Valerius The King by T.R. Rankin

EXTRACT FOR
Valerius The King

(T.R. Rankin)


PROLOGUE

Amid the coarse babble of voices, music filled the hall with a soft murmur of strings. As the girl moved out onto the floor, a flute joined in. Then a drum took up a slow, languid beat. Voices stilled as, one by one, the bearded faces turned towards the girl. And as she began her dance, their eyes fastened onto her form.
Dressed in the merest wisps of silk, her dark hair loose about her shoulders and brushing the mounds of her breasts, she moved slowly at first, like a willow stirred by a soft summer breeze. In the shimmering torch and candle light, her lithe body drifted across the floor, her arms weaving delicate patterns in the air. Then, gradually, the tempo of the music began to build and her movements hardened. Her pelvis picked up the rhythm and began to pulse with the beat. And the eyes of the men grew shiny.
None watched with more fervor than the large, unkempt-looking figure seated on a raised dais at the head of the room. He was a huge man whose once massive frame had gone to flab and whose wild black beard and mane were streaked with grey. His eye—for he had only one, the other being covered by a black scarf tied diagonally around his head—glistened hard and was glued to the girl's every move. Pounding out the rhythm with a meat-filled fist, he fed himself from a platter by his left hand, and drank from a flagon in his right. Intermittently, between swallows, or at some particularly provocative move by the girl, he would grunt, low and deep in the back of his throat.
As the girl reached the climax of her dance, the silence among the men in the smoky stone hall was profound. The girl was lovely, it was true, and a good deal of her body was enticingly visible through the thin gauze of her shirt and pantaloons, but it was the dance itself, the grace and fluidity of her movements—the way her body seemed to create the very music she danced to—that kept them entranced. Even the servants stopped to watch, standing between tables or at the edges of the hall, their trays held level before them. Only the musicians moved to create their sound, and even these watched enthralled, taking their cues from the girl's moves as if her elaborate acrobatics were a form of conducting.
Suddenly, the one-eyed one let out a roar and leapt at the girl. Catching her by the arm, he dragged her back to his chair, kicked away the small table beside it, and laid her face down over the arm. Quickly, he ripped away the flimsy cloth of her pants and undergarments and began fumbling with his own. No one moved to prevent him. Neither did the girl protest—she had been warned that this was a possibility when performing before the high king, and that any struggle would be futile. As she had no choice but to perform, so she had no choice in this. Rather, she lay quietly, propped on her elbows, and awaited his thrust.
But the one-eyed king was drunker than he realized. He swayed on the dais, fumbling with his small clothes, then tearing at them furiously. And when his manhood finally did emerge, it was plainly unequal to the task. Here and there, a stifled titter escaped in the hall and the king's face turned purple with rage.
Just then, the great double doors at the far end of the hall banged open and a troop of men barged in clamoring excitedly. "Majesty!" the first of them called out. "Your Majesty! They have struck again!" This was an elderly man, but one whose angry stride belied his grey beard and merchant's robes. Unmindful of the revelers around him, and ignoring the distasteful tableau of the king and his prey, he strode directly to the dais. "I've lost another two ships, Majesty! That's five this year alone! If this keeps up, I'll be ruined. And I'm not the only one!"
Sweeping the girl to the floor like a sack, the king sat down heavily, and with effort, focused his attention on the merchant. "Where?"
"The same spot, Majesty. Two days out, south of Zagorbia. Angmar here tells me they appeared out of nowhere, just like before. Five long galleys. Three swept in and engaged him while the other two took my ships and made off."
"And you, Angmar—you who were to protect these ships—you did nothing?"
"I did all I could, Majesty. But truly, it was little. Their galleys are small, but very fast and more maneuverable than mine. I could not ram, for they spun away quicker than I could turn. Neither could I board. And every time I got near one, the others closed in and rained murderous arrow fire on me."
"Did you not give chase? Why didn't you overtake our merchantmen and get them back?"
"I did give chase, my lord. But again, their arrows kept me off. And they headed straight inshore, right in under the cliffs where I dared not follow. Then they disappeared."
The king scowled and tugged at his beard. "Disappeared, eh? You slunk away with your tail between your legs, is what you mean!"
"Majesty," said the merchant, "if you please, Angmar is not to blame here. I am convinced he did all that could be done. But we can't let this situation continue... All trade between Zagorbia and Dulcai is at risk. You have to do something."
"Yes!" came a voice from the back of the hall, "Is the Great Fantar UP to that challenge?" And the laughter was not stifled this time.
"Who spoke? Who said that?" raged the king.
"That's not all, Fantar!" came another voice. "This pirate claims to be the son of Valerius and rightful High King... What are you going to do about that?"
"Seize that man!" Fantar pointed. "Bring him here." And when the man had been brought forward, Fantar had him bound to a post, then leaned close and leered in his face. "So, you would mock your king with a pretender in his own hall, would you?"
"Majesty," the man quailed, "I only repeat what I heard!"
"Heard where, from whom?"
"In town, Majesty. It is the talk in all the taverns. This man claims to be Valerius, Valerian that was and son of the former High King."
"Bah! I took that boy's head when we found him cowering with the women after Valeria fell."
"I repeat only what I heard, Majesty."
"Well, maybe we can fix that," Fantar growled, and pulling a short dagger from his waist, brutally sawed off the man's right ear. "Next time," he said, "maybe you'll think twice before you listen to any more such tales?"
"Yes, Majesty," the man gasped, blood spilling down his neck and shoulder.
"And as for pirates and pretenders," Fantar shouted to the hall at large, "I am the only rightful king here. I, Fantar of Valeria! And any who think differently can join this 'Valerius' when I stuff his testicles down his throat and watch him choke to death on them!"
The hall was silent as Fantar glared out over the crowd. Then he turned to the merchant.
"And you! How dare you barge in here and interrupt my feast? Do you think I cannot make good your filthy losses? Here," he said, tossing the man the severed ear, "Take this as my token and get out of here: We'll deal with this pirate tomorrow. Now," he yelled, "Bring more wine! More meat! Here girl," he said, tossing her the dagger, "cut that one down and have him thrown into the sea... Perhaps his pirate friend will come to rescue him."

Later that night, the girl lay beside the snoring king and watched as a knife-edged sliver of moon sliced its way across the window frame. The king had been no more successful with her in his bed than he had on his throne. Hardly able to stand by the end of his feast, he had dragged her from the hall amid much fanfare and raucous cheering. But there was no possibility of his accomplishing anything, and after ripping away the remains of her flimsy dancing costume and tumbling with her onto the bed, he had promptly rolled over onto his back and started to snore.
She listened now as that snoring grew louder and more rhythmical, and as the edge of the moon touched the window frame, she slowly eased herself out of bed, found her pack that her servant had tucked into a corner, and quietly pulled on her clothes. Then she pulled from the pack the dagger Fantar had given her, and with this gripped firmly in her right hand, stole back to the edge of the bed.
Fantar lay on his back, his arms flung wide, his face turned slightly towards the window so that his neck was exposed and defenseless beneath his matted beard. He snored again, long and ragged, and as he exhaled, his fetid, wine soured breath hit her in the face. Bracing her knee on the edge of the bed, the girl gripped the knife with both hands and raised it high. But then, as men who snore will often do, Fantar snorted violently and just as the knife plunged downwards, his good eye snapped open and his right arm shot up, blocking the blow and knocking the girl back.
"Arrgh!" he growled as the blade bit into his forearm and cut across it. Rearing up like a maddened bull, he grabbed for the girl, catching, then losing her wrist, then her ankle as she tumbled backwards. Cat-like, she sliced at him again as she went, cutting his shoulder. But then she was on the floor, scuttling backwards and he, like a great ape of the forest, vaulted from the bed, his one eye red in the darkness and glowing with rage. But his feet tangled in the bed clothes and he fell heavily, smashing his head onto cold stone of the floor. Again, the girl started in for the kill but as Fantar began to push himself up from the floor, she lost her nerve and fled, leaving behind her bag and her shoes. She did not even notice that after this single effort, Fantar simply grunted and collapsed back onto the floor, unconscious.

Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles away, in a snug, well-furnished cave deep in the fastness of the mountains south of Zagorbia, an ancient mage sat huddled over the embers of his fire and stirred some herbs into a pot that hung simmering from a tripod. Motioning for his servant to add another stick to the fire, the mage stirred until the broth came to a slow boil and began giving off a cloud of sweet, earthy-smelling steam. Into this, he thrust his grey and wrinkled face, inhaling deeply time after time. Finally, he flopped back into his chair, his arms limp and his eyes glassy.
Entranced, he stared into the depths of the slowly bubbling broth until its surface opened before him and visions emerged, spiraling towards the ceiling. There was a dancing girl, slim and raven haired, twirling in the flickering fire light. There was a monstrous king, bloated and vile with a twitching, evil eye. There was a palace bedroom, the flash of moonlight on an upraised blade, a struggle in a swirl of smoke, then the girl in flight, running wild and barefoot through the moonlit night.
Closing his eyes, the mage let his chin drop to his chest and sighed heavily. "She is the one," he muttered. "She must be the one." And he drifted off into a deep sleep.




Chapter 1
THE PEDDLER

For two days, the girl, Vahla, fled through the hills, knowing neither where she went nor who followed. At first, she ran blindly, heedless of the branches that tore at her, or the stones that cut her feet. So wild was her panic that she lost all sense of direction or place. All she could see in her mind were Fantar's men thundering in pursuit, their horses lathered, nostrils flared, the riders crouched over their necks, faces leering. And she ran. When she fell, she jumped up and ran again. Deep into the hills north of Valeria she fled all through that night, and when she finally collapsed and fell into an exhausted sleep, it was in a small, well protected dell which had not felt human footfall since Fantar himself had camped there some seventeen years before, when his armies had descended from these very hills to attack the city.
In this dell, Vahla cowered all through the following day. She had no food or water, no idea where she was, and dared not make any move to find out. She was sure Fantar's men were just over this hill or the next and would be searching out her dell at any moment. In truth, the pursuit was sadly deficient. Fantar had not been discovered until early morning, and had been able to give no coherent account of the attack for some time after that. And when his troopers did thunder from the gates and spread out across the plain surrounding the city, they found no clues whatsoever and, not daring to return without news, repaired to the nearest taverns where they spent the day.
Vahla could not know this, of course, and as darkness settled over the hills, she set forth again, hoping she was still moving away from the city and not back towards it. A stream slaked her thirst and some berries served for food, but she dared not tarry long at either spot. The rising moon showed her an approximation of east, and in that direction she moved, keeping the shadows of the great mountains to her left. At daylight, she hid in another dell—this one by a small stream—and slept through much of the day, buried under a moldering pile of last year's leaves.
As darkness fell, she moved on again, but by now hunger was becoming a serious concern. Her shrunken stomach screamed at her, and her legs felt weak and spongy. She knew she had to find sustenance of some sort, and soon. Also, she knew she was not the only hungry creature prowling these hills. Wolves were not uncommon, and great cats sometimes came down from the high mountains to hunt among the verdant hills and forests along the coast. In need of a meal herself, she had no desire to become one, and as the waxing moon rose again, she bent her course southward in hopes of finding some habitation.
After some hours, she topped a small hill and was startled to see a fire flickering among the trees in a glade by the side of a small river in the valley below. Summoning all her stealth, she crept down the hill and into the wood, sliding silently from tree to tree and carefully placing every step. As a small clearing opened before her, she could see a single man huddled in his cloak before a dying fire. Behind him, and off to her left, a horse and donkey were tethered to a bush. To the right, on the far side of the fire from him, was a pile of what appeared to be peddler's goods. And suspended from the branch of a tree was a food bag.
Food! Her stomach screamed at the sight of it. But what to do? The answer was 'nothing,' obviously, until this fellow was soundly asleep. She knew not from whence he came or what news might be abroad of her. But what then? The safest thing, she thought, would be to simply slit his throat. She still had the dagger. And perhaps he was not a peddler at all. Perhaps he, too, was a criminal. Perhaps she could claim it was he who attacked Fantar and then carried her off. Fantar was so drunk, he might not know. But then she thought, this was fear talking, not her mind, and the injustice of the idea repelled her. This man had done nothing so far as she knew, and to murder him without cause would make her as bad as Fantar.
So, what then? Steal his horse? Could she do that quietly enough? What if he awoke? Steal his food bag? That could be done quietly. But food and a horse! The thought was as luxurious as a bath. Making herself as comfortable as she could, Vahla settled in to wait.

The peddler heard the approaching footsteps before the girl even reached the trees. He didn't know who it was, of course, but he knew no animal would approach that way, and no warrior worth his salt would make half so much noise. So as Vahla surveyed him from the brush, he feigned somnolence and huddled under his cloak, his long sword stretched comfortably by his side. When some time had passed and the intruder made no move to either approach or retreat, the man stretched and yawned, then pulled his bedding roll from his gear, spread it out before the fire, and settled himself down to sleep.
Soon, Vahla heard the reassuring sounds of snoring, and after waiting another few minutes to be sure, slipped quietly from her hiding place and tiptoed across the clearing. The food bag was hung quite high, and as she stretched up to cut the cord, the man grabbed her from behind, one hand gripping her knife hand, the other arm wrapping tight around her waist. Starting like some wild creature caught in a snare, she fought viciously—twisting, jerking, kicking, biting, scratching—but the fellow was simply too powerful. As he crushed her to him, she could feel the rock hard muscles of his arms and chest flexing about her and she knew she was helpless. Still, she struggled, but as he pinned her to the ground like a kitten, her fear and frustration overwhelmed her and she broke down, sobbing.
"So!" said the man, leaning back to let the light from the fire fall on her face, "it's a filly we've snagged... I thought you were some run-away apprentice boy."
He relaxed his grip then, and she yanked her arm free and slashed at his throat with Fantar's dagger. But he was too quick. Twisting his body away in an instant, he countered with a heavy backhanded blow that knocked her back and stunned her.
"Vixen bitch!" he yelled, and jumped to his bed roll to pull out a great long sword. "You'll not play those female tricks on me again!" Raising the blade high, he brought it down in a swift, flashing stroke aimed right at her neck.
Vahla had only time to recognize—with a startling clarity deep in some primordial recess of her brain—that this was Death. Then the blade stopped inches from her throat.
"Now, your life is mine, Lady," the man said, and his bearded face broke into a grin.
"Bastard!" she spat, the fear turning to fire in her eyes. "You're no peddler... Not wielding a sword like that."
"Sure I am," he said. "I traded for it. But you're no runaway handmaiden either—not with a dagger like that."
"I traded for it."
"Oh, I'll bet you did. Stole it, more likely. Did you slit the previous owner's throat like you tried to do mine?"
"Hey, you grabbed me! If I'd wanted to murder you, I'd have stabbed you in your sleep."
"Yup, just like you were able to steal my food bag without my even knowing about it."
The girl had no answer for this, but countered on a different tack. "Well, if you are a peddler, how about we make a trade?"
"Such as?" he said, returning the sword to his blanket roll.
"This dagger for some food... and your horse."
The man laughed. "I can see you're quite a negotiator! Tell you what: if you promise not to try and slit my throat again, I'll give you some food and you can keep your dagger. After all, if your life is mine, I should take care of it."
"And the horse?"
"Don't press your luck. Now," he said untying the sack, "what might be your pleasure? Bread, not too moldy? Mutton, not too rancid? Wine, not too sour? That should do it: a feast fit for a foraging filly!"

Sitting cross-legged by the fire, Vahla ate ravenously, bread mold and old mutton not bothering her in the least. "What's your name?" the man asked, stretching his length on his bed.
"Vahla," she said, chewing.
"Well, Vahla, I'm Thorngere. I won't ask what you're doing running around out here with no food and bare feet, but if you're headed east and want to tag along, I may let you ride for a while tomorrow... At least until we get to the next town."
"And then?" Suspicion was strong in her voice.
"Then I sell some pots, I hope. I don't know what you do."
"I thought you said my life was yours?"
"Well, I did." he said loftily, "But now that I've saved it, and fed it, I've decided to be magnanimous and allow you to do with it what you will. Right now, though, I'd like to get some sleep. If you rummage in that pack over there, I think you'll find another blanket."
Vahla did as she was told and for the first time in days, soon found herself curled up in relative comfort and contentment. Compared to moldering leaves, the old blanket was like a down quilt, and compared to the chill blackness of the night and the imagined eyes of wolves, the warm glow of the dying fire was like hearth and home itself. All that troubled her—and it was quite silly, she knew, but still it would not leave—was a nagging fear that he would leave her to do 'what she would'. But it was only because she was exhausted and had been through so much.

When Vahla awoke, it was already light and the man, Thorngere, was nowhere to be seen. Quickly, she glanced at the food bag hanging from its branch, and at the dappled grey and donkey quietly grazing on their tethers, then got up and went to the river. He was there, wading waist deep in the swirling stream, long golden hair loose about his naked shoulders, and a small barbed spear poised in his right hand. Vahla sat on the bank, cooling her bruised feet in the stream, and watched the morning light play across the broad muscles of his back. He was a large, powerful man, not as young as he had sounded the night before, but far from old, either. Seasoned rather, she thought, and as he turned back towards her and smiled in greeting, obviously in the prime of his strength. Hard muscle rippled across his chest and abdomen. Nor was he any peddler either; not judging by those scars on his arms and shoulders.
Suddenly, his spear arm flashed out and he dove down in to the water after it, coming up with a larger silver fish wriggling on the point. As he waded ashore, she caught her breath to see he was completely nude, and as he stood before her, grinning broadly and unabashed in his nakedness, her eyes could not help but fall to his pendulous manhood.
"Thought you'd like something a little better than rancid mutton for breakfast."
"Yes, wonderful," she said, tearing her eyes away. She was surprised at the way her heart was pounding.
"Why don't you take a swim while I get this fellow cooking," he said, scooping up his clothes. "The water's great! Besides, you smell like an old compost heap."

When she returned to camp, he was squatting by the cooking fire, wearing a simple loin cloth and frying his catch. But as he looked up, and saw her standing close beside him, it was his turn to gasp. "I washed my clothes, too," she said, the dripping garments slung over her arm. "Do you have some line I could hang them on to dry?"
Thorngere's voice caught in his throat and he nodded towards his pack. He had not expected this. Even with her wet hair plastered to her skull, the girl—the woman—was lovely. Better than lovely. She was incredible. Full swaying breasts, large, deep brown nipples, a slim sinewy body, full hips, that dark patch of pubic hair—he had seen many women, but this one made his head swim.
"I think you'll also find something you can put on in there," he said thickly. He really had no time for this.
"I don't mind," she said. "The sun is nice."
Reaching for the handle of the pan, Thorngere grabbed a coal instead. "Damn it, woman! If you want me to be able to cook this fish, you'll have to put something on."
Grinning in victory, Vahla found a loose fitting shift in one of Thorngere's packs and pulled it over her head. "We wouldn't want anything else to get burned," she said.

Later, the two walked down a dusty, winding, cart track of a road, he leading the horse, she the loaded donkey. They had followed the stream south along an even rougher track, then forded it to intersect this path. Thorngere, it seemed, had been trading deep in the hills to the north.
Now he walked with his hood pulled low over his forehead to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun, but under that cover, his gaze kept straying to the girl beside him. Who was this woman, he thought? And why this coincidence of her showing up in the middle of the night like that? It was too easy, her offering herself like that... Not that it wasn't tempting. But who would have sent her? He could not afford this kind of risk, not now, not even if she was legitimate. But what if she was legitimate?
For her part, Vahla was sullen. She had fully expected him to make a move after they had eaten. In fact, she had been anticipating it. But not the move he made. Not to pack up like the woods were on fire and march out with hardly a word! He wanted her, she knew. She had won that round—that was plain by the way his loin cloth stretched when he stood up to serve the fish, even if he didn't say anything. And he was not exactly unattractive. In her line of work, she got a lot of offers—and an occasional obligation. Most, she rejected. But if he rejected her, what would she do when they got to the next town? It was one thing to be Vahla the dancer with her servants and luggage and money to command the finest rooms. But Vahla the fugitive, totally alone? She had tasted a little of that and did not like it one bit.
Thorngere was also irritated with himself. Why had he bolted out of camp like that? So what if she might be a spy? Why would that have stopped him? He could still have taken her. Gods knew he wanted to! (and at that thought, a quick vision of her naked body set his pulse throbbing so that he inhaled sharply) She had been willing, too—that was plain. And he was usually far from shy in advancing his interests in such matters—in fact, he had even intended to. So what was it with this girl?
He glanced again at the pensive form beside him, at the thick dark hair—dry now and cascading loose over her shoulders and breast—at the delicately etched face, at that magnificent frame, and noticed she was limping. Not used to being barefoot, she wasn't; not used to a hard life at all. Look at those hands, he thought. They've never scrubbed paving stones. And that skin: it's been bathed and pampered. No, this one's definitely not your average serving wench.
"You'd better ride for a while," he said
"I'm all right," she said, not looking up.
"Nonsense. You'll do neither of us any favors by going lame. Here," he said, "let me help you up," and lifted the girl easily onto his horse. "Besides, I've got to prove I'm a man of my word."
"I never doubted you were," she said and their eyes locked briefly, she astride the grey, he standing tall beside it. Then, with something like violence, they each looked away.
"How ever did you manage to leave the house without your shoes?" he quipped awkwardly, inspecting the cuts and bruises on her left foot.
"I was in a hurry," she said, and left the words hanging there.
"I might have an old pair of sandals somewhere in one of my bags."
"Oh, I wouldn't trouble...," she started, then reversed herself. "No, you're right, I don't need to be lame. If you do have a pair, I'd appreciate it, though I don't know how I'll pay you. I left 'home' without any money either."
"But you remembered your dagger," said Thorngere, and their eyes locked again, his probing, hers proud, fearful. She had a wide face, he noted, with prominent cheek bones and large, dark brown eyes. Deep eyes. "You probably could get the price of a horse for it, if not more. Would you like me to help you sell it?"
"I don't think it would do to go flashing that about just now," she said. Her eyes were level, speaking louder than words.
"I see." So whatever trouble she was in involved blood. And the dagger would be recognized. And she herself? Such a face would not be forgotten by any man with teeth enough to chew. Nor by many with only gums to smack! So she was not exactly an advisable companion for one such as himself. Especially not this close to Valeria. Whatever her story—and at this point, he was not even sure he wanted to know what it was—he would be wise to get rid of her as quickly as possible. And he would be definitely unwise to incur any obligations.
"You know," he said, assuming a casual air, "skin as fair as yours could suffer badly from all this sun. Would you like a cloak or something?"
"How far is it before we reach the next town?"
"I think an hour or two. But I wouldn't be surprised if we started running into locals any time now."
"I see. Yes, that sun is awfully bright. If you had some sort of cloak with a hood, I think that would be good. My face is very sensitive."

It was past noon when the two cloaked figures made their way into a small fishing village along the coast, southeast of the great walled city of Valeria. It was a roughhewn place, a collection of flat-roofed, white stone hovels scattered among half a dozen streets surrounding a small harbor lined with brightly painted boats. The two were not much remarked. It was not uncommon for strangers to pass through town these days, nor was it wise to appear too curious about their business. Word of the attempt on Fantar's life had reached the town, of course, and some of his troopers spent a day at the tavern. They asked a few questions, but nobody knew anything. So, they mostly got drunk and grabbed at the plump buttocks of Baena, the serving girl (who pocketed several gold coins for grabbing back).
Fantar was not a popular ruler. Since usurping the throne of the High King, the land he ruled had not prospered. Rather, his reign was marked by so much crime and corruption it had become a cruel joke. Taxes were double what they had been under old Valerius, yet services were nearly non-existent. And what did exist were so corrupt as to be useless. If your house were robbed by brigands, or you were held up on the highway (and miraculously not killed), and you went to make a complaint to the sheriff, you would more than likely find yourself facing the very miscreants who robbed you. And if you could not pay your taxes? In the reign of Fantar, you did not even think about not paying your taxes. Better to sell your children than not pay your taxes.
So, if someone tried to stick Fantar, he was only getting as good as he gave. Besides, it was bound to happen sometime. And that a strange peddler should wander into town was not an event to excite undue remark. And that he was trailing a beautiful wench—the menfolk in town were not so indifferent as to let beauty such as Vahla's pass unremarked, cloak it though she would—caused comment only of the coarser kind.
"If I had a wench like that, I'd cover her up, too," said one wag as the pair passed the tavern.
"Aye," said another, "And I know just what I'd cover her up with! Har har."
"You'd best shut your yap," said a third. "He looks like a big 'un."
"Oh, I'll bet he's big," said the first. "I'll bet he's hung like a stud horse to make one like that follow him."
"Who should know better?" returned the second. "Look at the scrawny little bitch follows you around! Har har."
Through the afternoon, Thorngere wandered the jumbled streets, doing a bit of business here and there, calling softly into open doors and windows, "Peddled wares here. Peddled wares." Mostly, he sold pots, of which he seemed to have quite a number, nested in sacks on his donkey. In return, he took a few coins, but also trade items; leather goods, and candles, bread, bits of clothing, a lovely smoked ham in one instance, more sandals. From one house he was rewarded with a large, misshapen pearl on a leather thong which he presented to Vahla with mock solemnity.
She accepted the bauble graciously, and with as much mock ceremony as it was offered, but did not tie it on That would have required her to remove her hood and while the town seemed bucolic enough, her heart still hammered whenever they rounded a new corner. For the rest, she quietly followed Thorngere, helped him display his wares, and packed up the goods he took in trade. She said little—indeed, barely even looked up—but was secretly amused at the friendly, affable way Thorngere went about his business: he had kind words for all, smiled at the wives, joked with the men, tussled the heads of the children, and behaved rather as if he were on a gift giving spree than a business mission. He never quibbled over prices, but gratefully accepted what was offered, assuring his customers they were more than generous, so that once again Vahla thought, this one was no peddler.
And another curious thing: several times, when his back was towards her, or when she was at some distance packing the donkey, she heard him lower his voice and ask about someone or something—just what she could not make out. The first couple times, she thought it simply a part of his usual banter, but after the third or fourth time—by which point she was actively listening—it sounded like he was asking about some sort of game: Game Lark, or something.
At dusk, they made their way back to the tavern. Thorngere ordered up bowls of steaming fish chowder and mugs of ale for them both and ate his hungrily. "Ah, good day's work," he said, wiping his yellow beard with the back of his hand."
"You looked like you were having fun," she said, smiling warmly at him.
"I was! I enjoy my trade. But listen," he said, lowering his voice and leaning across the table, "are you sure you don't want to do something with that dagger? I could get you a good price for it."
"No, I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Well, how about I buy it from you?"
"Why do you want my dagger?" Vahla demanded, suspicion tingling the hair on the back of her neck.
"Well, I don't, really. But you need money."
Vahla was offended. "I'll find a way to pay you back—surely you can trust me for a bowl of soup and some ale!"
"No, I don't mean that," Thorngere waved dismissively. "I mean you need money because I've got to leave. Now."
"Oh." Vahla was stunned at this sudden resurgence of reality.
"I mean," said Thorngere awkwardly, "it's not that I want to leave you in distress or anything. In fact, I... But I have some very pressing business, you see, and..."
"You don't need to explain," she said stiffly. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."
"I have no doubt you're very capable," he said, "but I have no choice. Here, at least take this," and he slid a small purse across the table and pushed it into her hand. Then he patted her hand and—really before she could say or do anything more, or even try to think of a reason to keep him—he was gone. And Vahla was once again alone.
For a few moments she sat still, clutching the small purse and staring at the empty bowl by his place. Then she, too, left the tavern and melted into the darkness outside, oblivious of the four figures who slipped silently out in her wake.

Valerius The King by T.R. Rankin

EXTRACT FOR
Valerius The King

(T.R. Rankin)


PROLOGUE

Amid the coarse babble of voices, music filled the hall with a soft murmur of strings. As the girl moved out onto the floor, a flute joined in. Then a drum took up a slow, languid beat. Voices stilled as, one by one, the bearded faces turned towards the girl. And as she began her dance, their eyes fastened onto her form.
Dressed in the merest wisps of silk, her dark hair loose about her shoulders and brushing the mounds of her breasts, she moved slowly at first, like a willow stirred by a soft summer breeze. In the shimmering torch and candle light, her lithe body drifted across the floor, her arms weaving delicate patterns in the air. Then, gradually, the tempo of the music began to build and her movements hardened. Her pelvis picked up the rhythm and began to pulse with the beat. And the eyes of the men grew shiny.
None watched with more fervor than the large, unkempt-looking figure seated on a raised dais at the head of the room. He was a huge man whose once massive frame had gone to flab and whose wild black beard and mane were streaked with grey. His eye—for he had only one, the other being covered by a black scarf tied diagonally around his head—glistened hard and was glued to the girl's every move. Pounding out the rhythm with a meat-filled fist, he fed himself from a platter by his left hand, and drank from a flagon in his right. Intermittently, between swallows, or at some particularly provocative move by the girl, he would grunt, low and deep in the back of his throat.
As the girl reached the climax of her dance, the silence among the men in the smoky stone hall was profound. The girl was lovely, it was true, and a good deal of her body was enticingly visible through the thin gauze of her shirt and pantaloons, but it was the dance itself, the grace and fluidity of her movements—the way her body seemed to create the very music she danced to—that kept them entranced. Even the servants stopped to watch, standing between tables or at the edges of the hall, their trays held level before them. Only the musicians moved to create their sound, and even these watched enthralled, taking their cues from the girl's moves as if her elaborate acrobatics were a form of conducting.
Suddenly, the one-eyed one let out a roar and leapt at the girl. Catching her by the arm, he dragged her back to his chair, kicked away the small table beside it, and laid her face down over the arm. Quickly, he ripped away the flimsy cloth of her pants and undergarments and began fumbling with his own. No one moved to prevent him. Neither did the girl protest—she had been warned that this was a possibility when performing before the high king, and that any struggle would be futile. As she had no choice but to perform, so she had no choice in this. Rather, she lay quietly, propped on her elbows, and awaited his thrust.
But the one-eyed king was drunker than he realized. He swayed on the dais, fumbling with his small clothes, then tearing at them furiously. And when his manhood finally did emerge, it was plainly unequal to the task. Here and there, a stifled titter escaped in the hall and the king's face turned purple with rage.
Just then, the great double doors at the far end of the hall banged open and a troop of men barged in clamoring excitedly. "Majesty!" the first of them called out. "Your Majesty! They have struck again!" This was an elderly man, but one whose angry stride belied his grey beard and merchant's robes. Unmindful of the revelers around him, and ignoring the distasteful tableau of the king and his prey, he strode directly to the dais. "I've lost another two ships, Majesty! That's five this year alone! If this keeps up, I'll be ruined. And I'm not the only one!"
Sweeping the girl to the floor like a sack, the king sat down heavily, and with effort, focused his attention on the merchant. "Where?"
"The same spot, Majesty. Two days out, south of Zagorbia. Angmar here tells me they appeared out of nowhere, just like before. Five long galleys. Three swept in and engaged him while the other two took my ships and made off."
"And you, Angmar—you who were to protect these ships—you did nothing?"
"I did all I could, Majesty. But truly, it was little. Their galleys are small, but very fast and more maneuverable than mine. I could not ram, for they spun away quicker than I could turn. Neither could I board. And every time I got near one, the others closed in and rained murderous arrow fire on me."
"Did you not give chase? Why didn't you overtake our merchantmen and get them back?"
"I did give chase, my lord. But again, their arrows kept me off. And they headed straight inshore, right in under the cliffs where I dared not follow. Then they disappeared."
The king scowled and tugged at his beard. "Disappeared, eh? You slunk away with your tail between your legs, is what you mean!"
"Majesty," said the merchant, "if you please, Angmar is not to blame here. I am convinced he did all that could be done. But we can't let this situation continue... All trade between Zagorbia and Dulcai is at risk. You have to do something."
"Yes!" came a voice from the back of the hall, "Is the Great Fantar UP to that challenge?" And the laughter was not stifled this time.
"Who spoke? Who said that?" raged the king.
"That's not all, Fantar!" came another voice. "This pirate claims to be the son of Valerius and rightful High King... What are you going to do about that?"
"Seize that man!" Fantar pointed. "Bring him here." And when the man had been brought forward, Fantar had him bound to a post, then leaned close and leered in his face. "So, you would mock your king with a pretender in his own hall, would you?"
"Majesty," the man quailed, "I only repeat what I heard!"
"Heard where, from whom?"
"In town, Majesty. It is the talk in all the taverns. This man claims to be Valerius, Valerian that was and son of the former High King."
"Bah! I took that boy's head when we found him cowering with the women after Valeria fell."
"I repeat only what I heard, Majesty."
"Well, maybe we can fix that," Fantar growled, and pulling a short dagger from his waist, brutally sawed off the man's right ear. "Next time," he said, "maybe you'll think twice before you listen to any more such tales?"
"Yes, Majesty," the man gasped, blood spilling down his neck and shoulder.
"And as for pirates and pretenders," Fantar shouted to the hall at large, "I am the only rightful king here. I, Fantar of Valeria! And any who think differently can join this 'Valerius' when I stuff his testicles down his throat and watch him choke to death on them!"
The hall was silent as Fantar glared out over the crowd. Then he turned to the merchant.
"And you! How dare you barge in here and interrupt my feast? Do you think I cannot make good your filthy losses? Here," he said, tossing the man the severed ear, "Take this as my token and get out of here: We'll deal with this pirate tomorrow. Now," he yelled, "Bring more wine! More meat! Here girl," he said, tossing her the dagger, "cut that one down and have him thrown into the sea... Perhaps his pirate friend will come to rescue him."

Later that night, the girl lay beside the snoring king and watched as a knife-edged sliver of moon sliced its way across the window frame. The king had been no more successful with her in his bed than he had on his throne. Hardly able to stand by the end of his feast, he had dragged her from the hall amid much fanfare and raucous cheering. But there was no possibility of his accomplishing anything, and after ripping away the remains of her flimsy dancing costume and tumbling with her onto the bed, he had promptly rolled over onto his back and started to snore.
She listened now as that snoring grew louder and more rhythmical, and as the edge of the moon touched the window frame, she slowly eased herself out of bed, found her pack that her servant had tucked into a corner, and quietly pulled on her clothes. Then she pulled from the pack the dagger Fantar had given her, and with this gripped firmly in her right hand, stole back to the edge of the bed.
Fantar lay on his back, his arms flung wide, his face turned slightly towards the window so that his neck was exposed and defenseless beneath his matted beard. He snored again, long and ragged, and as he exhaled, his fetid, wine soured breath hit her in the face. Bracing her knee on the edge of the bed, the girl gripped the knife with both hands and raised it high. But then, as men who snore will often do, Fantar snorted violently and just as the knife plunged downwards, his good eye snapped open and his right arm shot up, blocking the blow and knocking the girl back.
"Arrgh!" he growled as the blade bit into his forearm and cut across it. Rearing up like a maddened bull, he grabbed for the girl, catching, then losing her wrist, then her ankle as she tumbled backwards. Cat-like, she sliced at him again as she went, cutting his shoulder. But then she was on the floor, scuttling backwards and he, like a great ape of the forest, vaulted from the bed, his one eye red in the darkness and glowing with rage. But his feet tangled in the bed clothes and he fell heavily, smashing his head onto cold stone of the floor. Again, the girl started in for the kill but as Fantar began to push himself up from the floor, she lost her nerve and fled, leaving behind her bag and her shoes. She did not even notice that after this single effort, Fantar simply grunted and collapsed back onto the floor, unconscious.

Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles away, in a snug, well-furnished cave deep in the fastness of the mountains south of Zagorbia, an ancient mage sat huddled over the embers of his fire and stirred some herbs into a pot that hung simmering from a tripod. Motioning for his servant to add another stick to the fire, the mage stirred until the broth came to a slow boil and began giving off a cloud of sweet, earthy-smelling steam. Into this, he thrust his grey and wrinkled face, inhaling deeply time after time. Finally, he flopped back into his chair, his arms limp and his eyes glassy.
Entranced, he stared into the depths of the slowly bubbling broth until its surface opened before him and visions emerged, spiraling towards the ceiling. There was a dancing girl, slim and raven haired, twirling in the flickering fire light. There was a monstrous king, bloated and vile with a twitching, evil eye. There was a palace bedroom, the flash of moonlight on an upraised blade, a struggle in a swirl of smoke, then the girl in flight, running wild and barefoot through the moonlit night.
Closing his eyes, the mage let his chin drop to his chest and sighed heavily. "She is the one," he muttered. "She must be the one." And he drifted off into a deep sleep.




Chapter 1
THE PEDDLER

For two days, the girl, Vahla, fled through the hills, knowing neither where she went nor who followed. At first, she ran blindly, heedless of the branches that tore at her, or the stones that cut her feet. So wild was her panic that she lost all sense of direction or place. All she could see in her mind were Fantar's men thundering in pursuit, their horses lathered, nostrils flared, the riders crouched over their necks, faces leering. And she ran. When she fell, she jumped up and ran again. Deep into the hills north of Valeria she fled all through that night, and when she finally collapsed and fell into an exhausted sleep, it was in a small, well protected dell which had not felt human footfall since Fantar himself had camped there some seventeen years before, when his armies had descended from these very hills to attack the city.
In this dell, Vahla cowered all through the following day. She had no food or water, no idea where she was, and dared not make any move to find out. She was sure Fantar's men were just over this hill or the next and would be searching out her dell at any moment. In truth, the pursuit was sadly deficient. Fantar had not been discovered until early morning, and had been able to give no coherent account of the attack for some time after that. And when his troopers did thunder from the gates and spread out across the plain surrounding the city, they found no clues whatsoever and, not daring to return without news, repaired to the nearest taverns where they spent the day.
Vahla could not know this, of course, and as darkness settled over the hills, she set forth again, hoping she was still moving away from the city and not back towards it. A stream slaked her thirst and some berries served for food, but she dared not tarry long at either spot. The rising moon showed her an approximation of east, and in that direction she moved, keeping the shadows of the great mountains to her left. At daylight, she hid in another dell—this one by a small stream—and slept through much of the day, buried under a moldering pile of last year's leaves.
As darkness fell, she moved on again, but by now hunger was becoming a serious concern. Her shrunken stomach screamed at her, and her legs felt weak and spongy. She knew she had to find sustenance of some sort, and soon. Also, she knew she was not the only hungry creature prowling these hills. Wolves were not uncommon, and great cats sometimes came down from the high mountains to hunt among the verdant hills and forests along the coast. In need of a meal herself, she had no desire to become one, and as the waxing moon rose again, she bent her course southward in hopes of finding some habitation.
After some hours, she topped a small hill and was startled to see a fire flickering among the trees in a glade by the side of a small river in the valley below. Summoning all her stealth, she crept down the hill and into the wood, sliding silently from tree to tree and carefully placing every step. As a small clearing opened before her, she could see a single man huddled in his cloak before a dying fire. Behind him, and off to her left, a horse and donkey were tethered to a bush. To the right, on the far side of the fire from him, was a pile of what appeared to be peddler's goods. And suspended from the branch of a tree was a food bag.
Food! Her stomach screamed at the sight of it. But what to do? The answer was 'nothing,' obviously, until this fellow was soundly asleep. She knew not from whence he came or what news might be abroad of her. But what then? The safest thing, she thought, would be to simply slit his throat. She still had the dagger. And perhaps he was not a peddler at all. Perhaps he, too, was a criminal. Perhaps she could claim it was he who attacked Fantar and then carried her off. Fantar was so drunk, he might not know. But then she thought, this was fear talking, not her mind, and the injustice of the idea repelled her. This man had done nothing so far as she knew, and to murder him without cause would make her as bad as Fantar.
So, what then? Steal his horse? Could she do that quietly enough? What if he awoke? Steal his food bag? That could be done quietly. But food and a horse! The thought was as luxurious as a bath. Making herself as comfortable as she could, Vahla settled in to wait.

The peddler heard the approaching footsteps before the girl even reached the trees. He didn't know who it was, of course, but he knew no animal would approach that way, and no warrior worth his salt would make half so much noise. So as Vahla surveyed him from the brush, he feigned somnolence and huddled under his cloak, his long sword stretched comfortably by his side. When some time had passed and the intruder made no move to either approach or retreat, the man stretched and yawned, then pulled his bedding roll from his gear, spread it out before the fire, and settled himself down to sleep.
Soon, Vahla heard the reassuring sounds of snoring, and after waiting another few minutes to be sure, slipped quietly from her hiding place and tiptoed across the clearing. The food bag was hung quite high, and as she stretched up to cut the cord, the man grabbed her from behind, one hand gripping her knife hand, the other arm wrapping tight around her waist. Starting like some wild creature caught in a snare, she fought viciously—twisting, jerking, kicking, biting, scratching—but the fellow was simply too powerful. As he crushed her to him, she could feel the rock hard muscles of his arms and chest flexing about her and she knew she was helpless. Still, she struggled, but as he pinned her to the ground like a kitten, her fear and frustration overwhelmed her and she broke down, sobbing.
"So!" said the man, leaning back to let the light from the fire fall on her face, "it's a filly we've snagged... I thought you were some run-away apprentice boy."
He relaxed his grip then, and she yanked her arm free and slashed at his throat with Fantar's dagger. But he was too quick. Twisting his body away in an instant, he countered with a heavy backhanded blow that knocked her back and stunned her.
"Vixen bitch!" he yelled, and jumped to his bed roll to pull out a great long sword. "You'll not play those female tricks on me again!" Raising the blade high, he brought it down in a swift, flashing stroke aimed right at her neck.
Vahla had only time to recognize—with a startling clarity deep in some primordial recess of her brain—that this was Death. Then the blade stopped inches from her throat.
"Now, your life is mine, Lady," the man said, and his bearded face broke into a grin.
"Bastard!" she spat, the fear turning to fire in her eyes. "You're no peddler... Not wielding a sword like that."
"Sure I am," he said. "I traded for it. But you're no runaway handmaiden either—not with a dagger like that."
"I traded for it."
"Oh, I'll bet you did. Stole it, more likely. Did you slit the previous owner's throat like you tried to do mine?"
"Hey, you grabbed me! If I'd wanted to murder you, I'd have stabbed you in your sleep."
"Yup, just like you were able to steal my food bag without my even knowing about it."
The girl had no answer for this, but countered on a different tack. "Well, if you are a peddler, how about we make a trade?"
"Such as?" he said, returning the sword to his blanket roll.
"This dagger for some food... and your horse."
The man laughed. "I can see you're quite a negotiator! Tell you what: if you promise not to try and slit my throat again, I'll give you some food and you can keep your dagger. After all, if your life is mine, I should take care of it."
"And the horse?"
"Don't press your luck. Now," he said untying the sack, "what might be your pleasure? Bread, not too moldy? Mutton, not too rancid? Wine, not too sour? That should do it: a feast fit for a foraging filly!"

Sitting cross-legged by the fire, Vahla ate ravenously, bread mold and old mutton not bothering her in the least. "What's your name?" the man asked, stretching his length on his bed.
"Vahla," she said, chewing.
"Well, Vahla, I'm Thorngere. I won't ask what you're doing running around out here with no food and bare feet, but if you're headed east and want to tag along, I may let you ride for a while tomorrow... At least until we get to the next town."
"And then?" Suspicion was strong in her voice.
"Then I sell some pots, I hope. I don't know what you do."
"I thought you said my life was yours?"
"Well, I did." he said loftily, "But now that I've saved it, and fed it, I've decided to be magnanimous and allow you to do with it what you will. Right now, though, I'd like to get some sleep. If you rummage in that pack over there, I think you'll find another blanket."
Vahla did as she was told and for the first time in days, soon found herself curled up in relative comfort and contentment. Compared to moldering leaves, the old blanket was like a down quilt, and compared to the chill blackness of the night and the imagined eyes of wolves, the warm glow of the dying fire was like hearth and home itself. All that troubled her—and it was quite silly, she knew, but still it would not leave—was a nagging fear that he would leave her to do 'what she would'. But it was only because she was exhausted and had been through so much.

When Vahla awoke, it was already light and the man, Thorngere, was nowhere to be seen. Quickly, she glanced at the food bag hanging from its branch, and at the dappled grey and donkey quietly grazing on their tethers, then got up and went to the river. He was there, wading waist deep in the swirling stream, long golden hair loose about his naked shoulders, and a small barbed spear poised in his right hand. Vahla sat on the bank, cooling her bruised feet in the stream, and watched the morning light play across the broad muscles of his back. He was a large, powerful man, not as young as he had sounded the night before, but far from old, either. Seasoned rather, she thought, and as he turned back towards her and smiled in greeting, obviously in the prime of his strength. Hard muscle rippled across his chest and abdomen. Nor was he any peddler either; not judging by those scars on his arms and shoulders.
Suddenly, his spear arm flashed out and he dove down in to the water after it, coming up with a larger silver fish wriggling on the point. As he waded ashore, she caught her breath to see he was completely nude, and as he stood before her, grinning broadly and unabashed in his nakedness, her eyes could not help but fall to his pendulous manhood.
"Thought you'd like something a little better than rancid mutton for breakfast."
"Yes, wonderful," she said, tearing her eyes away. She was surprised at the way her heart was pounding.
"Why don't you take a swim while I get this fellow cooking," he said, scooping up his clothes. "The water's great! Besides, you smell like an old compost heap."

When she returned to camp, he was squatting by the cooking fire, wearing a simple loin cloth and frying his catch. But as he looked up, and saw her standing close beside him, it was his turn to gasp. "I washed my clothes, too," she said, the dripping garments slung over her arm. "Do you have some line I could hang them on to dry?"
Thorngere's voice caught in his throat and he nodded towards his pack. He had not expected this. Even with her wet hair plastered to her skull, the girl—the woman—was lovely. Better than lovely. She was incredible. Full swaying breasts, large, deep brown nipples, a slim sinewy body, full hips, that dark patch of pubic hair—he had seen many women, but this one made his head swim.
"I think you'll also find something you can put on in there," he said thickly. He really had no time for this.
"I don't mind," she said. "The sun is nice."
Reaching for the handle of the pan, Thorngere grabbed a coal instead. "Damn it, woman! If you want me to be able to cook this fish, you'll have to put something on."
Grinning in victory, Vahla found a loose fitting shift in one of Thorngere's packs and pulled it over her head. "We wouldn't want anything else to get burned," she said.

Later, the two walked down a dusty, winding, cart track of a road, he leading the horse, she the loaded donkey. They had followed the stream south along an even rougher track, then forded it to intersect this path. Thorngere, it seemed, had been trading deep in the hills to the north.
Now he walked with his hood pulled low over his forehead to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun, but under that cover, his gaze kept straying to the girl beside him. Who was this woman, he thought? And why this coincidence of her showing up in the middle of the night like that? It was too easy, her offering herself like that... Not that it wasn't tempting. But who would have sent her? He could not afford this kind of risk, not now, not even if she was legitimate. But what if she was legitimate?
For her part, Vahla was sullen. She had fully expected him to make a move after they had eaten. In fact, she had been anticipating it. But not the move he made. Not to pack up like the woods were on fire and march out with hardly a word! He wanted her, she knew. She had won that round—that was plain by the way his loin cloth stretched when he stood up to serve the fish, even if he didn't say anything. And he was not exactly unattractive. In her line of work, she got a lot of offers—and an occasional obligation. Most, she rejected. But if he rejected her, what would she do when they got to the next town? It was one thing to be Vahla the dancer with her servants and luggage and money to command the finest rooms. But Vahla the fugitive, totally alone? She had tasted a little of that and did not like it one bit.
Thorngere was also irritated with himself. Why had he bolted out of camp like that? So what if she might be a spy? Why would that have stopped him? He could still have taken her. Gods knew he wanted to! (and at that thought, a quick vision of her naked body set his pulse throbbing so that he inhaled sharply) She had been willing, too—that was plain. And he was usually far from shy in advancing his interests in such matters—in fact, he had even intended to. So what was it with this girl?
He glanced again at the pensive form beside him, at the thick dark hair—dry now and cascading loose over her shoulders and breast—at the delicately etched face, at that magnificent frame, and noticed she was limping. Not used to being barefoot, she wasn't; not used to a hard life at all. Look at those hands, he thought. They've never scrubbed paving stones. And that skin: it's been bathed and pampered. No, this one's definitely not your average serving wench.
"You'd better ride for a while," he said
"I'm all right," she said, not looking up.
"Nonsense. You'll do neither of us any favors by going lame. Here," he said, "let me help you up," and lifted the girl easily onto his horse. "Besides, I've got to prove I'm a man of my word."
"I never doubted you were," she said and their eyes locked briefly, she astride the grey, he standing tall beside it. Then, with something like violence, they each looked away.
"How ever did you manage to leave the house without your shoes?" he quipped awkwardly, inspecting the cuts and bruises on her left foot.
"I was in a hurry," she said, and left the words hanging there.
"I might have an old pair of sandals somewhere in one of my bags."
"Oh, I wouldn't trouble...," she started, then reversed herself. "No, you're right, I don't need to be lame. If you do have a pair, I'd appreciate it, though I don't know how I'll pay you. I left 'home' without any money either."
"But you remembered your dagger," said Thorngere, and their eyes locked again, his probing, hers proud, fearful. She had a wide face, he noted, with prominent cheek bones and large, dark brown eyes. Deep eyes. "You probably could get the price of a horse for it, if not more. Would you like me to help you sell it?"
"I don't think it would do to go flashing that about just now," she said. Her eyes were level, speaking louder than words.
"I see." So whatever trouble she was in involved blood. And the dagger would be recognized. And she herself? Such a face would not be forgotten by any man with teeth enough to chew. Nor by many with only gums to smack! So she was not exactly an advisable companion for one such as himself. Especially not this close to Valeria. Whatever her story—and at this point, he was not even sure he wanted to know what it was—he would be wise to get rid of her as quickly as possible. And he would be definitely unwise to incur any obligations.
"You know," he said, assuming a casual air, "skin as fair as yours could suffer badly from all this sun. Would you like a cloak or something?"
"How far is it before we reach the next town?"
"I think an hour or two. But I wouldn't be surprised if we started running into locals any time now."
"I see. Yes, that sun is awfully bright. If you had some sort of cloak with a hood, I think that would be good. My face is very sensitive."

It was past noon when the two cloaked figures made their way into a small fishing village along the coast, southeast of the great walled city of Valeria. It was a roughhewn place, a collection of flat-roofed, white stone hovels scattered among half a dozen streets surrounding a small harbor lined with brightly painted boats. The two were not much remarked. It was not uncommon for strangers to pass through town these days, nor was it wise to appear too curious about their business. Word of the attempt on Fantar's life had reached the town, of course, and some of his troopers spent a day at the tavern. They asked a few questions, but nobody knew anything. So, they mostly got drunk and grabbed at the plump buttocks of Baena, the serving girl (who pocketed several gold coins for grabbing back).
Fantar was not a popular ruler. Since usurping the throne of the High King, the land he ruled had not prospered. Rather, his reign was marked by so much crime and corruption it had become a cruel joke. Taxes were double what they had been under old Valerius, yet services were nearly non-existent. And what did exist were so corrupt as to be useless. If your house were robbed by brigands, or you were held up on the highway (and miraculously not killed), and you went to make a complaint to the sheriff, you would more than likely find yourself facing the very miscreants who robbed you. And if you could not pay your taxes? In the reign of Fantar, you did not even think about not paying your taxes. Better to sell your children than not pay your taxes.
So, if someone tried to stick Fantar, he was only getting as good as he gave. Besides, it was bound to happen sometime. And that a strange peddler should wander into town was not an event to excite undue remark. And that he was trailing a beautiful wench—the menfolk in town were not so indifferent as to let beauty such as Vahla's pass unremarked, cloak it though she would—caused comment only of the coarser kind.
"If I had a wench like that, I'd cover her up, too," said one wag as the pair passed the tavern.
"Aye," said another, "And I know just what I'd cover her up with! Har har."
"You'd best shut your yap," said a third. "He looks like a big 'un."
"Oh, I'll bet he's big," said the first. "I'll bet he's hung like a stud horse to make one like that follow him."
"Who should know better?" returned the second. "Look at the scrawny little bitch follows you around! Har har."
Through the afternoon, Thorngere wandered the jumbled streets, doing a bit of business here and there, calling softly into open doors and windows, "Peddled wares here. Peddled wares." Mostly, he sold pots, of which he seemed to have quite a number, nested in sacks on his donkey. In return, he took a few coins, but also trade items; leather goods, and candles, bread, bits of clothing, a lovely smoked ham in one instance, more sandals. From one house he was rewarded with a large, misshapen pearl on a leather thong which he presented to Vahla with mock solemnity.
She accepted the bauble graciously, and with as much mock ceremony as it was offered, but did not tie it on That would have required her to remove her hood and while the town seemed bucolic enough, her heart still hammered whenever they rounded a new corner. For the rest, she quietly followed Thorngere, helped him display his wares, and packed up the goods he took in trade. She said little—indeed, barely even looked up—but was secretly amused at the friendly, affable way Thorngere went about his business: he had kind words for all, smiled at the wives, joked with the men, tussled the heads of the children, and behaved rather as if he were on a gift giving spree than a business mission. He never quibbled over prices, but gratefully accepted what was offered, assuring his customers they were more than generous, so that once again Vahla thought, this one was no peddler.
And another curious thing: several times, when his back was towards her, or when she was at some distance packing the donkey, she heard him lower his voice and ask about someone or something—just what she could not make out. The first couple times, she thought it simply a part of his usual banter, but after the third or fourth time—by which point she was actively listening—it sounded like he was asking about some sort of game: Game Lark, or something.
At dusk, they made their way back to the tavern. Thorngere ordered up bowls of steaming fish chowder and mugs of ale for them both and ate his hungrily. "Ah, good day's work," he said, wiping his yellow beard with the back of his hand."
"You looked like you were having fun," she said, smiling warmly at him.
"I was! I enjoy my trade. But listen," he said, lowering his voice and leaning across the table, "are you sure you don't want to do something with that dagger? I could get you a good price for it."
"No, I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Well, how about I buy it from you?"
"Why do you want my dagger?" Vahla demanded, suspicion tingling the hair on the back of her neck.
"Well, I don't, really. But you need money."
Vahla was offended. "I'll find a way to pay you back—surely you can trust me for a bowl of soup and some ale!"
"No, I don't mean that," Thorngere waved dismissively. "I mean you need money because I've got to leave. Now."
"Oh." Vahla was stunned at this sudden resurgence of reality.
"I mean," said Thorngere awkwardly, "it's not that I want to leave you in distress or anything. In fact, I... But I have some very pressing business, you see, and..."
"You don't need to explain," she said stiffly. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."
"I have no doubt you're very capable," he said, "but I have no choice. Here, at least take this," and he slid a small purse across the table and pushed it into her hand. Then he patted her hand and—really before she could say or do anything more, or even try to think of a reason to keep him—he was gone. And Vahla was once again alone.
For a few moments she sat still, clutching the small purse and staring at the empty bowl by his place. Then she, too, left the tavern and melted into the darkness outside, oblivious of the four figures who slipped silently out in her wake.

EXTRACT FOR
Valerius The King

(T.R. Rankin)


PROLOGUE

Amid the coarse babble of voices, music filled the hall with a soft murmur of strings. As the girl moved out onto the floor, a flute joined in. Then a drum took up a slow, languid beat. Voices stilled as, one by one, the bearded faces turned towards the girl. And as she began her dance, their eyes fastened onto her form.
Dressed in the merest wisps of silk, her dark hair loose about her shoulders and brushing the mounds of her breasts, she moved slowly at first, like a willow stirred by a soft summer breeze. In the shimmering torch and candle light, her lithe body drifted across the floor, her arms weaving delicate patterns in the air. Then, gradually, the tempo of the music began to build and her movements hardened. Her pelvis picked up the rhythm and began to pulse with the beat. And the eyes of the men grew shiny.
None watched with more fervor than the large, unkempt-looking figure seated on a raised dais at the head of the room. He was a huge man whose once massive frame had gone to flab and whose wild black beard and mane were streaked with grey. His eye—for he had only one, the other being covered by a black scarf tied diagonally around his head—glistened hard and was glued to the girl's every move. Pounding out the rhythm with a meat-filled fist, he fed himself from a platter by his left hand, and drank from a flagon in his right. Intermittently, between swallows, or at some particularly provocative move by the girl, he would grunt, low and deep in the back of his throat.
As the girl reached the climax of her dance, the silence among the men in the smoky stone hall was profound. The girl was lovely, it was true, and a good deal of her body was enticingly visible through the thin gauze of her shirt and pantaloons, but it was the dance itself, the grace and fluidity of her movements—the way her body seemed to create the very music she danced to—that kept them entranced. Even the servants stopped to watch, standing between tables or at the edges of the hall, their trays held level before them. Only the musicians moved to create their sound, and even these watched enthralled, taking their cues from the girl's moves as if her elaborate acrobatics were a form of conducting.
Suddenly, the one-eyed one let out a roar and leapt at the girl. Catching her by the arm, he dragged her back to his chair, kicked away the small table beside it, and laid her face down over the arm. Quickly, he ripped away the flimsy cloth of her pants and undergarments and began fumbling with his own. No one moved to prevent him. Neither did the girl protest—she had been warned that this was a possibility when performing before the high king, and that any struggle would be futile. As she had no choice but to perform, so she had no choice in this. Rather, she lay quietly, propped on her elbows, and awaited his thrust.
But the one-eyed king was drunker than he realized. He swayed on the dais, fumbling with his small clothes, then tearing at them furiously. And when his manhood finally did emerge, it was plainly unequal to the task. Here and there, a stifled titter escaped in the hall and the king's face turned purple with rage.
Just then, the great double doors at the far end of the hall banged open and a troop of men barged in clamoring excitedly. "Majesty!" the first of them called out. "Your Majesty! They have struck again!" This was an elderly man, but one whose angry stride belied his grey beard and merchant's robes. Unmindful of the revelers around him, and ignoring the distasteful tableau of the king and his prey, he strode directly to the dais. "I've lost another two ships, Majesty! That's five this year alone! If this keeps up, I'll be ruined. And I'm not the only one!"
Sweeping the girl to the floor like a sack, the king sat down heavily, and with effort, focused his attention on the merchant. "Where?"
"The same spot, Majesty. Two days out, south of Zagorbia. Angmar here tells me they appeared out of nowhere, just like before. Five long galleys. Three swept in and engaged him while the other two took my ships and made off."
"And you, Angmar—you who were to protect these ships—you did nothing?"
"I did all I could, Majesty. But truly, it was little. Their galleys are small, but very fast and more maneuverable than mine. I could not ram, for they spun away quicker than I could turn. Neither could I board. And every time I got near one, the others closed in and rained murderous arrow fire on me."
"Did you not give chase? Why didn't you overtake our merchantmen and get them back?"
"I did give chase, my lord. But again, their arrows kept me off. And they headed straight inshore, right in under the cliffs where I dared not follow. Then they disappeared."
The king scowled and tugged at his beard. "Disappeared, eh? You slunk away with your tail between your legs, is what you mean!"
"Majesty," said the merchant, "if you please, Angmar is not to blame here. I am convinced he did all that could be done. But we can't let this situation continue... All trade between Zagorbia and Dulcai is at risk. You have to do something."
"Yes!" came a voice from the back of the hall, "Is the Great Fantar UP to that challenge?" And the laughter was not stifled this time.
"Who spoke? Who said that?" raged the king.
"That's not all, Fantar!" came another voice. "This pirate claims to be the son of Valerius and rightful High King... What are you going to do about that?"
"Seize that man!" Fantar pointed. "Bring him here." And when the man had been brought forward, Fantar had him bound to a post, then leaned close and leered in his face. "So, you would mock your king with a pretender in his own hall, would you?"
"Majesty," the man quailed, "I only repeat what I heard!"
"Heard where, from whom?"
"In town, Majesty. It is the talk in all the taverns. This man claims to be Valerius, Valerian that was and son of the former High King."
"Bah! I took that boy's head when we found him cowering with the women after Valeria fell."
"I repeat only what I heard, Majesty."
"Well, maybe we can fix that," Fantar growled, and pulling a short dagger from his waist, brutally sawed off the man's right ear. "Next time," he said, "maybe you'll think twice before you listen to any more such tales?"
"Yes, Majesty," the man gasped, blood spilling down his neck and shoulder.
"And as for pirates and pretenders," Fantar shouted to the hall at large, "I am the only rightful king here. I, Fantar of Valeria! And any who think differently can join this 'Valerius' when I stuff his testicles down his throat and watch him choke to death on them!"
The hall was silent as Fantar glared out over the crowd. Then he turned to the merchant.
"And you! How dare you barge in here and interrupt my feast? Do you think I cannot make good your filthy losses? Here," he said, tossing the man the severed ear, "Take this as my token and get out of here: We'll deal with this pirate tomorrow. Now," he yelled, "Bring more wine! More meat! Here girl," he said, tossing her the dagger, "cut that one down and have him thrown into the sea... Perhaps his pirate friend will come to rescue him."

Later that night, the girl lay beside the snoring king and watched as a knife-edged sliver of moon sliced its way across the window frame. The king had been no more successful with her in his bed than he had on his throne. Hardly able to stand by the end of his feast, he had dragged her from the hall amid much fanfare and raucous cheering. But there was no possibility of his accomplishing anything, and after ripping away the remains of her flimsy dancing costume and tumbling with her onto the bed, he had promptly rolled over onto his back and started to snore.
She listened now as that snoring grew louder and more rhythmical, and as the edge of the moon touched the window frame, she slowly eased herself out of bed, found her pack that her servant had tucked into a corner, and quietly pulled on her clothes. Then she pulled from the pack the dagger Fantar had given her, and with this gripped firmly in her right hand, stole back to the edge of the bed.
Fantar lay on his back, his arms flung wide, his face turned slightly towards the window so that his neck was exposed and defenseless beneath his matted beard. He snored again, long and ragged, and as he exhaled, his fetid, wine soured breath hit her in the face. Bracing her knee on the edge of the bed, the girl gripped the knife with both hands and raised it high. But then, as men who snore will often do, Fantar snorted violently and just as the knife plunged downwards, his good eye snapped open and his right arm shot up, blocking the blow and knocking the girl back.
"Arrgh!" he growled as the blade bit into his forearm and cut across it. Rearing up like a maddened bull, he grabbed for the girl, catching, then losing her wrist, then her ankle as she tumbled backwards. Cat-like, she sliced at him again as she went, cutting his shoulder. But then she was on the floor, scuttling backwards and he, like a great ape of the forest, vaulted from the bed, his one eye red in the darkness and glowing with rage. But his feet tangled in the bed clothes and he fell heavily, smashing his head onto cold stone of the floor. Again, the girl started in for the kill but as Fantar began to push himself up from the floor, she lost her nerve and fled, leaving behind her bag and her shoes. She did not even notice that after this single effort, Fantar simply grunted and collapsed back onto the floor, unconscious.

Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles away, in a snug, well-furnished cave deep in the fastness of the mountains south of Zagorbia, an ancient mage sat huddled over the embers of his fire and stirred some herbs into a pot that hung simmering from a tripod. Motioning for his servant to add another stick to the fire, the mage stirred until the broth came to a slow boil and began giving off a cloud of sweet, earthy-smelling steam. Into this, he thrust his grey and wrinkled face, inhaling deeply time after time. Finally, he flopped back into his chair, his arms limp and his eyes glassy.
Entranced, he stared into the depths of the slowly bubbling broth until its surface opened before him and visions emerged, spiraling towards the ceiling. There was a dancing girl, slim and raven haired, twirling in the flickering fire light. There was a monstrous king, bloated and vile with a twitching, evil eye. There was a palace bedroom, the flash of moonlight on an upraised blade, a struggle in a swirl of smoke, then the girl in flight, running wild and barefoot through the moonlit night.
Closing his eyes, the mage let his chin drop to his chest and sighed heavily. "She is the one," he muttered. "She must be the one." And he drifted off into a deep sleep.




Chapter 1
THE PEDDLER

For two days, the girl, Vahla, fled through the hills, knowing neither where she went nor who followed. At first, she ran blindly, heedless of the branches that tore at her, or the stones that cut her feet. So wild was her panic that she lost all sense of direction or place. All she could see in her mind were Fantar's men thundering in pursuit, their horses lathered, nostrils flared, the riders crouched over their necks, faces leering. And she ran. When she fell, she jumped up and ran again. Deep into the hills north of Valeria she fled all through that night, and when she finally collapsed and fell into an exhausted sleep, it was in a small, well protected dell which had not felt human footfall since Fantar himself had camped there some seventeen years before, when his armies had descended from these very hills to attack the city.
In this dell, Vahla cowered all through the following day. She had no food or water, no idea where she was, and dared not make any move to find out. She was sure Fantar's men were just over this hill or the next and would be searching out her dell at any moment. In truth, the pursuit was sadly deficient. Fantar had not been discovered until early morning, and had been able to give no coherent account of the attack for some time after that. And when his troopers did thunder from the gates and spread out across the plain surrounding the city, they found no clues whatsoever and, not daring to return without news, repaired to the nearest taverns where they spent the day.
Vahla could not know this, of course, and as darkness settled over the hills, she set forth again, hoping she was still moving away from the city and not back towards it. A stream slaked her thirst and some berries served for food, but she dared not tarry long at either spot. The rising moon showed her an approximation of east, and in that direction she moved, keeping the shadows of the great mountains to her left. At daylight, she hid in another dell—this one by a small stream—and slept through much of the day, buried under a moldering pile of last year's leaves.
As darkness fell, she moved on again, but by now hunger was becoming a serious concern. Her shrunken stomach screamed at her, and her legs felt weak and spongy. She knew she had to find sustenance of some sort, and soon. Also, she knew she was not the only hungry creature prowling these hills. Wolves were not uncommon, and great cats sometimes came down from the high mountains to hunt among the verdant hills and forests along the coast. In need of a meal herself, she had no desire to become one, and as the waxing moon rose again, she bent her course southward in hopes of finding some habitation.
After some hours, she topped a small hill and was startled to see a fire flickering among the trees in a glade by the side of a small river in the valley below. Summoning all her stealth, she crept down the hill and into the wood, sliding silently from tree to tree and carefully placing every step. As a small clearing opened before her, she could see a single man huddled in his cloak before a dying fire. Behind him, and off to her left, a horse and donkey were tethered to a bush. To the right, on the far side of the fire from him, was a pile of what appeared to be peddler's goods. And suspended from the branch of a tree was a food bag.
Food! Her stomach screamed at the sight of it. But what to do? The answer was 'nothing,' obviously, until this fellow was soundly asleep. She knew not from whence he came or what news might be abroad of her. But what then? The safest thing, she thought, would be to simply slit his throat. She still had the dagger. And perhaps he was not a peddler at all. Perhaps he, too, was a criminal. Perhaps she could claim it was he who attacked Fantar and then carried her off. Fantar was so drunk, he might not know. But then she thought, this was fear talking, not her mind, and the injustice of the idea repelled her. This man had done nothing so far as she knew, and to murder him without cause would make her as bad as Fantar.
So, what then? Steal his horse? Could she do that quietly enough? What if he awoke? Steal his food bag? That could be done quietly. But food and a horse! The thought was as luxurious as a bath. Making herself as comfortable as she could, Vahla settled in to wait.

The peddler heard the approaching footsteps before the girl even reached the trees. He didn't know who it was, of course, but he knew no animal would approach that way, and no warrior worth his salt would make half so much noise. So as Vahla surveyed him from the brush, he feigned somnolence and huddled under his cloak, his long sword stretched comfortably by his side. When some time had passed and the intruder made no move to either approach or retreat, the man stretched and yawned, then pulled his bedding roll from his gear, spread it out before the fire, and settled himself down to sleep.
Soon, Vahla heard the reassuring sounds of snoring, and after waiting another few minutes to be sure, slipped quietly from her hiding place and tiptoed across the clearing. The food bag was hung quite high, and as she stretched up to cut the cord, the man grabbed her from behind, one hand gripping her knife hand, the other arm wrapping tight around her waist. Starting like some wild creature caught in a snare, she fought viciously—twisting, jerking, kicking, biting, scratching—but the fellow was simply too powerful. As he crushed her to him, she could feel the rock hard muscles of his arms and chest flexing about her and she knew she was helpless. Still, she struggled, but as he pinned her to the ground like a kitten, her fear and frustration overwhelmed her and she broke down, sobbing.
"So!" said the man, leaning back to let the light from the fire fall on her face, "it's a filly we've snagged... I thought you were some run-away apprentice boy."
He relaxed his grip then, and she yanked her arm free and slashed at his throat with Fantar's dagger. But he was too quick. Twisting his body away in an instant, he countered with a heavy backhanded blow that knocked her back and stunned her.
"Vixen bitch!" he yelled, and jumped to his bed roll to pull out a great long sword. "You'll not play those female tricks on me again!" Raising the blade high, he brought it down in a swift, flashing stroke aimed right at her neck.
Vahla had only time to recognize—with a startling clarity deep in some primordial recess of her brain—that this was Death. Then the blade stopped inches from her throat.
"Now, your life is mine, Lady," the man said, and his bearded face broke into a grin.
"Bastard!" she spat, the fear turning to fire in her eyes. "You're no peddler... Not wielding a sword like that."
"Sure I am," he said. "I traded for it. But you're no runaway handmaiden either—not with a dagger like that."
"I traded for it."
"Oh, I'll bet you did. Stole it, more likely. Did you slit the previous owner's throat like you tried to do mine?"
"Hey, you grabbed me! If I'd wanted to murder you, I'd have stabbed you in your sleep."
"Yup, just like you were able to steal my food bag without my even knowing about it."
The girl had no answer for this, but countered on a different tack. "Well, if you are a peddler, how about we make a trade?"
"Such as?" he said, returning the sword to his blanket roll.
"This dagger for some food... and your horse."
The man laughed. "I can see you're quite a negotiator! Tell you what: if you promise not to try and slit my throat again, I'll give you some food and you can keep your dagger. After all, if your life is mine, I should take care of it."
"And the horse?"
"Don't press your luck. Now," he said untying the sack, "what might be your pleasure? Bread, not too moldy? Mutton, not too rancid? Wine, not too sour? That should do it: a feast fit for a foraging filly!"

Sitting cross-legged by the fire, Vahla ate ravenously, bread mold and old mutton not bothering her in the least. "What's your name?" the man asked, stretching his length on his bed.
"Vahla," she said, chewing.
"Well, Vahla, I'm Thorngere. I won't ask what you're doing running around out here with no food and bare feet, but if you're headed east and want to tag along, I may let you ride for a while tomorrow... At least until we get to the next town."
"And then?" Suspicion was strong in her voice.
"Then I sell some pots, I hope. I don't know what you do."
"I thought you said my life was yours?"
"Well, I did." he said loftily, "But now that I've saved it, and fed it, I've decided to be magnanimous and allow you to do with it what you will. Right now, though, I'd like to get some sleep. If you rummage in that pack over there, I think you'll find another blanket."
Vahla did as she was told and for the first time in days, soon found herself curled up in relative comfort and contentment. Compared to moldering leaves, the old blanket was like a down quilt, and compared to the chill blackness of the night and the imagined eyes of wolves, the warm glow of the dying fire was like hearth and home itself. All that troubled her—and it was quite silly, she knew, but still it would not leave—was a nagging fear that he would leave her to do 'what she would'. But it was only because she was exhausted and had been through so much.

When Vahla awoke, it was already light and the man, Thorngere, was nowhere to be seen. Quickly, she glanced at the food bag hanging from its branch, and at the dappled grey and donkey quietly grazing on their tethers, then got up and went to the river. He was there, wading waist deep in the swirling stream, long golden hair loose about his naked shoulders, and a small barbed spear poised in his right hand. Vahla sat on the bank, cooling her bruised feet in the stream, and watched the morning light play across the broad muscles of his back. He was a large, powerful man, not as young as he had sounded the night before, but far from old, either. Seasoned rather, she thought, and as he turned back towards her and smiled in greeting, obviously in the prime of his strength. Hard muscle rippled across his chest and abdomen. Nor was he any peddler either; not judging by those scars on his arms and shoulders.
Suddenly, his spear arm flashed out and he dove down in to the water after it, coming up with a larger silver fish wriggling on the point. As he waded ashore, she caught her breath to see he was completely nude, and as he stood before her, grinning broadly and unabashed in his nakedness, her eyes could not help but fall to his pendulous manhood.
"Thought you'd like something a little better than rancid mutton for breakfast."
"Yes, wonderful," she said, tearing her eyes away. She was surprised at the way her heart was pounding.
"Why don't you take a swim while I get this fellow cooking," he said, scooping up his clothes. "The water's great! Besides, you smell like an old compost heap."

When she returned to camp, he was squatting by the cooking fire, wearing a simple loin cloth and frying his catch. But as he looked up, and saw her standing close beside him, it was his turn to gasp. "I washed my clothes, too," she said, the dripping garments slung over her arm. "Do you have some line I could hang them on to dry?"
Thorngere's voice caught in his throat and he nodded towards his pack. He had not expected this. Even with her wet hair plastered to her skull, the girl—the woman—was lovely. Better than lovely. She was incredible. Full swaying breasts, large, deep brown nipples, a slim sinewy body, full hips, that dark patch of pubic hair—he had seen many women, but this one made his head swim.
"I think you'll also find something you can put on in there," he said thickly. He really had no time for this.
"I don't mind," she said. "The sun is nice."
Reaching for the handle of the pan, Thorngere grabbed a coal instead. "Damn it, woman! If you want me to be able to cook this fish, you'll have to put something on."
Grinning in victory, Vahla found a loose fitting shift in one of Thorngere's packs and pulled it over her head. "We wouldn't want anything else to get burned," she said.

Later, the two walked down a dusty, winding, cart track of a road, he leading the horse, she the loaded donkey. They had followed the stream south along an even rougher track, then forded it to intersect this path. Thorngere, it seemed, had been trading deep in the hills to the north.
Now he walked with his hood pulled low over his forehead to shield his eyes from the bright morning sun, but under that cover, his gaze kept straying to the girl beside him. Who was this woman, he thought? And why this coincidence of her showing up in the middle of the night like that? It was too easy, her offering herself like that... Not that it wasn't tempting. But who would have sent her? He could not afford this kind of risk, not now, not even if she was legitimate. But what if she was legitimate?
For her part, Vahla was sullen. She had fully expected him to make a move after they had eaten. In fact, she had been anticipating it. But not the move he made. Not to pack up like the woods were on fire and march out with hardly a word! He wanted her, she knew. She had won that round—that was plain by the way his loin cloth stretched when he stood up to serve the fish, even if he didn't say anything. And he was not exactly unattractive. In her line of work, she got a lot of offers—and an occasional obligation. Most, she rejected. But if he rejected her, what would she do when they got to the next town? It was one thing to be Vahla the dancer with her servants and luggage and money to command the finest rooms. But Vahla the fugitive, totally alone? She had tasted a little of that and did not like it one bit.
Thorngere was also irritated with himself. Why had he bolted out of camp like that? So what if she might be a spy? Why would that have stopped him? He could still have taken her. Gods knew he wanted to! (and at that thought, a quick vision of her naked body set his pulse throbbing so that he inhaled sharply) She had been willing, too—that was plain. And he was usually far from shy in advancing his interests in such matters—in fact, he had even intended to. So what was it with this girl?
He glanced again at the pensive form beside him, at the thick dark hair—dry now and cascading loose over her shoulders and breast—at the delicately etched face, at that magnificent frame, and noticed she was limping. Not used to being barefoot, she wasn't; not used to a hard life at all. Look at those hands, he thought. They've never scrubbed paving stones. And that skin: it's been bathed and pampered. No, this one's definitely not your average serving wench.
"You'd better ride for a while," he said
"I'm all right," she said, not looking up.
"Nonsense. You'll do neither of us any favors by going lame. Here," he said, "let me help you up," and lifted the girl easily onto his horse. "Besides, I've got to prove I'm a man of my word."
"I never doubted you were," she said and their eyes locked briefly, she astride the grey, he standing tall beside it. Then, with something like violence, they each looked away.
"How ever did you manage to leave the house without your shoes?" he quipped awkwardly, inspecting the cuts and bruises on her left foot.
"I was in a hurry," she said, and left the words hanging there.
"I might have an old pair of sandals somewhere in one of my bags."
"Oh, I wouldn't trouble...," she started, then reversed herself. "No, you're right, I don't need to be lame. If you do have a pair, I'd appreciate it, though I don't know how I'll pay you. I left 'home' without any money either."
"But you remembered your dagger," said Thorngere, and their eyes locked again, his probing, hers proud, fearful. She had a wide face, he noted, with prominent cheek bones and large, dark brown eyes. Deep eyes. "You probably could get the price of a horse for it, if not more. Would you like me to help you sell it?"
"I don't think it would do to go flashing that about just now," she said. Her eyes were level, speaking louder than words.
"I see." So whatever trouble she was in involved blood. And the dagger would be recognized. And she herself? Such a face would not be forgotten by any man with teeth enough to chew. Nor by many with only gums to smack! So she was not exactly an advisable companion for one such as himself. Especially not this close to Valeria. Whatever her story—and at this point, he was not even sure he wanted to know what it was—he would be wise to get rid of her as quickly as possible. And he would be definitely unwise to incur any obligations.
"You know," he said, assuming a casual air, "skin as fair as yours could suffer badly from all this sun. Would you like a cloak or something?"
"How far is it before we reach the next town?"
"I think an hour or two. But I wouldn't be surprised if we started running into locals any time now."
"I see. Yes, that sun is awfully bright. If you had some sort of cloak with a hood, I think that would be good. My face is very sensitive."

It was past noon when the two cloaked figures made their way into a small fishing village along the coast, southeast of the great walled city of Valeria. It was a roughhewn place, a collection of flat-roofed, white stone hovels scattered among half a dozen streets surrounding a small harbor lined with brightly painted boats. The two were not much remarked. It was not uncommon for strangers to pass through town these days, nor was it wise to appear too curious about their business. Word of the attempt on Fantar's life had reached the town, of course, and some of his troopers spent a day at the tavern. They asked a few questions, but nobody knew anything. So, they mostly got drunk and grabbed at the plump buttocks of Baena, the serving girl (who pocketed several gold coins for grabbing back).
Fantar was not a popular ruler. Since usurping the throne of the High King, the land he ruled had not prospered. Rather, his reign was marked by so much crime and corruption it had become a cruel joke. Taxes were double what they had been under old Valerius, yet services were nearly non-existent. And what did exist were so corrupt as to be useless. If your house were robbed by brigands, or you were held up on the highway (and miraculously not killed), and you went to make a complaint to the sheriff, you would more than likely find yourself facing the very miscreants who robbed you. And if you could not pay your taxes? In the reign of Fantar, you did not even think about not paying your taxes. Better to sell your children than not pay your taxes.
So, if someone tried to stick Fantar, he was only getting as good as he gave. Besides, it was bound to happen sometime. And that a strange peddler should wander into town was not an event to excite undue remark. And that he was trailing a beautiful wench—the menfolk in town were not so indifferent as to let beauty such as Vahla's pass unremarked, cloak it though she would—caused comment only of the coarser kind.
"If I had a wench like that, I'd cover her up, too," said one wag as the pair passed the tavern.
"Aye," said another, "And I know just what I'd cover her up with! Har har."
"You'd best shut your yap," said a third. "He looks like a big 'un."
"Oh, I'll bet he's big," said the first. "I'll bet he's hung like a stud horse to make one like that follow him."
"Who should know better?" returned the second. "Look at the scrawny little bitch follows you around! Har har."
Through the afternoon, Thorngere wandered the jumbled streets, doing a bit of business here and there, calling softly into open doors and windows, "Peddled wares here. Peddled wares." Mostly, he sold pots, of which he seemed to have quite a number, nested in sacks on his donkey. In return, he took a few coins, but also trade items; leather goods, and candles, bread, bits of clothing, a lovely smoked ham in one instance, more sandals. From one house he was rewarded with a large, misshapen pearl on a leather thong which he presented to Vahla with mock solemnity.
She accepted the bauble graciously, and with as much mock ceremony as it was offered, but did not tie it on That would have required her to remove her hood and while the town seemed bucolic enough, her heart still hammered whenever they rounded a new corner. For the rest, she quietly followed Thorngere, helped him display his wares, and packed up the goods he took in trade. She said little—indeed, barely even looked up—but was secretly amused at the friendly, affable way Thorngere went about his business: he had kind words for all, smiled at the wives, joked with the men, tussled the heads of the children, and behaved rather as if he were on a gift giving spree than a business mission. He never quibbled over prices, but gratefully accepted what was offered, assuring his customers they were more than generous, so that once again Vahla thought, this one was no peddler.
And another curious thing: several times, when his back was towards her, or when she was at some distance packing the donkey, she heard him lower his voice and ask about someone or something—just what she could not make out. The first couple times, she thought it simply a part of his usual banter, but after the third or fourth time—by which point she was actively listening—it sounded like he was asking about some sort of game: Game Lark, or something.
At dusk, they made their way back to the tavern. Thorngere ordered up bowls of steaming fish chowder and mugs of ale for them both and ate his hungrily. "Ah, good day's work," he said, wiping his yellow beard with the back of his hand."
"You looked like you were having fun," she said, smiling warmly at him.
"I was! I enjoy my trade. But listen," he said, lowering his voice and leaning across the table, "are you sure you don't want to do something with that dagger? I could get you a good price for it."
"No, I don't think that would be a good idea."
"Well, how about I buy it from you?"
"Why do you want my dagger?" Vahla demanded, suspicion tingling the hair on the back of her neck.
"Well, I don't, really. But you need money."
Vahla was offended. "I'll find a way to pay you back—surely you can trust me for a bowl of soup and some ale!"
"No, I don't mean that," Thorngere waved dismissively. "I mean you need money because I've got to leave. Now."
"Oh." Vahla was stunned at this sudden resurgence of reality.
"I mean," said Thorngere awkwardly, "it's not that I want to leave you in distress or anything. In fact, I... But I have some very pressing business, you see, and..."
"You don't need to explain," she said stiffly. "I'm quite capable of taking care of myself."
"I have no doubt you're very capable," he said, "but I have no choice. Here, at least take this," and he slid a small purse across the table and pushed it into her hand. Then he patted her hand and—really before she could say or do anything more, or even try to think of a reason to keep him—he was gone. And Vahla was once again alone.
For a few moments she sat still, clutching the small purse and staring at the empty bowl by his place. Then she, too, left the tavern and melted into the darkness outside, oblivious of the four figures who slipped silently out in her wake.