Lawrence Watt-Evans: The Sword Of Bheleu

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Lawrence Watt-Evans The Sword Of Bheleu
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    The Sword Of Bheleu
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Lawrence Watt-Evans

The Sword Of Bheleu


Galt, the overman trader, shifted uncomfortably, sending a rivulet of cold rain down the back of his neck and under his mail; it soaked into his quilted gambeson and trickled slowly down his furry back, chilly and damp and thoroughly unpleasant. He suppressed a growl. The itching of the armor was quite bad enough without this added discomfort. He wondered how warriors could stand to wear the stuff day after day. Despite the padded undergarment, he was quite sure that he had acquired several scrapes and scratches from the metal links, and nothing he had tried had alleviated the itching. He suspected that he was allergic to the quilting.

Wearing the mail was bad enough; the added annoyance of drenching rain during his watch had him ready to give up the whole venture. And what was he, the co-commander, doing standing watch in the first place?

Packing up and going home would undoubtedly be the sensible thing to do, he told himself; Kyrith, however, didn't see it that way. She had insisted on this ridiculous siege, and that meant he was stuck here. The City Council would never forgive him if he left her here unsupervised, in sole command.

In truth, though, he knew he didn't provide much supervision; there was no doubt that, whatever their nominal status, Kyrith was in charge and he was not. She was all fire and drive and fury, despite her handicap, while he had been restrained and reasonable. It was no wonder at all that anyone fool enough to have volunteered for this all-volunteer force would prefer to follow an aggressive idiot, a warrior and the wife of a warrior prince, rather than a quiet, calm trader.

He blinked rainwater out of his great golden eyes and pulled his cloak more closely about him; with his free hand he removed his broad-brimmed hat, shook off what he could of the accumulated rain, then jammed it back on his head. He glanced behind him at the dark shapes of the camp tents, black humps against the gray-black sky. The rain had put out the last trace of the campfires, and the last lantern had been extinguished hours ago. The old Wasteland Road was invisible in the darkness and the northern hills too distant to see through the falling rain. A gust of wind swept water into his face, and he snorted, blowing the moisture out of his slit nostrils. Those ugly noses the humans had apparently had some use after all; they kept out the rain. There were plenty of advantages to being an overman, though, and on balance he felt his species came out ahead. The very word for his kind implied as much, of course. He looked about, peering through the rain and the darkness.

Immediately to his right waited the warbeast he had been assigned, its flank less than a yard away; its eyes were closed, either in sleep or to keep out the rain, he was unsure which. Its glossy black fur blended with the night sky and the darkened plain, so that it seemed almost a phantom, its edges indistinct, as if it were only a vague outline of an animal. Its triangular ears were laid back against its skull, smoothing its already sleek shape still further; its pantherlike tail lashed silently from side to side. Galt knew that most cats disliked water-very few overmen kept pets, but he had seen them aboard the trading vessels out of Lagur-and he wondered if the creature was as miserable as its feline forebears would have been if forced to stand in pouring rain for hours on end. He was not familiar with warbeasts, and could not tell from its face or its actions; to him it seemed as calm and impassive as ever, save for the motion of its tail.

To his left was empty plain; several yards away a dark shape rose up against the night sky where some human farmer had built his home. Somewhere beyond that, lost in the gloom, he knew there was another overman standing watch with a warbeast ready at his side.

Ahead of him, perhaps a hundred yards away, stood the ruined wall of the town of Skelleth, and the fallen towers that marked its North Gate. A pale flicker of light reminded him that some unfortunate human was also stuck with watch duty, but that man, whoever he was, at least had the comfort of a fire and whatever shelter was provided by the one tower wall that still stood.

Galt envied the man his fire. Even if he had had enough dry fuel to keep a fire going, he would not have dared to light one; it went against policy and good sense in so underequipped a siege as this one. The enemy forces could use such fires to locate the sentries, making it that much easier to send spies out between them, and to smuggle supplies in.

The firelight flickered oddly, and Galt's attention was drawn to it briefly, but he dismissed it as unimportant. The guard had probably walked in front of it, stretching his legs, no doubt.

The light flickered again, and then seemed to brighten. Galt blinked rain away and peered at it more closely.

It was brighter; in fact, there were now two lights, and one was moving. The watch fire remained where it was; the increase in brightness had been the addition of this new light, whatever it was. He watched and listened carefully.

The new, smaller light was slowly approaching. Galt stirred uneasily, sending another trickle down his back, and his right hand closed on his sword hilt. The light was definitely coming closer. Although it was hard to be sure through the hissing rain, he thought he heard boots sloshing through mud. He patted the warbeast's side, then returned his hand to his sword and loosened the blade in its scabbard. The warbeast's eyes opened, gleaming a ghostly pale green in the dimness as they caught the faint light; its tail stopped lashing. Galt took a step forward.

He had forgotten the added weight of his armor and that he had been standing in mud for several long minutes without moving his feet; there was a soft sucking sound as his boot came free, though the motion required little more effort than it would have ordinarily.

The light suddenly stopped moving, still at least a dozen yards away; there was an instant of silence, save for the pattering of the rain, and then a voice called softly, "Overman?"

Galt made no reply, but slapped the warbeast's neck in the signal meaning "separate and surround"; the monster obediently slipped silently away in the darkness. Galt spared a second to wonder how anything that large could move so quietly in the rain and mud.

"Overman? Please, if you're there, I come in peace. I want to talk to your leader." The voice was speaking in little more than a loud whisper, but Galt had no trouble in making out the words. Aware that the warbeast was circling around and that a shouted command would bring it leaping upon the intruder, Galt decided he could risk replying.

"Who are you?" he asked.

There was a pause; the light swung, and slogging footsteps approached a few paces. Galt could see that the glow came from a lantern held by a human, but could make out no details.

"My name is Saram. I used to be a lieutenant in the Baron's guard. I want to speak with your leader."

"Saram?" Galt was startled; he knew the man very slightly, having met him in the course of the trading expedition that had started this whole silly mess. Garth, the leader of that expedition, had spoken with Saram at length. Since Garth's disappearance was more or less the cause of the siege, conversation with the man might prove worthwhile.

"Where are you?" the human asked.

"Never mind where I am. Hold the lantern up so I can see your face."

The man obeyed; although he was still too far away for Galt to be certain, his face could well have been Saram's.

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