Amid a coarse babble of voices, music filled the hall with a soft murmur of strings. As a girl moved out onto the floor, a wispy flute joined in. Then a drum took up a slow, languid beat. Voices stilled as, one by one, a hundred bearded faces turned towards the girl. And as she began her dance, their eyes fastened onto her form.
Dressed in the merest wisps of silk, her dark hair loose about her shoulders and brushing the mounds of her breasts, she moved slowly at first, like a willow stirred by a soft summer breeze. In the shimmering torch and candlelight, her lithe body drifted across the floor, her arms weaving delicate patterns in the air. Then, gradually, as the tempo of the music began to build, her movements hardened. Her pelvis pulsed up the rhythm and began to thrust with the beat. Around he hall, the eyes of the men grew shiny.
None watched with more fervor than the large, unkempt figure seated on a raised dais at the head of the room. He was a huge man whose once massive frame had gone to flab and whose wild black beard and mane were streaked with grey. His eye-for he had only one, the other being covered by a black scarf tied diagonally around his head-glistened hard and was glued to the girlís every move. Pounding out the rhythm with a meat-filled fist, he fed himself from a platter by his left hand, and drank from a flagon in his right. Intermittently, between swallows, or at some particularly provocative move by the girl, he would grunt, low and deep in the back of his throat.
As the girl reached the climax of her dance, the silence among the men in the smoky stone hall was profound. The girl was lovely, it was true, and a good deal of her body was enticingly visible through the thin gauze of her shirt and pantaloons, but it was the dance itself, the grace and fluidity of her movements-the way her body seemed to create the very music she danced to-that kept them entranced. Even the servants stopped to watch, standing between tables or at the edges of the hall, their trays held level before them. Only the musicians moved to create their sound, and even these watched enthralled, taking their cues from the girlís moves as if her elaborate acrobatics were a form of conducting.
Suddenly, the one-eyed one let out a roar and leapt at the girl. Catching her by the arm, he dragged her back to his chair, kicked away the small table beside it, and laid her face down over the arm. Quickly, he ripped away the flimsy cloth of her pants and undergarments and began fumbling with his own. No one moved to prevent him. Neither did the girl protest-she had been warned that this was a possibility when performing before the high king, and that any struggle would be futile. As she had no choice but to perform, so she had no choice in this. Rather, she lay quietly, propped on her elbows, and awaited his thrust.
But the one-eyed king was drunker than he realized. He swayed on the dais, fumbling with his small clothes, then tearing at them furiously. And when his manhood finally did emerge, it was plainly unequal to the task. Here and there, a stifled titter escaped in the hall and the kingís face turned purple with rage.
Just then, the great double doors at the far end of the hall banged open and a troop of men barged in clamoring excitedly. "Majesty!" the first of them called out. "Your Majesty! They have struck again!" This was an elderly man, but one whose angry stride belied his grey beard and merchantís robes. Unmindful of the revelers around him, and ignoring the distasteful tableau of the king and his prey, he strode directly to the dais. "Iíve lost another two ships, Majesty! Thatís five this year alone! If this keeps up, Iíll be ruined. And Iím not the only one!"
Sweeping the girl to the floor like a sack, the king sat down heavily, and with effort, focused his attention on the merchant. "Where?"
"The same spot, Majesty. Two days out, south of Zagorbia. Angmar here tells me they appeared out of nowhere, just like before. Five long galleys. Three swept in and engaged him while the other two took my ships and made off."
"And you, Angmar-you who were to protect these ships-you did nothing?"
"I did all I could, Majesty. But truly, it was little. Their galleys are small, but very fast and more maneuverable than mine. I could not ram, for they spun away quicker than I could turn. Neither could I board. And every time I got near one, the others closed in and rained murderous arrow fire on me."
"Did you not give chase? Why didnít you overtake our merchantmen and get them back?"
"I did give chase, my lord. But again, their arrows kept me off. And they headed straight inshore, right in under the cliffs where I dared not follow. Then they disappeared."
The king scowled and tugged at his beard. "Disappeared, eh? You slunk away with your tail between your legs, is what you mean!"
"Majesty," said the merchant, "if you please, Angmar is not to blame here. I am convinced he did all that could be done. But we canít let this situation continue... All trade between Zagorbia and Dulcai is at risk. You have to do something."
"Yes!" came a voice from the back of the hall, "Is the Great Fantar UP to that challenge?" And the laughter was not stifled this time.
"Who spoke? Who said that?" raged the king.
"Thatís not all, Fantar!" came another voice. "This pirate claims to be the son of Valerius and rightful High King... What are you going to do about that?"
"Seize that man!" Fantar pointed. "Bring him here." And when the man had been brought forward, Fantar had him bound to a post, then leaned close and leered in his face. "So, you would mock your king with a pretender in his own hall, would you?"
"Majesty," the man quailed, "I only repeat what I heard!"
"Heard where, from whom?"
"In town, Majesty. It is the talk in all the taverns. This man claims to be Valerius, Valerian that was and son of the former High King."
"Bah! I took that boyís head when we found him cowering with the women after Valeria fell."
"I repeat only what I heard, Majesty."
"Well, maybe we can fix that," Fantar growled, and pulling a short dagger from his waist, sawed off the manís right ear. "Next time, maybe youíll think twice before you listen to any more such tales!"
"Yes, Majesty," the man moaned, blood spurting down his neck and shoulder.
"And as for pirates and pretenders," Fantar shouted to the hall at large, "I am the only rightful king here. I, Fantar of Valeria! And any who think differently can join this íValeriusí when I stuff his testicles down his throat and watch him choke to death on them!"
The hall was silent as Fantar glared out over the crowd. Then he turned to the merchant.
"And you! How dare you barge in here and interrupt my feast? Do you think I cannot make good your filthy losses? Here," he said, tossing the man the severed ear, "Take this as my token and get out of here: Weíll deal with this pirate tomorrow. Now," he yelled, "Bring more wine! More meat! Here girl," he said, tossing her the dagger, "cut that one down and have him thrown into the sea... Perhaps his pirate friend will come to rescue him."
Later that night, the girl lay beside the snoring king and watched as a knife-edged sliver of moon sliced its way across the window frame. The king had been no more successful with her in his bed than he had on his throne. Hardly able to stand by the end of his feast, he had dragged her from the hall amid much fanfare and raucous cheering. But there was no possibility of his accomplishing anything, and after ripping away the remains of her flimsy dancing costume and tumbling with her onto the bed, he had promptly rolled over onto his back and started to snore.
She listened now as that snoring grew louder and more rhythmical, and as the edge of the moon touched the window frame, she slowly eased herself out of bed, found her pack that her servant had tucked into a corner, and quietly pulled on her clothes. Then she pulled from the pack the dagger Fantar had given her, and with this gripped firmly in her right hand, stole back to the edge of the bed.
Fantar lay on his back, his arms flung wide, his face turned slightly towards the window so that his neck was exposed and defenseless beneath his matted beard. He snored again, long and ragged, and as he exhaled, his fetid, wine soured breath hit her in the face. Bracing her knee on the edge of the bed, the girl gripped the knife with both hands and raised it high. But then, as men who snore will often do, Fantar snorted violently and just as the knife plunged downwards, his good eye snapped open and his right arm shot up, blocking the blow and knocking the girl back.
"Arrgh!" he growled as the blade bit into his forearm and cut across it. Rearing up like a maddened bull, he grabbed for the girl, catching, then losing her wrist, then her ankle as she tumbled backwards. Cat-like, she sliced at him again as she went, cutting his shoulder. But then she was on the floor, scuttling backwards and he, like a great ape of the forest, vaulted from the bed, his one eye red in the darkness and glowing with rage. But his feet tangled in the bedclothes and he fell heavily, smashing his head onto cold stone of the floor. Again, the girl started in for the kill but as Fantar began to push himself up from the floor, she lost her nerve and fled, leaving behind her bag and her shoes. She did not even notice that after this single effort, Fantar simply grunted and collapsed back onto the floor, unconscious.
Meanwhile, many hundreds of miles away, in a snug, well-furnished cave deep in the fastness of the mountains south of Zagorbia, an ancient mage sat huddled over the embers of his fire and stirred some herbs into a pot that hung simmering from a tripod. Motioning for his servant to add another stick to the fire, the mage stirred until the broth came to a slow boil and began giving off a cloud of sweet, earthy-smelling steam. Into this, he thrust his grey and wrinkled face, inhaling deeply time after time. Finally, he flopped back into his chair, his arms limp and his eyes glassy.
Entranced, he stared into the depths of the slowly bubbling broth until its surface opened before him and visions emerged, spiraling towards the ceiling. There was a dancing girl, slim and raven haired, twirling in the flickering fire light. There was a monstrous king, bloated and vile with a twitching, evil eye. There was a palace bedroom, the flash of moonlight on an upraised blade, a struggle in a swirl of smoke, then the girl in flight, running wild and barefoot through the moonlit night.
Closing his eyes, the mage let his chin drop to his chest and sighed heavily. "She is the one," he muttered. "She must be the one." And he drifted off into a deep sleep.