“My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye…”
– Robert Browning
We’d been riding all day, lost among these ancient trees; this forest where sun and moon no longer cast their light, and a gloom-born mist settled on the company like an unbidden curse.
We came to a fork in the leaf-strewn path where a choice had to be made.
Orrin Ironfist spoke first: “A wretched thing this is…”
“Aye,” Grimner Longknife moaned.
I’d been eyeing some movement in that thick fog just ahead of us, a figure seemed to be standing there like the knotted gnarl of a tree; else it was an illusion, a momentary madness of my mind. It moved again, and I saw a cloaked figure emerge from that blanketed cloudy haze. He held a walking staff of ash, and moved cautiously toward us.
“Ah, kindly gentlemen, what brings you to so desolate a haunt?”
“We’re seeking passage through these ungodly woods, old man,” said Ironfist, grumbling. “Which way forward?”
I kept my silence, watched this hoary cripple stand there leaning on his staff, waiting to see if he’d answer.
He laughed. “Well, that depends on where you’re going, now doesn’t it?”
Ironfist blurted angrily: “We’re going anyplace but this blasted world of darkness, you fool. Now tell me something useful before I find a use for this axe of mine.” He slapped flesh against metal, the tang of it resounding in the gloom.
I’d been patient up till then, but knew my men were not as patient as I so got down off my Andalusian, handed the reigns to Kradji and walked up to the stranger who was but a mere twenty paces from us.
He stood his ground, his hood hiding his face and eyes. I’ve never liked men I could not see, and this one seemed out of place in this dank wood.
I spoke softly: “Who are you, my friend? What brings you through these dark woods?”
He didn’t speak.
“Did you hear me old man? I was speaking to you, I will not repeat myself.”
He reached up and lifted that hood back off his head and I was able to see he was not only cripple but half-blind as well. He had a patch across his right eye, with a long scar that etched itself into his swarthy skin from fore-scalp to his left cheek. His lips were thin and smirking, his left eye gray and laughing. His mottled gray-black hair was intricately knotted and worn back in the fashion of the Varángōn mercenaries of Aeldir. But something told me this was no mercenary, he was too wizened and held himself a little too aloof for such as the assassin guilds. No this was no ordinary killer.
“Who are you old man?”
“Does it matter? I’m a man walking in a dark forest, alone, far from home. You could kill me or not. Would it serve your best interest to do so? Or would you listen to an old man’s tale for a drink of water?”
I turned to Kradji, motioned to the boy to throw me my leather flagon strapped to my gray mare. He pitched it to me, and I unlatched it and held it out to the stranger. As he reached out, I pulled it back, saying: “But first who are you? What is your name?”
At this he turned his head and spit in the dirt, then looked me straight in the eye and spoke: “My name is unimportant. What is important is I know who you are, Khandi Mayk, Son of Korvak.”
I could hear the murmuring in my crew, whispers neither of astonishment nor curses; rather mumblings of readiness and battle. I, too, felt a sudden wariness overcome my best judgment. I grabbed my knife and sidled swiftly past the stranger encompassing him in my grasp, holding the knife to his throat.
Again, he laughed. “Kill me if you will, Kahndi. But first you might want to hear me out.”
“Speak, you fool. I grow tired of your games.”
“I play no games. Fool though I may be. But a fool of another sort, and one who bares you not ill-will. So if you will I’ll tell you all, but first I want a sip of that water.”
I relaxed again, and bid Kradji to pick up the flagon where I’d dropped it. He did and handed it to the man.
The stranger took a long hard swallow, wiped his lips on his cloak’s sleeve and handed the pouch back to the boy. “Thank you, kind sir.”
Kradji nodded and returned to the horses.
“My name is Thorolf Graz. I hale as you suspect from the northern climes of the Inarii. Long years I’ve wandered the three kingdoms, and many things have I seen. Some good, some bad. I’ve been known by many names, and many faces. Some say I’m a warrior, others a wizard steeped in the old ways; others still know me as the Necromancer – the one who speaks to the dead. But I am none of those things, and what I am matters not in the least. It’s what I know that matters. And I know one thing, Kahndi Mayk, Son of Korvak, you have a destiny to fulfill.”
I’d had enough of this and grabbed the old fool tight to me: “Why shouldn’t I just gut you, old fool? What are you on about? Only fools and the mad talk this way. Speak plain or I’ll kill you where you stand.”
“Fair enough,” he cackled. “I’ve something to give you.”
He reached into his cloak. I held the knife point to his bare neck and pushed it in a nib to bleed the skin just a little to get his attention.
“Don’t do something stupid, old fool.”
He pulled his hand back out and held up a metal object carved in inlaid patterns that I could not decipher, a strange script of magick or curses for all I could tell.
“What’s this?” I hissed.
He held it up by what seemed to be a chain of sorts, and allowed the object to spin in the darkness. As it spun it seemed to come alive, an inner light filtering out of the tiny apertures that dotted the surface forming what appeared to be a scarlet hued dragon against a blue the color of midnight.
“This, my friend, is the Seal of Drakmir, and it belongs to you.”
The glint of fire from some other realm, a darkened sense of demons and madness lay in that object, so full of life as that worm turned and twisted among its scarlet armored scales. But just as fast as it had emerged it sparked out in a thousand particles of light and was gone, and with it the fiend himself; the messenger from hell, that necromancer, if so he be, was gone. A flash, smoke, and the flame of some broken world seemed to break over my band; my brothers and I. Then the darkness once more encompassed us in mist and gloom.
I felt the cold fire against my chest like the breath of a Sorg beast from the Tegrin Mountains of the fart North. Instinctively I opened my leathers and reached down to touch that spot above my heart, and felt the the piercing bite of that black serpent; peering downward I saw its tail and head wriggling in the last vespers of that dark ritual spell that had placed it there: the rippling scales and scarlet eyes, the snort of eld-fyre bursting from its split tongued mouth. Then it, too, went dark and cold again, the metal of its prison gleaming with the last vestiges of its dark magicks.
I heard the murmurings of the band behind me, their steps and swords clashing as they moved forward seeking they knew not what in that gloomy world.
Findolf one of the new recruits, a young thief out of southern reaches of Burkiz spoke up: “Don’t like this a bit. Not what I signed up for. Shadows, ghosts, demons… necromancers. Don’t like it a bit.”
Orrin back slapped the man with his right fist: “Shut the freck up, Bull.”
The man stumbled back a bit, saying: “What you go and do that for? That hurt…”
Orrin cut him off: “I’ll do more than that if you don’t shut up. I’ll cut your tongue out.”
“Okay, okay… just saying; just saying I don’t like it a bit.”
“Say it to someone who cares! No one here does… so open your mouth again and see.” Orrin growled.
The man shut up.
The tension in the air was so thick you could’ve cut it with a knife. I knew we needed to move on, get out of this god forsaken place: and, soon. “Come on let’s move out. Take the left hand path we will; it’s the moon path way.”
Grimner, the quiet one, just whispered warily: “Aye, so it tis; so it tis!”
We gathered our wits and resumed our places on the horses moving out in intervals. Orrin at point, and I taking up the rear. We headed out hoping against hope we’d made the right choice. I cast a grim eye, a red leer backward into that sea of darkness from which we’d come like one who tempts fate and gods alike, seeking in that dead wood and unhallowed world a glimpse of that dark traveler who’d infested my life with yet another broken oath and unhinged pledge.
Nothing was there but the emptiness of things.
So I moved on, with the others, leftward into the gloom.
After a while the cold fire against my chest seemed to infect my mind as well. I began having visions of I know not what; strange battles, unseen foe, the clash of sword against sword, the cries of the fallen and dying… the terror of war and blood and death. I saw old friends mired in slime, their heads burst asunder from their bodies, eyes like terrible fish from the fathomed deeps of the rust-laden Bay of Gorjik. The wars, the endless wars… the never-ending bloody mire of stench laden swamps and festering flesh unconsumed. Distempered carrion, the wailing of the banshees, the darkening brotherhood of bone that gathered in the aftermath: corpse-eaters, flesh-mongers, bone-crushers – a cursed lot whose half-life served the gods of pain and chaos. Horned servitors of the bestial undergloom, red-eyed and grunge-sotted animals, saliva belchers whose skank breath could kill, but whose teeth like steel cables could rip and tear a man’s bones to shreds before his sword hit the ground. Visions of some alter-life, some past past reckoning… memories I’d long buried under so much ale and whiskey I’d thought they’d never see the light a day again.
The band of men around me was somber and quiet. We moved like the dead, silently. The bent trees around us were as lifeless as we, and the silence deafening; for no thing living lived here in this eternal night. Not being a religious man I feared no unnatural creature dead or alive; only the clash of men in combat, the thunderous roar of warriors biting blades into foe. But the eeriness of this dead zone left me exhausted and weary, as if something black and malevolent were weighing down on us like something out of the the elder lays. It was a presence felt rather than seen, a fear without an object; a nasty thing of madness eating at our minds like the unleashed revenants of the ancient slain. We traveled like this hour on hour till at last we saw a lightening of the gloom in the far distance, a glimmer of day against the foulness of this evil hollow.