As an experiment, I've reworked the above tale a bit by changing the setting from the Hyborian Age to 17th century Persia. I also streamlined the plot a bit. I'll be posting it in some form here shortly, check it out and see what you think.
“...Here I behold myself the might and wisdom of the Great Creator, in the works by which He reveals Himself, and show them unto others."-Carl Linnaeus
Fardis, Son of Behoud, satrap of Shiraz, threw himself down upon his silk-clad haunches at the cliffs edge. He pulled the purple linen keffiyeh from his head and mopped his face and brow, gazing incredulously at what he saw before him. Here, in the midst of the scorching sands of the Dasht-e Lut, was now revealed a mist-shrouded valley. From his perch he could detect the sickly sweet smell of vegetation in various states of decay.
“You were right, by Allah! ‘ He said as he struggled to smooth his normally immaculate black hair and mustachios, “I gave little credence to those old maps, but here we are.”
“Aye, on occasion I get one right.” Answered his companion.
Sigyn Fenwulfsdottir cut an incongruous figure. A veritable giantess among eastern peoples, the green eyed, tawny-haired Icelander dwarfed the slight and slender Fardis. She was clad as a Persian soldier, a crimson jerkin over a flowing white tunic, and white pantaloons thrust into soft leather boots. She had torn the left sleeve off her tunic to bind a cut along her scalp, revealing sunburned arm thickly corded with muscle. A yard long Turkish yatagan was thrust naked though the red sash twisted about her waist, along with a brace of flintlock pistols.
Tossing the spired helm she carried to the ground, she seated herself beside Fardis and studied the steaming valley below.
“Many of those old maps of yours are filled with wild fantasies, but in this case they were accurate. Good thing for us too! I wouldn’t have wagered a copper on our surviving the desert after escaping those Arab pigs, but our options were limited. I remembered seeing this valley pictured on one of your moth-eaten scrolls and decided to make for it.”
“I’m amazed you recalled it at all. You have quite the intellect for an infidel.”
Sigyn grinned at the shared joke. Fardis had tutored her in the languages and customs of Persia and other “civilized” kingdoms in the time she had been employed as a guard for his seraglio. Fardis often teased her about her barbarous origins, and she retaliated with jests pertaining to his small stature and foppish habits. Being good humored and even tempered individuals, the twain enjoyed the repartee.
“What next?” inquired Fardis, fastidiously rearranging his keffiyeh. Sigyn shrugged and pointed to the valley.
“We go down there, gather food and water, and regain our strength. Then we decide on how to get back to Shiraz to find who sold us out to those Arab bandits and gut them.”
Fardis rolled his eyes. “This again? Zaid’s wastrels attack caravans all the time! Allah, in his wisdom, put them upon this earth to do just that. There is no conspiracy behind it.”
“I disagree! Your father had sent all the required bribes and tributes to Zaid ere we set out for Mecca from Shiraz, yet they attacked our caravan anyway. And when the attack came, they were among us without warning, unchallenged. Verily, I saw no sign of your retinue! God’s blood! You and I stood alone, two against one hundred!”
Fardis nodded somberly and contemplated how this strange woman had come to stand with him in this, his most desperate hour, Behoud, his father had found it amusing to hire an outlandish infidel woman to guard his harem, stating that male guards could not be trusted to leave Fardis’ wives unmolested. Fardis found it grimly ironic that in the end, his salvation had been due to the prowess of a warrior his father had hired in jest.
“I mourn my wives, may Allah grant them everlasting bliss. Would that I could have saved them all, but I failed to honor my oath to protect them. ”
“We saved the one at least. You did well Fardis. That skinny Chinese sword of yours struck swiftly and drank deep.” Sigyn hurled a stone over the cliff and spat. “We had no choice but to take to our heels while those bandits were distracted by rape and butchery! God-damned animals! Would that all their ilk had but one throat for me to cut! Before God I swear I will see whoever betrayed us to those dogs answer for the deaths of your wives and servants. They deserved better fates.”
Fardis winced at Sigyn’s blasphemous outburst but looked upon her sympathetically. He fondled the jade hilt of the slim straight sword she'd spoke of, and after a moment replied.
“Fate is the key word! Allah has woven the skein of our lives already, ‘tis pointless to strive against the will of God. Nor should you let hatred for the Zaid and his band consume you so! Be at peace my dear.”
Sigyn scowled. “To hell with all pirates, bandits, and marauders! I’d feed them all their own livers, by Satan! Hush now, here come the last of your wives.”
Perched upon the back of a camel, amongst a clutter of hastily gathered bundles and now near empty water bags, and shielded from the sun by a makeshift awning, was a voluptuous, scantily clad beauty. She was an auburn-tressed Irishwoman called Taryn. Her pale, delightfully freckled face was grim and her hazel eyes bloodshot, but her carriage told of a deep well of spiritual strength. She climbed down from the camel and stood beside it.
“Shall I unpack the bundles? I think I can put together some sort of tent.”
“Nay.” said Sigyn, scrambling to her feet, “ We’ll catch our breath for a few moments and start looking for a path into the valley. I think I see foliage peeking out from that mist!”
“Aye,” agreed Fardis, “Jungle palms from the look of it. I’ll wager there’s a dense forest in that valley.”
“Yes, and that means water, maybe food. I want water and food, and relief from this accursed desert. And a forest will offer better cover from the eyes of any Arabs who may have tailed us from the battle. Our odds will be better if we can strike from behind trees and bushes. We build our tent in that valley ere nightfall!”
After about an hour of searching, they discovered a narrow path hugging the cliffside that allowed egress into the valley. It was deemed to steep and rocky for the camel to negotiate. Sigyn advocated butchering the camel on the spot for its meat, but Fardis dismissed this idea and ordered the camel unloaded and released into the desert, where it was well suited to thrive. The meager load it carried was distributed among the three travelers.
All told, their supplies consisted of a charred blanket, the camels tack and harness, a few pieces of a shredded silk tent, a satchel full of exotic gadgets that Fardis insisted would prove indispensable, and three nearly empty water skins.
Traveling the path was not easy, care had to be taken to keep proper footing and not slip on loose pebbles. As they descended, the air grew progressively more humid, and soon the sky was obscured by a dense canopy of green. At length they stepped off the rocky path onto the luxuriant forest floor.
“Where to now?” inquired Fardis.
Sigyn gestured to a point forward and lightly to their right. “See how the ground slopes slightly down here? My father once told me if I ever find myself lost in the wilderness, walk downhill until I come to water, then follow the water downstream until I come to people. I’d say that applies to our current situation.”
Fardis turned to her with an arched eyebrow. “You expect to find people here?"
“Not especially, but anything’s possible. I’m sure we’ll find water though, perhaps a pond or lake! Let’s go!”
Taryn balked; “I would pause a moment. Me slippers were not made for this sort of toil! Behold!” She raised a dainty foot and, indeed, the light silken slippers she wore were in tatters, and her feet were bleeding from myriad tiny cuts.
“We have to keep moving,” Sigyn stated. “Cut some pieces from the tent cloth and wrap your feet with those.”
“If someone will lend me a blade, I could fashion some sandals from the camels harness. It shant take long.”
“So be it!” said Fardis. He produced a bejeweled, crescent-bladed knife from his boot and handed it to Taryn. “But do try to be quick about it, my dear.”
Sigyn sighed in exasperation and started off down the slope. “I’ll scout ahead a bit, you two stay put!”
Drawing her yatagan, Sigyn used it to blaze a trail through the undergrowth, notching trees periodically. The jungle thickened as she progressed, and soon her arm burned from exertion and sweat soaked her tunic.
“Christ! This place makes the jungles of Siam look like the steppes of Siberia!”
She passed by many trees laden with exotic fruits, but resisted the urge to seize one and bite into it. Fardis’ scrolls abounded with descriptions of lethal plants that infested jungles such as this one, better to wait and find something identifiable as edible.
After hacking through a particularly dense thicket of strange, purple, spear-leafed bushes, she was emerged into a clearer area. The arboreal vault was unbroken but the ground was covered in fine, ankle high grass of dark green. Sigyn may be forgiven for failing to notice these fine details, as her attention was wholly engaged by the sheer wall enormous basalt blocks that reared up before her. It was covered thickly with moss and creepers, but it was unmistakably artificial. Despite the dire nature of her circumstances, Sigyn smiled and fairly giggled at her discovery.
“Zounds!” she muttered, “A lost city! And that’s running water I hear, or I’m a fool!”
Racing recklessly along the wall, she was rewarded with discovering a large open archway. It’s outré outline was further distorted by vines and other plant growth into an even more bizarre shape, appearing as some troll or forest demon opening it’s maw to receive prey. Peeking in, Sigyn spied what was once a resplendent plaza, now choked with a riot of foliage. From a broken aqueduct above, a waterfall poured into a pool in the center. She was about to race recklessly to the pool when a noise behind her caused her to whirl about and brandish her yatagan, baring her teeth and snarling like a cornered lioness.
“Who’s there? Come out and be recognized! If that’s you Fardis, I’ll…..”
Her challenge broke off as she beheld the figure that was skulking in the green riot behind her. It had the shape of a man, in that it had two arms and one head, and walked on two legs, but there the similarities ended. Its gelatinous flesh was green like the jungle around it, and had a fibrous look to it, here and there tiny vines and blossoms sprouted. There was no mouth, nor eyes, nor any other orifice. Each arm ended in a mass of stubby vines or creepers which may have suggested fingers. Sigyn stood baffled, not understanding what it was she was seeing. Was it alive? Had she been mazed by the desert sun and now saw phantoms?
She took a step forward. Abruptly the thing sidestepped back into the foliage. Sigyn sought to pursue it, but lost track of it in the trees, or had it dissolved into the jungle? The short hairs bristling on her neck, Sigyn decided it was now paramount to rejoin the others. They had to be told of the wall, and the pool, for jungle demon or no jungle demon, they desperately need water and shelter.
Following the trail she’d blazed by notching trees, she was well on her way to where she’d left the others. It was at about the halfway point when she met the Arab.
Sigyn nearly blundered into the hulking, blue-bearded brute as they both rounded an enormous tree trunk. Both were surprised and stood looking dumbly at each other for a heartbeat, then, with a bellow, the Arab raised his outsized scimitar on high and brought it down with the intent to split the Icelander she-wolf in twain. Sigyn rolled to one side and avoided the wild attack, but struggled to get up, hindered by ground-creeping vines that hobbled her feet and entangled her yatagan. Fortune smiled on her when the Arab slipped on a patch of slimy mushrooms and nearly fell himself. He righted himself and lurched menacingly toward her.
Hadaad!” he bellowed, “Mansur! I have found her! She‘s…”
There was a crack of thunder and a cloud of acrid smoke. A musket ball hurtled through the Arabs open mouth and out the back of his skull. He crashed to the ground with his brains spilling out on the lush green carpet. His legs jerked spasmodically for a few heartbeats. Then he lay still.
Sigyn thrust the spent pistol back into her sash, and drug her yatagan free of the creepers. Dawdling no further, she raced back to where she’d left the others. If there was one Arab, there were more, at least this Mansur and Hadaad. Hadaad. That name was known to her, but…
Her questions became moot as she beheld what was transpiring at the cliff. Taryn was cowering against the cliff face, while Fardis stood arms outstretched and sword un-drawn before a man dressed in resplendent, if travel-worn finery. She now remembered; this man was Hadaad, non other than Fardis’ brother. He was grinning mockingly and menacing Fardis with a bejeweled scimitar.
“What’s the old saying brother? If you want a job done right, do it yourself? I am impressed you escaped the Zaid’s hellhounds. That is a feat I thought beyond a scholarly eunuch like you. Still, a real red-blooded man needs be father’s heir! Once you have died tragically during your pilgrimage, I will be sole heir”
Fardis was calm and spoke in well modulated tones. “End this foolishness, brother, we can all return to Shiraz. I will not speak of this to father, all can be as it was.”
“Fool! Thou ignorant fop! Father is well aware of what I do! Do you think he wants a thin-blooded dandy like you for an heir? One who, with ten wives no less, has yet to produce issue? Nay, you disgrace our family name and it ends now! Draw that girlish sword and face me!”
“I will not. Though it means my death, I will not spill my brother’s blood.”
“Then die the coward you are ‘brother’!”
Hadaad raised his scimitar and charged Fardis. Taryn screamed. Before he could deliver the fatal blow, Sigyn emerged from the wood and caught his eye.
“What the deuce? The Frankish wench? Have you slain Mansur and Shabaz? Father said you were mere decoration, and posed no threat. It seems he was wrong."
“Behoud was wrong about a great many things, the fat pig! And aye, I did kill your toadies, and I will kill you directly! I am loathe to spend my last bullet, or I’d blow your brains out, as it is…”
Sigyn set upon Hadaad like a maddened tigress, slashing madly at his head. Hadaad was no mean swordsman, but the unexpected fury and prowess of the golden-maned infidel put him off balance. To one used to the soft, mincing doxies of the Persian court, Sigyn seemed unto a force of nature. Hadaad cut Sigyn many times, as she seemed to give no thought to defense, but her speed and agility seemed to put her elsewhere when his blade sought a vital wound. Her yatagan seemed to assail him from all sides, offering no respite. Then suddenly he saw a chance! The wench overextended herself and he was poised to drive his blade through her armpit! But she twisted, and there was a flash of crimson…
Hadaad found himself on his knees, staring at the bloody stump that had been his sword arm. Sigyn brought her blade up to strike off the head of the man who had betrayed his own brother and brought doom upon the heads of so many.
“Sigyn! No!” shouted Fardis. “Do not slay him! I forbid it!”
Sigyn hesitated, long enough for Hadaad to lurch to his feet and run headlong into the jungle. She watched him disappear, then turned to Fardis, pointing with her bloodied yatagan in the direction of Hadaad’s flight.
“That was stupid!” she said, her voice trembling. “He will stalk and try to kill us again later! Also, I lied. I killed but one of the dogs, this Mansur is still out there somewhere! God’s Blood!”
Sigyn hurled her blade to the ground in a childish display of frustration. Fardis as ever, remained calm. “I cannot slay my brother, nor allow one of my retinue to slay him. I cannot. Are you still part of my retinue Sigyn?”
Sigyn tossed her head back and shook her tawny mane, exhaling forcefully. Finally she replied.
“Aye Fardis, I still serve you. Come! I found water and shelter, and something else. Perhaps there’s something in that jungle that will deal with your accursed brother for us!”
After making Taryn take up Hadaad’s dropped scimitar, Sigyn hastily led her charges through the dense jungle to the ruins. Her gaze swept the jungle constantly, expecting at any moment to be set upon by Arabs, or green, leafy plant men. In short order, they arrived at the base of the great tree where she’d battled Shabaz.
“Allahu akbar!” Fardis exclaimed. Taryn gasped in horror. The hulking Arab still lay at the base of the tree where he fell, but his corpse was hideously transformed. The flesh had been invaded by tunneling vines and creepers, thick moss covered flesh that had barely cooled. Here and there, white bone lay exposed where flesh had given way to plant growth. A bizarre, treelike trunk sporting an enormous blood red blossom issued from the craterous wound Sigyn’s pistol had blasted in his skull.
“Sweet Jesus!” whispered Sigyn, prodding the body with her yatagan, “This is damned peculiar.”
Fardis turned to her, a baffled expression on his face. “Do you think so? What grows that fast? And while we are on the subject of things peculiar, have you noted that?” Fardis gracefully gestured with an upturned index finger. “Listen!”
Sigyn sighed and concentrated on the sounds of the jungle, only to hear…
“Silence. Dead silence." She stated. "No birdsongs, no screeching of monkeys, nor buzz of insects. By the same token, normally in a climate like this, we’d be eaten alive by insects. Zounds! Let’s hasten to the ruins!”
“Perhaps we should fill our water skins and leave this valley?” Taryn suggested.
“There is wisdom in your words, Taryn, but darkness will be upon us soon, and I would not wish to navigate this thick growth in the dark. Come!” Sigyn resumed the march into the jungle, and shortly the four arrived at the cyclopean wall.
She led them to the pool, and she and Taryn made to thrust her hands into the water.
Fardis stopped them.
“Hold! Let me have a look at that pool first.” Fardis approached the pool thoughtfully, stroking his moustache.
“This was not constructed as a pool. I see the remains of some sort of platform in the center, and the rim of the pool makes a bench. This was some area for oration or discussion I’ll wager!”
Producing a silk handkerchief from the sleeve of his tunic, he dipped it into the pool and brought it to his nose. He grimaced and shook his head, then circled the stone lined pool until he arrived at the waterfall that poured from the broken aqueduct above. He thrust his hand into the flow, withdrew it, then rubbed his wet fingers together, and then brought his fingers to his nose. Finally, he gathered some of the water in his cupped hand and tasted it.
Sigyn threw up her arms in exasperation.
Fardis gestured to the waterfall.
“This water is safe. Avoid the water in the pool. Do not drink or bathe in it.”
"And why not?” Taryn enquired petulantly.
“It is oily and smells foul, and, unless I miss my guess…”
He placed the handkerchief on a nearby rock. Borrowing Sigyn’s empty pistol, Fardis operated the mechanism on it and produced a shower of sparks. The handkerchief, which should have been too damp, erupted in flame.
“So the pool is flammable then?” asked Taryn.
“Partly, if you look, you’ll spy shiny, rainbow hued areas; those would likely combust.”
“We should have no trouble starting a fire then!” said Sigyn. “Let’s fill those skins in the waterfall, then gather some fruits and firewood and have a look around. We shant go far!”
The trio searched high and low in the area near the pool but found no dead wood of any kind. It seemed the trees in the strange valley were immortal. Giving up, they resorted using their swords to hack down a number of oddly formed saplings and chopping them into usable lengths. While they worked, Sigyn shared the account of the apparition she’d seen near the ruins. After gathering a load of wood and picking a good quantity of purple fruits Fardis identified as being edible, they returned to the pool as night fell. Fortune smiled upon them in that, when kindled with the oily liquid floating on the pool, the green wood burned quite nicely, if somewhat too quickly.
Once everyone was gathered about the crackling fire, Sigyn finally allowed herself to make use of the waterfall. Making certain the others were not observing, she stripped to the waist and thrust her torso into the flow. The water was surprisingly cold, but the Icelander had known waters far colder. She allowed the waterfall to wash the dried blood from her hair and body, and soothe her cuts and the sunburned areas of her skin. When she’d finished washing, she drank her fill of the cool water. Discarding her torn, bloody tunic, she donned the red leather jerkin and rejoined the others by the fire. They were eating and chattering to each other in low, quiet voices.
Sigyn mentally praised them for keeping quiet, but in the preternatural silence of this bizarre jungle, their whispers were a cacophony. If Hadaad was still at large and had not bled out in the jungle, or if more bandits had entered the valley, well, that scarcely bore thinking about.
Seating herself where she could see gate, Sigyn seized a few of the fruits and tore into them with gusto.
“You two should sleep.” she instructed between mouthfuls. “I will take first watch. I will wake you, Fardis, when I judge it to be midnight.”
Fardis stretched out by the fire on the charred blanket, covering himself with the tattered remains of the tent. He was soon snoring quietly.
Taryn paced restlessly just within the glow of the fire, peering out toward the gate. At length, she approached Sigyn.
“Ye have done well by us, Sigyn, Ye have me thanks.”
“Praise me not. I was charged with the protection of all ten of Fardis’ wives, and only saved but one.”
“Saints be praised I was that one, then!”
Taryn sat beside her and placed a comforting hand on her knee. “Do not reproach yourself! What happened was beyond your control. Ye fought mightily and brought us away with our lives… Oh! Your wound!”
The cut on Sigyn’s temple had begun oozing blood again.
“That needs stitched. I have the means, and the skill to do that, if you’ll suffer my touch.”
“Please do. Tis a damned nuisance as it is. I hope you do as well on me as you did on those sandals you fashioned that was impressive.”
Taryn smiled and fetched a small bag from their pile of belongings. From it she took out a needle and thread.
“I don’t have to tell ye, this will nae be pleasurable.”
“Aye, I’ve had more than one cut stitched up in my day, go ahead.”
Taryn began sewing the wound shut. Sigyn winced now and again, but otherwise stoically endured the procedure. Taryn sought to distract her with conversation as she worked.
“How is it that you came to be among us? What brought you away from chill Iceland to the deserts of Persia?”
“Nothing noteworthy. Barbary pirates sacked my village, knocked me on the head and carried me off to be a slave with the rest of the women. There was a storm and their ship foundered off the coast of Portugal. I got loose from my bonds as the ship broke up on the rocks, and I swam ashore. No mean feat with a length of chain still about my ankle! I managed to avenge myself on a few of the pirates that made it to that beach with me. Their carcasses provided me with a few coins and a sword. Not being particularly inclined to return to Iceland right away, I decided to see a bit of the world first.”
“I’ve heard that you Nordic women are fierce, but ye be skilled at fighting, and, not to be churlish, you’re a bloody big lass to boot!”
“Ha! The man I called father found me as a babe living amongst the whale-hunting Skraelings of Greenland. Perhaps the blubber they weaned me on made me grow so large! As to my skill, Fenwulf was a widower with three boys, he raised me as he did them. I learned hunting, the ways of the sea, and of the sword. I’ve learned a trick or two over the course of my travels as well. I’ve ranged far, to be sure! From Cathay to New Amsterdam, Madagascar to Siberia, I’ll probably tread the earth twice over before I shed the coil, God willing! I’ve an itch that only wandering will scratch.”
Taryn noted that Sigyn was gazing upon the sleeping Fardis.
“Ye have an eye for Fardis, do ye not?”
Sigyn’s face reddened.
“I will not lie. He’s a handsome man. But more than that, he is wise and gentle. Not the sort of man one encounters often in the world. I… Damnation! I am sorry Taryn! This is your husband I speak of, I have no right…”
“Do not worry yourself overmuch, Sigyn. I was but one of ten wives! Fardis and I are married in name only.”
Sigyn frowned. “Still. ‘Twas a damn slatternly thing for me to speak thus.”
“All finished.” said Taryn, as she produced a small clay jar, “I’ll apply a bit of this unguent to speed healing”
“As you like. What of you Taryn? How came you to be one of the ten wives of Fardis?”
Taryn smiled patiently as she applied a generous amount of a yellow balm to Sigyn’s freshly stitched head wound.
“My tale starts much like yours. My village in Ireland was waylaid by pirates as yours was. I was taken alive and sold into slavery. No escape for me! Eventually I was purchased by Behoud of Shiraz and given to Fardis as a gift. I have lived a life of ease since then, true enough, but still a slave.”
“I like it not, the way “civilized” folk keep other people as they would livestock, I pray the practice ends one day.”
Taryn put away the ointment, and as an afterthought, carefully arranged Sigyn’s blonde locks.
“Any foolish enough to enslave you would no doubt rue the day! You were born strong enough to live free. I am not so lucky.”
Sigyn’s face spasmed as she fought back the sudden urge to weep. She impulsively embraced the Irishwoman,
“I am sorry to have brought it up. Thank you for tending my wound. It feels better than it has in days.”
“Good, the unguent is doing its work. You will soon feel no discomfort.”
Taryn stretched out by beside Sigyn,
“I must sleep now, Icelander, I am weary to the bone.”
Sigyn made no reply, and sat with her yatagan across her knees, casting a sharp eye on her surroundings.
Taryn was true to her word, all of the cuts, bruises and other injuries Sigyn had accumulated ceased to trouble her. Indeed, a great feeling of contentment and well-being came upon her. A strange lethargy crept into her limbs. As she watched, the dancing flames of the fire seemed to take on bizarre aspects. She turned her gaze toward the pool and watched the rainbow colors that floated there swirl and form phantasmal images, Sigyn rose and went to the pools edge.
From this closer vantage point she could see reflected in the swirling, prismatic waters scenes of a bustling metropolis, majestically carved of polished basalt. Great domes and towers reared up about precisely planned streets. Tiny, sallow-skinned people moved about hither and yon conducting their business. They were resplendently clad in silk and cloth of gold, with outlandish headgear and esoteric jewelry as accoutrements. Was this the city they now camped in, when it was alive and wondrous?
Suddenly the strange little people looked upward, a green glow fell about all things, becoming brighter, brighter, obscuring the people and their city. Sigyn moved closer. She had to see what happened next.
The tiny people seemed to shout with one voice:
“Kozouhept! Kozouhept! Kozouhept!”
Suddenly, she was pulled backward away from the scene. Twirling about she was confronted by a great, wooly serpent, with huge glowing eyes.
Sigyn raised her yatagan to strike the legendary monster of her homeland, when it’s toothy, drooling maw began to work obscenely.
“Stay thy hand Sigyn! Have you heard the cry of the loon? It is I! Fardis! You were about to fall into the pool!”
Before her eyes, the image of the Ice Worm melted and swirled, reforming into the familiar countenance of Fardis.
Sigyn dropped her blade and shook her head. “Fardis!” her speech was heavy and slurred. “ Sweet Fardis! Had I slain you...”
She seized the scholarly Persian and crushed him to her bosom.
Fardis writhed and protested.
“Unhand me woman! What has gotten into you?”
Sigyn thrust him from her, but still gripped him fiercely about the shoulders.
“I know not! I am plagued by phantasms, and my limbs feel as lead! That fruit I ate must have poisoned me!”
Fardis tried to escape her grip.
“Why are none of the rest of us affected? No it must be...”
Before Fardis could finish, he was interrupted by Taryn shouting.
“The gate! Look to the gate!”
All turned to look at what stood there, partially revealed by the flickering fire. It was a tall, well-muscled man. Bald pated, but impressively bearded. He eyed them impassively, still partly shrouded in darkness.
“Mansur, no doubt!” said Fardis in disgust.
Sigyn picked up her yatagan and lurched forward.
“I’ll deal with him.” she slurred.
“How?" Protested Fardis, “You are in no condition to fight!”
“Who else will do it?”
“I for one! Sit down!”
Fardis drew his jade hilted Chinese sword and approached the figure, Sigyn ignored his instructions and followed at his side.
“See here, Arab!” began Fardis, raising his sword point to the sinister figure, “Walk away from this! Your fellows are all dead or maimed! There is no point continuing this madness!”
Wordlessly the man stepped closer and was fully illuminated by the fire. He stood before them unarmed and stark naked, his flesh had an oily sheen and the suggestion of a greenish tint.
Sigyn snorted with drunken amusement, looking the man’s naked body up and down.
“Oh my! Is this another phantasm? That’s not the sword you should have brought to this fight, Arab, but I’m impressed, for what it’s worth!”
The man said nothing, but began trembling slightly. A crease appeared in his forehead between the eyes and rapidly spread down his face and chest. It widened with a sickening crackle, forming a vertical slit from forehead to crotch. The slit opened like a maw, oozing green ichor, and tiny wriggling green tendrils began to slither from behind the man’s spilling entrails.
While Fardis recoiled in horror, Sigyn began laughing harder.
“Are you seeing this too, Fardis? You know what that looks like, do you not? ‘Tis big enough to drive an oxcart to at that!”
Abruptly, several rope-like vines erupted from the split body of the Arab, seizing Sigyn and dragging her towards it. Hard spiky thorns had appeared about the edges of the slit, and the man’s legs dissolved into stout trunks. Sigyn grappled with the creature while Fardis sought to cut the tendrils holding her. He managed to free her, but the thing produced more vines and sought to entangle them both.
Fardis found it difficult to grip his blade as it became coated in the oily secretions of the plant. Then, an idea came to him.
“Sigyn! Drag it to the pool!”
He raced to the fire, and using the flat of his sword, swatted some burning embers into the pool. As he’d hoped, the oily sheen lying upon it ignited, turning the pool into a raging conflagration.
Sigyn grasped great handfuls of the fibrous mass that assaulted her and drug it inexorably toward the pool. The thing struggled against her, but plant fibers were no match for iron thews forged in a lifetime of violent action. With a final effort, Sigyn lifted the whole writhing mass over her head and with a bestial cry, hurled it into the blazing pool.
It nearly drug her in after it, having hurled more tendrils about her during the struggle, but she held fast long enough for Fardis to sever the revolting tentacles. The thing caught fire and writhed obscenely for a few moments, then was still. Sigyn collapsed on the ground, and laughed long and hard.
“How much of that was real, Fardis? Christ! My head feels as though it’s infested with ants!”
Fardis dropped to his knees beside her. “And my heart pounds as though it will tear from my chest! That was damnably real woman! We must quit this hellhole at first light.”
“Agreed, but for now let me lay here, whatever curse that fruit laid on me still plagues my senses! Now I seem to hear the wailing of demons.”
Fardis leapt to his feet. “I hear it too! Listen!“
Indeed, Sigyn heard tortured wails of a damned soul, and Taryn’s voice was clearly recognizable.
“Help! Sweet Mother of God, help!“
Fardis tore off in the direction of the wails, exhorting Sigyn to follow. She struggled up on unsteady feet and stumbled drunkenly after Fardis.
“What fresh hell is this, I wonder?”
As she lurched toward the wailing, it seemed to Sigyn that the groundcover about them had come to life. Blades of grass leaned forward as if to grasp at her, and her feet seemed in constant danger of being entangled by writhing creepers. Still, she dared not trust her senses, which were still addled.
She found Fardis with Taryn. Both were kneeling over the edge of a pit. It had eluded earlier discovery by virtue of being concealed by foliage, but now it was open.
“What is it?”
Fardis put a finger to his lips.
From the depths of the pit there came the wails and cries of a man in the throes of mortal agony. Sigyn had heard the lamentations of men being broken on the rack and they had not been so tortuous. Between the bouts of screaming there were bursts of barely intelligible words, pleading, cursing. Fardis’ face paled.
“Merciful Allah! I think it’s my brother!”
Taryn gasped and threw her hands over her mouth. Sigyn merely shrugged.
“Good. So the dog careened through the jungle and fell in a pit. No chance of him killing us in our sleep now.”
Fardis reddened and turned on Sigyn addressing her savagely.
“Damn you, thou foreign she-devil! He is brother! We played at soldiers as lads in the gardens of my father’s palace! We would sneak into the bazaar and steal dates and figs from unsuspecting merchants! Whatever his sins, I cannot leave him down there! Is your heart so hardened you cannot see that?”
Sigyn paled, stung by the Persian’s rebuke. She turned away and strode back to the campsite. She checked her unfired pistol and thrust it into her sash along with her yatagan, then returned to the pit.
“Where in Allah’s name are you going?“ asked Fardis.
“Going to get him.”
“No!” Fardis protested. “I am convinced something unnatural took him, probably related to whatever happened to that Arab. And you are in no shape to go after him; you aren’t even in your right mind! Besides, this is my responsibility!”
“I’m more familiar with this sort of work. You are a wise and brave man Fardis, but you are a pampered little fellow. You stay here and protect the last of your wives, as you are sworn to do. I will rescue the treacherous Hadaad. Think better of me whether I succeed or not!”
Fardis slumped and shook his head in resignation.
“I regret my harshness to you Sigyn! I… At least wait one moment.”
He ran back to their campsite and swiftly returned, carrying a box-like bronze affair with a round lens on one face. This he opened, and operating the lock of Sigyn’s spent pistol near it, kindled a small flame inside. This was magnified greatly by the lens and produced a respectable beam of light, He handed the contraption to Sigyn.
“It’s a miniature lantern. A gift from a Chinese princeling that is among my closest and longest friends.”
Sigyn turned the thing about in her hand examining it.
“I’ve heard you speak of him often enough. Well, give me your sash to tie it about my wrist, I need both hands free to climb down.”
When this was accomplished, Sigyn began her descent. By the illumination of the dangling lantern she was able to find hand and footholds. A brittle ledge here, a projecting root there. She expected at any moment to be seized by nightmare green tendrils and drug off to her doom, but she reached the bottom of the pit without incident. She found herself facing a tunnel opening, just tall enough to allow her to enter without stooping.
“It’s not deep!” she yelled back up to the rest of her party. “There’s a tunnel here, I’m going in. You two wait by the pool until it dawn! If I’m not out by then get out of this valley as best you can!”
Not waiting for a response, she drew her yatagan and set off down the tunnel.
It was covered floor to ceiling with the same vines and creepers that ran riot above. And, though underground and hidden from the sunlight, the lantern revealed them to be the same rich emerald color. The further down she went, the more strongly Sigyn’s nostrils were assailed by a peculiar, yet familiar odor. She normally would have figured out why it was familiar, perhaps, but her head was still reeling, and her mind altered.
She found it difficult to concentrate. The effect seemed to be worsened down here. The shadows cast by her lantern took outré forms and seemed to whisper to her in forgotten tongues. Again, that strange word Kozouhept thrust itself into her awareness.
“Damned Fruit! From now on I eat nothing on the advice of little Muslim scholars!"
Now another voice could be heard, a pitiful wailing, interspersed with a plaintive pleading.
“Keep screaming Hadaad, thou son of a she-dog! I am coming.”
The wailing did not grow louder but turned into an unintelligible muttering, then finally into quiet sobbing. Sigyn broke into a run, heedless of the tangled growth and the increasing slipperiness under her feet. Abruptly, the tunnel opened up. Here the phosphorescence was stronger and the eldritch emerald glow revealed not a natural cavern, but an artificially carved chamber, near perfectly hexagonal, with each face sporting an alcove that housed a different idol. Each of the idols was of some blasphemous, inhuman abomination. To Sigyn’s blasted senses, it seemed the idols reared up out of their alcove and leered down at her from a great height, their various orifices drooling and working. She lashed out at them with her blade, but only sliced futilely at thin air.
Realizing she strove against phantasms, she ceased swinging the blade and rubbed her face with her palm. Deciding what she was seeing was, for now, real, she looked about the chamber once more. A few paces in front of her, in the center of the chamber there was another circular structure similar to the pool above, in this was a great orb composed of tangled roots and vines, illuminated from within by the emerald phosphorescence, and oozing oily sap that gave of a rainbow sheen when the beam from Sigyn’s lantern traced it.
“Hadaad! Are you here!” she called. There was no response, but a part of the orb rippled and Sigyn spied a dark mass suspended among the tangles. Suppressing her revulsion, she drew close to investigate. Her muttered invocations to God turned to curses as she beheld what at befallen Hadaad.
The mass in the orb was indeed the Persian. His body now violated in the most unspeakable manner imaginable by the writhing, burrowing greenery. His head was untouched, thrusting out from the globe-like mass of writhing vines. He grinned sickeningly and his voice was a gurgling croak.
“Well met, infidel! Would that you had struck off my head this afternoon as you intended! I’ll trouble you to do it now! Strike, woman! Whatever our quarrel, think you I deserve to suffer this fate? Strike in Allah’s name then flee before it decides to take you! If it overpowers you, you’re finished!“
Sigyn approached him, unsure if he was real or another fruit induced hallucination.
“What is this?” she asked, unsure why she thought Hadaad would know
“All this? Ah! I can tell you, as the damned thing has invaded my thoughts as it has invaded my body. Not all of it makes sense. That glow in the center there. It thinks! Kozouhept it names itself, though it’s concept of what a name is differs drastically from ours. It came here from another… sphere… another world that hurtles in the gulfs between the stars! My bookish brother would be more able to explain it to you. Ah! Would that he languished here instead of me! It came eons ago, when this was a great powerful city ruled by a race of sallow-skinned pygmies. It wants to talk to us, you see? But it cannot. Plant-things cannot speak with meat-things. So like it has to us, it tried to turn the meat-things it found here into plant-things, so it could speak to them. But it doesn’t work. Meat-things cease to think when turned! Kozouhept can travel across the cosmic gulfs, and has a lifespan measured in eons. But it’s not smart enough to realize its killing us! Aiiee! In the name of the Prophet! Strike! I would die while still Hadaad, not some mockery of a man! Strike, Damn you!”
Sigyn lashed out with the yatagan and struck off Hadaad’s head. In truth, she felt no more anger or hatred toward the man. Aye, he’d suffered aplenty for his sins. She felt no anger toward Kozouhept either. Whatever it was, it was no more evil than the viper that strikes out of instinct, or the maddened elephant that tramples out of fear.
There was a slithering, Sigyn could see the vines of the floor writhing, gleaming with that rainbow sheen, and soon they would spring upon her. Kozouhept would grapple her and turn the meat of her body to its own deep and verdant green, trying to speak to her. As it had tried to speak to all the others.
“I think not! But I am sorry.”
Sigyn had remembered what was familiar about the odor, and the rainbow sheen. She trust Fardis’ lantern into the orb of vines, angled so its beam shot up the tunnel from whence she came. Making her way past the ever more active vines she returned to the tunnel raced back toward the pit. She paused at a point where she could still see part of the orb, and the bright light of the Chinese lantern. She could see vines crawling along the tunnel wall, snaking out to grasp her, to invade her body.
Drawing her pistol she sighted along the barrel, she aimed carefully at the bright yellow point shining within the emerald glow. She cocked the pistol and took a breath.
“Steady my hand Lord, else you will have me to deal with!”
Sigyn squeezed the trigger. There was a hissing and thunderous report as the English flintlock discharged, sending a lead ball into the lantern, shattering it. Within a heartbeat the chamber was aflame as the burst lantern ignited the oil coating everything.
“Ha!” barked Sigyn, and she hurled curses after the retreating creepers. “Burn you bastards! I… Oh!”
Her celebration was cut short when she realized the flames were spreading rapidly towards her. She raced back up the tunnel to the pit. She made great speed as it seemed her steps were no longer hindered by the greenery on the floor.
“More pressing things to worry about likely.”
Arriving at the bottom of the pit again she called out.
“Fardis! I’m coming out! Throw down a vine or something! Fardis!”
There was no response.
Cursing, she struggled up the wall of the pit without aid. About halfway up, the bottom of the pit ignited beneath her. The flames licked up and caught her oils soaked boots aflame.
“Damnation!” she screamed and hastened her climb.
She had never considered herself a strong climber, but somehow she was that day. She gained the top of the pit and kicked her flaming boots off into the blaze below, then ran back toward the campsite, cursing and favoring her blistered toes.
“Zounds! This place is more hellish than I’d imagined!”
Arriving back at the pool, Sigyn beheld a terrible tableau. There, by the still blazing pool, was Taryn, standing over the crumpled form of Fardis with a bejeweled, crescent-bladed knife in her hand, dripping with his blood.
Taryn whirled and faced Sigyn as she approached, her pale be freckled face a mask of rage and hate.
“You!” she spat. “Can ye not die?”
Sigyn made no reply and shambled forward, reluctantly raising her blade. She hoped that the scene before her was yet another hallucination, but in her heart she knew it was not.
“What have you done, Taryn?”
“What Hadaad, Zaid’s bandits, and this cursed jungle could not. I have slain Fardis!”
Taryn spread her arms, a mad gleam in her eye.
“Need ye ask? To be free! Hadaad promised me my freedom in exchange for my aid! I drugged the food of Fardis’ retinue with the powder of the Yellow Lotus just before the bandit’s raid. That is why they offered nae resistance.”
Taryn shook the crimsoned knife at Sigyn.
“The matter should have ended there, but ye proved more capable than expected! I left Hadaad secret signs, signs only he would perceive, that allowed him to follow us here. But again, ye bested him and his henchmen when ye should have died. God damn you to hell! There was enough Yellow Lotus in that unguent I packed into your head wound to fell an ox. I had planned on ye succumbing to that and then cutting your throat while ye lay insensate, but once again, ye shrugged off that which would fell a normal wench!”
“Why kill Fardis? He was kind to you.”
“Oh, Aye, kind the way a man is kind to his favorite hound! I care not for Fardis! I have been a slave since before I’d seen twelve summers! Passed from one rich, lecherous, fiend to another and used like a plaything! When Hadaad presented his scheme and offered me my freedom for my part in it, I seized the chance!”
“And you took him at his word?” asked Sigyn. “Why would he deal square with you?”
Taryn shrugged her supple shoulders.
“No matter. How would my life be any worse had he lied? Stand not in judgment of me, ye great cow! With your great strength and dumb luck ye freed yourself from my fate and wander about as ye please! Damn ye to Hell!”
She hurled the jeweled dagger in the Icelander’s face. Sigyn was slow to dodge in her condition, but the knife was inexpertly thrown, striking her cheek pommel first. While she stumbled trying to avoid the cast Taryn raced past her. Sigyn took off in pursuit, unsure what she would do to the Irishwoman when she caught her. True, she was a murderess and betrayer, but her words stung Sigyn with their truth.
Taryn ran past the campsite to the pit, and now stopped at its edge. Sigyn stopped within swords reach of her, started to speak, then stopped, finding herself at a loss for words. Taryn laughed haughtily.
“What now? Oaths and threats? Perhaps a demand that I take up a blade and fight ye! No doubt it would be an affront to some code of yours to strike me down unarmed! Ha! I will save ye the trouble, whore!”
Taryn cast herself into the blazing pit. There, she screamed for some moments, and then there was silence. Sigyn watched the flames wax as they consumed this new fuel.
“No doubt burning to death hurt a lot worse that she’d anticipated.”
Sigyn slowly walked to the prone form of Fardis. Kneeling, she rolled him on his back and took him in her arms. His hair and moustache had become disarrayed, so she carefully smoothed them back into the style he so fastidiously maintained. Tears ran unchecked down her cheeks.
“Alas, Fardis. I tried so hard.” she pulled his limp form closer to her and gently kissed him upon the lips.
The Persian abruptly writhed in her grasp. “What is this? Unhand me woman!”
Sigyn’s eyes grew wide and a broad grin spread across her face.
“You live! Thank God!”
She kissed him again, this time more robustly.
Enough!” he howled “I am sorely wounded! Taryn stabbed me in the back! I fear she was in on this plot the whole time.”
Satisfied he’d finally accepted there was a plot, Sigyn said nothing and felt Fardis’ back for the wound. Finding it, she probed it with her fingers, producing howls of anguish from him.
“Ah! It’s not that bad. Your ribs turned the blade! Had Taryn’s arm been stronger, or if she’d known the proper way to stab someone, your fate would have been sealed.”
“What’s become of her?”
“Jumped in the pit! No, do not look at me that way! She jumped in of her own accord; I had aught to do with it.”
Fetching Fardis’ dropped keffiyeh for use as a bandage, and forcibly removing his tunic, Sigyn dressed the wound as best as circumstances would allow. While she worked, she related to him all that transpired in the underground chamber.
“Poor Hadaad. I’d have yielded my inheritance to him had I known he’d go to these lengths, I had little care for it. As for my father, I knew I was a disappointment to him, but I never dreamed…”
Fardis grew silent. Sigyn watched him for sometime, then moved closer to him. Abruptly she pushed Fardis on his back and crawled atop him, pinning him to the ground.
“What madness is this Sigyn!" he protested. “Let me up!”
She smiled and unbuttoned her jerkin, letting it fall off her shoulders to the ground. The full, pale globes of her breasts fairly glowed in the firelight.
“I’m about to ravish you, my little scholar!”
She leaned over and kissed him fiercely, then began passionately biting his neck and earlobes, her hands roving freely over his body.
“Fardis!“ She whispered, her voice quivering, “I can fight this no longer!”
She continued thus for some time, until she noticed that Fardis was showing no reaction whatever to her attentions, lying stiff as a board under her. She rose and regarded him crossly.
“What is the matter? I know this isn’t the best place for lovemaking, but…”
Fardis interrupted her with raised palms,
“Sigyn! Listen! I have not the words to tell you this, but I am not interested in… No! Let me finish. You are no doubt beautiful in your way, and I have come to care deeply for you, aye, even love you after a fashion, but I have no need to… to… lay with you, or any woman for that matter. Do you understand?”
Sigyn looked upon him dumbfounded, as slowly the pieces put themselves together in her mind. Finally she rolled over and sat beside him, chuckling as she donned her jerkin.
“Christ! It was obvious! The ten wives and no children. The Chinese princeling. Damn! I feel so stupid!”
“I’m sorry, Sigyn. It’s… my position is difficult. Do not be angry with me.”
Sigyn regarded him silently for a few heartbeats, and then shrugged.
“Let’s not speak of it any further. What next? We dare not go back to Shiraz; no doubt your father will try to kill you again.”
Fardis stared at the flames still blazing among the ruins, lost in thought, finally he replied.
“China. I will go to China. I have an open invitation there.”
“Aye, I have no doubt you do. That’s a long trek through hostile lands.”
“It is. Will you see me there?"
Sigyn regarded his upturned expectant face in the flickering light. She reflected on the time she’s spent with the foppish little scholar. They were good times, now it seemed those good memories were all she would take away from this affair.
“Aye Fardis. I will see you to your prince. It’s getting light, let’s gather what supplies we can and quit this damned valley forthwith!”
Last Edit: Jul 30, 2018 15:11:07 GMT -5 by Char-Vell