He had seen them. He had tasted their presence on the wind, a small company of soldiers travelling through the swamps. He could hear their squelching footsteps in the putrid water, he could hear their whispered words as though they were standing right beside him. He could even hear them breathing.
‘Elder,’ cried the voice of a boy. ‘Soldiers approach.’ It was his nephew turned apprentice, Hansel that broke his concentration, awaking him from his trance with news of the mortal world.
‘I know,’ said Elder Swansow with barely disguised irritation, ‘I have seen it.’
Hansel knelt before him in the prayer tent, his robes bunched uncomfortably beneath his knees but he did his best to ignore it. Swansow noticed the boy’s predicament and laughed. The boy was keen to learn, he could not deny that, but he was the clumsiest apprentice he had ever taken. In many ways he reminded him of himself when he had been but a child, eager to learn but lacking in sense, tripping over the hem of his robes. He had once brought his master’s prayer tent crashing down with him still inside. His master had beaten him to an inch of his life that day, and he dared to believe that he probably still carried the scars today.
Still, those scars had been a life lesson, and he had welcomed them. Pain was as much his mentor as his master had ever been.
‘Why have you come here, Hansel?’ asked Swansow calmly, looking at the boy with cold green eyes. He was tall for a twelve year old, gangly even with long arms and legs but little in the way of muscles on either. His face though partially hidden by his cloak was drawn and gaunt. Swansow believed he would be a handsome man if his clumsiness didn’t finish him off before then.
‘To tell you of the men that come,’ said Hansel, lowering his head in shame. ‘And to tell you of the one that leads them.’
‘Oh?’ was all that Swansow could manage to say. Had he not been interrupted he would have seen this firsthand, to be forced to learn of these things in such a mundane fashion was beneath him.
Yet still, he had little choice, his concentration had been broken and it would take a good hour of meditation to regain the necessary state. By then any number of factors could have changed the nature of the group.
‘He is a noble, master,’ continued Hansel. ‘He leads north-men but wears armour I have not seen before.’
‘Describe it to me’
‘It is white, not silver, but closer to bone in colour, he wears pauldrons and a breastplate but loosely and built more for movement than protection. The metal is decorated with symbols I could not quite catch; I believe one was a skull with flaming hair.’
‘The symbol of Mortis?’ asked the Elder, though he already knew the answer. He picked himself up from the carpet, pulling his cloak from around his shoulders, folding it in a practiced fashion and laying it upon the stone altar behind him. ‘That is an old Arcan symbol. So a Brut leads them? That is interesting indeed.’
‘Why is it interesting, master?’ asked Hansel once more breaching into the Elder’s train of thought. Swansow replied with the back of his hand. The boy yelped in shock at the sudden blow, tumbling backwards over his robes with his hands cradling his throbbing cheek.
The Elder looked down at the shaking boy. One hit had reduced him to a whimpering mess; pathetic. Swansow placed a strong arm around Hansel’s shoulder and in one forceful movement pulled him up from the ground. Hansel turned his head left and right, desperate not to catch his master’s steely gaze. It would have amused Swansow but there was no fight in the boy, no willing defiance. It troubled him greatly and made the training more difficult. He did not enjoy beating the boy, but it was necessary. Discipline was paramount, weakness, intolerable.
‘Cease your snivelling, boy,’ hissed Swansow. ‘Do not interrupt me again. Use that wasted meat you call a brain.’ With a suddenness that almost sent the boy tumbling back towards the ground, he let go of his shoulders and turned his attention back in the direction of the altar. The prayer tent was much like a normal tent except that it had two openings, one serving as the entrance and the other serving as a source of natural light. The tent had to be moved so that this ‘window’ always faced the moon, which in turn had to hit the altar or it was all for nothing. During the day the window would be closed so that the only light the stone ever felt was that of the moon.
This night the moon was barely visible through the gaseous haze that seemed to be a permanent fixture of the region. Why the ancients had decided to build an altar in such a remote and inhospitable location, Swansow could not say, their wisdom was not his to question. He lived by their teachings but he doubted he would ever truly understand them. What man dared claim to understand a god made flesh?
‘Great things are in motion, Hansel,’ said Swansow after what seemed like an eternity of silence, ‘and we are at the forefront. The one you saw, this Brutic noble, I want you to keep watch on him. Return to me when you have news of his intentions, but be wary of his men. I have tasted their fear and it is great indeed.’
Hansel bowed and hurried out the entrance of the tent, tripping over his robes as he did so. Swansow smiled to himself as he heard the boy yelp in pain. He did not need to meditate to imagine the fear in his mind, it was palpable already, almost a physical entity in itself. He wondered just how much harder he would have to push before that fear became something more malleable.
Soon, he thought, his mind wandering back to the soldiers. Things were looking interesting indeed.
An endless waste stretched out before them and Jethrin could not help but despise every moment they stayed in the Madukii Swamps. The land was treacherous, with seemingly shallow pools turning out to be far deeper than they ought to be, far deeper than reason told him that they should be. In the last hour alone they had lost two horses to the bogs and now they stood to lose a third. The terrified beast seemed to be staring directly at him, accusing him personally for its fate as the liquid earth sucked it into the ground. The men were relatively safe, they had the advantage of being more agile and comparatively light. In addition, he had organised men into rescue parties, giving them long lengths of rope from the supplies and ordering them to go after any man or horse that looked in peril. The problem was that it seemed the further into the swamps they travelled the less land there was to stand on and there was no more solid footing.
As the last bubble of air popped unceremoniously against the surface of the water, Jethrin knew that his horse was finally dead. He hoped that it had been a painless death, but he knew from experience that this was far from the truth. In the course of his service to both Karinska and his master he had lost a number of horses, but that had never troubled him before. All of those horses had died in war. They had been necessary sacrifices, and it had never concerned him that the beast he rode into battle upon might not be the same one he rode out on, but this had been different. There was no war here, only death.
‘A shame,’ said Lord Drovalak, acknowledging his retainers pain. ‘Still, it cannot be helped. Take one of the horses from the caravan or commandeer one of the men’s.’ He waved over a nearby soldier who turned his steed in their direction then stopped abruptly.
‘No,’ said Jethrin, his words full of self-defeat, ‘I will walk.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Odius. ‘We can get you another horse.’
‘With respect, my lord,’ said Jethrin, gritting his teeth, ‘it’s not the horse that bothers me. We’ve been heading through this cess pool for almost half a day and yet still I do not know why we are truly here. I know that it is secret, and I know it is not my place to question, but I have seen a number of fine steeds dragged under today and I would like to know that they were not wasted.’
‘They weren’t wasted,’ said Odius solemnly. ‘It weighs heavily on my mind too Jethrin, believe me. I wish that I could tell you what I know, but trust me when I say that there is a reason I cannot speak of it. Have faith.’
‘It is not me you need to convince,’ said the retainer, stealing a glance at the soldiers marching behind them.
Though they had been organised into a neat formation the threat of ending up with the same fate as the horses had pushed the soldiers together, meaning each man covered the same ground as the one in front. As Jethrin watched he could see a number of soldiers deep in hushed conversation, exchanging nervous glances across the swamps every so often.
‘You suspect mutiny?’ asked Lord Drovalak, his face set in a look of shock but his voice did not seem to follow through. He seemed somehow unsurprised. ‘So soon…’ he added more to himself than to Jethrin.
‘I suspect the men are as weary of this as I am,’ said Jethrin, realising too late that he had overstepped his authority, ‘and without the good fortune to know you better, their weariness has turned to doubt.’
‘Has, not will?’ asked Odius half-heartedly, his attention was drawn away by a large cloud of gas that twisted and warped as the setting sun vanished and reappeared behind the dark sky.
‘Has,’ said his retainer firmly.
Odius nodded in acknowledgment, never taking his eyes away from the cloud. His retainer narrowed his own eyes in an attempt to spot what it was that his master was so entranced by, but all he could see was a ball of gas, one of many that they had passed in their travels through those hateful mires. It was only then, as the sun broke through a crack in the sky that Jethrin realised what it was. The light warped the cloud more severely this time, splitting right through it and showing what lay beyond.
It was a settlement, little more than a shanty town really, with a number of rickety wooden buildings set on stilts around a flat expanse of land. Little more than that was visible, but just seeing this sign of some form of civilisation filled Jethrin with a strange concoction of excitement and dread.
‘Do you see it?’ asked Lord Drovalak, still staring intently as though, were he to look away for even a moment, the town would disappear like a mirage in the desert.
‘I do, my lord,’ said Jethrin. ‘Is that where we are headed?’
His lord did not reply. Odius’s attention was set solely on the town. If he had even heard his retainer’s question he gave no indication of it.
‘I need a piss,’ announced Jethrin sourly and he stormed off in the direction of the soldiers. If there was a mutiny coming then someone would need to deal with it, and right now that person would have to be him.
Since they had arrived in the Madukii Swamps he had noticed that his master had become increasingly distant and insular. It was not unlike him to keep details to himself, indeed his willingness to do so had won them a fair few battles, but it was far from reassuring. Jethrin had seen his master order men to their deaths without them ever knowing they were stepping into danger. He had no wish to become one of his master’s pawns.
As he looked back over his shoulder, he saw that the sun was once again covered by clouds. The sickly yellow phantasm had reappeared, still dancing as the bog vomited more noxious gas to join it. But beyond the cloud he could no longer see. The settlement had vanished once more.