The first thing I noticed was the darkness. It was everything in this place; I could hear the sound of birdsong, I could smell the freshly fallen leaves, but my eyes yielded nothing more than inky infinity.
Tearing open my eyelids and blinking against the frost, the problem immediately dissipated. Now everything was pale blue, smeared with the occasional blur of white. It took me a moment to put a name to what I was seeing. Sky.
Well, this was certainly a little more heartening. But I still had no idea where I was. And a tiny, niggling voice in my head was politely explaining that lying about on my back was unlikely to move matters along. At least not in any desirable direction.
Lazily, I drew myself to my feet, attempting balance on unsteady legs. Fifteen seconds later I tried again, this time with marginally more success. Brushing the clinging tendrils of grass from my shirt, I finally took the time to gauge my surroundings.
It appeared I?d failed the garner the attention of the semi-naked sentries, their glassy stares apparently oblivious even to my presence. So much for first impressions. Though that very thought managed to shift a sluice gate somewhere towards the back of my mind, a trickle of memory oozing forth. Could it be that I?d been here before?
Truth be told, I could remember precious little of my life up to (and including) this moment. From the roughness of my garb and the stretch of gnarled wood in my hand, I could only imagine myself to be a warrior of some description. So what was I doing in a camp filled with barely-clad women? How had I arrived, and for what purpose had I been drawn here?
So many questions, and I possessed neither the knowledge nor the wits to even begin to consider what the answers might be. Maybe I was a barbarian. Hopefully I wasn?t.
Once again I scanned the camp?s inhabitants, quickly coming to the conclusion that the woman in the purple cloak would be the most likely source of information. She appeared to be the oldest, so the breadth of her intelligence was pretty much assured. I made my way over to her tent.
Her eyes, though tired, nonetheless bore an inquisitive spark. She regarded me with what I assumed to be a mix of hope and apathy. Then, sensing that I wasn?t about to introduce myself, she spoke.
?I am Akara, High Priestess of the Sisterhood of the Sightless Eye. I welcome you, traveler, to our camp, but I?m afraid I can offer you but poor shelter within these rickety walls.?
I was suddenly overcome by a feeling of gross impatience. A part of me believed that I?d heard all this before; another part was under the impression that the woman didn?t have anything pertinent to say just yet. It almost sounded as if she was running off a pre-rehearsed speech.
So I nodded, rather more vigorously than I intended. ?Perhaps we could cut to the chase???
She seemed to frown a little. Still, it appeared she?d taken the hint. Score one for the master of subtlety. She went on: ?There is a place of great evil in the wilderness. Kashya?s Rogue scouts have informed me that a cave nearby is filled with shadowy creatures and horrors from beyond the grave.?
?And you want me to head down there and put these creatures to the proverbial fire and sword?? I remarked, ever the compulsive sentence-finisher. ?Well, it?s not like I have anything better to do. And you know, I do seem to be coming down with a bout of destiny.? I coughed to erroneously illustrate my point.
Akara just frowned again. ?If you?re feeling adventurous you might even like to try using an actual sword. Oh, and try not to get eaten.?
I wasn?t even listening at this point, having broken into a jog as I made for the camp exit. My feet seemed to glide across the earth as I neared the edge of the unusually straight river. I allowed my gaze to wander lazily across the expanse of the plains beyond, and a wry smile began to crest my lips. This didn?t look like it would be so bad.
Then I noticed something. It was a minor detail, but a detail all the same. I hurriedly jogged back to Akara.
?Where?s the bridge?? The words came out in a pant; clearly my stamina wasn?t quite up to the task of sustained running.
?The bridge that leads out of camp.?
She looked at me quizzically. ?There?s never been a bridge. The exit to the camp is that way.? She pointed in the opposite direction of the river.
?I?see. Thanks.? As I walked away, I added a mental chalk stroke to the box marked ?paranoia?. Clearly I hadn?t been here before. So much for d?j? vu.
As I passed through the gates another thought occurred to me. Why, exactly, had I been so eager in agreeing to go along with this task? I hadn?t even bothered to make any enquiries as to who or what I might be. For the first time I could remember (which, agreed, isn?t saying much), I began to feel like I wasn?t entirely in control of my destiny.
It?s possible that if I?d continued along this path of philosophising I may very well have discovered the question to the ultimate answer. But, instead, I felt a sharp pain in my shin, and immediately proceeded to do what any good warrior would do under such circumstances.
?Ow!? I squatted down, plucking the needle from where it stood protruding out of the skin of my leg. It hadn?t quite managed to draw blood? most unusual. I sought about for the culprit.
I spotted him ? it ? standing beside a small thorn bush. He was maybe a foot tall, staring down the end of his long nose, eyes fixed on the wound he hadn?t left in my leg. In his hands he was holding a blowpipe; and he was, on the whole, looking a bit miffed.
It was the first time I?d seen a rat holding a weapon. I quickly tried to think of something terribly witty to say.
?Ow!? I hadn?t noticed him reloading. ?You little bugger!? Without thinking I strode forward and smacked the poor, dumb creature upside its deformed little head. All it did was blink, stunned by the blow. Then it exploded.
?Ugh.? I wiped some comically-hued viscera from my face, taking in the view of what remained of the sorry rodent. Aside from a fairly unpleasant mess, there was an old, worn-looking polearm lying where the rat had been moments before. No sign of the blowpipe though.
Still, I wasn?t about to look a gift horse in the mouth (that?s a good way of getting your nose bitten off). I stooped down and made to pick the weapon up. I was only half-successful; the damned thing was much heavier than it appeared. I certainly didn?t possess the requisite strength to wield it effectively in a fight. So I slipped it into my pack ? perchance to wield or sell it later – and carried on with my journey. Such as it was.
A few dozen yards and a handful of small, aggrieved animals later and I arrived at a hole in the ground. I knew it was supposed to be menacing because there was a picture of a skull carved into the rock nearby. Also, a couple of torches stood burning; fuelled, I imagine, by the general air of malevolence the place seemed to exfoliate. If this wasn?t the place, then chances were very high that I really was a barbarian. Not the world?s most attractive proposition.
Vaguely, I fumbled about for something profound to say. I ended up with, ?So, this is where evil hides?? Well, I suppose it could?ve been worse. And if anyone ever asks, I can always lie.
I stepped down into the darkness.
To be continued…
Disclaimer: The Lion’s Toes was written by Leon (Robert McGrath-Kerr) and hosted by Diabloii.net. The opinions expressed in these columns are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Diii.net.