Visions of Glory
by Ralph Benton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
The witch was not the hunched crone of crib tales, but a tall woman of wild and fierce beauty. She wore layers of many-colored robes, and her long red hair coiled around her head like a living thing. Her face was a mask of rage, her full lips drawn back in a rictus of hatred and power. With hands and voice, she called forth dark designs.
Bromin felt movement at his feet and found himself standing in a room filled with serpents. Hundreds of slitted eyes glared at him in the gloom. Soft white mouths opened to reveal long fangs dripping venom. He felt the primeval panic rise and he lost his breath.
Therabine spoke a word, and Bromin’s mind relaxed into a warm embrace. Then her soundless voice told him it was just another illusion. The serpents were gone. She shall not fool me again, he thought. My mind is my own.
Therabine spun through the crowded space like a cat. Her hands were a blur, gesturing, blending, summoning the earth and sky. Bromin saw the wizard at the height of her powers, no feeble court conjurer, but a woman who could call the seen and unseen to serve her will.
At her touch, a chair exploded into thick splinters that flew at the witch. Any of the splinters would have run a man through, but the witch called forth emerald flames from the hearth, and the wood burst harmlessly into puffs of ash.
Bromin’s senses blurred and fused as the battle raged around and through him. He wondered that he was now an old man until he became a child. He smelled colors he could not name, and heard the taste of starlight. Lightning kissed him.
The witch slapped her hands together and all the objects in the room blew towards Bromin and Therabine with the force of a winter gale. Bromin closed his eyes and turned his head, expecting evisceration. Therabine invoked an iron cloak from the air itself, and the bottles, candles, retorts, bags, boxes, animal parts and other ghastly ephemera crushed against her shield. The room plunged into darkness.
Therabine kindled a scrap of wood into a torch with a word. The witch was gone. Bromin caught the torch before it fell from Therabine’s shaking hand.
She fell back against the wall, gasping for breath and head hung low. The fight must have devastated her. He wondered how much she had left to give. She tried to straighten when she noticed Bromin’s stare.
“Bring the steel,” she whispered. “She’s still here. We must find her!”
Bromin dashed into the antechamber. Shirvold and his men were already coming down the stone steps from the roof. “All clear up top,” he announced with stalwart satisfaction. “I’ve left lookouts on both towers. What happened here?”
“Get men,” demanded Bromin. Congratulations and explanations could wait. “We’re close.”
Shirvold and several others entered the chamber, boots crunching on shattered glass. The old fighter went quickly to help Therabine. “Are you all right?” His voice was afraid. She gave him a sad smile and gently pulled his hands from her arms.
“Tear it all apart. She’s still here!” She yet managed some fire in her voice.
They tore down moldering wall hangings and torch sconces. They scattered the debris and upended the furniture. The wooden floor sagged under their feet. There was a cellar beneath them.
Ox upended the big round table. “Lords!” he called. “Here!” He gestured to the floor, and a round hatch with an iron ring set into the center. Shirvold glanced at Therabine.
“She is greatly weakened,” Therabine responded. “Much of her power was bound up with the forest and those unfortunates whom she forced to serve.”
Ox grasped the ring. Shirvold readied his blade.
Bromin gaped at the captain in astonishment. “Shirvold, your hand!”
“Aye!” he crowed. He flexed the strong hand in wonder. “Our mage’s wild magicks have crippled evil and healed a cripple!” He whipped his blade with the flamboyance of his youth, and bared his teeth with delight at the battles he might yet fight.
Therabine looked as happy as Bromin had ever seen her. He wanted to wonder at what he saw, but the moment called him. He nodded at Ox, who yanked on the ring. The hatch flew open, revealing a flickering red glow.
Shirvold jumped into the hatch, followed by Ox and Bromin, then Therabine. They dropped into a scene from hell itself.
It was a round cellar lit by flickering oil lamps hammered into walls of rough-cut stone. Slimy water sloshed ankle deep. Putrefying arms and legs poked through the water. Savaged torsos hung from hooks and chains bolted to the wooden floorboards above their heads. A troop of fat rats stood up from a vile feast and peered at them with bold bright eyes.
At the far end of this chamber of horrors leaned the witch, hands braced against the stone. She gasped with exhaustion. The hems of her ripped gowns dripped with bloody sludge. She glared at them, eyes fierce and yellow. She hissed like a cornered cat.
She reached for something in her gowns, but at Therabine’s word of control her hand slammed back against the stones with a crack. She hissed again, then howled with rage and frustration. The sinews in her slim neck stood out with the need to move, but she was trapped by the mage’s lines of force.
Bromin advanced, his sword aimed directly at the witch’s throat. With a few steps the point dimpled the smooth skin under her jaw. She flinched as the steel pricked her white flesh and drew a drop of gleaming blood. He held her gaze for several moments. He felt a surge of triumph and elation.
He watched himself ascending the white stone of the King’s Steps as the crowd roared their admiration. Behind him Therabine held the witch’s head by its red tresses. Shirvold and his men saluted him. The Earl took his arm and walked him to the dais, where the golden-haired princess dazzled him with her smile.
Bromin slowly pulled the sword back from the white throat. Her wild eyes watched him, and triumph began to grow on her beautiful face.
“Jarl Bromin?” asked Therabine. He heard the concern in her voice. Had he lost his nerve, one step from the summit? He smiled.
He plunged the blade straight into the witch’s chest, into her heart and deep into the stone behind her. She let out a shriek like nothing heard in this world, a sound that frosted Bromin’s soul. She did not die, but thrashed and kicked, pinned to the stone walls like a butterfly. Bromin had no doubt she would rip his flesh from his bones if he let her near enough. He turned and nodded at Shirvold.
The captain grinned, took a step, and sliced off her head. It plopped into the muck. The witch’s body slowed its death dance and finally stilled.
“It is done,” said Therabine. Her voice held exhaustion and disbelief. “She is dead.” She reached down and pulled the witch’s head out of the slime by the red hair. The eyes, so alive with fear and hate before, had dimmed to nothing.
Bromin looked at her face and an icicle grew in his spine. “Is she... smiling?” he asked. He felt the unease of watching a man standing in a puddle, screaming that his leg was being twisted off.
“You’re fine,” Shirvold laughed. He dropped a heavy hand on Bromin’s shoulder. “Come. We have done well. Let us gather the living, heal the wounded, and bury the dead.”
Bromin nodded. Of course, he was right. He followed the others up the ladder and did not look back.
The men shouted when they saw Therabine and Shirvold. The shouts turned to cheers when Bromin emerged last of all. Bromin acknowledged their acclaim briefly, but it was not yet the time for celebration. He set working parties to attend to the butchery of the battle.
Some collected the sad remains of the dragoons from the towers and the mire. They dumped the remains, jaws still chittering, into the cellar. An iron bar slotted through the ring of the hatch secured it fast.
They retrieved Signold and another unfortunate from the thick, fibrous vines in the trees. They extricated poor, dead Nectiv from the roots. His leg they had to leave behind, inextricably twisted deep in the earth. Wounds were staunched and salves applied, but Therabine collapsed while helping to set a broken arm. Shirvold helped her to a mossy stone bench and sat with her to rest.
Several men went through the temple and spread oil throughout the rooms, while others found dry wood and piled it within. Bromin lent his arms to dig a wide trench, well away from the tower. It was fully dark now, and so they worked by the light of torches and bonfires.
Out of the darkness Shirvold emerged, carrying Therabine in his arms. “This was her last battle.” He spoke as tears rolled down the runnels of his face. “She truly gave her last breath for us, and she was happy to do so.”
They laid her alongside the seven others lost to the struggle. Shirvold placed a softflower bud in her hands. Bromin bowed his head, found her in his heart, and asked for her forgiveness for his harsh words.
At last, the grave was filled and covered. Men gathered stones from the mountain and built a rough cairn over the fallen. Once Ox placed the last stone, Bromin addressed the men.
“They fell in battle,” Bromin said. “As honorable a death as any of us could hope.”
The moon peeked over the trees, full and white and glorious.
“We have lost friends, too many friends,” he continued, “and nothing can erase that sacrifice.” He paused, eyes downcast. Then he looked up. “But we have erased a great pestilence — evil itself! — from the world,” he proclaimed. “This mountain will heal, and we will heal.” His voice rose, solid and hot. “This temple will again be a place of pilgrimage and holiness.”
At his signal a man tossed a torch through the open double doors. Flames exploded through the spaces, burning away all foulness. A night wind blew up from the river valley, tattering the smoke, and swept away the last traces of filth.
They made for the road. Cleansed or no, no one wanted to linger at the sanctuary. While tired, none felt the fear and desperation that had dogged them and crushed their will before. The witch’s power had been broken.
After several hours, Bromin ordered a stop for the remainder of the night. Shirvold set brief watches, but mainly they slept. They awoke to blue skies, the first they had seen in days. Aintellk fried bacon he had kept hidden in his pack. They wiped up the grease with warm loaves that were as soft as the hour they came from the ovens.
That afternoon, a light rain broke, a rain that seemed to cleanse the forest. It lifted their spirits rather than weighing them down.
Shirvold walked with Bromin in the van of their little column. “We should make the ford by nightfall, eh, lord?”
“Quite probably,” Bromin said. He no longer felt awkward answering to the honorific. “That’s when I will start to relax.”
“As will we all,” Shirvold agreed. They paused to drink from a spring that ran with rich red wine. One of the southern vintages, Bromin thought.
It took them longer to reach the ford than Shirvold had supposed, but the sun stayed longer in the sky for them. They were thankful for the favor, for it gave them light to make camp by the river. As he lay back on his cot, Bromin watched the dragons on his tent fly away to wheel with the stars like a flock of glowing birds.
He slept, utterly content. He dreamt of his glorious triumphal procession up the King’s Steps. The Duke, so proud of him, beckoned him onwards. “Come lord, she’s waiting for us. She can’t wait to see us, lord. It will be so lovely, lord.”
The red-haired princess, radiant in her tattered gowns of many colors, opened her arms to greet him.
He opened his eyes. He stood atop the tower of Fear. A terrible pain burned in his chest. Below him his men trudged across the wet ground with grotesque stilted movements. He turned his head, which felt like a long rusted gate being forced open. He saw Therabine kneeling in the grass. She was frantically bowing with outstretched arms, again and again and again. He knew she would do that until her bones cracked.
He no longer breathed. He wanted to cry, but could not.
The witch approached him. She was beautiful and terrible. The agony in his heart was her, and he would feel it, always and forever.
“Come, my little broom,” she cooed. “Dance with me.”
With a horrible, jerky stiffness, he danced.
Copyright © 2021 by Ralph Benton