Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Deadly", A Tale of Mangrove

Here's another story I sold quite a long time ago. The tale behind this sale is somewhat sad. I sold it to a UK slick magazine called FEAR. FEAR was a high-distribution magazine of fiction and media reviews. It had a very large circulation and I wanted to make a sale there. So I sent them a dark fantasy story I'd just (at the time) written. They bought it.

Well, not really "bought". They accepted it. Payment was on publication. I'd have to wait a few months. But the pay rates were pretty good. One hundred pounds Sterling for every 1,000 words. You do the math.

After a while I got a note from the editor. They were having money problems. The pay had been reduced to one hundred-fifty pounds Sterling straight up. Alas. I could deal with it. I waited for publication.

Eventually, the issue with my story, "Deadly", appeared. With my copies I got a note informing me that the payment would be forthcoming. But, it never arrived. FEAR, and its publisher, declared bankruptcy. A couple of years later I received a cheque (it was spellt that way!) in the mail for a tad over five pounds. I never cashed it. I don't even know what happened to it.

But they published my cool fantasy tale. It, like "A Child of the War God", is set near my fantasy city of Mangrove (albeit in better times for that sad, haunted burg). Once again, this was slated for publication in my stillborn short story collection, A CONFEDERACY OF HORRORS.



Copyright 2009 by James Robert Smith

Redmon had planned his moves as well as he could under the circumstances. He was in this outland only because his reputation (if not his face) had become so notorious in Mangrove, the city. He'd become too bold for his own good, stealing things that should have remained in their owner's possession. No merchant would touch the things he had stolen. No fence would handle them. The consequences for being caught with the il-khan's little treasures were too terrible to risk for the fat, sweating middlemen. So Redmon had merely ditched them and had fled the city before anyone could point the finger at him. He was too good, too brash. Too foolish. He was making enemies in the guild, and he knew it.

A month's riding into the western frontiers had brought him to a province he did not know, even by name. The land was thick with stones that did not inhibit the growth of gnarly forests broken here and there by poor farms. Redmon could barely understand the dialect the natives spoke, and he did not like the place, especially when the hills loomed about him and the mist hung low on their shoulders like dewy cotton. He longed for Mangrove's busy streets, crowded taverns; he wished to dance along dung-scattered ways thick with the press of people.

But he could not go back just now. It was still too soon, and some higher Guildsman might not think he had yet done enough penance. Redmon could imagine the crackdown that must surely have occurred after he had fled. Perhaps the palace walls were adorned with the headless corpses of many of his fellows. He shuddered, not wanting to think of his own foolishness.

The more he traveled the outland trails, the less he saw anything he liked. Those rock strewn hills seemed to go on and on, interspersed with splashing streams and little freshets that sprayed him when he drew too near. His pony handled the terrain at a steady, even pace, and it had not split a hoof or broken a bone. Yet.

He did not know what he would do when he needed a new mount. Redmon had brought very little of value with him, and the folk that he met seemed very poor, the kind who would guard a horse as they might guard their own lives. Soon, he knew, he must find something worth stealing, something worth his effort. His food was nearly gone, and his coins were dwindled to less than silver.

Then he came upon the temple.

Like the rest of the land in which he rode, the temple seemed very poor. Outwardly, it was constructed of plain, stone walls, pierced here and there by tiny windows that showed as squares of uninviting black in the gray stone. There was a bell tower at the back of the structure, the old type that rose like a low blister, holding a huge cast bell that had to be struck with a great hammer. The sound of that bell was what attracted him; but its depressing tolling almost chased him away.

Despite the deep, disheartening tone of the bell, Redmon rode his pony down the rutted trail that led to the temple. There had been people—peasants, mainly—filing into the squat building. At first he thought it was a temple of the goddess, Morn. But he could see where her icons had been torn down; their faint outlines were yet visible on the walls, and there was nothing new in their places. He could not tell what god was worshipped here, and none of the folk entering the place seemed to wear any kind of symbol upon their garments or about their necks. He was ignorant.

Still, no one said a cross word to him as he rode near. Few even seemed to more than notice him; only a handful nodded acknowledgment of the horseman. They all filed into the building, one by one, silent but for an occasional murmur: a chant. From inside, he could hear the clink of coins. Silver mostly, but he heard some gold.

He climbed down from his pony and tied it to a post beyond the yard. The animal sipped at a great stone hollowed out and full of rainwater. Leaving it to drink, he went in.

The temple was as dreary as the people of this province. There were few candles to light the place, and the pews had mostly been removed, leaving little space for the worshippers to sit. Perhaps, he mused, these people believed in the austere aspects of life. He knew religions that taught abstinence and want as virtues—he laughed at them. In Mangrove, he would laugh. But here...

The lack of seats did not seem to matter just now: it seemed to be a collection service. He watched as the drably clad folk moved past a deep wooden bowl. As each passed, they tossed in their offerings. Redmon quickly felt about in his pocket, reaching for the single halfpence he knew was there. He was happy to sacrifice that bit of coin for a look at a possible target. Perhaps he could take a share of it for himself before he left this depressing land.

He found himself a place in the line and edged forward, slowly, looking about, sighting unbarred windows, great beams even an oaf could negotiate as if a wide street. It seemed an easy enough target, on the whole.

Before he saw the man, he heard his deep voice and looked forward. Overseeing the collection was a huge brute. Hardly what one would expect of the priestly type. He wore his raiment like a great, loose bag, the hood standing open about his bull neck, showing his coarse, bearded face. Old scars lined his thick jaw, and his shoulders were as wide as a warrior's. Beneath his hard, icy stare, the people tossed in what they could. Redmon began to wonder if he could not slip out of line without attracting too much attention. He didn't think so, and moved ahead, inching along with the others, inevitably.

Yes, as Redmon drew near, he could see the priest was the unlikeliest of fellows. But then, they usually were. This did indeed appear to be more a figure of a guard or soldier than a man of the cloth. His eyes, though! His eyes seemed cut of blue ice, and his gaze speared all who passed before him. No one smiled. No one spoke. They merely gave.

The thief fingered the small coin in his pocket —the only sign of nervousness he would allow himself. Redmon was a cool one; in his profession, one had to be. Still, he was a bit afraid the surly priest might become angry at his meager offering. It was a chance he'd have to take. There were three ahead of him. Two. One.

He tossed his copper into the gaping bowl.

The priest did nothing, uttered no word of ire. Inwardly, Redmon breathed a sigh of relief, and another for a glance at the rewards of his next theft.


When darkness came, thick with unseen mist and no moon, Redmon scrambled back down from the rugged hill upon which he'd climbed. He left his horse on the far side of it, a good two miles from the temple. It had taken him three days before he'd satisfied himself that he was familiar with the trailless slope he would flee upon once he had his booty in hand. He hadn't wanted to spend too many days lurking about the gray, gnarly woods for fear one of the empty folk who dwelled in this land might notice him and spread the word. So he'd built no fire and remained deep in brush and forest. Now he was ready.

At night the temple was unguarded. No one hung about its walls or seemed to spy from any of those meager windows. It looked to be an easy mark, but he knew better than to assume that. He'd seen too many Guildsmen gutted in the acts of ‘easy’ jobs.

Using the cover of the arthritic oaks that seemed to grow everywhere, he crept onto the templeyard itself. He stopped, not breathing, listening. There was no one. His wide eyes saw nothing; his straining ears heard nothing but the wind, the rustle of some bird taking flight. He smelled only the earth. Soundlessly, on light feet, he scampered to the walls of the temple.

He stopped again, straining to sense the presence of another. No one. No one. No one. He was sure of it and ready to enter the place.

From a distance, and in the light of day, he had chosen a window in a wall that seemed unsuitable to climb. He slid along the pebbly soil around the structure and found the chosen spot on the chosen wall, just below the window. With fingers callused from constant practice, he climbed the wall, finding purchase in tiny cracks and nubs of granite that stood out from the surface of the hard stone. Soundlessly, he went up, pulling his lean weight with whipcord muscles.

He drew himself to the window and halted. Still he sensed no one, heard nothing.

To his right, a wide beam hewn from that same oak that grew everywhere offered a way across the huge central room he had been in days before. Carefully, he stepped from the window to the beam and slithered along its length till he was above the temple coffer. With an iron hook, he fastened one end of hemp cord to the stout beam, readied to lower himself to the floor. Gazing about, his pupils fat and black, he saw he was truly alone.

He had calculated correctly, and the other end of the tether did not touch the stone floor. In silence, he lowered himself. Catsteps took him to the offering bowl, itself now empty. But he knew that it would be. He had to discover the treasury; and he suspected it was somewhere close—a room near the bell tower. Only a search could confirm his suspicion, and he knew he would not have long to find it and be away.

With great skill he slithered across the floor to a hallway, down its length. In a little room at the end, he found what he was hunting. Gold only. That was all he filled his leather pouch with. The only sound he made was when allowed was a single clink of a pair of coins that tapped as he drew the bag tight.

Later, he doubted that tiny noise had alerted the priest. Surely it had been only a coincidence that had brought the man to the room wherein the treasures of the temple were stored. Perhaps the dour man had merely been paranoid over the safety of the collection of the community's wealth. That had probably been all that had brought him, his mass blocking the room's single doorway.

"Drop what you've taken." His deep voice filled the space, freezing Redmon, surprising the proud thief, chilling him to the core.

Redmon looked up, and for a horrible instant seemed to see the priest's icicle eyes glowering back at him from the tar of the night. He took hold of his panic, replaced it with calm, and saw merely the bulk of robed figure that blocked his exit. His only reply was the hiss of his blade coming free of its leather scabbard, slicing air with its edge. He didn't want to fight. If he could, he would dodge the big man and.


The heavy bludgeon missed Redmon, barely, and crashed into the chest he had lockpicked moments before. Splinters flew. Sparks glared in the black, and he saw the priest wielded a flint-headed ax that must weigh as much as a big guard dog. Redmon stepped, weaving aside.

"Thief!" The bludgeon fell again; the priest grunted, holding it back, keeping the weight from pulling him down. "Bastard!" The ax came around, barely missing again. Redmon lunged for the door. Luckily, it was not the axhead that met Redmon's scalp. It was merely the other man's great left fist that popped along his skull and sent him reeling. Powerful though it was, the blow was not enough to knock him senseless. But the thief knew he would not get through this man by stealth and agility.

Redmon dropped to the floor to avoid the ax once more. Using his spare weight, his superior speed, he quickly leaped up, blade forward, his knife hand, his arm, his body a spear. The point pierced heavy wool, passed bothersome ribs; the edge sheared flesh, met a lung.

In the dark Redmon heard the priest. "Hhkkk! A-hukh!" There was a slurp as the man drew breath through two mouths. The ax fell heavily to the stony floor. Redmon fled.

Behind, he could hear the priest muttering, chanting a prayer. The holy man must know his wound was mortal. Quickly, quickly, he was up his rope, out the window, down the wall. The forest hid him as he scrambled up rock-strewn slopes.


He was not halfway to his horse when he heard it: the bell tolled, loud even this far from its great metal bulk. Through the darkness he fled. Hurrying no faster than he had before, he again reached deep for that cool reserve upon which he so relied. He must not panic. When he reached his pony, he mustn't be so tired he would have to rest. He had to ride fast, and far. Quickly.


At the temple, a peasant who lived on his small farm nearby found the priest lying in a steaming pool of blood at the base of the great bell. The padded hammer used to strike the bell lay just beyond the man's outstretched fingers. Steadily, the priest chanted. When the peasant knelt to listen, the priest gripped him with iron fingers, drew him close.

The peasant heard.


Dawn was just beginning to streak the sky when Redmon reached his mount. He stopped by the pony barely long enough to catch his breath. But he was not winded, merely tired after his steady jog across the long ridgetop in the night. For a short time, he had been frightened that dogs might have been put on his trail before he could make it to the pony, but that seemed not to have happened. He quickly lashed the thick pouch to the pack strung upon the pony's rump and climbed atop its warm back.

He had been breathing loudly, sure of himself, and he didn't hear the baying hound as soon as he should have. He could feel the pounding of a single set of hooves not so far behind it; what must be a large horse, one able to traverse the stony way he had fled.

Redmon urged the pony to a gallop and out of the brushy hollow in which he had stashed it. Someone had found his trail much quicker than he had imagined. It must be a superior tracker sent after him so soon. He knew the risks.

Weighing the chance the pony wouldn't catch a leg in the thick brush, he made his way out of the close stuff, finding the trail he had chosen for escape. It was wide, moderately traveled, and he was fairly certain it did not wind toward the temple or any village near the temple. But the one who chased him had followed over the steep hills, disdaining trails, if they existed. His pursuer was mad, probably, with religious fervor and righteous indignation. The worst possible predator. Redmon had his pony up to a run. The hound bayed again, much nearer.

The sun climbed into the sky. Redmon's pony began to tire. Behind him, the hound still bayed, the hoofbeats still thundered heavily. They were gaining. His pony was too poor to do the trick, had been on the trails too long. Redmon was in trouble, but there was nothing he could do except run as long as the pony could go.

They loped around a bend, and the hound was suddenly there, slashing at his mount's hooves, lunging again and again at Redmon's legs. The thief lashed at the dog with a length of cord. The rope looped about the dog's thick neck, and the weight of the stumbling hound caught Redmon by surprise. He fell from his pony, which galloped a hundred feet before pulling up.

As the hound tried to disentangle itself from the loop of hemp, Redmon was on it, stabbing with his long knife. But for a bruise or two, he was unhurt. From around the bend, he could hear the pursuer approaching, almost within sight. He dove into the brush that closed in about the trail, the dog's corpse lying where Redmon had left it.

At least there was only one chasing him, thus far. Or only one who had caught up with him. He could still trust to his proficiency with the longknife, his speed and agility. In his day, he had bested excellent fighters, and he could do so again. From cover, he looked back.

A peasant! He couldn’t believe it. The man climbing from the great plowhorse was merely a farmer! Spying the dog, the other turned to the forest, slashing with a dull sword at the growth that blocked his way. Redmon watched.

The thief lay, waiting, as the farmer hacked at the green brush, tearing at it with the little-used, notched sword. He seemed clumsy with it, unused to the art of swordplay. The thief did not think he would have too difficult a time with him and would even try only to subdue if he had the time. But he didn't have the time. He had to escape, quickly. So...

As soon as the farmer drew near enough, Redmon leaped from hiding. The peasant had drawn up parallel to him, and it was a child's game to thrust forward with his blade. Once only, and he turned and raced back to the trail.

A woman and a small child, a boy, stood there in the trail and saw him. Redmon glared back at them: a tired peasant woman of husky build, dark features and a tow headed boy both gazed at him with blue eyes. He did not need to harm them and dashed past the pair.

He paused for a second to examine the farmer's horse. It was an old animal; Redmon was surprised it had followed as it had. It was less than his pony, even now, so he left it remounted the pony, and galloped away.


From the trail, the woman heard the moan, the chanting. She was a wife, a mother, a tender to life. She went down the embankment to the source of the painful sounds, leaving her small son on the trail. It was quite easy to find the man lying in broken vegetation on the forest floor. All about him the twigs and saplings were bent, the loam soaking in his blood. Still he moaned, calling out. She knelt beside him, knelt to listen, and drew close. And she heard.


Into the day, Redmon pushed the pony to the limits of its endurance, to the limits of his own. He did not stop for more than a handful of minutes to let the pony sip at some stream or to force some grass into its mouth. It was only in late afternoon that he felt safe enough to halt by the side of a river that splashed over huge boulders, misting spray into the air. He had to stop, or his pony would surely die.

He led the animal to the edge of the water, let it drink its fill. He, too, knelt by the pool's shore, dipping his cupped hand into the cool stuff. Behind, the clatter of hoof against pebble alerted him not an instant too soon.

Redmon spun, his bloodied knife hissing free of its scabbard. He stared with weary eyes.

At the peasant woman.

Yes, he saw, it was the peasant woman he had left by the side of the trail. He relaxed, somewhat, as she climbed down from the massive plowhorse she rode. It was similar to, but not the same as the horse the farmer had ridden to his death. Obviously, it was her own. But why was she here? Had she followed Redmon? Alone? She knelt to the stony ground as he watched.

It was always the ‘easy marks’, he thought as the rock she threw glanced off his skull.

He reeled in genuine pain. He stumbled and fell into the water, and the shock of the cold liquid brought him to his senses. He kicked backwards, pushing himself into deeper water, where he could dive. The woman had followed him in, was struggling with the weight of her dress as it soaked up the moisture and clung to her legs. Despite himself, he lunged toward her, slashing with his knife, which had never left his grip.

On his first try, of course, he stabbed her deeply, a killing wound. The clear water about them ran suddenly red. The thief moaned in horror at what he had done and staggered out of the small river. Passing his pony, he went to the woman's horse, ready to take it in place of his own overworked mount.

A bearded face looked down on him from a steep bank on the far side of the river. Redmon did not think he would have time to lash his booty to the other horse before the man crossed over. With a cry of anguish, he was once again upon his pony, urging it on as best he could, as quickly as he could force it to move.


The trapper had been in the hills for months, disdaining contact with his fellow men. If he needed to be reminded why, he had only to look upon the dying woman and know. He thought he recalled seeing her on his last journey to the post where he sold his furs. He wasn't sure, though. Tenderly, he cupped her lolling head in his hard hands, drew her lips close to his ear so that he could hear what she was mumbling to him. He dipped his head, and he heard.


Before night fell, the trapper caught up with Redmon on the edge of a small village. They fought; the trapper was cut. Redmon fled on foot—his pony dead of exhaustion just before—with the bag of gold weighing him down. Several folk witnessed the fight, but it was a youth, a red-haired teen, who went to the trapper to see if he were wounded as grievously as it appeared. The boy knelt beside the man to hear what it was he was chanting, and he heard.


Redmon could run no further. He had dropped the great pouch of gold a mile back, hoping the boy would take it and be satisfied. But he came on, following even as the sun began to dip below the high ridges about them. Redmon left the trail he had found, stumbling over decaying logs that tripped him, over stones that found his toes and shins and toppled him time and again. He could not run, and the boy would not heed his threats.

Redmon turned, drunkenly, swaying on legs turned to water. The boy smashed him in the face with a staff, crushing Redmon's nose. He dropped, his fingers loose, the blade falling into the leaves. The boy kicked the knife aside and pulled Redmon to him, speaking.

Redmon heard, he listened to the words hissing, slicing into his ear, tunneling; telling him, telling him, telling him.

The thief brought his head forward, looked into the boy's face, saw those eyes of ice, and he heard.


On the day of tithing, the farmer was happy to come to the temple to give. He was prepared and obliged to make his weekly offering. He waited in line as the folk moved slowly, filing past the bowl where the money accumulated like grains of wheat. Smiling, he thought of how little grain he and his fellows had harvested before the new temple came into the province. Now, the fields yielded much more than stones. Now, he and all the other peasants had more than enough to feed their families. Now, they could bag their grain and sell it to fat merchants from the cities, and they could give some of their excess to the temple.

True, there were rumors of certain practices the new priests engaged in on some nights when the moon glowed full and bright. But he didn't dwell too much upon that. He didn't care, so long as his fields continued to bear fruit in plenty.

It was his turn now, his time to toss coins into the bowl. The priest should be pleased with the silver he would put there. He looked at the holy man.

Strange, he mused. These priests never were what you would expect of such men. They rarely were what you'd expect. Still, this new one looked even stranger than the last—whipcord lean; more the build of a Guildsman thief than that of a priest.

But that icy gaze was the same.

No comments: