Feb 24 2010 8:15am
The Jewel in the Skull (Excerpt)
Then the Earth grew old, its landscapes mellowing and showing
signs of age, its ways becoming whimsical and strange in the manner
of a man in his last years…
—The High History of the Runestaff
Count Brass, Lord Guardian of Kamarg, rode out on a horned horse one morning to inspect his territories. He rode until he came to a little hill, on the top of which stood a ruin of immense age. It was the ruin of a Gothic church whose walls of thick stone were smooth with the passing of winds and rains. Ivy clad much of it, and the ivy was of the flowering sort so that at this season purple and amber blossoms filled the dark windows, in place of the stained glass that had once decorated them.
His rides always brought Count Brass to the ruin. He felt a kind of fellowship with it, for, like him, it was old; like him, it had survived much turmoil, and, like him, it seemed to have been strengthened rather than weakened by the ravages of time. The hill on which the ruin stood was a waving sea of tall, tough grass, moved by the wind. The hill was surrounded by the rich, seemingly infinite marshlands of Kamarg—a lonely landscape populated by wild white bulls, horned horses, and giant scarlet flamingoes so large they could easily lift a grown man.
The sky was a light grey, carrying rain, and from it shone sunlight of watery gold, touching the count’s armour of burnished brass and making it flame. The count wore a huge broadsword at his hip, and a plain helmet, also of brass, was on his head. His whole body was sheathed in heavy brass, and even his gloves and boots were of brass links sewn upon leather. The count’s body was broad, sturdy and tall, and he had a great, strong head whose tanned face might also have been moulded of brass. From this head stared two steady eyes of golden brown. His hair was red as his heavy moustache. In Kamarg and beyond, it was not unusual to hear the legend that the count was not a true man at all but a living statue in brass, a Titan, invincible, indestructible, immortal.
But those who knew Count Brass knew well enough that he was a man in every sense—a loyal friend, a terrible foe, given much to laughter yet capable of ferocious anger, a drinker of enormous capacity, a trencherman of not indiscriminate tastes, a swordsman and a horseman without peer, a sage in the ways of men and history, a lover at once tender and savage. Count Brass, with his rolling, warm voice and his rich vitality, could not help but be a legend, for if the man was exceptional, then so were his deeds.
* * *
Count Brass stroked the head of his horse, rubbing his gauntlet between the animal’s sharp, spiral horns and looking to the south, where the sea and sky met far away. The horse grunted with pleasure, and Count Brass smiled, leaned back in his saddle, and flicked the reins to make the horse descend the hill and head along the secret marsh path toward the northern towers beyond the horizon.
The sky was darkening when he reached the first tower and saw its guardian, an armoured silhouette against the skyline, keeping his vigil. Though no attack had been made on Kamarg since Count Brass had come to replace the former, corrupt Lord Guardian, there was now some slight danger that roaming armies (those whom the Dark Empire of the west had defeated) might wander into the domain looking for towns and villages to loot. The guardian, like all his fellows, was equipped with a flame-lance of baroque design, a sword four feet long, a tamed riding flamingo tethered to one side of the battlements, and a heliograph device to signal information to nearby towers. There were other weapons in the towers, weapons the count himself had had built and installed, but the guardians knew only their method of operation; they had never seen them in action. Count Brass had said that they were more powerful than any weapons possessed even by the Dark Empire of Granbretan, and his men believed him and were a little wary of the strange machines.
The guardian turned as Count Brass approached the tower. The man’s face was almost hidden by his black iron helmet, which curved around his cheeks and over his nose. His body was swathed in a heavy leather cloak. He saluted, raising his arm high.
Count Brass raised his own arm. “Is all well, guardian?”
“All well, my lord.” The guardian shifted his grip on his flame-lance and turned up the cowl of his cloak as the first drops of rain began to fall. “Save for the weather.”
Count Brass laughed. “Wait for the mistral and then complain.” He guided his horse away from the tower, making for the next.
The mistral was the cold, fierce wind that whipped across Kamarg for months on end, its wild keening a continuous sound until spring. Count Brass loved to ride through it when it was at its height, the force of it lashing at his face and turning his bronze tan to a glowing red.
Now the rain splashed down on his armour, and he reached behind his saddle for his cloak, tugging it about his shoulders and raising the hood. Everywhere through the darkening day reeds bent in the breeze-borne rain, and there was a patter of water on water as the heavy drops splashed into the lagoons, sending out ceaseless ripples. Above, the clouds banked blacker, threatening to release a considerable weight, and Count Brass decided he would forego the rest of his inspection until the next day and instead return to his castle at Aigues-Mortes, a good four hours’ ride through the twisting marsh paths.
He urged the horse back the way they had come, knowing that the beast would find the paths by instinct. As he rode, the rain fell faster, making his cloak sodden. The night closed in rapidly until all that could be seen was a solid wall of blackness broken only by the silver traceries of rain. The horse moved more slowly but did not pause. Count Brass could smell its wet hide and promised it special treatment by the grooms when they reached Aigues-Mortes. He brushed water from its mane with his gloved hand and tried to peer ahead, but could see only the reeds immediately around him, hear only the occasional maniacal cackle of a mallard, flapping across a lagoon pursued by a water-fox or an otter. Sometimes he thought he saw a dark shape overhead and felt the swish of a swooping flamingo making for its communal nest or recognized the squawk of a moorhen battling for its life with an owl. Once, he caught a flash of white in the darkness and listened to the blundering passage of a nearby herd of white bulls as they made for firmer land to sleep; and he noticed the sound, a little later, of a marsh-bear stalking the herd, his breath whiffling, his feet making only the slightest noise as he carefully padded across the quaking surface of the mud. All these sounds were familiar to Count Brass and did not alarm him.
Even when he heard the high-pitched whinny of frightened horses and heard their hoofbeats in the distance he was not unduly perturbed until his own horse stopped dead and moved uncertainly. The horses were coming directly toward him, charging down the narrow causeway in panic. Now Count Brass could see the leading stallion, its eyes rolling in fear, its nostrils flaring and snorting.
Count Brass yelled and waved his arms, hoping to divert the stallion, but it was too panic-stricken to heed him. There was nothing else to do. Count Brass yanked at the reins of his mount and sent it into the marsh, hoping desperately that the ground would be firm enough to hold them at least until the herd had passed. The horse stumbled into the reeds, its hoofs seeking purchase in the soft mud; then it had plunged into water and Count Brass saw spray fly and felt a wave hit his face, and the horse was swimming as best it could through the cold lagoon, bravely carrying its armoured burden.
The herd had soon thundered past. Count Brass puzzled over what had panicked them so, for the wild horned horses of Kamarg were not easily disturbed. Then, as he guided his horse back toward the path, there came a sound that immediately explained the commotion and sent his hand to the hilt of his sword.
It was a slithering sound, a slobbering sound; the sound of a baragoon—the marsh gibberer. Few of the monsters were left now. They had been the creations of the former Guardian, who had used them to terrorize the people of Kamarg before Count Brass came. Count Brass and his men had all but destroyed the race, but those which remained had learned to hunt by night and avoid large numbers of men at all costs.
The baragoon had once been men themselves, before they had been taken as slaves to the former Guardian’s sorcerous laboratories and there transformed. Now they were monsters eight feet high and enormously broad, bile-coloured and slithering on their bellies through the marshlands; they rose only to leap upon and rend their prey with their steel-hard talons. When they did, on occasion, have the good fortune to find a man alone they would take slow vengeance, delighting in eating a man’s limbs before his eyes.
As his horse regained the marsh path, Count Brass saw the baragoon ahead, smelled its stench, and coughed on the odour. His huge broadsword was now in his hand.
The baragoon had heard him and paused.
Count Brass dismounted and stood between his horse and the monster. He gripped his broadsword in both hands and walked, stiff-legged in his armour of brass, toward the baragoon.
Instantly it began to gibber in a shrill, repulsive voice, raising itself up and flailing with its talons in an effort to terrify the count. To Count Brass the apparition was not unduly horrific; he had seen much worse in his time. But he knew that his chances against the beast were slim, since the baragoon could see in the dark and the marsh was its natural environment. Count Brass would have to use cunning.
“You ill-smelling foulness!” (He spoke in an almost jocular tone.) “I am Count Brass, the enemy of your race. It was I who destroyed your evil kin and it is thanks to me that you have so few brothers and sisters these days. Do you miss them? Would you join them?”
The baragoon’s gibbering shout of rage was loud but not without a hint of uncertainty. It shuffled its bulk but did not move toward the count.
Count Brass laughed. “Well, cowardly creation of sorcery—what’s your answer?”
The monster opened its mouth and tried to frame a few words with its misshapen lips, but little emerged that could be recognized as human speech. Its eyes now did not meet Count Brass’s.
Casually, Count Brass dug his great sword into the ground and rested his gauntleted hands upon the cross-piece. “I see you are ashamed of terrorizing the horses I protect, and I am in good humour, so I will pity you. Go now and I’ll let you live a few more days. Stay, and you die this hour.”
He spoke with such assurance that the beast dropped back to the ground, though it did not retreat. The count lifted up his sword and walked impatiently forward. He wrinkled his nose against the stench of the monster, paused, and waved the thing away from him. “Into the swamp, into the slime where you belong! I am in a merciful mood tonight.”
The baragoon’s wet mouth snarled, but still he hesitated.
Count Brass frowned a little, judging his moment, for he had known the baragoon would not retreat so easily. He lifted his sword. “Will this be your fate?”
The baragoon began to rise on its hind legs, but Count Brass’s timing was exactly right. He was already swinging the heavy blade into the monster’s neck.
The thing struck out with both taloned hands, its gibbering cry a mixture of hatred and terror. There was a metallic squeal as the talons scored gashes in the count’s armour, sending him staggering backward. The monster’s mouth opened and closed an inch from the count’s face, its huge black eyes seeming to consume him with their rage. He staggered back, taking his sword with him. It came free. He regained his footing and struck again.
Black blood pumped from the wound, drenching him. There was another terrible cry from the beast, and its hands went to its head, trying desperately to hold it in place. Then the baragoon’s head flopped half off its shoulders, blood pumped again, and the body fell.
Count Brass stood stock still, panting heavily, staring with grim satisfaction at the corpse. He wiped the creature’s blood fastidiously from him, smoothed his heavy moustache with the back of his hand, and congratulated himself that he appeared to have lost none of his guile or his skill. He had planned every moment of the encounter, intending from the first to kill the baragoon. He had kept the creature bewildered until he could strike. He saw no wrong in deceiving it. If he had given the monster a fair fight, it was likely that he, and not the baragoon, would now be lying headless in the mud.
Count Brass took a deep breath of the cold air and moved forward. With some effort he managed to dislodge the dead baragoon with his booted foot, sending it slithering into the marsh.
Then Count Brass remounted his horned horse and rode back to Aigues-Mortes without further incident.
Cover art and interior illustrations by Vance Kovacs