“One Man's Rescue” by D.J. Butler

The scab-eyed Gund Yazzo leaned forward across the squat planks of the tavern table. He hulked over Indrajit and Fix, blocking the light from the doorway with his massive frame, wrapped in gray wool. “I want you to rescue two baby Gunds.” 

Indrajit scratched an itch along the upper length of his bony nose ridge and looked out the window. The rag dangling resistless in the opening permitted the cold wet wind of the King of Thunder Steppes to spray moisture across his face and shoulders. The cool shock was pleasant, reminding him of the shaded grottos and rocky bays of his youth. 

“The problem,” his partner Fix said, leaning forward into the Gund’s musty, vaguely paperlike stink, “is that one man’s rescue is another man’s kidnapping.” Fix’s voice was high-pitched, almost feminine. He was shorter than Indrajit, with a broad, muscular chest. His black hair and coppery skin contrasted starkly with the pallor of the Gund. For this meeting, he’d left the bulk of his weapons in their room, wearing only his falchion at his belt. 

Yazzo scowled, its muzzle twisting to reveal a mouthful of yellow warrior’s teeth, some menacing and sharp and others shattered by trial. Other than its teeth and its many arms, Yazzo had no visible weapons. “Are you saying you won’t take my money?” Its voice rumbled low, seeming to rise from beneath the table. As if to serve as punctuation, it dropped a fist-sized bag to the table with a metallic clink. 

On the other side of the common room sat the dog-headed Kyone Munahim and the Pelthite slinger Philastes Larch, pretending to drink and chat idly. At the Gund’s menacing expression, Munahim set down his cup and Philastes put a hand on his dagger. 

Fix gripped Indrajit by the shoulder. “We will take your money.” 

“Also,” Indrajit continued deliberately, “we care why we’re doing things. Even out here in the lands of the barbarians, we are men of principle. We rescue princesses and undertake other heroic tasks.” 

“By preference, at least,” Fix said. “It’s why we call ourselves the ‘Protagonists.’” 

The Gund leaned back, emitting a groaning sound that might have been a laugh. Behind its head, the white insectoid limbs sprouting from its shoulders rattled together like a bamboo grove in a monsoon. On other side of its pale face, Yazzo had a column of three eyes rising from its cheek to its temple. On both sides, the lower two eyes were filled with dark red tissue, clots the size of eggs, with a thick trailing strip connecting the two and dropping toward the Gund’s jaw. 

“You want to hear a story,” it said. 

“We want to understand why two baby Gunds need rescue,” Indrajit replied. 

“And from who,” Fix added. 

The Gund splayed the fingers of both hands and then slowly curled them, causing the knuckles to crack. “Have you heard of the Gundling Curse?” 

“No,” Fix said. 

“Does it have something to do with why you look like an insect is sprouting out of your shoulders?” Indrajit asked. 

“Are you considering devising an epic epithet for the Gunds?” Fix said to his partner. 

“I’d be lying if I said no.” 

“Epithet?” Yazzo asked. 

“Indrajit is a poet,” Fix explained. “He knows one poem, it’s very long, and when he encounters new things, he has to devise phrases to describe them.” 

“That is at best an approximate explanation of my quest,” Indrajit protested. “I am the bearer of precious knowledge and last practitioner of an ancient and sacred art. And I would be pleased to know more about your race, so that I can include you in that art.” 

“Our gods cursed us,” the Gund said. 

“You should talk to . . . to a Kyone,” Indrajit said. “They claim they killed their gods.” 

“Our gods wished us to have the gifts of insectkind,” Yazzo continued. “They wished us to climb walls and spin webs, so that we would be more fearsome warriors in their service. They worked their magics upon us in the ages of darkness, but their artifice failed. We gained these limbs, but they are nearly useless. We sprouted additional eyes, but those eyes, some say, drove us mad. Before more such gifts could be inflicted upon us, we fled.” 

“I think we can all agree you’re still quite fearsome,” Indrajit suggested. 

“Insects or spiders?” Fix frowned. “Climbing walls and spinning webs sounds like spiders to me.” 

“What do you mean, ‘some say’?” Indrajit pressed. 

The Gund grinned. “One man’s rescue is another man’s kidnapping.” 

“Touché,” Fix said. 

“So there’s a curse,” Indrajit said. “Connect the line to rescuing children for us.” 

“Some call a Gund in its natural state a ‘wild Gund,’” Yazzo said. “A ‘scab-eyed Gund’ is a Gund that had been cured of its wildness.” 

“That’s a line,” Indrajit admitted. “I don’t think it connects anything.” 

“A Gund is born innocent,” Yazzo said. “Male and female.” 

“Why does it always come down to this?” Indrajit rubbed his forehead. “I don’t want to know how other races reproduce, but someone always insists on telling me.” 

“You’re a poet,” Fix said. “Shouldn’t you be interested in the subject of love?” 

“Love, yes!” Indrajit snapped. “Romance, fidelity, heroism, yes! Sex? Not that interesting, it turns out. A bunch of sweating and grunting.” 

“Love, yes,” Yazzo murmured. 

“Will you let Yazzo finish?” Fix insisted. 

Indrajit harrumphed. 

“Young Gunds are innocent,” Yazzo continued. “They are born male and female.” 

Munahim and Philastes continued to pretend they were having an unrelated conversation. The Kyone’s hearing was sharp, and he was no doubt listening closely, perhaps passing on what he heard to the Pelthite. 

“And yet Gunds are always described as ‘sexless,’” Indrajit pointed out. 

Yazzo nodded, insect-arms rattling again. “And ‘scab-eyed.’” 

“Let him finish,” Fix said. 

Indrajit folded his arms and held his tongue. 

“When a Gund comes of age, his or her sex drive becomes overwhelming.” Yazzo looked out the window, its voice remote. “A Gund in the throes of young adulthood feels he or she is going mad, and behaves accordingly. And the elders of Gund society make a decision for each young Gund.” 

“Gund society?” Indrajit couldn’t help himself. “Where is Gund society? I only ever see you one at a time.” 

“You come from Kish, from the city,” Yazzo said. 

“I live there,” Indrajit said. “I come from elsewhere. From my home.” 

“So it is with Gundkind,” Yazzo said. “We come from elsewhere. From our home. Which is ruled by elders. Those of us you see in Kish are slaves or wanderers, and generally solitary.” 

“What decision do the elders make for each young Gund?” Fix knitted his brows, deep in thought. 

“Whether to leave the Gund male or female,” Yazzo said. “Whether to leave the Gund sexed.” 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sexed Gund,” Fix said. 

“I’ve never wanted to check, personally,” Indrajit shot back. “I regard that as the Gund’s own business.” 

“If the elders decide to leave a Gund sexed, the Gund is condemned to a life in the breeding pits. The Gund is abandoned to the madness of constant, throbbing, sexual passion. Such a Gund, all know well, cannot learn to live as a civilized person and is fit only for rutting and throwing off spawn. ‘A bunch of sweating and grunting,’ as you say. They are breeding slaves.” 

“You do this to members of your own race?” Indrajit felt ill. 

“Be careful what you say.” Yazzo’s voice took on a hard edge. “I do not do it.” 

“What’s the alternative?” Fix asked. 

“The Gund is strapped to a stone,” Yazzo continued. “The stone was formerly an altar, but if the gods once watched over these procedures, they are long since gone. A young female has two holes drilled into her belly, in precise locations. A young male undergoes a rather simpler procedure, a quick chop.” 

“That’s painful just to hear,” Indrajit murmured. 

“And the eyes?” Fix asked. 

“The four lower eyes are scratched out,” Yazzo said. 

Fix shook his head. “That seems pointless. Insult added to injury.”  

“It makes perfect sense,” Indrajit said. “In many passages of the Blaatshi Epic, the eyes are taken as an image equivalent to the gonads. A blinded man is understood to be castrated.” 

Fix turned to stare at Indrajit. “You’re telling me you think the Gund elders scratch out the eyes of their young in order to accord with poetic theory?” 

“I’m telling you that the poetic practice obviously reveals a deeper reality!” Indrajit waved a hand vaguely. 

“A deeper reality that eyes are really testicles?” Fix pressed. 

“Yes!” Indrajit snapped. 

“And the nose?” Fix asked. “What’s the deeper reality of the nose? Or the chin?” 

“The elders teach us that without the removal of the eyes, the madness persists,” Yazzo said. 

“Maybe the insanity is caused by the eyes alone,” Fix suggested, turning back to the Gund. “And not the sex drive at all.” 

“Maybe passion is what we suffer when see an object we desire,” Indrajit countered. 

“Or maybe the removal of the eyes is how the elders mark a wild Gund from a Gund that has been freed of the madness.” Yazzo shrugged. “The face is more difficult to hide than the loins.” 

“I don’t even like you talking about loins, really,” Indrajit groused. 

“The true reasons may be forgotten in time,” Yazzo said. “But this is how my people make their adults.” 

“You’re all the spawn of wild Gunds,” Indrajit said. “And scarred and mutilated into a civilized state.” 

“Is that so different from the rest of us?” Fix pointed out. 

Scab-eyed Gunds, born of madness,” Indrajit said. 

“Would that be your epithet for my kind?” Yazzo asked. 

“It would be the translation into Kishite,” Indrajit said. “Of the short epithet. The rhyme is different in Blaatshi, but the phrases scan about the same. A long epithet might be something like: bug-armed Gunds, born of madness, scarred by elders into people.” 

“‘Bug’?” Fix protested. “That doesn’t have a very heroic ring to it.” 

“The Blaatshi word is more noble-sounding,” Indrajit said. “I could teach it to you.” 

“No, thank you,” Fix said. “I swore off useless knowledge when I left the ashrama.” 

“Would you devise a different epithet for Gunds who were not scarred by the elders?” Yazzo asked. 

“The lust-riven breeders?” Indrajit considered. “Maybe: mad-eyed Gunds, always rutting?” 

“And what about Gunds who avoid being cut and flee the pits?” Yazzo pressed. “Who survive in the wild and live as outlaws?” 

“Are they mad?” Indrajit imagined chalk-white Gunds stalking the steppes, snatching travelers and eating them. 

Yazzo shrugged. “Certainly by some measures.” 

“They can’t be very numerous,” Fix said. “They’d be a challenge to the power of the elders. The elders would have to hunt them down.” 

Yazzo nodded slowly. “So perhaps they would never appear in your epic at all.” 

“Or perhaps they would. Unscarred Gunds, free as outlaws,” Indrajit suggested. 

“You spin these epithets with great facility,” Yazzo said. 

“It’s all he does,” Fix said. “And he wonders why he has a hard time finding work.” 

“So you’re out here chasing a couple of baby Gunds that escaped,” Indrajit said. “But now someone else has grabbed them and you need help rescuing them.” 

Yazzo nodded. “Just so.” 

“Who picked up the baby Gunds?” Fix asked. “Slavers?” 

Yazzo grunted. “You can imagine many people who would be willing to pay for a captive Gund. Some masters would want Gunds for manual labor, or to serve as enslaved warriors. I have heard of scholars from the Hall of Guesses who have owned Gunds, cutting them open while they yet lived, to examine their insides.” 

“That sounds barbaric,” Fix acknowledged, “but that’s how knowledge advances.” 

“So we see that there are savages everywhere,” Yazzo said. 

“Perhaps someday a scholar of the Hall of Guesses will learn how to relieve you of the Gundling Curse,” Fix suggested. 

“Perhaps first that scholar will carve fame and wealth for himself, out of the very flesh of my people.” 

“That’s no more carving than your own elders do,” Indrajit pointed out. 

Yazzo snorted. 

“We’ll take the job,” Indrajit said. “Where do we find these slavers?” 


“I’ve never understood how you make the heroes unique,” Fix said. 

Indrajit and Fix crouched in a thicket on a hillside, concealed from the road beneath them. Pine trees sprouted all about them, screening from view not only the road a hundred paces in each direction, but also Munahim and Philastes, who crouched in a similar thicket on the other side of the track. Moisture seeped from thick clouds and concealed cool on Indrajit’s forehead, running down his face and into his tunic. 

The road was barely worthy of the name, a mere path across the cold steppes that here cut through forest. By Yazzo’s information, the caravan of Kishi slavers should be passing this way shortly. 

“In the Epic?” Indrajit asked. 

“Let’s say you have three Gund warriors,” Fix explained. “And you use the same epithets to describe each of them. They all sound the same.” 

Indrajit snorted. “First of all, let’s clarify what you really mean.” 

“I mean I don’t understand your art.” 

“You mean, you’ve never listened.” 

Fix was silent for a moment. “Well, yes.” 

“And now you want me to give you an account of a master work of art that I have repeatedly offered to perform for you, which offer you have always refused.” 

“True,” Fix admitted. “But surely, you can’t expect to recite the entire poem to me now, on this hillside, as we are lying in wait to ambush slavers and rescue two babies who will apparently be wrapped in spider silk.” 

“I believe it’s actually Gund silk,” Indrajit said, “but I take your point. If you had ever listened to the Blaatshi Epic, even in an impoverished Kishite rendition, rather than in the glorious original Blaatshi, you would have immediately noticed that key figures have their own unique epithets.” 

Indrajit of the bony nose,” Fix suggested. 

“We all benefit from your decision not to take up poetry as a vocation. No, that wouldn’t work. In the first instance, because all my people rejoice in prominent facial ridges like mine, and in the second, because it doesn’t rhyme or scan. A much better epithet might be something like long of limb and wide of vision, far-ranging Indrajit saved the Epic.” 

“May it come to pass. But what if there are three Gunds, and they don’t have distinctive personal epithets?” 

“Then they probably don’t need to be distinguished.” Indrajit harrumphed. “Some figures in a poem are there just to hold a spear and get mown down by the sharp-eyed heroes. But the true distinction is never the epithet, in any case.” 

“You’re going to tell me about how you strike poses.” 

Indrajit shook his head. “It’s true that a few heroes attain such renown that they are awarded by the Recital Thanes not only their individual epithets but also individual poses. Such heroism is rare.” 


“King Rava-Jutna the Famished, for instance, is distinguished by his posture of cunning supplication.” 

Indrajit started to rise to his feet, but Fix pulled him back down. “Show me after. The slavers will be here any minute.” 

“Yes,” Indrajit agreed.  

“So what does distinguish one character from another in the Epic?” Fix asked. 

“His actions, above all,” Indrajit said. “Each hero has characteristic actions, such as to always speak first in the assembly, or hurl a spear before attacking with a sword. And every hero who appears named in the Epic does so because of some definitive action he takes there. Some great sacrifice, some act of inspiration, some mighty victory. The heroes and their deeds are the key bricks of which the Epic is constructed.” 

“Shh,” Fix warned him. 

Indrajit eased his leaf-bladed sword, Vacho, from its sheath and peered down at the road. Fix was armed to the teeth now and tightened his grip on a long spear.  

The first sign of the appearance of the caravan was the arrival of two Yuchak guards. The northerners were wrapped in furs and leathers; they advanced at a steady pace, but staring up at the forested slopes above them. At the sight of their taut bows, Indrajit had a moment of regretting their agreed battle plan. 

Behind the guards came three wagons. The wains were rude boxes, their sides shuttered with iron bolts, boxes and chests piled high on top of them. A tall Ildarian sat in the high driver’s seat of each, wrapped in a long leather coat, with a sword at his side. Another long-coated Ildarian rode on the near side of the wagon train, and glimpses of movement between the wagons suggested that a second rider rode the opposite flank. 

“The first wagon,” Fix reminded Indrajit. “If the babies are here, they’re in the first wagon.” 

“Protagonists!” Indrajit leaped to his feet, launching himself down the slope.  

Fix was at his side, just as fast despite his much shorter paces. The two Yuchak warriors at the front of the caravan spun to shoot at them, and then crumpled.  

Indrajit continued yelling, hurling himself at the mounted guard. Silently, meanwhile, Munahim and Philastes rose on the opposite slope, the Kyone with his tall bow and the Pelthite with his sling, raining attacks on the slavers. 

The Ildarian’s horse spooked and lunged backward, throwing its rider to the ground and then leaping up the hillside. Indrajit placed Vacho to his chest and shook his head. “You don’t need to die for someone else’s slaves.” 

A second horse struck Indrajit from the side, sending him reeling. Pine trees whirled in his vision and Indrajit flung his arms up defensively. He managed to parry an unseen blow and then he got a tree trunk between himself and his attacker, gaining a moment’s respite for himself. 

The second mounted guard reared up on his horse. His sword flashed impotently, unable to reach Indrajit past his own mount and the bole of the tree. On the other hand, Indrajit couldn’t reach him either, swinging Vacho half-heartedly around the pine. 

To his right, Indrajit saw more Yuchaks charging in his direction. They ran sheltering behind the wagons from the bow and sling attacks of the other Protagonists. They carried spears in their hands, and Indrajit counted six of them. 

Indrajit heard a scream, and then many voices raised in muffled clamor. The wagon nearest him shook and thudded as someone inside pounded against the restraining walls.  

Three of the Yuchaks reached Indrajit’s position and scrambled up the hill toward him. Behind them came the Ildarian Indrajit had previously unhorsed, now filthy with mud. Indrajit edged away to the left, but the mounted Ildarian lunged up the slope on his horse, steel flashing, and the poet skittered back. 

The Yuchaks advanced, white teeth gleaming in frames of their black beards. Behind them came the unhorsed Ildarian, eyes wild with anger and sword raised high in his hand. 

The mounted Ildarian barked a command in Yuchak, and then was cut off as he sprouted a spear head in the center of his chest.  

The Yuchaks turned to look and Indrajit charged. They faded back, one falling beneath the unhorsed Ildarian’s feet and dragging him down in a tangle of limbs and leather. The other two bumped into their oncoming fellows, creating a milling knot of uncertainty. 

Fix jumped onto the nearest of them, from the top of the wagon. The Yuchak sank collapsed and rolled under the wagon wheel and Fix alighted his feet. 

It was Fix who had run the mounted warrior through with his spear, after killing the wagon’s driver and climbing onto the top of the wain. Now he held a falchion in one hand and an ax in the other, and he slammed hard into the Yuchaks. 

“Protagonists!” he yelled. 

But they didn’t break. They danced away a step, pivoted, and threw themselves on Fix. 

Indrajit hit the nearest from behind, and then another took a stone to the temple and fell. Indrajit heard the sound of splintering wood, but he wasn’t sure from which direction. 

The wagon stopped its forward motion. Philastes peeped around the horses and hurled another stone with his sling, and then Munahim appeared atop the wagon. Lying on his belly and reaching down with both arms, the Kyone yanked the iron bolt from its brackets. 

The door banged open. It dropped like a gangplank or a drawbridge, narrowly missing Fix, and slapping onto the mud. Parrying Yuchak attacks, Fix climbed back onto the door and backed into the open entrance to the wagon. Behind him, Indrajit saw shadowed limbs and heard moaning. 

Indrajit grabbed another Yuchak by his hair and tossed the man aside. Pelted by stones and eyeing Munahim as the dog-headed man rose and put an arrow to the string, the Yuchaks scampered away. 

Indrajit stepped back, spun about to look for more combatants, and then surveyed the scene. Two horses bucked through the brush, riderless. A dead driver slumped on the seat of each wagon, one or more arrows in his chest. The wagons were each separated by several dozen paces from the wagon before, with the third wagon only barely visible, mostly concealed by the trees and a bend in the road. Fix bled from one wound in the arm and another to the chest, but the other Protagonists appeared unharmed. 

“I dislike ambushes,” Indrajit said. “They’re so unheroic.” 

Fix nodded. “But we were outnumbered and needed to even the odds.” 

“It was a close enough fight as it was,” Munahim growled. 

“And we’re freeing slaves,” Philastes added. “And rescuing babies.” 

Indrajit sighed and nodded. “Let’s at least get those babies out and have a look at them.” He sheathed his weapon and marched up into the wagon, leaving Munahim and Philastes to stand watch outside.  

Fanchee crowded both the front and the back of the wagon. In the shadows, their quivering face-tentacles disappeared into shifting uncertainty and their green skin was almost black. They wore filthy shifts, they stank of unwashed bodies and fish, and they were chained at the ankles to a ring in the floor.  

Fix smashed the ring with his ax. “You’re all free. Just tell us where the Gund babies are.” 

The Fanchee shuddered and cringed but wouldn’t admit to knowing where the babies were. A search of the wagon revealed nothing, and Indrajit and Fix filed out after the Fanchee did. 

Philastes unlocked the former slaves’ shackles and handed Fix a ring of keys. Indrajit stood watching the Fanchee flee into the woods. “Have we been deceived by yet another employer?” 

“The Gund paid us in advance,” Fix reminded him. 

“Maybe he actually hired us to get revenge on an enemy,” Indrajit speculated. “Maybe there never were any Gund children.” 

Munahim and Philastes freed the horses from their traces and collars. Indrajit and Fix opened the door of the second wagon and found it full of Zalaptings. Once again, there were no Gund babies and none of the Zalaptings would admit to knowing anything about such matters. Fix left the keys with the Zalaptings so they could free themselves, and the two chief Protagonists looked at the third and last wagon. 

The wagon’s door was ripped entirely from its place and lay in fragments on the road. Indrajit boosted Fix up into the gaping doorway and then took Fix’s hand up in turn.  

The third wagon contained no obvious slaves. Its walls were shelved, and on the shelves lay a wide array of objects: eggs, ingots, feathers, sealed clay pots, scrolls, and more. On one tall shelf rested two crates, two cubits long by two and a half cubits wide. Indrajit took one crate and stepped to the doorway to get more light. 

“Look at this,” he said. 

The bottom of the crate was occupied by a felt blanket, stained and rumpled. The corners of crate were thick with sticky white strands like spider silk, torn and fluttering at the edges in the damp breeze. 

Fix stepped to his side, holding up the other crate for inspection. Inside, Indrajit saw the same silk and a similar wad of dirty felt. 

And, lying on the felt, two masses of tissue. Indrajit blinked. 

“Is that what I think it is?” he asked. 

Fix picked up one of the strange objects. It was dark red tissue, two clots the size of eggs, connected by a strip of the same matter. Fix held in his hand the scabs that had gummed up Yazzo’s eyesockets. 

“I think the baby Gunds are freed,” Fix said. 

Indrajit hesitated. How much of Yazzo’s story could he believe? And if Yazzo was neither a scab-eyed Gund nor a raving sex fiend chained in a breeding pit, what was he? “Do we put this into the rescued princesses column?” 

Fix turned to watch Zalaptings and Fanchee disappearing into the woods above them. A thickening mist crept in, shrinking the world. 

“I think we do,” he said. 

Copyright © 2023 by D.J. Butler

D.J. Butler is the author of the Witchy War series, the Cunning Man series (with Aaron Michael Ritchey), Abbott in Darkness, and many other novels and stories. “A Lesson to Those Who Survive” takes place in his Indrajit & Fix series, which includes In The Palace of Shadow and Joy and Between Princesses & Other Jobs.