"To Naraka with this." He spat a glob of mucus on the ground. "They're not paying us enough for this shit."
Marl shrugged his sunburnt shoulders. The red crest of his black helm fluttered in the breeze through the canyons. "Contract's a contract."
"I know," said Jishnu. "Those damned chieftains said they wounded Hamadin. Not well enough, I say. He’s moves too quick."
"They’re chieftains. They count the yield before the plants grow." Marl looked to the other two warriors huddled beside them.
A young man worked tirelessly over their fourth compatriot, his red hair plastered to his forehead in sweat. The old man beneath him rested against a boulder, his weathered brow oozing from the wound a slinger had inflicted when they had first entered this leg of the ravine. The Grinders, the finest sellswords on the face of Talav's great continent, had worn away at the bandits of Dageria’s craggy hills, leaving only three left: a pair of peltasts and their leader, Hamadin the Great.
"How is he, Stitch?" Jishnu asked.
The healer standing over the old man wiped his brow. "The Captain needs to be taken back to camp. I can handle the bleeding, but he's sweating too much. We can’t keep him out here in this heat."
Jishnu stuck his sword back in its scabbard and flexed his right hand. A sixth digit, twisted and bent, grew out of the left side of his natural thumb. He looked at it, cursing the gods for yet another bad day.
"What's in the waterskin?" he asked Marl as he checked around the next bend, wondering if their prey was still there.
"A few drops," Marl answered. "Stitch is right—we have to head back."
"We can't," Jishnu replied. The next leg of the ravine was empty, a reality that did not sit well with him. "There's too much money on the table for Hamadin's capture."
"Enough for the Captain to die?" Marl asked.
Jishnu glanced to him and Stitch, and then to the Captain. He owed the old man, owed him for far more than his job, his food, and his coin. He knew what he would have done if their places were switched. "It's the kind of money that could give him a break. Stitch, can you and Marl carry him back?"
"Of course," said Stitch, relieved. "Camp's only half a mile, maybe a bit more."
"Good. Start back now. I'll go get those last three."
"What?" Marl shook his head. "No, no, no. We all go back together."
"We can't afford to lose them," said Jishnu, his brown cheeks sticking to the hot metal around the eyeholes of his black helmet. "I’ll handle it."
Marl hesitated, blue eyes wide. He slid his arm out from the loops of his wide bronze shield and handed it to Jishnu. "I'll get back as quick as I can."
Jishnu nodded, well aware that the hard and rigorous path back to camp would take them a full hour with their wounded leader, more than enough time for the enemy to lose themselves in the maze of rock and shadows. "Shed the blood, save my brothers."
"Shed the blood, save my brothers," Marl said, repeating The Grinders' motto.
Watching his three friends go, Jishnu turned and hefted the shield onto his shoulder, creating a circle of shade to keep the noonday sun off his head. Around the next bend the rock walls reached up, towering overhead to form a cave mouth. Light slipped through the roof’s many cracks glistened off shallow pools of water. Jishnu trudged into the cool passage, nearly moaning in relief as the sucking ground swallowed his feet. The sound of his squelching steps echoed in silence.
"Stop where you are." A small brown man stood on a sandbar near the left wall, his leather armor torn and covered in blood. He held a long knife out at Jishnu. Dull-eyed and wincing, each breath came in a rasp. "Please, no further."
Jishnu tightened his grip on his sword's hilt. "Where's Hamadin?" he asked in Dag, the bandit's native tongue.
"Lord Hamadin runs to freedom, for him and for us." The bandit tried to stand but his balance faltered, forcing him back onto the wall.
"There's no point in fighting,” said Jishnu. “You're wounded."
"Blood so my children can eat. It’s a worthy trade."
"If you say so." Jishnu scanned the scene before him. Past the bandit were fissures on the opposite wall, perfect places for another attacker to hide. "Where's your friend?"
"It is only me here." The bandit hacked blood, his lips covered in red spittle. He laughed, a pitiful and faded sound.
Jishnu forced a breath out to still the tingle of fear running up his back. A common sensation before every battle, he drew his blade. "I cannot talk you into surrender, can I?"
"Not a word of it," the bandit said. He forced himself straight, groaning loudly until he broke forward, his knife up to stab. "For Hamadin!"
Jishnu swung his shield up to block the downward stoke as he drove his weight behind the hilt of his sword. The bandit crashed back into the rock wall, impaled upon the short length of iron. He dropped his knife and pounded on Jishnu's armored back with his fists, his blows weak and feeble.
Jishnu twisted his weapon in the wound, forcing out slick and fatty viscera. He grunted, eyes shut as the resistance strained every muscle and fiber in his body. From behind came a fresh cry, and a second attacker broke from one of the wide cracks in the right wall, a spear held low at his side.
Jishnu pivoted, bringing his shield around in time to catch the point and force it up. He slashed open a wide wound on the bandit’s leg. The man dropped to his knee with a yelp as he pulled his spear back to thrust again. Jishnu twisted to the side, letting the sharp iron drag across the front of his leather breastplate and into the wall. A quick blow to the neck, and the second bandit collapsed in a heap. Crimson tainted the muddied water beneath him, running in a lazy stream back toward the sunlit world.
Heaving in a mix of exhilaration and shock, Jishnu stumbled away, the stamina sucked from his body. Tripping, he landed in the wet sand, his sword arm forced into the muck to keep him from falling in face-first. After a few breaths he looked back at the two lives ended by his hand. Satisfaction and regret firmed his jaw, and returning to his feet, grim acceptance urged him on to the next confrontation.
The water deepened over a rippled bed of sand until it reached Jishnu's scuffed knees. The buzz of battle, now minutes old, ebbed back into the constant ache he endured as the chill brought his tired legs a moment of relief. The passage formed by the sharp walls and the cracks above made the way a shimmering tunnel, a path of radiance where he wished he could simply sink down into the shallows and remain.
He was about to stop for a time when he took the next left, and there waited his prey.
A bearded man, Hamadin the Great sat cross-legged on a small island in the middle of the uncovered oasis, the sunny mound shaded by three tall palm trees. Small red moons and suns bordered his gray robe and vestments.
Hamadin stared at Jishnu with his bright eyes. "Hello, my friend.” He offered a smile devoid of hate. "It seems that our race is at an end."
"As it should be, wizard," Jishnu said, taking a knee. "No more need die."
"You're a Sutian, from the lands east of mine, yes?"
Hamadin's smile widened, his cheeks pressed into tanned dimples. "It is strange to think that men such as us are forced to fight when the horse-kings caused our little war, here. Tell me, how much gold is my head worth?"
"The weight of three horses, plus a new wagon and fresh armor."
"Small rewards for a man who just wanted to let farmers keep their seeds." Hamadin looked away from Jishnu, up to the blue sky above them. "Have you ever watched children go hungry because their parents couldn't farm their own crops?"
"I've starved in bloody rice-fields where I could grab my weight in grain. My men starve now. It is the way of the world," said Jishnu. "I pity those children, but a contract’s a contract."
The wizard stood, brushing off the back of his robe. "You don't seem a dull brute, young man, so allow a last appeal—my escape will help others find fresh food and fresh freedom. Isn't that worth breaking a deal?"
"Not when it takes food out of the mouths of my brothers and I." Jishnu started toward Hamadin. "Keep your hands where I can see them."
"Oh, I shall." Hamadin shot his hands toward Jishnu.
A rise in the water appeared at the wizard's word, cracking like lightning. Leaping over it, Jishnu charged as the small wave struck the wall behind him with a booming clap. Another wave came, ripping sand from the streambed and catching his ankle. He went down, shield up to defend against the next spell.
The boom of the third spell sounded, its force striking against the bronze face of the shield. Jishnu stumbled to the side as Hamadin dodged behind a tree, his incantation still an echo the air.
Dropping his shield aside, Jishnu grabbed a rock from the water and threw it at his enemy, forcing Hamadin to break his chant to avoid it. He closed the distance between him and the island and leapt, bringing his sword down.
Hamadin turned to the side in a doge. The blade cut the air in front of his chest as he brought his hand around in a low arc.
Smacked in the stomach, an unseen energy radiated through Jishnu's mid-section. Swallowing a mouthful of bile, he threw his next cut wide as he fell back to his knees.
Hamadin cried out, his shin sliced open. Twisted to a knee, he clutched the wound.
Jishnu caught him on the temple with the butt of his sword's pommel and kicked him to the ground. "Stop," he said, the point of his sword set in his opponent's face.
Forehead bloodied, Hamadin came up with a sneer. His hands balled into fists, rage and disappointment infected each wrinkle on his face.
"Will you surrender?" Jishnu inched his blade closer until it the tip of Hamadin's sharp nose. "I'll spare you if you come quietly."
"Then I will shout until we are finished." Hamadin brought his hands up.
Jishnu stepped away from the sudden light in the wizard's palms and cut at him. The brightness fizzled in a loud snap, and when the world returned Hamadin writhed on the ground, the stump of his wrist cradled against his blood-soaked chest.
Satisfied, Jishnu leaned against one of the palm trees to find his breath. Grunting, he reached up and ripped the sleeve from the shoulder of his red under-tunic. He knelt down beside Hamadin and pulled the stump away from the wizard's chest, tying the first strip of a tourniquet around his forearm.
"Why?" Hamadin asked, eyes wet with anguish. "Why are you doing this?"
"It's better than nothing."
"No." The wizard winced. "Why are you saving me?"
A slight smile formed on Jishnu’s chapped lips as he drew tight another knot. “You finished shouting.”
©May, 2014 Jay Requard
Jay Requard is a Sword & Sorcery author from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he is not sharpening his next story he lifts kettlebells, fences, and brews mead. He has a fluffy cat named Mona. You can follow him at his blog: http://www.sitwritebleed.blogspot.com