The wood split clean in twain, splinters shooting off and landing on the ground nearby. The dirt was littered with sawdust as Gallow paced forward, collected the two pieces and threw them into the pile with the rest. He cleared his brow as the sound of someone shouting his name finally reached his ears.
He looked over his shoulder, about to tell whoever it was to shut-the-hell-up, when he saw Commander Akal approaching. Gallow snapped to attention – the Commander had arrived only yesterday from the East and the men were told to be on surest footing around him.
“2nd – a moment of your time.”
Gallow collected his clothing and followed the Commander. He barked at a nearby private to continue the chopping. As they walked, he wondered what in Sol had occurred to make Akal take interest in him. Things on the border with Makranar had been quiet all year and fall was hardly the time to expect scouts from the North. Had Akal heard about that dice game the other night? Gallow’s stomach did a flip.
“I’m told you know how to climb. That you’re the best climber in the detachment,” Akal said as he adjusted the gorget around his neck.
“Good. I’ll need you to pack your things and accompany me on a ride. We’ve been given special order from the Battalion at Fort Kyringe to send a fielding northeast along the Ridge. I don’t anticipate having to scale those crags, but I want the right man there if it comes to that.” “Understood, sir.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. When Gallow had first been stationed here, the geography of the land had been explicitly laid out: 10 Miles south, through light forest paths, one could pick up the North Road and ride to Masagar or some other civilized place. East stretched the forest, constantly patrolled to ensure no Ma-kaw made it through to pillage the northern villages of the Empire. Beyond the forest to the far East lay Fort Kyringe, Battalion headquarters for the shire. North there was only the Neeral Mountains – luminous blue things of unimaginable cold and ferocity. West was the Ridge.
The Mountains teetered off to as they ran west, forming a craggy spine what peaked and troughed. The ridge was full of caves and small paths, unseen dangers, unsure footholds, precariously balanced rocks. Patrols in the Ridge came back smaller than they left, if they came back at all. The geography of the land, and the placement of the outpost Gallow was at, meant that any Ma-kaw coming down the ridge met with a wooden rampart and 200 men-at-arms. Their only options was to come down the Neerals proper, and through the woods to the East which was a good deal more trouble.
Why anyone would want to send a fielding into the Ridge was beyond Gallow. All this passed through his mind as he collected his meager gear – a leather jerkin, his long sword and shield, a set of pinions and a long rope he had spent the cool summer nights weaving. He dropped a small hammer in his belt, and swapped boots with his bunk mate – the fur lining in Gallow’s had long since rotted out. He left a few silver pieces in the bottom of one boot, so his ‘mate would know he meant no harm in taking them.
In no time at all, Gallow was walking alongside the Commander’s horse, headed towards the Ridge Gate. As they moved through the paltry but ordered camp, others joined them. The expedition was no mere fielding as Akal had indicated: by the time they reached the gate, they were 40 strong – nearly a full Break. If you had told Gallow that by morning they would all be dead, he’d have told you it was bad humor.
Only 6 of the men were mounted – Akal and five others, each of these a Break captain. There was a mule behind these carrying rations and equipment. Gallow fell in line behind some spearmen and watched as the Ridge Gate was opened.
A wind blew through the camp, as though the gate had been holding back a tide of chill wind. Gannon stirred wrapping a heavy woolen scraf around exposed face and neck several times before shrugging his rope higher up on his shoulder. Akal took no notice of the chill, and set to pace.
Miles later, the sun was reaching its zenith. The trees that weren’t evergreen had long ago lost their leaves, and the breath of warmth the sunlight provided was welcome. Although little flurries would whip around them, no true snow covered the ground and as the men huffed up the path they were grateful. To their left and right, the rocks rose and fell, trees blistering around the path and low rocks. Occasionally Gallow would see a great evergreen rising above the rocks to the left, but on the right there was only the oft-sheer wall of the Ridge.
Akal was discussing something with one of the other mounted men. Gallow strained to hear against the wind. Just as he caught a bit of their talking, the spearman next to him grabbed his arm.
“Some fielding, ain’t it, Gallow?”
“Yean, good to see they drug you away from the mess for this.”
“Surprised to see me? They let us older men on these outings too, you know. Some folks value experience.”
“And you imagine Akal is one such man?”
“Quite the opposite – I think he brought me out here to die.”
The two chuckled but a shiver ran through Gallow, and not from the cold. He looked around the group again. If this fielding was so important, why had the 5 Partisans of the Detachment been left back at the outpost? Why did they bring Yean, the cook and a gaggle of privates with dented old training blades. Why did they bring Gallow, so inept with a long blade that they made him the wood-chopper?
“Well, if they brought you to die, you will be in good company. Did you see Orling and the others? They brought all five Break commanders.” Gallow pointed to the five mounted men, still conversing with Akal.
“Of course I saw. That’s why I know we’ll be fine. Those men wouldn’t put themselves in harms way without good reason.”
But they’d made careers putting others out there, Gallow thought. He shifted his hand nervously over his pommel then nearly laughed out loud. What kind of soldier so suspects his superior? And what kind of barmaid’s son expects he could do anything about it?
Akal was a trained Commander – Hell, he even bore a Sigil of Blood, an honor only bestowed on those that had survived serious injury in service to the Emperor. Here was a bloodied, battle-hearted Commander and next to him, a whipcord bag-a-body whose most notable skill was his ability to hold onto rocks. No, if Akal was leading them to their deaths, Gallow would have little say in the matter.
“Yean, what do you know about this fielding?” “I know there is no special dispensation, and I suspect the food will be salted hicool or nothing at all. I also know I needed the fresh air.” “Ridge air may be fresh, but it is rife with ill-fortune. You know better than I the tales of this path.” “Witches and Rock Giants? Eagles made of ice? Or are you speaking of Walking Trees that steal your skin?” “I speak of fieldings that never return.”
The two walked in silence until late in the day when they reached a trough in the rocks the provided a natural wall on two sides. From the turn-off at the path, they stepped over the rubble of a rockslide and into the bowl the Ridge created here. To the left and right the rock shot sheer up dramatically. A guard was posted at the rockslide to watch the road. If the slide was taken as the front of the camp, then the rear was the only other approachable angle. Here the rock split sharply, revealing a game trail that wound up and into the Ridge. Two men ran up the path a space and came back with nothing to report except animal droppings.
That, at least, was good news to Gallow who let himself become excited with the prospect of fresh meat. Those hopes were dashed when Yean asked Akal if he could put together a hunting party for the night’s meal. Akal told him the night’s meal was in the mule’s pack. Yean begrudgingly set to work handing out rations and a splash of porter to each man.
Gallow was finishing his meal when a mailed figure approached him on foot. Gallow stuffed the last of the dark bread in his mouth and washed it down with draught before rising. Orling, one of the men who had the fortune to be mounted all day, bid Gallow join Akal at the path to the rear of camp. Gallow began to move when Orling’s gauntleted finger caught his eye. It was pointing at his climbing gear.
Akal and the five mounted men, Orling included, moved up the path on foot with Gallow trailing behind. The six men did not speak. Soon the path was so narrow that more than once the metal pauldrons of the break captains scrapped against the rocks with a screech. When they had come perhaps a mile, Akal stopped and turned to Gallow.
“2nd, I need you to scale this wall and drop a line to the rest of us.” “Understood, sir.”
Gallow moved through the others and up to the front of the unit. Here the rocks were right up against the path, which stretched on ahead, serpentine through the chasm. This made climbing an easy task – Gallow would need only to brace himself between the rock walls and scurry up. He made short work of the task, pressing his hands and feet against the stone. In no time at all, he was perhaps 100 feet up.
As he crested the ridge, he realized that atop the wall was a more-or-less flat surface. Shrubs and small trees sprang up among the rocks and moss. Finding a solid hold, Gallow attached two pinions and ran a rope through them. He tied it and tossed the rest down. With much heaving and grunting the captains and the commander made their way up.
In the meantime, Gallow took stock of the land. To the south he could make out the faint glow of the camp. Beyond that, large trees cropped up as the land spilled down into a wide lowlands become forest some miles on. To both the east and west, there was little but rocks and mean looking trees, clawing at the sky. The northern view was dominated by the ever present Neerals, now encased in fog and cloud.
When everyone was up, Gallow bundled the rope and slung it accorss his body like a bandolier. Akal ordered them march northwest, over the troublesome landscape. They did not have much ground to cover, but the going was slow. Now and then, the surface they walked on would open up into a rift or another chasm similar to the one they had followed from their camp. Twice one of the captains nearly fell and had to catch himself on a small tree or root. The second time, Gallow through out his arm to help him and was sure the captain would drag him over the side and onto the pile of jagged rocks below. Still, Akal ordered them on without rest.
In time they came right up against the Neerals. Here the land stabilized and became a field of stone spires and impossible large, eerily rounded boulders. To Gallow they seemed as rats in a vast field of dragon’s eggs. The weather had chilled significantly and snow fell all about them in great tattered flakes, dimly illuminated by the moon and stars still visible through the gathering clouds.
There, among the rocks they came to a stone circle littered with bones and the remains of a small fire. Gallow half thought he could make out writing on the stones and presumed they had reached a Ma-kaw camp site. Akal went on with the five captains but bade Gallow to stay here and wait for their return.
In the dim light, the 2nd kicked around some rocks until he grew bored then went to examine the writing. The rocks seemed caked in something that prevented easy reading and after some inspection, Gallow was able to determine it was soot. Clearly, there had been a larger fire than the paltry cinders in the middle of the stone circle wound indicate. Rubbing some of the stuff off, he began looking at the strange characters carved there. Just then the sound of approaching footsteps caught his attention.
Gallow walked calmly to the edge of the circle, peering off into the night. “Who goes there – Commander? Captain Orling?”
A hatchet ricocheted off the pillar next to Gallow and he instinctively threw his hands over his face as he ran into the center of the circle. Quickly grabbing his sword and shield he cursed himself for not being on alert. No doubt his dim-wittedness would be his end this night.
He spun in time to see the armored figure bearing down on him, sword held high in a fearsome two-handed stance. He had just enough time to recognize the face of Captain Orling before the blade came down. If Gallow had had his wits about him, he would have cursed himself again for not properly adjusting his shield straps; with a sharp knock, the wooden disk bounced away.
The 2nd’s raised sword was batted away as he fell back on his haunches. He tried to call out to the captain but managed only a grunt when he was forced to dive forward, narrowly missing a powerful stroke of the Captain’s blade. What in Sol had possessed Orling so?
This time, Gallow did not try to face his opponent but took off at a run, still clutching his sword. He made to break the line of stones then turned, knowing his attacker would be placed between the rocks when he came after him. He turned and thrust the point of his long sword up. Orling tried to bring his sword down to parry but it smashed against the pillar and he took Gallow’s sword full through the shoulder. His arm dropped, but his other hung on and he thrust back at Gallow who was so surprised at stabbing a superior officer that he nearly lost an eye.
Instead the blade put a slice through his temple and took a small piece of his ear with it. Gallow fell back and Orling fell upon him. The two tore at each other, Orling’s mailed hand coming down on Gallow again and again. Gallow could do little more than try and push the other man off but the weight was too much.
It was then that Orling brought his fist up and saw he had become tangled in Gallow’s rope. Gallow wasted no time and rolled out from under Orling. Coming up quick, he saw that the two were know veritably tied together, though Orling would soon be loose. With the messy bundle of rope, Gallow began haphazardly making coils around Orling. He held the rope above the captain’s head and made two quick loops, each falling neatly around the captain’s helm. Gallow fell to the ground again, but this time on purpose: he was behind Orling and placed both his feet on the captain’s back. He pulled as hard as he could muster.
Still on his knees, Orling reered up, clawing at his neck. His gauntlet was too large to find the gap between his helm and gorget and so his efforts were for naught. Gallow grunted against the struggle, finding his own back now against one of the pillars. Exhausted and bloodied, Orling didn’t have much air in him and soon his body slumped over with a crash.
Gallow had finished looking the captain over but saw there was little he could do. When he finally got the man out of his armor, he saw that his long sword had hit much lower than he had previously thought, possible catching the man in the lung. Orling’s skin looked a muddled yellow in the pale night. His eyes were glossy and hollow.
He thanked the Spirits for his luck, but his gratefulness was soon replaced with fear. Whatever had caused Orling to attack him, it wouldn’t change the fact that Gallow, a mere 2nd, had killed a captain.
He gathered up his gear and headed in the direction Akal and the others had gone. He searched for a while along the steeply rising crags but found no trace of them. He decided to double back to camp and tell the others what had happened. His only chance at escaping death now was transparency. Without the heavily armored officers with him, getting back to the rope was fairly quick work. Scaling down it was a cinch and in less than an hour he was nearing the campsite.
He had expected the camp to be quiet this late at night, but he could not even hear fires crackling. His fear grew as he met no guard on his way through the narrow split in the rock that lead into the wide trough. He looked around in Horror.
Everywhere were the slain remnants of what had been the fielding party. The men lay strewn about hacked to pieces along side the six horses. Gallow possessed little cunning but even he knew they had been ambushed. Men were pinned to the ground through their sleeping rolls by blades. By the Spirits, by Imperial blades!
He picked up a nearby sword and saw sure enough the imperial sigil there on the pommel. As he moved about the camp it became clear to him that no outside force had attacked the camp. The Ma-kaw fought with arrows and hatchets while these men had been slashed and battered with long swords and spears. The party had killed itself. Taking stock of the dead, he counted all the men dead. The only thing left alive was the pack mule, still pressed against the rock wall in horror.
Gallow banished the thought. It was too far and too much to hope that he could make it back to the outpost in safety. The Ridge at night was considerably more dangerous than during the day when at least you could see where your feet fell. His goal became to find Akal – if the commander still lived, he would know what to do. If he was dead, Gallow would return to camp in the morning. If Akal was possessed, Gallow shuddered. He only hoped he could outrun the man.
At first, Gallow began collecting the best weapons and armor but realized he had no true skill in them and the extra weight would only fatigue him if it came to making a break for the camp. He instead shed what little non-essential gear he carried, tightened his rope and took a quick meal from the ration packs and headed back into the pass.
Gallow approached the stone circle with caution for there now blazed in its center a great fire, casting shadows up against the mighty face of the Neerals. The closer he came, the louder a voice could be heard. It was an old voice, though whether it belonged to a man or woman he could not say. There seemed to be five – no, six figures there in the circle, although only one was moving. A smaller frame than the others, he assumed it was the source of the voice. He came right up against one of the pillars, using the long shadows they cast to mask his presence.
Then he heard the voice sing:
Far I’ve ranged and still I ride These eyes hath seen all each blighted side Old rocks holding the land From a’shifting like sand Evernight, Neverlight, Winterblight.
One place moves like fire on wood, Turns to shadow what once was good, Turns what’s Life To dreaded Strife Evernight, Neverlight, Winterblight.
Stay out of the Ogre’s keep Pass far East of the Purple Sleep Never ride further than the Steep:
For ghosts don’t sleep in the biting cold, And dead Lords rule in the ruined hold Can’t rig a sail without a rope, Can’t ride North with any hope, Evernight, Neverlight, Winterblight.
Peaking around the rock, he saw now a tiny old woman sitting in tattered rags munching away at some form of cooked flesh between verses. Meanwhile all around her sat the stoic figures of the four remaining captains and at her right side, Commander Akal. Gallow slumped against the rock and felt fear over coming him.
He had no hope of fighting five armored men but he feared even more fighting a Ma-kaw witch. A hundred stories – including the ones Yean had mentioned earlier that day – came flooding into his head. He started to cry a bit but regained composure. He could run, silently slink away and tell the others back at the outpost. Then again, the outpost could be completely destroyed. Spirits, I’m a coward thought Gallow. Here sit six of my fellows entranced, many more than that dead back at the camp and I think only of my safety.
His duty was to save the officers if he could, and ride back to camp with all haste to warn the others if he couldn’t. Figuring he had no chance at fighting, he rose to leave. He felt a hand grasp his shoulder as he slinked away.
He knew Commander Akal’s voice without turning. He dropped into a forward roll which tore his tunic and left Akal standing there with a scrap of cloth in his hands. Gallow did not run and Akal did not approach, but from behind him the other four stood shoulder to shoulder, their broad armored shoulders and high helms silhouetted in the dancing fire light. As Gallow waited, poised to flee, the men spread apart and let the little witch through. Although her face was in darkness, he could see small grey lights in her eyes as moonlight caught them.
“Did you like my song? I sang it just for you, you know. You stupid Imperials always hear but never listen. You’re in the cold, boy. You’re in the North. What makes you think we’d suffer your boots and blasphemies here?”
“Who-who are you?”
“Just another Ma-kaw whore to you. Your seed in my mother’s ground raised me and the Neerals reared me. How many bastards has your Empire left scattered in these hills.”
“Where are the rest of your people? What have you planned to do with these men?”
“The rest of my people? Didn’t I make it clear, boy – I am my people. Those barbarians in the north were too proud to suffer a half-blood. As for my plans, I have none. I’ll take and burn and kill and then I’ll feast and feast.”
Gallow had a sickening feeling the meat the witch had been eating was not, in fact hicool. His knees had been twitching since Akal grabbed him and he was suddenly afraid they would fall out from under him as he faced the witch. The officers did not move an inch but he did not want to chance running from them – no telling what magics the witch had woven upon them.
“Your fellows Akal here found me one day in the woods. He thought to kill me but I’m too old to be killed. I caught him instead and made him mine. He is a sinewy man but weak of will. Once I had him … well, you Imperials are so good at letting others do your thinking. He simple pointed to my cave and the others all marched up here with him. The ones at the camp were even easier if you can believe it.”
The witch started to move forward, something was in her hand, Gallow saw.
“Then I feasted and danced. And tomorrow I’ll feast and dance some more and then maybe I’ll grow a man-member and do some raping of my own. What do you think of that?”
She cackled and raised her hand behind her head, ready to throw something. Gallow tried to dodge as her hand released a cloud of grey powder … Runestone!
He was too slow and the plume took him square in the face. While his head suddenly reeled and sunspots twinkled into his vision, Akal and the others were on him, trying to hold him down.
He felt the life slipping from him as Akal held him down. Through swirling colors he made out the dark figure of one of the captains raising a longsword. He could hear the witch bark something and the man stopped. The witch was over him now. She was muttering strange somethings – the echo made it impossible to tell. There seemed to be hundreds of witches eyes, cold gleaming grey things swirling about him.
He tried to cry out but no sound escaped. He tried to push off his attacker but found he had no control over his arms and legs. In desperation he said a prayer and wished for quick oblivion.
Suddenly the weight on him was gone and he bolted up. He was sitting upright and his vision had cleared. As the ringing in his ears subsided, he saw the witch clawing at the ground, screaming in horror. The officers watched her, unsure of what to do. She managed to call out an order to apprehend Gallow but she was too late – Gallow took off at a run.
Keep running, A voice in Gallow’s head said. He had no intention of doing otherwise.
Gallow saw the officers coming after him, blades in hand. They moved fast, as though their every effort was to catch him, as though their very lives depended on it. Unburdened as he was, Gallow was faster but he wondered how long he could keep up this pace when the officers seemed unnaturally tireless.
Gallow leaped over a large gap, fumbling to a standing position on the other side. As he stood, he turned and let loose a handful of pinions catching one of the captains in the face just as he prepared to jump. The captain instinctively through up his hands and lost his footing, tumbling into the gap with a clatter to wake the dead. Gallow didn’t see this, he only heard it and kept moving.
Unwinding some of the rope form his torso, Gallow tied a quick loop. He stopped and planted his feet as another captain in a blue tabbard charged him down. He deftly side-stepped and fitted the loop over his blade, down its length and around his hands. The man’s two handed grip was his undoing and, as Gallow pulled tied the noose, the captain’s arms swung around catching one of his fellows in the head. The struck captain went down with a groan. Gallow kicked the lassoed captain’s gut for good measure and narrowly missed being hit by Akal. The Commander’s sword nearly split a tree and Gallow vowed to be kinder to firewood in the future.
The rope around the captain’s wrists was still attached to Gallow, so that when the tied-up captain rose to his feet and yanked, Gallow lurched towards him. Instead of meeting him face on, Gallow slip between the man’s legs, causing the captain to flip over himself. Gallow slipped out of the rope then and ran on, exhausted but that much lighter for having left the rope behind.
He knew Akal and at least one of the remaining captains would not be far behind. When he reached the chasm above the path leading to the camp, he paused and looked back. Sure enough, he saw Akal and one captain nearly on him. Beyond them, the blue-tabarded captain (now free of the rope) limped over the rocks to join them.
Gallow began his descent but soon the knights were above him throwing down rocks. He clutched his handholds and found that by lying flush with the rock, they could not hope to hit him. So it was that he heard the knights shuffling in their armor to climb down. Gallow seized the chance, and began to climb up rather than descend.
He found one captain’s foot and yanked hard. The man had no chance and as his body bounced back and forth down the chasm, it cracked and folded, ending in a bloody heap on the pathway below.
Akal’s boot found Gallow before he could celebrate and the 2nd’s vision became bloody. Hold on, don’t let go. Just who the hell was saying that?
Akal’s foot found his face again and before he realized what was happening, the ground was rushing to meet him. He held up his hands he felt a rush of wind lift his body, placing him less-than-gently but definitely alive, on the ground. He went into a dead sprint towards the camp.
When he got there, his heart wrenched into his throat. The witch stood up from munching on one of his fallen companions’ remains. Her mouth was a red gash, the blood running down to cover the front of her mud-colored clothing. He saw her draw out more runestone, crush it in her hands and eat that, too. Her eyes looked skyward, adjusting for a moment then snapped back down on Gallow.
Before he could act, the witch began charging at him, her hands held above head a horrible scream bursting forth. He ran at a tangent and she followed. He vaulted off a crate and onto the rock wall that rose so sharply above the camp. The witch barked something and above him, the rock split with the sound of thunder. A huge boulder detached itself from the cliff face and tumbled down towards him. With little choice, he wedged himself in a crevasse and the rock tumbled past. As it did he sprung out of the crack using the height to launch himself above the witch.
He came down on her with a thud. Bel-twa-ha’aan Vendalyn cordis Met, he heard himself thinking – though where he learned such words he had no idea. Yet even as he thought them, he spoke them, his tongue feeling heavy and numb as he did. The witch had enough time to look surpised before she screamed in pain, climbing out from under Gallow and clawing her face and skin.
Gallow had no time to waste and drew his tiny hammer from his belt. He came forward and saw the shocked look of the witch’s face as he bore down on her.
“Magi,” she whispered just before he brained her.
Whatever became of Akal and the other captain, Gallow could not say. In later years he would hear tales of mad knights roaming the North taking soldiers in the night and feasting on their bones, and he would say a silent prayer. For himself, he never returned to the outpost, taking instead the pack mule and riding south to the highway.
The voice continued to haunt him for days, compelling him to ride to Masagar. In his mind he could see the pyreneum and a room full of wizened men and women beckoning him to come. But he did not, and as the stone left his system, so too did the voices.
He rode away from the North, vowing never to cross into those lands again. He steered clear of civilization and especially of Magi. He did not worry though – he knew how to get to places where others could not reach him.
He knew how to climb.