In the Lair of the Bloody Handed
Part Eight – The Eldest
The Loyal fell in around Nhaqosa’s band and escorted them back towards the camp and on into the village. They carried themselves with a wary cautiousness, their weapons never straying far from covering the band. Inside, Nhaqosa could see that whoever had once lived in the village had gone and the place contained only Keturhi’s warriors now. There were no women or children, only males of a fighting age. Some of the men had taken to wearing face paint akin to that which decorated the Painted Ones, grotesque images done in ochres. The Painted Ones, for the most, were camped in the village, and close by to the long hall that dominated it. Some of them stood guard at the entrance to it, their eyes cold and inhuman as they stared at the approaching group.
“They wish to speak with her,” their guide explained to the silent creatures.
The expressions on the ochre daubed faces of the Painted Ones did not change. They simply stepped aside without a word to let the group in.
Passing through the hide screen into the long hall, Nhaqosa saw warriors lining the length of it, leading to a large chair at the far end that had been constructed of dark wood and polished bones. In it sat a woman, her dark hair long and braided. While beautiful, her face had a cold arrogance to it, and was daubed with touches of red ochre, though not to the extent of the Painted Ones. In one hand she held a length of wood in the form of a rod, dark red in colour, gnarled and twisted in shape.
As they entered, she pointed to them with a rod. “Who are these?” she demanded.
The man who had escorted them went down on one knee quickly, his head bowed. “They wish to speak to you, Eldest.”
The woman looked them over with a cold, appraising eye before indicating Nhaqosa. “You, come forward.”
Nhaqosa complied, walking down the hall towards her. The woman stood up from her seat as he came to a halt before her. She began walking around him, studying him closely.
“Impressive,” she said. “I had at first thought that you were merely from one of the tribes and were a shaper of great skill, but I can see that is not the case. This is your natural form, not one you have assumed.” She tapped at her lips with the rod. “Intriguing. How are you called?”
“I am Nhaqosa, Eldest,” he replied respectfully.
“And why have you come to me, Nhaqosa?” she asked, still circling around him.
“We have come to join you.”
The woman’s answering smile was almost a sneer. “You have come to join me? I have almost completed the conquest of the tribes and of those that would oppose me. I have no need for any more to accomplish that.”
“After you have completed that, then what will you do?” Nhaqosa asked. “The People of Iron live beyond your forest with their secrets. You will need more than this rabble if you are to turn your attention to them.”
Keturhi laughed with cold amusement. “You are perceptive, at least. You appear strong, but what are you like in a fight?” she asked.
“I am the best you have ever seen.”
Keturhi nodded slowly, coming to a halt in front of him and resting her rod against his chest. From off to the side of the all, a Painted One came across. He began to speak to her quietly in a harshly accented language. Keturhi’s eyes narrowed as he spoke, all the time fixed upon Nhaqosa. She stood still, contemplative, for a time after the Painted One had finished speaking.
“It would seem that at first you would oppose me and now you wish to join me. What say you to that?”
“A mere misunderstanding,” he replied with an expansive shrug of his shoulders.
“A mere misunderstanding,” Keturhi repeated. “It does prove one thing at least, that you are as good as you say you are. Still, you may be here for reasons other than those you say you are.”
“You may be here to kill me,” Keturhi said.
Nhaqosa laughed, deep and loud, the sound echoing through the hall. “That seems unlikely, for me to walk in here, bold as day, and then what? Strike you down now? There is a problem with that, namely being that I wouldn’t be walking back out again.”
Keturhi did not reply, instead smiling faintly, but one that may have been troubled by some thought. She stepped back away from Nhaqosa, gesturing towards one of the waiting warriors in the hall. The man who stepped forward was burly of build, with a thick beard and long hair that had a faint reddish tinge to its dark colouring. His pale eyes were hard and fixed on Nhaqosa with a fierce stare.
“This is Artor, my champion,” Keturhi explained. “I want to see how well you fare against him.”
Artor gave a mirthless smile and cracked his knuckles together.
Nhaqosa barely moved or gave away any hints before reacting cold, his fist striking out at Artor without warning or wind-up. The blow did not have the full weight of his force behind it, yet it still proved enough to drop Artor to the ground as it struck him in the side of the head, leaving him pole-axed, his eyes rolled back.
Keturhi took a further step away, her eyes widening slightly in the first sign of concern or fear that she had displayed. The others in the hall likewise seemed shocked, even a little apprehensive, if their reactions and murmured whispers were to be any sign.
“Satisfied?” Nhaqosa asked, folding his arms across his chest.
“You may be just as powerful as you claim,” Keturhi replied, the momentary loss in composure already covered over. “Perhaps too powerful to be left uncontrolled.” She fixed her gaze on Nhaqosa, a piercing gaze that felt as if it punched right through him, and she raised her arms. As she did, a peculiar lassitude settled upon his mind, a heaviness of thoughts so that everything around him seemed hazy and distant. A great weariness took hold of him, one that almost left him unable to move or think, and even if he did, it seemed slow and laborious. His limbs felt weighed down and all he wanted to do was rest his eyes and sleep.
A low growl caught in the back of his throat. Keturhi was trying to enslave his mind just as she had done with all the others, working her powers upon him, to make him a puppet to her bidding. A great anger swelled up inside of him at the thought of it, and he fought back with all the resilience that he could muster. Yet, for all that he fought, he felt himself slipping further and further away, making fleeting grasps at his thoughts, only to see them slide away into a hazy blackness. In the end it felt as if his awareness had been shunted aside and he was seeing through another’s eyes.
“Better,” Keturhi announced after it was done, a touch smugly. “You will do as I bid.”
“As you command, Eldest.”
Keturhi smiled to herself, the smile of one well pleased. She looked back down the hall to where Nhaqosa’s companions waited, unaware of what exactly had passed between her and the minotaur in their conversation. She studied them before pointing at Abasan, who stood to the fore of the group.
“You, come here.”
Abasan looked aside, first to Niati, then to Lakach, before he approached.
“This one, he is a friend?” Keturhi asked Nhaqosa.
The demand sent a bolt of fire that seared through Nhaqosa’s heart and mind and yet he was powerless before it, compelled to do naught but obey. The great stone maul came up, lifted high, ready to swing.
Abasan didn’t move, simply looking straight at Nhaqosa, fearless and unblinking. “Just like old times, Kwaza,” he said. “Just like when we first met.”
Nhaoqsa felt his arms move of their own volition, against his will, readying to take the swing. Abasan was his oldest friend of the group and had been through it all with him. His body trembled as he fought against the command to take Abasan’s life and his teeth ground together as he struggled to stop the downward swing. Sweat beaded against his hide.
A groan tore itself from his lips as the maul began to descend with terrible force behind it. Abasan smiled as the maul whistled narrowly by his face, to slam into the ground with such impact that it dug out a divot of earth.
Keturhi blinked, momentarily stunned that Nhaqosa had resisted her command. Letting go of the maul, he turned towards her. He felt the bonds that entangled his will snap, giving way against his refusal to do something so contrary to his character that they could not hold him. His arm snaked out and he grabbed the woman about the throat. As he did so, the rod fell from her hand.
He brought her close and leaned down so his face was in hers, nostrils flaring. “No matter what you do, I will never kill my friend,” he growled in low, menacing tones.
One of the nearby Painted Ones finally reacted to the unexpected turn of events, making a move towards Nhaqosa. Before he could reach the minotaur, Abasan’s sword flashed from its sheath and cut him down. The others of Nhaqosa’s band were first to respond, weapons leaping free with the quicksilver speed that had been honed in the gladiatorial pits. They slashed down those closest to them as they moved up to join Nhaqosa, forming a ring of steel around him and Keturhi.
Keturhi struggled futilely in Nhaqosa’s grasp, beating at his arms with her hands. She could not even budge the iron like hold he had on her. Her eyes shot venom and she dug into his flesh with her nails. Nhaqosa lifted her up from the ground, where she dangled, her feet kicking at the air. Despite the ease with which he could have crushed her throat, he did not do so. The woman was unarmed and helpless before him, and it was not in his nature to slay one in such a position.
The warriors under Keturhi’s thrall rushed towards Nhaqosa in an attempt to free her. Some of the humans warped into other forms as they came, taking on bestial aspects of fur and claw and fangs. Weapons clashed as the two sides met, struggling for supremacy. While there were perhaps twice as many of Keturhi’s warriors in the hall than in Nhaqosa’s band, the confines limited how many could attack at once. Steel blades met simple stone weapons and the warriors began to fall.
With her nails dug deep into Nhaqosa’s flesh, Keturhi snarled and spat at him. A burning sensation began to spread out from where her hands touched him, and not just from the bite of her nails. Nhaqosa grunted but kept the grip firm and unyielding.
Suddenly Niati span out of the line of battle. Pivoting on one leg with the grace of the court dancer she once had been, she kicked out with her other leg, high above her own head. Her foot slammed into the side of Keturhi’s head. The woman went limp, her head slumping forward as she passed out.
Nhaqosa dropped the unconscious body, giving Niati a quizzical look.
“Someone had to do something,” Niati told him as she returned to the battle. “You weren’t about to.”
At the rendering insensible of Keturhi, an unexpected change came over the fighting throughout the hall. The battle faltered as men stumbled out of the fight, their faces bearing mixed expression of shock, puzzlement, horror, anger and more. Then one, a hulking creature more horned bear than man, turned to a Painted One and fell upon him, tearing at him with fangs and claws. Nhaqosa’s companions pulled back as the men who had been enslaved to Keturhi’s will turned upon their formers allies. From the sounds that came from outside the hall were any indication, the same was happening out there as well.
The Painted Ones did not last long, torn apart in wrathful fury.
The man called Artor, recovered from the blow from Nhaqosa that had laid him out, though still feeling at his jaw, approached.
“Hold,” Nhaoqsa ordered him.
“We are not your enemies,” Artor replied. “Not anymore at least. Kill the witch and let this nightmare be over.”
Nhaqosa shook his head, imposing himself between Artor and the unconscious Keturhi. “That is not the way to solve this. You are free of her control?”
“The hold broke when she was knocked out. I will not return to that horror though, which is why she must die. If she wakes then it will be easy to enslave us all again.”
“She has a point, boss,” Lakach pointed out.
“There are other ways,” Nhaqosa told them. “For now we will bind her hands, her eyes and mouth. She will remain harmless in that state. We will take her with us to Tolvir. He is an Elder and will know what to do.”
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