And in case anyone has forgotten, this is Tuskandu (and also the cover for THE BLASTED LANDS)
By James A. Moore
Wollis March slipped from his furs and breathed a deep and sincere sigh of relief. The feel of fresh, cool air across his upper body was a blessing and he thanked his gods for it.
They had been traveling in the Blasted Lands for longer than he cared to think about. Instead of focusing on the long days of freezing weather and endless windstorms, he concentrated on the rewards awaiting them. There would be gold aplenty to share between the explorers.
Before that, however, there was the matter of getting back to the capital and presenting the maps of the area that had been given to them and introducing the Sa’ba Taalor to their employer.
He looked over his shoulder as the strangers coming with them followed his example and peeled off layers of furs, leather cloaks and in many cases armor. The great beasts they rode on—he could not decide what sort of monsters they might be, but they were decidedly large and they had claws and fangs—let out a few grunts of approval and shook their bodies, knocking dust and grit out of their fur.
Wollis dismounted from his horse and winced at the flare of pain in his thigh. The scars were deep and the muscles had never quite come back as strong as he’d have liked. Still he could walk and that was a blessing.
It was time to stop for the day. The sun was setting and the cliffs facing them were too steep to attempt in the darkness. There were paths, yes, but they were treacherous even in the light and the men he traveled with and their guests alike carried far too many supplies to make the trek easily. They had to find the Temmis Pass, and that way was nearly perfectly hidden by the surrounding terrain. He would be able to find it tomorrow, he suspected, but not in the night.
He ordered the men to prepare for the rest and began the same duties himself. Within the hour everyone was done with their appointed tasks and the Sa’ba Taalor had several fires working. The strangers believed in cooking and eating meals together and they had invited him to join them. Though he did not speak their language they had done an amazing job of learning the common tongue during the travels, aided their apparent leader, Drask Silver Hand. Drask had gone ahead now, moving toward Fellein’s Summer City, Tyrne. According to tradition it was called the “Summer City” because the Emperors liked to spend the summer there, but the current ruler had not left his palace there in over seven years. It was the new capitol as far as Wollis could tell.
Tusk walked his way with several other members of his people, three women and two additional men. He barely recognized the giant without his skull-like helmet in place, but the scars on his arms were as good as the armor for singling him out. Each and every member of the gray-skinned people wore a veil to hide everything below their eyes, a demand of their gods, apparently. For whatever reason the Daxar Taalor did not believe Wollis or the rest of his people worthy of seeing the faces of their followers. It was best not to question the will of the gods. That much Wollis knew from his own people. And while most of them wore veils without any real decoration there were fine rings of metal covering most of the surface of Tusk’s veil that gave out minuscule ringing notes with each stride the man took. The Sa’ba Taalor had removed the extra layers and now wore what seemed the common clothes of their people, at least while traveling, a few wore tunics but all wore vests over their chests and trousers that they stuffed into their boots. Male or female didn’t seem to matter. It was oddly refreshing after a few of the places he’d been in the past.
Less refreshing were the weapons each of them seemed incapable of walking around without. To the last they carried swords or axes within easy reach of their hands. On the slim chance that their larger blades might suddenly fly away, there were spare daggers and a few smaller swords strapped to thighs or tucked into the edges of their boots. Fifteen years in the military and he’d never seen any lot more determined to carry weapons in his life.
Tusk pointed to the largest of the fires. “Join us for food?”
“I would be honored.” He smiled at the man. It seemed the safest way not to die a quick and painful death. Merros Dulver, his leader—now also heading off in a different direction on a separate mission—spoke clearly with the group and wanted the relationship they’d started to remain friendly and cordial. Wollis wanted exactly the same thing. Ehnole and Stastha were among the people with him. He recognized both of them even past the veils all of their people wore. Traveling with the Sa’ba Taalor had taught him one thing he had never consciously understood before: the way a body moves is as distinct as the face it bears. Tusk walked with a certain strut that stated for one and all that he was confident. Ehnole swayed her hips in an unconsciously seductive way. Stastha the younger, harder girl, moved like a phantom, her feet never seeming to touch the ground solidly so that she appeared to glide just above the surface rather than touching heavily. Despite her soft tread she managed to move with a cockiness that he found appealing. After months away from home and his wife, he found almost all of the females appealing.
Removing their clothing had revealed one thing about the Sa’ba Taalor above and beyond everything else. They were scarred. To the last of them they sported the signs of previous fights and a hard, violent life.
The meal was the last of the fresh meat the Sa’ba Taalor had provided by killing Pra-Moresh only a few days earlier. Despite his worries from the first invitation to eat with the strangers, Ehnole had proven a very capable cook and the heavy aromas of the spices and herbs she used to season the pungent meat made his stomach rumble.
They sat in companionable silence and feasted on meat and a few odd vegetables brought with them from the valley of the Seven Forges. And when they were done Tusk brought out a pouch of wine that was deceptively potent and tart enough to make lips pucker and eyelids squint.
One of the men around the fire said something in their tongue and made Ehnole chuckle. Wollis was not foolish. He had every suspicion the comment made had been about him and he chose to ignore it.
Ehnole looked to him and spoke softly. “Bromt does not understand the lack of scars on your body.”
He looked at the man who’d spoken. His body was heavy with muscle and his skin was heavier with scars of every sort. There were what looked like tooth marks running along one shoulder. Wollis could actually see the individual shapes of the teeth that had cut through the man. He didn’t begin to want to guess what sort of beast had made those marks in the first place.
Wollis was exactly drunk enough to answer, even knowing that he should approach all conversations here with caution. “I have always found the best way to deal with an attack is to not be where the attacker expects me to be.”
Tusk and the rest laughed and Bromt joined in when the words were translated. Wollis smiled and laughed as well, relaxing a bit. When you got right down to it, there were enough of the Sa’ba Taalor around him that if he accidentally offended them he’d probably be dead before he could regret it, so best just to enjoy himself.
Tusk spoke next. “You walk with a very serious limp. How did that happen, Wollis March?”
“I caught a spear in my leg.” He thought back to the moment so long before. The man with the spear came off a horse and brought the spear down with plans to drive it through his skull. He almost made it. “I dodged the worst of the attack. Man was aiming for my head, you see, but he caught me in the leg and the tip went through my muscles and bone and pinned me to the ground.”
The strangers nodded their heads.
“I’d be dead if not for Merros Dulver. He stood over me and fought off the rest of the attackers until additional soldiers arrived.”
“Did you kill the man who did that to you?” Ehnole asked the question.
“No. I was really very busy screaming. It hurt a great deal, you know.”
They seemed disappointed. And Wollis frowned. “Have any of you been severely injured?” He asked the question already knowing that the answer was yes and that he was being foolish.
Just the same Ehnole answered, “Yes. All of us.” She opened her tunic and bared her midriff, showing the light gray of her flesh and the darker gray of several of her scars. One long scar in particular was impossible to miss. It wrapped itself around her waist twice and slithered like a serpent.
“What happened there?”
“I tried to capture my mount. They must be caught, you see. They are not tame. We must tame them.” She pointed to the great creature where it lay not far away, looking toward the fire without moving beyond an occasional sigh or a shuffling of the enormous body to find a more comfortable spot on the ground. “Toratta did not want to be tamed. He fought me very hard. I had wrapped the trapping leathers three times around my waist to let me hold on better.” Her eyes smiled. The rest of her face, as always, was hidden away. “Some would say I held on too well, but I won my mount that day.”
“Where do your mounts come from? Are they in the same valley as your people?” Toratta looked in his direction the great eyes of the thing like lanterns in the growing darkness.
For a moment no one answered, and finally Tusk nodded his head. “They are from the Taalor Valley. But they are not bred by us. They are gifts from the gods.”
Wollis nodded his head, suspecting that he was touching against a subject the Sa’ba Taalor preferred not to discuss. He felt no particular need to push the matter. Instead he pointed to the scar on Bromt’s shoulder and chest. “And Bromt? Is that his name? How did that happen?”
Ehnole translated the question. And then she translated the answer as well. While he spoke, Bromt ran his finger over each individual tooth mark that permanently marred his flesh.
“There are things in the Blasted Lands. We do not see them often and most who do see them do not live to speak of it. I met one of them. It killed my first mount and bit most of the way through my arm before I killed it.”
“How did you kill it?”
“Well, it bit my arm as you can see. But it also swallowed my arm.” He mimed a mouth opening around his arm and swallowing the whole of it. And as he did so, Wollis could see that the tooth scars ran around the back of his shoulder as well. It had literally taken his entire arm into its mouth. “When it did that, it also swallowed my blade. So I cut it open from the inside and watched it bleed out.”
Wollis shook his head in wonder. The idea was unsettling.
“You really only have the one scar?” Ehnole seemed endlessly puzzled by the notion.
“Well, no. I have more scars, but they aren’t really very significant. I mean, I managed to nick my chin a few times when I was shaving. I’ve a long scar on my finger from when I cut myself when I was sharpening a sword blade and drinking. I’ve certainly never managed anything quite as spectacular as Bromt’s scar or yours. I can see more scars on Tusk than I would have thought possible for any man to survive.” He shrugged. “I’m afraid in comparison I’m rather disappointing.”
Tusk leaned forward. “Not at all. You are merely different. You avoid being cut. I can respect that. The followers of Wrommish use a similar principle in combat.”
“Wrommish is one of your gods?”
Tusk nodded. “Wrommish advocates using the body as a weapon. So the idea of not being struck makes sense. The hands and arms and legs are used to defend against weapons in combat.”
“How does a thing like that even work?” He’d seen plenty of brawls in his life but never once seen one that ended well when the brawler came up against armed men.
Tusk moved his hand in a back and forth motion. “The ones who don’t learn Wrommish’s ways early on seldom manage to learn it well.”
“I imagine that could be a problem, yes.”
He pointed to the south where several of his people had gone with Merros Dulver a day or so earlier. “Jost is traveling with your Captain. She is a strong follower of Wrommish. I have seen her block many weapons with only her hands.” He thought for a moment. “Drask as well.”
“I should think he has an advantage there, what with one hand being metal.” The words fairly jumped past his lips before he could stop them and Wollis had to resist the urge to slap his own hands over his mouth as soon as he was done speaking.
Tusk studied him for several moments. All around him the Sa’ba Taalor were deadly silent.
And then Tusk slapped him on the shoulder with one large hand and roared laughter. The rest joined in and Wollis relaxed. When they had calmed down a bit Tusk looked at him and shook his head. “Of course Drask might well kill you for saying that to him. It would depend on his mood.”
“I didn’t mean to offend….”
Tusk shook his head. “I take no offense. But I am not the one who had his hand cut off.”
“How does his hand work?”
Ehnole answered that one, “He was gifted by Ydramil.”
“Another of your gods?”
Ehnole nodded. “The Daxar Taalor each favor one metal. Well, except for Durhallem. But each favors one. And if they choose to favor someone who has lost a limb, it will always be made of that metal. There is no mistaking which god has granted a favor of that sort.”
“What makes them decide? I mean, do all of your people get replacements if they are wounded?”
“Not at all,” Tusk answered. “The Daxar Taalor choose who they reward very carefully. There are…conditions that must be met. If Drask had not performed to the satisfaction of Ydramil, he would not have been granted a new hand.”
“How do the gods decide?”
Tusk shook his head and leaned in closer. “How do gods decide anything? How do your gods offer rewards?”
“To be honest I have never spoken with my gods and they have never spoken with me.” He shrugged as he answered. “You and your people seem to have a better relationship with your gods than I have ever had with mine.”
Tusk shook his head and though little of his face could be seen behind the veil, Wollis sensed the pity the man felt for him.
To escape that irritating gaze he asked, “How did Drask lose his hand?”
“It was cut off in a duel.” Tusk swung one hand through the air in a chopping motion. “Do you have duels?” he looked closely at Wollis.
“We have formal challenges. They’re put before the magistrate or, if you’re in the capital city they are handled before the representatives of the Emperor.”
“We are not so formal. The man who attacked Drask made his accusations and drew his axe. Then when Drask stood to defend himself, the man cut his hand off.”
“What did Drask do to offend him?”
“I do not know. But Drask killed the man a moment later. The fool was already celebrating his victory.” Tusk shook his head. “Drask drove a knife through the man’s neck and finished the fight properly.” The man turned and called to his people in their own unsettling language—whenever the Sa’ba Taalor talked there was an odd resonance to their words but when they spoke their native tongue it was worse—and Wollis looked at the gathered group as they considered his words and finally the other woman with the group spoke up. Had he learned her name? He couldn’t remember.
Tusk nodded at her words and spoke again, “I could not remember what Ydramil demands. Drask would have taken the body of his defeated enemy into the Heart of Ydramil and made the body an offering. When he was done he would have held his wounded hand to the fires of Ydramil’s heart and asked for a new hand. The god must have accepted his offering, or he would not be alive now to carry on.”
Wollis nodded and considered those words carefully. “The heart of Ydramil, that is in the heart of the mountain?”
“How did he get there?”
“Likely he walked. If Ydramil was feeling unkind he would have been made to crawl through one of the tunnels that leads to the heart of the mountain.” He paused for a moment and then continued. “The Daxar Taalor do not make it easy to ask favors of them, so he very likely had to crawl and drag his offering along behind him.”
Wollis considered the maps he’d seen and the mountains of the valley. Ydramil was far to the west in the valley, if he remembered properly. The mountains were as different from each other as their names. They were part of the same mountain range but no two looked at all the same. He imagined the climb would have been over harsh, broken stone with little by way of plant life along the sides and slopes. Scaling any part of the thing would be a challenge. Carrying another man’s weight? While missing a hand and bleeding? He doubted it was possible but chose not to say anything of the sort.
“When we lose hands, it is forever.” Wollis shrugged. “When my leg was injured three was no way to replace it. Nothing as impressive as Drask’s silver hand, so it was learn to walk with my injuries or sit for the rest of my life.”
Tusk nodded at him. “I think you made the right choice.” He placed his hands at the small of his back and bent backward, sighing. “My spine no longer enjoys sitting on my mount.”
The silence between them grew longer and Wollis yawned. It had been a long day. “We should find the Temmis Pass easily enough tomorrow. With good weather another two weeks will have us at our destination.”
“Your horses are slow,” Tusk spoke without criticism, merely making an observation. “But I look forward to seeing your Fellein.”
“Have you ever been away from the Seven Forges and the Blasted Lands before?”
Tusk looked toward the north and west, where even at this great a distance the light from the mountain range could be seen as a faint glow.
“Only once. We rode to the north of the Taalor Valley.”
“What did you find there?” Wollis had never considered that there would be anything beyond the Seven Forges. Really, the mountains had always seemed like the end of the world.
“Another time, Wollis March. It’s late. We should rest while we can.”
The man swatted him amiably on the shoulder one last time and strutted back toward where his tent was set up.
There would be no more answers that night.