The Blood Lands

Prologue

There is an old saying, that he who seek what should not, finds what he would not. Such is this story. The minstrels of the Sun King who lives forever, sing a different story than the tale we tell here and one should be careful how the tale is told lest the Ravens come to reckon.

Once upon a time, a spirit was sent by The Divinities and she walked the meadows and forest of the land in the shape of a young girl with long black hair. So, do not ask whose daughter she was or where she came from. She came from above as we shall see.

The King of the Dead came like a pestilence upon the land and the towns and villages burnt like kindling in a hearth. All the people fled from his host and unnatural clouds covered the land.

Three daughters of a peddler were the first to meet the girl, she found them wandering witless in the woods and near to being taken by the hunters of the King of the Dead and she kept them safe and took them north.

She gathered the weak and helpless as she went and kept them safe until they reached the gates of Pushta. But sanctuary was not to be found, the gates were closed and no weeping or wailing was of any avail. How could a spirit of even The Divinities save people when their own kin had hardened their hearts and turned their backs upon the slaughter which began. The helpless were slaughtered and eaten by the demon horde, their limbs, heads and entrails tumbled into the great river till the red water overflowed the banks.

Now the girl led those who escaped the murder into the hills north of Pushta where they were safe for a while. And there they came upon the levies of the Sun King who lives forever, peasants from the northern vales who gathered in numbers beyond count till the field and forests swarmed with them like ants disturbed by a great boot. But they were afraid and held back from the fight.

The armies of the Sun King who lives forever, lost their way in the great bogs of the Moshan. Pushta was surrounded, the walls began to crumble and the towers fell. Hope was lost

We sing of the Colonel, strong of arm and big of heart who rode with the Donnikai, warriors of renown to the aid of Pushta. They were first to the fight, and first to die. The hosts of the King of the Dead turned upon them in a rage, but they held and could not be broken upon the field of combat. But they were too few.

In the desperation of the moment, the Colonel gave his bulava, the symbol of his leadership to a mere boy – a boy who was meant to lead the peasants against the Hosts of the Dead King. But even then, the people held back to the safety of the woods.

Suddenly, a woman of great indescribable beauty took form alongside the boy. Her hair was raven black and stretched like wings across the sky.

(The minstrels of the Sun King, who lives forever, tell a different story; how the woman then rode alongside Colonel Valkris and led a host of spirits at the forefront of the Sunk King host upon the field of battle – splitting the darkness with a sword of light. But the common folk know the true tale, heart bound.)

She chastened the peasants for their cowardice.

“This boy is braver than all of you. If you follow him, there will be victory and the Dead shall be sent back to hell.”

The peasants bowed before this messenger of the Divinities, but still they would not follow the boy. They were stubborn and afraid.

“I will walk with you into battle and share your fate,” the messenger said and took the form of the young girl. Her smile swayed their hearts and they followed her and the boy through the flowered fields to victory.

When all was lost, it is said she challenged the Death King himself to mortal combat and split his head open with a sword made of the very sun and burnt his accursed flesh from his very bones.

Surely she took the dead to the hallowed halls, for she was never seen again. But some say she still walks the land: Black Agnia, chosen of Earth, Water and Sky Everbinding.

But the Dead do not forgive.

 

Chapter One

 Agnia set herself between the lowered path of the autumn sun and walked south through the spoiled fields. No backward glance spared for the towers of golden Pushta left fading in the purpled haze. She would leave the memories of pain and sickness buried beneath its crennelled walls and cobbled streets. But not even she could banish the wan little remembrances clutching at each stray thought and the track of the diagonal scars upon her right cheek from eye to chin tightened.

The towns to the south were ruins, empty and wasted by the war. Brambles and tall grasses had begun to reclaim the once tilled fields. The scattered homesteads were nothing but small mounds of charred ash, crowned now with flowers. Once Agnia strayed too close and stumbled upon a pile of bones, encoiled in vines. The eye sockets in the skulls stared back. She kept a distance away after that.

Agnia struck deeper into the rising hills, thick now with tall pines and verdant grasses. Each step grew stronger and longer with the passing days, what had begun as a painful trudge with a bowed back became effortless. No longer did she have to pause at the top of each incline to catch her breath, to slow down the rapid beating of her heart.

The woolen travel cloak was of mottled green and brown in the manner of a huntsman, the frayed ends swung above the worn leather boots. On her back was strapped a small pouch and a quiver filled with arrows rested alongside. The short bow was kept in hand at all times and used often. A supply of rabbits along with foraged earthroot and the leaves of the dogmilk kept her well fed.

At sunfall each night, she would clamber up any tree which appeared to have a convenient elbow and took her rest, such as she could. The wolves howled in the hills and she watched a bear pad silently by, stopping for a moment to look up with moonlit eyes. Once she jerked awake and drew an arrow’s notch to her ear in a moment… but the glowing eyes were not those of a mountain lion, but of a racoon who scrabbled away.

Agnia did not fear the animals, she feared the nightmare.

A tall figure in armor, darker than pit mirk: the helm had no slits for eyes, but still it turned and saw her. She could not move, could not run, those behind pushed her stumbling forward so she fell to her knees. Again and again the gauntlet came down and metal spikes would tear her face clear from her skull. There it lay, eyes still blinking; a tuff of grass stuck up from between the lips moving in a silent scream. Her bloodied hands fumbled about. Perhaps she could put it back on before it was too late, pinch the torn fragments together. Then the dark figure trampled it beneath iron shod heel.

Agnia bound her jaw shut with a binding over the top of her head so she wouldn’t scream waking from the horror. Sleepless one night and in a bleak mood, she thought of placing coins upon her closed eyelids. She would curl up in the hollow of the tree, till breath stopped and spirit slipped away into the embrace of the Omona. In time what was left behind would be as rotted as the wood of the tree. The ravens would eat her flesh, pick her eyes out. The insects would make inlaid paths across her ancient bones.

The sun rose, the mood passed. Agnia slid down the trunk and stretched in the green glade, setting the motes swirling in the morning rays.

The clouds came slowly over the ridges and lowered curtains of rain upon the treetops. Agnia pulled the hood up over her head and tightened the drawstring. Droplets ran down the back of the cloak and she hunched her shoulders, lowered her chin.

Perhaps it was the rain, or finally impatience with her solitary journey. Agnia knew these lands now, Kasimir’s Horn looming in the south. The drove track led into a familiar valley and she took the way down through the thinning trees instead of keeping to the concealed ways of the forest. The kine raised their shaggy heads and then went back to grazing as she strode by.

The village was rude, no more than a cluster of wattled mud hovels newly rebuilt, the roofs thatched with freshly cut hay. Smoke dribbled up into the falling rain from the chimneys. Perhaps the inn had been rebuilt, there had been one here before the Necuratu – may they be accursed to the darkest realm and she spit — had laid the land to ruin. She could pay for a night’s stay with the brace of rabbits hanging from the slung belt.

The gaunt dogs began to bark. Faces peered out from doorways, tight with suspicion. Thin, sharp faced children appeared out of nowhere and dogged Agnia’s steps with sharp cries and thrown pebbles.

Already Agnia regretted the detour. She should have stuck to the back trails and bypassed this sullen inhabitance. What could be done though except to quicken her stride and be rid of these people and their unwelcome stares. Had she expected a familiar face here?

The inn stood upon the way out, newly built – the timbers still green. The town men were there, ragged knaves all. They spilt out, swaying with drunkenness and rude jests to stare at the lone traveler.

“Little lass,” one jeered out. “There are wolves out there. Stay the night and we’ll keep your arse warm and safe, never fear.”

They all laughed.

Agnia clenched her teeth. She was as tall as any of them.

She reached up and pulled back the hood of the cloak. The long, black hair spilled free. When she turned to stare at the drunken lot, some recoiled and raised their hands, right thumb clasped in the left hand.

“Swine are here,” Agnia said in a voice cut sharp as a knife. She was livid with a rage she couldn’t hold back. “I won these scars honestly at Pushta, keeping our lands safe from the demons. A mark of honor for any good soldier. Yet you fear the evil eye from such as me? I’m no babak. Villains all, the lot of you. I’ll be gone.”

She turned straight about and walked at a stiff pace away.

A clamor broke out behind.

“Tis her. The huntsman’s daughter.”

“I thought she was dead.”

“Uldo’s girl. Stop her.”

This was no time to hesitate. Agnia had kept the drawstring dry, now she turned and with a quick motion drew fletching to ear. Already one of the men had sprung forward and she let fly the arrow so it sang into his chest, below the collar bone. It took him clear off his feet and he fell with a heavy thud and screech.

“The next one to the heart,” Agnia’s voice rose to a high shrill. Her brown eyes flickered over the stunned lot. “Who wants to stop me?”

The next arrow was already notched.

The men fell back, each glancing from side to side to see what the others would do. The wounded man thrashed in the muddy wagon ruts screeching in pain.

“I’ll take my leave,” Agnia said. The twisted flesh made her sneer malevolent. She turned her back on the lot and walked away.

Agnia steeled herself to walk slowly and deliberately towards the woods. Except for the downed man, there was a silence which made the small of her back crawl.

The trail curved into the forest, Agnia looked back and once sure they could no longer see her, burst into a run, letting her steps fall into the mud so her tracks were plain. But barely had she run for more than a minute then she dodged to the side and slipped into the thick underbrush crowding the narrow road. Hidden, she doubled silently back to where the woods met the fields and crouched behind a massive elm.

She could hear them yelling and swearing now. They were no longer silent. The crowd outside the inn had doubled, the women of the village having joined their men and they and were the noisiest.

“Why didn’t you take her? You cowards!”

“The Ispan named the huntsman’s daughter an outlaw. What of the reward? We want bread.”

“Damn your noise, you shrews,” one cursed, tall and blond of hair. “Bravery counts for nothing with an arrow through your heart and the cold earth your last embrace. The bitch didn’t even hesitate, she shot poor Viccel, though he only stumbled forward because he was drunk.”

Viccel, for it must be he who still lay in the mud, took the opportunity to wail louder and kick his heels. They were a callous lot for no one offered him a hand.

“You, and you.” The blond man said. “Back to your houses and take up bow and knife. We’ll track the wench down.”

Agnia grunted. She put her back up against the tree and slid down. It was good they had roused Agnia’s temper with their jibes. Otherwise she would not have been so quick with the arrow, and perhaps she would now be at their mercy.

But how had they known her? It was a mystery and she puzzled at it. Was she not the daughter of the Ispan’s huntsman? Why would these villagers name her outlaw?

Agnia waited. She let the panic subside. She was but a stone’s throw from the road’s course, in the shadowed eaves she was well hidden by the hooded cloak and even the keenest eye would have been hard put to make out the girl where she was.

The pursuers came to the edge of the wood and field and paused for a moment, the two followers quivering like hounds. The blond man restrained them with a curse.

The huntsman had a lodge but a day’s march from here,” said the blond haired man man. “Now I think she’ll follow the road straight, so we’ll not follow too close.

“Aye, but I’ll need the reward money to drink away the sight of her face,” grunted one of the men, he was young – not much older than Agnia. He took the pause to tie a dirty cloth sack to his belt and gave it a meaningful slap. “What a sight. The sooner the bitch’s head is in the bag for the Ispan, the better.”

“Not too soon, Mazko, we’ll have our sport first,” said the blond haired man. “The wench will sing a different tune with her bowstring round her neck. Our shafts will make her scream louder than Viccel.”

They burst into laughter and took off at a slow jog.

Agnia bit her lip. She reached up and touched the right side of her face for a moment then jerked her hand away.

There was no better place to stay than close to the village till evening. Agnia wanted to be sure no one else followed. Then she would take to the forest, she knew other paths home.

She pulled the cloak tight and listened to the water drip from the leaves.

After a fitful sleep, she woke to the cold, bright sunlight and the chatter of birds. The greater part of the morning was spent making a rough scramble up the slopes till she came to a summit clear enough to see the lay of the land beyond, upon which she exhaled a sharp breath of delight.

“I know these fields, these trees.”

There was the castle of the Ispan, white towers sharp and gleaming in the far distance where it tucked into the outreach of Kasimir’s Horn by the river’s bend. The rolling hills beneath were clad in autumnal colors of red, orange and yellow leaf. But the crowned clouds were settling down the flanks of the mountain and Agnia’s eye followed the long curve of the road below. She felt exposed upon this naked ridge. She scrambled into the thickets.

Late in the afternoon with the clouds turning the day dark, Agnia came upon a pond, familiar from childhood. She squatted down among the ferns, lambent green pockets underneath the shaded evergreens and carefully studied the landscape before she moved to the water’s edge. She sipped water, bitter with tannin and looked about. The waters of the pond were still, a black mirror without the slightest ripple. At the far edge of the lake a great number of twisted, bone pale stumps gathered like a host of men in the shallows.

Nothing moved. No birds cried out. No crickets chirped. The frogs were silent.

Agnia found the silence disturbing. She faded back into the shadowed woods and waited. After a long while, she stretched and rolled her shoulders. She tried to let go the constant wariness. And a thought came creeping to mind.

The vows taken by the Sisters of Omona were those of poverty and humility, nothing could be vainer than the possession of a mirror; there were none in the healing rooms of the Xenodochia of Pushta.

The last time she had seen herself had been in the waters of this very pool. Two years ago, before the hosts of the Demon King had harried the land; driving those who lived into the mountains for refuge or driving them north to Pushta.

Agnia crawled to the edge. She pushed aside the reeds.

For a moment, Agnia trembled. An outstretched hand almost stirred the water before she pulled it back.

“I am Black Agnia. This is who I am and I am not afraid,” she declared and bent to look at her reflection.

For long moments Agnia stared, examining who she had become. She blinked, and the reflection blinked. She sighed and the reflection sighed. She frowned and felt the scars tug at her lip. She tilted her head and the long black tresses slide like a curtain over the damaged flesh.

A distant splash, perhaps a fish or bird… Agnia looked up quickly.

Agnia saw nothing. The pond was still eerily still. But she felt something, knew something was watching her, she knew it. Felt the hair prickling along her arms and neck.

Agnia slowly released the bent reeds and took a step back. Then she froze.

The creature unfolded slowly. Raised one leg, then tucked the heel into the inside thigh and stood on one leg upon its watery perch; one of the stumps at the far side. It was a tall, white figure, of the same bone pale color of the stumps; angular with emaciation. The ribs were clearly defined, the hipbones protruded.

The sharp chin slowly tucked into its neck. The long ears rose to trailing points over its head.

Eyes large and black fixed upon Agnia. Then it stepped into the water and sunk out of sight.

Water snakes suddenly roiled the surface. They fled away from the trail of bubbles coming straight towards Agnia.

 

Chapter Two

No one outran a khesh. They could outrun wolves, as quick as the wind. Not even a fire could save the hapless traveller if caught alone in the woods at night. A khesh could move so quickly the fire would be blown out, and in the dark the teeth and claws would rend. But such creatures belonged only in stories told to frighten stories. Stories such as Demon Kings come to pillage and murder with dragon riders.

Agnia ran.

Agnia knew these woods. The Ispan would take to the hunt and her father, the huntsman, would lead the way with the bray of a horn. Early on, she took to running along his horse’s side all the day long. She was so quick and agile through the thickets she could keep pace with the hounds as they chased the stag or boar to ground.

There was no time for memories, only flight. She clawed at the drawstrings of the cloak and cast it aside. The skirt hindered her stride. She tripped over a log and tumbled into the rasping leaves. A hand went to boot and pulled free the knife she kept hidden there. Precious seconds were lost as she slashed the length of her dress hip high on either side.

Agnia looked back. The lake was beyond her sight. But here the trees stood tall. There was no cover beneath the darkened canopy. She felt exposed.

“Not today,” she gasped and kept running. She kept the knife in hand. There was comfort in the steel, even if it would do little against such a monster. Khesh did not bleed like men.

Agnia and slid recklessly down a leaf covered slope. Ahead was there was a sharp rise and she leaped and scrambled up the rocks. She slid behind an upraised slab of rock and waited.

All she could hear was her own breathing.  She choked it back,  ducked down and looked back through a small notch in the slab.

The khesh was below.

Agnia felt a trickle of sweat creep down her brow. She did not move. If she moved abruptly, the khesh might see the motion, would hear the sound. She would be dead.

The khesh moved its head slowly about from left to right and sniffed the air. In form it was much like a man, longer and slender of limb – as if a corpse had been stretched. There were a row of spikes along the pallid arms. It yawned slowly showing a maw of ragged teeth.

Above the clouds finally parted and sunlight streamed down in columns of light.

The khesh hissed and leaped about frantically. It took a moment for Agnia to realize the khesh was trying to avoid the rays of the sun. The creature slapped at its forearms from which tendrils of smoke curled. It fell back under the shaded trees.

Agnia took the moment before the clouds covered the sun again. She reached down and picked up a rock.

There was a cawing of crows in the distance. Agnia threw the stone in their direction from behind the cover of the slab. She heard it rattle in the leaves.

When Agnia stole another look, the khesh was gone. She marvelled at how quiet the creature could move.

Agnia began to move slowly away, keeping low to the ground as best she could beneath the firs which crowded the rise. Each step was silent, the press of her full foot carefully placed upon the needled bed of pines.

The autumn days were short and the twilight was rapidly onsetting. Night would come quickly. Agnia knew she had to be indoors. She would be safe then for she knew what the khesh was now. Different in form it may be, but she knew what burned when exposed to the sun, there was no need to be reminded of the livid scars upon her cheek. A peril indeed the day was overcast or she could keep to the open fields.

The lodge of her father was close. Agnia stood up and began to run through the undergrowth, mindful of the rock terrain and treacherous roots. But speed was better than caution.

The blond man from the village stepped out from behind a tree tugging at his smock and their eyes met for a moment. His face twisted, his eyes lit up in surprise. The chase had made Agnia forget others were at hunt.

Agnia saw a blur of white moving fast in the thickets behind him.

“Run,” Agnia managed to choke out through dried throat. She did not look back.

Agnia burst out of the woods into the thigh high grass of the meadow. Up the slope was the lodge standing alone in the golden field, the thatched roof partly hidden amid the sheltering grove of firs. Her breath whistled from the effort, her legs felt as if anvils were tied to them, but she sprinted the final stretch. The door hung open. She reeled across the threshold into the darkness inside.

They were waiting.

A heavy blow struck Agnia across the side of the head. She couldn’t see anything in the dim interior of the lodge. She stumbled and swung blindly with the knife. There was a curse. A hard kick to the back of her knee and she fell to the dirt of the floor.

The men were on top of her, kicking and punching. She twisted and tried to pull free of their grasp. A knee drove into her stomach. She twisted like a gaffed fish and all the strength ran out of her. They pulled the knife out of her grasp and stripped the bow and quiver from her back and tossed them aside.

Their voices were a vague sound, seemingly far away.

“She cut me! She cut me!”

“Stop your whining! Get some rope!”

They turned Agnia over roughly. One of the men seated himself on the small of her back. Her wrists were pulled behind her back and held firmly in a calloused grip.

“Lassa has the rope.”

The man sitting on her cursed.

“Then go get Lassa. And if Lassa’s still out in the woods, then cut some vines. They’ll do in a pinch.”

“Bitch cut me,” the other man mumbled.

“You’ll get your chance,” said the sitting man. “Hurry up, will you?”

Agnia found breath. She opened her mouth and began to retch. The man seated on her put his free hand on the back of her head and pushed down. She felt her teeth dig into the dirt floor.

“What? Not so proud now, are we?” The man said. “Did you really think you could walk right through town and no one would recognize you? I remember you, don’t you remember, Aggie? Midsummer’s festival – we played in the sparks of the bonfires. The Ispan and all his court were there, including the huntsman and his black haired whelp. Do you remember?”

Agnia couldn’t speak with her mouth pressed into the floor, the dirt abrading her scarred cheek.

“Lassa and Tiklos will be back in a moment. I like them, they’re good friends and we like some fun. What we’re going to do to you is going to be fun, but you won’t like our game.”

He grabbed the long braided length of hair and twisted Agnia’s head so she could see him from the corner of her eye. It was Mazko, the young man with the sack.

“Ten gold denii is the price on your head,” Mazko bent over and spoke rapidly Agnia’s ear. “I can’t save you from the Ispan, but I can save you from my friends. Just tell me where Uldo hid the treasure and I’ll make it quick, I’ll say you struggled and I had no choice but to cut your throat.”

Agnia spit dirt and saliva. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Mazko jerked nervously, his eyes flickered away for a moment and then back to Agnia. “I hear them, they’re coming back.”

He let go of her braid and reached to pick up her knife.

“Don’t touch me,” Agnia said.

“I won’t, but they will, Aggie,” the man smiled. “I tell you true, I won’t let them lay a hand on you while you live.” His emphasis was heavy on the word last word. “Tell me where the treasure is and I’ll even say a prayer at the shrine when all’s done.”

“Kiss each other’s hairy arses,” gasped Agnia.

“Did a bear step on your face?” The man’s smile twisted into a malicious grimace. What teeth he had were crooked. He tapped the flat of the blade upon her unscarred left cheek. “When we’re done, every inch of what’s left is going to look just like that.”

A shadow darkened the doorway. The man looked back.

“Omon’s Eye!” Crooked-tooth cried and dropped the knife. He scrambled back in terror.

The khesh stood at the threshold. It was too tall for the doorway. It stooped over, head tilted so it could look in the lodge’s interior.

Agnia struggled to hands and knees. She stood up slowly, swaying as if in caught in a strong wind. She turned to look at the creature standing in the doorway and their eyes met.

The mouth of the khesh hung open. A string of black gore trailed from its sharp teeth down the chin, blood splattered its pallid face and bare, sunken chest. In one clawed hand it clutched a tangle of steaming entrails and from the other dangled the head of Lassa, the blond haired man she had run by in the woods.

“Let me in.”

Agnia stared. She felt dizzy, faint. It took her a moment to realize the khesh had spoken in the tongue of man to her. She shuddered violently and looked down at the threshold stone then back up.

“No.”

The khesh swung Lassa’s head back and then threw it in with an underhanded toss. Agnia flinched as the severed head flew past and bounced off the far wall. She stepped back from the door but was not quick enough as the entrails followed and struck her in the chest, the mass of viscera almost knocking her over.

When Agnia recovered her balance the doorway was empty. The khesh was gone.

She turned about. Except for a broken table, the place was empty, and spoke of long abandonment. Strewn about were remnants of broken pottery, in the corner were the moldy remains of a blanket. Ashes from the hearth had blown about. When she looked up she saw holes in the thatched roof.

This had been Agnia’s home. Here she had lived with her father through her childhood until the Necuratu came. There was a sharp stab in her ribs as she straightened. A worse pain began to swell in her heart.

Mazko cowered against the far wall of the lodge, as if he could press his shaking body right into the rough hewn beams. She could hear his teeth chattering.

Agnia bent over and slung the quiver back over her shoulder. There was only a single arrow left. She must have somehow lost the others while fleeing through the woods.

With bow and knife in hand she lurched over to him. Lassa’s head was in her way so she kicked it along so it rolled to a stop at Mazko’s feet. Mazko looked down and made gulping sounds.

“You swine,” said Agnia in a voice raw and torn. “What’s this all about? Why did you hound me so, and where’s my fata? Look at me you fool! He can’t help you anymore.”

Mazko shook like a wet dog and Agnia raised the knife. But the man threw himself down and crawled towards her, tried to clasp her knees and kiss her boots.

“I told you not to touch me,” Agnia said. A sharp kick and a curse drove him back.

“Aggie… Aggie – by the Divinities, don’t give me to the beast. Please, we shouldn’t have come here. We shouldn’t have hunted you.”

Agnia stood taut with a sudden realization. A smile, more of a snarl twitched her bruised lips.

“Don’t call me Aggie if you know what’s good for you,” she spit. “As for my beast, yes, my beast… I called it to me and it came. And if I want it back, all I have to do is ask it, like so!”

Agnia snapped her fingers. Mazko writhed on the floor in a paroxysm of terror. The sharp smell of urine and fear filled the room.

“Now tell me what happened to my fata or I’ll let the khesh have you.”

“I got the vines,” a voice announced.

The third man, Tiklos, stood blinking like a dumb ox in the doorway, indeed with a tangled clump of vines in hand. It seemed impossible for him to be unscathed after what had happened to Lassa, but there he was. Agnia moved back from Mazko and reached for the last remaining arrow in her quiver.

“She’s a witch,” Mazko bawled loudly and took the opportunity to crawl to his companion. “Lassa’s dead, she called up a night-beast and it took his head.”

Tiklos peered at the battered young woman, tall and motionless with an arrow notched in her bow with her long black hair obscuring one side of her face, one visible eye fixed cold upon him.

“You’ve had the best of us,” Tiklos said. He let the vines drop and held his side. “You killed Lassa and cut me bad, so we’ll be going now.”

Agnia said nothing.

They left, slowly making their way out into the meadow supporting each other. The gathering gloom turned them into shuffling silhouettes pushing through the tall grass.

Agnia moved to the doorway and followed their progress. They had just reached the eaves of the forest when she heard the beams of the ceiling creak above her. The khesh had been waiting and now it sprung down from the roof. It spared not a glance towards the lodge and the Agnia, but instead followed the trail of the recently departed.

A sunny day long ago: Agnia laughed and ran in the meadow chasing a butterfly the color of the sun. This was their first day here at the lodge, her father the new huntsman to the Ispan.

Fata, what are you doing?” She peered over his shoulder. He was bent on one knee at the doorway with a metal spike in one hand a mallet in the other.

“I’m keeping the bad things out,” he said and bent to his task. Stone chips flew and Agnia ducked with a squeal.

“Will it work?” She asked with a sudden gravity belying her age when he was done engraving the marks in the threshold stone, for monsters were real as she had been told. “Will it keep the bad things from our door?”

Uldo stood up, to the girl he was as tall as a giant in her eyes and she had to look up at his somber visage.

“I keep an open house for guests,” he admitted. “And while this won’t keep the wolves or bad men from our door – and those will be given a greeting in iron – no creature beyond the grace of the Divinities can step inside and harm my daughter, for that is my mark upon the threshold stone.”

“May I add my own mark?” Agnia asked. “Nobody hurts my Fata.

Uldo rarely smiled, but he did now. “Of course,” he said and put the chisel in her small hand.

The mark of her father, and the one he had helped her carve were visible on the threshold at her boot’s toe. They were filled with dirt.

Agnia bent over and placed hands on her thighs. She breathed long and hard until her breath was back to normal. She began to feel the accumulated pain of the cuts and bruises she had been dealt. There was little time left, the gloom was lowering upon the treetops.

For a moment, she considered settling down at the cold hearth and waiting the night through, the khesh could not get in. But she desperately needed water to drink and to bathe her battered face. There was a well out back. And if she was going to go to the well, then she might as well…

Agnia went to the back of lodge, moving slowly. She lifted the latch and pushed the two boards aside. Dust fell and the boards creaked at her touch and she had to turn sideways to slide through.

Tall weeds choked what had been the back yard. The undergrowth almost hid the well and the nearby pile of rotted firewood. The bucket was moss covered and the rope looked frayed, but they were serviceable. She lowered the bucket and then pulled it back up. The water was cool. She drank quickly and then let it fall aside.

Five paces to the left of the well was a flat stone. The matted grass was torn, dirt shown it had recently been disturbed which set her heart to pounding. Eagerly she bent to the task, it took two tries which set her gasping and all her tired muscles twitching from the strain and lifted the great stone.

In the hole beneath a chest and a long package were wrapped in oilskin. The long package she had expected to see with a morbid expectation – but the chest left her puzzled. She knelt down on her knees and reached into the hole. There was no clasp on the lid, no lock so she opened the chest.

Agnia blinked. Gold denii, silver boras, diamonds and emeralds filled the chest to the brim. Such discovered wealth was the realm of stories and there was no understanding how it had come to be buried here in the backyeard of her father’s lodge. Before she could stop herself, she’d reached into the treasure and pulled out a handful of coins, they were cool and slightly moist to the touch. Some fell from her grasp, her hand was trembling. She stuffed them into the pouch at her belt.

There was a noise behind, In a fright, perhaps of guilt at what she was doing, Agnia hastily grabbed the upraised rock and let it drop down obscuring what lay below. Then she whipped her head about.

The pale creature straightened up and she realized it had been waiting on the back part of the roof, must have been watching her the whole time and only then decided to jump to the ground. The unfairness of it all struck Agnia all at once, she had never heard of khesh travelling in pairs. Yet here was another.

She, for the hanging dugs left no doubt, was smaller than the other. The leprous skin glowed like a fireflies light, the two large eyes were black holes in the skeletal face.

“I’m not a thief,” Agnia blurted out, then stopped. What did such matters concern a khesh?

Agnia did not rise. She stayed kneeling, as if in prayer so she could hide her movements. She tore the oilskin package apart in her haste.

Uldo Vadleaniy was a huntsman, no noble’s broadsword had he borne but an unadorned weapon, bare of hilt and dark metal, little more than a meat cleaver.

A twig broke, the khesh was behind her. Agnia twisted and hacked down. The wide heavy blade, curved at the end cut through tendon and bone with a jarring thud. The khesh let loose a horrific screech and toppled over, less a foot.

Agnia scrambled to her feet and swung wildly at the fallen creature. The limbs of the khesh thrashed about, Agnia struck them aside.

Somehow it was up, gripping her with claws that pierced skin and drew blood. The horrible face thrust at her, the mouth a maw filled with sharpened teeth.

The sword was clear, Agnia slammed the heavy weight of the round pommel down into the mouth. She felt teeth and bone break and the khesh coughed up a gush of black congealed blood. The khesh swung wildly and fell away. Agnia staggered free, dazed from the heavy blow to the side of her head.

She made for the safety of the lodge, it seem too far away. Twice she fell. Each time she was able to pull away from the creature’s outstretched claws. The khesh crawled after, hissing, her shattered jaw hung at an angle.

Agnia pulled herself through the narrow entrance and closed it behind. She lay sprawled on the floor and felt nothing, heard nothing but the vague sound of the creature clawing in frustration at the wall, after that nothing at all.

Chapter Three

“She still sleeps?” The voice was hard, strong and guttural of tone.

“Not a single twitch since we put her in the cart.” An older voice, higher pitched.

Agnia willed herself still. She was the hidden mouse beneath the leaves while the hawk circled above. They must be very near.

“Too close, I say,” said the hard voice. “If she’s the one you came for, then the sooner we leave this wretched place, the better.”

“When I’m done with the bones,” the older voice went querulous and stubborn. “No sooner, I’ll not be hurried along.”

“Pfah. My nose cares not nose for the stench you’re brewing up, caul-man.” The voices withdrew. “I’ll go see what these fools are about. But if you’ll heed my thoughts, we should bind her – because the brauz will be nothing but trouble when she awakens. Then you’ll be telling me we should have gotten along, mind you.”

A low grunt was the only reply.

Hoofbeats drummed and faded away. A bird cautiously chirped. In the far off distance Agnia thought she heard the noise of dogs baying. Then the chanting began; a dissonant wailing which couldn’t be ignored.

Agnia ventured a peek, the eyelids felt encrusted. There was a horrid ache beating at her temples. She licked at dry, chapped lips and rubbed at the puffiness

She lay under a tattered wool blanket. She pulled it slowly aside with caution. She was on her back between various sacks and closed bundles at the front headboard of a rickety cart. She looked up at the towering birch trees in the cold blue sky.

There was a clatter of metal, perhaps of pots, and the wind blew the smoke of the fire over the cart. Agnia gagged at the unwholesome smell and wrinkled her lip. But it was enough to cut through the fog and force her to move.

Agnia began to squirm slowly towards the backend of the cart, using elbows and knees to maneuver between the stacked items and not dislodge them in a noisy clatter. To sit up would be to attract attention. The man continued to chant, but she couldn’t make out any of the words.

She slid out the back, touched bare feet to the cold ground and attempted to hold off a wave of vertigo, the earth felt unsteady beneath her feet. She crouched down till her stomach was out of her mouth.  She slid hands to her waist, the belt was gone – no knife and no pouch – her mind flashed to the gold coins she’d taken in her haste before the khesh attacked.

And then she thought of the khesh and of the terrible fight. Where was her father’s sword and where was her bow? She felt vulnerable – and terribly weak and hungry.

Agnia looked about from the cover of back end of the cart.

In front of the cart by a dozen strides was a gaily decorated bow top wagon of green and cold, canted at an angle on the hillside track. Nearby, the man tended to a bubbling cauldron upon the fire. Further afield was a woman in dull brown watching two draft horses: one piebald, the other skewbald grazing beneath the base of a giant oak which stood alone on the meadowed slope

It came to her slowly, she knew where she was. This was the hillside of the Mogyoro Orajat where once their nearest neighbors had lived.

They had been a rough, rowdy clan of peasants who had always welcomed the huntsman and his daughter when they came to visit for the festivities of the seasons. Nothing was left now but the expected tumbled down ruins of their huts further up the slope. Had nothing survived the Necuratu?

The wind sighed through the golden sheathes of autumn grass growing from the rubble. She remembered the laughter of men, women and children which had once filled the air. She had been one of the children who played beneath the eaves of the great oak. The memory filled her and then was gone.

Agnia peered about the corner of the cart.

The ancient shuffling about the bubbling pot was nothing much to behold, or so she thought. Nothing but a stooped, narrow shouldered, pot bellied wreck of a man who had seen to many years to be counted. His naked back, for he wore only a gray rag about his loins as if the sharp air of autumn was nothing to be concerned about, was a writhing mass of faded blue tattoos. His bald pate was adorned with an odd assortment of woven vines. An assortment of hex charms and amulets swung from the braided cords tied around his neck. She saw the whisps of a straggly beard blow about.

Each hand grasped a long bone. Suddenly he leaned forward over the fire and plunged them into pot, using them as tongs to pull out an object over the brim.

“Hot, hot, hot,” the caul-man clucked wringing a hand, but he eagerly grasped at the steaming object.

Agnia pulled back with a violent start. What the caul-man juggedled back and forth, with little wheezing snorts of pain, was a white and elongated skull with large empty pits and daggered teeth.

A jagged rock showed near the curve of the cart wheel. Agnia hesitated and then pulled it free of the ground. The rock fit comfortably in her hand. They’d taken all she had left, even her boots. Anger stirred and pushed aside the weariness. They’d stolen her possessions. Now was the time before the man on the horse came back. The birches were near, but she would not run away.

Agnia set her teeth and moved silently through the grass until she was behind the man’s back. A quick blow and she could recover her belongings from these thieves. She raised the rock to strike, and at that moment the caul-man turned and saw her standing there. His eyes widened. She darted forward, but he dodged around the fire with a yelp, still clutching his skull. With a hiss, she lunged after him.

Agnia missed the sound of the horseman riding up the trail till it was too late. He swept up upon her with a thunder of hoofs and drove in between Agnia and the fire with a shout, the horse’s shoulder stuck but a glancing blow as she attempted to dodge out of the way, it was enough to send her tumbling. She dropped the rock.

Before the horseman could wheel his steed about, Agnia was on her.  She took off for the horses grazing at the giant oak at a dead run.

The woman in brown looked up with a startled, wide eyed glance. Seeing Agnia, she quickly turned and struck the haunches of the two equines, sending the horses galloping towards the woods. She picked up the hem of her skirt and scrambled out of Agnia’s way.

The horseman was coming after with a wild shout. Agnia sprang for the trunk. The childhood hours spent playing on this tree came to her aid. There were expected knots for her feet, well remembered handholds in the bark. The first great limb branching out from tree trunk was higher than the height of three men put together, but she sped up the trunk with ease. She pulled herself onto the wide branch up with a gasp and laid full length, arms and legs wrapped about.

With an oath, the rider reined in his steed and looked up. She took him in at a glance; a tall man in faded yellow and black, broad of shoulder, his features blunt and rugged.

“Come down,” he commanded with a sharp gesture. His voice was the hard one she had first heard.

Agnia could find no voice to answer, she was out of breath. But she found herself shaking her head before she could catch herself.

The caul-man padded up, still clutching the skull of the khesh in his two hands. The horseman seemed to sway in his saddle with a creak of leather and turned with a glowering look.

“Dogs bite you, caul-man,” he said sharply. “I told you, bind the witch so we wouldn’t come to this pass.”

The caul-man tucked the skull of the khesh into the crook of his elbow and shrugged.

“No, Kriyger” said he and stroked one of the charms about his neck; “She’s a bold one but she’s no witch, no matter what we heard.”

Almost it seemed the barking of the dogs grew louder, as if they merely lagged behind the horseman upon the trail and were coming up the hill at a full run.

“Then, verily, she’s a brauz, a blackbird,” said Kriyger. “Cause she flew up the tree as if wing borne and I’ll not climb after and break my skull. The heights make me dizzy enough when I’m sober. And I’m not, and don’t wish to be.”

At which thought, he plucked a wineskin free from his saddle and took such a deep draft the wine dribbled down each side of his mouth. But he kept one cold eye cocked upwards at his treed prey.

Agnia thought of climbing higher, but when she stirred the limb seemed to turn in her grasp. She feared to loosen her grasp. Closing her eyes only made the sensation worse. She was at the end of her strength and there was nothing left.

“Best you be coming down,” said the caul-man. “No tree or field is safe anymore. If you wish to be safe…”

“I’d be safer in hell, than with such ill-found travellers,” Agnia found her tongue and spoke. “Call me a witch? What do my eyes see below me but a warlock and a drunk, thieves both?”

“So says the huntsman’s wench of a daughter,” said Kriyger. “Aye, we know who you are. Three men went a hunting you a few days past, and their bodies were found torn asunder and their limbs tossed to hang in the brambles for the vultures.”

“Not me,” protested Agnia. “Not me. I’m the one wronged, by man and by demon. I’m no witch. I’m not the one boiling the skull of a demon in a pot!”

“The Ispan has set out all his men and dogs to search the woodlands,” said Kriyger. “They’re looking for the witch with a scarred face and black hair who consorts with demons while the sun holds court in the high sky. Have you seen such a one?”

“Not me,” repeated Agnia and sunk her chin down upon the bark.

What say you, Lehalet?” Kriyger smiled with the caul-man as if there was some shared jest to be enjoyed between them. He took another long pull at the wineskin and laughed. “Shall we take a seat at the fire and wait for them to come up the trail? I’ve seen bears treed before, never a witch. She’ll be tumbled down by fire, rope or arrow. They’ll unleash the dogs then…”

“Only return what’s mine,” said Agnia with a desperate tremor she could not hide, for the baying was indeed growing louder. “I’ll take my chances in the woods. I know them better than anyone. My bow, my sword, my knife and pouch I’ll have them back… take the gold if you wish. I care not, if it means my life.”

“There’s no honor in taking stolen gold,” said Kriyger with a turn of his lip. “Let her be, caul-man. I’ll get the horses, time to hitch up. We’ve wasted enough of our time here today.”

Kriyger pulled at the reins.

“A moment,” said Lehalet. The caul-man shuffled forward a step further so he was stood beneath the tree limb.

“Young woman, Your possessions are in the cart where we’ve kept you safe these last two days,” Lehalet’s free hand stroked the chosen hex with a nervous tick. “Those things were close at hand, if you’d only asked.”

Agnia fixed him with a stare. The fingers of the caul man moved with a rhythm matching the baying of the distant hunt.

“If we’d meant to harm you,” Lehalet said. “The harm would have already been done – wouldn’t it? But if assurance of a sort is desired, then I give you my word I’ll not raise a hand against you. Come with us before it’s too late.”

“I’ll make no such pledge,” said Kriyger and laughed drunkenly. “Be meat for the Ispan’s hounds for all I care. You won’t make sunfall if you run. They’ll tear you apart.”

“Enough,” chided the caul-man. “We have food. Come down, and we’ll break bread together. Surely you must be hungry after such a long sleep.”

Almost Agnia broke. At the mention of food she realized how hungry she was. But then a realization came upon her.

“I’ll come down,” she cried. “But first, let’s have an end to your tricks, caul-man. The wind breathes down the hills. It can’t carry the sound of the hunt up from the fields below.”

“Ah,” said Lehalet and his cheeks turned red above the beard. He jerked his wrinkled hand away from the hex with a guilty start and the baying of the hounds stopped. “You’re a canny one, I see.”

“Next, my belongings,” said Agnia. “Put them at the base of the tree and step back. I’ll not put myself so easily at your mercy.”

The woman was shouting. She stood by the clump of birches and waved her arms. Kriyger turned in his saddle and spat.

“The horses wander,” he said and cantered away.

To be continued…

Copyright ©2013 by John Eric Sweat

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