AN ISLAND IN THE SUN (c)
They had nothing to do but talk and keep as still as possible. Gradually they became used to the revolting pig-pen smell and that was some relief, but in a very short time the sun reached its height and talking with shrivelled, parched tongues became uncomfortable. They all took the best course and settled back to wait for the cool of the evening. The hours stretched. The sun glared at them as though angered by their presence while the baked surface of the compound bounced back and intensified the heat. The only things that moved were the ants and, occasionally, the flicking fingers that crushed them. Evening was a long time coming.
Their captors left them alone all day, and the captives had no idea what was happening outside the compound. Nobody could be seen through the various odd chinks in the gate and it occurred to Angren, as he lay, that the natives themselves must have retired to somewhere shady. He eyed the walls that hemmed them in. Ruined though the building was, the remaining close-set stonework made for a difficult climb, but if they were imprisoned for another day he might just risk it. Of course, his thoughts were not precise, he had no plans as yet, but already Angren was thinking about the inevitable escape and, despite Seama's reproving lectures on the subject, already he was contemplating revenge.
As the sun began to fall westward the prisoners were pleased to feel a cooling breeze climb over the walls, though not so pleased at the dust it blew into their faces. With no word of warning, two men appeared above and a little to one side of the gateway. They lowered a large bucket of water to the dusty floor, taking little care to prevent spillage. From where Angren lay the men seemed to be suspended in mid-air but they must have been standing on some sort of raised platform, or perhaps it was the remnant of a stair or tower. The prisoners could be viewed safely without the risk of opening the gate.
Angren and Bibron were slow from the heat and could not prevent those nearest the bucket from drinking more than their share but they were in time, at least, to make sure everyone got some. Bibron was the last to drink and the men respected him for it. Some time later another bucket was lowered and this contained a mushy, millet-like porridge. Partians were mostly meat eaters and proud of it and they looked upon this grey stuff with disgust. But no one refused a portion: it might just keep them alive for a little while longer.
Evening came on and moving about, under the watchful eyes of three of their captors up on their perch, became more bearable. Garaid, Angren and the Captain circulated among the prisoners, gathering whatever information they could. The first obvious point quickly confirmed was a tragedy for Bibron. Everyone had gruesome tales of the night before - apparently all the victims were members of the ship's crew. There were more than thirty spies and sailors in the compound, all with their private missions in jeopardy, but not a single man in the ship’s motley. Most of those captured had been picked up out of the surf as they came ashore. Others had been caught during the hunt, after they had escaped to the trees. Three men told the tale of a desperate battle on a rocky promontory. They had banded together with six of Bibron’s sailors and, with only a few weapons between them, fought off their attackers for more than an hour, killing and wounding several in the process. But there was no chance of escape and when more of the savages came they were overrun. The punishment for resistance was severe and prolonged with all the sailors tortured and mutilated before the three survivors were bound, beaten and dragged away through the forest. Angren felt sick remembering his own experience but Bibron exploded into a tempestuous rage. He ran over to confront the men on their tower.
"Why only mine, you bastards? Why only mine?" he yelled, “You’re nothin’ but cowardly scum!” The ‘cowardly scum’ were unmoved by his fury and said nothing.
Bibron cursed the savages to damnation; and he cursed the gods for their lack of protection; and he cursed the King for having set them on their journey; and he cursed himself for having brought them to this place. Angren stopped him when he began to curse even the wizard for having left them. With Garaid’s help he dragged him away from the walls and away from most of the other captives.
"Bibron, don't think your men had the worst of it," Garaid said to him, "If we're still alive it's because we're at war and you must know why we're wanted. We all know something of the King's plans and I don’t imagine we will benefit by it. Brutality and our friends up there seem like old partners."
Angren had not thought it through but it was clearly the truth. Some time soon the screaming would begin again. But was all this planned? Had their enemies been expecting the Cottle? Had they engineered its destruction? Not the savages who had hunted them down of course: someone else, someone more intelligent and more powerful. But who? Angren had no clue, because, as yet, Seama had not told him anything about this lot. The Black Company was on the other side of Gothery, wasn’t it? Maybe the whole episode had been an attempt to take Seama himself. He sought news of the wizard but no one had seen him since they were all cast into the water. Was he to believe Seama had drowned? Wizards were only men after all. Angren dismissed the thought. Seama Beltomé was not like other men, not even like other wizards. The thought that he might be dead was incredible to him.
The situation was not good. By the look of it they were securely penned in, overlooked by cautious guards, they were mostly weaponless, and generally horror struck. Angren, even though he struggled with his own worries, did not really understand the plain terror that held some of his gaol mates in thrall. Deep in shock from what they had already seen, they were all but immobilized by the fear of what would happen next. So Angren ignored them. There were others he could work with. Despite the seeming hopelessness of the situation there were options. There were always options, and together with Garaid and Bibron, the weapon-master began the debate, appraising their strengths, sizing up the height of the wall and making speculation on what lay beyond it. Their first task seemed clear: before they attempted any escape they would need some very basic information about their enemy. Reconnaissance was the key.
Angren studied the face of the wall furthest from the gate. Most of the climb was open to view.
“You’ll never do it,” said Garaid, “Face it, if you tried the climb now they’ll see what you’re up to, and if you wait until dark you won’t be able to find your footing. And you wouldn’t find out much in the dark either.”
“There’ll be some moon.”
“A thumbnail. You’d need the eyes of Queen Bethel.”
Garaid shook his head in amazement. “Did you have no stories at all when you were young?”
“Never mind the cat queen,” put in another, much sharper voice, “The pointing is too fine: you would need the Lizard’s Toes.” The speaker was a small man called Ruspa. This was the first time Angren had heard him speak. The weapon master looked him up and down: a thin, rat of a man, but obviously as fit as the rest of them; not handsome, his sharp features and the hard look in his eyes told against him.
“Any particular lizard?”
Ruspa almost answered and then changed his mind. “Try it if you want to: that lot out there will no doubt find a use for your broken bones.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“Perhaps that you learn to listen more and talk less.”
Angren’s smile became rather thin. Bibron stepped up between them.
“The man has a point, Angren.”
“Well, I reckon the stories we have as kids are a lesson to us and…”
“And if only I’d listened up when I was a lad I’d be a better man now? Or maybe I’d have a better idea of how to get out of here?”
Now it was Bibron’s turn to bridle. “Think you’re clever don’t you. Some stories are worth remembering. How is it, do you think, that everyone here except you knows exactly where they are, and who those bastards are, and has a good idea of the kind of trouble we’re in? You tell me that.”
Angren pursed his lips but found nothing to say. Bibron continued:
“We all know what sort of jackals our gaolers are. We all had the tale of The Halfi when we were children. Not you seemingly. But I dare say none of us here ever thought they’d find out any more, and I know that none of us ever wanted to. It’s not a nice story."
Several people around them nodded or gave the ‘aye’ to that. Angren considered for a few seconds. “Alright, alright! So I never listened. Well, I don’t suppose we’re going anywhere now a while: so why don’t you tell me all about it? Then maybe I’ll understand what you’re all gassing on about. That do you?”
Bibron grinned. “I reckon. Never to late to learn, as they say!” He planted himself on top of a low remnant of the inner wall and settled himself with a deep breath. “Right then: this is the Story of the Kingdom of Halfi, and it’s Bibron Farber as is doing the talking, so shut up and listen!"
Next is “The Kingdom of Halfi”
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
Island in the Sun (b)
12/5/2012 wkj fantasy
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