And the 4th chapter. I may post a couple of more, but once again I will probably take them off once I publish the novel. We’ll see. Right now I’m not quite sure how long it will take before I can publish it, although the main thing missing now is just the cover, I think everything else is starting to be in fairly good shape.
Oh yes, I’m still thinking I’ll use Fourth Sword as the name.
Laura froze. She stared at the chained boy, waiting for him to yell and alert everybody to her presence. But he didn’t. He just stared back at her for a second or two, swallowed and shook his head, then stole a quick look down the hall, looked back at her and made a few frantic gestures with his hands, like he was trying to push her away.
No mistaking what that meant, not really.
Laura withdrew back, then put her back against the wall and leaned on it, panting.
He’s telling me to leave… instead of asking me for help he’s telling me to leave.
That kid was one of the prisoners, the last in a chained line of sacrificial victims. Somebody in a very bad situation. She was a total stranger to him. Yet he seemed to worry about her safety.
She couldn’t just leave him there. She couldn’t. Maybe if it had been a grown man… but not a kid.
Late teens, maybe, oh god, he’s only a boy.
But what could she do?
Think, girl, think!
Oh, Conan… I wish you were real. And here.
There had to be something
Okay, those collars the prisoners were wearing – she’d have to take another look. Maybe if the system was what she had thought it was…
She looked into the hall again. The boy looked back at her, grimaced and waved his hands at her again. Laura attempted a smile, gave it up and looked at his collar, then pulled back to the other side of the doorway and sighed in relief.
This was going to be easy. For her anyway. The collars weren’t solid, consisting of two halves with holes on the ends, and joined together on both sides by a circular piece of metal . On one side the joining piece was bigger and the chain had been threaded through it. Then the chain went through a ring bolted to the wall, and then to the next prisoner’s collar.
All she had to do was to free the end from her side of the wall. If the prisoners would be able to get rid of the chain, well, they’d still have the collars but they would be otherwise free.
She didn’t know how much that would help. And probably only a few would be able to thread the chain through all those rings before the bad guys would notice. But it might still give the boy and maybe at least a few of his companions some sort of a chance.
That might also lead to the bad guys noticing her.
Or it might help me. Confusion could be good for me too.
She stuffed the big dagger she had been gripping in her hand the whole time back into her bag, turned to the pin holding the chain and withdrew it, then, taking the end of the chain out with her other hand, put the pin back.
Then she looked at the weapons on the wall in front of her and took down one of the swords before going back to the doorway. And smiled grimly.
She supposed that the boy and the few others at the end of the line would most probably just try to sneak away. But if they didn’t, if they chose to fight – then this would be one, rather final way to find out whether the people in the big hall were playing some sort of a game. If the prisoners attacked the priests and the worshippers with these weapons, made of steel, very real and more than sharp enough, they wouldn’t be playacting.
Not that she really believed in that alternative anymore. The screams she had been hearing were too real. Besides, mixed in the smells of smoke and incense was that stink of burning flesh, and she had seen the priests throwing something into the big fire in the center of their stage. Something taken from the body of a man.
Laura looked again into the hall. The kid was still looking towards the doorway, as were two of the men behind him now, having felt the chain slacken. She offered the boy first the end of the chain, then the sword. He looked at her face, then down to the sword and the chain for the time of a heartbeat, drew in a deep breath, nodded and took them. He forwarded the sword to the next man in line and then, while Laura still looked, slid the chain, in slow motion, through the ring on the wall on her side, then through the ring on his collar.
None in the crowd of gray-clad worshippers seemed to have so far noticed what was going on. Their chanting was loud enough to hide the sounds, their attention was keen on what was happening on the stage, and the boy and several of the men ahead of him were behind their backs anyway. The – priests or whatever – on the stage hadn’t raised any alarm yet either. Laura prayed it would stay that way as long as possible.
As the boy turned to take the chain trough the ring between him and the burly giant next to him Laura went back for more weapons. She wasn’t quite sure why, she had not really planned to do more than what she had already done.
But she did it anyway. Who knew, maybe all those ‘you’re the hero’ thoughts during the last couple of hours – or however long it had been – were taking effect.
She nearly dropped the sword she took down next for her hands had started to shake, but got hold of herself and next took something that looked a bit like a scythe, only with the blade not at a 90 degree angle from the handle, but straight, into her other hand and took them back to the doorway. The boy was a bit closer to her this time, already reaching his hand into the weapons room to get what she had brought him.
Laura swallowed. Maybe the prisoners were going to fight.
She thought it might be a good time for her to start sneaking away. Yet again she surprised herself by going instead to get more weapons for the prisoners.
Maybe it was only because she really had no idea what else to do. Getting out of there would have been a better idea, if she had had any idea about which way to go to accomplish that. But she didn’t. Knowing nothing she was as liable to run straight into the hands of the bad guys as away from them.
A rather large part of one of the walls was empty before the alarm came. Laura rushed to the doorway holding a halberd, well, at least she thought the thing was called that, and a sword and was nearly run over by three of the prisoners, two of whom stopped and took the weapons from her while the third went to the wall and took down a two-bladed battle ax which would have made Conan proud. She jumped out of his way, then stood against the wall as several more of his fellows came in for weapons.
There were sounds of fighting close to the doorway, but after a while it sounded as if the fray was moving more towards the middle of the hall.
Now was definitely the time to start making herself a priority again.
There were now no more prisoners coming for weapons. Either they all had one or they were cut off.
Laura realized she was starting to panic. She didn’t want to go into that hall but understood suddenly that neither did she want to be left behind if those men were successful in fighting their way to freedom. She didn’t like the thought of being left here alone at all. She didn’t think the robed characters would be friendly towards her if they found her and figured she had had something to do with what had happened.
Probably they wouldn’t be nice to her even if they didn’t find that out. Somehow they hadn’t given the impression of being that type of people.
So she wanted to hook up with those prisoners. So she’d had to find out what was going on in the great hall. Right now. This was likely to be the only chance she’d get, if she didn’t go with them now she would probably not find them again.
Laura took a deep breath, then once again looked into the hall and lost her last hope that it might be some sort of an act right then and there.
Those men were killing each other for real.
The prisoners were doing well, but they were moving away from her. Their goal seemed to be two big open doors she had not noticed before, on account that they were on that side of the hall where the opening from where she had first looked down here was, right above the doors.
There didn’t seem to be many of the prisoners near her anymore.
Laura felt her panic raising again. No way was she going to be left here on her own!
What she did next probably wasn’t smart and Laura knew it, but she was fast getting past the point of being able to act smart. She wasn’t able to think clearly at all, even near clearly, anymore. Things had started to move too fast. It was fear which drove her into the hall, running towards the main group of the prisoners and trying her best to avoid the fighting going on all around her. She managed to get almost to the middle of the hall before she found her way towards the doors cut off by a group of three of the prisoners fighting five of the gray-robes and stopped, undecided which way to go as every direction seemed to be full of men swinging weapons, making her feel like she was that proverbial deer caught by the headlights of a truck on a highway.
That was when the smells of the fight finally got to her. Freshly spilled blood, shit and piss. She had seen too many war and horror movies for what she had been seeing and hearing to have affected her that much so far, even while she had known it was all real that knowledge had been sort of academic. She had been shocked but it had still felt like it was some distance away. Like none of what was happening was really relevant to her, however horrible in itself.
It was the stink which finally made it all hit home.
People were dying all around her. She herself might die here, any moment.
And Laura froze. Completely.
For what felt like an eternity she just stood there, staring around herself with wide eyes. Then her eyes met and locked with those of one of the gray-robes. He was standing over a dead prisoner, holding a sword, with blood on his robe and on his face. To her he looked absurdly young and soft. Had she seen him in almost any other circumstances she would have thought him harmless. Unless she had noticed those eyes. So cold, they would have made her fear him even without the bloody sword.
He stared at her for a moment, then his eyes widened, as if in recognition. He screamed and attacked, running towards Laura, but she still couldn’t move.
She felt weird.
She was about to die, killed by a man she had never seen before, a priest, or a worshipper, of some absurd devil-worshipping cult she knew nothing about, in a place she didn’t recognize, not even knowing how she had ended here. And for some reason she got the impression that the reason why he was going to kill her was something personal…
For an endless moment she stood there, staring at the man running at her and feeling like a prize idiot, for she still couldn’t move, not even while some part of her mind was yelling at her to do something, anything, but still she just stood there.
Then there was a yell from behind her, somebody yanked on her arm and sent her reeling against one of the pillars. She almost fell but regained her feet just in time to turn and see her rescuer lock swords with the young gray-robe.
What followed was probably a rather spectacular show of swordsmanship. Unfortunately Laura was not in a suitable state of mind to appreciate what she was seeing. She clung to the pillar, feeling numb and trying to get a grip of herself. And stared at the man who had just saved her life.
After a moment the ex-prisoner defending her was joined by two of his companions and the gray-robe took off. Her three defenders let him go.
Laura was still staring at the man who had saved her, just barely noticing the two others.
One of the newcomers was the young blond boy she had seen first, and Laura felt a faint relief to find him still alive. Her defender turned to exchange a few words with the boy, then nodded at him and turned towards her, gave her a glare and strode off. The young blond and his companion, an older man – on second thought, maybe just old – with silver white beard and hair the same color, walked the few steps to Laura. She tore her eyes away from the third man now striding into the melee around them and focused at the two now in front of her.
It dawned to her, the first clear thought after the bald guy had attacked her, that she hadn’t understood one word of what those men had been saying to each other, even if she had heard their short discussion clearly. What was worse, the language hadn’t sounded even remotely familiar.
The older man said something to her. She shook her head. When she didn’t react in any other way he simply took her by the hand and started to drag her towards those open doors.
Laura followed him, feeling numb.
Oh my god he was handsome…
Her savior. So maybe that bit shouldn’t have been her main priority right now. But ‘he’s handsome’ was a much more comfortable thing to concentrate on than anything else she could think about right now.
And he had saved her life.
She had just been saved by a tall, dark and very handsome warrior.
Laura nearly started to giggle, then bit her mouth a bit. If she went that way she knew she’d end up screaming at some point.
But it was kind of funny.
After a few moments of stumbling after the man dragging her she mentally shook herself. Right, thinking about how handsome that man had been, or how funny the whole thing had been, in its absurd way, might be a nice substitute for thinking about the reality around her, but she couldn’t afford to try and shut out what was happening. If she wanted to stay alive she’d have to stay focused on what was going on.
She was losing it. Fast.
Correction. She had already lost it, totally. Time to try and get a grip again. She had to.
Some hero… more like the damsel in distress. Except I’m not pretty enough for that role, really. So… comic relief?
In spite of her efforts the fight after that was still more or less lost to her. There was a confusion of moving shapes and noises. The old man dragged her through it, and she followed him as best as she could, trying to stay as close to him and the boy as possible, most of the time just barely able to keep on her feet. Couple of times the man and the boy exchanged sword strokes with some of the enemies. Both of them seemed to be skilled with their swords. As far as she could tell. They stayed alive, anyway, while at least a couple of their opponents didn’t.
At one point she felt a yank as somebody grabbed the strap of her bag and pulled her towards him, and when she turned to look she saw one of the gray-robes with a big knife. While she didn’t manage to do more than to scream it was enough. The whitebeard turned and hit the gray-robe with his fist, and the slash intended for her missed its target and just severed the strap of her bag. Then the boy stepped between her and the gray-robe, and the gray-robe stepped back to avoid the boy’s sword, having only the knife, and Laura was pulled away by the whitebeard while the boy followed.
As they were dragging her away she looked back and could see the man and her bag hanging from his hand. Laura was sure she’d miss that bag and all that had been inside it, sometime later. Now she was only glad she still had her life.
She continued her stumbling half-walk, half-run after her guardians.
All around her there were men lying on the floor, some dead, some wounded. Most of them wore gray robes. All the prisoners she saw who were down seemed to be dead. Laura thought that probably they had taken their wounded with them. That seemed like a comforting thought.
They came to the big doors. A few of the ex-prisoners were defending them against an equally small group of gray-robes.
Laura wondered where all the head-priests, the ones in black and red, had disappeared. Actually, most of those in gray robes were gone now too. There had been a long line of the chained prisoners when she had looked into the hall from the upper passageway, but there had been at least something like three to five times as many gray robed men in the worshipping crowd. There weren’t many to be seen now. There were also too few corpses, she felt sure, to account for all of them. The rest were just gone.
As they went through the doors she decided that whatever had happened, as long as the missing priests and their congregation stayed missing she wouldn’t worry about it.
Come to think of it, she didn’t remember seeing any of the gray-robes wearing anything like swords. Maybe most of them had been unarmed. That would explain why they had ran.
After the doors came a short corridor and her protectors started running. Fortunately they ran only the length of that passage, as Laura was feeling barely able to walk, much less run.
It was night outside. The other end opened into a moonlit yard, which seemed to her to be overflowing with men and horses.
To her dismay she was taken to one of the animals and thrown on its back. It shied. She grabbed for its neck and nearly fell off. Did they expect her to ride it?
The damn thing doesn’t even have a saddle!
“Hey!” she yelled to the whitebeard who had already turned his back, “Wait a minute! I can’t ride!”
While the men’s language was strange to her Laura still hoped that maybe at least some of them would understand English. Of course right then they wouldn’t need to understand her words to see what the problem was. As the old man turned the horse obliged and shied again as she frantically embraced its neck.
The whitebeard came back and took hold of the horse’s head, looked for a moment at the way she was hanging onto it, about half off by now actually, said something that sounded like a curse, pushed her back up and then turned his head and yelled something. After a few seconds a dark-haired youth came running to him. They exchanged a few words, the boy grinned at her and then vaulted effortlessly up behind her, took a strong grip of her waist and said something. Laura hoped it was something comforting, not something like ‘dolt’. She also hoped he would be able to keep her on the horse, as well as himself. The arrangement didn’t seem very practical to her, not on an unsaddled horse.
She was very glad the men hadn’t decided just to dump her.
Trying not to move more than her head she took a new look around her. A few of the horses did have saddles, most didn’t, many didn’t even have bridles on them, a fact which didn’t seem to bother the men already astride, or in the process of mounting, much. She yearned for one of the saddled animals, then realized that those few seemed to be reserved for the wounded. Why only a few saddles? Except that maybe these horses belonged to the congregation, and maybe the men she was with hadn’t found all the saddles.
Or worse, they didn’t think they had the time to saddle all of the horses.
Almost immediately after that they took off, all of them. The yard was enclosed by a low, broken wall, with forest behind it. There were no doors barring the gate and they rode through it, to a road going through the forest. The moonlight was bright, but the road was narrow and well shadowed by trees. Yet they rode fast, the horses kept to a full canter most of the time.
Laura guessed there might be pursuit coming after them.
She didn’t have much time to worry about that right then though, she had trouble enough as things were. The kid behind her was surprisingly strong, quite able to keep them both astride, but that didn’t stop her from holding on to the horse with a death grip. She strained her legs on its sides and her hands on its mane and felt every one of its strides on her behind. Soon her whole body was hurting, and her ass was killing her.
The ride went on, and on, and on. When Laura was able to think at all she just hoped that the whole thing was a nightmare, for nightmares do end. Their ride didn’t, not for what felt like an eternity. Sometimes they would leave the road and ride on some smaller paths through the forest, their speed reduced, and more and more reduced to a walk, then they’d come to the road, or a road, and canter for a while. Sometimes there was the splash of water from under them, once they crossed a stream big enough that she not only noticed it before they went wading but also got her feet wet as the water came up well to the belly of the horse.
When they finally stopped the moon was close to setting, having disappeared some time ago behind the trees. They had ridden the last moments in an almost total darkness, the horses slowly picking their way on the narrow track they had been on.
Laura dimly wondered what the time was. She had had a wristwatch, but had put it into the bag for work so now it was lost with all the other things which had been in her bag.
She wondered whether they were safe yet, or had stopped only because now it was too dark to ride on.
There were no preparations for a camp, they simply got off their horses and more or less lay down on the spot. Her co-rider helped her down, nearly falling under her as she dropped ungracefully from the horse’s back, then helped her to walk beneath a big tree, where they found a deep layer of dry leaves. Somebody threw her something, which, when she felt it in the dark, turned out to be either a thick cape or a blanket, smelling strongly of horse. She drew it tightly around herself, then lay down on the leaves. They seemed to be freshly fallen.
It’s spring. This should be spring.
She lay there, for a moment unable to sleep, looking unthinking towards the only direction where she could see something. The moon was there, behind trees, their boles showing dark against the light. After some moments she could see it moving into a gap between them.
Laura stared at the moon for several minutes before she realized that there was something very wrong. She had spent enough nights staring at the moon.
This one wasn’t the one she knew.
Very similar, but… there were unmistakable differences. No Mare Crisium for one thing. Some other things seemed to be wrong too. She would have needed a telescope to be sure.
It looked bigger than it should, too.
One thing she was sure of now.
She wasn’t anywhere near home.
It took her a long time to fall asleep. When she finally did the last things she sensed were that smell of a horse and the salty taste of her own tears.