The Erisyan archer Jarl Bearclaw fought the urge to vomit at the stench rising from the Vascanar torture pits. The acid taste was part of his penance for another’s mistake, a penance that forced him to gaze upon men ripped asunder and to listen to their agonised screams, to smell their flesh burning, to feel the heat upon his skin… Gods above and below, the suffering tore through his soul in a scalding torrent of anguish. His empathic talent was a dol, a gift of fate, but here…
Hundreds of heat-stones glowing red-hot beneath the tormented bodies of men and boys, shards of pain burrowing into his soul. No military reason for this slaughter, the Vascanar would gain no information from these men. They simply offered this sacrifice to their gods to call them forth to feast upon this land.
They fed them pain and named it sacrament.
These rituals of agony were the reason why the Vascanar were hated and reviled across the breadth of the world. Jarl’s caedi, his clan, the Caedi Haroa — the people of the high valleys — were sworn to the Vascanar by a blood-oath harsh and binding.
No amount of gold was worth this. The Erisyans were a diminished people; taking money for such oaths would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago. A blood oath! For money! Jarl held back tears of shame and gazed across the torment before him.
As every life bawled out its pain, the dark gods of the Vascanar became visible. Dark, pendulous shadows took shape above the glowing heat-stones and screaming victims.
Gluttons at a feast in their honour.
These gods needed a pathway through the salt-forged barriers around the Isles of Symcani, a pathway constructed from the souls of tormented men. The seas protected these lands and to obtain their power the gods first needed their warriors to crush the inhabitants. Jarl knew his histories; he knew that the Karisae had faced the same problem two and a half centuries earlier. But they hadn’t solved it like this, because they weren’t a cult of torture and bloody misery.
Why had Gorak, his hwlman, the war-leader of the caedi — and Jarl’s uncle — signed a pact with these monstrous Vascanar? Screams echoed in the footsteps of these animals. Wherever they trod, the land turned red and the spirit realm darkened.
No payment was worth this. The Caedi Haroa would be reviled amongst the Erisyans. Livia, Jarl’s wife, would cast out his bow and leave him divorced and alone. His daughters would find no husbands, for no caedi would allow such tainted bloodlines into their own, and his sons would find no wives, for no caedi would send their daughters to marry those who signed a blood-oath with the Vascanar. The Haroa would become crydi, wanderers without a homeland.
Thus, Jarl stood witness to the fall of his dreams.
A swaggering Vascanar horse warrior named Torquesten approached through the shimmering heat. Jarl could taste the vicious brutality of Torquesten’s mind. The Vascanar called such as him Akalac, knights of the blood, but Torquesten was worse even than that; a creature steeped in darkness and evil, he commanded the hounds, those poor benighted slaves forced by mystical bindings to sniff out magic for the Vascanar.
Torquesten thrust a jug of Arambra brandy into Jarl’s hand. ‘Drink, bowman. Drink with victory.’ Torquesten’s harshly accented Maebaz, the trade-tongue of every place that fallen empire had touched, made his words hard to understand.
‘I’m not thirsty,’ Jarl said in impeccable Maebaz. Linguistics were easy for an empath; the sense of the word came along with its sound.
‘You drink, bowman,’ Torquesten demanded. ‘Drink.’
Jarl accepted the jug. ‘The term is archer,’ he said, before he let the fiery liquid swill around his mouth, feigned swallowing, and then spat the brandy back into the jug along with his unspoken curse.
‘Dead empire, dead tongue, soon all will speak the language of the gods.’ Torquesten snatched back the jug and almost overbalanced into a nearby pit filled with glowing heat-stones, where a man was being broiled alive.
Jarl resisted the urge to trip the drunken Vascanar.
Torquesten regained his balance and laughed. ‘I like you, bowman. I keep you as pet, yes?’ He staggered away.
Jarl closed his eyes. Gorak, what have you done to your people? He spat the sour flavour of the brandy onto the ground and opened his eyes to bear witness.
The dark forms of the Vascanar gods solidified above the sacrifices, dripping secretions that crackled upon the heat-stones, splattered upon the ground, and hissed upon the pathetic flesh of the sacrifices. Slaves rushed forward with delicate pottery bowls to collect this precious fluid, reaching across the heat to save the sacred harvest from exploding on contact with the stones, taking great care to collect the fluid that etched acid lines of pain upon the skins of men screaming out their last breaths.
Too much; Jarl could bear no more. He turned away from the repulsive sight; but he had stayed too long. Long enough for a Vascanar god to notice him. ‘You are mine.’ The rancid, domineering mental voice of the god crawled into his soul. ‘You will serve me.’ Such longing in that voice, such hatred.
Jarl took a step back from the thrust of that seductive hate, but only one step; then he cast off the bloody dreams rampant in his mind, cast off the temptation to become a monstrous beast raging upon the surface of the world, and cast the discordance at the centre of his soul back into the gaze of the god.
He was Jarl Bearclaw of the Caedi Haroa. He was archer and warrior, father and lover, man of faith, of truth, of worth. He was Erisyan.
The god screamed.
Jarl drove empathy, truth, clarity, the essential chaotic randomness of humanity into the breach of that glare. They may have noticed him, but he’d suffered with every cry of every soul torn open for their greed; they wouldn’t turn him to their ways. He would die before that happened; and he wouldn’t die alone.
The scrape of swords on scabbards as the Vascanar readied their blades.
Jarl, with a smile upon his lips, opened his mind fully and thrust out with all that he had, letting his soul slash at every dark form floating above the pain of men. ‘Take me, then,’ he said, his voice soft in the sudden silence. ‘If you have the nerve for it.’
He drew his own sword, the famous syrthae blade of the Erisyans, with its distinctive inward-curving cutting-edge, its heavy point to add weight to any cut, and its blade as long as his arm. It shimmered in the light of the glowing heat-stones.
Every god cried out its rage. The screech tore the world open and for a moment, a moment of synchronicity, of information given and received, the gods and Jarl connected in the realm of the spirit.
Jarl staggered. Demons! The Vascanar gods were demons. Demons who sought to become gods. Oh, how they coveted that ascension. And these islands, largely untouched by newer faiths, held the power they needed to achieve it.
Demons, not gods — not yet. Just foul creatures loosed upon the world by the tormented cries of dying men. Jarl tried to drag his gaze away from the demon’s eyes, tried to pull his soul out of the connection, but this one was tenacious; he thrust deeper into Jarl’s soul, into his mind, skewering the very heart of him. Jarl struggled, his fists clenching, his face rigid, dragging back his soul, his mind, his heart. In that instant more information flooded through the link.
‘We will tear apart your soul,’ the demons cried into Jarl’s mind — and closed the doors to their own thoughts, freeing him from their hooks.
‘Will ain’t killed,’ Jarl said, and broke the corrosive gaze. He had learned what he needed to know: the Vascanar had sold their souls to demons. Nothing more than that. He almost pitied them, even as he feared for his own people.
Torquesten, at the forefront of the Vascanar, with a longsword above his head, charged towards Jarl.
‘Hold!’ The bellow came from Gorak, Jarl’s hwlman and uncle; the Erisyans had come rushing to Jarl’s aid from the shattered stones of the broken town.
With his warbow held at full draw, arrow nocked and pointed at Torquesten, Gorak lifted his chin. ‘Spill one drop of Erisyan blood and the pact is broken.’ The rest of the caedi stood by Gorak’s side, bows drawn, ready to loose upon his command.
The Vascanar skidded to a halt. Jarl flinched at the crackling viciousness of the Demon-tongue, a language that burned across the souls of those who heard it, blazing between the hovering demons and the fools who worshipped them.
Torquesten said, ‘The gods say he shall live to suffer. They say you must take him from this place.’
‘Your accent’s improved,’ Jarl commented.
‘Quiet now, Jarl,’ Gorak said. Like all users of the Erisyan warbow, Gorak was broad across shoulders and back; but even his bull neck bulged at the mounting effort of keeping a powerful bow at full draw. He smiled at Torquesten and said, ‘We’ll leave now, then.’
‘Go,’ Torquesten snapped.
Gorak lowered his bow. ‘Come along, Jarl. I think you’ve seen enough excitement for one night.’
As they made their way back to the Erisyan tents, Gorak asked, ‘What possessed you to stand there like that?’
‘To bear witness,’ Jarl said. ‘You’ve no idea what you’ve done.’