by Richard Dillio
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
“That leads to the tomb?” Dhakirr asked, noticing the entrance for the first time.
Grimgottlir looked away. “I came here twenty-seven years ago with my brother Brokki, for the same purpose as you. We even swore oaths.” He sighed. “There was much less interest in these plains back then. It was just a preserve maintained by the Emperials, and a place to be occasionally plundered of Old Kingdom relics. We crossed the Bronze Sea by boat. We’d heard rumors of the ruins of the Ashlands, that they were filled with Druscasti weapons and armor, ancient coins and gems and all of that.” He waved his hand. “All of that nonsense.”
He cleared his throat. “This cave leads to the tomb of Cayel the Hanin. We did not know it then, of course. We barged in here with torches and rope, expecting to find riches. We found only death,” and his eyes were drawn momentarily to the Emperial he had just slain, knowing full well what it meant to lose a brother in this damnable cave.
“The Hanin was the son of Keogh, one of the Exiled Princes, who had come here to steal old magic from the land, before even the Auldix arrived. He built himself a fine fiefdom off of stolen Old Kingdom treasure, and he died surrounded by concubines. Many were slain at his wake, and their souls were meant to accompany him in the afterlife. But here on Iyos, mighty spells were cast to protect his burial place.”
Dhakirr moved closer, fascinated and needing very much to hear the tale.
“We stumbled upon a Drus, summoned by Cayel’s burial guard after they sealed his tomb.” Grimgottlir closed his eyes, but the memory could not escape him, nor he it. “It cut down Brokki like a stalk of wheat. My axe — my father’s axe — did nothing to it. It laughed at me and my dying brother, and I have never forgotten that laugh.”
He opened his eyes. “I fled the cave as fast as I could. I could not carry him out, but even if I’d been able, I was too terrified to try. The cowardice of that moment has haunted me my entire life.”
“Why have you come back?” Dhakirr asked.
“I’ve hunted rogue giants in my homeland, visited the tree cities of the Green People, traded blows with the serpent men of Qatat. I once got lost in an underground city of the cursed Brunn-men. I served fourteen years under oath with the Baelnorn, and fought with Slight Elephon, Owain Three-Swords, and many other brave men. But,” and he tightened his shield, “always my thoughts return to this place, to a miserable hole in the ground on an ash-covered plain.”
His confession hung in the air for a moment, and then he continued. “You had best stay here. I cannot ask you to face this creature with me.”
“You saved my life, after sparing it first. To abandon you now would shame me before my ancestors and my gods, for all eternity.” He tapped his chest. “I will do no such thing. Besides, you said the way out is this way, yes?”
Grimgottlir kept his eyes on the cave passage. “Yes.”
“Then let us end this, and be on our way.”
Grimgottlir nodded. “We will need a torch,” he said.
* * *
The two warriors made their way through the final leg of the cave, towards the tomb. Dhakirr’s prudence — or his greed, Grimgottlir could not decide — had resulted in one last search of their dead opponents and revealed on each a ring of dark-seeing, called a “Lizard Eye.” It made sense the Emperials should carry such, working so much in the dark, but Grimgottlir would have never thought to check.
The enchanted rings did their jobs well, for the passage appeared as well-lit as an open grove at twilight. The cave worked downward and at the bottom, they found themselves ankle-deep in water. Twenty-seven years ago, this cave was bone dry. Now, Grimgottlir could hear the soft rush of an incoming stream and he imagined that in a few years this passageway would be entirely submerged. He smelled the salt in it, and realized it was likely coming from the Bronze Sea just a few miles north.
They crept along slowly for some time, ears and eyes alert for anything amiss. Scattered along the cave passage were crumbling pillars of Druscasti ruins, sunken into the rock as if they’d been swallowed. The ruins were of inestimable origin, seemingly old when Iyos was young, carved with bizarre, unreadable runes. The stink of mold and old, wet rock made the air heavy and thick with dread. They were treading now where few mortals had ever dared, and they both knew it.
“Tell me,” Dhakirr said, “you fought with the man called Owain Three-Swords? He is known among my people as Black-Back.”
Grimgottlir could hear the strain under his voice, induced no doubt by the tons of ancient rock above their heads and the unnatural gloom. He did not wish to talk, but he knew what it was like to be young: confident and unsure at the same time, always bluffing. Talking was a distraction.
“Aye,” he answered, not taking his eyes off the stone. “I knew him before he was called that, though. We fought Helan tribesmen together, with the Earl Broadshield. Ages ago,” he said, his mind going back over the years.
“Did he carry three swords?”
“No,” Grimgottlir said, and gave a quiet laugh. “No. We were mustered outside the walls of Broadshield’s keep, ready to push into the Helans’ flank. Broadshield was a brave man and a doughty fighter, but he was a terrible field commander. He’d run his garrison down to bare bones over the years, and when the Helans came out of the woods that autumn, he was not prepared to meet them.”
Grimgottlir looked over, and could see the young man listening, eyes down on the rocks as he watched his step but still hearing every word.
“Anyway, he put out the call for men and collected a mob of amateurs.” He realized then that Broadshield’s fight was only weeks after he’d fled this very cave, all those years ago. He frowned. He’d forgotten that, but he pushed through the harsh interruption of his own memory. “There was a knight there, one of Broadshield’s only real fighters, and he was tasked with getting us into order.
“Well,” and Grimgottlir found himself smiling, “old Owain was just young Owain back then, and absolutely terrible with a sword. The knight — I can’t remember his name but he is probably long dead by now — was so fed up that he told Owain he could better serve the army as a collector of horseshit.”
“The insult!” Dhakirr said. For a people so concerned with personal honor, such a slight would have been unconscionable.
“Owain challenged him, right then. He still couldn’t use a sword, but I swear I’d never met anyone stronger. The knight tried to fend him off, but Owain wouldn’t stop. He’d break a sword on the knight’s breastplate, and someone from the crowd would toss him another. He did that three times before the Earl called a halt, gifted him with an axe, and put him on the front.” He looked over, and the young Ebron’s smile was broad. “Owain Three-Swords didn’t even carry a sword.”
“Did he fight in that battle?” Dhakirr pressed.
The memory of that fight came dashing into Grimgottlir’s eyes and ears: the crunch of bone, the splintering of a tribesman’s spear on a stout Northern shield. They were unskilled warriors but ferociously brave, unafraid of death. They threw themselves against their well-armored opponents, and died in the hundreds. But even the horror of that day could not erase the exhilaration. He’d killed his first seven men that afternoon, brushing aside spear strikes like they were nothing but loose branches.
Slight Elephon was a ghost on the battlefield, his silver hair bound into a braid with copper wire and his saber a deadly, licking serpent’s tongue. And Owain, heedless of danger and reveling in the unstoppable strength of youth, chopping down Helan warriors like so many saplings. Gods above, that had been a day.
“He fought,” Grimgottlir said. They continued, and the only sound was the sloshing of salt water at their ankles. The Rhoed warrior was waiting for yet another question about the battle, certain that Dhakirr could not hear the flatness in his last answer. But the young bandit surprised him yet again.
“Tell me of the Drus,” he said.
“There is much to say of them, and I only know but a little,” Grimgottlir said, after a moment of reflection. “They are not of Iyos, but come from the Immortal Plane. Do you know of them in your land?”
“A bit. We call them Farthir. It means ‘Burdened One,’ I think. My gran used to tell us stories of them, whenever we passed their ruined desert palaces on the oasis trail.”
“They are servants of Uth. Slaves. They can be summoned to our world and bound here. They take many forms, but most often they are human-like. They cannot truly be killed, at least that’s what I’ve read. But their bodies can be slain.” He paused. “If you can manage it. It takes them centuries to regain their form, for a reason I don’t know. And while they wait, it is said they are held in indescribable pain.”
“How many have you ever seen?” Dhakirr asked.
Dhakirr asked no more questions, and they fell into silence again. Speaking of the Drus brought a knot to the Grimgottlir’s stomach, but it wasn’t entirely unpleasant. He recalled the hours in the Tower Library, exploring books and old writings on the ancient peoples that had lived, at various times, on Iyos. Elephon had kindled in him a true love of books, something that almost no Rhoed would ever admit. History fascinated him and had aided him on more than one occasion over a long life spent on the road.
Eventually they reached the end of the passageway, and were faced with a rough shelf of rock that led up towards the tomb proper. Grimgottlir gauged the steepness of the climb. It could be done without rope if the climber were sufficiently skilled. He had done it years ago, and was ready to do it again.
He turned to his young companion. “The Drus summoned to guard this place is bound here for as long as it lives on this plane. They are brutal warriors, inhumanly strong. Their armor is all but impenetrable.”
“You do not raise my spirits with such talk,” the Ebron said. “Can my sword even hurt it?”
“I don’t know,” Grimgottlir admitted. “I think your star-glass might. In any event, he is mine. The Drus are capable summoners, and often raise the dead to aid them. Last I was here, he had companions.” He spat. “He did not need their help then, but by my gods he will need it now.”
Dhakirr’s winced at the curse, and Grimgottlir took a breath to steady himself. It would do both of them no good to wind the lad up now. “But the only thing you need to do is to watch my back. If I die,” he spread his hands, “you may take a turn.”
Checking his newfound Auldix sword, and slinging his shield over his back, Grimgottlir gripped the stone with his calloused hands and began the short climb towards his nemesis. His breathing was labored, a mixture of fear and effort, but he knew the Drus would at least let him climb over the top before engaging him. A lifetime studying the creatures taught him that they had a sense of honor, however sublimely arrogant that sense was.
As he scrambled his way to the top, he could hear that laugh, and see only Brokki’s broken body as it was driven against the ground. Fear began to fade, and in its place came the boiling, berserker rage of his Rhoed ancestors, a thirst for blood and battle that had made his people into the most ferocious warriors of the age.
He came to the top of the climb and rose to his feet. A few paces away the Drus stood, statue-like, under the archway of Cayel’s tomb entrance. It held an impossibly large spear slantwise across its body, and was awesome in its intricate armor. It gave no indication that it saw him.
Grimgottlir loosened his shield and looked down to his right. The crumpled skeleton of his brother lay sprawled against the side of the cave. The skull was turned away, but he did not need to see it now; he saw it every day. Brokki, eyes wide in shock and horror as his brains were dashed out by the heavy spear shaft, and then his body jerking sporadically in its death throes. Grimgottlir’s chest grew hot. He drew his sword.
Copyright © 2020 by Richard Dillio