The Debt

It has been a long time since I shared fiction on this page. I have been in a bit of a sword and sorcery mood of late. Something about the visceral fantasies of the pulp era — especially those of R E Howard — inspires me. It is a kind of fantasy that has waxed and waned in popularity, but with the current trend toward the grim and gritty in fantasy it seems to be having something of a resurgence. So, without further ado, I present my take on the genre: The Debt.

Zendja climbed the rugged mountain path. Her legs were strong but had been made for long strides across flat plains. Now they ached with each step. Her back ached, too, hunched as she was with the straps by which she dragged the litter pulled over her shoulders for leverage. She flexed her arms with each step, trying to get blood to flow into her cold hands.

“Damn Golgot,” she cursed the sorcerer’s name for the hundredth time that day and probably the thousandth since she began the climb. “I would kill you, if you weren’t already dead.”

She raised her face and immediately regretted it. The mountain path climbed ever upward ahead of her, so steep and so long she could not see the end of it. She swore again and then looked at her feet and willed them to go one in front of the other. By the time her will was no longer sufficient, the sun had dipped below the mountain.

Zendja let loose the straps and flopped onto the ground. The rapidly cooling air dried the sheen of sweat she wore and sent shivers through her exhausted limbs. She wondered: if she were to close her eyes and fall asleep right then and there, would she die of exposure first or would the wooly mountain men said to serve the sorcerers kill her? Fueled by anger more than self preservation, she forced herself to her feet and went to the litter.

She stood beside the body of Golgot. He was wrapped mummy like in a winding length of oiled burlap, tied around him with criss crossing twine. The twine was in turn wrapped with a long, thin silver chain. She gave the dead man a sneer and a kick. Then, she knelt down and rummaged through her pack, which also lay on the litter along with parcels of food, two leather canteens, some firewood from farther down the mountain and her bow and quiver of iron tipped arrows. She wore her little hatchet on her belt, just in case.

She drew her big gray coarse poncho out of the pack first and pulled it over her head. She did not know if the sorcerers that lived on the mountain really kept wooly men, but she did know that soon the cold would be enough to kill her on its own. Once that was done, she opened a parcel and tore off a hunk of dried venison to chew while she prepared a fire. The wood would not last much longer and up here there was only scrub grass and stunted, twisted bushes covered in thorns that would not catch alight.

Would wooly men be afraid of fire, or drawn to it, she wondered.

Wrapped in her poncho with a belly full of meat and a few swallows of the fiery liquor she had lifted from Golgot before wrapping his corpse, Zendja pulled her knees tight up into her chest and buried her head in her arms. The ache in her body was dissipating with occasional tired spasms and her head was cloudy with approaching sleep when she heard the voice from across the fire.

“Zendja,” mumbled Golgot through his shroud. “Wake up, Zendja.”

No, thought Zendja. You are dead and I do not have to put up with your incessant, infuriating, imperious prattle any longer.

“Zendja!” barked the dead sorcerer.

Her head snapped up reflexively. “Damn, you Golgot!” She sneered and spat into the fire. “I am trying to sleep.”

A rasping laugh came from the gloom. “Sleep when you’re dead.”

“Why don’t you?” she muttered back but sat up unhappily anyway. The fire had burned very low and only the pale red light of the embers illuminated the wrapped body. When the wind crossed the embers it made them glow briefly and in that undulating gloom Zendja imagined the sorcerer’s body moving beneath its shroud. Or, she hoped she imagined it.

“How many steps today, Zendja?” asked the rasping voice of Golgot. “Ten thousand? A hundred thousand?”

“Shut up,” Zendja hissed. There was no conviction in it, though. She had had this argument every day since they had passed through the twin obelisks that marked the beginning of the trail to the temple at the mountain peak. Every night since then the body stirred and dead Golgot woke to torment her. Only Golgot or the gods knew why. She was keeping her promise to return him to his temple. What more did he want?

“–when the sleep never ends, then you will know,” the corpse was saying. She had not realized he was still talking, which was much the way it had been when he was alive. “Walk away. Return home. Then you will know.”

Zendja’s head snapped up. “What did you say?” she asked.

A croaking laugh came from the body. “Only that you can break your oath, Zendja. You never believed in curses, only in blade and bow. Test it and see if I always was a liar, as you said so many times.”

She frowned and spat again into the dying fire. Golgot was right about that. She had never really believed in his magical powers. When he threw flame from his lips or sent men to hell clutching their throats, she guessed it all tricks. She had seen many oils and powders and other alchemical tricks in her day and Galgot did nothing a deft charlatan could not have accomplished. Or, at least, nothing she could not convince herself had not been managed through trickery. For all his talk of consorting with demons to learn secrets forbidden to mortal men, Golgot had showed precious little power in their time together. Even so…

“I keep my oaths,” she said flatly. “No one can say Zendja the Hawk is not faithful to her promise or her price.”

“True enough,” whispered Galgot. The dead voice sounded weaker and farther away. Zendja glanced up to see the first cold light of dawn. “But who would know, here? If Zendja the Hawk left me for the wooly men, would word ever spread to the ports of Chano or the war camps of the Khanjit? What is the weight of an oath to a dead man?”

The corpse was silent. Zendja was not sure whether those last were Golgot’s words or her own thoughts. She was still exhausted, as if she had not slept at all — had she? — but dawn had come. With a heavy sigh she stretched her aching limbs and prepared to climb again.

***

Zendja met Golgot in a village called Fulg on the edge of the cairn covered hills of Ashon. She was travelling aimlessly after too many months in the western wars working for whatever side would pay her. Nearly all that pay was gone and she would soon have to return to mercenary work or turn to thievery again in order to survive. Golgot appeared just then, tall and gaunt and mysterious and, to all appearances, rich. “I need a guide into the hills,” he had said. “I seek to plunder the cairns of ancient kings.” She had disliked him from the first, but his money had her attention, so she joined him on his quest.

The memory of the things they saw in the those cairns still haunted her. She had killed plenty of men in her day, but at least they had had the grace to stay dead. The kings of Old Ashon, however, were not so well mannered. Nonetheless, they survived and came out of Ashon laden with torques and crowns and other treasures, and Galgot with the teeth of the king he had sought. However strange, pompous and fickle the sorcerer seemed, he promised Zendja two things she craved: an abundance of treasure and a dearth of boredom. So she agreed to accompany him when he decided to go east to the necropolis of Ku.

“There is one condition of your continued employment,” Golgot had said one day. “If I am to perish on our journeys and you live, you must return me to the mountain sanctum that made me.” She had shrugged assent, sure that when the time came she would leave his moldering bones wherever they fell. “This is no lightly made promise,” he had said suddenly and harshly, staring into her with his cold, white yes. “This is an oath you must make, on pain of a curse on your very soul!”

Zendja had again shrugged and assented. She had not believed in curses any more than she believed in keeping her word to dead men. But as the years passed and they travelled from one strange land to the next, she saw things that made her wonder. And when Golgot finally fell to the sting of the ghost asp while they hunted for the vaults of Dum-gha in the jungles of Pek, she was uncertain enough to wrap his corpse as he had instructed and carry it back to the mountain.

“Do not let the moon turn thrice, Zendja,” the sorcerer had said. “If it does then we are both damned.”

***

The pile of shit in front of Zendja worried her. It did not look like the dropping of any animal she could think might live on the rugged mountain slope. It look like a man’s shit, except that of a very large man. A wooly man? She crouched and examined it. It was cold and dry. Old, then. Even so, she scanned the mountain for any signs of movement. She saw none but the short thorny scrub waving in the incessant breeze.

The mountain trail seemed endless. She trudged up the steep slope every day, dragging the wrapped corpse behind her. Every night, she listened to the dead man taunt her and press her to leave him on the mountainside, to abandon her oath. She could not say for certain whether it was real and half believed his gabbling to be just a cruel trick played by her own mind. Golgot did not deserve the effort of pulling him up the mountain. Zendja did not think her soul would be damned with his if his body did not make it back to the temple of sorcerers. But despite all his incessant squawking and the unending toil, she kept at it. No one would say Zendja the Hawk did not fulfill her promise, least of all the shade of a fraud.

That pile of dried, frozen shit was the last straw, though. She released the straps suddenly and let the litter slide a dozen paces back down the trail before wedging itself against a rock. She poked at the pile and then suddenly screamed in rage and kicked it. Zendja stalked down to the litter and kicked Golgot’s corpse over and over. It was like kicking a bag of dried branches. She heard the crack of his bones and when she had exhausted her rage the mummy was bent oddly in the middle.

“You want me to leave you here?” she spat between deep gulps of the thin air. Her head was swimming and she could not seem to catch her breath, even after so little exertion. “I should, you lying devil. I should…” Her eyes landed on the thin silver chain she had so carefully wound in the precise manner Golgot had instructed. “I should take some payment! Haven’t I labored long already?” A snarl twisted her face and she descended on the broken body. “Yes. This will do for my troubles,” she said and began to unwind the silver chain.

The fact that she was kneeling beside the litter saved her life. Her bow was only inches from her hands as she furiously worked the chain from the twine. She had kept the bow strung, too, just in case. So when she heard the sound of cloven hooves pounding against loose stone she did not hesitate. As if of its own accord the bow lept into her hands with an arrow knocked and she spun. By the time she had turned and loosed the arrow the thing was on her. Its curled ram horns struck her in the shoulder just as the bow string sang. She want flying back and away from the litter, pain radiating from the dislocated joint, even as the monstrous goat-man tripped over Golgot’s body and landed heavily in the gravel, face down.

Zendja tried to raise the bow, despite not having another arrow in hand, but her arm would not budge. She howled in rage and pain and tore at the small hatchet to free it from her belt. Her cry was met by one from the wooly man. It pushed itself up and bleated a grotesque sound that could almost have been a word. It touched its neck where Zendja’s arrow was sunk to the fletching. It bleated again, it’s eyes wide with wrath, and lowered its head. It leaped forward at her in bloodlust. Too exhausted, too out of breath, in much too pain to dodge aside, Zendja tucked and rolled forward at the beast man. Her body slammed into its powerful legs and she felt ribs crack even as her injured shoulder seemed to catch fire anew,. But the move sent the wooly man sprawling and as he fell Zendja swept the hatchet out in a wide arc with all her might.

The wooly man bleated again but it was a gurgling, pained sound. It struggled against its own weight but too much blood had already poured out from the wound Zendja’s hatchet had torn across its belly. It writhed in its own spilled entrails for a moment before going still.

For her part Zendja lay on her back in agony. She gritted her teeth and tried to move. All she could manage was an tortured scream that echoed across the mountain.

***

“Wake up, Zendja.”

Her eyes snapped open, taking in a view of the sky full of stars. It was night time. She had passed out and been unconscious for hours. She moved to sit up but her body pulsed with agony. She made a hissing, growling sound through clenched teeth. Rasping laughter crawled spider-like over her from where Golgot’s body lay. Zendja managed to turn her head enough to see it there, a shadowy mass against the mountainside.

“What is so damned funny?” she seethed.

The laughter stopped and in the darkness the black mass that was Golgot shook suddenly. Terror clenched Zendja’s guts. She could see the silver chain dangling in the moonlight, no longer wrapped so tightly or precisely around the shroud. “Golgot,” she managed to push up her dry throat and out her trembling lips.

“No,” said the shadow. The body shook and flopped and rolled off the litter. Then, with a tearing sound, a pale arm pushed through the burlap and clawed at the night air. “No,” said the voice again, “not Golgot.”

Senseless fear took hold of Zendja. She scrambled as well as she could away from the burlap horror. Her boots scraped the loose stone and her ribs shifted and stabbed her middle and her shoulder caught fire and she moved perhaps an inch or two. Meanwhile the shroud flopped and shook and then another arm tore free. Through the haze of her terror she recognized that the arms did not match. The first to emerge was thin and pale while the next was dusky and musclebound. When the third arm emerged she screamed. This one was covered in black fur and bore a clawed, four fingered hand.

“We are not Golgot,” said not one voice but many from within the shroud. “Golgot treated with us, then cheated us and bound us.” The arms reached out and found purchase in the rocks. They dragged the corpse up the slope toward Zendja. “We will have our revenge on Golgot. And upon you, Zendja the Hawk.”

“No,” she gasped and tried once again to scramble back. The pain and stiffness from lying on the mountain made her weak. She could not escape the approaching monstrosity, especially as another arm slithered out of the shroud, this one boneless and slimy. “I did nothing to you!” she pleaded.

“You did!” cried the voices. The crawling shroud was close now. “You sought to cheat us of our vengeance. You sought to deliver this liar’s body to the safety of his temple and save his soul. No, Zendja the Hawk, his soul is ours and now so is yours!”

The furred claw grabbed her ankle and Zendja kicked and cried but it was no use. The weird tentacle wrapped around her other leg while the dusky arm reach up and dragged her closer. She screamed and the pale hand clapped over her mouth. Beneath the burlap something moved, as if it was a bag full of rats. “Finish what you started,” said the voices. “Free us.”

Her eyes went to the dangling silver chain. One tug and it would come undone. “Free us and we will only kill you.” She imaged the shroud breaking open and a legion of monsters emerging. “Free us and your gods can keep your soul.” The hand of her uninjured arm reached for the silver chain. It would be easy, and then the nightmare would be over. Her fingers found the chain and her fist closed and then the chain was out of her grip and the bag of rats was off her.

Zendja could not see but she could hear: the howls of rage from within the shroud, the crunching of hooves against stone, bleats of rage and pain, demonic curses and a sound like wind rushing through the trees just before the sky opens in a torrent. Then there was only silence, save for the sound of Zendja’s heart pounding in her ears. She tried to calm it but she could not. Her breath came in huge gulps of the cold mountain air but it was never enough. Her vision contracted and everything became shadows except for the stars wheeling overheard until they became a blur of starry lines.

***

Morning sun on her cheek woke Zendja. When she opened her eyes she found she was braced against a low wall out of the wind. Her arm was in a sling and bandages wrapped her torso. A fire was down to embres in front of her and a pot containing some sort of stew or soup hung over it. Across from her a wooly man sat staring at her.

“Good,” said the wooly man in a voice that sounded like something between a growl and a bleat. He stood suddenly and walked away, heading up the mountain path without another word.

“Wait,” she called out, but the wooly man did not stop or say anything else. She tried to pick herself up and follow but her body was too tired and sore.

She looked around. Her puck was nearby, looking as though it were stuffed full, as well as her bow and quiver. Of Golgot’s corpse there was no sign. After a few minutes, having no other options she tested the soup. It was good and restored warmth to her and eased her pain.

She stayed at the little camp for two days. She saw wooly men come and go once but they would not speak to her. On the third day she felt well enough to travel. She gathered up the pack, with was full of provisions, and her bow and quiver and drank the last of the soup.

Up the trail, perhaps another day’s climb, she could just make out a structure built into the bones of the mountain. Her keen eyes caught movement on its walls and before its gates, both the big forms of wooly men and the slighter forms of what she presumed were sorcerers like Golgot.

Zendja gave the temple a rude salute and started back down the mountain, vowing never to have dealings with sorcerers again.

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