Authors: Mark Acres
No time to wonder now, Bagsby realized. The shorter man began to circle as the larger foe approached. If he could get the man turned around, if he could get an opening to run back down the alleyway....
But Bagsby saw that plan would never work. The crowd, its alarm passing, was already formed across the width of the street, packed densely in a concave semicircle, ready to watch the sport. Bagsby doubted now if even his opponent could hack a path through that bloodthirsty throng. He was sure that he couldn’t. Therefore, Bagsby thought, he himself would seize the initiative.
Bagsby darted forward suddenly, shouting a loud “Heeeeyaah!” as he attacked. His opponent, as Bagsby had expected, drew back the great sword. Bagsby leapt up and forward, landing on the man’s chest with his legs wrapped around the man’s waist. He stabbed with his dagger as the man lunged ahead and swung. The momentum of the soldier’s own empty blow, suddenly added to by the weight of Bagsby’s body, toppled him forward. Bagsby’s dagger bit deep into his neck as the two of them hit the earth, Bagsby on his back with the mysterious figure on top of him. Even with his elbow driven into the ground, Bagsby could still control his dagger, and with a jerky motion, he sliced away at the neck of the thing. The monstrous man tried to pin Bagsby down by shoving his stump into the little man’s stomach, but Bagsby kept hacking at the neck. Strange, Bagsby thought, as the head finally severed and rolled off to the side; no spurts of bright red blood.
The crowd cheered as the soldier’s head plopped off and rolled in the street. Bagsby turned his own head in the dirt to acknowledge the cheers, then he noticed that the body atop him had not collapsed. It remained rigid, the knees and the bloody stump still pinning him to the ground! Bagsby drew up his arms, hands in the dirt, pushed upward with all his strength and rolled to the right at the same time. The headless corpse tumbled over on its side. Another cheer went up from the crowd, and Bagsby jumped to his feet, smiled, and bowed to his audience.
“All idiots who desire death will be pleasantly served,” Bagsby crowed. There was laughter from the colorful crowd, laughter that suddenly died out. Then a moment of silence, then muttering, and the front ranks of the crowd began pressing backward, seeking escape from the narrow alleyway.
“No, friends, I mean you no harm,” Bagsby called. “I am a Lagan myself, born here, returned here....” Why were they so afraid of him?
Bagsby spun around in time to see the decapitated body, now standing, bend over and fumble with its one hand to grasp its severed head by the hair, lift the half-rotted trophy up, and set it back atop its neck.
“Bagsby,” the thing wheezed, “you will die.”
The crowd screamed and panicked. It was like the rout on a battlefield—larger men running over smaller men, trampling them; everyone was screaming, the stench of fear in the air.
“That’s it,” Bagsby said aloud. “That’s it for me.” He ran headlong toward the crowd and jumped upward. One foot struck a back; he pushed down, hard. The other foot found purchase on a head; he looked, stepped up lightly, and sprang upward with the force of that one leg. This sent the hapless woman whose head served as his platform sprawling to the ground. His upstretched hands grabbed the bottom section of a balcony rail. Bagsby drew himself upward swiftly, folded his legs up between his arms, lapped them over the balcony top, and landed on his feet. Without pause he dove into the open window.
He landed belly-down on the backside of a scrawny merchant, who was himself lying atop a buxom harlot.
“Sorry,” Bagsby said.
The large four-poster bed collapsed with a crash.
“Love to stay, but got to go,” Bagsby explained, grinning, and slapped the startled woman on her exposed bare thigh before crawling over the couple. He sprang to his feet, and bolted out of the chamber into the narrow hallway beyond.
“Who was that?” he heard a female voice ask behind him.
No time to stay and play, Bagsby thought. Suddenly, an image of Shulana flashed in his mind’s eye. No time to feel guilty either, he thought, charging down the dimly lit hall past narrow, wooden doors. There were the stairs!
Bagsby pounded down them and barged into a tawdry sitting room. Startled shrieks came from the bevy of ladies, some with gentleman callers, who occupied it. A red velvet curtain barred the way to the front door. There should be a vestibule, then the door to the street, Bagsby thought. Don’t want the street. He, it, whatever, is out there. He turned left, bumped into a chair, did a double take to admire the exposed beauty of the young woman in the chair, then ran down the hallway to the rear of the building.
He crashed through a door and found himself in the kitchen where two older women tended the pots. A round of beef sat steaming on a platter. He stopped, cut off a chunk of meat and popped it in his mouth.
“Delicious,” he called to the old hags, who grinned their thanks.
“This way out?” Bagsby asked, pointing to a back doorway.
The crones nodded.
Bagsby ran, threw open the door, and stepped outside into the brilliant midday light. He was in another alley, but this time with no dead end. He turned right, away from the alley where he’d fought the—whatever it was—and ran. The crowds were thinner here. He made good progress but soon became winded. He slowed then stopped. He rested his hands on the fronts of his thighs and sucked in the air as he looked about.
The alley emptied into a kind of tiny square formed by the backs of many buildings and the front of a one-story hovel. The square was almost deserted; Bagsby hurried into it, cast about for any sign of his nemesis, saw none, then stopped again.
Overhead, a lone crow cawed once, but Bagsby did not notice.
“Are you not hearing?” a voice called to him. Bagsby looked again at the only human figure remaining in the tiny square. He was an old man, very thin, naked to the waist, barefoot, and clad only in a pair of short, dirty, white linen trousers. He sat in the doorway of the one building that fronted the square, his arms resting atop his bent knees, A few fine wisps of white hair shot out randomly from his tiny, brown, bald scalp. The old man’s eyes were also small, but they burned blue with an intensity Bagsby had seldom, if ever, seen before. In
his weathered hands, the man held a small, white, cloth bag.
“Didn’t I hear what?” Bagsby asked.
“The call of the bird,” the man said.
“What bird?” Bagsby asked, growing slightly exasperated. If that thing was anywhere nearby, he didn’t have time for this.
“Ah, it is nearby. In fact, it will be here very soon,” the old man croaked.
“What? How do you know.... How did you know what I was...?”
“Look,” the old man said, nodding and pointing to the narrow alley.
Bagsby whirled. The figure stood in the alleyway, sword in hand, a broad, light green silk sash tied around its neck.
“No,” Bagsby breathed.
“You will be needing this,” the old man said softly, extending the hand with the small white bag.
“What? What’s that?” Bagsby asked, drawing his daggers, bracing again for the renewed struggle.
“Oh, no, no, no. It wouldn’t do to be saying,” the old man said, not moving. “He might be hearing.”
“I’ve no time for riddles,” Bagsby snapped. “That gentleman over there is looking for me, and his intentions are not kind.”
“Oh my goodness, yes, that I know,” the old man said. “But he is looking as well for me. Let us be seeing which will the most interest him.” The old man slowly unfolded himself and stood. “Hello there, friend,” he called to the hideous corpse. Without the slightest show of fear, he walked calmly across the small square, his tiny brown feet padding softly on the sand. He stopped directly in front of the soldier. “I think I am someone you are wanting to talk with, is it not so?” he asked.
“You!” the zombie gasped. “You are...”
“Yes, yes, I am the one you are much seeking,” the old man said, smiling pleasantly. “Please, now, I have not much time. Bend down here and in my ear whisper what is it you wish to know.”
“But Bagsby….” the thing wheezed.
“Without what I know, of what use to you is this little thief?” the old man asked, his eyes twinkling brilliantly blue, his voice high-pitched and sing-songy, fascinating to Bagsby.
The soldier looked slowly at Bagsby, then back at the old man. The old man was short, shorter even than Bagsby. The thing leaned forward, lowering its head and bringing its foul mouth near the old man’s ears.
In a flash the old man grabbed the top of the soldier’s head by the hair and gave a mighty pull. The head popped off again. The little man scurried across the square to where Bagsby stood. The headless corpse trembled, extending an arm for balance.
“Please, now, you will force open the mouth. Please do it very quickly,” the old man said.
Bagsby didn’t know what to think. The headless corpse was lumbering slowly forward now, feeling in front of itself with its one good arm like a man in a very dark room. Bagsby looked at the smiling, mischievous face of the old man. Could he trust him? Why not? The thief grabbed the jaw of the head and pulled it open.
“Oh, I am very much thanking you,” the old man sing-songed. He pulled the string that opened his bag, lifted the bag above the open mouth, and poured in the contents. There was a sudden, loud gust of foul air from the mouth—the best the thing could manage for a scream. The headless corpse toppled over into the dust. From a nearby roof the fat crow cawed in anger and took flight.
“There, you see?” the old man said to the stunned Bagsby. “All done. All dead.”
“I see,” Bagsby said slowly.
“Now, you will please be showing to me the fabulous Golden Eggs of Parona, will you not?” the old man asked, smiling and nodding. “For all of my life I have for this moment been preparing, don’t you know, and now, I must confess it, I am some eagerness experiencing.”
“This much I was knowing,” the old man explained, sitting back against a tree on the side of the mountain, “that two men would be seeking me. One would be being alive, and the other would be, oh my goodness, so much an undead, not being alive.”
“Animated corpse,” Bagsby said knowingly, shielding his eyes with his hand and gazing out over Laga. The vastness of the white city gleamed in the last rays of the day’s sunlight below. “Cut off the head, stuff salt in the mouth. I knew that.”
“Yes, you are knowing that, but you are not thinking,” the old man replied in his innocuous sing-song voice that was never insulting, even when telling painful truths. “What good is it to be knowing if you are not using the knowing?”
“Good point,” Bagsby admitted. “But now, tell me...”
“Soon, soon. But first we must be going a little farther up this mountain—there, behind that ridge, you see? There we can be having a fire and not be being seen from the city below,” the old man interrupted. “You will please be building the fire.” Without another word, and despite Bagsby’s muttered protests, the old fellow stood and walked placidly upward. Bagsby cursed, scowled, and fretted with impatience, but in the end he gathered wood and made a fire.
“Now, if you don’t mind...” Bagsby began, as the old man warmed his hands by the flames and stared delightedly at the dancing colors of the burning kindling.
“I am not minding at all. I told you, I am myself experiencing some eagerness. But all must first be ready. Please be looking in that small cleft of rock behind you.”
Bagsby turned, saw the small hole the old man indicated, and reached his arm down inside. He felt the open end of a coarse sack and pulled on it. The opening must have been larger than it seemed, for the sack turned out to be huge. It contained large chunks of raw meat, cut-up and salted for preservation.
“Thank you,” Bagsby said, “but I really don’t want to eat now. I want to find out....”
“That is not for our eating,” the old man said. “That is for... later.”
Bagsby jumped to his feet, enraged. His hand drifted toward a dagger hilt, but he thought better of it. “Old man, I have no more time for your games and riddles. I have come....”
“You are coming from Lundlow Keep,” the little man interjected, “where you are stealing the Golden Eggs from the great Valdaimon. You are seeking the desert shaman that as a youth you heard of, he who is knowing many strange secrets from the past, for you would be learning the secret of the Golden Eggs. Well, sit down, learn patience, for I am that shaman, and you will be learning everything soon.”
Bagsby sat. His tired rump thudded against the sandy rock of the mountain. He stared at the old man, waiting, but the old man merely gazed up into the darkening sky. Bagsby, too, turned his gaze upward, and the two men sat quietly, watching the deepness of night overtake the heavens and the broad banner of the stars gradually come into being across the roof of the earth. The fire grew lower, and the din of Laga grew softer in the distance. Bagsby felt a strange solace coming over him. For once, at least, he didn’t need a plan, didn’t need an angle, didn’t have to fear or hurry or scurry or steal or fight. Not this night.
“It is much better that your soul is composed,” the old man said softly. “You will need this feeling many times in the future, and you have not been having much practice of it.”
Bagsby nodded, drawing a deep breath. “Peace is not something I am used to,” he admitted.
“You must come to be at peace with yourself, Bagsby, oh my goodness yes, for you have much else with which to be being at war. And the time of trial is coming, so you must be being prepared.”
“Time of trial?” Bagsby asked, laughing. “If you knew what the past few months had been like for me….”
“Oh I am knowing much of this,” the old man chuckled. “These times have been like the scurrying of clouds in the sky before the coming of the great storm.”
“Great storm?” Bagsby asked. “What great storm?”
“A time of testing for the world. And you are being in a major role placed,” the old man said, his gaze intent now on Bagsby.
Bagsby shook his head back and forth. “No major roles in the great testing of the world for me!” he said. “I’m just a little guy, a thief. I’ve pulled off some good jobs, from time to time, I’ll grant you that. And this last, well, that should earn me a reputation, certainly. But I’m not much of one for major roles in the testing of the world.” Bagsby cast about, found a stick, whittled a quick point on it with his dagger. “I’ll tell you what I am for,” he said, plunging the sharp point into one of the chunks of beef. “I’m for something to eat.”