The Lands of Titanuus—Northern Territories
“Captain.” The deep voice spoke softly. “Captain!”
Ruger opened his eyes. He lay on a bed of fur blankets inside a large canvas tent. The firm body of a woman lay beside him. She stirred as he sat up. The morning sun shone on the top of the tent, providing natural illumination. Drops of rain softly pelted the tent fabric. He pushed his fingers through his jet-black hair then breathed deeply into his nostrils and rubbed his eyes. He opened them. Dirty donuts, I’m still here!
On the other side of the tent’s entrance flap, the person spoke more loudly and urgently. “Captain. Can you hear me?”
“Horace, I can hear you just fine! Hold your bloody horses!” Ruger said in a bitter voice. He shoved the leg of the women wrapped up in the furs. “Sticks, get your scrawny arse out of my fox furs and go see what the lout wants.”
“Did you say something, Captain?” Horace asked. “It’s hard to hear through canvas.”
“Give me a moment!” he yelled back.
Sticks rose to her feet. She wore a gray nightshirt that hung loose on her firm body. Her chestnut-colored hair was short and tied back in twin ponytails. The slightly fish-eyed woman with a tomboy demeanor bent over, picked up a bandolier of knives and slung it over her shoulder. Barefoot, she headed toward the flap.
Ruger gave her a smack on the rear end. “Settle Horace down and come right back. No, bring me something to eat.” He rubbed the hard ridges on his bare stomach. “I’m hungry.”
Sticks gave him an expressionless nod. Quiet as a mouse, she vanished through the flap.
“Where’s the captain?” Horace asked.
“Will you tell me what it is?” Sticks replied in a stern manner. “He’s dressing, and I need to fetch his breakfast. Out with it.”
“Watch that brassy tone. My message is for his ears, not yours,” Horace growled.
Ruger slipped on his trousers. He sat down on a cot, reached underneath for his boots, and stuffed his feet into them. I hate these things. My feet will burn like fire before I’m half a day in.
Horace’s voice became louder. “You tell the Captain that my words are for his ears and not yours! It’s urgent!”
“I don’t care. You can tell me. I’m his eyes and ears,” Sticks said matter-of-factly. “Spit it out.”
“No!” Horace retorted.
Ruger’s chin sank into his chest. Finally, he sighed and said, “For the love of money, Horace, just get your bloated belly in here!”
A strong arm with stubby fingers pushed the tent flap open, and Horace marched inside. The big husky warrior was as bald as an eagle but with a nest of beard down his chest. His eyes were as hard as diamonds. He wore a black leather tunic over an elbow-length suit of chain mail. A sword belt complete with long sword and dirk dressed his wide hips. He gave a firm nod. “Captain.”
“Yes, I know. I’m the Captain. You don’t have to call me that every time. Now, spit it out, Horace.” Ruger reached behind himself, into the corner of the tent where his own sword belt was propped up. He lay it across his lap and ran his long fingers over the scabbard. “I really hope you didn’t waste my precious moments of slumber.” His eye slid up toward Sticks. “Not to mention other routines that I enjoy.”
Eyeing Ruger’s sword and scabbard, Horace swallowed and said, “Never, Captain—er… Never.”
“So, what is it?”
“The frights. They escaped.”
Ruger stiffened. He cocked his head to one side. His eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”
“The frights are gone,” Horace replied. “Red Tunics are dead.”
He stood up and buckled on his sword belt then glared down at Horace and sneered. “Show me.”
Horace marched outside, followed by Ruger and Sticks. The morning light had come with heavy cloud cover and a steady rain. Surrounded by the tall trees of the forest, the campsite clearing was made up of small pup tents and stone rings around extinguished campfires. A man using a flint stone and hay struggled to light the fire in the rain. Horses nickered. Wagons were being loaded by workers in brick-colored tunics.
Hard-eyed men and women dressed in the same garb as Horace watched Ruger’s every step from a distance. Horace led Ruger away from the camp to another clearing, where a nearby stream trickled a few dozen feet away. Three men in red tunics lay dead on the grass in drippings of their own blood. Branches with sharp ends had poked through their bodies with ghastly effect.
Ruger took a knee. He stared at the macabre scene and shook his head. I hate this place. “Who in Hades was on watch last night when this happened?”
“Vern had the last watch,” Horace said. “These retainers were from his group.”
“And where is Vern?”
“He came to me first, only minutes ago,” Horace said as the rain came down harder, heavy drops splattering on his bald head. “He’s trying to find the frights’ tracks.”
“A fat lot of good that is going to do in this rain!”
“We’ll find them, Captain,” Horace said. “We tracked the witches down once. We can do it again. They couldn’t have gotten too far, and they don’t move very fast. We have horses.”
Ruger rose and kicked his black boots through the grasses. “We just spent the last forty days chasing them over one thousand miles! Now, we get to start all over again. I don’t want to spend another hour on this. I want to return to Kingsland!”
“Captain, we’ll pursue right away. Rain or no rain, we will find them soon,” Horace promised.
“Get Bearclaw on it now. Find Vern and send him to me. He’s the one that lost them, and I have no faith that he can find them.”
Horace nodded and hustled away.
Ruger stormed over the grasses and stopped where a tree had fallen recently. Sticks shadowed him. He picked up one set of iron shackles with both hands. The frights were an odd group of gangly witches. They’d been tethered to the fallen tree.
“I can’t believe this. They aren’t supposed to be able to use their powers when iron is locked on them.” He held the iron cuffs, bent outward, up to Sticks’s face. “Look at this. Magic. Fetch Iris and have her take a look at this. Have the Red Tunics bring the shovels. Bury the dead. But not too deep. There’s no time for that.”
“The varmints will dig them out and feast on them,” Sticks said.
“I don’t care about your traditions. We don’t have time to dig, dig, dig. We’ve dug enough on this journey.” He shoved the heavy shackles into her chest. “Don’t let Vern elude me either. I’ll be in my tent.”
Ruger paced inside his sixteen-by-sixteen-foot tent, wringing his hands behind his back. He ground his teeth and cursed and muttered, “It’s bad enough that I’m trapped in another man’s body. Now, I’m going to die in body that is not my own. In a world that is not my home.” He grabbed a cot and tossed it across the tent. “Dammit! I want out of this hellhole!”
Years ago, he’d been transported from America to the world that he now knew as Titanuus. He was changed from Professor Eugene Driscoll into a warrior named Ruger Slade, in what he believed was an experiment all gone wrong. Now, he’d been thrust into the service of King Hector and charged with executing the king’s business beyond the safety of Kingsland’s borders.
Eugene Driscoll had his moments as Ruger Slade, but for the most part, he was horrible at it—one mission failed after another. The king’s grace was running out. His latest mission was to track down the frights and bring them back to Kingsland alive to be hanged on the gallows. It was a show of the king’s strength in a crumbling kingdom, withering from the inside out.
The frights were a nefarious brood of witches that spread poison throughout Kingsland using venomous words and treacherous sorcery. They wrought evil wherever their crooked toes walked. In the city of Burgess, they’d burned down one of the king’s cathedrals. Men, women, and children were burned alive within. The frights, five in all, were captured and imprisoned. A day before their execution, they escaped.
Ruger and the Henchmen were sent to hunt them down and bring them back alive. That was the last chance for this motley company of renegade knights and assorted prisoners to redeem themselves. It was their last chance because of all their past failures. The king’s grace would end. The existence of Eugene Driscoll might end as well if he didn’t bring the frights back alive. Most of his Henchmen depended on him. If they failed, their sentences would be executed as well. The rest of the Henchmen would be disbanded or perhaps led by another.
He rubbed the lumpy brand of hardened skin shaped like a crown over his heart. “Cursed mark.”
It was a mark of loyalty and faithfulness to the crown that meant “Glory to the king. Honor to the sword.” It was given when the Henchmen gave their oath to the king. Breaking one’s oath could be fatal. Henchmen that fled their duties were known to die—at the hands of their enemies, by being carted off by sky demons, or just because of sudden death. It was witchery that Eugene still didn’t understand. Nor did he care.
“I’m marked like a prize horse. A horse with a time limit.”
“Captain,” someone with a gravelly voice said outside the tent. “It’s Vern.”
Ruger dropped his left hand to the pommel of his sword sheathed on his left hip. He faced the flap. “Enter.”
Vern pushed the tent flap aside and entered. He was well-built athlete with a pale complexion and short, kinky blond hair down to his neck. He had puffy lips and carried himself with aloofness. His eyes were sad and heavy. Like Horace, he wore a weathered black tunic over chainmail armor. A finely crafted longsword and dagger dressed his slender hips. “What is it?”
“Don’t use that tone with me, Vern. And don’t speak as if you don’t know what this is all about. I tire of your act.” His fingers drummed on his pommel. “You were on last watch last night. Now, the frights are gone. Explain yourself.”
With his head leaned over one shoulder and his thumbs tucked into the front of his sword belt, he shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I am going to skewer you if you don’t come cleaner than that. Now, tell me what happened.”
“What difference does it make now? The frights are gone, and I should be out looking for them.” Vern peered up then dropped his eyes back to Ruger. “And not staying dry in a tent like you.”
Ruger’s blood churned through his veins as his grip tightened on his sword. He stared Vern down. “I’m going to split your face in half if you keep up your obstinance. I have three dead Red Tunics. I can’t help but wonder how they’re dead and you’re still alive.”
Vern’s eyes fell to Ruger’s sword.
“What are thinking, Vern? Do you think you can take me?”
“If you didn’t have Black Bane, I have no doubt that I could. And I certainly wouldn’t hide behind the retainers in battle, either. I’d use it.”
“Oh, so you think that my sword makes me the better fighter, not the man. That’s very interesting.” He took his hand away from his hilt. “Have you been concocting these notions all on your own, or have the rest of the Henchmen been entertaining your musings?”
“No one used to concoct anything until you became cowardly and crazy. All you’ve done is lead us to our doom one mission after the other.” Vern sneered at Ruger. “You’ve lost your edge—either that or your spine.”
“Bold words coming from a man who nods off at his post.” He patted the hilt of his dagger. “No swords. Just dirks.”
“All right.” Vern faced off against him. He crossed his left hand over his right hip, where his dagger was sheathed.
Ruger readied himself in a similar stance. “On your word, Vern.”
Vern nodded. The moment Vern’s lips parted, Ruger snaked out his dirk in a flash and pressed it against Vern’s throat. The wide-eyed Henchman gulped. His hand was frozen on his dagger, still in his sheath.
As he pressed his dagger against Vern’s neck, Ruger whispered in his ear. “Do you still think that I need Black Bane to kill you?”
With new sweat beading on his brow, Vern said, “No.”
Ruger cracked Vern upside the head with the handle of his dagger. The stunning blow knocked the warrior to the ground. He kicked Vern in the ribs. “Don’t ever question me again, fool!”
He wanted to lay into Vern with all he had but held back. He needed every Henchmen he had. And Vern was a good soldier, just difficult.
“You get your arse out there and find those frights. And you better hope by the Elders that you come through because if you don’t, I’ll make an example out of you!” He kicked him again. “Go!”
Groaning, Vern slowly crawled out of the tent.
Ruger huffed for breath. He jammed his dagger back in the sheath. Vern had made several pointed statements, and they were accurate.
He shook his head and said, “I didn’t ask for this.”
Another stern voice came from outside the tent. “Captain.”
He rolled his eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped outside. Standing in front of him was a broad-faced bearish Henchman with a head of rain-soaked coal-black hair, a full beard, a hawk nose, and a dark complexion. He carried a twin-bladed Viking-style battle-axe.
“Bearclaw, why aren’t you chasing down the frights?” Ruger asked.
“I can only chase one set of tracks at a time. There are five sets, going different directions. I need to split the company into small groups,” Bearclaw said. “It will be a challenge to fetch them all, to say the least. We’ll need all eyes on the trails. Including yours, Captain.”
With a hard rain coming down, Ruger fought the urge to rip his hair out of his head and shouted, “I hate this place!”
Riding on horseback, Ruger led a pair of Red Tunics, who traveled on foot through the woodland. He was taking the path Bearclaw had pointed out to him. The rest of the Henchmen split up into small groups while a few Red Tunics remained back at camp. He rode with his keen eyes set for disturbances in the woodland. Even though the rain was coming down, the leaves slowed the hard rainfall on the ground. It took some time to get used to, but Ruger’s body had great attributes and instincts. He picked up on things normal people wouldn’t. He caught footprints in the soft ground and followed.
He looked behind him. The Red Tunics trudged along in the rear. They were a pair of grubby men, one heavier than the other, with mud-covered boots. They carried spears and had hand axes in their belts. Their tunics were dyed brick red, but they didn’t wear chain mail underneath. They kept their eyes to the ground, heads scanning the area side to side.
“Sheesh,” he said.
Normally, he’d have taken some of his better men with him, but in this case, he needed every skilled warrior out in the field. The frights had a jump of hours on them. With five of them gone, getting them all back might have been impossible. But he needed at least one—one alive. He was willing to risk all others, save for one. But even with the rain, their chances were good. The Henchmen were trackers, highly skilled woodsman, and warriors. Some of them were knights, honed by the crown’s finest training. They were ready for anything—what was left of them, that is.
He ducked underneath branches and weaved through the trees. They were heading north, above the Old Kingdoms, deeper into the head of Titanuus. The black horse he rode climbed the hilly terrain at a steady gait. Over the course of three hours, he only paused twice, to lock down the fright’s trail again. The frights were women, witches to be exact, haggard crones with a stare that could turn a man’s blood to ice. They were crafty survivors that had taken months to finally track down less than two days before. But now, the Henchmen had finally caught on to all their tricks.
The rain stopped, and the rustling branches fell silent. Water dripped from the leaves. Ruger tugged gently on the reins. His horse stopped and snorted. The air became still and quiet. Ahead, a steep slope of rocks and boulders made for a perfect den and hiding place. The muddy footprints came to an end. The last one he saw was deep and fresh. He grabbed the crossbow hanging from his saddle. He snatched a bolt from a quiver hanging on the other side and put it in his mouth. Using his strong fingers, he pulled back the crossbow string and locked it into place then loaded the bolt into the slide.
The Red Tunics crept up on his flank with big eyes sliding side to side. They held their spears at the ready.
Ruger didn’t even know their names. He tipped his chin toward the rocks and said, “Go take a poke in those rocks.”
The retainers exchanged a glance and started up the rocky hill at a slow pace.
The Red Tunics moved at a brisker pace. Up into the rocks they went, splitting up the higher they went. They cast their stares into the gaps in the rocks. They jammed their spears inside the gaps in the holes and hopped from boulder to boulder.
With his crossbow on his shoulder he eased his horse forward. He only needed one good shot to cripple the fright. The retainers made for perfect bait. Eugene’s approach had always been to lead from behind the lines and not in front, like a general commanding the field. Nothing was wrong with that. No doubt, his men despised that about him, but he didn’t care. It was simple strategy and a matter of survival.
The heavyset retainer traversing the rocks on the right froze in place. He stared down into a gap in the rocks, not moving. His body swayed side to side, and his spear dangled in his grip.
“Hey!” Ruger shouted.
The Red Tunic climbing on the left head twisted in his companion’s direction.
Without warning, a nest of red-backed and black-legged scorpions, each the size of a hand, scurried out of the gap by the dozens. They crawled up the rigid retainer’s legs, over his torso, and over his neck. Scorpion stingers struck into the arms, legs, and neck of the man. His body quaked. Pumped with venom, his body puffed up.
“Get away from there!” Ruger said.
The retainer’s face bulged and turn green. The scorpions had covered him up, their tails striking unendingly.
“What do we do?” the other retainer said, keeping his distance from the rocks by his comrade, which were a field of scorpions now. He looked about his feet and made a grim face as his comrade fell over. “He’s dead. He’s dead!”
“Yes, scorpions will do that to you. Just don’t panic,” Ruger said, his eyes wary. He didn’t see any sign of the fright.
A shrill cackling of a woman carried down from the rocks and echoed all around.
“Show yourself, witch!”
A dozen feet higher in the crags, a gaunt woman in ragged clothing climbed out of a cleft. Kinky hair flowed back behind her head. Her eyes were pinkish red and demonic. The fingernails tipping her bony arms were black talons. She opened her mouth, full of sharp teeth, and said, “What is the matter? Don’t you want to partake of my feast?” She held a scorpion in her hand, stuffed it in her mouth, and chewed. “Mmm… that’s good.”
Without a second thought, Ruger pulled the trigger on his crossbow. The bolt sailed true, impaling the fright through the chest.
Her legs wobbled. She straightened, tossed her head back, and cackled. The fright grabbed the bolt and pulled it out.
“Get up there and finish her!” Ruger ordered the Red Tunic.
The man crept up the rocks at an agonizing pace. The spear he carried shook in his hands.
Ruger fished out another bolt.
The fright leapt down from the rocks, covering over twenty feet in a single bound. She landed right in front of the stunned Red Tunic. With a swipe of her hand, she tore his throat out. He crumpled at her feet, clutching at his bleeding neck.
Ruger locked the bolt into place and aimed. He locked his eyes on the burning red eyes of the fright and fired. She vanished. The bolt clacked off the rocks and skipped out of sight.
The fright’s wicked cajoling carried down the rocky slope.
He spurred his horse forward. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen a fright’s disappearing act. He led his horse up the rocks, away from the scorpions and past the dying Red Tunic, where he spotted new blood on the ground. The frights might not fall to wounds easily, but they still bled though they used their magic to hold themselves together. A bad feeling crawled down his spine. This fright was probably the leader, the strongest of them all. He moved forward at a trot. He had her on the run and wounded. She’d be desperate and more dangerous. But so was he.
For a leathery witch that could have passed for a mummy, she covered ground as quickly as a rattlesnake. Her staggered trail climbed higher up the forest slope. Ruger fully expected a wild beast she’d summoned to burst out of the brush at any moment. That didn’t happen. He climbed higher and higher, tracking her almost an hour. Clearing a tree line, he caught a glimpse of her less than fifty yards away. She looked back over her shoulder and hissed.
“Now I have you!” Ruger snapped the reigns. “Eeyah!”
The fright fled on bony legs with the speed of a wildcat. Her eyes were fixed on a large cave mouth that opened up in the mountain.
“No!” Ruger roared.
He needed to cut her off. Inside the cave, he might lose her once and for all. He’d seen his share of caves filled with twisting caverns and jagged corridors. And he had no light to find the way.
“Go, horse go!”
The horse thundered onward at a full gallop, making a straight line after the fright. She moved quickly on her sprinting legs, and with one last final cackle, she vanished into the dark mouth of the cave.
Ruger pulled his horse to a halt a dozen feet from the mouth of the cave and squinted. A strange sound caught his ears. A quavering light caught his eye. His heart raced. Bravery was not usually Eugene Driscoll’s cup of tea, but today it was.
“Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Humph. What choice do I have? I’m going in.”