James Silke: Prisoner of the Horned helmet

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James Silke Prisoner of the Horned helmet
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    Prisoner of the Horned helmet
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James Silke

Prisoner of the Horned helmet



They came out of the sunblasted desert. Tiny dark specks wagging a tail of billowing yellow dust at the yellow sky. Occasionally they glittered metallically; otherwise they were shaggy, the color of dirt when it was in a mood to be filthy. All of which meant they looked their best, like tarantulas with their hair combed.

It was a mounted detachment. Nine riders with crossbows in their saddle holsters and sheathed swords, quivers and daggers riding their belts. Scouts. Probing fingertips of the nomadic empire which dominated the southern lands from the Dark Continent in the west, all the way across the lands of Yellow Faces to the Islands of the Rising Sun in the east. The Kitzakk Horde.

Their horses were small, scarred, with braided manes and tails. Durable. The riders were more so, leather-skinned veterans of the desert campaigns. They were Hunters, members of one of the three Chel Regiments under the personal command of the warlord, Klang.

Helmets, arm bands and breastplates were black-lacquered bamboo striped with steel bands. Skirts were wide leather thongs mounted with steel studs. Crescent moons of precious silver glittered on the tops of wide-brimmed helmets shaped like overturned shallow bowls. Their weapons were carved with the figures of butterflies and inlaid with a patina of gore and grime gathered from uncounted battlefields. There were the inevitable dents and stains, but each carried a story of violent, painful victory.

Their flat brown faces carried similar stories, stories of themselves. Men wearing steel and death.

They rode north to the dry cataracts where Sergeant Yat reined up and halted his command. He was short, thick and sun dark. His squad numbered seven veterans and one rookie, a boy they called Young Hands, who brought up the rear. They stared down at the cataracts like performers about to step onto a stage they had not played before, a dangerous one.

The massive shelves of rock, splintered by bottomless gorges, descended in almost regular steps then vanished amid low-lying clouds. Like a staircase for the gods, the large variety who use trees for toothpicks and urinate lightning.

Soong, the wrinkled one, said, “Not a regulation border, is it?”

Akar nodded agreement. “The regiments will be one large target crossing this, and so will we.”

Sergeant Yat grunted as if the cataracts were of no more concern than an unpolished belt buckle and moved his squad forward with a circular motion of his hand.

They turned west, rode until they came to a steep trail descending into the cataracts. Soong put up a trail marker, a red flag embroidered with a rising sun, the sign of their Butterfly Goddess. Akar removed a map, bamboo pen and ink from a metal cylinder and noted the trail on the map. This done, Yat led them down the trail into the uncharted, savage wilderness.

As the scouts descended, the iron chains and slave collars dangling from their saddles echoed pleasantly among the stone chasms. These instruments were beautifully made, hand carved with images of entwined flowers. The soldiers made no attempt to mute their metallic song.

It brought terror to their enemies, was music to their ears. A proud reminder that they no longer used barbaric ropes or crude leather collars, but hard steel. They were civilized. They even drank their blood from a cup.



Beyond the cataracts, deep within the Great Forest Basin, the tiny Glyder Snake slithered under dense ground cover, came to a stop at a wild scarlet rose graced with flickering sunlight. The reptile was in a section of the forest called The Shades. Vast. Uninhabited. Primeval. Dense with fir, spruce and hemlock rising from the embrace of creepers and sword ferns, and carpeted with needles, leaves and moss. A land with a roof of leaves penetrated by a few scattered shafts of gold light. A world of shadows. The perfect place for a snake at work.

The reptile’s gold eyes hunted and came to rest on a black cavelike opening amid the exposed roots of a massive spruce. Its nostrils widened. Its black tongue tasted the air. It had found what it hunted.

It slipped out of the concealing ground cover, wound its way up onto a dead fir tree lying on the ground, and slithered into a pool of flickering sunlight. The slim olive green body, the length of a forearm, coiled, then lifted in an elegant arc and pointed its stabbing tongue at a shadowed cave at the base of an outcropping of overgrown rock. Within seconds, sunshine turned its body yellow and its tiny scales began to radiate golden light, like a glowing trail marker.

There was the sound of something large shifting its weight within the shadows of the cave, then silence.

A spread of man-high sword ferns swayed behind the reptile, then parted, held by two hooded faceless spearmen crowded in the shadows. An opulent female figure emerged robed in emerald velvet. Small pearl-white hands clutched the heavy garment about her, their red nails hot, sharp. She stepped into the pool of light beside the glowing Glyder Snake. For a brief moment her draped body shimmered, reflecting the colors of the sunlight and the scarlet rose, then it flickered brightly and turned to scales of glittering gold. She slowly pushed her hood back and gazed intently at the shadowed cave.

Her grey-and-gold, almond-shaped eyes were heavily rimmed with kohl, and glistened in the deep alcoves of her finely wrought skull. Thin arched eyebrows. Wide full cheekbones. Lips narrow but fleshy above her finely pointed chin. Her skin was flawless, translucent, cream tinted with rose madder. Her hair was hidden beneath a shoulder length skullcap of metallic scales crusted with tiny jewels and cut like a serpent’s hood. It glittered with wealthy abandon. This was the sorceress called Cobra, Queen of Serpents.

The shadow within the root cave shifted.

Cobra’s cheeks rose with the trace of a confident smile. She parted her robe to reveal a lush body ripe with curves. Wide hips. Narrow waist. Full breasts swelling above the restraining gold cloth of her garment like soft prisoners. She spoke in a tone that was playful, in the manner of fingers stroking a naked thigh.

She said, “I bear a message, Dark One.”

A voice from within the cave said, “I have no use for messages.” It echoed softly, as if the speaker were imprisoned in a hole at the center of the earth. Yet strong, holding back thunder.

“You will have use for this one,” she said, abruptly changing her tone. “It carries a warning. Great and terrible events are traveling towards the Forest Basin. Events more horrible than even you can imagine. The armies of the great Outland empire in the south are coming, Dark One, and they wear armor and bear weapons stronger than the earth has ever known before.”

A grunt escaped the shadowed cave.

A smile spread across her mouth then died at the corners. “Contempt will not blunt their weapons. These Outlander champions are stronger than any you have faced. No fire you stoke can soften their metal, no weapon you hold can penetrate it. You will not be able to stand against them, unless you arm yourself properly.”

She waited, got no response, and continued coaxingly. “I do not insult you, Dark One. I am certain that you will die grandly, in a manner that will be spoken of with praise around the campfires for many years. But if you are of a mind to remain Lord of the Shades a little longer, hear me out.”


“Listen to me! Go to the bridge called Lemontrail Crossing. Today! There you will find armor and weapons of hard metal, tools which can be yours if you have the will to take them.”

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