The Desert - extract
(In South Edagwon some of Gudleifr’s companions have been captured by the Zergyls – humanoids similar to lizards, who breed man-eating horses)
“We’ve got ourselves into a pretty pickle,” observed Bald when the doors had shut behind the Zergyls.
“They surely cannot be leaving us in here with this corpse, can they?” Harald lamented, already most dismayed by the Zergyls, and by the uncertain future, which in the light of the decomposed corpse was taking on more distinct features.
“This is all my fault,” Waltheri said. “If only I had not hurt Hryg…”
“Tush, Waltheri,” Asgeirr consoled him, “However could you have known in the dark that he was not a deer? You are not Tankred. Stop blaming yourself and try instead to think of a means of escape.”
“No easy task,” said Caradac, flying down to them from somewhere in the dark above.
“Caradac!“ Sian cried joyfully, “How did you get here?”
“Caradac has been following you carefully, even into this disgusting castle,” The raven settled on his shoulder, “But he must confess that he would feel much better outside. That corpse stinks horribly.”
Morcant was trying to wrench open a link of the chain, while Dangrud, without effect, was sticking a splinter of wood into the lock on his left wrist.
“I suggest,” said Asgeirr, observing Dangrud and Morcant’s vain endeavours, “that we do not uselessly exhaust ourselves in attempts to get out of here, but instead rest and gather strength for whatever is to come. From the words of the slimy princess I have the impression that we shall be going into the arena to fight. We shall need to prevail. I am going to sleep.”
“I admire your lordly calm and sangfroid, Asgeirr,” said Bald. “But I cannot sleep next to this corpse.”
“Of course you can,” Asgeirr assured him, “if you only try.”
“Asgeirr is right”, Caradac agreed with the Physician. “Try to rest. After all, it is a long time since you have had a good sleep.”
The companions tried to follow Asgeirr’s advice, but only Asgeirr, Dangrud and Caradac eventually fell asleep. The others remained wakeful, with thoughts that were far from cheerful running through their heads.
They had no idea how long they had spent fettered in this hole when the door opened. The princess entered the cell accompanied by several Zergyls. Caradac had flown up into the darkness by the ceiling at the first suspicious sound, and the companions sprang immediately to their feet.
The princess gazed around the cell for a time and then took a torch from a Zergyl and descended. She stopped by the rotting corpse.
“Remove this at once!” she commanded.
Three Zergyls obeyed her order.
The princess approached the companions, but kept a distance longer than their chains, She carefully scrutinised each in turn, eventually lingering longest on Harald and Waltheri, although neither welcomed her attention. She seemed to be in great uncertainty as to which to choose. She seemed for a time to favour Harald, who was sweating with fear, but in the end her choice fell on Waltheri…
“Take him away,” she instructed the Zergyls, and Lansug darted foward with a key to unlock his fetters.
Bald, who was standing next to Waltheri, nimbly tripped the Zergyl and gave him a proper kick.
“What do you want to do with him?!” he shouted.
Dangrud, standing on the other side of the greenman, also made ready to defend his friend.
Etyumnil scowled, her golden eyes flashing with anger.
“Do something to them,” she thundered at the Zergyly, “But do not damage them!”
The Zergyls drove the resisting companions to the walls with spears, Lansug unlocked Waltheri’s chains and the greenman was immediately seized by two sturdy Zergyls, who tied his hands behind his back.
“Let him go!” gasped Sian, scarcely able to breathe with the spears pressing on his chest. Morcant shook his chains threateningly.
As the Zergyls pushed him up the stairs, Waltheri put up a struggle, desperately turning back to his friends. They were straining in their chains like maddened dogs but could not come to his aid.
Etyumnil stopped above on the stairs and watched the raging companions with a gratified expression.
“I am sure that the spectacle in the arena will be memorable,” she remarked
Then the door closed, and Caradac flew down.
“For God’s sake, what will they do to him?” whispered Sian.
“Caradac is afraid that it will not be at all good,” the raven said sadly, “but he cannot guess what it will be. They will not feed him to the horses, because there are none here. Perhaps he is already being taken to fight in the arena. In that case Caradac would not greatly fear for Waltheri. He is agile, skilled, ingenious and experienced. But only the Gods know what other intentions they may have for Waltheri. Caradac is almost afraid to think of it.”
“It is a pity Hryg did not tell us why the princess sends for rare catches like us,” sighed Asgeirr.
“Perhaps it is better not to know,” growled Dangrud.
“I will kill them if they harm a hair of Waltheri’s head,” hissed Sian vengefully.
“An empty boast, Sian Brown-Eye! There is nothing you can do against them and well you know it. You will be lucky to escape with just your skin,” Caradac rebuked him.
“Shut your doom-mongering beak!!” retorted Sian.
The affronted Caradac said no more. Silence descended in the cell, for no one had anything to say. They were all thinking of Waltheri and praying they would see him alive again.
“We sacrificed Tarbun Taro,” said Sian when much time had passed, “One might surely expect that in return Orlyg would lift at least a finger for Waltheri.”
“You don’t know how much power he has in these parts,” Dangrud shrugged, “Nor do you know whether Tarbun was sacrifice enough to ensure we would reach the Lakarins.”
“The sacrifice was to ensure our safe return to Ellad,“ objected Sian, “And if a human sacrifice is not good enough for Orlyg, then he is both mean and insatiable. Even so, I am ready to add a bullock once we get back home.”
“Maybe a prayer to our own god might not be entirely beside the point,” suggested Asgeirr.
“I’ve done with him,” said Bald, “he is lord here too, but what has he done for us? Nothing. If I die here, I shall definitely change my faith. But if you insist, you can pray for me too.”
After a while the door creaked open and Lansug entered. All eyes fixed on him anxiously, hoping he was bringing Waltheri, but Lansug was only bringing food.
“What has happened to Waltheri?” Morcant demanded.
“If you mean the one who was here with you,” the Zergyl shrugged, “he was taken away by the princess. I know no more.”
He laid the bowls on the floor and locked the door behind him.
“You ought to eat,” Caradac spoke after a moment, for no one had touched the food. “You will need all your strength. And you might also leave some remainders for Caradac.”
“That is true,” Asgeirr shook off his dark reverie, “we will not be helping Waltheri by going hungry. Have a bite,” he was the first to reach for a bowl.
“What is it?” Harald poked distrustfully at the food with a wooden spoon. .
“Eat, it won’t make a hole in your belly,” Morcant urged him.
“I wish I could be sure of that,” Harald knit his brow, but cautiously tasted the food. .
It was not too bad, although the pieces of meat mixed in the potage were extremely hard.
“Waltheri’s muscles were tough, but never this tough,” Dangrud remarked.
“You go too far, Dangrud…” Sian set his bowl aside.
“I hope so.”
“Don’t worry, eat,” Caradac cawed without looking up from the portion Sian had thrown him on the floor, “It is not human flesh. It is very antiquated cow.”
“For God’s sake, Caradac,” exclaimed Bald, horrified, “How can you tell it isn’t human flesh. Did you once…?“
“It was a long time ago. It was before Caradac knew you...”
“What in hell d’you mean?” Sian did not understand.
“Ahem… Caradac pecked at a hanged man. But only once, he swears. It is an unpleasant business. One raven pushes past another, they fight over a better morsel…But later Caradac became friends with people and he now considers it improper to pick at their corpses.”
“I’ve lost my appetite,” Morcant pushed his bowl away.
(The Journey to South Edagwon)
Translated by Anna Bryson