Chapter 11: The Bull King
Rusted swords and notched axes were pointed at them from all sides. Nekayah, Diego, the rogue, and the old soldier, could only stand fast as their butchers closed in. Nekayah heard Diego mutter something to himself, but could not turn her attention away from the bandits and the tingling numbness in her arm—a side effect of her terrible spell.
“Stay your swords, my brothers,” shouted a booming voice.
The bandits all lowered their weapons immediately and looked to the source of the thunderous command. Stepping out of the brush came a man both incredibly wide and tall. A giant in his own right; his arms alone were thicker than Nekayah’s head, but his most unusual feature was a half-helm he wore decorated with a pair of bull horns. His most frightening feature, however, was the man-sized battle ax strapped to his back.
“What sort of demon is that?” the silver-haired soldier grumbled. No one could answer that question. They could only stare at the hulking creature step forward, and how obediently his underlings parted to make way for his passage.
“You have fought well,” the large man said, his voice heavy yet articulate. He gestured to the corpses on the forest floor, bleeding and staring with open eyes out into oblivion. “You have slain many of my men, and for that you’ve proven yourselves to me. So I give you fine warriors a chance to live. Surrender the woman and the treasure to me, join my ranks, declare me your Lord and together we will rule over these hills unopposed!”
“Aye, that sounds fair to me,” said the weasel with the oily hair. He bent down and reached for the chest on the floor of the wagon bed, but the old solider was quick to kick his hands away. “Huh?”
The soldier looked at the giant and growled. “You declare war on her Majesty!” the old soldier said. Despite his wrinkled face and bleeding leg, he stood tall and firm beside Diego, blue eyes sparking with an undaunted vigor. “You have your men slay innocent traders on the Queen’s roads! You murder and plunder, and you have the gal to tempt me to follow you down the road to damnation! You are not a man, but a beast who deserves nothing less than a swift death!”
The large man shrugged. “So be it, soldier.” He stepped closer to the cart and brandished his great ax. Every bandit standing near was quick to clear away lest they lose their heads. “Beat me in combat and win your freedom.”
The soldier leaped from the wagon, his sword and buckler raised and ready. Nekayah marveled at his conviction, for she was more in agreement with the rogue in this situation. She would do whatever she could to buy a little more time. However, the soldier was a brave man determined to die uncompromised. Although the soldier was healthy even by a young man’s standard, the giant stood a foot taller and half a man wider. There would was no doubt on anyone’s mind as to who would win.
She took note of her companion, his pinched face full of worry as he clutched at something under his shirt. How much could the boy stomach all in one sitting? She knew a righteous heart beat in his chest, but surely, he would not be dumb enough to follow the soldier’s example.
“Poor fool,” the oily rogue said under his breath.
“Are you ready?” the giant asked, eyes glaring from the shadow of his half helm.
The old man stared at the brute for just a moment longer, basking in his defiance, for he also knew these were his final seconds. He finally nodded. “Aye. Let us begin.”
The old soldier readied his stance and waited. The bandit lord raised his ax high over his head, then brought it down with a heavy crash. The impact sprayed rotten leaves and dirt up from the ground, but missed the old man entirely.
The soldier’s old legs were quick, and he was already charging forward, closing the distance to stick his sword into the brute’s stomach. To everyone’s surprise the tactic seemed to have worked, for the blade hit its mark, piercing the brigandine armor and sticking into the belly of the monster just under the ribs. The only one not stunned by this attack was the giant himself. He looked down at the old man as a boy looked at a mosquito. He headbutted the old soldier so hard he fell over backwards onto the forest floor, unable to stand immediately, but merely squirm in a daze.
The old knight breathed sharp and rolled to the side as the ax came crashing down again, shaking the ground with another explosion of leaves and earth.
With a clenched jaw and pursed eyes, the soldier stood up quick, grimacing through the pain. Perhaps in his prime he would have taken the blows in stride, but now he paid the toll for every hit.
“You’re a spry old man,” the giant bandit said.
The soldier spat on the ground. “I’ve been through worse.”
Roaring, the old soldier charged at the beast one more time. The giant bandit smiled, winding up one more powerful swing, bringing around sideways. The strike would cut the soldier’s chest from his legs. Even so, the old man had one more trick up his sleeve.
Lunging forward, he somersaulted under the sweeping blade of the ax, screaming with both pain and ire. He came up into a kneeling position and swung his sword at the monster’s wounded flank. The giant did not cry out, but his face pinched, wrinkling with hate. With one powerful kick, the brute sent the old soldier flying onto his back once more. The old man gasped, stunned as the air was slammed out of his lungs. It was over.
The giant lifted his great ax high and brought it down on the old man’s body with a thick, wet crunch. Victorious, he roared. A moment of silence cut the tension away, as the old man’s breath wheezed into the air. Then, in a sudden explosion of pride, all bandits roared as well.
“Anyone else?” The bandit leader glared at the three remaining survivors with anticipation, but his eyes quickly found themselves stuck on the dark visage of the Abyssinian. His lips curled into a smile. Again, that witches words proved true. “Woman, come to me!”
Diego moved to step in front of her, but Nekayah urged him aside.
“I’ll be alright,” Nekayah said, sheathing her dagger. “Trust me.”
Despite her words of assurance, Diego did not look convinced, but he had no choice but to let her go. Nekayah approached the giant, stepping carefully around the splattered gore of the dead soldier. She stole a quick look at his face. Dirty, and speckled with red, he stared up to heaven.
“What is your name, my little black orchid?” The bandit leader towered over the sorceress as if she were nothing more than a child. His aura of power was matched only by the pungent reek of sour sweat. Nekayah did not let her disgust cross her face, but she did have to start breathing through her mouth.
“I’m Nekayah of Abyssinia,” she said with a shallow curtsey, “and who might you be?”
“You stand before the might of Rey del Toros,” the brute said, pounding his chest, “ruler of these hills and scourge of Castile!”
“Ah yes, I’ve heard the terror of your deeds from many a peasants’ lips.” Everywhere she’d gone people had been discussing bandits. Now she stared directly at its source. “Your strength is legendary.”
The Bull King grimaced. “Enough! Do not waste your flattery on me, woman. Such words are veils for hiding knives.”
A smart man. Nekayah bowed her head. It would take more than the usual effort to lower his guard. Still, any man with such an ego had a weakness. She’d would just have to search a little harder. “Of course, my Lord. My apologies.”
The Bull King nodded, accepting her apology, and pointed to the men still standing in the wagon. “Tell me now, who are your brave companions?”
“Diego Aldora, the one with the shoulder cape, is the son of a blacksmith. Whereas the other one…” He was a total stranger to her.
“Benito, my lord!” the oily-haired man said. “My name’s Benito! I can fight well enough, and well…I can cook a mighty fine stew! If you don’t mind me saying, m’lord, your men look like they could use a good meal.”
“Where did a cook and a blacksmith learn to fight?”
“Does it matter?” Nekayah said, quickly. “They proved themselves, did they not?”
“They did, and I’m a man of my word. I will spare their lives.” He scratched his bristled chin in thought. “I will add them to my collection of servants until they’ve proven their loyalty. But as for you…” The Bull King caressed Nekayah’s cheek with the tips of his calloused fingers. The sorceress remained impassive, not letting her revulsion show on her face. “You are the real prize.”
“Oh…” Nekayah said, waving away the remark. “That’s what they all say.”
The Bull King leaned in close to whisper in her ear. “I saw what you did, sorceress. We all did. You are going to make me very powerful.” Nekayah’s eyes widened, betraying her calm front, and the Bull King smiled.
“Ha!” The giant man laughed and swept Nekayah up in his arms, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. “Let’s head home, boys!”
The bandits cheered, striking their fists in the air.
“Put me down!” Nekayah barked. “Put me down, I said!”
The Bull King ignored her order and went to retrieve his weapon from the corpse of the old soldier. The body made a disturbing twitch when he wrenched the head of his ax from the cadaver’s imploded chest. A bald bandit took the reigns of the mule wagon, shoving the late wagon driver off into the dirt. The Bull King, exhausted from battle, got into the wagon with Nekayah, kicking out Diego and Benito.
The two men had their hands tied with rope and were made to march behind the wagon with swords pointed at their back. Together they all headed deeper into the cursed forest.