The Grey Men

by Robert Moriyama

After nearly a year aboard the Naradian privateer Empress Tazhina, Garan Tharr had had his fill of fish, hardtack, and grog. He had enjoyed visiting almost every port on the shores of the Western Sea, but he hungered to see more than taverns and marketplaces (and brothels, of course) on his journeying; it was time to travel by land once more.

All that remained was to choose the place where he would take his leave of the Empress. He spent his idle hours talking with the ship's officers about the best place to resume his wanderings on dry land. The first mate said that Port Kadrheel was a fine place to start a land-bound life, a great trading city where the merchant caravans of a dozen lands came and went every day. There would be work aplenty there for a man as skilled with a blade as Garan, as a caravan guard or personal retainer. Alas, it would be months before the Empress next dropped anchor there; if Garan could wait that long . . .

Garan decided that he did not wish to wait any longer than necessary. As skilled and courageous as the captain and crew of the Empress might be, the next vessel they chose as prey might be the one that sent her to the weed-choked bottom of the sea, and Garan found the thought of being food for crabs and cuttlefish unappealing. Shandar City was the next best thing--a trading city of some repute, though the surrounding desert (cheerfully named the Deadlands) kept the flow of caravans to a fraction of that to be found in Port Kadrheel. More to the point, it was their next port of call. Thus, when the Empress dropped anchor in Shandar harbor, Garan said his farewells to her captain, Hazim Ashan.

"I've heard Shandar is a good place for a man to make a new beginning, Hazim," he said, "and I've had enough of the sea for now."

Hazim shrugged. "We'll miss your sword when we take on our next boatload of Jobari water-rats," he grunted, "but we managed before you came, and we'll manage after you're gone. Ameht will see that you get your share of our loot -- less the Emperor's levy, of course." Garan laughed. "Ah, yes. That's another thing I won't miss about sailing with you. Paying the Emperor for the privilege of robbing his foes!"

"The price of doing business," Hazim grunted. "Less trouble than fighting Nadarian galleys at every turn, anyway."

As promised, Ameht handed over a purse fat with copper zhin, with a good number of silver rokhu and a few gold azhin to brighten the mix. A handful of rough gems from a chest taken in their last encounter completed Garan's share. Garan was content; it was more than enough to buy him a good horse and saddle, clothes more suitable for the dry Shandari air, and provisions for many days' travel. After that, he would find work as a hired sword to protect some merchant or other, preferably one carrying goods to someplace interesting.

By day's end, Garan had traded his sailor's silks for loose-woven cotton tunic and trousers, leather breeches, and a woolen cloak. A Shandari cobbler was at work on tough ox-hide boots to replace the thin-soled, flexible footwear that had served him so well on the polished decks of the Empress Tazhina.

The matter of a horse and other gear could wait for the next day, he decided. What he wanted now was a meal that contained nothing (except salt) from the sea, and a bed that didn't move. Since Shandar was a seaport, the fishless meal proved a bit more elusive than he had hoped, but just after sunset, Garan found a tavern that promised beds with no more than a reasonable number of insect companions, and a dinner of lamb, bread, and wine. As it turned out, the lamb was more accurately mutton (and from an elderly sheep at that), the bread was not far removed from hardtack, and the wine was -- not bad at all.

Given the quality of the food, Garan found himself leaning heavily on the liquid component of his meal for sustenance. Thus it was that when morning arrived, he found himself with a two-legged companion in his bed, much more attractive than the fleas and bedbugs, but potentially much more troublesome.

"Good morning, my handsome one," the girl cooed. "After the night we shared, I am surprised that you wake so easily!"

Garan groaned, scrubbed what felt like dried gruel from his eyes, and peered at his unfamiliar bedmate. "Ah, yes," he croaked gallantly, "Even exhausted, I am eager to behold your loveliness in the light of day."

The girl giggled and slithered into his arms, which had the effect of bringing him fully awake. She is lovely, Garan mused. And very, very young. With a growing sense of foreboding, Garan regretfully extricated himself from the too-comfortable tangle of sheets and silken-fleshed limbs. "Alas, my dear, I have much to do today," he said. "And you must have a home to go to?"

The girl (damn, but he wished he could remember her name) pouted. "I would rather stay here," she said. "My father treats me like a child!"

Garan's feeling of impending peril grew. "I'm sure he only wishes to keep you safe," he grunted, pulling on his boots. "A treasure such as you must tempt many a scoundrel." To say nothing of at least one drunken ex-sailor.

The girl giggled again. "No scoundrel would dare touch me. After all, my father has the whole of the City Guard at his command."

At that moment, a heavy fist struck the door like a blacksmith's hammer.

"Yasmeen! Come out of there! And bring the dog who has defiled you out to face me!"

Garan looked from the door (which quivered in its frame as it was struck again) to Yasmeen. "That would be your father at the door?"

Yasmeen nodded, clutching the sheets to her chest. "I think he may be upset," she said, her eyes very wide.

Without another word, Garan opened the shutters and threw himself out the window. As he picked himself up from the muddy street, a huge head set squarely on even larger shoulders emerged from the window and swiveled until its eyes locked with Garan's. The face, rough-featured and bearded, was already bright red; it turned almost purple as Garan watched in horrified fascination.

"You there! Stand and answer for your crimes against my daughter!"

Garan winced at the word crimes. He didn't even remember what he had done (although the evidence certainly indicated that it was enjoyable at the time), and had little enthusiasm for the prospect of Shandari justice as administered by an irate father. Especially one who appeared to be slightly too big to fit through the window through which he had just escaped.

"Guards! Guards!" the giant roared. "Seize the little piss-ant who's despoiled my Yasmeen!"

Garan scrambled to his feet and ran, aimlessly at first, then towards the harbor, then back again as he heard the whinnying of horses. The Empress could never make it out of the harbor before his pursuers arrived (even assuming that Hazim would or could protect him), but he could still buy a horse and flee into the desert.

It was only when he reached the stables from which the encouraging sounds of many horses emanated that he realized two things: first, that he had lost his purse, either in his room in the tavern, or on the street during his flight; and second, that the stables before him belonged to the Shandari City Guard.

It was too late to change course. Garan plunged ahead, knocking aside two men in the scarlet cloaks of Guardsmen, and leaped aboard the first horse he found with its saddle and bridle in place. He wished he had the short cavalry bow that he had learned to use in the steppes of Han; he wished he had his purse; most of all, he wished he hadn't gotten drunk and bedded Yasmeen. No djinn appeared to grant any of his wishes, so Garan slapped his mount on the hindquarters and set out at full gallop, riding down a Guard who tried to catch the reins as he passed. He aimed the horse on what he hoped was the shortest route out of town and prayed that it would take a few minutes for pursuit to begin.

Near the edge of the city, a Guard recognized the colors of City Guard on the horse, and the lack of them on Garan Tharr. The man shouted for him to halt and raised his bow to bring Garan down. Garan's practiced hands pulled a dagger from a hidden sheath in his boot-top and hurled it at the Guard as he passed. The blade found its mark in the Guard's chest; the arrow went wide, and Garan rode on into the desert.

***** On the fourth day of the flight through the desert, the horse broke its leg when it stumbled into the den of some burrowing animal. Garan barely had time to throw himself clear before his mount fell to the ground in a screaming tangle of hooves and harness. His leather breeches gave him some protection from the stony ground, but his tunic was torn and bloody when he regained his feet. A quick glance at the horse's shattered foreleg told Garan that the beast would never stand again. Cautiously, he circled the animal until a momentary pause in the agonized flailing of the undamaged limbs let him step into striking range. Then, a single cut across the throat ended the horse's struggles.

It took only a few minutes to salvage what little gear and supplies he had left: his cloak of coarse black cloth, almost new, but torn and bloodied by the rocky desert ground; a water-skin containing a few precious swallows of liquid; and a coil of Shandari rope, stronger than its thickness and weight would suggest.

The saddle and bridle he left on the horse. He did not expect to find another mount in the middle of the Deadlands, and had little desire to carry any extra weight for the many miles remaining in his trek.

Setting his few possessions to one side, Garan cut a strip of still-warm flesh from the horse's flank and ate it slowly. With luck, it would give him the strength to survive for another day. After that, only the gods could say what his fate might be.

When he finished eating, Garan scrubbed the blood from his face and hands with a few handfuls of sand. He donned his cloak, pulling the hood up to shade his face, tied the water-skin and coil of rope to his belt, and set out in what he guessed was the right direction to reach the nearest city, Qadhash.

The horse he left to be devoured by the desert scavengers. Already, he could see carrion birds circling high overhead; no doubt the scent of blood would soon bring other creatures, most harmless to a man with a good blade, others not quite so harmless. Garan scowled at the memory of stories he had heard of less wholesome things that lurked here in the Deadlands, things that no man would choose to meet.

He felt no regrets at leaving the animal to its fate. Its suffering was over, and besides, he had stolen the beast from the stables of the Shandari city guard less than a week ago. As likely as not, he would have had to abandon or slay the horse in another day or two, lacking water and feed to keep it alive.

Garan trudged on, chasing his lengthening shadow across the barren ground. As he walked, he reflected bitterly that he had hoped for a much longer and more pleasant stay in Shandar. It was just his damnable luck that the girl he had bedded was the daughter of the High Commander of the Guard . . .

Nightfall caught him far from any shelter, in the midst of a rocky plain that stretched to the horizon in every direction. Stopping sooner would not have helped; the lands he had crossed offered nothing better. In keeping with his poor luck, the moon was a mere sliver that cast no useful light, and wind-stirred dust made it difficult to see the stars. If Garan continued to walk, he could easily wander far off course, or worse, stumble and injure himself. Besides, his feet hurt abominably; his boots, made to grip the deck of a ship, gave little protection from miles of pebble-strewn desert. Grunting, he used his sword to smooth away the pebbles from a patch of ground a blade's length across, and sat cross-legged on the dirt. He laid his unsheathed sword across his thighs, the hilt held loosely in his right hand, and let his chin drop to rest on his chest. It was far from comfortable, but he had learned to doze in this position during his travels with the herdsmen of the fertile plains of Alta.

He slept, but a part of him remained alert to any change in his surroundings. Several times, shifts in the direction of the wind disturbed his rest, but each time, a moment's attention assured him that there was no threat, and his eyes fell shut once more.

Perhaps an hour before dawn, his eyes opened fully, and his hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. He had been awakened by a scent, subtle, yet somehow repugnant, borne on the pre-dawn breezes. The smell reminded him of flowers and rotting flesh; it evoked memories of the musky scent of dogs and the dust of ancient catacombs.

Without moving, Garan listened for any sound that could warn him of a skulking predator, human or otherwise. At first, he heard nothing but his own breathing and the hiss of wind-blown sand. Then, strangely, he thought that he could hear a voice, singing softly.

He stood, raising his sword so that what little moonlight there was glinted from the blade. "Who goes there?"

There was no reply, but the odd, unidentifiable scent grew stronger, and the sound of singing seemed to grow louder.

Garan turned slowly in place, peering intently into the darkness, and listening as if his life depended on it. It was no use; the scent and the sound seemed to come from every direction and from no direction, and his eyes saw nothing.

"Gods curse you, speak or come no closer," Garan snarled. "This is no place for games."

Still there was no reply. The scent grew stronger still, until the corpse-reek at its heart made him retch and spit to clear the taste from his mouth, and the singing seemed to fill his head.

Growling, Garan shifted to a two-handed grip on his sword and slashed repeatedly at the air, pivoting after each stroke so that he wove a web of razor-edged steel around him. His blade struck nothing, although the stench and the singing pressed in on him like the tentacles of a giant kraken.

A hand or claw clutched at his shoulder, and Garan spun away, his sword sweeping through the space where the owner of the appendage must be. His blade slowed as if cutting through a silken veil, but met nothing that could be flesh and bone. He wondered if he was still asleep, and dreaming. But his shoulder throbbed with cold pain, as if he had been slashed with a dagger of ice. If this was a dream, it was a dream that might kill him as surely as the Shandari guardsmen.

For a moment, panic took him, and he slashed and cut at the terrible nothingness clumsily, off- balance, all training forgotten. After only a few minutes, he was exhausted. He fell to one knee, panting, his heart pounding, waiting to die.

The death-stroke did not come. The stench remained, making it difficult to breathe; the singing rang in his ears and echoed in his bones, until his thoughts seemed as jumbled as stones in a stream bed. Panic faded and was replaced by smoldering anger, at his craven foe, and at himself. He had been trained by the finest soldiers and seamen of three nations, had fought dozens of battles, but here, darkness and an unseen foe had reduced him to the clumsy fool he had been a dozen years before.

"Finish me, then, if that's your purpose," Garan hissed through gritted teeth. "I can stomach no more of this."

The singing stopped, and was replaced by soft, mocking laughter. Then an icy claw grazed his biceps, drawing a thin line of blood and leaving a cold ache in its wake. Garan winced, drawing his arms inward, but made no attempt to retaliate.

Again and again, the claw struck, each time leaving another shallow cut or stab wound, and the laughter went on and on, rising and falling in volume and pitch. Garan barely moved except to curl himself into a tighter crouch that protected his eyes, throat, and belly. Individually, each wound was a trifling thing, but together, they could kill, leaving a half-flayed carcass where a man had been.

Through half-closed eyes, Garan peered into the darkness, hardly even blinking. He no longer recoiled from each teasing attack; his breathing had slowed from its panicked wheezing to a regular, noiseless rhythm; his heart, too, had slowed and steadied.

A dozen cuts. A hundred. More. Corpse-stench and mocking laughter.

But no killing stroke.

The darkness seemed to grow less dense by imperceptible degrees, until Garan saw the countless trails of drying blood on his arms and body as almost-red. And at last, he saw his foe - or rather, foes.

His tormentors were manlike in form, lean and terribly quick, but their limbs were unnaturally long and their flesh, if flesh it was, was an almost translucent gray. Their eyes were huge and dark, reminding him of the pet lemur kept by a merchant he had met once, long ago. And their teeth and claws were very, very sharp.

As Garan watched through slitted eyes, one of the creatures passed through another, as easily as two wisps of fog, and he understood why his sword had been useless before. And yet -- and yet -- as the light grew, the creatures seemed to grow more substantial, as if the dawn broke the dark spell that let them strike like murderous, untouchable spirits. When one of the man-things rebounded from another with an audible thump of colliding flesh, Garan knew that his chance had come at last.

With a roar, Garan leaped to his feet, his blade singing its own song now that his enemies were as solid as he was. This time he directed his strokes at the long, sinewy arms that darted in to strike at him instead of striking vainly at heads and bodies just out of range, and his sword met strange flesh and bone and cut them as easily as they would more familiar prey. Several of the gray men fell, screams pouring from their throats instead of songs or laughter, and the rest tried to flee.

Most scattered and were lost in the deep pools of shadow cast by the first rays of the sun, but one ran towards the dawn and stopped, transfixed by a light far brighter than its eyes, made for darkness, could accept.

Garan limped wearily to within arm's reach of the creature and circled until his body shielded the thing from the rising sun.

"Not so fearsome in the light, are you, night-lover? A child could defeat one of you, if he could see you and was quick enough. But the darkness makes you a ghost, immune to mortal weapons - and it's never just one of you that comes to torment a traveler, is it?"

The creature did not reply. Garan wondered if it could speak at all, or if it was merely an animal in roughly human form.

"Are your folk the source of all the dark tales of the Deadlands? If not, perhaps I've been lucky, for once, to be accosted by the likes of you instead of something worse."

Still the creature made no sound. Garan waved one hand mere inches from the huge, dark eyes, and laughed softly as he realized that the thing was blind. The sunlight that had returned sight to Garan had stolen it forever from one of his foes.

Raising his sword, Garan said, "I grant you a cleaner death than you would have given to me." Then he brought the blade down in a whistling arc that cut the gray man cleanly in two.

Garan crouched to scour the gore from his sword with a handful of clean sand. As the morning grew brighter, he noticed that the gray creatures were not entirely naked; each carried a pouch at its waist, held by a thong of some kind of uncured hide. Feeling that he deserved some reward for his trouble, he rummaged through the pouch of the blinded creature. At first, he thought that it held nothing of interest; but then, one of the pebbles he had cast aside caught the light and blazed like a wizard's torch.

"Rough gemstones, finer than those I left in Shandar, or I'm a greater fool than I thought," Garan grunted in appreciation. He gathered the stones from all the corpses' hordes into a single pouch and tied it to his belt, then set out again, this time with his shadow trailing behind him. As he stepped over the sun-blinded corpse, he cried, "You should have finished me when you had the chance. And you should never have mocked a northman!"

Smiling contentedly, Garan resumed his trek through the desert. He stopped smiling when he realized that he was humming the song of the gray men as he walked.

© 2000 Robert Moriyama

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