Authors: Steven Savile
Tags: #Science Fiction
They moved out as the sun breached the treeline. A brittle frost still clung to the ground. As the day wore on Sláine grew to hate the sluggish
of the horses walking along beside the cart, their hooves dragging on the road, and the rattle and
of the steel-rimmed wheels sludging through the mud and grinding over the cracked and broken stones that fell beneath them. The rhythm of the road offered no lulling peace. Every judder only served to remind him where they were going and how close they had been to freedom before the cloud curragh had crashed back down to earth.
The trees grew thicker the deeper they went back into the heart of the wretched wood until there was no sun. The claustrophobic track necessitated they move in single file. Skeletal limbs dragged low over the narrow track, snagging at horse and rider as they passed. The skull swords grunted, their complaints growing louder the deeper into Dardun they went. The prisoners fared no better; their bonds grew evermore uncomfortable as the road took its toll.
Fetishes and gibbets dangled down from the branches above the narrow track. Either side of the path death masks had been carved into the lightning-blasted trees.
Midway through the second day Sláine was cursing Kilbain's passion for knots; his back arched like a bow, the rope burns around his wrists were livid red and bloody from the constant chafing.
Ukko still hadn't said a word to him.
As the day wore on he began to worry that Taranis' boot had scrambled the dwarf's brains - even for Ukko two days was a long time to sulk.
Then again, the Skinless Man was not exactly garrulous, and when he did speak Murrough was quick to silence him under threat of violence, so perhaps the dwarf had decided to rein in his tongue and save the sarcasm until they were in a position to make a break for it.
They spent another night on the road, though not beneath the stars. The withered trees obscured the sky. Murrough had two of his men haul Sláine off the cart and prop him up against one of the trees so that he could share their fire. The skull sword wanted to talk, Sláine didn't. Murrough cut his ropes; it was no great bravery or foolishness on his captor's part. With twenty swords at his disposal Sláine wasn't going anywhere.
"So, warrior, it comes to this. Come the morrow we will arrive at Cor Havas and you will be handed over to the Drune priests for interrogation. We are both men of war, there should be no bullshit between us. We know how this will go. They will torture you, you will talk, then they will either kill you, or your big brave heart will give out from the agony of their branding irons and their tongs and whatever other implements of pain they choose to use on your body. It won't be pleasant. There is no nobility in the suffering. To be frank it is quite unnecessary."
Sláine gently rubbed the circulation back into his wrists while he listened. The corpse of a great stag had rotted down to brittle bone and lay tangled beneath the huge roots of the ancient tree at his back. It was impossible to tell if the stag had died and the tree claimed its bones or if the tree had strangled the life out of the majestic creature.
"So you would have me spill my secrets out of gratitude for a warm fire on a brisk winter's night? Should I value them so cheaply, do you think? If they are worth torture, surely they are worth a good meal and an hour with a pretty maid?"
The skull sword chuckled. "Quite. Though Taranis is the closest I have to a pretty maid."
The longer he spent in Murrough's company the more difficult it became to demonise him. The man was not the pure evil Sláine needed him to be; not obviously corrupt, not tainted by the vile magic of the Drunes, he was not, in fact, unlike Sláine himself. It was a disturbing revelation.
"I should hate you and all you stand for," Sláine said, "but it would be like hating myself."
Murrough nodded, understanding. "That is ever the way of war, isn't it? Good people pitted against one another in the name of faith or for the lack of faith or some other reason they cannot fathom. And make no mistake, this is war. A slow, creeping war but war nonetheless. My masters and your mistress are opposed and we are in the middle. But for the place of our birth we could easily have found ourselves fighting on the same side of this conflict."
"And yet, for all that you say, you serve a master who would drain the land dry of the very goodness it needs to feed its people, and who solves starvation by murder."
"Tough times demand a sure and firm rule."
"A terrible swift sword to decapitate the rebellion, you mean."
"No, no, no, far from it."
"Then how do you justify the culling of the villages? The murder of innocents?"
"In Nemere, my own home, everyone was starving. Everyone. It broke my heart to see those I loved slowly withering away, knowing they were doomed through no fault of their own. They were all eating, but none enough, so they were only prolonging the inevitable. The famine is hard on everyone, warrior, but it takes a brave leader to find a way through to a solution."
"Murder is not a solution," said Sláine.
"That does not justify slaughter."
"Really? Sixty live where eighty would surely have died without our intervention. The land still gets worked, the young are tended to. There is hope where there was despair."
"Until you are too old to be considered useful."
"There is hope until you are too old to be considered useful. There is despair when you think of the fate of fathers, grandfathers."
"It is a harsh world, warrior. You can see the truth of that if you just look around yourself."
"But it need not be, where I come from there is plenty. And yet you come and feed the land with blood, tainting it. Your master does not care for the Land of the Young. He defiles it with his very presence."
"And yet through his justice many who would be dead, live."
"And many who should live are dead," he said, meaning: like my mother. "You cannot blind yourself to the truth."
"The same could be said of your philosophy, warrior. In your mind it seems my sister, my son, my mother, my entire clan should be dead by rights, and why? Because you decry the sacrifice of a few for the many."
"I did not say-"
"Ah, but you did. You said that very thing. You see the crime but you do not see the greater good it does. Can something that feeds the good of many even be a crime? It is beyond my simple knowledge to argue properly, but when we reach Cor Havas I am certain Slough Maug will be eager to broaden your understanding."
"Will that be before or after he tortures me?" Sláine said, picking subconsciously at one of the weals burnt into his wrist.
"Very good," Murrough grinned; the smile reached his eyes. It made him look five years younger. "Shall we cut to the chase, then? You have something in your possession that I am reasonably sure will fascinate my master."
"The book," Murrough agreed. "A curiosity, to be sure. One wonders how it came to be in your possession?"
"I killed the man who had it," said Sláine.
"Really? Fascinating. You are a thief and yet you lecture on morality. What a complicated soul you are."
"He was evil. He deserved to die."
Murrough shook his head slowly, his lips pursed. "Can your world really be so black and white? So absolute?"
"If you mean: do I condemn all evil, greater and lesser? Then yes, I do. And yes, it is that simple. There is wrong and there is right."
The skull sword pushed himself to his feet, dusting the arse of his britches off. "Cor Havas will be tough on you, I fear, warrior."
"So be it," said Sláine. "But in turn I will make this promise: I will teach Cor Havas the truth of what it means to be Sessair. I will be a blight on your people. A canker in the dark hearts of the priests of Carnun that shelter within the so-called safety of the fortress. I will bring death to their pet swords. I will be justice incarnate. I will be a plague, bringing blood and pain to their petty regime. I will be deliverance and damnation. I will be the liberator, overthrowing the yoke of oppression that chokes the very life out of the land. I will be a pox upon their flesh just as they are a pox upon the flesh of my Goddess. The evil of Cor Havas will dwell in narrow houses when I am through. That is my promise."
"And in that hatred you will become all that you despise. I pity you, warrior."
The forest fortress of Cor Havas was little better than a cluster of wattle shanties behind a crumbling limestone wall. It was not the impressive, daunting, citadel he had imagined. The sight of it did not strike fear into his heart. Cor Havas verged on ruin - which was strangely fitting for a Drune stronghold dedicated to the ruin of this once great land. But mother earth was no helpless maiden ripe for the plucking. Her pretty darling buds had thorns. Indeed, Dardun had already begun reclaiming the land, its twisted roots undermining the foundations of the stone wall, growing between the crevices where the stones did not quite mate perfectly. In a few years nature would have done her work and it would be as though Cor Havas had never existed.
"I would walk to my doom like a man, not be dragged like a child," Sláine said as they neared the gate.
"I am sure you would," Murrough agreed, conversationally. "But if so, then the young cadets of the fortress would see the proud warrior, undaunted, walking under the gateway into his enemy's stronghold. You would rise to be this colossus in their superstitious minds. After all, who but the greatest of the enemy would willingly walk into the den of his would-be killers? No, I think not, warrior. This way you are humbled, a prisoner wheeled in on a ramshackle cart. The message it gives is one of defeat. There is no fight left in this enemy. It is a good lesson to give our young men: even the so-called mighty bow down before the strength of our swords."
"Do not make the mistake of thinking I am beaten."
"Oh, but you are, warrior. You most assuredly are. There is no great hero coming to your aid. Victory will not be snatched from the jaws of defeat by some archer's arrow, thief's pick or champion's sword. There will be no miracles from your precious Goddess. You are dead to her, now. How does that feel? The cold certainty that you are utterly alone?"
"I am not alone," said Sláine.
"No, you have that ugly dwarf and the painted man, companions who strike fear into the heart of every evil man in the world."
"Do not mock me, Murrough. You are a decent man. It will hurt to kill you."
The skull sword chuckled. "As I imagine it will hurt to die."
On Murrough's signal four riders spurred their mounts and cantered ahead. The procession rolled slowly down the shallow hill, into a wide glade. It took two men to open the heavy timber gates. They groaned inwards. Ukko prodded him in the side with a stiff kick. "Idiots built this place." They were the first words he had said in days. A cunning smile spread slowly across his face. "Who builds the gate of a fortress gate to swing
? It doesn't take a genius to know that a crew with battering ram would make light work of those gates."
"Stupidity or supreme arrogance," Myrrdin Emrys offered, struggling to rise. A backhanded cuff from Taranis's gauntlet dumped the tattooed man on his back. He groaned, wincing. The blow had split his lip. "Thank you for demonstrating my point with such brutal efficiency."
"You talk too much, old man," Taranis said, shaking his head. "Perhaps Maug will pull out your tongue."
The irony that those four words were all that the tattooed man had said in hours was not lost on Sláine. Taranis was a bully and easy to despise for it. He lacked the empathy of Murrough; he didn't care about what Murrough had called the "greater good", he enjoyed hurting things. People.
It had begun to rain - or it had been raining all along with only the dense trees sheltering them and now they were gone, either way. The first fat drops spattered on Sláine's upturned face. He closed his eyes.
"It is not unreasonable to suppose that they fear no one," Myrrdin continued. "Because there is no one here to fear. Who, after all, would - could - come this far into their forest to bring the fight to their door?"
And that was the truth; it wasn't stupidity, or even arrogance, it was a message to every captive brought to Cor Havas: you are ours. No one can help you once you pass beneath the portal.
With the message ringing joyful and triumphant at the front of their minds, they entered the stockade.
It was no more impressive inside, but then it did not need to be. Sláine rolled onto his shoulder, enduring the increased discomfort of the fresh knots for the chance to take in the layout of the fortress. A little pain in advance could inevitably save considerably more later.
To the left of the gates were all the necessities of life; the bakery, the oast house, the smithy, the kitchens and the smoke house, and to the right the reasons for the fortress: the barrack buildings, the stables, the training ground and drill hall, and the hovels the cadets shared and the latrine trenches. No doubt the goal house would be there as well. Sláine studied his surroundings as they passed, seeing the young cadets twelve and thirteen summers old, sparring on the training grounds to the bark of a harsh instructor. He could just as easily have been watching Murdo put the Red Branch through their paces. He remembered all too well the relentless drilling; the driving rain only served to make the image more vivid. The boys struggled in the quickening mud, stumbling and slipping. The instructor slapped a wooden sword out of the hand of a wide-eyed boy soldier, yelling furiously in his face. His words carried to them: "No, no, no. You left yourself wide open, Braifar! Why can't you be more like Gannon?" The admonishment took him back ten years. He saw again Cullen's open loathing, Wide Mouth mimicking:
why can't you be more like Sláine?
The memory sent a cold shiver through Sláine as he realised: but for the grace of Danu, that could be me.