Tuesday Tales: Shadow of the Beast Part 3

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I’m now sharing some short stories on Tuesdays. Today, the story continues with part 3; you can click on the following links to find part 1 and part 2 . This is the beginning of the story and I’ll share the next two parts over the next couple of weeks. This material is copyrighted so all rights are mine and this cannot be reproduced or used without permission (reblogs are welcome since it only uses a part of the content but if you want to reproduce the entire post you need to contact me for permission). With that bit of information, enjoy the story! Please forgive any errors…

Shadow of the Beast, Part 3

By P. H. Solomon

The sergeant called his men to order. When the soldiers exited, they grumbled while Sa-hatap sat astride his mount, hood pulled against rising wind. The clamorous soldiers’ voices rose in rebellion. He kicked his horse into a walk. They could follow or not. The weird howling echoed down the valley.

Silence descended among the milling soldiers.

“Mount up! Now! Or our commanders will know of your disobedience.”

Sa-hatap glanced over his shoulder and found the sergeant with one hand on his sword and the other on the bag containing the seeing-orb.  They climbed into their saddles without further complaint.

They rode through deeper snow covering the road, following poles placed as markers. The horses labored and snorted for more than an hour. The sun dipped toward the ridgeline.

Sa-hatap patted the flute shoved in a pocket. Now for the song that needed playing. A dirge for him fit him best. He exhaled a cloudy sigh. Either way he’d die.

Slogging out of a stand of blanketed firs, they gazed down a slope where the valley dipped into a natural bowl speckled with stands of trees. The horses whickered at the scent of a dead mountain goat scattered in red snow ahead.

They should stop now.

Sa-hatap grasped the sword-hilt. “Wait here. I will go on alone.”

The sergeant grimaced but answered with a curt nod.

Sa-hatap kicked his mount. None of them wanted to go on. No choices for him though. Better to get this over now rather than freeze. The horse skirted the carcass while the soldiers retreated into the trees for cover.

You have choices. Do what they want or what I want.

“Little choice, but I’ll play the songs.”

Those men will thank you.

“Small comfort when I’m dead.”

Silence suffused Sa-hatap in the cold stillness. The horse snorted and whickered long after passing the carcass. Nothing moved in the valley of snow and trees. He reined the horse toward an outcrop of rock rising out of the valley and surrounded by pine and fir. Sa-hatap hobbled his horse close against the cliff and fed the gelding from a bag of oats. He lit a fire and gathered dead-wood.

The red sun slipped below western peaks and bathed the valley in red-gold light. Sa-hatap ate and waited. He was a worm on a hook. He’d never fish again without remembering this predicament. Hunger melted from his belly. He tilted his head and watched the sky with a sigh.

When the howl echoed among the ridges the horse whickered. Sa-hatap drew his sword, laid the weapon by his side and knelt to his prayer.

The wind sighed.

His heart thudded in his throat. His mouth was as dry as a desert.

This venture was hopeless when he accepted it. He rubbed his thighs. He may as well be naked in the snow. He clasped his hands, adjusted his sword’s position and clasped them again.

The wind moaned through the branches overhead.

The akor-sunash howled again.

Sa-hatap swallowed but there was no moisture in his mouth. He closed his eyes and performed a breathing exercise. Minutes of stillness followed. He exhaled and words rolled from his stillness. “Why bring me here to die?”

Watch and wait, play a song.

Sa-hatap warmed food with tea and waited as he took his meal. The world faded into darkness held at bay by his flitting fire. He ate and then blew tuneless chords, running his stiff fingers over the holes. His practice formed into the dirge played for Ashlultum’s father, a mournful song she oft requested on dull days.

A snarl echoed closer, followed moments later by a mournful howl.

The horse squealed and yanked against the rope.

Sa-hatap ignored the animal. He shifted the tune to a celebration song, again played on happier occasions at the empress’s court. Sa-hatap swayed along with his music, lost in its cheer as mist rose among the leafless thickets and tree-trunks.

The creature’s next howl sounded different, less like a tortured beast. More–human.

His sword flashed reflections of firelight, where it lay by his legs. Play on.

Sa-hatap shut his eyes as the music floated him in its current like the reflective water of Lake Winsu when morning mist swirled over its stillness.

Through the trees, the heavy tread of a large beast drew him back to awareness.

The horse shied and stamped in the snow.

A branch snapped. The akor-sunash snorted louder than his horse.

Sa-hatap blew the tune into the frigid dark. He clung to his disciplined calm and opened his eyes.

A shadow, silhouetted against the light of the rising moon, hesitated at the edge of the trees. The akor-sunash swayed and capered. Sa-hatap frowned. What was the accursed monarch doing?

Dancing. Ashlultum danced. He arched an eyebrow but concentrated on his fingering.

The misshapen figure stumbled closer on clawed toes. Snow crunched with each step.

Sa-hatap shifted to a ballad sung by his own people.

The akor-sunash slouched into the firelight. It huffed mist and squatted. The creature loomed as a consuming shadow of his light. Twisted, blood-stained fingers twitched.

Sa-hatap nodded but continued. Those horns shrank, the fur thinned. He breathed his meditative peace into the melody and ignored his cold-aching fingers. Stopping now was death. He and the akor-sunash swayed with the tune.

The moon peered into the valley. Sa-hatap drew to a close and held stiff fingers to the fire. If only he could do what was needed next.

Part-akor-sunash and woman watched him, unmoving. “Why are you here?”  Snarls lashed the night air.

“I’ve brought a gift.” Sa-hatap offered the flute.

“I need–blood and meat. You’ll do.” The creature’s hungry tongue lolled and its blood-shot gaze flicked to the horse. “Four-legs, even better.”

“You need this more than my blood. Here, it won’t hurt. The music has been good for you.” He stretched over the fire but never averted his gaze.

“I will kill you.”

“You can try.”

Yellow eyes narrowed as lips spread, baring fangs. Sa-hatap offered the flute unflinching, his gaze fixed on the hairy face.

“I’ve killed others.”

“So have I. Take this instead, trust me.”

The akor-sunash reached for the instrument. The paw drew back. Its head and horns wagged. “No! I mean please, help me–” The yellow eyes rolled and came back hazel–eyes Sa-hatap recognized.

He extended the flute further over the crackling flames. “Take this, it will help.”

The akor-sunash rose and paced, growling. It stopped, chested heaving. “Play.” The whispered tone sounded far more familiar than moments earlier.

“You try.” Sa-hatap waved the flute.

Firelight glanced off the sword at the edge of his vision. Watch for your chance.

“Do you need help?”

“No!” The fangs flashed in the light and snapped. Then the monster whimpered. “Yes.”

“Trust me. Take this bit of help.”

The akor-sunash snarled and gnashed its teeth. The jaws ground and neck muscles clenched with the conflicting effort.

Distorted claws overlapped with human fingers, both trembling against the other, reached again for the flute. The hand–her hand–grasped the flute. Ashlultum separated from the beast and swooned naked into the snow.

The akor-sunash slouched. Its shriek boomed through the night. The monster staggered back into the edge of light.

Sa-hatap snatched his sword. He leapt the fire and stood over Ashlultum.

“Mine!” The akor-sunash gnashed its fangs. The demon charged Sa-hatap.

The Spirit-sword flashed pale in the moonlight. Stab the heart. A single blow.

He dodged flashing talons at his throat. Sa-hatap shuffled forward and thrust.

The akor-sunash leapt away from the blade. It lunged back at him.

Sa-hatap side-stepped and thrust. The blade flashed like lightning and pierced the creature’s heart.

The akor-sunash stood as if frozen from the swift attack. It growled pain and hatred.  Claws waved with feeble effort as the beast stumbled. Enraged fire faded from the yellow eyes. The demon collapsed. A shadow rose from a final wheeze and dissipated on the night wind.

Sa-hatap nudged the desiccated husk steaming in the snow.

Ashlultum groaned.

He wrapped the empress in the rough blankets. She peered at Sa-hatap through blinking eyes. Her shivering hand clutched the flute.

“I’ve got you now.” He offered her water with a bow.

Ashlultum drank, gagged and drank more. “Last I remember drinking it was spell-checked wine.” She gazed into the cup and back at Sa-hatap. “Poison, I think. Nightmares started with pain, blood. My hands had claws.” She raised fingers to her face. “Just a dream.”

“Sleep now. It’s hours before sunrise. You’re safe.”

When dawn edged the eastern ridgeline, Ashlultum stirred. Sa-hatap turned from his vigil at the movement.

“I was poisoned, betrayed as you interpreted.”

Sa-hatap nodded. “You were trapped in a spell merging you with a demon.”

She shuddered. “Enusat did it. He gave me my cup with his spell against poison.”

“He did.”

Silence settled between them as Sa-hatap stirred the fire with a stick. The empress stared into the embers. “You risked your life for me.”

Sa-hatap shrugged. “I die here or when I return.”

“I see. They sent you then.”

“They needed the heir on the throne.”

The guardsmen thumped among the trees and dislodged snow from branches. The sergeant reached for the orb.  He motioned to the black smear in the snow where hollow horns lay. “It is done? The creature is dead?”

Ashlultum stood with her blanket clasped about her shoulders. “It is done and I am safe.”

The soldiers gasped and fumbled with their reins.

Sa-hatap stepped beside her. “Pay homage to your Empress.” He went to one knee.

The soldiers scrambled from their horses and prostrated themselves in the snow.

Ashlultum stepped bare-foot to the sergeant. “Are you yet my soldiers?”

“Yes, Empress. We are yours to command.”

“Good. Call your commander with the orb. Here, stand beside me to show my face.”

The sergeant brought the orb from his pouch and breathed on it. “Gorcin reporting.” Morning light flickered on the orb.

“You are late.” The gruff voice of a commander paused and then resumed. “Who is this?”

Ashlultum took the orb and held it close. “I am your Empress. Do you see me now?”

The officer stammered. “I do. I meant no insult. You’re, you’re–”

“Yes, alive and safe and myself again. Do you serve me yet?”

“I do.”

“You will arrest Enusat and hold him until I return.” She handed the seeing-orb back to Gorcin while the officer in the mirror begged pardon and swore fealty.

The empress raised her arm. “Arise as my honor-guard.” She motioned to Sa-hatap. “My new household governor–may he be rewarded with long life and his people with peace– commands according to my wishes.”

Sa-hatap swept the spirit-sword from its sheath. He laid it before the Empress of Seddessa. “I will serve you, empress.”

The morning sun gleamed upon the blade. Its brightness blinded them all for a moment. The beast’s shadow never lay across your path. May you reside in peace like the calm of your Lake Winsu beneath the smiling morning sun.

Not many days later, the Seddessan markets rang with announcement of Empress Ashlultum’s return from the jaws of seditious assassination. Instead of rumor, criers shouted the name of Sa-hatap to announce the new Court-governor. The bodies of the conspirators hung dead from the city gates, among them the former Court-governor, nameless like the street dust trod upon by market gossips.

End

Thanks for reading today. As usual, I look forward to your responses in the comments section to which I will respond as soon as I can. For more information about my writing, see the page about The Bow of Hart Saga or the Welcome page.

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