The Yellow Tower
The bottom of the flatboat writhed with eels swimming in their own slime. The eelwife, her skirts hoisted round her fat-shivering hips, was well satisfied with her catch so far and pleased, at first, when she felt the weight of the next basket she intended to haul up. She soon found it was heavier than it should have been though. Swearing, she guessed a great clump of weed must be wrapped round the basket and be catching in the current. She knelt on the boards above the tangle of eels and peered into the depths in which the rope disappeared. Nothing, just vague stirrings in the turbid water. Shaking her head she stood again and began angrily to tug at the rope. Another basket gone, she thought.
Suddenly the rope was pulled from her, taut, yanked away by something in the water. She fell back into writhing slime as all the slack shot away over the side. The boat slewed to one side, as all the slack was taken up, then it tipped. The terrified eel-wife struggled to her knees in the slime. The boat lurched again and she turned her incredulous gaze upon the steel claw hooked into the edge of the boat like a grappling hook. Then the flat-boat went over, hurling the eelwife face-forwards into the water, then crashed down on top of her. Eels fled in all directions in the murk. The steel claw sank into the fat thigh of the eelwife and dragged her down.
After inspecting the dismembered carcass of the cow, Rhys stood and walked around it, looking for tracks.
“Whatever it is, it’s strong,” said Randal, his brother.
Rhys scratched at the ginger bristle of his beard for a moment, then shook his head and unshouldered his laminate bow.
“Leaves strange tracks,” he said, and looked round at the reed-choked marshes. “Heading for the Saltings I guess,” he finished.
Copying his elder, Randal unshouldered his own bow, then, after a hesitation, notched an arrow.
Rhys nodded his head and notched an arrow as well.
“Perhaps we should go back for the others?” Randal suggested, eyeing the carcass. He was scared and prepared to admit it. Whatever had killed their cow, had dragged it two miles before feeding on it, and then it had fed on it four times, the last times on rotting flesh. Randal knew of no animal in the marshes that would do such a thing, and certainly none capable of dragging the carcass so far. He had heard rumours though, of other creatures roaming the land. He shuddered and looked around, listening intently also. No waterfowl, nothing but the wind-hiss on the reeds and the occasional rapid splash of a hunting pike.
Rhys raised his hand and gestured to where the reeds had been crushed down. As quietly as they could they advanced.
It was easy walking along the path of crushed reeds. The few side-tracks they ignored for they agreed that the main track led to the animal’s lair.
“Do you smell it?” asked Rhys.
It was difficult not to notice the putrid fish-stink born by the breeze and Randal nodded his head.
Shortly they came upon human remains, scattered and broken. They might have been the remains of more than one person, male or female, it was difficult to tell. Off to one side, sunk in the feculent water, was a holed flatboat, and two ripped open wickerwork baskets.
“Eel catchers,” said Rhys gruffly. Randal noticed that there was none of the usual contempt in his brother’s voice. Even eel catchers did not deserve to be killed and eaten.
“Rhys, I still think we should go back for the others.”
Rhys pointed to high ground ahead, from which a grove of willows fountained out across the marsh. He kept moving. Reluctantly, Randal followed.
As expected, the trail led into the willow grove; into damp, mouldering gloom, and the miasma of rotting fish.
“Its next meal,” Rhys whispered, pointing at the corpse of a man lying in a foetal position in a bowl of a gnarled ancient willow. Randal swallowed dryly. The man was big, grey-haired, and covered in the rotting rags of clothing. By the look of him he could not have been long dead, but dead he certainly was. His hands were a charred ruin and there was a black spike driven through his body.
With a sharp gesture Rhys silenced him.
They moved further into the lair as quietly as they could on the thick bed of rotting reeds and yellow willow leaves.
“Rhys, I really think…” Randal stopped when he felt the reeds move under his feet. “Rhys!”
Rhys had a look of horror on his face. He was thrown to the ground. The reeds bulged and were ripped open by steel claws. A huge, shapeless and slime-glistening body, topped with a rusting devil mask, rose above him then came down like a falling mud-bank. Randal released an arrow into the glistening mass. The devil mask rose up again. Rhys was coated head to foot in slime. He was dead, that was certain. There was little blood.
As the creature rose up before him Randal notched another arrow and released it. It thudded home up to its fletching. He shot another arrow, his hands shaking, but this close he could not miss. Incongruously he noted how the fallen and falling willow leaves stuck to the creature’s slime like golden scales. Irrelevant, like wondering where his brother’s face had gone. Moving back he released arrow after arrow. Occasionally the creature shuddered as it advanced, but that was all the effect the arrows had on it. At the entrance to the lair Randal groped at an empty quiver, then he turned and ran for his life.
The morning was still and cool with clouds like blood-soaked cotton knuckled across the horizon. Drexor woke and stayed warm-wrapped in his blanket, loath to move and wake the dull ache of his healing arm, and the itch and irritation of the many cuts and abrasions on his body. The woman, Laura, had saved his life with her magical unguents and strange bitter tasting drugs. He knew that without them the last four days would have brought him to collapse, and he would have been easy prey for Tavrum’s hired killers. Gratitude or no, though, Drexor knew he would have to go against her and her massive companions; that lizard man, Karon, and the man Oswulf, who claimed to be Hadrim’s cousin, and likewise a Lord of Twilight.
Their route, shaking off pursuit, had taken them north of Edronin. The three wanted to head back southeast to the Autumn Palace to see where Hadrim had fallen. The route back would take them close to Edronin again, and Drexor had a promise to fulfil. If General Sapharon still lived, Drexor intended to tell him of the Regent’s treachery, of his murder of Prince Adric. Tavrum had to die.
At the rustle of leaves and crackle of twigs Drexor looked up and saw that Karon had returned from his night of scouting and hunting. The Rell never slept, he had soon learnt, and spent the nights leading their pursuers astray and hunting to replenish their supplies. As Karon stooped to rebuild the fire Drexor wondered what had happened to his simple mercenary life. First, a mercenary in the pay of the Berserker Captain, now, on the run with that one’s murderous cousin, a possible witch, and an eight foot tall lizard man. Reluctantly he sat up and viewed the morning.
Immediately Drexor was assailed with a bout of dizziness and blurred vision, which slowly passed only to be replaced by the dull ache of his arm and various other irritations. As his vision cleared he realised he was the last to rise. Laura was gone, probably to the nearby copse of oaks to gather herbs, and Oswulf was grooming the horses, something they had been without for many days.
On his knees Drexor rolled up and tied his blankets, then, when he felt confident enough, he stood up. By that time, Oswulf, sharp as if he’d had nine hours sleep in a comfortable bed, sauntered over.
“No hurry then?” Drexor asked.
With a tilt of his head Oswulf indicated Karon. “He tells me they’ve given up and gone home. Attrition generally has that effect on a bounty hunter’s enthusiasm.”
Attrition. Drexor remembered the nights Oswulf and Karon had gone out to hunt the hunters, to return later, grinning and bloody handed. He nodded and walked carefully over to the fire where Karon was fixing a hock of venison on a spit, all, probably that remained of his own raw flesh meal. Oswulf sauntered over with him.
“What now?” Drexor asked when he reached the fire.
Karon looked up and regarded him with eyes like flint. “Now you take up into the Autumn palace and show us where Hadrim was struck down.”
With his one eye Drexor regarded the flames. “Killed, you mean.”
“As you wish,” replied the Rell, and fixed the meat over the fire.
“There is something I have to do before then,” said Drexor carefully.
“Adric was betrayed and I was nearly killed…”
The Rell was silent. Quickly Drexor said, “I have to tell Sapharon of that betrayal, and I have a score to settle.”
“Sapharon’s men had you in a cell. Your story would certainly have reached him, especially after the manner of your release.”
Drexor remembered how Karon had saved him; falling upon the killers sent for him like a wolf amongst sheep.
“I told no-one. I wanted to tell Sapharon alone, to try and get some sort of guarantee on my life.”
“What is this?” Laura asked as she approached and dropped a bag of herbs by the fire. Karon told her. She said, “Then we must return to Edronin.”
The Rell stared at her. She continued.
“Responsibility, Karon. We know very well about that.”
Karon nodded. Drexor looked from one to the other of them in confusion, then to Oswulf. Oswulf shrugged and turned away with a strange grin on his face.
“We all have responsibilities,” said Laura with look at Oswulf. “Though there are those who would deny them to the end … Who is to say whose are most important?”
“Thank you” said Drexor, though he wondered what reaction he would have received had Edronin been a long way off their route. He suspected their responsibilities would have taken precedence.
After eating their fill and resting for the morning they set out at a leisurely pace for Edronin. They were to travel the rest of that afternoon and into the night, rest in the morning and then travel on through the following afternoon to arrive at Edronin at nightfall. The idea was to ascertain Sapharon’s whereabouts and circumvent his guards so Drexor could tell his story to the General alone.
“How will you make Sapharon believe?” Laura asked as they set up camp for the final time before entering the city.
“He will believe me, if he still lives.” But Drexor was not sure. Perhaps he should have read more into Laura’s words than he had at first. What was his responsibility? Would standing before the General and making his accusations discharge it? Whether he was believed or not?
The following day’s travel was leisurely also, but even so, they arrived early and had to wait for nightfall. When darkness descended they left their horses in a copse and, with the help of the eight feet tall Rell, scaled the wall far from the main gate. Through a dark alley with cobbles slimed with refuse they slunk like thieves.
“What now?” Laura asked.
Drexor looked round the wall at the end of the alley. “I think I know where I am … The barracks are not far from here. Sapharon could be there. If he is not we’ll be able to find out there where he is.” He turned and looked pointedly at the Rell. “We’ll have to go carefully though. Keep to the shadows.”
But for the occasional drunks staggering through the night or vomiting in the gutters, or the odd prostitute doing much the same as the drunks, the streets here were fairly clear. In very little time they reached the barracks buildings and stood watching and waiting until a soldier came unsteadily back to his Spartan home.
“I’ll go” said Oswulf. Removing his hat and tucking it into his belt he approached the soldier.
Drexor could not hear what was said, but by his actions he could see that Oswulf was pretending inebriation. The conversation went on and on, with many a bark of laughter, then protracted good byes.
“Good man that,” said Oswulf. “Said he’d take me out drinking tomorrow night and introduce me to his favourite brothel.”
“That, is not what we wanted to know,” observed Laura.
Oswulf grinned. “Sapharon is in his town house on Market Square.” He turned to Drexor. “Do you know it?”
Drexor nodded and led off.
From the darkened alleys of the poorer sections of Edronin they came to litter-free avenues lit by coloured glass oil-lamps. Here there were no drunks or prostitutes, none visible anyway, but also there were no shadows to keep to. Instead of attempting to hide they risked discovery and walked openly to Market Square. At length Drexor halted and gestured at a three-storey house with a wide pillared porch. As he moved to cross the street a six-fingered hand clamped on his shoulder. He looked questioningly at the Rell as they all ducked behind the crumbling statue of a cavalryman. Karon merely pointed.
“It would seem the General is to have other visitors tonight,” said Oswulf.
Two men in black were hauling themselves up the side of the house, up a rope to a balcony on the third storey.
“We have to get there before them,” hissed Drexor, and broke away from Karon to head across the street. Once at the double doors within the pillared porch he halted in perplexity, then hauled and twisted at their bronze rings. There was no movement. He took out his sword and raised its pommel to hammer on the doors. Once more that scaled hand stilled him.
“No time,” said Karon, and over the top of Drexor’s head the Rell struck the doors with the flat of his hand.
The double doors crashed back and a twisted locking bar went clanging across a marble mosaic. They were inside and heading for the stairs before anyone appeared. An old woman in a long night-gown, carrying a cocked crossbow, stepped out behind them. Oswulf lunged for her and the bolt went ricocheting of a wooden panel leaving a splintered scar.
“Where’s Sapharon?” Oswulf demanded.
The woman closed her mouth firmly.
Drexor shouted, “We are not assassins, but there are assassins here! Do you think assassins would make this much noise?”
The old woman had lost interest in the conversation and was staring at Karon in stark terror.
“Bah!” Oswulf flung her from him. “Head for the third floor” he said, and ran out the front door. Drexor drew his hook from his belt and charged up the stairs. The assassins were heading for the third floor, to the right. Oswulf would be behind them so they would not be leaving that way. Drexor intended to be in front of them. Coming up to the third floor he halted to view the apparition above him.
With chain mail over his night-shirt and a helm on his grizzled head, Sapharon awaited them. His feet were planted firmly apart, and in his hands held as rigid as if set in stone, was a huge vicious looking battle-axe.
“Drexor Allan, and friends” he said. He raised the visor of his helm and looked at Drexor with a hard expression. “I thought you gone to the Captain from your cell.” Then he looked at Karon. “But I see that this not being the case, you are still keeping the strangest of company.”
Drexor lowered his hook and sword and leant against the banister. “I did not go with him.” He shuddered. “My time has been spent evading Tavrum’s killers. Two of which are in this house now, for you.”
Sapharon nodded as if this was old news, then looked aside as there came a crash from one of the rooms on that floor. He looked to Drexor for an explanation.
“They came up the side of your house. The same as the ones who came to my cell; killers hired by the Regent. The one who went after them is the cousin of Hadrim.”
Sapharon lowered his axe.
“Oswulf. Hadrim told me once of his cousin,” he said.
At that point a door crashed open and a man dressed head to foot in black lurched out with a hoof-hilted dagger in his back. While cleaning his other dagger on a piece of black material Oswulf sauntered out after.
“It had been my intention to put them to the question” said Sapharon to Oswulf, then he turned back to Drexor. “Why would the Regent hire killers to kill you?”
“Because I saw him have Adric killed.”
“An accusation that was levelled at you.”
“I did not do it. Do you think I would be here if I did?”
Sapharon stared hard at him for a moment, then looked up above his head and made a hand signal. Drexor turned and looked up behind himself. Standing on a half-concealed belvedere above the stairs were two soldiers like iron statues, their faces concealed by helmets with nose and cheek guards. Their crossbows were trained on the stairs, then lowered while Drexor looked.
“As you see, I am not a complete fool, no assassin has come close to me yet, and of the recent ones my aim has been to take one alive,” said Sapharon, and looked with annoyance at Oswulf again. “Come,” he went on, “perhaps I do not need to question assassins. Perhaps you can tell me all I need to know.”
Drexor hoped he could. He suspected that if Sapharon disbelieved him he would not leave this house alive, and, would take a long time dying.