Authors: A.J. Dalton
How did he even get up there without breaking his neck?
Minister Praxis wondered.
There’s no ladder that I can see. Surely he didn’t fly up there with that cape of feathers, did he? No, there aren’t enough feathers to carry his weight
‘I bring this lowlander to you …’
He may once have had hair and beard as dark as a raven, but it’s all grey now. He is vain then, this pagan chieftain. Still, there’s nothing vain about his men
, the Minister decided as he took in the hall full of lean and undecorated warriors.
‘… to … ah … Well, that’s it really. I bring this lowlander to you.’
There were tense long moments. A warrior broader but slightly younger than the others pushed his way forward, stood at the foot of the throne and faced them. He looked the Minister up and down with obvious contempt and then asked Torpeth, ‘Is this the best gift that you can bring the upper village, holy man? It is worthless to us. Is it one of your mad jokes, perhaps? No one is laughing. Or is it a deliberate insult?’
‘Brave Braggar,’ Torpeth declaimed theatrically, ‘how have you been?’
‘Answer me,’ Braggar growled dangerously, whether because he didn’t want to lose face in front of the stranger and the assembled warriors, or because he genuinely wanted to tear Torpeth limb from limb wasn’t clear.
‘It is no gift, jest or insult from me,’ Torpeth replied lightly, hopping from one foot to the other. ‘It is a lowlander the gods have allowed to come here. It may be gift, jest or insult from them, therefore. I suggest you take your issue up with the gods, brave Braggar.’
‘Do you mock me?’ Braggar growled, but his voice broke just before the end and the word
came out in a squeak.
Torpeth froze mid-hop, one foot level with his knee, his testicles slapping down against his thigh. He tilted his head. ‘I thought I heard a bird. Have you been stealing them from their nests and devouring them, Braggar, thinking that it will give you the power to ride the wind and come closer to holy Wayfar?’
Rage darkened Braggar’s face and he raised a clenched fist, but Chief Blackwing now spoke in harsh tones. ‘Enough, troll! You have only been here moments and you have already outstayed your welcome. I thought I warned you last time that if you ever returned to the upper village we would throw you from the highest peak to see just how dear you were to the gods, and whether holy Wayfar would allow his winds to break your fall.’
Torpeth stifled a giggle. ‘I thought your words were mere wind born of poor digestion and a diet too rich. Maybe you should try pine nuts instead. I swear by them. They keep me quite regular. I suspect your sour moods and grudges are born of a backed-up bowel, great Chief. Not even your feathers tickle you loose and put a smile on your face, no?’
‘This is not wise, pagan,’ Minister Praxis sighed.
‘Seize the troll!’ the chieftain bellowed to the dozens of lithe warriors in the hall, some of whom had already begun to move towards Torpeth.
The holy man continued his strange hopping dance, skipping over a warrior who had dived low, and then jumping behind the Minister to avoid another. He bumped into the Minister so that he fell forwards with a squawk.
‘That’s it, lowlander! Wayfar is also known as the Screaming God!’ Torpeth nodded as he leapt to stand momentarily on the Minister’s bent back. ‘So now I will begin a prayer to him. Wayfaaaaaa …’ He began ululating and kicked off the Minister’s back to meet the chins of two warriors with the hard soles of his feet.
‘… aaaaaaa …’
Torpeth landed nimbly and instantly bounced high, allowing two more warriors to collide together in the space directly below him. He landed on top of them, a foot on each of their backs, smacking their foreheads against the compacted floor.
‘… aaaaaaaa …’
‘Catch him, you sluggards!’ the chieftain spat, almost toppling from his perch, so angry was he.
‘… aaaaaaaaa …’
Four warriors rushed at Torpeth from the sides, front and back. There was surely no escape. The small naked man waited for the backs of the warriors beneath him to flex and heave and then sprang at the warrior directly ahead, landing hands on his shoulders and vaulting over his head. The four warriors tumbled to the ground on top of each other.
‘Use your weapons, you stoneheads!’ Chief Blackwing cried in red-faced apoplexy. ‘Kill him!’
‘… aaaaaaaaaa …’
Braggar picked his moment and moved with deadly speed for the holy man’s back. Torpeth nodded as if he felt the breeze of Braggar’s movement and approved. He darted forward between warriors to the hall door and flung it open, letting in an icy blast that staggered the chief’s son and unbalanced all those nearby.
‘… aaaaaaaarr …’
Torpeth put his back to the wind and flew with it into the faces of those still coming for him. His loose hands whipped into eyes and throats; a hard heel thudded into a solar plexus; his feet climbed into the air, and he was over the heads of the warriors as they cowered behind upraised arms to protect themselves.
He is a veritable imp of mischief, a devilish elemental! How these pagans like to cause trouble, as much for themselves as for any other
‘… rrrrrr …’
‘For the love of the gods,’ Chief Blackwing pleaded, ‘someone grab or stab him!’
The wind circled round the hall, faster and faster, torches guttering and the air around Torpeth seeming to blur the eye. A vortex wove and danced towards the rocking throne.
‘… rrrrrrrRR …’ the ululation deepened until it was a grinding and clashing storm over the mountains.
A warrior managed to loose a wobbly arrow, but it was hurled wide of its mark to clatter into the wall. Overwhelmed and in fear of his life, Minister Praxis went to his knees, bent low and put his hands over his ears. Were those feet upon his back once more, lifting off straight towards the chieftain?
Then came a shriek, the creak and crack of breaking wood, and a heavy thump as Chief Blackwing unceremoniously came back down to earth.
There was a sudden silence and pained stillness. Men feared to start breathing again lest they attract the attention of the spirit that had chosen to punish them. All feared to move lest they discover they had died as part of the righteous vengeance. At best, bruised and broken bodies awaited them. The chieftain groaned.
‘That was by way of introduction to the lowlander,’ Torpeth said mildly, ‘for he has been sent to test us all. Remember that when you hear his words in the days ahead. Remember that the greatest warriors of the upper village were defeated without difficulty by an unarmed naked warrior. Remember that they were undone by just an old man, and a dirty one at that. Think on it when you wonder if you have the strength to take on the Empire. Think on it again so that you may know whether it is true faith or mere vanity that urges and inclines you to fight. Ask yourselves if it is better to die gloriously or live with the inner peace of the Geas. And if you find an answer to that last one, let me know, would you?’
And then he was gone, so the warriors of the upper village could start breathing and moving again.
Hella pulled her cloak closed and hurried through the pale light of the dawn to the Gathering Place. She found him sat there, as always, staring vacantly at the ground just before his feet.
There was no one else around, of course, because it was so early. Added to that, the town had been in a subdued and sluggish mood ever since the incident, the visit of the holy Saint and the spread of the plague. People seemed to seek the shadows whenever they moved through the town, and seemed to have less reason to seek out their neighbours than in the past. There were fewer disputes than usual, less cause to approach the council of elders and a general unspoken agreement that the season had turned, that there was little to be gained from sending workers out into the fields, and that most right-minded individuals would spend their days by the fire at home. Hella didn’t even see her classmates any more, for no replacement Minister had yet arrived from Hyvan’s Cross.
‘Hello, Samnir, it’s me again, Hella,’ she said gently. ‘How are you today? I hope it wasn’t too cold last night. Are the blankets I brought you warm enough? Does the lean-to keep most of the wind out?’
Samnir didn’t respond. She waited. After a minute his red eyes ran and he managed an autonomic blink.
‘That’s good. Papa got back from Saviours’ Paradise last night. Guess what!’ She lowered her voice and whispered excitedly: ‘He saw Jillan! Spoke to him! The Heroes and the Saint chased him, but he escaped. Isn’t that incredible?’
A lone bird twittered once or twice and then gave up. A cold breeze pulled at their hair. Hella turned her face away while Samnir remained as he was.
‘Anyway, there’s me going on when you’re probably hungry. Broth again, I’m afraid. Sorry, but it seems to be the only thing you like.’
She took the lid off the small brown-glazed pot she’d brought with her and dipped a small wooden spoon into the thick contents.
‘Smells good, huh? I found some wild garlic, so it should be flavour-some.’
She gently pushed Samnir’s head back and then pulled on his chin so that his mouth opened. She checked the broth wasn’t too hot and then spooned some between his lips. After several spoonfuls, the gentle pressure of the food caused his body to swallow.
‘That’s good,’ she said, as always. ‘Want some more? Here you go.’
‘How is he?’ asked a quiet voice.
Hella gasped and came to her feet, hiding the spoon behind her back as she whirled round. Haal stood watching her from a dozen or so yards away. His eyes remained on her for a few moments and then fixed on Samnir, who still sat with his head back, looking at the sky.
want?’ she demanded scornfully. ‘What are you doing, spying on people?’
His eyes went to his feet. ‘Didn’t mean to spy,’ he mumbled. ‘I was just passing is all.’
‘Going to go tell on me, are you, Haal Corinson?’ she accused, hands going to hips. ‘Going to tell your father and all the other elders, are you? I hen’t done anything wrong. Just showing some care for a neighbour is all.’
Haal nodded, his cheeks flushing. ‘You’re doing it for
, aren’t you?’
He meant Jillan, but she refused to be embarrassed, even though heat was also coming to her cheeks. ‘I en’t! And what’s it to you even if I was? Anyway, what are you doing just passing at this time of the morning? Does Elder Corin know you’ve sneaked out of bed? You’ll be in a heap of trouble if you do anything as stupid as tell him you saw me here.’
He looked at her with a strange expression on his face that brought her up short.
‘What is it then? What’s wrong, Haal?’
‘Pa’s sick, Hella. Frightful sick! Ma’s sent me to fetch the physicker.’
‘Is it … the … you know?’
He refused to nod in case that would make it true. His eyes glistened and he bit at his lip worriedly. ‘Don’t know. None of the rest of us has got it. Ma said it’s best not to tell anyone ’bout it lest it cause panic and make people not want to help us. Don’t tell anyone, will you? I won’t tell about Samnir, promise.’
She didn’t want to feel sorry for him. He was stupid, boasted about how important his father was all the time and pushed the other kids around because he was bigger and better fed than they were. She knew he liked her, but she didn’t want him to. She strongly suspected he’d always picked on Jillan because she liked Jillan and not him. It only made her dislike him even more. It had almost made her glad when Haal’s friend Karl had died, not that she was ever glad when someone or something died. It almost made her glad Elder Corin was ill. She didn’t want to feel sorry for Haal, because it felt like she was betraying Jillan. But she did anyway. Just like she felt sorry for Samnir, even though he was a blasphemer and a traitor to the Empire. Why were things so difficult?
She sighed. ‘Course I won’t tell. My father’s just back from Saviours’ Paradise. If there’s anything the physicker needs, maybe my father can help. But I’m sure your pa will be okay. You know what it’s like: the cold weather always brings its share of shakes and shivers, and it’s colder this year than most.’
‘You think?’ Haal asked with forced optimism. Then his face fell. ‘They’re saying it’s the cold wind that carries the corruption of the Chaos out of the mountains. They say that the plague in Godsend is because the Chaos has got stronger of late, and the People of the town need punishing if they’re to mend their ways. The Saint came because we needed punishing.’
She nearly became angry with him again, but knew it wasn’t his fault he wasn’t as smart as everyone else. ‘And did your pa need punishing?’
He frowned. ‘No.’
‘Well, there are you are then!’
He nodded slowly, looking confused.
‘It shows it’s not the Chaos, Haal. It shows it’s just people saying things. It’s just a plague is all, nothing to do with the Chaos, nothing to do with people being punished or people having done anything bad. See?’
He nodded more vigorously. ‘Yes, yes! Thanks, Hella. I owe you one. If you ever need …’ He tailed off.
She nodded her own understanding. ‘Course. Thanks. I hope your pa gets well soon, Haal.’
He’d heard a tale once of an old man who had been buried alive. Of course, everyone had thought him dead when in fact he’d probably only been asleep. Feeble as he’d been, however, none had been able to feel the whisper of any breath escaping his mouth or nostrils or the flutter of any pulse in his wrist when checking to see if he’d passed on. It being a hot summer, and the old man’s sons being eager for their inheritance, the man had been hastily placed in his coffin and the lid promptly nailed down. The funeral service had taken place that very same day with no one the wiser.
It was only when the gravedigger had all but finished filling in the grave that evening, when everyone else had gone home, that the muffled cries for help from the trapped man were heard. At first the gravedigger thought himself haunted and ran back to the town to find an inn, some bright company and strong drink to calm his nerves. Once he had himself under control, his more rational side began to assert itself and caused him to venture back to the graveyard.