Ghats and shats! And now he’d lost Jonesi as well. Was this a bad day or . . . Natzo, this couldn’t be happening. His fault, of course his fault, he shouldn’t have left Jonesi alone. But there was that cove up ahead, not far along, and Jonesi had thought they could use it for cover. The last chance, hey, to snap a nap before they stormed Mallen’s stronghold. Stormed: Boddy snorted at that. They’d be more like a wisp of a wind. So Boddy had left Jonesi tucked safe out of sight while he scouted ahead for anyone hidden. He was a Dragon, an angel, he was good at this. But when he went back to give Jonesi the ‘clear’, he was gone. No sign of a scuffle. Not even tracks leading off, only his own. It seemed Jonesi had simply vanished. But that wasn’t possible. Not even trees to climb here.
He sat on the nearest outcrop of rock, head in his hands, and sighed. And again. He sighed several times, each one heavier.
That will not regain what is lost, his little god said.
Spew on it, Roo. Just . . . go away.
It hadn’t even been his idea to stop for the night. Those debauching bisonians had his Disa and he raged at what they’d be doing to her. He wasn’t going to stop. Yet Jonesi had the right of it, only a sap-headed nugget would try to push on – in the dark, in the mountains, in land that Mallen patrolled. His frustration ate through him like a swarm of herissons. He wanted to pulp the rocks – yeah, and place Mallen’s face there. Natzo, not his face, let’s make it further down the franyan’s body.
“Yeah. And may the gods bless Ryal for providing the slack-jaw.” Boddy nodded grimly. Far much effective for venting anger than Lubanthan.
Great, yeah, fine. So now he’d vented why was he still as tightly wound as a silk-moth’s cocoon. He spat, as if that would help. But he needed to clear his head. He needed to devise a workable plan. He couldn’t just walk into Mallen’s stronghold. And anyway, it was impregnable. Five decks of Dragons he had taken to clear it of bandits. And, yeah, they’d won in the end, if to survive was to win, if to not be totally wiped-out-defeated. But they’d left that hold still stinking with bandits. So now he thought to storm it alone?
Yeah zo, he was a geck, a lorel, a piddling whim. And again he thanked Ryal for the jaw.
He set a camp at the cove. Then remembered who had the food. Spew on it, man! How was he to defeat the mighty Mallen on an empty belly? Could the sitzu get any worse?
Like Heli rising, it suddenly hit him.
Mallen’s target wasn’t Disa. It was him, Boddy. And now he was walking into a trap. Why hadn’t he seen it? Why hadn’t Jonesi seen it, Jonesi was usually so sharp?
There’d been no way for Mallen to know that Disa would run slap into his men at the cliff top. She’d already passed Chendani Pass, she had her two guards, she was going back to Lecheni. Mallen couldn’t have known she’d double back. Ghats and Gods, even Boddy hadn’t known that. But his scouts would have seen Jonesi and Boddy pass. Yeah zo, they’d not been particularly quiet, and once beyond the track to Chendani Pass they’d not even been watchful. They wouldn’t have seen Mallen and his ragged band following behind. Besides, Boddy had been thinking of Eshe, his eyes sharp for signs of her passing.
Mallen would have seen them veer off the track and into the forest. He’d had have put a scout on their tail while he and his men more slowly and quietly followed. Had Mallen intended to follow them down the cliff-side path? Gods! A fight on those rocks . . . nausea weakened his bones and hit his belly just at the thought. But more likely Mallen hadn’t known their intent. More likely he’d hoped to attack while still in the confusion of trunks. But then Jonesi and Boddy had vanished. And holla! Here came Disa.
With his arms wrapped tight around himself Boddy rocked. Of all the blinding nuggets! He had led the bandits to her. As good as delivered her into their hands. Two decks of them, that’s what he’d counted from the muddle of prints on the track when they’d found them. And now there was only one of him to effect her rescue.
Hey, Boddy Felagi, don’t scourge yourself. You couldn’t have known.
Yea, yea. Yet she’s their captive because of me. Oh, Roo, I beg, I beg, don’t let anything happen to her.
I hear you, Boddy Felagi, but I am your god, not hers.
Then I’ll pray to the Avatar. Ghats and Gods, I’d pray to the Cursed One if I thought he would help.
~ ~ ~
The stronghold squatted like a short-bodied basilisk half-hid in its hole. But it wouldn’t be a long snaking tongue that shot out to strike Boddy, it would be a volley of poison-tipped arrows. Its hole was the sack-end of a long, twisted gulley. The weathered crenellated warison, all grey-greens and yellows, wasn’t entirely of Mallen’s making. It had accreted over the centuries as successive bandits occupied it. And it belied what lay behind it. A warren. And though they couldn’t be seen, cleverly disguised as natural cracks, Boddy knew there were at least a hundred narrow slit openings. And behind each he could guarantee they’d be an archer. The gate, the one seeming vulnerable point, was of oak.
On the previous encounter, backed by his five decks of Dragons, Boddy had briefly pondered the source of its timber. But not today. Today Boddy was looking way above the gate. To the crenellated top of the warison. And he was having trouble believing his eyes.
Jonesi stood there.
He stood beside Mallen. Yeah zo, that dumb-ed and confounded him. And Mallen’s arm was around Jonesi’s shoulders, like they were the best of friends. Spew on it, man, that fuddled and muddled him further. He wanted to bury his head in his arms as if then it would all go away. Was it a dream? It couldn’t be real. And there was Mallen jeering at him. That, at least, was expected.
“Holla, Jay-yo! Just look what stands at our gate”—Boddy heard his teeth crack as he ground them together—“it’s our old friend, Boddy Felagi.”
Boddy’s fingers itched to throttle the bandit. He took a deep breath, to calm him and to power his shout. It would be fatal to sound at all weak.
“Ho, Mallen—” But he wasn’t allowed to say more.
“I hear he’s an angel now,” Mallen cut in. “Though today I see no sprats behind him.”
“You have it wrong,” Boddy shouted back while he had the chance. “I’m no longer a Dragon. I’ve left. Deserted. Yeah, man, you hear me right. I’m a free-rolling bandit, now, like you.”
Mallen laughed and slapped Jonesi’s slender shoulders. “Hey, Jay-yo, you reckon he’s asking to join us?”
It was an act. It must be an act. Natzo, Jonesi wouldn’t willingly be an compliance. Boddy didn’t know what Jonesi was doing up there but as long as Medusa rose red Jonesi never sneaked off to join Mallen.
“You still have me wrong,” Boddy shouted up to him.
He wondered how many archers he had hidden. The thought of those vemon-dipped arrows trained upon him might be shiversome, yet he needed them there for his plan to work.
“I’m only here to ask for what’s mine,” Boddy said. “You’ve stolen from me and I want it back.”
Mallen laughed. Not mocking, not malicious. Good humoured, amused. But he and Boddy had history, and Boddy knew it was done to confuse him. And so was his question to Jonesi.
“Do you want to return to this guy, be his servitor?”.
Jonesi scoffed, a fizzling raspberry blown as his answer. He flicked away the annoying fly-Boddy.
Boddy would figure that out later. Disa was priority.
“I don’t mean the old man,” he called back, matching disdain. “Dispensable, yeah, though he does have my food. Gods, man, I meant the woman.”
For the briefest moment Mallen was quiet. So, he didn’t know of Boddy’s connection. That, he could use to his advantage. He quickly factored it in.
“Hey, Jay-yo, you hear what the angel says? Doesn’t want you but he does want his food.” He chuckled. This time it was maliciously. “So let’s give it to him, heh.”
Beans and nuts and dried fruits rained from the crenelles atop the warison.
Great, yeah, fine. Did Mallen think him a lorel to scramble around for it, as if he wasn’t already a perfect target? Besides, Jonesi had been carrying a deal more than that.
“You can keep the food. I want the woman,” Boddy shouted.
“A persistent ruffler, aren’t you, Angel. Or should I say, Javanese wreck. And what woman would that be?” Mallen’s acting was woeful; he’d never succeed at auditions.
“Ask your new buddy,” Boddy said. “My wife.”
Again that moment’s silence before Mallen answered. Boddy was tempted to count: How long before Mallen decided to swallow?
“I’d say you’ve a story there,” Mallen said, not quite so jeering.
Bait taken, but Boddy held off the smile. “I might tell it. Once she’s again in my hold.”
“Aye and how’d you intend that? Come up here and take her? Or will you pay the ransom?”
Yeah zo, that grin was threatening to break. Mallen was playing right into his plan, providing the very opening he wanted.
“I’ve told you, yeah, I’m a bandit, just starting. I haven’t yet gold to pay any ransom. But I was thinking, yeah –”Ghats, it was hard to hold off that grin “– I might win her from you. The stake in a wager?”
Mallen laughed. But he’d taken the bait. And as long as his men were watching through their shadowy slots, he’d now be hooked and glued to it. A Rothi, a bandit, he’d know every trick to the gambling game. While Boddy was Lubanthan, and everyone knew the Lubanthan didn’t gamble. But, zups, that was a Rothi misconception. The Lubanthan wagered, sure they did—just not for money or items deemed wealth.
“What’s the wager?” Mallen asked, his mirth now gone.
“Do we have a deal? If I outplay you I get the woman?”
“And what if you lose?”
Boddy held out his arms. “Name it. You know my skills.”
“You’d join us, do my bidding? Aye and you’d know of the Lubanthan defences – those around Regionalstad.”
“Where they keep the gold? Ghats, yeah zo.” Boddy couldn’t believe it: the bandit was swallowing the bait deep in. “Like-and-like, if I win you’ll give me the woman.
“I’ll tell you where to find her,” Mallen amended the terms. “And I’ll promise that no one will interfere with your taking. But I’ll warn you, that woman is mine, you’ve no chance of winning.”
“Natzo, you lorel, you’ve already lost her. Didn’t you hear what I said? She’s my wife.”
Boddy knew he was pushing the bandit’s beliefs but, Ghats, they could have been wed if he’d played it right.
“Swivel, wrecked angel,” Mallen jeered at him, an obscene gesture accompanying. “You’re jawing through your arse. I’m to believe Sifadis Lafdi would consent to you?”
“Go ask her. Tell her Boteras Rookeri is here to fetch her, and see what she says.”
He could see Mallen saying something to Jonesi and Jonesi nodding. He prayed, deeply prayed, that Jonesi would support him. But he still couldn’t figure what Jonesi was doing up there. Mallen’s men must have captured him. And how many bluffs were being played here?
“Hey, you, I’m changing the terms,” Mallen said, all humour gone from Mallen now. “You’re dead if you lose.”
So Jonesi had backed him. Or was he working a double bluff? What if Jonesi wanted him dead? Natzo. Why, that made no sense. But nor did Jonesi standing there with Mallen. This was turning tragically confusing.
“Well?” Mallen prompted. “What game do you choose?”
“You haven’t asked yet if I’ll take the new terms.”
“Aye, aye, aye, Stup and Dizpeter, let’s get this over. Do you accept them?”
Boddy nodded. “Great, yeah, fine. I lose, I die. I win, I get my wife.”
“So what’s the game?” Mallen asked. “Or am I to choose it?”
“It’s what you’d call a game of skill.”
“Go on, say more.”
“You haven’t agreed yet the revised terms. If I win I get my wife back. If you win . . . you get to keep the used goods.”
There was another moment of silence. Then Mallen shouted, his anger well-roused, “Listen, you pesky wrecked angel, that lafdi you’ve ruined was sworn to me before I was exiled.”
Zups! Boddy hadn’t known that. He hadn’t once thought that Disa could already be promised—to him or to any other. Though, the two richest Houses: he ought to have seen it.
“Now let’s get this skill-thing moving. I agree as I said. You win, I’ll tell you where, and vouch that none will interfere. But you lose and you’re dead. And I think I’ll take your testicles first. Seems appropriate. Perhaps she can watch.”
“You’ll need to come out of your hold. I swear I’ve no weapons.” Boddy held up his hands. “Besides, your archers have their marks on me. They still can mark me when we get to those rocks. You see which ones, the pinnacles either side of the gulley?”
“What do you plan to do with them? Knock them down? Lift them?” Mallen again jeered.
“There’s a rope tied around each. The game is simple. We use the rope to reach the top. First up, wins.”
The pinnacles topped the sheer cliffs either side. The ropes were secured at the bottom to rocks on opposite sides of the gulley. But would Mallen renege when he saw them up close? Natzo. He wouldn’t lose face in front of his men. Boddy was counting on it, that’s why he needed the archers, to witness.
Silence returned, but for the rough caw of the mountain birds. Boddy guessed Mallen was making his way through the warren and down to the big oaken gate. While waiting, he pondered the birds. How did they survive in this barren place. Further west, yeah, they raided the dead in the Black Towers, but here . . . If amphibs came into this dry terrain, it wasn’t to breed. And there could be little of flies and beetles and worms. Besides, their flesh would be tainted. How strange that the Avatar had brought the birds with him.
The oaken door opened. No creak, no clang. From its cavernous hole, Mallen strolled out. Boddy could see no weapons about him.
The man wasn’t tall—‘least not as tall as he seemed when mounted. He was probably no taller than Boddy. He was heftier though. Not muscle, it looked more like fat. Too much gorging on food. He swaggered his way down the gulley. Boddy followed three paces behind, to the side. Neither spoke.
~ ~ ~