But the man who stepped out of the ruins was not old, and nor did he have the look of any of the trappers who worked these badlands. The local hunters and trapliners were grizzled ne’er-do-wells, almost as leathery as the tanned hides in which they often traded. Martin had seen them, coming into the marketplace to sell their wares. They were bent-backed, uncouth, unshaven, and they smelt worse than the animals they killed.
This man was young, straight-backed, and he walked with an arrogance Martin saw at once. He moved with the strength and flexibility of youth, of the soldier or warrior, and he held his head like a lord. A trapper? At a glance Martin knew better, and he groaned.
Other hunters prowled Barran’s Heath, looking for very different prey. There were faster, easier ways to make a fortune than catching mink and ermine. If a freeman had the courage to prowl the wastelands beyond Esketh and Arkeshan, if he had the luck to stay alive long enough, and not one scruple in his entire body, the marketplace gossips swore he could come home rich.
Just then, Martin’s palms were sweating while his muscles tightened in dread. He kept very still and watched the figure step out of the long moonshadows cast by the ruins. He saw an attitude of contempt as the man came to rest, fists on hips, glaring down at him.
The bulk of a great black leather coat made him seem much bigger than he was, and that coat could have concealed any weapon from a full-sized sword to a shotbow. The moonlight outlined hard, handsome features, dark eyes and a sensual mouth that looked to Martin as if it could easily become cruel. The contempt was written in every line of that face, too, and Martin wondered fleetingly how many other fools the bandit had come upon in this place, every one of them whimpering about being on a quest into the badlands, chasing phantasms told by gypsies.
The voice was deep, strong, harsh, and he spoke with the accept of the local hills. “Do I look like a gnarl-faced, gap-toothed old imbecile? Am I Aelmed?” The man spat into the dust at his feet. “I am Yussan. Do you know my name, foolish boy? You should!”
And Martin smothered another groan, for he did know it. Most folk from Esketh knew it, and they whispered it uneasily. Yussan was a brigand, and he had just spotted tonight’s prize — a tender, juicy prize, probably worth more money in the markets of wicked old Arkeshan than a dozen other idiots he had delivered there I the last year. And if the tales about him were true, Yussan had delivered a great many.
The stories of the road to Atlantis mocked Martin now, as he saw how priceless they must be to Yussan. They were the bait, the lure, bringing prey to him without Yussan even needing to set a snare.
He strutted arrogantly in the deep mauve twilight, and Martin felt the blood rush away from his face. Was he blanching? He knew he was.
“Still wondering if you’ve stumbled over the path to the enchanted isles?” Yussan demanded, as it it were a fine joke. “Still calling for the old guide, pathetic old Aelmed, who knows far better than to be abroad in the badlands after sundown?” His lip curled in derision as he showed himself in the full of the moonlight. He leaned down, made sure Martin saw his face, as if he expected to be recognized.
“I … do know your name.” Martin heard the quiver in his own voice and hated himself for it. “They talk of you in the marketplace in Esketh.
“Do they, indeed? And what do they say of Yussan Lemaran?” He was mocking pitilessly. “Do they tell you I’m a bandit? There’s at least a dozen men out there, with crossbows aimed at your heart. You can be quilled like a porcupine, at a snap of my fingers. So do yourself a favor, boy, and surrender before you get yourself hurt.” He cocked his head at Martin, eyes narrowing. “Let’s have a look at you — let’s see what Yussan has caught himself tonight!”
“Look — look at me?” Martin faltered.
“Let’s see,” Yussan sneered, “if you’re worth enough to repay me for all the time and trouble you’ll cause me, to get you to the market in Arkeshan, where beauty and sweet flesh are prized more highly than gold and jewels. Lose the cloak. In fact, lose it all — show me what I’ve caught this time.”
It would have been so easy to answer the call of the frightened animal inside him, pick himself up, try to run. But Martin had the wisdom to do as he was told, all the wile chastising himself for the idiot he had been. He had no one to blame for the scene, and as he shrugged out of the cloak and slipped the wrap off his hips, he told himself over and over, he deserved no better than he was getting.
He knelt on the rocks then, hands clasped behind his head, the position he had seen captives and chattels assume on the market blocks in Esketh. He knew how it worked as well as anyone knew. Prisoners of war were auctioned there for indentured labor, and criminals went to the blocks at the beginning of the term of their bonded service. Five years later, or ten, they would be free to go. The same, Martin well knew, was not true of the captives sold in Arkeshan.
Yussan was sizing him up unblinkingly, evaluating the goods, and Martin kept his eyes down now. His heart beat like a little wild thing, and from the corners of his eyes he was searching for ways he might slip away. The shadows were too far, like the eroded old ruins and the skeletons of the trees. There was no cover, nothing to use as a shield between himself and Yussan’s men.
The thought of escape mocked him as keenly as the brigand’s predatory eyes. He cleared his throat and hunted for a voice that would not betray him. “What I’m worth? Do you work with the gypsy woman? Miranda? Does she send people out here, to walk right into this trap of yours?”
The bandit laughed, a short, hard bark of humor. “I’ve no need of some old gypsy woman. I stalk my own prey, and when I catch the best, I know what it’s worth at market, down to the last gold coin.” He leaned closer, and with fingers under Martin’s chin, lifted his face. “Hmm. You’re very beautiful, boy. You have a name?”
“Martin,” he said, hushed.
“Where you’re going, they’ll give you a new name — if they care to name you at all,” Yussan warned. He stood up and stepped back, regarding Martin with a deep frown. “So tell me, is there anyone back in the fair city of Esketh who’s likely to pay a ransom to have you back?”
“A ransom?” Martin echoed. His brain whirled. He had never thought of the word.
“If I were to post your plight on the noticeboards in the market square,” Yussan mused,”who’s likely to pay a handsome fee to have you returned, safe and whole, with not so much as a bruise on his tender young hide?”
“I … have no one.” Martin closed his eyes, trying to shut out the nightmare. It was far from the truth, but if there was one thing he could bear even less than being the bandit’s property, it was having Roald come out here and pay a year’s income for a good-for-nothing brat who was not even his own own son. Roald would do it. And Martin would blame himself for the rest of his life for ruining him. Roald was not poor, but the price asked for young slaves in Arkeshan was notorious, and Martin was not about to drag Roald with him into this disaster.
“You have no one?” Yussan echoed. “That’s not true. You have me … and you have a lot to learn, if you’re going to fetch the kind of prices I want to see in Arkeshan. Don’t trouble your pretty head about it. I can teach you all the nice manners and the pretty ways and graces. I can teach you how to make tea and pour wine, and even how to fold kerchiefs for milady. I can teach you every skill of the bodyslave as well as the arts and guiles of the bedchamber.” He chuckled fatly. “Have you ever been to Arkeshan? No? Well, then, you have it all to learn. I’ll be your teacher, and —”
Martin had just begun to resign himself to a future few would relish, but Yussan broke off abruptly and spun, leaving the promise unfinished. He had heard something in the night. The dark eyes were wide, intent on the deep purple shadows, and Martin held his breath, waiting.
He heard nothing for a moment, and then just the scuff of boots on rock. He would have taken the sound for one of Yussan’s men, coming in to see the prize. But the bandit was on the defensive now, both hands delving into the deep pockets of the broad leather coat. The moonlight gleamed on the blade of a drawn knife as he squinted, trying to pick out shapes among the ruins.
Heart in his mouth, Martin worked his feet under him, gathering his muscles to spring away. If he could get out into the darkness fast enough, he could be gone like a hare. He could vanish like a wisp of the mist that had begun to coil across the heath.
Escape seized and possessed his mind, because he had seen a glint of something very like dread in Yussan’s eyes — and Martin had no desire to cross the path of anyone or anything that could make Yussan Lemaran’s skin prickle in foreboding.
NOTE: The Abraxas Contents List is in the left-side column -- quick links to each chapter
So endeth chapter two ... and I had a lot of fun writing this! Hope you enjoyed this instalment, and I'll be back soon with the next part. If you're wondering what's going on here, you need to start with Chapter One, and Here's the link to catch you up.
Jade, July 28