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Authors: Robert Holdstock,Angus Wells

Tags: #Adult, #Fantasy

Swordmistress of Chaos

BOOK: Swordmistress of Chaos
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“Battle!” cried Raven,
selecting her weapon.

Gondar roared, his great body hurtly forward as the axe whistled in an arc at Raven’s midriff. She countered, jumping to the side to let the swinging blade pass before her as her own darted in to cut at his ribs. The edge touched as Gondar spun aside, reversing his swing to bring the axe back along its path in a blow that would have tumbled Raven to the ground had it landed.

The axe swung like a toy before him, arcing to right and left in a flashing curtain of impenetrable steel through which she sough to thrust her spear. Once she drove through to jab at his side, but then the axe smashed the wood away and she fell back to avoid a crushing blow.

Gauging her timing, she let the spear droop, allowing Gondar’s axe to swing closer. As the riever closed in she withdrew around the circle, luring him on until she deemed her position suitable to her purpose. A curving blow glanced the spear aside, swinging back to connect with her ribs. It passed close and as the apex of the swing was reached, Raven thrust the spear between Gondar’s legs, twisting savagely…

Raven
SWORDMISTRESS
OF CHAOS
Richard Kirk

FOR Gabrielle,
who brings her own kind of Chaos.

Prologue

The hut settled against the bare ground like a hunched beast, crouching under the lee of a stonefall from the farther edge of the promontory. It was set apart from the others, though like them in construction: a crude affair of bent wood and roughly cured hides, playing fitfully with the pale glow of the tallow lantern that was the only illumination within the dark interior. The hut was cold and damp, and not even the furs piled around its earthen floor warmed the occupants enough that they felt comfortable.

One young man fumbled a pile of twigs into a cone, striking his tinderbox to light the wood. Others passed a stone jar from hand to hand, sucking enthusiastically on the fiery contents. In the cold times, inner fire might serve in lieu of real comfort.

They wore furs, the three young warriors, and small pieces of metal and chainmail, little tidbits of armour looted from dead men. They carried swords of a dark metal that were never far from their hands, but their eyes were fixed upon the face of the man seated across the growing fire. He was old, his face lined with the deep cracks of age, his skin spread taut over the fine bones of his skull. A mane of silver hair cascaded from his high-domed forehead onto his broad shoulders, hunched in now against the cold and the inexorable passage of years. His eyes, though, were bright, darting pale blue sparks through the faint light, seeking out each watching gaze and holding it as a stalking ferret holds the rabbit’s eye in hypnotic trance, bending it to the hunter’s will. He was very thin—even amongst a company of men starved of meat—and his clothes were rags and furs that spoke silently of better days, long past. On the earth beside his left hand rested a great sword, its blade shining silver in the growing light, the hilt wrapped round with golden wire, a huge green gemstone set into the pommel. His right hand was bound in rough bandages, the contours of the dirty cloth showing where his fingers had been severed from the palm.

He smiled and began to speak:

‘Aye, you laugh at me. I know that. Youth is a gift that can afford laughter. When the arm is strong, the lips stretch easily; for a woman, a clean kill, a blue sky…an old man. I am old now, but once I was young like you, and as foolish. I gave up more than you whelps will ever dream to know. Once I sat in halls of marble, their pillars girt with gold and precious stones. The food came on platters of silver, roasted meats and spitted birds, pure bread and fruits long forgotten, cheeses and wines nursed carefully as the offspring of a chieftan.

‘Aye, in the good times. The old times.

‘You hairy savages are too young to remember, though I do. I cannot forget. Shroud of the Stone, I wish I could; it would make this damp exile easier. But what can an old man do? He sits in his cold and stinking tent wondering where his next meal will come from, remembering things best forgotten.’

The timeless blue eyes glazed over, though whether from pain or delight, it was impossible for the young men to guess. They continued to pass the stone flask around, watching the old man, waiting for him to continue his story.

At last he nodded, pointing the stump of his hand towards them, and spoke again.

‘She was a woman, Raven! There are none like her today. Tall, she was; her hair as golden soft as the sun on a late summer evening. And her eyes blue as a mist-kissed sea pool, blue and green and grey mingled together in a manner that could suck the soul out of a man, if she chose. Though I’ve seen them red with blood and cold as the wind from the northern ice wastes. She was a woman you whelps might dream about, damping your blankets with the thought. She smiled as she killed, and if she chose a man, he went to the furs ready to die for sheer pleasure.

‘Two men only, in all the hundreds she slew, could stand against her. I was one—and I still bear the scars of knowing her, albeit they are gladly borne. The other was Karl ir Donwayne, and if he went to the hell he deserved, I trust his soul rots there, for he did her a mighty wrong. Not even the omnipresent sorcerers of Kharwhan would degrade a woman so.

‘But I ramble. Donwayne is long-ago fed to the worms. So, too, is Raven, unless she survived that last armageddic battle. I know not: I fell there, and Gondar took my hand. I never saw her again, except in dreams. Perhaps dreams are the best way to remember, now.’

The wind renewed its attack on the hut, howling through the seams of rough-tied skin like the keening of a widowed woman. The fire sparkled, struggling against the draught, and the lantern flickered shadows over the watching faces. They were tensed, now, staring at the empty blue eyes that looked into a distance reaching beyond the ghost-hide hut into an age gone down into chaos, reaching out for a dream, a memory, a woman.

‘She was a woman, aye. A swordmistress, too. But always a woman. Raven, we called her. I shall tell you how she got that name, tell you of our first meeting…’

One

‘A tool must be chosen carefully to affect a successful pattern of creation. Only the finest will suffice.’

The Books of Kharwhan

The girl crouched on the moonlit sand listening to the baying of the slavehounds. The unearthly howling seemed to match the heaving of her air-starved breasts as they thrust against the skimpy Lyandian cotton of her shift, moving the soft material over the cuts decorating her lithe body. The cuts hurt, and she could feel blood thickening along her back and buttocks. She ignored the pain, thrusting to her feet, steeling her body to make the impossible effort of outrunning the slavehounds.

Once she had seen the hounds bring down a runaway slave. The man had broached the walls of the Lyand slavepen at noon, trusting in the desert sun to keep the guards asleep. He had omitted remembrance of the dogs. And along the high-picketed walls, there were small exist holes that allowed the gaunt, grey beasts ready access to the blank wastes beyond the walled city. The hounds had gone out, three of them, with weird, unholy cries, their great red-lipped jaws slavering a joyful anticipation of the unexpected sport. They had brought the man down in sight of the city, and the slave guards had lined their squads upon the wall; to watch. The hounds stood high as a man’s hip and their mouths were lined around with ivory fangs that pierced flesh as easily as a Tirwand saber. They were near as fast as a Xand, and they had brought the runaway down no more than a quarter kli from the walls.

They had played with him for too long.

The girl rose up and ran. She ignored the pain that seemed to shred her feet to bloody, spoor-filled ribbons of blood over the desertland of the Southern Kingdoms. She ignored the aching agony that threatened to burst her lungs beneath her jouncing breasts. She ignored the stinging pain of the lash marks. She ran.

She could imagine the slavehounds at her rear. Even feel, in her mind, the wet-painful kiss of those great jaws, the ivory fangs closing and tugging on her skin; shredding and ripping until she was brought down, yet alive, for the sport of the hounds and their Lyand masters.

Terrified, hating, she ran.

She ran over the sands surrounding the great walled city of Lyand, heading towards…something. She had no clear idea of what it might be, knew only that she must escape the slavery that had destroyed her parents. And never again face the lash.

Behind her, the slavehounds closed in.

They spread out, the six of them, into a confining semicircle. It was a pattern bred by the expert slavemasters of the city: the hounds ran down their prey until it was weary, then they moved out to form a horned pattern, so that the victim ran within a half circle of inescapable pursuers.

Then the slavehounds completed the circle. And fed.

The girl wanted no part of that dread circle, and yet saw no way by which she might escape it. Lacking plan—almost lacking thought—she ran as an animal runs: blind, desperate, seeking only the unattainable. Her feet thudded over the burning sand, hot even now in this southern clime, here eyes darted around the moonwashed dunes, seeking refuge she knew could not be found.

But she refused to give in. She had no hope, nor any weapons except her soft limbs. But she would not resign herself to death anymore than she would agree to slavery, the whip, and the brand.

She ran. And the hounds drew closer.

Their baying wafted on her ears, culling the nightsounds from the desert until there existed only the weird howling, and the soft swift pad of stealthy feet. She sensed, rather than saw, the shapes close in around her; but the waft of fetid breath, the clacking of the fangs, they were real enough. Then, out of the darkness, came a great black shape. Slavering jaws spread wide to take her, and she hurled herself away, tumbling hopelessly over the sand as huge, clawed paws drew fresh blood from her skin. She screamed—for raw fear is a hard emotion to suppress—and rolled down the dune towards the waiting, gaping eyes glowing crimson in the waning light. She came to her feet and clenched her fists, knowing it was useless—nothing could stand against the slavehounds of Lyand. But still she rose up and readied herself to die, hoping to hook one hand at least into the eye sockets of a demon-dog.

The slavehounds sat back on heavy-muscled haunches, their tongues lolling out from between curved teeth. Their eyes were red with blood lust, an almost human sadism glinting in their scarlet orbs.

Their waiting was their undoing. Had they charged in, they might have changed the course of history; cut a line of evolution off from its start; ended an empire and given birth to a new order.

But they were trained to wait, to anticipate, to savour.

And so they failed.

They closed in slowly around the panting, helpless girl, their great jaws gaping wide to rend suppliant flesh, crunch bone, teach suffering to a recalcitrant slave.

And the girl watched them come, prepared to sell her worthless life as dear as she might, knowing she had no hope, that no benevolent god would stoop down to life her clear of the slavering death surrounding her quaking body.

BOOK: Swordmistress of Chaos
4.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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