(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)
Jethrin was waiting on the outskirts of the camp when Lord Drovalak came to meet with him. Two soldiers stood at his side, their heads bowed respectfully. His retainer was smiling but it was a grim smile, and one that Odius had come to associate with impending disaster. Far behind them the soldiers were busying about their assigned tasks, making preparations to start marching again. The arrival of their unexpected “guest” had proven something of an morale boost to the men who had taken it as a sign that something was finally happening. Neither men had anticipated this turn of events, but it kept the soldiers occupied, and offered them both a much needed breather.
‘My lord,’ said Jethrin. He bowed his head and then indicating his two companions. ‘These two are among the most loyal of your followers. I have drawn them away from the others so that we might discuss how to deal with an eventual mutiny.’
‘You are so convinced it will happen?’ asked Odius, the faint sign of annoyance on his features. His retainer was a blunt man, and while that served useful at times, Odius disliked talking openly about such sensitive matters. All it would take was one man to overhear, or even so much as suspect that he had, and the roots of anarchy could sweep through their already disgruntled ranks.
‘It will happen,’ nodded Jethrin, ‘and if we continue onwards without purpose then it will happen sooner rather than later. Your choices are few my lord. You can explain to them what it is we are actually out here looking for or prepare for the inevitable. Either way you will need your allies around you, which is why I have brought you these two.’
‘I do not need you to tell me what to do,’ growled Lord Drovalak, but he knew that his old friend was right. He had kept the secret long enough and in truth he had not thought they would find the swamps to be such an inhospitable place. Still, he refused to let his naivety turn the expedition into a tragedy. ‘Very well,’ he sighed. ‘You two, tell me your names that I may know better who fights loyally at my side.’
‘Lev, sir,’ said the tallest of the two, a giant of a man with a noble brow and the neatly trimmed hair of a man more used to the finer things, ‘of House Koschin. My family has always had good relations with the Arbaron of Nordmere and if I may be so bold I have followed your career with great interest.’
‘A noble?’ Odius raised an eyebrow in surprise. ‘This is hardly the life I’d expect of a man born and bred to rule.’
‘With respect, sir,’ said Lev, ‘The life of a noble is too sheltered for me, I would rather follow your example and explore the world, not just hear about it second-hand. I would follow you to the edge of oblivion and back.’
Odius nodded at this, though the excitement in the young man’s voice disturbed him. He had not actually chosen to become a soldier, that role had been thrust upon him by his father, and though he had quickly taken to it, he had done so out of necessity rather than choice. It was his opinion that the karinskar nobles, those few that were not permanently plotting to undermine one another or worm their way into higher positions of power were decidedly naive when it came to matters of the real world. They were trapped in their own personal paradises, bought and paid for by generations of riches they neither needed nor earned. The outside world was just a game to them, or so it had always seemed to Lord Drovalak.
‘And you?’ asked Odius, looking at the second soldier. He was slightly surprised to see that the other soldier was a woman, uncommon within the ranks of the karinskar army, but not unheard of. After all, the cold heart of the karinskar war machine cared little for the sex of those who powered it, only that they be of ample body and mind to live long enough to feed its lust for blood. This particular warrior maiden was short of stature with mousy brown hair, no doubt kept deliberately messy to disguised her more feminine appearance.
‘Halka, my lord,’ she said, masking her voice with a deeper tone. It made Odius smile to hear it, but he was quick to regain his composure, it would have been disrespectful, and if his retainer spoke truthfully he would need these two on his side. ‘Halka Moranova,’
‘And why do you pledge loyalty to me?’ asked Odius with genuine interest.
‘If it pleases your lord,’ she said, shame and anger leaking into her words, ‘I have no wish to be at the mercy of men with mutiny on their mind. I have doubts that such men would retain their discipline, particularly around a person of my gender were they to believe they could act freely and without reprisal.’
Lord Drovalak nodded. It seemed obvious really, though he had little doubt in his mind that she could hold off a fair number of them before it ever came to that. Women in the army had to prove themselves to be not just the equal of their male counterparts but also their betters, otherwise what advantage were they to the commanders who would have to watch their men more closely because of it? These were far from the strictly regimented ranks of the armies of the southern nations, and incidents of indecent acts were not unheard of, and rarely deemed worthy of action. The Karinskars after all were a passionate people, but the cold had embedded itself deep in their hearts and it would be a very long time before it began to thaw.
‘Very well then,’ said Odius, satisfied that these were indeed trustworthy soldiers. ‘What I reveal to you now must not be repeated. You both have something to lose if these men decide to turn coward, and I trust you will remember that before engaging your tongues in their company.’
The three stood silent, and Odius eyed Jethrin to check that they were not being watched. The last thing he needed right now was to rekindle the men’s suspicions and ignite the very mutiny he was hoping to avoid.
‘Around a year ago I was at the command of a small force tasked with driving out a cult of Haemos worshippers north of the Gnarlfist Mountains.’ Odius did not enjoy explaining himself. He preferred to let his actions speak for him, he felt faintly queasy putting voice to the words, as though they exposed him. Through actions he could command respect and loyalty, but there had been precious little opportunity to demonstrate this of late. ‘As you will recall Jethrin, we discovered that the cult had uncovered a temple and had even managed to bring about the ascension of one of their number to that of a Haemomagus.’
‘I recall,’ said Jethrin, spitting on the ground. ‘Those filthy bastards almost took out my eye.’
‘With respect, sir,’ interrupted Lev, ‘what is a Haemomagus?’
‘It is an abomination, boy,’ said Jethrin, eying the excitement on the young soldier’s face with considerable disgust, ‘a twisted sorcerer enraptured by the powers of corrupted Gods. Deformed of body and perverted of mind, doomed to feast on human flesh and drink nothing but blood. The blasted monster killed two dozen of my men on its own, ripped right through them like they were made of paper. Do you know what it is like to have to wash your armour, knowing that the stain you wipe was once part of your comrade’s brains?’
The giant soldier quivered, his skin turning green and sickly. On the other hand Halka merely looked on in silence, her expression one of cold understanding.
‘The cult was just a symptom,’ said Odius continuing his story, ‘the people of the region were mostly impoverished farmers, unable to make a living or fully support their families so they happily turned to the cult for assistance. Instead of assistance the cult offered slaughter, that is until news was brought to Muscovy and I was asked to offer aid. You see I am of the opinion that the cult itself was being manipulated by some unseen party, though for what reason I cannot fathom. They seek to play on the superstitions of the region, to create chaos through lies and sorcery. It is my personal belief that this organisation, for I cannot believe that one man alone could mastermind such a feat, is intent upon overthrowing Karinskar society and replacing it with one that they might more easily maintain and control.’
‘That sounds a little farfetched,’ said Jethrin.
‘Maybe,’ Odius smiled grimly, ‘but I found enough written evidence within that twisted den of slaughter to suggest that such an organisation does in fact exist.’
‘Does this organisation have a name, my lord?’ asked Jethrin.
‘If my information is correct,’ said Odius, ‘then they are known as the Distorted Ones.’
Lord Drovalak let the words simmer. He could almost see the cogs turning in their heads, the questions rising in their minds and preparing to reach the surface. It was Halka who spoke first.
‘So why are we here, sir?’ she asked.
‘To find them of course,’ said Odius. Then his voice turned cold as steel, ‘and then massacre them.’
Silence loomed over the group as the understanding of what they had been told sunk in. The sickly expression on Lev’s face reached its apex and he vomited loudly into the muddy water. Jethrin held onto the man’s shoulder as he emptied the contents of his stomach and then once he was absolutely sure the man was done, slapped the back of his head for making such noise. In any other circumstance Odius would have laughed, but the memory of the raid was still fresh in his mind, and the thought of having to face that nightmare again made him want to join Lev.
Only Halka seemed unaffected by the realisation of her master’s words, but that could not be further from the truth. Though her face betrayed no fear, she had frozen solid, unable to stop herself staring darkly into the lingering clouds of gas. It was not fear that had stopped her still, but a growing comprehension and the back of her spine that they were all going to die.
‘My lord!’ yelled a voice far behind them. Odius instantly recognised it as that of Yakov, the young soldier that had found the boy. Somehow he had completely forgotten about him. ‘My lord, he is waking up. He’s not dead!’ Odius noted a sense of great relief in the soldier’s voice.
‘Koschin, Moranova, return to your posts,’ ordered Lord Drovalak. ‘Do not forget what I said; speak of this to no one. I will call on you again when I have need of you. Jethrin,’ he turned to his faithful retainer, a glint of excitement in his eyes, ‘let’s go see what our prisoner has to say for himself.’