Bulls and Horses

Sunday, February 28, 2016 by Topher Chapman

Public Domain
Public Domain

The stack of crates resting in the stern of the ferry was tall. Too tall. Jens Oakford couldn’t lift the ponderous container high enough to place it on top. He groaned, still holding the case of harnesses, and wondered how he was going to make enough room for the horses.

Can you help me? I can’t lift this to stack it.” The graceless Cimmerian tongue tumbled from his lips.

Conan lounged among sacks of grain on the pier, a flagon of wine in his barbarian grip.

The only thing I’m lifting, Kothian, is my drink.” Conan took a long, messy pull from the skin, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I am paying you good silver to carry me up river. It’s not my fault you booked a crossing with a bunch of horse lovers also.”

Jens sighed. He hadn’t really expected the savage to be of any help. Starting another stack, he set the box down and hoped there would be space for the cargo, horses, and his passengers.

There’s not going to be enough room for everything.” A delay was not going to make the barbarian happy. “Cimmerian, you and I will have to make a second trip south.”

Conan stormed to his feet, and stalked the width of the pier. “Listen to me, dog.” He reached down, into the boat, and grabbed Jens by the shirt-front with one hand and lifted him out, legs swinging six feet above the water, between dock and raft. “I paid for a ferry up the river. Sitting on the shore is free.”

A horse whinnied.

Can you put me down please?” Jerking his head toward the mounted man and woman, Jens showed his best pleading smile. “The faster I ferry them across, the sooner I’ll be ready for your trip.”

A moment longer, Conan snarled, and lowered him to the wooden boards of the dock.

Who is this warrior, Jens Oakford?” Khal Drogo yelled from where he was dismounting his stallion. The Dothraki language, sharper than Cimmerian, caused Jens to wonder how he managed to book two savages on the same day. There had to be another ferryman who spoke both languages. “He must be weak with hair that short.”

What did he say, little man?” Conan turned to face the Khal and his Khaleesi, his fists resting on his hips. “He looks like a Shemite, but sounds like a Pict. I don’t trust either.”

He’s asking when we leave,” Jens lied in Cimmerian. Fear of being caught between the two warriors drove Jens out to help Daenerys with her horse. In Dothraki, “Here, Khal, let me load the Khaleesi’s mare.”

Drogo ignored him, walking straight up to Conan and locking eyes with the barbarian. Neither fighter blinked, but Jens flinched. He’d already been paid, but not enough for this.

At least you do not wear a steel dress.” Drogo sniffed. “You should start. It might save you cutting your hair.”

You smell like horse. Real barbarians run.” Conan’s brows drew down, dark and deep, as he spoke his native tongue.

Jens gulped.

Sun and stars, let us mount the wooden horse. This weak man is delaying us.” Daenerys climbed down from her mare and walked down the pier toward the small barge. The Khal grunted at Conan, turned and followed her down the dock, picking up Conan’s discarded wine skin. As the pair waited for him to load their horses, hope for a day without disaster returned to Jens.

Shaking his head at the Khal’s back, Conan seemed not to notice Jens walking by with a saddlebag on either shoulder. He’d soon stow these bags and horses, ferry the Dothraki across the water, and escape any trouble.

Boatman, I would wager if he spent more time riding her instead of his horse, he’d be the one giving orders.”

A pronounced hitch suddenly impeded Jens’ step and he lurched to a stop. That language was Common. The Khal didn’t appear to understand, but Daenerys flipped around.

I beg your pardon?” She scowled, also speaking Common.

Conan grinned and folded his arms across his massive chest.

Oh no,” Jens whispered. He started creeping backwards, slowly, until he stepped off the wooden pier and on the packed dirt near the horses.

The Khaleesi turned and said something to Drogo, causing the Khal’s face to tighten and flush with fury. He dropped the skin from his hands and stalked toward Conan, death lighting his eyes.

Oh, look. The bitch sends her dog to growl at me.” The Cimmerian didn’t move.

The first swing, a right hook to the body, was fast, and Conan was already slipping out of the way. But, it was a feint, and the arcing left haymaker caught the Cimmerian on the cheek, stumbling him backwards.

Conan straightened, wiped blood from his mouth, and said, “Maybe if the Shemite spent less time frolicking with horses and more time breaking bull necks, his fists might hurt.”

The Cimmerian exploded in motion, the blur of a long, straight right blasted into Drogo’s face, rocking his head back, staggering the Dothraki. It was quickly followed with a whistling uppercut that swept the Khal under the chin. The clack and shatter of teeth preceded Drogo flying back, flung from his feet, to thump and crash to the pier.

Staring in horror, Jens dropped the saddle bags from a white-knuckled grip. “Conan! Please, stop!”

Don’t worry boatman.” The Cimmerian turned his head to face Jens, pointing to the downed Khal, “I’ll help load the glass Shemite for you.”

Except Drogo wasn’t down any longer.

The Dothraki threw himself at Conan, wrapping his arms around the Cimmerian’s waist, and crashing them both to the decking. They rolled sideways on the pier, balanced at the edge, Conan hammering fists to the Khal’s back, while Drogo attempted to squeeze the air from Conan’s lungs. The Cimmerian wedged his fingers beneath the Dothraki’s arms, and with strength no other could match, heaved. The Khal’s grip broke, his hands slipping from behind Conan’s broad back, and the Cimmerian smashed him in the face with a rock-splitting head-butt.

Drogo went limp.

Conan pushed him off, stood, and scooped up Khal Drogo, holding him high overhead.

Here, horse man, I’ll help you pack.” Conan heaved, tossing the unconscious Drogo to the raft, and bashing through crates. The stack collapsed and shattered, causing the raft to list, and pushing it out away from the dock. The Khal lay still.

Making a show of dusting his hands, Conan turned to Daenerys, “Should I pack you, too?”

The Khaleesi ignored the barbarian. She shouted in a language Jens didn’t recognize, and lifted her hands skyward.

A roar, long, sharp and dangerous, echoed through the valley.

Jens sprang at the sound, racing past Conan as the barbarian stupidly searched the skies. Jens’ feet thumped along the pier, and finally the Cimmerian behind him shouted, “Crom! Sorcery!”

The boatman bolted off the end of the dock, leaping head-first into the river. The last thing he heard before he hit the current was the pounding of heavy boots on the pier.

Everything scorched red.

The blue and green hues, reflecting through the clear water went red-orange with fire. Jens felt the temperature of the river rise to hot bath water as he held his breath, clinging to the rocks on the bottom.

Thirty or forty heartbeats passed. He was running out of air and the world above still shone hot. But, he had no choice.

Jens broke the surface.

His boat, supplies, the pier, nearby trees — everything was on fire. Great gouts of flame pumped smoke, curling around charred trees, up into an azure sky. There were no Dothraki or horses. The only thing remaining was destruction.

Conan splashed up behind Jens and said, “I know now, boatman, why she gives the orders.” The two waded to the river bank, arms lifted to protect their eyes from the thick smoke as they climbed out of the water.

The trees rustled ahead of them and a voice called out in Common, “Ho, there.” An older man stepped out, bearded and thickly muscled, carrying an enormous double-bladed axe. He surveyed the area.

Aye, laddie. I’m guessing you’ll not be carrying old man Druss across the river today.”

Eyes wide, Jens faced Conan.

Don’t look at me, boatman. I don’t hit old men.”

At least he’d said it in Cimmerian.

February’s monthly Fantasy Faction writing contest was to take a couple characters from popular fantasy, and make them fight!