“The Weird of Ironspell” by John R. Fultz
Illustrations by Alex Sheikman
1. Born of Stone
The child would never know its father.
In the amber glow of their hearth fires, villagers traded whispers about its mother. The witch had come out of the forest heavy with child. Some said she dallied with a demon, or a wood-spirit, but the witch never revealed her secret paramour. She gave birth in the light of a silver moon, while wolves howled like ghosts among the hills.
As the child grew, its mother worked like a man at her anvil, forging a blade for her son. She smelted a strange, gleaming metal from the heart of a stone that had fallen from the sky while she was in labor. The village elders said she must be weaving a great spell, and her hammer rang across the village like a doomful bell. In the space of a month she had finished the sword. She christened it with several drops of her own blood, which flowed down the blade’s length and sank into the metal, taking on the shapes of crimson runes.
A shepherd boy spied on the witch through a hole in her back wall. She spoke to the blade like it was a living thing, a second child born of fire and metal. She pricked the finger of her baby boy, too, and added that drop to the blade as a final sigil. Then she bundled the weapon in a swathe of hide, packed the baby onto her back, and stalked into the mountains. Storms wracked the village while she was away. Lightning struck the house of the shepherd boy’s father, burning it to the ground. Serpentine, fanged things crawled out of the lake and slithered about the unpaved streets while thunder tore apart the sky. The wind killed six black ravens, tossing them broken into the village square, to be found by the elders when the storm faded at sunrise.
The witch returned that day bearing her baby, but without the precious blade. The villagers gathered to meet her at the door of her hovel.
“What curse have you wrought here?” asked a grayhair.
“What demons have sold you their secrets?” asked another.
The witch sat her baby down, and the villagers were amazed to see the child run, as if it had learned to walk overnight. It gamboled toward the dead ravens and stamped at them with its booted feet.
“This is my son,” said the witch, her dark hair dancing in the wind. “His name is Ironspell.” She stood defiant in the burning gaze of the villagers. “One day he will walk the earth as a Hero, a Conqueror…a Champion. When he grows to manhood, he will go into the mountains and retrieve his inheritance. None living may find it until that day. It will be his hammer to smite the wicked and the damned. There is nothing you can do to stop him, for this is his weird.”
The villagers stared at mother and child with an awe that quickly turned to fear.
A knight of Neshma, the kingdom beyond the mountains, was passing through the village, on his way home from a terrible war in the East. His brothers-in arms were mostly dead, slain by the cannibal tribesmen known as the Zheri, whose raiding and plundering had started the war. Only a single retainer was left to the knight, and of his fine suit of armor only a battered shield and tarnished helm remained. Yet he carried still his thrice-blessed sword and a lance hung with the tiger banner of Neshma. The knight was widely known as Ingram the Bold, and he had stopped in the village only to replenish his water skins at the well.
When Ingram discovered the enraged villagers stoning to death a pretty girl they called “witch,” he smote several of them on the head with his shield and went to aid the fallen lass. But he was too late; a rock had cracked her skull, and thick blood tangled her ebony hair. A babe of no more than two winters ran from the crowd to weep over her body, and Ingram knew pity. The black waters of death had nearly drowned him in the outlands. He had laid to rest too many of his fellow knights this season. For these reasons, and perhaps others, he ordered the villagers to bury the woman, and he took the weeping boy with him across the frigid mountains to the city of his queen.
The boy’s hair was dark, like his dead mother’s. His eyes were bright as green flames, glimmering with tears. The cold mountain winds dried his face and he made not a sound during the journey, nor for months afterwards. He settled into the firelit halls of Castle Neshma like a voiceless wolf cub taken from the cold and taught to live among men. Among the warriors, blacksmiths, courtiers, armorers, and servants of the great palace he became just another brooding boy-child.
Ingram gave him the name Drake, but as soon as the boy found his voice he insisted his true name was Ironspell. Ingram was a brave knight, but he was not a kind foster-father. He raised the boy in the martial tradition with blows and the harsh lessons of endurance and pain. He expected a return for his investment: the boy would grow to be a squire, then a knight in service to Queen Zandara. Ironspell took to the arts of swordplay, riding, and wrestling with zeal and great proficiency. Yet in his spare time, he wandered always to the great library of Castle Neshma, where a thousand marble gargoyles guarded ancient knowledge. Ingram never understood how the lad had learned to read, or why he even bothered…but since these things did not interfere with his primary education, the lad’s bookish fancies were indulged. Drake Ironspell grew tall, and broad, and his thews were massive. He moved with the grace of a mountain cat, struck with the force of a thunderbolt when sparring with the men of Neshma. Ingram was quietly proud of his fosterling, though he never told the lad.
On his eighteenth birthday, a week before taking his final vows of knighthood, young Ironspell disappeared from Castle Neshma. Ingram’s wrath was great when his servants could find no trace of the lad. He had little hope that his faithless charge would return. If he did, Ingram would have to kill him to salvage his own honor and that of his queen. Yet secretly he hoped the boy would survive on his own in the rough and dangerous lands beyond the city.
The wind between the mountain crags cut like dagger blades into Ironspell’s flesh. His cloak was too thin, and his boots were not fur-lined as they should have been for this trek. Not since he was an toddler had he been outside Neshma’s towering walls of green stone, and he had forgotten the bitter chill of the mountain heights. He trudged through deep snow, his ebony hair tied in a braid and held by a headband of beaten brass. He had grown in a privileged house, but had always known it was not his home. He had never forgotten the face of his mother.
It was her voice now that called him onward, into the winding ravines between the white peaks. He could see her green eyes shimmering when he stared up at the evening stars. Hunger tied his stomach into a tight knot, and he climbed. The roars of prowling beasts echoed across the night.
When the moon reached its zenith he came to the cave and met his mother’s ghost. She wore a gown of whiteness, shifting like flame about her lean body. She radiated warmth like a flame as he drew near. Sensation came back into his fingers and toes as he stood before the floating phantasm. It was the face he remembered, smiling with eyes green as his own.
“My son.” Her voice sang like a plucked harp string. “All of this was foretold and foreseen. The journey of your life begins on this night, and the world shifts on its axis. The stars blaze brighter above your head. Your destiny lies within. Go now and claim it. Spill the blood that must recognize its own.”
Ironspell bowed, basking in his ghost-mother’s warmth, and threw off his cloak. He drew the simple sword of iron given to him by Ingram the Bold, and entered the darkness beyond the cave mouth. The smell of ancient earth filled his nostrils, the odors of fungus and vermin droppings. He carried no lantern, but walked instead through the deep darkness seeing with the eyes of a nocturnal being. He prowled the cavern like a cautious wolf, alert for the presence of danger. The way grew steeper, and the ground became an endless series of crude steps leading him deeper into the heart of the mountain. A flock of bats rebelled at his invasion, spinning about him like shrieking spirits, and flew away toward the distant moonlight. The stairway of dark basalt eventually opened into a cavern of dripping stalactites. The yellowed bones and skulls of grave-robbers lay scattered across the uneven floor, wrapped in rotted rags and corroded metal. A door of rusted iron stood in the far wall, bearing the insignia of a crowned skull. There was no sign of anything that might have killed the men whose skeletons crunched now beneath his boots.
The iron portal had no latch or handle. His mother’s voice wavered in his ears, speaking a language he had seen inscribed in antique tomes in the Library of Neshma. He repeated those words and the door groaned like a slumbering giant, swaying inward with a shower of dust and pebbles. The reek of decayed flesh and moldy cerements rode on a blast of frigid air. Within lay a series of jeweled sarcophagi, graven with runes and obscure sigils. He entered the burial chamber and saw the most fantastic of the caskets at the chamber’s end.
Pacing between the great coffins, he saw opals and rubies inlaid in patterns of spiral and pentagram, urns of brass capped with corks of gold, and the icons of forgotten kings eyeing him from the carven walls. The greatest of the sarcophagi stood open, and a withered mummy with a crown of gold and amethyst stared at him with empty sockets. In its shriveled hands the corpse grasped the hilt of a great sword, silvery point resting between its two mummified feet. Black runes along its length gleamed like onyx in torchlight. The untarnished metal seemed intimately familiar to him. It glimmered, reflecting some unseen light source…perhaps the moonlight of some distant world, or the flames of the deep earth gulfs.
A scraping of stone turned him around, and he stifled a curse. Ragged, musty man-shapes crawled out of the six lesser coffins. On all fours they scrabbled toward him like spiders, their skull sockets bright with cold flames. Fleshless jaws gaped wide, baring animal fangs.
Our King, they hissed — and somehow he understood their dead language — must not be disturbed…
They clawed at him with fingers like spikes of iron, slicing his flesh. The fires that took the place of their eyes burned like vitriol. They swarmed upon him, dragging him to the floor, coaxing blood from rents in his skin and muscle. His sword cleaved a dry skull in two, then chopped it from its supporting shoulders…but still the headless cadaver and its brethren tore at him. One of the mummies grabbed his iron blade and snapped it like a twig. Now icy terror, too, had him in its grip.
He called out his mother’s name…a name he should not know, but somehow did. Again she whispered to him from some invisible realm, and he repeated her words. Now their meaning became clear as he spoke in the forgotten tongue:
Shades and bones of Lost Mycerium,
Vigil-keepers of the Night King,
Children of the Elder Kingdom…
Flee now the dust of your former lives.
The Realms Beyond are opened to you at last…
The mummies paused, their fingerbones tangled in the remains of his shredded tunic. The flaming eyes stared at him with fleshless expressions. The dancing flames faded and died inside their moldering skulls. Clacking bones fell into powder, a pale mist without moisture. Ironspell sank to his knees atop a pile of ashes and bone dust. Rich, red blood dripped from his torn skin.
He rose to face the grinning mummy king again, and his ghost-mother glided in to float at his shoulder. With phantasmal fingers she grabbed his right hand and lifted it toward the hilt of the great sword. The mummy king did not move as Ironspell wrapped his fingers around the hilt. His hot blood ran down along the hilt and the blade, seething like magma from his many wounds. The blade thrummed in his hand, and the dark runes drank his blood, glowing now like scarlet candles. He lifted the weapon, his inheritance, turned its point toward the ceiling of the tomb.
His mother whispered one final word, and he knew the sword’s name.
He turned to say goodbye, but she was gone. She had died many years ago. His heart grew heavy as he remembered this. He breathed deeply of the stale, dark air, and muttered a single word of farewell. Or perhaps a word of thanks. He left the cavern and smelled the taint of something terrible blowing on the winter wind. He knew he must seek it out, confront it, and rid the world of it.
Later, as Ironspell climbed down from the high crags, he came upon one of the great snow-tigers that roamed the Greyfold Mountains. The hunger of such predators for manflesh was legendary on both sides of the range. Runesblood lay sheathed upon his back, but he did not lift a hand toward its hilt. He stood still as an elm, staring into the face of the feline colossus. The beast blinked its slitted yellow eyes at him. It growled an ancient oath and loped off through the snow banks, switching its white tail back and forth.
With a pouch full of antique jewels jingling at his waist, Ironspell came down from the frosty heights and entered green lands again. He stopped for a little while at an unmarked grave near a nameless village. Then he went eastward, away from the walls and rules of Neshma.
Eastward toward war, and pain, and the doom that called his name.
Next: Ironspell and the Strangelings
About the Author: John R. Fultz lives in the Bay Area, California, but is originally from Kentucky. He keeps a Virtual Sanctuary at: http://johnrfultz.wordpress.com His fiction has appeared in BLACK GATE, WEIRD TALES, and SPACE & TIME magazines, as well as the DAW Books anthology CTHULHU’S REIGN. His graphic novel of epic fantasy, PRIMORDIA, was published by Archaia Comics. He has new stories forthcoming in BLACK GATE, LIGHTSPEED, SPACE & TIME, and the WAY OF THE WIZARD anthology from Prime Books. In a previous life he made his living as a wandering storyteller on the lost continent of Atlantis.
About the Artist: Alex Sheikman is the incredibly talented creator/writer/artist of the samurai-steampunk-western-scifi comic ROBOTIKA, available at www.amazon.com in two fantastic graphic novels. Much more of his amazing artwork can be seen at http://sheikman.blogspot.com He has a brand-new sketchbook full of wonderful illustrations that readers can order directly from his blog site. Go order his books now–you’ll thank me later!