The First Saga
1. A Corpse-Littered Plain.
Even breathing through her nose, Morgen tasted death. Beyond the visor of her helmet, the world stretched out as a strip of mangled bodies sprawling on the steppes. The monotony of gore was broken only by the glint of crimson iron, by hands clawing at the sky, by the faint stirring of those souls yet uncollected.
A day of blood and death.
The sound of her own breathing echoed in her casque; the wild snort of a bull rearing to charge. She stuck her sword in the soil, where it stuck, quivering, as her gloved fingers worked the straps that kept her helmet in place.
When she finally peeled away the helmet, the wind of the steppes buffeted her face. Her eyes passed over the corpses. There lay men clad in mail and scale, with round, painted shields and sharp axes. From under iron-rimmed caps, their broken eyes stared up at her. Their tawny and blond hair was stained crimson. These were men of the south, Yslings. Among them lay the tribesmen of the hills in furs and leather with bows and spears of brittle iron or copper.
She closed her eyes, shutting out the baleful stare of the dead. For a moment, she relished in the realization that she lived still.
“The day is won,” said a voice behind her. “Let us shed tears for the Victorious Dead.”
It took Morgen a moment to place the voice, then she knew: Natana. Natana Saint-Inge. Young and ambitious. Yearning for her next command.
Morgen opened her eyes. Natana had come up beside her, grinning broadly under her steel cap. She was a recent promotion, attached to a regiment of spear as captain. She came from the capital, Trauwach.
Trauwach the Great.
Trauwach the viper’s nest.
But the city hadn’t stained this woman. She was from a well-known family. Great were the shadows she stood in, but she was eager to prove herself and competent to boot. She was fine material.
But she was wrong here.
“They are merely regrouping,” Morgen said.
Natana’s smile vanished in an instant.
“An old trick of the Hill-Men,” Morgen continued. “Behind the hills, their spears still bristle. If we dawdle, they will crest the hill and charge from higher ground.”
Paying Natana no further heed, Morgen turned.
The host of the Hundred-and-One stood at her back. Row upon row of leather-and-mail-clad warriors, ranks unbroken, disciplined to a fault. Among them, like fastnesses of steel, stood the Celestines: the fighting elite of the Hundred-and-One.
Hers to command.
At the head of this host stood one such giant—her body wrapped in plate armor, lumbering like a machine of war. Morgen nodded, and the figure stirred. A swift cut of Morgen’s hand said the rest. The lumbering hulk turned and spoke a command to a woman holding a long pole with several banners.
A moment later the clarion call of trumpets rang out.
Morgen sighed. “We advance. Let us end this.”
The sun dipped behind the pines to the west and lit up the sky in orange and pink, dazzling the eye and setting ablaze the drifts of snow that littered the steppes.
If it hadn’t been for the two armies readying for final onslaught, it would have been peaceful.
Morgen stood next to her banner, planted defiantly in the hard soil of the hill. It was white and bore only a single device: a dagger with a broad blade that tapered to the top, so that it was triangular in appearance.
Below Morgen, the failing light reflected on plate armor, well-forged swords, and spears bearing division banners. Disciplined were the women arranged on the slope of the hill; they made no wild charges but kept a closed shield wall and an unfaltering line of spears.
A little more than an arrow’s flight away stood the ranks of huntsmen and tribesmen who called these steppes home: fur-clad, disorganized, with weapons made for killing deer and not armored women. Their lines were already failing: the courage of the men in the front faltered. Had it not been for the spears and axes at their backs, Morgen believed they would have fled. After all, the men who had made up the core of this army—about three hundred mailed Silwines of the Yslings—were already slain. These were sworn enemies of the Hundred-and-One; raiders and murderers, hated and feared—but they had not been cowards; they had died fighting in the front.
Now, only the Hill-Men remained. For years beyond remembrance they had lived on these steppes, and they reckoned them theirs. Never had their claim been disputed.
Morgen saw their chieftain. He paced behind his faltering ranks, barked orders, chewed his beard, and urged his men to hold. Morgen was aware of his secret hope; her scouts had done their work. There was a regiment of horse a little to the south—hunters of the steppes, fresh and eager to fight. The chieftain was right to hope: Morgen’s host was large, but if the horse came at the right moment—charging on the open steppes, not up the hill—it could spell disaster.
Next to Morgen, Natana stirred. Morgen glanced at her and felt a burst of irrational annoyance at her unblemished skin—almond-colored perfection—and the gentle flush on her smooth cheeks from the excitement of a day nearly won.
Morgen had once looked just like that. But now, there was little left of her. Her face was beaten, weathered, nose broken too often, and her left eyelid had begun to droop. On top of that, a horrible purple scar ran from her left ear, the lobe of which had been cut off, all the way down to her chin, skirting her mouth as it passed. Despite her looks, she had no trouble. Men served her every whim, willingly. Still, something of the vain young woman she had once been remained and bit with acid jealousy.
Morgen ground her teeth and returned her gaze to the field. She looked at the pine forest west of the hill. Something moved there, and an officer who had been watching the forest turned and gave Morgen a signal.
Morgen grinned. It was time; she nodded curtly at Natana and the other officers gathered about her.
That a single nod could achieve so much.
With another clarion call, the ground trembled as the army of the Hundred-and-One marched as a single body, spears bristling, shields raised.
The Hill-Men fell silent. Morgen could see hope ignite on the chieftain’s bearded face.
Then the steppes thundered with taunting and jeering. Wild men brandished their arms and howled more than a thousand dying men ever could. The host of the Hundred-and-One did not answer. No more menace was needed than the setting sun coloring their weapons crimson as if in grim prophecy of the slaughter to come.
“Do you wish to join them, general?” Natana asked.
Morgen shook her head. “I wish for this to be over,” she muttered under the wind.
Now the Hill-Men hurled spears and fired a volley of arrows, blotting out the westering sun. The spears did some damage, slaying and wounding, but arrows of pig iron, copper, and flint meant little to shield, plate, and mail forged in the heat of the living heart of the world’s greatest civilization. Ranks closed to replace the fallen, and the clash was inevitable.
The Hill-Men raised shields and charged, howling and shrieking like devils bent on rapine and slaughter.
It began as a pushing contest.
The two forces bled speed as they collided. Shield slammed against shield, and both sides began to push. Every now and then, a spear jabbed into an opening, piercing an unarmored ankle or heel, slashing an arm or—if particularly well aimed or lucky—lodging into a crevice between plate or finding an unarmored neck or shoulder pit. When that happened, one fell away and another took their place.
So it went on for a while, surging this way and that. The Hill-Men did not push very hard, and neither did Morgen’s women.
As a lull came in the fighting and both sides drew back a little, Morgen’s eyes were drawn to a spectacle that was typical of the wild men of the steppes. Their rank of warriors opened as a single giant of a man pushed forward. The man had whipped himself into a frenzy, tearing off his leathers and furs to reveal a naked body hairy as a bear’s. In each hand, he held an axe with a short handle and a crude copper blade. His clansmen formed a half circle to his rear as he roared challenges at the tight formation of women. When none stepped forward and the line of spearwomen neither pressed on nor gave way, he made vulgar thrusting motions with his hips.
He stepped too close.
A spear shot out from the shield wall and pierced the naked giant’s thigh. Blood spurted from the wound when the spear was torn free. The barbarian’s leg gave out, and his clansmen fell back as the shield wall advanced and trampled the naked man under boots of steel.
Morgen sighed at the waste, shook her head. Still, she was impressed; it took discipline to hold ranks under such taunting and intimidating displays, but the hosts of the Hundred-and-One were the finest in the known world. When they fought, they fought as one, unhindered by pride or thirst for glory, always keenly aware that the key to any victory was to think and to work as one.
“Look, general,” Natana said as she nudged Morgen, forgetting herself for a moment. “They flee.”
Indeed, at the rear of the host of the steppes small groups of men broke off and fled in the direction of the copses that lay farther east. Several officers—or what passed for them among these savages—scurried to and fro to discipline the deserters and presently, small fights broke out between them.
“Another ruse,” Morgen said. “They mean to lure us farther out onto the steppes so the horse can make a perfect charge.”
Again, a banner signaled her from the foot of the hill.
Morgen grinned. “And indeed, here they come.” She turned back to Natana. “Let us play along for the nonce and give signal to press on. Keep our Gyta ready for my order. By the grace of the Dead God, we will finish this before nightfall.”
As soon as the host of the Hundred-and-One feigned to give chase to the enemy, the horsemen of the hills burst forth. Like a mad herd they charged in from the south. Dust billowed in their wake, and fierce battle cries preceded them. Their horses lathered, frothing at the lips, and the men shrieked fury and hate, working themselves up into a war-trance.
It was all as expected.
At Morgen’s signal, banners snapped and horns rang clear across the steppes. Undaunted by the sudden appearance of the horse, the host of the Hundred-and-One gave up the chase, regrouped, and formed into a triangle. One side faced the horse to the south, spears bristling. Another side faced the horde of the Hill-Men as it regrouped and made to charge. The last side kept safe a path toward the hill where Morgen stood, ready to fall back if needed.
There was a moment’s hesitation in that mad horde of horsemen. Then, they came on, no doubt spurred by their knowledge that the host of the Hundred-and-One was on flat ground; they had the advantage.
Morgen nodded at Natana. “Now is your time, sister,” she said. “Rally the Gyta. Let them make good on their oaths. But hold a score of them back, should we need them.”
Natana saluted, her eagerness to see their ploy unfold hardly contained, and turned. Morgen watched Natana’s billowing white cloak with the dagger disappear, then turned her eyes back to the field.
She felt a grudging admiration for the maneuver of the Hill-Men. With the Ysling Silwines dead on the field, she had thought all shrewd tactics extinct among her enemies, but the feigned retreat, the sudden charge of the horse, and the swift turn of the foot had proven her wrong. Had she been a younger, less experienced general, she might have lost the day.
She straightened her back and shrugged off the fatigue that crept up on her as she watched the play of life and death unfold below her.
The Hill-men charged: a two-pronged attack of foot and horse to bite with crude iron and pitted copper. The spears of the Hundred-and-One were not long pikes suited for repelling a determined cavalry charge. As such, they would suffer. On the other hand, the mounted Hill-Men were hunters and nomads, not professional soldiers, and neither they, nor their horses were armored.
As the horse closed in, Morgen found she held her breath. Still, after so many years, so many campaigns, the moment when the lives of hundreds hung in the balance was breathtakingly terrible. For a brief spell, even the rumble of the hooves was faint, and Morgen saw faces on the steppes below clearly as if time were frozen: she saw a Hill-Man, white foam in his beard, hurtling and driving his horse straight into a spear to die within moments. She saw one of her warriors as she fumbled her spear in a fated moment, meaning she would not slay the horseman coming for her and thus in her turn be run down and killed, never to return to the lush, temperate fields that had sired her. On that woman’s face, Morgen saw the dread realization of death inevitable.
Then, time picked up the pace.
She saw the clash before she heard it. Men flew from their mounts like dolls discarded by children. Horses impaled themselves on spears, dragging rider and spearwoman down in their death throes. Axes swung, scattering plate and mail several feet in the air where the setting sun lit them up. Swords stuck, shields splintered, men and women died with raging oaths on their lips, and death came ripping.
And by the Dead God, the sound. Cacophony, chaos. Iron banging, wood shattering, curses, oaths, and a shrieking loud enough to wake the dead.
The horns of the Gyta were strange: a tense, pressing ring, as if they were plugged with something that the horn player was trying desperately to blow out. The effect was a falter of the charge. The Hill-Men knew the Gyta of the plains and feared them.
Morgen had kept them concealed among the pines. Now, they charged out, urged on by the promise that this new territory, this new Gau, would be a place for them as well. No longer would they constantly vie for near-barren lands with savage Hill-Men or brutal Yslings. As allies to the Hundred-and-One, they would never stand alone and be part of an empire that respected every race and creed.
They flowed around the hill on which Morgen stood as a river around a rock. There were not many of them, about three hundred according to the latest tally, but Gyta did not count for normal numbers. Tall, sure-footed caprine titans of the forest; they resembled upright walking goats more than anything else, although their aspect was much more savage than that of any goat could be. The shortest among them stood at least seven feet; the tallest over ten. And they were quick. By the Dead God, were they ever quick. Even the slowest among them could match paces with the small sturdy horses the Hill-Men used. And unlike horses, they could leap up a hill or over boulders effortlessly. And unlike cavalry, they were not two trying to act in unison, but one body, one mind, one soul.
Again, the discipline of the Hill-Men amazed Morgen: with swift commands, the horses turned, fell back, formed a wedge, and charged into the Gyta. She wondered how long the Yslings had been secretly training them, hoping to sabotage the southern expansion of the Hundred-and-One. Still, there was no use to it. After their initial charge, there could be no more than eight hundred horsemen left, and the Gyta, although outnumbered by more than two to one, bit into them with spears longer than any man could carry uncouched on horseback. Singing in their strange musical voices, the Gyta ripped apart rider and steed, trampling on to fight with clubs and hammers when spears had shattered. Here and there, several fell, thundering down in a cloud of dust, often dragging their slayer with them, but the day had been won now. What remained of the horse turned and sped south, toward the last swath of barren soil that served as a buffer between the lands of the Hundred-and-One and those of the hated Yslings.
And just as Morgen was about to thank the Dead God and shed a tear for the Victorious Dead, a column of riders broke out of their retreat as if by a hidden signal. They whipped their horses, screaming, frenzying, and rode hard at the hill.
There was no one to intercept them.
Morgen frowned as she looked around her. Contrary to her command, none of the Gyta had been held back. Natana was nowhere in sight.
A panicked cry rose up around her. Swords rang as they cleared scabbards. Voices called her name as the Hill-Men reached the foot of the hill and began their ascent. Beside her, two Celestines of her personal guard—the rest were all afield—fell in.
She set her jaw, again forced to acknowledge that she must respect these savages for this ploy, then calmly placed her casque on her head.
The hilt of her sword was reassuring as a lover’s touch; the ringing as she tugged it from the scabbard the familiar voice of an old friend.
The Victorious Dead would have to wait a breath longer for their tears.
The Hill-Men came brandishing spears and axes, horses frothing at the mouth and driven to frenzy. But they had to charge up the slope of a hill to get to Morgen, and much speed bled from them. Behind them, a storm of steel, came the rear guard of the host of the Hundred-and-One to relieve the commanders on the hill. But it would take them some time to catch up.
The commanders would have to fight.
Morgen gathered about her the staff officers. Pale faces, sweaty hair stuck to their heads, wide eyes; most of these women had never fought, and the arms they bore served as decoration.
“Sisters,” Morgen called, her voice clear over the din of battle. “We rest safe knowing the day is already won. All that remains to be decided is whether we must join the Victorious Dead ere the moon rises. Never forget: even God has died.”
She could feel her two Celestines stir beside her. To them, death was glorious: to be reunited with the essence of Damas-of-the-Dagger, the One-in-Many, in the endless and pure churning of Miasma until great rebirth, was perfection. To noble staff officers, minds brimming with promotions, holdings, and profits, it was less so.
Morgen shrugged and slammed down her visor, shut out the nervous shuffling of the unblooded and the zealous prayers of her Celestines.
As the Hill-Men closed in, they fanned out, each selecting a target in the hesitant row of officers. The one that came for Morgen did so not out of choice, but because he could not steer left or right in time. Foam on his lips, eyes wide in berserk, he came, his horse struggling up the slope, axe ready to strike. But too much speed had bled from him. Morgen easily shifted out of the horse’s faltering path, then struck hard at the beast. Flesh tore, bone snapped, and the beast reared, eyes rolling wildly in their sockets. Balance lost, the beast fell back, dying as it hit the ground. It tumbled down the slope, dragging its Hill-Man rider along as it went.
Around Morgen, battle raged. She had time to see an officer, her face a grimace of pain and grief at learning of her own death, grab hold of the spear that had pierced her chest. The woman struck a useless blow at her killer, who mocked her cruelly, before she fell away, her only achievement of the battle relieving a Hill-Man of his weapon. Next to the doomed officer, a Celestine roared a wordless curse as she spun on her feet, letting her plate armor deflect a copper axe, then used the momentum of her move to strike, burying the tip of her blade deep in the rider who had attacked her as his horse shot past. She dragged him shrieking from the saddle as the horse ran on.
Then, the next Hill-Man was upon Morgen, a hairy brute who fought bare-chested, skin decorated with swirling patterns that Morgen knew were supposed to invoke the ancestor-gods of the Hill-Men. His long black beard and hair were bound with copper rings, and the scars on his arms and chest were many. He rode hard for Morgen, and she made ready to strike. However, the Hill-Man pulled his reins, driving his horse in a berth around her. Morgen could not turn swiftly enough, and the Hill-Man jumped at her from the saddle.
Their bodies collided, and Morgen fell to the ground in a welter of plate and clattering steel. In the hard fall, she lost grip of her blade, and it fell out of her sight. The Hill-Man straddled her, seemingly unfazed by his hard fall. Through her visor, Morgen saw only a strip of the brutal man: a worn and beaten face, black eyes burning with fierce hate. Before she could react, the Hill-Man raised his arms and with a howl brought down his axe.
Her helmet rang, her head throbbed. But the steel and padding held. Biting through the nausea, she drew a dagger from her girdle and buried it in the Hill-Man’s flank as he raised his axe for another strike. She felt his flesh yield to her blade, but only barely: the man was a knot of muscles.
Her head spun, and—now screaming fury—she stabbed again and again, burying her blade into the man’s flank, turning the handle as she pulled it out. The Hill-Man howled like a beast yet did not give an inch. Again he raised his axe; again it came down.
This time, Morgen’s vision darkened. Although encased by the best steel in the known world, she knew the blows would knock her out, soon. Then, the Hill-Man could easily drive a dagger between her plate and kill her. Biting down, she stuck again. This time, she missed, still reeling from the blow. The Hill-Man roared his victory and raised his axe.
Steel flashed like lightning behind him. The Hill-Man’s eyes widened, still fixed on her. For a short breath, he glared his hatred at her, full well realizing he would die before he could kill. Then, the man collapsed on her.
Weighed down by plate armor and the muscular body of the Hill-Man, Morgen lay pinned down. Her own breathing echoed in her helmet, although the sound of battle around her had already transitioned from the clash of steel into the moaning and screaming of the wounded and the dying. Dropping her dagger, she grabbed hold of the corpse and tried to roll it off her.
The body gave.
Panting, Morgen saw a familiar form loom over her: a giant, armored machine of war. She could not suppress a smile, and she knew the other woman smiled behind her steel visor as well.
Morgen extended her blood-spattered gauntlet. The other woman pulled her to her feet with ease, never losing grip of the thin-bladed sword in her left hand.
Head still ringing, Morgen looked around. The riders who had desperately charged the hill had been slain or driven off. One of Morgen’s Celestines lay wounded; the other was busy peeling away the ebon-and-silver plate armor to see to her fellow’s wounds. About a score of staff officers lay dead or fatally wounded; two score more were licking their wounds or staring wide-eyed with disbelief at the slaughter around them. Only five or six of the Hill-Men had fallen: a poor exchange.
“This was a grave error,” Morgen said, struggling to contain her voice. She cared little for those who lay dead. They had had their uses, but she had taken none of them to heart. However, they were daughters of noble houses, and the Matrons of those families would blame Morgen. The consequences for her political career over losing this score of women would be worse than if she had lost the whole battle.
“It was, milady.” The voice that came from the armored woman was metallic, hollow.
Morgen unbuckled her helmet. “Where were the Gyta I ordered held back?”
“Apparently, All Gyta were committed to the charge,” the armored woman said.
The words were unspoken, but they hung in the air. Morgen said them after she’d doffed her helmet: “Natana did not do as I ordered then.”
“I will tell her that the dead here return to Miasma due to her actions.” Morgen spat in the mud: red, blooded. She looked up at the other woman, saw the doubt in her posture even through the full suit of armor. “What? Not enough? Speak your mind, Ulle.”
“Natana is unfit for command. Twice, you have told her of the importance of a rear guard. Still she fails.”
That was true.
“It will be her last warning,” Morgen said.
“She makes too many mistakes, milady,” Ulle said. “But what vexes me, is that she makes them because she seems overeager. Yet some of the women who served with her before have described her as careful, a quick learner, and an excellent strategist.”
Morgen sniffed. “And?”
“She portrayed none of those qualities here today. Quite the contrary.”
Morgen scoffed. “Ambition made her eager.” She grinned at Ulle, a grin she knew to be bloody. “Natana and I share this trait, my friend. Ambition is all.”
Ambition is all.
For the past years, Loeg had done nothing but scour ruins and pits... Chasing a dream.
And now... now he was close. Pure force of will—pure ambition—had brought him here.
The shepherd Loeg had hired in Liathglen seemed to disagree. He scowled at the black hole in the ground, sweating, stinking—as if he was trying to drown out the rank earth-stink that wafted up from the hole.
“This is a pit,” the shepherd said.
“Indeed.” Loeg wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his tunic.
“I don’t see why you’d want to go down there.”
“And yet I do.”
The shepherd turned to face Loeg, mouth wide open. His teeth were like the jagged and broken tower that still half-rose around them. “Why?” the shepherd asked.
Loeg heaved a sigh, stuck his shovel in the heap of upturned earth beside him, and met the shepherd’s eyes. “I am not paying you to ask questions.” He gestured at the uncovered hole. “Get the rope.”
The farmer ran his tongue over his black teeth, mind slowly working. A mean light flared in his eyes as he studied Loeg. Loeg was smaller, he knew that well—not as broad or muscular as the other. The shepherd’s eyes rested for a moment on the long single-edged knife that hung from Loeg’s belt. Then he shrugged, dropped his pack to the ground, and retrieved a coil of rope from it.
Loeg nodded at a piece of black masonry poking out from between the mossy flags—the remnant of some wall. “Tie it to that,” he said. “It should hold.”
The shepherd complied with a grunt, then dropped the other end of the rope into the pit. A moment later, a thud resounded in the black below, signaling that the rope had touched the floor.
The shepherd stood looking simple.
Loeg jerked a thumb at the black hole before them. “After you.”
The torch gave off a reek of pitch and smoke that under any other circumstances would have been unpleasant. Now, it served to cover up the foul earthen odor that lingered in these forgotten halls.
Ahead, the shepherd’s silhouette stood black against the lurid glare of the fire.
“Too warm in here,” he muttered.
Loeg’s hand brushed the stone of the corridor as they walked. The masonry itself was warm, the steady glow bringing the temperature up to that of high summer, such as it was in Eadland. “It’s the stones,” Loeg said. “The Etter brought them to our world.”
The shepherd shivered. “Don’t say their name! It’s ill to speak of them.”
Loeg frowned at the back of the shepherd’s thick neck. He opened his mouth, then reconsidered: there was little point debating with men who kept sheep for company.
The going was slow. The old flagstones were uneven or missing, and every few steps the shepherd hooked his foot behind one and nearly tripped. Loeg gritted his teeth at every huff and puff that echoed down the black hall.
It had been hard work to get a helper. The shepherd’s people, the Ulder, held little love in their hearts for Loeg’s kind. And for the Etter and the black ruins they had left to scar the face of the world, they had nothing but hatred and fear. As such, one bull-necked shepherd—whose mind was as simple as a child’s and whose steps as clumsy as a calf’s—had been all his few coins could buy in Liathglen. And even that had taken plenty of cajoling.
Still, it was folly to go alone. Loeg had done so once, and it had nearly cost him his life.
“Left here,” Loeg said as they came upon an intersection.
The shepherd peered into the dark. “You sure?”
“I am,” said Loeg.
“It looks just as dark and foul as the other two corridors,” Loeg said. “Does it matter?”
The shepherd craned his neck. It was hard to see his expression against the bright torch, but Loeg was fairly sure the man was scowling. “I think we should go back,” he said. “Men ain’t got business in these here tunnels. They belong to the dark. Let the dark keep them, I say.”
“I paid you,” Loeg said. “And I told you what we were going to do, and we are not yet done.”
The shepherd turned, slowly. “Well, I say we’ve gone far enough. Whatever you’re looking for: it ain’t here.”
“We are not done.”
The shepherd shrugged, a massive quiver of flesh. “I am.” The step he took toward Loeg was menacing. His free hand moved to the iron-studded club that hung from a loop in his belt. “Step aside.”
Loeg’s fists clenched. He had to make a conscious effort to not speak through gritted teeth. Wherever he went, the story was always the same with these dimwits. “Fine,” Loeg said. “Will a tenpiece do?”
“A tenpiece?” The shepherd scoffed. “It’s not worth it.”
The shepherd thought for a moment. “Five,” he finally said.
A pulse of red hate. “Five?” Loeg hissed. “Five?”
“Look, we’ve got the dark here and whatever’s creeping about in them tunnels. Outside, we’ve got bandits, aye? Three caravans have not made it to the village over the past moon. Y’hear me, silverbeard? Three! It’s about as many as come at all.”
“You knew all this when—”
“Well, I’m saying it now.”
In a flash, Loeg saw himself shoot forward, long knife in hand.
Gut the filth.
The vividness of the image startled him. His breath caught, audibly; the shepherd would’ve noticed, had he not been rambling.
“One caravan we found, aye?” he said. “They even took the timbers from the wagon for firewood. These is desperate men... And the Pale One knows what’s crawling about in this place. And what’s even worse—”
Loeg inhaled through his nose, ignoring the stink, as he tried to regain his composure. He had really seen himself for a moment: the shadow he cast forward into time. And it had really been the shepherd doubling over and coughing out his life as Loeg wrenched his knife into the man’s innards—another shadow.
Visions of a future that might have been.
“—so chances are we’ll crawl out of this here dark hole only to meet the axe of some masterless men or desperate sons of whores. I’m thinking five tenpieces means little when I lie with my belly open for the wolves, aye? You’ll be agreeing with me when I say—”
A faint glimmer drew Loeg’s eyes. The long sleeves of his tunic covered his arms and his sheepskin gloves the rest. Still, a strip of flesh between sleeve and glove was visible. There, the silver, slithering markings that covered his skin were plain to see.
They glowed, ever so gently.
Loeg’s heart nearly stopped.
The shepherd fell silent. Loeg looked up. There was joy in him, but fear as well.
It was beginning.
He nodded at the shepherd, hurriedly. “Fine, fine. You get your five tenpieces.”
The shepherd seemed to swell. He held out a brawny hand. “Well, give them here.”
Loeg reached into his purse. There were a few loose shields and only three larger coins: tenpieces. He fished all three out and placed them in the shepherd’s hand. “Three now,” he said. “Two more when we return to Liathglen.”
The shepherd thought for a moment, hand already closed around the coins, then nodded. “Aye. That sounds fair.”
Loeg scoffed. “Go on, then. Left here.”
Spiders. Spiders everywhere.
The images made Loeg’s skin crawl. There were more of them than a sane man could or would count, crawling over each other, spinning webs, eating. A parade of spiders, carved in a broad band of stone that ran along the entire wall. They were made with skill unrivaled in Eadland of today: lifelike and disturbing.
“Disgusting,” the shepherd muttered.
Loeg was inclined to agree, albeit it they were disgusting in a most profound way.
Hallways branched off to their left and right, but Loeg was certain they were in the main tunnel. He knew the ruins of the Etter well, and the layout of the temples was often the same: a tall, wide tunnel into the earth. On the left and right were residences for priests and guards, waiting areas, pens for slaves, and warehouses.
At the end of the tunnel: the sanctum.
Loeg bit his lip, hardly hearing the complaints of the shepherd. He traced a finger along the delicate symbols carved under the spiders, felt their power emanate through the warmth from the walls.
The symbols were meaningless to him. He had traveled the Cnoica, visited most cities of the north, even great Trollby, the magestead, and spoke with cloaked wizards and druids, paid them in silver to betray their secrets.
But none knew the tongue of the Etter; none could tell him what it all meant. Loeg’s journeys had beggared him. All for boundless ambition and a dream.
Well, not a dream.
“By the Pale One...”
Loeg looked up. They had passed through an arched doorway and the sanctum spread before them.
At its heart stood a sculpture, shaped like a ten-foot obelisk and carved in the likeness of a spider’s web. From between the strands of silk, faces, hands, claws, and feet poked, gripping with despair and sculpted with skill unimaginable.
There were men caught in that web, but also Gyta, Alps, and beings that defied description. At the apex—a horrid master upon a throne of filth and horror—squatted a creature that was a spider, and yet it wasn’t. Sensual and repulsive, it was a twisted hybrid of scorpion, spider, and androgynous man. It inspired fear and confusion, but above all insignificance, for the cosmic being clawed at things unseen and cared not for the torture of those in its web.
“This, this—I...” All pretense of toughness had flown from the shepherd.
“Beautiful, no?” Loeg said, admiring the grotesque statue. “It is the Infinite. A god. No... the god.”
The other stammered wordlessly.
“Come,” Loeg said, stepping past the shrinking shepherd and rounding the statue.
An altar stood behind it. Carved of stone, each corner borne by a statue of a tormented human, chained from a collar around the neck to the claws of the Infinite above.
“W-we need to go back,” the shepherd said.
Loeg sighed. The man was quick to regain his speech. “Are you mad?” Loeg asked without looking up from the altar. “This is why we came.”
“No,” the shepherd said. “No, this is where the Pale One dwells and whispers. We—”
“Fool!” Loeg snapped. “Your pathetic tribal spirits do not ‘dwell’ here. They wouldn’t dare, even if they did exist.”
The shepherd tensed. Again, his hand moved to the studded club. “We go back,” he said.
Loeg ran his hand over the worn surface of the altar. It was marked and pitted from many years of rituals, but it was empty.
“Haven’t you seen enough, man?” the shepherd continued. “These tunnels and their filth go on forever.”
“Everything ends,” Loeg muttered, still touching the altar. “Even tunnels and filth.”
A hiss came from some distance away, but Loeg heard it.
So did the shepherd. “What in Wende’s name is that?”
Loeg knew, but he didn’t answer. He checked the ground around the altar, behind it. Perhaps something had fallen off, rolled away.
Another hiss. It came from beyond; from the far end of the sanctum.
“We need to leave,” the shepherd said. “Now.”
“Here!” Loeg cried, pointing at the floor beside the altar. “Help me, quick!”
Cursing, the shepherd lumbered over, shone torchlight on the bare floor and squinted his eyes. “What?”
“Help me with this.”
The hissing was closer now.
“Just, here. Crouch down, quick.”
The shepherd opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it and stooped low. Almost panicking, his eyes swept the uneven flagstones. “What? I don’t—”
Loeg’s knife hamstringed the man with ease; he fell over like a lumbering drunk, his question ending with a shriek as his hands closed around the wound, warm blood spilling over them.
Like before, Loeg saw his shadow-self reach out and stab the shepherd. Once in the other leg. Once in his vast stomach. Unlike before, Loeg now followed suit.
The shepherd cried out as the long knife dug into his thigh, then again as it slipped halfway up to the haft into the man’s gut. With exultation, Loeg noticed the silver markings on his arm shining brighter still.
Another hiss made Loeg look up. The things were in the sanctum now. Loeg bent over the shepherd—shrieking and clawing at the ground to crawl away—and nudged the man with his foot, causing him to wince in pain.
“Etterkin dog,” the shepherd muttered through clenched teeth.
Loeg scowled, then lifted the man’s purse from his belt. “I’ll take this as reimbursement for services ill rendered,” he said, then cast a glance at the dark end of the sanctum.
Things were slithering there, hissing.
“Now don’t die just yet,” Loeg said to the shepherd as he wiped his blade on his woolen hose and sheathed it. “They’re not much for carrion; they prefer their meals warm and living.”
With that, Loeg scooped up the torch, wheeled, and ran for the doorway. The worm-things would be busy with their meal for some time. Long enough for Loeg to make it out.
As he ran, the oaths and curses of the shepherd followed him out.
A branch whipped Loeg in the face as he broke out from between two trees.
He stood in a snow-covered glade.
His sides stung, but he paid them no heed. He turned on his feet and peered through the thick boles of the pine forest.
Through branches and trunks, the waning sunlight glinted on spears, helmets, and axes. Not too far behind.
He cursed softly, then whirled and fled, breath rasping in his chest. The end of his strength was drawing near. He would not be able to keep running much longer, and the last bit of his strength he’d need; Loeg was no warrior, but he did not plan on dying on his knees, weeping.
As he ran, his hand shot down to the haft of the long knife that hung from his belt: too short to serve him well against battle-axe and shield, but it was all he had.
He ran. He shot past gray trunks; through thorny shrubs that tore at his tunic and hose; and under boughs that shuddered and spilled snow when he disturbed them.
Finally, it was a brook that forced his hand. Frozen and concealed under a layer of snow, Loeg had failed to see it. He slipped on the ice and fell on the bank. A grunt escaped him as the air fled his lungs. Behind him, in the forest, men roared in response and called to each other.
Loeg rolled onto his back. He saw no one through the trees, but he heard their cries. His footsteps were easy to track in the snow.
“I have nothing!” Loeg screamed.
The only answer was a shouted command, unintelligible, and cynical laughter.
“I have nothing,” Loeg said again, almost to himself.
He felt an urge to lie back. His resolve to make a stand had left him as swiftly as the air had been wrenched from his chest when he fell.
It was just poor luck.
No sooner had he left the ruins of the Etter than the bandits had set upon him. Loeg was certain they had found the campsite and waited in ambush. Etter ruins were dangerous, but some contained valuable objects: especially equipment forged of Fanhule steel was prized. The bandits had hoped to rid whoever was fool enough to explore such ruins of his treasure. Loeg had been lucky to leave the ruin already running like mad, hoping to stay ahead of the worm-things. The bandit’s arrows had missed such a swift target, and they had cursed and given chase.
But that was where Loeg’s luck had ended.
The shouting drew nearer. Loeg’s breath had settled somewhat. He set his jaw, then propped himself up on his elbows and rose.
It was time.
Tugging his knife from its sheath, Loeg inched over the snow-covered ice, careful not to lose his footing again. A tree grew on the bank of the brook; it would serve.
He cast a quick glance over his shoulder but saw no one yet. Silent as he could be, he slipped behind the tree trunk.
There, he had only his own panting and the cold grip of his knife for company. His back against the tree, he heard the shouting close in. They were Sormans, northerners mainly by their accent, although there was at least one foreigner among them who spoke Bysprak almost in a cadence. The shouts were commands and excited cries as the bandits followed his trail. By the sound of it, they had fanned out to herd him in and surround him, and the efficiency and the speed of their operation told Loeg this was not the first time they had done this.
Loeg’s heart fought its way up his throat, his muscles and bones grew soft, and he felt close to collapsing.
Again he cursed his luck.
“Here!” cried a hoarse voice. Really close now. The far bank of the brook.
Footsteps in the snow.
“Watch out here, lads!” This was the musical voice. “There’s ice under the snow.”
Loeg had to remind himself to breathe. His grip on the haft of his knife tightened.
“You go around,” said the hoarse voice.
The man’s shadow came—herald of the man himself. Snow crackled underfoot. Loeg held his breath.
First a studded boot appeared, then a leg in hose. Shield, arm, axe—
Loeg threw himself headlong at his foe, silent as death itself.
A grunt escaped the man as he took Loeg’s full weight in his flank. For a fleeting instant, Loeg feared the man would hold, and Loeg would simply bounce back off him to die on his ass in the snow, but the man staggered and cursed. He sought footing by stepping back, found only the icy surface of the frozen brook, and fell, axe and shield clattering away.
Loeg was on top of him. In a flash, Loeg saw a braided gray beard and long gray hair under a helmet. Eyes cold as steel glared up at him. No fear. Not even when Loeg straddled him, swift as a fox.
The knife flashed in the waning sunlight as Loeg raised it, tip down, to kill.
The blow never landed.
With a dull thwack, the iron rim of a shield struck Loeg full on the jaw and threw him down in the snow. The knife escaped Loeg’s hand, fell away. He landed on his side, hard, and felt a pain as if some giant had ripped his jaw straight from his skull. His hands shot up to cradle it, but that hurt even more. A low howl escaped him.
As he writhed in the snow, men moved around him. Grim voices spoke, but Loeg’s consciousness was dominated by throbbing pain alone.
He had fought. He had not sold his hide cheap. And that was all.
He waited—waited for the stroke of the axe.