It was a grim decision. Angren had never surrendered a fight he could not run away from, but the bleeding of Scortha had knocked the stuffing out of most of those still alive. Perhaps the incident should have made them even more desperate to escape but they all could see there was no hope of breaking free. There seemed little point in continuing the agony. He looked into the eyes of those nearest him. They each nodded, grim faced indeed. There was nothing for it. He stepped forwards to meet the Halfi and carefully lowered his sword to the ground.
There was a sudden babble of concern and confusion among those facing him. Every one of them was looking over Angren’s head. Turning to find out why he was struck dumb by what he saw and his words of surrender remained unsaid.
The ground shook with the tramp of colossal feet, trees swayed and toppled in the approach and it was the Halfi's turn to scream. As tall as a tree a grotesque figure, a man's body bearing the head of a lizard, stalked into the clearing, tongue lashing, arms reaching, talons grasping. A Halfi demon, if Angren only knew. The fight between the Halfi and their captives was forgotten as friend and foe alike were scattered by fear. Here was a chance not to be missed: he tried desperately to gather Mador's people together.
‘Berta and Sigrid were about to make a dash for it by themselves but they obeyed Angren's command, and Ruspa scooted up to join them. In the clearing some of the Halfi had picked up burning brands from the enflamed huts and tried to attack, thinking that flames would scare the creature. As far as Angren could see the strange beast had yet to harm anyone and it stood, seemingly unconcerned by this puny onslaught, as though undecided about its next move. The attackers, emboldened by the lack of response, came in close. The monster bellowed and then spat a ball of flame at them. The Halfi nearest burned, the rest ran or, foolishly, kneeled to pray. Those praying were next in line.
But still the beast made no move to chase, to pummel, to pulverize as it might have, but peered about myopically as though it had lost something. Soon all the Halfi in the area had been killed by clinging flame, or were running hysterically through the woods and, as far as Angren could tell, only the two women, Ruspa and himself remained, hiding behind an ancient wall.
The ground shook again as the beast took uncertain steps towards one of the few undamaged huts, and then again halted as though confused. Angren looked closely at the towering figure. It was naked, sallow skinned, lacking any trace of hair. The head and neck were scaly green and the eyes a wicked red. Angren could see each of these details in turn but a strange thing happened as his eyes moved from one to the other. Whatever he ceased to examine closely became oddly indistinct, out of focus and more. It was as if his concentration on each detail lent firmness to what otherwise would be wavering and blurred. It did not seem real, or was only real when Angren encouraged it to be so.
And then it collapsed. Not that it pitched forward and crashed to the floor, but rather it collapsed into itself, into nothing. Or was there something? Angren could see a figure of more regular proportions lying motionless on the charred ground.
Sigrid, ‘Berta and Angren walked warily towards it. They nearly bolted when the figure groaned and rolled over. They did not because they realized that what lay on the ground was merely a man, naked and barely conscious. Movement from within the hut beyond halted them but it was not the Halfi: Garaid emerged from the door, waving his arm in brief greeting, and he was followed by Bibron and Isolde, who was looking very shaky indeed. All of them converged on the erstwhile monster.
It was Seama.
They had a trouble-free if wearisome trek to where Seama had made his base. There were no Halfi to be seen and sadly no trace along the way of the three other survivors of the battle. Angren had to presume they had been recaptured and with Seama so exhausted he realized that any hope of rescuing them was past. Seama could barely walk and needed both Angren and Garaid to support him along the way. The weapon-master was shocked by his friend's condition and wanted an explanation.
He learned that Seama had been busy.
The wizard had been spilled from the Cottle with the rest of them and forced by the current onto the land. He was not greatly hurt. Wanting to see what was happening to everyone else he quickly climbed the nearby headland as the fog began to disperse. The Cottle had gone down already and a mast, like a finger pointed at the sky, was all that could be seen. He had to presume that others had also come ashore and so went looking. He found two of Bibron's men injured on the rocks below and recognized them as the near-identical twins Edro and Piedoro. It was easy to remember them: though reliable enough they plagued their crewmates with practical jokes and were never content unless they were bickering with each other. When Seama caught up with them there was no mood or time for either. Edro, the darker, stronger man, was attempting to climb the rocks and carry his unconscious brother, Piedoro, both at the same time, and this despite a long jagged gash embedded with splinters all along his left arm.
With Seama's help, Piedoro was brought to more comfortable ground and revived. The wizard was attending to Edro's splinters when they heard the hunt begin. His strategy to cope with that was simple: with a little magic and a lot of common sense they hid up until it was finished.
When the first morning had come he set out to explore, leaving the recovering twins to make a start at building a raft. Before evening he knew all about the compound and about the slaughter of the animals that had come ashore.
"You mean the horses?" Angren demanded. "Slaughtered?"
"Yes, the horses." Seama spoke quietly, but Angren shouted, furious and anguished:
"They survive the sea to be murdered by madmen! It's disgusting. Why’d they do it? Why?" His anger would have cut their throats, his anger was for his friend, for what they had done to him with their wanton violence. He felt guilty. This was the first time he had thought of the horses since the shipwreck. There had been little time to develop a relationship with Bayling but that did not make him feel any better about it; but what about Bellus and the Mule? Angren thought of Bellus as an old friend, what must she have been to Seama?
"They are bored with pig meat,” Seama told them, his voice flat, emotionless, “and consider horse-flesh something of a delicacy. I don't know which animals drowned and which were killed, but I know of no survivors. I didn't see Bellus but by the time I arrived there was already a pile of hide and bones; I couldn't get close enough to see properly."
Angren could think of nothing to say. Seama was holding himself in check and now was not the time to push him. Bibron too seemed to understand both Seama’s anguish and also his need to put it by for now.
“Did you see what they were building, Seama?”
Seama looked up, frowning. His thoughts had been somewhere else.
“Building? Oh, the stand, you mean. Yes they were preparing for a visit I think. There is a place less than a mile from the village, an open bowl of land. They had made a platform… there were tables and racks.”
“Yes Angren, by the look of it you were all to be questioned. In public. There was a throne too which I presumed was for their overlord, whoever that might be. The horse meat was most likely for a feast to greet him. He was on his way here earlier today, with a large company of men, but I managed to put him off.”
Seama explained that throughout the second day on the island he had used his skills to keep the twins hidden as they struggled with their task. So complete was his spell it was possible to continue their raft building heedless of the noise. But for some reason he could not fathom this simple work drained him and when the day was done he had found it difficult to sleep for a second night in succession. Earlier this morning, as the prisoners in the compound awaited their chance to escape, Seama once again drew upon his power to finish off the raft with binding spells. Despite the exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm him he left the twins on guard and set out upon a mission to free the captives.
His first job had been to raise a fire. Using sight he was soon aware of the procession from the north of the island. If these reinforcements had actually reached the village there would have been no possibility of escape at all. The obvious answer was an 'uncontrollable' forest fire to block their path. The Halfi were terrified: the fire charged after them as they ran away as though it had a mind of its own. Seama was an adept at harnessing the wind to his own advantage, but the effort cost him dearly, and that cost him time. It was after noon before he reached the open bowl. Here the majority of the villagers were making the final preparations for the day’s entertainments. Seama had begun to make his way around the clearing when he saw the two guards come running to bring news of the prisoner’s escape. Most of the men picked up their weapons and ran off quickly in the direction of the village. Try as he might Seama could not catch up with them. By the time he arrived the houses had already been fired. Where he had hoped to use a little magic and a lot of stealth, the Partians were already fighting a losing battle. Time was short and a demon from Halfi myth was all he could think of.
"Was it real, Mr. Wizard?" asked Bibron, "I don't fancy the idea of them things wandering around as they please."
"It was real to the Halfi, they're a religious folk, but really it was me. Or to be more precise, it was an illusion that used me as the base and reference point. What is more, it was unbelievably hard work."
"I've never seen you like this Seama," Angren said. He didn’t like it one bit: Seama was supposed to be invincible. "Are you ill? Can we do..."
"All I need is rest, Angren. I have been using the Power for three days solid without an hour of proper sleep. It was too much. When we get to the raft, Bibron, I expect you and your men to get us off this damned island and over to Gothery. I won't be able to help you."
"If you've saved my boys, Seama, then I owe you. We'll get us across."
There was little more to tell about Tumboll at this time. Seama took them to the raft and they put to sea immediately. This time there were no monsters to contend with, no fogs to obscure their way and, happily, a small natural breeze took them under its gentle wing, making the oars virtually redundant. As they sailed away from the island they were gladdened somehow to see the raging fire and the black smoke. It was some payment for the lives lost.
Though nothing could gladden Seama he was determined at least to prevent himself from grieving openly. Constant action had allowed him no time to think over the past few days but here on the cradling River he was in danger of surrendering to emotion. He could not allow it. There was work to do. Something about this whole affair was very wrong. This episode was no accident: they could not be the victims of chance. And if there was purpose to their capture he would dearly like to know what it was. He plunged his mind into working out reasons. He considered it one way, he considered it another. His thoughts, hampered by weariness, tumbled over themselves. When he realized he was getting nowhere he shifted his attention to memory exercises, essential regular work for any professional wizard, and found them easier to manage. He recited to himself the great list of True Names that filled the Books of Lore. He sought solace in repetition. Whatever happened he could not, would not allow his brain to idle.
He avoided conversation knowing that someone was bound to bring the talk round to… At one point he began to run through multiplication tables. He did not want to sleep and possibly dream, but it was inevitable. Eventually his head, full of irrelevancies, fell forward upon his chest and his eyes closed.
When he awoke he was vulnerable . Confused by sleep, he had no time to return to the mental disciplines that had sustained him, and without warning the tears began to flow. He cried silently but so grievously he thought the pain would never stop. His thoughts slid back to that wondrous day when Bellus was foaled. Great-hearted Bellus! She had been the mainstay of his love for twenty years, and now she was gone.
Wilf Kelleher Jones
A Song of Ages
That was the last chapter of part 1 of The Best of Men. Hope you enjoyed it.
Part 2 will be made available with the whole of Part 1 (including the missing chapter: Children of the Ruins) as a Kindle edition later this year. A second
volume comprising Parts 3 and 4 will follow within a few months of the first.
Well that’s the plan...
21/02/2012 wkj fantasy