The Working Barbarian

A Tale of Blood, Fire and Steel

Archive for the tag “Desert”

Part 25 – Sandworms, Bloody Sandworms

Jala looked back and forth from the proffered hand to the impending battle.

“Well?” the voice prompted her from the gloom.

“Go out swinging,” the warrior replied, and – bone tired though she was – Jala drew her sword and joined the fray.

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Sandworms, as most people know, are bad tempered, overweight, and fiercely territorial. If anything or anyone that is not another sandworm crosses their patch, they’re likely to find themselves on the wrong end of some pretty impressive tusks, to say nothing of their needle sharp teeth. However, they also have terrible eyesight and their size makes them clumsy and slow to react.

Jala found herself thanking the gods for sending her only a moderately challenging foe as she hacked and slashed her way through the line of beasts, easily ducking out of their line of sight to wreak havoc on their soft underbellies. As she ducked and weaved amongst them, doing her best not to ingest too much sand or blood as she went, medicinal waves of adrenaline rushed through her limbs and she found she felt almost herself again. Would it be inappropriate to whistle, she wondered briefly, as her blade sliced through the leathery hide of what she assumed to be the alpha male of the pack (it was the largest and tuskiest, and its near-blind eyes glared balefully at her in an unmistakable look of challenge). Stupid creature, she thought, as its blood splashed onto her cheek.

Out of the corner of her eye she could see that some of the guards from the party were making a pretty good effort but it was Jala, even in her slightly weakened state, who claimed the most heads. The battle was over in a matter of twenty minutes, with only one man dead and two minor maimings (a missing finger for one, a chunk of ear bitten off another). The worms had fared considerably worse.

“That was magnificent,” Hervel congratulated her as he crawled out from underneath the wagon where he had been hiding, “truly amazing. Have you faced sandworms before?”

“No,” she said vaguely, splashing water from the guildmeister’s lake on her face, “although there were some miner worms in chapter twelve.”

“What?”

“What? Nothing. Excuse me will you, I need to check something.”

She pushed past Hervel and strode towards the lakeside hut – or at least she would have, but it wasn’t there any longer. Evidently the mysterious voice had been serious about this being a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“Bloody meisters,” she grumbled, turning back towards the desert to look for Tim. He was standing slightly apart from the rest of the caravan, eyeing the pile of sandworm carcasses with an expression of distaste.

“What happened to the hut?” she asked him, slightly roughly.

“What hut?”

“The one beside your magical guildmeister lake,” she gestured towards the space where it had stood, “I assume your special friends must have magicked it up at the same time as the water as a place to take shelter from the desert sun or whatever.”

“There isn’t a hut,” Tim told her, “never has been. Generally speaking everyone travels across the desert by night because the heat by day is near unbearable, then sleeps in the wagons by day. A hut might not be such a bad idea though Jala, now you say it. Maybe I’ll mention it to my colleagues.”

Jala rubbed a hand across her eyes. “You do that,” she muttered. All of a sudden she felt very tired, and she’d just about had her fill of disembodied voices, mysterious magicks and people looking at her as though she’d suffered one too many blows to the head. Still, there was evidently nothing to be gained in pressing the point with Tim – and she still didn’t completely trust him. Maybe she could mention it to Kru later on. She headed towards the wagon that held their packs, crawled inside and stretched out on the floor to sleep.

*

She awoke in twilight, the wagon jolting awkwardly from side to side. Marek’s eyes gleamed in the shadows beside her head.

“We thought it best not to wake you,” he explained, “Kru and I. We’re on the move again, been riding for a few hours.”

“Uch,” Jala said, “I was hoping you might say days. This journey feels like it will never end.”

She pulled herself into a sitting position, then slid towards the back of the wagon to peer out behind them. A row of camels stared back at her, the expressions of their riders inscrutable behind the scarves that covered their noses and mouths.

Jala got to her feet and hurdled over the wagon door, then wheeled round to jog lightly alongside the caravan. Time to stretch out the stiffness, she thought, too much lying around convalescing was going to make her muscles lazy.

They made their way in silence for some time, thankful for the cool night air and the lack of breeze to whip sand against their faces. Jala lifted her face to the stars and felt almost peaceful under their watchful gaze. Just for one moment, she closed her eyes and felt the blue light dance on her lids. Then something cool and dry landed on her nose.

Jala opened her eyes again to see dozens of white flakes whirling through the air above her, looking just like snow. She raised her hands towards the flakes but they danced above her just out of reach and she almost laughed, some childish delight inside her awakened.

“Jala watch your step,” called Kru suddenly from somewhere to her right, just as the springy gold sand beneath her feet gave way to something finer and more shifting.

They crested a dune and came out suddenly over a valley starkly lit by the two full moons. Beneath them they could see the blackened skeleton of a city stretching out across the valley floor. Embers still smouldered in some of the wreckage. The snow wasn’t snow, Jala realised with a start – it was ash.

cairnobas

“What is this place?” she asked, looking down at where she stood and wondering what – or who – she might be walking on.

“Cairnobàs,” Hervel said grimly, appearing at her shoulder. “Or at least, that’s what it is known as now. They say the Whelpslayer killed all the children here and the families, wracked with vengeance and grief, laid waste to it and went after him that they might have their vengeance. They left it this way as a memorial, a promise of what was to come.”

“What happened to them?”

“Some were killed by the sandworms,” he said, “others perished in the crossing of the Darksiren Sea. The men of Cairnobàs were bad swimmers, doubtless because of their growing up in a city surrounded by dust and sand.

“The rumour is that the rest are prisoners of the Whelpslayer at Radgerock. He has no real taste for killing parents, as you can tell from his name he takes more satisfaction from disposing of chidren, so…”

“Spit it out,” Jala told him gruffly, though she thought she could guess what was coming.

“Well, most of the survivors were women,” Hervel continued awkwardly. “So the Whelpslayer has them regularly… interfered with by the guards. When they are with child they are removed from the confines of the dungeons and looked after properly, by servants and doctors and the like, so they can give birth in safety and survive the process too.”

“Right,” Jala said, “and it is only then, when they have survived another birth and started to feel kinship with the child, that the Whelpslayer kills the babes in front of them?”

From Hervel’s silence, she guessed she was right.

“That Magebane certainly had some strange loyalties,” Jala sighed.

“Still,” Hervel said brightly, “we have made good progress. See the cliffs beyond the city there? They mark the Ghormish territory, and the Gash is just beyond them. It shouldn’t take us more than two or three days to get there.”

“Three days?” Jala’s heart sank at the thought of more riding and walking, “is that all?”

As they came closer to the burnt shell of Cairnobàs they could almost feel the loss the city had faced – the air was thick with it. Some of the men in the caravan said they wanted to go around the edge, but that would add an extra day’s journey and Jala was determined not to prolong it any more than they had to. She found herself striding ahead, leading the way through this city of death as if unconcerned, even though every fibre of her being told her she was sullying ground that really should be left in peace. She didn’t have to turn back to look at the party to know all eyes were darting about in search of ghosts.

‘The last time I walked through an empty settlement like this I found Freya,’ she thought. ‘I hope there are no other children here in need of saving.’

But of course there wasn’t, that was the point. The Whelpslayer had murdered them all.

Looking up from her thoughts, Jala realised they were in what must once have been the city square. There was a ring of stones that would once have marked a well, although it was now filled with rubble and covered in a thick layer of ash. There were two half pillars, with flowers and vines carved into them – these must have been rather beautiful before they were destroyed. And behind them there was a wall almost intact, built from white stone and covered in strange writing.

The Star Witch leapt off her camel – rather nimbly, Jala noted, feeling slightly envious – and walked towards this wall, her robes leaving a trail in the ash.

“What is it, Kru?”

“These words were not written by any resident of Cairnobàs,” the witch told her, tracing the marks with a finger. “Perhaps our journey is not to go on as long as you feared. This is the work of the Heldrakai.”

“Very astute of you,” said Hervel, “there are not many left outside our sect that would recognise such words.”

He too had dismounted his camel, and as he advanced towards them he somehow seemed taller than he had at the start of their journey.

“You’re one of the Heldrakai?” Jala asked, quite unable to keep the disbelief out of her voice.

“Not yet,” he told her. “I am a necromancer in training only. I unquestioningly serve the Heldrakai and in return they teach me, but I am some way off achieving their greatness.”

“You serve them unquestioningly,” Kru echoed, “I wonder if that isn’t part of the reason they leave you behind.”

If Hervel was put out by this he didn’t show it. “I don’t think they’ll help you,” he said, not unkindly. “The people of this city asked for their aid and paid them dearly for it, too – but in the end the Whelpslayer got to them all.”

“We’ll see about that,” Jala told him, her hand instinctively caressing the hilt of her sword once again. “I can be very persuasive.”

“So can they,” Hervel said. He stepped back and Jala looked behind him in surprise as the rest of their traveling companions from the caravan stepped into the city square, looking less like the allies who had fought the sandworms and more like a foe. Moments later they had formed a horseshoe around Jala and Kru, with the scrawled-upon wall at their backs. Marek and Tim were nowhere to be seen.

One by one the guards removed the scarves around their faces to reveal skeletal features, sagging grey skin and in the case of the man who had lost a finger to a sandworm, no lower jaw. These were the Heldrakai, necromancers of the Ghormish Barrens, and they did not look to be in a helpful mood.

“Lay down The Bastard Sword, Jala daughter of Quyren.” The Heldrakai spoke as one, a sound like wind and horror and death that made her teeth ache.

“Lay down your weapon and come with us, and we will hear your story.”

“And if I refuse?”

The Heldrakai laughed, again as one entity, a scraping whisper that clawed at the back of her neck.

“If you refuse,” they whispered, “you will never hear Magebane’s final words. If you refuse, you will never discover the Whelpslayer, much less defeat him. And more than this, young barbarian steeped in blood and guilt, if you refuse, you will never learn why you hear the voice of your little friend Freya echoing in your dreams as if she were alive and by your side.”

“I see,” Jala said. She looked to Kru for guidance, but the witch’s face was an expressionless mask.

It looked like this decision was up to her.

25 - Sandworms, bloody sandworms

 The poll closed on Sunday 29th June at 12 noon. If you didn’t vote you must forever hold your peace.

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Part 24 – Sand and Camels

“Please! Oh, please, Jala, would you let me … interview you?” Hervel’s eyes shone brightly as he looked up at Jala, the barbarian woman standing at least a head taller than he.

“No.”

“Fantastic, now can we…oh” His entire posture seemed to sag as his mind finally registered her rejection. Jala didn’t think she had ever seen anyone look so disappointed.

“I’m sorry…” She felt awkward, heat rising in her face as she felt eyes of the other caravan travellers on her, “I don’t do…interviews.”

“No no, it’s fine, really. I mean, of course you don’t do interviews. Warriors don’t do that sort of thing, how foolish of me. You’re all too busy fighting things and looking out for things to fight, stuff like that. Why would you have time to do something as silly as an interview with the likes of me? Sorry. Sorry to have bothered you…” Hervel walked away, notebook dropping back into his pocket as he muttered admonishments to himself under his breath.

“That was a cruel thing to say to the poor man”. Kru had silently come up beside her. Once again she had her face mostly hidden by a hood, but Jala could see the gleaming glare of the Star Witch’s single eye in the shadow. Jala looked away, going more red.

“I don’t do interviews” She growled, hoisting her heavy pack up onto her shoulders and heading to the wagon where they would be storing their things for the duration of the journey. Jala had the horrible feeling that Kru was smiling underneath that hood, and not in a good way.

That first night was possibly one of the most uncomfortable and downright unpleasant experiences of Jala’s whole life. At least until the next day. It took her no less than 3 attempts to manage to sit on one of the infernal camels long enough for it to stand up and start moving without falling to the dusty floor in a heap. Typically, her travelling companions had no such difficulties, and simply sat smirking at her obvious discomfort.

When they finally did get moving, Jala found the saddle she was forced to sit upon almost unbearable. No matter how she shifted her weight around she could not get even remotely comfortable. After a few experimental shifts, she wasn’t sure she even dared move around too much. She was sure the beast she was riding had it in for her, and would throw her off as soon as it got the chance.

Hervel seemed to have gotten over their earlier embarrassment, and now would not leave Jala alone. Instead he insisted on riding alongside of the barbarian, jabbering away from beneath a strange floppy brown hat that had appeared from somewhere that made him look like a poor impression of a farmer. His glasses were constantly slipping down his nose, which drove Jala nuts. Why did he not just fix them so they stayed in place?!

She was fairly certain Hervel’s attention was the doing of Kru. The Star Witch rode the camels with the same strange ease she seemed to do everything, and chattered away with Tim the Guildmeister for the most part, catching up on the history of Stellastellathororn since she had been sleeping. Jala almost began longing for the noisy, smelly, busy streets of the city. Anything but this fresh hell she was in. Marek seemed to feel some sympathy for her, and sat on her shoulders for the first part of the journey, though he soon sought the shelter of the saddlebags instead.

They soon left all signs of the city behind them, and found themselves out in a huge sandy plain. There was some evidence of a track through the sand that they were following, though it was clear the desert worked hard to reclaim its land. The temperature steadily dropped as they made their way through the night. Jala found this strange, though not terribly uncomfortable (the one thing that wasn’t on this damned journey.) It reminded her of the meeker evenings back home in the North, when the tribe came together at the communal fire and told stories of their ancestors late into the night whilst feasting on the latest catch by the hunters. That all seemed so far away now…

They stopped after a few hours when the caravan reached a scrubby set of what you could have possibly called trees, if you had never seen a tree before. The caravan leaders swiftly set up tents for the group, and drew watch rotas for the group. They had seen no danger that first night, and it was unexpected until at least the second night, but you could never be too careful. The desert could eat you up in seconds if you took your eyes off it, even for a moment.

Jala drew first watch along with two others. Thankfully Hervel was not in the watch rota, and had finally found someone else to bug about being interviewed. The quiet coolness of the desert night came as a relief to the barbarian woman, and she allowed herself a small sigh of relief as she was finally, alone.

Sitting up on a small rock face that overlooked the scrubby not-quite-trees, Jala turned her eyes to the sandy plains. She reflected that this was the first time she had truly had an extended time to herself since… well, not counting loosing Kru in Stellastellathororn, since before she had met Freya.

A pang of guilt swept through Jala as a small, eager face swam up in her mind, eyes glowing with pleasure at having found some new and exciting moss, Marek at his rightful place on her shoulder. Freya had reminded Jala so much of her own younger self, eager to prove herself and unafraid to stand up for herself. Her hands clenched as she yet again felt the blade sliding into Freya’s small body, as she saw the surprise and horror in those deep trusting eyes one last time.

‘It wasn’t your fault Jala’

Jala’s eyes snapped up, her hand instantly on the hilt of the strange sword at her side, ears straining to hear…hear what? That voice. It had sounded so much like Freya.

*

The rest of her watch passed uneventfully, though Jala kept her eyes and ears open for any other signs of life. The next morning came quicker than she would have liked, and once more the barbarian warrior was faced with the horrifying prospect of riding a camel. Coming face to face with the impetuous beast was an incredibly bad plan – she learned camel spit was very sticky and didn’t come out of eyes or hair very easily.

The day dawned bright, hot and dusty. Everyone (everyone except Kru that was) found themselves coughing and spluttering as the wind flicked dust and sand into their mouths, noses and eyes at every chance it got. The sand got literally everywhere, driving everyone nuts. Even Kru couldn’t seem to keep the endless dust out of everything.

They stopped again before midday. Jala would have been frustrated at their slow progress, but any excuse to get off of the damned camel without falling off was one she would gladly take. The place they stopped this time had more tree-like structures, and what could only be described as a lake with a lakeside hut. Jala could only blink in astonishment. A lake. In the desert. How on earth did that even work? The whole point in a desert was the lack of water. Tim laughed at her apparent astonishment.

“The lake is attended to by those with…ahem…talents shall we say.” The guildmeister glanced around furtively to check he wasn’t being overheard. He had finally ditched the ridiculously dramatic cloak and tied it down next to his bags in the caravan. It had not seemed very impressed. He now wore pale, loose fitting clothing that still somehow managed to hide what shape he was, and looked very odd in the process. At least his hat wasn’t as stupid as Hervel’s. “Without the lake, crossing to Alkathum and back would be near on impossible, especially for a group this size. The amount of water you would need to carry is just impractical. Some of my…ahem…associates help out here from time to time and make sure the lake stays topped up.”

Jala glanced at him. “You know, you would appear a lot less furtive if you stopped saying ‘Ahem’ all the time when you’re trying to hide something.”

Tim went red and shuffled off, muttering something about water and a wash. Jala had to admit, a wash and something to drink sounded heavenly. A chance to be free of dust and sand, even for a short time, was worth a lot.

Of course, it was whilst the majority of the company were bathing in the lake that the sand worms decided to make their presence known. By this point Jala was bathed, dressed and was standing by the lakeside hut. The door opened moments before the attack, and from within came a voice.

Image by Kekai Kotaki

Image by Kekai Kotaki

“You child, you with the destiny. I can tell you more on what you wish to know but you must come here now and prove your strength of will to me. If you do not, this knowledge will be lost forever. I offer only once.”

A hand emerged from within the darkness, proffered for her to take. At that same moment, screams rose up from the far side of the lake. Huge, bulbous sand worms erupted from beneath the dunes, mouths dripping slime as they bared their razor sharp teeth. A group of guards raced to intercept them, but would they be enough to protect the rest of the caravan?

Jala looked back and forth between the offered hand and the impending battle. Which should she choose? Help save the people of the caravan right here and now, or possibly learn something which may save herself in the future?

24 - Sand and Camels

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