The Western Lands
The sun has been at my back all morning as I ride into the foothills. It has been three days since the druid Tae-eran sent me forth in his place, and today I will fulfill his duty. I crest a hill, and there across the valley I see my destination, Mareth’s Menhir, and in the haze of the distance I can make out a handful of figures camped beneath it. The hobgoblins await.
My name is Imre Calodoccer, and I walk without fear in the lands of my enemy.
Of course they see me coming, and of course they do not ride out to greet me. As I draw near, I see they are four, counting a bugbear. One of them is marked with the caste-painting of a High Hob, another is dressed in the style of their mystics. There is their spirit caller. Why does she look so familiar? Have I foretold this? And why do they all look as if they have lost a fight? The bugbear can barely stand, and I can see even from this distance that those are fresh rope-burns around the noble’s neck. I don’t like this. Tae-eran said to expect only one. I fiddle with my mask as it hangs around my neck, I want to be sure that when the time comes I can draw upon its power quickly.
As I arrive at the base of the obelisk, I can see that the ground has already been cleared for the ritual. I dismount as she stands and salutes me. ‘I welcome you, Shaman, and invite you to a Working. I am called Beya Jael.’ Her command of my language is passable, but as this is their land I return the salute reply in theirs. ‘I thank you, Shaman, and I will Work. I am called Himber Calodand.’ Their faces fall as I show that I can speak Goblin and I frown. Something is deeply wrong here.
Beya looks as if she was going to say something more, than stops. The noble glances at the bugbear, then the mystic fixes me with his stare. The sheep’s tooth growing within my upper jaw starts to vibrate. Attacked at an invited Working? This is treason I thought beyond even the hobgoblins! My teeth bare as I reach for the mask and the first syllables of power beat inside my heart. Then I hear the tooth, a tiny little voice crackling and popping deep within my ear. human this is a trap it says, we are watched. they strike after the binding.
Well. That changes things. It is still foul treason, but now I know these four as the enemy of another enemy. My arm continues its motion to grab the mask, but instead of wearing it I bring it to my side. I turn back towards Beya. The nod she gives to confirm the mystic’s words is barely perceptible. With a flash of insight, I realize that this must be the Band of the Yellow Horse, and that noble is the Yellow Horse Bandit himself, finally caught by the High Hob’s armies.
‘We were expecting Tae-eran,’ she says, in a loud voice designed to carry.
‘Tae-eran lies dead,’ I lie instinctively, matching her tone, trying to trace the splashes these words make in the spirit realm, ‘struck down while wearing his feathered cloak.’ A curse from the bugbear, but there! Another half-dozen hobs, hidden through an arcane ritual…
‘Shaman Himber, shall we begin the Working?’
‘Shaman Beya, let us begin the Working,’ I reply, as I put the others from my mind.
We walk to the cleared ground. I draw my dagger, and trace out a circle, deosil. She does the same, only widdershins. Each time we cross, we place a rune. Three cycles, and the ground is set. I place my mask over my face and take the bite between my teeth. I feel the mask settle over me, the eyes turn from side to side, the mouthparts twitch, and I breathe in the Hornet King’s power, earned for a year and a day by right of victory.
I lie down, supine, and still my breathing. My heart slows, my limbs grow numb, and after not more than a minute I RISE. The marks from my battle with the Hornet King are still fresh on my body, black and yellow staining the scars. I relax my shoulders, today is not a day in which I will be carried beyond the Gate. There, the obelisk, fading runes glowing orange upon its black surface. There, the ambush, and a druid, but his eyes are not upon the spirit realm. There, Beya’s spirit body, she also draws upon a great power as I recognize Glacier’s blue.
The ritual itself is quick work, the fixed runes must be re-drawn and new ones added according to the horoscope, apprentice’s work except for the speed needed to place the new binding immediately after the old one is removed.
We dismiss the instruments of marking, and return to our bodies.
I wake. The circle is more crowded than it was a minute ago, the other three have taken sanctuary within it. As I get to my feet, ignoring the offered hand from Yellow Horse, I see that the other hobgoblins have arrived. The circle is still active, the six grooves flicker with power and the runes we inscribed blink on and off in their dance.
They have a war-captain, who also wears the paint of a noble, a druid, and four soldiers armed with bows and swords. The druid steps forward, and starts to speak words of summoning, that’s a dangerous deed here even after a binding, but if I hear him true he’s calling to Shadow and not the Pit. The circle wasn’t built to withstand a shadow beast. I can see the smugness in the eyes of the captain. He is thinking of the rewards he will earn for the head of Yellow Horse, the news of Tae-eran’s death, and the death of this young shaman from the eastern lands.
On our side, we have Beya, two unarmed hobs, an unarmed bugbear.
‘What manner of treason is this, War Captain?’ I ask. ‘Why does your druid call forth demons in this place?’ I end the question in a trilled ‘r’ directed at the summoner, hoping to disrupt his call, but he’s good enough not to be fooled by such tricks.
Behind me I can hear Yellow Horse whispering to the bugbear and the mystic, and the first wisps of stillness as he grabs his power.
‘You speak to me of treason?’ the captain replies. ‘You stand there in the company of rebels and call us the traitors? You should never have come into our lands, Shaman, my man shall bind your soul to mine, you have doomed yourself to my slave until Heaven ends.’
I wouldn’t have thought their druid would have been able to bind much of anything, but he’s doing a remarkable job with that summoning so far. Shadows burst from the ground around him, and swirl.
The others in the circle are stirring, knowing that they won’t be made bait for an easterner again. Beya is whispering something I can’t hear. ‘Let me show you where my soul is bound, War Captain.’ As I speak the four words I realize we are in harmony, and I suddenly know why Beya seemed so familiar.
‘TO ME, MY BROTHER,’ we shout, and the world vanishes in thunder as HE arrives as I have never seen HIM before except in the fields beyond the Gate, the great spirit bull, my BROTHER our BROTHER time stops as HE rises from the earth as HE descends from the sky, there HE crushes the war captain under HIS hooves there HE gores the druid and shakes the shadow beast from HIS horns, our circle dissolves how could we raise it against HIM our BROTHER, the re-bound Mareth shakes and trembles in fear of the BULL.
A blink, and I realize that the bugbear and Yellow Horse and the mystic have charged, have seized the war captain’s arms, and in seconds the four hob soldiers lie dead.
I look at Beya and know that my goal of driving the Green Men and all their kind back onto their ships is doomed, for how can I lift a hand against my BROTHER’S sister?
HE is here, next to us, and I know what HE wants. I take my flint knife in my left hand and make a cut in my right palm. Beya takes a bronze knife in her left hand and makes a cut in her right palm. Our hands meet, and the blood mingles. Is this a hobgoblin’s blood that flows now in my veins? No, it is my sister’s.
The words of prophecy burn in my throat and I speak the poem. My senses are dulled by the effort and I can comprehend only the last few words. ’...and first between. I see your doom, Sister, it sprawls upon the sea coast far to the north.’
Beya speaks, and I hear the future.
‘In summer’s height, look to the Lark
Ware masters two, of children dark
It is not them, that make the stain
A devil’s pact, infernal gain
Guarded firm, but not forever
The landing site, of Hell’s own lever.
I see your doom, Brother, it glides grey upon spring rains.’
Thunder roars, and our BROTHER leaves. I give her my flint knife, she gives me her bronze one. What more is there to say? I salute, and turn to leave. Yellow Horse stops me. He knows enough not to talk about shaman business, but instead asks ‘are you to be Tae-eran’s successor? Has he told you all?’
I stare at him. ‘No. Tae-eran lives,’ another gasp from the bugbear, ‘and he has told me nothing.’ I pause. ‘I have learned enough. Good day to you, Yellow Horse, I do not wish to see you in my lands.’
I mount my horse and depart. Tae-eran will have some questions to answer when I return to his tents. I have hardly spoken to Lark, I must remedy that. Around me, the spirits call imre imre imre imre.
With a bark of surprise, Imre awakens on his narrow cot in the inn where he and Wil have taken lodging.
‘huh wuzzat Imre is sumthn wrong,’ mutters a three-quarters asleep Wil.
‘te Whil-ri shou——no, Wil, nothing’s wrong, go back to sleep.’
Imre’s right hand is throbbing, the old wound swollen and painful. ‘In summer’s height,’ he whispers.