Darkened Soul

This is a prequel to my fantasy saga. I have long wanted to create the history of the land, and this is the first part of it. Originally created as part of my MA in creative writing.

One

I saw, in brief moments through the thick smoke, the fleet was gone, as was the beast. The warm crackle of fire brightened the cry of the dying. A wave washed over my legs, cooling the burn in my thigh. The next one washed higher, nearer my waist. I had to move or become another casualty. The sky was there as was the sun; at least I hoped they were. Forcing myself to sit, I just stared at the destruction – fifty ships. Men, women, whole families – lost. 

My leg was stiff, every step an effort, exacerbated by the shifting sand and the push-pull of the ocean. My wound called for attention, a ragged flap hung on a flesh hinge. Endless salt and sand, I had to find fresh water before I dried out. 

The beach gave way to a ridge of tall grass filling the air with its susurrous sound; soothing, a gentle welcome to a new land. I let my hands play among the tallest stems, the coarse stalks brushed the sand from my skin, pleasurable, were it to have ceased there. By the time I had passed through the barricade, I was cut and grazed. My blood speckled hands stung. Then I heard it: the drum. Dull at first, a single beat from the dark horizon I later realised was the endless forest. 

The dead were there, watching – their eyes dark marbles of blood. My crew and my friends, all of them, head bowed listening for the next beat, and when it struck, they took a step as though they had no will. 

Thud. The drum called my name. Gentle as lover’s call. I felt her breath upon my cheek, and my pain ebbed. I stepped toward the forest and its dark embrace, feeling exposed, I sought shelter, thinking there must be a settlement nearby, perhaps a fishing village or trapper’s hut. 

Another beat, another step, and so the necromancer called the thralls.

There was a chill, not unpleasant, a caution on the skin. I shuddered, hesitating at the fringe where hope remained in view. I wanted to run. I truly did, I did not try. What was there to go back to? My Elenor was by my side though she no longer knew the living from the dead. She just walked on that bone splinter towing her foot. Pity was all I felt. The best emotion I could muster. She was dead, as were they all. One child carried a wooden horse in one hand, in the other the tattered remains of a cat, its pink tongue lolled out of its crushed skull, one eye reduced to a residue, the other staring into oblivion.

I dared a look to the sea – darkness and nothing more. The day, the sky, the ships – all gone beneath the shroud of branches. Forward was the only way. Forward to the drum. 

By a stream I came upon a gathering of the dead. I knelt to slake my thirst, and as I drank of the cold crystal, one eye on the dead, I saw my ghost in the shallows; my hair was gone, my face dark, but then all was dark in this creeping twilight. The waters muddied; they were crossing over. Step by stumbling step, no thought, just a response to the beat. I edged past them with increasing haste, I looked at each one, their faces familiar yet erased in death.

The soft rustle of leaf litter gave way to the hard clump of bare earth, and there stood the drum bathed in torchlight. Taller than any man, too wide to wrap in my arms. The base rested on feet, skewered through the heel into the caked earth. The sides were bones, ground smooth. The skin was stretched so tight the veins cut pathways to its heart where a severed skeletal fist thumped its face. 

Then I saw her. Angel or demon? I knew nor cared not. Her skin glowed in the torchlight, so pale, yet so alive. Her bosom was full, round, inviting my eyes to follow their curves to her waist, belly and legs. Her modesty covered by her snaking black hair. She was smiling. Those lips parted to speak, but I heard no sound, I felt what was said, and was smitten to serve.

‘Eat,’ she said. ‘The table is laid. The meat is ready.’

There, on a table carved around the fattest oak lay a spread so delectable my stomach gurgled in anticipation of the succulent flesh. I feasted on breast, rump, belly, and thigh, all the meat I desired. So rich a table I had never known. A taste of heaven kissed my lips with every bite. I devoured it all, enthralled, a ravenous beast, nothing could compare. Sated, slumped across the offering, exhausted beyond resistance. I reached for a drink, dark and thick.

‘What is your name, warrior?’ Her tone harder than before, as audible as any.

‘Barramon. I’m no warrior.’ Her hand stayed the goblet from my mouth.

‘Not yet, but soon you will wield power like no man in your land. I have seen it, so it shall be.’

‘You are mistaken. I -‘

‘I am not mistaken, Barramon of Narelzbad. Your people fled the orcs after the Dark Star fell to the earth and birthed Doom’s Rise.’ She slid behind me drawing her fingers up my neck. ‘I feel the mana rising in you.’

‘I know nothing of what you speak,’ I jumped to my feet pushing her aside. A soft wind breathed through the forest rippling her hair, such delights I had not thought of in many years. Elenor was the only woman I had known. And yet…

‘You desire me.’

‘I will not partake.’ I did not see her move until her lips were upon my own. Her taste; rancid filth and decay. I shoved her aside. Her laughter was a chattering brook. ‘What are you?’ The strength of my voice startled me. 

There, in the light of a small torch her face slipped. Someone else was trying to speak through her. ‘Kill me!’ a young woman vanished with a shriek.

‘What is this?’ I placed the goblet on the table and took up the knife, its long blade caked with old blood. Then I saw it; the remains of my meal. A body, its clothing torn from it. Chunks of flesh taken from the breast, buttocks and inner thigh. Teeth marks, everywhere as though she had been ravaged by savages. A foot tethered by a tendon, hung forlorn. I fell to my knees and howled, deep guttural anguish. What had I sunk to?

‘Kill me!’ her shriek yanked me back from the abyss. I leapt to my feet and sprang at her in feral fury. The knife sank into her belly, over and over as my teeth tore at her throat. She held on to me impassioned, her legs embraced me as I rode her to the ground cracking her spine on the firestone. Her arteries burst in my mouth, juicy as a summer berry.

Her legs slid down my sides, we were free. ‘Seek me at the Cavern of Souls.’ The wind took her words north, to where I did not know. 

‘Thank you,’ Such gratitude for so violent an act! I rolled onto my back and stared at the tangle of branches. Fingers of sunlight stroked the earth. Morn or eve, I could tell, but their touch was a balm to my soul. Exhausted, sleep embraced me.

Two

Now the forest was alive. Timid chatter among the birds as though they had just learned to talk. Small creatures snouted through the leaf litter in search of grubs and worms. The musty woodland scent carried the taste of death. My crew lay all around, bodies broken and burned – peace for them at least.

Everything ached, my leg stung with every move, the wound filthy as the rest of me. Birds scattered from the trees in a squawking flurry as my scream rent the morning. A vile ooze surfaced from my injury as I staggered to the nearest support. Wiping the sleep from my eyes, I saw the shafts of the morning sun dance upon the stream. I fought back the pain, forced my limbs to carry me forth until I fell into the water and drank and drank until my mouth was clean of corrupt flesh. I retched and watched my vomit swirl away, wretch that I am, it amused me. Scooping up handfuls of the cold salve I scourged myself until my skin was raw.

I have no memory of my travail through the forest. How many trees were there? More than people? Less trouble too.

A broad river, with a voice of reeds bordered the forest. Pieces of deck, supply crates, fragments of life riding the flood tide toward mountains so grand they scoured the sky, rendering it a cloudless blue. I watched the debris float by. Some of the larger pieces gathered where a battered bridge hung like a scoop. The shoreline was smooth, worn smooth by the caress of endless tides. The bridge was narrow; its boards trailed green weed in wistful ribbons of mermaid’s hair. The current pulled at my calves as the bridge sank under my weight, the flotsam scraped its bulk over the planks scarring the old timbers. I crossed over, glad to feel the earth beneath my feet

This land was a green field without beginning or end. Bees bumbled through the tall grass, shouldering their way to the honey-cup flowers whose golden bowls glinted in the sun. Branches hung in mighty thews tremulous with fists of blossom gloved in pink and blue, the scent so pungent it cleared my lungs in gasping blows. The clang of bells punctuated the bleating goats, whose concentric curled horns reminded me of the painted snails on the beaches back home. I remember the soft song of the sea when I held them to my ear, such enchantment I would never feel again.

‘You look lost,’ a voice gravelled.

‘More than lost. I cannot see to whom I speak,’ Sat among the gnarled roots, a fisherman, the pink palm of his hand a beacon against the black bark.

‘Arrborn,’ the white of his smile broke his face, illuminating the centre of his wild beard.

‘What manner of man are you?’

‘Do you not have dwarves where you come from?’

‘We have orcs.’ 

‘Come, sit, while I catch breakfast.’ I watched him bait his hook with old fish guts; the stench was incredible, but he just whistled as he stabbed the hook through the squirming mess. ‘Razor fish, go crazy for this.’ His eyes burned with life, never have I seen such fire. The baited hook splattered on the water, a trail followed it down through the mirk. Instantly the line went tight jerking the dwarf from his roost. ‘Here we go, matey.’ His arms bulged with effort, filling the space in his tunic with taught muscle. ‘Come to Arrborn, I only want to eat yer.’ The line scythed through the water shredding the current. The dwarf, pulled against every change of direction, trying to turn the head of the fish. ‘No, yer don’t,’ Arrborn leaned back pulling the fish from the depths. ‘Get ready to – DUCK!’ A green striped missile flew toward us its mouth a nest of nails. Arrborn leapt on it as it floundered on the earth, beating it with his fists until it lay still. ‘He’s a beauty, about the size of my mother. Do you mind?’

I picked up the fish in both hands to keep it from dragging on the ground and followed after the dwarf through some trees into a copse where a large house sat beside a half-filled barn. ‘Well this, surprises me,’ the house looked as though it belonged to someone much larger.

‘You never know who’s coming to tea,’ he poked at the fish. ‘Or breakfast.’

‘Where do you want the fish?’

‘Kitchen. This way,’ Arrborn left the door open. The clatter and clank of pots assailed me as I entered the kitchen, the dwarf was already chopping onions into a dark iron skillet sat over coals. ‘You never saw me do this,’ the glint in his eye turned orange. Fire erupted from his fingers bringing the coals to heat. ‘I’m not supposed to do that, but then again there are great many things I do which I am not supposed to.’ He took the fish and tossed it on the table as though it weighed nothing. ‘You’ve not seen magic, have you?’

I pulled the knife from my belt, ‘May I?’ I opened the fish’s belly, one long slit, gill to tail.

‘Separate the head for me will ya. It’ll make a nice trophy for the wall.’

‘So I see.’

 Arrborn scooped the guts into his bait bucket and threw two fat fillets in the pan. The fish crackled and spat as he spread butter over it. ‘What are those plates made of? I’ve not seen anything like them.’ I held one in my hand, surprised at its lightness. I ran my fingers over the ridges, following the contours around the broad teardrop.

‘Dragon scale,’ Arrborn cast his gaze to the sizzling pan. ‘We get them on the mountains to the North, The Dragon’s Teeth. The whole place is full of them.’ He fiddled with the fish, sprinkling salt and herbs over it, the toasting herbs masked the smell of the fish.

‘North? That’s where the voice said to go.’

‘Voice?’

‘I had a rough day, yesterday. My fleet was sunk by some beast. It came out of nowhere and wrecked all fifty ships. I am the only survivor.’

‘I’m sorry. I just saw you come out of the forest and cross the bridge. Not many get out alive. In fact, you’re the first.’ He put the fish on two of the dragon scales and carried it outside where he set in on a table hewn from an old tree stump.

‘You were saying – voice.’

‘This is wonderful,’ the fish melted in my mouth. I broke the flesh with my fingers and ate it with bread. There was a scented herbal drink, made from petals and honey, Elenor would have liked this. Ale would have been better.

‘Did you see the witch?’

‘Dead. That’s when I heard the voice. Seek me at the Cavern of Souls.’

‘Not a place for mortals,’ his eyes were half-closed as he reached for the salt. ‘Needs more.’ He scattered salt across his meal as though seeding a field.

‘My first day in this land, wherever I may be, has not been good. Unlike this – ‘

‘The tea?’

‘Tea? I like it,’ I finished the dregs and set the cup back on the table. ‘What’s with the Cavern?’

‘Full of dead things. Only the dead can go beyond the first gate. Providing, that is, you get past the guardians, they’ll take a swing at anything.’

‘You’ve been there?’

Arrborn swilled his drink in his cup, ‘Just put a toe in, really. I’ve not the will for such a place. I’ll show you where to go, if you’re insistent on going.’ We cleared the table and took the dishes back to the kitchen where we heaped them in a trough and pumped water over them. ‘I’ll get those later. This way.’

We went through the main room with its high-back chairs set in a crescent around a glowing hearth. The stairs wound around to the second floor opening out onto a broad landing where a desk sat covered in neat piles of parchment and scrolls.

‘Did you draw all these?’ The maps were extraordinary, such detail: every knoll and boulder, copse and dwelling, nothing was too insignificant.’

‘Aye. I’ve a love of maps. Perhaps you could scribble one of your homeland, do a swap?’ He tossed a scroll from one hand to the other and back again. ‘That way no one loses, eh?’

‘I can do that.’ I waited for Arrborn to finish laying out the parchment and quills before I sat to create my memory of Narelzbad and the realms beyond its borders. ‘Some of the towns will be gone by now. The orcs were razing everything that reminded them of us. Orcs were my friends once. The seer’s son, Jourell, you’d have liked him. Had no interest in fighting. He loved papers, like you. He sought old prophecies, collected every scrap he could find and pieced them together.’

‘You smile. you were close?’

‘Doom’s Rise. It’s where the Dark Star fell. The whole of the rise is just the earth it spewed out. Nothing good has come from its intrusion.’

‘Decapolis! Now that I’ve heard of. Huge city, covers the whole land, does it not?’

‘It does.’ I put the quill down and sat back. ‘There, it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do. I don’t have your flair.’

‘No one does,’ his laugh was infectious, he did it a lot, most anything would bring mirth to his black face. 

He talked about Drakeshire, the land where my people died. Nothing good ever came out from there. He too, was glad the witch was dead, I never gave details, just the bare facts. If he wanted to know more, he could find the hag’s hovel for himself.

‘I’d be honoured if you’d rest for a night, get your strength back. If you intend to hunt out the cavern you’ll need every crumb of strength you can get. You should have no bother crossing Mor, it’s peaceful, mostly farmsteads. Belgor has a market tomorrow. I’ll take you to it and set you on your way. I’ve no doubt we’ll get a good mount there, too.’ 

‘Here’s a map,’ Arrborn passed me a scroll from a pile beside a clay pipe. ‘You smoke?’ Taking the clay pipe from him I filled it with some tobacco from a pouch. With a click of his fingers he held a tiny fireball between his forefinger and thumb. He dropped it into the bowl of the pipe where it sank to the bottom and ignited the tobacco. Nothing tasted quite like it, a mixture of earth and flowers entwined with apple kissed with summer. Darkness covered my eyes, I was home, in Narelzbad. The soft scent of pine drifted on the breath of angels from the mountains. Long tailed wyverns played in the heights, gliding among the branches, their scales glittering in the sun. Children played on the needle carpet, orcs and humans together, my girl among them, her giggles a stream of rainbows colouring my memories – such memories.

When the light returned, I was back in the chair, the pipe empty but my tankard full. The sun peered over the lip of the windowsill with eyes of red and gold, beneath brows bruised by the encroaching night. A day had passed, and I cared not. Arrborn told tales, through delicate whorls of smoke, of misty mountains and flights of dragons. Fanciful accounts of wars between races I had never heard of; but was willing to learn from. His words flowed in rythmic notes, a philharmonic history of these strange lands. We drank, we smoked, we fellowshipped. The mage wars had taken his father, who was a priest, as was he, they trained in some distant temple in a land called Grimlaw, the home of his people. He spoke of friends and I of family, he of battles and I of love – lamentations, all of it. The Dark Star had fallen, and the people took on its taint. Bitterness, anger – hatred, such things we had not known. Then… Accuson. Arrborn’s face paled at the name, I thought he was intoxicated. When at last he spoke it was from the grave, as though he had become a mere mouthpiece for something – someone far greater. I had never felt so afeared, my skin prickled. I wanted to hide, to run from the terror of it, but instinct said it would find me anywhere. If I sank to the depths of the ocean it could drink it and reveal my shame.

Night took the stage accompanied by twinkling stars and chirping fireflies, ‘They remind me of the ones back home, that sound, it’s happiness and hope in a note.’

‘Aye,’ the dwarf slipped from his chair to the floor where he snored for the night. I went in search of a bed and found one to my liking. I slept a fitful sleep filled with dreams of the dark-haired mistress, the embodiment of pleasure. She called to me. I answered. She knew my name and what I had done, still she wanted me. I walked into her arms, felt her nakedness upon mine, those black wings wrapped around me as she drank of my soul leaving me a husk of a man.