Season 3, Episode 3: Fear – Part 1
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
Agata stretched out on the thoroughly-rumpled down mattress, then rolled onto her side to meet the gaze of her lover.
“Well,” she said, “now you can brag that you’ve stuffed a Councilwoman’s cunny.”
Bantaur winced. “I wish you wouldn’t bring that up.”
“Why?” She threw her leg over his, then stopped for a moment to admire the contrast. His skin was the deep, persistent brown of sepia ink, while hers was caramel, and the girth of his thigh was twice that of hers. “Surely you’re not intimidated by powerful women.”
He was a talented smith, an artisan, an ironwright who could work strong alloys almost as fine as a goldsmith’s filigree. It was his craft that she’d first been drawn to, then the craftsman. Agata watched his broad chest flex as he drew in a deep breath and blew it out again in a long sigh, the smooth strength in that motion reminding her of the powerful piston bellows in his forge.
“Agata, you hold the Maidens’ seat.”
“And I’ve held my seat for two years. What’s your point?”
“You’re still the youngest Maiden in the order, that’s what.”
“Are you calling me precocious?” she gave him a sly smile, thinking about the way he worked those bellows, his callused hands gripping the feather-lined oak plungers. “Don’t punish me for passing my trials early.”
“You’re too young, that’s the problem.”
He was serious, Goddess blight it.
“I thought we were done talking about that. My petition for early majority was granted: I am an adult, Bantaur.”
“You’re still half my age.”
“I’m also half your weight, and that didn’t cause us any trouble last night.”
He ran a hand over his clean-shaven head, and it glistened like well-oiled leather. She knew that he was balding already, and found that charming.
“Did you know,” Agata said, “that there are places where women can get married as young as thirteen? I’m an old hen compared to them.”
“Stop teasing me,” he replied.
“Then what? Do you want to ask my ma for her blessing? Again?”
“It’s traditional,” he said, “when a Maiden takes her first lover, for her mother to approve the match.”
Agata sighed and scooted in close enough to put her arms around the large man. “You and I did everything right,” she said. “We waited, we followed law and tradition, and it’s all for nothing. The High King’s army is closing in, and let me tell you something: no-one knows how to stop him. Everything we’ve tried has failed. I think even Crone Pollna’s frightened. In a fortnight, there might not be anything left to wait for.”
Goddess, don’t forsake me now, she thought, as she heard her voice start to quaver. This was supposed to be my night, my time to be a normal young woman.
Like the answer to a prayer, strong arms pulled her in close.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid, for you, and for myself. I keep thinking that you should be with your friends, or family, or a boy your age, not wasting time with me.”
“You’re the one that I want,” Agata replied. She kissed him. “And believe me, Bantaur, I want.”
“Again? Aggie, you are going to wear me out.”
He pulled her even closer and kissed her back. She bit his earlobe and whispered, “Work me like a bellows, ironwright.”
The High King’s army swept through the last of Maragoya’s allies like a wildfire through dead, dry brush. It then paused at the narrow entry to the peninsula, looming like a great cat debating how to flush cornered prey.
To the west, an ancient forest loomed, dense and gloomy. Along the peninsula’s east side, there was a great and trackless marsh. Between the two, where the King’s generals had expected to find a wide and well-maintained trade route, snaked a narrow strip of rough land, rocky and uneven, full of briars and stinging plants.
Scouts were sent into the forest, but they reported that it was impassible on foot, let alone mounted. Attempts to clear a path met with a succession of bone-shattering and flesh-rending mishaps as saws snapped and axe heads flew free of their hafts. Furious, the High King ordered the forest burned, and doused the nearest trees with every drop of oil that could be gathered. The fire caught, and spread, and the towering oaks burned, though they did not burn down to ash. They lit the night like colossal torches, and by day their smoke darkened the sky, but still they were not consumed.
The High King sent his scouts into the swamp, but they did not return. He sent two of his greatest allies, Tarnyarl the Hunter and Ocavitus the Silent, after them, and they too, were lost. In a rage, he ordered his corps of engineers to drain the swamp, and sent many soldiers to guard them, but while they were working, bubbles of toxic swamp gas rose and killed many of them. Thereafter, the swamp waters acquired an iridescent tinge and all the life that teemed in them began to rot and die. The stench was unbearable and the rot spread, warping bows, ruining their strings, and spoiling much of the army’s food stores.
Only the center path, narrow, scrubby, and perfect for ambushes, remained. One of the High King’s generals, Quivinus the Horse Lord, refused to lead his chargers into the rough, and the High King had him drawn and quartered by his own prized beasts.
When they advanced, men turned their ankles on stones and developed excruciating open sores from the sting of plants whose caustic touch burned like hot irons. For the horses, it was much worse. Sharp stones split their hooves, and loose ones rolled out from beneath them, causing them to trip and fall. Nearly half of the High King’s warhorses were rendered lame in this manner, and were put down in order to avoid slowing the army’s march. The plants, which the soldiers came to call “curse nettles,” were even worse, as they seemed to goad the horses into panicked frenzies where they kicked, stomped, and bit their handlers, plowed men over steep embankments into the toxic swamp, or even stampeded directly into the burning forest.
More than nine of every ten trained warhorses died or was lost on that march, and this was a loss that should have broken the morale of even the most veteran unit. Instead, when the High King’s remaining scouts reported back that they had seen the temple of the witches, the news was met with cheers of red glee and oaths about what would be done to the abominations before they were allowed to die.
© 2014 Copyright Tof Eklund
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