Season 3, Episode 4: Fear – Part 2
Written by Tof Eklund
Read by Tawn Krakowski
Women dressed in deep purplish black bustled about the hastily raised earthworks. It was easy to tell who would normally have been wearing Mothers’ green by their haste: the true Crones in this desperate gathering moved more slowly and deliberately. Maiden Agata, member of the Council, stood bewildered among them in borrowed Crone’s robes. Dressing all of Maragoya’s final defenders in black had been her idea. A contingent of Crones and their dreadful curses had turned the High King back once, before he had many followers.
She’d thought that giving a black robe to every sister who could down a man with a curse might strike fear into the High King’s army. Now, that idea seemed like shallow mummery, a naïve child’s foolery. The sacred forest was burning, the wisdom marsh was dead and smoldering, and their enemy was advancing implacably over ground that had transformed itself before her eyes from a smooth and well-worn road to the most inhospitable stretch of land she could imagine. They would care nothing for her simple ruse.
Panic rose in her throat, choking her, and her eyes began to water.
“There is still time, my child,” a familiar baritone rumbled from behind her, scratchy like a heavy wool blanket, and just as reassuring. “You could take shelter with the other Maidens.”
Agata turned to face Crone Pollna, the informal head of the Council. Pollna held the forced seat, a place on the Council chosen by the Crones from among their own number, but unlike the democratically-elected Mother’s seat, it was not campaigned for and could not be refused. The Order had no Queen, Chamberlain, or Vizier, but when Pollna spoke, everyone listened.
“No, Crone Pollna,” Agata said, “the entire Council should be here. Everyone should be here.”
“Hmm,” Pollna fixed Agata with a severe look, but there was a hint of a smile about her midnight lips. “You sure? You know the saying.”
“Cursing is a Crone’s art,” Agata said, “but you know that I can set a curse as well as anyone.”
“Indeed,” Pollna said. “That’s why Maidens are not taught greater hexes. You should not have to bear that knowledge.”
In her mind’s eye, Agata saw the man she had killed, the infiltrator that had somehow navigated the wisdom marsh, his narrow blade smeared with the blood of the three Sisters he’d killed already. Instinctively, she’d taken the throbbing pressure and silent screaming in her head and crammed it behind his eyes. His blank mask of a face melted into terror as the blood came pouring out of his nostrils, ears, and eyes. Pollna had found her shivering and retching next to the body and talked her through it.
Looking at the wrinkles that lined Pollna’s kohl-dark skin, Agata had an impression that each one represented a hard choice, a moral burden accepted with judicious calm.
“Are you afraid?” she asked.
“Of course I am,” Pollna said. “To be fearless is to be crazy, reckless, harmful to the world around you.”
“How do you do it?”
“You do not know the story of Vakasa’s choice.”
It was a statement of fact, not a question, but Agata shook her head in reply anyway.
“That tale is not for everyone,” Pollna said, “but I think it is time you heard it. When this is over, I will tell you, if I can.”
“Don’t say ‘if.’ You’re not going to die.”
“We all die, child,” Pollna paused, and in that moment a series of loud squawks, the mating cry of the marsh heron, rang out.
“That’s the signal,” Agata gasped.
“Yes,” Pollna said. “Whatever happens, stay close by me, but not too close. I want you always within my sight but never within arm’s reach.”
All around them, Sisters dashed to their places behind mounded earth and sharpened stakes. Crones stretched, Mothers took deep breaths, and the handful of black-clad Maidens fidgeted.
Some of the Sisters began chanting, others clutched small, sharp knives or scourges intended to mortify their own flesh, and many simply stared out at the long, straight stretch of rough before them. Not far from Agata, Crone Lachdanna slumped even deeper into the hunch of her back and started humming the tune of a bawdy drinking song.
The High King’s cavalry emerged out of the smoke and curdled haze, their long lances bearing pennants, the fallen flags of nations they’d brought to kneel at his feet. Pollna held up an open palm. The horsemen advanced, lowered their lances, charged. For moments that stretched out like hours, Agata waited. Finally, Pollna brought her open palm down on her thigh with a loud clap. Upon that signal, every Sister who was able raised her foot brought it down hard, toe first.
Agata bit back a scream as she smashed her big toe into a rock. She heard and felt the pop as the joint dislocated, but she kept her focus on that line of cavalry. The entire first wave collapsed as their horses tripped, sending men in gleaming armor tumbling forward, only to be crushed and trampled as the second rank of lancers plowed into them. When she’d been drilling for this, it had sounded funny, like children roughhousing, tumbling over each other. Now, as she heard the crunch of bones breaking and the meaty thud of bodies being pulverized, and above that the screams of human agony and terrified whinnying of the horses, she felt her stomach clench and her throat tighten.
Only a few scattered horsemen remained in the saddle. Crone Lachdanna near her stopped humming, and several of the soldiers collapsed to the ground, as sudden as if their bones had turned to water. A few more curses were cast, and that was the end of the High King’s cavalry.
“We have been fortunate!” Pollna called out over the din. “They have lost most of their horses to sharp stones and nettle’s sting. This only adds to the ranks of their footmen, so conserve your strength!”
Even as she spoke, a shadow was taking shape, emerging from the waste in a confluence of right angles and a thicket of sharp spears. The great phalanx lowered their longspears, rank upon rank, their gleaming tips all pointed at the Sisters, a wall of eviscerating points four, five layers deep in a flying wedge formation that seemed to fill all the available space. With a muscular bellow they charged as one. Pollna raised her hand and, for what felt like forever, Agata waited, her controlled deep breathing fighting against the desperate pounding of her heart.
Crone Pollna brought her hand down with another sharp smack and the foot-tangling curse was repeated. Agata grunted as her big toe popped back into place, and watched with grim satisfaction as her target tripped and fell, his spear, more than twice his own height, flipping around and striking his fellows. That tight formation was almost as vulnerable to disruption as the cavalry charge had been. The center of the phalanx collapsed and the wings succumbed to a second massed hex. Some of the spearmen rose and drew short swords, but they were quickly cut down.
Another phalanx loomed like a demonic pincushion, and Agata flexed her aching foot. They did not charge, however, but instead dropped their longspears and drew swords before advancing more cautiously and deliberately.
“Hmph,” grunted Crone Lachdanna, “Hoped it would take him longer to figure it out.”
Pollna raised a hand with two fingers extended and whistled. Every eye turned to her. She brought it down with a corkscrew motion. That was the signal for the hundred stings. Minor hexes flew, stings and slaps, nothing more. Agata pinched her forearms, a nearby Mother bit her knuckles, and Pollna merely shook the dust off her feet.
At first the advancing men laughed and called out insults, but the cumulative effect of being cursed by many is a terrible thing, and it wasn’t long before the first one fell. To his fellow soldiers it seemed as if he suddenly fainted, but with the Sight, Agata could see a dozen curses overlapping his body, and where they intersected, the rhythm of the man’s life was disrupted, something as essential as the flow of blood was stopped, sectioned off and, separated from its own completeness, it suffocated.
As more soldiers dropped, a few charged the earthworks and were cut down by more severe curses. Others fell over themselves trying to advance, but not even one attempted to retreat.
Why don’t they retreat? Agata wondered, gazing in horror at a soldier who had almost reached the ramparts before collapsing from a curse-borne wound to the neck. Agata looked over at Mother Zaga who was staunching the cut she’d made to her own throat.
Then a whooping battle cry went up from the High King’s legions as scores of light infantry in irregular formations leapt into the killing ground. Pollna raised a closed fist and brought it down into her open palm once, twice, thrice. This time, their enemy was advancing neither cautiously nor in tight formations that could be turned against themselves. It would be one curse to one soldier from here on.
Agata would remember that pitched melee only in flashes. Casting her fear of failure into a man, and realizing she’d stopped his heart. Zaga cursing an entire detachment of soldiers in short order, men falling like flies with each flick of her knife. A javelin striking a Sister in the shoulder and spinning her around, Pollna making a sweeping gesture and a knot of men in heavy armor getting bowled away. Above all, the screams of the injured and dying.
Lachdanna turned suddenly, an arrow’s fletching sticking out of the middle of her forehead. Agata just gaped as the crone’s mouth worked uselessly. A trickle of blood seeped from the wound and Lachdanna toppled over, dead.
“Archers!” the cry went up.
“Scouts said—” someone began.
“Just a few,” said someone else.
“Hiding behind their own men!” a woman screamed.
“Hit the archers!” Pollna’s voice cut through the rising panic “Break the bows! Now!”
Agata saw one of them nock an arrow. There weren’t many, maybe a dozen, but they were close, having advanced with their fellow soldiers for cover, and held their fire until now. She raked her arms with her fingernails, just trying to get one of the archers to drop his bow. The man’s arms shredded into bloody slices.
Someone snapped a twig in their hands and a fallen shortbow cracked in two. Fresh soldiers were crossing the battlefield, a reserve held for just this moment. Agata took a step back, tripped over something, and fell. It was Zaga, her robes sticky with her own blood, and her eyes staring emptily. When had she collapsed? Hadn’t anyone noticed? Agata checked: no pulse. She closed the Mother’s eyelids.
“No,” a voice croaked from nearby.
Agata looked up but couldn’t see anything.
Someone was sobbing.
Agata stood. There, charging across the battlefield on a snow-white warhorse with shining barding, was the High King, leading a fresh wave of soldiers. Invisible to those without the Sight, a strange energy flowed around him, like a light beyond light, phantom fire. Deadly curses were being flung at him from across the line to no avail. His back should have been broken, his head caved in, his blood watering the ground, and being cursed by so many should have choked any life remaining out of him, but the only casualties were on the line, where several Sisters dropped, unconscious or dead, of their exertions.
With all the desperate attention focused on the High King, his soldiers pushed forward, the pounding hail of hexes insufficient to hold back their numbers. This, Agata realized as the battlefield swelled with seemingly endless numbers, was actually the bulk of the army. The cavalry, the phalanxes, even the archers had been mere tests of their defenses. She looked to Pollna for guidance, but the Crone was standing still with her eyes closed, her lips moving in a chant or mantra Agata could not hear.
“Hold them back!” a voice screamed. Agata was surprised to find that it was her voice. “Keep them from the ramparts!”
As if waking from a dream, Mothers and Crones all up and down the line turned their attention back to the armed men who were now nearly to the earthworks. It was too late. Many of their assailants fell, but more streamed over them with fanatical fervor, and the tide of angry flesh crashed against the ramparts. Spears flashed up, striking her Sisters, and lightly armored soldiers clambered up the low wall. Some of the women turned and fled, others fought desperately before being hacked down, and others were too exhausted or overwhelmed to do either.
Agata felt as much as saw Pollna’s eyes open, and everyone heard the distant rumble, felt it underneath their feet as it overtook them. The earthworks and the ground in front of it erupted into a frenzied growth of vines. Grapevines; they tangled and throttled the soldiers, pushing them back as they grew into a colossal tangled thicket. The vines fruited in a confusion of pale greenish-white globes and deep purpling crimson; then the fruit burst, the leaves began to turn brown, and the preternatural growth ground to a halt as the vines died, leaving behind a wall of dead vegetable matter with more than a few bodies entombed within. Agata found herself crying, though she couldn’t have said why.
A scarcely human screech of rage echoed over the battlefield, and the High King came crashing through the desiccated vines, his charger’s hooves churning the dry leaves, his bright sword flickering like heat lightning in front of him, death incarnate. A few of the Order’s scattered defenders cast curses, and Agata saw them fail against the High King’s bright ghost fires, consuming magics directed against man and steed alike.
He leapt from his horse onto the ramparts, rolling as he landed and slicing though those in his way as he made a beeline for Pollna. Agata’s nerve failed her and she froze as he approached. Mortal terror saved her life as he ignored her completely. Paralyzed beyond ability to look away, she saw the gold highlights on his mirror-bright breastplate, smelled a sudden whiff of amber and woodsmoke. She was stricken by the sharp jut of his chin, the ice in his eyes, the wild grin that stretched his lips.
Crone Pollna tore at her robes as the High King approached. They ripped asunder and she faced him naked and unarmed. He laughed, then plunged his sword into her heart.
Time slowed as Agata saw the point of his sword pierce that midnight skin, saw the blood well up, gush out as he drove the blade home. Pollna’s face twisted in agony, then relaxed into what looked for the barest of moments like relief before glazing over as death took her. Blood gushed out over the top of the High King’s breastplate and ran out the bottom. They collapsed together, their blood mingling in an expanding pool of crimson.
The High King’s aura burned messily for a moment, clear fire replaced with inflamed red and sooty dark flame, then went out. Agata caught another whiff of amber and woodsmoke, and something unpleasant, like offal.
The next thing Agata remembered was crying into Bantaur’s sleeve as he held her. She would later find out that the High King’s armies fell into disarray after his death, and were easily routed despite their numbers. Examination of the High King’s corpse would confirm what she already knew: that under his burnished armor, his heart had been pierced right through with a wound that matched the one in Pollna’s body.
That night she dreamed that a nut-brown woman dressed in an archaic manner showed her a hidden spring. The woman said only, “It is your choice.” In the dream, Agata knelt and drank, but it was some time before she dared to seek out that spring in waking life.
© 2014 Copyright Tof Eklund
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