Baynes climb book i of t.., p.4
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       Bayne's Climb: Book I of The Sword of Bayne, p.4

           Ty Johnston
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  Chapter IV: The Cave

  The wall of rocks would have seemed an insurmountable obstacle to overcome for any other man, but Bayne was not one to surrender to hopelessness. He stood with hands on hips for a lengthy while, studying the slide.

  Bayne’s first attempt to circumvent this new impediment was the most simple. He tried to go around. But the mountain road was beyond being blocked. It was destroyed. It was as if a new, smaller mountain had been built along the path. There would be no simple bypassing of this new, smaller mountain. To go left meant a plummet to the treetops, now gray and cloudy and far below. To go right meant climbing straight up the side of the mountain, which Bayne was not opposed to attempting but only as a last resort.

  Next the bald warrior put his muscles to work. He began lifting, one rock at a time, and tossing those rocks over the side of the mountain. His strength was beyond that of lesser men, thus he was capable of moving much heavier stones than might be expected, but even Bayne found his match with the largest of boulders. Also, whenever he would manage to move much of the rock, dirt and broken trees and scrub brush would roll or rain down from above to fill the hole he had just created. There seemed no way to win.

  After an hour of tossing rock and seeing little progress, Bayne gave up on that route of attack. He remained fresh despite his limbs being oiled by sweat beneath the sun, but digging and moving rock was not the answer. There was too much rock, and the mountainside seemed to hold a personal grudge against Bayne, filling in wherever he had managed to create a fissure.

  Climbing was the next option. Instead of tackling the mountain itself, Bayne opted for trying the lesser task of climbing the slide. His fingers reached up high and pulled as he planted a boot against a boulder the size of a small horse. Rocks came tumbling down. Grit and grime dropped into the big man’s eyes. Bayne cursed and backed away, spitting dirt. He eyed the situation further. If only he could find a spot that would hold him without dumping the slide’s contents onto his face.

  A possibility appeared to one side, furthest out from the mountain proper. Bayne scanned the potential climb. It would be dangerous. His legs would be hanging in open air for most of the climb, and the fall was one he did not know if even he would survive.

  No. That way held too high a risk. There had to be another route. He drifted to the far side of the avalanche, against the mountain itself. His eyes followed the top of the slide, over each boulder and rock and piece of grit. He couldn’t climb the slide itself for it would just fall apart beneath his hands and feet. He didn’t want to dare scaling the outside of the avalanche because there was too much risk, though Bayne did not fear his own death as much as he did never catching Verkanus.

  He glanced up. The rim of a flat outcropping lingered in the haze high over his head. That rim ran left and right to disappear along the flanks of the mountain. It was the familiar road, continuing its route. It had to be.

  Bayne glanced back the way he had come. The only other alternative open to him was to retreat down the mountain in hopes of finding another path. But he had seen no other paths. No, going back was not an option.

  He reached out and gripped the side of the mountain, his sturdy fingers digging into dirt. He raised a boot and pressed it against stone. He pulled with his hands and held himself with his booted feet.

  He was climbing.

  The wall here was more sturdy than that of the rock slide. Next to no dirt came toppling into his face. Gravity was the main enemy, but Bayne was strong and his climbing skills showed experience. Fortunately it was not a sheer wall, but offered handholds aplenty in branches and crevices between rock.

  Never once did he look down as he climbed. There was no need. He was going in the other direction, hand over hand and boot over boot.

  Inches at a time did Bayne make his way up the side of the mountain. Rarely did he pause for more than a few seconds, and then he was scanning for a new, proper placement for his next grip. More than once he was hanging only by his fingers, and more than once was he balanced only on the tips of his toes or the balls of his feet.

  It was a perilous ascension. Without aid of ropes and tools or magic, no mortal man could have accomplished such.

  At moments, as his chest scraped stone and forced the chain links of his shirt to sink into his flesh, Bayne pondered his own ability to survive such a climb. After some little time, blood was beginning to seep from the ends of his fingers, making his trip all that more perilous. Scrapes too appeared along his bare arms and more than a few tears appeared in his garb, including a new rent along one side of his leather boots.

  Still, he climbed on, his eyes always on the immediate task or staring up and ahead to what he reasoned must be another route along the mountain road.

  A little more than halfway to his destination, Bayne finally rested for longer than at any other time during his climb. Despite the sweat dripping from his chin and running along his arms, he was not exhausted. He had paused, his feet planted solidly on separate flat rocks, to wipe away the blood now staining his palms. Leaning forward so his chest rested against the mountainside, he kept one hand gripping a hanging root while lowering the other hand to wipe it clean on his leggings.

  The root snapped, broke.

  Bayne fell.

  He shouted as he clawed at the air and the side of the mountain. His fingers tore into dirt and scraped against rock, tearing away a half dozen finger nails and leaving scratches and slashes in the flesh of his hands.

  What saved him from a longer fall was that he did not turn onto his back or side as he plummeted. Bayne’s feet always remained lower than the main of his body.

  His boots landed on dirt then skidded out from under him. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Bayne lashed out with both hands, scrambling for anything to hold. His fingers clamped upon a branch, really a small tree, sticking straight out of the side of the mountain.

  There was another snapping sound and a creak as the big man’s full weight caught on the end of the branch, but the branch held.

  Bayne was suspended over the side of the mountain, his arms wrapping around the tree to hold him in place as his legs dangled. He closed his eyes and breathed in slowly, giving his mind and body a moment of relief from the shock of the sudden drop.

  Slowly he opened his eyes and glanced down.

  He had not fallen half the distance he had already climbed. There was that much for which to be thankful. But his hands were a near ruin, and as long as he needed them to hold onto the branch, his natural healing abilities would not prevail. There was still strength in him, enough even to finish the climb, but his fingers and palms looked as if they were raw meat. Even if he could withstand the stinging pain, the blood was washing over the flesh of his hands and would offer him no ability to form a solid handhold. And here, hanging by the strength of his arms alone, there was little to no opportunity for him to attempt tearing makeshift bandages from his own clothing. Nor did there appear to be any other options for covering and soothing his hands.

  Worse was the fact that though he might not be able to climb up further, he was also in little condition to climb back down. He couldn’t hang there forever; his weight would eventually break the tree upon with he rested.

  Bayne cursed. He was not one to deny the existence of the gods, though neither did he arbitrarily accept their being. Still, that day on that mountain, he cursed every one of them he could remember. From the Almighty Ashal who walked among men to the heathen gods of deepest, darkest jungles, Bayne lay his curses upon them all.

  Then he closed his eyes and breathed in slowly to reserve his strength. Stronger and more sturdy than other men, he could hang from that branch for the longest of times. But eventually he might tire, or more likely the branch would break. But he could not do nothing. Bloodied hands, scraped flesh and all, he would have to try to climb.

  Something brushed against his face.

  Bayne opened his eyes. Hanging before him with one end laying across his arms was a rope of
sorts, a braided cord appearing to be made of some sort of dark hair. He looked up. The rope continued its length up the side of the mountain, disappearing over the lip of what Bayne guessed to be a furtherance of the road.

  “Foolish little boy,” a silky feminine voice said from above, “for what are you waiting?”

  Bayne asked himself the same question. Then he reached out and took hold of the braids. Being no fool, he tested the strength of the line before putting his complete weight and trust into the thing, but he found it sturdy and serviceable. Still, his hands were slippery from the blood and he feared the cord would slide between his fingers and leave him to a fall. To prevent such a tragedy from happening, he wrapped the rope of hair around his waist beneath his arms and tied his end into a knot. Then he tested the rope one more time. It seemed to hold.

  Planting his boots against the side of the mountain once more, Bayne began to climb. Hand over hand he made his way up. Every so often one bloody hand would slip, but Bayne’s luck held and his other hand always kept a sturdy grip. The higher he rose, the easier the climb became. It was more like walking the side of the mountain than actual climbing, the rope of hair obviously aiding in his ascension.

  Finally, after many tired minutes, Bayne reached the edge of the slip of stone above. He threw one leg over and pulled himself up, the strands of locks still wrapped around his trunk.

  The surprise of what he found must have been evident on his face by the laughter of the woman seated before him. She was a beauty, dark-haired with coal-rimmed eyes shaped like almonds; she wore a simple black chemise that outlined her body well and revealed the pale flesh of her arms and neck. Her lips were like a flower, a rose, as red and seemingly as smooth as petals.

  “Dumfounded?” she asked. Then laughed again.

  Bayne stood and untied the hair rope from around him, letting it fall to his feet at the edge of the cliff. He glanced about and admitted to himself that yes, he was quite dumbfounded. Little here was as he had expected.

  A woman he had expected, but not this exotic beauty who appeared as if a queen from a fairy tale. More surprising and of more immediate interest were his surroundings. Yes, he was on the side of the mountain, but there was no road here. The ledge upon which he stood was as wide as a small field but as narrow as the distance he could toss a rock. No road or path meandered away from either sides of this flat plane. It was disappointing.

  Before him, little more than a few strides away, on flat stone sat the woman, her legs pulled up beneath her. She leaned against a boulder, one hand caressing the gray stone. Around this large rock was twined the rope of hair, braid after braid and loop after loop. Bayne noticed the rope carried the same shades as that of the woman’s locks, thus was not surprised when he saw the cord of hair snaked up from the bottom of the massive stone to disappear behind the woman’s shoulders. It was her hair that had enabled him to traverse the mountain.

  Beyond the woman some short distance was an entrance to a cave. It was a large cave opening. Bayne would not have to stoop to enter. And the sides were wide enough he could swing a sword if necessary. Still, the darkness of the cave was seemingly endless and waves of air as cold as a northern night drifted forth from that maw.

  The woman giggled again.

  Bayne glanced to her. “Thank you for your assistance.”

  She held out a hand, offering a bronzed dagger. “Be a man and help.”

  Bayne stared at her nonplussed. “What is this?” he asked, pointing to the small weapon.

  “Idiot!” She flipped her head forward to reveal the cord of dark hair rising up her back. Another flip and the bound tresses lay on her shoulder. Reaching over with her free hand, she grasped the coil as if seizing a venomous snake. The dagger flashed, the golden blade sliding through the strands as a scythe through wheat.

  “There!” She let the free end of the rope fall to the ground and shook her head to loosen her remaining locks. The darkness of the tresses flowed around her face and over her shoulders as if dark silk.

  The woman glanced to Bayne with scorn in her features, as if he were useless. The dagger vanished beside her on the ground.

  Then she was all smiles, flashing a grin. She held up her long, slender arms. “Help me stand.”

  Bayne did not move for a moment, as if there were struggle of wills going on between his own mind and that of the woman. Would he help her? If not, why not? Simply to spite her? He shook his head. Such thinking was foolish. Coming to this woman’s aid, especially for such a simple task, gave her no power over him unless he allowed her to have such power. Besides, she had just rescued him, perhaps even saved his life, thus it was worthy of him to show gratitude. He wiped his blood-stained hands on the sides of his leggings and stepped forward, gently wrapping his strong fingers about the woman’s wrists. He lifted slightly and she came up on her feet, feet clothed in simple, flat silk footwear.

  Bayne removed his hands from her arms. He noticed his palms and fingers were no longer bleeding and his other wounds had healed themselves. Whether this was due to his own healing abilities or magic from the woman, he did not know, but saw no reason to question.

  “Do you fear the touch of a beautiful woman?” the woman asked, a look of intrigue and laughter in her eyes.

  “I fear little,” Bayne said, “especially not you.”

  He stepped to one side and marched past her.

  “Fool!” She screamed, spun and followed the warrior, right behind his heavy footsteps. “Am I not the most beautiful woman your eyes have beheld?”

  Bayne ignored the question as he moved to stand in front of the cave’s entrance. He pointed into the darkness. “What lies within?”

  She flitted around in front of him, stretching out a lengthy arm as if to bar his passing. “It is my cave.” She smiled once more, showing teeth that glittered as if beneath a bright moon. “It is warm inside, and there are many fine rugs for laying upon.”

  “Where does it lead?” Bayne asked.

  The woman’s smile faltered. “Into the mountainside.”

  “And beyond?” Bayne said.

  “There is no beyond.”

  Bayne stared at her. “The mountain road does not extend here. You had to arrive somehow. The cave is the obvious choice. It must lead somewhere.”

  “It leads nowhere but deeper inside the mountain.”

  Bayne cocked his head and stared at her. “Did a man come this way? Dressed in black. Long, black hair.”

  “You speak of the emperor,” the woman said, “and no, he did not venture into these climes. His way was another.”

  “Then I thank you again for your assistance,” Bayne said, “but I must be on my way.”

  He took a step around her.

  She jumped in front of him again, this time her hands extended out toward him, nearly pleading. “There is nowhere to go but here!” Her smile returned and she waved a hand towards the depths of the cave. “But please, enter and find yourself a nice spot. A big, strong man such as yourself should have no troubles building us a fire. I will find my hookah and we can have a glorious afternoon in the clouds of nothingness.”

  “Thank you, but no.” Bayne marched around her once more, his strides taking him to the edges of the dark.

  “Fool!” the woman shouted behind him.

  He glanced over a shoulder.

  The woman’s features had grown harsh, her black eyebrows angled in anger on her forehead. She threw up her arms in exasperation. “Go, then! Enter and be damned! You will find nothing but my two sisters, and they will tear apart your soul!”

  Bayne shrugged, then unsheathed his sword from his back. “Let them beware, then,” he said, “for I will brook no further obstacles.”

  Then he turned his back upon her and sauntered into the black of the mountain.

  It was as if he stepped through a thin wall of vapor. One moment he was outside beneath the sun, the next he was within near-complete darkness. Bayne paused to allow his sight to soak in the black arou
nd him. His eyes could only gain focus to a small extent within the gloom, but after long seconds he could just make out the walls some little distance to his left and right. The cave’s floor too appeared in dim outline, as if a soft glow lay about the rocky ground.

  He glanced back. The outside was no more. The woman was no more. An inky barrier was all there was.

  He listened. There was nothing. No sounds before or aft.

  Bayne marched on.

  His momentum was slow, each step taken meaningfully. One boot at a time he would extend to test the ground before him, and finding the step safe he would continue on with the next. His sword he held out to one side, switching hands every so often as to protect both sides.

  As he made his way, it occurred to Bayne it had been a foolish thing to step into the cave without knowledge of what lay beyond. But he was not one to know fear, and from past experience had yet to meet danger he had not been able to overcome or avoid in some manner or other.

  The woman had him curious, but not to an extent where he had wanted to spend more time with her. She was a seductress, perhaps a witch or even a demoness. Bayne had no time nor interest in being seduced. A sexual encounter would only slow him further in his pursuit of Verkanus, and only the gods knew what devilment the woman had had planned for him.

  She had mentioned two sisters who lay ahead. Bayne would be wary of them. But if they were no more seductive nor threatening than their sibling, Bayne believed he had little to fear from them. Finding Verkanus had taken years, and now chasing Verkanus on the mountain was taking longer than Bayne had expected, and he was growing impatient. He promised himself no more delays in the hunt. He would get through the cave, preferably back to the mountain road, then he would find the emperor, question him and then come what may.

  After some little time with his thoughts, Bayne noticed the cave narrowed slightly and curved to his right. Further along the curve became a rounded turn. He followed.

  A soft light appeared before him in the distance, a dancing light. Crimson and yellow, the glow seemed likely that of a torch or similar flame.

  Bayne tramped on.

  The flickering light slowly grew brighter and nearer and eventually took form as that of a small cooking fire off to one side in a place where the tunnel opened into a wider expanse of the cave before continuing on. The fire itself was neat and tidy, surrounded by perfectly-smooth stones. Atop it sat an iron frame, and upon the frame rested an iron skillet and a copper tea kettle which was just beginning to whistle.

  On the far side of the cooking fire was a small woman with short golden locks that just touched at the ends of her ears and lay loosely on her neck. She wore a simple russet tunic and simple wool boots that rose above her ankles. Her seat was a simple wooden chair that had the added extravagance of a crimson, plump cushion.

  She motioned for Bayne to approach, and he did, sheathing his sword.

  He was wary of this one, likely the first of the sisters of the temptress outside, but her demeanor seemed pleasant and simple. As Bayne neared, he noted her features were not unattractive, though she was no natural beauty as the dark-haired one had been. Her skin was pale, her nose pointed but not sharp, her eyes blue but not piercing.

  “Please, have a seat, good sir.” She waved a hand over the fire and an identical chair to her own appeared from nothingness.

  Bayne sat. And stared in silence across the flames to the woman.

  She raised an arm over the empty frying pan, tilting the hand as if showing off rare gems or jewels. “Would you partake of my lunch, good sir?”

  Bayne glanced at the skillet. “It is empty, fair one.”

  “Look again,” she said.

  Bayne blinked, and a half dozen strips of bacon appeared sizzling in the center of the pan.

  “That is a fine trick,” he said.

  She nodded. “Yes, it is. Many a fine soldier would wish for such fare when on the march.”

  “I am no soldier,” Bayne explained, “nor am I on the march.”

  “You appear to be marching somewhere, my friend. To where, I would ask?”

  Bayne stared at her, a good, long stare. Could he trust this one? She seemed less intrusive than the seductress, but Bayne did not know this woman. She appeared to be a fine enough female, both physically and verbally, but the mountain was a strange place filled with dangers and magic.

  His lack of fear decided him. “I follow a man in black robes. He likely would have passed near these parts in the last few days.”

  The woman scrunched up her eyes and stared into the frying pan as if she were having a difficult time remembering something. Finally, she said, “There has been no one but yourself through these caverns in the longest of times. The road around the mountain lies far to the other end of these tunnels.”

  “I thank you,” Bayne said, standing as if to depart. “You have provided more knowledge than did you sister.”

  “My sister?” The woman shot up out of her seat, her hands suddenly nervous and fidgeting before her. “You have met one of my sisters?”

  Bayne nodded back the way he had came. “She of the long, dark hair.”

  “Oh, oh!” The woman spun about and away from her chain, frantic as she moved from one side of the cave to the other and back, pacing in anxiousness. She would not look at Bayne though she continued to speak with a hurried voice, the words seeming more for herself than for the warrior. “Must beware of her! She is a trickster, that one. She will defile and debase all that is pure, all that is honorable!”

  Bayne stepped forward and placed a firm hand on one of her shoulders.

  The woman stopped immediately, her eyes wide and pleading as she looked up to the big man.

  “No harm came to me, so still yourself, woman,” Bayne said. “In truth, your sister was of assistance to me in a dire circumstance.”

  “She would!” The words were nearly spat. “She only came to your aid to have you for herself!”

  Bayne removed his hand from the woman and laughed. He tossed his bald head back, closed his eyes and let go with a mighty guffaw to the ceiling and any gods above. Finally, “Woman, I am not so easily tamed. Control yourself.”

  She did. She lowered her hands and her head and returned to her seat, plopping down in the chair as swiftly as if she had been ordered to by a master.

  Bayne looked to the woman with sympathy. She was one of the few along his mountain path who had not tried to cause him harm or grief. As well, she seemed trapped here somehow, perhaps by strong magics or perhaps even an ailment of the mind that would not allow her to free herself. Still, there seemed little Bayne could do for her. She appeared healthy and capable and safe, and it was not Bayne’s duty to save every distressed damsel who crossed his path.

  “My apologies to you, good woman,” he said with a nod, “but I must be on my way.”

  He turned to leave.

  “Will you not stay?”

  Bayne looked back to her. “I must not. The longer I delay, the further my target gets away from me.”

  “But why do you have to go after him?” Her eyes were pleading again, her hands clutched tightly in her lap.

  Bayne sighed. “It is a long tale, my lady. One that would delay me even more.”

  A smile sprang onto her face. “You could stay! I can bring you more than bacon! Anything you wish. Ask and it will be yours. Ale, bread, steak, mead, any and all.”

  “Many thanks, but no.”

  “I would make a good wife!” she blurted, standing, her hands running along her hips. “I am ripe for child bearing, and would make a strong mother. You are a fine, strong man and would make an excellent mate.”

  Bayne’s gaze filled with pity. She was throwing herself at him, the desperate woman.

  Her hands snapped out and grasped him by a wrist. “Please, you must stay! I will be good to you. I can give you everything a good husband desires. My sisters cannot promise such. They have their qualities, but they are no mothers.”

  Bayne at
tempted with his free hand to tenderly pry away the woman’s fingers, but her grip was too strong. Too strong? How could that be? Bayne had never known a man physically more powerful than himself, let alone a woman.

  “Release me,” he said.

  She did not. “No! No, you will stay here with me. I will be your wife and the mother to our children. You will be the good husband and father, hunting for our feasts and bringing home trinkets from far lands to our brood.”

  She leaned back toward her chair, gently pulling Bayne along with her.

  Again he was surprised by her strength. He was forced to take a step just to keep up with her.

  But enough. The pity that had resided in Bayne’s orbs died away to be replaced with anger.

  “Harpy!” he shouted. “You are no better than your other!”

  With those words he clamped a hand onto one of her wrists and twisted. She cried out as the flesh felt as if burning beneath his rough touch. He twisted further and she released her grip.

  The woman fell back onto her seat.

  Bayne wasted no time and sprang away, dashing down the far tunnel and away from the woman and her grotto.

  “Come back to me!” Her voice trailed after him. It bounced along the walls in echoes.

  But Bayne did not go back. He kept one hand along the left wall so as not to lose his place and kept running.

  The woman continued to yell and scream.

  Eventually her faded died away with distance and Bayne slowed to a walk. Glancing about, he was glad to find the strange glow of the cave still allowed him sight, as limited as it was. He was also glad to be away from that woman. The first sister had said there were two others, which meant one still lay along his path. He would be wary of her. But the second sister had spoken of the road at the far end of the tunnel, the direction Bayne was sure he was heading. That final thought gave him hope and he trotted on.

  As Bayne traveled, the glow of the cave grew in luminosity, allowing him to drop his outstretched hand along the left wall. The light was still dim, but it was as of an early morn and well enough by which to see. His sword out and leading the way, Bayne increased his speed.

  His travels seemed to last for hours. The cave curved left back into the depths of the mountain for some while, then there was a sharp turn to the right followed by a long, straight path that gradually climbed. Fortunately for Bayne there were few offshoots from his main path, and these side routes were small and narrow and thus of no interest. Bayne wanted to reach the outside, preferably near the mountain road, and none of the lesser tunnels he spotted appeared to lead in the direction he surmised was the surface.

  After some little while, he once more spotted light ahead. It was a steady light, firm and unbending. Bayne grinned. This could be but sunlight ahead.

  He sped even faster than before, running and running, jumping over small outcroppings of stone and rock and other minor stalagmites.

  The nearer he approached this new brightness, the more he became convinced it was daylight. The nearer he grew to it, the warmer his surroundings became. Sweat even appeared to gloss his potent muscles.

  A stone’s throw from the light, Bayne slowed to a walk. Ahead he could indeed see the cave opened up once again to the outside world. From his vantage point he could make out a flat sward of green that ended at a drop-off some little distance from the cave’s mouth; beyond the cliff’s edge was the day’s sky, bright with blue and the white wisps of clouds. Thankfully there was no black screen here as before when he had entered, but perhaps that had been a device of the temptress with the black hair.

  Stepping into the light of day, Bayne’s smile broadened. He was indeed outside again, though he did not spy the road. The sward stretched far to his left and right, and young trees wearing fruit haphazardly lined the wall of the mountain now just behind the big man.

  The scent of cooking bacon came to his nose once more.

  Bayne sniffed. To his left was from where the smell came, likely around a bend in the mountain side.

  He ignored it for the moment and walked out to the cliff’s edge. He stared down in hopes of seeing the road below. But no, there was but a long fall into a gray mist in which the tops of other crags and some few trees appeared as ghosts. Bayne glanced up, his hopes not yet dashed. Above there lay only more mountain, gray and silent and forlorn.

  The grin slid from the warrior’s face as he sighed. To the smell of the bacon, then. Perhaps the witch could provide him with the location of the road. Or perhaps he could force the information from her, if need be. Mayhap he could even find out if Verkanus had passed this way, and how long ago, for Bayne had lost all track of time while within the mountain.

  He sauntered off in the direction from which came the aroma of the cooking meat, his boots leaving imprints in the grass as he crossed the green ledge. Rounding the bend in the mountain, the new site brought him up short.

  Before him sat a woman on a rock, her back to him. Her presence alone had not stopped the warrior in his tracks, for he had expected her there, but she was unlike her two sisters, unlike any woman with whom Bayne had been familiar.

  He could as yet perceive her features as her face was turned away, but she was tall and well muscled, appearing as strong as many a man. A shirt of bronzed scales layered her back and chest over a leather doublet that reached down her arms just past the elbows. Wrapping her wrists were leather bracers inlaid with wide strips of gray stone, while tanned leggings covered her legs, disappearing into deerskin moccasins. Most notable to Bayne, however, and causing his breath to catch, was a single braid of auburn suspended beneath a round, hammered helm and ending in drifts near the back of her waist. Beneath this golden-brown coil hung a curved sword, the hilt rising above the woman’s right shoulder.

  She was a warrior born. Her arms and legs, her armor, the sword, all were evidence of this. Bayne never had known such a female. He had witnessed women caught up in war, some who had picked up weapons to fight side-by-side with their men or to protect loved ones, but none had been a natural warrior nor a trained soldier.

  She rolled her head just enough so he could make out her profile. Strong nose. Carved but graceful chin. High cheek bones. A curl of russet draping down from beneath her helmet to fall between eyes the color of a dying storm.

  Her head veered further so she could see him.

  She stood and faced him. “I am Valdra.” Her voice was a knife grating through ice.

  “I am Bayne.”

  “I have expected you, Bayne,” she said. “My sisters informed me of your presence. You follow the mad king.”

  Bayne glanced about as if expecting the two sisters to appear, not noticing his own slight crouch at the potential danger.

  Valdra smiled. “We are alone, for now.”

  Bayne stood tall once more. “You are the first to give me your name.”

  “My sisters are secretive,” Valdra said with a shrug. “It can be expected of sorceresses.”

  “You are no witch, then?”

  Valdra continued to smile though her eyes narrowed. “Not in the same manner as they.”

  Bayne rolled his eyes. “As ever with women. Words that have no meaning.”

  Valdra chuckled. “And as ever with men. Not willing to seek a meaning.”

  Their eyes locked. There was no more laughter between them, but also no signs of hostility. The world around them grew silent. No birds clamored through the air. No insects sang beneath their feet. The only sound remaining was that of the shallow breaths from between their own lips.

  Valdra glanced away and the moment passed. She turned and waved a hand over a small fire that had been hidden by her body. “Would you partake?” The fire was ringed by stones the size of a fist. Hanging over the flames was a little pig skewered on a spit of iron.

  “I believe I will not,” Bayne said. “I do not trust eating the fare of witches.”

  Valdra grinned once more. “There have been too many fairy tales,” she said. “Witches must eat
the same as any woman. Not every meal can be poisoned or laced with potions.”

  Bayne grunted. “No, not every meal, but perhaps that one.”

  Valdra laughed again, then slid a small dagger from beneath one of her wrist bracers. “Very well, Bayne kul Kanon. If you will not accept my hospitality, I hope you will not consider it rude if I should continue with my feast.”

  He nodded.

  Valdra returned to her seat of stone. She sliced a long, thin sliver of pig meat and speared it with her knife. She held the blade up and watched the steam linger above the cooling slice of pork. Then with a grin she stabbed the meat into her mouth and chewed.

  Bayne eased forward to one side of the woman, watching her.

  She cut another hunk of the meat. “Do you trust my meal now?”

  “Because it does you no harm does not mean my own safety is assured.”

  Valdra laughed again, her hardest, longest laugh yet. Her laughter was so boisterous, for a moment it appeared as if she would choke. Then she slapped a knee and stabbed the meat into her mouth once more, chewing and chewing and chewing before swallowing.

  The she stared up at Bayne with a smile all teeth. “More pig for me, then.”

  She went on eating, slicing and cutting and poking the pig meat into her maw.

  Bayne had never witnessed a woman with such an appetite. She was not piggish nor sloppy with her eating habits, but she did not dawdle nor poke about with her food. She ate with purpose and rigidity.

  It was almost comical to see.

  Finally, Bayne let loose with a chuckle of his own.

  Between bites, she glanced up at him. “You could at least have a seat,” she said.

  Bayne suddenly noticed a folding stool of wood and cloth next to him. He glared at it, then back to the woman.

  She pointed at the chair with her dagger.

  Bayne grimaced but sat. Why he sat, he was not sure. Valdra had so far been no help to him in his travels. However, he had to admit she seemed more open than her sisters. Perhaps once she was finished with her meal she would provide Bayne with knowledge, such as the way to the road. Perhaps she even knew the location of Verkanus himself.

  As if underscoring his potential faith in her, Valdra threw down her dagger, the point sticking into the ground between her feet.

  “You have questions?” she asked.

  A more direct approach. Bayne approved. “Yes.”

  “The road is back the way you came,” Valdra said, pointing in the direction. “Where you turned left from the cave, instead turn right. Follow the grassy ledge around the mountain to the other side. It is a good walk, but eventually the ledge dips down and you will find the road below. There will be a short drop, but I believe you can manage the climb.”

  “Very well.” Bayne stood. “My thanks.”

  “There is more,” the woman said. “This emperor you seek, he is near.”

  One of Bayne’s eyebrows rose in curiosity.

  “You lost more time than you believed at the village and the tavern,” Valdra went on, “but your trip through the mountain has shortened your course. You are but several hours behind Verkanus.”

  Bayne nodded. “The tunnel was a fortunate route instead of the annoyance it had seemed.”

  “It was.”

  “Very well,” Bayne repeated. “Again, my thanks.”

  He turned to leave.

  The dark-haired temptress from the cave entrance stood there, mere feet away, almost within sword-striking distance.

  Bayne sprang to one side, away from the beauty and her sister in armor. His sword slipped into his hands, gripped in front of him. “Treachery!”

  “Not from me.” Valdra retrieved her dagger and went back to slicing meat from the stuck pig.

  She of the black hair grinned.

  Bayne glanced from one woman to the other and back again. His leg muscles tensed, ready to spring to action.

  “Nor from me,” another voice sounded.

  Bayne spun.

  The other sister had appeared, the one with intentions of marriage and motherhood. She sat on her familiar cushioned chair opposite Valdra, across the dancing flames of the fire.

  Bayne took several hasty steps back so as to have all three in sight.

  The dark-haired beauty laughed and approached her sisters. An iron divan, bolstered with padding, emerged from the nothingness of the air across the fire from Bayne. This last sister standing eased onto the couch, lounging back against its cushioning.

  “Care for a bite?” Valdra asked, extending an offering of meat from the tip of her knife.

  The temptress snarled.

  The motherly one blanched and sat back on her chair.

  Bayne stood his ground, sword extended.

  Valdra glanced to him. “You are jumpy for such a fine, strong fighter.”

  “I have learned to distrust magic and those who wield it,” Bayne said.

  Valdra popped the pig meat into her mouth, chewed and tossed her blade point-first into the ground once more. She swallowed, then, “My sisters can cause you no harm.”

  The temptress hissed.

  The other sister’s eyes went wide.

  “Why is that?” Bayne asked, curious.

  Valdra chuckled, stood and faced the big man. “Because you are immune to their charms. One wishes for a husband. The other wishes you in her bed. Neither is likely to happen.”

  “And what do you wish?”

  “I?” Valdra said. “I wish but for a good horse and strong steel.” She extended a hand to him. “Bayne kul Kanon, I will not cross blades with you, nor will I attempt to bewitch you. I have no such need or want. To ensnare one such as you would be a disservice not only to yourself, but to me and the rest of humankind. I would not see a tiger beaten and tamed, but running free.”

  Bayne was stunned by her bluntness, and the end of his sword swayed the slightest bit. But could he trust her? She had not been like her sisters; Valdra had shown no signs of attempting to enslave him. Or were her words merely a game in which she was trying to stay one step ahead of him?

  He thrust his sword into its sheath. He was Bayne kul Kanon. He would not learn fear today.

  He stepped forward and gripped her proffered hand. It was a strong grip, as strong as Bayne’s own. Again he was reminded of the strength the mothering sister had shown. Could these three women be a match for him? Had Bayne had a mistake in his trust?

  Valdra grinned, and all Bayne’s concerns were swept away. This was a woman with honor, one who would not use guile to attempt to confine him.

  She squeezed, then their hands parted.

  She took a step back, as did Bayne, the two watching one another.

  “I have told you the route to take,” Valdra said, nodding in the direction.

  “Aye,” Bayne said.

  Then he turned and walked away.

  “Coward!” screamed the temptress. “You are no man! But a man lover!”

  Bayne continued walking.

  “Please, won’t you save me?” pleaded the sister seeking a mate. “I can give you a good life, and a home and a family.”

  But Bayne did not turn back.

  He rounded the corner from which he had come, and the women’s voices were no more. Even the crackles of the cooking fire were lost to distance.

  Crossing the sward once more, passing the cave entrance without a glance, Bayne’s mind paused on Valdra. She had been a good woman, a strong woman. Perhaps once he was finished with Verkanus, once he had found out the secrets he had been promised, then he might return for her.

  For now, though, he still had a king to catch.

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