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I’m now sharing some short stories on Tuesdays. Today, I continue with a story I may well include in a future anthology. This is part 2 of the story and I’ll share the next part next weeks. To read part 1, click here. 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 2
By P. H. Solomon
Sa-hatap waited while scouts confirmed where the search should go. All the while, the house stood silent as a guarded tomb and the lake of his meditational focus churned. Trackers stalked the akor-sunash for days into the Eshti Mountains. There, early snow settled and the beast stalked the forests and threatened villages.
The Court Governor ordered preparations. Enusat equipped Sa-hatap and his troop of guards with all his needs including his religious diet and horses. But Sergeant Gorcin carried a seeing-orb, allowing his superiors oversight of the mission.
Furled grieving banners waited at the city gates when Sa-hatap’s guards led him out of the capital. After five days, they traded horses for mountain ponies and climbed into the Eshti Mountains were snow shrouded on the ground and wolves howled under the waxing moon.
On the sixth day into the mountains they drew near the villages where reports of suffering from the monster’s ravages had arrived. Sa-hatap sat in his saddle focused in his prayers while the wind tore at his cloak and his meditations sloshed.
I sent Enusat to you. I sent you here.
Sa-hatap reined his horse to a skidding halt.
“You did what?” Sa-hatap’s words hung in the air with his misty breath.
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The guards stopped, quizzical expressions etched on their faces. Gorcin twitched his hand at the seeing-orb. Horses snorted at the unexpected pause and stamped hooves on the snowy road.
The guards cocked their heads.
Why did you first refuse?
Sa-hatap flinched and he rubbed his hot cheeks. He hunched in his saddle and ground his teeth. Seddessans hated him. Why help them at all? But revenge wasn’t his way.
The guards eyed Sa-hatap.
He ignored them. “So I must do their foul work, is it?”
Not at all
“Come along.” The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “Or must I lead your horse with you tied over the saddle? We must not delay.”
“What would you have me do?” Sa-hatap scowled and turned his hooded head from side to side. He rode to his death–regardless of the outcome.
“Come now.” The soldier hefted the seeing-orb. “We’ll send word to begin the killing otherwise.” Menace tinged the sergeant’s tone. A slow smile spread on his face as he urged his horse toward Sa-hatap.
Play a celebration song for the empress instead of a dirge.
Sa-hatap sat straight. They all deserved a dirge. But not his people. “Very well.” Sa-hatap kicked his horse into motion. Tension from the soldiers cracked like ice under the horses hooves. Sa-hatap turned in his saddle. “Are you coming or not?”
The soldiers eyed each other with unspoken questions behind their eyes. They shrugged their indifference to his oddities and flashed hand signals across their foreheads as wards against evil spirits.
A howl bounced around the wooded ridges.
“That’s no wolf.” The sergeant slouched as he rode alongside Sa-hatap.
“It’s what we came for.” Sa-hatap focused on the road ahead and practiced his meditations but Lake Winsu’s surface boiled with his anger.
The sergeant cast his gaze around the surrounding heights and muttered prayers to his god.
“If you are afraid then go home. But I ride toward the fear.” Sa-hatap kicked his horse into a faster gait. “Come along or we’ll miss the fun.”
Grumbling soldiers urged their mounts after Sa-hatap. He faced forward and treated the men like his personal command. A song needed playing and he eschewed any delay. Sa-hatap led his guards through several mountain villages amid echoed howls in the heights.
The sergeant caught Sa-hatap when they passed through the second village of low houses where smoked curled from chimneys. “We’ll never catch the monster chasing echoes.”
“It must come to me.” The mage grasped his sword-hilt.
The sergeant gaped at Sa-hatap. “What? You plan to bring it down on us?”
“Me. Just me.” He raised his head and the afternoon sunlight flashed against white peaks.
Sa-hatap caught the sergeant’s hopeful expression. He urged his horse into a trot. “Stay if you want. This is not the place.”
The sergeant rode alongside moments later. “I cannot let you ride off. You’ll just ride on and we’ll be punished with your people.”
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Sa-hatap hid a sly smile. He reined his horse to a sharp halt. He sat staring ahead at the snow-draped evergreens looming over the road. His horse snorted and stamped. His gruff tone escaped in a white cloud but he did not turn his head to the soldier. “I have given my word to see this done, magic or not, sergeant.” He turned his head. “But I must do this alone.”
“Tell me when. How can we make sure it is done?”
Sa-hatap heard distant desperation in the soldier’s question. “I will know when to stop and why. Then I must go on, but I will tell you where to watch. I will be in sight if you wish to brave the cold night–and the danger.” He urged his horse into another trot.
Behind him the sergeant swore but followed.
The next village lay blanketed by snow so thick only curling smoke from chimneys identified it. Sa-hatap halted.
“Here?” The sergeant wiped his mouth at the sight of the tavern door.
“Ale beckons all soldiers, no?” Sa-hatap avoided strong drink. But he didn’t blame the men’s desire after the cold day’s ride.
The wisp of a sound tickled his hearing.
He shushed the guards. Gusting winds fell on their ears but no other sound. The horses neighed and puffed mist. The guards grumbled and eyed the tavern door.
“What is it?” The sergeant’s cleared his throat and scanned snow shrouded buildings. “I’ve not heard the akor-sunash this last hour or more.”
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Sa-hatap cocked his head. A musical tendril teased his ears amid the soldier’s mutters, the horses champing and the staccato whistles of wind through the buildings. “We rest here.”
The sergeant exhaled and relaxed.
“For a while. Get yourselves and the horses warm.” He nodded at the tavern with his last words. “I’ve someone to speak with.”
The sergeant opened his mouth but the words died on his lips at Sa-hatap’s stare. The soldier patted the satchel containing the orb. “Dismount.” The sergeant grinned as he slung the bag over his shoulder. “Don’t make me come looking for you, mage.”
Sa-hatap pushed through snow among the maze of buildings, fences and out-buildings. Strands of flute music served as his guide, the song louder with each turn. He arrived at a humble cote with a sheep pen attached, the song muffled behind the rough door.
Sa-hatap knocked and arched an eyebrow. Thickly crafted door. Moments of silence bespoke caution. The door’s bar scraped and a man of indiscriminate age peered out, his features etched by the wind and covered with a wiry beard. Sheep bleated in the dimness beyond the herder who clutched his fur-lined cloak over his wool tunic.
“Excuse me, sir, but your music drew me.” Sa-hatap pushed his hood back. Heat from inside brushed his face.
“They play music at the tavern.” The shepherd eased the door closed.
“Wait.” Sa-hatap stuck his foot against the rough wood.
Sinewy hands tighten around a solid shepherd’s crook with understated strength. “The creature smells sheep for a ways on these winds.”
Sa-hatap embraced his prayerful peace like placid water that lay beneath a subset. He cocked his head. Odd that it came with visit with a stranger “I mean no harm but humbly beg your assistance in my journey. Has the akor-sunash troubled your herd?”
“None of my flock’s safe. And they’re not for sale.” He squinted and pushed against Sa-hatap’s hold.
“It’s not meat I need, but the use of your flute.”
The shepherd glanced over his shoulder and pulled the door wider as he did. Sa-hatap caught sight of the plain recorder lying atop a low stool. The shepherd turned back. “You play?”
“I’ve been known to whistle a tune in better times.”
The shepherd chuckled with a wry wink. “Most times are worth a ditty whether dirge or feast day-song.”
Sa-hatap’s eyebrow twitched. Unexpected words mirrored from the Spirit-sword. He was led though he seemingly wandered. The shepherd beckoned and he entered.
The bearded man held out the flute. “Give me a tune, traveler.”
Sa-hatap took the instrument and ran his fingers through trilling notes, then eased into a song of celebration among his people. His host tapped his foot in time with the tune. Sa-hatap ceased and the shepherd grinned, showing missing teeth.
“What ya need this for?” The shepherd tapped the flute with a gnarled finger.
“I’ve a task that need’s music.”
“A funeral by your long face.”
“Perhaps, but not one of my choosing.”
“Take it then. People need a proper end. I’ll give it for a decent cause.” The old man waved his hands as he spoke.
“I beg the use for a night. Won’t your flock miss it?”
The shepherd grinned. “Ah, they know my voice and like it just as well. At least they will until I make another.”
“Let me pay a price.” Sa-hatap shook his purse.
The other man cocked his head and squinted. “Name it yourself. You’re a fair man, I gather.”
Sa-hatap laughed. “A copper and a blessing.”
“Done–the empress’s money buys plenty but a blessing is good for the flock.”
Sa-hatap finished his business and found the guards in the tavern, singing and sloshing their swill. Local patrons sat silent at their cups. The guards escaped their fear of the cold night to come. He shivered. Strong drink couldn’t save them if he failed. Sa-hatap tapped the sergeant on the shoulder. “We leave now. My business is done.”
The sergeant’s faced sobered. “Now?”
“Yes, it must be done tonight.”
The sergeant’s eyes narrowed. “My men are half-drunk. Is this a trick?”
“I could have left. You let your men celebrate, not me. I have what I need and there’s no time for delay.” Sa-hatap turned for the door.
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.