The sun was setting in a high lonely valley in the mountains to the South and East of the Great Inner Sea. Few living things ever came to this place, most of those that did come left soon, some stayed, but nothing lived within the valley's rock rimmed boundaries. The valley had a Presence about it that turned away all but the desperate, the hunted.
The low sand bank had been suffering from erosion and the impact of the horse's hoof was all that was required to start a miniature avalanche. The sand caved away, revealing the face of a human scull, starring out across the valley. One eye socket held a spear point, protruding inward.
The rider was a hunter and vengeance had brought him here. The valley's evil aura had not dissuaded him from entry, just as it had not dissuaded the five riders that had entered the day before. They had feared the man behind them more than they had feared the Presence. This aroused the interest of the Black Heart of the valley. It probed into the man's motives for vengeance and approved of them.
The man whose job it was to watch for the hunter was instead watching a pair of ants, one black, one red, as they fought to the death over some issue known only to them and perhaps to the Presence. Perhaps it was the Presence that drove them to fight knowing the guard would watch and not notice the hunter's approach.
The red ant severed the head of the black ant and marched away. Bored, the guard looked up and into the eyes of the hunter. Their eyes held for a moment and then with speed born of panic the guard grabbed for his crossbow, not noticing the bow lying across the rider's saddle bows.
The guard fired hastily and missed. Whining the fear and frustration, he reloaded. The rider sat unmoving.
"Got you!" he yelled and pulled the trigger. The bolt lodged in the dirt beneath the horse. He cursed, how could he have missed? He felt strangely weak, then the pain hit, a sharp tearing pain in his chest. He looked down to find a growing circle of red around the black and silver fletched haft protruding from his chest, then slowly crumpled to the ground.
Kane cursed silently as he watched the rider weave among the skeletons of long dead trees in the lower valley. Kane's was the face of a hunted, haunted man. His hands shook with hopeless fear and frustration. The Presence fed upon his fear, reveled in it, rolled in it like a dog in a rotting carcass.
Kane's nightmare had begun when he had agreed to kidnap the daughter of a baron named Angus McDougal and bring her to hidden cove on the coast of the Mordan desert. He had recieved men, a ship, and a map of McDougal's castle. The kidnapping had gone off without a hitch, but Kane hadn't counted on the sudden storm that drove his ship into a reef and left him and fifteen others shivering on the Armorican coast, nor had he counted on Angus following him to avenge his daughter's death.
They hadn't noticed McDougal following them until two days after the wreck as they rode south on stolen horses. Kane tried every trick he knew to shake him off, but nothing worked. Twice he had set ambushes for him and twice McDougal had killed the men sent to kill him. Kane had given up trying to kill him and concentrated on running.
For three weeks McDougal pursued them across plains, through forests, and over mountains Kane hadn't known even existed. McDougal had given them no time to rest and once had even gotten ahead of them and laid his own ambush that had killed three of Kane's men before they could react. Once men had tried to desert only to be found hanging from trees along the trail the next day.
Now there were only three left, not counting Kane. Kane was sure the guard had been killed. They sat huddled around the fire like beaten dogs. They stared into the fire with haunted eyes. Their clothing hung in tatters; their bodies wasted away by running with no time to rest.
"He's coming," Kane said, picking up his saddle and moving to the horses, "let's go," he said.
Kane fought the sudden urge to fall on his sword, and the Presence soon relented not wanting the game to end quite yet. Kane glanced at his remaining men. They sat, unmoving; waiting for the death they were sure was coming. Kane shrugged and swung the saddle on the best horse.
As Kane rode away, one of the men began playing with his dagger, admiring how it reflected the fire light. The Presence whispered to his mind; the man listened and presently buried the dagger to the hilt in his stomach. He didn't fall over, but remained in a sitting position, head sagging as if he were asleep. The other two men were too busy fighting their own internal battles to notice.
Angus avoided the three men sitting around the fire, ignoring the Voice that told him to take his vengeance on them, Kane was the one he wanted most. Angus caught up with him two hours later in a small boulder strewn meadow. Kane was on foot because his horse had mysteriously fallen on a dead tree a few miles back, and had impaled itself like a bug on a pin.
The Presence had been whispering to Kane's mind, building him up, so when Kane saw he was caught with no where else to run he attacked with the crazed fury of the insane. His fury was such that he knocked Angus from his horse, totally unaware of the crossbow bolt protruding from his chest.
Angus scrambled to his feet, shaking his head to banish the ghostly laughter echoing through his mind, and punched Kane in the face with all his strength. Kane only laughed at him and threw him against a boulder. Before Angus could recover his feet Kane was on him, biting and scratching. The sword strapped to his back was forgotten.
Angus, his own emotions going wild, kicked Kane off and scrambled to his feet, drew his dagger and hurled it with all his strength into Kane's charging body. Kane went to his knees but slowly climbed back to his feet and moved to attack again. Incredulous, Angus dodged out of the way. His sword was on his horse, to far away, so he caught up his empty crossbow and bashed Kane over the head with it repeatedly until he collapsed in a bloody heap. Gasping for breath Angus threw the broken crossbow away.
Later, the Presence in the Valley felt the rider crossing out of its enchanted domain. It let him go, its appetite momentarily sated.
Artwork (tharon.gif) Copyright by Jonas Nelson and used with permission.