Part Four: Chapter 46
The pre-dawn plain about Saedus’ host was dark as the smoke billowing up from it: a black plume snaking past a red-orange horizon to dissipate in the blue-gray sky overhead. The priests of Ost had dug themselves a sacrificial pit in the deep hours, and now they encircled it, motionless as stone shadows rising from the stygian earth. And although the world behind them was growing ever more impatient for the new day’s beginning—with a background of murmured voices, clanging metal, and even the occasional bestial howl issuing from the assembled formations—these devout worshippers of the Daemon appeared oblivious to it all: as if instead of being here amidst the army they were in fact hidden away in some secluded witch’s grove, with no sound to break the silence of their conclave except their own ritualistic chanting. Yet presently a dim ray of oncoming light touched naked steel in one shadow’s hand—then a frantic bleating began as, digging its hooves into the ground, the victim struggled against another shadow that was dragging it toward the first.
The goat was trembling uncontrollably by the time it passed over to the head priest’s grip, but by now his followers’ chants had grown so loud that the beast’s protests were all but completely inundated. In one swift motion the man ran his blade along the victim’s neck, then he raised an ornate bowl and began to fill it with flowing blood.
Two more shadows detached themselves from the circle long enough to hurl the goat’s corpse into the flames, returning to their positions at the exact moment their leader presented his sacred vessel to the Queen of the West. And at this point the chanting ceased.
Shrugging off the fur-trimmed cloak that’d kept her warm throughout the night, Saedus stepped forth to receive the offering in nothing but the scant battle garb she wore beneath: a studded harness and strap skirt, leather overskirt, and scale bracers and greaves. Her raven hair was pulled back in a tail falling nearly to the small of her back, and the Diadem of the Gazer rested upon her head like a battle crown. Irreverently snatching the vessel of blood from her kneeling priest, she walked to the edge of the pit and held the bowl out over it in one hand:
“Hail, Issalzon! Daughter of Night! She whose name alone strikes fear into the hearts of our foes! Accept this offering of blood I bring thee. May it seep into your dwelling in the bowels of the world to sate your dreadful thirst—and cause you to look upon us here with favor, that we may have the victory!”
“Protect us in battle this day! Curse the heretics who speak your name not in reverence—as we, your beloved servants, ever do!—but in blasphemy. Grant us the power to destroy all those who hate us! Release your blackest daemons from hell, to scour the field of all unbelievers…and let the wombs of their women fall barren with their deaths, so that their lines fail utterly and are wiped clean from this earth!”
Slowly now the sorceress turned her wrist, tipping the bowl sideways to let its contents stream out. Then, drawing back the vessel from the brink, she ran a finger inside it and streaked the collected red blood down her forehead to the tip of her nose. “If this offering has pleased you, Dark Lady, then I beseech thee: let my prayers come to pass! And so shall I sacrifice to you until the end of days!”
These last words seemed to conclude the ritual—or at least Saedus’ part in it. Spinning on her heels, she shoved the bowl at the nearest priest and immediately strode off to rejoin her gathered captains.
Valreecius was first to receive her. The lanky, pink-eyed servant had also added some armor to his typical attire; yet, unlike his mistress, it was doubtful he meant to engage in the melee. He may have been learned in the ways of war but was no warrior in his own right. The most noticeable addition to his clothing was a polished steel skullcap whose shine, come daylight, would be even harsher on the eyes than his stark-white baldness. “A fitting ceremony, my Queen,” he cooed, stepping into stride beside her. “We’ll surely have her blessing.”
Saedus didn’t bother with a response to this. Valreecius was no priest, and she took his words for what they truly were: a superficial opener to the business at hand. Having reached the others now—Poltoros, Sorec, and his retainers—she chose instead to address them all at once:
“Finally the dawn! I trust all is ready…”
"Ready, mistress?” replied the Domalin general, gazing down on her from horseback. His smug face was illuminated by a torch held in his mounted aide’s hand. “Why, if I didn’t have these men here to tell me otherwise, I might swear this saddle was the cushion of Oen’s throne!” At this he threw a smirk over his shoulder—yet not the slightest snicker from his attendants was heard in return. Saedus hadn’t laughed, after all: and Saedus held the cards here. This reminder appeared to sober Sorec, and his grin slipped a bit. “Yes, of course we’re ready. I await only your command to set these plainsmen running for their broken walls in the north.”
“The Sinians aren’t renowned for their skill in fleeing, general,” interjected a raspy, muffled voice coming from Sorec’s left. All eyes turned on the speaker: a maroon-cloaked man astride a black warhorse, his face covered by a silver mask. “Especially in their homeland’s defense—and not with their Mardothan enemies-turned-allies watching them. They’d rather slit their own throats than let Berac’s warriors see them quail. No…I’m afraid they’ll stand toe-to-toe with you till the bitter end. So you’d best plan your tactics accordingly.”
Sorec nudged his charger to come alongside Poltoros. Coming face-to-face with the lich, he said: “And who are you to school me in the business of war, old man? Or whatever you are…” His face scrunched in disgust as he scrutinized the steward. “Tell me this: did you drag some ancient warlord’s spirit up from hell with you when our lovely queen conjured you back? Is he roaming around in that mummy’s head of yours right now?” A wry grin touched his lips. “No? Then I’d suggest you leave the tactics to me…”
“Shut your mouth, Sorec!” hissed Saedus—and the Domalin angrily clamped his jaw tight, yanking the reins to turn his steed away. “I’ve one last thing to do. Wait till I mount my chariot—then the field’s yours!” Her face turned slightly to the left. “Valreecius, take me to the ghoul.”
The moon steward nodded and set off at once, leading his mistress through an ever-widening gap in the ranks. Men and creatures alike fell over themselves in their efforts to clear a path for the sorceress, with most kneeling or bowing or making some other gesture of obeisance to her as soon as they were safely out of reach. The pair didn’t have to walk far to reach their destination, however, for already G’nilbor’s prison lay just ahead of them. The goblins that Valreecius had placed around this wagon to guard its occupant were visibly relieved to see the ghoul’s handler return—with none other than the Spider in tow—and they raised their weapons in a redoubled show of mock courage.
The monstrosity glaring down at them from the cart was noticeably larger than he’d been when Saedus first harvested him. Months of gorging on flesh, blood, and bones had not only thickened G’nilbor’s body but had also enlarged his frame supernaturally—to the point where, with the platform’s height added, he loomed over twice the height of his salivating visitors.
Yes…grins of crazed satisfaction were quite plain on the faces of steward and witch as they stood inspecting their handiwork. For several days now the ghoul had been left chained by his neck and wrists to this wagon, denied the slightest morsel to sate his terrible hunger. And now his mind was so full of rage that not a single thought could rise within him beyond this: what it would take to murder and devour the closest man or beast he could sink his claws into. Presently one overzealous goblin stepped a bit too close to the wagon…and suddenly G’nilbor lunged to the end of his lead with a maniacal roar, straining against the rings that secured his chains to the platform. Black spit flew from his mouth with a rush of his foul breath, and his thick muscles tensed and quivered from his exertion. The offending goblin—utterly forsaking his show of bravery—dropped his spear and fled shrieking into the crowd.
Under other circumstances this would’ve surely amused the ghoul, and he might’ve hurled a laugh and taunt at the fleeing pipsqueak. But now G’nilbor fixed his white, pupilless eyes on Saedus of Ost instead and began to pace back and forth at the edge of the platform like a caged tiger: never taking his glare off her, snarling or growling low in his throat with each pass. He said not a word, however—as if in his present state the power of speech had deserted him and he’d been reduced to a wild animal. Thus it was the sorceress who spoke first:
“Are you famished, ghoul?” Without awaiting a response, she walked to the platform right in front of G’nilbor, carelessly placing herself within harm’s reach. “That’s good. Very good.” Her voice had taken on a soothing tone, as one might use to comfort a child or pet. “Come to me…”
In the blink of an eye, the beast halted in mid-pace, spun, and dropped to his knees, slamming his dreadful claws down into a grip on the cart’s edge so strong that it ripped huge splinters from the wood. Lowering his head nearly level with Saedus’ own, he screamed straight into her upturned face.
Unlike the cowardly goblin, the witch’s only reaction to this savagery was a look of annoyance as she wiped a fleck of putrid spittle from her cheek. Then her deranged grin returned—wider even than before. Reaching for the ghoul’s chin, she clamped down on it and swiveled his head to her right, forcing him to gaze in the direction of the enemy encampment. “The feast day begins, G’nilbor! Out there stands legion upon legion of meat on which to glut yourself.” She released the creature’s face then and, extracting a key from her clothing, began to unlock his manacles one by one.
Still the ghoul remained at bay, making no further show of aggression other than to continue producing his low growls of warning: as if in his current animal state he’d forgotten she wasn’t omnipotent: like a tame lion recoiling from a puny whip. Or if indeed Saedus was addressing an animal with no trace left of man, perhaps she was now in direct control of the monster, no longer needing to rely on the threat of her minions coming to her aid. After all, the White King’s power was yet within her. In any case, she showed not the slightest bit of fear as she let the last shackle drop:
“Just remember what I told you. There’s one you mustn’t spoil! My son is with them. I’ve seen it. Find him and slay him if you can. But his flesh is mine!”
Finally free, G’nilbor wasted no time in leaping from the wagon; and as soon as his enormous feet hit ground he swung his head from side to side, searching for a victim on which to break his fast. The remaining goblins scattered like flies: all except an unlucky churl who was shoved down in the chaos. This one felt a vise clamp about his neck before he could stand. Then he felt nothing more.
With her work here completed, the Spider fell swiftly into disinterest, just as she’d done following the sacrifice to Issalzon. Turning her back on the grizzly slaughter, she simply strode away, paying no heed to the ghoul’s sickening howl of ecstasy that resounded behind. The chariot had now been brought up by her tattooed slaves, and without further delay she mounted it with Valreecius at her side, passing the reins to him. One of the servants handed up her weapon—the slender steel trident she’d selected earlier—while another waved her personal banner high in the air as the signal for Sorec to begin his advance.
Then the sun crested the horizon, met by peals of war horns answering one another along the ranks.
Across the divide, somewhere deep within the mass of Sinian infantry, there stood a nondescript soldier in light armor, a visored helm concealing most of his face. Just one more anonymous warrior on the battlefield. No legendary name riding on his shoulders. No murmurs nor awestruck gazes aimed his way. No spirit-kings to advise him, and no oath-bound guards to shield him in the fray.
And no curse writ about his neck.