The basin fell with a clatter and splash. By instinct, Gecerix reached for the knife at his belt. But his fingers had barely closed around the hilt when hands in mail gauntlets seized him from behind. A blade pressed up against his throat, just as a hot-breathed voice slurred into his ear. “Calm yourself, lad,” said Jens, his father’s oldest rival. “The thing is done. We sent you out to spare you the sight.”
Five generations of chieftain’s blood pulsed hot in Gecerix’s veins. He willed himself to coolness, to calculation. Still, his legs felt hollowed when he saw his proud father’s face, a death-rictus splitting his dark beard. The iron-headed spear had transfixed him through the heart; his passing had been swift, at least.
“Old Dagulf’s reign is over.” Jens shoved him forward. Gecerix turned, saw fresh blood on Jens’s mailcoat and graying braids. Arrayed alongside him were a dozen of the tribe’s best warriors, scarred men with haunted eyes, and conspirators all. They would not meet his gaze. Two had pinioned a stout veteran between them: Mars Markel, his father’s shield-man. So he had been faithful to the last.
“Courage,” Markel said. Jens cuffed him, but the old warrior only spat, eyes blazing.
“You’re a chieftain’s son no longer,” Jens told Gecerix. “I’ll not forget the old precedent, though. It’s exile for you and your family, as well as those—” he glanced at Markel, “—who wish to accompany.”
“You’d turn me out at the height of winter?” Gecerix said, surprised at his voice’s evenness. “That’s as good as knifing me in my sleep.”
“That’s the precedent. I won’t have you in these halls, plotting vengeance until the spring.”
The heads of the conspirators nodded in unison. Jens stalked over to Dagulf’s corpse and tore the plain iron band signifying chieftainship from his lifeless finger. He slipped the ring on, a smile curling his lips.
“Wake the boy’s mother,” he said. “Gently. I want the whole of the old retinue gone from these halls before sunrise.”
Gecerix’s new tribe numbered six people. Besides himself there was his mother, Chlodis, a spearman named Theudric, Mars Markel, and three thralls attached to the household, one of whom was old and blind, another heavy with child. To this Jens had added five goats and all the un-ground wheat the thralls could carry, knowing full well such scant provisions wouldn’t see the group through winter.
Not that starvation was their immediate concern.
Gecerix had claimed his father’s spear, by right, and his mailcoat, though the latter fit his somewhat smaller frame loosely. At nineteen summers he stood taller than Theudric, with shoulders nearly as broad as Markel, and lacking the old retainer’s paunch. Still, he had some growing to do before he reached his father’s former stature.
Dagulf. Gone. The certainty clanged home as the iron-bound gates to the fortress opened, admitting the darkness of a starless, moonless night. Whirling snow danced just outside.
He glanced at Chlodis, standing beside him. She’d had just enough time to throw on furs before being hustled out to the bailey. Her gray eyes took in the darkened landscape without emotion. “I went to bed a chieftain’s wife,” she said, “and woke a widow. Tell me this is some dream, Gecerix.”
“It’s no dream.”
“Where will we go? The Skrae—”
A sword rasped from its sheath behind them. “You have been provisioned and armed,” said Huneric, Dagulf’s former standard-bearer. “Go now. If you linger outside the walls, or return, the archers have orders to feather you.”
“Where is Jens?” Gecerix said. “Is he not here to see us off?”
“The chieftain sleeps.” Huneric pointed with his sword-tip. “Go.”
The little party stepped outside the gates. As soon as they were through, goats and all, the great doors slammed shut behind them. Gecerix could see where two flint-headed arrows had embedded themselves high in the wood.
“We should make for the hill yonder,” Markel said, gesturing towards a faint silhouette in the darkness. “There’s a copse of pines at the top that will provide cover.”
Gecerix eyed the spot without enthusiasm. “And from there?”
“A decision you’ll have to make, young chieftain.”
Their boots crunched snow as they hurried, peering in all directions. Only Chlodis stared straight ahead, her jaw set, seemingly unaware of the hostile night surrounding them. Wind came howling down, hurling a sheaf of stinging white. Gecerix shivered beneath his mail.
He spared a moment to glance behind him at the fortress, perhaps the last time he’d see it. The structure resembled nothing so much as a heap of shadowed rocks, glinting in places where a lone cresset burned. His people had constructed the makeshift castle from ruins discovered on first settling this accursed vale. Some of the original stonework, it was whispered, was so massive as to be beyond the ken of human craftsmen.
They reached the hill’s summit. The thralls set down their packs, already looking tired. Markel leaned his heavy shield against a pine. “We’ve got two choices,” he said. “We make camp here—”
“Make a stand here, you mean,” Gecerix said.
“—or push on to Warder’s Bluff. There’s a tower on the ridge that looks defensible.”
Theudric spat. “Everyone knows that tower’s cursed. I say we stay and fight. It’ll be a clean death, at least.”
“We’re not all warriors here,” Gecerix said, nodding at the huddled thralls. “They’ll likely be taken captive.”
“Then we’ll cut their throats now, and be done with it.” Theudric started to draw a knife from his belt.
“Hold,” said Markel. “Udo hears something. What is it, Udo?”
The old blind man scratched his head. “The cry of a bird, a long way off.”
“No bird cries during a winter storm,” Gecerix said.
Markel nodded. “Skrae. I’d imagine their scouts have spotted us by now.”
Gecerix scanned the snow-covered terrain surrounding the hill, half expecting to catch the flash of faintly luminous eyes. At any moment shafts could come tearing out of the darkness. His mother watched him, her face intent but lips silent. Waiting for him to act like a chieftain.
“The bluff,” he said at last. “We make for Warder’s Bluff.”
They marched for what felt like half the night. The storm broke and the skies cleared. By starlight, Gecerix could see the distant bluff and the silhouette of a tower, beckoning like a crooked finger. He urged his weary party to speed. Just as they cleared the tree line something came whistling in high and struck the crest of his helmet. An arrow fletched with hawk feathers fell to the snow.
“Skrae,” Markel called, and held his shield out in front of the young chieftain. Theudric drew in close beside him, leveling his spear. Wordlessly, the little wedge charged forward, with the thralls close behind.
Flint arrows splintered against Markel’s iron-bossed shield. Theudric grunted as a shaft struck his shoulder and snagged in the mail there. A second pierced his thigh, below the protection of his armored skirt. Still, he charged forward.
Gecerix saw a half-dozen lean shapes, perched atop boulders. The nocturnal Skrae must have spotted them coming to arrange such an ambush.
But the fight was close-quarters now. Gecerix thrust upwards at the nearest figure, both hands on his father’s spear. The Skrae howled. Hot blood sprayed down and struck the snow, steaming. The spear’s head was almost as long as a sword-blade, and Gecerix, reversing his grip, used it to slash at a second archer’s legs. His opponent tumbled off the rocks, to be finished by the short-hafted axe Markel gripped in his right hand.
The remaining Skrae leapt down, brandishing flint knives and clubs fashioned from heavy stones lashed to wood. Gecerix had just enough time to dodge a stroke from a war-club, before his opponent came hurtling against him, bearing him to the ground. He smelled the savage’s rank sweat and the animal musk he’d smeared over his lithe body. Yellow, unnaturally large eyes glared in the starlight. His right arm pinned, Gecerix managed to draw the knife from his belt and stab blindly. The Skrae let out a hoarse cry as it rolled off. Gecerix surged to his feet.
He saw Markel slam an opponent against a boulder using the big shield, then reach around with his axe to perform butchery. The two remaining Skrae decided to bolt. Theudric, blood streaming from the wound in his thigh, hurled his spear after them. One of the Skrae went down face-first, the shaft protruding from between his shoulder blades. The other reached the tree line and was gone.
Markel shook his head. “Hunting this high into the vale during winter. They must be starving.”
“Aye,” Gecerix said, surveying the frightened faces of the thralls, “and we would’ve been their larder.”
Chlodis was already bent over Theudric’s wound. It was a wonder the spearman could still walk, let alone fight. “That shaft’s going to have to come out,” she said. “But not here.”
“Think you can reach the tower?” Gecerix asked him.
“What choice do I have?” Theudric’s face had gone dangerously pale. Chlodis wrapped strips of cloth around the wound, and between them, Markel and Gecerix helped the stricken warrior along.
Dawn seemed a century away as they stumped to the base of Warder’s Bluff, where a trail wound its way up beside the cliff. Theudric was panting by the time they reached the summit, his eyes rolling in near-delirium.
The sight of the tower did not bring comfort. Built of the same black granite as the fortress, it rose to an indeterminate height above the neighboring pines. No windows or other apertures breached its surface, save an empty doorway. The foundation stones had been disturbed by some tremendous siege engine, or a jostling of the earth, so that the structure listed to one side.
“I feel eyes upon me,” Udo said, craning his head in one direction and then another. “We’ve come upon a haunted place.”
“Haunted or not, it’s shelter,” Markel said.
They peered inside. The tower’s upper floors had fallen through, and a circle of stars shone above. Markel and Gecerix, with the help of a burly thrall named Arnulf, shoved rubble in front of the doorway to form a barrier. They picked among the debris and found a level place to lay out Theudric, while the thralls built a fire with pine boughs.
“They’ll know we’re here,” Markel said, watching the gray smoke wend its way out the tower.
Gecerix shrugged. “We can’t have everyone freezing during the night.”
He went over to where Chlodis knelt beside Theudric. Light from the sputtering pine showed a face gone white as snow, though the blood soaking the spearman’s bandages had clotted. “He won’t let me draw the shaft out,” Chlodis said, her mouth grim. “He wants to sleep.”
“It could be a long sleep.”
“He’s tough. We’ll see how he feels in the morning.” Gecerix unbuckled his helm, shrugged out of his heavy mail hauberk. The weight of chieftainship had already exhausted him. He settled back against a leaning stone, watching the thralls find a place for the goats at the far side of the chamber.
His eyelids fluttered shut. Just a moment’s rest, he told himself, and he’d take first watch.
Sometime towards morning he roused to semi-wakefulness. Gray light filtered down from above, mingling with the fire’s dying cinders. All across the stones lay the huddled shapes of his sleeping retinue, covered with blankets or cloaks.
A black figure sat alongside Theudric.
Gecerix didn’t startle because he knew he was only half-awake, and therefore must be dreaming. The figure was formed from shadow and limned with a pallid brightness. There seemed to be a face atop the narrow shoulders, though it bulged in places where a face should not. Despite its lack of features, Gecerix sensed the thing was watching him with intense interest.
“Go ahead and speak, phantom,” he said, “before the sunrise washes you away.”
Laughter like the scrape of metal against stone. A sibilant voice seemed to pour into his head from all directions, echoing within his skull. “I’m no phantom,” the shadow said. “I came because I smelled blood on your weapons, and blood covering this dead man, here.” It gestured towards Theudric.
“He died while you slept.”
“Are you some spirit, then, to guide him on his way?”
A chill crept through Gecerix’s limbs. He told himself it was because of the waning fire. “What’s your business here?”
“I should ask you that, since you’re the invaders in my home.” A pair of vaguely arm-shaped shadows stretched out to indicate the tower’s interior. “But you don’t need to explain. I can see it in your mind, clear as a tapestry. You’re exiles, from the ruins to the south. Fleeing those feeble night-savages.”
“And you’re just some old ghost,” Gecerix said, “spent as cold ashes. You can’t hurt anyone.”
The apparition rose to its feet. “I’d take no small pleasure demonstrating how ‘spent’ I am, but I might find a use for you.”
Scraping laughter filled Gecerix’s head, just as sunlight came slanting in from above. The shadow-thing remained solid. It seemed impossible that such a creature could resist the bright deluge, and yet it did. Gecerix reminded himself he was dreaming. He closed his eyes to try and shut out the vision, but the laughter echoed on.
When he woke again the shadow-thing was gone. No noise rattled in his head, save the goats' soft bleating and Udo’s snores. The rest of the tribe lay still. He rose, rubbing at his stiff muscles, and went to check on Theudric. The spearman’s flesh looked diminished somehow, as if he’d lain for days exposed to sun and scouring wind. Gecerix gazed down at the arrow-shaft that had taken his life. The first casualty of their little band. Doubtless, there would be more.
Markel had slumped asleep next to the blocked-off opening, still clutching axe and shield. Gecerix roused the old retainer with a shake. He didn’t tell him about the ghost or its message. Instead, he showed him Theudric’s body. Grimly, the two levered stones aside and carried the corpse out into morning.
Sunlight dazzled off fresh snow. Gecerix paused for a moment, overwhelmed by the view atop Warder’s Bluff. He traced their flight from scant hours before, through the pine woods, the clearings, and there, at the vale’s mouth, the vast pile of black rock he’d called his home. He turned to glare at the crooked tower. Was he fated to spend the rest of his life in this haunted place, within view of his birthright?
A hand touched his shoulder. “Steady,” Markel said. “Don’t think too far down the path. Best to keep your mind on the present.”
Gecerix gestured at Theudric, lying atop the snow. “Without him, we’re the only two warriors …”
“That thrall Arnulf looks strong enough. I’ll show him how to swing an axe. Come.”
They carried Theudric a bowshot from the tower, to a spot where a wall once stood. Pines marched up the slope of a lonely hillock, with mountains in the near-distance. Breaths steaming, they scraped snow from the frozen ground and laid out Theudric in his mail, then piled rock after rock from the old wall atop his body, until they’d stacked a fair-sized cairn.
“As chieftain, you should say something,” Markel said.
Gecerix drew a deep breath. “Theudric was a sour-tempered man, and stubborn. So stubborn, he refused to recant his pledge of loyalty after my father’s betrayal. I hope his spirit ascends yonder mountains and finds an ale-hall at the top.”
They walked with slow tread back to the tower, to discover everyone awake and busy. Arnulf the thrall had located a frozen-over spring. It took only a few taps with a knife hilt to get at the clear water underneath. Udo had the goats grazing on pine needles, his sensitive hands feeling for the youngest branches. The pregnant thrall, with help from Chlodis, had selected a flat rock within the tower to serve as a hearthstone, and built a second fire to cook rude cakes of ground wheat.
“Theudric’s gone,” Chlodis said, handing Gecerix a bowl of goat’s milk. It was a statement rather than a question. Her eyes were rimmed with purplish-black, as if she’d spent a sleepless night.
“We made a cairn for him not far from here.” He pursed his lips at the milk’s sour taste.
“Get used to that. Milk and wheat-cakes will be our fare from now on.”
“I’m glad to have it.”
“We’ll have to take special care of Moara.” Chlodis nodded at the hugely pregnant thrall, bent over the hearthstone. “She’s due any time now. Her child will be the first addition to our tribe.”
Gecerix drained his bowl. “Markel advised me not to think too far into the future.”
“Then I’ll look ahead. For all our sakes.”
He paused a moment, debating whether to tell her about his conversation with the early-morning phantom. He opted against it. People were nervous enough concerning the tower, before adding his ghost-stories. As chieftain, he could betray no hint of fear.
Markel was already hard at work stacking rocks again, building a low stone wall around the tower’s doorway. “It’s a redoubt,” he explained, as Gecerix approached to help. “We can post a sentry here at night. The wall will protect against arrows. I don’t like the idea of just sealing ourselves inside, without being able to see what’s going on.”
They worked in silence. When the wall was roughly half-formed, Gecerix set down the rock he was holding and turned to stare at the nearby tree line.
“Something wrong?” Markel asked.
“I just realized how quiet this place is. Aside from the goats we brought with us, I haven’t seen a single animal. Have you?”
Markel shrugged. “It’s winter. And the Skrae hunt everything that moves.”
“Still … not even a bird?”
The tower’s shadow lengthened as the sun continued its climb.
By nightfall, Gecerix’s sense of dread reached a point where sleep seemed unattainable. And yet, when he sat down near the hearthstone and its waning fire, waiting to relieve Markel outside for second watch, he felt his head droop …
He dreamed he was a raven. From his vantage atop Warder’s Bluff, he winged down over the vale to at last reach the fortress. Perched on a high windowsill, he peered into his father’s old bedchamber and spied Jens, dressed in Dagulf’s best furs and drinking from his favorite cup. Gecerix willed himself to change form and slipped into the chamber unnoticed. Jens did not look up until a pair of hands had fixed themselves around his throat. Gecerix squeezed; ale came bubbling past the usurper’s lips. Jens tried to call out but could not. His eyes bulged. And still, Gecerix kept squeezing …
He woke with a start. The hearthstone cast a ruddy orange glow over the tower’s interior. Less than a spear’s length away crouched a familiar silhouette. The non-face regarding him somehow seemed more distinct than before.
Gecerix opened his mouth to speak, but words were already rippling through his mind. “The one you call ‘Jens’ has just woken from the same dream,” the creature said. “I doubt if he enjoyed it as much.”
“Who are you?”
“Men have called me Eilu. A good enough name, I suppose.”
“Did you … did you put that dream inside my head?”
“Not so much a dream as a desire. And one you came up with all by yourself. I merely made the experience more vivid.”
“Would that you could make it more than a dream.”
“Oh I could, little chieftain. I very well could.”
Gecerix sat up. He was fully awake; this was no half-real conversation with some imagined phantom. Chlodis slept nearby, tossing fitfully among her heaped furs. A glance showed the thralls slumbered as well.
“You’re wondering why I reveal myself only to you,” Eilu said. “And if I’m a ghost, why don’t I come rattling chains and wailing until you quit the tower? The answer is, I need your help.”
“You are in a position to render me a service—just as I can do the same for you.”
“And why should I?”
“A fair question.” Eilu gestured towards the doorway with tapering fingers. “I would show you a sight from the glorious past. Come. Your friends will not wake.”
Gecerix rose to his feet. The doorway flickered, and light came spilling through as if the sun had risen. He peered out, expecting to see Markel crouched behind his stone wall. What he saw instead sucked the breath from his lungs.
“You behold the vale of millennia past,” Eilu said.
A summer breeze blew in and struck Gecerix’s face. “What are those trees with fruits like red globes?” he asked.
“Pomegranates. The technique of cultivating them in such terraces is a lost art.”
“It’s so … warm.”
“The world was a warmer place, then.”
Beyond the groves of improbably lush fruits, beyond the pools of turquoise water and sprawling gardens lined with half-man, half-animal statuary, a massive temple loomed. At least that’s what Gecerix reasoned it was; no such collection of round-topped towers and sheer walls carved from gleaming marble could ever serve a practical purpose.
“Who built all this?” he said, feeling the corners of his eyes moisten.
“You did. Or rather your ancestors, in the centuries before the Great Upheaval.”
“And this tower?”
“Erected in veneration of me.”
The doorway went dark.
“Bring it back,” Gecerix said. “I want to look a little while longer.”
“Help me, and I’ll do more than that. I’ll restore the vale—and your people, along with it—to what you’ve just glimpsed.”
“You could do such a thing?”
“Through sorcery, much is possible.”
“What … what would you have of me?”
Eilu moved towards him, his shadowed feet passing through the rubble as if it wasn’t there. “Procure blood and consecrate it in my name. I am not of this world; only blood can bind me here. Without corporal form my powers are diminished.”
Gecerix could’ve sworn the lipless face was grinning at him. “What kind of blood?”
“Human is best.”
“And where would you have me find that?”
Eilu turned to the sleeping forms sprawled over the tower’s floor. “You have ample subjects. I am not so greedy as to require all of them.”
Gecerix shook his head.
“So resolute, are we? Look outside again.”
The doorway swam with hazy, dream-like images. Gecerix beheld a reflection of himself, sitting atop his father’s throne. Jens lay before him, his throat a red pulp. The image blurred, clouded; now he perceived a procession of warriors, with himself at their head. They were leading a column of captured Skrae out of the forest, their limbs heavy with chains. Leading them to a crude stone altar erected at the gates of the great hall. There, one by one, the savages’ hearts were carved from their chests with iron knives, and heaped before a basalt edifice of Eilu.
“Revenge,” the shadow-thing said, leaning so close Gecerix could feel a slick clamminess radiating from its skin. “Power. Is the price I ask really so dear?”
“Were you human, you might think so.”
“Feh! Spoken like a worm. I thought you a chieftain.”
“A chieftain doesn’t repay the loyalty of his subjects with murder.”
Eilu drew back as the doorway darkened once again. "I’ve misjudged you. Too squeamish to do what needs doing. Too sentimental to command your fate. Farewell, Gecerix. Enjoy ruling over your goats and feeble thralls, in the short time before winter takes you all.”
The shadow faded from sight.
A hand touched Gecerix’s shoulder. He whirled, to see Markel’s bearded face hovering inches from his own. “I heard you talking,” the retainer said, “but everyone else is asleep.”
“I was dreaming.”
“Why are you awake, then? And why, just moments ago, were you staring out so rapt at the night?”
Markel’s eyes grew sharp in the dimness. Gecerix had never been able to lie to him, any more than he’d been able to lie to his father. He let out a breath. “The tower is haunted,” he said. “You heard me talking to some demon-thing from ages past.”
Markel’s hand shot to the axe at his belt, as he stepped through the doorway. “No,” Gecerix said, gripping him by the arm. “He—it—is gone now. I spurned the creature. Likely, it will bother us no more.”
When he woke again it was late in the morning, and a light snowfall came scudding down the open roof. Chlodis was helping to pat out wheat-cakes alongside Moara. Gecerix thought to approach his mother and tell her of his experiences with Eilu, but a glance at her face as she crouched by the hearthstone fire made him reconsider. She looked haggard, her eyes hollow. Lines he’d never seen before had carved furrows down the sides of her mouth.
Markel unpacked a pair of yew bows and strung them. “We need to find meat,” he said, handing a quiver to Gecerix. “I don’t want to slaughter one of the goats so soon.”
“We’ll have to range far from the tower.”
“Aye. And it would do you some good, after last night. I’ll have Arnulf stand watch.”
They donned fur-lined cloaks and set out. The snow made soft thudding sounds as it fell among the pines. Instead of climbing down the bluff’s face, they headed further up into the mountains, past Theudric’s cairn. Gecerix mused how much easier survival would be if they only had to pluck pomegranates.
The tower retreated to a distant silhouette. Far from its influence, they found traces of animal life. Wolf-tracks, fresh even in the falling snow. Markel fitted a shaft to his bow and crept forward, hunched, following the disappearing trail. Over the next rise they saw it: an old she-wolf. Her ribs showed through a matted gray coat as she sniffed the snowy ground. Both Gecerix and Markel raised bows.
The sound of yew flexing must have warned the wolf, because she bolted before they could loose.
“Foul luck and poor game,” Markel said. “We ought to—”
A thin cry came piercing through the trees.
“That sounded like a scream,” Gecerix said.
As one, they slung their bows and raced back in the direction they’d come. Could it be Skrae? But the savages only stalked by night. Another, darker possibility occurred to Gecerix. He thrust it aside. His long legs and youth made him a faster runner than Markel, and he soon outdistanced him. The tower came bounding closer. His lungs aching, he caught sight of Arnulf. The big thrall sat in the snow by the tower’s entrance, his face dazed. The spear Markel had given him lay alongside, forgotten.
Gecerix grabbed him by the shoulder and shook. “What happened? Who cried out?”
Arnulf’s eyes swam into focus. “C-Chlodis bade me wait here …”
Another scream ripped behind him, from the tower. A woman’s voice. Gecerix snatched up the spear and leapt inside.
He nearly stumbled over Udo’s corpse, sprawled on his back near the doorway. The old man’s throat had been opened and allowed to bleed out like an animal, though there was precious little blood pooling around him. His sightless eyes stared up through the tower at winter sky.
Eilu loomed not far from the body. In full daylight, the demon’s ebon flesh looked sleek and solid. It had fixed its faceless visage on the hearthstone, where Moara lay bound with leather thongs, her swollen belly bared. The fire was gone and she thrashed among the ashes, a full-throated scream escaping her lips when. Chlodis stood poised above her, both hands wrapped around a dagger smeared with gore. She muttered a guttural, sing-song chant of tortured syllables.
“Mother!” Gecerix cried.
Some of the madness left her eyes. She lowered the dagger, glaring at her son. “You. Leave here and let me finish my work.”
“Y-you’re in league with—”
“Eilu came to me in the night as well. I was terrified, until he showed me what there was to be gained. And what you, my spineless offspring, had refused to do.”
“You killed Udo.”
“Old and useless,” Chlodis said, stepping towards him. She held the knife low at her side. “Go. Keep Markel away, while I finish with Moara.”
Gecerix was aware of the spear in his hands. One cast and he could stop this madwoman, but the enormity of the deed froze his blood. “You’ve been bewitched,” he said, “tempted. We’ve all suffered much, these past few days.”
Chlodis spat. “None so much as I. A chieftain’s wife, condemned to spend her twilight years in some frozen ruin, devoid of the comforts to which I’ve become accustomed. I’ll know good ale and furs again, I swear.”
“Slay him,” Eilu called out, it’s voice real this time and not a murmuring in the mind. “Take the throne for yourself. Lead, as you were born to.”
“Yes.” Chlodis’s eyes glazed. She readied the dagger for a disemboweling slash.
Gecerix’s paralysis broke. He reversed the spear and swung the shaft with all his strength, catching his mother on the temple. She tottered to one side. Her knees hit the floor and the dagger clattered among the flagstones.
Eilu roared cold laughter. “Well done! Perhaps I was wrong about you, Gecerix. Now pick up that knife and—”
Gecerix hurled the spear into Eilu’s chest. But the weapon sagged when it struck, as if cast into water. Eilu took two steps forward and the spear fell away from its body. “Not quite,” the demon chided. “I’m not fully in this world of yours—yet.”
Markel plunged through the doorway. He took in the carnage with a glance, his face paling when he beheld Eilu. To his warrior’s credit, he drew the short-hafted axe.
“Be wary,” Gecerix cried.
But Eilu was already gesturing at the shield-man with slender fingers. A web of ghostly, vein-line strands extruded from the tower walls to ensnare Markel’s limbs. He roared and swung his axe. The filaments parted, allowing him to wade forward, but more of the strands shot up from the floor and spun around him. He slowed.
Gecerix drew his knife just as Eilu’s misshapen head turned towards him. Pale threads encircled his arms, his legs. Charging forward felt like pushing through waist-deep water. And to what end? His dagger would pass through Eilu’s shadow-flesh just as the spear had. Unless …
At three paces from the demon Gecerix stopped. He dug the knife’s tip into his own forearm and opened a deep gash. “For you, Eilu!” he shouted. “The blood of a chieftain. I bestow it freely.”
For a moment Eilu paused, as if sensing a ruse. But caution bowed to monstrous compulsion, and the creature bent itself over Gecerix’s proffered arm. Freezing, unseen lips fastened against his skin. Gecerix’s teeth chattered as he felt the strength sucked from him. A glance behind showed Markel encased in a cocoon of the ghost-stuff, with more threads winding towards him like predatory snakes.
“Drink!” Gecerix said, shoving his arm tighter against the demon’s mouth. Eilu gulped in a frenzy, unable to restrain itself. Gecerix’s head whirled from loss of blood.
But … for every moment weakness threatened to overwhelm him, the demon was growing more tangible. Its lips became a solid pressure, not just the sensation of cold. Gecerix raised his knife. He reached under Eilu’s chin and pressed the iron blade along its carotids, feeling taut resistance.
“Now I have you.” He tore his wounded arm free.
Eilu mewled protest, but Gecerix drew the blade tighter. “One move, and I’ll spill what passes for your blood all over these stones.”
The shadow-face seemed to blanch. “What would you have me do?”
“First, release my friend from your snares.”
A gesture, and the threads encasing Markel fell away. The retainer slumped to the ground, but was back on his feet moments later. He goggled in disbelief to see Gecerix holding the demon at knife-point.
“Go cut Moara loose,” Gecerix told him, “and drag Arnulf in here.”
Markel hurried to obey.
“I fail to see what this will achieve,” Eilu said. “Your situation here is hopeless.”
“So it would seem.”
“My offer still stands. Consecrate but one more victim to me—”
Gecerix applied faint pressure with the knife. Something warm and black oozed out to touch his fingers. “You will do as I say,” he said through clenched teeth. “First, bring back that vision you showed me of the ancient vale.”
“Easy enough. But why?”
Gecerix ignored the question, waiting until Markel had reappeared with Arnulf in tow. “Now, demon. Do it.”
The doorway flickered with golden motes as before, and the warm scent of fruit trees came flooding into the tower. All the tribe, with the exception of Chlodis, who still lay unconscious, let out a gasp.
Gecerix leaned close to whisper where the demon’s ear should be. “You told me through sorcery much is possible. Know this: I would lead my people out there, to that vale in the past.”
“But—that’s just a vision I conjured to tempt you. It isn’t real.”
“Then make it real, demon.”
“Swear. Swear by all your dark gods you’ll try, and ply no tricks.” Gecerix pressed the knife again.
“By Yammu and Thasaidon, I swear!”
The doorway seemed to brighten, the sunlight spilling in growing more intense. Gecerix paused to bind his wound best he could, tearing a strip from his cloak and wrapping it around his arm, all the while ready to stab Eilu in the throat at the first sign of betrayal. He bade Arnulf drape his mother’s slack form over one shoulder.
“Now follow me,” he told his tribe, and walked towards the light with deliberate steps.
There was a roaring in his ears. He knew this way was madness, trusting to a demon and the vagaries of sorcery to deliver his people. But what choice did he have? Either winter or the Skrae would claim them, no matter where they went, and to try and live in the tower with Eilu’s malignant presence could only bring more death.
There is no other way. Please, Dagulf, tell me I’ve made the right decision.
The roaring sound reached a crescendo. He saw the branches of the pomegranate trees blur together, then grow more distinct. A fountain splashed somewhere. A bird sang.
He stepped from the tower.
© August, 2013 Garnett Elliott
Garnett Elliott has had previous stories published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, as well as numerous online and print journals dealing with the mystery and crime genre. He has also written briefly for Chaosium.