JIRO, by Peter Fugazzotto:
Boots poked out of thick undergrowth within a stone’s throw of the heavily rutted country road. What was visible of the armor – a bronze plated lamellar jacket – was congealed with blood.
Jiro – hungry, cold, and tired – saw the armor as the means to fill his aching belly.
Judging by the dead man’s white sash, now ruined with blood, Jiro suspected he was one of the many soldiers – without a leader, an army or a cause – who wandered the countryside after the brutal defeat of the city-states of the Riverlands at the hand of the Red Emperor. Most likely, this dead soldier was one of those displaced veterans who hired out their swords to protect a village at the edges of civilized territory.
Jiro’s plan was simple: steal the armor, act like a soldier, smooth talk a village leader into a meal in exchange for protection from the gangs of roving bandits – causeless soldiers themselves – and then slip away in the night mists.
If his luck held out, he would keep up the ruse until he reached the City of Stones, and there, well, he would have to return hat in hand to his father and mother and their pickled vegetable stall and admit that his dream of becoming a great actor in a traveling troupe was as worthless as his father had warned.
Not where he wanted to end up but better than starving in the countryside.
First he needed to get the armor off the soldier.
As Jiro approached the corpse, his feet sank into swampy grass, the black ooze rising over the soles of his cord sandals and between his pale toes. He had abandoned his soft leather boots in a barn a week prior, lucky to get out with his pants clutched around his waist. The farmer had nearly pinned Jiro to the pile of hay with his pitchfork. The milkmaid, ruddy hands covering her ample breasts, had screamed, but Jiro just kept running, stealing the sandals from another farm house further up the road.
The dead man could not have been much older than Jiro, but was ugly and stocky. Even in death, cruelty lingered in the wrinkles around his eyes and his thick lips. A blade – broken in half – stuck out of the soldier’s neck.
Jiro turned away, spitting out the sudden rush of saliva. He was no soldier; a pickled vegetable vendor, a great actor in his own mind, and often the dashing outsider who had his way with the maidens, but no man of physical courage.
With eyes averted, he loosened the wide sword belt, and then fumbled at the leather straps that held the armor. When everything was loose, he tilted the body and slid the armor past the jutting blade fragment and over the corpse’s head.
Flies swarmed in anger, ricocheting off Jiro’s face and flapping hands.
Jiro was mopping the blood off the armor with damp grasses and leaves, when he felt someone watching him. He squinted at either end of the road and then slowly peered at the edges of the forest. Maybe the bandits who had killed this soldier were coming back.
What could he discern, a city-raised scoundrel whose only recent forays into the woods had been to steal off with the theater troupe leader’s wife?
In the distance, a great bird called.
Jiro pulled the sword belt close to him and gripped the handle. Blood caked past the guard, soaking deep into the leather wrapped grip.
Jiro had played with swords a few times before, but mostly wooden swords on the stage, and he knew that the wide arcs and overextended lunges that Mercurio said would elicit gasps from the crowd would be of no use against an actual opponent.
He was more experienced with his throwing knives, but he doubted they would do much good against armored bandits.
But what he did have was swagger, that sought after skill of a thespian to assume the form of a man he most certainly was not. And he hoped his swagger would be enough to dissuade the bandits, because if they did come for him, his only chance would be outrunning them.
So Jiro bandied his legs, inflated his chest and lifted his chin. He grunted a few times for good measure, than dashed forward along the road, belt in one hand, sword still sheathed in the other, then he spun about and dashed the other direction.
“Jiro,” he said, “that’s right. Jiro, Jiro the Hero. Veteran of battles, lots of battles, too many to remember the names of, man among men, and slayer of bandits.” The last part he really projected.
Suddenly, the bushes that hid the corpse rustled and Jiro leaped, screaming. He drew the sword and charged the other way, but he did not get far.
Instead, his sandaled foot stuck deep in a hole of muck and he pitched forward, belly first into the mud, sword flying out of his hand. It was as the sword was arcing against the misty sky that he saw that the blade was not whole, that it was broken in half, and the other missing half was the piece lodged in the dead soldier’s neck.
When the broken sword hit the ground, an angry crow hopped from the corpse cawing at Jiro.
Even after Jiro retrieved the sword, strapped on the armor and hurried back along the road, the crow’s cry filled the mist filled sky, and Jiro was sure it was laughing at him.
An hour later, Jiro came upon an old man sitting on a rock at the side of the road and decided this would be a perfect opportunity to test the role of hardened soldier.
Jiro wriggled in his armor, puffed out his chest, and, with one hand perched on the handle of his sword, swaggered forward. He hawked spit into the dirt.
“What, hoa?” belched the old man as Jiro passed. “What sight here before me bedraggled eyes? A brave and ferocious soldier marching up this desolate road.” And then with a low pitched aside, he added, “Brave and ferocious despite somewhat ill-fitting armor.”
Jiro knit his eyebrows and bared his teeth. “What’d you say, Old Timer?”
“Spare a bit of bread,” the old man said, leathery hands extended. “Or a bit of dried meat? The teeth aren’t what they used to be but if I suck on the meat long enough it will soften up.” He flashed a set of uneven yellow teeth hidden in the bramble of his white beard. Dressed in a sack shirt and barefoot, the old man seemed worse off than Jiro.
“Old Timer, point me to the nearest village. I have a sword for sale to offer protection from bandits.”
“Bandits?” The old man rolled his bulging eyes and leapt to his feet clinging to Jiro’s arm. “Can you protect me, too?” He pinched Jiro’s arm. “Been swinging a sword for long, boy? Arm seems kind of thin.”
Jiro withdrew his sword revealing a few fingers of blade. “Don’t make me draw my sword. I am Jiro, Light of the East, hero of many a campaign, veteran of too many battles to name, and now, in service to the common folk of the Stone Forests, proud slayer of bandits.”
“How about a sip of ale for old Nardo here?” the man asked pitching in close.
“Away! Force me to draw this sword and you will know the wrath of Jiro, soldier of fortune.”
“I am half trembling with fear.”
“I wish I was half the man you are.”
“Don’t mock me, Nardo.”
“Such is the difference between you and me: the halfs and the half-nots.”
“Goodbye and good riddance,” Jiro said, straining to maintain the bluster of a soldier, as he brushed past the old man.
“You should have taken his boots,” Nardo said looking at the straw sandals.
Jiro deflated. “Is it that obvious?”
“Look at you, an apple with its shine worn off, but still an apple. A red silk shirt. What self-respecting soldier would wear a frilly blouse like that? The black vest might suffice but with gaudy gold embroidery? And that beard, a bit ragged on the edges but who keeps a waxed moustache and pointy chin beard?”
“I’m hungry and the armor generally fits.”
“Fits like a shoe . . . on your hand.”
“You saw the corpse,” Jiro said plopping down on the rock. “It wasn’t like he needed the armor. Can you really steal something from the dead?”
“Why you dressing up like a soldier?”
“I’ve already been driven out of two villages. I could swear even the dogs were hurling stones in the last one. Out of work sell-swords have a better chance of a full belly than out of work actors.”
“Oh,” Nardo said, lifting his eyebrows, “an actor. What great theaters roared at your final bow? What queens have swooned before you? Did the Red Emperor dab the corner of his eye?”
Jiro frowned. “Never quite worked out that way. Promises were made and not kept. Old Mercurio thought my greatest role was selling tickets to the maidens and old crones. Look at me: a strong chin, mesmerizing sapphire eyes, and a voice that humbles the song birds.”
Nardo squinted at Jiro. “Road’s been a bit rough on you, huh?”
“Nothing a warm bath and a good meal wouldn’t fix. Dirt comes off.”
“Wrinkles don’t. Time stands still for no one.”
Jiro tugged at the cords that bound the armor to his chest. He would be happy to be rid of the weight. His stomach growled and cramped.
“What are you doing, fool?” asked the old man.
“The curtains have dropped on this play.”
“Hellfire, the stage has not even been set. Give up that easy and you and I will starve to death.”
Jiro threw his hands. “What do I know about being a soldier?”
Nardo gamboled from leg to leg. “You don’t need to know nothing. I got it all in here.” He tapped his temple with a bony finger. Dried blood ringed his nails. “But we make a deal: whatever you get, I get half of. Except you can keep that half sword yourself.”
The mist coursed thick through the trees. Jiro’s stomach growled again. “Deal.”
Nardo winked. “How could you say no? First things first, tie up that armor proper, and keep that half sword in the scabbard. There’s a village up the road. So listen up.”
* * *
The village solidified in the mists where only moments before the road weaved among cedars. Jiro and Nardo passed between two wooden pillars that marked the village. At the foot of one of the pillars, a beam rotted, peppered with worm holes and bearded with green moss. Weather worn carvings spiraled up the cedar pillars: villagers fishing and cooking and hunting, the rending of the earth during the Cataclysm, men and women dancing, hooded shapes with blades, and at the top of the pillar, obscured in the thickening mist, a naked woman smiling or jeering.
Did she hold a severed head by the hair?
“What soldier stops to enjoy art?” said Nardo. “Swagger, bluster, in like a lion.”
Jiro bolted forward, knees jutting, shoulders thrown back, one side of his face pinched.
The village appeared deserted. Jiro and the old man zigzagged along planks laid down to avoid the dark muck in the street. Stone houses pressed in close on either side of the narrow street. No chickens darted from the yards. No dirty children mobbed them. Mist gathered in delicately carved wooden doorways and windows. Beyond the peaked tile roofs, the ghosts of trees and cliffs hung in the fog.
Jiro had just about given up hope of finding anyone in the village when the thumping began. Prodded by Nardo, Jiro danced across the planks following the noise towards a plaza.
A hooded man, covered in furs, hunched over a fountain, pounding a gnarled stick against a sodden rag bundle. Each blow brought a sickening wet slap and the dark colors of the cloth fed the muddy earth.
The buildings surrounding the plaza were tall, built of older stone, as if once they had a greater purpose. But like the other houses, abandonment rooted in shattered roofs tiles, sagging porches, and piles of stone and detritus in doorways.
The fur-bundled man turned his grizzled face to the two visitors, the stick dripping in his fist. At his hip, a bone-handled knife, sickle-shaped blade bare, was tucked beneath a greasy leather belt. “A sell sword?”
Nardo poked at Jiro from behind.
“I bring justice,” Jiro said, turning his bladed hip forward. “In these dark days, there are those of us who will stand up for our fellow man, those of us prepared to rid this world of bandits, those of us willing to stare into death’s dark abyss.”
“Too much, you amateur,” Nardo hissed over his shoulder.
The grizzled man drew his sleeve across his nose, sniffling. “And the vagrant behind you?”
Jiro let laughter roll from his lips and grabbed Nardo by the ear. “This ne’er-do-well? This ancient ragamuffin? He likes to think himself my herald, and, in my kindness, I humor him.” He pulled the old man into his arm and rubbed a knuckle in his wiry hair. “Even the strong must take pity on those who have fallen onto hard times.” Nardo tore away, unfurling a string of curses.
The grizzled man nodded. “Skin and bones, the both of you, but I suppose you’ll do. Come.”
The grizzled man limped across the plaza towards one of the ancient buildings.
As the villager turned away, Nardo smacked the back of Jiro’s head with an open palm, and then kicked him forward.
The wet rag swung in the grizzled man’s grip. Jiro peered to examine the drops from the rag and then prodded Nardo. The drops were dark red – blood.
The grizzled man hauled open thick wooden doors, doors carved with the same story as the columns, but he swung them open too fast, and again Jiro could not see what the figure of the woman held in her hand.
“I’m Barong, and this is the Inn of the Lady. Sit,” the grizzled man said, pointing towards one of the long tables in the sunken dark room. “I’ll bring food and drink while we discuss terms. Know ahead of time, no gold will touch your hands until there is blood, but fattening you up is something we have no problem with.”
“Fattening us up,” Nardo muttered.
“I hope you like rabbit,” said Barong lifting the rag in his hand. “I make it tender.”
“Fatten us up,” said Jiro, as his stomach roiled in anticipation. He smiled. What a turn things had taken from this morning. Perhaps things were finally going his way again.
* * *
By the third cup of the overly sweet wine, Jiro no longer wanted to spit it out. Admittedly it was foul wine by all measures – crimson, thick in the mouth, and beyond tacky with tannin – but at least it was strong, which made the unpalatable stew a bit easier to swallow. The only parts of the rabbit that seemed to have made it into the stew were organs. After a few tastes, he had to fish out of the gray, unidentifiable vegetables and drop them to the floor.
Jiro had been hopeful when the serving girl, her glistening eyes catching his, brought a small plate of pickled greens, but they too disappointed, overly sour, on the verge of rot.
As bad as it all was, after days on the road gnawing bitter roots and tree bark, his belly finally stopped turning on itself. And, on top of that, there was the serving girl, something that spoke to another of his hungers.
Each time she emerged from the dark corridor behind the bar, and with each drink or plate she brought out, Jiro noticed one more thing about her.
At first, it was her glistening dark eyes.
Then it was the embroidered belt from which she drew a bare knife to saw through the stale bread. His eyes lingered on her narrow waist and wide hips, a nice shape hidden behind a thick plain dress. But it was not as utilitarian as it first appeared: the hem ended just above her knees, revealing pale skin that disappeared into fur-lined boots.
The next time, as she leaned forward to clear his bowl, a necklace of grinning skull beads slipped from between her ample breasts.
Nardo pinched the flesh on the inside of Jiro’s arm. “No more wine for you, boy. Gotta keep our heads on straight. Not just the stew in this village that’s got a rot to it.”
While they had been eating, the tables of the inn had filled. Gaunt men wrapped in furs slipped through the doors, stomping their feet, blowing into fists. From beneath their hoods, they stared at the two visitors.
The scent of the forest crowded the room: the musk of furs, the earthy smell of mushrooms, and the bitterness of harvested roots. Baskets at the feet of the foresters were packed tight with silvery fish, glossy birds, and plump red fruit.
Barong, after a round among the villagers, bending to whisper within the darkness of their hoods, seated himself at Jiro’s table and topped their cups with more wine. He gnawed at his thumbnail before finally speaking. “Our problem isn’t so straight forward.” He refilled his empty cup and then leaned forward, his teeth crooked and filmy.
“How many are there?” asked Nardo.
Barong shook his head. “A handful of bandits we could deal with. There’s just one.”
“Just one bandit,” Jiro said with a laugh. His chest inflated with the bravado of the wine. “I’ve stood the line at the Battle of the Six Sieges. My blade sings swift and true. Many a fight I have walked out of alone.”
“With nary a scar,” mumbled Barong. “I can only imagine.”
Jiro slammed his fist on the table. The foresters looked up from their wine, their lips purpled. “I will walk away this moment. Who are you to question my services and the strength of my arm?” Nardo kicked him beneath the table. “I am Jiro, Light of the East, not one to be trifled with.”
Barong laughed. “Boy, don’t worry. You and your companion will meet our needs. Have no worry there.”
The other foresters laughed and mumbled over their drinks.
Nardo pushed his cup of wine away. “So what is it we face?”
“A witch,” the innkeeper said. “She’s nested herself in our forest.”
“And you have not run her out, why?” asked old Nardo.
“We’re hunters and gatherers. We dig up mushrooms and trap foxes. What do we know of shooing an old hag?” Barong poured more wine into Jiro’s cup. “Your arm strong enough for that, Light of the East?”
Nardo kicked him again under the table, and then cleared his throat. “I am tired, Barong. Show us our room, and tomorrow we come to terms and see what this witch is all about.”
“Tomorrow. Just make sure you don’t try to sneak off in the middle of the night.”
The walls of the rooms seemed to press in around Jiro and he coughed up wine.
Barong laughed. “I’m just kidding, boy. I know you wouldn’t run off. Where would you go?”
They followed the serving girl, Diandra, up the narrow stairs and along a dark hall. As Jiro squeezed past her to enter the tiny room, he inhaled wild onion grass.
“Anything you need, I am two doors down on the left.” She handed the tall candle to him.
When Nardo bolted the door, he stuck his head out the window. “Not sure much could get in or out of here. A straight drop down to the street.”
“Do we leave tonight?” asked Jiro.
The old man lay down on the bed and yawned. “And give up a soft bed?”
Jiro pressed a hand on the mattress. “A bit lumpy for my tastes.”
“Then sleep on the floor. I haven’t had a real meal in weeks. Tomorrow we hem and haw. Then maybe the day after, we get a lay of the land. After that, we say we are going to rid them of the witch and we just keep walking. On to the next village.”
Later, when the night was pitch black outside the small portal window, Jiro sat up on the edge of the bed shivering. An icy wind pulsed through the shutterless window. Nardo had wrapped himself in the one blanket.
“I am going to find another blanket, old man.”
Nardo grunted from his sleep.
Candle in hand, Jiro slipped the bolt and stepped into the hallway. The floorboards creaked beneath his feet. A cold breeze licked the back of his neck.
Jiro stopped at the second door down and tapped lightly. “Diandra. It’s me, Jiro. We need an extra blanket.” He knocked again. Not even a rustling beneath sheets or a voice emerging from a dream world.
Something bumped in the room across the hall. Did he hear her wrong? Did she say it was on the left? His left or her left?
He shuffled to the door across the hall, but this time when he knocked on the door, it opened slightly. “Hello, Diandra? I am freezing. The old man took the blanket.”
There was no answer, but a slight rustling of fabric.
“Diandra?” As he pushed the door and stepped across the threshold, his candle lit the room.
Bloody armor, dented helms and unsheathed swords were piled on the far side of the room. A family of rats sitting on their haunches met his gaze, and then leapt into the heart of the discarded gear. Jiro could swear one of them carried a ringed finger in its mouth.
A hand settled on Jiro’s shoulder and he jumped spinning, falling backwards into the armor, hands swinging, feet lashing out. The rats chirruped from deep within the pile.
Diandra stood in the doorway, the light of her candle falling over a thin shift that left little to Jiro’s imagination.
“A blanket. Nardo. You said on the left,” Jiro said.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“What is all this?” he said as he lifted himself out of the armor.
“Bandits who mistakenly thought villagers had no fight. So you were cold?” Her legs and shoulders were completely bare and the shift clung to the curve of her breasts and hips. “Come with me,” she said.
As he righted his candle to follow her, the light flickered across her back. An image in dark blue ink started between her shoulder blades and disappeared beneath the thin cotton fabric. It was a face, a woman’s face, a woman with snakehead hair and short, sharp teeth, the woman of the pillars and the inn door. Lightning and rain filled the sky behind her, and the inked hand was raised, and in it she held the severed head of a bearded man.
Diandra led Jiro into her small room and closed the door behind her, then she pulled him to her.
* * *
“Where were you last night?” the Nardo asked, as he poked at his bowl of gray porridge with his wooden spoon.
“I got cold and went to get another blanket.”
The old man harrumphed.
Later, when Barong retreated with the bowls into the dark corridor, Jiro whispered to Nardo. “There is armor and swords, all bloody, in a room down the hall. A pile of gear from more than twenty men. Some rusted to pieces and others so shiny I could see myself. And, by the gods, I am sure I saw a rat run off with a finger.”
Nardo scratched circles in his beard. “There is more here than they are telling us.”
“We need to get out of here. Forget the gold. Forget the food. They’re going to kill us. I can see it.”
“Keep your head, boy.” The old man’s leathery hand clamped Jiro’s wrist with an unexpected strength. “I’m tired of the gnawing in my belly. If we leave now, we’ll be hungry by nightfall. And I don’t plan on leaving until I have a purse heavy with coins.”
“But Barong said no gold until we rid them of the witch.”
“You truly are a fool. Do you pay full price for a bolt of cloth in the market? When a girl shies from your silver tongue, do you just walk away? Hiring out a sword is no different. Business is business. Today, I sit with Barong and come to terms. You, inflate your chest and make yourself scarce.”
Jiro left Nardo and Barong, heads bent towards a jug of wine, and returned to the plaza. The courtyard was empty, the villagers having disappeared into the forests. The mists had settled in thick and wet, cold against his face and hands.
Jiro readjusted his armor with his thumbs and laid the palm of his hand on the pommel of his broken sword. He wondered how far he could get down the road before the old man or any of the villagers would even notice that he was gone.
Jiro passed through the gate of the village, this time clearly seeing the severed head in the hand of the woman on the pillar. He turned south along the rutted country road. The sun cut through the mists more and more but never seemed to be able to break through a stubborn layer of haze. As he strolled, the trees thinned out on the rising hillsides, and there were patches of land being worked by a few heavily cloaked women. The dirt looked poor and unworkable, but the old women attacked the ground with wooden hoes. When he threw his hand up in a cavalier salute, they merely drove their hoes back into the ground.
Eventually, he reached a rope bridge that bellied across a chasm. Spots of sunshine peppered the forest on the other side, and rich birdsong rose. In the distance, a few strands of white smoke twisted into the sky.
He stood at the edge of the chasm and looked down. Dark water frothed and hissed over boulders. Something slipped from the edge of the river and into a pool, its black undulating shape lost against the shimmering surface.
When Jiro looked again at the sun-touched forest on the other side of the chasm, he noticed a man with an axe. The man sat cross-legged on a flat stone beneath a towering fir tree, the axe across his lap. His face was hidden in an iron helm with a thick nosepiece and his body draped in black chain mail. The double-headed axe was huge, and the razor sharpness of the edges apparent even from a distance.
Jiro inflated his chest and thrust his chin forward, nodding, but the axe man remained as still as a statue.
As Jiro turned back towards the village, he noticed a trail leading up river. Maybe there was another way across the chasm, a way that did not require navigating an axe man.
Despite being well worn, the trail was hard to travel. Roots looped across the pathway. Mist slickened stones forced Jiro to grab tree limbs. Thick gray mud swallowed his sandaled feet.
He was cursing and on the verge of turning back when he heard the singing: a plaintive voice unraveling a melody in a tongue he did not recognize. He followed the voice, slipping down a faint path that descending to the river. As he neared the river, a waterfall-fed pool emerged, the surface sparkling where a stream of sunshine had broken the eternal haze.
On a large flat stone that jutted out of the pool, Diandra sat cross-legged, pulling a comb through her wet hair. He crept up on her quietly, eager to enter the halo of her scent, hungry to once again feel her soft flesh and her warm breath against his skin.
As he stepped on the stone and bent to touch her shoulder, she spun about, knife drawn. Her lips pulled back like the snarl of an animal.
Jiro stumbled backwards, tripping over his feet and falling hard on his rear.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Nardo and Barong are coming to terms. I wanted to stretch my legs.”
“You have no destination?”
He shrugged, wondering how her demeanor could have changed so dramatically from this morning. Maybe she was not all that he thought she was.
Her eyes caught his. “How far have you traveled?”
“The City of Stones is where I was born. Since I began my travels, I have seen many cities and villages.”
“I’m jealous,” she said. “I’ve never left this village. I am bound to it.”
“I thought I would never leave the City of Stones. I thought I was going to be stuck there forever. But when the opportunity came, I took it.”
“Just like that you left?”
“Who is the axe-man across the bridge?”
Diandra’s eyes widened. “Did you talk to him?”
“From the way he looked, I was afraid he does most of his talking with his axe.”
Diandra breathed out a sigh of relief. “He’s a killer. He won’t let a soul from our village cross over.”
Jiro rapped his sword pommel with his knuckles. “When I choose to cross, I think there will be a different outcome.”
Diandra clutched at his hand. “Do you really think you could defeat him?”
Jiro swallowed, remembering the razor sharp blade, the eyes in the shadow of the helm. Jiro doubted he could even get halfway across the bridge before terror overtook him and sent him running back. But Diandra’s eyes pleaded and he wanted to please her.
He snorted. “The men I have faced in my day. You’d be shocked if you knew the truth.”
“Could you take me?”
“What?” Cold sweat broke out beneath Jiro’s armor.
“Could you get me across the bridge and out of this village?”
“You? Me? The axe-man?”
Her fingers tugged at his sleeve. “It’s not safe for me.” Tears formed in her eyes. “You can’t go without me. They’ll choose me next.”
“Choose you? What are you talking about?”
As she was about to answer, a susurrant wind filled the hollow in which they sat. The leaves of the trees trembled and the surface of water shivered.
Diandra stared up river. “She knows.”
Before Jiro could ask more, Diandra was gone, disappearing into the thickening mists. As the murmuring wind rose to a howl, tearing branches from trees, a chill of terror raced up his spine, and he ran as fast as he could, slipping and stumbling on the muddy trail, never catching up to Diandra, pursued by the keening wind until the doors on the inn slammed shut behind him.
* * *
“Ain’t no gold here,” Nardo mumbled. He dipped a forefinger into his wine and then flicked a bug across the inn table. A few of the villagers looked up from their cups, their eyes hard. “He was trying negotiate with pelts and sacks of forest herbs. I’m surprised he didn’t just offer a firm handshake and a pat on the back. On top of that, half the morning I was running to the outhouse.”
The wind lowed through a gap in the bottom of the inn door, its energy growing stronger as evening descended.
“What if we take Diandra with us?” Jiro asked.
“Who? No, no, no, not the serving wench.”
“Her name is Diandra. She’s in danger if she stays.”
“Think with your head, boy.” He leaned in close to Jiro. “Think they’re going to be happy when we disappear in the dead of the night? Their blood’s going to be boiling, but they won’t be foolish enough to come after us. But if we take the wench Diandra, I can guarantee, you’re going to be wishing you had a whole sword.”
“There were swords in that room. I can get one of them.”
The old man smiled. “Now, you’re thinking. Get a sword, and maybe one for me, too. Not too heavy though. And the girl, forget about her.”
Night came fast. As the wind howled against the door, the villagers grew louder – fists pounding on tables, sharp words exchanged, one man knocked to the hay strewn floor. Diandra moved through the shadows, clearing bowls and refilling cups. Once one of the bearded men grabbed her elbow and pulled her tight to his craggy face. Jiro could not make out the words, cracked lips grimacing around rotten teeth, but when Diandra broke away, she glanced at Jiro, her cheeks wet with tears, before vanishing into the dark hallway.
She never returned. Barong shuffled among the tables, talking to the villagers, and soon the men pulled their fur cloaks tight across their shoulders, and with one hand resting on the blades at their waists, they struggled against the door before disappearing into the howling black night.
Barong turned down the lanterns and then brought a candle to the table. “Disappointed in you two. I thought you had the courage to face the witch. We’ll settle up for room and board tomorrow.” He handed the lit candle to Jiro. “And don’t even think of stretching your legs tonight. A fierce storm is coming.”
In their cramped room, the wind-threatened candle cast dancing shadows across the walls. Jiro, heavy with wine, rested on the bed and when he woke, Nardo was gone, and the candle a stub. He pressed his face to the portal window. The light of a single lantern, buffeted in the wind, raced back and forth across the plaza. Rain hissed against the planks and the muck of the streets welled. On the far side of the plaza, an unlatched door cracked with the gusts of wind.
Jiro wondered if Nardo had fled already. Or maybe he was back in the outhouse?
Jiro adjusted the armor. It pinched across his arms leaving him with a dull pain. He should have taken it off before napping. He drew his sword and stared at the fragmented end. Then he remembered the soldier on the side of the road with the piece of blade broken off into his neck. How had that happened? He shoved the sword back in the scabbard. He needed to get a sword he could use.
With candle in hand, Jiro crept along the hallway. The wind, pulsing beneath closed doors, made his shadow stretch and shrink on the wall. With each step, the floorboards groaned. He hoped Barong was a deep sleeper.
Finally he reached the door behind which the armor lay. He put his shoulder against the door and pushed. It did not budge. He pushed again. It held firmly. How could the door be locked? Like all the other rooms, it was locked with a board from the inside. It was impossible to lock it, unless someone was in there: with the bloody armor, rats and body parts.
Jiro backed away from the door. He moved as quietly as he could down the hall back to Diandra’s room. He rapped lightly on the door and whispered her name. He was about to knock again when he heard her scream from downstairs.
Without thinking, he ran towards the stairs, but as he passed his room, a hand shot out and jerked him onto his bed. Nardo, a dented helm wedged on his head, kicked the door shut.
Jiro struggled beneath old man’s surprisingly strong grip. “That was Diandra. She said that she’s in some kind of danger. We have to help her.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy. There’s more here at play than you imagine. If you were a fly, you’d be wrapped up in spider silk by now.” Nardo backed away from Jiro and dropped the beam to secure the door. In addition to the helmet, the old man wore a boiled leather vest and at his waist hung one of the short broad swords that the infantry of the Riverlands was once known for. Strapped across his back was a wooden shield studded with copper.
Jiro was gathering himself to lunge at Nardo, when Diandra screamed again. This time her voice came from outside the inn. Jiro grabbed the portal with both hands, pulling his face close. Men wrapped in furs dragged Diandra, the pale shift bright in the lantern light, across the courtyard. She screamed for Jiro, but a hand clamped over her mouth and before he could call back, Diandra and her captors, the men of the village, disappeared into the mists.
* * *
Jiro was racing down the stairs of inn with a cursing Nardo limping after him, and had just reached the heavy doors, when Barong’s voice halted him.
“I never thought they would take my daughter.”
“Forget her,” hissed Nardo. “The foul taste in my mouth is from more than just the food. Let’s get out of here.”
“Go ahead,” said Barong. He slumped at one of the wooden tables, his beard stained with wine, a jug prone at his elbow. “Leave while you still can. I told them to let me show you the gold. That would have delivered you tonight. By the gods, they are greedy. So much gold and we hoard it and yet we never leave. Not that she would let us.”
“Gold?” Nardo limped to the innkeeper. “Where’s this gold?”
The grizzled villager laughed. “It doesn’t matter, don’t you see. We think it’s ours, but we are slaves to it, and it is hers.” He peered into the tipped over jug.
“Where are they taking her?” asked Jiro shaking the man by his collars.
“To the witch, of course. To our glorious Lady.”
“The witch we were supposed to dispatch,” said Jiro.
“No, the witch that was supposed to drain your blood so that Diandra could live another day.” Barong hurled the jug into the dark recesses of the hallway and then told the tale of the witch.
“We grew up with the Lady. When we were naughty or lied, our mothers would tell us that the Lady would come for us in our sleep. When we caused troubles as youth, the old hags would curse us, warning that the Lady would once again have her day. She was fairytale, legend, an old wife’s tale handed down through generations, the whispers at bedtime, a lie made up to keep us in line. A lie that one day was awoken.
“Maybe it was one of our own chasing a fox into the temple, or perhaps a mercenary soldier like yourself. We’ll never know but her place of rest was disturbed and after hundreds of years of slumber she awoke in her dark chamber. After a hundred years, she awoke with an insatiable thirst.
“When the sheep first began disappearing, we thought it was wolves descending from the icy passes of the Black Mountains. But when the children one-by-one disappeared from our homes, we knew it was much more, and so we tracked her, as only people of the forest can, to the ruined temples by the chasm.
“She was sated when we found her, a corpulent grub feeding off a child barely alive, a child that fed her blood lust. Of course, Tormir could not stop himself, it was his son after all, so we saw what the hell she could unleash.
“Afterwards, I returned to her den with the other leaders. I thought I would die the bloody death of Tormir; she was still bathed in his blood.
“But we came to an understanding. I had urged the others that we should attack her even if it meant our own deaths, but the others had seen something I had not: the golden crowns, the silver coins, the luminescent jewels covered in pale bones.
“We would bring her what she desired, and each time we did we would return with our pouches heavier. At first, it was whatever livestock remained, then the drunks and the troublemakers, then the villagers lured from across the chasm, and now the few travelers who have not heard of the Lady. But when there were no travelers, we were forced to draw straws, to pick from our own.”
“We were next,” said Jiro. “You were going to send us to our doom.”
The innkeeper dug his fingers into the wooden table. “What choice? Diandra was next. Where could we go with the villagers always watching us and the axe man guarding the bridge? Give up you or my daughter? The choice was easy.”
Nardo tugged his brambly beard. “Still gold and jewels in her lair?”
“More than a man could ever spend in a lifetime.”
Jiro shook his head and backed up. “Diandra?”
“She’s going to die, boy,” said Nardo. “Where is she, Barong?”
* * *
Half an hour later, Jiro found himself once again at the rope bridge that spanned the chasm. The orange light of the lantern only cast as far as halfway across the bridge. Jiro felt horribly exposed in the light, knowing the helmed figure watched from the other side, the razor-sharp blade ready in his lap.
“Up this trail?” Nardo asked. Jiro followed him up the trail, struggling with his footing in the mud. Nardo’s shadow swayed in step with the lantern. As they climbed the slope, past the pool, the whisper seeped through the trees.
“Maybe we should have brought Barong,” said Jiro.
“Him walking next to us with a sword?”
By the time they reached a decaying stone wall, the eastern sky had paled, erasing the edge of the blanket of stars. They found a gap and entered a courtyard where the roots of great cedars had thrust up paving stones. In the center of the courtyard squatted a small, domed mausoleum, moss draped. A litter of bones, fur and clothing were piled before the dark doorless entry. Between the folds of moss, reliefs wrapped the building, but, despite being worn with weather and time, the sharp-toothed face of the Lady was recognizable in each of the scenes. Jiro studied a series of scenes. A bony crowned figure, she sat on a throne while the villagers danced and a crawled towards her. In the next panel, she held severed heads in her fists. In the last panel, she was corpulent, almost inhumanly so, and gold coins flowed from her hands.
Nardo switched the lantern to his left hand and drew his sword. “Follow my lead, boy. Things are going to happen fast and furious.”
Jiro touched the handle of his sword – his broken sword – and cursed.
Nardo turned back, a finger raised to his lips, and then seeing Jiro’s sword still in its scabbard, he rolled his eyes and let loose a string of his own curses. “Pick up a bone then or something. Hopefully the villagers didn’t bring all the looted weapons back to the inn.”
“The door to the room was locked,” Jiro said. He loosened the ties of his lamellar armor and adjusted the throwing knives for easier access. He doubted they would stop the witch, but they might serve to distract her long enough to find another weapon, or in the worst case, to run. Why hadn’t he replaced the broken sword when he had a chance?
The mausoleum was empty but for a broom in the corner and the shattered remains of a marble coffin. Where the coffin once sat, stairs led down. Jiro and Nardo descended into a cave. Fetid water pooled where the ground dipped. Rivulets of water veined down the smooth walls.
They hunched into a tunnel at the back of the cave.
Suddenly a white cloud tore off the walls and blanketed them. Nardo cursed. Hundreds of large white moths plunged at the lantern. Pale wings fluttered across Jiro’s cheeks and palms. The lantern flew out of the old man’s hands and crashed into a puddle.
The flame held for a moment and then the two were cast into darkness.
Nardo cursed again as the cloud of moths dissipated. “They’ll know we’re coming now, and gods know how we’ll see.”
“There ahead,” said Jiro. A small circle of orange glowed, the light reflected in pools of water on the floor and bent in the rivulets that lined the walls.
They moved slowly, hands along the slimy walls, feet unable to avoid the puddles. As they entered the chamber, Nardo gasped.
A few coal-filled iron braziers flickered light in the room. Here the space opened up, disappearing into darkness in the heights and depths of the large cavern. But it was not what was in the depths of darkness that drew the gasp of Nardo, but what they could see within ever changing interplay of shadows and light.
In the center of the room, an emaciated figure slouched on an ivory throne. It was the Lady. Dry white flakes curled off her skin and her flesh had withered to reveal shadows of tendons and furrowed ribs beneath gossamer rags that draped from angular bony shoulders. On her head, she wore a simple crown: a gold band with unfamiliar glyphs. At her feet, Diandra lay, unmoving, her pale skin almost aglow in the firelight. About these two figures, mounds of gold coins, rubies, sapphires, silver necklaces and crowns spilled across the floor.
Nardo licked his lips as his eyes scanned the treasure. He glanced at the Lady and then winked at Jiro. He thrust a finger at Jiro and then at Diandra. Then he thumbed himself and opened his hands across the treasure.
Jiro picked his way through the scattered coins and jewels. A whisper rose. He froze, staring at the Lady, her head slumped. He counted to three and then crept forward. The whispering was definitely coming from the witch, but she appeared to be sleeping. Finally he reached Diandra. She was warm, still alive.
He gathered her in his arms, and as he was picking her up, figures separated from the shadows. He froze, wondering whether the Lady feigned sleep so that her minions could dash in and surround him. Was this his end? But, these were no foul creatures darting in, but rather the fur-wrapped villagers, their dirty hands scooping up as much gold and jewels as they could. Why had they waited until he had Diandra to dash in for the treasure?
A breath sucked in over his shoulder. The Lady lifted her head, eye lids opening to reveal vertical slit irises. Her eyes flashed green for a moment and then she leapt from the throne. Jiro had never seen anything move so fast and clear so much distance so quickly. Her tattered garments swirled about her as she moved among the villagers, her suddenly clawed hands knocking them down, her rows of small sharp teeth flashing, her susurration crescendoing.
In a matter of moments, the villagers and, even Nardo who had seized the opportunity to fill his sack with coin and jewel, lay moaning or unconscious on the ground. A few cupped hamstrings trying to stem the bleeding.
The Lady followed a villager into the tunnel. He screamed.
Diandra stirred in Jiro’s arms, leaning heavily into him.
“Is there another way out?” he asked.
She looked with blurry eyes.
“Other than the tunnel, is there another way out of the cave?”
She shook her head.
The villager screamed again. Then the Lady emerged from the tunnel and squatted. With two bony arms, she held the villager, her thick black tongue lapping at the blood that poured from his neck. With each sucking of her mouth, the Lady changed. Her skin became rosier; her flesh swelled. In a matter of moments, the villager was withered, desiccated, skin stretched across bones.
The Lady ran her black tongue over her lips and spoke.
“Why is it always the humans who break promises made?” Jiro was surprised by the elegance of her voice – the carefully formed words, the captivating rhythm, the accent that suggested an ancient, more formal tongue. “What we had once was paradise, was it not, my children?”
One of the villagers, the gruff man who had so roughly handled Diandra at inn, gathered his feet beneath him. “No, no, m’Lady, nothing like that at all. We are still keeping our word. Look here, we brought these two.” His hand swept to Jiro and Nardo. “But they were going to leave, so we had to lure them with the young girl.”
The Lady was vibrant now: her flesh plump, breasts and hips filled out, her skin flushed. Even her hair had changed from strands of limp gray to dark curls. She looked beautiful.
“The covenant has been broken,” the Lady said. “I promised to only feed from those you brought. To no longer slip into your village, my village, with the coming of the moon. In exchange you could crawl on your knees and pick gold off the floor. But today you came for your gold before I drank.”
The villager shook his head. “They are here in the chamber. For you. We brought the girl to your feet and lured these two in. For you. To honor our covenant.”
Her hiss made Jiro shrink back. “The covenant has been broken.”
With unexpected speed, she glided from the tunnel to the gruff villager. Before he could react, she pulled his axe from his hands and drove the blade into his neck and then she pulled his still live body to her mouth. The blood further engorged her, her waist thickening, her face becoming puffy, the beauty that had emerged becoming buried in corpulent flesh.
“By your own blades,” she said. “Those of you who have betrayed the covenant.”
The men screamed and moaned trying to lift themselves from the floor where her destruction had left them.
“Let me go,” Jiro said. “I had no covenant with you to break.”
Suddenly the witch stood in front him. A swollen finger ran along his jaw, a ragged blackened nail scouring along his throat.
She stank of blood and decaying flesh. Jiro choked back the urge to vomit.
“Go,” she said.”
“I can go?” Jiro’s legs shook. “That’s it.”
He began to back away towards the tunnel and the freedom of the night air above. With one hand, he dragged Diandra along with him.
The witch’s engorged hand shot out, clasping the girl’s wrist. “She stays.”
“But she did nothing,” Jiro said. “They were going to sacrifice her. She didn’t try to take your gold.”
“You have one chance to leave and, if not, I will chop your head from your shoulders with your own sword.”
Jiro retreated, trembling, to the darkest part of the tunnel. In one direction, he could see the pale of the dawn sky and in the other, the flickering flames from the witch’s den.
It would be easy to go, to stumble down the trail, pass through the near deserted village and return to the lonely road leading to the City of Stones. He would endure the chidings of his parents and resign himself to the rickety stool at the pickled vegetable stall, smiling as the old wives tried to prod forward their remaining homely daughters. A miserable life but at least a life.
Harder it would be to step the other direction, back into the heart of the tunnel, to step into the torchlight in defiance of the warning of the witch. But back there in that cave lay the things that he desired: Diandra, more gold than he could carry, and the chance, however remote, that for once in his life he could be the hero, not just play one.
He stood at a crossroads, trembling, waiting for a sign, for something or someone to make the decision for him, but time passed, the steady dripping of water off the walls, maybe two drops, maybe a thousand, until there was nothing but the moment and in that moment, clarity came, and he turned back to the witch.
Jiro crouched in the shadows of the tunnel. Nothing moved in the cavern. The witch had returned to her throne, eyes closed, corpulence draped over the arms of the chair, her head hanging at an angle that made it look like her neck was broken.
All about her, wrapped in silken bundles, were the others who had entered the cave. In that space of time in which Jiro had been lost in indecisiveness, she had wrapped them up like flies for a spider, bundles of blood to return to when her hunger rose. Had Jiro been lost in thought for that long a period of time or had she moved at an unimaginable speed?
Jiro crept forward, one hand on the hilt of the sword to keep it from clanging and waking the witch, the other hand pulling one of his throwing daggers from his belt. The sword was useless but the dagger would enable him to free Diandra and Nardo from their silk prisons.
His eyes found the curves of Diandra beneath the silk. She lay just behind the throne.
Jiro softened his breath and stole one step after another, picking his way with sandaled feet through the litter of gold, pebbles and bones. The journey from tunnel to behind the throne dragged. Sweat poured from his brow and his legs began to ache from the painfully slow movement. He froze often, sometimes with a leg held in the air when the witch twitched or shifted or her breathing suddenly rose.
Finally, he reached Diandra. He sawed the edge of his knife beneath the threads and peeled the silk back from the girl’s eyes. Her look of shock turned to one of relief. Jiro raised a finger to his lip and then began to cut away more of the sticky web-like substance, away from her lips, her neck, her shoulder.
He had just freed her right arm when she screamed.
Even as Jiro turned to face the horror behind him, his sword screeched as it was pulled by another from the scabbard at his hip. The blade, the one he had stolen from the dead soldier, the one that had promised him a few days food in his belly, now in the hand of the witch arced towards him, the orange reflections of the braziers racing along the flat like drops of blood.
The blade cut along the line of his neck. Jiro thought he was dead. But then he realized that the witch has misjudged the distance: she had not realized that the sword at his hip was broken in half and her cut found only air.
As the witch was reversing her swing, something crashed into Jiro’s backside. Uncontrollably, he lunged forward. As he thrust his hands out to prevent himself from crashing into the witch, the blade of the throwing knife, still in his hand, plunged deep into the witch’s chest, the cold metal slipping between her ribs.
The witch continued her swing and knocked Jiro to the ground. He stared at the blade in his hand, slick with blood.
The witch opened her mouth, but no words came, only a weak gasp. Her black nailed hands rose to her chest, blood pulsing between her fingers. She took a step towards Jiro, then wheeled about, hands wide at her side and collapsed at the foot of her throne, dead.
* * *
The road was still thick with mist, the sun blurred, but Jiro did not mind. To the east, he could see where the skies cleared. Soon they would be free of the Stone Forests and one step closer to Jiro’s triumphant return to the City of Stones.
Diandra walked beside him leading the horse, heavy with bags of gold coin. Nardo was seated on a donkey, head bobbing to resist sleep.
The villagers had been reluctant at first, to share the gold and let Diandra leave, but Nardo had a few choice whispered words and the murmurings were silenced. The villagers fed them, gave them the horse and donkey, and let them take their choice of weapons from the inn.
Jiro had outfitted himself like the hero he dreamed of being: a shiny metal breastplate, a helm shaped like the head of a tiger, and a sword that sat perfectly in his hand, a bright unbroken sword.
Jiro looked at the old man half asleep. Jiro could never had made it this far without him. And especially not in the cave. It had been Nardo throwing himself into Jiro that had propelled him, blade first, at the Lady.
“Maybe we should go to Io or see the Northern Steppes.”
“I want to see the City of Stones,” Diandra said. “Don’t you want to go back and show everyone what you have made of yourself?”
Jiro shrugged. “A bag of gold, accidental blood on my throwing knife, but what has changed? Am I any different than the fool who wandered up this road a week ago? Richer? Yes.”
She pinched his arm. “You have me now. Did you ever dream of that?”
“And me, too,” Nardo cooed. “Anyway, you’re an actor. Become whatever you want to be.”
“Just by pretending?”
“No,” Nardo said, “just by being. You think I was always the wandering sage.”
Suddenly, three figures stepped out of the mists and onto the road ahead.
“We’ll take the gold.”
“Bandits,” Diandra whispered.
The ex-soldiers stood wide-legged with swords in fists. Their faces were haggard – weathered, unshaven, scarred – and death glistened in their eyes. “Throw down your sword if you want to live.”
Jiro felt all eyes on him. “I am Jiro the Hero, slayer of witches, protector of maidens. Be forewarned,” he said as he drew his sword.
Peter Fugazzotto fights to protect the earth by day and battles his ego with armbars and sticks by night. He lives in Northern California with his wife, daughter, cat and dog. Jiro is his first published story. He currently is pulling the threads together on several fantasy novels. His varied interests can be found at www.peterfugazzotto.com