science fiction and fantasy writer

The Gifts of Avalae

Carnac manDamag, High Thane of the Tharingii Nordain, was walking for a change and to give his saddle-sore backside a rest. It was becoming apparent to him how thoroughly adapted his leg muscles were for riding, particularly with his son’s added weight perched atop his shoulders.

Forcing himself to jollity, Carnac inhaled deeply and smacked his lips. “Smell that, Graigor? That’s life. That’s a clan still fat after winter and rich in beasts and children.”

Walking beside him, his wife, Albeth, wrinkled her nose under her broad-brimmed hat. “You old fool. Smell’s to me like three hundred scores of farting sheep and horses and near as many people in dire need of bathing.”

Graigor giggled and tugged the pointed helices of his father’s ears. “Smells like farts to me, Da.”

“Ah, show some respect for your thane and sire, you two,” said Carnac. He took another deep breath. “Aye and it smells like farts and sour sweat, too.”

Behind them, the Tharingii caravan stretched nearly a mile, a straggling serpent of riders, walkers, horses, donkeys, dogs, sheep, oxen, wagons and cannon. The air was filled with the bawdy cacophony of a clan on the move. It was pungent, too, with the various odours that so many hundred men and beasts inevitably generate.

A cry went up from the scouts ahead – the great hall of the Magmardain had been sighted.

“Look Graigor,” Carnac said, when they crested the rise. He pointed at the massive timber building on its steep hill, dominating the valley.

The Magmardain – Ledonaii and Cimbrathii, both – were there already, of course, encamped with the Hall of the Broken Crown on its peak between them. Firedrake flags mirrored each other across the narrow gap between the opposing clans. Tharingii weren’t the first Nordain to arrive. Dantraii ram’s head banners flew over a sprawling camp that covered half the valley. Nearer at hand, a smaller, more orderly cluster of wagons and tents stood between the oak leaf standards of Salithii.

Graigor didn’t reply, but Albeth laughed and said, “If you feel two bumps against the top of your head, Carnac, it’s because his eyes have popped right out of his face.”

Galloping hooves drummed up the slope behind them. Carnac spun on his heel, causing Graigor to squeal in delight.

Carnac’s brother, Olwain, chased his new wife up the slope towards them, his face lit by a rare smile. Olwain was as alike in appearance to his brother as he was opposite in character, he and Carnac both already filling out into the powerful, paunchy heaviness common to men of their family. Unlike Carnac, who kept his blond hair and moustaches cropped, Olwain wore his long, in old-fashioned leather-bound plaits. The helices of his ears he had cropped, in the manner of the Nordain warriors of antiquity.

The woman racing ahead of Olwain rode bareback and without reins. Carnac had to admit Glyn was as fine a rider as any Tharingii man, for all that she was forest-born. She was a striking looking woman too, tall and straight with sallow skin and hair like a crow’s wing, although he preferred his own wife’s red curls and comfortable curves. And he certainly preferred Albeth’s personality.

Should have married Olwain off to a nice Tharingii girl like Albeth and alliances be damned, he grumbled to himself. Damn sure father wouldn’t have let that old crook Salwyth talk him into the match.

Glyn raised a hand in greeting as she slowed her horse to a halt beside them. “Good morning, my thane. Albeth, young Graigor.”

“Good morning, Glyn,” Carnac replied, outwardly amiable, as he always was for Olwain’s sake. “Morning brother.”

Olwain responded with a terse nod. Still brooding, then.

Glyn said, “Caithwen died.”

“Ah, that’s sad,” said Carnac, and meant it. “And a loss for the clan, too. Gifted witches are among the few riches with which we are currently not well endowed.”

He yelped, as a spark leapt from his wife’s finger to his own buttock. “I didn’t mean you aren’t a gifted witch, woman,” he said. “Just that we have few others like you.”

Albeth chose to be mollified. “She was the last alive who remembered the West.”

“Was she really so old?” asked Glyn.

“Over a hundred and seventy,” said Carnac. “Old even for a witch.”

“What about that old Walathii diviner, Driw?”

Carnac said, “Driw was born in Magmardia, it’s true, but he was still in swaddling when our ancestors crossed the land-bridge with all the hordes of Ackaemenohn and Mor yapping at their heels.”

“The Gars still remember,” Glyn persisted.

Carnac wondered if she was being deliberately obtuse, but with Olwain beside her glowering at the gold-thatched hall on its hill, elected not to take her to task. “Aye,” he said, “but Gars remember cold mountains and halls of stone, not wide rivers and rolling hills and plains of long grass.”

“Sounds no different to what we have now,” Albeth said.

“I agree,” said Carnac. “The Twin Empires be damned, we have all we need right here, if you ask me.”

He regretted the words the moment they were out of his mouth, seeing the muscles bunch in Olwain’s jaw. He’d said something similar to put an end to their debate a few nights before, when he’d been startled by the intensity of Olwain’s interest in the lost lands of their ancestors.

“And who did?” said Albeth, laughing.

Carnac pulled a face at her. He changed the subject, hoping to avert another argument with Olwain. “Hoy, Glyn, what’s say we rest Tharingii’s wolf by the shade of Salithii’s oak?”

Glyn’s face lit up. “The Good Mother’s blessing on you, Carnac manDamag,” she cried. With a whoop, she urged her horse to a canter. Olwain turned his scowl on his brother for a moment, before yanking his mount around to follow.

“And what did you do now?” Albeth asked.

Carnac’s scowl mirrored his brother’s. “The other night he started spouting some crap about reclaiming ‘the birthright of the Nordain’, as he put it, and how – let me see if I remember it aright – how our ancestors had their own name once – Haneshmen – and weren’t merely the ‘Blessed Servants’ to the Magmardain’s ‘Most Blessed’. How they were the masters of the West, lords of the Empire of Chahanesh, before the corruption of their leaders brought their downfall and conquest by the Magmardain. I told him what I thought of such nonsense.”

She poked him in the ribs. “I’ll bet you did – and with all the subtlety of a man swatting a fly with a shovel, no doubt.”

“Aye, well, now he’s got his trousers in a twist.” He sighed. “I never heard such foolishness from him until she came along.”

“Now, Carnac,” said his wife, “I don’t know that you can be holding Glyn responsible.”

Carnac snorted, but let the matter drop.

He left Graigor and the disposition of the Tharingii camp to Albeth and hiked over to see his Salithii counterpart.

Thane Salwyth, a tall, lean man of Carnac’s father’s generation and dark like his niece in skin, hair and eye, greeted him at the edge of the Salithii wagons. Vanity, Carnac knew, caused Salwyth to shave his thinning hair to stubble. The other man’s pointed ears were pierced with gold rings from tip to lobe.

“Well met, Salwyth. How fares your clan?”

“Good. Winter was mild our way.”

“Ours too,” said Carnac, “We should have a deal of trade to discuss, I think.”

“Aye,” Salwyth’s leathered face creased into a smile. “You’re looking more like your father each time I see you, laddie.”

Carnac looked down at himself critically. “I’m getting fatter, you mean. I told you we had a good winter.”

Salwyth chuckled. “And how’s my niece?”

“Did she not greet you already?”

“Aye, well she hollered a ‘hallo’ as she galloped past with your little brother trailing from her apron strings.”

“She’s well. And Olwain’s besotted with her,” said Carnac. Unable to contain himself, he added, “I think he’s letting her do his thinking for him, though.”

Salwyth caught the edge in Carnac’s voice and arched his brows. “Well, she always was a strong-minded lass,” he said diplomatically. “Might you not be doing Olwain a disservice? A man who prefers to keep his opinions to himself is not necessarily free of opinions.”

Carnac grunted, conceding the point.

“Well,” said Salwyth, satisfied that the matter was closed. He produced a Gar-made seeing glass and waved it in front of Carnac. “Have a gander at the sentries around the Dantraii camp.”

Curious, Carnac extended the glass and looked. Instead of spears, swords or bows, the Dantraii warriors cradled blunt-ended tubes of iron and wood, flared to a paddle-shaped stock, like a crossbow’s, at one end.

“What are they?” he asked.

“The latest toy from the Gars. A black-powder weapon.”

Carnac snorted. “Some sort of long fire-jar is it? The burrowers have been peddling those for years. Good for naught but frightening horses and exploding in your hands, if you ask me.”

“Ah, but this is a different thing,” said Salwyth. “A ‘musket’ they call it. A hand-cannon, if you can believe that.”

Carnac was sceptical. “A hand-cannon? And what kind of wee balls do you fire from it? Acorns?”

“Well, it seems even an acorn-sized ball can bring down a man, or a horse for that matter. At fifty paces they go through plate like it was woollen cloth.”

“Truly?” Carnac shook his head in wonder. “And what sort of range do they have?”

“Only about a hundred paces. The Gars claim two hundred, but you’d be lucky to hit the side of yonder hall at that range. And they take twice as long to reload as a crossbow.”

Carnac snorted. “I reckon I’ll be sticking to longbows and real-sized cannon then. You’ll get eight hundred yards out of a longbow and half a dozen arrows into the air for every one of their wee acorns.”

Salwyth waggled his hand in an ambivalent gesture. “Ah, my young thane. But the advantage of these muskets is you can stick a blade to the end of them and use them as a spear after you’ve fired them. Conveniently, the Gars also make a long knife for just such a purpose.

“Imagine you’re facing a Dantraii host of archers and cannon, cavalry and spearmen – except the spearmen carry loaded muskets. You lob arrows and cannonballs at each other for a while, as usual, and the witches play with their lightnings. They keep their cavalry in reserve and wait while you charge. When you get to fifty paces, they all fire their muskets at once. And, then, they charge.”

Carnac considered this. At length, he licked his lips and asked, “Are the Gars here already?”

“Aye, they’re camped over the back of the hall. And they’ve got wagonloads of muskets to trade. Some of my lads are over there now.”

Carnac grinned. “I’d better get over there and grab some then, hadn’t I?”

#

Carnac winced at the musket’s report. Olwain swore, nearly dropping the weapon, and waggled a finger in his ear. A couple of boys ran out to retrieve the shield he’d been aiming at. The men gathered around and whistled and cursed in wonder when they returned — as Carnac had when the Gars had given him the same demonstration. Olwain’s shot had struck well off centre, but had left a splintered, fist-sized hole right through the brass and oak of the shield.

“What’ll those damn Gars think of next, eh lads?” Carnac said.

“We could make these for ourselves, Carnac,” said Olwain. There was an odd note in his voice as he cradled the weapon in his hands.

“Nonsense, we haven’t the craft nor the tools,” Carnac replied, more sharply than he’d intended. “And, besides, we don’t maintain the kind of forges the Gars do.”

“Of course we have the craft!” Olwain exclaimed. “Have we not smiths? Have we not witches? Do we not make our own swords and arrowheads? Stirrups and bits for our horses? Brooches for our cloaks? We make our own cannon balls and our own gunpowder, brother. And forges? Would it be such a hard thing to build and maintain such as we would need?”

The men around them had fallen silent, watching the unexpected confrontation between their thane and his brother.

Olwain forestalled Carnac’s reply. “We could make these muskets for ourselves. And we could make our own cannon if we wished. How many muskets will the Gars sell us? Three, four score? We could make one for every man of Tharingii.”

“To what purpose, Olwain?” Carnac demanded.

Olwain’s face flushed. To Carnac’s surprise, he met his older brother’s displeasure squarely. “What purpose?” he exclaimed. “Why, to be freed of our dependence on what the cursed burrowers will condescend to sell us.”

Dependence? We trade with the Gars, in case you haven’t noticed, brother. We are not beggars. Anyway, where would you get the metal for your forges, if not from the Gars? Will you mine for it yourself?”

Olwain shrugged. “We might buy our metals from them, or we might trade further south for it.”

“Aye, and pay Dantraii tithes to do so,” said Carnac.

“Or not!” Olwain exclaimed. “Dantraii don’t hold all the roads south.”

Carnac glared at him. In a low growl, he repeated his earlier question, “To what purpose, Olwain?”

Olwain swallowed, but held his ground. He appealed to the men assembled around them. “My father always said no man will ever wear the Broken Crown again. Broken it is and broken it shall remain. Each year, less and less of the bearskinned are born among the Magmardain. The feud between them is a relic from Magmardia’s fall – irrelevant, but it keeps them too busy to lord over the rest of us.”

“True enough,” said Carnac, wanting to keep the argument between the two of them. “But what of it?”

Olwain turned back to him. “What if a new crown were forged?”

Carnac felt a chill in his belly. “A new crown?”

“Aye,” said Olwain. “A new crown for a Nordain brow. A Hanesh brow.”

“Easy words until you’re staring up at some bearskinned Magmardain brute over your locked shields, if you ask me,” said Carnac. “When did you start swallowing that Dantraii crap, Olwain manDamag?”

Olwain snorted. “Ha! If there were a crown, why should it be a Dantraii to wear it?”

Carnac ticked off fingers. “Because Dantraii lands bestride the trade routes to the south. Because they’re richer than any other clan and can afford to buy more and better blades, armour and cannon than any other clan. And because they breed like rabbits and there’s more of them than there is of anyone else.”

“All true,” Olwain conceded. “But if every Tharingii man had a musket and every Tharingii family had a cannon, could even Dantraii stand against us?”

Carnac stared at him in amazement. His nostrils flared. “And how long, Olwain, before other clans copied us? We have the craft you say, but we have no more craft among us than any other clan. And their witches are just as capable as ours of unravelling runes of warding and blowing up a primed cannon where it stands — or causing a loaded musket to explode in a man’s face, no doubt. What kind of destruction would we wreak amongst ourselves then, brother of mine?”

Equally angry, Olwain snapped back, “By the time they realised what we had done, a Tharingii would wear a king’s crown and ancient Chahanesh would be reborn.”

With that, he flung the musket to the ground at his brother’s feet and shoved his way through the ring of amazed onlookers.

Carnac let him go. He closed his eyes for a minute and forced his breathing back to its normal rhythm. Then he glanced up at the sky and muttered a brief prayer to the Storm King and the Red Lady, both. He looked around at his clansmen.

“Utter no word of this folly before any man of another clan,” he said. “Olwain is acting a fool. The wars of empires in the West brought our ancestors naught but despair. To be sure, we feud from time to time with men of other clans — amongst ourselves sometimes.” A few men nudged each other, a couple exchanged sheepish grins. “Often men are injured, sometimes men die. But we do not conquer each other, or our neighbours, nor steal each other’s lands. What would our children suffer if we waged war against our own kin? Tharingii cannot stand against all the other clans of Nordain and Magmardain. Not if we could shoot thunderbolts from our arses.” That won him a couple of quiet chuckles.

He gave them a moment before he went on, “If Tharingii launched such a war, we would lose. Chahanesh died long before our ancestors were driven from the West. We have nothing left of it but a name. To try and revive it would see the death of our clan. We would not be forgiven. Those we sought to conquer would pursue us until every man and woman and babe of Tharingii was dead and the Leaping Wolf burned from the face of the world.”

Most of the men responded with vigorous nods or words of wholehearted agreement. Carnac was disturbed to see a few, though, who nodded with unseeing eyes, their thoughts turned inwards.

He cursed under his breath, his anger heating anew, and pushed his way out of the circle. He marched through the camp to his family’s wagons. He found Glyn there, seated in the shade of an awning with Albeth and her sisters. Without a word, he grabbed Glyn by the arm and hauled her to her feet. Ignoring her outraged protests and those of his wife and her kin, he dragged her away from the camp.

“Carnac! What the hells has gotten into you? Let me go!” She wrenched at his grip and kicked him in the calf.

He rounded on her. “What madness have you put into my brother’s head, woman?”

Released, she frowned at him in apparent perplexity. “What?”

“All this insanity about kings and crowns he’s started spouting!” He wagged a finger in her face. “All since you came along!”

“Me?” Glyn exclaimed. “How long has he been your shadow?”

“Eh?” he grunted, blindsided by the question.

“The shadow to your sun, Carnac,” she said. “All his life, that’s how long. I told him I wanted a husband who was his own man and who spoke his own mind. All I’ve done is encouraged him to speak up for himself. His ideas are his own.”

“Don’t lie to me, you forest devil!” Carnac roared. “Olwain’s my brother. I know his mind better than any man – and you’ve poisoned it!”

“If you think that, Carnac manDamag, you don’t know him at all.” She spun on her heel and strode away.

Carnac kicked impotently at a tussock of grass, left with the uncomfortable thought that her words might be true.

#

He paused a moment at the door of the great hall and allowed his eyes to adjust to the smoky gloom inside. At his shoulders, Albeth, Olwain and the other thanes and witches of the Tharingii clan did the same.

Six furred and bear-headed Magmardain warriors – three Ledonaii and three Cimbrathii – faced each other inside the doorway. Carnac felt uncomfortably small walking between them. Bearskinned Magmardain guards lined the walls of the hall, one between each of the carved tree trunks that held up the high roof. No Nordain guards were allowed to enter the hall.

Tharingii were the last to arrive, he saw, stepping down onto the sunken, circular floor in the centre of the hall.

A gong sounded. Carnac and his companions hurried to the cushions set for them, between those of the Salithii and the Gars. The molemen had pulled aside their veils in the dimness of the hall, exposing pallid faces and luminous pink eyes and the fleshy, prehensile whiskers that lined their jowls. Their enormous, black-clawed hands rested on the ceremonial hammers and picks they cradled in their laps.

Carnac nodded greetings to both Salwyth of Salithii and Ramul Lambai Azgar, the Gar elder he’d traded with for the new muskets. The Gars had three representatives in the council — one for each of the fallen cities of Old Gar — although they had founded only one city east of the land bridge. Aside from the Gars, the council comprised the High Thanes of each of the Nordain clans, six in all, and the two rival Magmardain Princes. As with Carnac, they’d all brought with them a gaggle of elders and advisers.

It was Ledonaii’s turn to host this year. White-haired Pagan magLedon stood before his throne and thumped the butt of his staff three times on the floor. Four yards to his left, a distance greater than the reach of a Magmardain arm and longsword, Culyan magCimbran sat in an identical throne and tried to look as though Pagan were acting as his herald.

The old prince filled his still-powerful chest and launched into his welcoming speech. “My brothers…”

Albeth harrumphed loudly. She was far from the only woman present. Pagan ignored her. “My brothers and friends, Thanes of Nordain, Lords of Gulgaroth, we welcome you on behalf of the King who was and will be again. It is the one-hundred and forty-eighth year since the fall of Magmardia and the Three Cities. This year, my brothers, the last among us who knew the West has died. While our friends the Gars remember, let us…”

A resounding boom rattled the walls of the hall. Dust and bits of thatch fell from the ceiling. An unearthly shriek followed, and a confusion of frightened cries from outside. The occupants of the hall reached for their weapons and rushed for the doors. Pagan of Ledonaii was one of the first out, his body changing as he went, so that he emerged into the daylight as a white-furred bear. Carnac and Olwain were hot on his heels, among the Cimbrathii and Ledonaii guards.

“Mother Mercy, what are these?” Carnac heard his brother whisper as they stumbled to a halt. Three monstrous winged beasts had alighted before the hall. Carnac was glad to have Albeth arrive at his shoulder, the green glow of a killing spell wrapping the fingers of her left hand.

Centre and fore was an emerald serpent, balanced on raptor talons that could have crushed a man. Flanking it were a gigantic white lion with a scorpion tail and an equally outsized, horned and cloven-footed horse. Astride the shoulders of each sat a slender being in fantastical armour of gleaming gold and bronze.

Pagan magLedon pushed between his warriors. “I am Pagan manKurgan magLedon, Prince of Ledonaii,” he said, his words slurring over his bear’s teeth and tongue, “and you are on Magmardain land. Name yourselves.”

The foremost rider bowed and replied in a musical voice. “Greetings, Lords of Old Magmardia. I am Malakhieh. And we are the Avalae, Gods of Avaleinaea. We have come to offer friendship and wondrous gifts…”

“Liar!” a deep voice bellowed. “False god!”

The guards beside Carnac gave way and the old Gar, Ramul Lambai, strode forward, five feet tall and near as great in girth. In his anger, he’d forgotten to affix his veil and his eyes were slitted against the light. His fleshy whiskers writhed in agitation. Ramul planted himself in front of the winged serpent, his runestaff in one outsized fist and an iron mallet in the other. The monster hissed.

The Gar drew in the dirt with great sweeps of his staff, then slammed the point of the staff into the image’s centre. The lines blazed and Carnac saw it was the Garish rune for iron.

Ramul marched towards the riders, a tiny figure before their steeds. Yet the monsters shied from his advance. He raised his hammer above his head.

“Be gone, deceivers,” he boomed. “Or taste black iron.”

“My lords, do not listen to this burrower,” Malakhieh cried, his voice suddenly shrill. “He wishes only to ensure your dependence…”

“Be gone!” the Gar roared, and flung his hammer at the serpent.

The monsters exploded into the air with powerful beats of their wings. As they fled, Ramul raised a shovel-like hand. His hammer looped back towards him and smacked into his palm. He swept his gaze about the surrounding Nordain and Magmardain clansmen.

“Those are not gods,” he said. “Their mortal cousins inhabit the forests to the south of Gulgaroth. Those,” he pointed skyward, “have sold their souls for life eternal and their blood runs cold in their veins. They are powerful sorcerers and amuse themselves by twisting beasts and thinking folk alike into monsters such as those you saw. But they are not gods. They can be killed. Gars have killed them, when they came to us with their false promises. Iron is poison to them. Heed me well, sons of Old Magmardia.”

With that, he plucked his staff from the ground. The fires of his rune faded and vanished.

Carnac looked to his wife. She gave him a shaky smile as the glow faded from her fingers. Beside her, Olwain’s gaze was fixed on the three specks dwindling into the eastern sky.

#

Over the following days, the camps were abuzz with speculation as to the origin and purpose of the Avalae. The Gars would not be drawn further on the outcome of their people’s encounter with the foreigners. The normal businesses of feasting, trading and marrying also proceeded apace.

Olwain took no part in these activities, on behalf of his family or his clan, instead announcing that he was going hunting with a party of friends. Some days after returning from his expedition, he joined Carnac in the shade at the front of the Thane’s tent, where Carnac sat with Graigor while the boy played with his carved warriors and horses. As Olwain helped himself to a cushion, Carnac took his pipe from his mouth and breathed out a long cloud of smoke.

“And how was your hunting?” he asked. “Fruitless, I assume, and you fell off your horse to boot, otherwise you wouldn’t have avoided me for three days since you came back.”

Olwain didn’t smile. “We didn’t go hunting. We went to see the Avalae.”

In the middle of another drag on his pipe, Carnac exhaled sharply and spat the tabac plug halfway to the next tent. Graigor laughed and sprang to his feet to go and find it. Olwain sat patiently while he waited for his brother to stop coughing.

“We went across the river and lit a fire behind the ridge,” he said. “They came to us.”

Carnac wiped his mouth and eyes, then stared at him in disbelief. “Why would you do a damn fool thing like that, Olwain? I know you heard him, but did you heed nothing the Gar said about these foreigners?”

“Aye, I heard the Gar, and I heard what Malakhieh said in response. I heard more since. There was naught the foreigner had to say of our circumstances that I didn’t already know for myself.” He finally turned his face to Carnac. His brother recoiled from the fever in his gaze. “The burrowers hold us in thrall to them and the bearskins keep us weak and divided. The Avalae offer us the chance to make our own destiny. The Nordain can be as proud as our ancestors once were. We can be Haneshmen again.”

Damn me, Carnac thought, staring into Olwain’s glazed and dilated eyes, Glyn was telling the truth.

“Can you not hear the poison in those words, brother?” he asked. “These creatures are not gods.”

Olwain smiled, slyly. “Don’t think me a fool, Carnac. I know that, though it pleases them to style themselves as such. But even the Gar said they’re powerful sorcerors. If obtaining their gifts means pandering to their delusions of deity for a while, then so be it.”

“Would you forsake our gods, then?” Carnac demanded.

Magmardain gods,” Olwain corrected him. He shrugged. “And why not? Didn’t our ancestors, once the Magmardain yoke was on their necks, cast aside their own gods — the gods of Chahanesh — for those we follow now?”

What yoke, Olwain?” Carnac shouted. “We’re a free people!”

Olwain reached out suddenly and caught Carnac’s wrist. “Come with me, brother, and I’ll make you King! Ledonaii and Cimbrathii and Dantraii and all the clans — even the Gars — will bow to you.”

“Me? And what of you, Olwain?”

“I?” He laughed. “Why, I’ll be the Prophet of the New Age, as we cast off the borrowed gods who failed us in the West.”

Carefully, Carnac pulled his arm free of his brother’s grasp. Olwain’s face fell.

“So be it,” he said sadly.

Was this madness always in him? Carnac wondered, watching him go. How did I never see it?

“Because you chose not to, Carnac manDamag, you fat fool,” he said, standing.

Graigor looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Go and find your mother. Tell her I’ve gone to see the other thanes because your uncle Olwain’s a mad fool.”

The boy nodded and sprinted away.

Carnac and hurried to the edge of the camp where the clan’s horses were tethered. The boys set to mind them watched in bemusement as other Tharingii men gathered up their herds. Carnac’s steps faltered.

Shock gave way quickly to anger.

Olwain, you snake, he thought. You’re no brother of mine, to sit beside me and offer me a crown when you’ve already spread your poison behind my back.

He called out to the nearest of the departing clansmen. ”Hoy, Fingid, where are you moving your horses to?”

The other man glanced briefly at his thane, his jaw set, then turned his back without answering. Carnac felt his face flush. He started to reach for his belt knife, paused with his fingers touching the hilt.

And what will that achieve, he asked himself, you and Fingid stabbing each other to death beneath your horses hooves? He released the knife and untied his old stallion, Horga, from the line, abandoning dignity to scramble up onto the horse’s bare back.

“You’ve got to lose some weight,” he puffed to himself.

Leaving the camp, he was disturbed to see his brother speaking animatedly to a sizeable knot of men and women at the edge of the Tharingii tents. Nearby, the Wolf banner of their clan hung limply in the breathless air. An omen? Carnac wondered, with a chill. He looked more closely at the crowd gathered around Olwain and realised that, while they were all Nordain, none of them were Tharingii.

Damn me, it’s even worse than I thought. He nudged Horga into a canter.

He found Salwyth of Salithii shoeing horses with his sons.

“I need help,” he said, without preamble.

Salwyth hammered down the end of a nail and straightened. “With Olwain you mean?”

“You know already?” Carnac said, dismayed.

“Aye, there’s more than a few folk been thinking the same fool thoughts as him. I caught wind yesterday of certain whisperings among my own folk, although no-one’s found the courage to say anything openly to me. Olwain’s become a focus because he’s been the first to speak aloud.”

“If you knew yesterday, why’d you say nothing to me?” Carnac demanded.

Salwyth met his glare coolly. “Because the Magmardain and the other thanes were of the opinion that you might be of a mind with your brother. I told them you were ignorant, not an idiot. I said you’d come to me as soon as you found out.” He flashed a humourless smile. “I’m relieved you proved me right, laddie.”

“And when was this decided?” Carnac said, too outraged to care how shrill he sounded. “Without me there to defend myself and Tharingii honour?”

“Last night, although there was precious little else on which the council was of a single mind.”

Carnac snorted. Even in a crisis, that circumstance was far from unusual.

Salwyth continued, “There’s sorcery afoot here. Matters are moving apace faster than if this were mundane treachery.” He handed his hammer to his eldest son. “Come on, we’ll call the council and see if we can decide what’s to be done before it gets out of hand.”

Salwyth leapt lightly onto the back of one of his newly shod animals.

Carnac watched him sourly. “Got to lose some weight,” he muttered.

They galloped up the slope to the great hall. Magmardain men, women and children watched their hectic passage. Carnac noted how many of the men wore armour and had arms to hand – far more than the number of bearskins among them in recent generations.

He dropped heavily from Horga’s back when they reached the hall. Trusting the old horse to stay where he was put, he strode to the weathered bronze bell that hung beside the doors. He took the heavy wooden mallet from its hook and swung it, double-handed, at the bell. The din of its tolling almost deafened him. He struck it four more times and went to wait with Salwyth before the doors.

The older man unfolded his arms to point down the valley. The group around Olwain had broken up and were scattering back to the various Nordain encampments. At the same time, a handful of wagons, each with its attendant string of livestock, were emerging from the Tharinigii camp and rolling down towards the river.

“Damn,” was all Carnac could think to say.

The Gars arrived first: three squat, veiled figures emerging from the shadows within the hall and striding over to stand beside them. Carnac recognised Ramul Lambai by the runestaff he carried. Otherwise, the Gars were indistinguishable. They didn’t respond to his nod of greeting.

He was disheartened but unsurprised when the Magmardain princes arrived together, striding up from the Cimbrathii camp amid a large party of bearskinned warriors, who quickly surrounded he and Salwyth and the Gars.

Pagan magLedon wore his bear’s shape. His blunt muzzle turned to Salwyth. Carnac noted the curt nod of approval he gave the Salithii thane.

“Your brother is a menace, manDamag,” rumbled Culyan magCimbran, glaring down at him from barely a handsbreadth away. His faced lengthened towards Carnac’s, cheeks rippling and sprouting fur. It was said that the bearskin blood had grown so weak in the house of magCimbran that its princes could no longer fully shift. At that moment, Carnac felt disinclined to find out.

“Aye, he is,” he agreed. “But what would you have me do with him?”

“Confine him, silence him,” said Culyan.

Carnac stood back and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m Thane of my people. They heed my words because I make sense. If they choose not to listen to me — even my brother — that’s their lookout. I’m no Prince to go putting folk in chains or lopping off their heads, just because they’re acting like fools.”

“Then I’ll do it!” snarled Culyan.

“You interfere in another clan’s business and you’ll have a war on your hands, magCimbran,” warned a third voice — Thane Manyn of Dantraii, a dark Nordain with the helices of his ears cropped in the same old-style fashion as Olwain’s. He and the other Nordain clan thanes pushed their horses through the encircling Magmardain guards.

“Enough!” snapped Pagan magLedon, his teeth gnashing audibly. “This is every clan’s business. It is not Tharingii’s fault. Our people have dreamed of retaking the West since long before Olwain manDamag gave their fantasies voice. Not one of us did enough to quell that folly.”

Culyan retorted, “Only Nordain hearts have been poisoned. No Magmardain have heeded the foreigner’s words.”

Our people,” Pagan repeated firmly, facing his half-shifted counterpart.

And that, thought Carnac, would be the difference between a Ledonaii yoke and a Cimbrathii one, should we ever consent to wear such a thing.

Ramul Lambai spoke into the silence that followed. “The ensorscellment in the Avalae’s words works quickly in the hearts of those who are prone to such fantasies.”

Suspecting he already knew the answer, Carnac asked, “Might we still reason with them?”

“We might,” the Gar said. “Though most likely it is too late.”

“What happened, when the Avalae came to Gulgaroth?” said Salwyth.

All eyes fell on the dark-veiled Gar. Ramul hesitated, then growled deep in his throat. “You would no longer recognise, as Gars, those who heeded the false gods. We have sealed them in the deepest chambers below the city where we hope they will devour each other.”

Carnac shuddered at the implications of that: the Gar’s hadn’t been strong enough to destroy those of their kin who had been turned by the Avalae.

“Will you tell Olwain and his followers of this horror?” Pagan asked.

Ramul nodded. “Aye, I will. But do not fill your hearts with hope.”

Pagan called for mounts to be brought.

As they galloped toward the river at the best pace the ponies of the Gars could sustain, more family wagons, their horses and livestock in tow, broke from the camps of the other Nordain clans and headed down to rendezvous with Olwain’s Tharingii followers.

Carnac spied Glyn waiting at the edge of the Tharingii camp, seated astride her filly. He veered aside with Salwyth to meet her, hearing the rest of the riders slow and turn behind them. Albeth and Graigor stood at the fore of a worried crowd of clansfolk.

“Olwain is taking them to Avaleinaea,” Glyn said.

“I tried to talk to him, Carnac,” added Albeth. “I may as well have been reasoning with a stone. There’s an enchantment on him that I can’t even grapple with, let alone unravel. This sorcery is like a rope woven with smoke.”

“There is a terrible price to pay for the gifts of Avalae,” said Ramul Lambai. “If they accept them, they will no longer be human.”

“Olwain and the others have chosen not to believe it,” Glyn said.

“There’s little choice in it, I fear,” said her uncle.

Carnac slid from Horga’s back and took a few steps towards his sister-in-law. “Glyn, I’ve wronged you. There is a place for you in my household. Will you stay?”

Her jaw worked silently before she was able to say, “I’ll go with my husband. Perhaps I can still make him see sense before it’s too late.”

“It’s already too late…” he started to say, but she spun her horse and put her heels to its ribs.

Albeth ran a few steps after her and raised a hand, a faint glow at her fingertips. “Return to your kin if you are able, sister,” she called.

Carnac felt small fingers grip his.

“Father, where are they going?”

He looked down at his son. “To Avaleinaea, where the false gods live.”

“Does Uncle Olwain not believe in the true gods any longer?”

“No son, not anymore.”

“They’re not going anywhere,” growled Culyan magCimbran. “That looks to be all of them.” He signalled to the bearskin rider beside him, who raised a war horn to his muzzle and blew three sharp notes. Magmardain horsemen appeared on the rise beyond the ford, where Olwain’s followers were beginning to cross.

Thane Manyn rounded on him. “What is the meaning of this, magCimbran?”

Pagan magLedon answered. “Be still, Manyn. This matter must be dealt with.”

He put his heels to his horse. The Gars and the rest of the Magmardain followed, pursuing Glyn down the slope with the angry and bewildered Nordain thanes hot on their heels.

“Dealt with?” exclaimed Carnac. He pushed Graigor towards Albeth’s arms and scrabbled back up on his horse.

He caught up with the rest as they arrived at the ford, urging Horga through to the front of the pack, where the other thanes and the Magmardain princes confronted Olwain. He scanned the caravan as Horga picked his way forward, but could catch no sight of Glyn amongst the wagons.

The company of archers, musketeers and mounted men backing Olwain outnumbered the bearskinned warriors who confronted them, Carnac saw, as did the group across the river who had put themselves between the wagons and the warriors on the rise above. But they were Nordain against Magmardain who, bearskinned or not, were bigger, stronger and held the high ground.

“Let us pass,” said Olwain. “Or we’ll fight our way free.”

“Don’t be a fool, Olwain,” cried Carnac. “If it comes to fighting you’ll all be slaughtered.”

“I’ve naught to say to you, brother.”

“Then listen and answer to me,” growled the white bear of Ledonaii. “If we let you go free, what will you do?”

“We will go to Avaleinaea, and make our lives anew.”

“Liar!” spat Culyan magCimbran. “You’ll return armed with foul magics to conquer us all.”

Olwain started to deny the accusation. Feeling sick to the stomach as he did so, Carnac spoke over him, “You deceive no-one, Olwain.”

“Your own brother damns you!” cried Culyan triumphantly.

“Curse you for a fool, manDamag,” spat Manyn of Dantraii, and rode to put himself between the two parties. “What will you do, magCimbran, slaughter them, babes and all?”

“There’s no other way,” said Ramul Lambai. “They have a contagion of the mind beyond the ken of your folk and mine. What cannot be cured must be cleansed.”

Cleansed, you say?” exclaimed Salwyth, rounding on him. “Even the babies? What of Glyn? Can she be the only one following her idiot husband out of duty alone?”

“I’ll not allow it,” said Thane Manyn. “No matter what the treachery in their hearts.”

“You can’t stop it,” snarled the Cimbrathii prince.

“Then you’ll have war, magCimbran” said Salwyth, and put himself beside Manyn. The thanes of Ylaii, Istanii and Walathii followed his example.

Horga pranced on the spot, sensing his master’s indecision. Carnac saw the hateful smirk on the face of his brother. This is exactly what you want, you faithless bastard, he thought. But I’ll not have our father’s name stained with the blood of innocents.

“Can you give such an order?” he asked the Magmardain princes. He wheeled Horga to address their clansmen. “Can you carry it out?”

He thought he saw doubt furrow the Ledonaii prince’s pale-furred brow. From the lowering of his muzzle, Carnac guessed that Pagan magLedon felt as sickened as any man there. Culyan magCimbran snarled, “If you won’t, Ledonaii, I will!”

He raised his fist.

“Culyan, no!” said Pagan. “Please.

The fist remained in the air. The Cimbrathii stared at his Ledonaii counterpart, shocked more than anything, Carnac suspected, that his rival had begged him. Pagan shifted back to human form. The fist opened, the arm lowered.

“Aye.”

The Cimbrathii put his heels to his stallion’s ribs. The smaller mounts of the Nordain thanes skittered aside as the great warhorse surged past. Olwain’s mare shied, but held her ground at her master’s command as the warhorse reared before her.

“Leave,” said magCimbran. “And never return to these lands. Should we ever encounter you or yours again, we will hunt you down to the last screaming babe. We will feed your hearts to dogs and burn you, heartless, so that in death you will never know peace. May the Red Lady spurn you and spit on your faithless souls.”

Carnac felt the hairs rise all over his body at the ferocity of the curse. A ripple passed, without a breath of wind to drive it, through the grass around their horses’ hooves. The weigher of souls was listening.

White-faced and silent, Olwain and his followers turned their mounts and returned to their wagons.

“I fear you will pay a high price for your mercy, my lords,” said the Gar.

“Aye,” said Pagan magLedon. “Such is the way of things.”

#

Sitting motionless, wearing their shining helms and armour, the Avalae looked like brass statues in the firelight. Their monstrous steeds were wreathed in flickering shadow behind them. Red eyes glittered high above the heads of their riders and the Nordain who faced them. Around the opposite edge of the circle of light, Olwain’s followers shifted uneasily. If Olwain was intimidated, Glyn thought, he didn’t show it.

Malakhieh lifted his arms and removed his helmet. Glyn realised with a start that the foreigner was actually a woman.

Lavender hair tumbled about her flawless, ivory face. Her lips were rich red and her eyes a sparkling sapphire under upswept brows. The pupils were not round but horizontally slit.

Malakhieh’s companions removed their helms as well, and Glyn saw these were indeed males, though they shaved their whiskers closely. One wore corn-coloured hair in an elaborate braid, the other completely bald. Small, round ears were set high and flat on the sides of their heads.

“What would you ask of us, Olwain manDamag?” Malakhieh said.

Olwain reached behind himself and picked up a musket, which he laid across his knees. Malakhieh’s only reaction was a slight widening of her eyes, but her companions both recoiled visibly.

“More of these,” Olwain said. ”Or, if not muskets, then the iron to make them.”

The Avalae licked her lips. “You dream too small, son of the West. We have long abandoned the use of such crude matter as iron,” she said. “Ask a different favour, mortal.”

Glyn saw a smile flicker behind her husband’s moustaches. So, the question had been a test. His intellect had not gone the way of his reason. Malakhieh had seen the smile too, and was plainly not well pleased.

Olwain pretended not to notice. “No matter. For me and mine, then, I ask the strength of our horses,” he replied. He caressed the Leaping Wolf brooch that pinned his cloak. “We would be as wolves among the flocks of those who spurned us.”

The red lips parted cruelly. “And what do you offer in return?”

“What price do you set?” Olwain countered.

“Your allegiance, in our hour of need.”

The words hung between them for a moment before Olwain nodded. “So be it,” he agreed.

Glyn knew his acquiescence for a lie. Seeing the Avalae’s smile widen, she realised with a chill that Malakhieh knew it too. No matter Olwain’s intentions, the promise would bind him.

“Olwain…” she began.

“Be still!”

Malakhieh laughed. “The terms are accepted.”

#

Glyn dreamed of running.

She hunched forward, stretched out her legs and galloped, her hooves drumming against the hard ground.

She awoke with a start.

A horse stood over her. She lifted her gaze higher, and screamed. A man’s outsized, naked torso rose from the animal’s shoulders where its neck and head should have been. Olwain’s face peered down at her, his eyes red with unshed tears. The bottom half of his face protruded strangely.

His lips peeled back, revealing massive fangs. “Oh, Glyn. What have we done?”

Horrified, Glyn looked down at herself. Her hips grew out of a horse’s chest — her own filly’s. Clumsily, she pushed herself up off her side and, with a lurch, came to her hoofed feet.

Olwain caught her shoulders. With a cry of revulsion, she tore herself away from him, kicking out at his chest and legs with her front hooves. Olwain shied away, his face twisting with hurt. She fled.

“Glyn!” he bellowed.

She galloped through the camp as men, women and children awoke to stared, aghast, at their new bodies. Cries of shock and terror filled the air. A shadow passed over her and Glyn was buffeted by a great downward blast of air. She skidded onto her haunches as the winged Avalae lion thumped to the ground in front of her. She found her feet again and launched herself aside. Malakieh’s second follower swooped in front of her on his flying horse, forcing her to shy again. She turned back, towards Olwain, and found Malakieh’s green serpent blocking her path.

A mewl of terror escaped her as Glyn wheeled frantically, searching for an escape.

“Kill her,” said Malakieh. “Show them what we think of such ingratitude.”

With a growl that rattled Glyn’s ribs, the white lion padded forward. She could see its rider’s sneer beneath his helm.

“No!” cried Olwain. “I’ll not have her harmed!”

“Silence,” Malakieh cried, her voice booming like a thunderclap. Olwain and others all around scrabbled at their throats in panic, their voices abruptly cut off. “Now,” the Avalae witch continued in the silence that followed, “bow to your makers.”

All around, creatures that had yesterday been free Nordain clansfolk crumpled to their knees. Glyn felt a terrible pressure against her shoulders and spine but remained upright. She could feel her four legs trembling with the effort.

Beside Malakieh’s riding beast, Olwain slumped with the horse’s part of his body fallen half on its side. His head sagged between his shoulders as he held his human torso off the ground with his arms.

“Please,” he managed to gasp. “Spare her.”

Above him, the bronze-helmed head tipped in his direction. Malakieh regarded him for a time, then chuckled. “Very well,” she said. “We are merciful gods. Release her. Let the savages see what we have made.”

Behind Glyn, the lion roared. She fled.

No-one followed her, either to join her escape or to pursue.

#

She galloped blindly, but Albeth’s spell guided her. Carnac’s parting words were in her heart, and her course steered inevitably back to Tharingii rather than to her blood-kin.

The clan was on the move, heading home. Outriders caught sight of her coming. She heard their cries of horror before they put their war horns to their lips. The sight and scent of the riding men awoke a terrible appetite within her.

With a wail of anguish, she accelerated, leaving them behind.

Carnac was waiting with a party of warriors when she came in sight of the caravan. Glyn saw their muskets and bows come up as soon as she was near enough for them to see her clearly. Her mouth watered and her stomach knotted as the wind brought their smell to her.

Meat!

The hunger fought with Albeth’s spell. She slowed to a trot, then a walk, and finally collapsed to her knees twenty paces in front of them. She buried her face in her hands.

Running footsteps approached. A cloak was flung about her naked torso. Strong arms held her against a studded leather vest.

“Lords above and below, what have they done to you?”

Carnac’s closeness all but brought her undone. She shoved him off. “Get away from me!”

His broad face scrunched in hurt and confusion. Gasping with the effort of restraining her monstrous new body’s urges, she said, “To be wolves among your flock, Carnac. That’s the gift your brother asked them for.”

His bewildered expression only deepened.

“To feed as wolves among the flock,” she said.

#

Carnac leapt to his feet as Albeth emerged from the tent. His wife look completely spent. “Well?”

She brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes and drank deeply from the gourd in her other hand before answering. Other clan witches exited behind her, looking just as wrung out.

“Naught,” Albeth said. “The Avalae spell slides away from our thoughts like the wind through open fingers. And our closeness only distresses her. Did you send riders after the Gars?”

He nodded. “Aye, of course I did. And to the other clans. What help the molemen can be I don’t know, when they couldn’t save their own kin.”

His wife shrugged. “They’ve had a longer study of Avalae spellcraft than we have. That she’s fighting the curse herself gives me hope. How long, do you think?”

Carnac cast an eye at the sun, standing directly overhead. “Not until dark, or even the morning, at the pace Gars travel.”

“We’ll need to circle the wagons tonight.”

“Ah, you be leaving the warcraft to me, woman, and I’ll not criticise your spellweaving,” he chided her, drawing her into his arms to take the sting from his words.

As it happened, Ramul Lambai arrived barely an hour later, borne upon the saddle of one of the Tharingii riders sent to find him. Carnac caught him as the moleman dropped gracelessly to the ground. The Gar allowed himself to be steadied on his feet while he caught his flapping veil. He squinted up at Carnac.

“That’s the last time I consent to be carried aboard one of your great smelly beasts, Tharingii,” he said. “It gives me little enough pleasure to learn that I was right.”

“Aye, and me even less. But could you have slain the children of your own blood?” Carnac said.

The moleman’s fleshy whiskers curled in agitation before he affixed his veil. “No,” he said. “That was our downfall as well.”

#

The rest of the Gar trading party had arrived and the Tharingii caravan drawn up into a vast wagon fort before Ramul Lambai re-emerged from Glyn’s guarded tent. He left his veil aside in the failing light, his pink eyes open wide and faintly glowing.

“She’ll live,” he announced, as Carnac sprang once more to his feet. “And it’ll be your wife’s healing magic that’ll bring her back to health.” He exhaled heavily, the breath whistling past his thick whiskers. ”The horse is a ruin. You’ll have to get someone to drag the carcass away.”

“What of Olwain and the rest?” Carnac asked. “Is there hope for them?”

Ramul Lambai shook his head. “I’m sorry. It was Albeth’s guiding spell underneath the Avalae curse that allowed us to slice the strands of their spellworking. Without that, your brother and all else who followed him are lost.”

Carnac gazed eastward, where stars were already beginning to light the deepening blue of the sky. He was surprised to find that his eyes were dry. “Why would they do this?” he said, at last and half to himself.

“The Avalae?” said Ramul Lambai. “Because they fear us — what our peoples once were and could be again. They wish to weaken us by seeding their cankers in our midst.”

“Then I pray that my snake of a brother has taken his fools’ caravan to Avaleinaea, so the Avalae can reap their own bitter harvest.”

He didn’t need to see the second shake of the Gar’s head to know that he was wishing in vain.

#

He awoke with a start sometime in the early hours of the night. For a moment he lay on his back, disorientated and wondering why Albeth wasn’t beside him. He shifted in discomfort, unable to fathom why he should’ve gone to bed with his armour on. Then the alarm sounded again, a discordant blast of a sentry’s horn.

Carnac leapt from his blankets, grabbing his sword and wrenching it free of its scabbard.

The whites of Graigor’s eyes glittered in the shadows across the tent.

“Hide yourself, son, and stay quiet,” he said, strapping his shield to his arm.

“I want mama!”

“She’s with Aunt Glyn. Be brave, Graigor. Make me proud.”

Jamming his helmet onto his head, Carnac ducked outside. His bare forearms goose-pimpled in the cool air. Shouts and horns sounded from all sides of the camp. A quick glance at the moon told him he’d had his head down a bare half hour since he came off watch.

A cannon discharged on the nearest perimeter of the wagon circle.

“To the wagons!” he cried to his kinsmen, who burst from their own tents, armed and in various states of armour or undress. He led them at a sprint to the edge of the camp, gathering more along the way. When they reached the clear killing ground between the tents and the surrounding wagons, he sent those with bows and muskets to distribute themselves along the makeshift fortifications. The rest he left to order their arms properly before they spread themselves behind the archers and gunners. In the heart of the camp, more men would be mounting their horses, ready to act as a reserve in case the outer defences were breached.

He ran to the closest cannon, set between two wagons and manned by brothers Carnac knew well, quickly and efficiently reloading the manVarda family gun. Up on the wagon boards, another manVarda brother lobbed an arrow into the darkness. Carnac glimpsed galloping forms in the moonlight.

An answering arrow wobbled out of the night and clattered in the spokes of a wagon wheel.

“Fools are trying to shoot longbows on the hoof,” Mangel manVarda grunted.

“Not so daft, perhaps,” said Carnac, hitching himself up on the wagon’s tail-step to get a better view. “Since they have no horse’s head to get in the way of their draw.”

Mangel stared at him a moment, then spat a curse and turned his attention back to his gun.

A barrage of musket fire erupted to Carnac’s left. He saw that the Gars had positioned themselves in a double line across several wagon beds. The blades on the ends of their musket barrels glinted as the ranks swapped places. At the near end of the company, Ramul Lambai drew back his arm and, with a sharp cry, flung his hammer into the night. A heartbeat later a great thump sounded across the field, as though one of the gods had just dropped a mountain from the sky. Screams followed that sounded neither quite like man nor horse.

A warhorn sounded. Two sharp blasts and one long. A pause, and then it repeated. More horns took up the cry.

“Breach!” Carnac bellowed. “To me!” He leapt from the wagon and ran in the direction that the first horn had sounded.

The night was lit a sickly green, accompanied by the skin-crawling shriek of a killing spell. Albeth and the other witches were giving an account of themselves.

A burning figure crashed over the tent directly in front of Carnac, not quite the right shape for a man on horseback. Battling horsemen and man-horses followed it. Carnac hurled himself into the fray, holding his shield high as he slashed at the hamstrings of one of Olwain’s followers. With a cry, the creature toppled. Carnac danced back and then in to hack at its bestial face until half the head came away and he was sure the thing was dead.

He looked up just in time to avoid being run over by a retreating Tharingii rider. Another heavy body cannoned into his back. He rolled aside, losing his shield and came back to his feet. A riderless horse danced about its master’s body. Carnac ran for it and flung himself up onto the animal’s back.

He raised his sword. “Tharingii! To me!”

#

Carnac look away from the charred and spitted corpses, unable to stomach the sight. His fists clenched so tightly around the hilt of his sword that they ached. He leaned on the blade like an old man clutching his cane.

A hand came to rest on his shoulder. Carnac looked up at Pagan MagLedon. The old prince’s face was creased with sympathy.

Ledonaii had been the first to respond to Carnac’s messengers, arriving while Tharingii were still counting the cost of the raid, and coming to the awful realisation that Olwain’s followers had not left empty handed. Together, they had set out in pursuit.

Two days later, they’d come across the raiders’ camp, surprising them at dawn. What they’d found had been a horror. Across the battlefield, men of Tharingii and Ledonaii worked with hatchets and knives on those of Olwain’s followers they had brought down, refining their personal elaborations on the Cimbrathii curse before they fed the remains to the dogs and the fires.

The prone figure at Carnac’s feet shifted awkwardly, a broken foreleg flopping, the canonbone cleanly snapped. Carnac looked down at the monster that had been his brother. Olwain’s human torso expanded and contracted bizarrely as he panted for air, his distorted face further twisted by pain.

“Oh, Olwain,” Carnac murmured, as he hadn’t done since they were boys.

“The hunger,” Olwain gasped. “It consumes us.”

Carnac’s eyes filled with tears. He took up the weight of his sword. Pagan stepped clear. “Damn you, brother,” Carnac said.

Olwain roared like a beast, raising clawed hands to fend off the blade. His bellows became wails as Carnac hacked at his wrists. Carnac swung and slashed in a frenzy, needing the noise to stop. A hand came away. The sword struck the monster’s skull. Hooved feet thrashed. Carnac brought the sword down another time, then stabbed the point back into the earth and staggered back.

The prince of the Ledonaii approached again. He offered Carnac a knife, hilt first. Carnac stared at it stupidly for a moment, then accepted the blade. He knelt down beside the tapered barrel of the monster’s horse body, sliced along the based of the ribs, through the diaphragm and cut inside the chest cavity until he could pull out the heart.

He stood, the bloody organ in his hand.

Ramul Lambai stood a respectful distance away, like a squatting crow among the carnage, in his dark robes and veils.

“Master Gar,” Carnac said, “do you know the way to Avaleinaea?”

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2010

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