Art by Malcolm McClinton
From Black Gate 14, copyright © 2010 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved
King Kruthas was going to kill them; it was just a matter of how.
In a sense, “King” Kruthas was nothing of the sort. He had no castle, no vassals, no crown. He was the leader of a small army of marauders that flourished as one ineffective pretender after another tried to claim a throne that had been vacant for twenty years.
But his word was law; when King Kruthas demanded something, defying him meant an ugly death.
The annual tribute was always a burden. This year, it was going to starve people. As Arten’s father Bennit pointed out, those who survived the winter would likely be eating grass and dung come spring.
Seeing no choices but slaughter or famine, Willowfeld had turned to Wellin.
He was a small, timid man who always seemed frightened by something, even in the best of times. Poor fellow couldn’t even grow a beard; Arten thought that made him look like a child. (Not that Arten could say much; now that he was finally allowed to grow one of his own, the damn thing was taking its own time coming in.) He kept to himself, refusing to talk about either where he was from or why he’d come to Willowfeld.
But he was very likely the smartest person Arten had ever met. When Wellin had something to say, it paid to listen. So when a town meeting had produced naught but fear and bickering, Arten’s father had sought out the little man and asked if he saw any answers that the rest of them did not.
As it turned out, he did.
Arten tried not to fidget, tried not to look uncomfortable, tried not to look frightened. He had fought hard to be treated like a man; he would not act like a child, not here, not in front of Willowfeld’s most respected residents.
But as Wellin told his story, Arten was coming to regret ignoring his father’s advice to go back home and stay out of this.
Wellin was a sorcerer.
And he wasn’t some pet court wizard who did silly tricks or gave vague prophecies; Wellin had been a man of power. “The Old Gods,” he reluctantly explained to the small group of men and women Willowfeld looked to for guidance, gathered in the town hall. “That’s where the real magic is. The younger ones, the ones venerated today… well, I don’t want to go so far as to say they’re false gods, the truth is much more intricate than that, but… well. The Old Gods made man. And man had no small part in making the younger gods. You can draw power from the younger gods, certainly, but… it’s the difference between a lantern and the sun.”
“So what ye be saying,” Seemaru said with her thick Dinnish brogue, “is that the ‘wee gods’ we say our prayers and thankees to today be nothin’ more than a pack of children? And that we be a bunch of fools for lookin’ up to ‘em?” The weathered mother of two was a refugee from Dinland, but had earned the respect of her neighbors. With a start, Arten realized she was at least as uncomfortable as himself.
“No, no, of course not!” Wellin stammered. “It’s… well, consider Veredia, the Earth Mother. She’s portrayed as a loving and nurturing figure. You… we pray to her for healthy crops. We pray to her for gentle winters. We pray to her for long life, and that the lives of our loved ones may be long as well. And because she loves us, we expect that she’ll try as best she can to provide those things for us… or, more often, that she’ll help us provide them for ourselves. And these are all very good things, worth praying for.
“But she really is… well, I guess I should say she’s an aspect of Versh, the old goddess of the earth. And Versh encompasses all these things, but much more, so much more. She is the earth that yields bountiful crops, and she is the swarm of locusts that devours them. She is the summer storm bringing water to plant and animal, and she is the bolt of lightning setting the forest aflame. She smiles when the foal is born, and she smiles when its mother is devoured by the wolf. She is loving and nurturing, but at the same time she is cruel and deeply apathetic.
“All of the Old Gods are like that, really; divine embodiments of the most wondrous and horrible facets of the world, and of ourselves. Which is why we needed the younger gods. I mean, you don’t so much worship entities like the Old Gods as you try to appease them. People needed to look to the heavens and find solace rather than fear. The younger gods give us that, and yet… by stripping them of the dark and cruel, we stripped them of much of their power. The trade was well worth making, no question, but there are things the Old Gods may do the younger ones cannot.”
“You’re saying,” Audra said, “that you think you can draw power from these ‘Old Gods?’” She tugged nervously at the dark green scarf binding her white-streaked black hair. Audra had overseen the birth of most of Willowfeld’s residents for the past thirty years; the midwife was a voice of caution and reason.
“Think?” Wellin said. “No, madam. Can draw power. Have drawn power. I’ve seen… I’ve done things that you’ve only heard of in stories. Shatter a wall protecting a city with but a touch? Call down fire from the heavens to smite one’s enemies? Summon forth monstrosities to do one’s bidding? It can be done, all of it.”
“If you can do all that,” Vin scoffed, “what the devil are you doing out here living above my shop?” The portly candlemaker’s goatee and shaved head marked him as Willowfeld’s mayor. “Why haven’t you carved out a kingdom? Taken the throne for yourself?”
“Because,” Wellin said, red-faced and gazing at the floor, “you can only do these things if you’re willing to pay the price. The younger gods will share their limited power for the asking because they love us. But the old ones? How badly do you want to tear down that wall impeding your army? Or call forth that holy gout of flame? Or summon that monster? Enough to wager your very soul that you’ll get an exhausting ritual perfectly correct down to the smallest detail? Enough to hack off your left hand? Enough to carve open your first-born’s chest and pull out his heart while it’s still beating?”
Arten realized he was clutching his father’s hand. The eyes of Willowfeld’s most respected men and women were wide with fear.
“That’s why I came to Willowfeld,” he finally said. “The price is usually… so awful that you’re much better off finding another way to do whatever you need to do. Men often think they’re willing to pay it, but realize too late that maybe they weren’t. And as for myself… .” Wellin shuddered, but said no more.
“Nonsense,” Seemaru finally stammered. “Stuff and nonsense!” she repeated, convincing herself of the words as they rolled from her mouth. “Tall tales to frighten wee children. And a blasphemous load a nonsense at that!”
Wellin looked offended, his fear melting into an anger Arten had never seen on that mousy, timid little face before.
He didn’t like it.
“Does anybody,” Wellin said after some thought, “have a chicken they would be willing to sacrifice to discover the veracity of my words?”
A long, anxious silence called. Arten hoped somebody would speak up… but at the same time, another part of him fervently wished nobody in the room would say anything. Seemaru, certainly, seemed unwilling to meet the little man’s challenge.
“I do,” said Meer, a farmer in his late years. “I mean, no offense Seemaru, I want to believe you, really I do, but… well, I’ve got three children and fourteen grandchildren. If he’s not crazy, the plain truth is I’d be willing to pay an awful lot to keep them safe.”
With that, the assembled company marched a mile outside of town to Meer’s farm. Nobody said anything; they were all lost in their own thoughts. Arten’s were dark enough; he had no wish to know what anybody else was thinking.
Meer’s wife Patrice, normally a gregarious hostess, saw something in the faces of her husband’s guests that she didn’t like and gave them a wide berth as Meer led them to the chicken coop. He returned carrying an old hen, while Wellin searched for a place he deemed “suitable.”
Arten wouldn’t have guessed that Wellin traveled armed, yet he produced an ornate dagger from somewhere in his gray vest. Arten gasped as Wellin drew it from its sheath; liquid moonlight flowed across its blade, collecting in little pools within patterns etched so intricately that Arten’s eye could scarcely follow them.
“That blade is silver, isn’t it,” Arten’s father said.
Wellin nodded as he used it to trace a circle around him in the bare patch of earth he’d found. Arten would have never believed that drawing a line in the dirt could have impressed him, but the motion was so fluid and so practiced, and the resulting circle so perfect that he couldn’t help but be taken a little aback.
“Bennit,” Wellin said, “what would you say the weather’s going to bring?”
Arten’s father looked uncomfortable. “Feels like it should stay pretty warm for a while. For a while, at least.”
“And any rain?”
Arten’s father shook his head. “No. Air’s dry as dust.”
“Anybody else?” Wellin asked. “Does anybody here want to take issue with Master Bennit?”
None did; they were either farmers themselves and agreed, or respected Ben’s judgment too much to contradict it.
Wellin nodded, satisfied. “Remember you said that,” he said. “There is to be no rain this evening.”
He crouched over, touching the tip of his knife to the earth again, and then hesitated. “I advise,” he finally said, “in the strongest possible terms, that nobody come anywhere near this circle until I’ve stepped out of it.”
With that, he began carving a series of ornate symbols into the ground. Arten barely knew letters, but he was sure he’d never seen anything like what Wellin was writing with such certainty. He heard a low murmuring from the little man, one he soon realized was in a completely foreign language. It was a harsh, guttural way of speaking, comprised of sounds made either in the back of one’s throat or deep within one’s chest.
No one else spoke, their attentions firmly focused on Wellin. Arten closed his eyes and hoped, and prayed to Veredia and Cosityal and Fon and Tremesso and Gurrien and all the other “little” gods, the only gods he knew, that they would all be sharing a hearty laugh over this sometime tomorrow, laughing over that silly little fool Wellin and how he’d repaid Meer for whatever he’d done to the hen –
The hen shrieked as Wellin plunged his knife into her wing, carving through muscle and tendon with a smooth, precise motion. His chanting never ceased; indeed, it gained intensity. The poor creature struggled helplessly as her limb was neatly severed and placed just so within the circle.
Arten’s stomach lurched; something wrong was happening here, he should say something, somebody should stop this before it went any further.
But all he could do was stare, transfixed, as Wellin methodically cut the hen to pieces while she still lived.
He was so engrossed at the poor animal’s suffering that he didn’t notice the wind come up. It was as if one moment they were all standing beneath a placid late-summer nighttime sky, and the next they were buffeted by a wind so fierce they had to lean against it. Wellin was yelling now, still in that same awful tongue, forcing his voice louder than the wind. Thunder rolled in the distance, but approached like an avalanche; Arten looked up to see the stars and moon had been blotted out. All save Wellin nearly jumped out of their skins when a bolt of lightning shattered a tree not a hundred paces from where they stood.
The chicken, now reduced to a squirming pile of blood-soaked feathers that Arten could no longer bear to think of as a living creature, lay on the ground before Wellin. He knelt, his dagger above his head in both hands, his voice reaching a frenzied tone. He struck, driving the dagger down as hard as he could.
The moment the blade plunged into the animal and ended its torment, the skies opened and dumped torrents of rain upon them.
Nobody moved; Arten barely even twitched as the deluge soaked through his clothes in a matter of moments. Wellin knelt silent and motionless, his hands still wrapped around the dagger, keeping the same position he’d been in when the hen expired.
Finally, looked up at them… and Arten saw the same timid, frightened look he was used to seeing in that face as the rain poured over it.
“Don’t you think,” Wellin shouted over the storm, “that we should get ourselves some shelter?”
Not too long after that, they all stood in Meer’s barn, shivering from a chill that had nothing to do with their wet clothes. Wellin stood alone. The others spoke in voices so hushed Arten could scarcely hear them over the lowing of the cattle, frightened from the sudden storm.
“It were going to rain anyway,” Seemaru stammered, her voice hollow. “He saw somethin’ ye didn’t, Ben, he musta, for it were going to rain anyway and what he did –”
“No,” Arten’s father said. Arten suspected that he alone heard the note of fear in his father’s patient voice. “It wasn’t going to rain.”
The rain didn’t last long; after what could have been no more than a quarter of an hour, the echoing of raindrops pounding on the barn’s roof suddenly softened, and was gone completely within the half-hour.
“Well,” Vin finally stated as the last of the storm spent itself, “I suppose that answers that, doesn’t it.”
“And you think…” Audra began, hesitantly. “You know of something that may help us. That will help us, against this beast Kruthas.”
Wellin turned to face his neighbors again, shaking his head. He was still the same man, but… there was something frighteningly different about him now. “You… the first thing you said was actually correct, madam. May help you. It’s a ritual. One that draws upon Gur, the old god of war. It’s potentially powerful, immensely powerful, but… well. He’s never been the most… trustworthy of entities. Armies have been slaughtered, empires have fallen, when Gur chose not to answer those who asked his aid. Or even betrayed them outright. And the price for merely asking him… it’s rather steep.”
“And what price,” Arten’s father asked, the trepidation now plain in his voice, “shall we be asked to pay should he answer?”
“Required,” Wellin said sheepishly. “You’ll be required to pay.”
“Enough riddles!” Vin spat. “What precisely will we have to do? Carve up ourselves like you did that chicken? Our children? What will this devil demand of us if he keeps his end of the bargain?”
“I…” Wellin looked embarrassed. “I honestly don’t know. War is… deadly, unpredictable, never quite the same thing twice. So does it reflect its master. The simple truth is, I don’t know what you’ll be required to pay.
“I know only that… for what we mean to ask. For your survival and that of your loved ones in the face of an overwhelming enemy. The price shall be steep. Very, very steep.”
The complete version of “The Price of Two Blades” appears in Black Gate 14.