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The sorcerer's chanting ceased, and, with it, the advance of the snakes. He called down from the rocky ledge in a smug, mocking voice, "The two of you have fought valiantly. You have humiliated the armies of Dijol."

"You betrayed me!" Javo shouted. "You betrayed the truce! Has Dijol no honor, even to those who loyally uphold their end of covenants?"

The sorcerer shook his head sadly. "Honor is a luxury the strong only indulge in briefly, when it suits them. Or when they feel generous."

" liar!"

Javo wished he could think of something more insulting to say. At the moment, he couldn't.

"We haven't lied, Sir Javo. You are merely a victim of your own confusion about what truth is. And now, because I'm feeling generous, I'm giving you an opportunity to beg for mercy."

"Come down here and face me," Javo retorted. "Let us settle what truth is, with steel!"

"I'm not a fool, Sir Javo," he said, with an admonishing tone.

"You're a coward!"

"I feel my generosity waning."

"At least let us die fighting men," Krag said, "not these vermin from the bowels of the pit!"

"With that," replied the sorcerer, "my generosity has come to an end." His bony hand flicked out of the robe and something fell to the pass. It struck the road in a puff of glittering powder and, almost instantly, lightning flashed, striking the ground in the midst of the small, glittering cloud.

He resumed his chanting, and the mass of serpents surged forward once more.

Another small, glittering puff, this time closer to Krag and Javo, and lightning licked out again.

Krag held his weapons out to the side, preparing to meet the god of his ancestors.

Javo holstered his war lance and drew his sword, ready to dismount and slay as many of the evil reptiles as he could.

The sorcerer held something in his fingertips, ready to flick it out as he had before. Then he made a gagging sound and arched his back, the serpent draped over his shoulders convulsing wildly.

The sorcerer staggered, twisting sideways. From below, Krag and Javo could now see an arrow had pinned the serpent to his back and punched through his heart. He toppled from the ledge with a clatter, kicking a small cauldron over as he fell.

What they saw next both Krag and Javo assumed to be some trick of the light or their imagination, until they later confirmed that each had witnessed the same thing: as the sorcerer fell to his death, the serpent with him jerked from the strike of an arrow which pierced it perfectly through the head. Above the ledge where the sorcerer had stood, a small, bowlegged figure in leather armor and a spiked helmet, leaning over the cliff with a rope tied around his waist to some unseen anchor behind him, waved a salute.

The cauldron came down in the middle of the mass of serpents, splattering a strange, syrupy liquid over it. The sorcerer fell right next to the cauldron, accompanied by another flash of glittering powder.

Lightning struck again, and the liquid burst into flame. Now the writhing reptilian carpet was afire. A fissure opened in the hideous mass, and widened until a path cleared into the funnel.

"Run, Krag--now is our chance!" Javo spurred his charger, and the disciplined warhorse galloped into the funnel, leapt over the corpse-wall and disappeared around a bend in the pass. With the wall of water now chasing his back, Krag the Wrecker sprinted after.

The camp sat in a tiny clearing inside a thick forest well outside any route an army might take to capture the spoils of Fawlik. Armor lay buffed and oiled in stacks. Undergarments hung so that the blue sun and the heat of the fire could dry them. The two warriors wore clean, dry clothes from their packs and reclined facing the fire from opposite sides.

Using a stone to sharpen his sword, Javo said, "We'll have to find you a horse--if one exists, large enough to carry you."

"A Chyrvadon could carry me," Krag replied. "I am owed that, and more, by the king of Fawlik." With needle and thread, he stitched shut the ugly gash just above his knee.

"What else does he owe you for accepting that insane mission?" Javo asked.

"Gold for my parents on Bruk, which he already paid; and a woman for me, which he has not."

"A woman." Javo chuckled. "How will he repay you these things when he probably hangs from the flagpole, food for carrion birds, this very moment?"

"The king fled to exile before the first Dijolian foot stepped down on Fawlik's soil," Krag explained. "He took his treasure and harem with him. Not only that, but we dispatched a rider when Tral entered the pass. By now, Tral is undoubtedly enjoying more nasty surprises."

Javo pursed his lips. "Every time Dijol attacks Fawlik, they assume an easy campaign but it costs them dearly. But what of this woman you were promised?"

Krag let the needle dangle while swatting away an insect that flew for the still-open portion of his wound. "There is a group of virgins kept near the royal harem. When they reach their ceremonial age, they become the King's concubines. I have my pick of them, before they are ever touched by men."

"For this you faced the onslaught of an army with less than twenty men?"

Krag shrugged and resumed stitching. "That and a horse."

Javo shook his head.

"I want a woman to warm my bed," Krag said. "I ache for her. I would have children." He tied off the last stitch, cut the thread, then poked a bandage wrapped around the blood-matted fur on the back of one huge arm. "She could attend to scratches like this, which I can't. This time, you'll have to do it."

Javo grimaced. "I know nothing of binding or bandaging."

Krag sneered. "How can a warrior not know how to treat his wounds?"

"I am not often wounded," Javo said. "I'm a knight--we have attendants to care for wounds."

"Keep your attendants, Sir Knight. Binding wounds is but one thing of many a good wench can do for you."

Javo wrinkled his bronze, hawkish nose. "Forced servitude offends me, my Bruk friend."

"Ah, but I will handle this lady kindly," Krag declared, a wistful smile on his furry face. "I will liberate her from the abuse and the forced tendering of favors to some foppish old king. I will treat her like a queen while she is under my protection, give her much affection and spoil her with freedoms she never dared dream of. And she will love me for it."

"Peradventure," Javo conceded, "if you choose the right virgin."

"Why do you pronounce the word 'virgin' with such contempt?"

A new voice answered, "Virgins are like bramblebuds: The thorn vines will ensnare you on your way to the flower, then tear at you long after you have sampled its fragrance."

These words were spoken by a short, bowlegged Gabomite who entered the clearing leading a pony with a dead stag hanging behind the saddle.

Krag shot to his feet, axe in hand.

Settle it With Steel panel 3
The Bloodstained Defile series cover
Settle it With Steel episode cover
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The Bloodstained Defile

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Henry Brown
During the bloody wars of an alien world's dark ages, loyalty, integrity and friendship are rare commodities. Why would anyone guess they could be found in the hearts of mercenaries? Sir Javo left his native Cemar to join the Order of the Black Lancers, and has built a reputation as a champion in single combat. He has never met his match; but that is about to change. Krag the Wrecker has been promised treasure, a horse, and a lady-in-waiting if his suicide mission succeeds. "Victory or death" are acceptable terms, for a giant barbarian raised to worship Death. Turgar was once a troop chief in the nomadic armies of Gabom, until framed for a capital crime. Now he hires out his bow to the highest bidder. This job may convince him to re-think his pragmatism. A great storm, an epic battle, and three dangerous warriors...all on a collision course for a narrow mountain pass that is already a bloodstained defile.
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