Sorcery in Shad
At your age? And why the hell anyway? The last time I saw you, in Chlangi, I gave you gems to last a lifetime. Stumpy was thin and bent as old Gleeth the crescent moon where he rode above the ridge. Well, I'll cut it short, Tarra Khash: hard times, my friend, hard timeswhich called for harsh measures. I knew I took a chance, but better dead than marooned out here, miles from anywhere, and slowly shrivelling to bones!
He whistled for his beast, which came at the trot. I could eat the saddle right off your mount's back! Or you can keep the saddle and I'll wrap my gums round the camel instead!
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Where can we make camp? Indeed the very boulder lay shattered now, a broken wall of jagged rock fronting the cave, which should shelter their fire and hide its light. But: "Who needs a fire? Stop torturing me and give me some food.
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The tinder caught at once. He opened it, produced apples, dried meat, a little cheese. Stumpy, hands shaking with hunger, seated himself upon a flat rock and fell to it. There were tears in his one good eye the right one as he got his few remaining teeth working on a piece of meat. Tarra squatted down by the fire, warmed his hands, bit into an apple. He'd eaten earliera rabbit, taken on the plain with a well-aimed stoneand wasn't so hungry.
But to watch Stumpy Adz going at it. I've dreamed of this for so long, it'sumf!
Tarra, but this is good! Er, didn't you mention wine or some such? Tarra shrugged. He took out a small wineskin from the saddle-bag, uncorked it and took a swig, passed it over. Stumpy held up the skin, expertly squirted a quenching stream into his gaping maw. And, "Ahhh!
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Tarra reached out, neatly separated him from supply. Now the Hrossak tossed his apple in the direction of the tethered beast, ate just a bite of cheese, took another pull at the skin's tube before plugging it. But don't make such a pig of yourself that you get the cramps. There's water in the other pack for later.
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While Stumpy wolfed his food, so he looked Tarra up and down. What he saw was this: A big-hearted man, open as a book; an inveterate wanderer, with feet which wouldn't stop itching while yet there remained a hill unclimbed, or view unviewed; a great adventurerthe latter not so much by inclination as by accident. For troubles, trials and terrors, in forms numerous as the fingers on his hard hands, had seemed to dog the Hrossak's heels since the day he'd left his steppes.
With one adventure leading into the next, sometimes it had seemed he'd been born under a cursed star. Or perhaps a lucky one? For here he was hale and hearty, come through it all with scarce a scratch. Tarra Khash was young, maybe twenty-five or -six, and bronzed as the great idols of jungled Shad. They weren't much known for their guile, these steppemen, which meant he'd most likely be trustworthy; indeed in Chlangi, Stumpy had discovered that to be a fact.
And it was of old repute that once a Hrossak befriends a man, then that he's his friend for life. But on the other hand, best not to cross one; their memories were long and they didn't much care for scores unsettled. As for the physical man himself: he was a tall one, this Tarra, and for all that he was lean and narrow in the hip, still his muscles rippled under the clinging silk of a dark shirt and the coarse weave of his tight, calf-length trousers. Hair a dusty, tousled brown, and eyes of a brown so deep they verged on black; long in the limbs, with shoulders broad as a gate; strong white teeth in a mouth never far from a grin.
But in no wise a fool, and ever growing wiser in the ways of the world. Oh, he was that all right! That curved wand of death he wore across his back, for example: the merest silly sliver of a sword when Stumpy saw it last. For all the hilt's pretty jewels, it hadn't been much to mention as a weapon. But didn't it hold fond fighting memories for the Hrossak?
It must, for he'd risked his life for it! And what of Fregg now? Best not ask. No rings adorned Tarra's fingers, nor the lobes of his ears. There were thieves in Theem'hdra who'd take a man's entire arm just for a gemstone in a ring on his smallest finger! Stumpy's eyes went lower, to Tarra's soft leather boots where they came up almost to his kneesand the sheath stitched into the outside of the right-hand boot, which housed his throwing knife. Aye, and with that he'd be deadly accurate! Too true, thought Stumpy, fingering his neck again.
For his part, Tarra had likewise been looking Stumpy over. The old lad was a failed thief, as witness his stump for right hand. They were hard on light-fingered types in certain parts, and even harder in others. This had probably happened in Kl? In Thinhla they'd have hanged him, and in Khrissa pegged him out on the frozen mud-flats at the mouth of the Marl with the tide rising.
Stumpy was tiny, old, gnarly as the tree Tarra's knife had pinned him to; but he'd been a fighter, too, in his time. Now he wore a patch over his left eye; or rather, he wore it over the empty socket. Grizzled and brown from all weathers, white-whiskered and with a couple of snaggy yellow fangs for teeth, he looked like some sort of dwarfy pirate! But Tarra knew that despite his telltale stump, eye-patch and all, still the oldster had a good heart. And a far too-healthy appetite! Then he brought him a sip of water.
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It's your guts complaining about neglect and ill-treatment, that's all. So just rest easy for now and tomorrow you'll be all right. Tarra sipped wine, chewed on a morsel of meat, waited until the fire's warmth worked through to Stumpy's bones and softened them up a little.
Finally the old lad stopped grimacing and groaning, vented a ringing fart and a somewhat gentler sigh, and: "I suppose you'll want to know how come I'm here, penniless and all, after you left me rich just a four-month gone in Chlangi? And in a moment: "Well, it was mainly the fault of that lass Gulla! He remembered her now and winced a little, but not so much that Stumpy would notice.
She'd been a big girl, right enough: comely about the face but built like a fortress.