Ranulf shivered under his shirt of padded chain mail, welcoming the first rays of jungle sun. Soon enough it would be steamy hot, the wilderness coming to dangerous life under Tarag's fervent sun.
"Kick that scaly buzzard bait you call a mount and make it move", he growled. "Get humping, or I'll leave the both of you to find your own way out of here."
"Patience, Warrior," Hissath answered, his voice an unlovely slow croaking. They were an unlikely pair. Ranulf was tall and rangy, with broad shoulders and a shock of unruly hair that had given him the nickname of 'Ranulf the Red'. Hissath was short and slender, his scaly skin showing greenish highlights as he moved. He was sluggish in the early morning chill, but as soon as his blood warmed he would become a swift and deadly fighting machine. Ranulf had purchased him on a drunken impulse, far away in the southern swamps of Tarag, but long before the slave-geas had faded to nothing they had become an inseparable team of fighting men.
Hissath's mount, a giant lizard from those same swamps, groaned and hissed as its owner booted it in the ribs, but got to its feet. He slung his few belongings across its ridged shoulders and settled himself for another day's ride.
"Now we'll be on our way. You will s-soon find it hard enough to keep up with Fangeen on your panting plow horse."
"Plow horse! Now that's enough! More than enough from you. Flame would carry me swift as a mountain breeze through this stinking mess if we didn't have to wait for you and your scaly mule..."
His keen eyes scanned the trail ahead while they talked, alert for any sign of danger. They had stuck together through good times and lean. The heat of battle had welded them together as man and man, eroding the status of master and slave to a half forgotten memory. Time and again each had guarded the other's back, surviving as a team while comrades-in-arms had fallen around them.
"The trail grows wider," Hissath observed. "Broader, yet darker. Yet the sun seems bright enough..."
"Darker? In broad daylight?" Ranulf jeered, shaking his head so that locks of red hair escaped from under the rim of his iron cap. But even as he laughed he loosened the sword slung across his shoulders. Hissath's hunches had saved their necks more than once.
It was well that he did. With no more warning they were surrounded by a silent rush of shadows. Flame reared, neighing and flailing his hooves, and plunged ahead. Ranulf reined him to a halt, then plunged back into the thick of the shadows in search of Hissath.
"Ho! To me!"
The clotted darkness broke apart as Fangeen lurched ahead. Side by side they faced their attackers in the gathering darkness.
"Yah Ssillah Ssithanth!" Hissath cried out, holding his dagger aloft so that the rosy crystal in its pommel flashed in the fading sun. The light reflected onto the blade of Ranulf's silvery sword, breaking into shards of flame that drove back the encroaching dark.
Through the half-light a pack of shadows like giant hounds leaped at them. Shadows with eyes ... and teeth! Ranulf's sword sliced only air, as did Hissath's lighter weapon. They felt the pang of tearing flesh as phantom teeth ripped and tore, hurling them from their saddles. Then somehow their swords were striking home. The shadows fell back, then closed again. They stood in some dark place, their feet in squelching ooze, their mounts nowhere to be seen.
Again the icy slash of phantom teeth, but their swords were wreaking havoc now. They fought off their shadowy attackers, great gaunt hounds that grew more real with every moment.
Hissath held aloft his dagger with its rosy gem. Its light was weaker here, a pale glow that only faintly outlined their attackers. The hounds were almost solid now, falling back bleeding and maimed.
"Yah Ssillah Ssithanth!"
Again Hissath's cry kindled the crystal's light. Ranulf's sword caught the pulsing glow, weaving it into a wall of flame that drove their attackers back into the surrounding gloom. Then the jungle surrounded them once more. Back to back they stood panting in the greenish light, while nearby their mounts grazed peacefully.
"Where'd they go?" Ranulf's pale blue eyes blazed with battle fury. "What were they?"
"An ancient curse, one only hinted at in dim legends. I had not believed that any still knew how to call them." Hissath's voice carried only a trace of sibilance now that his reptilian blood had been warmed by battle. "You would call them Shadow Hounds, as good a name as any. They draw their victims to their sphere by the power of their bites, but then they may be struck in return if their victims can but see to fight them."
"But who summoned them? And why?" Sword still bared, Ranulf crossed to where Flame and Fangeen patiently waited.
"I know not, Warrior. The traces of magic are weak, almost as though the spell had been set long ago. Yet I do not think that this is true. Perchance we shall find answers farther along this trail."
They looked to their wounds, finding only torn cloth and skin, and pale marks as of old scars. Marks that faded even as they looked, leaving only a trace of weakness.
"Their attacks drain life," Hissath explained. "The weakness will be gone in a day or less. Yet it is not the Shadow Hounds we should fear, but that which sent them."
He crouched for a moment in the trail, drawing lines in the dirt with the point of his dagger. When he looked up his eyes were blind, shielded by the opaque third eyelid of his kind. The tip of his pointed tongue slid out past his thin lips, intensifying his resemblance to the giant swamp lizards his people claimed as ancestors. Then his eyes shone bright and green and he was again Hissath, warrior and friend.
"Old, so very old," he whispered. "There is an ancient evil here, yet it is as new as yesterday. Whoever or whatever called up the Shadow Hounds, it must have been more than a mere Lesser Adept."
"Is that what you call yourself? A Lesser Adept?" In their journeying Ranulf had often poked fun at his companion's interest in minor magics, calling it unworthy of a fighting man's talents. Now, though, he only listened respectfully.
"Not even that. I only dabble in the Art, and my Talent is very small..."
The sun was high when the trail opened out into a broad clearing. They pulled their mounts to a halt under the last fringe of trees, weapons at the ready. At first glance they saw only an expanse of grass and brush, but the growths were too regular to be natural.
"Fields," Ranulf observed. "Or they were once. They look overgrown, deserted."
"I think not. Are those not huts?" Hissath pointed to a cluster of vague lumps on the far edge of the clearing. "I think I see smoke."
They urged their mounts forward. As they drew near they could tell that the fields were better tended than they had seemed. It was as though a glamour hung over the broad clearing, a tricking of their senses to dull their interest and urge them to pass on by.
"More magic?" Again Ranulf's hand strayed to the hilt of his silvery sword.
"Faint and old. A potent spell once, but worn almost away by the passage of time. When it was new we would have ridden on by, not even noticing that a clearing was here."
The straggling huts looked even shabbier as they came near, and a pervasive odor of dust and decay overlaid the usual stench of human and animal filth. Many of the huts had long since gone to rot and ruin, and the others looked like a strong wind would topple them. Would have done so long since but for the support of trees that had grown up at random in their midst.
The villagers prudently stayed hidden, but a whisper of movement and a scuffle of feet betrayed their presence. Finally, from the largest and best-kept of the huts an old man tottered forth, his pudgy body half-revealed by a tattered robe and filthy loincloth.
"Welcome, good Sirs." The voice was strong and resonant, a startling contrast to its source. The old man was wrinkled and bent, his scalp boasting only a few strands of dirty gray. A once-proud nose curled down as though to protect a nearly toothless slit of mouth, but Ranulf's attention was caught by the eyes.
Those eyes! Were they too young for the shrivelled face, or too old? Old, he decided. Old and wise. He held back, remaining silent and letting Hissath return the greeting and give their names.
" ... Wandering soldiers, looking for employment. Know you of any castle or nearby town where we might be welcome?"
"I, Gromlech Dan Melth, welcome you to our poor village. You must be hungry and weary from your travels." The arthritic fingers made vague soothing gestures, and Ranulf warily noted a slight lessening of his tensions. "The time of the noon meal draws near, and I invite you to stay and sup with us. We in this village have but little to do with the wider world, but perhaps there is one among us who can tell you what you wish to know."
As they dismounted the villagers began to put in a timid appearance. They were uniformly small and slender, with olive skins and lank straw-colored hair almost hidden under layers of dirt. The men wore only loin cloths, women scanty bark cloth skirts, and a few of the naked children wore beaded anklets. They all gazed at the strangers with solemn interest in their large brown eyes.
"Come with me. My grand daughter will serve us."
They followed the Elder into his hut, still alert but not particularly worried. This was a scene they had played out at various times in different parts of Tarag, and customs varied but little from one place to another. The interior of the hut was a surprise, cool and lofty. A small fire burned with little smoke on a raised hearth, a clay chimney keeping the hut clear of the worst of its fumes.
"Glysse', where are you, child? We have guests." He waved them to seats on piled reed mats. "Bring food fit for hungry travelers. Hurry, child!"
A time-raddled skin hanging from one wall of the hut stirred, and a slim figure slipped through the opening thus revealed. Ranulf's interest quickened. At least this one looked clean of skin and hair. The girl knelt before her grandfather's guests, eyes averted, offering them clay dishes from a wooden tray.
"Glysse' is truly the comfort of my old age. Come, child. Speak with our guests. They are Hissath and Ranulf, warriors looking for wealth and adventure."
The girl's lissome figure was utterly still for a long moment, then her eyes met Ranulf's. He felt a surge of magic that had nothing to do with chants and spells. Her eyes were a deep green, with pupils that widened and shrank like tiny dark flames. Their gaze locked for a time beyond measure, and it was Ranulf who first looked away.
"Glysse'. A most lovely name for one who is no longer a child," he murmured.
"Kind words, traveled one." Her voice was husky, hardly more than a whisper, carrying in its tones a hint of accent subtly different from that of her grandparent. Her hair was paler than that of the other villagers, almost pearly in its whiteness, and her skin more olive. Ranulf's fingers touched her wrist as he reached for another dish of food, and found there a hint of roughness as though her skin prickled at his touch. "Tell me, have you encountered great dangers and magics in your travels?"
"Many dangers," he laughed. "Magics? A few, here and there. My companion, Hissath is the one who can tell you of magics. His interest lies that way, while I am but a simple soldier."
"Do you know much of magic, then?"
She turned her gaze on Hissath, and Ranulf was unusually willing for her to do so. What DID her voice remind him of? Not her accent, but the way she formed her words. It reminded him of something, or someone. The answer hung tantalizingly near the surface of his mind, but refused to come clear.
"Only a very little," Hissath answered, his greenish eyes staring unblinking into hers. "A few tricks I have picked up in my travels. Tell me, do you know of any castles or towns nearby? My companion and I seek the fellowship of our own kind, and good soldiers can always find work in such places."
"I know of naught but trees and wild animals for many days' travel," she answered. "There was a town nearby once, but it has been empty longer than any in the village can remember. Nothing remains but a few crumbling walls and an empty temple."
"They don't want to hear about old ruins," Gromlech interrupted brusquely. "How did you find out about it, anyway? Nobody's gone there for as long as I can remember."
"Barr Del told me." She smiled secretively. "I don't know how he knew of it."
"Barr Del! That upstart!" He turned to his guests. "Excuse my temper. That youngster thinks that he should be the village Elder, that I am too old and my wisdom has faded like ... well, like the years."
"I am sure that he is altogether mistaken," Hissath answered smoothly. "But what of this temple? I admit to some interest in such things. Could there be anything of value in the place?"
"No! It has stood empty for many lifetimes."
"But, Grandfather. Barr Del said..."
"Barr Del will be Elder in good time. Until then he will obey the law of the village." He drew a deep breath into his sunken chest, fighting for calm. "No, I speak hastily. We shall hear from the youngster himself on this matter. Go and fetch him, child."
Glysse' laid the wooden tray within easy reach of the three men and rose smoothly to her feet. Her scanty bark-cloth skirt revealed a long flash of thigh as she turned to go, and her green eyes lingered on Ranulf's lean strength.
"A good child," Gromlech sighed. "My daughter's daughter, but I wonder sometimes whether she takes too strongly of her father's people."
"He was not of the village?" Ranulf asked idly, poking at the food in one of the clay dishes. He was still hungry, but unsure whether or not he and Hissath had just eaten a week's rations for the Elder's household.
"No, he came from afar ... Ah, there you are."
Glysse' came silently through the entrance to the hut, followed by one of the villagers. Ranulf noted with interest that while the man was no taller than his fellows, he seemed solider, more muscular and self-assured. No youngster, Barr Del was rapidly approaching middle age.
"You wished to speak with me, old man?" He eyed the strangers with evident suspicion.
"You..." Gromlech fought down his anger, assuming a calmness he was far from feeling. "What do you know of the abandoned temple in the old ruins?"
"The temple? Just that. It is an empty building out there in the jungle. I found it many years ago, out hunting. I never bothered with it since. The hunting is poor around there, and poisonous insects lurk in the ruins."
"These strangers have asked about it. Could you take them there?"
"Yes, I could. I won't."
"You will do as you are told!"
"We might have a coin or two," Hissath ventured.
"Coins?" Barr-Del laughed, a snort of amusement. "To buy what? There is only this one village, and we have no need for your metal. What could we do with it?"
"You are a hunter," Ranulf interrupted. "Metal can always be used to shape a spear point or arrow head. Or are you afraid of what the temple still may hold?"
"The temple holds nothing..." Gromlech quavered, balanced between anger and calm.
"Bah! Children's tales. All right, I'll take you there so you can see for yourselves. From there you can keep right on traveling. We don't need you here in our village." Barr Del turned and stamped out, muttering under his breath at such foolishness from grown men.
"Pardon his rudeness," Gromlech mumbled. "If you truly wish to go there, I suppose there is no reason for me to object. However, the day grows late and I would not have you caught in that place after dark. My people will prepare a hut for your use."
"Come, I will show you our village." Glysse' smiled demurely, taking them both by the hand.
"You don't get many strangers here, do you?" Ranulf asked when they were outside.
"Oh, no!" For a moment she was all child, then her poise returned and she was woman again. "We are very much alone here. The jungle is deep, and ... things ... happen to those who travel its paths without guidance."
"Things?" Hissath asked. "What kind of things?"
"Wild animals. Accidents. I don't know. Men have been found dead." She smiled coaxingly. "But we don't want to talk of such things. Tell me of the world beyond the jungles. Nobody EVER comes to tell us of ... what are they called? Cities?"
"Nobody ever comes? But wasn't your own father from outside the village?" Ranulf watched closely, and for a moment the expression on her mobile features froze. He would have missed it if he hadn't been alert.
"My ... father? Oh, you mean that tale that Grandfather tells. It is nonsense, there were no travelers. My mother knew nobody from beyond the village. Grandfather is old, and dreams of things that never were." She smiled up at him bewitchingly. "Are you really going to visit that old temple? It sounds like fun, and I'm going along! I've never been away from the village before."
"I don't think that Gromlech will approve. Nor will Barr Del."
"Then we won't tell them. It'll be easy, you'll see!" She danced away, disappearing into the brush that choked the village. Ranulf called to her, but she was gone.
"A strange child," he laughed.
"Child? That one is no child," Hissath answered. "Strange, yes. She is indeed strange, and I do indeed believe that her father was not of this village. Nor even that he was entirely of your race. There are others who walk Tarag than Man, or Lizard-Man."
The sights of the village were few and soon committed to memory. The huts were all of a pattern, sticks driven into the ground and woven with vines, and the arching roofs thatched with broad leaves and grasses. None were of a size to match the one they had been in, and they seemed to be used solely for sleeping. Under an old tree was a small forge, seldom used, and nearby was what seemed to be the village meeting ground. There were a couple of sheds where dried foods and grain were stored, and another shed that appeared to be the village temple.
It had a blackened altar that showed signs of long neglect, and it was plain that nothing larger than a small deer could ever have been sacrificed there. Hissath could detect nothing of the magical energies usual around even a minor temple, certainly nothing of the cloud of evil that too often surrounds such places even in ancient ruins.
The life of the village, such as it was, continued around them. The fleeting interest in them soon died away, and it was as though they were invisible or had been there always. A few men and women listlessly tilled the scraggly crops, two or three of the younger men drifted off into the jungle with light bows and spears, and older women built up fires in preparation for the evening meal.
Ranulf awoke. The twin moons of Tarag were low in the western sky, and the night was far advanced. He was instantly alert, with the quickness of ingrained habit.
"Hush. It is I, Glysse'."
A soft hand touched his wrist, and his dagger slid back into its sheath. She was close by him, her breath cool on his cheek. His reaching hand found only skin, and she moved even closer to his side.
"Why are you here?"
"Need you ask? Where is the fearless warrior of the daylight hours?"
Again he felt her skin roughen slightly under his touch. Her lips were on his, the tip of her tongue questing. His thoughts were drowned in a surge of lust as his body responded. The hut was silent except for the rustle of reeds until at last his panting exhalation was answered by Glysse's hissing moan. He relaxed into darkness, only half-hearing her whispered words.
"You will remember Glysse' as a pleasant dream, but for now you must sleep, deeply and undisturbed."
A faint snore escaped his lips as he lay flaccid on the mats, and he was not aware of the shadowy figure who left his side and approached the hut's other occupant.