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  • Writer's pictureL. D. Whitney

Short Story: "Red Rendezvous"

Hail Rogues,


It's been a busy week on the ole' homestead. Matt is swamped with Conan RPG stuff and hasn't had a chance to write up a report on GenCon, but that is incoming. I've also been hard at work formatting the manuscript for our upcoming release of a John R. Fultz collection. The cover art is sick, and I can't wait to show you. The book will be released in time for the holidays, so stay tuned. I have also received an ARC copy of an upcoming Adventure Thriller from indie author E.C. Ambrose which I promised to review, so that'll be up next week. Lastly, the S&S survey has been fairly popular. I have a lot of data to sift through, but the report will debut in September. That gives you plenty of time to answer the four short questions if you haven't already!


In the meantime, I have a little Sword & Sorcery story that was intended for Whetstone, but alas I have been published in a handful of markets. Regardless, I had a blast writing this and I like to think we'll see more of these two characters.


Hope you enjoy it!

 

Red Rendezvous

L.D. Whitney

 

Two figures moved messily through the turbid waters characteristic of the marshlands that rimmed the southern border. One, tall and broad of shoulder, bore gaunt, dour features and a sturdy longbow in his mallet fist. The other, much smaller, almost feline, was draped in ragged mail that hid her feminine form. Together, they moved as swiftly and silently as possible, though the swamps and swarms of biting flies offered only hardship.

“Will they follow?” asked Lisbet. Despite the grime and glower, she was a pretty thing, and young, though scars did their best to hide it.

“They’ll try,” answered Maul, his voice roughhewn and dull. “The waters mask our trail well enough, but I’ll be damned if we don’t make a racket. A decent hunting mutt could track us by the noise alone.”

“I’ve heard no dogs,” said the girl.

“Nor have I, Lisbet.”

They trudged on for a space, the slosh of boots in muck and the drone of insects filling their ears. Dark shapes flitted through the canopy on membranous wings, and somewhere far off called the strange song of a nighttime bird. Though the sun had just passed its zenith, the world was cast in dim shadow, only faint beams of light penetrating the verdant veil. Darksome trees with gnarled roots blossomed twisting branches that webbed outward from great trunks, blotting out all but the most persistent of rays.

“Maul?” asked Lisbet, once again breaking the silence between them.

“Yes?”

“Do you trust him? Roy, I mean. Will he be there?”

Maul was silent a bit, thoughtfully mulling the question. He was a cautious man, not made of blood and thunder like his kin. He had seen enough clansmen charge into battle, swords swinging, only to be cut down by pike or arrow shot. Though he had more than enough scars and notches on both scabbard and bow to prove his prowess, his discretion was a source of pride.

“Yes. I believe he will.”

“But how do you know?”

“Roy is rogue enough, but he’s always played the honorable sort. Besides, he needs us. Should he attempt to cross the border alone, he’ll be felled on sight. The smugglers are friends of mine, not his.”

“Are we close, then?” Lisbet did little to hide her growing impatience, but Maul didn’t answer. “Did you hear me, old man?” she asked again, slogging forward.

“Hush, girl,” hissed Maul.

Lisbet stopped, her boots sinking ever so slightly into the slime.

“Don’t move. Not even an inch.”

She wished desperately to follow the man’s directions, but youth willed her body to action. She turned, slipping longsword from sheath. Her flint-hued eyes darted about the dense forest but found nothing to raise her hackles. A short distance away stood Maul, still as statuary. He held out his bow, string taught, a barbed arrow held neatly in place. His sharp, black eyes scanned the emerald foliage, a predator seeking its prey.

"What do you see?”

“I said ‘Be quiet!’” barked Maul.

From the bush rang the snap of an arbalest, and Maul’s bowstring loosed. The arrow cut through the air with an audible whine, passing the other projectile in flight. It buried itself deep into flesh. There were two screams: that of a dying man, and the curse-laden wail of a girl. Maul swung around to see Lisbet half submerged in the murk, a feathered bolt jutting from her thigh. He moved swiftly, plucking his ward from the swamp as he fled.

The air sang with death.

Maul hurtled through the mire baring Lisbet as she swore, still clinging to her drawn blade. A thick quarrel lodged itself into a tree trunk nearby, while another cut not a hair’s breadth beside his ear. Just how they’d been tracked he didn’t know, but it mattered little. The pair had been made.

“What now?” screamed Lisbet.

“The plan hasn’t changed,” growled Maul, ducking low as another bolt whistled overhead. There was shouting now, guttural voices growing louder as the huntsmen drew near.

“Hasn’t changed? Are you crazy? There are a dozen men out there!”

“Only five. Though one is Count Velan himself.”

“The Count?” cried Lisbet. “How can you tell?”

“Caught a glimpse of silvered mail. Always was a pompous ass. Besides, we knew he wouldn’t take kindly to our transgressions.”

“His vaults are swollen with wealth! We took nothing to a man like him.”

“Seems nothing was enough.”

Lisbet roared, not in pain but frustration.

“Let me down, you oaf! Let’s kill them now and be done with it.”

“There are too many and you’re in no shape to fight.”

Deep down, Lisbet knew it to be true, though it pained her to admit. Still, there was a sting that accompanied the turning of one’s tail. Maul was a good man, tough and smart, just like her father had been, but lately it seemed to her that all they did was run. The plan had been a good one. Border lords like Velan need swords and have the coin to buy them. A little mercenary work, a bit of skulking, and then a back door gets left open. It should have been easy. They very much needed it to be.

But nothing ever was.

“There,” barked Maul. “Up ahead. Do you see it?”

Lisbet turned her head just in time to see another bolt sail past and disappear into the swamp. She looked forward, squinting, but made out little amidst the tossing of Maul’s bounding steps.

“I can’t see anything long as I’m propped up like a sack of grain. Let me down!”

“No time.”

“Then tell me!”

“The house,” answered Maul. “And Roy left his sign. He’s there.”

A squat, loathsome structure peered sullenly from beneath festering foliage, squatting atop a sodden mound of unwholesome earth. The hand-hewn planks had long since grayed, sagging beneath the weight of age and neglect. The roof bowed inward, wooden shingles haphazardly clinging to the skeletal edifice. Three rotten steps led up to a pitch-black portal. A pair of empty windows watched their uneasy approach.

“See that?” said Maul, pointing to an oil lamp beside the stoop. “Roy’s signal.”

“Anyone could have left that lantern,” said Lisbet, not hiding her nerves. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m sure.”

“Then we better hurry. Velan’s men will be on us soon enough.”

Plucking the lamp from its perch, Maul bounded across the threshold and was lost within. The abode’s interior was equally decrepit as its skin, perhaps even more. The rotten floorboards moaned with each footfall and protested when Maul finally sat Lisbet down. A sickly stench permeated the mold-ridden air, making Lisbet’s stomach turn. Nothing within the shack seemed amiss, but there was no sign of Roy. Before either could say a word, the muffled voices of Velan and his men drew near. Quickly, Maul moved to shut and bar the door, dousing the lamp’s dull glow.

“Where the hell is Roy?”

“Maybe he heard the racket and fled?”

“Sound advice, I’d say.”

“You’re in no shape to run, girl.”

“If we don’t go soon, they’ll find us for sure.”

Maul ignored her protests, instead inspecting her wound. The bolt had driven deep into her leg, piercing the opposite side. It was a bloody mess, but time served in the Legion told him the bite was less than deathly. He wrapped calloused fingers about the shaft and before Lisbet could scream, he pulled the arrow through. Lisbet ran pale as she swallowed the cry.

“You could have warned me,” she said, drunkenly.

“Wrap the wound, tight as you can.”

Heeding her protector’s advice, she tore a strip from her cloak and bound it about her thigh. Lisbet hissed as she tied off the bandage, drops of crimson oozed out from beneath. A splash of red dotted the floor, seeping into a fold in the wood. She watched as Maul paced the single room, quietly muttering to himself. It was a poor distraction from the pain, but it had to do.

“What’s the plan, Maul?”

“Roy was here,” whispered the brute, ignoring her interrogation.

“Yes, we went over that already. He has gone and so should we. Lest we forget the count’s guard on our heels.”

The house groaned in support of her assertion.

“Did you hear that?”

“The house or the hunters?”

Pushing her from his mind, Maul focused on something strange huddled in the corner of the room. At first glance it had seemed only detritus easily associated with the cabin’s poor condition. He had not had the opportunity for study while the lamp was still lit, but his curiosity beggared closer inspection. First guess would have pegged it a rotten sack of grain or half-degraded furniture tossed aside, but it was neither. The house whined again, as the would-be-executioners drew near.

“Check that ruin,” called the unmistakable voice of Count Velan.

“Maul…”

He ran his hands about the cloth, noting it a cape of wool. The fabric was moth-eaten, so it seemed, and had probably been there for ages. Still, Maul kept prying.

“Maul?” Lisbet’s whisper became a hiss.

“I hear them.”

The house replied too.

He tore away the cloak. Instinctively, Maul balked at what lay beneath. That the misshapen mass of half-eaten flesh had once been Roy, he was sure. His wounds were grievous, meat and skin melting from frame in great stinking gobs. Flesh peeled from pinkish bone in wet strips, twisting Roy’s once handsome face into a skeletal grimace. These were not, in fact, week old wounds and the corpse had not turned to decomposition. Crimson streaks of fresh lifeblood and the smell of burnt tissue betrayed the recency of death.

There was a vigorous knock upon the door.

The house shuddered, making a pleasurable sound.

“Damn it, Maul! Look!”

Maul spun to see a great pool of slime spreading forth from the floorboards. Lisbet kicked against the planks, forcing her back against the wall. She clutched her sword in front of her, but the danger was nothing steel could meet. The knocking at the door was more furious now, Velan and his men were well aware of their quarry’s locale. The house sputtered in glee, viscous slime now dripping from every nook and cranny.

“Don’t open the door!” yelled Maul.

“You steal from me, then dain to order a Lord!”

The door burst inward, splintering with the mighty kick of a booted heel. The Count’s men poured through the gateway; weapons drawn. A tide of mail bristling with naked blades rushed inward, flooding the room with steel.

The House roared; a feast laid neatly upon its table.

A wave of mucus gurgled forth, pooling around the soldier’s feet. Thick strands of the stuff dripped from the low ceiling, casting a glutinous net across fresh morsels.

“The hell is this?” Spat one man, before belting a scream.

Wisps of foul smoke blossomed wherever the mucus gathered, corroding coats of chain as easy as exposed flesh. The soldiers flailed about, tangled in each other’s pain. One of the men tossed aside his mace and tore the coif from his head before it melted away. He looked up in horror as a streamer of bile ran across his face, dripping to the floor in a smear of red. Crooning an unholy chorus, the soldiery sank into a mass of quivering pulp. Whatever men they had once been now drained slowly through the floorboards, feeding the vile thing masquerading as refuge.

The house was pleased but was not one to let good food go to waste.

Ropes of thick fluid hung like curtains from every wall, inching nearer Lisbet. The diner trembled in anticipation.

Maul surged forth, bounding over the spreading muck. He dove across the room, scooping his ward from the villainous trap. The barbarian moved with such speed that he didn't notice the globs of gel dotting his leather. Lisbet batted her free hand at the stuff, doing all she could to wipe it away, singeing her delicate fingers in the process. In an instant, the pair leapt through the open doorway and free of the strange house in the swamp.

Danger, however, they had not escaped just yet.

“Stop there, rogues!” cried Count Velan.

Lisbet only had time to scream as the border lord let fly a heavy bolt. Maul dropped to the wet earth at her warning. The missile tore across his muscled arm, spilt blood mingling with murk. In this desperate move, he tossed Lisbet aside. She gulped down a mouthful of marsh before righting herself. Wiping the mud from her face, her vision cleared just as Velan loaded a fresh quarrel. There was no time to warn Maul, who had not yet recovered from his fall.

Lisbet fumbled for her sword, but it too had disappeared within the sump. In a frantic play, she grasped at her belt and drew forth a long dagger. Half-blind with sludge, she tossed the knife forcibly toward the lord.

Velan cried out as the dagger pierced his neck where a gorget should have been. Dropping the arbalest, Velan groped at his throat working in vain to dam the stream.

Maul pulled himself from the quagmire, drawn to the Count’s mewling cries. Lurching forward, he wrapped his arms about the dying man and hefted him skyward. With a mighty heave, Velan sailed through the still open door and into slavering gullet.

The house-thing sobbed with delight at the unexpected gift.

The screaming lasted far longer than Lisbet imagined it would. Evidently, her knife throw had not quite found its mark. Maul proffered an open hand and she accepted willingly.

"Let's leave this place. I don't fancy a night beneath that roof."

"I'm not sure I can make the trek," admitted Lisbet. "My leg…"

"How far must I carry you, Lisbet?"

"Just a little further," she smiled.

He shouldered his ward, wincing only slightly at the weight placed upon his hampered arm. Of all the burdens he bore, this one he minded the least.

"Yes," smiled Maul. "Just a little further."


END

 


By Boris Dolgov

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