THE INFINITE WILLOWS
CREATURES OF THE STAFF
The face was lit by a faint green phosphorescence at the back of its empty eye-sockets and blackened mouth, and with no point of reference, seemed to float disembodied in the darkness. It was the face of a young man, but aged by a rictus of pain and anger. Dimly, around the shadowed neck, could be seen the marks of a garrotting. This was the face of a corpse.
Beyond the corpse the occasional flash of red eyes marked the passing of dark-born darvish, their clawed feet scrabbling on the shale. Occasionally they gathered together for a hooting conference. None of them approached the ready source of meat. Something kept them away, kept them frightened.
A brief incandescence from the eyes and mouth of the corpse ignited the landscape. In the lurid light the baboonlike darvish were frozen with their fanlike spined ears open and their eyes glaring. The corpse could be seen sprawled on its back. As the light waned the darvish fled, hooting in panic. The light did not fade completely, it remained, brighter than it had previously been. There was enough now for the corpse to be seen entire as it sat upright, breathed, turned the lighthouse glow of its eye sockets from right to left, then stood up. With macabre purpose Cuthred of Edgehouse walked from his place of rest, and a temporary death.
The baying of a war hound silenced the mad chattering of the grass monkeys. Oswulf tipped back his hat and sniffed at the breeze. After a moment a strange smile crossed his features and he walked on through the long grass and tangle of purple flowers.
“I must be close to you, cousin,” he said. “There is a savoury smell on the breeze this fine morning.”
As he walked he checked down to be sure his daggers were firmly seated in their sheaths in his boots and unlimbered a heavy two-shot crossbow from his back. Soon the rolling heath land revealed a copse from which thick white smoke drifted; smoke that carried the taint of burning flesh. He halted and squatted down to crank back the two strings of the crossbow and drop two steel bolts into their respective grooves. Again there came that terrible baying. Oswulf rose to his feet in time to see a man come out into the open discarding his sword then his heavy breastplate. He was running as if the hounds of Hell were after him. Oswulf raised his crossbow and took aim, but the man jerked to the note of a butchering thud and went over in an arc of blood. The arrow from the copse fell somewhere beyond him, broken, and red from tip to fletching.
“Oh excellent shot,” said Oswulf as he lowered his crossbow. At that moment a huge white hound showed itself at the edge of the copse then returned. There was a scream and a snarling crackle, then another long high-pitched scream followed by silence. Oswulf grinned, shook his head, then lowered his crossbow to disarm it. He entered the slaughterhouse at the centre of the copse to the sound of a sharpening stone being drawn across metal.
“You really should get him out of that fire. Smells pretty bad.” Oswulf gestured to the headless corpse that lay across the scattered remains of the campfire. The sharpening stone stilled. Oswulf looked beyond its shadowed source to the huge rimhound that lay panting in the shade with a froth of blood round its mouth.
“Quite a mess here.”
In the area around the fire five men lay in various stages of dismemberment and death, though one could not be described as laying as he had been nailed to a tree with his own short sword. Oswulf studied the deep cuts and fang rips in the bodies. Only after he had speculated on how each of them had died did he note that they all wore the same dark robes.
“Still killing priests I see,” he said.
The blood-stained figure in a ragged grey cloak and the rough leather and cloth dress of a mercenary, rose to his feet from the bowl of the rot-hollowed oak. He looked at Oswulf with eyes the colour of pitch set in a face as devoid of mercy as the ugly looking sabre he carried; a sword as patinated and viciously sharp as a favourite ham knife. Without a word he took up an unstrung longbow and made his way amongst the corpses to the one nailed to the tree. The rimhound, Aldreas, rose to its feet and followed him, its tongue lolling and dripping saliva on the dead.
“So what brings you on my trail, Cousin?” wondered Hadrim, Lord of Twilight.
“Drannen wants you.”
Hadrim nodded and rested on the longbow before the nailed man. After a moment he reached out with his sabre and pulled the neck of the man’s hood aside. Revealed was a ribbed pipe sprouting from below the man’s ear to disappear down his back. Oswulf drew a sharp breath and moved forward to stand beside his cousin.
“I thought it ended,” he said.
Hadrim said, “It will take some time. I killed the Warden and gutted his Tower, but his minions don’t know, and still hold power in many lands. They just have to be made aware of their master’s demise.”
“There is one here then?” Oswulf looked around as if seeing the land for the first time. A grass monkey chattered at him from a tree, exposing its chipped yellow teeth, then stopped to pick at its matted brown hair. “I take it you are going to visit this … minion … and your visit will involve a constriction to his breathing or his falling from a great height?”
“If that is what it takes to make him aware of the facts,” said Hadrim, deadpan.
Oswulf looked at him suspiciously for a moment.
“Was that a joke? I don’t think I could stand you with a sense of humour.”
Hadrim shrugged and scratched at his cropped grey hair, then turned and headed back to retrieve a pack resting below the oak.
“Let’s get out of here. The place is beginning to stink,” he said.
They walked out of the copse into the bluish sunlight and took a course towards a distant woodland. Oswulf looked round for Aldreas and on seeing the hound was not with them he glanced questioningly at Hadrim.
“He has to eat,” said Hadrim, and continued on, the sabre sheathed at his back and the longbow used as a walking staff. Oswulf considered the bow a vast improvement on his cousin’s last staff. That now lay sealed in a steel casket in the weapon vaults of Edgehouse, the family home.
“Why does Drannen want me?” Hadrim asked.
“It’s time to move.”
Hadrim halted for a moment then continued walking.
“Surdar moves into the Dark then. Drannen said this might happen. Such forces were unleashed…”
“We could always move round world, but Drannen said it is time for us to come out into the Light. His request for you has something to do with this.”
Hadrim nodded. “Then there is no urgency in his request.”
“Yes, I’m sure you can complete your business here.”
An hour’s walking brought them to the edge of the woodland and brought the sun down to the horizon where it was lost in lurid magenta clouds. The trees of the woodland were mainly silver and gold birches interspersed with the occasional oak. Looking in at the brackens and tangled briars below the trees Oswulf did not relish the prospect of travel there, but Hadrim led off to the right and they soon came to a rutted track knifing into the trees.
“Where are we heading?” Oswulf asked.
Hadrim halted and absently reached out to scratch Aldreas’ head. The hound looked up at him with impatience then wandered off to urinate against a tree.
“About ten leagues from here is the new home of the Prior of Glent, as he calls himself, though I know of no Glent in this land … It’s a monastery, recently taken over by the Prior’s people.”
“How many people?”
“Between fifty and a hundred. They are all that remain of the sigil bearers. They were driven from their place of power forty leagues to the North of here by a local warlord. It wouldn’t have happened before… but now there are no reinforcements coming from the Tower.”
“You could have left this Prior to the warlord, surely?”
“I have a particular dislike of this man,” said Hadrim, and his expression hardened.
Oswulf followed that line of questioning no further.
“Between fifty and a hundred. I hope you don’t plan a frontal assault?”
“No,” said Hadrim. “Just a quiet convivial little assassination.”
There it was again. Oswulf frowned. Hadrim with a sense of humour? Trees with wings seemed more likely.
As they walked Hadrim restrung his bow and knocked an arrow from the quiver behind his left shoulder. Oswulf reached for his crossbow then desisted when he saw the arrow was a small-pointed hunting arrow. As the light failed Hadrim turned and smoothly released at the flash of eyes. A grass monkey squawked and thumped to the ground. Aldreas shot off then came back with it in his jaws, his tail wagging. When it grew too dark to continue, the three of them moved well away from the track and made camp. Oswulf threw dried vegetables and herbs into a pot and soon had monkey stew bubbling over a small fire. Aldreas ate what remained of the monkey, raw, hair as well.
“Will it be safe to keep this fire going?” Oswulf asked as he finished his stew.
“No, that was my last mistake,” said Hadrim, and rolled himself in his blanket.
“I’d been meaning to ask you about that,” said Oswulf quietly as he put out the fire.
In the crook of a dead tree where parasitic plants bloomed in abundance a grass monkey twitched its scabbed snout as the smell of food was displaced by an alien scent. It pricked up its ears and looked around. There was a creaking; the ponderous flapping of leathery wings. The grass monkey bared its teeth at the night and prepared to flee. It did not get the chance. Something folded out of the darkness over it and its cry was brief. Later, all that remained of it was a slime-wrapped pellet containing undigested hair and bone.
The light of the sunrise was a long time reaching them through the trees, but when it did it seemed it had been well worth waiting for. It made the birches look as if they had been wrapped in foils of gold and silver and gave the leaves an emerald translucence. Before they set out again Hadrim opened his pack and removed two oiled cloth packages and unwrapped them to reveal two ridiculously large double barrelled cap lock pistols. “A bit premature,” said Oswulf, looking at the pistols dubiously.
“Normally so, but with some innovations of Jerrod’s I can prepare early without fear of shot or powder running out the barrels, or the powder in the pan getting damp.”
Hadrim opened another package and produced paper cartridges which he proceeded to ram into each barrel.
“Won’t the paper make reloading difficult?”
“There’s the innovation; it’s flash paper and it burns up with the discharge. And as for any other problems … you can see they are cap locks.” Hadrim went on to carefully press into place the small powder filled brass caps which took the place of a flash pan.
“I’ll stick to my crossbow,” said Oswulf.
Hadrim shrugged as he stood up and slid the pistols into holsters fitted to his weapons harness. He then hoisted up his pack, slung his bow over his left shoulder, ready strung, and left his sabre unsecured in its sheath. Oswulf thought it prudent at that moment to crank his crossbow back and fit the two bolts. If Hadrim assumed trouble to be immanent, then it would be.
All of note that occurred during the morning was for the birch trees to thin out and be displaced by reddish conifers and for the land to become rugged and hilly. At midday Hadrim called a halt and he and Oswulf sat on a dead fall looking to where the trees thinned to nothing and a range of low hills could be seen beyond.
As if beginning a story Hadrim said, “About half a league from here, I am told, is a somewhat inconvenient river with only one crossing point. A bridge, I believe.”
“Is there any good news?” asked Oswulf.
“There might not be guards there.”
“When did you become an optimist?”
“The shortly after I snapped the Warden of the Tower’s neck. Come on.”
Oswulf looked round at Hadrim’s face and could not make up his mind whether or not he had caught the tail end of a grin there. He unhitched his crossbow and followed his cousin.
The bright light of the sun beyond the trees made Oswulf feel horribly exposed. He reflected that he had a marked preference for creeping up on people. Hadrim just trudged on without apparent qualm. He did not even bother to get off the track.
“Supposing there were guards. How many do you think there would be?” he asked.
“Three or four on either side I should imagine,” was Hadrim’s blithe reply.
Soon they were following the track up the side of a hill, and as they reached the hill’s summit Hadrim called Aldreas to heel and carefully looked over the brow. He immediately squatted down. Oswulf looked also and saw the river and the man clustered about one end of a rope bridge. He squatted down also.
“About six,” he said. “Do you need me. Six seems to be your number.”
Hadrim ignored this.
“Not very much cover. I suggest-” he stood up, “we just walk down there and see what occurs.” He turned to Aldreas. “Stay here.” The hound squatted down on its haunches with a bored expression.
“Great plan,” said Oswulf, following him.
They topped the brow of the hill and walked down. Only when they were halfway down did the black robed soldiers see them and draw weapons.
“Why were you attacked back there? Is there any reason these people might recognise you? You left Aldreas…”
“I’ve been killing them for the last four months so it is distinctly possible.”
As they drew closer one of the black robed ones drew his sword and shouted to them.
“Come no closer! We will come to you!”
The six men spread out and began a cautious advance. The leader had bowmen positioned either side of him. The others all carried swords and shields. When they were close enough for a for faces to be discerned the leader, a short individual with bilious expression, food spattered beard, and a rusty scimitar, halted and stared at Hadrim in shock. Oswulf brought his crossbow to bear just as Hadrim’s bow thrummed. Arrow and bolt struck one after the other. The two bowmen flew back and landed in a tangle of robes and blood. A single arrow tumbled out of the sky to the left. Oswulf’s second bolt went through the leader’s throat and left the back of his neck with pieces of vertebrae. Then one of Hadrim’s pistols thundered twice. As the acrid smoke was whipped away one of the swordsmen staggered then looked down in disbelief at the hole where his kidney had been, then sat on the ground. Another of the swordsmen turned with his right leg buckling under him. The last swordsman dropped his sword and ran.
“Ward!” Hadrim bellowed.
Aldreas came down the hill like stone skimmed across water, went past them with staccato growls as he panted and rolled his lips back from a pound of ivory. The swordsman made it to the start of the bridge, took one look at what was coming after him, and leapt straight into the river to be swept away by the flood. Aldreas halted at the river bank and looked for a moment as if he might go in after the man, then he gave a couple of whining barks and turned to head back to Hadrim and Oswulf. By that time the two had reached the men they had killed and those they had not. Without even altering his pace Hadrim drew his sabre and brought it down on the swordsman who was trying to stand on his shattered leg. He dropped with his head half severed and his hands scrabbling at the ground like claws. The others he left to die at their own pace. They would not be following.