Umiko did not know what to make of the barbarian. His aura was strange, an impenetrable golden shell of even more depth and complexity than she had seen around the emperor himself.
They had reached the mainland without difficulty, riding on a swift bark over the choppy waters. Sailors had bowed to her as if she were an immortal; one of the emperor’s acknowledged relations. It unsettled her. Travelling as the prince’s companion made her someone new. Where had the servant gone, if it was not her any longer?
Shinji was dressed as a bloodhunter initiate, except that his face was bare. Umiko did not like to see him dressed all in black. He was grim enough already.
"Are you glad to be home?" Shinji asked the barbarian. It had been a surprise to find the oversized foreigner was fluent in their tongue, though still rough in his use of it.
"Not home," he replied tersely. Their destination was an empty stretch of beach. Bawn disliked cities and he had said this would be a more direct route to the plains. The landscape was different here, the trees leafier and the ground flatter. The whole of Nihon was rifts and folds; civilization fit into valleys and foothills, or set upon the cliffs. The islands had majesty, with power in their stretch and seam. The mainland was plain to eyes accustomed to complexity.
Both Shinji and Umiko were pressed to keep pace with Bawn, whose long strides covered ground at twice the rate of theirs. Gulls circled overhead, gambling as to whether the newcomers would be a source of food.
"We will find you a horse," Shinji decided.
"What's a horse?" Umiko asked.
Shinji was caught. "Like an ox," he said, "but with thinner shoulders."
"They have no horses in the keep holds," Bawn's voice carried to them. "We may find you a donkey."
They travelled inland for a full day before a town crossed their path, a cluster of wood and brick buildings around a central donjon. There were fields, untended, and no sign of livestock. There was a single, wide dirt road running to the donjon, and they followed it through the settlement. The windows they passed were shuttered, though some had been broken open, and many of the doors were ajar. The donjon was small, with its entrance built into the wall ten feet up to discourage unwanted visitors. Bawn leapt to the ledge and disappeared in the small tunnel that held the door.
Shinji and Umiko exchanged glances. The prince could have made his own way up, of course, but not with such facility. The leap had been effortless, almost a flight.
"There is more to this barbarian," Umiko said.
Shinji nodded, shaken.
Bawn returned several minutes later, and dropped lightly down next to them.
Umiko had shut her eyes, her mind questing for what they could not see.
"Not all of them," she said.
There was an old man in a long house on the edge of town. He had a small garden that was still being tended behind the building. He stood in the doorway as they approached; gaze firm within a wrinkled fist of a face.
"You're strange folk," he said.
Shinji had been taught the language of the mainland when he was small. Umiko understood some of it, as she was expected to be able to follow the commands of foreigners important enough to visit the emperor’s realm, but she could not answer.
"We are travelers, Shinji said awkwardly.
"Never heard an accent like yours." The man did not look afraid. "Your eyes are queer, and the girls. Big friend’s a plainsman, saw one a them once."
Shinji was annoyed by the way the man addressed him, he had never asked for much formality, but to he told he had "queer eyes" by a backwards mainlander was trying. He tamped down on his temper before saying, "What happened here? Why is the town empty?"
"Spalfolk." He spit. "Not here yet, will be soon."
"I don't know that word." Shinji looked at Umiko, who shrugged.
"Spalfolk," the man gestured to the south. "Men of rock, men of ice, bigger than your friend. Eat everything; people, animals, metal. All you can do is run."
"Why didn't you go?" Shinji asked.
"My wife," here the first break from the stern cast of his face, "she can't travel. This is our place. We'll die here."
Shinji didn't know what to say to that. Bawn’s deep voice rolled over them.
"We need a mount for the girl. We can pay you if you want, or take you with us. I do not fear Spalfolk."
The man shook his head. "I've a donkey round back, won't need it much longer. You can take her if you promise to take care with her. She's a good animal."
"You won't come with us?" Bawn asked.
The man grunted and shut the door.
The donkey was hobbled, nibbling grass behind the long house. It behaved nicely with Umiko, while snapping at Shinji and quivering whenever Bawn came near. They went the rest of the day with it, Umiko finding the ride almost worse than walking. She had a blanket for a saddle and a rope for reigns. After a while she discovered it was easier to direct the creature with her talent than with touch. Its mind was more accessible than a human’s and didn't resist her as an invader. Cherry Blossom had always been impressed with her aptitude for their shared talent. Umiko was beginning to be impressed, too, now that she was putting it to practical use.
They camped in the open, and built a sizeable fire. "They will come," Bawn said. He and Shinji sat at opposite sides of the perimeter, with Umiko and the donkey between their backs. None of them slept as the sunflower closed overhead. Night was always blackest at beginning and at end, before the star flowers had begun to open, and after they had closed.
It was in that darkness that a boulder shifted and raised, a rime of frost crumbling as it fell from its unfolding limbs. Its eyes were spheres of deep jade, blinking open, and they focused immediately on the only available point of light, the glow of a distant flame.
Lumbering shades approached in the quickening starlight. Umiko calmed the donkey as it flicked its tail and tensed to bolt. She set her intent upon the swirl of colors around its head and bid them still.
A fog rose, thick and cold enough to dampen the fire. Shinji unsheathed his swords and stood smoothly. Bawn remained seated.
The thing that broke from the fog was eight feet high, topped with a grotesque head of crag and tooth and tusk. Its skin was grey and hard, glittering with specks of frost.
Shinji moved low to the ground, lashing its shins with his wakizashi. The folded steel blade scraped as if against stone, and a melon sized fist swung down, missing Shinji by the space of a breath. He sheathed his wakizashi as he rolled to safety, coming up in a single motion to slice with his katana in both hands.
With all of his strength he drew his sword across the back of the creature’s thighs. He felt the bite this time, and a thick greenish liquid seeped from the shallow gash.
The Spalfolk roared its indignation, and Shinji darted away from its fist. He could not hope to match its strength, and as he sought to access the bloodhunter magic within his spirit, he found he was unable to activate his chakras. He danced around the ogre, keeping its attention and continuing to scarify while he tried to think of a way to disable it.
More roars; others had found the camp. Shinji had no time but to glance at Umiko, still safe. Bawn would have to handle whatever else came on his own.
The Spalfolk grazed his shoulder as he ducked around it once more, sending him off balance. He saw the fist descend, and his mind emptied. The shadows he had been searching for enveloped him, and his image blurred as he dodged.
Confused by the change in its opponent, the Spalfolk attacked wildly, frustrated and moaning like the wind in a gorge. Shinji slipped between its legs and whipped his katana across its ankle. Granitic flesh parted with an effusion of sea green blood. The ogre tried to spin and grab him, but fell when it couldn't balance on the wounded foot. In the next instant, Shinji thrust his katana into its jade eye, watching the other dim to black.
He let the darkness fall away, filled with its unnatural calm. Umiko and the donkey had hardly moved, and Bawn was standing in the middle of an avalanche of bodies. His arms were drenched in the slime that coated their insides, and he seemed to be fighting himself. He was shaking and his eyes blazed with golden light, fading slowly. Shinji watched him, a trickle of fear penetrating his calm, as the barbarian returned to normalcy.
"Are these beasts common on the mainland?" Shinji asked him when he appeared to have regained control.
"No," Bawn said, and that was the end of the conversation.
They moved their camp and slept the remainder of the night peacefully. In the days that followed, they were not attacked, as if the stench of the dead Spalfolk carried with them, and any others kept their distance.
Bawn led them through moors and uplands without approaching any more settlements. The keep holds held vast tracks of unpopulated land, and you could traverse the whole without encountering another soul if you knew the way.
Shinji knew a little of ranger craft, and he used it to supplement their rations. Bawn rarely ate anything, but Shinji caught small game and showed Umiko what plants to gather as the came across them. He and his brothers had once been sent naked into the mountains to live out the winter. Compared to that, this use of his skills was enjoyable.
The Dragonback Range appeared in the distance, the mists of the mondial giving way before their majesty. They stretched farther than all of Onshu, and higher than anything the two children of Nihon had imagined anything could.
Umiko was in awe. "What makes such a thing?"
Shinji shrugged, "The earth and the sky were lovers once, and they sometimes try to reach each other. When they cannot, the sky cries tears of rain."
"That mountain is not earth," Bawn said. "It is a dead thing."
"What do you mean?" Shinji asked. The barbarian always walked slightly ahead of him, so they could not see his face when he spoke.
"I mean what I said."
The mountains were impassable, they would travel around. In a few days, they met a group of refugees from the south.
There were seven of them, and their wagon had a broken axle. They were picking through their belongings to decide what would be left behind. As they saw three strangers approaching, they made weapons apparent; short swords and cudgels that they didn't look as if they wanted to use.
"Hail," one of the men greeted them.
"Spalfolk?" Shinji asked.
"They took Grape," the man looked them over suspiciously. "Where you from? You don't look like any holders I've heard of."
"The coast," Shinji answered quickly. "We've seen Spalfolk, too. What's bringing them north?"
"Lord knows." The man made the sign of the cross on his chest. "We hope to go farther than they're willing to. We don't have anything." His gaze travelled over Shinji's weapons, Bawn's intimidating size and silence. "We don't have anything," he repeated.
"We're going north, along the mountains," Shinji said. "Perhaps we will see each other again."
They parted ways. The man’s wife touched his shoulder as they watched the smaller party shrink into the distance. "That man," she said, “was a plainsman, wasn't he?"
Her husband shuddered. "Like the one in the stories, you mean? Like Bawn."
* * *
The land was not so changed then, a few millennia past. It was the works of man that had changed. Asylphian had told Bawn of the realms before the gods ruled, of an age when the Fae were wild and had not learned to wear a human guise.
"The wizards say that when the true dragons warred, their blood fed the soil and gave rise to life. They are mostly right." She floated beside him. Bawn was riding his horse, Bucephalus, a Clydesdale male that had been sent to him by the god of the wood, Elali. Elali had allowed Bawn's army as many mounts of as many kinds as he required, while the other side had to make do with oxen and donkeys. He was the only member of the exalted to actively support the Fae rebellion, a fact which puzzled Bawn, but did not worry him. He had his own god, in a much truer sense than any of his people had ever experienced.
Asylphian flew beside Bucephalus, floating lazily backward as she spoke.
"Our oldest mothers tell us that as the dragons fought, a starflower fell from heaven. It carried the first Fae, though they looked nothing like we do now. It is because of this that our magic is different than a wizard’s. It doesn't come from the blood of dragons, but from the stars themselves."
Bawn didn't know much of wizards, though he thought they must be something like the Songeaters of the tribes, who could use their voices to call spirits. He didn't care to meet anyone like that. It was the city of Ten Towers that had earned his ire. It was full of merchants; fat, soulless slugs that traded in all manner of goods, including slaves.
"I think that is why they gave men the means to cut our wings," Asylphian said. "Because our magic is different, and they can't control it."
Bawn thought about the defenses of Ten Towers. It was not surrounded by a single wall. Each of the towers had its own, and the spaces between them were a maze of markets and tenements interspersed with guard posts. When he had led bands of plainsmen to raid the Fieflends they had never come this far. It had been easier to plunder solitary towns and small donjons. Ten Towers had sent an army of mercenaries to deal with the barbarian threat, and they had crushed Bawn's force against the Dragonback Mountains that separated most of the Fieflends from the plains. He had escaped, fighting his way out alone, and when he had returned to his tribe the Songeater had taken his name from him. It was right that they had done so; that was another man, a different name. Bawn felt only pity for him. Asylphian had given him a new life, and now he led a greater army than the one that had defeated him, an army of man and plainsman and Fae alike. They were free peoples, who followed him willingly. And he followed her.
The Ten Towers were prepared for them. An army of barbarians and free slaves does not roam unnoticed among the realms of civilized folk. They had won a few battles, it was true, against private lances and disorganized defenders. The city had been readying itself for weeks, and its citizens were safely within the walls of their respective districts well before the first plainsmen had become visible in the distance. Cannons were mounted and primed in the bartizans, and the artificers had constructed a machine they imagined might route the enemy on its own. There would be so many slaves taken the pens wouldn't hold them all.
Bawn drew his horse to a halt, and dismounted. What the Ten Tower folk had erected before their city had appeared to be a siege ramp. It was actually a statue surrounded by scaffolding. It was roughly man-shaped, all of dark iron, more metal than Bawn had seem in his life, all in one thirty foot monstrosity.
"It's a golem," Asylphian said. She was so lovely it hurt him to look at her. Bawn had been with her long enough to understand that it wasn't anything physical that affected him this way. It was her spark, her glamour, and it didn't make any difference that he knew.
"I'll fight," he said. "You keep them from getting in my way."
"Be careful." She touched his cheek, floating close. It ignited a fire in him.
"Yog is with me," Bawn said.
The army was stopping behind them, about half a mile out of the range of the cannons. Bawn and Asylphian would go forward by themselves at first. The colossus made that all the more necessary. It was stirring, shrugging off its scaffolding in clouds of dust and splintered wood. Its massive hands flexed into fists.
Asylphian hovered a hundred paces behind Bawn as he went to face it.
In the city, people were shouting, laughing as a single man approached their great machine. The artificers had created smaller versions for the arenas, and their efficacy was legendary. Bets were being made that the barbarians would turn tail once their leader was smashed. They could have trained their cannons on him, but the gunners found they had no desire to blow up the leader. It would be better to watch this play out, more exciting.
The colossus strode forward, its boots sinking into the earth with every step. Bawn watched it, a lone man in a gold bearskin cloak. Some called him a giant, but he did not come to the knee of this thing. He had a stone-headed axe called Ragefont, a gift from the queen of the Fae in Mori. He unslung it in the last moment as the golem swung its fist overhead and down. Bawn rolled away, the ground shaking from the impact, and came to his feet with animal quickness. His axe crashed into the iron wrist, and steam screamed from the resulting crack. The colossus went to one knee, pulling back that arm to swipe with its left. Bawn leapt onto the limb and sprinted up it, half jumping, half climbing to its shoulder before it had completed its swing. He was able to strike its head twice before it knocked him clear. Bawn went sailing through the air, sliding along the grass where he landed on his back, axe still in hand.
The colossus rose unsteadily, steam gouting from its metal skull where the axe had penetrated its plating. It raised one foot, and let it fall upon the supine barbarian, covering him completely. A cheer went up from the walls. The soldiers there saw that they had won. Bawn's army was silent. Asylphian was gone.
Bawn was on his back, his own feet pressing against the great boot that threatened to crush him. His legs strained unbearably, and he knew he wasn't strong enough to hold its weight forever. He asked Yog for help, and an exalted strength suffused him.
The colossus fell as it was pushed off balance, crashing to earth with the force of a rockslide, and the barbarian chased it. The dark iron machine was slow to turn over, slow to rise, and the blows of Bawn's axe rang like a huge bell as they struck. With a final shout he brought the heavy stone axe down upon the seam where its neck met its shoulders, and the eruption of steam that followed put Bawn back on his heels. The colossus shuddered and lay on its side. A cloud rose from it as a mist, and dissipated.
Ganter Collum had been a member of the mercenary corps for almost ten years. He had fought against barbarians before, bandits, and even stray Tellurians. It was for his experience and his loyalty to the corps that he had been given a position of authority. He was a Gunnery chief, in charge of six cannons. The cannons were the only weapons they had that would be effective against a colossus golem like the one they had sent against the enemy. The enemy had dismantled it with an axe.
He raised his hand, wasting no time in giving the order to blast the barbarian leader into bits of meat and gristle. The words froze on his lips, and his hand made the sign to hold fire.
There was a woman in front of him, the most beautiful that he had ever seen. She had sunbright wings that encircled them both, so that they were alone in the world.
"I need you," Asylphian said. Ganter nearly fainted. "Go to your powder stores, and douse a torch in one of the barrels."
Douse a torch in powder? Something about that felt wrong to Ganter. "All right," he said. "Be back in a beat."
Bawn was waiting for Asylphian before their front lines when she floated down to meet him.
"You're hurt," she said, concerned.
"Nothing," he said. "Did you do it?"
In answer, a guard post exploded, raining fire, then another building inside the walls of the first tower, then the gates.
Bawn roared, and his cavalry, the only cavalry in the Fieflends, began to move in behind him. It wasn't a charge yet, but would be soon. Most of the cannons on this side of the city had been destroyed, and the gunners that remained were too busy fighting fires to use them.
Bawn frowned, if they were going to have to do this for all ten districts, it would take all day.
* * *
"Is that Ragnar Tang?"
Bawn, Shinji, and Umiko, had rounded the Dragonback Range without further incident. Now they were within sight of a vast stretch of flat blonde land, empty as the sea. It was the Tang, Bawn's birthplace and deathplace at once, but he did not tell them any of that.
Bawn grunted, lost in memory.
© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl
Updates: Chapter 17 of Mystic Seasons Series Mythopoeia Book -8 posted, chapter eight of Lady in the Labyrinth posted high fantasy booksyoung adult fantasy books
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Its shoulders mound like ugly barrows
Its hands are furrowed cliff sides,
And its mouth,
A cavern of irascible despair
- Hollen the Bard