Curse of the Jenri
Stephanie and Lee Barr
Song of the Jenri
I sing the magic incarnate.
I call the earth to my will.
I harness senses insensate,
Powers that murder or heal.
I dance the swordwielder's ballet,
A courtship of crystal and steel.
I strum the song of the archer,
A demon in gemstones and teal.
I am the mist of the shadows,
Invisibly, silently screened.
Mine is the bite of the viper
Unnoticed, unheard and unseen.
I am the sword, the Avenger,
Known by my title: Jenri.
Mine is the role of Protector,
Defending the right to be free.
One should never make an enemy for gold. Gold will eventually disappear, but an enemy can be forever.
Chapter 1 - Introductions
"Watcha lookiní at, Melded?"
Melded spun around, the spear heíd been leaning on instantly at his assailantís throat. Years of experience held back Meldedís hand before he actually killed Timon. "What in the name of Bastorís black heart are you doiní sneakiní up on me? Yíwanna get yourself killed? And itís Captain Melded to you."
"Ah, Melded, donít be sore. Youíve been standiní out here for more than an hour. Me and the boys just wanna know what youíre lookiní for."
Melded paused, considering several rude and vicious responses including a well-deserved buffet on the head. Instead, he shrugged. Timon was his recently killed brotherís only boy and, if he hadnít the smarts of your local fern, he was skilled with a dagger. Melded turned his eyes back outward, through the iron gate. He searched the outlying wooded areas again, his ears straining for the sound of an errant footfall, his nose breathing in as much as he could to detect an odd scent. All he smelled, of course, was his unwashed nephewís stench. He sighed. "Iím lookiní for her."
Timon peered between the bars to look at the green blur of forest beyond, empty of everything but trees. Given Timonís eyesight, he might not see the bars. "Who?"
Melded clouted him on the back of the head with his fist. "Timon, whyíre we here?"
"Raylee paid us."
Melded shook his head. "No, stupid. Do you remember us snatchiní that big hulkiní son of a bitch and bringiní him here?"
"That bastard! I wish Rayleeíd let me kill him."
"Well, yes, you saw how easily he killed four of us," Melded reproved. And that was after Merlo had all but knocked him out with a spell that killed Krikee just standing next to him. And the man was drunk off his gourd at the time!
"It was damn dumb luck, thatís all. He killed my pa with a dirty blow. He cheated."
Melded stared at Timon, dumbfounded. True, Melded was a mercenary, but he could not see how their victim could have "cheated" by defending himself when heíd been blindsided by magic and set upon by more than twenty rogues. It was too much like thievery or something equally dishonest for Meldedís tastes, but you canít eat if you donít get paid. And Raylee paid pretty well. "My point is that bastard can fight like ten regular men, if not more."
"So, he ainít alone. Heís marriedómarried to a Jenri. Raylee donít think sheíll come to get him, but me, I know she will."
"So what? You ainít afeard of no female, are ya?"
"Like Nether, Iím not! If you had any brains in your head at all, youíd be scared shitless yourself. Didnít you hear me, idget? Sheís a Jenri. You saw how he can fight and you can bet his wife fights just as well, if not better."
"In a pigís eye."
Melded shook his head and resisted the urge to clout him again. No sense in shaking up his miniature brain any more than strictly necessary. "Timon, donít you know nothiní about the Jenri?"
"Them old wiveís tales . . ."
"Do I look like an old wife to you? Let me tell you, they fight worse than demons and they sling spells like sorcerers. They can come up behind you, soft as smoke, and loose five arrows before the first strikes, and not miss with a one."
"You may not look like an old wife, Melded, but you sure sound like one," chortled Timon, only to have his laughter cut off with Meldedís blow. Perhaps, sloshing the puny brain might be of some use.
"You really donít know nothiní, do you?" Melded asked, shaking his head. "When I was young and stupid, though probably not as stupid as you, I saw four Jenri come to the fair. At first, I didnít see nothing but their lean bodies and short tunics, just like all the other young fools. But, they didnít have to fight no crowds to approach no vendor and the most hardened huckster slashed his prices without haggling.
"I thought I knew everything, that all those stories were hogwash. Some said they would know a lie when they heard it. Some said theyíd kill a man for pleasure. Some said their souls were sold to the dark forces and thatís why they were cursed with no sons for a hundred generations. Some said their souls were sold for coin alone, assassins for whoever parted with silver. I scoffed at most of them. Then I saw them fight in exhibition for gold, Jenri against Jenri, their blades flashing like fireflies too fast to see, women in blue-green leather, their jewelry glowing as they danced with steel in the sun . . ."
Melded halted his reverie and noticed he had finally gotten Timonís attention. "I didnít know whatís true, what ainít. Still donít. But I knew I didnít want a Jenri for an enemy."
Timon furrowed his low brow in monumental concentration. "And now you have one?"
"You think I donít know that, you dip? Why in Nether do you think Iím out here, peeriní out into nothiní, hopiní to get some inkliní of whether or not that Nethercat is cominí to cut my balls off?"
Timon seemed taken aback by that. "They cut your balls off?"
"Oh, for Bastorís sake, will you get back inside? Youíre making my head swim with your foolishness and I have to have a clear head."
"Alright, Melded, alright," Timon demurred, backing off. "But, mark my words, there ainít a bitch born yet that Iím afeard of."
As Timonís footsteps faded away on the uneven cobbles, Melded sighed and shook his head. "Idget. Weíre screwed if she comes alone. Bastor himself couldnít save us if she brings other Jenri to help her."
Once more, Melded scanned the landscape, hoping for a sign that she was there, that she watched. But there was nothing, so he turned and stomped back to the barracks. Sheótheyó would come.
Beyond the gate, dappled with sifted sunlight, there was only the unbroken sea of green, just ferns, trees . . . and Layla.
Silent sueded boots, of signature Jenri blue-green, shifted in the underbrush without disturbing the delicate froth of ferns. Layla crouched, an integral part of the landscape, indivisible and unseen, though in full view. Her senses fully alert, she waited motionless, her whole attention on the tall iron gate thirty or so meters before her, her eyes following the old soldier as he turned from it.
Brushing back the strange Jenri streak of red hair from her eyes, she knelt soundlessly to wait for dark, the hem of her soft leather tunic just touching the ground. The tunic was deep
amethyst, but it was crossed and belted with the same Jenri color as her boots. Silver glistened in the rune-worked shaft of her sword, the grips of her throwing knives and dagger. Even the
length of her bow writhed with silver symbols. Her silver headband was studded with aquamarines and disappeared into her thick brown hair. More aquamarines hung at her throat, now as always, the sign of her Clan. Silver and aqua proclaimed what she was; she wore amethyst for what she loved: purple was her husband's color.
It was for him that she came.
As the shadows lengthened, she became a shadow herself, another purple shape in the underbrush. In the lee of a tower, she scaled the crumbling wall of the castle unnoticed, unheard. She came up just below where guards kept watch in the turret, sliding beneath them on the battlements, in the shadows, and slipping soundlessly into the keep itself.
As she descended toward the dungeons, she heard the snores of the guard before she was close enough to silence him with a quick twist of his neck. The body slid noiselessly to the ground, neck broken. There was no blood on the floor around it, no blood on her.
She trusted her nose to bring her to wherever they had taken Tander. There would be a smell of old smoke and past burnt flesh, urine and feces from those forced to remain trapped or tortured into a loss of control. She knew that the smell would most likely be part of the dungeon proper, not that of her husband specificallyóat least she hoped it would notóbut that would be where she would find Tander.
Her nose led her true. She found Tander at the end of the torture hall, bathed in the red glow of a smoke-blackened fireplace. There was no need for a cell. Thick chains were attached to manacles on his wrists, his ankles and the crude collar around his neck. They had taken no chances with a man who left five bodies in his wake. And, it was well known that only a man who could best a Jenri in some test could be her mate. That made him doubly dangerous.
"Tander . . ." Her whispered word was barely louder than a breath, lost in the soft clinking of his chains, the tired creaking of the staples straining against his gentle movements. There was no indication heíd heard her. He did not lift his head.
She moved forward, distressed to see her proud, invincible mate listless, defeated. His long black locks hung, unwashed and greasy, over his face. They had stripped him of all but his loincloth, and she could see the lash marks on his back and shoulders. Blood seeped in thin rivulets to show where he had struggled against his chains. But, he was not struggling now.
"Tander . . . ," she whispered again, reaching a hand to lift his face to her hungry eyes, but was forestalled with the sound of a rattling snore. She could not help but smile. Only Tander could sleep in a position like that. She reached out and touched his cheek. "My proud warrior, what have they done to you?"
"Laylaó?" The word was a question from his cracked lips, but, when he opened his eyes, they widened in surprise. The shocking blue eyes glared at her for only a moment before he grinned, "What took you so long? Where are Riko and Kena?"
"Probably where I left them, in Arkona."
"You came here alone? Layla, are you daft? These people are dangerous."
Layla stiffened. "Aye, and your point would be what? I am dangerous myself."
He turned the full force of his startling blue eyes on Layla and even she flinched at their intensity. "ĎTisnít funny, Layla! These men have no honor. They are scum and they were able to take me. They have resources, magic and weapon. Leave and return with help."
"And leave you in this discomfort while I scamper back two days there and two days return? Aside from the exhaustion we will all feel? I think not."
"Layla, you canít take on a castle of mercenaries and magic-wielders alone!"
Layla smiled. "Canít I?"
Tander pressed his lips together, but was forced to smile at her determination. "Bastor damn me to Nether, Layla, but youíre stubborn."
"Aye, I know that as well. It is not as though I make a secret of it." A smile touched her chiseled features, a smile only he could bring. "Tander, donít fret. I am well able to handle all that I might come across here, never fear. You were drunk and set upon when you werenít lookingóI assume anyway. I knew exactly what I was getting into."
"Did you? They wanted me, but I fear for what men like this will do to you if you are captured. Do you think I want to be your downfall? That I want you hurt in your attempts to rescue me? Go back and get help, Layla. Iíll figure a way out of here." He pulled on the chains to demonstrate his intentions, but winced as they rubbed raw flesh.
"More foolish talk like that and I will clout you on the head. Content yourself that I stay. There is nothing in this castle I fear."
Tander, ignoring pain, flung himself forward fruitlessly, cutting further into his flesh with the iron bite of his manacles, then hung against them, limp with defeated. "And if youíre wrong, I will have your fate on my conscience. Some protector I turned out to be."
She stood on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his while his hands strained against the chains to reach her. She didnít know whether it was to hold her or push her away, but he did not tear his own hungry mouth from hers.
"Your days in chains have affected your mind. Since when have I needed a protector? You underestimate me..." She ran a finger along a lash mark and her voice hardened, "and my anger." She could see the relief in his eyes at her touch, the turquoise glow of her necklace reflected on his sweaty skin as the pain abated.
A voice behind her startled her. "In my entire acquaintance with Tander, I have only found reason to envy him."
She spun around, crouching, a throwing dagger instantly in her hand, hearing the clank of chains behind her as Tander strained again against his bonds. She flung the dagger unerringly into a guardís throat, but was forestalled from throwing another by a strange lethargy that immobilized her muscles and spawned a strange pain in her midsection. She fell to her knees and fell sideways to lean against a stone block. She saw the red glow on her skin and found the strength to spit with a mouth still under her control. Magic!
Facing her was a man, obviously lord of this ill-kept keep, flanked with a slight balding man, a sorcerer, on one side, and a thick-lipped guard on the other. The leader was only a few inches shorter than Tander, but just as broad. His chest was bare, but he wore a wool cloak clasped with a copper broach emblazoned with the figure of a jackal. At his side dangled the well-worn hilt of a sword. The copper band in his red-gold hair proclaimed his gentle birth, belied by the ugly curl of his lip.
The sorcerer, dressed in shabby green silk, look dismayed at Laylaís grimace of pain. He tried to get the attention of the leader. "Lord Raylee, there is something wrong. She should not be in such pain!" Layla spat again. Amateur. The tattoo on the bridge of his nose proclaimed his sorcerer status: fifth level. Odds were his teacher was disreputable else this bungler would never have attained that rank.
Raylee ignored his hired magician.
Layla mouthed, her jewelry glowing with preternatural light, and managed to gain enough control of one her hands to reach into her belt and pull a second throwing knife. Pain notwithstanding, she flung it perfectly into the remaining guardís throat, to the shock of the sorcerer. The sorcerer swallowed convulsively and mumbled again, increasing the stasis spell and, to a greater degree, the pain in her midsection. Layla managed to smile wickedly at his fear. "Youíre next, spell-slinger."
Raylee laughed at this. "Fine talk, Jenri witch. Someone told me youíd be foolish enough to come. I would have expected a Jenri to be smarter than that. But, as you can see, I was prepared with Merlo, here."
"Incompetent dabbler," Layla managed through gritted teeth.
Raylee laughed again. "How brave your words, yet you are trapped within his spell. Although I have to admit, I expected him to be more useful in the capture of the King of Amerland. Iím not complaining. We have sent messengers off to get a ransom for Amerlandís absent king. I suppose we could expect some recompense for his lovely bride, as well." Raylee walked forward and crouched, grabbing Laylaís chin in his hand and looking her over carefully. "You will be more entertainment than Tander here in the meantime. And, if they donít come through, slavers might find you worth a coin or two."
With Tander straining at his chains again, Raylee stroked his hand along her cheek to her lips, smiling, a smile that dissolved into the rictus of extreme pain when she clamped her teeth on his finger, biting down so hard he heard the bone snap. His high-pitched scream echoed deafeningly through the dank dungeon as he yanked and pulled on his hand, only releasing it at the expense of his fingerís top knuckle, which Layla smugly spat out.
"They might not find me that valuable after all."
Raylee pulled his sheathed sword from his belt and swung it furiously, smashing it into the side of Laylaís face and knocking her head painfully into the stone block. Tander threw himself violently against his chains, managing to yank the staple holding one chain to the wall part way out with his exertions. "Why donít you come pick on me, you bastard! Her locked in a spell, you have the balls to strike a woman! Iíll show you how a man fights! Layla, are you alright?"
Layla, her eyes focused perfectly on Rayleeís, said softly. "This walking corpse cannot hurt me, Tander. Trust that his life is all but over."
"Always with the brave talk," Raylee hissed, tearing a sleeve from the sorcererís robe to bind his wounded hand. "You wonít be so smug when Iím through with you, little witch. But, Iíll wait a bit for that. Right now, Iíll settle for relieving you of your jewelry." He gestured for one of his guards to come forward, but then recalled that both of his guards lay dead, throats destroyed. He sneered. Careful to avoid her mouth, he slid his hands around her neck to undo the silver clasp of her necklace. The necklace, glowing with magic, only shocked him in return, so that, again, he howled in pain. Laylaís smile widened.
Raylee pulled his hand back as if to backhand her. "Release your spell, witch."
Layla managed to raise an eyebrow. "Itís tied to your magicianís spell. Until he releases his, I cannot release mine."
Layla couldnít shrug, but the sentiment was clear. "Your trained semi-magical monkey can confirm what I say, as if I cared at all."
"Itís certainly possible and, I suspect, true. Beside, my lord, I think the spell has gone awry, else she would not be in so much pain. Really, sire, I beg you allow me to release it."
Raylee snarled, scowling. After a moment, his brow cleared. He walked past her carefully and unsheathed his dagger, resting the tip against Tanderís throat above the band. "I can kill him in a heartbeat if you dare try anything. Merlo release your spell. Then, you, Jenri witch, you will remove your jewelry and leave it on the floor in front of you."
"Donít be daft, you pathetic excuse for a fungus! Sheíll kill you without thought," scoffed Tander. "Layla, donít worry about me. This idiot probably couldnít figure out where I keep my brain anyway. Toss a knife into his gut. Raylee, you honorless scum, thrust away, go on, I dare you! My fleas have more courage than you!"
The red glow about Layla ceased and, obediently, her necklace also stopped glowing. Layla, breathing hard, collapsed to the ground. A part of her noted that the pain in her midsection had gone, but had left behind a throbbing ache that she found disturbing. After a moment, she managed to pull herself to her hands and knees, still not looking at Raylee and apparently still recovering. Raylee smiled at her submissive posture.
Without the slightest preamble, she spun on one knee, her other leg swinging around in an arc that caught Raylee in the ankle. He fell sideways, his dagger arm flinging outward for balance, his other scrabbling against Tander to keep from falling. Layla, in the process of coming up, slammed the heel of her hand up into Rayleeís nose, thrusting the cartilage into his brain. Raylee crumpled, dead. Layla avoided the weight of his body when it fell.
Still half-crouching, Layla took an instant to check the lack of pulse, then smiled. "You underestimated Tander, but you respected him. Pity you werenít smart enough to do the same for me." She pulled his dagger out of his hand and then flung it across the room before adding, "Not that it would have made the slightest difference in the end result."