From the author: This is the opening of A God in Chains (Edge SF and Fantasy Publishing, 2019) an adventure/mystery novel set in the fantasy milieu known as the Dying Earth.
As if half-waking from a dream, I found myself walking along a dirt road scored with wagon tracks and hoof prints, with occasional deposits of animal dung. Something about the combination said caravan to me. To either side of the road was a flat and level plain covered in dry grass, with clumps of some kind of prickly bush I couldn’t name. Farther off in one direction was a line of hills with patches of stumpy trees; in the other, the plain continued, unbroken.
The sun was over the hills, so they were either west or east, depending on whether the sun was coming up or going down. After I’d walked on a ways, I looked again and decided it was higher than when I’d first observed it; that meant it was morning and I was walking south. By the freshness of some of the dung, I decided I wasn’t far behind the caravan. When I looked ahead, I thought I could see dust on the horizon.
It occurred to me that I should walk a little faster. A man alone on an empty savanna would be in trouble if he ran into the kind of people who haunted empty spaces. An image came into my mind: men on shaggy ponies, hung about with lances and swords, bolt-throwers in their hands. I looked down at the broad belt that confined my upper garment and, seeing not even a dagger, I started to trot toward the dust.
Now it was like coming all the way out of a dream. I’d been walking, now I was trotting. The exercise seemed to clarify my mind. I stopped and turned around. The grassy plain stretched on to the north, broken only by the scar of bare earth I’d been following. There was nothing to suggest where I’d come from or how I’d got here.
I did another, more comprehensive self-examination and found nothing: no purse, no wallet, only me in a shirt and trousers of good-quality cloth, with well-made boots on my feet, but no hat or neckcloth. No pack or water bottle. Like a man who had stepped out into the street on some mundane errand.
So, I’m not a tramp, I thought. Which, of course, raised the fundamental question: What am I?
That led to other questions: where was I and how did I get here? And why didn’t I know the answers? I felt my head, but encountered no bruises or sore spots. That eliminated one possibility, which left only two others: magic or the ingesting of some drug that removed memory.
I started to jog south again. The problem with those two remaining possibilities was that I was unlikely to have done them to myself. That meant someone had done this to me, and probably not for my benefit. I had an enemy or, at least, someone who didn’t wish me well.
I increased my pace. After a few footfalls, I added two new items to my skimpy store of knowledge: I wasn’t particularly old and I was in good physical condition.
The plain turned out to be high plateau, as I discovered when the road turned to zig-zag down a long incline. Below me, I saw the land rumple and fold, copses of trees sprouting around meadows of grass that was properly green. The bare dirt of the caravan trail met a stone road where the forest thickened and stretched unbroken to the horizon.
Civilization, I thought, and maybe not far ahead. I jogged on down the slope.
By the time the land leveled out again, I was walking a broad causeway cut through the forest. The stone road was wide enough for two full-sized carts to pass each other and the land to either side had been cleared the width of a bowshot. That had all sorts of implications, the upshot of which was that, as an unarmed man on his own, I needed to catch up with the caravan as soon as I could.
I set myself a pace of fifty steps walking followed by fifty jogging. I wasn’t sure why that was a familiar mode of covering distance, but my body’s response said I had done it before. I wondered how long it had been since I had eaten, since that would determine how long I could keep it up.
But I wasn’t hungry, which was a good sign, although as the day warmed, I was getting thirsty.
In the mid afternoon, I saw more light in the sky ahead. I slowed and approached with caution. If there was a clearing ahead it might be occupied. If it was occupied, there might be sentries watching the road, and sentries tended to have a jaundiced view of strangers who came running toward them. I didn’t know how I knew that, but I wasn’t prepared to question my own judgment.
The road entered a wide, open space and ran across it to where a wooden stockade built of upright logs stood in the middle of the clearing. The road ended at a pair of tall wooden gates flanked by timber towers. There were men in the towers, and the moment I came out from the shade of the trees I saw one of them pointing at me. A moment later, a horn sounded and all along the wall facing me heads and shoulders of armed men appeared.
I approached at a walking pace and, when I got within range of a bolt-thrower, I spread my arms to let all the eyes on me see that I was unarmed. I stopped in front of the gate and turned a slow circle.
A helmeted, red-bearded man in one of the towers said, “What do you want?”
“To come in.”
“And do what?”
“Get a drink of water,” I said. “I’m hot and thirsty.”
The guard spat and said nothing to me, but spoke over his shoulder to another man. Waiting for someone who has the authority to make the decision, I thought.
In a little while, another man came up beside Red Beard, this one with a softly rounded hat instead of a helmet and a black beard streaked with gray. He gave me a good looking-over, then said something I couldn’t hear. The red-bearded guard disappeared and moments later one side of the gate swung inward just wide enough for a man to get through.
The older man up above beckoned with a finger. I went forward and squeezed between the unfinished wood of the gates’ edges. A splinter caught in my sleeve just below the shoulder and I reached to pull it out.
A hard hand grabbed my arm, pushed me so I was off-balance, and thrust me against the inner surface of the gate. I put my hands out to keep from crashing into the timbers and felt my ankles being roughly kicked apart. I was then subjected to a search that seemed unnecessarily rough.
“Easy,” I said. “I’m not—”
That got me a hard slap against the side of my head and an order to, “Shut it!”
I turned around. The red-bearded guard moved in close enough that I could smell the onions and garlic that had been part of his midday meal. A couple of others, similarly clad in leather jerkins and conical helmets, were there to back him up.
“Try that again,” I said.
Instead of another slap, he went for a short, sharp punch aimed at my floating ribs. But he was one of the kind whose eyes let you know when it’s coming. I blocked the blow, stepped inside his reach, and took hold of his wrist. A half-second later, he was flying over my shoulder to land hard on the packed dirt in front of the gate.
Well, I seem to know how to do that, I thought.
Give him credit, he didn’t lie there looking up at me for long. He got up fast and swung a haymaker at my head. It would have been a painful experience if I hadn’t leaned back, let it go harmlessly past, then stepped in again and given him three sharp blows to his prominent nose, the third of which broke the bone.
Blood spurted and his eyes watered with the pain. I turned to see what his two friends might be good for and saw them giving each other the kind of sideways looks that said neither one of them wanted to be the first to come into range. But, if they could coordinate effectively…
“That’s enough,” said an authoritative voice.
The dark-bearded man who had ordered the gates opened had come down from the tower. He was dressed in a merchant’s robe, yellow silk with a broad green sash of braided cloth from which hung a ring of heavy keys. He was regarding me with a gaze that said I was being weighed up.
Then he indicated the two guards with a motion of his chin and said, “Could you take the two of them together?”
I gave him an honest answer, “Think so.”
He considered me for a few more heartbeats. Finally, he gave a nod that said he was making a decision. “Could you teach them how to do it?”
I didn’t know if I’d ever been an instructor, so I hedged my bet. “If they’re willing to work at it,” I said.
He nodded again. “They’d be willing,” he said. He spoke to the three guards. “Get better at your jobs, you’ll get better paid.”
The two who hadn’t been touched let their faces say they were all right with that idea. Red Beard was looking at me in a way that told me he would be all right with the idea of bashing my brains in when I wasn’t looking.
“You’d need help,” I told him, “and I think your friends would rather have the extra pay.”
He said something I didn’t catch. I didn’t ask him to repeat it. I turned my back on him.
The merchant was watching this bit of byplay with a half smile. “What’s your name?” he said.
I opened my mouth to answer, but nothing came out. It should have occurred to me when I didn’t know what I was that I also wouldn’t know who I was.
“Ah,” I said, after a moment, “that seems to be a problem.”
His name was Nulf Bernaglio and this was his caravan. It consisted of twenty high-sided, canvas-topped wagons, each drawn by six mules, with a human complement of one muleteer for each vehicle and ten guards. The caravanserai had its own small garrison of twenty men. Eighteen of the wagons were loaded with valuable goods — silks, unguents, spices, and steel weapons — from the bazaars at Ur Nazim. The remaining two carried fodder and water for the stock, and food for the men. There were also two additional wagons belonging to taggers-along whose owners, I later learned, took their chances at the rear of the procession where an attack by reivers was most likely to come.
As I followed Bernaglio to his capacious tent, I surveyed the layout of the camp. The wagons were formed into a circle, with the animals tethered to picket lines on either side of the space the vehicles enclosed. The master’s tent, with an armed guard at each corner, was in the center of the circle, next to a covered well. In the event that an attack penetrated the stockade, the wagons would make a redoubt for the defenders to fall back to.
As I told that to myself, I realized that I must have had some experience in assessing military situations. Maybe I was a soldier, I thought.
Bernaglio led me into his tent, which was surprisingly cool. He made himself comfortable on a brocaded divan but left me standing. A servant appeared from behind a hanging divider. The master gestured for him to withdraw.
“Wait,” I said. “I need a drink of water.”
The man hesitated, looking to Bernaglio, who made another gesture. The servant left and came back with a jug. I drank half of the contents in four gulps and when the man reached for the container, I said, “I’ll keep it.”
When we were alone again, Bernaglio said, “You have no idea who you are?”
“I’m beginning to think I might be a soldier. Or have been one.”
“Come closer,” he said. “Show me your hands.”
I did as he wanted. He studied the backs of my hands briefly then said, “What is this scar?”
I looked and saw an irregular splotch of white cicatrice tissue on the webbing between the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. “I hadn’t noticed it,” I said.
“A burn,” he said, thoughtfully. “Maybe a caustic substance.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Turn them over.” When I did, he rubbed his thumb across the base of my fingers. “Those are the callouses a sword’s hilt makes. Though they are not recent.”
“More evidence,” I said.
“What do you remember?”
I told him about walking the trail, the way it felt like waking from a dream. He scratched his beard and called for the servant, gave him an order. The man left and came back with a small coffer of chased copper. Bernaglio used a small key on his ring to open it and took out a silver brooch set with a polished stone. He stood and brought the gem close to my chest then turned it in his hand and looked at it.
When he had taken it from the coffer, the stone had been green. Now it was a fiery red.
“You have been in contact with magic,” he said, “but the contact was negligible. It was near you, but you were not its focus. It’s doubtful that is the cause of your forgetfulness. You are not now under a spell or geas.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not a thaumaturge,” Bernaglio said. “You could possibly consult one when we reach Exley.”
“Exley,” I said. A picture came into my head: a sprawling town on either side of a wide river crossed by two stone bridges. I saw walls and towers and streets of stone, a big white dome.
Bernaglio was watching me. “You’ve been there?”
“I think so.”
He scratched his beard again. “But you haven’t been here before.”
“Not that I recall,” I said.
“Or Ur Nazim?”
No image came to me. “Don’t think so.”
He was thinking again, then he reached for a slate and chalk on a nearby table. He wrote a word and showed it to me, asked me to pronounce it.
“Saskardia,” I said.
He put away the slate. “You’re not from Ur Nazim. You’re from the south. Old Almery, probably.”
He must have read the question in my face because he explained. “If you’re from the north, the word starts with suss. If you’re from the south, you say, sass. You’re a sasser.”
“All right,” I said. “I’m in no position to argue.”
“The question is, what is a Southron doing on the road from Ur Nazim to Exley?”
“That’s just one of the questions,” I said.
He made a two-handed gesture that said that didn’t matter for now. “In Exley, you can ask a wizard,” he said. “By then you will have earned enough to hire one.”
I didn’t comment, but something in the back of my mind told me I didn’t care to be in the company of wizards.
“I’m not going to turn you into experts,” I told the men gathered in front of me. “I’m just going to teach you enough to be dangerous.”
Four of the guards had been sent to my class. Five more were on the stockade walls, watching. Bernaglio had kept just one to guard his tent. A dozen or so muleteers had also come to watch, whether to learn something or just to be entertained. Once the animals had been fed and watered, and their manure shoveled into a pile, there wasn’t much amusement in a caravanserai.
I showed them the basics: the soft parts you could hit to do maximum damage with no risk of hurting your own hands or feet; the simple throws, like the one I’d used on the red-bearded guard, whose name turned out to be Gashtun; the upthrust heel of the hand to the nostrils that could drive the nasal bone into the brain; and the side of the hand into the larynx, to crush it and cut off the windpipe. I instructed them, then I divided them into pairs and let them practice on each other. Some of them showed an aptitude. With more practice, they would be dangerous.
Gashtun kept putting too much into it, as if he was showing off for an easily entertained audience.
“No,” I told him. “Less is more. Get in close, do the damage. The shorter the blow, the less chance the enemy can block it.”
But he wouldn’t listen, at least not to me. Then, after one of the talented muleteers threw him the way I’d thrown him the day before, he got up swearing and left the session.
We stayed at the camp another day, until the mules were fully recovered from the long trek across the savanna. I got in some more teaching, then left it to them to practice in their own spare time. Most of the guards caught on quickly. By the end of the second day of instruction, they could receive a thrust from a spear, disarm the attacker, reverse the weapon, and deliver a killing thrust. Some of the muleteers were also coming along nicely.
Bernaglio watched the last session. Afterward, he said, “I hope I’m not training and motivating bandits.”
“Pay them extra,” I said. “They’ll fight if the time comes.”
“Speaking of which,” he said, “these are for you.”
He beckoned to a servant waiting behind him who brought up a spear, sword, and helmet. They were of better quality than what the guards had.
I drew the sword from its scabbard. It had a fine balance and the tracing on the blade said it was of Ur Nazim manufacture.
“To keep?” I said. “Or for the duration?”
He had been watching how I handled the sword. Now he made an ambiguous gesture. “We’ll see.”
The caravanserais were sited an easy day’s travel from each other, with garrisons jointly paid for by the Margrave of Ur Nazim and the Oligarchs Council of Exley. Experienced travelers like Bernaglio knew that the likeliest spot for an ambush was when the mule train was close enough to shelter to make a run for it, but not so close as to encourage the garrison to make a sortie. The spoliators would try to separate the rearmost wagon from the rest and once the main body of the caravan had whipped up its mules to race for the caravanserai, they could loot the cargo and run off the stock.
We were an hour’s trek from the caravanserai when the merchant called a halt. He selected four of his own guards and sent them back to the rear, telling them he was putting me in charge. We were armed with bolt-throwers, only good at short range, but the kind that can be quickly cocked and loaded. I suggested short thrusting swords, and the merchant ordered them distributed from his cargo.
“It offends me that this filth think they can play me for a noddy,” Bernaglio said. “It’s time they met with a surprise.”
His plan was simple: we would hide in the last wagon and, when the robbers came running out of the trees, we would let them get close then give them a volley of darts tipped with razor-sharp iron.
“There should be time to reload and give them a second dose,” I said. “Then we come over the sides of the wagons and go at them with the sword.”
Bernaglio nodded. “They’re used to frightening the wagon drivers, who don’t put up much of a fight and often jump down and run. Kill a few of them and they might think twice about it next time I come this way.”
The owners of the last two wagons were a pair of brothers, wiry little Ur Nazimites whose cargo of dyed woolens and soft leather boots, hats, and gloves represented every groat they had. They would join us in the rearmost vehicle, whose canvas covering was rigged so that a hard tug on a rope-and-pulley arrangement would suddenly lift the cloth and give us a clear field to shoot into.
“You approve?” Bernaglio asked me.
“The trick,” I said, “will be in the timing. We want them close enough to do them damage, but not so close that we can’t get off a second volley.”
“That depends on the man in charge keeping a cool head,” he said.
“So it does.” I couldn’t remember having done anything like this before, but somehow I wasn’t unduly concerned.
“Motion in the trees,” said Besserine, the elder of the Ur Nazimite brothers. He was peering through a loophole cut in the canvas.
“What about the other side?” I asked his brother, who was looking through his own hole. I hadn’t learned his name.
“Nothing,” he said. “They usually attack from one side or the other.”
“Right,” I said and spoke through the opening at the front of the wagon to tell the driver to slow it down a little. I wanted our vehicle to be the reivers’ sole focus.
The rest of the caravan pulled away.
“More movement,” said the elder brother.
“Nothing,” said the younger one.
“Let me see.” I put an eye to each of the loopholes in turn. “Right,” I said again, keeping watch on the action side. “Ready on the rope, prepare to receive on this side.”
The men with bolt-throwers kneeled and cocked their weapons, each with a second missile in their off-trigger hand.
“Here they come,” I said, as I saw a double line of men — between fifteen and twenty of them — come out of the trees. They ran bent over, long knives, swords, and spears in their hands. One big one carried a heavy cudgel.
The men in the wagon shifted. “Wait for it,” I said.
A shout came from somewhere up the line of wagons and I heard the crack of whips and the voices of muleteers urging their animals to make speed. The driver of our wagon made a show of doing likewise, but still we fell farther behind.
“Ready on the rope,” I said.
“Just tell me when,” said Besserine. He sounded calm enough.
“Still nothing this side,” said his brother.
“Steady,” I said. “Almost there.”
The bandits were not crouch-running anymore. They came on fast, and I heard an ululating sound from several of them, an eerie wail they surely intended to unsettle the driver and make him jump down and run to catch up with the departing caravan.
They were close, then closer, then...
The pulley worked well. The wagon’s canvas top lifted smoothly and suddenly there was a rising gap between the sides and the cloth. The spoliators kept on coming.
“Take time to aim,” I said. “Ready! Loose!”
The driver had dropped his reins and picked up his own thrower. He shot with the rest of us, and eight missiles went thrumming across the cleared ground. Seven of them hit flesh, mostly in the first line of attackers. I heard screams and a groan.
“Reload! Hit ‘em again!” I called, even as I yanked back the action of my thrower, set the dart in its slot, and let fly.
But the targets were crouching now and some in the second line had turned to flee. I caught one of these, the dart piercing the left side of his back below the shoulder blade.
“Swords!” I shouted. “At them!”
I vaulted over the side of the wagon, drew the sword Bernaglio had given me, and charged. They were all running away now. Besserine had taken up a light javelin. He threw it and hit one of the runners in the back of his thigh. The man went down and before he could pull the point free, the other Ur Nazimite was upon him. A quick motion of a curved dagger and the reiver’s throat was cut.
One of the pursued was an older man, his hair a mass of gray bound up in a filthy ribbon. I caught him before he could make it to the trees and slid the point of my sword into his lower back. He screamed and I twisted the blade and thrust it higher. He fell forward, hands spasming at the grass, his weight pulling him free of my weapon. I put the point on the nape of his neck and pushed it home. He stopped moving.
None of the guards had been unwise enough to go into the trees. I turned back to survey the fallen ambushers and was in time to see Besserine’s brother finishing off the last of the wounded. All of the men I had commanded were unhurt, though the wagon driver was shaking with after-action tremors. Abruptly, he bent over and spewed out the contents of his stomach.
I had seen that before, somewhere, though the memory would not come. But that realization made me take stock of my own state of mind. I found myself untroubled by what I had done. I’ve done this before, I thought.
We had killed ten of them. One or two more might have got away with light wounds. We searched the bodies for valuables, and that too struck me as nothing out of the ordinary. The older man I had killed had a pouch at his waist with some gold and silver coins, and he had worn an arm ring of heavy silver set with garnets. None of the others had carried as much and I thought he might have been the leader.
I told the guards they were entitled to keep what they found. I gave the arm ring to the driver — it was probably worth a month’s wages to him — and said, “You did well. Don’t let it bother you. The man you killed would have cut your throat and smiled.”
He wiped the traces of vomit from his lips and tried a smile of his own. I’d seen that look before, too.
In a far-future world of wizards and walled cities, an amnesiac finds himself trailing a wealthy merchant’s caravan across a dusty plain. Possessed of a soldier’s skills, he hires on with the merchant and begins to build a life. But his efforts to discover his past reveal a dark prospect: was he a participant in a notorious massacre of innocents?
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