A Song of Steel #10

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

House of Thar did not appreciate what you and the House you serve did to folks under their protection. They’ve been conducting raids on towns all around you, so that the peasants will not shelter you. One village even outright attacked you.

But that is not why I write to you today. Today I’m here to tell you that you can ride a horse. Did you have any idea you could do that? I didn’t!

Not only that, but you made a new discovery yesterday: the men most likely to consider themselves the strongest man on the battlefield have scarcely been weaned off their mother’s tits. They’ve usually seen around twenty years.

It is well and good that you have no idea how many years you’ve seen.

There were reports of longboats with King Borym of House of Thar’s banners on the coastline between the city you conquered and another one you’d never heard of. You, Khalee, Albarran and Crom-cil-Orm set out to investigate this.

The cliffs were thick with the last vestiges of autumn. The sun was shining and you were overlooking the sea. You wondered if this wasn’t where you took your first tumble (you hadn’t read your own account, had you? You smelled salt in the air and felt a faint spray even from your height on the cliff. The air seemed to grow colder and wetter the closer you came.

You did not remember if there were morning mists then. You thought it was a bright and sunny day, but it seemed as though three ships were there as if appearing from some sort of fog. They glided seamlessly along the waves, oars churning up foam.

“What do you think, your Grace?” Albarran asked. “King Borym’s men?”

“Look at the prow,” Khalee said. When she pointed, you noticed his fingernails had turned blue from the cold. You huddled yourself in your cloak. “Wrought in the shape of a griffin–even the sides of their boats are shaped like wings.”

“Could it be any other House?” Crom-cil-Orm bellowed. “Oh, but we’ll show them a good fight. Har!”

“Mayhaps they’re traders,” you suggested. “Merchant men?”

“You’re an idiot, Carth,” Khalee called to you. “King Borym’s men cover their prows when they go to trade.”

“How do you know this?” King Crom-cil-Orm asked.

“My House has traded with them for years, your Grace. They never have their war banners on their prows.” Under his breath, he added, “Speaking of which, those wings on the sides are as useful as nipples on a breastplate.”

“Albarran!” Crom-cil-Orm barked. “Go back to the banners. Call them forth. Have my bow brought to me.” You wondered how the giant would like with a bow. You imagined something like if he tried to play a small violin. “Khalee, Carth, with me.”

Albarran turned to parallel to the shore so that his mount’s mane tossed like the wind-blown spray whose echoes you felt on your cheeks. One of the ships turned to follow Albarran.

“Should I–” Khalee began, but the King waved the matter aside. “Stay here. My men can take care of themselves. King Borym’s forces fights like krakens. They’re slippery and destructive if they catch you at sea, but they flounder on land.”

You could hear a rhythmic beating coming from the ships. Men covered in ringmail and dinted halfhelms had long circular shields with iron bosses plated like bowls in the center, and rimmed with the same material. They struck axes and swords against their shields, again and again, and again. They stomped and clashed and made a fury. The noise only grew louder as they came closer.

“Why don’t we continue, if they have no use on land?” you asked.

“Because they skirmish well. Even a floundering kraken can cause casualties as it flails. We’ve enough to worry about without being chased by raiders.”

As the ships came closer, King Crom-cil-Orm, Khalee and you all watched as a man with long black hair, all scaled in ringmail came upon the head of the ship, and stood upon the griffin’s scalp as it coasted. You hoped he would fall. But he didn’t. He took out his cock and pissed into the water.

You did not expect to see Crom-cil-Orm grinning at this. But he did, displaying teeth as big as slinging-stones. “Kids,” he muttered. “You’re of an age with that one, Carth. I hope you know better.” You weren’t sure if you knew better. But you decided not to voice that. You noticed Crom-cil-Orm was scanning the ground for rocks.

“No fear of drowning, that one,” said Khalee.

The spears on shields was a chorus but the time Crom-cil-Orm found a stone as big as your head and tossed it in the air, testing the weight of it. The men under King Borym were still laughing.

Crom-cil-Orm tossed the stone side-armed, looking lazy, and it sailed through the air and struck the man atop the prow. The stone dented his helmet, and blood leaked down the side of his face in a sheet of red.

He still had his cock out as he tumbled beneath the waves.

Oars shot to work, slowing their progress and hurling themselves back, out of reach of the giant. Crom-cil-Orm was grinning, but Khalee spoke first. “They don’t seem so brave when you can hit them.”

“Indeed, they don’t. Har!”

The reavers changed their direction after King Crom-cil-Orm’s little trick. You were charged with following them as Crom-cil-Orm and Khalee started back to meet with Albarran and the other Housemen.

I’ll not profess to know why he sent you out. Mayhaps he wanted you captured or killed. I’ll not deny that you are a nuisance. It is mayhaps best not to dwell on such matters.

Regardless, I can tell you that you rode through a dark wood during your pursuit of the elusive reavers along the shoreline. Branches reaches out at you like ghosts clamoring for your attention, snapped and contorted like the twisted limbs of dead men.

You could hear crickets by the time you dismounted The tree limbs grew denser–too dense to be breached–until there was a wooden wall of sorts, in front of you You had to crawl on your belly over the cool rocks, out toward the sunset,

You checked between the branches and found House of Thar–King Borym’s Housemen filing through the valley below. They were vaulting off their longships–more than just three; a whole fleet of them. They swarmed in like a river of steel. They coiled down by a stream and choked the passage of a low stone bridge.

You counted the banners–jotted down sigils and symbols and names you overheard. I’ve put them in your index, Carth. You could not fully remember the size of Crom-cil-Orm’s army, but your fragmented memories led you to an estimate that King Borym’s forces rivaled Crom-cil-Orms. The fleet of wooden griffins resting in the shallows should have been evidence enough of that.

You saw a man with a crown atop his head, silver banded in scrollwork that emulated seaweed. He had to be the King, you realized. And for reasons you did not yet fully comprehend, you wished that he would follow you. There were men in purple cloaks with silver brooches. Generals, you assumed.

You wished for them to follow you, though you could not understand why. It was some base instinct that had done it. And it hurtled you stomach to think of it.

Then a Ser spied you. A mail fist pointed in your direction, then Housemen in armor were clambering up toward the wooden wall of branches.

You dashed back to your horse, leaving behind only a note for them, as instructed. You could not remember what the note said, only that Crom-cil-Orm had instructed you to leave it for them.

You remembered a second set of instructions then, and, fearing your memory, you pricked your finger on a thorn bush and scrawled a reminder onto your arm: RETURN TO THE CITY. You could not even remember that there were plans to go to any city. But you mounted your horse and booted it in the ribs as you sped off to your unknown destination.

You could hardly remember where the city you had conquered was. You trusted that your mount knew the way. What would it say about you to know you’re dumber than a horse? You could hear men breaking through the foliage behind you. First the King, and then his generals. Those horses had red eyes and tramped down into the soft earth, kicking up dust as you cleared the forest.

An entire army was following you, and your heart was beating like a wardrum. You prayed to the Nailed God and other gods without names that you weren’t even sure belonged to any man’s religion but your own–prayed that you had been in this sort of situation before.

If you were, mayhaps your memory of such situations would inform what you did on instinct.

Your mount vaulted into the air, and the smell of brine washed over you. King Borym and his generals were not far behind you, drumming across grass and root.

Shafts of things you didn’t want to think about fluttered past your ears. You could feel the wind on the missiles passing you.

A man reared his horse beside you. He, too, wore a circlet of gold. “Yield!” he shrieked, “In the name of Prince Gildas of the House of Thar!”

“Prince Thar,” you muttered. “I must write that down.” He lurched toward you, leaping out of his saddle. His legs slithered around your horse, who kicked and brayed as the two of you punched and slapped and bit until your horse bowed and both of you tumbled forward down its neck and slid off of its nose. The ground hit you hard, driving the breath from you. You went to seize the Prince’s hair, but your hand came loose holding his crown. His mouth was gaping wide, so you filled it with the golden circlet and his hands leapt up to wrench your hand free. His teeth were cracked and blood was weeping between his fingers.

You realized in a frenzy that King Borym’s riders had not trampled you, and understood that King Crom-cil-Orm’s men had attacked them from the side. There were missiles–spears and arrows–aimed at King Borym’s men, and Housemen on horseback were charging for the King and his generals. Their horses were rearing in a panic. You could hear something–someone, perhaps, thundering into view from beyond the horizon. His step was in canter with the horses as he came for the Housemen swarming you.

Horses reared up before him and he swatted some aside.

Albarran would later tell you how you left a note for King Borym that Crom-cil-Orm wished to meet under a truce, and that Crom-cil-Orm had woven a small spell into you that would draw the horses toward you in an attempt to lure King Borym’s men out. He had not expected King Borym himself.

A man who served Crom-cil-Orm had pulled the rival King off his horse, and had his dagger at the ready, when the giant boomed, “Hold!”

The thunder in his voice froze every man among you.

“I yield,” said King Borym. “I yield, my Lord.”

Crom-cil-Orm offered his rival a hand as wide as your chest. The wind whipped their cloaks. You thought it a wonderful sight. Some brilliant sight a painter might make use of centuries from now. “I offer a temporary truce. I will give you a fortnight to assemble your men. Meet beyond a bowshot from the city’s northern walls.”

The King nodded. “As you say, Lord Crom-cil-Orm.”

“Good fortune to you, Lord Thar.”

In that moment, you realized, there were no Kings on the field. Only men.

Next

A Song of Steel #9

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

Don’t panic. It’s not your blood smeared all down your chest–if you haven’t cleaned yourself up by the time you read this.

Allow me to explain: King Crom-cil-Orm sent a small contingent of forces to scout out a village full of folks with leaves in their hair. They were built lean like small trees and moved with elegance and grace like Nymphs and Satyrs. Yet you could not recall any legends the told of them wearing armor or swords.

You wondered what magic had allowed them to forge steel inlaid with pond-ripples. I suppose it doesn’t matter now.

You came with Ser Albarran and his riders–the black men on top of black horses, who legends say have never mingled well with these Satyrs you were to forge an allegiance with. Most fey folk had pledged themselves to House of Thar, one of the Five Great Houses. You were told to put them to the sword if you discovered it had come to that.

It was in this way that you, Albarran, Khalee and a small retinue of riders all came to the village of Nymphs and Satyrs. They had been expecting you, and told you they would hear King Crom-cil-Orm’s terms.

“He is not a man of compromise,” Albarran said. “He seeks your aid. Your men will go to the field, and your women will be his until the war’s end. You will allow us to camp here should the need arise.”

Even as Albarran put forth the agreement, your hand was on your longsword. Such terms coming from Housemen like us would not be well received. You wondered if the King Crom-cil-Orm hadn’t planned for things to go the way they did. As it turns out, the villagers had hidden bowmen throughout the village.

They did not even offer Albarran a response. They simply attacked.

After the first volley, you lost control of your horse, which started acting of its own accord. And when they struck its’ underbelly you were pried from your mount and sent and sailing through the air. Many of the riders befell the same fate.

At length both sides were little more than brown masses breaking on each others’ charges. The townsfolk that looked like Satyrs and Nymphs balanced death on a sword’s edge with skill enough to rival Khalee and her contingent of Housemen.

I’ve noticed a certain sorcery that I suspect is woven by the King Crom-cil-Orm’s commanders: in battle they seem to join your mind with the forces fighting. There are times, Carth, when you’ve lost all fear of harm. Where you feel less a boy and more a part of some greater whole. A band, an army, a desire or cause feels melded into each of you. In such moments you could as easily desert your friends as your head could liberate itself from its neck.

The Nymph-men had stuck two javelins into your shield before you were forced to abandon it. You fought with only your sword aside Khalee her Housemen. You took to the task all the same while Khalee lacerated with her blade and Albarran was charging behind you.

Yes, you took to the task, Carth. Just as a carpenter takes to his wood. You could only blink the sweat from your eyes for so long before it began pouring onto them, obscuring your vision and burning your eyes as if they were crackling-hot stones.

But this only stoked your anger. Your shoulder was throbbing where you were stabbed by the mist-monsters somewhen ago. The villagers were swarming about your friends and you could only kill them one at a time. You wished to push them back with a single swing of your long sword, but your impotency in this manifested in wild hacks and untrained swings so wild that Housemen with shields darted to cover you when you over-swung.

Perhaps this was due to your minds being one. Though I’ve been wondering: if that were the case, then do you think it meant you finally had thoughts to think? Or did you empty the heads of others?

There was a distinct lack of heroic poses like the ones you’d heard told in your friends’ stories. Everyone moved about with bumbling idiocy that I would normally ascribe to you.

And after the Nymphs and Satyrs lay dead, they walked through the aftermath slack-jawed, gasping at what little air they could breath. Beads of tears glistened on their faces as they longed for steady breaths and wrote clean lines down their faces through the soot and much and blood and sweat smothering their faces.

You became aware of the death-stink all around you. You realized you were choked in grime and dripping sweat like a blacksmith at the forge. At length, Khalee came over and tossed you his. You took it and gulped it down greedily. The water was warm, almost burning. But you didn’t care. You gasped as you handed him the waterskin. You saw folks giving each other dirt-ridden smiles.

You tripped over motionless men underfoot, twisted in fantastic proportions, limbs cracked at angles they shouldn’t have been. The ground was choked with leaves like soldiers after the slaughter that crunched like breaking bones underfoot.

How had these men, you wondered, reached such positions without hurling themselves from some great cliff?

A small procession of wounded men were going drearily toward the rear of the contingent. It was a flow of blood from the torn body of your small forces.

To the right and to the left were the dark lines of other troops. Far in front he thought he could see lighter masses protruding in points from the forest. They were suggestive of unnumbered thousands.

Albarran set the King Crom-cil-Orms banner down in the village square. You felt an odd thrill at the sight of the emblems. It was like a majestic wolf spotted in the midst of a storm.

But then the pangs of pain came. The numb of adrenalin wore off and you could feel warm blood dribbling down your chest. You felt you were going to suffocate. You did not even remember the slashing you took. You had already forgot the made-up version of events I gave you yesterday. Which is good, because you needed to have those sears sealed shut with burns.

Which is why now is a good time to tell you I’m lying. I’ve no idea what will happen in the battle. It hasn’t even started yet. You’ll have to tell me what happened. Do you see any burning villages in the distance?

I’m sure you’re wondering why I lied to you. That’s because Khalee and I came up with a plan. It’s doubtless you’ll receive wounds if it comes to blades. But, and I failed to mention this last time, whenever your wounds are burned shut, you seem to mistake the act as one meant to kill you, and even if the person trying to help were, say, Albarran, you might try to harm him.

So Khalee had me write this for you in advance. You may feel something burning at some point when you read this. If you do, it’s because you sustained injuries that needed to be burnt closed. It’s not an attack, and I’m just here to distract you. I’m glad I won’t have to go through such pain. I’ll have forgotten I wrote the words I scratch out now by the time you read this letter to yourself tomorrow (it would be today for you.)

I imagine your flesh will smell like the roasting strips of meat cooked over your campfires. Let me know if it smells tasty.

I hope the burns weren’t too painful. And I hope my distraction helped. Send Khalee and Albarran all my best. Cheers, Carth.

Next

A Song of Steel #8

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

You might be wondering why you’re feeling like your shoulder is burning. I can explain. I’ve told Albarran to remind you to read this when you awaken:

There was fog. Fucking fog. As if there wasn’t enough in the days before. And you had no idea when it rolled in. All you knew was that everyone’s nerves seemed balanced on a blade’s breadth. You awoke to Khalee shoving your shoulder—that’s not why you’re in pain. I’ll get to that.

“Wake up,” she hissed. “We’re surrounded. Too much fog to see a damn thing. Get your sword out. Our army is being followed.”

“Where are we?”

“We stopped to rest in a forest glade.”

Ser Albarran retrieved your sword and shield and shoved it into your hands. “We’ve no time to tarry,” he said. You noticed his hands were shaking.”

“We’ve been followed for three days,” Khalee told you. “Most like it’s the House of Em’s men.”

You could see figures through the fog. Or perhaps they were trees. I wouldn’t be surprised if you confused the two. It’s not beneath you.

“This can’t be my final stand,” Khalee muttered. “Where are my bare-breasted horse-women?”

You snorted out laughter. The air was sharp as blood, or pine.

The mist monsters was joined by fellow figures. You could see a single long claw extending from the middle of their hands.

One of them gave a shout, and they ran for you. Figures emerged from the grove, screaming and running.

You mimicked their shout, and heard bowshots whisper and javelins hurl. There were wet sounds like buckets thrown into wells.

You gave ground to one of the mist monsters, who swiped their long claw at you. You made a lacerating swipe back and the mist-monster collapsed. Your eyes stung with the sweat dripping down from your forehead and the clash of sword on sword. Your vision was colored with gray and red.

Albarran and his Housemen surged forward. One man on foot tripped, and the men on mounts could rein up before they tramped down on his skull. He didn’t even have time to scream.

You followed the throng of men, half carried as you turned along the flank. But you cut your way through the mist monsters, spilling hot blood with one hand and punching with the other, hand coming away bruised. You ran your fingers through sweaty moist hair and drew bloody smiles along throats you couldn’t see. You were slaying monsters, I assure you. Not men.

You could hear Khalee and could vaguely see her hacking at the mist monsters. She was chopping at them with her sword, churning through them with the composure of a tantruming child.

Even as you put your sword through a mist-man’s throat–or mayhaps it was his abdomen–you wondered how you knew what a child looked like throwing a tantrum. Did you have a child? Did you know any children? Were you ever a child yourself? Who’s to say you didn’t burst forth fully grown from your father’s head. It’s not as impossible as it seems. Khalee says it’s happened to the Nailed God’s cousin, once.

Albarran was charging with a contingent of riders. He let out one long wail. Whether it was a cry of war or tears you couldn’t quite tell. One of the horses kicked a man in the head as the mount churned up clumps of dirt. He’d gotten too close to its rear. Their stampede seemed to drag sticks and stones and men from the ground. You worried they might churn the ground into some fluid form you might sink into.

In the midst of that you felt a painful, sharp feeling as something slivered through the back of your shoulder and tore a hole through the front. There were sweaty fingers in your hair as you were jerked back, looking up at the sky as the mist-monster raised its long claw.

Before your attacker could make a clean strike, you seized it by either side of its head and dropped, bringing it down with you. The two of you rolled and punched and kicked and bit. If you have flecks of dirt or a taste like metal in your mouth, that would be from this struggle. You tore away part of his palm before he dropped his weapon and his flesh lingered in your mouth. You didn’t have time to spit it out until your hand turned on a slick stone. You struck the mist-man with it. Blood started leaking from its head as you kept striking like an angry child punishing a beetle. Then you spat its palm onto its face.

It had long since stopped moving, but you didn’t want to recognize it. Tears were coming down your face, and you were laughing.

Sometimes I wonder if you’re insane, Carth.

You fought off the last of the mist-men and the fog was lifted by the sunrise, when you rejoined with the Lord Crom-cil-Orm on his march.

He explained many of the details I’ve explained to you later in the day when he produced a needle with a piece of string tied to one end. To your amazement, through his repeated stabbing with his needle, he actually managed to close the wound you received in your shoulder. He later told you that he burned it while you were unconscious. You failed to see what purpose this served.

Apparently the men were mountain-raiders, belonging to no House. It was just the sheer bad luck that you were there, then.

So don’t start thinking you’re dying if you feel pain in your shoulder. You were just injured by monsters.

Nothing more than monsters. I promise.

Next

A Song of Steel #7

Previously

The Cure (1)

READ ME:

The House of Orm’s army camped that night, split into groups in accordance with their Houses for the most part, all of them huddled by separate cookfires, devouring their rations. You heard others talk of gods in speeches littered with curses. I’ve left you some notes about what they can do in your index. To keep it short, they cursed thunder lords! Masters and creators of storms and stones! For such powerful things, you wondered what good it does to curse them. And would they be saying the same things during a thunderstorm?

“Did you hear?” a man was gossiping behind you. “They say the King is dead. His half sister Clarissant sits the Seat of Thorns, alongside her brother Amr.”

“What of their brother Gormund?”

“On campaign with Ser Uthrik. At least we’ve one less contender to worry about.”

“He was still the King, even if he died.”

“He was mad! You know the stories. He howled and screamed at his sword in his chambers.”

“He tried to do what was best,” another man spoke up.”

“Do you truly want such a man to be King? This is why we oppose Crom-cil-Orm’s cousins.”

Was that why you were fighting, you wondered? You tried to ask Albarran, “Why do we fight the Kings?” But he thrust a scrap of meat in your face, red juice dribbling between his fingers. It dangled there, heat rising from it, fresh. “Eat,” he said. And you snatched up that strip of meat and wolfed it down. “Good,” Albarran said. “You must eat much, boy. Keep up your strength.”

You asked for more so he gave it to you. Strips of meat thick as bark with patches of crisp burn. It tasted like horse.

Then you slinked off to write this letter to yourself. A man with an apple sewn on his chest was about to put out his cook fire when you caught his arm. “I need to write,” you told him and he seemed to nod his assent. Maybe he knew you—not that you’ll know.

You huddled up and scratched out a note. Khalee had chided you for leaving your berries uneaten, but you’ve got to get ink from somewhere. A thin stick and some berries is enough to give yourself this message.

You hear men in the distance tell their legends of half-gods and heroes. I’ve written a few of them down for you in your index. My favorite is the one where a thunder lord has his warhammer stolen and must wear a dress to retrieve it.

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