18 October 2011

quork: A sketch of a raven, black on white. (Default)
He had never seen anything like it.

As his horse-drawn cart creakily wended its way down the rutted, cold mud road, he tried and failed to reject his memories of last night. Later, he would convince himself that it had been a trick of the flickering torches, nothing more, a hallucination induced by the pounding drums and relentless chanting, the mindghost in the bitter herbs that he still tasted on the back of his tongue. No, he couldn't forget, not with the product of the evening's.. festivities caged and lashed to the side of his cart.

The girl had been the best of a good lot of captives, and the taking had been right and good and true. He understood that, it was their way; defiance, dominance, storming the enemy and proving, time and again, strength and worth and power. He was a warrior, and he reveled in the warrior's life. That this particular hunt had been especially mandated by the druid - he glanced sidelong at the man, sitting silently beside him on the cart's rough seat, cloakless even in this pre-dawn chill - did not bother him, but that was unusual. It is the solstice, the druid had said before the hunt. And the time of the tribute. The sacrifice must be greater than we have ever given before. And a watch was put on the girl's people, learning their habits so that the right ones would be taken.

And so they had been, every last one of them. The feast had been magnificent, centered around the tribe's polished stone altar. Within a ring of bonfires, the victorious tribe had supped and drank and told boisterous tales of each other's exploits in battle. The captives had been bound together near the altar, and they too were regaled with stories of how their kith and kin perished in the quick, violent hammerstrike of the raid. Their wails of rage and sorrow were met with only derision and laughter and embellishments of the raiders' prowess.

The crude lantern swayed back and forth at the end of its pole, casting an orb of faint, greasy light against the black morning. The crooked arc of light made the man queasy. He was sure it had no such effect on his silent companion. He hadn't really known the druid beyond sight before last night, for the Dalraida were large enough, powerful enough for their paths to remain uncrossed. He knew he'd never forget him now, especially the way he had marched into the feast, followed by an austere line of acolytes who had beaten their flat palms against the bottoms of wooden bowls as they moved. The merriment had ceased almost immediately; the druid and his acolytes had formed a circle around the bound captives. Some had been crying, others cursing. The girl had been screeching loudest of all, straining against her bonds until blood ran down her arms and ankles. He remembered that too, the sight of that blood, so red against her white skin.

"Tomorrow is the day that we pay tribute to the fool king in London, so that he and his.. lords leave us to live our lives in the old way, as we have always done," the druid had announced in his disturbingly deep voice, spreading his hands as if to encompass all of the people. "The Dalraida are powerful, this we know! Look well upon our harvest! The pact will be met. But this year, our might will truly be known. This year, we give a gift of wonder, of true power! If you would see this done, if you would see us be covered in untold glory, step forward and drink from the white bowl."

No warrior wanted to be the one who didn't drink, and as the long line formed before the steaming bowl, the druid's smile was a scythe in the shadows of his thick woolen hood. The drink was hot and so bitter it curled the tongue, so bitter that it required a strong will to swallow. But the bitterness was forgotten as the effects quickly took hold, mesmerizing the warriors, separating minds from bodies, opening unknown doors. Some had taken up bowls and platters, their contents forgotten and spilled to the cold ground, to join in the rhythmic thumping. Others had felt their lips split and their voices begin to pour out a chant that accentuated the simple percussion. Slowly, deliberately, they had moved into a wide circle, three people thick.

The druid had thrown back his robe, exposing a body evocatively marked with rings and chevrons, the paint dark against his pale skin. He had lifted his arms to the moon, left hand open, right hand curled around a ceremonial dagger, adding his deep bass to the chant as two acolytes freed a yellow-haired female captive. They had dragged her over and forced her to kneel before him.

His strike had been swift and brutal and he never stopped chanting; he brought his ironwood dagger down across the captive's long, vulnerable throat. The other captives had screamed; she only gurgled and gasped as her bright life's blood drained into the waiting bowls by her knees. Four more had been brought forward and slain, drained and discarded. Three others were marked as slaves and forgotten. Several of the bowls now had their own full portions of steaming blood, arranged in a semi-circle at the feet of the druid.

And at last, there had been the girl, alone and hoarse but still screeching there in the center of the circle.

The cart suddenly bucked hard, slamming into a jutting nugget of granite in the uneven road, forcing a startled yell out of the man and a protesting whinny out of the sleepy horse pulling them. The druid rode out the commotion without a word. But the man could see the sharp corner of his smile, clear and mocking in the feeble light that bounced about at the end of its pole.

"Be easy," said that deep, richly arrogant voice. "We don't want to lose any cargo, do we?"

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quork: A sketch of a raven, black on white. (Default)
Croárc ná Corvain

May 2012

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