Authors: A.J. Dalton
His steps slowed.
Don’t think! Keep going!
He swung his head up and round to look back down the road. He experienced a moment’s giddiness and realised he was light-headed with cold, tiredness and maybe shock.
You’re not thinking clearly. Find somewhere to rest for the night and you’ll be better for it
But he needed to put some sort of safe distance between himself and the town before he could allow himself any respite. He increased his pace in the direction of Saviours’ Paradise once more. How far did he need to go until it was safe? As far as possible to be as safe as possible. Yet there was no such thing as safety for him any more, was there? The further he got from the town, the wilder the woods would become and the greater the threat would be from the pagans and the other Chaos creatures, especially on a moonless night like this. The dark and sneaking enemy had probably already found his trail and begun to hunt him.
He broke into a jog, which was as fast as his cumbersome pack would allow. The trees began to give way on either side to a stretch of open fields. Here was where his mother and many of the other adults worked during the day. There were long furrows of cabbages in the field to the right, while the field to the left was empty. He didn’t like cabbages too much, so left them – besides, people might notice the next day if there were some missing and might put two and two together.
He imagined his mother toiling in the fields and was tempted to camp in the trees just further on so that he might catch a glimpse of her the next morning. But the logical part of his mind shook his head for him and told him he was becoming crazy again. There would be Heroes patrolling the perimeters of the field all day. He would be at risk of being caught if he came too close, and he certainly wouldn’t get a chance to talk to his mother.
. The road passed beyond the fields, and the trees began to crowd in on either side. There was moss growing between the flagstones now too. Clearly, the road was less used from here onwards. And he couldn’t see a thing. His skin prickled as the woods around him began to moan in the gusting wind. He was definitely moving beyond the ordered environs of Godsend and into the wilds where the Chaos lurked. It was as if he was entering an entirely different realm; passing out of the light and civilisation of the Empire and into a dark and untamed world of haunting ghosts and ancient pagan magic. He fancied there was a cold malevolence in the air and that he was being watched. It was all he could do not to break into a flat-out run – but he knew he wouldn’t get more than fifty metres or so before collapsing in exhaustion and making himself entirely vulnerable to whatever horrors were inclined to prey on him.
He jogged deeper into the darkness, his labouring breath filling his ears. He wouldn’t hear it if something was creeping up on him.
He needed to keep going till morning, and then he could rest during the day. If he only travelled at night, the road would be fairly safe for him and he should be able to make it all the way to Saviours’ Paradise … as long as the Chaos didn’t find him before then.
Yet he was struggling to stay on his feet – he was still drained from the confrontation with Haal. His pack pulled down on his shoulders more and more, like the burden of his guilt. His steps wandered and he constantly had to squint with his tired eyes to make out the way forward.
Suddenly, the horror came for him. There was a shriek off in the woods to his left that definitely wasn’t human. There would be no time to string his bow and ready an arrow, he knew. He immediately swerved off the road to the right and went towards the only opening between the trees ahead that was wide enough for him to get through … only to slam into a stone wall of a broken-down old tower. He was thrown back and unceremoniously dumped, what with the added weight of his pack, on his behind and back.
Winded, he lay blinking up at the structure.
Who put that there?
he thought stupidly. Then he gasped as he realised his pursuers would be gaining on him every second he continued to play the town idiot.
Yet he didn’t hear anything off in the woods. No growling and snuffling of a predator following his spoor. Not even the sound of dry leaves shifting in the breeze as something stalked him. All was still.
He released the breath he’d been unconsciously holding and clambered to his feet.
You are an idiot, Jillan, panicking every time you hear some forest creature
. He leaned for a moment against the wall and then made his way round to the entrance. Ivy and other plants had long since pulled any door away and had even begun to wrest stones from the forlorn structure. The walls sagged badly in places, but Jillan was too weary to worry about the danger. He put his head through the doorway and smelt damp, decay and something worse. Some animal must have died in there, he decided. And he could see the sky up through the tower, so it didn’t offer that much shelter.
He stepped back out of the small building and tiredly considered it. What was it here for? It seemed older than Godsend, so who had built it and why? Did it guard something? With a shrug, he turned away and saw a lighter area of the forest past the line of trees ahead. Curious, he moved towards the greyness and emerged into a wide field with what looked like ruined hovels and cottages on the far side.
He still couldn’t see well, but the field seemed to be entirely covered with dead branches and twigs. Had someone felled the trees hereabouts, hauled the trunks away and left all the smaller branches here? It didn’t make sense. What was this place, and how had he not heard of it when it was closer to Godsend than even Saviours’ Paradise?
He peered more closely at the ground, looking for secure footing, but the murk was too thick to make much out. He shuffled forward, the wood crunching and crumbling strangely under his weight. He detected the same sort of unpleasant odour as he’d experienced in the tower, albeit not quite as strong.
As he edged further out into the field, the ground around him began to tremble and … creak? Then it gave way beneath him and he crashed down through the branches for six or so feet before he hit the ground.
Jillan coughed and groaned before weakly trying to move. Nothing seemed injured, so he took a moment to catch his breath. He looked up at the small patch of grey sky above him where he had fallen through the treacherous surface. He sighed. It looked a long way off from where he lay, and he wasn’t sure if the branches would take his weight if he did try to climb out. If he started flailing about in this midnight hollow then there was a good chance he could bring everything down and bury himself forever. It was probably best to wait until daylight, he persuaded himself.
At least it was dry where he was, and he was sheltered from the wind above. He even had the advantage of large predators not being able to get to him across the branches, unless they wanted to end up trapped as well. Fate had apparently decided he would sleep somewhere safe that night after all.
Praise be to the Saviours
, he thought as his eyes closed, and then realised that was probably not the most appropriate thing to be thinking any more. He resolved to worry about it the next day, and was asleep in seconds.
Jillan dreamed dreams of blood and misery. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with what looked to be field workers and shouting abuse at a group of soldiers some distance away. He realised the soldiers were Heroes, and they looked grim-faced and determined indeed. Their brown leather armour was scarred from recent fighting and there were notches in their swords and spearheads. By contrast, those standing with Jillan shook pitchforks and mattocks, and wore only heavy homespun clothing.
‘Don’t worry, boy,’ the spotty young man next to Jillan said in a strange thick accent and gave him a wink. ‘We outnumber them a good bit, so they’ll not be forcing us off our land.’
The man’s breath smelt strongly of ale, and Jillan couldn’t help wrinkling his nose and turning his face away.
‘Aye,’ said a tall man with an unkempt black beard on his other side. ‘And with our shaman back from the mountains now, the oncomers will soon find their bowels turned to water and themselves impotent, you’ll see. Shush, here’s the headman now, looking to talk to them. ’Swaste of time, I reckon. The oncomers don’t know any reason ’cept for taking what they’re wanting, and killing any as tries to tell them nay. There’s no bargaining with them so as all can live through winter.’ He spat. ‘Hard bargain, hard winter, all know that.’ He gripped his staff more tightly.
‘I heard they let the people of Malmsby live, but set them to work building up the place as some sort of fort,’ the pimpled youth said.
Blackbeard snorted contemptuously. ‘Aye, they’ll keep you alive while they need a job doing. But they’ll take a man’s freedom to roam the land, which is as bad as taking a man’s life by my reckoning.’
The youth didn’t look inclined to agree, but thought better of saying anything to that effect. Instead, he asked, ‘Can you hear what they’re saying?’
‘I could if you impatient youngsters would keep quiet for more than a moment!’
A large white-haired elder in gold-inscribed leather armour, whom Jillan took to be the headman, had gone striding out from the ranks of the villagers towards the line of Heroes. He was broad-shouldered and had a pronounced jaw. Despite his advancing years, his body had not yet turned to fat, nor had it wasted – he was clearly still a powerful man. At his side a small man in animal furs stepped nimbly across the ground, waving his hands in the air and speaking as if to himself. The hairs rising on the back of Jillan’s neck told him there was magic in the air and this was the village shaman.
From among the Heroes, an abnormally large individual came forward. Jillan could see the man’s eyes even from this distance, for they were a mix of red and purple and seemed to shine as if with an inner light. Jillan gasped. Was this a blessed Saint of the Empire – or a Saviour even? The man’s high cheekbones, aquiline features and gentle brow certainly seemed noble enough and matched some of the descriptions he’d read in the holy Book of Saviours.
Jillan’s legs became weak and he was about to fall to his knees in awe when the young man caught him under the armpit. ‘’Sall right, boy,’ he whispered. ‘Ain’t no shame in turning pale and shaking with fear when facing the enemy. ’Tis a natural reaction that is but the beginning of rage and indignation. Your brothers are with you and will hold you up.’
Jillan nodded and gulped. ‘Th-thank you.’
‘Nothing for you here ’cept mud and a mean living,’ the headman’s voice rumbled to the emissary of the Empire.
The emissary’s voice thrummed with fervour and the power of righteousness in response, easily carrying to everyone on the field. ‘Come now, villein, this is but the building material for greatness. Would you hold the People back with your selfish desire to own the land, when the land is no one’s to own?’
The shaman chuckled and bobbed his head up and down like a bird. ‘Pretty words, pretty lord. We are made of mud too, for do we not all return to the mud when the land is ready to receive us once more? So why then, pretty lord, do you seek to command and own us, while yet accusing us of the same? Just as the land cannot bend its knee to you, neither can we.’
A reddish mist began to drift across the field from where the Heroes were standing. They seemed unaffected by it, however, so there was no alarm raised. The emissary, meanwhile, affected a bored yawn. ‘Always the same confused, circular riddles with you pagans.’ Then he sneered and spat: ‘Always the same self-justifying and selfish trickery as well! You purport to speak for the land, and bind the People by it. They are enslaved by it, imprisoned! None should be so imprisoned. None!’
The mist reached the emissary, headman and shaman. Their hands and faces became speckled with it, but they were otherwise unharmed.
‘I will free these People,’ the emissary continued, his voice dripping with malice and his eyes flaring brightly, ‘whether you like it or not and no matter who seeks to prevent me! I will
them in the name of the Saviours, raise them up out of the mud and protect them from the base nature and Chaos of their current existence! Will you yield?’
The mist drifted towards the villagers. It would soon envelop them.
The headman sighed and shook his head. ‘We will never yield to your cult. It would be the annihilation of all we hold dear, of all that makes us what we are. I beg you—’
‘Then see how you cause your People’s suffering!’ the emissary screamed. ‘See!’
The shaman hissed as he suddenly realised the threat. He spun and shouted words of power, but the mist had already reached the villagers. They began to cough and choke, unable to clear their lungs. Jillan found that he couldn’t breathe and clawed at his throat. Then he put his sleeve over his nose and mouth to try and filter the mist, and that helped a bit, but it was too late for it was already inside him and had begun to burn. His stomach cramped and he fell to his knees. The youth next to him was writhing on the ground, his eyes bulging from his head and an engorged tongue hanging from his mouth. He gave a final kick and didn’t move again. Blackbeard cried piteously, blood running from his mouth and nose, as well as from his ears and even the corners of his eyes. As Jillan watched, the man’s extremities took on a bluish hue and then blackened. The villager made a croaking noise and then died.
In desperation, Jillan looked to the shaman, only to see the emissary slash him across the throat with a long glowing knife he’d had concealed somewhere about him. The emissary laughed gleefully and then plunged his knife into the headman’s stomach. But the man’s armour deflected the shining weapon, giving him a chance to grab the emissary on each side of the head and squeeze. The white-haired chieftain thumbed the emissary’s eyes and the representative of the Empire screamed hideously.
Then the Heroes shouted their eternal battle cry –
For the Saviours!
– and charged. There could be no hope for the villagers now. Jillan cried blood as he watched the emissary blindly stabbing down at the headman. Twice the blade’s point skidded off the top of the headman’s armoured shoulders, but on the third strike the tip found its way down between the headman’s neck and the edge of his armour. The emissary howled in triumph as he pushed down hard.