Authors: Igor Ljubuncic
Yes, anyone with the ability to muster a following that large in just a few months should not be dismissed lightly, Sergei thought. If the holy man continued unchecked, his righteous
army could grow to frightening proportions. Maybe Gavril had innocent intentions. That could happen. But they might get bigger and less innocent as his force grew.
Sergei wished he had time to ponder life’s mysteries, to wonder how some nameless pilgrim could become a pivot of so much faith and devotion. But he was too weary to battle philosophy. Gavril could be an ally, and that would be an easy solution to his problems. Or Gavril could be an enemy, and he would have to contend with thirty thousand men who gave him no loyalty.
Athesia was a curse. A terrible curse.
If spy reports were true, three out of every five trade caravans headed for Keron would stop at the farmland outside the town, selling their goods to this strange congregation. There was a steady trickle of people coming from the Safe Territories, drawn to the rumor of holiness budding in Athesia. Even the locals seemed to be attracted. Sergei was losing his own subjects to the faith of a single man, who had not existed just a summer back.
Amalia might be fighting with sword and spear, but at least she had some claim over this land. He could understand and appreciate her effort. He could not grasp what Gavril signified. Or why the priests would throw their support behind him.
Perhaps he was one of their own. A patriarch pretending to be a rogue holy man. Perhaps this was their way of getting their demands answered. This was how they secured gold for the temples and shrines, and fodder for their combat clergy. This could all be a ruse.
He wanted to consult with Lady Lisa. Peace. She would urge for peace, as always. Compromise itched more than saddle sores, it seemed. Brave men compromised, and itched.
of guessing what the holy man wants, why not ask him?
It sounded simple.
Emperor Adam must be cackling in his grave
. “All right. I will meet this Gavril.”
Evgeny wiped his hand on a silk napkin, rubbing pear juice off his rings. “The gods and goddesses be praised. I shall convey your message, Your Highness.”
“I will go to Keron myself,” he added. He had to see this holy man’s camp for himself.
For a moment, Sergei did not quite feel like a king. More like a prisoner, awaiting his sentence. Not that different from the Athesian soldiers he had freed earlier. He was trapped in this forsaken city.
heldon, come inside!” Nigella shouted, her voice shrill.
“But Mom,” her son pleaded. He was lying prone on the grass, almost nose to wing with a large yellow butterfly. The boy was completely oblivious to the terror in Marlheim, but could she blame him?
“Sheldon, right now,” she grated.
He oofed but complied, getting up somewhat dramatically and dashing for the interior of her cottage. That left her alone to face the soldiers approaching her home.
Running away was not an option.
Almost overnight, the town had been overrun by Calemore’s troops. They had poured over the valleys and hills like a tide. At first, she had almost mistaken their white forms for sheep, thousands of them, rolling over the curves and creases of the land. They had converged on Marlheim from all directions and then entered the town without much fanfare. The few lucky and prudent citizens had fled. The rest had burned.
From what little Nigella knew about wars, soldiers would usually fight, then rape and loot, get drunk and wild on the success of their conquest. They would take time destroying and defacing and humiliating the symbols of their enemy and their
resistance. They would carefully pick among the women and take them for playthings.
Not this lot. Not Calemore’s soldiers. They behaved as if there was no joy in their task. Almost as if they were compelled to kill the people of the realm, burdened with a grim objective that was tedious and long and unrewarding, almost as if the fall of Marlheim meant nothing to them.
Nigella would have fled, but she remembered Calemore’s stern advice.
Do not run
His words did nothing to alleviate her fear. Worst of all, her own premonition had failed her. She had sensed nothing of this kind coming, read nothing in
The Book of Lost Words
that would have indicated there was a disaster approaching. Maybe, maybe because there was no disaster. Maybe because she was safe.
That did nothing for the random spasms in her belly.
A veil of smoke rose behind the small group of Naum men trudging up the dirt track, curling in broken, sooty fingers, bending this and that way, carried by the summer wind. Marlheim gaped like a festered wound, black, filthy, cracked wide open, and swarming with maggots. Fires had hopped between buildings and whipped across the nearby pastures, leaving charred ruins. Unconcerned by the destruction, the Naum forces camped all around the burned city. Yet more armies were streaming by, some following the roads, others blazing across the green fields, leaving a scarred land in their path.
She had been surprised to glimpse women in that lot. Well, she had expected whores to travel with the soldiers. But the women packed in the backs of wagons and sleds did not seem to be there just for fucking. They had babies and small children, and the drays bulged with home goods and items, the kinds of things pilgrims would carry with them.
Other than observing the quick, brutal fall of Marlheim, she had kept her eyes away from the town. She did not want to witness atrocities, did not want to remember any grisly detail that might haunt her dreams. She needed her conscience clear so she could plan her future.
Only recently, she had happily wondered if she and Calemore might end up together one day. It had been a silly fantasy, a crazy fantasy, but he seemed to like her, and almost respect her, and he sure valued her advice and her cooking. That had to mean something. Her experience with men was drenched in disappointment, but she felt there was something genuine growing between the White Witch and her.
The sight of destruction had warped the happy image she carried in her head.
Still, he cared for her. After all, he had warned her of the impeding attack and promised help. No other man had ever done anything like that.
Nigella stood, palms pressed against her stomach, feeling the muscles fire off with uncontrolled terror. She wished she could be calm. She wished she could face these Naum men bravely. But there was a giant cold fist crushing her chest, making her breathing rapid and short. Calemore had promised she and her son would be safe, but his words felt empty now. Like always, she had given her heart to a man and gotten betrayed, like the fool she was.
Do not run
There were seven men coming toward her, spread about like birds in flight, arms swinging wide of their belts laden with pouches, knives, and swords. They looked eerie dressed all in white leathers and furs and skins, a pale mockery of their master.
Nigella swallowed. A painful lump rolled down her throat, making a thick noise in her ears. The men stopped ten paces
away. A respectful distance, not meant to alarm her, she dared to hope. Her fingers curled round the fabric of her dress.
The man in the center was wearing a sleeveless jerkin of ivory-colored fur. His ruddy, sun-whipped skin was covered in sweat, dripping. He spread his arms, palms up.
Nigella did not know what to do. She waited, carefully watching him.
He moved forward, going down on one knee. She took an involuntary step back, a cool hiss tickling her teeth.
Nothing happened. The man remained kneeling, arms spread.
“I do not understand,” she heard herself say, a thin whisper, barely audible.
The warrior blinked, but there was no comprehension on his face. He did not speak Continental. Her gut clenched. What would happen now? She felt dizzy. She wanted to collapse on the ground and cry, but she willed herself to remain standing.
“I do not understand,” she repeated, pleading.
The man frowned, then pointed behind him and to the left, toward Marlheim. He waited until she glimpsed in the direction of the town; then he made a palm-down gesture. He pointed toward her, palm-up gesture, both hands.
Nigella rubbed her cheek. It was wet with a tear. “Safety? Am I safe?”
Again, the Naum man pointed at her, then clasped his hands together. Around him, the other six warriors did the same. Her eyes flitted left and right, seeking danger in their movements. But there was no threat there. They tried to appear friendly, she realized. Their gestures were slow, deliberate. A choked gurgle of panicked relief bubbled up in her throat.
The ruddy-skinned leader crooked his thick finger back at himself. He patted the ground in front of him. Nigella was
desperately trying to understand his message. But symbolism was a slippery thing. She knew nothing about the Naum civilization.
“Did Calemore send you?” she asked.
The name of her lover did invoke a reaction. Their faces contorted, emotions twitching their rugged, blistered cheeks. She thought she saw fear, deep fear in their eyes, mirroring her own. That sent another blob of relief up her gullet.
“Calemore,” the chief warrior repeated, but he said it differently, letters hard and emphasized.
Nigella was glad they could speak, even if they didn’t know her language. It convinced her they might find a way to communicate somehow, convinced her a little that these were just ordinary people facing her. From another land, from another culture, still just men.
“Are you here to protect me?” she chirped.
Ruddy lowered his face to the ground. “Calemore,” he intoned against the gravel. His six did the same thing. The witch’s name reverberated around her, even as Marlheim kept burning in the background, a black haze clotting the sky.
The man straightened. He repeated his earlier gestures, palms up and down, hands clasped. She thought she understood the gist of it. Risking everything, she gave a small nod.
I hope nodding is a good thing in Naum
As if to affirm her own body language, the warrior went through the sequence of his motions one more time, then bobbed his hairy cleft chin up and down. Nod, that was good.
He waved his hand at one of the soldiers on his right. Nigella tensed again, uncertain what would happen next. The other warrior removed a pack from his back and undid the knots of the leather straps. He produced a bundle, wrapped in oiled paper, and handed it to his leader.
Ruddy waved the bundle at her, then placed it on the ground before him and waited.
Don’t be a coward
, she told herself, trying to will her feet to move. But they would not obey.
“Calemore,” Ruddy said, touching the wrapped thing.
“Calemore,” she agreed. One of her feet jerked forward, then the other. Weak, blood hammering in her neck, her ears, her temples, in the pit of her stomach, she dragged herself close to the Naum man, all too painfully aware of the big ax cinched behind his belt.
Her trembling hands picked up the bundle, and she withdrew. There was a sharp, rank smell oozing round the wrapping. Almost like a string doll, she worked her fingers through the folded, creased layers of paper. Inside, there was a soft, poxy white wheel, sweating milky dew on a wad of gauze.
Cheese. Goat’s cheese.
Nigella lost control. The sharp knot of pain in her stomach melted. She breathed in hard and laughed hysterically, her vision blurring with fresh tears. She folded, no strength left in her stomach, holding to the bundle with the last ounces of sanity.
The feeling of terror sluicing away was wonderful. She could feel her muscles shedding it off like snake skin, leaving behind tender, raw flesh. The cold feeling drained down her thighs, down her calves, into her feet, and out of her body. She was warm, too warm suddenly.
The Naum people had brought her cheese.
Ruddy took her brittle laughter as a positive sign. Soon, other men were unloading their bags, and they gave her white carrots, beets, apples, and cured meat. So Sheldon and she would not starve because Marlheim was now a town in ruins.
She stared in wonder at this display of aid, knowing they were doing so because Calemore had made them. But it did not change her sense of sad, honest appreciation for these brutal strangers.
Because many years ago, my own people did just the opposite
The leader slowly rose to his feet, making sure his action did not alarm her. She remained sitting on the ground, staring at the wealth of food before her. Then, she followed him as he stepped around her and approached the cottage.
Sheldon was inside. That terror came back, fast and sudden.
Ruddy did not go for the door. Instead, he walked over to the rainwater barrel and gently tapped the old staves. He nodded once, looking at her intently.
Nigella frowned, trying to figure out what he meant.
Repair? Repair the leaks?
She shook her head. The warrior reached toward the roof, touching the straw eaves. She shook her head again. Ruddy looked around, searching for items that might need mending. She could not shrug her unease off with his sweaty bulk moving so close to the cabin, so close to her son.