They had begun to torture the priest when the stranger stepped from the shadows of the trees.
‘You stole my horse,’ he said quietly. The five men spun round. Beyond them the young priest sagged against the ropes which held him, raising his head to squint through swollen eyes at the newcomer. The man was tall and broadshouldered and a black leather cloak was drawn about him.
‘Where is my horse?’ he asked.
‘Who is to say? A horse is a horse and the owner is the man who rides him,’ answered Dectas. When the stranger first spoke Dectas had felt the thrill of fear course through him, expecting to find several men armed and ready. But now, as he scanned the trees in the gathering dusk, he knew the man was alone. Alone and mad. The priest had proved but sorry sport, gritting his teeth against the pain and offering neither curse nor plea. But this one would sing his song of pain long into the night.
‘Fetch the horse,’ said the man, a note of boredom in his deep voice.
‘Take him!’ ordered Dectas and swords sang into the air as the five men attacked. Swiftly the newcomer swept his cloak over one shoulder and lifted his right arm. A black bolt tore into the chest of the nearest man, a second entered the belly of a burly warrior with upraised sword. The stranger dropped the small double crossbow and lightly leapt back. One of his attackers was dead and a second knelt clutching the bolt in his belly.
The newcomer loosened the thong which held his cloak, allowing it to fall to the ground behind him. From twin sheaths he produced two black-bladed knives.
‘Fetch the horse!’ he ordered.
The remaining two hesitated, glancing to Dectas for guidance. Black blades hissed through the air and both men dropped without a sound.
Dectas was alone.
‘You can have the horse,’ he said, biting his lip and backing towards the trees. The man shook his head.
‘Too late,’ he answered softly.
Dectas turned and sprinted for the trees, but a sharp blow in the back caused him to lose balance and his face ploughed the soft earth. Pushing his hands beneath him, he struggled to rise. Had the newcomer thrown a rock, he wondered? Weakness flowed through him and he slumped to the ground . . . the earth was soft as a feather-bed and sweet-smelling like lavender. His leg twitched.
The newcomer recovered his cloak and brushed the dirt from its folds before fastening the thongs at the shoulder. Then he recovered his three knives, wiping them clean on the clothes of the dead. Lastly he collected his bolts, despatching the wounded man with a swift knife-cut across the throat. He picked up his crossbow and checked the mechanism for dirt before clipping it to his broad black belt. Without a backward glance he strode to the horses.
‘Wait!’ called the priest. ‘Release me. Please!’
The man turned. ‘Why?’ he asked.
The question was so casually put that the priest found himself momentarily unable to phrase an answer.
‘I will die if you leave me here,’ he said, at last.
‘Not good enough,’ said the man, shrugging. He walked to the horses, finnding that his own mount and saddlebags were as he had left them. Satisfied, he untied his horse and walked back to the clearing.
For several moments he stared at the priest, then he cursed softly and cut him free. The man sagged forward into his arms. He had been badly beaten and his chest had been repeatedly cut; the flesh hung in narrow strips and his blue robes were stained with blood. The warrior rolled the priest to his back, ripping open the robes, then walked to his horse and returned with a leather canteen. Twisting the cap he poured water on the wounds. The priest writhed but made no sound. Expertly the warrior smoothed the strips of skin back into place.
‘Lie still for a moment,’ he ordered. Taking needle and thread from a small saddlebag, he neatly stitched the flaps. ‘I need a fire,’ he said. ‘I can’t see a damned thing!’
The fire once lit, the priest watched as the warrior went about his work. The man’s eyes were narrowed in concentration, but the priest noted that they were extraordinarily dark, deep sable-brown with flashing gold flecks. The warrior was unshaven, and the beard around his chin was speckled with grey.
Then the priest slept . . .
When he awoke, he groaned as the pain from his beating roared back at him like a snarling dog. He sat up, wincing as the stitches in his chest pulled tight. His robes were gone and beside him lay clothes obviously taken from the dead men, for brown blood stained the jerkin which lay beside them.
The warrior was packing his saddlebags and tying his blanket to his saddle.
‘Where are my robes?’ demanded the priest.
‘I burned them.’
‘How dare you! Those were sacred garments.’
‘They were merely blue cotton. And you can get more in any town or village.’ The warrior returned to the priest and squatted beside him. ‘I spent two hours patching your soft body, priest. It would please me if you allowed it to live for a few days before hurling yourself on the fires of martyrdom. All across the country your brethren are burning, or hanged, or dismembered. And all because they don’t have the courage to remove those damned robes.’
‘We will not hide,’ said the priest defiantly.
‘Then you will die.’
‘Is that so terrible?’
‘I don’t know, priest, you tell me. You were close to it last evening.’
‘But you came.’
‘Looking for my horse. Don’t read too much into it.’
‘And a horse is worth more than a man in today’s market?’
‘It always was, priest.’
‘Not to me.’
‘So if I had been tied to the tree, you would have rescued me?’
‘I would have tried.’
‘And we would both have been dead. As it is, you are alive and, more importantly, I have my horse.’
‘I will find more robes.’
‘I don’t doubt that you will. And now I must go. If you wish to ride with me, you are welcome.’
‘I don’t think that I do.’
The man shrugged and rose. ‘In that case, farewell.’
‘Wait!’ said the priest, forcing himself to his feet. ‘I did not wish to sound ungrateful and I thank you most sincerely for your help. It is just that were I to be with you, it would put you in danger.’
‘That’s very thoughtful of you,’ answered the man. ‘As you wish, then.’
He walked to his horse, tightened the saddle cinch and climbed into the saddle, sweeping out his cloak behind him.
‘I am Dardalion,’ called the priest.
The warrior leaned forward on the pommel of his saddle.
‘And I am Waylander,’ he said. The priest jerked as if struck. ‘I see you have heard of me.’
‘I have heard nothing that is good,’ replied Dardalion.
‘Then you have heard only what is true. Farewell.’
‘Wait! I will travel with you.’
Waylander drew back on the reins. ‘What about the danger?’ he asked.
‘Only the Vagrian conquerors want me dead, but at least I have some friends – which is more than can be said for Waylander the Slayer. Half the world would pay to spit on your grave.’
‘It is always comforting to be appreciated,’ said Waylander. ‘Now, Dardalion – if you are coming, put on those clothes and then we must be away.’
Dardalion knelt by the clothes and reached for a woollen shirt, but as his fingers touched it he recoiled and the colour drained from his face.
Waylander slid from his saddle and approached the priest. ‘Do your wounds trouble you?’ he asked.
Dardalion shook his head, and when he looked up Waylander was surprised to see tears in his eyes. It shocked the warrior, for he had watched this man suffer torture without showing pain. Now he wept like a child, yet there was nothing to torment him.
Dardalion took a shuddering breath. ‘I cannot wear these clothes.’
‘There are no lice, and I have scraped away most of the blood.’
‘They carry memories, Waylander . . . horrible memories . . . rape, murder, foulness indescribable. I am sullied even by touching them and I cannot wear them.’
‘You are a mystic, then?’
‘Yes. A mystic.’ Dardalion sat back upon the blanket, shivering in the morning sunshine. Waylander scratched his chin and returned to his horse, where he removed a spare shirt, leggings and a pair of moccasins from his saddlebag.
‘These are clean, priest. But the memories they carry may be no less painful for you,’ he said, tossing the clothes before Dardalion. Hesitantly the young priest reached for the woollen shirt. As he touched the garment he felt no evil, only a wave of emotional pain that transcended anguish. He closed his eyes and calmed his mind, then he looked up and smiled.
‘Thank you, Waylander. These I can wear.’
Their eyes met and the warrior smiled wryly. ‘Now you know all my secrets, I suppose?’
‘No. Only your pain.’
‘Pain is relative,’ said Waylander.
Throughout the morning they rode through hills and valleys torn by the horns of war. To the east pillars of smoke spiralled to join the clouds. Cities were burning, souls departing to the Void. Around them in the woods and fields were scattered corpses, many now stripped of their armour and weapons, while overhead crows banked in black-winged hordes, their greedy eyes scanning the now fertile earth below. The harvest of death was ripening.
Burnt-out villages met the riders’ eyes in every vale and Dardalion’s face took on a haunted look. Waylander ignored the evidence of war but he rode warily, constantly stopping to study the back-trails and scanning the distant hills to the south.
‘Are you being followed?’ asked Dardalion.
‘Always,’ answered the warrior grimly.
Dardalion had last ridden a horse five years before when he left his father’s cliff-top villa for the five-mile ride to the temple at Sardia. Now, with the pain of his wounds increasing and his legs chaL ng against the mare’s flanks, he fought against the rising agony. Forcing his mind to concentrate, Dardalion focused his gaze on the warrior riding ahead, noting the easy way he sat his saddle and the fact that he held the reins with his left hand, his right never straying far from the broad black belt hung with weapons of death. For a while, as the road widened, they rode side by side and the priest studied the warrior’s face. It was strong-boned and even handsome after a fashion, but the mouth was a grim line and the eyes hard and piercing. Beneath his cloak the warrior wore a chainmail shoulder-guard over a leather vest which bore many gashes and dents and carefully repaired tears.
‘You have lived long in the ways of war?’ asked Dardalion.
‘Too long,’ answered Waylander, stopping once more to study the trail.
‘You mentioned the deaths of the priests and you said they died because they lacked the courage to remove their robes. What did you mean?’
‘Was it not obvious?’
‘It would seem to be the highest courage to die for one’s beliefs,’ said Dardalion.
Waylander laughed. ‘Courage? It takes no courage to die. But living takes nerve.’
‘You are a strange man. Do you not fear death?’
‘I fear everything, priest – everything that walks, crawls or flies. But save your talk for the camp-fire. I need to think.’ Touching his booted heels to his horse’s flanks, he moved ahead into a small wood where, finding a clearing in a secluded hollow by a gently flowing stream, he dismounted and loosened the saddle cinch. The horse was anxious to drink, but Waylander walked him round slowly, allowing him to cool after the long ride before taking him to the stream. Then he removed the saddle and fed the beast with oats and grain from a sack tied to the pommel. With the horses tethered Waylander set a small fire by a ring of boulders and spread his blanket beside it. Following a meal of cold meat – which Dardalion refused – and some dried apples, Waylander looked to his weapons. Three knives hung from his belt and these he sharpened with a small whetstone. The half-sized double crossbow he dismantled and cleaned.
‘An interesting weapon,’ observed Dardalion.
‘Yes, made for me in Ventria. It can be very useful; it looses two bolts and is deadly up to twenty feet.’
‘Then you need to be close to your victim.’
Waylander’s sombre eyes locked on to Dardalion’s gaze. ‘Do not seek to judge me, priest.’
‘It was merely an observation. How did you come to lose your horse?’
‘I was with a woman.’
Waylander grinned. ‘Gods, it always looks ridiculous when a young man assumes a pompous expression! Have you never had a woman?’
‘No. Nor have I eaten meat these last five years. Nor tasted spirits.’
‘A dull life but a happy one,’ observed the warrior.
‘Neither has my life been dull. There is more to living than sating bodily appetites.’
‘Of that I am sure. Still, it does no harm to sate them now and again.’
Dardalion said nothing. What purpose would it serve to explain to a warrior the harmony of a life spent building the strength of the spirit? The joys of soaring high upon the solar breezes weightless and free, journeying to distant suns and seeing the birth of new stars? Or the effortless leaps through the misty corridors of time?
‘What are you thinking?’ asked Waylander.
‘I was wondering why you burned my robes,’ said Dardalion, suddenly aware that the question had been nagging at him throughout the long day.
‘I did it on a whim, there is nothing more to it. I have been long without company and I yearned for it.’
Dardalion nodded and added two sticks to the fire.
‘Is that all?’ asked the warrior. ‘No more questions?’
‘Are you disappointed?’
‘I suppose that I am,’ admitted Waylander. ‘I wonder why?’
‘Shall I tell you?’
‘No, I like mysteries. What will you do now?’
‘I shall find others of my order and return to my duties.’
‘In other words you will die.’
‘It makes no sense to me,’ said Waylander, ‘but then life itself makes no sense. So it becomes reasonable.’
‘Did life ever make sense to you, Waylander?’
‘Yes. A long time ago before I learned about eagles.’
‘I do not understand you.’
‘That pleases me,’ said the warrior, pillowing his head on his saddle and closing his eyes.
‘Please explain,’ urged Dardalion. Waylander rolled to his back and opened his eyes, staring out beyond the stars. ‘Once I loved life and the sun was a golden joy. But joy is sometimes short-lived, priest. And when it dies a man will seek inside himself and ask: Why? Why is hate so much stronger than love? Why do the wicked reap such rich rewards? Why does strength and speed count for more than morality and kindness? And then the man realises . . . there are no answers. None. And for the sake of his sanity the man must change perceptions. Once I was a lamb, playing in a green field. Then the wolves came. Now I am an eagle and I fly in a different universe.’
‘And now you kill the lambs,’ whispered Dardalion.
Waylander chuckled and turned over.
‘No, priest. No one pays for lambs.’