Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. More chapter excerpts will be released in the coming weeks.
Gunvald woke in the dark and buried the brigand upon the northern hill opposite the shepherd’s encampment and departed from the old vaquero wordlessly, before his waking, as the halcyon sphere drifted up across the high, jagged peaks of the far mountain. He made his way over the thin, reedy grass from the northern hill and from there to the stony outcropping where he’d slept as the sheep bawled and yapped like insane children and then passed down between the precarious tors into the lowlands which were spotted here and there with small tufts of shrubbery and strange boulders incised with markings from some people that had since passed from the world’s collective remembrance. The man stopped as if the stones had rooted him to shade and slowly reached out to touch the curious monolith before him, gingerly running his dry and cloth-wrapped hands across the smooth-hewn crevices of the mighty artifact. He closed his eyes and inhaled and exhaled deeply until his breathing became as rhythmic as a drumbeat and he felt as if his hands and those that had wrought the arcane inscriptions were one and the same. Past called to future. Dead to living. As if the stone were whispering to him, tales of forgotten times and well-lived lives and those less well lived and what their folly entailed for the ignorant persisting. It was a peculiar feeling, one that the weary traveler struggled to rationalize but felt powerfully all the same. At length, he opened his eyes and slowly withdrew his hand from the stone and retreated a pace and looked over the monolith entire, from tip to base and judged the breadth and width; some eight feet high, some seven feet wide. The weight of the thing the gods only knew.
When he’d taken in the stone in all its facets he turned full from it and made his way out through the bracken and quitch and past other stones, both larger and smaller than the first, and all similarly marked by ancient hands, the symbols there incised beyond the travelers reckoning. Here and there a recognizable representation, half-masked in abstraction: a man, a woman, a wolf, a bear, a fish, a snail, a tree. The symbol most oft represented was the wolf, over and over again it was inscribed, with near mechanical precision and a primal beauty that he’d scarcely witnessed in even the most technically proficient of paintings. He could almost hear its call.
Beyond the rune-stones the ground flattened out with astounding brevity, the bracken and quitch giving way to queer lichen and strange vines with small purple shoots and thick, raw swatches of muddy-clay, filled all with fetid water that buzzed with insects of every shape and size. The further out the man cast his gaze the larger the water-filled depressions grew until they merged unto a singularity, one vast marshen heap of rain-catch and sod and sand and silt. Bogland.
He recalled the old man’s words, “The first false step means death, to man or beast.”
Suddenly, there came a raucous calling, an intonation, nearby and strangely human. The traveler whirled, spotting, some forty yards out into the mire, a huge male ram, only his forelegs, chest, neck and horn-crowned head clear above the bog-hold. The creature struggled a moment, flailing its powerful legs against the silt and sand-water and then, quite suddenly, it vanished, sucked down at last; even the tips of its horns sinking below the grim surface of that plane of death.
Gunvald watched the unhappy affair with a mixture equal parts despair and fascination. It seemed too sudden to be real, the way the earth could so swiftly devour such a beast. Such a thing to the traveler’s mind was as fantastical as copper turning to gold or water to diamond. The bog had not been there when last he’d traversed the moor seven years ago. It seemed a whole panoply of lifetimes compressed into the scattered crystalline fragments of his memories and dreams.
He recalled the long march beside his kinsmen. How high their banners flew, the colors of all the clan houses of Tor; after decades of internecine violence, united at last against a common foe, the gray-men of the Hinterlands, those they called, Rimners. How young and wild and full of lofty opinions they had been…
As Gunvald looked out across the moor his opinions flew at considerably lower altitude.
Finding no passage through the peat, Gunvald opted to travel round it by the southernmost way. The trek lasted two days and brought him past all manner of rummy shrubs and bone piles and dying trees that looked more akin to the macabre props of a phantasmal play. Beyond the surmounted wetlands lay a quiet vale through which ran a babbling brook, girded on all sides by dry forest and vine, the ground verdant-lush and teeming with all manner of skittering things, both foul and fair. He sat by the snaking divet and withdrew a wood cup from his travel satchel and dipped it in the water and drank deeply, the liquid sweet and cool to his parched and desirous throat. Then he watched the solar plumes play across the waves as a small school of fish nudged up to the surface, their huge, lidless eyes gazing upon the sun-scorned figure as if appetent of conversation. Gunvald withdrew the last of his stock, a dry half-loaf of bread and broke it into small pieces, eating some and then throwing the rest to the fishes who gobbled at the flotsam and then nervously retreated, wary of Man’s latent, yet ever present, perfidy.
Moments later, the sound of creaking wood could be heard all throughout the vale, followed swiftly by a muted cascade of footfalls. The sound followed the wake of an old cart, rope-dragged by four men, filthy, disheveled and dressed all in furs. Their faces covered by cloth half-masks, securing the nose and mouth from nature’s multitudinous ravishments. Gunvald rose to observe the strange and solemn congregation, eyes widening with horror as he beheld their vessel’s grisly cargo.
Some fifteen in number, human and decaying under the harsh auspice of the sun, male and female alike, from babe to crone, covered in all manner of hideous rashes and boils, their skin ashen-red and peeling like the hide of some overripe fruit. Whatever disease it was that had snatched from them the breath of life seemed, for the moment, to have no hold upon the cart-pullers who paused momentarily, all turning to the man by the river.
One of their number addressed Gunvald sharply, as if in reprimand for some past transgression.
“What easy fool is this?”
“No fool, sir, but a soldier.”
“Those that here make passage well warrant the epithet. Canst thou not see our sorry wares?”
“Tis a pitiable sight. Whereby didst the sorry lot meet Dactyl’s scythe?”
Upon the utterance of that most singular name the men collectively gasped, the former speaker, a short man, bow-backed, balding and scar-faced, muttered a muted prayer and then gestured towards Gunvald as if casting some devious vermin from his presence.
“Sound not that unutterable traducement!”
“I meant no offense. Superstition has surely deranged thy temperament.”
“Enough, heretic, we darest not tarry, lest thee, with thy calumnious tongue, conjure some new evil to surpass the one that now burdens our aching backs!”
The other workers nodded as if there was great wisdom in the bald man’s words and then they adjusted their masks and ropes and muttered another prayer and bent once more to their toil and moved out across the rutted and grassy way, vanishing at last beneath the cavernous canopy of the wood, swallowed whole by the shadows therein.
Gunvald watched them go and decided to follow the cart-men at a distance, for their path and his were, for the time being, one and the same.
Gunvald rose and gave chase, passing through the thick and tangled forest of oak and ash and fir and gave silent thanks for the thick moss-bed beneath that masked the clattering of his bulky, armored frame. Over moss and stone and leaves, dead and alive, he walked, keeping himself well hidden and well apart from the odd foursome and their rickety old cart. After a couple hundred feet the forest opened up, the trees and shrubbery now growing more sparsely, the grass fading from green to yellow-green to a dull orange-yellow. Dying. The cart-pullers took a sharp right and passed fully beyond the forest unto a thin, dirt road that stretched out to the gray northwestern hill-lands like the great and ossified tendril of some mighty leviathan. The road ran down a slight decline in the hummock-ridden surface of the world and then diverged, one track splitting off to a small city to the south and the other branching to a butte over which rose the pass to the low, south-eastern mountains. Gunvald waited until the men had disappeared beyond the curvature of the earth and then took the lonely path towards the town stopping by a small, wooden sign, hastily constructed, which read:
The sign was adorned with a large off-white arrow, comprised of some woodland dye, which pointed towards the clearly present outline of the town in the short-off distance, half obscured by small tussles of old trees which poked above a field of withering wheat and the ruins of some primeval fort that lay beyond, its towers brimming with black wings and hissing beaks. Before the man had fully risen from his observation of the sign, the sound of thundering hooves rose up from somewhere nearby, plumes of dust whirling from the immediate northern road. Shortly, a fearsome cavalcade stood before the weary and cautious wayfarer, five in number and all armed and armored in strict uniformity. Knights or sell-swords or something worse. Gunvald knew instantly they were not of the town, by both their expensive attire and peculiar breed of destrier, he fancied them denizens of Caer Tor, a kingdom someways off and rarely concerned with its outlying provinces. The leader of the group and the eldest, a man of middling height and some fifty years, at length addressed the armored wayfarer.
“Hail, traveler. A moment to query?”
Gunvald nodded in wordless acquiescence, though he knew that it was not a question proper.
“I am Cyneweard, second-commander of Tor. Word of brigand-raids have reached our gracious Lord, Cenhelm, and by his leave we make way to Haberale to rope the misbegotten scoundrels.”
“If that is thy venture then ye’ev headed the way awrong. Thy foe lies beyond the northern forest, past the bogland in the high moors.”
“Thou hast seen them?”
“Three nights past I was assailed upon the moor by three fiends, peasants, it seemed.”
“Three thou sayst?”
The knight took the measure of the soldier before him, discerning flecks of crusted blood about his boots and nodded solemnly.
“I thank thee kindly. Might I inquire as to thy business, traveler?”
“My business is my own.”
“Suit thyself. One word of parting, kinsman, take heed in Haberale, the town is much changed. For the worse I am afeared. With thanks, we take our leave.”
Without another word the knights straightened in their leather saddles and flicked the reigns of their war-beasts and clattered off down the road toward the moor. When they had gone all was silent save for the heavy breath of the western wind that sent the traveler’s long, wavy locks aflutter. He brushed his mane from out his eyes and adjusted his scabbard-belt and wondered at the knight’s words. Haberale had always been a sleepy, little idyll, the only heed one had need to take was of how uneventful it was likely to be so as to better remedy the doldrums. He thought of the bandits and the dead men in the cart and the living ones pulling it and the strange masks on their faces, all deep, emerald green.
Times had changed indeed.
Gunvald left off down the way and crossed through the fading wheat and the hard clay ground and made camp in the ruins of some old fort as darkness closed about him in minacious plume.