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- Story Listed as: Fiction For Adults
- Theme: Fantasy stories / Fairy Tales
- Subject: Courage / Heroism
- Published: 12/02/2019
WAKE UP, REN
Ren’s eyes snapped open. Groggily, he did his best to absorb what he was seeing, hearing and smelling. Once his vision adjusted to the gloominess of his bedroom, he could make out the shape of his mother, looming over him. She reeked of the cheap liquor that she kept hidden in the toilet cistern, the liquor she assumed her ten-year-old son was unaware of. She was muttering something, over and over.
“Wake up, Ren. Wake up.”
“What’s wrong?” Ren queried, in a hoarse whisper.
“Wrong. Wrong. Wrong,” his mother responded, scanning her son’s face. Her dark hair was a mess, strands of it pasted to her forehead with sweat.
“Y-you should drink some water,” Ren suggested meekly.
“Water. There was no water. Not where it should have been, just the edge of the world. We fell so far.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying,” Ren protested, sitting up against the bedhead and rubbing his eyes hard.
“No. You don’t.” Ren’s mother concurred, a tear falling from her chin. “Brea was my name then. I was a different person but I had to change and everything was forgotten.”
“Dad said... he said we came from Ireland.”
The distant sound of an early morning train caught Brea’s attention. She seemed more alert than her usual drunken self. Her eyes were wide and darting and she had the look of a cat, beholding unseen terrors. Ren grabbed his mother’s cold hand, bringing her attention back to him.
“That man? He was just a drifter. A real low-lander, he was. No comprehension of anything outside of...” Brea’s voice drifted off as she rose to her feet. “But there’s no time. The waning moon... it has to be done on this day. I must be strong for you, Ren.”
Ren hopped out of bed, ready to catch his mother should she fall. He was stopped dead in his tracks by something peculiar on the floor. There was a circle, drawn in chalk it looked like, illuminated by moonlight through the window. Inside the sphere, there were symbols and writing in words that weren’t English. Ren looked up at his mother and she stared back at him, suddenly slack-jawed and glassy-eyed.
“They were false, you know. They told us lies and lies and lies. I wanted to save you then but now I can save everyone. No good can happen in this place. I was wrong to do what I did. You shouldn’t be here. I’m sorry.”
Ren froze as his mother lifted a shiny blade to her throat, carving a bloody crescent into her pallid flesh. Crimson poured out of her, slapping the ground and snaking its way into the chalk circle. Almost immediately, a great crack, as loud as thunder, sent Ren diving for the safety of his covers. Great, heaving sobs erupted from deep within. Ren held his hands over his mouth, fearful of what was to come. Then the energy in the room shifted. An acrid smell assaulted Ren’s nostrils and he dry-retched. Peering out from his hiding place, Ren saw floorboards peeling back of their own accord and out of the breach, a great and terrible horned thing rose up to full height.
THE MAGICK MAN
The old, cloaked man glowered at Ren before sipping something noxious and green from a wooden goblet. His thin, crooked nose was like a scale model of the stairway leading up to Falon’s Keep. His large, hairy nostrils were like deep caves and Ren often stared into them, avoiding a chance glance into the old man’s milky eyes. Ren longed to live in a cave, away from everyone and everything. He would stay up late some nights, drawing underground tunnel systems, leading to elaborate caverns, some filled with treasures.
Drygast coughed vigorously, snapping Ren back to reality. Drygast was so old, some said he had studied under Falon himself. Others said that he lacked any sort of occult pedigree, snidely calling him ‘The Magick Man’, behind his back. All Ren knew for sure, was that Drygast was unnervingly calm, at all times.
“That story gets briefer every time I have you tell it to me. You are forgetting your past, forgetting your mother and everything about your questionable childhood. Not bad for only six summers in the confines of these walls. That is a fine thing, Rendl.”
“My mother called me Ren, I think. I like to be called Ren,” the boy challenged weakly, brushing his dark fringe out of his eyes.
“Is she available for comment?” Drygast asked dryly.
“No,” replied Rendl, looking at his lap.
“Very well, then. I will continue to refer to you by your full given name. Your mother transgressed. There are no accolades to be hung upon her character. You know, you were a mess when you first arrived here. Would not speak for the longest time. Wet the bed almost every night. You would wake up screaming and scratching at your face until it bled. You would not eat. I had to force beef soup into you myself. Those are the things your mother bestowed upon you.”
Drygast took a piece of mutton from his dinner plate and placed it before a small, white cat, perched on the table in front of him. The cat ate the meat eagerly, purring and chewing simultaneously.
“Good girl, Ethel,” the old man praised, tickling the animal’s chin. A tuft of fur floated into the air like a dandelion spore, landing on Rendl’s shirt sleeve. He was ever covered in white hair.
Rendl dabbed at his nose with the rough cloth Drygast had given him earlier. The bleeding had stopped and his face was no longer in pain, just numb. He tongued a tooth that felt loose and sighed. This last beating was more enthusiastic than usual.
“Give me that, now,” Drygast instructed, his multi-coloured herb, root, and secretion stained hand outstretched.
“Thank you... for patching me up,” Rendl proffered, running a finger under his nose to ensure there was no blood left there.
“They will not stop until you make them. I cannot be your father, nor your protector.”
Tears welled in Rendl’s eyes and he looked out the window at the incessant downpour pummeling the ancient stone walls of the keep. It was a drab place at times but it had become his home, for want of a better word.
“You must head down to supper. There shall be none left if you dawdle. Go on,” ordered Drygast. The old man stood up gracelessly, as though his skin didn’t quite fit. He fingered the beads and medals woven into his long, ginger-flecked beard as he shuffled toward the glowing hearth. Waiting until Rendl had left the room, he tossed the blood-stained rag into the fire. The old man raised a gnarly eyebrow and stroked the back of his head, as something he didn’t expect, revealed itself in the flames.
THE NORNLIC COMES
Rendl tumbled out of bed as the wall alongside it dropped away. There was shouting and confusion and the smell of burning. The wood floor shuddered and a wave of flame arced across the sky overhead. Rendl jumped to his feet, his heart pounding like the war-drums he could hear in the distance. He could scarcely pull on his boots and put on a shirt with his shaky hands. More screaming and then a stark silence, like the intake of breath before the plunge into icy water. Rendl’s eyes widened and he threw himself to the floor just in time. Wood and stone scattered across the room and the ground seemed to lurch forward. The tower was coming down.
A lanky, red-haired, senior girl, ran down the hallway yelling: “The Nornlic comes! I told them she would! They wouldn’t listen!” Rendl hadn’t heard of or learned about any such being. His mind began engineering all sorts of horrific possibilities, as he made to escape.
Rendl’s legs felt like the rabbit in jelly he’d eaten only hours before. People ran in all directions, some jumping to their deaths through windows in a panic. Lifeless bodies, severed limbs, and internal organs littered the stairways and corridors. The air smelled of blood and shit and charred flesh. Rendl tried to block out the horrors around him and he visualised running out of the keep, across the herb gardens and into the tall trees of the Mircewud. Then he collided with something big.
The Upplander was easily twice Rendl’s height and almost the same across. The thing turned its cauldron-sized head, a look of frenzy seizing its unseemly features. Polished skulls of various kills, dangled from its beard and the creature’s hide was hardened with spell-craft, etched in ink all over its body. Every student in Falon’s Keep learned about the fierce inhabitants of the Upplands during their first term. Rendl now wished he knew much less; the brutes were renowned for viciously raping their victims, dead or alive.
A student trying to inch her way past the giant was quickly seized by its fleshy, grey hand. The fiend licked its lips and tugged at the girl’s kirtle, clearly excited by her screaming and writhing. Rendl started to back away but then something unexpected came over him. His face felt flushed and his chest tingled. He scanned the ground for a moment, before picking up a small chunk of wall. He threw the stone at the Upplander, landing a blow on its ear. The girl was thrown to the ground and fiery orange eyes now locked onto Rendl, as the thing lumbered forward.
Rendl squeezed his eyes shut and cowered, suddenly blurting out, “Brecan B¯æne!”
He hazarded a quick look, the Upplander kept coming, raising a massive, wooden hammer aloft.
“Brecan B¯æne!” he repeated loudly, his voice cracking.
The creature ground to a halt, its eyes pointing in opposite directions, and it dropped to its knees. The colossal warrior’s flesh rippled and the sickening sound of splintering bone made Rendl cover his ears. Blood poured from its mouth and eyes and finally, the great hulk fell.
Drygast grabbed Rendl’s shoulders and shook him vigorously.
“You?” Rendl stated. “It was you. I did nothing.”
“Of course. You are not that good a student.”
“Why is this happening?”
“Obviously, there are those who object to the imparting of arcana to the sons and daughters of men. Come.”
CALMATIVES, RELAXANTS, AND LIBATIONS
Drygast pushed Rendl forward. Dodging falling debris, the pair wound their way down through hidden routes known only to The Occult Masters. When Rendl made for the main entrance, Drygast pulled him by the hair, guiding him to a trapdoor, leading to a tunnel that snaked in the direction of the Mircewud.
They were almost halfway when the tunnel caved in.
“The keep has fallen,” Drygast said gravely.
Rendl swung around to see the way behind them filling with dust and debris.
“Torr âdôn speld,” uttered Drygast, his arms thrust out toward the blockage before them.
The stones, clay and plant matter deteriorated into tiny particles, like a sandcastle kicked over by a bratty child.
Rendl pushed past the old man and bolted all the way to the end of the shaft. He surreptitiously climbed out through a trapdoor that opened up into an enormous, hollow tree. Drygast finally caught up with him, wheezing and coughing all the while. The pair cautiously exited the facade, looking all about them as they did.
“Did you...any of you, see this coming?” Rendl demanded as Drygast scanned the area for threats.
“We see much, not all. But yes, I saw this.”
“Why not warn us?”
“This is all as it should be.”
“I... I disagree!”
“It is of little importance whether you agree or not, Rendl. There are forces that will steer you and they need not your approval.”
Rendl peered over the old man’s shoulder at the crumbling fortress that once served as school and shelter. A barrage of soldiers, hired swords and siege-engines devoured the remnants.
“I’m taking the reins from now on. That’s the way it has to be,” Rendl asserted.
“Is that right? You know all about free will? Tell me, do you believe the whelps that bloodied your nose, over and over again, held their own reins?”
“What are you saying?”
“A silver here and there buys a lot of beatings,” Drygast said calmly, as he continued surveying the landscape. A small, white head popped up from within the folds of Drygast’s brown traveling cloak. The old man scratched Ethel’s head airily, as though man and cat were simply out for a walk. Drygast playfully flicked a wisp of fur at Rendl, who tried to wave it away without success.
“Your familiar can’t save you. Why pay people to hit me?” Rendl demanded, stepping away from the old Master.
“Because men, worth more than two raven’s shits at least, are forged into existence, like good steel. By the Gods and the Great Ascension, I will make a man of you yet.”
“You robbed me of free will. You kept me caged, only to live out the rest of my life as a fugitive? I never questioned any of it, I was so fucking scared.”
“You could have left at any time... maybe if you were not so busy being ‘fucking scared’”
Rendl shook his head. “Why were we attacked now? The keep has stood for so long. What good was this place? I don’t understand.”
Drygast stepped forward, placing a hand on Rendl’s chest. “You know The Ealdlichealm... The Elderland, is your home and you have learned, I hope, that good Mage’s are bred, not taught. Your mother knew that which is why she agreed, begged rather, that I scatter my seed in her fields.”
“You’re saying that you’re...”
“Your Master. Your teacher. Nothing more.”
“Of course not. You have precious little banging about in that bird-feeder of a head. I want you to traverse the world and remedy that fact. Meet the people that might shape you, avoid the ones that may take advantage. Get into a fight once in a while, plant that half-grown ginger-root of yours in a woman’s soil, for the sake of the Gods. It will be a long journey. Regretfully, this is all I have to offer you.”
Drygast handed Rendl a small leather pouch. Rendl opened it and smelled the contents.
“It smells like a wet dog,” Rendl complained.
“The bad news is: it goes in your mouth. You will be glad of it one day. Close that up and put it away.” Drygast commanded. “It is for use only when you have nothing else left. Now go.”
“Away from the small army that wants you dead. Start with that. Head in a north-easterly direction if you can manage it. Make for Norcastel. Tell no one your name.”
“Who or what is the Nornlic?”
Drygast glared at Rendl, before spitting on the ground.
“A creature twisted by its own desire. You would be remiss to think it a witch, like most. It is a polluted, distorted, perverse kind of a thing. It is a being you should absolutely be afraid of.”
“Where are you going?”
“To a place where I can seek a woman’s comfort but not before imbibing some calmatives, relaxants, and libations.”
Rendl pulled himself up with the aid of an exposed tree root. The blackbird that had swooped at him, now sat on a branch, making clicking noises. Rendl hadn’t seen the ditch in time; he could scarcely see anything. Miserly fingers of morning sunlight barely penetrated the thick forest canopy. There were several books about the things that lived in the Mircewud. Ever-hungry things that lived under the ground, waiting for careless travelers. Darklings they were called, creatures that shied away from the sun, tormented by their own desire for warm, wet flesh. At least no one would follow him.
Rendl began to run. The sooner he was on the other side of the forest, the better. Woody limbs whipped his face and his footing was uncertain in the mud and thick undergrowth. A growing dread wrenched at Rendl’s guts with every stride. His stomach bubbled vigorously when he suddenly felt the presence of something following closely behind. The rhythm of his own footfalls was soon accompanied by others. Hoofbeats?
A large shape bounded into view, it was a giant stag, traveling in the same direction and keeping pace. Was the animal being pursued? Rendl looked around but saw nothing and no one. As the pair ran together, Rendl found himself happy for the company; he figured that maybe the stag was too. The stag was a kind companion: patiently waiting whenever Rendl was slowed by the terrain. The better part of the day was consumed, running until spent, resting briefly, and then running some more.
The ambient sound of howling, skittering, and hissing soon reinforced Rendl’s worst fears. He regarded the stag; whose calm demeanor was of little comfort.
“Nothing to worry about, right?” Rendl said to the animal, who licked its lips in response.
Rendl quickened and soon lost sight of the regal beast, which left him feeling alone and exposed in the eeriness of the alien environment.
Liquid sloshed against the back of Rendl’s head ran down his spine and into the seat of his breeches. It was tepid and it smelled gamey. He looked all around and then up. Halfway up a large oak, was a tree-house. Standing on the balcony of said tree-house, was a woman. The woman held a bucket. The bucket had previously been filled with urine.
“Apologies, I suppose,” the woman called out brusquely.
“I don’t know what to say to that,” Rendl replied, pulling the fabric of his wet shirt away from his skin.
Rendl couldn’t help but stare at the raven-haired woman. She had the look of a long- practicing Arcanist, yet appeared to have only seen twenty summers. She wore an elaborate horned headdress, and garments woven with intricacies. Curiously, her eyes were concealed with a scarlet coloured wrapping, too thick to see through.
After a time, a rope ladder unfurled from the house, halting a thumb’s width from Rendl’s affronted face. Rendl nodded to himself, looked around for witnesses to his degradation and began to climb.
NAKED IS GOOD
The house was full of books. Rendl tilted his head to read as many titles as he could, without seeming too nosey, although his host was blind, wasn’t she? He was suddenly very aware that he was in the home of a reasonably fetching stranger and he hoped to gauge just what sort of person she was. Titles such as: ‘Of Mushrooms and Edible Bark’ and ‘What Be That Noise?’ were of little help.
“I’m Radella, not that it matters. You must be lost, or on the run.”
“I don’t care,” countered Radella, beginning to deftly unbutton Rendl’s wet shirt.
“Powerful things happen when one is skyclad.”
Rendl waved a hand in front of Radella’s face to ascertain whether the woman could actually see or not.
“Skyclad? You mean-”
“Naked. Naked is good... and yes, I can see. I see a damn sight more clearly than you, wandering idiot.”
“I... I smell like piss,” Rendl protested self-consciously, his head suddenly spinning.
Radella pulled Rendl’s breeches down and, after retrieving a bucket of water and a sponge, began the process of bathing her guest. The water smelled of cinnamon and wildflowers and it warmed his cool flesh. Rendl trembled, both hands cupping his privates. He looked around for a distraction, staring at a set of shelves on the far wall. There were jars of preserved things, liquids, powders, and tinctures. Rendl squinted at one jar in particular. At first, it looked like a near-empty jar of pickled onions but closer inspection revealed the truth: two human-looking eyes, root and all. The unlidded orbs looked shocked to find themselves on someone’s shelf.
“Radella... are those your-”
Radella unceremoniously spun Rendl around, shifting him this way and that, until he was relatively clean.
The woman then scooped up Rendl’s soiled clothes and dumped them into a bubbling pot over the fire. She stared at the flames momentarily, and Rendl fancied that he heard her whisper something, before turning her attention back to the bare-skinned boy in her living space.
“Here,” said Radella, throwing a dark cloak at Rendl.
Rendl gratefully wrapped himself in the garment, before flopping onto the woman’s bed. He felt giddy.
“Do you know who the Nornlic is?”
Radella turned her head and spat. “Don’t speak of such things. Names are potent.”
“It’s funny, us meeting like this... out here,” Rendl babbled.
“You are suspicious. You should always be suspicious.”
The mournful bellow of a forest creature echoed through the trees. Birds took wing and the distant thunder of a diminishing storm made the moment seem poignant.
“I feel like I should leave.”
“I will not lay with you,” Radella stated.
“Oh,” replied Rendl. “I mean... I didn’t expect anything like that.”
A beautiful, statuesque woman emerged from the shadows, she wore not a stitch of clothing. Her hair was suffused with all the vibrant colours of autumn, her skin like the palest birch. The strange woman’s emerald eyes were wide and innocent, her rosy lips perfectly shaped.
“How long has she been here? The whole time?” Rendl quizzed in a panic.
“Hush. Leode is not concerned with your shame, only your pleasure. You may enter her cave-mouth.”
“Because it is what you want to do.”
When Rendl awoke, Leode was wrapped around him. Night had fallen and the air was crisp. His mind was clearer than it had been when he first arrived. He recalled his experience, with the pale woman, in minute detail. Leode, although her eyes were still closed, cooed and squeezed him more tightly.
Radella thrust a wooden bowl at Rendl and he carefully sat up, repositioning the sleeping Leode. He took the bowl and wolfed down its contents. When the dish was empty, the flavour came to him in a delicious wave. Meat, herbs and broth, as good as he had ever tasted.
“You’re satisfied, then?” Radella enquired, taking the empty bowl.
“Yes. I can’t thank you enough,” Rendl answered. Radella looked at Leode.
“Oh, yes. I still can’t believe all this. You’re very kind.” Rendl blurted, instantly regretting his insipid remarks.
“Good. Then you’ll head off and continue your adventures.”
“Really? I have so many questions. Who is she? Who are you for that matter? Why do you live out here?”
“I’m an outcast. She is a thrall, no more than a child’s doll.”
Rendl jumped up, surprised by the sound of creaking and rustling in the bed beside him. Leode’s skin began to ripple, then it tore, each portion retreating like dust in the wind. Her constitution was soon revealed to be nothing more than the stuff of the forest floor: an amalgamation of leaves, roots, grasses, and moss. Rendl was speechless.
Radella pointed at the detritus atop the bedclothes and then at Rendl’s naked body.
“Niman of hê!” she commanded.
Leode’s remains began to leap off the bed as though propelled by a stiff breeze, slapping onto Rendl’s skin. Soon, he was covered in what came to look like a decent set of newly tailored garments, well-cobbled boots, and a satchel. Radella handed Rendl the clothes she had laundered for him.
“You may need these yet.”
Rendl stowed the clean outfit as Radella ushered him toward the rope ladder.
GUDRINC: THE FORSAKEN
The stag had reappeared as soon as Rendl’s boot touched the ground. The pair traversed ravines crossed brook and stream and ducked under the odd fallen tree. Whenever Rendl lagged behind, he fancied he could hear the growing whispers of ravenous Darklings. Nothing gives speed to the feet like the fear of being devoured alive.
The stag led Rendl to the edge of the Mircewud, before turning and capering back into the darkness. The sun was rising and the air smelled sweet after the rain. Rendl could see clear to Dennland and he whistled as he strolled down toward the rushing waters of the Wielmestream. He felt more optimistic now, enjoying the experience of old maps come to life. Danger seemed like a fading memory. Maybe the journeyman’s life was as good a fit as the clothing he now wore.
“Boy!” cried a nearby blackberry bush in a deep voice.
Rendl watched as a large man emerged from his hiding spot, cantering over like a muscled warhorse. Rendl’s coat-sleeves bristled.
“What do you need?” responded Rendl, with the new confidence of a young man who had just discovered sexual-congress.
The man stroked his thick, brown beard and looked Rendl up and down.
“You were with the Hêahdêor?”
“The stag. The big one.”
“What of it?”
“I’ve been waiting for it.”
“Why? You want to kill it?” asked Rendl, folding his arms across his chest.
The man looked down at the axe in his belt and smiled.
“Gods no. I’d be struck down with cock-pox for such a thing. No, I wonder if you met anyone on your journey through the forest?” the man asked as he moved ever closer.
“Gudrinc. Gudrinc the Forsaken is what I am called these days. You are?”
“Utlenda is my name. Utlenda from Smalewic.”
“Praise Eostre’s perfect tits, Utlenda of Smalewic. Now that we have said our names out loud, I expect there is some sort of bridge of social propriety between us. Did you meet a woman in the woods?”
“I might have. Do you have any coin... or food?”
“Answer me and you’ll have both.”
“I did meet one... briefly.”
“Lives in a tree, makes spectacular beef stew?” rattled Gudrinc.
“Yes. That stew was incredible.”
“Did she seem... happy?”
“Compared to what? Look, she was quite curt if you want to know the truth. Why the interest? Are you two-”
“Maybe. Yes. No. I don’t know. I mean... I love her. She saved me once. At any rate, this is not really your business.”
“Why don’t you just go and see her?”
“You don’t think I’ve tried? She can conceal or reveal herself at will. The Hêahdêor won’t even appear to me. Without that stag’s guidance, I’m just meat for Darklings. She just doesn’t want to see me.”
Gudrinc turned toward the Wielmestream, kicking the grass with a well-worn boot. Suddenly, his spine straightened and he turned back to Rendl.
“You didn’t lay with her, did you?”
“I’d kill any man who did!” growled Gudrinc, pointing an accusatory finger.
“I did not. Anyway, she made it clear that she wanted none of that.”
“Good. That’s good. Did she... throw piss on you?”
“Yes. Old magick, that is. Not that you’d know anything about any of that, Utlenda of Smalewic.”
“No. Nothing,” Rendl lied.
“Would you do something for me? I’d pay you handsomely,” babbled Gudrinc excitedly.
“What is it?”
“Take a note to her. It would mean everything to me.”
Rendl sighed and looked out toward Dennland and beyond. He looked back at the dark, terrifying forest and his shoulders dropped.
“Twenty gold,” shot Gudrinc.
INTO THE WOODS
“Stupid! Stupid!” Rendl cursed under his breath, as he trudged back toward the tree-line. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw Gudrinc settling in amongst the blackberries once more. Rendl entered the Mircewud and looked around desperately for the stag but saw nothing. He snuck in, as far as he dared. He could hear the sounds of whispering once more, like claws on bark, coming from all directions. His shoulders slumped and he exhaled heavily, before crawling behind an ample tree stump and sliding down into a seated position.
He indignantly pulled Gudrinc’s note from his satchel and unfurled it.
“Perhaps this is all a big trick,” he rationalised to himself. “Stupid bird-feeder head!”
The note was written not in words but symbols. They didn’t appear to be magickal and Rendl couldn’t ascribe them to any of the races he’d learned of in his time at Falon’s Keep. The Woodsmen of the east were said to use symbols to communicate but they would carve them into the trunks of trees. Gudrinc was human, not Woodkind. Perhaps it was nonsense: all part of the ruse.
A crawling thing of some kind scratched at Rendl’s boot and he tried to flick it away. The insect was nothing if not persistent. He shot upright and danced about to shake the beastie off. It had long, pale legs and moved languidly toward Rendl once more, suddenly latching onto his ankle with the strength of a man’s hand. Rendl’s stomach flipped, when he realised the thing was connected to an arm, rising out of the earth like that of a necromanced corpse.
Rendl called for help but none came. The creature yanked Rendl’s leg and he fell flat on his face. He desperately grabbed for the tree stump but he couldn’t reach. Rendl flailed and fought with every ounce of energy until, finally, he had nothing left. It was too late, Rendl was being dragged into the bowels of the forest.
The root shavings did not taste like wet-dog, as they had smelt. They tasted much worse. Rendl looked down to see his legs disappearing into the ground but strangely, he felt no panic. His pulse sped up and he began to sweat profusely. Filled with renewed vitality, Rendl kicked at the Darkling’s boney hand with his free leg, dirt flying in all directions. The thing released its grip and Rendl jumped out of the trench like a jackrabbit.
A white, hairless head emerged slowly from the dirt, and Rendl backed away quietly. The Darkling’s ruined eyes were useless but it’s large, bat-like nostrils flared and it sniffed eagerly, in Rendl’s direction. The thin, translucent flesh of its large ears expanded and contracted, honing in on the escaped meal. The Darkling pulled itself free of the soil, crawling like a reptile, ever closer to its quarry.
Rendl backed away, careful not to make a sound. His heart was beating furiously and it took all his will to stay focused. He was nearly satisfied with the distance between them and was about to turn and run, when the crack of a twig underfoot, broke the silence. The creature let out a low hiss, before lunging at Rendl, its long talons extended.
The Darkling squealed like a stuck pig and rolled off into the bracken. The Hêahdêor brayed loudly, victoriously, before bowing its antlered head and gamboling back into the shadows. Rendl laughed grimly and brushed himself off. He ran out of the Mircewud, faster than he had ever run before.
When he surfaced, Gudrinc was there to meet him, his eyes wide with anticipation.
“That was very quick, Utlenda. You gave Radella my note then?”
“I was very nearly eaten!” Rendl retorted.
“So, you failed?”
“Is your beard on too tight?”
“Or maybe you buried my letter, made up a story, all so you could keep her to yourself. I say maybe you did sow her field. Woden’s cock, you’re a bold, bright bastard!”
“You insult me. Apologise, pay me, feed me, and I’ll forget all about it,” challenged Rendl, dancing from foot to foot with vigour.
“I’ll plant my axe in your thick head and no mistake.”
“I wasn’t entirely straight with you at first, Gudrinc the Fart-faced! Radella did speak of you. She said you had the cock of a newt and the smell of a goat’s arse.”
Gudrinc wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He pulled his axe and threw it from his left hand to his right, before dropping it on the ground. The big man then ran at Rendl with the ferocity of a wounded bear. Rendl crouched in readiness, squeezing his hands into fists. He licked his lips and blinked several times. When Gudrinc was almost upon him, he thrust out his arms and cried, “Brecan B¯æne!”
Gudrinc’s legs gave way and he crumpled. A sickly sounding wheeze erupted from his chest as his arms snapped and popped, and Gudrinc the Forsaken dropped to the ground like a sack of grain. Rendl felt a rush of excitement as he looked around to ensure the spell’s effects were of his own making. Elation soon gave way to grim resignation and the boy’s expression darkened.
Dragging Gudrinc’s hefty frame wasn’t as difficult as Rendl had expected. Drygast’s awful tasting root was a marvel and Rendl found himself wishing for more.
“Wha? Don do thsss,” Gudrinc protested weakly.
Rendl didn’t answer. He resolutely pulled the man to the edge of the forest, dumping his limp carcass against a thick beech tree.
“Leode, take this man into the woods. It’s dinnertime.”
Rendl’s coat, shirt, and trousers whipped off his body, recomposing into the beauteous creature he’d enjoyed mere hours before. His stowed garments fell in a heap as his satchel dissipated. Leode fell against him, kissing his lips tenderly, her delicate skin brushing his own, before dissembling into her leafy constituents and engulfing Gudrinc like a drift of bees. The broken man stood and subsequently began walking into the forest, jerkily and not at all under his own power.
Rendl retrieved his own clothing from the ground. He dressed and walked away from the Mircewud, his first lover and the screams of Gudrinc the Forsaken.
Rendl chewed on preserved venison and hard cheese as he crossed the river at its shallowest point. Gundric’s supplies were few but of fine quality. His coin was not as plentiful as promised but his castle-forged axe would almost certainly prove useful. His heartbeat was slowing and his blood was running much cooler since his encounters at Mircewud. Then he saw something that threatened his newfound ease.
Three women were crouched on the eastern bank, not far from a colorful caravan, in various stages of undress. They bathed their bodies and playfully flicked water at one another as Rendl watched. One had hair of gold, another had chestnut locks and the last had hair as red as blood. The golden-haired bather noticed Rendl’s attentions and she informed the rest. Soon there was giggling and whispering and Rendl looked at his boots as he continued his journey.
“Hark! Enjoying the performance?” called the brown-haired beauty.
“No! Yes! Sorry!” answered Rendl.
“Don’t run off! Come on over!” shouted the golden-haired woman.
Rendl considered pretending not to hear before his Master’s words echoed through his head.
“Half-grown ginger root, my arse,” Rendl whispered, before strutting toward the trio. He brushed flecks of food, the odd burr and other things off his clothing. He was frustrated to note some of Ethel’s coat had survived Radella’s laundering. Cursed cat’s fur was impossible to remove.
“Isolda, of the road,” stated gold-hair, as soon as Rendl was within spitting distance.
“Agrona, of the road,” offered the brown.
“Luella, of the road,” announced the redhead, slightly less cordially.
They each curtsied melodramatically, oblivious to their exposed flesh.
“Utlenda... of Smalewic. Is that your caravan?”
“Yes. We are The Pilgrim’s Folly: an acting troupe, performing for the good Queen Mircella on the morrow,” said Isolda, near to giggling once more.
“Could I trouble you-”
“-for a ride?” interjected Agrona.
“If you’re heading to Norcastel anyway. I have coin.”
“Well let’s see it then,” ordered Luella, who was sternly smacked on the arm by Isolda. “Can’t be too careful!” she affirmed.
Rendl opened Gundric’s coin purse and pulled out a single silver.
“That’ll certainly do it. Enough for a drop of our pear wine as well, I’d say. To Norcastel it is, then,” gushed Agrona enthusiastically.
Rendl nodded and began heading toward the brightest and largest of the carriages, only to be redirected to a smaller, more sedate looking vehicle. It would be a close fit.
“I’ve performed in Smalewic and I’ve never seen him before,” Luella said, a little too loudly, while the party piled into the horse-drawn cab.
Agrona sat opposite Rendl and Isolda next to her. Luella was squashed up next to him and there was little wriggle room, due to the multitude of hanging costumes packed in with them. The carriage lurched forward and Luella grabbed Rendl’s thigh to steady herself, withdrawing her hand as soon as she realised where it was. Rendl stared out the window at the Plain of Tears in the distance. Drygast had taught him that the plains were so named, not due to the region’s rainfall as many thought but in reference to the tears of widows and grieving mothers. Many a young man had fallen in battle on that blood-soaked earth. For a moment, Rendl thought he saw a lone figure on horseback, careening across the plains, a figure that looked like...
“This will cheer you up,” interrupted Agrona, passing Rendl a skin of the promised pear wine. Rendl popped the stopper and took a deep swig, it was smoother than he’d expected. He took another before Luella snatched it off him.
“It’s not just for you, Boot-Lender,” she chided.
“Utlender,” he corrected, marveling at his skills of subterfuge.
“Not important,” Luella returned, before taking a swig and passing the wine on.
“Why do women keep saying that?” Rendl blurted.
Isolda and Agrona burst out laughing and Rendl along with them. The wine was already making him feel more at ease. He looked at Isolda, her long neck begging to be kissed, He then turned his attentions to the darker Agrona, enjoying her barely-covered curves and freckled skin. Luella turned away from him, huffing in disgust.
“Don’t worry about her. She’s hot then cold then just when you’ve given up... hot again,” teased Agrona with a wink.
Rendl’s eyes felt raw all of a sudden. The events of the day caught up with him at once and he wished he was back in his bed at Falon’s Keep once more. Just then, a small shape burst into view and Rendl couldn’t decide whether it was real or a trick of the light. He tried hard to focus and after a time, the shape took on the form of a bird. A blackbird, resting on the sill of the open carriage window. The women doted on it and the bird looked at each of them in turn. It was like a small council of man and beast. Rendl laughed like a lunatic until his head bobbed, and fought as he tried, he could only give in to the insistence of sleep.
WE HAVE MUCH TO SHOW YOU
The carriage was empty. Rendl blinked his eyes harder and harder, trying to make sense of what had happened. Night had fallen but they had stopped short of Norcastel it seemed, that or carried on in another direction. Had they been robbed? The women taken hostage? He felt around on his belt for the coin purse, it was still there. Rendl’s head ached and his mouth was dry, he would have to look for water.
He pushed the door open with his foot and tumbled out onto long grass. They had stopped near the mountains, sure enough, but the city walls were nowhere to be seen. Looking around, he saw that the rest of the caravan had moved on. There was no driver at the front of the vehicle but he could hear talking in the distance: low voices speaking as one.
Rendl righted himself into a crouching position and snuck around the side of the carriage. He peered out and saw the flickering of firelight and three figures standing around the flames. It was definitely his female hosts, standing proudly, hands interlocked, naked. Skyclad.
Rendl inched forward, filled with unease but compelled to get a closer look. The women swayed now, one way then the other, like a single organism. They chanted in a language that sounded profane and the hairs on the back of Rendl’s neck stood on end. He couldn’t recall seeing anything like this observance, this ritual, not in his time at Falon’s Keep, yet there was something hauntingly familiar about it.
Isolda bent over and picked up something shiny and glinting. She ran the thing across her breasts and then down her abdomen, blood streaming across her body in rivulets. She moaned and called out as she writhed, passing the blade on to Luella, who did the same. As Agrona was handed the knife, Rendl felt an irresistible wave of anxiety. His mother’s face appeared to him, clearer than ever but distorted by decay. Images invaded his mind and he had to place both hands over his mouth to stop from crying out.
Rendl ran as fast as he could, toward the mountains.
“Don’t leave, Rendl! You are not yet prepared!” shrieked Isolda.
“We have much to show you! Join the festivities! It is a day for merrymaking!” bellowed Agrona.
“Do not displease the horned God!” yelled Luella furiously.
THE CAVE MOUTH
Drygast dismounted the clearly exhausted Palfrey and stumbled over to Rendl. A blackbird swooped the old man, grazing his sallow cheek with a sharp claw and drawing blood. The creature flew on toward the mountains, disappearing into a cave, a cave with an elaborately carved entryway.
“You were meant to make for Norcastel, idiot!”
“How did you find me?”
“It does not matter. I saw your three companions. I warned you about people of that sort.”
“If you were so concerned with my comings and goings, why not just accompany me? Or were you too preoccupied with your strumpets and liquor?”
“Each man must be free to take his own path. Over-guidance corrupts and distorts. That does not mean I do not care.”
“First time I’ve heard you say anything like that.”
“I am not sorry for how I have raised you in the short time we have had together.”
“You are not sorry? It does not matter. Nothing does, it seems.”
“That is not true, Rendl. Truth matters.”
Drygast looked at the cave mouth beyond. He hung his head and sighed.
“What’s in there?” Rendl queried.
“You want to find out, do you?”
“I feel like... everything is pushing me in that direction.”
The pair entered the shadowy maw of the tallest, most oppressive mountain in the chain. The air was close and unmoving and it smelled of decrepitude. The long, dank tunnel reminded Rendl of his countless, late-night drawings. He felt right at home in the subterranean world. After many steps taken in darkness, soft light began to flicker in the distance. Rendl tried to drink in the sheer scale of the place but it was almost too vast for his eyes to ingest. The sound of wailing echoed through the enormous cathedral of stone, bouncing off the walls, surrounding them.
Rendl and Drygast came to an overlook and the scene that lay before them was vibrant, lascivious and carnal. Countless bodies squirmed in a sea of sweat and blood. Some copulated without shame, others drank deeply from wineskins, others still, wandered about, enthralled and undulating.
The revelry was brought to an abrupt halt when an almighty crack resounded throughout the cavern. From a fissure in the stone floor, arose a figure the colour of obsidian. Much bigger and taller than an ordinary man, it towered over the masses, who immediately fell prostrate. Its horned head was dreadful to behold and it looked up at Rendl, who proceeded to wet his breeches.
THE DECAY OF THE GRAVE
Both Drygast and Rendl whirled around, alarmed by the sound of breathing close by. The woman’s eyes shone, reflecting the dancing firelight below. Her dark hair flowed in the breeze that wasn’t there and she smiled warmly as tears welled in her green eyes.
“M-Mother?” Rendl stuttered.
“Brea... how?” muttered the old man, aghast.
“All things are possible under the guidance of the horned God,” Brea cooed, kissing Rendl’s cheek, then Drygast’s.
“I don’t... You sent me here, a long time ago. Why?” Rendl demanded.
“Your path lay, not with the low-landers but here, in the blessed Elder Land: the place of your birth.”
“I watched you die!” Rendl exclaimed, wiping tearful eyes with his sleeve.
“And you’ve seen nothing remarkable or inexplicable in your time here?” Brea countered.
“If you were raised by way of necromancy... where is your neck-scar?” Drygast queried, his eyes narrowing.
Brea glared at him.
“Come to mention it, you’re very well preserved. There is not an Arcanist, Witch or Necromancer alive who can reverse the decay of the grave. Who are you?” demanded Drygast in his measured way.
Brea’s calm demeanor suddenly twisted into one of contempt. She placed a hand on her hip, looking at Rendl and Drygast in turn. She then took a deep breath, licked the palm of her left hand and dragged it down over her face. Her skin began to sizzle and the sharp scent of cooking meat filled the air.
Drygast placed a protective arm across Rendl’s chest, pushing him back. Rendl quickly glanced down into the main chamber to see the horned beast still staring at him, its proselytes now standing upright and silently looking in the same direction. He turned back toward the being that claimed to be his mother, its skin bubbling like soup over flame. Soft skin gave way to a slick, wrinkled hide, tinged with bilious green and jaundiced yellow. The creature was humpbacked, hook-nosed and frightful to look on. Sparse, grey hair hung limply off its liver-spotted head. Its sagging breasts hung over its protruding belly and its feet were twisted and painful looking.
“Dôð Nornlic oferfaran!” Drygast erupted.
“Mîn côpenere,” the Nornlic replied in a voice like gravel under a boot.
“I am not your lover, nor do I have any affiliation with you, putrid abomination!” cried Drygast.
“You took me into your bed. That makes us lovers, does it not?” quizzed the creature.
Drygast fell to the ground as he felt the full brunt of terrible realisation.
“And you,” the Nornlic drawled, turning her attention to Rendl, “you carry the delectable smell of a child’s’ fear.”
The Nornlic approached the boy, lowering her head and sniffing at him like a hound. Rendl self-consciously held his hands over the wet patch still spreading across his crotch but the Nornlic wrapped her slender fingers around his wrists and effortlessly pulled his hands up to her face. She licked his palms with a long, blackened tongue, closing her eyes and moaning in ecstasy. Rendl froze, unable to look away.
The Nornlic, once satiated, placed Rendl’s hands on his chest, over his heart.
“Eower frêogan mîn cnihtcild,” she purred.
“But my mother... My real mother-”
“-was a miscreant and a sneak-thief. Turned her back on me, did she. Whorishly scampered to Falon’s school for imbeciles. Your pater here wanted her. She desired a child of good, magickal stock and I made it happen, in my way. Nether-mouths are all the same to men-kind. I punished her, you see, perverted her plans, the filthy, stinking sow. You vomited forth from my belly and she took you for her own, snatched you away from my domain, when she divined what I had done, fearing for what you might become.”
“But she sent me back,” Rendl asserted.
“She was cursed the moment she betrayed me.”
“You smote her for not doing your will. You are wretched,” Drygast interjected.
“All who come to me, do so freely and without coercion. She swore oaths and signed contracts. She wanted arcane power. But she was not prepared for what I showed her. A weakling, she was.”
“So, we can leave?” Rendl questioned.
“You could do that. I know you are scared and full of dread. Do you not want to be rid of fear?” The Nornlic asked, grasping Rendl by the shoulders.
Rendl looked at Drygast. “I want that.”
“Then you will perform an act of loyalty and honour. Acwylman ðone asgâstbona beorn.”
Drygast climbed unsteadily to his feet. He spat, before running languidly toward the cave mouth. Rendl looked into the Nornlic’s eyes, seeing the entirety of his short life there. His path had been fraught with unexpected turns, strange asides and dark influences. Drygast was right: the world had begun shaping him, shaping him into a man. Rendl reached down and pulled Gudrinc’s axe from his belt. The Nornlic stepped back and her spawn drew the weapon up over his head.
“I’m not sorry. Not in the least,” he whispered as he brought the axe down.
The weapon whipped through the air, sinking with a sickening ‘thud’ into the back of Drygast’s skull. The old man tumbled and convulsed, before lying motionless, on the ancient coolness of the tunnel floor.
Feet attached to slender legs stepped over Drygast’s corpse. Isolda, Agrona, and Luella entered, bowing deeply before the Nornlic and weeping to be in her presence.
“Up you get. Your coven is welcome. Merry-meet to one and all,” stated the Nornlic, producing gold coins from thin air and lining each woman’s palm in turn.
The women sauntered to Rendl’s side, smiling suggestively whilst looking to the Nornlic for approval.
“Take my man-child down to enjoy the remainder of the Solstice.”
“What should I do?” Rendl probed.
“Do what thou wilt. You have the opportunity to wake up, Ren. Wake up and enjoy your place as a Dark Prince. Blessed Be.”