Authors: Steven Savile
Tags: #Science Fiction
The fire did not touch the Skinless Man as his distorted face pressed out from the charring bark, stretching the wood hideously until almost the entire head had breached the wooden prison. The bark across the Skinless Man's mouth splintered in a silent scream as the tormented soul tried desperately to vent his pain and anger. Ukko reached up with the smouldering tinder, touching it to the wood around the Skinless Man's screaming mouth. It caught and burned, shrivelling away to char and crumbling beneath the ferocity of his sudden cry as the grip of his prison finally relented and he tasted the acrid air of freedom.
Ukko was torn between watching the destruction of the tree and the slaughter of the monstrous man-animals as Sláine hacked and slashed into their soft bodies, gutting them, splitting their carcasses in two, severing limbs, opening grotesque full-face smiles as Brain-Biter carved from bloody grins that split the heads from cheek to jowel.
The air stank of blood and burning.
The screams of the wounded spiralled, choking off abruptly, silenced by Brain-Biter's hungry edge.
Ukko wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried to calm his racing heart. The trembling had become full-blown shaking. He straightened slowly, drawing a deep breath. Smelling the dank wood of the tree's ruptured soul, the scoundrel felt the ground beneath his feet shiver, small tremors in the sand churning up earthworms and insects and the foetid stench of death. Fingertips broached the bark, pressing out towards his face. The wood blackened and charred beneath the bite of fire, flaking away until all that remained were the questing fingers covered in a swirl of blue-inked tattoos. The fingers clawed at the air as the Skinless Man emerged from the tree inch by agonising inch. The hands tore free of their prison then turned on the jagged splinters of wood, shredding the pulp as the conflagration swelled to engulf the entire tree.
The Skinless Man's arms were free; the tattoos continued up the hands in amazingly intricate detail. As more and more of the bark and blackened pulp fell away Ukko saw that there wasn't an inch of skin uncovered.
The flames parted around the Skinless Man's arms; they didn't touch them.
The flat bone of his fontanele breached the bark, breaking through in a perverse re-enactment of birth.
Ukko stared at the Skinless Man's head as it pushed out through the wound in the tree.
Like his arms, every inch of the Skinless Man's head was inked with intricate images.
"Thank you," the man rasped, spitting splinters from his mouth. His arms straightened and started to press down against the burning trunk of the tree, the sheer strength alone pushing his body gradually free of its prison. Half in and half out of the flaming tree, the man reached out for Ukko. "Help me, please..."
Ukko reached up and grabbed the tattooed hand. It felt peculiar, cold as though no blood pumped beneath the inked skin. He tried not to think about it. Instead he heaved with all of his might, throwing his bodyweight behind one massive wrench. The wood splintered all around the Skinless Man as he threw his head back and screamed, dragging the remainder of his body from the burning tree.
Even as he fell free Ukko saw, with horror, that his eyes retained a wooden veneer; as though part of him had failed to escape.
He collapsed into Ukko's arms, barely clinging to consciousness. The resurrection had been brutal.
As he lay sprawled in the sand at the foot of the ruined tree Ukko saw that the endless knot of tattoos formed a single grand design.
The flames roared up the ruptured trunk of the lone tree, consuming everything they touched, every inch of bark and wood, spreading voraciously along every branch, crackling and snapping as the wood blistered, charred and died. A series of sharp cracks resonated through the heart of the old tree. A withered branch fell, still burning. Then another, and another, falling on the upturned face of one of the repulsive gaseous insectoids. It opened its mouth as though to scream, and fire blazed out ripping into the hide of a wolfen man-animal rearing up to strike a savage blow into Sláine's unprotected side. The beast went down, the skin scorched on its back, leaving it raw and bloody and black, blisters and welts oozing as it writhed on the ground in agony.
Sláine put the wolf-man out of its misery, crushing its skull beneath his boot as he decapitated another of its kin with ruthless efficiency. He was covered in a score of shallow cuts, the worst of which ran from his temple to his nipple, bleeding into his eye. Another wound opened across the barbarian's chest as he parried a leonine warrior's claws on the head of Brain-Biter. The slash hadn't touched him, yet the wound bled as freely as any of the others on his body. Ukko understood instinctively what the impossible wound signified.
"Sláine!" he yelled in warning as another fell beast launched itself at the young Sessair's unprotected back.
The Morrigan's crow cawed harshly, its wings beating down on the rising flames as it circled the burning tree. The heat from the fire was overpowering, the stink of burnt flesh joining the heady melange of stinks. Ukko shielded himself from the worst of it, feeling his skin beginning to blister as the bird settled in a shimmer of heat-haze. Its black feathers moulted from its back and wings as the huge crow blurred out of focus, losing all shape and form as it slowly transformed into the hunched spectre of the Morrigan herself. The Crone hobbled towards the unlikely trio of Sláine, Ukko and the tattooed man, throwing her arms wide: "You must hurry, Sessair! This way, this way! Your mortal forms are under attack!"
She wove a pattern in the air, stirring the sand up from the ground like a spinning devil. The sand danced to the Crone's gesticulations, the vortex at its core quickening. The sudden surge of wind was fierce. Ukko looked into the heart of the devil and saw himself, Sláine, the pile of broken stones and dark shapes moving towards them threateningly.
The Skinless Man stared in sick horror at the wretched crow-faced hag as she opened the portal back to Tir-Nan-Og. "Morrigu!" He spat, lurching back as though struck.
"Save your hatred until you are safe, Myrrdin Emrys."
"You will pay for what you did to me, Crone," the man rasped.
"Yes, yes, yes, pay. But first, you must flee. Run mortal, run for your eternal soul. Run for your humanity. Run for your life!"
The churning devil of sand flew apart into a million tiny fragments, cutting into the ranks of Purgadair's grotesqueries, scything them down like row upon row of rag dolls.
The doorway between today and tomorrow and nevermore flew open.
"Come! Now! I cannot hold the way open for long." Judging by the strain in the Crone's voice the toll opening the portal had extracted was immense, and holding it open even for a moment was as much as the Goddess could endure.
A ribbon of blood ran down the side of Sláine's face. The battle rage was hot in his eyes. Brain-Biter lashed into another misshapen foe, spilling its guts on the sand. The man-animal's intestines unravelled in slick grey loops. Sláine swept the axe around in a savage arc, pushing the creatures back beyond its reach.
Without a second's hesitation the warrior turned, ran five paces and dived forwards, hurling himself through the shimmering portal. The Skinless Man followed him a moment later, his tattoos writhing with a life of their own as they came into contact with the immense power of the gateway.
Ukko stood on the edge of the portal and, against every screaming instinct, turned to look back. The mass of grotesqueries swarmed after him but the Morrigan stood between them, holding the monsters at bay. It hurt her, diminished her, and yet she did not falter even for a heartbeat.
"Why are you helping us?"
The Crone cackled madly, "My sister seems fond of this one. It would be a shame for him to die just yet. Go now, dwarf, or stay forever. I am closing the gate either way."
Ukko did not need telling a second time.
He stepped into the unknown.
Ukko's vision swam as the world swam, his balance betraying him.
Sláine opened his eyes as the skull sword's blade thrust towards his throat.
A heartbeat later and he would have been dead.
He lunged to the right instinctively, sweeping his legs around and dumping the swordsman on his backside. It was enough to save his life but not enough to win his freedom. Two more filthy blades stabbed down, one hovering an inch above his heart, the other over his balls, effectively pinning him to the ground.
The skull sword he had tripped loomed over him a moment later.
"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" He removed his helm. Beneath the hair mask he looked utterly unremarkable. There was nothing that marked the man as evil. Nothing that betrayed his dark master. That was, perhaps, the most frightening aspect of Slough Feg's insidious evil: it tainted otherwise good men.
Sláine said nothing.
"Found this one hiding in the woods," another faceless skull sword said, two more brutes dragging the Skinless Man between them. He was battered and bruised, livid blue-black marks swelling beneath his skin. The unconscious man had taken a severe beating; reward for his resistance, no doubt, Sláine thought bitterly. As they dragged him closer, Sláine saw that rather than bruises much of the colouration was down to his wildly tattooed skin.
Ukko lay beside him, on his stomach, trussed up with his hands tied behind his back. The little runt squirmed around until a booted foot crunched into his side. "Don't be getting no ideas, ugly."
Sláine twisted his head and sneered: "Hey, big man, why don't you try kicking me instead?"
The skull sword standing over him grinned. "Mighty stupid of you to insult Taranis while you're indisposed, neighbour."
"Just because you asked nicely." The skull sword called Taranis walked up to stand beside Sláine's head, scuffed his boot in the dirt and then delivered a thunderous kick to Sláine's temple, snapping his head back. Blood and pain smeared across his vision as the force of the kick rattled his brains. He grunted and turned the other cheek, offering it to the Drunes' soldier. Moving his head caused the blood to run into his eyes. It turned the world crimson. He blinked but that only made it worse. He couldn't reach up to wipe his eyes. "Better?"
"Was that the best you've got, lassie?" Sláine goaded, spitting blood. "My dead grandmother's got a better kick on her than you."
"That is because you keep trying to
it." Taranis laughed at his own lame innuendo. He nudged Sláine's face with his boot, getting the toe under his chin. "Come on, Murrough, best get donkey boy and his lovers back to Cor Havas; Slough Maug will want to have some fun with the big one, no doubt."
"On your back, hero," Murrough, the unremarkable skull sword, said, gesturing for him to roll over. Sláine looked rather pointedly at the two blades still levelled at him. Murrough nodded and the two skull swords withdrew their blades another foot, giving him room to roll over. "If he tries to escape, kill him."
Once he was on his stomach the skull swords wrenched his arms behind his back to the point of dislocation, and bound them securely with a cord of rope, lashed it around his feet and drew his ankles together tightly.
"My man, Kilbain here, is a deviant so and so by nature, enjoys hurting people a little too much for my taste, and luckily for him and me, one of the things he excels at is knots. His speciality is a peculiar little puzzler, for sure. The way it works is like this, the more you struggle the tighter it will draw itself until it becomes really unbearable. So it really is a case of how uncomfortable you want to make the next few days for yourself. If I were you, I'd just lie very, very still and think of some big-titted wench caressing me. Might as well enjoy being trussed up."
Sláine grunted as strong hands hauled him to his feet. They dragged him to the waiting flat-bed cart and bundled him in. He wriggled around until he was on his back. Even those small movements tightened the knots by a degree, the coarse fibre chafing against his wrists. Blood puddled in the socket of his right eye, filling it over the course of the next hour as the cart jounced and juddered along the rutted track back towards the Drune fortress of Cor Havas.
It was another hour before the Skinless Man regained consciousness.
Another five before Taranis stuffed a rotten apple into his mouth, forcing him to swallow the bruised fruit. It was sour, like the land that had nurtured it.
Another nine before the cart rolled beneath the shadow of an evening tree and the skull swords threw a tarpaulin over them. They spent an uncomfortable evening on the back of the flat-bed cart, sleeping fitfully. The Skinless Man tossed and turned, trapped in his dreams. And they were not, by any stretch of the imagination, sweet ones. He mumbled pleas, begging, whispering and screaming. And woven through all the rest, one word was repeated over and over: Morrigu.
It took no great wisdom to know the Skinless Man and the Crone shared a history.
Sláine occupied himself during the dark hours by wondering what this Myrrdin Emrys' story was.
By dawn he had decided that the Crone had lured the druid into that hellish place and sealed him within the one tree. It made no sense - but since when could a mere man fathom the schemes of the immortals? So he asked himself a simple question: what did the witch stand to gain by freeing him now? He had no answer.
The Forest of Dardun was vast, and made more so for the circuitous route travellers were forced to take around bogland and chasms that sliced right through Dardun's withered heart.
Ukko had been curiously subdued during the first day's travel, barely trading an insult with Sláine and not so much as a word with their captors. Truth be told, that worried Sláine more than their predicament. The little rogue was not one for brooding. Scheming, yes, conniving, yes, double-dealing, two-timing, back-stabbing, self-serving and swindling, yes, yes, and thrice yes to all of those, but not brooding. Ukko was not given to introspection. It didn't suit him. Sláine kept expecting to see the weasel-faced thief roll over and wink at him a moment before hatching whatever cunning plan he had tucked away up his sleeve. But even as night became day Ukko still hadn't moved. No wink, no smile, no plan.