Chapter 10: The Blood Road
Luciana lifted her head from the hairy chest of her beloved. The vultures beyond the derelict castle walls were circling over the forest, screaming to one another. They’d found something to eat.
“Damn those foul beasts,” her beloved said, his voice rough and low. He was a big man, larger than any Luciana had ever met before. A beast in human skin. It excited her.
“They are merely doing what nature made them to do,” Luciana said, wiping the blonde strands of hair from her face. “They do not deserve your curses.”
“But they awoke my sweet princess from her sleep.” He stroked the woman’s face with his calloused hands. “I curse them all.”
Luciana could feel the hard skin scratching her face, but she didn’t mind. Those hands had done so much work for her. She took his hand and kissed it. “It is my fault for attracting them here with the waste of my failed experiments.”
“I’m glad you’ve given up trying that ghastly trick. I can’t spare anymore of my men or my servants.”
She bit the man’s thumb softly in protest. “It’s not a trick. It’s a crucial competent, I told you. Now let’s get out of bed. What will your men think if we neglected our duties?”
The large man sat up, holding Luciana in his arms like a doll. “Ha! That I’m a lucky man!”
“Lazy leaders are not lucky for long.”
The large man pouted and stroked Luciana’s head. “Don’t be so grim, princess.”
Luciana pushed his hand off her head. She hated that feeling. She was not a dog. “We must prepare. Today is important.”
“Why is that?”
Luciana got out of bed, letting the morning light sparkle off her skin. She reached for an eye patch on the bedside table and put it over her pale left eye. “She’s almost here, my king. The one we’ve been waiting for.”
It was hunger that led the two travelers out of the wilderness and back onto a more populated path heading north. It did not take them long to run out of sweet buns, and it turned out that Diego did not have the stomach for foraged berries and roots. His bowels rejected them awfully and violently they both discovered. Nekayah had no issue eating what she found in nature, but foraging enough food for two was growing wearisome, especially when much of her efforts would simply end up regurgitated on the forest floor. To make their going even harder, the one time Diego did try to forage, he found only deadly toadstools. Nekayah had to make the final judgment. The young man was simply unfit for the wilderness.
For Diego’s sake, they returned to the nearest main road and haggled a passing trader for a small bag of oranges, a water skin, and a heel of old bread.
Nekayah guessed they had put at least four or five miles between them and the burning village, but Diego swore it was more than that. They’d been traveling for two days and no one on the road seemed to recognize them when they walked past. No one cried witch, and no one threw stones at them. Surely, the news of a black sorceress and a gaudily clad Morisco would have started making its rounds across the immediate area by now, yet no one wasted more than a second look at them.
“Good day to you!” a voice called out.
The couple were sitting on the side of the road under the shade of an old olive tree. It was noon and the sun was unbearable as per usual, and their feet were sore and ready to blister. They turned to look at who called out to them through eyes half-open, awakened from their midday nap.
A potbellied man driving a wagon pulled by two gray mules came up to them. “I say, good day to you, Señor! I am Gerardo of the Holy Cross, a humble servant of the Lord.”
Diego stood to attention, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “Good day, Señor. Is there something I can help you with?”
The fat man waived a hand in disagreement. “Not a señor, merely a monk. Spare me your graces.” The fat man pointed with a plump finger to the boy’s hip. “You’ve got a mighty fine sword there, if I may say so.”
Diego looked at his rapier. “For a monk you have a keen eye for quality.”
The fat man rubbed his little chin. “How well can you use it?”
“Well enough. Why do you ask?”
“You see those hills in the distance?” the pot-bellied man pointed north. On the horizon were a collection of forested hills and small mountains.
Diego nodded. “Aye, what of them?”
“The word is that a bandit army has taken those hills for themselves, and I need to get my precious cargo north, safe, quickly, and unmolested. To that end I’ve been recruiting men who can fight and I want to add you to my illustrious guard. I’ll pay you a fair wage, of course.”
“A fair wage? How fair?”
“I think ten gold should suffice.”
“The Fox of Toledo is no ordinary sellsword. Fifteen will do, and not a coin less.”
The fat man laughed. “Ten pieces and whatever drops from the bandits you kill. You and your wife can survive well on that, I’m sure.”
Diego looked back at Nekayah when the man mentioned her to be his wife. A fine wife she would make if she could ever learn to stare without casting a chill down the onlooker’s spine. Why do I always find the troubled ones? He turned back to the fat man. “Indeed, that should do my wife and I nicely.”
“Excuse me, dear,” Nekayah said, her voice laced with the sweetness of a doting spouse. She came up behind Diego and squeezed his wrist firmly. “We don’t know these strangers. Perhaps it’s best we rethink his offer.”
“Come now, what do we have to lose? They’re going north just like we are, and if those hills really are crawling with bandits, then it would be best to travel in a group.”
Nekayah sighed, conceding to her husband’s logic. According to her map, Jarangosa was just beyond those hills. Still, she gave the men in the wagon a leery stare. Diego followed her gaze and analyzed the stock with her. There were six total. Some seemed normal enough, dressed in clean tunics and leathers; a retired soldier, common mercenaries and the sort, but one man did have an unsavory look about him. A pale fellow with dark oily hair and large, wary eyes. Diego had known cutthroats in Toledo and that man fit the bill.
“Good monk,” Nekayah began, “are you not concerned with the quality of the men you’ve selected?”
The monk scoffed and looked back at his men, giving them a cursory glance. “Nothing to fear, Señorita, these men understand the price of betrayal. Whoever kills the man who turns against me gets their share.”
“Well, we might as well see where this goes,” Diego said to Nekayah. “We may very well get a decent reward for our trouble.”
Nekayah snorted. “Or a knife in our back.”
The two climbed into the back of the wagon and took a seat furthest back. No one said a word to anyone. In the center of the floor of the wagon was a heavy wooden chest rimmed with steel and secured with a padlock as big as Nekayah’s hand. Diego could only guess what was inside, but knew better than to ask. He was just a hired sword; the less he knew, the better they’d be.
The wagon driver gave his mules a whipping and the wagon lurched forward, clopping down the road. The trip proceeded in silence. Most of the men seemed to prefer keeping to themselves, and the weapons on their hips did not invite anyone to ask questions. However, the roguish fellow sent more than a few glances in Nekayah’s direction. Diego grew impatient with his antics.
“Is there something you want to say?” Diego finally asked.
“Yes, actually,” the rogue said. “Where did a shit-face knave like you get a girl like that?” He leaned in closer. “Just curious. They don’t make ’em like that around these parts. I might wanna find a cute black one for myself.”
Nekayah didn’t react, but Diego clenched his fists tight, ready to punch the rogue in the mouth. Before he could get his fist up, though, the old soldier suddenly interjected.
“Hold your tongue, scoundrel,” he barked, “or a I’ll hold it for you! In fact I’ll put it in my pocket for safe keeping. Now show the couple some respect!”
The oily-haired rogue lowered his head and kept his mouth closed. Cowards were all talk, Diego knew. A pity. He was hoping to get a good swing in.
The moment passed and silence returned to the wagon.
“I want to show you something,” Nekayah whispered. The Abyssinian pulled out a large leather-bound book. She flipped through its old yellow pages, skimming over pages of incomprehensible text. There was more than just text though. There were diagrams and equations, runes drawn in large scale taking up the entire page, and sketches of horrible demons the likes of which Diego had never seen. Bald wolves with wasp tails and bat wings, trees made of squid-like arms instead of branches, and more; all of them making Diego wince in disgust.
Fortunately, he only saw a glimpse of those horrid things before she began flipping through a series of maps. Some were maps of places Diego knew, and others he did not. There were maps that showed the kingdoms of Castile, Aragon and Portugal. There were maps that showed them in relation to the whole of Europe and Africa, and then there were maps that showed it in relation to strange lands Diego had never seen before.
“What are those places,” Diego whispered.
“I’m not sure,” Nekayah said, uninterested. “I just know they’re there.” Nekayah kept turning until she found the map of the interior of Castile. She then put a finger on the dot marked Jarangosa. “Here is our destination. This is the place I’ve been searching for—the name that’s been whispered in my head for over a year.”
“Jarangosa…never heard of it. Is it a town?”
Nekayah shrugged. “In truth, I do not know.”
Diego studied the map a bit more. “Well, whatever it is, it’s only a couple more days ride north.” He looked to the horizon. “Just beyond those hills.”
Nekayah stared at the green, forested hills in the distance, curved like the arching, knobby backs of ancient giants half buried in the ground. The sun was bright, but those mountains refused to accept its glow. Nekayah was familiar with that effect. That was no natural gloom that hung over that wilderness. “Those hills…”
“What is it?” Diego asked. “Are you afraid of the bandits? Don’t be. The Fox of Toledo is by your side.”
Nekayah shook her head, rattling her beads. “It’s not the bandits I fear.”
Diego felt her anxiety creep into him. If there was something that worried this eerie mystic—a girl who made covenants with unholy gods beyond the stars, what reason was there to remain calm?
“Look at me.” Diego turned her towards him. “You see this sword? It’s the finest blade in all of Spain, and I will use it to keep you safe. Do you understand?”
Nekayah flickered a half-hearted smile then rested her head on the swordsmith’s shoulder. For a women who seemed so hard, Diego was amazed by how soft she actually felt. She would be a fine wife indeed.
When they entered the forest near the foot of the hills they entered a different realm altogether. Hosts of gnarled trees stood bent, stretching their branches out in peculiar angles, like broken arms. Large black vultures flew above the trees like feathered wraiths, shrieking their haunting cry over the poor creatures below. A dank miasma of pungent musk reeked from the blanket of rotting leaves on the ground. Some of the men shifted uneasily in their seats, taking in this wild scenery, running their fingers over the pommels of their swords. Their primordial brains all felt the same indescribable tension. This forest was wrong.
A skittering in the underbrush, a snapping twig—these were the noises that made grown, armed men squirm here in this ancient forest. And those vultures…no ordinary birds should sound like that! Diego breathed deep and slow just to maintain his composure, but the pungent air made did not make it easy.
The road led uphill and the mules panted as they plodded up the incline. The going was arduously slow, and each second in this dark forest was more unsavory than the last.
“Stay true, gentleman,” the fat monk said. “We’re in the heart of darkness now.”
“I don’t like this place,” Diego whispered, voicing the collective thoughts of the party.
Nekayah gave him a look, but said nothing. He read it well enough, though. It was too late to turn back now.
There was a sudden cacophony of snapping and then an earth-splintering crash followed by a rustling of a thousand leaves. Everyone looked to the noise, jumping from their seats, blood pumping like thunder through their bodies. A tree had fallen on the road ahead of them, forming an impassable block with its splayed branches. Its leaves still rattled from the impact.
“Just an old tree…” the silver-haired soldier grunted. Out of all the men he seemed the least scared, keeping his wrinkled, stony face still despite his preternatural surroundings.
“It’ll take all of us just to clear that thing,” Diego said. “Better get started.”
“Quiet!” Nekayah said, touching Diego’s shoulder.
Birds scattered up into the canopy, cawing. Something besides the tree had disturbed them. Every man’s eyes scanned the underbrush, slowly, carefully, reaching for their weapons.
An arrow screeched by Diego’s head, planting it’s metal tip into the tree trunk just beyond.
“Bandits!” cried the silver-haired man. Everyone unsheathed their steel and leaped from the wagon except for Nekayah and the fat man. One mercenary held up his buckler just in time to deflect an oncoming arrow. It cracked loudly against his shield. Diego wished he had taken one of those from his family’s shop before he left.
Frenzied roars rose up from the brush and with them came feral, lanky men wearing rags and patchwork armor, carrying notched swords and axes. The sorry troglodytes were fearsome despite their destitution, or perhaps in spite of it, and they came at the men with out hesitation.
Diego took his sword and stared down the heathen scrambling towards him. He was nothing more than a storm of swinging limbs with a face stretched in an ugly battle cry.
It would be just like training, Diego told himself. It would be just like all those long nights dueling his friends behind Old Juan’s cantina. He ignored the pulsing of his blood rushing through every corner of his body. He had to stay calm. Calm would win the day. This enemy was an animal who knew no more about the sword than a cow knew about smelting iron. Diego knew both, and he knew he would win.
The rusted sword of his attacker swung down on him, ready to cleave into his shoulder. It came so slowly though, Diego could see every station of its arc. He side-stepped and propelled his blade through the man’s exposed neck. His Toledo steel pulled back out with a squelch, drenched with dark red blood. The bandit fell the ground choking as his life spilled out of him.
It was his first kill, and it was easier than he thought.
Time returned to normal and with it came the harsh sounds of battle rushing into his ears from every direction. Every swordsman was locked in combat with the wild bandits. The silver-haired soldier had two of the bastards bearing down on him, one with an ax and one with a spear. The spearman had already stabbed him once in the thigh, but that old codger fought without breaking momentum.
Diego’s legs moved on sheer instinct, bringing him behind the spear-man. He stabbed the bandit in the back. The feral man froze with shock as the metal blade burst out his stomach, glossy with the slime of his own entrails. He dropped his spear and crumpled onto the rotting leaves.
The old soldier gave Diego a nod of thanks. It was all he could spare as he refocused his energies on his remaining foe.
Diego, however, barely registered his gesture, for he was already scanning the chaos to single out his next target. This was nothing like training back home. He never felt like this sparring with wooden swords. His body felt electric, intoxicated with the rush of combat, blood and death. It scared him, but excited him all the same. Finally, the Fox of Toledo would earn his name!
“Diego!” Nekayah screamed.
The swordsman spun on his heels to face the wagon. One spidery-looking bandit had gotten past the line of defense, leaving a mercenary dead by the wagon wheels. He had climbed into the driver’s seat and was in the process of stabbing the fat monk repeatedly with a short sword. The man squealed like a butchered pig, quivering helplessly with each squelching stab that plowed through his large belly.
Nekayah was drawing something over the back of her hand with the blood of a bandit corpse dangling over the side of the wagon. Whatever spell she was conjuring, though, wasn’t going to be finished in time. The spidery man was already done with gutting the wagon driver and had his sights on Nekayah.
Diego took off at full speed, pounding his boots on the ground with enough force to propel him through the air with each desperate bound. “Nekayah!” he screamed, leaping into the back of the wagon. “Get behind me!” Before he could even finish the words, he had to deflect a strike from his new attacker.
The bandit’s long arms were coarse with black hair, as was his face. His mouth only had a few long teeth remaining. Those features combined with his beady dark eyes made the man look reminiscent of a tarantula.
“Pretty girl,” he said, spraying spittle through his gummy mouth. He crouched low and sprung at Diego. He moved with dangerous speed; the young man found himself parrying and blocking, but never getting the chance to attack. Finally one strike skimmed over Diego’s cheek. He felt the sting of cold steel slide over his skin. Then another cut streak across his leg.
Just then, Diego saw Nekayah’s hand appear next his face, dark and slender, but horribly altered. Imbedded in her yellow palm was a bulbous glowing eye. Diego had no time to understand what he saw. Having been distracted for just a second gave his attacker an opening. The spidery man had his sword in mid swing and Diego knew he would not be able to block it in time before it cut open his throat. Images flashed through his head. His brother, red fire in the forge, Old Juan, smoke, Maria… and meeting Nekayah for the first time in the street—fragments of what his life had amounted to.
As if from a nightmare, that glossy wet eye on Nekayah’s hand exploded in storm of corded tendrils that struck out, lashing at the bandit, flaying the flesh from his body, a body that was quickly reduced to a corpse in a hideous cloud of blood and shimmering viscera.
Diego looked back at Nekayah; she clutched her hand, squeezing her wrist as the tentacles contracted back into her arm, making her skin ripple until they disappeared entirely.
Diego’s heart skipped a beat. “My God…”
Nekayah smirked. “Is that fear I see in your eyes?”
Diego looked away, embarrassed, but what he saw was not easy to witness. More bandits had sprung from the brush, just as dirty and wild as their predecessors, cutting down what few mercenaries remained, although by now there was nothing left to fight for beyond their own lives. The poor fat monk, was dead in his seat, his mules neighing with panic, trying to pull themselves free from their harnesses. The other surviving fighters, only two of them now, the oily rogue and silver soldier, climbed into the cart to have the high ground. On all sides bandits closed in on them.
“I’ve failed again…I’m sorry.” His words were a whisper only he could hear.