They were expected. The two lads had given the Halfi warning enough for some hasty preparation. A line of eight young strong men armed with swords were strung out across the path into the village, but to back them up only another ten or so old gaffers carrying pig sticks. Angren was true to his word. He did not stop to wonder at the inadequate defence their enemy had thrown together or spare a thought to pity them. He led the attack like a berserker and their opponents’ line disintegrated in the mad rush. It was a massacre. The Halfi did not seem to know how to use the arms they wielded. None of them were a match for ‘Berta with an iron bar and Angren’s sword slid through their guard as quick and deadly as a snake. Only the pig stick men caused the Partians any difficulty, killing two men and injuring several more before Garaid, Scortha and a few others hacked them into submission using the swords taken from the hands of those already fallen. The three Halfi still standing threw down their sticks and knelt on the ground before them.
Garaid went to find Angren and greeted him with a big grin on his face.
“Well that wasn’t so bad was it?“
“No, not too bad at all. But I didn’t expect it would be: most of the men have gone somewhere else – this lot weren’t much more than a bunch of lads.”
Garaid nodded agreement. “The oldies gave us some trouble, though. We managed to capture three…” He gestured towards the prisoners but at that moment there was a scream. The look of horror and anger on his face said it all. Angren turned. One of the old men was writhing on the floor with a pig stick in his guts and another was struggling to get free of the two men holding him ready for the same treatment. Scortha was readying a second pig stick. Angren didn’t hesitate. He barged past Garaid and hurtled up behind Scortha, flooring him in one quick movement.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, you bastard,” he roared. Scortha rolled over in the dust and lay on his back too winded for the moment to speak. “Well? Hadn’t they yielded?”
Scortha sat up and spat. “Just tidying up,” he said, “I thought it’d be a good idea. We don’t want enemies at our backs.”
“What are you going to do next: kill everyone in the village? The women, the children?”
“Well, they would.”
Angren turned away, his face dark with anger. Garaid decided to step in. “Much more of this, Scortha,” he said “And I’ll start to wonder which side you’re actually on.”
Scortha’s look was scornful. “You’re a pair of nancies,” he told them, “This is war you know. Bad things have to happen.”
That was too much for Angren.
“Now look you, Scortha is it? You need to have a bit of a think about things. It’s the Halfi supposed to be the murdering bastards round here, not us. Just now we don’t have time for a discussion but when we get somewhere safe, me and you are going to have a little talk, alright? About what is right and what is not. Till then you just watch yourself or you’ll find bad things happening to you. And that’s a promise. Now let’s get on with searching this village shall we.”
Angren had the other two prisoners bound and left a couple of men to guard them but the rest of the Partians began the search. The first thing they verified was that the settlement was mostly deserted. Some women and children were found in one of the huts. The two young lads who had given them away were there, standing in front of the others, bravely brandishing knives. There was fear in every face. Angren wondered whether they had seen Scortha killing the old man. He stepped up, laid down his sword and raised his hands palm outwards.
“Take it easy. There’ll be no more killing. We just need food.”
He was not sure that they understood. He mimed putting food into his mouth.
An old woman moved forwards. She spoke in an accent strange to him but the words were common Partian as spoken throughout much of Asteranor.
“You are bad men,” she said simply, “We do not trust you. We will not help.”
The memory of Bibron’s sailor clutching at his guts as they spewed out of his belly filled his mind.
“Bad men? We are bad men? Do you not know what your men did to mine? They have murdered and mutilated more than twenty innocent men already. And we are bad men?”
She was not concerned. “That is men’s work. Men are all the same. We will not help you. There is food, you find it, go away.”
There was no point in arguing. Angren was truly stung by the accusation. The women had witnessed Scortha’s crime and there was no hope of changing their minds. It was a pity: they could have done with some help. How much time, he wondered, did they have left?
“Right, let’s get on with it. Bibron watch this lot. Garra, take ten and search these lower huts – weapons, food, nothing else. Scortha, you come with me.”
He made for the large building in the centre of the settlement. He had thought, when he first saw it that it must be the moot house for the village but as they drew close he realised that it was actually some sort of temple. What made that obvious were the ten priestesses standing guard at the entrance. They were all dressed in long but scant turquoise robes, which would have made for a pleasing outlook but for the fact that each of them screamed unintelligible imprecations at Angren and his men as they tried to gain entrance. Angren realised that the women were of various ages, the youngest surely less than twelve and the oldest at least seventy, each wielding a nasty looking curved knife clearly designed for blood-letting. Angren contemplated without relish the possibility that they would have to battle their way past. Scortha no doubt would be highly delighted. Luckily the defiance put up by these fine ladies was confined to verbal abuse and they fell back inside as Angren drew his sword. Angren and his crew followed.
It was a peculiar place. The hall was not impressive. Wooden walls, low roof, the only decorations were pig’s heads, a couple of ceremonial swords and some rude homespun hangings. There was an altar, as expected, and on it several bowls and more of those knives the priestesses used laid ready beside them. But behind the altar was an empty stone chair. Angren surveyed the chair, greatly intrigued. It was certainly an item of greater quality than anything else in the temple, cleverly carved from a single block of dense black stone, of a scale and weight far beyond sense in such a small wooden hall. He wondered whether it might have been liberated from the ruins. A remarkable artefact, but even this was not what he found most bizarre. Another sight captured his eye.
Arranged on a raised dais beyond the altar and throne were five ancients, grey in the face, their skin dry and the flesh beneath it wasted. Angren thought them quite dead and he presumed that perhaps his attack on the village had disturbed some element of a funeral rite. But then one of the old men moved an arm slightly. Angren was fairly hardened when it came to death and blood but that movement had his heart thumping and his skin crawling. And he wasn’t the only one.
“He did move, didn’t he?” said one of the others, with a noticeable shake in his voice.
Scortha laughed. “Make you jump did he, Kris?“
“Made you jump too, I saw you.”
“Suppose I did. What do you reckon, Angren, they drugged up somehow?”
Angren had not a clue. “You know what, I don’t know and I don’t care. We’re running out of time. Grab those swords over there and the knives on the altar and let’s get out of here.”
Scortha laughed again but made for the altar. As he laid hands upon two of the ceremonial daggers the Priestesses screamed at him. Two of them even made to attack but were cowed when Scortha pointed at the knife in his hand and made a disgusting gesture with it towards a part of their anatomies. At this the oldest of the priestesses stepped forward and spoke something vile in a language they did not know.
“I think you’ve just been cursed, Sco,” said Kris, obviously amused by the notion. Scortha seemed less amused but wouldn’t admit it.
“Think I give a fuck? Screw them.” And just to emphasise the point he hawked up a mighty gob of phlegm and spat on the altar.
Angren shook his head. “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?” Scortha leered at him. Angren was somehow glad Scortha was the target rather than anyone else. “Come on,” he said, “Let’s go before they curse the lot of us.”
But he cursed himself as they came out of the temple: the sound of shouting and screaming and the clash of swords greeted them. The main part of the Halfi had returned. The search had taken too long and now they had another battle on their hands.
“Nothing for it, lads,” he yelled, “let’s get stuck in.” And he ran back towards the edge of the village and the clatter of skirmish presuming that the others were following.
What they found was a fifty strong enemy besieging Bibron and the rest of the Partians holed up in the space between two of the huts. Angren approved: the position gave them only two fronts to defend rather than four. Angren and the ten with him piled into the smallest group of the Halfi and the suddenness of the move gave them a brief advantage. More Halfi came but Angren managed to cut his way through to Bibron and the others.
It was a rolling dispute. With the sheer weight of the Halfi attack pushing them back, they struggled to keep their position. Impetuously some of the Halfi ran in amongst them, at great disadvantage, and Angren gained two more swords. Seeing this, whoever marshalled the Halfi was quick to change his tactics. So single minded was he that he ordered up archers to set flaming arrows in their own homes. The wood and thatch went up faster than a bonfire. The sudden smoke and heat forced the fugitives out onto flying spears and in the fury of the moment Angren lost ten men. He could see nothing for it but to attack once more and led the valiant remainder of his force hard against the enemy line. The surprise of the move gained them ground but did not materially change anything.
Many blows were struck, yards were gained and lost, but Angren's party took few lives. The Halfi had no reason to fight so close as time and the weight of numbers was with them. The struggle became nauseatingly futile: whenever one of the Halfi grew tired, or suffered a minor injury, he would retire to lounge on the edge of the fight while a fresher man took his place. It was much like torture. Every five minutes one of Angren's men would receive one blow too many and crumple to the earth.
Fewer than fifteen now they were being forced back toward the compound. So confident was the Halfi commander that unexpectedly he brought a temporary halt to the proceedings, causing his men to withdraw to a safe distance. The Partians paused, wondering what would happen next and soon found out. In their leisure the Halfi had found the time to put on a show for them.
A struggling man was brought forward. His arms were bound behind his back, his legs were hobbled, there was a sack over his head. Angren could not remember having seen anyone captured during the fight and wondered who it might be. Three of the priestesses from the temple stepped out of the crowd of Halfi and marched up to face the prisoner. The oldest priestess took the lead. Gripped in two hands and held high above her head she brandished one of the curved daggers. Behind her the youngest of them held an empty copper bowl, while the third carried a glass phial filled with a dark amber liquid that seemed to soak-up the bright sunlight.
Two strong men, grasping one arm each of their unfortunate victim, made him stand erect and one of them pulled the sack from his head. It was Scortha. On seeing the dagger, and the bowl and the old priestess who had cursed him, his face crumpled in terror and blind panic.
“No, no, no,” he screamed, writhing in much the same way as the man he had skewered.
Angren considered an attack but the Halfi commander anticipated some response and ten archers stepped forward, aiming their arrows at the most warrior like of the Partians still standing, Angren included.
The priestess addressed Angren directly. Her voice was clear, her words carefully pronounced.
“He defiled the temple. This is punishment.”
Scortha’s shirt was ripped down to reveal his brawny chest and shoulders. The tendons and muscles strained and twitched as he fought in vain to free himself.
“Don’t let them!” he screamed, “Help me!” But it was all too late. A third strong man came to bend back Scortha’s head. The chief priestess reached up and with the point of her dagger nicked a vein in his neck. Blood spurted out, splashing the priestess’ robes before the young one came forward with the bowl to catch and keep whatever she could. Scortha’s life was flowing out of him but that was not their aim and they were not done with that. The man holding back Scortha’s head released it slightly and tried to force open his mouth. Scortha with the strength left to him clamped shut his jaw as tight as he could. The man pulled a knife and cut through Scortha’s cheek, pushing the blade between his teeth to prise them apart. Scortha’s resistance was over. His body slumped as though he had fainted.
Quickly now the old woman took the phial from her acolyte, removed the stopper and poured the dark fluid down Scortha’s throat.
The Partians watched this scene in complete horror. None of them knew what had just happened nor what the bleeding and the phial of liquid signified but not a few of them grasped around at the edges of the Tale of the Halfi, as told by Bibron, and they knew there must be a connection.
The show was over. They laid Scortha, still alive for now, on a stretcher with his neck turned so that the girl could continue to catch any blood that flowed from the vein, and they carried him away back up to the temple he had dishonoured.
Next is Demonography (c)
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
21/02/2012 wkj fantasy