Authors: A.J. Dalton
Torpeth snorted. ‘Might have saved me having to listen to your childish wheedling.’ He looked at one of his long cracked fingernails as if seeing it for the first time and chewed on it hungrily.
‘Why? It’s not a lot to ask.’
Torpeth sighed and shook his head, glancing at Aspin sideways. ‘Not a lot, he says. It’s everything. Maybe he hasn’t learned anything after all. Too young perhaps, but he wouldn’t have come here if he were too young. Perhaps he’s right though. Perhaps it is all nothing.’ Then he shrugged.
‘Damn it, Torpeth!’ Aspin tried to shout in exasperation. ‘Make sense for once, would you!’
The holy man blew a raspberry at the young warrior and then shuffled round so that he had his back to him. Aspin wouldn’t have been surprised if the wretch had chosen to defecate at him, but Torpeth muttered loudly instead. ‘Sense, he says, as if he knew anything. He’s ignorant, so how’s he to know what sense is? He can’t even see that Braggar needed to think he’d completed some sort of trial so that he’d be confident in himself as a leader for the rest of his days. Ignorant, ignorant! He can’t even see that I deliberately put those stones there for him. Can’t see that he too was being tested in a way that would help him learn something. Torpeth wasting his time with this slow ox. Worse, Torpeth wasted all his pine nuts on the greedy ox! Took ages to gather those nuts. Will probably starve now.’
Aspin couldn’t help feeling slightly guilty. ‘Well, why didn’t you say so before?’ He paused to massage his sore throat and thought through the implications of what he’d just heard. ‘So you put those stones there on purpose? But they were there even before I arrived. How …’
Torpeth didn’t move or reply.
‘So you knew I would throw the stone then. But you knew I wouldn’t kill Braggar, is that it? You must have because you’ve wanted him to become chieftain all along, a strong chieftain, right? But how could you know that? Why put me in such a position? What were you testing and showing me? That I would be able to predict the consequences of killing Braggar? That I would see he wasn’t himself? What’s the point of that? Far too risky and dangerous if you ask me.’
Torpeth rummaged in his armpit, caught something between thumb and forefinger and then crunched down on it with his teeth. ‘Hmm. Not as nice as pine nuts.’ He shuffled back round and fixed Aspin with one eye while the other continued to roll around in his head. In a low flat voice, he said, ‘Risky? The life of a scrawny child like you is as nothing. The alternative is a chieftain with no confidence who will see to the demise of the entire tribe, ensuring that the triumph of the others is complete. Once the others take this world, do you think they will be satisfied? Or once they have raped and pillaged the power of this world’s Geas, will their force and appetite become even greater? Will they move onto and consume yet another world? And then another? Where does it end, little warrior and son of the snow? Does it end when all worlds are become nothing and the others are everything? Risky? You are a scrawny ox, nothing!’
Aspin was shaken. He didn’t understand everything Torpeth had said, but he understood enough to be scared. He wanted to remain ignorant, wanted nothing more to do with this place and its insanity. ‘Very well, you are right. It was worth it to give Braggar the self-belief he needs. And now there’s a slight thaw, we’ll be returning to the village.’
Torpeth tutted and shook his head. ‘Braggar can go, but you can never return.’
Aspin went cold. ‘What?’ he asked quietly.
The holy man yawned and his eyes drooped.
‘Hey! Wake up! What do you mean I can never return? Answer me!’
Torpeth looked at him blearily, suddenly seeming old beyond counting. ‘Come, come, son of the snow, the thing you are good for is soul-reading. I showed you that, did I not? You needed to see it if you were truly to believe it. You are many types of ox, but not a simple ox. You know what will happen if you try to return.’
Trembling, the young warrior nodded. He could see it in his mind’s eye. ‘Braggar will attack me and kill me on the way back to the village. He will ambush me. I know too much of his time here. Every time he would speak as chief, I would be able to second-guess him or undo his words, since I would know from where they came. I would undermine his confidence and leadership because I know his secrets. Even if I never spoke out, he would always fear I would; he would always have misgivings and doubts about himself. As a strong chieftain, he cannot afford to let me live.’
‘Quite right. So, as I said, you can never return, soul-reader.’ Torpeth nodded drowsily.
‘But my parents!’
‘I will explain it all to them, tell them you love them and so on.’
‘Where will I go, Torpeth?’
The holy man shrugged with a sleepy smile. ‘Who knows? Follow your nose. The lowlands, perhaps, which were once ours but where the others now dwell. To our ancestral lands, son of the snow, where the gods once dwelt and perhaps hide there still.’
Anger. ‘It’s not fair!’
‘As you will. Make your own way then, but I would have thought you’d learned by now there will always be a deer to lead you or a stone waiting for you to throw.’
‘No! I decide my own actions. I decide my future. My will is my own.’
‘Have it your own way, but do not forget payment is due. You were allowed to live, to survive the storm, and now payment must be made. The naked warrior once sounded like you, you know. Maybe things will turn out better for you than they did for him. Let’s hope so, else it’ll be the end for good this time, the end for all of us. The others will finally search out and seize the Geas and this world will be no more. Now begone, soul-reader, little warrior and son of the snow, for I am tired beyond imagining and Braggar will wake all too soon. Begone!’ Torpeth waved vaguely.
Bemused and confused, Aspin got to his feet. Both Braggar and Torpeth were snoring now. He turned his back on them, collected his hunting bow and quiver and went to the door. He could not believe he was now exiled from his tribe through no fault of his own. He would have to leave behind everyone and everything he’d ever known. He had nothing and would be less than nothing in the lowlands. What life could there be without a tribe?
He stepped out into the snow and shielded his eyes from the sun glaring off it. It warmed him a little and he wondered if Sinisar of the Shining Path was trying to reach out to him. Could he search him out? The search would give him some sort of aim for a while, even though the old gods were meant to be fallen and broken like the land and the people.
At least he now had clean air in his lungs, rather than the fetid smells of Torpeth’s house. And if he never saw another pine nut again, that would still be too soon. Even so, he’d been stripped of everything he’d ever known, as if he were the naked warrior and the one at fault. Could it be that he had made some mistake after all? Chasing that damned deer had done it. And then electing to come to Torpeth’s house. Letting Braggar live for the good of the tribe. Yes, the flaw was in him just as much as it was in everything else. There was no escaping it … but he would try nonetheless, even if it cost him his life. It wasn’t so much to lose, after all, as he was naught but a scrawny child according to Torpeth. And if he failed, well at least he wouldn’t then be around to worry about it.
Aspin turned his back on the mountains and bent his steps towards the lowlands and the avaricious others. He dreaded to think what welcome they would offer him when even his own people turned him away.
Jillan trudged through the trees at the side of the road. He walked on a thick carpet of pine needles and dried leaves that had stopped the undergrowth from growing in most places, so the going wasn’t too difficult. Even so, whenever he came to a long straight section of road, on which he would be able to see traffic long before it got near him, he would take to the flagstones to make better time.
As it was, he didn’t see anybody travelling all that day. He marched from early morning until it was close to dusk. His feet were more than a little sore by then and he looked forward to some sort of rest. It would also be a relief to get out of the cold wind, which had chilled his face and thoroughly numbed his ears, nose and lips. Whether it was wise or not, he intended to make himself a fire tonight. Otherwise, he thought with a smile, whenever he tried to drink anything, he’d end up dribbling half of it down his front.
The pagan armour he wore had been a real blessing, for not only had it spread the load of his pack, but it had also kept his body warm throughout the day. He wondered just how he would have fared without it. Perhaps he would have had to spend the day sheltering in a cave or ditch somewhere, getting no closer to Saviours’ Paradise. In fact, he could have found himself having to shelter day after day, running down his food supplies and becoming weaker and weaker, until … No, it didn’t bear thinking about. It was just the taint in him trying to make him dispirited and desperate, so that when the Chaos did come for him he’d have little left with which to resist it and would be all the more tempted to embrace it.
It’s just the taint; ignore it
. It was so difficult though. Did the pagan armour actually make the taint in him stronger? Was it cursed armour? The thought horrified him. He should pull it off before it was too late, before it had a chance to mould itself to him fully. Once the parasite had a proper grip on him, there’d be no getting rid of it. It would bond completely with him and replace his skin. It would sink roots and tendrils into his heart and mind and draw his life blood and thoughts through its own organism, filling them with black contaminants and poisons. The two of them would merge until they were of one flesh. He would become a living corruption, a creature of the Chaos. He would shun the light of the day and Empire and instead lurk among the shadows, waiting for a chance to leap out on the unsuspecting or unwary traveller.
The image terrified him as he fumbled with the buckles securing the armour, but it would not clear from his eyes. He blinked furiously and realised that the grey sky had drifted down to obscure the road in a mist. It had caught him unawares. What else did the mist conceal? Was there something stalking him or rushing towards him even now? Something glowed an angry red ahead of him. It was still some distance away but coming towards him at speed.
Giving up on his attempts to remove the armour, Jillan threw himself into the trees at the side of the road and buried himself beneath a layer of dry leaves. He stilled and hardly dared breathe lest he make the leaves rustle, as the panting creature came rushing out of the mist. It was enormous and strings of drool flew from its snarling mouth as it ran. Its feet hit the ground with such force that it cracked the road’s flagstones. But worst of all was the blood-red eye that glared from one side of its face: it roved back and forth and burned away the mist wherever it looked. There was a power in its gaze that promised to unmake all it beheld.
Jillan stifled a gasp as he recognised the saintly emissary from his dream. The Saint of Jillan’s region was Saint Azual, and was he not said to have but one eye? Jillan knew he should throw himself on his ruler’s mercy, but he was too frightened to reveal himself. Instead, he closed his eyes and turned his face away, praying he would not be seen. Then, as quickly as he had come, the Saint was gone.
Jillan got to his feet as thunder sounded in the distance, echoing off the horizon. The storm was coming closer. He dropped back onto his stomach and covered his ears. The ground shook. It was on top of him now. Dark horsemen galloped down the road in the wake of the Saint. A large number of Heroes, pushing their beasts to the limit to keep their master in sight.
His ears ringing, Jillan got up unsteadily.
Saint Azual and the Heroes had been heading to Godsend. Word about him must have spread already. And they’d sent for the holy Saint himself! The holy representative of the blessed Saviours! Jillan shuddered in terror. He was in so much trouble. He would be damned and punished for all eternity.
He took to the road and began to run, his feet slapping tiredly. He had to leave Godsend as far behind as he could. Slipping on the mist-slick flagstones, he put his hands out in front of him to try and break his fall, but jarred his wrists painfully, and then his face and knees were scraping across the stones.
The pain was excruciating and he lay with his head ringing. He sobbed a few times, fighting off tears.
You’re not going to get far if you run yourself into the ground, you idiot! Better to get some proper rest and set out early in the morning. If you go breaking your leg or neck in this gloom, you won’t be getting to Saviours’ Paradise anytime soon, now will you?
Wincing, Jillan eased himself up and checked everything still moved properly. He started to limp down the road, looking for some track leading off through the trees towards what was likely to be higher ground rather than a bog.
The mist ahead of him thinned as he went, so he decided to go a little further. He was rewarded as a warm glow was revealed around a slight bend in the road. A building, out here? He couldn’t be near Saviours’ Paradise already, could he? There was no way he could have come far enough. He limped closer and realised he was approaching a fork of sorts in the road.
He made out a white signpost and hobbled over to it. The arrow pointing down the road he’d just come along read G
, the arrow pointing to the left read S
and that to the right H
He looked at the building across the road. It was a solid two-storey construction of large blocks of a grey stone like granite, with thick wooden pilings and cross-beams. There appeared to be some sort of wooden side building, which was presumably a barn or stable, although there were no animals in evidence. The main building’s door was large and sheathed in some dark metal, no doubt for defensive purposes, but the door was not currently tightly closed – rather, light shone around it as if it were only on a latch. Jillan then saw the large side-on sign swinging above the door and bearing the name M
and a picture of a knife and fork. At that moment, the aroma of cooked meat assailed him and his mouth instantly watered. He had not realised just how hungry he was, and he was prepared to risk entering an inn that must mostly be used by Heroes.