His horse snorted, made nervous by the smell. But that was to be expected, the animal – a bay mare – had been bred for travel, not for war. Unlike the man who rode her.
Black Tomas they called him. Not just for the colour of his hair or his dark complexion, but for the colour of his soul. They knew him in Tarphet and Shap, in Mursk and Bu. Knew him in Babbakund, too, where they called him the Accursed and spat whenever his name was mentioned.
An inch over six feet in height, deceptively slender at first glance, a slimness that belied the tautness of him, the breadth of chest and shoulders, the thick cords of muscle on his arms.
He stopped at the head of a small rise and looked down into the village, laid out in untidy lines close to the shingle beach. A cluster of fishing boats by the shoreline.
Nothing moved between the huts, except gulls and carrion crows. They swaggered across the dirt paths, perched on frames where nets were hung and called to each other with harsh, joyous voices. They sat upon the bodies of the slain and pulled at cold flesh with sharp beaks.
Tomas sat for a minute or two, studying the scene, then, satisfied that whoever had done this was long gone, kicked the mare into reluctant movement down the slope towards the outermost huts.
A few birds rose and flapped away at his approach, squawking their anger at this intrusion upon the feast.
He dismounted and tethered his horse, then unshipped the axe from the harness at his back.
A weapon of war like the man who carried it – single-edged and razor-sharp, spiked on back and top. A three-foot handle of ironwood, the steel head plain but deadly.
Other than that, he carried a long bladed knife in a scabbard at his left hip. His clothes – a stiff leather tunic and woollen breeches – were sombre and his dark cloak travel-stained, ragged at the hem.
A dead man lay at the threshold of the nearest hut, his face and fingers torn away by the ravening birds. Tomas stepped over him, into the stinking interior.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. An austere fisherman's hut – a rough table and chairs, fire-pit in the centre of the only room, a large bed in the far corner, covered with dirty blankets.
Three bowls on the table, each one filled with fish-and-barley mush. Untouched.
They had been caught unaware, Tomas thought, the raiders coming at supper-time.
Strange, that. The fisher-folk of the Rann Coast were a notoriously wary breed, all-too used to raids from the Loclan Isles. There would have been watchers on the promontory at all hours, alert for the first signs of danger.
The other huts told the same story.
In the largest – the headman's he judged – he found a small pouch of silver coins, badly hidden.
Stranger still. Loclanites come raiding for slaves, for gold and silver – for profit, not for slaughter.
They had killed them all but left their valuables untouched. Massacred the men, the children and the old folk.
But not the women, he realized, other than the oldsters. The thought disturbed him for no reason he could place.
Women were valuable. But then, so were children, who would fetch a good price in the markets of Harle. Even the men, once broken to the whip, were worth something. Hard to justify a raid for a dozen red-faced fish wives.
A movement in the corner of the hut made him turn, axe in hand, his movements smooth, tigerish, his grey eyes shifting towards the source.
“Please...” a dry-throated whisper, filled with pain.
Tomas crossed the room with his weapon readied.
“Please,” that tortured word again.
An old woman, near to death. A gaping wound in her stomach, he could see the coils of her guts as she breathed, each shallow swallow of air making them writhe. A miracle that she's lived until now.
“Water,” she said. “Please...”
He found a barrel and poured a little water into a dish, then returned, dabbing her swollen lips with the tepid liquid.
“Who did this?” he said.
“The sea,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper. “They came from the sea... took the girls to the tower.”
She shook her head and even that small movement caused her pain.
“Not men... devils... children of the Deep Ones...” She looked up and her gaze locked with his. “Help them,” she said. “In the name of Vaulth, help them.”
“I am no follower of Vaulth, old mother,” he said. But she did not hear him. Her chest gave one last heave and her coiling innards stopped moving.
He left her where she lay and went outside, walking down to the beach, taking great breaths of salty air to rid his nostrils of the stench of death.
This is none of your concern, Black Tomas, he told himself, you have other paths to walk.
But the old woman had invoked Vaulth with her dying breath, placed a geis on his shoulders and given him no chance to refute it.
It had begun to grow dark, great swathes of clouds rolling in from the horizon, carrying the threat of a storm with them. A distant crack of lightning lit up the sea, miles out and for a moment he saw a great dark monolith, gone with the lightning.
He raised his face to the sky as fat drops of rain, big as a bronze coin, began to spatter down.
“Aye then,” he said.
But not in Vaulth's name, nor in the name of any of the gods. Not for the sake of the old woman's geis, but for the sake of my own peace. My own soul.
So you would seek redemption in the same way you found damnation, Black Tomas, with the blade of an axe?
“What other way do I know?” he said. But he did not know to whom he spoke.
He had ridden under Vaulth's banner in the Northern Crusades. Vaulth, the priests said, was the goddess of love and compassion and if they had to put the whole North to the sword to prove that then so be it.
No older than eighteen when he had taken the Vow, had marched and fought for over half a decade on the Winter Plains, in the White Mountains and the Barrens against an enemy who yielded to neither reason or force. And with each battle, each siege and slaughter, a little more ice had entered his soul.
In the end, a child gave him back his conscience. Her death, or rather the manner of her death, reawakened something in him he had believed long since withered away.
It happened on the last – and bloodiest – night of the siege, when the walls of Amoleth were finally breeched and Prince Elbrect's men stormed into the city to vent their fury upon the heretics who had held them at bay for almost four months.
One hundred and twenty days of attack and repulse, half-rations and frostbite, of frustration and impotent anger.
Tomas went in with the second wave, over the bodies of fallen comrades, their blood steaming in the snow-flecked air. Even at the last the heretics had fought hard, ragged and starved though they were, seeking to plug the breeches with their own flesh.
“Bloody fools,” Blest called as they moved across the shattered north wall. “They don't know when they're beaten.”
Tomas grinned back at him though a tangled beard. “They'll learn before the night is over,” he said. “Those of them that are still breathing.”
“Not many then,” Blest said. A cruel jibe, but then again they were cruel men, or at least men who had lost their compassion over long blood-soaked years of war. “We'll make a pyre of this place to warm our bones.”
Pyre, aye, that was the word. Prince Elbrect had ordered the city put to the torch.
“As an example,” he had said.
As revenge, Tomas thought, as punishment for keeping His Royal Highness, in the mud and snow for a hard winter while his brother nobles won glory to the north and west.
The city had already begun to burn. Thick, oily smoke that made the night blacker than Gehenna, sparks dancing like demented fireflies.
Amoleth had been a beautiful place once, its architecture elegant, streets ordered and clean. Towers and jewelled domes that were rightly the envy of the world. Now the avenues were choked with filth, the corpses of animals picked clean, dead men lying upon the cobbles. By morning the city would be nothing but a scorched shell, its treasures looted, books and manuscripts burned and another enclave of heresy would have been purged.
Tomas moved through the streets with Blest and the rest of his eight-man command behind him. The wind blew at his back, the heat of flames singed his face. He held the axe in his right hand, the long knife in his left.
A group of men in tattered cloaks – four of them – ran out of the darkness and he saw the glitter of their blades in the firelight.
He plunged into their midst with a wild battlecry, his axe carving murderous patterns. A minute later and it was over – four more corpses to add to the slaughter.
He moved on. Blest and the others in his wake.
They turned another corner, into a small plaza, its fountains long-since dried. A burning house stood at the far end, belching flame and smoke from shattered windows. It would have been a fine home in the old days, he thought, fit for a noble family.
Fit, certainly, for the women who huddled weeping by a fountain, holding a white bundle to her chest.
No, not a bundle, a child, he saw almost at once that it was a child, a girl who stared at the world – at him – with pale grey eyes.
An innocent in hell, he thought, surprised that he could still conceive of such a notion.
The woman rose she saw them, still holding the infant girl.
There was blood on the woman's face, a livid bruise marked her cheek and jawline. There was blood, too, on her torn gown and, he saw as she backed away, more on her thighs, pale against ripped velvet.
“No,” she said and it was not a plea. “No.”
Blest took a step forward. “We won't hurt you, my lady,” a leer in his voice. “Leastways no worse than you've been hurt already.”
“Leave her,” Tomas said. “She's suffered enough.” We all have.
Blest spat from the corner of his mouth. “Spoils of war, Captain. We have the right.”
“I said leave her. Leave the child.”
“Piss on that.”
They were the last words that Konrad Blest spoke before Black Tomas put a foot of steel through his back.
Shocked, the rest of his men halted in their tracks.
“The next one who moves gets the same,” Tomas said, and they had no cause to doubt him.
“Please, my lady,” he said to the woman. “We mean you no further harm. You are under my protection.”
But she did not hear him, did not truly see him.
She saw only...
A tall man in a dark cloak, wearing a battered corslet, a morion helmet over his long hair, a blood-dripping axe in his hand.
He took another step. She turned and ran.
Back into the burning house, offering herself and her infant to the flames.
And her screams echoed his own as he fell to his knees, the shock like a physical blow.
He screamed again – at the senselessness of it all, at the chaos that surrounded him, at the insensate thing he had allowed himself to become.
He stayed there through that long night – no one dared approach - while the city burned around him and terrible acts were committed in the name of Vaulth, the goddess of love and compassion.
In the morning he rose, stole a horse from the camp of Prince Elbrect and, as the army slept in shameful victory, rode south away from the war.
When he slept, in ditches or the lee of rocks against the wind and rain, he dreamed fitfully and always in his dreams he saw the woman and her child. At times as he rode, he felt their ghosts at his shoulder and whispered a few words, asking for forgiveness.
Not a prayer, for that would have been a hollow thing, but rather the simple request of a penitent man.
But the dead, he knew, do not forgive so easily.
Why, he thought. There is so much blood on my hands, why is this so different?
He had no answer.
Perhaps even a wicked man can grow tired of evil, of the tooth-and-claw existence which the world has foisted upon him. Or perhaps I saw myself in the child's eyes and hated what I saw there.
Whatever the reason, I have done with them all. Damn them and the sadistic gods they follow, damn them for what they have done to me.
He spent the night in one of the huts close to the shoreline, waiting for the storm to abate.
Like the others it was a rude place, sparsely furnished, but the bed was comfortable enough after months on the road.
On one wall, the same wall as the narrow doorway, a small shrine had been cut out of the mud-daubed driftwood and a crudely fashioned idol sat in the recess. Human in shape, but with a piscine aspect, the eyes large and bulging, mouth a lipless slash, a flat nose and tiny, all but redundant, ears.
A god of the fisherfolk?
Perhaps. The world is full of gods, too full for men to live in peace. And what are gods but the dreams of men?
But if not a god, then what?
A talisman? A ward? A constant reminder of the dark things that dwelt in the oceans?
He slept fitfully, his dreams plagued by blood and snow.
“Born with the black madness.” It had been said of him by friend and foe alike.
How many men had seen it before they died? Even Tomas did not know the answer.
Too many too count, the line stretching back into grey mist. Not just men – women and children, too, widows and orphans, the grief-stricken and the starving, the victims of war whose wounds were not caused by the sword but by the inhumanity that war breeds.
And at their head, the woman and child from Amoleth.
“I did not kill you,” he said. “You took your own lives.”
Aye, because we saw the black madness in your eyes.
The leaden day dawned. Sky the colour of slate, the air too still. The storm had eased, but the rain still fell, relentless. Dark clouds scraped the horizon and he could not see the monolith there. If, indeed, it had been there and not some mere trick of the light.
He chose one of the fishing boats, a simple but stout vessel with both oars and a sail. No stranger to the sea, he knew the boat would serve him well, but equally he knew the foolishness of what he contemplated.
What's are they to you, Tomas? Why risk your life? Ride on..
But he knew he would not.
Playing the hero at this stage of the game?
No, not a hero – never that.
A chance of redemption, however dark.
Too late for that, hell-bound you are and hell-bound you remain.
Then at least I can leave one good deed behind me.
Perhaps you can at that, Black Tomas.
The water surged as he pushed the boat into it; the rain increased in ferocity, as though even the elements warned him against this foolish action. Beyond the shallow bay the ocean whipped even more fiercely, threatening more than once to pitch him from the boat, but he pitted his strength against it, working tirelessly with sail, oar and tiller, navigating by the memory of the monolith.
After an hour his arms ached, his lungs burned from salt air, his skin from freezing rain, but he kept his course as true as he was able, scanning the dark water for any sign of his destination.
The squall eased, allowing a little light into the murky world.
And there it was – larger than he had imagined – jutting from the ocean to challenge the sky itself.
Not just a monolith, he realized, much more than that...
A great tower amongst lesser towers, roughly hewn from shining stone - dripping with great tangles of weed as though it had only just risen from the depths – the angles somehow wrong to his eyes, waves crashing angrily upon its foundations.
What had the old woman said?
Not men... devils... Children of the Deep Ones.
Aye, no human agency could have constructed the citadel that rose before him, no architect sane enough to imagine the demented turrets that threatened to topple with every blast of the wind, the saw-toothed ramparts, the skewed walkways and paths that spiralled and vanished into seemingly tangible darkness.
A submerged reef scraped at the bottom of the boat as he navigated it toward a small, calm cove, sickly slime tugged at his boots as he disembarked and walked up an uneven slope. The axe was in his hand, his senses alert for danger.
He chose a winding path and took it into the interior, covering less than a hundred yards before the sound of inhuman voices halted him. The language, guttural and unfamiliar, rose a primal loathing in him and he moved into the shadow of a cyclopean arch pressing himself against the cold, slime-covered stone.
Moments later a group of figures came through the archway - and he knew them, or at least had seen a simulacrum of their breed before.
Piscine in aspect, bulging eyes and lipless mouths; flattened noses, stubs of ears flat against elongated skulls. Naked except for weapon harnesses of plaited kelp, from which hung crude but functional swords, their lack of clothing gave them an even more sinister appearance, their skin grey and falling in folds, the suggestion of scales in the brittle starlight.
Five, no, six of them.
And carried upon their shoulders, an unconscious woman, her body draped with a ragged and filthy white robe.
Like a degraded bride. The thought came unbidden to him, yet he knew it to be the truth.
He waited until the procession had passed, then followed in their wake, keeping a discreet distance. Freezing sea spray washed across massive flagstones, wind howled through the passages and narrow lanes like a demented soul, whipping banners of weed into a frenzied dance.
And through the atonal howl of the wind, the syncopated staccato of the rain, the fury of the sea he heard a woman's scream.
The sound raised his hackles. He had known screams before – screams of the dying, the maimed, the tortured – but never like this.
As though a soul is being plucked from living flesh.
He resisted the impulse to run towards it, training and experience kept him from such a rash action, instead he moved carefully keeping to the shadows until he reached the source of the sound.
A vast chamber – a behemoth would have been dwarfed here - he had never seen its like before, even in Babbakund where, it was said, the Elder Races had once made their home.
An enormous chasm lay at its centre, steep slopes amplifying and echoing the enraged sea far below. A narrow stone bridge spanned it, barely wide enough for three men to walk abreast.
The procession of scaled men moved across it, still carrying their burden, and he saw at once where their destination lay - stone dais at the mid-point of the bridge, upon which lay another woman, naked and bound, with a scaled man rutting dispassionately upon her as she screamed.
When he had finished, he picked her up in his strong arms and, without a moment's hesitation, flung her into the chasm. A great thrashing and roaring welcomed her as she fell - not simply the ocean but something Other.
Something within Tomas shattered at the sound of it – that part of him which went deeper than thought, deeper than emotion - engulfing him in an atavistic rage that remembered what even his psyche could not.
And with a fierce war-cry he launched himself from the shadows.
Startled, the scaled men on the bridge turned at his approach.
What do you see?
A tall man in a dark cloak, an axe in his right hand, a long-bladed knife in the left, face contorted with primordial fury.
Eyes glaring, froth-flecked lips drawn back in a snarl, he crashed among them, The first crumpled under a wild slash of the sharp-bladed axe, then fell, spinning away into the abyss, the second grunted as the long knife opened his stomach and he sank to his knees, innards spilling onto the stone pathway.
Shock and ferocity carried him into their midst and another died under the whirling axe of Black Tomas before his companions drew their weapons, releasing the captive woman as they did so.
Hell has come to you, you bastards.
He struck to the left and to the right, cleaving a skull, opening a throat, sending a hot crimson spray into the air. A blade lanced across his ribs and pain shot through him, ignored as he continued his gory work. The edge of a sword struck his left shoulder, the leather tunic taking the brunt of the impact but deadening his arm so that the knife fell from nerveless fingers.
The stones beneath his feet were slippery with blood, the haft of his axe slick with it. He thrust forward, using the upper spike of his axe to strike through a scaled man's eye and into his brain.
Dimly, he was aware of a great roar from the ocean below, of a wrath even greater than his own; the blood-rage left him and he stood there, gulping in great gasps of air.
A hand touched his arm and he drew back, axe ready to strike again.
It was the woman.
Little more than a girl, her face pale with terror, hair tangled and matted, his fallen knife held loosely in her hand.
She held the weapon out to him, handle first.
What do you see? he thought. A blood-drenched warrior, victorious from the fight. But with the light of madness burning in his eyes. A hero? No, not that – never that.
“Please,” she said again. “Help...” the words were barely discernible above the roaring from below.
“The others,” he said, shouting to be heard. “Where are the others?”
“Gone. All gone. Mother Hydra took them... for the seeds in their bellies.” She pointed down into the chasm.
His gaze followed her outstretched hand, and for a moment he saw nothing but the tartarean darkness. Then something moved...
Something vast and loathsome, a huge, scaled head, great cold eyes – eyes that were not accustomed to the light of day, but perfectly adapted for the sunless deeps. Gigantic arms, a great scaled crest that ran along its spine and joined with the leviathan tail.
Aye, the gods are but the dreams of men. And their nightmares, too. For the thing that thrashed and roared below could be nothing but a nightmare made flesh.
And he saw, or thought he saw, smaller forms protruding from the creature's flanks where scaled and corrupted flesh had grown over them. Pale faces staring out through translucent skin, features contorted with a horror beyond endurance.
Mother Hydra took them for the seeds in their bellies, innocent lives, barely begun, offered up to the thing that haunted the deep.
Something struck the stone close to his feet he turned to see the scaled man on the dais, a sling in his hand, preparing to load and throw another dart. Further back, on the other side of the bridge, two dozen or more of them had gathered, armed with swords and barbed pikes.
The black madness was rising in him once more – that same unbridled rage that had been his almost constant companion in the North, that had unleashed itself in Tarphet and Shap, in Mursk and Bu, in Babbakund where they cursed his name.
He took the woman's hand and turned back the way he had come.
More of the scaled men were already on the bridge, blocking their escape. He might have allowed the rage to take him and fought his way clear....
And the woman? What about her?
For the first time he looked into her eyes, saw the tacit plea there – do not let them take me, do not let Mother Hydra enfold me in her cold embrace.
She did not see the knife that killed her - a swift and practised thrust that entered below her ribs and stopped her heart – the pain she felt only lasted a moment.
A clean death was as much as I could offer you, lady. May heaven take your soul.
The children of the Deep Ones closed in upon him, the demented roar of Mother Hydra filled the world and he laughed in mockery of it.
For he had found his dark redemption.
©April, 2016 James Lecky
James Lecky is a writer, actor and (occasional) stand-up comedian from Derry, Northern Ireland where he lives with his wife and cat. His short fiction has appeared in a number of publications both online and in print including Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Arcane, the anthology Chilling Horror Short Stories and the upcoming Sword and Sorcery anthology from Robot Cowgirl Press, as well as previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. You can find his musings on various topics at https://jameslecky.wordpress.com.