The mercenary unit entered the jungle using more caution than necessary. Many expeditions in the past had tried to infiltrate the unknown lands, covered with thick trees and unnatural wildlife, and failed. This time the king of Nemeator chose men from the mountainous regions fighters and survivors, men both tough and cautious, suitable for such task. He had allied with their clans and added them to his kingdom. Their only obligation was to offer military service. This would be the first such obligation. To lead them, the king chose a veteran captain of the royal guards, who volunteered for the expedition. The king thought it wise, but also a matter of pride, that an officer of Nemeator would lead the expedition and not an outsider.
In the vanguard, a young man searched the gloomy land and used all his keen senses to find the hidden enemy. His eyes pierced the semi-darkness of the hot jungle. His ears pricked at any unnatural sounds and he tried to sniff the air for change. He was a savage, at eighteen the tallest man in the mountainous tribes, famous for their great stature and physique. He stood over seven feet tall, at least four hundred pounds of hardened muscles. His body had been shaped in the merciless heights from the harsh cold and the constant struggle for survival. He wore no ornament but had only a long, dark mane of black hair that reached his back. He wore no armor, only a loincloth, hard leather sandals and a leather sword belt that carried his dagger, pouch and long sword.
The king gave the volunteers new armor and arms as a gift. But the youth refused the armor, stating it would slow him down and make him noisy. The other men respected his skills as both scout and fighter. Despite his young age, he had already proven to be an accomplished warrior, deadly with either axe, sword, spear or dagger and even with his bare hands if need drove him.
He came from a region farther up in the mountains, where savage frozen winds would turn an unwary man into an ice statue in mere minutes. His clan was the toughest of all the mountainous clans. Simply surviving off the near dead land was a great accomplishment by itself. Most clans left the mountaintops for softer, more livable heights but Gonan’s clan, led by his ancestors, preferred the clear sky and the untamed lands. They were the only clan that hadn’t agreed with the King’s peace, remaining independent. Gonan joined the expedition as a free mercenary, not a tributary clansman. The captain, used to the perfumed palace life, showed open disdain for this savage. But he saw the other men, hardened mountaineers all, respecting him, and agreed to take him along, although his complete lack of respect for authority and military rank proved a constant point of conflict.
They had traveled south for many days, starting the expedition in the first week of spring. At that time the sun began turning its light toward the west, ending the cruel winter. There were no roads so far south and when they left the last farmsteads, they trod on wild lands. Many were still burning from the last war between the rich kingdom of Nemeator and the wild mountain clans. But the war ended and the clans swore allegiance and sent men in this expedition. They met scattered orc warbands and beastmen herds on the way south. But they were too many and too well-equipped to feel any fear or threat. For many weeks they traveled south and the weather became hotter and hotter. They were moving closer to the sun. On their left were the Altan mountains that formed in the north, the encircling mountains of the plateau that ended south, near the jungle. On their right was the great west ocean. When the mountains ended they moved through dry steppes, full of wild animal life, but they saw no human inhabitants. When the steppe ended, they faced the great southern jungle. It seemed like a vast sea of green foliage, untamed and hostile. No men of light had ever returned to share their experience. They discovered new animal and plant life and the jungle was wet, hot and wary of men. The ancient trees reached high into the sky and enfolded the ground in a semi-permanent darkness. Even the great sun shone with difficulty through the trees, despite being so near. The eleven bright stars that broke the utter darkness of night in all other regions could not pierce the thick branches.
The jungle looked like a huge sea of tall trees, where orientation with sun and stars became impossible. Yet Gonan somehow found his way and headed south on a constant and unerring path.
The lure of a new dwarf-forged steel sword and a heavy pouch full of silver coins proved enough to enlist him in this crazy adventure. The silver coins showed an elk head on front and the words “Nemeator’s King Elkon III” on the back. That he couldn’t read didn't bother him. All that mattered was that the amount would be enough for many weeks of drinking and whoring. The sword already adorned his side as an upfront fee. He was eager to finish with this expedition on which these puffed-up civilized weaklings sent him to get the rest of his reward.
Born on a frozen mountain, he grew accustomed to the clear cold of the mountains, not the unhealthy atmosphere of the hot, humid southern jungles. He was sweating and cursing under his breath. But he gritted his teeth, let the sweat run down his body and moved forward, eager to find something interesting to show for his efforts.
The men of the unit, burdened with the heavy armor and suffering more from the heat, followed the scout and looked around the unwelcome jungle. They were unsure of their mission and whether they would return from it. But they joined because their lives consisted solely of fighting and the rewards were tempting. They fought the king of Nemeator most of the time and now, with the alliance, they had lost their main enemy. Still, each clan continued fighting other clans, usually for petty reasons. Now they fought for something else and they were content. The war between Nemeator and the mountain clans had been dragging on for centuries, without a loser or winner. It turned into a constant drain on their warriors and resources on both sides. Although the clansmen were too stubborn to admit a stalemate, most would welcome an end. Finally, the king of Nemeator approached their chieftains with a pact. The chieftains, following the druids’ advice, allied with the great city. The pact gave a proud solution to their problem. They would keep their independence, ruling themselves as of old. In return, they would receive tribute in goods they needed from the rich kingdom. Their only obligation was to provide military help when needed. To seal their alliance, the great king sponsored this expedition to the unwelcome south lands.
To honor this pact the chieftains sent chosen warriors. Their mission led them to travel south and explore the infamous jungles. If they succeeded they would earn glory and honor. They would go where no one else had entered and returned to tell, although many had tried and failed in the past. Some days ago they had entered the jungle and now struggled daily to penetrate the wildness. They could find no trail and even walking a few miles daily proved time-consuming and tiring. But the clansmen were hard fighters and heat and insect bites could not dissuade them.
Gonan moved quickly and without pause, his hard muscles barely noticing the strenuous punishment the jungle inflicted on others. His senses were alert for a danger that had yet to appear. When nightfall and darkness became almost impenetrable, they stopped for rest. They lit no fires and distributed no wine, so after a cold meal, those not in watch turned to sleep. Despite their tiredness, most men couldn’t succumb to their fatigue. Constant insect bites, humidity and the supernatural fear that dark places held for men of no education kept them awake. This had gone on for days and although they kept a steady pace, the jungle seemed infinite. It was as if they were lost in an infinite green fog, unable to find a way out ever again.
That night Gonan chose a large tree with long and strong roots to pass the night. With his back on it and the naked sword by his side, he tried without success to sleep. He wasn’t tired as his companions, but what didn’t let him sleep was a sense he was being watched. He had this premonition from the first hour they stepped into the jungle, but tonight it increased drastically.
Cold yellow eyes, seen in the far reach of his eyesight, kept watching their camp, moving from tree branch to tree branch. They were always alert and careful, so soundless it could be his imagination, or it could be bugs with phosphorus tails. But still, the suspicion of being watched and not even suspecting what it might be made him uneasy. Since he had nothing else to do he slept, but the sense of uneasiness came also to his dreams.
He dreamed he was flying over the jungle like a bird. All around him as far as the eye could see was a green sea of leaves and branches forming a never-ending ceiling of plants. But in front of him, far away south toward the sun, a large clearing opened up, where a mad scene was taking place.
A large creature that seemed humanoid, with hands and feet but covered in darkness, was sniffing a young woman tied to a tree. Around them, other men, dark in color and naked, savage-looking and wild, danced and played the drums. Their sound echoed in his mind: “boom booom booooom,” a heavy, steady and slow rhythm, like a calling that kept on and on. Somehow he recognized, although not in a reasonable way, that the skin on the drums had been made from humans. The thought made him, the hardened, superstitious barbarian, shudder and he woke up. He wasn't afraid, but uneasy from the suspicion of extreme unholiness and perversion.
Dawn had a long time to come, but sleep wouldn’t come again until morning. He stood up fast, shaking sleep as someone shakes a wet cloak and picking his sword belt, tying it around his muscled waist, his sword ready in his arm.
He walked where the captain slept, but he woke up, despite the early hour. The captain was a veteran and experience taught him they had to start early. When he saw Gonan he gave his orders to the men to prepare for another day of marching. The captain was a soldier and obeying became second nature, although the young barbarian unnerved him. The sight of the untamed barbarian brought the civilized man the lure of savagery, a memory of what he had lost to gain the comforts of the city--the difference between wolves and dogs.
He covered his dislike, respecting the man’s abilities and the opinion of the rest of the tribesmen toward him:
“Scout, today we continue south, as yesterday. Stay ahead and notify me of anything unusual.”
"My name is Gonan," the young man replied, looking down the captain who, although he was a tall, strong man, looked like a boy compared to the barbarian giant.
The captain swallowed an angry rebuke to the complete disobedience. He turned to a veteran mountaineer he had named sergeant. He called him to order the men to wake up, eat and get ready to leave before dawn.
The next day proved to be the same as the previous, hot, humid and nerve-wracking. Gonan still suspected that someone followed and spied upon them. He tried to catch the spy but failed all the time, making him mad with frustration. But he had to move on, unable to lose any more valuable time, admitting his defeat for now. The spy had supreme wood-lore and he was a mountaineer, after all.
He also failed to locate a path, searching in vain for any sign of even the most primitive man-made work. The jungle had remained unchanged from the ancient days, when the first cosmic rains created flora and fauna and gave life to the Land of Oyr. For many thousands of years, none tried to tame it.
the first chapter.