Authors: Steven Savile
Tags: #Science Fiction
There was no sense of permanence to the settlement. The buildings appeared on the verge of collapse. The construction was slipshod - as though it wasn't expected, or needed, to last. There was no pride in any of the workmanship. The daub had cracked and flaked away from the wattle, exposing the dried reeds on some of the chattel houses. He couldn't imagine his own people living so close to squalor. But for all its ugliness there was order to it, and logic. The builders exhibited far more foresight in that department than the founders of Murias had.
The fortress was divided into five unequal parts, four quarters separated by the path of the sun and the seasons and the central core where the Drune priests themselves resided in a domed temple adorned with more of the vile fetishes they'd seen coming through the forest. It reflected the arrogance of the priests, placing themselves at the heart of all things. For all his vanities Cathbad at least had the humility to understand his role as teacher; he was set apart from the people, a guide, a source of knowledge, a repository of history and tradition. He was not king, he did not marry the Goddess. He lived to serve. And like the druid himself, the nemeton was set outside the realm of everyday life.
It was not the only difference he saw within Cor Havas.
The quarters themselves were physically divided by low interior walls, making the fortress feel like an elaborate labyrinth; the Drunes at its centre, and Sláine nothing more a mouse let loose to run in it - only "loose" was of course an illusion, his tormentor had him by the tail and was gleefully about to snap a metal trap shut on his skull while he scrambled about madly.
Sláine slumped back into the cart. He had seen enough.
The rain continued to fall.
The vile stench preceeded Maug by a dozen paces.
The rancid aroma told Sláine all he needed to know about the Drune: he had attained the rank of Slough, shedding his mortal skin. His body now was a corruption of the flesh held together only by the strength of the priest's dark magic. The strength needed to defy nature so boldly was immense. For all the slaughter of the Sourlands Sláine and Ukko had encountered only two others who had accomplished the same shedding of mortality - Slough Throt, the thief of Feg's Ragnarok book, and the Lord Weird himself.
Taranis grabbed hold of the rope binding Sláine's feet together and dragged him bodily off the cart. Without his hands to break the fall, Sláine fell hard, cracking his skull off the side of the wagon and landing on his shoulder and face at the foot of the wretched priest. Without the skin to bind his bones and muscle Maug moved with a clumsy lopsided gait, his joints bending too far in one direction and overcompensating in the other. He relied upon a staff of bone for balance. The staff itself was carved with some quite sophisticated renditions of tribal art not dissimilar to the countless fetishes that adorned the branches of Dardun. The effect would have been comical if the young Sessair warrior did not know what he was - and what he was capable of.
But it was not Sláine that interested the Drune.
Maug stood over Myrrdin, a curious look of contempt on his rotten lips. A fat-bellied maggot wriggled out through the Drune's gum, crawled down what remained of his neck and disappeared beneath the rotten strip of flesh behind his clavicle.
The Slough priest poked and prodded the tattooed man with his staff as though inspecting a piece of meat. "Turn him over," Maug rasped a moment later, continuing the inspection after two skull swords had manhandled Myrrdin onto his stomach. The Drune circled the tattooed man three times sunwise, shaking his head and muttering to himself. The rain streamed down his ruined features. "My, my, my. What do we have here, Murrough? Visitors? And such a motley rabble. A barbarian, a dwarf and this painted freak." He circled Myrrdin, cackling at some unheard mirth. "Could it be? Do you think? No. No. This wretched creature cannot be the druid. Can it?" He peered down at Myrrdin, the flayed muscle of his lip curling in a sneer. "Tell me, are you the druid? No, don't tell me. You are. You are. But I must admit you are not what I expected, druid. I am quite disappointed, Myrrdin Emrys, the fabled Lord of the Trees. To hear talk of you one would think a god walked among the mortals. Three hundred years of superstition and prattle and
is the great Myrrdin?" The Slough priest shook his head though it did not so much shake as loll on his neck.
Myrrdin opened his eyes. "I am the druid, Myrrdin," the Skinless Man said, his voice devoid of emotion. The sight of the wooden orbs caused the Drune to step back involuntarily, then take four more forwards and lean in close, fascinated by the fusion of nature and humanity. "A living embodiment of the great wood... now
is more interesting. Perhaps there is something to your legend after all. Perhaps. Trust me, your suffering shall be every bit as legendary as your life warrants." Maug limped away from the tattooed man, talking animatedly to himself.
Sláine could not make out a word that dripped off the priest's tongue.
The rain intensified, quickly turning the ground to wet sucking mud.
The Drune's bare feet sank into the ground, leaving maggots of flesh behind as he moved. The sloughed flesh writhed with a repulsive life all of its own.
Maug walked the line, inspecting Murrough's captives. The skull swords had formed up in two ranks. As Maug moved so too did they, dividing again to form the final two sides of a cordon around the prisoners. Maug turned his attention to Sláine, and even then, his withered eyes barely registered the Sessair.
"So, what do we have here? A wretched foot-slogger in the company of the great druid?" The priest of Carnun toed Sláine's side with a scabrous foot, seemed about to turn away and then stooped, sniffing. The ragged wounds of the Drune's nostrils flared open. "Oh, no. So much more than that, aren't you, soldier boy? Yes, yes, yes. I can smell her on you." Maug's pustulant tongue laved along a ridge of black teeth that made Sláine's stomach churn. One of the yellow sores eating into the muscle ruptured, leaking pus down the Drune's chin. "Yes, yes I can. You're
creature aren't you? Mother, maiden and Crone, the bitch has her talons in you."
"It is amazing you can smell anything," said Sláine, earning himself a jab in the throat from the bone staff. He gagged, gasping as he tried desperately to suck in a lungful of air.
"The body is such a frail thing, warrior. For all the rippling muscle and supposed strength of your carcass, a single well-placed blow could snuff out your life like a tallow candle. Do not make the mistake of thinking you are immortal just because you are Blodeuwedd's lapdog. Never forget that her sister-self, Ceridwen, is mother of death."
"What is it, soldier?"
Murrough shuffled, obviously uncomfortable, drawing attention to himself. He clutched Feg's book to his chest. "There is something you should see. It was found in their possession." He held out the book.
"Well, what is it?" Maug said, impatiently.
"A book, my lord."
The Slough priest sighed, "I can
that it is a book, soldier. So what, pray tell, makes you think it is important enough that I should want to see it? Is it the druid's grimoire perhaps?"
"No, my lord," Murrough backed up a step.
Sláine watched the exchange curiously; for all that the skull sword had pretended respect for the slough-skinned ones it was plain that fear of his master was what motivated the soldier.
"Well, do not keep me waiting, Murrough. I am not at my most patient in the pouring rain."
"Of course, my apologies, Slough Maug. The book appears to have belonged to the Lord Weird, himself."
"I am not sure I understand, soldier. Your lips are moving and I am hearing words, but all they seem to say is:
blah blah blah
. Explain for me how this rabble might have come across a book that belonged to Lord Feg, and of what possible significance it is to the situation before us now. You are a soldier, Murrough: report!"
The skull sword stiffened as though physically slapped. "It is my belief that they stole it from the Lord Weird, Slough Maug."
"That is conjecture, soldier, assumption not fact."
"With respect, my lord, I disagree. If you were to examine the book itself you would see it is not some obscure Tale of the Sidhe, but rather a more sensitive artefact. I have not read the work in its entirety, but there was no need. I saw enough to know the Lord Weird would not surrender this tome willingly. As to how it came into the possession of these three, I believe they are just the final link in a longer chain."
"The men talk, my lord. Word has come from Drunemeton that Slough Throt turned renegade and was, ah,
by the Lord Weird."
"And you have decided all by yourself that these three somehow recovered the book from the hapless Throt? That is a lot of thinking for a man of the sword, Murrough."
The skull sword looked down at his feet.
"So," Maug turned to Sláine. "Is it true? Has Murrough deduced the riddle of your possession - and better yet, the conundrum of my brother priest's failing? Tell me, I am curious."
Sláine looked up at the wretched maggot-riddled face of the priest. "I'm sorry, I can see your lips moving but all I can think is:
by Carnun's left nut, you stink worse than a shepherd after a busy night of offering devotions to his flock.
And just to be clear I do mean the fleecy ones, not some metaphor or anything clever like that. Now, did you actually say something or was it that skin-thing you've got causing your lip to tremble?"
The priest lashed out again with his staff, cracking it off the side of Sláine's cheek.
"I shall enjoy hurting you, northman. I shall send your bones home to your mother in an oilskin."
"My mother is dead," said Sláine.
"Then I shall just leave your corpse out to feed the Morrigan's crows. Perhaps it will please the witch. I do not care one way or the other. I just thought you might want to be buried at home."
The Slough priest turned his back on them and walked with that curious, awkward lope back towards the doors of the temple. His stench lingered. "The book, soldier. Bring it to me."
With that, the Drune disappeared into the temple, ignoring Ukko completely.
True to his word, Maug delighted in inflicting pain on both Sláine and Myrrdin Emrys.
The priest took the iron poker from the brazier of hot coals and walked across the dungeon floor to where Sláine was chained. Devices of pain littered the chamber. Its vile purpose contaminated the very stones of the walls and ceiling; the blood of the nameless prisoners stained deep and dark, desperation-worn grooves cut into them where those same nameless ones had ground their manacles in hopes of weakening the iron binding them.
Ukko had swooned and fainted at the first poker plunging into the coals. The shackles around his wrists prevented the dwarf from slumping to the floor, indeed his toes barely reached the straw spread out beneath them.
"You are a simpleton, warrior. You think I actually care about the dung that streams out of both of your orifices? I don't. Sincerely, with all of my heart, I hope you do not talk for a long, long time. Hurting you is fast becoming my only pleasure in this wretched forest. So I beg you, bite your tongue."
Maug pressed the red-hot poker up against the sole of his left foot and rolled it slowly from heel to toe as Sláine screamed out his pain. The skin sizzled and blistered, the stench of burning flesh joining the odour of rancid meat in the airless room. Sláine writhed against his bonds, tears burning red in his eyes that was more than a match for the blistering poker as Maug lanced it back into the coals, stirring them up violently in a shower of sparks.
"Nice, thank you. So tell me - by which of course I mean please do not breathe a word - how did you come across Feg's precious book?"
Sláine hawked up a wad of phlegm and spat in the Drune's corrupt face. "I have nothing to say to you."
"Oh, how delicious. Thank you, warrior. I was beginning to worry you would prove to be a big disappointment. I am glad to see I was wrong. Now, before I ask again, I am going to paint you a mental picture, please try and concentrate. Are you with me?" Hatred blazed in Sláine's pain-fuelled eyes. "Oh, you
, aren't you? You are feeling everything. How utterly marvellous. Now," Maug withdrew the poker from the coals, "imagine, if you would, the sensation of this instrument entering your flesh; not your mouth, or your eyes, both are far too banal for a man of your
. Imagine it slipping inside your arse, and up, cauterising the wounds even as it ripped you open. Now, tell me again that you have nothing to say to me."
Sláine's head came up. He looked at the dwarf and the druid chained either side of him, and then back at his eager-faced torturer and the glowing red tip of the poker in his hand. He tried to touch the Earth Serpent, but the Souring of the land here was too thorough, the forest dead to the Goddess. "I have something to say to you, Maug."
"Ah, such a bittersweet moment, on the one hand the joy of victory, however inevitable it might be, and on the other, disappointment that my fun is at an end so soon. So?"
Sláine told him, speaking clearly and enunciating every word: "I shall enjoy killing you."
The sudden flare of fury in Maug's eyes was worth the agony of the poker searing into his side and being dragged up across his chest.
This time he did not scream.
He refused to give the Drune the satisfaction.
The torture lasted days.
Sláine did not break.
Maug utilised all of his instruments of pain. At first he had enjoyed the game, pressing the searing pincers against Sláine's earlobe, squeezing down on them until both fiery tips met inside the skin, describing the more hideous delights the coming days held in store, reminding the young Sessair warrior again and again that there was no hope of rescue. But the fun quickly went out of it. Sláine did not scream as the pincers pierced his skin, did not beg or plead as Maug lovingly described the effect of the pear, how its barbed petals would open like a flower inside his arse and rip him apart as it was extracted, did not whimper as the Drune snuffed out any dreams of salvation. He simply took it, surrendering his body to the pain. It was as though the physicality of it did not reach his mind, that somehow he dislocated the pain from his flesh.