodas shouted at him, but the axeman either did not hear, or ignored him. Druss ran across the heaving deck, fell once, then righted himself until he came alongside the shattered rail. Dropping to his knees Druss leaned over, dragging Sieben back to the deck.

Just behind them the man who had shot the dolphin was reaching for a rope with which to tie himself to a hauling ring set in the deck. The ship reared once more. The man tumbled to the deck, then slid on his back, cannoning into Druss who fell heavily. Still holding Seiben with one hand, the axeman tried to reach the doomed archer, but the man vanished into the raging sea.

Almost at that instant the sun appeared through broken clouds and the rain lessened, the sea settling. Druss rose and gazed into the water. Eskodas untied the rope that held him to the mast and stood, his legs unsteady. He walked to where Druss stood with Sieben.

The poet’s face was white with shock. “I’ll never sail again,” he said. “Never!”

Eskodas thrust out his hand. “Thank you, Druss. You saved my life.”

The axeman chuckled. “Had to, laddie. You’re the only one on this boat who can leave our saga-master speechless.”

Bodasen appeared from the tiller deck. “That was a reckless move, my friend,” he told Druss, “but it was well done. I like to see bravery in the men who fight alongside me.”

As the Ventrian moved on, counting the men who were left, Eskodas shivered. “I think we lost nearly thirty men,” he said.

“Twenty-seven,” said Druss.

Sieben crawled back to the edge of the deck and vomited into the sea. “Make that twenty-seven and a half,” Eskodas added.

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Four

The young Emperor climbed down from the battlement walls and strode along the quayside, his staff officers following; his aide, Nebuchad, beside him. “We can hold for months, Lord,” said Nebuchad, squinting his eyes against the glare from the Emperor’s gilded breastplate. “The walls are thick and high, and the catapults will prevent any attempt to storm the harbour mouth from the sea.”

Gorben shook his head. “The walls will not protect us,” he told the young man. “We have fewer than three thousand men here. The Naashanites have twenty times that number. Have you ever seen tiger ants attack a scorpion?”

“Yes, Lord.”

“They swarm all over it - that is how the enemy will storm Capalis.”

“We will fight to the death,” promised an officer.

Gorben halted and turned. “I know that,” he said, his dark eyes angry now. “But dying will not bring us victory, will it, Jasua?”

“No, Lord.”

Gorben strode on, along near-empty streets, past boarded, deserted shops and empty taverns. At last he reached the entrance to the Magisters’ Hall. The City Elders had long since departed and the ancient building had become the headquarters of the Capalis militia. Gorben entered the hallway and stalked to his chambers, waving away his officers and the two servants who ran towards him - one bearing wine in a golden goblet, the second carrying a towel soaked with warm, scented water.

Once inside, the young Emperor kicked off his boots and hurled his white cloak across a nearby chair. There was one large window facing east, and before it was a desk of oak upon which were laid many maps, and reports from scouts and spies. Gorben sat down and stared at the largest map; it was of the Ventrian Empire and. had been commissioned by his father six years ago.

He smoothed out the hide and gazed with undisguised fury at the map. Two-thirds of the Empire had been overrun. Leaning back in his chair, he remembered the palace at Nusa where he had been born and raised. Built on a hill overlooking a verdant valley, and a glistening city of white marble, the palace had taken twelve years to construct, and at one time more than eight thousand workers had laboured on the task, bringing in blocks of granite and marble and towering trunks of cedar, oak and elm to be fashioned by the Royal masons and carpenters.

Nusa - the first of the cities to fall. “By all the gods of Hell, Father, I curse thee!” hissed Gorben. His father had reduced the size of the national army, relying on the wealth and power of his Satraps to protect the borders. But four of the nine Satraps had betrayed him, opening a path for the Naashanites to invade. His father had gathered an army to confront them, but his military skills were non-existent. He had fought bravely, so Gorben had been informed - but then they would say that to the new Emperor.

The new Emperor! Gorben rose now and walked to the silvered mirror on the far wall. What he saw was a young, handsome man, with black hair that gleamed with scented oils, and deep-set dark eyes. It was a strong face - but was it the face of an Emperor? Can you overcome the enemy, he asked himself silently, aware that any spoken word could be heard by servants and repeated. The gilded breastplate had been worn by warrior Emperors for two hundred years, and the cloak of purple was the mark of ultimate royalty. But these were merely adornments. What mattered was the man who wore them. Are you man enough? He gazed hard at his reflection, taking in the broad shoulders and the narrow waist, the muscular legs and powerful arms. But these too were merely adornments, he knew. The cloak of the soul.

Are you man enough?

The thought haunted him and he returned to his studies. Leaning forward with his elbows on the table, Gorben stared down at the map once more. Scrawled across it in charcoal was the new line of defence: Capalis to the west, Larian and Ectanis to the east. Gorben hurled the map aside. Beneath it lay a second map of the port city of Capalis. Four gates, sixteen towers and a single wall which stretched from the sea in the south in a curving half-circle to the cliffs of the north. Two miles of wall, forty feet high, guarded by three thousand men, many of them raw recruits with no shields nor breastplates.

Rising, Gorben moved to the window and the balcony beyond. The harbour and the open sea met his gaze. “Ah, Bodasen, my brother, where are you?” he whispered. The sea seemed so peaceful under the clear blue sky and the young Emperor sank into a padded seat and lifted his feet to rest on the balcony rail.

On this warm, tranquil day it seemed inconceivable that so much death and destruction had been visited upon the Empire in so short a time. He closed his eyes and recalled the Summer Banquet at Nusa last year. His father had been celebrating his forty-fourth birthday, and the seventeenth anniversary of his accession to the throne. The banquet had lasted eight days and there had been circuses, plays, knightly combat, displays of archery, running, wrestling and riding. The nine Satraps were all present, smiling and offering toasts to the Emperor. Shabag, tall and slim, hawk-eyed, and cruel of mouth. Gorben pictured him. He always wore black gloves, even in the hottest weather, and tunics of silk buttoned to the neck. Berish, fat and greedy, but a wonderful raconteur with his tales of orgies and humorous calamities. Darishan, the Fox of the North, the cavalryman, the Lancer, with his long silver hair braided like a woman. And Ashac, the Peacock, the lizard-eyed lover of boys. They had been given pride of place on either side of the Emperor, while his eldest son was forced to sit on the lower table, gazing up at these men of power!

Shabag, Berish, Darishan, and Ashac! Names and faces that burned Gorben’s heart and soul. Traitors! Men who swore allegiance to his father, then saw him done to death, his lands overrun and his people slaughtered.

Gorben opened his eyes and took a deep breath. “I will seek you out - each one of you,” he promised, “and I will pay you back for your treachery.”

The threat was as empty as the treasury coffers, and Gorben knew it.

A soft tapping came at the outer door. “Enter!” he called.

Nebuchad stepped inside and bowed low. “The scouts are in, Lord. The enemy is less than two days’ march from the walls.”

“What news from the east?”

“None, Lord. Perhaps our riders did not get through.”

“What of the supplies?”

Nebuchad reached inside his tunic and produced a parchment scroll which he unrolled. “We have sixteen thousand loaves of unleavened bread, a thousand barrels of flour, eight hundred beef cattle, one hundred and forty goats. The sheep have not been counted yet. There is little cheese left, but a great quantity of oats and dried fruit.”

“What about salt?”

“Salt, Lord?”

“When we kill the cattle, how will we keep the meat fresh?”

“We could kill them only when we need them,” offered Nebuchad, reddening.

“To keep the cattle we must feed them, but there is no food to spare. Therefore they must be slaughtered, and the meat salted. Scour the city. And, Nebuchad?”

“Lord?”

“You did not mention water?”

“But, Lord, the river flows through the city.”

“Indeed it does. But what will we drink when the enemy dam it, or fill it with poisons?”

“There are artesian wells, I believe.”

“Locate them.”

The young man’s head dropped. “I fear, Lord, that I am not serving you well. I should have anticipated these requirements.”

Gorben smiled. “You have much to think of and I am well pleased with you. But you do need help. Take Jasua.”

“As you wish, Lord,” said Nebuchad doubtfully.

“You do not like him?”

Nebuchad swallowed hard. “It is not a question of “like”, Lord. But he treats me with… contempt.”

Gorben’s eyes narrowed, but he held the anger from his voice. “Tell him it is my wish that he assist you. Now go.”

As the door closed, Gorben slumped down on to a satin-covered couch. “Sweet Lords of Heaven,” he whispered, “does my future depend on men of such little substance?” He sighed, then gazed once more out to sea. “I need you, Bodasen,” he said. “By all that is sacred, I need you!”

Bodasen stood on the tiller deck, his right hand shading his eyes, his vision focusing on the far horizon. On the main deck sailors were busy repairing the rail, while others were aloft in the rigging, or refastening bales that had slipped during the storm.

“You’ll see pirates soon enough if they are near,” said Milus Bar.

Bodasen nodded and swung back to the skipper. “With a mere twenty-four warriors, I am hoping not to see them at all,” he said softly.

The captain chuckled. “In life we do not always get what we want, my Ventrian friend. I did not want a storm. I did not want my first wife to leave me - nor my second wife to stay.” He shrugged. “Such is life, eh?”

“You do not seem unduly concerned.”

“I am a fatalist, Bodasen. What will be will be.”

“Could we outrun them?”

Milus Bar shrugged once more. “It depends on which direction they are coming from.” He waved his hand in the air. “The wind. Behind us? Yes. There is not a swifter ship on the ocean than my Thunderchild. Ahead and to the west - probably. Ahead and to the east - no. They would ram us. They have a great advantage, for many of their vessels are triremes with three banks of oars. You would be amazed, my friend, at the speed with which they can turn and ram.”

“How long now to Capalis?”

“Two days - maybe three if the wind drops.”

Bodasen moved across the tiller deck, climbing down the six steps to the main deck. He saw Druss, Sieben and Eskodas by the prow and walked towards them. Druss saw him and glanced up.

“Just the man we need,” said the axeman. “We are talking about Ventria. Sieben maintains there are mountains there which brush the moon. Is it so?”

“I have not seen all of the Empire,” Bodasen told him, “but according to our astronomers the moon is more than a quarter of a million miles from the surface of the earth. Therefore I would doubt it.”

“Such eastern nonsense,” mocked Sieben. “There was a Drenai archer once, who fired a shaft into the moon. He had a great bow called Akansin, twelve feet long and woven with spells. He fired a black arrow, which he named Paka. Attached to the arrow was a thread of silver, which he used to climb to the moon. He sat upon it as it sailed around the great plate of the earth.”

“Mere fable,” insisted Bodasen.

“It is recorded in the library at Drenan - in the Historic section.”

“All that tells me is how limited is your understanding of the universe,” said Bodasen. “Do you still believe the sun is a golden chariot drawn by six white, winged horses?” He sat down upon a coiled rope. “Or perhaps that the earth sits upon the shoulders of an elephant, or some such beast?”

Sieben smiled. “No, we do not. But would it not be better if we did? Is there not a certain beauty in the tale? One day I shall craft a bow and shoot at the moon.”

“Never mind the moon,” said Druss. “I want to know about Ventria.”

“According to the census ordered by the Emperor fifteen years ago, and concluded only last year, the Greater Ventrian empire is 214,969 square miles. It has an estimated population of fifteen and a half million people. On a succession of fast horses, a rider galloping along the borders would return to where he started in just under four years.”

Druss looked crestfallen. He swallowed hard. “So large?”

“So large,” agreed Bodasen.

Druss’s eyes narrowed. “I will find her,” he said at last.

“Of course you will,” said Bodasen. “She left with Kabuchek and he will have headed for his home in Ectanis, which means he will have docked at Capalis. Kabuchek is a famous man, senior advisor to the Satrap, Shabag. He will not be hard to find. Unless…”

“Unless what?” queried Druss.

“Unless Ectanis has already fallen.”

“Sail! Sail!” came a cry from the rigging. Bodasen leapt up, eyes scanning the glittering water. Then he saw the ship in the east with sails furled, three banks of oars glistening like wings. Swinging back towards the main deck, he drew his sabre.

“Gather your weapons,” he shouted.

Druss donned his jerkin and helm and stood at the prow, watching the trireme glide towards them. Even at this distance he could see the fighting men thronging the decks.

“A magnificent ship,” he said.

Beside him Sieben nodded. “The very best. Two hundred and forty oars. See there! At the prow!”

Druss focused on the oncoming ship, and saw a glint of gold at the waterline. “I see it.”

“That is the ram. It is an extension of the keel, and it is covered with reinforced bronze. With three banks of oars at full stretch, that ram could punch through the hull of the strongest vessel!”

“Will that be their plan?” Druss asked.

Sieben shook his head. “I doubt it. This is a merchant vessel, ripe for plunder. They will come in close, the oars will be withdrawn, and they’ll try to drag us in with grappling-hooks.”

Druss hefted Snaga and glanced back along the deck. The remaining Drenai warriors were armoured now, their faces grim. Bowmen, Eskodas among them, were climbing the rigging to hook themselves into place high above the deck, ready to shoot down into the enemy. Bodasen was standing on the tiller deck with a black breastplate buckled to his torso.

The Thunderchild swung away towards the west, then veered back. In the distance two more sails could be seen and Sieben swore. “We can’t fight them all,” he said.

Druss glanced at the billowing sail, and then back at the newly sighted vessel. “They don’t look the same,” he observed. “They’re bulkier. No oars. And they’re tacking against the wind. If we can deal with the trireme, they’ll not catch us.”

Sieben chuckled. “Aye, aye, captain. I bow to your superior knowledge of the sea.”

“I’m a swift learner. That’s because I listen.”

“You never listen to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times you’ve fallen asleep during our conversations on this voyage.”

The Thunderchild swung again, veering away from the trireme. Druss swore and ran back along the deck, climbing swiftly to where Bodasen stood with Milus Bar at the tiller.

“What are you doing?” he yelled at the skipper.

“Get off my deck!” roared Milus.

“If you keep this course, we’ll have three ships to fight,” Druss snarled.

“What other choices are there?” queried Bodasen. “We cannot defeat a trireme.”

“Why?” asked Druss. “They are only men.”

“They have close to one hundred fighting men - plus the oarsmen. We have twenty-four, and a few sailors. The odds speak for themselves.”

Druss glanced back at the sailing-ships to the west. “How many men do they have?”

Bodasen spread his hands and looked to Milus Bar. The captain thought for a moment. “More than two hundred on each ship,” he admitted.

“Can we outrun them?”

“If we get a mist, or if we can keep them off until dusk.”

“What chance of either?” enquired the axeman.

“Precious little,” said Milus.

“Then let’s at least take the fight to them.”

“How do you suggest we do that, young man?” the captain asked.

Druss smiled. “I’m no sailor, but it seems to me their biggest advantage lies in the oars. Can we not try to smash them?”

“We could,” admitted Milus, “but that would bring us in close enough for their grappling-hooks. We’d be finished then; they’d board us.”

“Or we board them!” snapped Druss.

Milus laughed aloud. “You are insane!”

“Insane and quite correct,” said Bodasen. “They are hunting us down like wolves around a stag. Let’s do it, Milus!”

For a moment the captain stood and stared at the two warriors, then he swore and leaned in to the tiller. The Thunderchild swung towards the oncoming trireme.

His name was Earin Shad, though none of his crew used it. They addressed him to his face as Sea Lord, or Great One, while behind his back they used the Naashanite slang - Bojeeba, The Shark.

Earin Shad was a tall man, slim and round-shouldered, long of neck, with protruding eyes that glimmered pearl-grey and a lipless mouth that never smiled. No one aboard the Darkwind knew from whence he came, only that he had been a pirate leader for more than two decades. One of the Lords of the Corsairs, mighty men who ruled the seas, he was said to own palaces on several of the Thousand Islands, and to be as rich as one of the eastern kings.

This did not show in his appearance. He wore a simple breastplate of shaped bronze, and a winged helm looted from a merchant ship twelve years before. At his hip hung a sabre with a simple hilt of polished wood and a fist-guard of plain brass. Earin Shad was not a man who liked extravagance.

He stood at the stern as the steady, rhythmic pound of the drums urged the rowers to greater efforts, and the occasional crack of the whip sounded against the bare skin of a slacker’s back. His pale eyes narrowed as the merchant vessel swung towards the Darkwind.

“What is he doing?” asked the giant Patek.

Earin Shad glanced up at the man. “He has seen Reda’s ship and he is trying to cut by us. He won’t succeed.” Swinging to the steersman, a short toothless old man named Luba, Earin Shad saw that the man was already altering course. “Steady now,” he said. “We don’t want her rammed.”

“Aye, Sea Lord!”

“Make ready with the hooks!” bellowed Patek. The giant watched as the men gathered coiled ropes, attaching them to the three-clawed grappling-hooks. Then he transferred his gaze to the oncoming ship. “Look at that, Sea Lord!” he said, pointing at The Thunderchild’s prow. There was a man there, dressed in black; he had raised a double-headed axe above his head in a gesture of defiance.

“They’ll never cut all the ropes,” said Patek. Earin Shad did not reply - he was scanning the decks of the enemy ship, seeking any sign of female passengers. He saw none, and his mood darkened. To compensate for his disappointment he found himself remembering the last ship they had taken three weeks ago, and the Satrap’s daughter she had carried. He licked his lips at the memory. Proud, defiant, and comely - the whip alone had not tamed her, nor the stinging slaps. And even after he had raped her repeatedly, still her eyes shone with murderous intent. Ah, she was lively, no doubt about that. But he had found her weakness; he always did. And when he had he experienced, as always, both triumph and disappointment. The moment of conquest, when she had begged him to take her - had promised to serve him always, in any way that he chose - had been exquisite. But then sadness had flowed within him, followed by anger.

He had killed her quickly, which disappointed the men. But then she had earned that, he thought. She had held her nerve for five days in the darkness of the hold, in the company of the black rats.

Earin Shad sniffed, then cleared his throat. This was no time to be considering pleasures.

A cabin door opened behind him and he heard the soft footfalls of the young sorcerer.

“Good day, Sea Lord,” said Gamara. Patek moved away, avoiding the sorcerer’s gaze.

Earin Shad nodded to the slender Chiatze. “The omens are good, I take it?” he asked.

Gamara spread his hands in an elegant gesture. “It would be a waste of power to cast the stones, Sea Lord. During the storm they lost half their men.”

“And you are sure they are carrying gold?”

The Chiatze grinned, showing a perfect line of small, white teeth. Like a child’s, thought Earin Shad. He looked into the man’s dark, slanted eyes. “How much are they carrying?”

“Two hundred and sixty thousand gold pieces. Bodasen gathered it from Ventrian merchants in Mashrapur.”

“You should have cast the stones,” said Earin Shad.

“We will see much blood,” answered Gamara. “Aha! See, my good Lord, the sharks, as ever, follow in your wake. They are like pets, are they not?”

Earin Shad did not glance at the grey forms slipping effortlessly through the water, fins like raised sword-blades. “They are the vultures of the sea,” he said, “and I like them not at all.”

The wind shifted and The Thunderchild swung like a dancer on the white-flecked waves. On the decks of the Darkwind scores of warriors crouched by the starboard rail as the two ships moved ever closer. It will be close, thought Earin Shad; they will veer again and try to pull away. Anticipating the move he bellowed an order to Patek, who now stood on the main deck among the men. The giant leaned over the side and repeated the instruction to the oars chief. Immediately the starboard oars lifted from the water, the 120 rowers on the port side continuing to row. Darkwind spun to starboard.

The Thunderchild sped on, then veered towards the oncoming vessel. On the prow the dark-bearded warrior was still waving the gleaming axe - and in that instant Earin Shad knew he had miscalculated. “Bring in the oars!” he shouted.

Patek glanced up, astonished. “What, Lord?”

“The oars, man! They’re attacking us!”

It was too late. Even as Patek leaned over the side to shout the order The Thunderchild leapt to the attack, swinging violently towards Darkwind, the prow striking the first ranks of oars. Wood snapped violently with explosive cracks, mingled with the screams of the slave rowers as the heavy oars smashed into arms and skulls, shoulders and ribs.

Grappling-lines were hurled out, iron claws biting into wood or hooking into The Thunderchild’s rigging. An arrow slashed into the chest of a corsair; the man pitched back, struggled to rise, then fell again. The corsairs hauled on the grappling-lines and the two ships edged together.

Earin Shad was furious. Half the oars on the starboard side had been smashed, and the gods alone knew how many slaves were crippled. Now he would be forced to limp to port. “Ready to board!” he yelled.

The two ships crashed together. The corsairs rose and clambered to the rails.

In that moment the black-bearded warrior on the enemy ship stepped up to the prow and leaped into the massed ranks of waiting corsairs. Earin Shad could hardly believe what he was seeing. The black-garbed axeman sent several men spinning to the deck, almost fell himself, then swung his axe. A man screamed as blood sprayed from a terrible wound in his chest. The axe rose and fell - and the corsairs scattered back from the apparently deranged warrior.

He charged them, the axe cleaving into their ranks. Further along the deck other corsairs were still trying to board the merchant ship and meeting ferocious resistance from the Drenai warriors, but at the centre of the main deck all was chaos. A man ran in behind the axeman, a curved knife raised to stab him in the back. But an arrow slashed into the assailant’s throat and he stumbled and fell.

Several Drenai warriors leapt to join the axeman. Earin Shad swore and drew his sabre, vaulting the rail and landing smoothly on the deck below. When a swordsman ran at him he parried the lunge and sent a riposte that missed the neck but opened the man’s face from cheekbone to chin. As the warrior fell back Earin Shad plunged his blade into the man’s mouth and up into the brain.

A lithe warrior in black breastplate and helm despatched a corsair and moved in on Earin Shad. The Corsair captain blocked a fierce thrust and attempted a riposte, only to leap back as his opponent’s blade slashed by his face. The man was dark-skinned and dark-eyed, and a master swordsman.

Earin Shad stepped back and drew a dagger. “Ventrian?” he enquired.

The man smiled. “Indeed I am.” A corsair leapt from behind the swordsman. He spun and disembowelled the man, then swung back in time to block a thrust from Earin Shad. “I am Bodasen.”

The corsairs were tough, hardy men, long used to battles and the risk of death. But they had never had to face a phenomenon like the man with the axe. Watching from the tiller deck of The Thunderchild, Sieben saw them fall back, again and again, from Druss’s frenzied, tireless assaults. Though the day was warm Sieben felt a chill in his blood as he watched the axe cleaving into the hapless pirates. Druss was unstoppable - and Sieben knew why. When swordsmen fought the outcome rested on skill, but armed with the terrible double-headed axe there was no skill needed, just power and an eagerness for combat - a battle lust that seemed unquenchable.

No one could stand against him, for the only way to win was to run within the reach of those deadly blades. Death was not a risk; it was a certainty. And Druss himself seemed to possess a sixth sense. Corsairs circled behind him, but even as they rushed in he swung to face them, the axe-blades slashing through skin, flesh and bone. Several of the corsairs threw down their weapons, backing away from the huge, blood-smeared warrior. These Druss ignored.

Sieben flicked his gaze to where Bodasen fought with the enemy captain. Their swords, shimmering in the sunlight, seemed fragile and insubstantial against the raw power of Druss and his axe.

A giant figure bearing an iron war hammer leapt at Druss - just as Snaga became embedded in the ribs of a charging corsair. Druss ducked under the swinging weapon and sent a left hook that exploded against the man’s jaw. Even as the giant fell, Druss snatched up his axe and near beheaded a daring attacker. Other Drenai warriors ran to join him and the corsairs backed away, dismayed and demoralised.

“Throw your weapons down!” bellowed Druss, “and live!”

There was little hesitation and swords, sabres, cutlasses and knives clattered to the deck. Druss turned to see Bodasen block a thrust and send a lightning counter that ripped across the enemy captain’s throat. Blood sprayed from the wound. The captain half fell, and tried for one last stab. But his strength fled from him and he pitched face first to the deck.

A man in flowing green robes appeared at the tiller deck rail. Slender and tall, his hair waxed to his skull, he lifted his hands. Sieben blinked. He seemed to be holding two spheres of glowing brass - no, the poet realised, not brass - but fire!

“Look out, Druss!” he shouted.

The sorcerer threw out his hands and a sheet of flame seared towards the axeman. Snaga flashed up; the flames struck the silver heads.

Time stopped for the poet. In a fraction of a heartbeat he saw a scene he would never forget. At the moment when the flames struck the axe, a demonic figure appeared above Druss, its skin iron-grey and scaled, its long, powerful arms ending in taloned fingers. The flames rebounded from the creature arid slashed back into the sorcerer. His robes blazed and his chest imploded - a gaping hole appearing in his torso, through which Sieben could see the sky. The sorcerer toppled from the deck and the demon disappeared.

“Sweet mother of Cires!” whispered Sieben. He turned to Milus Bar. “Did you see it?”

“Aye! The axe saved him right enough.”

“Axe? Did you not see the creature?”

“What are you talking about, man?”

Sieben felt his heart hammering. He saw Eskodas climbing down from the rigging and ran to him. “What did you see when the flames came at Druss?” he asked, grabbing the bowman’s arm.

“I saw him deflect them with his axe. What is wrong with you?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“We’d better cut free these ropes,” said Eskodas. “The other ships are closing in.”

The Drenai warriors on the Darkwind also saw the two battle vessels approaching. With the defeated corsair standing by, they hacked at the ropes and then leapt back to The Thunderchild. Druss and Bodasen came last. None tried to stop them.

The giant Druss had felled rose unsteadily, then ran to the rail and leapt after the axeman, landing amidst a group of Drenai warriors and scattering them.

“It’s not over!” he yelled. “Face me!”

The Thunderchild eased away from the corsair ship, the wind gathering once more in her sails as Druss dropped Snaga to the deck and advanced on the giant. The corsair - almost a foot taller than the blood-drenched Drenai - landed the first blow, a juddering right that split the skin above Druss’s left eye. Druss pushed through the blow and sent an uppercut that thundered against the man’s rib-cage. The corsair grunted and smashed a left hook into Druss’s jaw, making him stumble, then hit him again with lefts and rights. Druss rode them and hammered an overhand right that spun his opponent in a half-circle. Following up he hit him again, clubbing the man to his knees. Stepping back, Druss sent a vicious kick that almost lifted the giant from the deck. He slumped down, tried to rise, then lay still.

“Druss! Druss! Druss!” yelled the surviving Drenai warriors as The Thunderchild slipped away from the pursuing vessels.

Sieben sat down and stared at his friend.

No wonder you are so deadly, he thought. Sweet Heaven, Druss, you are possessed!

Druss moved wearily to the starboard rail, not even looking at the pursuing ships which were even now falling further behind The Thunderchild. Blood was clotting on his face, and he rubbed his left eye where the lashes were matted and sticky. Dropping Snaga to the deck Druss peeled off his jerkin, allowing the breeze to cool his skin.

Eskodas appeared alongside him, carrying a bucket of water. “Is any of that blood yours?” the bowman asked.

Druss shrugged, uncaring. Removing his gauntlets, he dipped his hands into the bucket, splashing water to his face and beard. Then he lifted the bucket and tipped the contents over his head.

Eskodas scanned his body. “You have minor wounds,” he said, probing at a narrow cut on Druss’s shoulder and a gash in the side. “Neither are deep. I’ll get needle and thread.”

Druss said nothing. He felt a great weariness settle on him, a dullness of the spirit that left him leached of energy. He thought of Rowena, her gentleness and tranquillity, and of the peace he had known when beside her. Lifting his head, he leaned his huge hands on the rail. Behind him he heard laughter, and turned to see some of the warriors baiting the giant corsair. They had tied his hands behind his back and were jabbing at him with knives, forcing him to leap and dance.

Bodasen climbed down from the tiller deck. “Enough of that!” he shouted.

“It’s just a little sport before we throw him to the sharks,” replied a wiry warrior with a black and silver beard.

“No one will be thrown to the sharks,” snapped Bodasen. “Now untie him.”

The men grumbled, but obeyed the order, and the giant stood rubbing his chafed wrists. His eyes met Druss’s gaze, but the corsair’s expression was unreadable. Bodasen led the man to the small cabin door below the tiller deck and they disappeared from view.

Eskodas returned and stitched the wounds in the axeman’s shoulder and side. He worked swiftly and expertly. “You must have had the gods with you,” he said. “They granted you good luck.”

“A man makes his own luck,” said Druss.

Eskodas chuckled. “Aye. Trust in the Source - but keep a spare bowstring handy. That’s what my old teacher used to tell me.”

Druss thought back to the action on the trireme. “You helped me,” he said, remembering the arrow that had killed the man coming in behind him.

“It was a good shot,” agreed Eskodas. “How are you feeling?”

Druss shrugged. “Like I could sleep for a week.”

“It is very natural, my friend. Battle lust roars through the blood, but the aftermath is unbearably depressing. Not many poets sing songs about that.” Eskodas took up a cloth and sponged the blood from Druss’s jerkin, handing it back to the axeman. “You are a great fighter, Druss - perhaps the best I’ve seen.”

Druss slipped on his jerkin, gathered Snaga and walked to the prow where he stretched out between two bales. He slept for just under an hour, but was woken by Bodasen; he opened his eyes and saw the Ventrian bending over him as the sun was setting.

“We need to talk, my friend,” said Bodasen and Druss sat up. The stitches in his side pulled tight as he stretched. He swore softly.

“I’m tired,” said the axeman. “So let’s make this brief.”

“I have spoken with the corsair. His name is Patek…”

“I don’t care what his name is.”

Bodasen sighed. “In return for information about the numbers of corsair vessels, I have promised him his liberty when we reach Capalis. I have given him my word.”

“What has this to do with me?”

“I would like yourà¿792ð0¶¹7?:´0:ð¼·:�»466?·7:�µ466?´´6?‘?????‘$?²7·s:�»07:?º7�µ466?´´6??¤2�¶²0·9?·7:´4·3?º7�¶2?‘??????*´27�¹°<?:´2�»79²9?�¶<?3¹´272?‘?????”¹º¹9?¶··µ22�47º7?:´2?«27:¹´0·“9?²0¹5�²¼²9???*´2¹2�´9�¹·¶2:´4·3�2¶¹2v??´2�¹°42??‘¹·¶2:´4·3�¼·:�0¹2?·7:?º26¶4·3�¶2?‘?????‘$7²²22?:´2¹2ð´9??�°3¹²22?¡7²°¹27???ª266�¶2p:´0:�¼·:�»466�06¶·;�¶<?8¹·¶´¹2?º7?¨0º²5pº7?±2?´7··:¹22?�072�$�9´066�2<8¶°47�066?‘??????«2¹<�»266?�$�»466p·7:�µ466?´´6??§·;�¹°<�;´0:�¼·:?´0»2?º7�¹°<�?ð072?:´27?¶2:�¶2�³2:�¹·¶2�9¶²28?‘?????¡7dasen drew in a long, deep breath. “The trireme was the Darkwind. The captain was Earin Shad, one of the leading Corsair… kings, if you like. They have been patrolling these waters for some months. One of the ships they… plundered…” Bodasen fell silent. He licked his lips. “Druss, I’m sorry. Kabuchek’s ship was taken and sunk, the passengers and crew thrown to the sharks. No one survived.”

Druss sat very still. All anger vanished from him.

“I wish there was something I could say or do to lessen your pain,” said Bodasen. “I know that you loved her.”

“Leave me be,” whispered Druss. “Just leave me be.”

Drenai 6 - The First Chronicles of Druss The Legend

Chapter Five

Word soon spread among the warriors and crew of the tragedy that had befallen the huge axeman. Many of the men could not understand the depth of his grief, knowing nothing of love, but all could see the change in him. He sat at the prow, staring out over the sea, the massive axe in his hands. Sieben alone could approach him, but even the poet did not remain with him for long.

There was little laughter for the remaining three days of the voyage, for Dross’s brooding presence seemed to fill the deck. The corsair giant, Patek, remained as far from the axeman as space would allow, spending his time on the tiller deck.

On the morning of the fourth day the distant towers of Capalis could be seen, white marble glinting in the sun.

Sieben approached Dross. “Milus Bar intends to pick up a cargo of spices and attempt the return journey. Shall we stay on board?”

“I’m not going back,” said Dross.

“There is nothing here for us now,” pointed out the poet.

“There is the enemy,” the axeman grunted.

“What enemy?”

“The Naashanites.”

Sieben shook his head. “I don’t understand you. We don’t even know a Naashanite!”

“They killed my Rowena. I’ll make them pay.” Sieben was about to debate the point, but he stopped himself. The Naashanites had bought the services of the corsairs and in Dross’s mind this made them guilty. Sieben wanted to argue, to hammer home to Dross that the real villain was Earin Shad, and that he was now dead. But what was the use? In the midst of his grief Dross would not listen. His eyes were cold, almost lifeless, and he clung to the axe as if it were his only friend.

“She must have been a very special woman,” observed Eskodas when he and Sieben stood by the port rail as The Thunderchild eased her way into the harbour. “I never met her. But he speaks of her with reverence.”

Eskodas nodded, then pointed to the quayside. “There are no dock-workers,” he said, “only soldiers. The city must be under siege.”

Sieben saw movement at the far end of the quay, a column of soldiers wearing black breastplates adorned with silver marching behind a tall, wide-shouldered nobleman. “That must be Gorben,” he said. “He walks as if he owns the world.”

Eskodas chuckled. “Not any more - but I’ll agree he is a remarkably handsome fellow.”

The Emperor wore a simple black cloak above an unadorned breastplate, yet he still - like a hero of legend - commanded attention. Men ceased in their work as he approached, and Bodasen leapt from the ship even before the mooring ropes were fastened, landing lightly and stepping into the other man’s embrace. The Emperor clapped him on the back, and kissed Bodasen on both cheeks.

“I’d say they were friends,” observed Eskodas dryly.

“Strange customs they have in foreign lands,” said Sieben, with a grin.

The gangplank was lowered and a squad of soldiers moved on board, vanishing below decks and reappearing bearing heavy chests of brass-bound oak.

“Gold, I’d say,” whispered Eskodas and Sieben nodded. Twenty chests in all were removed before the Drenai warriors were allowed to disembark. Sieben clambered down the gangplank just behind the bowman. As he stepped ashore he felt the ground move beneath him and he almost stumbled, then righted himself.

“Is it an earthquake?” he asked Eskodas.

“No, my friend, it is merely that you are so used to the pitching and rolling of the ship that your legs are unaccustomed to solid stone. It will pass very swiftly.”

Druss strode down to join them as Bodasen stepped forward, the Emperor beside him.

“And this, my Lord, is the warrior I spoke of - Druss the Axeman. Almost single-handedly he destroyed the corsairs.”

“I would like to have seen it,” said Gorben. “But there is time yet to admire your prowess. The enemy are camped around our city and the attacks have begun.”

Druss said nothing, but the Emperor seemed unconcerned. “May I see your axe?” he asked. Druss nodded and passed the weapon to the monarch. Gorben accepted it and lifted the blades to his face. “Remarkab