Taranis and his men forage for the collected tribes of the Crow as they march against the Romans, but he brings back more than he bargained for when he frees a beautiful and mysterious prisoner, Alpnu. Together they face a power sealed in a cave for millennia and newly risen from Hell.
I led my troop of foragers into the Crow’s camp at midmorning, singing about Lillia from Massillia who could service a squadron—and their horses. We’d held up just out of sight to primp, braid our hair, and put on a bright sash or a gold torque. Most of my troopers were common warriors, but our incidental pickings let them dress like nobles.
Galo, my mother’s sister’s son, was calling the verses from the driver’s bench of the cart full of loot we’d taken from the villa we’d sacked two nights before. The woman we’d taken at that place sat beside Galo, proud as a queen. She looked like a scarlet butterfly perched beside a cheerful toad.
Some foragers come in whooping and hollering, but that spooks the herd they’re driving. My boys took care of business first, and anybody who didn’t learn that right quick got the stuffing knocked out of him before I booted him from the troop.
“If you’re good enough to ride with Taranis,” they said in the Crow’s war band, “you’re good enough to ride back from Hell!”
Well, my boys say that, anyway. The rest call us cocky bastards, but they know that we generally bring in as much food as any two of the other foraging troops. Galo has an instinct for finding things.
Food was going to be even more important to the war band if the Crow decided to make an example of Caere. The city had good walls, and we might have to sit here till Esus the Wise knew when.
The line warriors might, that is. We foragers would be miles out from the crowds and the stink.
It had been raining off and on for a month. The ground had been soft when the Crow had set up here before I left on this drive. Now it was a bog, and even the few latrines that the band had dug were flooded out.
I hate marching camps. I could give lots of reasons why I prefer to lead foragers rather than a wing of the cavalry, but that’s the real one.
I checked to see where the Crow’s winged standard stood, raised on a high pole. It was a larger duplicate of the bronze rig on his helmet.
“Take charge of the billeting, Galo,” I said as I dismounted. “I’ll be back as soon as I report to the chief.”
“We’ll save you a jar of the good stuff, Top!” Matisco said.
I tramped through the camp, exchanging greetings with the nobles I met and nodding to warriors who bowed to me. In the field with my boys there’s no nonsense about “yes, lord,” and “as you wish, lord,” but here it has to be different. I left Galo in charge in camp when I was gone, like now, because he had the rank to protect the boys even though his leg was twisted and he couldn’t walk right.
Mind, my troopers knew to hop it when I gave an order.
The Crow’s tent was pitched on a little hill, but the swale I had to cross to reach it was downstream of one of the abattoirs. I’d walked through worse places, but it didn’t make me like the camp any better than I had before.
The Crow was with three of his thousand-chiefs, but when a servant whispered to him he turned to clasp arms with me. “Taranis!” he said. “Good pickings this time?”
The javelin in my left hand was so much a part of me in the field that I’d forgotten I held it until now. Embarrassed, I turned it to point down along my thigh.
“Good enough, Chief,” I said. “Twenty oxen, a couple hundred sheep and goats. There were a few horses too, though nothing special that way.”
“Any slaves?” asked Segolestes. He’d always struck me as greedy, but he wasn’t a bad sort. Dubnoreix was the only thousand-chief I didn’t have any use for.
I shrugged. “Twenty or so to drive the carts and badger the herd in,” I said. “Any more would’ve been just useless mouths till we got far enough south to sell them to the Greeks.”
I looked back at the Crow—looked up at the Crow; he’s a hand’s breadth taller than I am, and there’s few enough I could say that about—and said, “We brought a woman too, Chief. She’s a noble herself, but she says she was a prisoner.”
The Crow tugged his left moustache. He had the face of a bird, but to me he was more of a hawk than a crow: thin and sharp, with eyes that saw everything. “Is there ransom for her?”
“I doubt it,” I said, “but I didn’t really talk to her. She speaks Gaulish and I can pick my way through Etruscan, but we had a scrap at the villa where we found her and, you know, that put me out of thinking beyond the next step.”
“Romans?” asked Orgetereix, putting his right hand on his sword pommel. “They claim they’re chief of all this region, you know.”
“I leave politics to my betters,” I said, which made the Crow snort. I don’t swank around, but he knows me too well to think I’d call Orgetereix “my better” if I meant it. “We didn’t see any sign of Romans. This was a villa. I figured to take their stock and let the rest be, but they wanted to make a fight about it.”
It had gotten close to evening but Galo had kept pushing on, talking about “the beautiful woman.” We weren’t out for women and anyway, Galo isn’t much interested in them most of the time. He has a good nose for cattle, though, so I let him take us farther than I’d planned to go that day.
Galo can ride well enough, but he has to switch horses pretty often because of his weight. He’s got the chest and shoulders of two men despite his stumpy legs. Even the good one isn’t long enough for his big torso.
He’d reached the top of the gentle slope we were climbing when he raised his hand to halt us, then waved me forward. The rest of the troop held up, checking their weapons soundlessly.
I walked my horse up beside him to where I could see over the top of the rise. The villa was on a downslope even shallower than what we’d just climbed. There was a good-sized sheepfold to the left of the main building with huts for the servants beyond the fold. To the right was a barn with a shake roof; a servant with a long goad stood by the double door, but the last of a file of oxen was entering without needing encouragement.
I turned, pointed to Matisco, and raised five fingers, then swept my arm around to the left. He immediately led his squad through the brush on that side. That would put them behind the huts to round up the servants when they started to run.
Like I’d told Segolestes, I wasn’t out to take slaves. I’d sooner have locals doing the dog work, though. My boys appreciated it, and it left them free to deal with anything that happened to come up.
We didn’t know this territory, and I’d heard the rumors too: that the Romans were going to stop us from taking the contract from the king of Syracuse. They were welcome to try, was how I felt about the Romans; but that didn’t mean I wanted to stumble into a hostile army with just my troop of twenty.
It didn’t take long for Matisco to get into position—we all knew the drill. He whistled and I brought the rest of the troop up and over.
I headed for the barn with three men. Seven more under Heune took the sheepfold, and Galo had the rest to use as the business started to play out. There was a four-wheeled wagon under a shed beside the barn. It would be handy for hauling the big jars the locals use to store food and wine.
Servants started shouting and running. The fellow with the ox goad looked like he might want to try prodding me with it. Holding the reins against the shaft of the javelin in my left hand, I howled and swung my sword overhead in a circle. He dropped the pole and ducked into the barn, pulling the door shut behind him.
It couldn’t be locked from inside, of course. I jumped off my horse and stuck the butt-spike of my javelin in the crack, then levered the door open fast. My sword point was aimed toward the face of anybody who decided to come out and try conclusions, but nobody did. I was about to shout for the servants to give up before we had to go in after them, that nobody would get hurt—
And right then the landowner and what turned out to be six bodyguards rushed us from the main house.
Albos must’ve been nosing toward the house, which he shouldn’t have done, so they were almost on him when they burst out the front door. He flung a javelin but it stuck in the shield of the fellow with the horsehair plume in the top of his helmet. Albos tried to run, but a guard speared him through the left thigh and he went down with blood soaking his trousers black in the sunset.
Another of the bunched guards brought back his spear to finish the job, but I hit the middle of them shouting, “The sky smites you down!” though they probably couldn’t have understood the words even if they spoke Gaulish.
It might’ve been smarter to back away and see just what we were up against, but they’d have put paid to Albos if I’d done that. And anyhow, that’s never been my way.
The leader was easy to spot from his plume and the fact that he was waving a sword while his guards just had spears. One of them thrust at me from the left, but I slanted his point away with my javelin shaft and swung down at the leader.
He hadn’t managed to get either his shield or his short, hook-bladed sword up in time. I caught his helmet on the sweet spot of my blade, a handsbreadth back from the point. He went down like a sacrificed ox, and that was about all there was to the fight.
Javelins feathered the guards’ shields. One man dropped and then Galo, still on his horse, swiped the left-end man with his massive iron prybar as he rode past. He hit the fellow’s shield, dishing in the boss and cracking the wood so it folded over.
Those who still could run tried to now, throwing away their shields, but Matisco and his squad were coming around from behind. I started to pick up a dropped shield—I don’t like them but believe me, a shield is a better choice than a javelin when you’re charging a line of spears.
No matter. I’d been lucky, and I didn’t need a shield now after all. All the guards were down, and my boys were cutting their throats to make sure they stayed that way.
“Top, are you all right?” Galo said.
“Yeah, I didn’t get a scratch,” I said, but as I turned toward him the bloody side of my tunic pulled at the track that spear had plowed along my ribs. The wool had stuck to the flesh. When I tore it away, it hurt like a demon was chewing it.
“It’s all right,” I muttered. Galo ripped cloth from the dead leader’s tunic and tied it as a bandage under my own garment. That way seeping blood didn’t make my clothes stick to me.
Galo paused to pull a small iron box off the leader’s neck chain. It was iron too, but Galo just gave a twist of his big hand and broke the links.
I went into the main house, walking fast so that nobody would see how I was shaking. It’s always like that afterward for me.
Albos had bled out anyway; the spear had split the artery in his thigh. You don’t think about what’s the smartest thing to do when you’re in a fight, though; if you do, you’re not a man. Also you lose, but losing a fight is nothing compared to losing your manhood.
The house had two rooms to each side of the passage in the middle and a big room in the back. Fabric hangings covered the side doorways, all but the farther one on the right.
I could hear women sobbing behind the hangings, but I wouldn’t have worried about somebody coming out behind me with a knife even if several of the boys hadn’t followed me. I still had my sword in my right hand, but that was because I wasn’t sure I could find the mouth of the scabbard with the point until I stopped trembling so bad.
I’d meant to go to the end room where lamplight showed through the doorway, but I saw that the iron-bound door to the right was barred on the hall side. I decided to see what was there before I checked the end room. Using the butt of my javelin, I lifted the bar and pushed the panel open with my foot.
I didn’t like the feel of the house. My shakes had settled, but I wasn’t sorry for the sword in my hand.
A woman sat facing me in a straight-backed chair, lighted by the oil lamp hanging from a wall bracket. She didn’t need an expensive red robe and gold clasps to show that she was no servant.
“Are you the owner’s widow?” I said in Etruscan, just to make sure she knew where she stood.
“Mamurcus was my jailer, not my husband,” she said, speaking in Gaulish and cool as you please. “Who are you?”
There were bars on the room’s small window, though the bed was made of bronze and figured wood, and the chair legs had ivory inlays. Prisoner she may have been, but she wasn’t a common criminal.
“I’m Lord Taranis,” I said, switching to Gaulish—she had a Boian accent, but she was a lot more fluent than I was in Etruscan. “So far as you’re concerned, I’m your lord and master!”
She smiled. “Taranis is good enough,” she said. “Mamurcus was a noble and a great wizard, but I wouldn’t call him my master. I’m certainly not going to do that for a trouser-wearing Gaul who’s waving a sword at me.”
I used the hem of my tunic to wipe the blade, then sheathed it at my right side. The garment was rags now. The spear cut could be sewn up and the blood washed out of the cloth, but I didn’t want to be reminded of how close it had been every time I put it on in the future.
“Come on, then,” I said. “We’ll spend the night here and take you back to the main camp in the morning. We’ve made a good enough haul tonight that we don’t have to stay out longer.”
I grinned at her. “Unless you’d like to argue with me?” I said.
If she’d given the wrong answer, I’d have slapped her out of the chair. I didn’t mind being called a trouser-wearing Gaul, since I was one right enough; but prisoners needed to know their place. I wouldn’t put my sword through her as I would one of the servants if he got uppity, but I wasn’t in the mood for an argument.
“I don’t mind at all, Taranis,” she said, standing up gracefully. I’d expected her movements to be as stiff as she sounded. “I’m grateful to you for freeing me from Mamurcus, which I was unable to do myself. My name’s Alpnu, by the way. Lady Alpnu to commoners, but I think Alpnu to you.”
I thought of tying her overnight—the servants we wanted for labor we shut in the barn—but she ate with us and went back to her room afterwards. In the morning I put her in the cart with Galo, though she said she could ride. She wasn’t any trouble on the way back.
Now I looked at the Crow and tugged my moustache again. “I figure to talk to her today, maybe talk to the servants we brought back too. When I learn more, you can decide what to do with her.”
“Are you staying long in camp?” said Orgetereix. “I’m worried about what the Romans have in mind.”
Then you can bloody well go tramp through mud and watch them, I thought, but what I said was “I figure five or six days. I need to replace one of the boys; and anyway, the troop deserves some downtime. We’ve been in the field eight days out of ten for the past two months.”
Which was fine with me, but some of the boys had regular arrangements with women in the train. Besides, we all wanted to get thoroughly drunk on the wine we’d been bringing in. You don’t tie one on in the field unless you want to find your head decorating somebody else’s trophy.
Right then Galo blew the alarm call. His dog-headed horn was tuned higher than most and had a whistle in the throat instead of a clapper.
“That’s for me!” I said, turning and running toward the sound, just like I’d do in the field. I might have some explaining to do with the Crow when things settled down, but that was for later.
Now my troop needed me, and nothing—no one—would get in the way of that call.
I didn’t draw my sword as I ran through the camp. When I got to Galo—he’d just climbed down from the cart, pretty much where I’d left him—I was glad of that: he was facing Dubnoreix.
Dubnoreix’s brother Liscus was there too, leading his housemen. They all had their helmets and shields.
I wasn’t afraid of them, but eleven to one was longer odds than I could win at even if I’d had my shield. Running up waving my sword would’ve given Dubnoreix an excuse to finish me the way he’s been wanting to do ever since we were boys and I’d broken his arm with a branch I took away from him after he’d swung it at me.
Dubnoreix had backed the Etruscan woman, Alpnu, against the wagon. He turned to face me when I arrived, which let her sidle a little farther way. She wasn’t cowering, but she didn’t want to be any closer to Dubnoreix than she had to—for which I didn’t blame her.
“Greetings, cousin!” I called. “I expected to see you when I reported to the chief!”
“Greetings, Taranis,” Dubnoreix said. He looked flushed and was clenching and unclenching his right hand. “I was looking at your prisoner here, and she bit me. I think I’ll take her to my tent to teach her a little discipline.”
When we’d gotten to camp my troopers had headed off to get outside a few skins of wine, but they came rushing back at the horn call. They wouldn’t get involved in a fight between nobles, though, and I didn’t expect them to. I wasn’t nearly so sure of what Dubnoreix’s housemen would do, though, and Liscus was noble himself.
“Sorry, coz,” I said, walking toward him. I wanted to gasp after my run back at the horn call, but I kept control of my breathing to seem nonchalant. “The chief and I were just discussing her. When we decide what to do, we’ll let you know.”
That was close enough to the truth that the Crow wouldn’t take my head off when he learned what I’d said, and it put Dubnoreix on notice to mind how he went no matter how mad he was. It looked like he’d stroked Alpnu’s cheek and she’d snapped at his finger. I’d have laughed if things weren’t already so tense.
Dubnoreix’s hand quivered toward his sword hilt, and his face got redder yet. “I think you’re forgetting that I’m a thousand-chief, Taranis,” he said, his voice mushy with anger.
“I think you’re forgetting that I’m not in your thousand, Dubnoreix,” I said. I kept my voice calm, for a wonder, but there was the least tremble in it that warned anybody listening that I was getting close to the edge myself.
There was a bustle behind me. That was what I’d been waiting for.
“My blood’s just as good as yours, cousin!” I said. “And that’s if Kervan really was your father and not his horse-holder.”
“Bastard!” Dubnoreix shouted, which would’ve been funny if I’d had time to think about it: there weren’t any rumors about my mother. He swung his shield in front of his body and reached for the sword hanging at his right side. Instead of drawing my own sword, I stepped forward and stabbed at his sword hilt with the javelin in my left hand.
My point clacked against the ivory. Dubnoreix shouted and jerked his bloody hand up. I stepped back, my empty right hand raised at my side.
“Stop this!” the Crow bellowed. “Put away your arms or your heads are forfeit!”
I stuck my javelin into the soil and backed another pace without turning my head. “At your lordship’s command!” I said.
Liscus clanged his sword back into its sheath; the other housemen hadn’t drawn theirs. I’m not sure what Dubnoreix would have done if I hadn’t struck his sword hand, but right now his little finger lay on the ground. He dropped his shield so that he could squeeze the stump with his left hand.
“Dubnoreix, get your rabble to their tents right now!” the Crow said, stepping past me. He’d paused to put on his winged helmet, making him look even taller than before. The other thousand-chiefs had come along with him, but they were hanging well back.
I lowered my hands slowly, but I didn’t budge from where I was standing. I knew the Crow would have words for me after he’d settled with Dubnoreix.
“My lord, he struck me!” Dubnoreix said.
“You drew your sword on a man who wasn’t armed to receive you!” said the Crow. “You’re lucky a finger was all you lost. Get to your tents, I said!”
He pointed with his left arm and two extended fingers. I was looking at him from behind, and he sure as fate chilled my bones.
Dubnoreix walked away straight-backed, but he walked. Liscus picked up his brother’s shield and followed. The rest of the housemen had already slunk off in the direction Dubnoreix’s clan was camped.
The Crow turned to me. I met his eyes, but I said, “My lord,” in as respectful a tone as I could.
“Well, Taranis,” the Crow said. “Feeling clever, are you?”
“No, my lord,” I said. “This was nothing I wanted to happen. I’m sorry that it did.”
That was true, but I liked the result better than I would have liked some of the ways it might have turned out. Dubnoreix and his gang showing up fully armed the way they did must have been a deliberate plan to either make me back down or to start a fight I couldn’t win.
“Are you sorry?” said the Crow. He snorted. “Well, I guess you will be; I’m not having brawls between my chiefs here in the camp. Get out and forage in the direction of Rome. I don’t want you back in the camp for ten days unless there’s a Roman army at your heels.”
I thought of about a dozen ways I could answer that. The best result I’d get from backtalk would be no result; and as angry as the Crow was, I could lose my head if something I said stepped hard enough on his corns.
“Yes, my lord,” I said, bobbing my head. “We’ll ride out as soon as I can gather the boys.”
I looked around. Galo’s horn had brought most of them, though we’d probably want fresh mounts from the remuda. Galo needed a string of horses just for himself.
“Get on with it, then,” the Crow said, turning on his heel and stalking off. When he was angry his face pulled itself thinner, and he looked even more like a hawk.
I pulled my javelin from the ground and wiped the mud off with my tunic. I was trembling again, furious with Dubnoreix and the Crow both—though I knew the Crow was right—the last thing we needed was a clan fight in the middle of the war band. I’d been looking forward to a few days off, and the boys had been even more of that mind.
“Aw, Top!” Matisco said. “I been looking forward to seeing my girlfriend like you wouldn’t believe. Can’t we stay over tonight at least?”
I turned and raised my hand to knock him down. Galo caught my arm and said, “Top, let him be! We’re all on edge!”
If you want to know how strong Galo was, let me tell you that my fist didn’t move a hairsbreadth after he grabbed me. I wouldn’t say there was another man alive who could’ve stopped me from letting my anger out—on the wrong guy.
Matisco’s just a little fellow and a bloody useful one, I thought. I’d have broken his neck if I’d hit him square.
“Sorry, Top,” Matisco muttered. “I’ll get the packhorses ready.”
“Wait,” I said. My voice was a growl that even I couldn’t have understood. Louder and more clearly, I said, “Hold up, all of you! This job doesn’t need a whole troop, it just needs one man. You’re all off duty until I get back, which I figure will be ten days. Galo, if there’s a problem, go straight to the Crow—but I don’t think there will be.”
“Top, I want to go with you,” Galo said. He was wearing a clear jewel on a gold chain. The loop was almost too tight to fit around his neck.
“Yeah, all right,” I said. I wasn’t surprised, and I was just as glad to have Galo along. “Matisco, you’re in charge of the troop while I’m gone. Don’t start trouble, and if anybody else does let the Crow sort it out. Dubnoreix’s problem is with me, not with you lot, so just make sure it stays that way.”
“Right, Top,” Matisco said, bobbing his head. “We’ll keep outa trouble, don’t worry.”
“Taranis,” the woman said. “Take me too. It’s not safe for me to be here in the camp.”
“Why should I care how safe you are?” I said. It wasn’t fair to blame her for the trouble, but that’s how I felt.
“Why should you care about Dubnoreix having his way after all?” she said, raising a mocking eyebrow. “If you don’t know the answer to that, you’re not the man I thought you were.”
I laughed; she was a sharp little piece, no doubt about that. “All right,” I said, “but you’d better be able to ride the way you claim you can. I swear by the Dagda that I’ll drag you on a rope if you can’t.”
This time she laughed. “Get me a horse, then, and you can judge for yourself. And I think we’d better do it soon, because your chief didn’t sound like he meant maybe when he told you to get moving.”
I grunted and led the way to the corral. Galo stumped along behind.
Vincingo, the warband’s head wrangler, likes me and my troop. Whenever we stumble on something particularly good, we make sure there’s some of it left for him.
That means we get our pick of the horses; better, we get Vincingo’s pick, because he knows them better than any of us do. We don’t get pretty-looking mounts that don’t have stamina, or are shortsighted, or are likely to kick for no reason except they’ve got a clear shot at your ribs; those horses go to other troops.
Vincingo and his crew had already started to cut out mounts for me and Galo when I arrived at the corral. I’d just as soon not have been the day’s hot gossip, but it made getting out of camp quicker and easier than it would’ve been if I’d had to explain why we were leaving again when we’d just got in.
Vincingo hadn’t heard Alpnu was going with us, though, and she had her own opinions about horses. They were choosing one for her while the crew put together strings for me and Galo.
While we waited, I had my first chance to relax since we’d gotten back to the camp. That’s what I was doing, leaning on a post and trying to forget the gouge along my ribs, when Galo said, “I wish that woman wasn’t coming along.”
I opened my eyes; looking at Galo was better than the way my memories were turning. “She rides well enough,” I said, nodding toward Alpnu and Vincingo. “Rides better than me, anyhow.”
Another thought struck me, and I said, “Or are you worried that she’ll get away? Don’t be. I think the Crow would be just as glad if she disappeared, given the trouble she’s been already. I wouldn’t mind either.”
That last part wasn’t quite true. Alpnu was a puzzle, and I like figuring things out. The problems I play with aren’t usually people, though. If she ran, I wasn’t going to hunt her down.
“I’d like it if she disappeared,” Galo said, wrinkling his forehead. “Etruscan women are witches, you know.”
I laughed and said, “All women are witches, Galo, I figured that out before I was sixteen, and nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind.”
The sun caught the clear jewel on Galo’s chest. It was a perfect sphere the size of the nail of my index finger. It hadn’t been drilled: gold wire held it to a gold neck chain.
“Galo,” I said, “where in hell did you find that necklace?”
I spoke partly to change the subject. I didn’t know what I thought about Alpnu, and at the back of my mind I was afraid Galo was right.
“It was in the box that the Etruscan chief wore around his neck,” Galo said uncomfortably. “Do you want it, Taranis? You killed him, I guess.”
Something as valuable as that ought to be turned over to the Crow, to be granted at his will. That would generally be to the warrior who took it, but you didn’t want to get above yourself with the Crow. On the other hand, Galo didn’t take anything for himself—and I took bloody little. If he wanted this bauble, I’d make it all right if anybody pushed the point.
“No, I don’t like things around my neck,” I said. The stone didn’t have any color, but sometimes the sun hit it so that it blazed like when bellows drive a smith’s fire. “Why d’you suppose he wore such a pretty thing in an iron box?”
Galo shrugged. “I just like it,” he said. “It makes me think of the woman I dream about.”
I clapped him on the shoulder and said, “It’s yours, then. And here comes Vincingo and Alpnu back, so I guess we can be out of here as quick as we want to. Which I say is pretty quick!”
Galo was leading like he usually does when we’re heading out from camp. Normally there’d be a couple of the boys as outriders, but it’s Galo who says which way when a path forks or we have to pick our way through tangles, which is often enough.
The locals—the Etruscans—farm, but they keep moving the plowed fields around so most of the country is growing up in brush at any one time. Not a life I’d want.
Galo had his prybar crossways on his pommel like always. He was too clumsy on his legs to fight in the line, but believe me, nobody got up after Galo hit them with that length of iron.
I wasn’t planning to fight on this outing. If something came up, though, we’d deal the best we could, just as we did when it was my whole troop.
“Has your man always been crippled or did he break his leg as a child?” Alpnu asked. We were side by side on this path. She rode well, but she’d never had to lead a string, so I led the remounts for me and Galo and the packhorse with the tarp and food for a couple days.
“Don’t let him hear you call him crippled,” I said. “He’ll tell you he’s as strong as any two men, and that’s true of any two men I’ve met. But yeah, he was born like he is now.”
There weren’t any wheel ruts in the path, but the vegetation alongside was grass that came up to the horses’ knees, no trouble to ride through. I had enough slack in the line that I usually didn’t have to pull up when one of the horses paused to shit; that was the closest thing there was to a problem.
“Galo isn’t really ‘my man,’ either,” I said. “He’s wellborn, as good as anybody, but he’d have had a hard time of it if he hadn’t stuck to me from when we were boys. His leg you see, but he’s a little funny in the head too.”
“You’re a kind man, Taranis,” Alpnu said.
I looked at her, about as surprised as if she’d just flapped her arms and flown away. “I’m as hard as I need to be,” I said. “Don’t you ever doubt that.”
“I don’t,” she said. “Why doesn’t your friend Galo like me?”
I pursed my lips, then laughed. “Galo thinks you’re a witch,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’ve told him you’re all right. He won’t cross me.”
“I am a witch,” Alpnu said, meeting my eyes. Her voice was calm as you please. “Does that change your opinion of me?”
Yeah, it feels like somebody’s cold hand just grabbed my heart, I thought, but that wasn’t something that a man says. Besides, she was making a joke. A bad joke.
“You said Mamurcus was a witch too,” I said, “and he didn’t give me much of a problem. I guess I’ll take my chances with you.”
“You took Mamurcus unaware,” Alpnu replied, just as calm and serious as she’d been before. “Besides, you were holding iron in front of you. Mamurcus kept me bound within iron and under a roof, too; my powers come from the sky, not the ground like his.”
I laughed. I suppose it sounded phony. Dagda knows, it deserved to sound phony.
“So if Dubnoreix had dragged you off to his bed, you’d have turned him into a toad?” I said. “That’s what you mean?”
Alpnu smiled. If I’d seen that smile on the face of a man coming at me, I’d have known to be careful.
“No, but before morning he might have felt a dagger coming up through his kidney,” she said. “I suppose it would be a matter of how much pleasure he’d given me. I’ve found that most men aren’t worth keeping around.”
I didn’t blurt anything, but she’d shocked me. I swallowed and said, “My people expect our women to be faithful.”
I sounded like one of the priests lecturing boys on the customs of the tribe. I felt myself blush, and that made me even madder than I’d been before.
Alpnu smiled again. This time it was the kind of expression a warrior gets from women often enough after a victory celebration . . . as I know well.
“Then you’d better not take your women from my people,” Alpnu said.
The path was narrowing with spiky brush on either side. She clucked at her horse and rode ahead.
That suited me better than I’d have cared to say.
We rode through the afternoon and into the evening, much longer than I’d planned. We needed to get a ways out from the camp, but I’d have been willing to set up anywhere after the first five miles. Galo kept pushing on.
I didn’t move up alongside Alpnu again when the path would have permitted it. She glanced back over her shoulder once, but she faced front again when I pretended not to notice.
I didn’t know what to think about her. Not thinking about her seemed a better idea.
The dark clouds didn’t improve my mood. I wasn’t hearing thunder, but occasionally heat lightning flickered to the south.
The farms and villas near the camp had been deserted. Occasional chickens and a goat or two wandered about, probably wishing they hadn’t been left behind when their owners rushed in panic into Caere.
Farther on we didn’t run into any habitations, abandoned or otherwise. I wasn’t worried—I’ve slept rough often enough in the past—but it puzzled me. Galo was leading us more directly eastward than most of our foraging runs had been. That was the direction of Rome, which is where we were supposed to be going, but we weren’t crossing any roads. There must be some; Rome claimed to be the chief city around here, after all.
I thought of asking Alpnu what she knew about the region, but I decided not to. Or I could bring Galo back and talk to him directly; it was about time to take a break and switch out our horses again.
A young goat poked her head out of the brush up the slope to our left and watched us. That decided me: if she hadn’t moved, I probably wouldn’t have noticed her.
Sorry, girl, I thought as I transferred one of my three javelins to my right hand. I spitted her through the neck, which wasn’t a bad cast at fifty feet from horseback. She bounded out of sight, spraying blood. She wouldn’t get far.
“Galo!” I shouted—he was over a hundred feet ahead. “Come back here and we’ll camp!”
I wouldn’t normally have made so much noise when we were in the field, but we hadn’t seen any sign of humans for over a mile except for maybe the goat. Even she might have been born wild instead of having been abandoned when the Crow moved south.
I swung off my mount, wondering if it would stand if I dropped the reins. I hadn’t ridden this one before. Alpnu walked her horse back and took the reins from my hand without speaking.
Galo was picking his way toward me; he didn’t look happy. Well, I wasn’t happy either. I didn’t like this place, and it didn’t look like we were going to find a better one before night—and maybe rain—caught us.
I unlaced the goat where it had fallen and lifted it by the hind legs to drain as much of the blood as I could. Blood spooks a lot of horses, and all it would take to finish off this wretched day would be to have to hunt our skittish mounts in a rainstorm.
I brought the goat back to Galo and the woman. Before I could speak, Galo said, “Look, Taranis. Let’s just go over the hill ahead, all right? I think it’s close.”
“Bloody hell, Galo, what’s close?” I said. “I don’t like this place!”
“Well, we won’t stay here,” Galo said, clutching the jewel with his left hand. “We’ll go to the next valley, that’s all.”
I grimaced. It couldn’t be worse than where we were.
“All right,” I said, “but we camp there, that’s final. I don’t know what you’re playing at, Galo, but I’ve had about enough of it.”
I didn’t get the last of my words out before he rode off in the way he’d been going. I mounted and laid the goat over my pommel. At least we’d have fresh food tonight, though I’d have to grill the goat. I hadn’t packed a pot to boil it.
“There is something very bad nearby,” Alpnu said. She was riding alongside me again. “Your friend clearly senses things that are hidden to others, but he doesn’t seem bothered by this.”
“I’ve never known Galo to lead us wrong,” I said. “Maybe this’ll turn out to be a good idea too.”
I put in that last bit to make myself feel better. I touched the hilt of my sword. Mostly the long blade just shows my rank; this evening I felt better for the weight hanging against my right thigh. My troopers carry daggers or the short, hook-bladed Etruscan swords. Those are as good as a hatchet to chop kindling or joint meat.
The slope down from the crest was steeper than most of the grades we’d followed, but the valley itself was open. Outcrops poked from the ground. The few scattered trees looked spindly, and even the grass was sparse.
Galo dismounted where the hillside started to flatten, near a face of bare rock. There wasn’t any dry wood, but I could split one of the old windfalls beneath a pair of junipers to expose the punk inside. If I could build the fire before the rain hit, we’d be all right.
“We’ll shelter under these trees,” I said. “Alpnu, you help Galo with the tarps and I’ll get the fire going.”
I split the branch with my dagger and trimmed curls from the heart of it. Alpnu said quietly, “Your friend isn’t listening to you.”
I looked up in surprise. Instead of unloading the packhorse, Galo had spiked the sharp end of his prybar into the face of the bare stone. He put his weight onto it, levering sideways.
There was a crack! and rocks tumbled down. Galo leaped back. The chunks ranged from grit to blocks you could use to build a foundation. Some of the big ones seemed to have been squared off.
“Galo, what do you have there?” I said. I’d started to unpack my fire starter, but I set the bundle down and got to my feet.
Alpnu was watching with an expression I couldn’t read. Her lips moved but I didn’t hear any sounds.
Galo ignored me and stepped toward the rock face again. What had broken away was just sheathing, but beneath it was a bulging plug, a boulder.
Galo thrust his bar between the plug and the living rock, then leaned against it. His bare toes were hooked over a low outcrop on the slope below.
I started toward him, but Alpnu touched my elbow. I glanced at her, but her eyes were fixed on Galo and the cave he was struggling to open.
I didn’t move closer after all. The thick bar was bending. I didn’t know what was going on, but when the strain let up—however that happened—it would be with a bang. Anything in the path of the bar or its broken end would be smashed to cat’s meat.
The earth trembled with a grinding sound. I looked up to see if an avalanche had started on the higher slope, but it was the stone plug beginning to turn outward. It must weigh as much as a warship, but the bar in Galo’s hands was moving it.
I saw what was about to happen and threw my arms around Alpnu as I ran out of its path. The boulder swelled from the mouth of the cave.
It was like watching the sky fall. It didn’t move quickly, especially at first, but it was unthinkably massive when it tipped forward.
Pebbles from the sheathing had remained on the cave’s threshold. Puffs of dust crackled as the boulder’s weight crushed them.
Galo gave a great shout and toppled sideways, clinging with both hands to his bar. The iron glowed faintly toward the pointed end where it had begun to bend.
The boulder began to roll as deliberately as a pregnant ewe, juddering slightly from side to side. It missed Galo’s sprawled legs by what must have been a whisker, and on the other side of the cave entrance it missed me and Alpnu too.
The stone cut a track through the thin soil to the underlying rock. The ground this near the valley floor was nearly flat, but weight kept it moving for as long as there was any slope at all. I hadn’t noticed the ground shaking until it stopped when the boulder finally came to rest in the line of sedges several hundred feet away.
I let go of the woman and jumped the furrow to see how Galo was. He lay on his back, breathing through his mouth like a bellows. His eyes were open but unfocused. The bar in his hands was three fingers’ thick, but the lower end now showed a noticeable curve.
“He ripped his tunic,” Alpnu said in a wondering voice. “When his muscles bulged they tore the cloth, and his tunic hadn’t been tight.”
“Yes,” I said. “He’s just wrung out. You can’t blame him.”
I thrust the butt-spikes of two javelins into the ground so that they stood upright, then straightened and drew my sword. Keeping the remaining javelin in my left hand to parry with, I started into the cave. It was round and almost higher than I could have reached by raising my bare hand.
I couldn’t take a full swing with the sword, but I could still thrust. My point doesn’t have a long taper, but it’s sharp enough to do the job with my arm behind it.
“I don’t think you should go in there,” Alpnu said. “It’s a bad place.”
I shuffled forward. I hadn’t asked her opinion.
Besides, I didn’t need it. I could feel that something wasn’t right, even without the tang of brimstone in the air.
Some light made it past me from the entrance, but it was getting late in the day and the clouds were building up besides. I thought about lighting a fire as I’d started to do, then going in with a torch.
That was a good idea—except that it meant a delay. There was nobody here to wonder if I was a coward; well, there was Alpnu, but I didn’t care what she thought.
Only I’d wonder if I was a coward too, if I didn’t go straight in.
I laughed. My voice sounded like a squirrel complaining, but it really was a laugh. I didn’t expect to live forever, and I’d never figured I was going to die in bed surrounded by my grandchildren either.
The tunnel went back forty-five, maybe fifty, feet, and it stayed just as wide across. My eyes were adapting to the shadows, but there wasn’t much to see.
On the ground near the far end was a lump. Rock, I figured, but the tunnel sides were smooth so it couldn’t have fallen from one of them. It had maybe rolled back from the entrance when Galo levered the plug away.
The tunnel ended in a flat wall with the sheen of metal, not stone like the sides. On the left edge was a crossbolt as thick as my wrist, and there were bumps that must be hinges on the right.
Where does the door lead?
The tunnel darkened a moment, then went back to as much light as before. Somebody’d stood in the entrance behind me, then moved away before I could shout at them.
It’d probably been the woman. From the way Galo had looked when I’d checked him, he wasn’t going to be moving for a while yet.
I stopped in front of the big rock. I could step past it easy, though it was more than I could life. Maybe even more than Galo could lift, though after what I saw him do with the plug I wouldn’t swear to that.
I tapped it with the point of my javelin. There was a clink—what I’d thought was rock was iron—and a crackle of blue light in it that made my hand tingle.
I backed a step. I could hear Alpnu’s voice but not the words; she was chanting or singing at the entrance.
The lump of iron quivered. I thought it was swelling, but that was pieces folding up from the edges and spreading out. There were more blue flickers and a hiss like water starting to boil.
I backed another step and shouted, “Keep out of the way! I may be coming out of here fast!”
I hoped that Alpnu could understand what I was saying. I sure wasn’t going to turn my head away from whatever was happening.
A head lifted, a lump on a bigger lump, and in the middle of it were two trembling flickers where eyes would have been on a man. It was metal but it was alive.
I backed a step and a step and a step, not running—I didn’t turn—but not wasting time either. I wanted room to swing my sword properly.
The central lump rose, lifting on a pair of spindly legs. They were longer than mine and the thing’s arms were touching both sidewalls without even fully extending. Whenever the limbs moved, there were little crackles of lightning at the joints.
The thing came toward me. I lunged, striking its torso just where the neck supported the lumpy head. I hadn’t planned to do that until the instant my right foot slid forward and my arm stretched to full length. You can’t plan a fight, you move when the other fellow leaves himself open.
A blue flash outlined the metal creature and ran up my sword. The shock threw me backwards onto the floor. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t even breathe, and the only reason I still held my sword is that my hand was clamped to the hilt as though it was welded there.
The creature stepped forward stiffly, walking on jointed legs like a spider. It extended its right arm toward me. Instead of a hand, it had pincers.
Alpnu shouted something. Yellow light flashed over me and wrapped the creature. The color looked warm after the series of vivid blue-white flashes.
The arm reaching for me halted, twitching. Alpnu grabbed my harness and dragged me back. I barely felt myself sliding over the smooth stone floor, but I’d caught a glimpse of her set face as she bent over me.
The creature worried the light that tangled it the way a kitten plays with a web of yarn. The sticky yellowishness faded. The creature came on again, not quickly, but as surely as the rolling boulder which had freed it.
The sky had started to spatter rain; drops splashed on my upturned face when Alpnu got me outside. I could move again; I rolled onto all fours and stood. My limbs felt swollen, but my legs supported me and my arms worked well enough that I could sheathe my sword.
I didn’t know how I was going to kill that creature, but jabbing it with steel wasn’t one of the choices anymore. I moved away, wondering what was left.
Galo was sitting up now, though he hadn’t moved from where he’d fallen. The creature reached the mouth of the tunnel; it paused there, light flickering in its eyes.
“Galo, back off from this thing!” I shouted. “Don’t hit it with your bar!”
Though maybe that was the way after all, given how strong Galo was. The shock would knock him on his back, but if it finished off the creature—
It came out of the cave, walking toward me. I wonder how fast it can run if I decide to leg it for the Crow and the rest of the war band?
Well, that was one of the questions I’d never learn the answer to. One of the blocks from the outside of the cliff face was nearly as big as my torso, too heavy to lift; but I knelt to grab it, then jerked it off the ground. I got it shoulder high when I straightened.
Alpnu stood nearby, her lips moving and her arms lifted to the heavens. I supposed she was praying. That would do at least as much good as when I stabbed at the thing.
I expected Galo to bash the creature with his prybar even if he’d understood what I’d told him. Instead he ducked behind it into the tunnel when it stalked out toward me.
I’d have been furious with Galo if I’d been able to think, but I was focused on the massive stone I held. I saw only a red blur, I felt a red blur, and I took one stride forward and straightened my arms, pushing the stone away.
I don’t know if I was holding the stone when it hit the creature. I pitched backward with the effort of throwing something that weighed twice as much as I did. The blast an instant later sprayed me with powdered rock, the shattered remains of the dense block.
The creature stood, untouched and unmoved; its metal body was slicked by the rain that was becoming heavy. It bent slightly, reaching for me.
A lightning bolt spat from the clouds.
The world turned white. I felt my sprawled body flip end for end, but I don’t know whether the earth had shaken that hard or if it had been my own muscles jerking from the nearby lightning. The creature was a flat black silhouette against the brightness.
I hit the ground again, on my face. I turned so that I could see.
The creature had vanished, all but a pool of metal on the burned ground, shimmering as the rain pelted and cooled it.
I was shivering from more than the cold rain. Alpnu bent over me and put her fingertips on my temples. I seemed warmer in a way that reminded me of the feeling I’d gotten when her rope of yellow light tangled the creature.
“What was it?” I said.
“That was the guardian,” Alpnu said. “Opening the cave was a mistake, a terrible mistake. Get up quickly. I know what your friend’s jewel is now. It called him to it.”
I didn’t think I’d be able to move, but there wasn’t even the ache I should’ve felt from lifting the stone. I did lift it, didn’t I? Am I dreaming in a fever?
Alpnu tugged me toward the cave. That was a good idea. We couldn’t light a fire with the rain pissing down like this, but at least we could get into shelter.
“We have to get that jewel away from your friend,” Alpnu said. “It may be too late already.”
“Then I hope he’ll give it to me,” I said, talking more to myself than to the woman. Taking something away from Galo that he didn’t want to give up was business for more men than just me.
He’d offered me the jewel back in the Crow’s camp, but something had changed in Galo since then. If he said no, I wasn’t going to fill him with javelins and take it off his body. That was the only way I was sure would work.
We walked into the cave. The floor curved up to both sides like a jar laid over, so I walked in front of her. There was light from inside, which I didn’t expect; the brimstone smell was a lot stronger. I wondered if Galo had lighted a fire and what he’d found to burn.
The iron door at the end of the passage stood ajar. It must have been rusted solid to its jamb. Even after Galo had ripped the bolt from its staples, he’d had to hammer his bar into the seam and prize the panel open. The edge of the thick metal was bent up from his effort.
The red light came from beyond the doorway. It was the color of the coals of a campfire when you stir the ashes off them.
I stopped. I hadn’t noticed Galo for a moment because he stood on the hinge side of the door, shadowed from the red glow. He had a woman against the wall and was thrusting into her. She looked past his shoulder toward me. Her face was as calm as an ivory goddess’s.
“We’ve got to stop him!” Alpnu said. “If it feeds—”
She slipped past me, but I grabbed her by the shoulder. “This is none of our business,” I said. “If Galo wants—”
Galo must have heard our voices; he turned his head. His face was rigid.
He screamed. He was a big man with good lungs; the sound echoed through my bones. I’d never heard anything like it, and I prayed the Dagda grant I that never would again. Blood sprayed from his mouth and nostrils, ending the scream.
Galo’s torso flopped over like an emptied wineskin. I must’ve let go of Alpnu then, because she darted forward.
Galo’s face was loose. What remained stared at me from upside down. I shouted and drew my sword again.
The expression of the woman Galo had had against the wall didn’t change. Her slim, naked body was perfect. The beautiful woman, he’d said, and now I knew what he’d meant.
Alpnu grabbed the jewel around Galo’s neck and tugged at the chain. There wouldn’t have been room enough to get her fingers under it before, when Galo’s skin hadn’t been an empty sack.
The chain didn’t break. The woman, the creature, that had sucked out Galo’s life reached for Alpnu with its right hand. Its arm extended like a rivulet of water crawling through the air.
I stepped forward and thrust for the creature’s shoulder. I half expected a shock like what I’d gotten from the metal thing, but my point slipped in until the rock stopped it. The creature’s flesh burned black and stinking around the steel.
The air trembled. It wasn’t a sound that I could hear, but it made my hair stand on end.
Alpnu tugged again and the jewel came free in her hand. The chain still hadn’t broken, but she’d pulled the loop over the flopping remains of my friend’s face.
I drew back. The creature’s expression remained frozen in that almost-smile. Galo’s body fell to the tunnel floor. For a moment I saw a round, toothed maw dripping with blood; then it withdrew into the creature’s groin.
Alpnu rubbed the jewel against the floor. It gouged a line in the stone.
The creature’s wounded shoulder knit like a pond closing over a dropped knife. Its left foot extended past me toward the entrance, moving with shimmering suddenness.
“Alpnu, come!” I shouted. I slashed sideways at the creature’s head. It flowed away from my blade, and I struck the wall again. Its extended leg bulged the way a rat moves down a snake’s gullet, but very quickly.
The creature was no longer in front of us. It stood, white and perfect, at the place its foot had reached a moment before—between us and the entrance to the cave. It smiled.
“Come!” Alpnu said as she tugged my left sleeve. “It can’t pass iron this way either!”
She moved toward the door that Galo had opened. The creature’s left arm extended down the wall toward us. I cut at it. My steel crossed the line of not-flesh, which curled away and blackened. The whole world screamed again.
I sprang through the doorway. Alpnu was inside pulling at the door to close it.
“Out of the way!” I shouted. There wasn’t a handhold on this side, but Galo had bent up the edge. I dropped my sword and gripped the bent spot with my fingertips, then pulled. The rusted seam had cracked free, but the hinges were still stiff. It was like trying to pull myself up a rock face.
There was a quiver of motion toward me. An impossibly extended hand gripped my knee. It felt like the ice of the Alps, and it squeezed me.
Alpnu short-gripped my sword and jabbed with the point. The creature’s hand burned as it withdrew. I jerked the door to me with a squeal and a clang.
I was breathing hard, but that didn’t help much because the sulfurous air flayed my throat. I slid back slightly and took the sword from Alpnu. There was a small opening where Galo had bent the door; I held the sword point close to it, thinking that the creature might slip like freezing oil through that crack.
“It won’t come that way,” Alpnu said. She was wheezing as badly as I was. “It’ll wait for us to come out.”
“I’ll get my breath and then go kill it,” I said, though “getting my breath” in this brimstone hell was a bad joke. “It can’t stand up to my sword.”
“Your sword can’t kill the thing you see,” Alpnu said. “It isn’t alive. Its life is here in this jewel. We had to break the jewel!”
“Then give me the bloody jewel!” I said. I held out my left hand without taking my eyes off the door seam. Alpnu probably knew what she was talking about when she said the creature wouldn’t come that way, but its fingers on my knee had been the touch of death.
The cave on this side of the door was almost as wide as the passage we’d followed from the surface, but it wasn’t regular. It seemed to narrow as it wormed back and down. Light came from deeper in the cave, but I couldn’t see a source. Maybe it was the color, but I was starting to feel uncomfortably warm.
Alpnu put the jewel in my upturned palm. I wondered what the chain was made of. It had looked like gold, but gold links that fine would have broken when she twisted it from Galo’s body.
I put the jewel on the stone floor. “Watch the crack,” I said and laid the flat of my sword on top of it.
I stepped onto the upper side of the sword, balancing myself against the walls with my hands. I rocked back and forth, hearing faint crunching sounds. It was a terrible way to treat a sword that had been my father’s, but I remembered Galo’s shrunken body and the eyes of the creature as it watched me.
“What is it?” I said. My throat was raw and my mouth dry. “The thing outside?”
“It was imprisoned here long ago,” Alpnu said. “It’s a creature of the earth. I know nothing of it, but Mamurcus’s power came from the earth. He must have thought he could control it, and he hoped to force me to aid him in his plan.”
She spat on the ground. “He was a fool!”
A dead fool, I thought, remembering the way the Etruscan’s helmet had banged inward under my sword edge. It had been sudden, too quick to think about.
I moved my feet to the sides and lifted the sword. The jewel was untouched, but there was a scar on the stone floor.
I gave the jewel back to Alpnu. I didn’t look at her. “All right,” I said. I wasn’t going to be in better shape for pickling myself longer in this sulfur stench. “I’m going out. I’ve got more confidence in my sword than you do, and anyway I’m going out. You can get away while I’m dealing with the thing.”
“That won’t help!” Alpnu said. “You can burn the body in molten rock and it still won’t die, it’ll just regrow!”
“I don’t have molten rock,” I said. My voice was a growl. “I have a sword.”
I braced my right boot on the door, readying to kick it open and rush out behind it. Alpnu squeezed in front of me. “Wait!” she said. “Listen!”
I grabbed the throat of her robe in my left hand and lifted her off the ground. It was balanced in my mind whether I flung her behind me or smashed her head against the door. I was bubbling with fury, ready to fight, ready to die, terrified when I thought of the creature’s dead touch.
I heard voices.
I set the woman down, trembling with reaction to the violence I hadn’t let out after all. I couldn’t tell what the voices were saying, only that they were human.
“Taranis!” someone called. The voice was deepened and mushy from echoing down through the tunnel. “We’ve found your horses and we see your camp. Come out and face me like a man!”
Dubnoreix. But if he’d come hunting me, he wouldn’t be alone . . . and it wasn’t a fight he was looking for, it was butchery.
“If you won’t come out, we’ll fill this cave with brush and light it!” Dubnoreix shouted. “We’ll smoke you out like a rabbit in its warren!”
“Soon,” Alpnu whispered. She stroked my left shoulder. “Just a moment more.”
“All right, Taranis, if that’s the way—hey!”
“Now!” said Alpnu, but I’d already shoved the door open and started up the tunnel.
Something caught at my feet as I ran up the passage. Galo’s breeches, I thought, and it may have been—but it may have been Galo’s empty skin. It didn’t trip me.
The rain had stopped when I reached the mouth of the tunnel, but clouds still covered most of the sky. They broke on the eastern horizon as I drew the first lungful of untainted air in too long.
The full moon was coming up. I saw Dubnoreix near the junipers where I’d intended to camp. There were other warriors nearby, probably all Dubnoreix’s housemen. They had their swords out, but they didn’t seem to know what to do.
I didn’t blame them.
I didn’t see Liscus until he screamed. He was among the junipers, gripped by the creature. I didn’t make the mistake I had with Galo: sex wasn’t involved in what was happening, or at any rate not human sex.
Dubnoreix shouted, “Come on, men!” and stepped forward. He brought his sword around in a horizontal slash that struck the creature across the shoulder blades. The white flesh blackened with the stench of an old grave, as it had when I cut the thing.
The creature’s head rotated toward Dubnoreix without its body moving at all. He cried something wordless and lifted his sword. Two housemen moved in, one from either side, and hacked at the creature. Their blades rang together in the creature’s head, but its cool smile didn’t change.
Liscus crumpled away. I knew what his body looked like now, because I had seen Galo’s empty skin. The creature’s hands gripped the housemen’s throats. Dubnoreix struck.
I ran forward. I’d decided where my place was.
I’d never liked Dubnoreix; he was here because he’d come with his housemen to murder me out of sight of the camp. For all that, he was human. Whatever the creature was, it wasn’t human.
My place was beside the other humans.
Dubnoreix’s stroke cleft the creature from shoulder to midback. Its blackened flesh spread away from the steel, then reformed as the blade lifted. Its body turned toward Dubnoreix; the face already looked in this direction. The empty shell of Liscus lay on the ground behind it.
I thrust past Dubnoreix for the creature’s impassive face. It might have been kinder if I’d split Dubnoreix’s spine, because the scream he gave in that instant was one of inhuman torment.
I withdrew my blade. The blackened flesh flowed back. The creature smiled as Dubnoreix’s body thrashed for an instant, then flattened and sank in on itself.
The housemen fell to either side. Their tongues protruded and their eyes bulged.
The creature walked toward me. Dubnoreix’s empty skin was briefly a kilt; then it fell away. I got another glimpse of the thing’s toothed member as it withdrew.
I’d lost the javelin I’d carried into the cave with me, but the other two remained where I’d stuck them, point-upright, in the ground. I snatched one up with my left hand.
Liscus and Dubnoreix had been carrying their shields, which hadn’t helped when the creature attacked. The thing’s right arm stretched out slowly, almost stealthily. I jabbed its wrist with the iron point of my javelin. It snapped back, smoldering, and its left hand met the edge of my sword as it reached for my throat. Each time I felt the world tremble angrily.
Perhaps nothing done to the creature’s flesh could really harm it, but it didn’t like to be burned by iron either. It had throttled the housemen to stop them from cutting at it while it devoured their chiefs.
I stepped in and thrust my sword into the base of the thing’s neck, then jumped back when a foot reached for me. It wasn’t quick, but it had four limbs . . . and there was the maw if it ever grappled with me. I couldn’t let that happen.
I didn’t know what the rest of the housemen had done. I grinned at the thought of them trying to explain to the Crow what had happened.
Alpnu stood by the rock where she’d called down lightning on the metal guardian. If we’d run away then, perhaps the guardian would have gone back into its cave and pulled the entrance closed behind it. But Galo had already been bewitched by the creature and wouldn’t have left until he’d opened the iron door . . . and I wouldn’t have left Galo.
Alpnu might have run. If she’d allowed the guardian to kill me and Galo, this creature wouldn’t be loose in the world.
I jabbed with the javelin. The creature’s body squirmed away from the point. Its left arm reached for my eyes. I slashed but the right foot also extended. It would have grabbed my ankle if I hadn’t jumped back.
My heel tripped on a rock that barely rose above the dirt. I fell backward, sliding on the wet grass and thumping my head against another outcrop.
The creature moved toward me in the moonlight, as pale as drifting fog. I could see it clearly, silhouetted against the clouds. I could see the sword still gripped in my right hand, but my muscles were frozen from the rap on the head.
The creature paused, looking down with its meaningless smile. Its groin opened and the member extended toward me. The teeth set around its circular mouth were needles like those of a dogfish.
Brilliance crashed. For an instant the earth was black and the clouds above were white. The creature, untouched by the lightning, crumbled across me like a puff of dust.
Alpnu knelt at my side. I felt her touch my temples, and then I could move again. I lowered my sword to the ground, but I wasn’t ready to get up just yet.
“Is it gone?” I said. “You told me that burning it up wouldn’t destroy it.”
“I said burning the creature’s body wouldn’t destroy it,” she said. She pointed.
I lifted onto my elbow and turned my head. Lightning had shattered the stone where she’d been standing. Some of the shards had been burned to glass by the bolt’s fury.
“I put the jewel on the altar,” she said. “When the creature’s life became powder, the body had nothing to sustain it.”
“It’s gone?” I said. I was asking for reassurance; that was weakness. I’m Taranis the Chief!
I stood up. “It’s gone!” I said again, meaning it this time. “We’re shut of it forever.”
Horsemen came over the rise and rode toward us, spreading out as they did. Some of them were shifting javelins to their right hands, ready to throw. The moon came out again.
“Matisco!” I said as I recognized the leader. “What are you doing here?”
“We saw Dubnoreix and his gang ride out,” Matisco said. He pulled up in front of me and dismounted. “I figured my girlfriend could wait a little longer. The rest of the boys figured the same, I guess.”
“What the hell did happen here?” Heune asked. He was standing by the strangled housemen;, and Liscus’s skin, though Heune probably didn’t notice Liscus the way he was now.
“A terrible thunderstorm,” said Alpnu; I’d completely forgotten her. “A bolt struck close by and killed our companion, Galo . . . and also some others, who had just ridden up when the storm broke.”
I looked at her, then looked back to Matisco. He was nodding.
“We saw that one hit,” he said. “I guess that’s what spooked your horses. We caught three of ’em, Top, they came galloping right up the trail toward us. Dunno about the others.”
“We’ve got plenty more horses in the corral,” I said, meaning it. I wondered if I’d be able to mount without help. “Look, I know it’s late and you boys’ve had a long day already—”
Which was nothing to what I’d had, and Alpnu too.
“—but I’d really like to head back for camp now. Not all the way, but a few miles away from here.”
“What about the bodies, Top?” said Heune.
“Galo completely burned up,” I said. I needed to close the door in the cave. “I’m going into the cave for a moment. When I come out, I want to get out of here. The foxes’ll take care of Dubnoreix’s people.”
And Dubnoreix, but I didn’t say that. All anybody but me and Alpnu knew was that Dubnoreix and his brother had ridden out of the camp and hadn’t come back. I figured any of his housemen who hadn’t lit out on their own would be glad to back the story of the lightning bolt. They might even believe it.
Matisco shrugged. “Whatever you want, Top,” he said. “This isn’t a place I want to stick around neither.”
“I’ll help you in the cave,” Alpnu said. She walked beside me toward the entrance.
“I’m going to lay Galo inside the door and close it,” I said quietly to her. “That’ll keep the birds off, I guess. I don’t want anybody to see what happened to him.”
I felt better. I’d picked up the sword when I got to my feet, and I sheathed it now with no trouble finding the scabbard.
“It’s going to be different without Galo,” I said. “He never led us wrong. Well, up till now.”
“Yes,” said Alpnu as I led her into the tunnel. “He had a gift, though that’s how the creature reached him to begin with. But you have me now, and I can find things also.”
I looked back. “I have you?” I said.
“Yes, as long as you want me,” Alpnu said. “I told you how hard it was to find a man.”
I could see what remained of Galo on the floor ahead: his clothing, and his skin as flat and rumpled as the clothes. I would still miss him.
But I felt an unexpected excitement about what I had gotten in exchange.
“Up From Hell” copyright © 2016 by David Drake
Art copyright © 2016 by Robert Hunt