'Feed the Gods' - part 3
“Can’t you make that oversized furball move faster?”
“No. You want me to fall off the cliff or what?”
“At least you’d be moving faster if you did.”
“Oh? We’ve resorted to name-calling now, have we?”
“Guys, this is difficult enough as it is. Could you just shut up?” Shade’s voice drifted back from further up the path.
Soul and Blackjack lapsed into a sullen silence.
After the Daemonslayers’ battle with the lurker their rate of progress had deteriorated. Now sunsdown was less than an hour away and they still had not quite reached the high, jagged ridge of Galder’s Ring. They had left the Fire Swamps behind and were on a steep path that picked its way through the rocky terrain nearing the ridge. Once again it was too narrow for anything other than single file. Shade and the Steed were at the front, with Soul in the middle and Blackjack riding at their backs.
As the afternoon had worn on, clouds covered the suns and a breeze had picked up. It was not that cold, but soaked and muddy as the Daemonslayers were, even such a slight drop in temperature made this breath of air seem chill, leaving them cold with tempers fraying.
Shade had tried to put as much distance between him and the others as possible. He had a tolerant personality but the constant bickering of the slanging match between them was wearing and his sensitive hearing meant that out in the quiet of the high heath land he could not escape it. Enjoying what would most likely be an all too brief respite he closed his eyes a moment and listened to the sounds of the heath. A lark was warbling above them and he could hear the low whistle of a rimfu bird, calling for a mate off to their left somewhere. Small undergrowth animals rustled and snuffled unseen in the scented heather and waving grasses between the rocks whilst above them the last insects of summer hummed busily. Just for a moment, the golden light of Derim broke through the clouds, shining warmly upon them
He tried to immerse himself in these sensations but as always there was an intangible barrier there. A distance he knew could never be crossed between him and the warm, colourful, vibrant world. Though surrounded by life, there would forever be a cold shadow over him.
Opening his eyes again Shade started to wish that the other two would start arguing again. Anything to take his mind off that descending trail of thought. ‘It’s just a few more metres to the top’ he called back to them, breaking the silence himself.
‘Where do you reckon we should stay tonight?’ Soul asked Blackjack, putting their ongoing ‘battle’ aside for a moment in lieu of more important issues.
‘We can camp out. Or if you don’t mind giving up half our rations, we’re an hour’s ride from Belline’s.’
Belline: A woman who lived out on the moors in a small isolated cottage beside the ruins of the northwestern road - the path they had followed out of Uth Nagor. First impressions led most to think she was just some mad old crone but in truth she was a wily and gifted Seer, able to read the future in almost any item with which she was presented. Her greatest strength though lay in capnomancy: divining the future through the smoke rising from a fire.
People who knew of her travelled great distances to seek her counsel, bringing exotic gifts in return. The Daemonslayers also sought her out on occasion. However they knew that what she really wanted people to bring was some decent food; something to give her a break from marsh plants and the small animals her cats brought her.
Reaching the top of the ridge, the three halted their mounts and paused a few minutes to take stock. Up here they were exposed and the gentle breeze was now a buffeting wind blowing off the rolling moors. They sheltered in the lee of a monolith of a mineral not native to this part of the continent. It was one of the many that created the enormous ring of standing stones that stood guard upon the entire circumference of Galder’s Ring. Blackjack dismounted and stretched his tired limbs, unfurling his wings to their full extent and beating them a couple of times while F’lair and Meccha shifted themselves more comfortably in their saddles.
Ahead of them lay the flat, slightly undulating and seemingly endless expanse of the Evermoors. Behind was a spectacular view back across the Fire Swamps at the bottom of the long slope they had just ascended. A mist had formed over the wetlands lit by flashes of marsh gas, making it look like some witch’s cauldron. Far away on the horizon Blackjack could just see the dark bulk of Ravenswood, barely visible, rising above the swamps. Squinting a little he fancied he could make out a pip near its centre: the Ziggurat. Opening his inner eyelids he looked to the skies, seeking to read the thermals. Towering black clouds were marching toward them from the east; he could see the wall of cold air advancing, forcing the light warmer air upward before it to form a storm front.
Shade noticed the swelling clouds as well but was blind to the spectacle of the rushing thermals “Not another soaking!” he moaned, assuming the worst as usual. He turned in the saddle to check to see if his cloak was dry yet but despite being laid out across the Steed’s armoured hindquarters, it was still damp.
“I vote we stay at Belline’s,” said Meccha, “At least we’ll have some shelter then.” Opening her pack and bringing Gor up beside the Steed, she and F’lair started going through their provisions, sorting out what they could offer the old Seer. In a surprising bout of generosity, Blackjack had a hunt through his too.
Two chunks of cheese, eight strips of dried, salted meat, an argument and some koba fruit later, the three had their ‘offering’ ready. With the black clouds fast approaching they kicked their now rested mounts into a steady canter following the raised, rutted and overgrown ridge in the land that had once been the road.
Leaving Galder’s Ridge and its ring of silent guardian stones behind them, the Daemonslayers made swift progress across the Evermoors. But the storm front was swifter.
The Pharaoh sat upon his throne, his air of boredom pervading even through the snarling golden ceremonial mask he wore over his painted face. At his sides stood two burly bodyguards, each of chosen ‘warrior’ stock as denoted by the fact they had legs, rather than simply a tail to slither around on. A human slave, the son of an Eardstapa (wandering desert tribe) chieftain, waved a fan of griffin feathers knowing a horrible death awaited him and his family should the ‘soothing breeze’ with which he wafted the Pharaoh falter or stop.
Beneath the set of tall steps and dias, upon which stood the royal throne, laid the expanse of the royal courtroom. Across its beautiful mosaic floor writhed dancers and fire-eaters, for the Pharaoh’s amusement. Many were hssaar, but some were members of other breeds, stolen as children and raised for the soul purpose of providing amusement for the nobility. Amongst the acts were degarii acrobats, their lithe feline forms and natural grace beautiful to behold and a wrestling match between a muscular lizardman and an equally bulging ranwulf, the canid sweating profusely through his thick pelt in the heat. However, this was merely a preamble for the ‘real’ entertainment that would take place later.
On a golden and heavily cushioned chair less ornate than the Pharaoh’s sat Nresha, High Priestess of the Cult of Anshu. She watched the dancers through hooded eyes, despising their youth and agility. No matter, her goddess had inflicted her aged condition upon her and she would bare it for it was Anshu’s will. But still, how she despised them.
Ssiron, the Pharaoh, turned to her, “Tiresome, are they not? Still, the execution of a prisoner such as today’s requires a certain amount of pomp and circumstance.”
Nresha said nothing. She would have much preferred the prisoner to be dealt with by the priesthood for he would have made a worthy sacrifice. But instead Stelarn, Chieftain of the Faeder, a tribe of Eardstapa who had caused much grief to the hssaar (by being human and daring to enter their lands) was to be publicly tortured and executed. But she had voiced no protest: this Pharaoh was new, and it was necessary to allow him to believe he was in full control of all hssaar affairs.
Sunsdown stole upon them quickly. As Mired began to sink the already strong breeze picked up into harsh, icy gusts. Not wanting to be caught in the dark in a storm like the one brewing the Daemonslayers urged their respective mounts from a trot into a canter again. At the first rumble of thunder Blackjack spurred Knightmare into a gallop, the beasts’ heavy red hooves smashing through the heather and throwing up sods of peaty earth as he went off the road to overtake.
“What’s the matter?” called Soul, bringing Gor up beside him at a run, “Not afraid of a little thunder, are you?” she laughed.
“Look around you,” he replied seriously “We’re the tallest objects for miles.”
“Oh.” Realisation dawned. And with the metal of their various weapons and armour, they would make perfect targets for lightning strikes. “How far to Belline’s?” she asked voice raised to be heard above Knightmare’s hoof beats. Being of a feline persuasion, Gor ran almost silently.
“About five miles.” replied Shade as he galloped past, the Steed covering the ground fastest with the unnaturally mechanical smoothness of its stride. Looking over his shoulder he could see the black clouds were nearly upon them. Grey sheets of rain brought the horizon too close for comfort and a flash of sheet lightning lit the clouds directly behind them from within followed by a great fork that struck the ground to be answered by others further along the squall front. The booming peals of thunder, closer this time, spurred the three to greater feats of speed.
The minutes passed to the beat of hooves and the music of equine and feline breath, punctuated by the roll of thunder. Now lost behind clouds, the failing light indicated Mired was all but set and the world began to take on a ruddy glow as red Derim’s sickly light alone was left.
A mile from their destination Mired set completely and the world turned into a spectrum of red. The storm struck.
The wind suddenly blew up from strong to gale force in a matter of seconds, howling like a voice from the netherworlds. Then without warning they found themselves engulfed by a veritable wall of hailstones, each at least the size of a hen’s egg. Visibility was reduced to almost nothing, and Soul and Blackjack relied upon the uncanny path-finding ability of the Steed up ahead of them to lead the way.
Trying to brush her soaking auburn hair, from where it lay plastered against her face, at the same time clinging onto Gor and attempting to protect her head from the barrage of ice, Meccha tried to ask the others how much further. But the wind and the downpour drowned her voice out. Another peal of thunder, far too close this time, made her jump. She hoped Gor could tell where the others were because she could see nothing now. Abruptly the path dropped into a dip in the land and she let out a sigh of relief. They had arrived. The fault line that formed the dale in which Belline lived was not deep but its rocky, overhanging walls formed by a great shift in the earth in ancient times provided some welcome cover from the storm. And not a moment too soon. A bolt of brilliant lightning struck the path at the edge of the dale where they had been moments before, it’s white light causing black shadows and stark highlights all about for a brief moment. The accompanying thunder was deafening and especially painful for the Daemonslayers as all three had more sensitive hearing than usual.
With both suns now set, twilight was upon them. And through it they saw a welcoming light that glowed weakly through the deluge. It brightened as they approached and finally revealed itself to be an oil lamp, set in the window of a tiny cottage nestled in the shelter of a cove formed of a deep overhand in the rocky side of the dale. Gratefully they hurried into its shelter and dismounted. In the doorway of the cottage, a figure stood watching them.
“Ah, so you are the ‘storm riders’ my prediction told me of,” said a thin, cracked voice. The small figure, approximately fifty percent of whose mass comprised of a head of wild iron grey hair with twigs and other items of foliage snared in its tangles here and there, shuffled forward. She beamed at the three as if having two lycanthropes and a dracosvulf come to call was a great honour to be bestowed upon her tiny hovel.
“I’ve seen hide nor hair of you three since last winter!” she looked up at Shade, peering myopically through battered and bent spectacles. Far taller than she he towered over her, “My, you’ve grown, young F’lair! And Meccha, how pretty your hair is!” her gaze darkened a fraction when she looked at Blackjack, “Care for me to read your palm, Syrax?”
The dracosvulf folded his arms, returning an equally dark look, though only with one eye as his right had been bruised shut by a hailstone “No. Thank you.” Of course Belline would not hold with his using blood magic; in her youth she had served the Council of Mages. He didn’t worry about how she knew - she was a shrewd, perceptive old bat with a magical gift to boot and it hardly took a genius to figure out that he might be using it - one of the few forms of magic available to him whilst he suffered Shine’s curse.
It did not phase any of the Daemonslayers that the old woman used their real names. Use-names were something Caevalonians employed when they travelled a lot or, for whatever reason, did not wish their real names to be common knowledge. It was a widespread superstition that to know someone’s real name was to hold power over him or her and as such they were very common and often only a person’s friends knew their real name. Here in the Evermoors the three were on ‘home territory’ and so were not so guarded of their names. In a similar way, Caevalonian’s only took surnames when they travelled, to tell others from whence they came.
“We got you some decent grub,” breaking Belline’s expectant and hint-dropping silence F'lair fished through the Steed's saddlebags until he found what they had gathered together earlier. He offered her the food, wrapped in a piece of cloth.
Belline all but snatched it with a gleeful smile then disappeared with it into her shack. She reappeared a moment later. “Come,” She shuffled around the side of the tiny building and led them deeper into the soot-blackened cove that smelled strongly of peat smoke from the small fire burning there and of cats. From the very back of the overhang came the bubbling sound of running water where a small spring emerged from a crack among the rocks. Trusting their mounts to look after themselves, the three followed her. She picked up a broom and used it to chase out the mangy, wiry looking cats that had been lounging by the fire and indicated for them to sit down. As they ran for cover from the much-feared broom, one or two of the felines took a moment to arch their backs and hiss at Shade but soon they had all retreated to a respectable distance.
Each equally as battered by the violent storm still raging outside, F’lair and Meccha sat down by the fire to try and warm themselves. He put his arm round her using the other to stem the sluggish dribble of blood from a cut he’d sustained when a hailstone with some grit in had caught the side of his head, and she snuggled closer. Blackjack settled himself a small distance from Meccha and watched Belline as she sat across from them, the flames bringing new life to her wrinkled and care-worn old face. One of her myriad cats came up and plumped itself in her lap, purring.
“Terrible weather for travelling,” she commented then cackled a little to herself. “Do you know why?”
“Something to do with their being a storm tonight?” replied Soul jokingly.
Belline smiled a little then nodded her head, “It was sent for you three.”
F'lair stopped dabbing at his wound and held the bloodied cloth away from his face as he studied Belline's “’Sent?’” he echoed, serious. “By what? By whom?”
“That I cannot tell you. All I know is that a storm would send its riders to me, and that I should perform a reading for them.”
Blackjack suddenly groaned and lay on his back, hands over his eyes, “Argh! Bloody prophecies! Let me guess: the higher powers are going to bounce us on a magical mystery tour across the continent. Again.”
Belline regarded him steadily, “You chose to swear the Blood Oath of your own free will. You knew what it entailed.”
“To be fair, it was a choice of swearing the Oath or dying of a horrible injury!” remarked Shade, supportive of his friend. He was referring to the time the chaos demon Saragoth had torn his friend’s chest open.
The dracosvulf sat up again with a placating gesture, “I know. I just felt like making a point. I just wish the gods weren’t such a gaggle of obfuscating bastards” the last words he directed upward, to any gods or demigods who happened to be listening. Blackjack had a low opinion when it came to Higher Powers. Though not foolhardy enough to deny their existence, that did not mean he had to be appreciative towards them.
“Yeah, Black’. Like shouting at the ceiling's gonna help,” said Soul.
“Makes me feel better” he replied with a shrug of his grey furred shoulders.
“Quiet, please. I must concentrate,” entreated Belline softly. She reached a palsied hand into the recesses of the muddy, torn and ragged outer garment she wore which with some imagination might once have been the fine grey robe worn by a High Seer serving the Council of Mages. She produced a pouch and removed a pinch of a silvery powder, which she sprinkled over the flames. The fire became a lot smokier and she was all but obscured from the Daemonslayers’ views on its other side. Humming a wordless song, frail voice sounding a little stronger than before, she focussed intensely on the thick billowing smoke.
Shade stared at it wondering if there would be anything he could see, as did Soul. Blackjack appeared to be studying his claws with an air of indifference, but was actually keeping a close eye on the swirling smoke and aged Seer.
The wordless tune continued for the next few minutes, which seemed to stretch into an eternity. The only other noises were the drumming of rain and rumblings of the storm, the drip-drip of water and the gentle popping and crackling of the fire.
Belline gave a groan, nearly making the others jump with the sudden breaking of the silence. Her eyes were full of tears “Oh, my poor love” she said in a half-heard whisper of grief.
“Are you okay?” asked F’lair.
Her creased, weather worn face looked drawn and grave, “Aye. It is the way things must be.” She appeared to be talking to herself rather than the others. She got up, briskly dusting the dried grass that lined the cave off her clothes, “I must meditate on what I saw.” Then, altogether more brightly she said “I’ve got a lovely stew cooking. You can have some, so long as you leave some for me!” With that she shuffled off round to the doorway of her hut.
“Huh. With her appetite that should be the other way around!” said Meccha.
“I’ll go help her. Remember what happened that last time she tried to move that cooking pot by herself?” F’lair said, standing fluidly and following her. It had taken him and Meccha a whole morning to help clear up the mess. Coming to the worm-eaten door that was standing ajar, its surface bumped and knotted, F’lair knocked, “Need a hand?” In the dimness he could see Belline by the stove. She had been trying to lift the cast-iron cauldron but at his offer she gave him a gracious smile, indicating she was accepting defeat with dignity.
“Yes, I’d appreciate that. Do mind your head!” she added, holding her right hand above her head, palm facing inwards and down to try and indicate the low ceiling.
F’lair had to stoop to get through the doorway, and was able to do little more by way of standing up inside. Her warning came as he nearly hit his head on one of the low-hanging beams from which dangled cooking utensils and all manner of dried herbs and grasses. The wooden hut contained a table, a litter of sacking stuffed with dry grass and covered with small pelts with unmistakably feline markings, and a cooking stove. Its walls were covered in shelves lined with uncertain artefacts and jars containing gods-knew-what. It smelt even more strongly of cats than the overhang, but the stew smelled good. Wrapping the hem of his still soaking wet cloak around the handle, he lifted the pot with ease and backed out the door, taking care not to knock anything over as there was no space to turn. With his wings, Blackjack wouldn’t even have fitted through the door, he thought, amused.
“What a nice mannered young man you are,” chattered the old hermit in the meantime, “Why, if my Yani had not been taken back to the Bright Powers, I would have wanted him to grow up like you!”
Shade did not point out the obvious problems with that ideal, gathering that she didn’t mean what she said too literally (unless she had once had some very strange expectations of her son). He just smiled in return. As he went to move toward the door she suddenly put a hand on his arm and he looked to see genuine concern in her eyes, "Perhaps you should get Meccha to talk to me about her dreams later." she said in a kindly voice, then added with a look of sadness, "but I cannot help you with yours. Not while he resides within.”
Taken aback, Shade did not even get out a syllable of his surprised reply as Belline quickly got her words in first speaking once more in her normal busy tone of voice “Come along now, we don't want that stew getting cold. Go on, out!” she picked up a few bowls and ushered him out. Against the tirade of her usual constant banter he had no chance of getting a question or protest in.
“What did you see in the flames?” asked Meccha. unable to tear her hungry eyes from the thick, appetising stew the seer was carefully ladling into some battered wooden bowls.
“Eh? Speak up dear!” Meccha repeated herself obligingly. “All in good time, my dear. It is late and I must rest. The visions speak in riddles that need sleep and dreams for me to unlock them these days. I will have the answer in the morning.” Bidding them goodnight, Belline disappeared back into her house. After a while the glow from her lamp cut out and the Daemonslayers were left to their own devices.
Halfway through her second bowl of the thick, chunky stew, Soul quietly voiced a question she had always wondered about their hostess, “She’s not exactly typical ‘hermit’ material. What’s her story?”
Not really needing food, and not wanting to deprive Belline, F’lair had finished his half-bowl a while ago and was lying on his back. He had been wondering whether or not to ask his girlfriend about her dreams, but did not quite know what to say. Also he doubted she would appreciate him bringing up a personal topic like that with Blackjack around. He glanced over at their draconic companion to see he was too busy stuffing his face to answer. The others were sitting cross-legged so he propped himself on his elbows to be more at their level as he answered himself.
“She used to be a great Seer working with the Council of Mages” Meccha’s face darkened a little - the three had had trouble with them before. Seeing the askance look, F’lair quickly calmed her, “It didn’t last long. She fell in love with one of the wizards but as you know, in the Empire by law magic users cannot have intimate relationships with other mystics. The wizards who set those laws were scared of them having sorcerer children. The romance was doomed and, heartbroken she came out here, where she could escape any reminders of him.”
“That’s really sad,” said Meccha, poking a stick at the flames after setting down her now empty bowl. She wondered what it must be like, for two people in love to be denied one another like that.
“And inaccurate. You humans and near-humans always have to romanticise things” scoffed Blackjack, unapologetically spoiling the moment as usual. As he had been listening in, Blackjack had found himself having trouble trying not to snort in derision into his food. Swallowing his current mouthful, he launched into an explanation “That story conveniently circumvents the important bits:
“Belline fell in love with Serin Kelar. He wasn’t on the Council at the time, although she was serving them as a Seer. They managed to keep their romance hidden. Or rather, Serin made sure it was hidden. Belline was proud to be with him, and saw no shame in what they were doing. When they were alone Serin had made promises of eloping, leaving the Empire if they were ever found out. But in public he would have nothing to do with her, to “avoid suspicion” as he put it. It hurt Belline to see him flirting with mundanes at social engagements, but he had explained it was “just a ruse” (so obviously that made it all right, then).
“The time came when Serin’s rise through the circles of wizardry (with the aid of Belline’s important influences) meant his public profile increased greatly and he was nominated to join the Great Council. The day of his nomination was also the day he learned Belline was pregnant with his child. Realising how much was at stake, Serin knew he could not let this happen - he would lose everything and the Council would strip him of his title and, worse, of his magic if he were found out.
“He told Belline he could not continue with her, and tried to make her take medre root to induce a miscarriage. She refused to give up the child. Not prepared to lose everything he had worked for, he tried to force her to take it. She warned him she would run if it meant protecting the unborn. Still, he tried to force her once more, and she ran. Knowing that a single word from her would cast him down but not quite having the heart to have her killed, he hired mercenaries to chase her down. Eventually she came out here to hide. She had her precious child, Yani, but the boy died after two years. Pneumonia, I believe.”
“That’s horrible!” said Meccha with an ominous scowl.. In her long life she had known many women to be treated cruelly at the hands of men, but each time the anger stirred was no less.
“The sad truth is, Belline would never have revealed her secret. She still loved Serin. Still does. Pity he didn’t feel the same way. I’ve no idea how many mistresses he’s had, but let’s just say that habit of his started long before his nomination to the council.”
Meccha was disgusted, “What a bastard! Poor Belline.”
F’lair raised his eyebrows, “How come you know all the dirt?” he asked.
The dragon shrugged. Still recognised as the head of the underground Blacksword operation he had started back before he had been cursed, he liked to make sure his spies kept him clued in, “She lives on my lands. Any dragon should know what’s going on in his territory.”
“We’re all friends here, you know.” With this pointed comment, F’lair left the subject hanging. There was no use labouring the point if the dragon was going to get evasive.
“I know.” he replied enigmatically. Ignoring the irked looks the others gave him, he leaned forward and picked the pot up one handed to bring it closer then helped himself to another bowl of stew.
Blackjack had thought about telling F'lair about his network but had decided to leave the subject alone for now. Shade had enough on his mind with Raven. Not to mention the disastrous incident where the demon Saragoth (even the thought of his nemesis stirred feelings of violent hatred) had taken her soul; an awful occurrence that had followed the incident where she would have been killed had F’lair not turned her. Infecting her with his lycanthropy and bringing her broken body back from the brink. Even before then, the werewolf had been made to contend with the discovery his best friend was in fact Bloodbane, a nightmare told to make children behave, and who still haunted the minds of historians. Changed, cursed and altered by the demonqueen Shine, but still Bloodbane. And then there was the catalogue of disasters that had been his life before he’d met Blackjack… No. Shade had enough on his plate as it was without knowing Sy was still engaged in clandestine activity thought left behind in his darker days.
Dinner finished with few more words spoken. Dried out at last by the warmth of the fire, the three settled down for the night, eventually drifting off to sleep (or its nearest equivalent, in Shade's case). An advantage of having a seer in close proximity was that they felt little need to have someone on watch. A few hours later as the storm still raged, none of them stirred or noticed as a shadowy form, silent as death, drifted incorporeal through the dale.
To be continued...
All characters, places and anything else portrayed in this story is copyright 2005 to the author, Isabelle Davis (Drakhenliche), and may not be used without express permission. Meccha/Soul (c) Elsa Lai 2005
Comments, questions, whatever, can be addressed to me at the www.NecroDragon.com forum.