Black Snakes Cast No Shadows

It was over, just as the moon rose.

The men were exhausted, barely standing, to tired to cheer as the last of the enemy fell.

We won, but what that was exactly, then and there, I could not tell you.

I reeked of the blood and guts of others, and my own blood mingled with theirs, to drip into my eyes, down my arms, and dull the gleam of my blade in the moonlight.

Falling to my knees, unable to stand any longer, I looked around me.

Bodies everywhere, in stacks, in pieces, ending in wetness, ending in white bone.

And someone lit the field on fire, and howls began in the woods.

“Koyah, we cannot stay here.”

My second in command, Sengo, my brother in arms, long trusted, bedecked also in gore.

He grasped my forearm, helped me to my feet.

“You fought bravely,” I told him.

He nodded. “As did you, and all the others who are left to tell the tale.”

I looked around.

“We burn our dead,” he told me, “and leave theirs to rot.”

“It is done well.”

.   “Do we push on toward the city, Koyah?” Sengo asked.

“We push on, but in the morning we rest, bind our wounds, eat, and mourn our fallen.”

His smile was wan, and his nod weary. He left my side to go marshal the survivors; they weren’t as many as before, but they might prove to be enough.

Heaviness settled across my shoulders, as if the hands of a giant pushed me to the ground.

I dropped my weapon, flexed my hand, wiped my eyes free of tattered red flesh, and let the energy of the slaughtering day dissipate, and I pitched forward, and lay in a cool, clean patch of blood-soaked grass.

And not for the first time, thought that maybe it was time to set this whole fighting thing back down into the cave which spawned it, and the dream came afresh, with vivid detail, so real that I felt the breeze across my skin like a palm leaf’s kiss.

I felt my lips form a silent curse my father would have smacked me for uttering, and I turned to face the king again.

 

He shook his head, eyes full of malevolent pity; his voice was soft, deep, almost fatherly.

    “Fool boy, turn your army now, while there is yet time. Your souls are forfeit when you see the city wall. I will reap among you with all the effort of a child in high summer fields, and the vultures and dogs will glean the scraps of your corpses.

    “Koyah, do you not grow weary of this? Turn aside.”

   “I will never turn.”

   Last time, his throne had been in a natural alcove, surrounded by exotic, vibrant birds, and women that fawned on his corpulence, and guards with serpentine eyes and charcoal skin.

    This time, he was in darkened hall, with nothing of mock gaiety around him. This time, there were countless  thick black serpents, gleaming and sleek, uncoiling around his feet like living smoke, slithering in languor up the height of his throne, and cloaking his body like a scaly robe;  their eyes of fiery emerald and ruby and tourmaline glittered with preternatural intelligence as they looked at me, and almost seemed to smile.

    The chills that gripped me did not come from the wind, but the yawning, bottomless grave.

   “You had no right to kill us, enslave us, burn us…”

   “You had no right to keep my tribute, my gold, my children-“

   “OUR children, you –“

    He merely put up his hand, and I choked on my own tongue as it bent backwards in my mouth.

   He released it, speaking over my retching coughs, my eyes stinging with tears, made more acrid by the fires around me.

    “Watch your tongue, child. You only think you lead, but you are a boy playing ‘warrior,’ not fully understanding all that means, for yourself, and others.

    “Turn aside.”

     I was able to breathe enough air back into my lungs to defy him once more.

    “I will not.”

    “Then come, child-warrior, and learn at the point of my knife, as it furrows your throat, what it is to become a man.”

 

********************

I woke up sweating.

“How long was I…?”

“Not long, Koyah. The men did not see.”

“Did I…?”

“No. You did not cry out…this time.”

I put my hand on Sengo’s shoulder in gratitude.

“He put you to sleep again?”

“Yes. And commanded as he always does.”

Sengo leaned forward. “But we have nothing to counter him, brother. The closer we get, the smaller our numbers become; these …things…he sends after us, are more than dead, but less than men, and they are weeding us out, and down.”

“What are you saying, Sengo, that we turn back?”

“No. He is using rituals that were old beyond writing, dark and forbidden; these are workings, and dead things, that would drive most insane.”

He seemed to consider what he was going to say next, which meant it was portentous, but I’d known him long enough to let him form his thought.

“We need someone like him.”

“In our ranks?”

“How else can we fight him?”

The fires did their cleansing dance, and the flesh of men I spoke with only yesterday, smiled with, drank with, told ribald jokes with, wrestled with and fought beside, now curled and blackened and drifted up in red sparks under the waxing moon and the wheeling stars.

Sengo’s smile was tenuous.

“He will be here tomorrow.”

 

   

 

Trace (2)

Chapter 2:

   She was in the servants’ quarters, taking comfort from a friend.

“That royal bitch, pouring wine on me!”

“Watch your tongue, Lydia. Tongues wag, and ears are on the walls.”

“I don’t care…”

“You will if the the princess gets wind of it; here, drink this, and hush.”

“Thank you, Gaile.”

“Excuse me,” Trace said.

Gaile jumped, and Lydia spilled a little of her drink; they looked at each other, and Gaile’s frightened eyes had an ‘I-told-you-so’ look in them, and then she gave the man in the doorway a challenging glare.

“I need to speak to Lydia, alone.”

Gaile huffed, looked again at Lydia, who nodded. “I’ll be all right.”

Gaile left. bumping the man’s shoulder as she pushed past him.

He ignored the not-so-subtle assault, and turned his attention to the girl sitting in the chair, wine cup in hand,  trying to pretend nothing happened.

“What happened?”

“The queen bitch poured wine down my blouse because the king stared at my breasts, sir.”

She gave a bitter laugh. “That only made him stare harder.”

“Call me Trace. And I’m sorry…”

“Why? Have you never been in a castle before? It goes on all the time, the abuse.”

Trace let that pass so he could get to his questions.

“Did anyone taste the wine first?”

“I wouldn’t have brought it out otherwise; yes, the taster did his job.”

“Where can I find him?”

“I…” she gave it some thought. “You’ll probably find him down in the kitchen, rifling through the silver before he leaves.”

“What does he look like?”

She gave that some thought, too.

“Short, round, wide, and pasty; he won’t be hard to spot.

Her brow furrowed as a change of thought came to her.

“Did you speak to the heirs?”

“I did,” Trace said. “They don’t plan to stay.”

“I hope the Council can convince them otherwise; if there’s no kitchen work, I’ll have to resort to…tavern work.”

“Thank you, Lydia.”

“Wait.”

Trace turned.

“Can I…can I go with you?”

“To find the taster?”

“I can help you with that,” she stood up, put the drink aside, “but I meant…can I come with you, travel with you?”

“We can discuss that on the way.”

***************************

She walked with him toward the kitchens, her large blue eyes focused on him with a hint of desperation.

“I can cook, clean your place, mend your clothing, wash…”

Trace sighed.

“I travel a lot, Lydia, and I don’t hang around nice places with nice people. I’m sure out there somewhere, there’s a price on my head.

“The things I’m involved in are high stakes and gruesome, with supernatural overtones.

“In short, as much as I’d love to have someone to talk to and share ideas with, I’m not someone to be around for the long term.”

“I understand, but-“

“No, Lydia. No, you don’t understand.”

“There he is. Walcroft is his name.”

“Walcroft!”

Walcroft turned, saw the mage walking toward him, and was caught somewhere between frozen and bolting from the room.

Trace incanted a holding spell just as Walcroft decided on flight, and found himself held fast.

“Leave me alone! I didn’t kill them!”

“No one accused you of murder, so there’s no need to run, is there? If you promise to be still, I’ll remove the incant. If you try to run, I’ll bind you again, more thoroughly. Do you understand?”

“I understand, taint.”

“What?”

“Walcroft doesn’t like magic, Trace.”

“Ah.”

“Your kind are a blight on the land, and I would see you all dead, were the crown mine. Our king, gods rest his soul, had the disease of compassion on him, though he was a lusty man; the queen, not so much. She would have made a better ruler, but the law of the land being what it is, would not surrender the throne to a woman.

“Pity.”

“Not here to debate the political merits of regicide, friend, I just need the cups they drank from. Where are they?”

Trace was as calm as Walcroft was agitated, and though the smaller man seemed to be spoiling for a fight, he could see that the mage would not indulge him, and something in his tone conveyed that Walcroft better not push the issue.

“Over there.”

Trace walked to where they were, and Lydia followed.

He gave a cursory glance behind him, and she gave him a quick, nervous smile.

“Stand behind me.”

She did.

******************

The cups were two different temperatures, and he saw the faces of those who used them.

   The queen’s cup was hot with rage, and the king’s cool with drunken lust; in the vision, Trace could see the long line of Lydia’s cleavage, the slope of her breasts under the serving blouse drawing the king’s eye like a moth to flame.

   There was nothing to be done for it, though he was embarrassed for her.

  He could smell the poison in the wine, a bittersweet berry, tart and acrid, and feel it too; it was heating his blood, singeing his hands, and he began to sweat.

  He summoned to go further back, and felt the energy drain from him: a blurred face could be seen, walking toward the cups with the bottle of wine, but whoever it was had their eyes covered by the top of the black hood they wore, so he couldn’t see if it was male or female, their hair, or the color of their eyes.

   From the angle, he could see no good details, because he was looking up at the cups from underneath. Someone had been hiding there, someone who could see part of the poisoner’s face, though the poisoner couldn’t see them.

   He focused on what he could see.

  The lips were small, though, the chin not strong, but it was darker, as if the person spent their time in the sun.

  It was either a woman or a thin man, which Walcroft was definitely not.

********************

Lydia wiped his brow with a cool cloth, looked at his hands, and hissed in apprehension.

“They’ll heal,” said Trace.

She looked at him.

“They always do.”

He could see the fright in her eyes, see the things he’d told her about him sinking in as she watched the scars begin to recede and disappear..

“There was someone here, hiding under the counter, and someone in a hooded robe who poisoned the wine. Whoever was under the counter saw part of their face.

“Do any children hang around here, looking for scraps?”

She was finally able to tear her gaze away from his hands.

“It’s not encouraged, but we have a few adventurous ones willing to risk Kiyo’s wooden paddle on their backside.”

“The head cook?”

“The Giantess, we call her, but not to her face.”

Trace thought.

“It’s late. I’ll need a place to stay.”

“I’ll make a room up for you.”

She walked past him, but he put his hand on her arm, and shook his head.

“It can’t be here.”

She sighed, took a step into his space.

“I have to come with you, Trace. There’s no future for me here, and I don’t want to be a whore.”

“Lydia, please…”

“Please don’t abandon me.”

“I’ll have to think-“

She kissed him, and he gently pushed her back.

“That’s not going to work.”

“Trace, it’s all over you; you need someone.”

“No I—“

She kissed him again.

“Stop it, Lydia.”

She stepped back, looked up into his eyes.

“You stop me,” she said, moving in once more.

He could have; he even wanted to…

But he didn’t.

© Alfred W. Smith Jr.    2015