I was a bad omen, said the markan when I returned to my barracks south of Rivers Meet. I, alone of those sent to King Burdamon’s hold, had returned alive. Even our markiste was dead. Now none would speak to me. They would change direction rather than to walk past me, as if afraid they would catch some ill-fortune from me. Horsemaster Tanetros suggested I transferred to a different barracks, where nothing was known of me. Our Horsemaster Commander sent me to Eli Go where Lord Cliosesil ruled beneath the cape of Lord Nebalys of Du Dlida. Eli Go was the furthest from East Isle without falling into the sea.
I thought my days of combat were over, and I did not at all mind. Then came the orders from King Kottir. We were to go to North Eskin Province. I did not like that. That was too close to East Isle and the Way. But worse was to come.
Ten markan were required for special duties. But except that these duties would take us away from our fellow markan, we were not told what these duties would be. My new commander suggested I might volunteer though I’d needed no prompting for I was already decided in that. A chance, I thought, to acquire a new reputation and put the past back of me.
Alas, the special duty was to escort King Kottir and Lady Bryony to their meeting with King Ithen, according to the message I had carried home with me.
At first all went well. We rode four in front, two behind and two to each side of the King, the King’s Advisor and the Queen’s sister. For nine of those markan this journey north to the Way was tiring because uneventful. Too many days of empty thoughts, they complained. I said nothing but remained ever alert. I had met King Burdamon and judged this King Ithen to be born of the same lode. I did not trust him.
We were almost at our destination when . . . but I wasn’t sure that I’d seen what I’d seen, we none of us were. A horde of tiny swarming ugly monsters that might be the work of trance-meat mistakenly eaten—except all ten of we markan had seen them as well as King Kottir. And they were gone in a flash. I warned my fellow guards, saying likely this was the doings of King Ithen, sending visions to unman us. We shook off our confusion and resumed our duties, determined to keep King Kottir and Lady Bryony safe until the exchange.
At the stated place, the ford at the southern border of the Heath, we were met by a pitiable sight. I wanted to cry at what I saw, for I could think only of my Briäsa, of how it would be if she were strung to a pole in a cart like a slaughtered calf (except Queen Bregan was alive, her swollen belly fit to burst). The sooner she was exchanged for Lady Bryony the better.
I knew the arrangements; I had carried the message. Yet no one was moving to make the exchange. There was King Burdamon and another who was probably King Ithen, and with them ten men, the exact copy of King Kottir and his advisor, and we ten of the Regiment.
If things had proceeded as I’d expected then perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so uneasy. But, except that the nearest markon was chosen to take Lady Bryony in her cart to the river, things didn’t proceed at all. And something about that King Ithen caused me a shiver.
We still were waiting to complete the exchange when those same ugly monsters again appeared. Or rather erupted, I should say, out of thin air. Swarming. Shrieking. Spear-wielding. Attacking King Ithen. Would they turn on us next? I watched, dumbfounded. Was this another untrue vision? Was the blood spurting and spraying not real? Yet it blurred my eyes.
Through the red haze I saw men surging forward, Hundreds. Hundred of men, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds, all multiplying. But from whence? I had no time to find an answer for they were surging towards me. I prayed to Beli, if some sharp blade should take my life (which surely it would) that he would take me swiftly to Uät’s Land. But, like the men multiplying before my eyes, so did the wonders multiply around me.
Thunder! Aye, the thunder of Regiment-men on Regiment-horses. And rain!—the black rain of arrows veiling the heath before me. And even while I was asking if this was another Ithen-sent vision the Regiment, axes sweeping, were plunging into the newly appeared hundreds and hundreds of be-sworded men.
By now my head was awhirl with confusion, with questions asked without finding answers for I had no time to think of them then. All I could do was to defend and, in defending, attack.
Everyone around me was manic. Blood-lust taking men who were usually sensible. And in no time it had taken me as well. Battle fury! Beli’s heat. I had heard so much of it and yet had known no man who yet had endured it. With sword in hand I lashed at any and all not in Regiment issue. I had no thought to kill, I do swear it. I wanted only to maim, to disable, to protect my life with my sword.
The battle lasted a lifetime, or so it seemed. Many times, in a moment of breath, I was amazed to find myself still alive. Blood soaked me, it slimed my body. The smell of spilled guts, latrine-rich, was stomach-wrenching. Yet I’d no time to turn and to vomit. The world was red. Red earth, red water, red horses. How many now fallen, screaming their agony, how many more dead? All was a formless chaos around me in which I hacked and lashed and sliced and bashed. I killed men another time I might have liked. But I must kill else be killed.
When the battle-fury finally left me—how long did it take? I don’t know—I found myself the sole man standing in a wide sprawl of the dying and dead. All around me, brown, black and red.
Yet I wasn’t alone.
There was a heron, its tall reed-like legs and pale greyness impossible to ignore amidst the black crows and red kites. It was a vision, it couldn’t be real—for even as I was looking so its place was taken by a woman.
“It’s over, “ she said. “You alone remain alive.”
I swallowed hard. Again, the one to take home the report. No, I refused the mission. I would find King Kottir, or his adviser, Uissid Tizarn. I would find my commander, my markiste, my horsemaster. I was sure I’d find someone not dead, someone who could be revived. And so I began the gruesome task.
“There is no one,” insisted the woman.
“King Kottir? Uissid Tizarn? Or what of King Burdamon. What of King Kailen?”
“All dead,” she said.
“And the Queen?” I hardly dared ask. “What of Queen Bregan, and Lady Bryony?” I could see only one cart, and that stood empty.
“Taken,” she said.
It was then I began to grieve.
“No, they’ve been taken to safety,” she said.
“And Uissid Tizarn?” Though I had not known him well.
“Ah. Yes. Tizarn. Hmm . . .” She seemed reluctant to say. She said to follow her. At that she returned to bird-form and flew across the river, eastward.
I tried to run to keep up with the heron but . . . too many bodies fouled the way. They slowed me, having to step carefully over each one—though that gave me the chance to check them for life but . . . I saw King Kailen, saw King Kottir, saw King Burdamon, and they’d no life left in them. So it seemed the bird-vision spoke the truth. My only hope now was to find Uissid Tizarn. I had no doubt he was in some sort of difficulty and needed human hands to help him. I did not expect to find the bird-become-woman waiting for me beside a smouldering pyre.
“Tisarnchin,” she said. “His proper name.”
“King Ithen did this?” I asked. But amongst the charred bones I could see no head.
“Olun did this,” she said. “His proper name.”
“So King Ithen has won?”
But the bird-woman vision shook her head. “Not entirely. For an Immortal of his breed any wound is quickly healed. So his sons—those malformed Sprigs—were unable to slay him properly dead.”
“His . . . sons? Those ugly monsters? Sprigs?”
“Begotten upon his daughters with intent to breed some super-magnificent-wonderful being. Himself made great. But for all his efforts, all he made were these little men. And those little men, unable to slay him dead, compromised and hacked from him his offending limb.”
It took me a moment to realise. “They castrated him?”
The bird-woman nodded, biting back a grin. “For an Immortal of his breed though a wound quickly heals, once a limb is lost it will not grow again.”
“They should have brought me to him, I’d have . . . “ but I couldn’t complete the thought. Ithen-Yewlen—Olun—was an Immortal, not easily killed.
“Oh, but the Sprigs have killed him,” she said. “Though it will take time for him to realise. You see, though it is said that like-to-like will not kill us, yet castrated, the wound quickly sealed over. Now how does he pee? And he must drink. Of the Silver Folds, he needs water just to survive. He will become as a distended bladder which eventually . . . must burst. And that’s another wound that will not heal.”
Though the vision conjured was ghastly, I chuckled. I couldn’t help it.
“And Queen Bregan?” I asked, not wanting to think more on that.
“I have said, she is taken to safety. Olun’s brother Raesan has done it for me. Now you have a task. To return to West Alsime Land with news of this.”
And so I returned. But it was not to the land I had known. Already, where had been green hilltops now almost all were ringed with high white walls, our nobles preparing to defend their land against a new threat. Not from the East this, not from King Burdamon or King Ithen/Yewlen/Olun, but from the Luguish Alliance who were already advancing from the west.
I hope that completes the tale to everyone’s satisfaction. Meanwhile, I’ve been working on something . . . different. A Time-slip Fantasy. You’ll find a couple of characters in it first met with in Neve. Yet this isn’t Neve revisited. A Can of Worms begins next week. You might like to brush up on your runes!
Note for those unfamiliar with the Asaric Tales:
Raesan was an Immortal, obsessed with the ‘Prime’ Kerrid; unable to have his heart’s desire he spent much of his extremely long life with Ardhea the Heron (also an Immortal)—because Ardhea habitually takes the form of Kerrid. That is, when she’s not being a heron.
Raesan’s story is told in Feast Fables (see link on sidebar) and Neve.