Visions of Glory
by Ralph Benton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The downslope in front of them sported a carpet of weeping mother ivy, thick with sickly yellowish leaves and dull purple flowers as big as a man’s open hand. The blossoms gave off a nauseatingly sweet scent. But it wasn’t the scent that made Bromin’s stomach spasm with sick.
Koskva appeared at the parapet of the tower of hope.
“No,” breathed Therabine, “will she not let him die?” From that distance they could not be sure, but his face seemed to bear the same frantic grin as Laefman’s.
“I want to kill her,” Shirvold said simply. And then, “What is he doing up there?”
What Bromin saw had no counterpart in any of his mother’s tales. Koskva stuck out his arm toward them and then flung it backward, again and again. Bromin thought that this sight, after the fear and dread of the past days, would have loosened his very bowels. But now he felt only a fierce and righteous anger. “She will die.”
“Does he beckon us?” Therabine asked. “As we were invited before?”
“The witch has him,” Shirvold muttered.
“He moves, but where is his soul?” Bromin said. The man looked unnatural, both too stiff and too loose. He looked like something from Bromin’s childhood, an image he could not recall.
“Enchantments or not,” Shirvold finally said, “we must advance.” He added, “At your command, Jarl Bromin,” both in deference and to remind Bromin the men expected him to lead them. Bromin eyed him, but the hint was well placed.
Some part of him felt astonishment that, at long last, his moment to face himself had arrived. As they turned from the tower and walked back to the men, a calmness suffused him, like a brace of strong liquor. He faced the company with strength.
“She knows we’re here,” Bromin said simply. He knew better than to try to temper bad news. He let the shuffling of damp boots die out. “There’s nothing for it,” he said sharply. “Our duty is clear. As is our method. Captain Shirvold will direct the advance of the swordsmen while the archers stand ready. There are trees and brush for cover. You can start with this mound.” He looked back at the little hummock and smiled. “I claim this mountain in the name of Earl Predarion!” They smiled in return and dispersed.
The archers took up positions on the hummock and behind trees. Then the swordsmen advanced. Ten paces they covered, then twenty, flitting from bush to bush. On their approach they stepped amongst bones, rotted flesh, and the tatters of old cloaks and colors among the mush of the earth.
“The dragoons,” Shirvold said to Bromin, pointing to the sigil woven into a corpse’s tunic. “Their last stand.”
“This isn’t a temple,” Bromin said, “but a butcher’s house. We will burn it clean!”
Koskva had vanished at their approach. The awful weight that had bowed Bromin’s shoulders and mind had fled entirely. They would kill this witch. Perhaps poor Koskva was her only remaining guard.
A scream came from behind him. Signold the archer had knelt behind a mossy old oak, thick with creepers. Now one of the vines, writhing with an unholy life, had wrapped around him. He struggled frantically but the vine pulled him several feet off the ground. His yell strangled to a squawk as the breath was crushed out of his body. Other archers cut at the vine, but their daggers did nothing against the dense wood, as thick as a blacksmith’s forearm. The vine wrapped around Signold’s throat, and all that Bromin heard was a choking gasp. The vine hoisted him farther until all that could be seen were his feebly kicking feet.
“Leave him,” Bromin called. “We advance! Stay away from the trees.” He surprised himself with the ease with which had given the order. Shirvold gave him a nod of assent. That felt good. The men reluctantly left Signold, whose now-still boots disappeared into the foliage.
Now the swordsman Hecativ cried out. His foot was caught under a root crusty with thick yellowish fungi. As he slashed to free himself the root twisted and pulled itself under the oozing soil. Hecativ’s ankle snapped and cracked. He screamed and dropped his sword as he fell to one knee. He clawed at the earth, desperate to pull his flopping foot out of the trap. The root again pulled with a twist and his knee vanished into the muck. Another bone snapped. Hecative’s scream was more animal than human.
Bromin’s blood was up. He stuck an accusing finger at Therabine. “She wields the forest itself against us!” He knew the woman was too old for this; a thousand buds of softflower had sapped her vigor to a mud puddle. He would not let her hide behind the swords. “Do something!”
At the ford, she had been helpless, but now Therabine’s eyes flashed at his rebuke. Shirvold saw something in her face that saddened him, but she gave him an assured nod and bent to work. She swiftly collected twigs and grasses while uttering an ancient tongue. She knotted the vegetation together then bent back her head and let forth an unearthly growl that raised the hair on Bromin’s arms. She flung herself about, pointing to all the trees and brush, as if some beast now inhabited her body. Where she pointed, vines and creepers drew back and withered.
Bromin nodded. Finally she was useful. Hecativ only sobbed now, but his leg was buried up to his hip.
“We’ll get him when we return,” Bromin called. He gauged his forces. He still had more than twenty men, seasoned fighters all. “To the witch!”
A shape erupted from the soil in front of him. A man, or what had once been a man, dripping mud and old clothing and rotted flesh. One of the dragoons. Bromin’s nostrils filled with a disgusting stench. The thing chittered, its teeth clicking together in a freakish mimic of laughter.
The dragoon creature wielded a sword and swung a two-handed strike that Bromin barely avoided by leaping backward. The thing chittered again, its jawbone visible. It gave an overhead blow that Bromin easily parried.
“Fight, all of you, fight!” Shirvold called. “They are slow!”
Men hacked at the undead, leaving arms and legs twitching around rotted torsos lying in the muck. Ox ducked below a ponderous axe. A mighty swing of his broadsword hacked both legs from the unearthly warrior at mid-thigh.
Undead archers appeared at the tower ramparts, a dozen at least, chittering with ghoulish delight at having purpose after so many empty years. They drew and loosed with abandon, posing more of a threat by sheer quantity than accuracy. Bromin lunged the last few yards to take shelter under the precarious overhang of the temple of fear. He looked back at the men who fought the witch’s foul servants.
He blinked to clear his eyes. This couldn’t be right. Hecativ’s leg wasn’t shattered. It looked like he merely sat next to a tree, yet he sobbed as if banshees tore at his flesh. Signold hadn’t been dragged into the tree, he was climbing the branches.
“Therabine!” Bromin called. “Look! Look in the trees!”
“What?” She had found fresh fire. Guarded by three swordsmen, she knelt in the muck, crafting a shape with some of the dragoon’s bones. He liked what he heard in her voice. Not an old woman’s meekness and tremor, but anger and power.
“It’s Signold, he’s alive. Look! We are deceived!”
The sorceress glanced over her shoulder at the trees. She shook her head. “No, jarl, her illusions are powerful. She wants to trick you into foolish acts. Keep the men away from the trees!”
Bromin looked again. Therabine was right. The tree that had taken Signold shook. His helm dropped to the ground, with part of his head still inside. Hecativ pulled desperately at his leg but was drawn deeper into the stinking soil. Bromin vowed to shut out the witch’s baleful influence. He would not be fooled by a waking dream!
Therabine bent to her work as the battle raged around her. She used soggy brown sinews to bind the weird assemblage of bones. She stood, gave a triumphant shout, and kicked at the latticework. Across the field, dragoons disintegrated as their bones ripped one from another. Bromin heard bows and arrows clatter onto the stone of the temple roof above him.
When their foes fell to pieces before them, the fighting men cheered and rushed to Bromin. He took stock as they assembled. Three lost to magic, four more to steel. Several with cuts and slashes, and a swordsman with an arrow in his shoulder. Grim accounting, but he had known there would be hurt.
Therabine quickly bound the worst wound, a slash to the neck, but left the rest for later.
Shirvold posted watchers outside the temple. Bromin stepped up to the huge doors. One hung ajar, propped open with a mossy skull. He took a deep breath and led them into the oily dark of the sanctuary.
Bromin retched. The stench was like a slaughterhouse on a summer day. He jumped at a touch on his shoulder. It was Shirvold.
“Easy, jarl, she’s not here. Not in this room, anyway.”
Bromin’s breathing slowed as his eyes adjusted to the faint light of the antechamber. Mouldering benches sat against walls where pilgrims and fidgeting acolytes had once waited. Fine frescoes and carvings had been slashed and defaced with filth. The vestibule widened as it entered more deeply into the mountain, but the dim light died not far from the doorway. His boots slid on a thin slime that covered the floor.
“Torches!” Bromin called. “Quickly!”
With more light, they advanced deeper into the temple, one uneasy step at a time. Statues and braziers lay strewn about, as if after a storm. Sickly pale plants grew out of the cracks in the floor and climbed the walls. At the far end of the room, two staircases ascended to reach the great statues on either side. Between the steps stood a single, plain door. Within lay the citadel of the prophetess.
Shirvold gestured to the staircases. “Ox, take four men and find Hope. I’ll take Fear.” He turned to Bromin with a devilish smile. “Leave some fun for me!” His boots sounded on the steps, and he vanished into the dark.
Bromin walked back outside and looked to the sky. Tendrils of fog hung between the trees in the late afternoon light. The air of the forest that had oppressed him before felt like a cool spring breeze compared to the miasma of the temple. You’re close, he thought, so close. He heard the earl’s mocking laughter from his dream. “Damn you, old fool!” he snarled, and turned to the temple.
He strode back into the gloom of the antechamber. The desecration depressed him. This hallowed place was now corrupted and threaded with evil. As prince, he would demand cleanliness and tranquility for the temples and sanctuaries.
“Jarl,” Therabine whispered. She looked a little worn, her skin a touch greyer, but her movements were quick and sure. They turned to the door at the back of the chamber, soggy on its rusty hinges. “In there.” Her blood was up, and he shared her excitement.
“This will be more your battle than ours,” he said.
Therabine nodded. “I’m ready.” She wore a grim smile, and her eyes gleamed in the firelight. “Hold my torch.”
His father told a story of a master swordsman, but weakened and slowed by his years. Without hesitation, he charged into a melee to rescue a friend. “They found his body beneath three of the enemy, smiling under the blood.”
Bromin now saw that smile and understood. He kicked open the sodden remnants of the door. Therabine slipped through the opening, already speaking the old tongue. Bromin glimpsed a room dominated by a round table, covered with candles and objects that bent his mind to see. Green fire danced in a hearth without wood. Vapors and fumes burned his eyes.
Copyright © 2021 by Ralph Benton