A sword of wrath book i.., p.9
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       A Sword Of Wrath, Book I: Blood And Dust, p.9

           K. E. MacLeod
 

  * * *

  As the misty morning dawned, Timonus was pleased that he had at last arrived at the caves of the Eastern Shore. He had already ridden for a majority of two hours since before the sun rose and the path that had led him there had not been an easy one. His back and shoulders ached and the last few meters of the way had been littered with sharp rocks and boulders, causing his horse and the one that he had brought for the venefica, to lose its footing more than a few times and nearly throw him down onto the craggy terrain.

  As he rode up to the dark gaping maw of the largest cave in the area, five veneficas stepped out to welcome him. They stood before Timonus, all in a straight line as if the same woman had been used over and over in order to make four additional duplicates of the original, each dressed in black, long-sleeved gowns. Their long hair, dark as the caves that surrounded them, was pulled upwards and set atop their heads in intricate braids, contrasting with their pale, almost bluish skin, while each of their lips and fingertips were stained the same color of pitch as their dresses.

  Timonus, uncomfortable in their presence, adjusted himself uneasily atop his horse's saddle and announced, "I am here for Moriana."

  "We are Moriana," they answered in unison, the same slight smile upon all of their faces.

  Timonus expression grew annoyed as he spat out, "Fine, you can all be Moriana if you wish but one of you must ride with me to Feronia."

  The venefica that stood in the middle of the line stepped forward, the slight grating smile still upon her black lips, "I will ride with you, Legate." She turned around to face the others and bowed slightly, "Goodbye, my Sisters. May the Goddess protect you."

  "And you!" they called out again in disturbing unison as she climbed atop the other horse that Timonus had brought along.

  Once he was sure that she was safely seated in the sidesaddle, they began their trek upwards through the rocks towards the path that would carry them away from the caves of the Eastern Shore and along the cliffs all the way to Feronia.

  "I saw you in my dreams last night," Moriana spoke to Timonus from her place behind him, her tone as overcast as the gray sky above them.

  He sighed, already aggravated by her mere presence, "Oh, and was I in a great battle? Or-or winning some kind of war? Isn't that the way it always is with you... sorceresses?" He spat out the last word.

  "No," her half-smile stayed put on her face as she pulled her horse up equal to his, "you were dead." She then kicked her horse and sped a little ways ahead, leaving Timonus' mouth agape as he watched after her.

  "Wait!" He shouted as he caught up with her. "What do you mean 'dead'?"

  "Ah, but you are an unbeliever. Tell me, why should I indulge you in revealing the innermost visions of the Wayward Daughter?"

  He seemed flustered, " Yes, I-I am an unbeliever where you lot are concerned, it's true, but being told that you were dead in a stranger's dream is very unsettling, no matter what path your beliefs may take."

  Her eyes took on a bemused look, though her expression never changed, "Then again, maybe it wasn't you, after all."

  "Fine," Timonus grew agitated. "I should've known it was a venefica trick. You are trying to poison my mind; it won't work."

  "You're angry with me?"

  He didn't respond.

  Realizing she wouldn't get very far playing mind games with the Legate, she instead asked, "How long is our ride?"

  "Two days. Feronia is along the shore, to the North. We'll ride all day and camp tonight and then a full ride tomorrow and we should be there."

  "I fear it won't be as easy as you say." Moriana looked towards the sea, "There are dark things brewing in the Empire."

  He nodded, "You don't have to be a sorceress to know that."

  She looked at him, her wry smile seemingly less frozen, "But it helps."

  They rode the next hour in silence, the horse's hooves falling against the path and the waves crashing beneath the cliffs making the only sounds that brushed against their ears.

  After awhile, exhausted by the company of his own thoughts, Timonus asked, "Did you really see me dead?"

  Moriana smiled sadly, "Well, I... I saw a legate... he was laying facedown on a battlefield. There was... smoke... all around and the cries of death," her face showed its first true sign of emotion as her mouth turned slightly downward and a quiet fear entered her eyes, "you are the Legate, correct?"

  "I am."

  "Then, yes, it was you."

  They continued their silence for a few more meters, the roll of distant thunder murmuring in the distance.

  Again growing tired of the lull in their conversation, Timonus cleared his throat and began to speak, "Well, despite your supposed vision, I still don't believe-"

  "You know, I was like you, once: an unbeliever," she interrupted.

  Timonus looked at Moriana in surprise.

  She laughed, "What? You think I was born venefica?"

  "Aren't they usually?"

  She shook her head, "No, that's only a rumor. We don't actually nurse on poisoned milk as infants."

  "So, how did you-"

  "Become one? Well, I," she smiled wistfully down at her hands, which held the horse's reins, "it's a very long and uninteresting story."

  Timonus laughed slightly, "We have a two-day ride. It can be as long and uninteresting as you want and it will still pass the time."

  "I... suppose," the frozen, hesitant smile returned.

  "Well, let's start with your name, then. What is your real name?"

  She shook her head, "No, Moriana is my name now. That is my real name."

  "I don't see how we'll get very far into the story if you insist on-"

  "Moriana will do for now," she declared with a resolute finality in her statement.

  Timonus frowned slightly, "Alright."

  They rode a bit longer before she spoke again, "I... I was an orphan in Odalia."

  "You're from the capital?"

  She laughed freely, "Well, who knows where I'm actually from but," she shrugged slightly, "that's where I was found at least. I... don't remember how I arrived in the city or even how old I was. I just know that from the time that I was about eight years of age, I dug through refuse piles and stole what I could to survive. I slept in the alleyways-"

  "That's very dangerous for a girl so young."

  "I had a knife," she said matter-of-factly. "I fell in with another group of street children and an older boy took pity on me and gave it to me." She smiled at the memory, "He taught me to use it. Thankfully, I only had to use it once." Her expression hardened with the last part of her statement.

  Timonus wasn't sure what to say next, so offered, "My men tell me of the street children. They say they give them food whenever they can."

  She smiled broadly, "That's true. The soldiers of the city were always good to us."

  "So how - when did you get off of the streets?"

  Moriana's face fell a bit, "Not for a long, long time."

  "How did you survive?"

  She looked over at him, "There aren't a lot of options for adolescents on the street, male or female. I did what I had to; I'm a survivor."

  Timonus felt uncomfortable at her revelation.

  Moriana laughed as she sensed his discomfort, "Too bad I wasn't lucky enough to work in one of the Empire's brothels but, then again, if I had, maybe Mother Marcella would've never found me."

  "Mother Marcella?"

  "She was the high-priestess of the veneficas back then. She found me one night, wandering the streets." Moriana became lost in the memory, her eyebrows knitting together, "I was maybe around fourteen years, or maybe a full decade and a half, I can't remember but I was half-starved... half-naked... covered in flea bites..."

  Timonus cleared his throat, "That's-"

  "And one night, there she was; the most beautiful figure I had ever seen," her face relaxed into a bright smile. "She stood at the end of the alleyway and offered me her hand. It was... clean... and she smelled like-like.
.. something sweet, something amazing! She told me she could save me if I'd only pledge my life to Vypera and the Wayward Daughters, the veneficas. I took her up on her offer right then and there."

  He nodded, "So, you have been a venefica since that night?"

  "Yes. I trained everyday, building up my resistance to the most deadly of poisons. There were several missteps along the way, though."

  Timonus looked at her, curious, "Missteps?"

  "Yes," she laughed. "I did not develop a resistance to a particular poison in the way that my sisters had and nearly lost my life to it after being gravely ill for two weeks. I was sure I was going to die, as were my sisters. They'd actually already begun my final rites and the preparation for my funeral."

  "What poison was it?"

  "It is called Realger and is found in the red rocks beneath the ground. I'm afraid I'm still very much susceptible to it even now." She looked at him, "Venom, though, that's something else entirely. I have conquered all of the venoms of the known world."

  He looked at her cautiously, "I've been told that the venefica sleep with snakes."

  She laughed loudly, her black-stained mouth opened wide, "No, not at all! I mean, we do have a domus serpens where we keep several snakes and I cannot deny that we respect Aspis, for she is our patron goddess and Vypera's handmaiden, but it's because of that respect that I would never have one in my bed!"

  Timonus smiled, then confessed, "I'm sorry that I seem so skeptical. I would have you know that I worship the Great Mother Wolf and, on that path, there is very little room for her Wayward Daughter."

  Moriana nodded, "It's true. The Mother Wolf did cast the Two Brother's Sister, Vypera, aside upon discovering her darker side but...," she trailed off, unsure of how to continue.

  "Yes?" Timonus urged her.

  She laughed, somewhat self-consciously as she continued, "Well, I would say that darkness doesn't necessarily mean malevolence."

  "How so?" he looked upon her doubtingly.

  "Well, take the night goddess for instance: is she evil just because she appears when the sun god is gone?"

  "I... suppose not."

  "Darkness is simply the opposite of light, not its enemy."

  A new silence fell between them as they rode further down the path. Timonus looked towards the sky and gave up any hope of the gray skies clearing as a cold mist began to pelt his face. He stared ahead at their path as he asked, "Does it bother you that I follow the Great Mother?"

  "No," Moriana shook her head, "the Mother Wolf's Daughter will always love and respect her. She is the Mother of All Things."

  Satisfied with her answer, Timonus began to feel a bit less suspicious of the strange young woman. He still didn't completely trust her, nor her supposed magic, but at least he could look upon her as a human with rational thought and not a brainwashed child of the occult.

  They rode another few meters before the path began to ascend upwards in a slight slope, the shore falling away further and further below them. As they crested the top of the small hill, Timonus noticed that the venefica's dress was becoming sodden by the mist the longer they rode. In a moment of compassion, he spoke, "We may need to make camp sooner rather than later if this weather keeps up."

  "But, it would be best if we rode straight through-"

  "You may be full of darkness but even you cannot overcome the wet and cold."

  She frowned, "I will be fine-"

  "You're shivering."

  Moriana paused a moment, then spoke slowly, "...and you're very observant."

  "I'm afraid it comes with my position."

  She looked at him, her black hair beginning to stick to her forehead, "Then, why aren't you fighting with the rest of the forces in the Bestial lands?"

  Timonus face instantly hardened, "Because the Emperor needs me at home."

  Thunder roared overhead, closer than it was before, and Moriana blanched at its loudness.

  He was beginning to feel a bit nervous himself, "I-I think we may need to make camp-"

  "No, we can't! We've only ridden for a few hours, it seems such a-"

  Lightening flashed over the sea.

  He looked pointedly at her, "Does that convince you?"

  Moriana's pale face seemed even paler as she nodded vigorously, "Yes. There are some caves up ahead if we can ride for at least another hour."

  "I suppose we've no other real choice. I hadn't really prepared for thunderstorms."

  She stopped her horse for a moment and looked out over the sea again, "It is the Mother's Daughter. She is unhappy."

  Timonus stared into the distance alongside her, "Or the Mother Herself is. Now, what direction are the caves in?"

  "Just up the path and then...," a strange look crossed her face.

  He looked at her, "What?"

  "Hold on. Something's not right."

  "What do you mean?"

  "That sound? Do you hear it?" They stared at each other as the sound of the distant rolling thunder grew louder.

  Timonus eyes widened slightly, "That's not thunder... those are horse's hooves! But there are no patrols out here-"

  She kicked at her horse and pulled it towards the rocks on the left, "Follow me, Legate! We need to get out of here! Now!"

  "Why? What is it?"

  "The Gigantes."

  "Giants? But they don't come this far north!"

  "They do now. We've seen them near the caves but we've no time for discussion. You'll have to trust me. Come on, Legate, if you want to live!"

  He followed her into the rocky outcropping that lined their path along the left side. The horses hesitated at having to be forced again over the rough terrain but eventually did as they were led.

  "Get down, now!" she shouted at him as she flung herself from her horse into the rocks.

  Timonus attempted to do the same but only managed a clumsy facsimile as he stumbled from his horse to the ground, eventually crawling beside her to hide behind a large nearby boulder.

  "The horses!" he whispered to her in alarm.

  "They will have to find their own way. If we are seen by the Gigantes, it will mean instant death."

  "I have lost men to them before. The stories I have hear-"

  "Shh, Legate! They're coming closer!"

  Moriana hesitantly peered around the edge of the big stone and saw a group of nearly a hundred men and horses come to a stop on the path before them. The men, or arguably beasts, that sat atop the horses appeared slightly larger than an average man of Lycania - but it was their oversized armor and headdresses, which made them appear larger that had given them their legendary moniker. The horses that they rode upon were also large, clad in similarly imposing armor from the top of their equine heads to the bottom of their hooves, where hair flowed on their legs in the same way as it did from their mane and tails; taking a quick peek himself, Timonus had never before seen horses that looked as they did.

  In the middle of the Gigantes horde was a wooden cart being pulled by one of the enormous horses. Atop the cart was a cage where half-naked male and female Bestials wept and clung to each other in fear. One of the horde's riders hit the cage with a blunt side of his weapon, which caused the people inside to scream and scramble to the opposite end where another rider on the other side hit at them as well, growling and bearing his rotted teeth as he did.

  One of the Gigantes, the largest of them all, grunted and waved an arm to silence the others. On the very top of the Giant's head sat a ram's skull, while beneath the macabre headdress his face was painted black with the ram's rotten blood and on his shoulders he wore pauldrons made of sharpened bone spikes. His mid-section appeared to be protected by a collection of mismatched metal armor pieces, probably retrieved from his previous victims; the rest of his body was as large as the oxen that were used to plow the fields of Lycania. He slid from his horse and the Legate was surprised that the ground itself did not shake when he landed. Timonus believed him to be the leader of the group from how the others reacted to him.


  The Gigantes lifted his pig-like nose in the air and sniffed. Suddenly a yellow-toothed smile crossed his blackened face and he barked out orders to the others in a kind of gruff, monosyllabic language that neither Timonus nor Moriana recognized. The rest of the Gigantes, all in variations of the same type of spiked bone armor and animal skulls, slid from their horses as well and began to scour the surrounding area.

  Moriana turned her back to the stone and pulled her knees in tight. Timonus followed her movements and whispered a quick mental prayer to the Mother Wolf. He was frightened but didn't want to show the venefica his fear lest he put her into a further panic. The Gigantes leader barked more orders, his voice getting louder in their ears as he grew closer. Timonus breath came quicker even as he tried to mask it.

  Suddenly a shadow fell over the two cowering behind the stone. Timonus chanced a glimpse upward and saw the back of the Gigantes leader standing just a hair's breadth away from them, the ram horns on either side of his head spiraling up towards the heavens. One sound, one move and they would be found out.

  Timonus' mind raced with memories of stories that his men had often brought back from their patrols, telling rumors of the Gigantes' mythical feasts, which were said to be made up of a variety of human dishes. No one knew for sure if the Gigantes themselves were human or not because, as far as he was concerned, no one in the known world had ever survived an encounter with a Giant. Timonus swallowed deeply, regretting his actions immediately for he was afraid their pursuers could hear even the slightest sound.

  The leader standing over them snorted like a wild beast, as if he could smell their very bones. Timonus saw him begin to turn and the Legate squeezed his eyes shut, preparing for what would happen next. He took a deep breath but, as he did, one of the Gigantes called out to its leader from across the way. The monstrosity overhead answered in his gruff feral-sounding voice and walked away towards his companion.

  They had discovered the horses and immediately set upon them, devouring them in less than three minutes. After they were finished, the Gigantes returned to their own mounts and the leader lifted his arm in the air, howling as they continued down the path on to wherever their destination might have been.

  When the last of their dust was well and truly in the distance, Moriana sprung from her spot and sang to the heavens, "Thank you Great Goddess! You who protect Her Children!" She laughed loudly then glanced down at Timonus as she offered him a hand, "You are white as the owls that fly around the caves at night, Legate."

  "I... it's been a long time since I've been... in such a situation." He tried to slow his racing heart as he stood, "Why would the Giants ever come this far north?"

  "I don't know," Moriana answered as she looked into the direction where they had ridden off. "Maybe they sense the darkness that is brewing throughout Lycania. I hope my sisters will be safe."

  "But, the Giants, they aren't citizens of any country. They're thieves and murders and possibly not even human; what does it matter to them how the Empire goes?"

  "Spolia opimia, Legate; the spoils of war. You should know that better than I." She looked around, "Well, we are now minus our horses. Luckily, those worthless brutes were too stupid to figure out that two riderless horses could possibly mean that the riders were nearby."

  Timonus nodded, "Thank the Great Mother."

  She looked at him, smiling slightly, "And Her Daughter."

  "At this point, I'll thank whoever it was that saved us." He took a deep breath, "I suppose we should wait out the night, then return to Odalia."

  "No," she shook her head firmly, "we should go on to Feronia."

  "But, all of our supplies are gone."

  A genuine smile crossed Moriana's blackened lips, "Yes, but I am not without my own resources, Legate."

  As Timonus heart began to settle into a more natural rhythm within his chest, he realized arguing with the young woman would be pointless. Plus, there was a side of him that had enjoyed their brief brush with death. It had been a long time since he had felt such excitement and, for once, he was actually glad to be in the presence of the venefica. "Alright, on to Feronia we go, then."

  * * *

 
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