Journey to the West

                                                                                 By Bert McKenzie 

                                                                                  Copyright 2010

 

 


Chapter XVIII


Sharon was in major trouble and she knew it, yet she couldn't think of
anything she could do to extricate herself.  She had awakened the next
morning after her fight with Korbod to find her dagger had been taken in
the night.  While she was asleep she had been effectively disarmed.  Akuta
had given her the weapon to protect herself, and now she was once again
helpless.  She had taken a class in self defense a couple of years ago, but
she hadn't practiced any of the techniques in all that time.  And even so,
the class presupposed that her attacker would be a human mugger or rapist,
probably male and possibly stronger and bigger than she was.  How would
such techniques work on non-humans who were considerably shorter and
stockier, but still probably stronger and more agile than she.  Sharon had
been trained as a doctor; these creatures had lived their lives in the wild
and depended on their physical abilities on a daily basis.  One other
thought also occurred to her.  She was in the middle of a hostile camp and
very heavily outnumbered.

Two days went by and Sharon was left completely isolated in her cave.
Twice a day a little woman would enter to leave her food and water, but
that was it.  She had no contact with anyone else, and if the serving woman
spoke the fairy language she didn't acknowledge it, totally ignoring Sharon
on her brief visits.  Twice the doctor tried to leave, once during the day
and then once at night.  On both occasions she was turned back by an armed
guard with a wicked looking, barbed sword standing in the outer entrance to
the cave.

On the morning of the third day after her fight with Korbod, Sharon was
awakened by several men grabbing her.  The dwarves were still wary of the
human, not knowing what unusual powers she might possess, so they crept
upon her as she slept.  Sharon was always a light sleeper and was instantly
awake, fighting with all her might, but they still overpowered her.  In a
short time the girl found her hands securely tied behind her back as well
as several loops of rope circling her body and tightly keeping her arms at
her sides.  A long tether was attached to a noose around her neck.  Once
the dwarves were certain that she was securely bound, they jerked the rope
around her neck, forcing her to rise and follow them or be choked to death
as they dragged her behind.

Outside the caves everyone seemed to be in a state of excitement.  Several
large litters were placed in the center of the little box canyon and women
as well as a number of the younger men were in the process of loading them
with covered baskets.  Korbod stood nearby supervising the work.  As the
men who had subdued her led Sharon up, Korbod turned to look at her.  Her
anger would not allow her to drop her gaze.  Instead Sharon stared directly
at the little man, hatred smoldering in her eyes.  He watched her for a
moment and then broke into a hearty laugh.  "Ye hatred is obvious and yet
ye still look at me in desire," he said to the girl.  "Look all ye may.
Soon ye shall look upon another for I be planning to sell ye this day."

In a short time the litters were fully loaded and then the little men
positioned themselves to lift the poles that supported each heavily laden
platform.  With Korbod in the lead, the procession began to wind its way
out of the box canyon and on through the rocky terrain of the mountainous
foothills.  Sharon was escorted along at the tail end of the caravan by two
burly looking dwarves carrying short swords.  Despite their short legs the
girl found she had to exert herself to keep up with the men holding her
leash.  She had no desire to be choked and dragged.

Just as she realized her stamina was about to give out and Sharon knew she
was literally at the end of her rope, the little parade crested a hill and
she saw what looked like a fair spread out in the valley below them.  The
valley itself was a small, sheltered depression in the topography nestled
between two spurs of the adjacent mountain range.  On the green floor of
the valley had been erected a number of brightly colored tents and booths
from which scarlet and sky blue pennants fluttered in the breeze.  As the
little parade headed down the steep hillside path toward the assembled
constructions, Sharon had an opportunity to closely study the inhabitants
milling about.  Most of the tents and booths seemed to be occupied by
dwarves, yet there were also an equal number of taller fairies dressed in
merchant scarlet wandering about with the little people.  To the far side
of the encampment, a large number of horses and wagons awaited.  As
Sharon's group drew nearer, she could tell that the dwarves seemed to be
bartering and selling all manner of hand crafted items from the tents and
booths.  This was evidently their chance for commercial exchange with the
fairies of the merchant guild.

Korbod's group took possession of a vacant area toward the end of the long
midway.  His small tribe seemed much more rustic and less polished than
their neighboring dwarves, depositing their goods on the ground and
haranguing passersby without benefit of the colored tents and booths in
which to display their wares.  Sharon also noticed with some satisfaction
that fewer of the merchants came to examine Korbod's items than were
stopping at neighboring shops.  She didn't have long to examine the fair
before Korbod himself and her two bodyguards dragged the girl out and along
the backside of the tents until they came to a large cloth structure.
Korbod spoke to a short older man who sat on a three legged stool by an
opening at the back of the tent.  The man looked skeptically at Sharon
where she stood flanked by her guards, and then he and Korbod seemed to get
into an argument.  After a few more exchanges of their strange, guttural
language, the two old men came to some sort of accord and Korbod entered
the large tent followed by Sharon and her guards.

Inside the structure was divided down the middle with fabric walls.  The
side which they had entered appeared to be a large warehouse stacked with
all manner of unusual items from suits of golden chain mail and bejeweled
weapons to casks and barrels containing mysterious items and marked with
odd runes.  The four newcomers were directed to an empty corner and there
Sharon and her guards waited as Korbod wandered off.  Meanwhile a number of
dwarves scurried to and fro, taking items away to disappear behind the
curtained wall.  As quickly as the warehouse was depleted other little men
brought in replacement items through the opening from outside.  Sharon
could hear the sounds of many voices talking on the other side of the
fabric wall and assumed this was some form of auction barn where special
items were sold.  Taking into account Korbod's threat, she was certain she
would eventually become one of the commodities for sale.

The concept of slavery was foreign to her.  Sharon tried to think of what
it meant to be sold like so much cattle, but her mind couldn't fully
comprehend it.  To her, it would only mean she was still a prisoner, her
captors changing from one group of people to another.  Sharon found it hard
to believe that the enlightened creatures the elves all seemed to be would
actually allow a slave auction, much less participate in the bidding
process.  But then she was a long way from Esbereth, the city of the noble
high born.

Eventually, the items in the warehouse around her began to dwindle and not
be replaced.  In a like manner the voices on the other side of the curtain
began to fade.  After what seemed like hours of waiting, Korbod reappeared
and spoke to the guards.  They then escorted Sharon to a small opening in
the wall where she had seen various dwarves taking the items from the
warehouse stores.  Sharon felt her heart race as she was shoved forward.
"If ye be any trouble," Korbod growled at her, "or speak any words my
people shall slay ye and be quit of the bother."

The curtain parted and Sharon was pushed out into an empty area.  The
larger part of the tent was obviously given over to this side where goods
were auctioned off.  The floor was made of hard packed earth and a small
area had been cordoned off by thin ropes.  This was evidently the area
where the merchandise was displayed.  On the other side of the ropes was a
large semi-circular area where prospective buyers could stand and view the
items.  At the present moment, there were only a very few people occupying
the bidders side of the tent, a couple of merchant elves in red tunics, two
or three other fairies dressed in traveling attire and several dwarves,
their clothes ranging from shabby to affluent in style.

"Ye all be here by special invitation," a little man said in halting
Tuathan.  He was the size of a dwarf, but was dressed in the red tunics of
the merchant elves.  "Ye know this next item to be available to ye only on
a vow of silence."  So that was it, Sharon realized by his words that the
sale of slaves was not something that was generally accepted, but would be
performed in a clandestine manner much like illegal drug deals in her home
world.  "This be no ordinary female.  This be a human from the other world.
Some say they possess strange powers like those of the dark world.  She may
be a great treasure to he who masters her.  She may grant wishes and bring
him fame and fortune."

"What care we for fame and fortune?" one of the merchants asked.  "And what
good will she be if we must keep her hidden.  It would surely mean grave
trouble if word of this reaches the high king or his court.  It is said he
has a softness for humans."  The man colored the last word with the sound
of distaste.  Several of the others standing around nodded in agreement.

"She be strong and young," the seller continued.  "It be said that human
females know tricks of their bodies to satisfy the desires of any male.
She may bring much pleasure as well as producing offspring."  Sharon wanted
to protest as this sexual turn of the sales pitch, but as she drew in a
breath she felt a sharp knife pressed against the center of her back.

"You would sell an intelligent being into captivity?" a short, plump
merchant asked.  "This is not the way of our world."

 "This be not an intelligent being," the seller admonished the crowd.
"Humans be animals that can but mimic our intelligence.  They have no true
spirits as have dwarves and tall ones.  This item be no more to us than a
horse to a unicorn."  But even with his persuasive techniques, the people
were losing interest and slowly beginning to leave the tent.

Almost everyone was gone and Korbod was having what looked like a heated
argument with the little man who conducted the selling when a voice spoke
out form the back of the tent.  "Can the human be taught to care for a
child?"  Korbod and the seller both looked up in surprise.  Sharon looked
up too, to see a thin figure, slightly shorter than most of the high born.
He was dressed in a hooded traveling cloak, the hood pulled forward and a
dark veil covering the shadowed face beneath.  Both dwarves recognized the
figure to belong to the Order of Senchal, a spiritual sect whose brothers
traveled the countryside in the anonymity of the garb.  "I have been
entrusted with the well being of an orphaned child," the brother said as he
leaned heavily on the long staff he gripped in his hands.  "Can the human
be trained to help care for it?"

The two little men saw the tent rapidly emptying and realized this might be
their only chance to unload the human.  "The human be fit and strong.  All
humans can learn to copy any behavior.  Be assured this one shall make an
excellent nurse for your child."

"Then I shall take her," the veiled man said.

"The price..." the seller began.

"I have little to offer," the man quickly replied.  "You may take the gold
of this purse."  He tossed a small drawstring bag to Korbod.  "Besides that
you may put the blessings of my order and the knowledge of your assistance
to an orphan."

The seller snatched at the purse and began examining its contents.  "Your
blessings provide not my tribe with needed supplies," the older dwarf
growled as he struggled with the seller to win back the purse.

The brother shrugged his shoulders indifferently and reached for the
drawstring bag.  "Then return the gold and retain the human.  Find another
buyer for her."  The tent was already completely empty save for him, the
dwarves and Sharon.

The seller jerked back, clutching the little bag of gold.  "Take her," he
said, indicating the girl.  The two dwarves immediately began to argue in
their native tongue, but the hooded man ignored them.  He stepped over the
little rope, taking hold of the noose still fastened around Sharon's neck
from one of her guards, and gave it a gentle tug, urging her to follow him.
Sharon and the cloaked man left the tent by the main entrance, leaving the
quarreling dwarves behind.

Once outside the brother led her across the crowded fairgrounds toward the
horses and wagons.  "My lord, I thank you for taking me from those evil
men," Sharon began.  "I would like to..."

"Silence," the man commanded as he glanced back at her.  "Speak not to me
until I request it."  He continued on.  In a moment they reached the horses
and the man spoke to a young dwarf who apparently had the responsibility of
watching the animals.  He quickly disappeared into the tethered horses and
soon returned leading two large ones, a chestnut stallion and a white mare.
The mare was obviously being used as a pack animal with several bundles
securely strapped to its back.  "Watch this for me," he told the dwarf,
handing him the end of the rope that attached to Sharon's noose.  "I shall
fetch my child and return."  He then walked off into the crowds.

"Please," Sharon pleaded with the little man who held her rope.  "Set me
free.  I am a personal friend of the high king.  I'll see that you're
generously rewarded."  The little dwarf looked up at her and began to
laugh, first just a soft chuckle but the more she begged the louder he
guffawed.  Finally unable to stand the humiliation, she swung her leg and
kicked the small man in the crotch.  He gave a strangled gasp before
collapsing to the ground in pain.  Sharon seized the opportunity that
presented itself and began to run.  Her arms were still tightly secured to
her sides so her movements were awkward, but she dodged into the rows of
horses and tried to duck behind the animals in the hopes that they might
hide her escape.  She quickly worked her way to the far side of the
makeshift corral and was just about to make her break.  She turned and
began to flee when suddenly the noose tightened around her neck, choking
her as it pulled her flat to the ground.  She gasped for breath and looked
up to see the hooded man standing nearby, the end of his staff firmly
planted on the trailing rope.  Her recapture was incredibly simple.  All he
had to do was place his staff on the leash as it trailed along behind her

The man bent down and helped her to her feet.  She thought she could detect
the hint of a smile on his lips through the dark veil that covered his
face.  "Try not that again," he said calmly as he picked up the trailing
rope and headed back toward where she had left the little dwarf.  Sharon
docilely followed, her throat aching as her breath came in wheezing gasps.

In moments the two returned to where the horses were waiting.  The dwarf
she had kicked stood to one side glaring at her.  She noticed with some
satisfaction that he was still not standing up straight but appeared to be
hunched over, protecting his genitals.  A dwarf woman stood nearby holding
a large basket.  The brother reached down and took a knife that hung from
the injured dwarf's belt.  Straightening up, he stepped to Sharon's side.
She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth, preparing for the pain and
knowing this was his punishment of her for her attempted escape.  But to
her surprise, the man slipped the blade beneath the binding ropes on her
arms and sliced the bonds.  He then cut the cords tying her wrist together.
As Sharon stood, shaking her arms to return the circulation, the man
brought the pack horse up and gripping her around the waist, he helped her
mount the animal, sitting in front of the bundles.  Before she could react,
he reached up handing her the basket that the dwarf woman had been holding.
Then securely taking the lead rope from the horse, he mounted the stallion
and began riding off at a slow pace, leading her horse along after him.

Sharon lifted the soft white cloth covering the basket and beheld a tiny
baby within.  It was sleeping with a little thumb lodged firmly in its
rosebud shaped mouth.  Sharon's heart went out to the tiny waif; it looked
so innocent and helpless.  "My lord," she called softly as she covered the
infant again with the cloth.  "I thank you for rescuing me from the
dwarves, but I know little about caring for babies.  If you help me to
reach the palace of Esbereth I shall see that you are generously rewarded
and that a proper nurse is found for the child."

The man turned back to look at her for a moment, as if deciding whether or
not to accept her offer.  He then glanced around to the foothills of the
mountains through which they now traveled.  He then turned back to the road
ahead.

"Look, I'm a good friend of the high king," Sharon said.  "In fact, I'm
King Robin's personal physician.  He'll be very upset if I'm not returned
to the castle."  Just then the baby woke and began to cry a soft plaintive
sound from the covered basket.  Sharon realized it was probably her own
voice that had awakened it.

"Tend to the child," the hooded man called back gruffly.  "That is the
reason for which you were purchased."  He continued to ride on stoically.

* * *

After a long and arduous journey through the black depths of Turin Kareem,
the two wanderers finally found their way to the eastern entrance.  Several
times in the blackness Akuta was certain they had lost their way or had
turned down a wrong path.  The journey back through the tunnels seemed to
take much longer than the previous trip he had taken to find the land of
the dead.  Many times Akuta had been willing to give up but always the
thought of what he carried in the little bundle resting against his chest
spurred him on, that and his undead companion.

Once the darkness had become all enveloping Akuta started to forget his
companion, but he was soon reminded of him.  As he continued stumbling on
in the dark he noticed a faint, unpleasant odor.  Once when he stopped to
rest it grew rapidly stronger.  Akuta was soon able to identify it, the
sickening sweet stench of rotting flesh, it was the smell of death and
decay; it was the smell of the charnel house.  With a sudden, terrifying
shock Akuta realized that the smell came from his companion.  He had not
noticed it before entering the caves, but perhaps that was because the air
was now much closer and confined.  Or perhaps he only noticed the stench
because his other senses were compensating for his current lack of vision.
Whatever the case, the smell caused his stomach to turn and the fairy
dropped to his knees in the dark to wretch.  As he knelt he felt the touch
of a hand on his back and knew it was the corpse.  Akuta quickly forced
himself to his feet and plunged ahead, trying to escape the creature that
followed close on his heels.

After a long time the air grew hot and dry, then a dim light appeared in
the distance.  Soon Akuta was stepping out into the wide cavern with the
molten river of lava running through.  The liquefied rock river seemed to
have risen since he was last in this area.  It now was perilously close to
the ledge which the two had to traverse to get to the cave opening that led
to the surface.  Akuta could feel his legs blistering in the heat as he
struggled up the ledge.  Suddenly the rock crumbled beneath him as part of
the wall gave way and Akuta fell.  He knew this was his death as he felt
himself drop.  When nothing happened, he opened his eyes to realize he was
dangling over the lava, suspended in mid air.  Akuta looked up to see his
companion clutching him by the back of the tunic.  He quickly scrambled and
climbed, regaining what remained of the ledge and rapidly made his way up
the narrow path to the cave opening.  Once there Akuta turned back to look
at the corpse struggling up after him.  Despite the fact that it had saved
his life, he still shuddered.  In the red glow he could see the thin arms
and legs as it climbed.  They were different than they had been before.
The rotting flesh and pieces of muscle were now plainly visible clinging to
the bones.  Akuta quickly headed down the cooler tunner that he knew led to
the surface.

They soon found themselves standing below the opening in the overhead rock
where Akuta had stood with Pardoo what seemed like years before.  The
opening was about ten feet off the ground, with no way to climb to it since
it was a hole in what looked like the center of the ceiling.  The floor
beneath them was sandy and provided nothing firm enough to allow Akuta a
surface from which to jump.  The corpse reached out, locking its rotting
fingers together to form a cradle and indicated it would boost Akuta.  He
tried to think of some other way, but there was none.  Akuta approached and
gingerly put his foot in the undead hands.  Steadying himself, he stepped
down and climbed onto the skeleton's shoulders.  He had to bite his tongue
to concentrate as he felt the shoulders squish beneath his feet as if he
had stepped on a pile of moist leaves.  He slowly stood and reached up,
just able to grasp the edge of the hole.  With a mighty tug, he managed to
pull himself up, and struggled until he was lying on the stone surface
outside.

Akuta caught his breath and then looked back down into the hole.  The
grinning death's head looked back up at him, the outside light clearly
reflecting off the moist jelly that looked out of the eye sockets.  Akuta
leaned back and thought about running away as fast as he could.  The corpse
would be trapped in Turin Kareem and he would be rid of it.  But he had
promised Gilgamesh to take the creature back to the land of humans.  A
promise was a promise and Akuta was a man of honor.  He looked about for
something to use, but in the end removed the heavy cord that belted his
tunic.  Using it as a rope, he leaned over the edge and lowered it to the
corpse.  Soon they both were sitting outside.  Akuta rebelted his tunic and
then left to find Sharon in the dwarf camp.  He looked forward to seeing
her again, and to a chance for rest and a real meal.

 

 

 

 

 

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