RENEGADE, by Alex Marshall:

The silence deepened as the boat slipped onward under the trees.  Even the dip and pull of the pilot’s oar made scarcely a noise as the slime-dark hull skimmed the water.  Seated in the prow, Dyer watched the pilot warily.  He was a local man; one of the Char Cutters who eked out an existence beneath the forest’s shadow.  The pilot hunched over his oar in the rear of the narrow craft, his face hidden beneath his lank hair — something for which Dyer was grateful though it deepened his mistrust of the creature and heightened his fear of treachery.

Beneath his travel-worn cloak, Dyer reached and found the solid reassurance of  his Smeltagun’s grip.

“How much further?” Dyer said.

“Close now,” grunted the other.

In the cities of the north, the pilot’s rancour might have enraged him, but not here in the south where a vast and trackless wilderness hid the borders of three nations.  Dyer was a stranger; a plain dweller and an outlander, ignorant of the forest and its ways.

Dusk was upon them.  Darkness crept between the boughs and trunks that crowded the water’s edge.  Over the pilot’s narrow shoulders Dyer saw massive city walls, framed by the leprous glow of the failing sun.  This was the ancient Sanctuary of Tsippi, southernmost of the cities of Imercia.  For Dyer it was the last post of a long trail that spanned half a continent.  He was bone-weary and close to collapse but, finally, nearing his goal.

“There!”  The pilot pointed.

Dyer twisted about to follow the gesture.  As they rounded a bend he saw flickering flames and the crooked pillars of moorings at the river’s edge.  Barges listed at anchor, some laden with great crumbling piles of char.  The pilot steered toward them with quick, sinuous strokes.

There was no one to greet them upon the rickety wharf.  Smoke hung in a lifeless pall and the smell of burning overlaid the stench of rotting vegetation and brackish water.  The pilot made the boat fast with a rope.  He kept his head low, not so much as glancing across at his passenger.  Flies clustered thickly about him as he worked but he did not wave them away.

Cautiously Dyer stood, bracing himself as the shallow boat rocked.  He went to disembark but the pilot blocked his way, thrusting out his hand palm-upward before him.

“Half before, half now!” Behind the hand, feral eyes glared from a disease-ravaged face.

“Let us find firmer footing and we can conclude our business,” Dyer said.

“Pay now!” snapped the pilot.

The boat heeled and Dyer eyed the water black as ink beneath them.  He reached into his purse and withdrew two coins.  One he let fall into the pilot’s filthy palm.  The other he held poised, gleaming in the darkness.

“I seek the home of the Hundred-Handed God,” Dyer said.

The boatman nodded.  Only the temple and the wisdom of the priestess drew travellers from the city to risk death or worse in the forest.

“Take the track through the huts.  Before you reach the trees, you’ll see the fires at the temple door.  Pass between — if you can.”

Dyer nodded and let go the second coin.  It was heavier than the first and the boatman’s hand eagerly snatched it away.

As Dyer heaved himself onto the creaking wharf the boatman moved to the stern, perhaps to hide his treasure in some nook or crevice.

“Have a care Northerner,” he warned, his voice crackling with irony and malice. “One of his hands might reach for you.”

* * *

Dyer climbed rude steps to a deserted yard where mounds of rubbish smouldered.  In the poor light he saw char lying everywhere — scattered or piled in great heaps.  This was the fuel that the villagers harvested at the forest’s edge; the dead limbs of swamp trees that they burned in fierce, stifled conditions in special underground kilns.  At dawn it would be loaded into the barges and rowed upriver.  It was the char of the swamp folk that kept the city’s furnaces and watchfires fed.  This was the fuel that baked Tsippi’s bread and smelted its schaarde.

Brushing angrily at the flies, Dyer made his way across the yard, scanning to left and right, glancing behind every rubbish pile and char heap.  Through a gap between low stone buildings, he glimpsed a path threading rows of curious-shaped mounds.

The path was unpaved.  Mud sucked at his boots as he stalked by the huts.  They were rude hive-like domes, built of soil and thickly grown with moss and weeds.  Each had a low doorway sealed by a boulder or a wooden hatch, and his footsteps roused furtive scurrying from within.  Here and there light spilled from a crack or hastily unblocked spy-hole, but otherwise the gloom grew ever deeper.  Dense clouds hid the stars.  Ahead, the great black wall of the forest brooded.

Dyer paused as the path rose through rank grass and stagnant pool to the edge of the trees.  Flames glimmered from behind a screen of dense evergreens away to his left.  He quit the path and struck out toward them, wary now of treacherous ground more than the threat of ambush.  Beyond the bushes another of the mud dwellings — larger than the rest — stood alone with two fires blazing before it.  Approaching, Dyer raised an arm in front of his face as he tried to pick a moment to pass but the heat was unbearable.  Cursing he was forced to step back.

“You may not enter!” a voice, a woman’s, shrilled from within.  “The hour is late and the fires are fuelled for the night.  Return in daylight, stranger, and the god will accept your offering.”

Dyer’s lips writhed back from his teeth and one eye twitched as he glowered about him.  He removed his cloak and tossed it into the nearest mere.  He poked it a moment with his foot and when the coarse fabric was soaked through he drew it out, wrapping himself within its clinging folds.  Thus shrouded, he turned again to the fire portal and, drawing a deep breath, plunged through.

Steam hissed and billowed; Dyer threw back the smoking cowl and let out his breath in a rush.  He blinked through clouds of vapour at the temple’s interior.

Although it was larger than the other huts, the tall Northerner still had to bend his neck in order to stand.  It was a single room lit by the glow from a central fire-altar.  The walls were imprinted from floor to roof as though hands of all sizes had been pressed then baked into the mud.  Here and there in alcoves, skull lanterns burned and over by the far wall there was a wellhead, ringed with stones.  In the shadows beyond the well a stool, a chest, and a tumbled cot were all that was visible of the occupant’s belongings.  She stood before him, frail and quivering but she did not scream or cry out in alarm.  Rags clothed her waist, though her thin arms, legs, and her bony breast were bare.

“I told you not to enter,” she said timidly, turning from Dyer, hiding herself behind the dark curtain of her hair.

He had judged her wrong from her warning.  She was not a woman; she was scarcely more than a girl.  “I mean no harm,” Dyer told her, “but I don’t intend to spend longer than necessary outside the city.  I brought you this.” He drew a parcel out from beneath his cloak.

The girl motioned toward a stone bowl by the doorway in which lay what looked like a chunk of mouldy bread and some strange roots.  Dyer stooped, placing the parcel as he was bid, the smell of dried fish arising in the hut as he did so.  The girl grunted, perhaps in gratitude.   He had been told to bring bread and fish, for this was the custom.

‘Place the offering in the bowl. . .’ so the women in the market had confided. ‘She can refuse nothing that is freely given — though the Seeress of the Swamp-folk has no use for coin.’

Dyer took a step forward and stretched out a gloved hand.  He took her chin, gently lifting it.  Her face was heart-shaped, her skin pale beneath the dirt.  Her lips were thin and sore, while beneath her brow was a scarred mess: the priestess’s eyes were gone.  Not removed with surgical precision, but gouged and prised from her sockets.  Into the vacant apertures black beads had been pressed and tissue had closed and gathered around them, holding the beads in place like dark and thickly twisted eyelids.

His throat suddenly dry, Dyer swallowed.  The priestess smiled.  It was a movement of her mouth only, for her sightless eyes stared blankly up at him, gleaming in the half-light.                

“Now, let me see you,” she said, reaching up.

Dyer froze in the cramped hut as she ran her fingers over the hard crags of his face.

“You are neither old nor young though the world is etched deeply into your flesh.  Your beard grows through neglect, not design so I judge that you’ve been some weeks upon the road that brings you to my door.  You may once have been thought fair in the cities of the north where you had your birth, but your mouth is hard, your cheeks are scarred and the years have not been kind.  Indeed, the Hundred-Handed One has groped for you many times and though you have always twisted from his grasp, his fingers leave their mark.”

The priestess stood on tiptoes to bring her nose closer to his neck.  She sniffed and grimaced.  “You are a warrior, a killer.  I smell death upon you unlike the decay and earthy corruption of the swamp; it permeates your clothing and seeps from your every pore.”

Dyer shrugged.  So, she found him abhorrent.  What matter?  Damn his dry throat . . .

“Give me your hands — I can tell more.”  Her voice was soft but matter-of-fact, like a frightened child that would not own its fear; there was no hint of the revulsion that she spoke of.

Dyer held out his hands to her.

“Take off your gauntlets,” she instructed.

He did so, opening their heavy clasps and dropping the gauntlets to the floor.  She laid her hands upon his, her fingers brushing over them with the lightest touch.  He looked down.  His hands were easily twice the size of hers, which were delicate and bone-white against his darkly callused palms.  If he had wished it, Dyer could have closed his fists and crushed them like lily blossoms.

“Your hands are heavy with the weight of misdeeds, stranger.  They are blunt, brute instruments, nothing more!  What do you wish here?  What do you bring other than . . .”

The breath hissed out from her and she became rigid.  Her face fell and her mouth gaped as though from a seizure.

“What is it priestess?”  Dyer caught her wrists, for fear she would fall back.  “What do you see?”

“I see a walled city in flames.  I see a night filled with chaos and terror.  I see buildings crash down in ruin and streets running with blood.

“I see a woman fleeing.  She fears for her life.  She enters a house.  She runs to a back room, she is searching, desperate, crying . . .

“Men come.  Men in smoking armour with dripping swords and she is cornered — trapped!  They are laughing and joking.  They make mockery of her fear.

“She yields to them — she has to, she has no choice for they will kill her . . . perhaps they will anyway.  Oh my — ” The priestess shook her head as if trying to rid herself of the vision.  “They take turns with her.  They are brutes.  Animals!  But she tries not to scream . . . why does she not cry out?  One of the men has a stick or a truncheon in his hand.  He shows it to her, he hits her!  Oh the brute, the sadistic swine . . .”

The priestess began to sob, but she did not release her grip on Dyer’s hand.  To his fascination, real tears welled up from her ruined face and ran from beneath the blind stone beads she wore in place of eyes.

“He will kill her, surely,” she continued, pushing Dyer away and raising her hands to her glistening cheeks.  “There is more blood now, but she — she is laughing!  Why does she laugh?”  The priestess’s face, drawn with horror and disgust, suddenly softened.  “Ah, I see a child . . . a little boy, her little boy! He hides in the corner.  She can’t see him but she knows he is there, watching with big tearful eyes.  She cannot let them find her son.  Her laughter, her courage is for him.

“Now another man comes.  He has a spiked helm and his visor is lowered.  The others make way for him as though he is their leader.  She lies still now and quiet as he stands over her, a flaming torch in his hand as he remonstrates with the others.  He gestures wildly, angrily.  He strikes a man and then thrusts the torch at him before striding away.”

The priestess hung her head and, turning, knelt before the fire-altar weeping silently.

Dyer stood unmoving.  His face showed no emotion.  It was as blank and cold as the stone plug of a volcano yet to burst, unleashing its fury.  In the silence, the lanterns hissed and sputtered.  From outside in the forest came a strange creaking call.

“Listen, I — ” Dyer began, but the priestess interrupted him.

“You are the boy, or, you were the boy, yes?  I’m right, am I not?”  She spoke quietly, wonderingly, her tear-streaked face to the fire.

“It was I,” Dyer said quickly, “I was there that night.”

She nodded.  “And why have you come?  What do you wish from the mouths of the dead — from those chosen by Obereos, the Hundred-Handed One?”

“I heard talk of this place,” he said, staring at the back of her head and her slim shoulders.  “In the city of Hadsoor on the plain, they spoke of it in the bazaars and alehouses.  One night I listened to the ranting of an old priest at the house where I was lodging.  He told me more.  He said that the priestess of the shrine of the Hundred-Handed One was blessed with a gift — the gift of far-seeing.  Now I know this is true . . .”

“Some call it a gift, stranger, though it is not without its price and my eyes have proved among the least sacrifices that I have paid down the years.  If not a gift, then a sacred charge it most certainly is: to commune with the Chosen, with those whom the god has selected; to hear and to learn from those who have paid the highest price of all for their knowledge.  This is surely just recompense for my pain.”

“This priest,” Dyer continued, “said that you alone among the children of Pangaia know the whereabouts of the thing that I seek.  It is a relic; a remnant of a forgotten age when the ocean divided the land and a race of men lived together in peace, building great wonders.  Legends in my land tell of this artifact — and its power.  They say it holds the secrets of life and death — the keys to unlock the mysteries of existence!”  Dyer loomed over her, his voice trembling with passion.  “The man who possesses such a treasure would be freed from doubt and fear.  He would be healed of all wounds.  Tell me you know of what I speak?  Tell me of the Sky Pearl and — ”

Suddenly, sparks and rolling bodies burst through the entrance and into the hut.  The priestess screamed and cowered by the well.  Dyer whirled, ripping sword and pistol from their sheaths.  He backed slowly after the girl as two figures leapt to their feet and faced him.  A third lay where he had fallen, groaning.

The two men glared about them.  They were armed with long knives and clad in dark, close-fitting bindings that showed no insignia.

In a heartbeat Dyer saw that neither of them appeared to have a pistol and so, smiling, he raised his.  The intruders crouched and crept forward in a pincer movement.  Dyer thumbed the slide, priming the gun’s firing mechanism.

“No!”  The priestess stood, grabbing at Dyer’s arm.  “There will be no killing here.  Put away the weapons.”

Dyer was surprised how quickly she recovered her composure after the shock of the intrusion, though he felt her hand tremble upon his biceps.  The intruders froze and, slowly, Dyer lowered the pistol.

“Be my eyes, stranger,” she whispered. “Who are they?”

“They are scum of Natali,” Dyer said, loud enough for them to hear.  “Though they shrink from wearing the badge of their city, I’ve killed enough in my time to recognise their like.”

The men scowled but made no reply.  The one on the ground cried out and then lay still.

“I knew that raiding parties had been seen on this side of the border,” Dyer continued, eyeing the warriors warily.  “At a guess I’d say these wretches are the men of Ulundi come to steal your children.”

“I’ve heard slavers have been seen in the forest,” said the priestess.  “It seems so — and the forest has not taken them.”

Dyer’s thoughts were lured away briefly as he wondered what the priestess meant by this and what dangers lurked unseen outside.

For the first time one of the men spoke: “I am called Straker and my comrade here is Colim.  That man there is Orrish, our captain.”  With his knife he indicated the man collapsed by the altar.  “We were attacked in the forest by bushmen.  The captain was hurt and we got separated from the rest of our band.”  He paused and licked parched lips.  Addressing the priestess he said, “We ask only for water and food and to rest here until dawn.  We offer no harm and at first light we’ll be on our way, taking nothing we didn’t bring with us.”

“No chance!” Dyer spat.  His trigger finger tightened and his knuckles whitened around the hilt of his heavy sword.  “Priestess, don’t listen to their lies — they’ll slit our throats as we sleep!  Let me do away with them so we can rest easier.”

“You may stay,” said the priestess to Straker, “and you may refresh yourselves from the well and from my bowl.”

Dyer’s eyes bulged and his mouth fell open.  “But priestess, this is madness!  They are killers, bloody-handed murderers . . .” His voice fell.  He didn’t need to see her ironic grimace and scowling he lapsed into silence.

The priestess addressed them all: “This is our village and our temple and you are all intruders here.  While you remain you will obey our laws: the laws of the Hundred-Handed One who, undying, bestows death upon the Chosen in the method and at the hour of his choosing.  No one dies here save by his hand.  Eat what is offered, drink what is drawn and sleep where you will.  If any of these should prove your undoing, then such is his divine will.”

Dyer shook his head, but sheathed his sword.  Tapping the pistol’s black muzzle against his thigh he watched as the men of Ulundi drew water from the well.  He was powerless to do otherwise.  The priestess had spoken and he needed her as an ally.  She had not yet revealed to him what she knew of the Sky Pearl.

As they drank and moved to inspect the contents of the priestess’s bowl, Dyer took her aside.

“Be careful, priestess,” he warned.  “Do not trust them.  They are our enemies as they were our grandfathers’ enemies and their grandfathers’ before.  Believe me girl, I care nothing for myself — I think only of your safety.”

The seeress shook her head. “You don’t understand,” she whispered, “I’ve no love for the men of Ulundi, but they said the bushmen are abroad this night and that is fearful news.  It is their kind that the fire portal is set each evening to repulse, but if they should attack us in numbers it may not be enough.  Believe me stranger, if they set upon us then you’ll value even Ulundian aid if any of us are to see the dawn!”

Dyer pondered this, his sword hand stroking his beard.  There was a worldliness — a certain expediency to this acolyte and her cult of death and in this, perhaps, lay opportunity.  In one moment it seemed she would have them bend the neck meekly before her multifarious and murderous deity, but in the next she clearly displayed her fear of dying.  She was after all just a girl; a crippled and disfigured girl upon the edge of a savage wilderness.  Alone, vulnerable and dependent upon the charity of others for her very existence, Dyer wondered how many nights she had spent cowering behind that thin flickering wall, sobbing her heart out in terror.

“Tell me,” he asked her, “who — or what — are the bushmen, that they shun the fire so?”

“They are creatures of the forest,” she said with a shudder, “foul, mutated things — not Tropids — though they emerge, at intervals, when the Tropids stir and drive them from the deep woods.  It’s said that they were once men but they grew to depend too much upon the forest and gradually, over centuries, it took them over.  In the sunless depths many species of plant learned to thrive by capturing their food like animals.  It was such rapacious and ravenous strains that enslaved the ancestors of the bushmen and turned them to their purpose.  It is said that now they’re more plant than man, though they retain some man-like features that are useful for stalking and devouring prey.  I’m certain they would have driven us all behind Tsippi’s thick walls long ago if it were not for their fear of our fires, which are as hateful and deadly to them as our sticks and fishing spears are not.”

“They’re damned hard to kill, I know that much!” said the man who called himself Straker.  He spoke around a mouthful of roots from the girl’s begging bowl.  “They feel no pain,” he muttered, “they kept coming and coming — even after blows that would have felled a man of stone!”

Dyer glared at him and he fell silent.  The tall Northerner turned back to the crippled girl.  “Have no fear priestess,” he reassured her.  “You can count upon my protection, I swear it!  Whilst I live, no harm shall come to you.  May your god reach out and take me if I prove false.”

The girl’s sightless eyes regarded him for a long moment.  She bit her lip, drawing very slightly nearer to him.  Dyer ran his morbid gaze over the myriad of hand-shaped indents in the temple’s walls.  Silently, he made another oath.

For a while no one spoke.  The fire in the centre of the room crackled and spat.  From outside came the hiss and flicker of the flames standing guard at the temple’s door.  The injured man’s laboured breathing rose and subsided again whilst his comrades munched upon a supper of tough roots.  The priestess went and sat by the well, clutching her knees against her chest whilst Dyer stood, straining his ears to catch any new sound from beyond the flaming door.  He had holstered his pistol but his scarred fist never strayed far.

Dyer’s attention turned again to the intruders.  Ulundi was a principal city in Natali, the vast country that bordered Imercia to the east.  Like Imercia it was dominated by fertile plains and scattered with towering ancient cities.  Like Imercia, Natali was rich in agriculture, in industry, in minerals and in slaves.  Like Imercia it feared and despised its neighbour and so the war between them had raged, on and off, for centuries.

Dyer weighed up his hereditary enemies.  The captain was a veteran but he was close to death.  Straker and Colim were prime, physical specimens — tall with broad shoulders beneath their thickly muscled necks and shaven heads, but they were both inexperienced and clearly shaken by the encounter with the bushmen.  The young warriors fidgeted as they ate, shooting nervous glances between each other, Dyer, and the temple door.

They are little more than children, Dyer mused with a strange lurching sensation in his gut.  He shook his head and wiped away the clammy sweat that had gathered beneath his hair.  Strangely, in the thick pungent air of the hut he felt suddenly cold beneath his heavy layers.  Here was another parallel between the two nations: like Imercia, Natali thought nothing of sending its children into unknown lands to fight and to die.

Why? A familiar voice within him asked, for what purpose?  It was as though Dyer stood upon the brink of a gaping chasm but instead of stepping back as he had done so many times before, he leaned forward to stare down into the terrible, lightless depths.  Conflict had consumed his life, just as it had countless millions of others, just as it would these men — these boys. There could be no escape, not for the likes of them.  The relentless, heedless hammer of war would smite and destroy them — just as it had destroyed him.

Strength drained from him as the weariness of his long journey bore him to the ground.  The priestess inclined her head as Dyer sank down.  The men of Ulundi  finished eating and watched warily from the doorway.

“The Sky Pearl, priestess . . .” Dyer murmured, regarding her with a gaze as unseeing as her own.  For the first time in what seemed weeks, his hand slid from the butt of the Smeltagun. “Tell me, is it true what they say?  Is it true that a man looking into its calm, blue depths can lose himself and forget what has been?  Can it truly heal all ills?”

“What was that?  What did he say?”  Cautiously, Straker took a step toward the well where girl and man were crouched together.

“It is nothing,” said the priestess.  “He is exhausted, that’s all!”

“I heard him,” this was Colim moving to join his comrade.  “He said something about forgetting the past . . . about being healed.”  With a rueful smile he added: “This one fights demons in his own head — and they’re always the hardest to kill.”

Straker nodded.  “I remember,” he began, “at Palusia after we’d sacked the city, the veterans who’d fought for three days without pause weeping like — ”

“Bastards!” Dyer yelled as his Smeltagun roared and Straker’s head disappeared in a glistening cloud.  The echo of the gun merged with screams as Straker’s body fell while Dyer rose up, his face a mask of hate.

“No!” The priestess caught at him but the flat of his hand sent her reeling against the far wall.

Colim leaped with a cry.  Schaarde flashed in the firelight as Dyer rammed his blade into Colim’s midsection, the force expelling air from his lungs and mouth along with a great gush of bloody bile.  Dyer shouldered the man back, ripping the blade clear, opening him up savagely as he collapsed.

A moan issued from the wounded captain who, woken by the screams, crawled toward the door.  With a snarl Dyer pounced, stamping down hard upon the man’s back, driving his sword again and again.  Blood fountained as the captain’s ribs and skull gave way, forming a ghastly pool at Dyer’s feet.

“Palusia?  You bastards . . . Palusia!” Dyer screamed at their corpses. “This is what I remember of Palusia — ” With a final sweep of the sword he severed what remained of the captain’s head and, grasping it by the bloody stump of neck, he hurled it out of the temple’s door into the fire.

But the screaming did not end.  A shrill, terrified wail sounded behind him and Dyer whirled in time to see horror, as from his darkest delirium, emerge from the well and loom between him and the priestess.

It was manlike in shape but gnarled and twisted and thick with horrid growths.  From its head and crest, long serpentine feelers or branches sprouted and they writhed and snapped in the confined space of the temple’s rear.  From its midsection more tentacle-like arms reached out, some barbed with long evil-looking thorns.  As Dyer watched, the thing stepped over the well head.  From somewhere beneath its sprouting head came a wet, crackling hiss that filled him with disgust as he watched it bend down to the cowering girl.

“No!” The Smelta bucked in his hand, spilling lightning and thunder as Dyer strode to come within sword’s reach of the thing.  He dropped the gun and gripping the sword with both hands he hewed at the creature, severing limbs and chopping deep into its fibrous trunk, showering grisly fragments.  Gurgling, it rounded on him flailing at his chest and face.  Thorns tore at him, tendrils like heavy pliant cables bludgeoned — but in his fury Dyer felt neither fear nor pain.  Ducking, he drove his sword deep into the slavering pink slash from which the inhuman sounds issued and at last he felt the creature shudder as it gave a final, almost human groan.

He dragged the blade free.  Cursing through clenched teeth he prepared to thrust again, but the thing was backing away to the well, splashing the stones with pale, glutinous blood as it vanished over the rim.

Rage left Dyer.  His knees buckled and he leaned heavily upon his sword.

The temple was a scene of abysmal carnage.  The shattered bodies of the soldiers were churned into the mud along with bits of the plant creature, some of which still twitched and writhed.  Blood and ichor plastered the walls and dripped from the ceiling forming gelid pools that mirrored shadow, flame and the abject figure that wept in the midst of it all.

“Priestess! What have I done?” Dyer knelt and drew her to him, cradling her like a child.  His gaze fell from her stone-dead eyes, over her faintly moving lips and down her body to where her hands clutched and her blood flowed.  One of the creature’s barbs had speared her, high in the abdomen.  Dyer had seen too many men die from such wounds to allow him any shred of doubt as to her fate.

“No matter,” she murmured.  “To think all this time I barred the door to them.  I . . . I never thought they could get in through the well . . .”

“They . . . it is gone, priestess.  Rest easy now, you must rest — and recover.”  Dyer’s voice broke on the last syllable.  Frantically he cuffed at his tears with the back of his hand.

“You killed it?” the priestess said, lifting her face, “like you killed the others . . . for all I forbade you!”

He lowered his head.  “It’s gone, yes.  And you don’t need to say I’ve failed you,” he replied.  “I promised you protection and I failed!”

“Yes, but you’ve also failed yourself with anger and hatred.  Why did I trust you?”  She gave a weary laugh that ended in a spasm of pain.  “It is in my nature.  I have to trust.  I trust that worshippers will come and fill my bowl.  I trust that what they leave they will do me no harm.  I touched your hand and I felt the boy within you, the child who’d seen such terrible things.  It was he that I felt I could trust . . . I was wrong!”

“Not so wrong, priestess, for that wasn’t me,” Dyer confessed, gripping her hand in his. “It was another lie, another deceit.  I was there that night — you didn’t see falsely, but it wasn’t me hiding in the corner.  I was the horned man; the man with the torch.”

She gave a small gasp and he felt her stiffen.

“I wish it was otherwise, but I won’t lie to you — not now.  I was captain on that raid and those were my rogues.  I wish I could tell you I had no part in what happened but you know that’s not true.  I didn’t know about the boy until you told me.  We didn’t find him.  We thought the house empty when we set it to the torch.”

He squeezed his temples as if to purge the memory.  “Many have died by my hand priestess, upon that distant night and since until I grow confused over details.  Raids merge into one long night of terror.  Battles bleed into battles and I forget the names of the cities and the peoples who fall.  The faces though, they haunt me.  They appear from the shadows, they stare at me from wine-cups and still waters.  They conspire behind my back and plague my sleep with their screams and accusations until I can no longer bear it.

“Fleeing them I’ve wandered far.  In Hadsoor I happened upon the old priest — that ranting Esperin fool!  At first he wouldn’t shut up and then, when I took an interest, he became coy.  I knew there must be some truth behind his drunken riddles.  I had to beat it out of him and in the end I went too far.  Now his wild eyes and frothing mouth linger upon my torment along with all the rest.  I must have an end to it — and if that end should be my own then so be it.”  Dyer hung his head.

“I too am weary of ghosts,” the Seeress told him softly. “Though it’s different for me for I’ve played no part in their fate.  But I too have no say over their coming and going.  Blind, I see with their eyes and I can’t shut them when the visions become too terrible.  Nor can I close my ears to their voices.  We call them the Songs of the Dead and their tune too often spells madness.

“Yet this boy that I believed you to be, the boy who lost his mother, his innocence — who lost everything upon that bitter night, I know he lives! For his mother’s eyes are my window and her voice sings to me of her only son.”

The priestess raised her bloody hands to him.  “You must find him, Northerner.  This is the doom I put upon you.  For the sake of a murdered mother’s love, you must find her son and serve him.  In this way you might also purge your guilt.  It’s as clear to me as the amber sun and violet sky and all that has been denied me for so long.  I see it all plainly now that I feel the god’s hand upon my shoulder.”

Dyer stared at her aghast.  “But priestess I seek only the Pearl, I don’t know where — ”

“I will tell you how to find the boy — and I’ll also tell you what I know of the Sky Pearl.  You must seek him out first and only then, once you have made amends for the terrible wrong you did him, can you continue your quest.”

Dyer froze.  She was going to tell him what he wanted?  She would tell and then hope that first he’d do what she wanted.  She would trust him, again?

“I will do as you say,” he promised, placing his hands upon her shoulders.  “I’ll not fail you again.”

Her laughter was weak but edged with bitter irony.  “Look into my eyes Northerner, look deep and find what you seek!”

Unnerved, he hesitated but then did as she asked, leaning forward over her ruined face, drawn deep within her bleak lidless stare.  The twin black orbs glimmered with flame and shone with tears.  Dyer stared deeper still and the dancing lights seemed to expand and open like windows upon fields of waving gold . . .

* * *

Dyer awoke with a grunt.  He knew where he was but he’d no sense of the time that had passed.  The fire still sputtered in the hearth though some of the lanterns had gone out.  The priestess lay quietly in his lap.  She lived still, but her breaths came quick and shallow.

“It is done,” she said.

“I don’t understand.”

“Here,” she said, her hand reaching and fumbling for a moment before her face.  It came away from the gaping socket holding one of her stony eyes.  She dropped it into his palm, surprising him both with its warmth and weight.

“Give this to him.  Go now to the far and windswept north — to the city of Sikatchewa.  There you will find him and offer him such aid as you can.  He is called Jayset and he labours in the lowest tier of the Spirit Works.”

Dyer’s heart sank.  Sikatchewa lay upon the far side of Pangaia’s wide central belt — a journey of some 2,000 stades.  This was madness!  To travel so far to find some whelp of a slave, it would set him back months.  And what of the Sky Pearl?  It was the Pearl he sought — this alone was what brought him out of the north to begin with, this was his purpose, his quest.  His only remaining hope!

“But priestess, the Pearl . . .” Dyer began but broke down weeping, overcome once again by weariness and desperation.

The priestess smiled, though her face was ashen.  “Have no fear, Northerner.  Your quest won’t be in vain.  I’ve told you what I know of the relic you seek — just now, I told you everything whilst you lay under my spell.  The knowledge is locked away within that part of you where instinct dwells.  The door is a mirror and you cannot pass beyond, and yet it may be opened from within.  My eye is the key!  When you find the boy who is now a man you must give him the stone and say: ‘here is a gift from the blind seeress of Tsippi.  Know that your mother is at peace.’

“If you do this — just as I say — the door will open, shedding light upon the next stage of your quest.  You have my word.  All you can do now is trust.  Trust me as I trusted you — and hope that I prove more worthy!”

With a sigh the priestess lay back.  Wordless Dyer held her as her soul departed and her body grew cold.

Unmoving in that house of death, Dyer looked long at her face, delicate and childlike now that her hurt and fear had gone.  Presently he stood and, moving to the door, he took some food from the bowl.

He ate, crouching behind the protection of the flickering fire wall, listening fearfully for sounds from outside as he waited for the dawn.
A huge fan of the speculative fiction of the early 20th century, Alex specializes in dark, post-apocalyptic fantasy.  Renegade is one of several stories set on the super-continent of Pangaia : a vast and hostile wilderness, the result of ‘continental crunch’ in the far distant future.  This is the third of Alex’s stories that HFQ has published.  His novella ‘The Crimson Tower’ is available from Damnation Books.  Damnation will also be publishing more of Alex’s work in ‘Fading Light’ — an anthology of the monstrous — due out in September 2012.

Alex lives with his wife and two young children near London in the UK where he tries to fit in his writing around the demands of the kids, a full-time job and a dilapidated ruin of a house.


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