Authors: Steven Savile
Tags: #Science Fiction
Under other circumstances Slough Maug would have enjoyed the challenge of breaking the arrogant son of a bitch. As it was, he just wanted the job done.
If he had to kill the warrior, so be it.
He retreated to his chamber, lit a solitary tallow candle and pored over Slough Feg's uncontrolled scrawl. The Lord Weird's innermost hopes were laid bare. It was a fool who recorded the truth of his secret self on parchment, Maug decided. Reading Feg's words gave Maug an unprecedented insight into his soul. He
the Lord Weird. Who else could claim that? The realisation excited the priest.
He called for Ballinus, his man-servant. "I hunger, bring me meat and ale."
The servant returned a few moments later with a silver platter laden with honey-soaked vegetables arranged around a succulent meaty thigh. Juices gathered beneath the parsnips and turnips. It smelled of the boy, Hadren, who had fled the compound earlier in the week. The foolish boy had thought to run. The hunters had brought him back and Maug had executed him on the training ground. It was occasionally necessary to make an example of their failures, to instil fear and assure unquestioning loyalty. Deserters were not tolerated among the ranks of the skull swords, no matter how young. Hadren had provided the most recent lesson and now, thanks to the boy's sacrifice, Maug ate good fresh meat.
Ballinus set the platter down and began carving.
The boy was delicious.
He wondered, idly, what the Lord Weird would give for the return of his words?
Murrough's unique find promised to be quite fortunate.
His mind returned to the prisoners. The warrior was fascinating - but not entertaining. Bringing fresh pain was a challenge, but it grew wearisome. For all that his ability to withstand the manifold pains Maug wrought upon his flesh was impressive, it would end. If he would not break, he would die, as all flesh died.
He called for Ballinus once more.
The man-servant appeared in the doorway.
"See that the hounds are prepared. Come dawn the young Sessair and his friends will run like stags."
"Yes, my lord. Will that be all?"
"For now," Maug said.
Alone, Maug sat back in his chair, enjoying the heat of the fire and the thoughts of Sláine being torn apart by his wolfhounds. The warrior's death would be slow and deliciously cruel. Maug idly wondered if the man would scream as his flesh was consumed by the hungry dogs. From that delightful thought his mind wandered to thoughts of Slough Feg's generosity. What would the Lord Weird give him for the return of his precious book?
Everything his withered heart desired, Maug decided, savouring the thought.
And so, in the darkness, when they were alone, the prisoners talked.
"Tell me," Sláine said into the darkness. "The priest knows you, Myrrdin. Who are you that he talks of legends? He called you the Lord of the Trees?"
Myrrdin Emrys told them his story:
"As I was, once, but that was a long time ago. You would not believe me if I told you it is three hundred years since I last looked upon Tir-Nan-Og, Sláine, and yet that is the truth."
"I found you trapped within a tree on another plane of existence peopled by man-animals and giant insects, druid. You would be surprised what I am capable of believing."
Myrrdin chuckled, a genuinely warm sound despite their harsh surroundings. "I was someone, or so I foolishly believed, my friend. I dedicated my life to the gathering of wisdom. I served the maiden, Blodeuwedd, with all of my heart. I tended her forests, shepherded her flock of creatures. She loved me, warrior. She could not live without me, or so I believed. I saw her suffering and believed I alone had the power to save her from the rot that seeped into her core. I saw the birth of the Sourlands, the coming of great evil, the rise of the wyrm, Crom-Cruach, and the enmity of Slough Feg. I believed I could stop the inevitable, warrior. I believed I had the power to end the threat of this evil that now grips so much of her land. It is not new, this sickness that sours the world. It has taken centuries to grow so strong. Its taint is insidious. Its corruption irresistible."
"Nothing is irresistible," said Sláine.
"Except a big-titted wench with that hungry look in her eyes that says she's game for a bit of Ukko-loving," Ukko chimed in helpfully from the other side of the room. It was the first thing he had said in a long time, and so typical of the runt that Sláine could not help but smile despite their circumstances.
"Hubris is an unfortunate trait that so often comes with power, warrior. Like you, I was strong, or so I believed. I felt Danu's love flowing through my veins whenever I came into contact with the earth. I believed myself strong enough to make a pact with the Crone. I would have done anything to save the Goddess, Sláine. She owned my heart. I know you understand what I mean when I say that."
"I do," said Sláine.
"She betrayed me, of course. That is her way. You take her at her word, but everything you say she twists to her advantage, everything she says has multiple meanings, none of which are ever clear. Her word is treacherous. Morrigu is a devious being. I begged her help against the evil that I saw coming from the south. She said she has walked many futures and in many of them has seen the Goddess, Danu, emerge victorious from the souring of her body - and in all of these futures, she said, I, Myrrdin Emrys, had a vital part to play. Her assurances fed my inflated sense of self; flattery has a way of undermining common sense. She had seen my transcendence, my becoming one with the woods I protected. I should have known, but her words were sweet to my ears. I imagined the mastery of my world, she delivered centuries of imprisonment, trapped within the living wood I had chosen to serve. It was my destiny, she promised, to become the Skinless Man. I thought for a moment she meant that I would become like Feg and the others, and slough my skin. I despaired that I might be weak enough to betray all that I loved but Morrigu herself removed my skin as it was, painting the past of the forests on my flesh, the history of those great domains. She said it was the first stage in becoming the maiden's champion, that I must
what my enemies most feared, a living embodiment of the great forests."
"Sounds to me like you just weren't listening," Ukko said.
"I heard what I wanted to hear, good dwarf, there is a subtle difference."
"You still wound up trapped in a tree, so it isn't much of a difference if you ask me."
"How did you end up in that place?" Sláine asked, meaning Purgadair, not the one tree of Nàimhdiel.
"I answered her call. The Crone bade me travel the El Worlds in search of the hero my beloved needed to save her. That was my role, she said. I was not a fighter, for all that I had mastered the sacred knowledge and had the strength to open the very mists of time to enter the Annfwyn. Danu had need of axe and sword over wisdom and learning. My role in this play of life was to be a guide, not the champion. It was difficult for a prideful man to swallow, but I put my arrogance aside and accepted my part. Morrigu claimed to have seen me find her hero through the mists in a distant hell she called Purgadair. I took her on her word and opened the way. It took all of my power to breach the dimensions, and then once I made the transition I was impotent. The sudden absence of the Earth Serpent, the abandonment of the Goddess, undermined my resolve. I believed myself beaten before I had taken ten paces in that blighted place. What I did not understand was that it was a trap. That realisation came too late to save me from my conceit. Instead, I walked into it, like a fool, with my eyes closed. Without the power to draw upon, the power that had been my life, that had fuelled my quest to save the land and the woman I loved and so much more, I was humbled beyond my own arrogant ability to believe. I was weak for the first time since childhood. Believe me, it was a bitter lesson for a proud man to swallow. I followed her like one of her damnable crows following a trail of breadcrumbs. The last words the Crone said as the jaws of her trap slammed shut sealing me in the tree were that she loved me."
"That's harsh," Ukko said.
"She is a harsh mistress, this Goddess of ours, dwarf. Make no mistake. She was true to her word, I was at one with the forest I served, and I did indeed meet my axe-wielding champion in the desert beyond the walls of Purgadair. Everything she promised came to fruition, just not in the manner my hubris had chosen to believe it would happen."
"Do you regret your pact?" asked Sláine, thinking of his own unspoken promise to obey the crow-aspect of the warrior Goddess in a single deed of her choosing. The notion that the Crone had already walked the paths of various futures and knew both the promise and the outcome and would not give voice to the actual deed did not sit well with Sláine, but there was nothing he could do now but live with the promise he had made, whatever it might be.
"Three centuries have been stolen from me - by rights I should be feeding the worms of my forest now. Instead I am here, forced to look upon the ruination of all I swore to nurture. This, around you, was my home. I was 'lord' of this place. Dardun was my home, Sláine. You ask me if I regret my bargain? When I look at the twisted roots and the rot that has eaten into
trees, I do. This canker has spread far beyond what it was when I stood as guardian to the great forest of Dardun. The roots of its evil have had three hundred years to spread unchecked. That is a long time by anyone's reckoning. But, having paid Morrigu's forfeit, now I would collect on her promise."
"It does not end here, druid," Sláine promised the darkness. "You shall have your forest back, and it shall flourish again. Mark this promise between us now. As you said, the Morrigan has walked the path of futures and has seen it. And so it shall be. With your wisdom we shall bring deliverance from the menace of Slough Feg and restore this once great land to her former glory. We shall root out Feg's weeds and let the garden grow anew."
"See," said Ukko, "that's why he's a hero. You ask for help and he promises the earth in return. I just hope you won't care if he delivers it soaked in blood."
They were woken by their gaolers an hour before dawn.
It was the brute, Taranis that loosened their shackles. Sláine collapsed as the chains were undone, falling at the foot of the skull sword.
," Taranis mocked. "Beg for your miserable little life like the maggot you are."
Sláine pushed himself to his feet. The pain standing on his burned soles brought was exquisite. It fired his blood. For the first time in what felt like months he felt the faintest touch of Danu there answering the agony with just the trace of her tender salve. He embraced the pain and forced himself to his full height. He refused to show Taranis his weakness.
Ukko had no such qualms; he hit the floor whimpering and lay there as they unchained Myrrdin Emrys.
The tattooed druid stepped away from the wall. He did not stagger or fall. He stood. He did not rub at his wrists or give the slightest sign of discomfort from his imprisonment. He fixed his wooden eyes on the men who had let him down. In the flickering oil lamp light his eyes appeared uncannily alive, as though responding to the nearness of Dardun and her sickened trees. Taranis stepped back from the druid, licking his lips nervously.
Myrrdin helped Ukko stand. There were twelve soldiers come to escort the three of them; a sure sign of how much the skull swords feared their prisoners.
"Maug has plans for you three," Taranis said, unable to hide the hint of excitement completely. "You are to run the stones. I have ten tin bits on the ugly little one being the first one to fall to the dogs," the skull sword chuckled mirthlessly. "Ballinus tells me the dogs haven't been fed since last night, though he did stir them up a bit by dangling part of a boy's rotting carcass over their cages for an hour this morning to fire their blood up. They should be ready for quite the feast by the time Maug lets them loose. Best not keep them waiting."
The skull swords pushed them forwards, out of the dungeon and into the first light of morning. Sláine breathed deeply as he stepped through the door. He regretted it immediately. The air was rancid. He saw the repugnant Slough priest shuffling towards them. Maug's eyes blazed with feverish delight.
"Good, good, good," the Drune crooned, rubbing his wretched hands together like some miser over a pot of silver, relishing the prospect of their renewed pain - as momentary as he hoped it would be. "Has Taranis explained the morning's trial? No?" he said, without waiting for any of them to acknowledge his rhetorical question. "Then indulge me. We few shall go for a short walk. I would show you one of the wonders of this old forest, the huge dolmens that mark the ancient ley dissecting Dardun. Within this temple," he waved a rotting hand at the building, "stands the first of the great megaliths. Or lies, to be more accurate, as it serves as altar to the Wyrm God, Crom-Cruach. The stones are evenly spaced along the ley line and run exactly one league. Your trial will be one of strength, cunning and speed. Survive it, and you will be absolved of your crimes against the Lord Weird. To fail is to be found guilty. Guilt is punishable by death, but fear not, my friends, it will be a rather abrupt happening. I cannot imagine you will have much time to hurt."
"You expect us to run for our lives?" Sláine said.
"Yes, I do," Maug said, insufferably smug as he walked the line. He barely acknowledged them to look at, making it plain they were no better than bugs to be crushed beneath his deformed feet.
"His smelliness knows us so well," Ukko said, rubbing briskly at his wrists to get the circulation going. "If there's one thing a coward knows how to do well it is the subtle art of running for his life."
"The running of the stags is one of the ancient justices of the forests, is it not, Myrrdin?"
The druid, hearing his name, came back from wherever his mind had wandered. He turned his wooden eyes on the Slough priest. "It was a barbaric practice from the dark age of man, if that is what you mean, Drune?"