But the man who stepped out of the ruins was not old, and nor did he have the look of any of the trappers who worked these badlands. The local hunters and trapliners were grizzled ne’er-do-wells, almost as leathery as the tanned hides in which they often traded. Martin had seen them, coming into the marketplace to sell their wares. They were bent-backed, uncouth, unshaven, and they smelt worse than the animals they killed.
This man was young, straight-backed, and he walked with an arrogance Martin saw at once. He moved with the strength and flexibility of youth, of the soldier or warrior, and he held his head like a lord. A trapper? At a glance Martin knew better, and he groaned.
Other hunters prowled Barran’s Heath, looking for very different prey. There were faster, easier ways to make a fortune than catching mink and ermine. If a freeman had the courage to prowl the wastelands beyond Esketh and Arkeshan, if he had the luck to stay alive long enough, and not one scruple in his entire body, the marketplace gossips swore he could come home rich.
Just then, Martin’s palms were sweating while his muscles tightened in dread. He kept very still and watched the figure step out of the long moonshadows cast by the ruins. He saw an attitude of contempt as the man came to rest, fists on hips, glaring down at him.
The bulk of a great black leather coat made him seem much bigger than he was, and that coat could have concealed any weapon from a full-sized sword to a shotbow. The moonlight outlined hard, handsome features, dark eyes and a sensual mouth that looked to Martin as if it could easily become cruel. The contempt was written in every line of that face, too, and Martin wondered fleetingly how many other fools the bandit had come upon in this place, every one of them whimpering about being on a quest into the badlands, chasing phantasms told by gypsies.
The voice was deep, strong, harsh, and he spoke with the accept of the local hills. “Do I look like a gnarl-faced, gap-toothed old imbecile? Am I Aelmed?” The man spat into the dust at his feet. “I am Yussan. Do you know my name, foolish boy? You should!”
And Martin smothered another groan, for he did know it. Most folk from Esketh knew it, and they whispered it uneasily. Yussan was a brigand, and he had just spotted tonight’s prize — a tender, juicy prize, probably worth more money in the markets of wicked old Arkeshan than a dozen other idiots he had delivered there I the last year. And if the tales about him were true, Yussan had delivered a great many.
The stories of the road to Atlantis mocked Martin now, as he saw how priceless they must be to Yussan. They were the bait, the lure, bringing prey to him without Yussan even needing to set a snare.
He strutted arrogantly in the deep mauve twilight, and Martin felt the blood rush away from his face. Was he blanching? He knew he was.