This story was originally published, in a slightly edited version, in the pages of Adventures of Sword & Sorcery Magazine (#4, 1997). "The Skull of the Serpent", a prequel set about five years before this, is due to be published in an upcoming issue of Adventures of Sword & Sorcery (late '98 or early '99): so watch for it!
This story is copyright D.K. Latta and may not be reproduced, or redistributed, for commercial purposes without his permission.
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Kainar waved a gauntleted hand before him, knocking aside the creeper strung garland-like across the crude path. He reined in his ivory-coloured mare and rose in the stirrups. Before him spread the steaming swamplands, thick with trees and vines, the morning sun filtering hazily through the low lying mist. He settled in the saddle again and patted his horse's neck gently. "She's not as bad as that, old girl," he muttered. "Most of that's dry land." At least, so he hoped.
He turned at the rustle of flora behind him. Mina emerged from the dense greenery atop her proud stallion and halted beside him. She was nineteen summers old and as beautiful as any in Hannah town. Even farther afield than that, Kainar thought, and he knew, having seen much of the continent in his younger days. Her long raven's hair was damp about her perfectly sculpted face, and though the riding had been hard, she sat erect, her eyes sharp and curious. She wore only a flimsy purple poncho that covered front and back and was tied at the waist by a braided belt. Her sweat made the fabric clingy and the tugging of the wind revealed more than it concealed.
He admired her garb. Not from lust, but envy. He was dressed in full armour, the linked thumbnail-sized shells of his mail -- hand picked when he was sixteen on the shores of Agathir where the blue snails go to die -- glittering cyanically, his heavy gloves studded with the same, his leggings thick and form-fitting; his brow bore the conical helm he had taken from the head of dead King Ferdinandit eight years ago. He was a formidable sight; but hot. Even his red beard was matted with sweat. At one hip he bore a short sword and at the other an unusual axe. Unusual because it was made entirely of wood, head and all, yet bore hardly a chip or even a scratch.
He nodded. "I know."
"What?" Mina asked.
Kainar shook his head, urging his horse forward, the beast picking its way carefully over the patchwork of earth and water. They were in Fairn country, but there was no reason to anticipate conflict. The Fairn chieftan had signed a treaty with the council of Hannah four years ago and Kainar was easily recognizable as the Guardsmaster of Hannah town, if not by his unusual armour, then his signature war axe. He touched it with his hand.
All around us. In the bushes.
No reason to expect trouble, he repeated to himself.
"You look worried," Mina said quietly.
He glanced at her. Perceptive as she was beautiful, he thought. If only he was ten years younger. Well, perhaps twenty. "Fairns," he muttered. "All around us. It's to be expected though," he said quickly. "Nothing to worry about."
Yet, he echoed the voice in his head.
With a chuk!, the first spear embedded itself in a tree not a hand's width from his face. The second would have gone through his left eye had he not thrown himself to the muddy ground, dragging Mina with him. "Stay down," he growled as hollering, loin-clothed Fairns, ponytails bobbing, exploded out of the greenery.
And so it goes
"Aye," he agreed grimly, rising to meet the first wave, his wooden axe springing to hand. The first man fell screaming, an ugly fissure in his chest; the next lost his head. The third was knocked senseless by the flat of his bloodied axe. I'm too old for this, Kainar thought wearily, too old and too tired of fighting. He had taken the position as Guardsmaster because it seemed an easy, dignified job for a man to await the coming of his grey years. Usually it was. He could not understand why the Fairns attacked.
Stone spear heads bounced off the almost impenetrable snail shells of his armour, but each strike left black bruises on the skin underneath. He swung his great axe back and forth, his legs braced wide, among a mounting thatch of bloodied limbs and bodies. Surprisingly though, many of those at his feet were not dead, merely senseless. He struck without the bloodlust of his younger years, though not entirely with mercy. Many souls he separated from their earthly homes that morning.
Then the flat of a spear hit his wrist, numbingly. The axe fell with a spluck! to land half buried in swamp mud.
Mina watched in horror as, instead of going for the short sword at his belt, her defender made to retrieve the axe, leaving himself open. The Fairns swarmed him like an army of ants, spears and stone axes pummeling. He cried out as he went down, his armour and helmet only postponing the fatal blow that must surely come. His fingers twitched as he clutched at the axe that was hopelessly out of reach. And then, inexplicably, the axe was in his grasp and with a roar, he split a man's skull in twain.
Though hopelessly outnumbered, he swung and hacked, making the air thick with gore, and the hollers of battle lust turned to screams of terror. Battered, bruised, Kainar slowly gained his feet.
When, finally, there were more Fairns lying then standing, the attackers broke and ran, vanishing as quickly, as thoroughly, as they had appeared.
Kainar hesitated, swaying slightly in the crimson stained mist, then he staggered back to lean against a tree, his axe slumping at his side.
All gone. For now
"They'll be back."
He glanced over at Mina and stopped at seeing the look of horror on her face. He surveyed the carnage, the waste of life, with the grim eye of a battle-tempered veteran, and even he was disgusted. He stumbled toward her, legs like led, to offer words of comfort, then turned as water roiled to his left. He jumped back as something burst from the muck in an explosion of wet and slime. It was like a brown and grey frog swollen to the size of a pony, but with tentacles snapping whip-like about its wide mouth, black lips pulled back revealing jagged teeth. Its jaws snapped lightning-like about a corpse and in seconds, man and beast had disappeared into the dark mire. Through narrowed lids, he glimpsed more pairs of slitted eyes through gaps in the foliage, breaching the flotsam-specked surface of the surrounding water. He pulled Mina to her feet and said tightly, "Mount up."
He threw a leg over his own horse and they rode quickly from the hellish banquet thrashing behind them.
It was a dream made of things that are real, had been, were, but mangled together to form a masala of sensations. He fought the Fairns and also, as a fourteen year old boy, Harishaq pirates at his father's side. His first kiss had been a woman name Amethy. He remembered Mina coming to him, her mother having just recently died, with news that the father she had not seen since young wished her to come and stay with him. He lay stretched on an ice flow, a winged serpent floating menacingly above his head. He was proclaimed king of a Manu tribe. Mina shook him, trying to get him to pay attention. Her father had joined a cult that made its temple deep in the Dabidan swamp -- Fairn territory -- and she would need an escort. Could he, as Grand Guardsman, spare a man? No, he had told her, not a man.
For some reason, she continued to shake him even though he was paying attention. Paying attention despite the winged serpent and pirates and the
He woke with a start, his back stiff against a tree. And Mina really was shaking him.
"You fell asleep," she said in a quieter voice.
He shielded his eyes with a hand, blocking the sun, and gazed at her. Still midday, he thought. He could not have dozed for more than a few minutes.
"I'm sorry," she said quickly. "I was...lonely and, I guess, scared."
He brushed her cheek with his fingers, then selfconsciously dropped his hand. "My fault. I shouldn't have slept." He tried to smile. "I'm just not as young as I was."
She grinned. "You're not so old."
His joints cracked as he rose, undermining her comment. He glanced critically around them at the interwoven vegetation. "We should press on," he said. "It shouldn't be much farther."
"A few minutes more," she pleaded.
He hesitated, then touched the axe at his side. "A few minutes?"
It should be all right
He nodded. "A few minutes it is, then." He crouched and his knees popped.
Mina stared at him thoughtfully, chewing on a crust of bread, then asked. "Who is it you talk to sometimes?"
He looked at her, hesitated, then laid the axe across his knees. "Hawk's Wood."
He stroked the flat of the battle axe. "My axe is made from an enchanted tree called hawk's wood. The trees grow in the hard mountains of my boyhood home of Hagir Ha Whay, which is far, far to the west, in Kuy. When I was sixteen a village seer told me I had a grand destiny to fulfill. She said to go to the old hawk's wood tree and crave from it, all of a piece, a mighty battle axe. Once cut and polished it would be strong as steel and give my arm strength when it was weak. And I was to carry it with me always." He looked at the weapon. "Until the time came when we would be parted forever and I would fight no more."
"And when is that?"
He shrugged. "When I die, I suppose. Most likely in battle." He did not entirely resist the urge to glance back the way they had come.
Mina shuddered and held herself. "But that doesn't answer my question."
"The axe speaks to me. The spirit of the hawk's wood inhabits the axe, and so I call it Hawk's Wood. It's more than a tool. It's my companion." A wry grin touched his lips. "My brother in arms, if you will."
Yes. Brothers. Brothers doomed to part
He frowned. "It speaks cryptically, at times. Its spirit sees things I do not...and has kept me alive with its perceptions. I knew the Fairns were in the bush, I heard them, but Hawk's Wood knew they would attack." He stroked the wood. "But do you know why?"
The axe was silent.
"Fairns do not like intruders," Mina suggested.
"Perhaps," he muttered doubtfully. While fighting, he thought he saw his attackers had cast furtive looks toward the prone girl. As if killing him was merely a means to another, more sinister, goal.
They come again
He stiffened, lifting his head, but he could see and hear nothing. He rose. "Come, we aren't safe here." As he unthethered his horse he hoped her father's temple was not far. The Fairns knew this primal land and he did not. It was only a matter of time before they caught up again.
They rode at a brisk trot, but no faster. The beasts took the moist, overgrown path with trepidation. Plunging into patches of warm water with nervous whines, palpably glad when they trotted back up onto solid ground. He glanced quickly over his shoulder, so it was Mina who saw it first.
Turning, he jerked on the reins with an oath, the mare rearing up momentarily.
Before them, a man's corpse dangled from a tree overhanging the vague path, bound to the branch by grass ropes. Kainar's face twisted in distaste: it was not a fresh kill. The man was -- had been -- bald, and was garbed in the tattered remnants of a black robe. Flies buzzed around his eye sockets. A warning? he wondered. And if so, for who? Them? He glanced at Mina, a hand before her mouth as she stared at the grisly spectacle.
Then Kainar stiffened as a caterwauling commenced somewhere behind them. "They're trying to scare us," he said. "They're crying like that, even though still a distance away, to demoralize us. That means they think we have a chance." With a bark, he urged his mare forward, Mina's stallion at his side. She passed the corpse with her eyes closed.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Kainar said nothing to that. The sound of the screaming Fairns was growing louder, coming closer, as the wildmen tore through muck and brush that was home to them. While he and his beast plunged hesitantly through thick branches and vines, stumbling across treacherous ground like a blind man.
"They're almost upon us."
It took him a moment to realize it was Mina, not Hawk's Wood, who had spoken.
They broke through bramble and, with a start, Kainar reined in his mount. Before them spread open swamp water, the sole solid ground a pathway of piled rocks. Ahead was a building of what at first looked to be polished black stone, but seemed to project a strange, purplish aura. The structure spread the entire width of the clearing, the swamp closing in about its walls, encasing it in living vegetation. A great dome rose up behind it.
Roused from his momentary surprise by the axe, he realized the hollering was in his very ears. "Ride girl," he shouted, slapping the rump of her steed, urging it ahead of him. "Ride for all you're worth." They thundered across the crude causeway, the horses responding to their fear. A stone spear clattered off the stones to his left and Kainar glanced back, seeing loin- clothed figures burst from the brush, hurling their weapons as they ran. He grunted as a spear struck him square in the back, the stone head fracturing on impact with his armour.
As they approached what he had assumed was the temple of Mina's father, he scowled. The walls were overgrown with lichen, the buttresses scoured by the elements; there seemed no attempt to keep the swamp from encroaching. It looked unlived in. Even the once ornate figureheads by the entrance were worn featureless, though more deliberately than from simple erosion. To make matters worse, he thought he recognized the runes carved over the barred archway. He had seen something similar on a Nagitha-oli-Ant temple in the eastern mountains. But the Nagitha had died out to a man four hundred years ago.
Their sanctuary was less a temple than a deserted cairn, and they would find no salvation within its walls.
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