10 min read

Who Walks in Flame – 2

Who Walks in Flame – 2

About this series

An air-pistol-wielding priestess battles a sorcerous witch-king and a giant, flaming monster in this this sword & sorcery short story of truly epic proportions.

Millennia have passed since the witch-king Khuar-na last threatened the world of men. Now returned, he and his fiery behemoth have scorched the fertile fields of the West to desert waste. Only the Kings of the East can stand against him, and only if Bregissa the Skald can successfully lead them with her secret, stolen power

As she sits on the steps of the Grand Library, waiting for the Kings of the East to gather, Bregissa burnishes the long, bronze barrel of her wind pistol, a magic device fashioned three centuries ago by Arkos the Maker. The perfect weapon for a skald forbidden the use of gunpowder by religious edicts. Except that the pistol is nearly useless. When constructed, it could fire ten shots each day, recharging them as the sun rose. Now it holds only one.

“How much longer must we wait?” asks Kerenthos, waking from his nap. He is ten years her senior, maimed and scarred by war. But to the Skald of the Land, he is kind and grimly handsome. She depends on him, and she honors Kerenthos by allowing him to witness rituals few have ever seen.

“Until the kings all say so,” she replies. Then smiling she adds, “Or noon.”

Laughing, Kerenthos glances up at a sky of blue like Bregissa’s eyes, a sun as golden as her hair. “Better get my leg on then.” He connects a wooden prosthetic to his right knee. “If that’s okay with you, oh woman who commands the Kings of the East!”

A playful shove throws him off balance. “Watch that tongue of yours! I’ll not be mocked in so august a gathering.”

“Oh yes,” he whispers. “Such great and honorable warriors are gathered here. Many can no longer fit their fat bellies within their armor.”

“Aye, they’re a sorry lot, these kings of men. And I’d have no influence over them if they hadn’t respected my father so much. And hadn’t forgiven him for not fathering a son.”

And if they knew the truth about me, they’d have me drawn and quartered, my name struck from the records. But the Goddess, bless her holy name, she gives me knowledge of her rituals and apparently cares not about how I became Skald of the Land.

“Don’t sell yourself short, my love,” Kerenthos says. “You did convince them to gather here, and you’ve proven your worth to the Kingdoms of the East many times over.”

“I’ll give them the tale and do what I can to encourage them. Then you and I can guard the Sacred Isle. Together there we can be happy for a little while longer. And if the army fails, my skills will be needed to rally our people.”

Kerenthos’s response is interrupted by a page who reports that all the kings are now assembled.

Bregissa climbs onto a stage and sounds three sharp notes on the Horn of Valyn. Silence falls over a host eager to hear about their enemy. Hints and rumors are all they’ve had, pieces of a history humanity had wished to forget.

“Ages ago,” she says, summoning all the natural power she can into her voice, “the witch-king Khuar-na led a warped race of beings like unto men through a magical gate, fleeing their dying world and invading ours. Men named them the Skithikri and learned to fear their twisted sorceries and the fell, reptilian beasts they commanded.

“Our climate displeased the Skithikri, so through sorcery the witch-king bound streams and rivers, rain and winds, to create parched scrublands and deserts. Farms failed and many thousands died. Those who remained, the Skithikri enslaved.

“Yet our ancestors continued. As the centuries passed, their numbers increased, and so too did their will to be free. At last, humanity rose up against its oppressors. The great hero Palamaron struck down the witch-king. Rain returned to the parched scrublands. Streams flowed again. Sprigs of green shot forth, and young ones played under fast-growing trees that soon became forests. Our nations grew and prospered.

“But he was not dead this king of the Skithikri. He retreated deep into the earth. As the centuries passed, his injuries healed. Many prophets said this would be the case, but so much time passed that people doubted and then ultimately forgot.

“Until the witch-king returned three months ago and brought forth the last of his dread race that had remained hidden in the West: Ten thousand of them, strong, eager, deadly.”

“What is this Khuar-na like?” shouts one of the kings.

“We know little, your majesty, save that he rides a giant, draconic beast the size of a fortress, a monster from ancient times, a companion earned in sorcery but bonded by like spirit. The beast is named the Scorch-Walker. Its hide is supposedly impenetrable, and like Khuar-na, its lifespan limitless.

“Powerful sorceries guard the witch-king from harm, but he has a vulnerability: the touch of a white-steel blade. The metal of the Bright Moon can cut through the enchantments that guard him.

“Only three among us have white-steel weapons, though, so let us pray that our muskets and cannons can accomplish what the more primitive weapons of our ancestors could not.

“Kings of the East, our goal is clear. We must unite to prevent the witch-king from destroying us. Though the nations of the West have already fallen, we are stronger. Together, we can prevail.

“I have no more to tell you. The rest is up to you. May the Goddess bless us.”

Heads nod. Murmurs spread. Voices strengthen, and arguments begin. Who will lead the army? Whose forces will form the vanguard? How will the cost of the war be divided amongst them? How will they guard against treachery in the empty castles they leave behind?

Kerenthos places a hand on Bregissa’s shoulder.

“It doesn’t take long for men to weaken,” she says, “even when the threat is so clear.”

“And yet, when it comes to the fight itself they will bond as brothers, giving their lives for one another. I’d not be here today without the sacrifice of a man who hated me.” He taps on his wooden leg and chuckles. “Though I still think he could’ve gotten there sooner.”

Kerenthos is right. They will stand proud together, if they can make it to the battlefield intact. Of that, I’m certain.

The nobles cluster into factions with pages running between the lordly knots to announce terms and demands. After some time, a page of King Hugix approaches and kneels before Bregissa.

“My lady,” he says. “It has been decided that a champion elected by each faction shall fight on the tourney field. The ultimate winner will determine who commands the army, and the rest of the officer ranks shall also be based upon the results.”

“Gods,” curses Kerenthos. “What a waste.”

“How many factions remain?” Bregissa asks.

“Thirty, my lady.”

“Thirty!” Bregissa fumes. “We cannot waste the strength of so many of our best fighters before we face the greatest threat of our age!”

“You’re going to have to do something, my love. A tourney cannot unite them. It will only make things worse.”

What would Orthinn do? I have not his strength or standing among these men. They listen to me, but they do not respect me. Deep down, I think they sense that I’m not like him. That I’m a fraud.

Suddenly, tempers flare and a fight breaks out between two champions of opposing lords. Bregissa shoves her way through to the circle where the two men face off.

“Enough!” she says, but they ignore her.

She leaps in between the two men. One stops, in deference to the Skald of the Land. The other does not. He lunges past Bregissa, trying to catch his longtime rival off-guard.

Kerenthos jumps in and parries the blow with a hastily drawn cutlass. Enraged, the man turns on him. Bregissa spins around, levels the wind pistol, and pulls the trigger. With a skirl and whoosh, a jet of concentrated air strikes the man without honor. The air lifts him from his feet and lands him on his back, ten paces away.

Stunned, he rolls up onto his knees. Bregissa unsheathes her sword and points it at him.

“Stand, and I’ll kill you.”

I will do it. Millions of lives are at stake at here.

The man sits down and looks away.

Bregissa begins to stalk around in a circle, meeting as many eyes as she can. The voice of the skald, laced with life and death, earth and stream, wells within her. She glances to Kerenthos. Face set into a frown, he nods in understanding.

I’m so sorry, my love. I should have known this would happen.

“I will lead this army!” she bellows, “loathe as am I to do so!”

Confused mutterings, curses, and newfound hope spread amongst the gathered host.

“But you are the Skald of the Land!” cries one king.

“And a High Priestess,” a second adds.

A third one shouts, “What does a wordsmith know of battle!”

And before she can respond, another yells: “And a woman!” Many second this sentiment.

“Aye,” she replies. “I am a woman, the High Priestess of the Moon, and the Skald. And these qualities make me different from all of you. I seek neither crown nor coin. I have no interest here but victory over our enemy.

“If the tale before us is not one for all the ages, then there is no strength in our hearts. Only in cowardice could we fail to make a story to rival all those that came before, in either victory or defeat. So who else could guide you into legend but the Skald of the Land?”

Heads bob, followed by whispers of agreement. No one doubts the days ahead will become legend—just as no one doubts the Skald of the Land who sometimes graces their halls with songs of beauty and peace, inspiration and strength.

“But what of military leadership?” asks one lord.

“We will vote on a plan of attack and elect generals to serve under my command. I will see that every idea is heard and considered fairly. I will be your figurehead and your bond.”

At that moment, old King Hugix bends his knee and swears that he will follow her. Seeing him concede, the others all agree, even those still apprehensive. Bless your fondness for my voice, Hugix. You have loved me better than my own father.

Bregissa touches Kerenthos’s cheek. My death looms before me. My doom has come. But at least Kerenthos will live on, guarding the Sacred Isle that bears the seed the Goddess had me leave, for whatever her purpose must be.

“You will remain here, Kerenthos, Champion of the Isle. I command it. In name and with love.”

Please go along with it. I don’t have the heart or the authority to make you. I can’t bear to have you come along and face a certain death, but I’m afraid to go without you.

Scowling, he replies: “If that is what you wish.”

* * *

Later that night, under the Dark Moon, Kerenthos alone journeys to the heart of the Sacred Isle and approaches the charred Oak of Antenin. Neither spell nor divine wrath strikes him down. He is here, reluctantly, because of a prophecy given to him by the Goddess:

“When you see that the Sacred Oak of Antenin, struck ill by my wrath, is barren no longer,” the Sun said to him in a vision, “that it carries a human seed, a choice you must make.

“The One Who Rides Through Flame will grant you eternal life and kingship if you stay behind and guard the Sacred Isle. Humanity shall continue, albeit diminished and enslaved for a thousand years. But if you choose to go out and fight against this enemy, humanity will either live on or die free, and even the gods do not know the outcome. Choose carefully, for you are choosing for everyone.

“If you choose to go, you must fertilize the seed placed in the Oak of Antenin. It will be the last hope of humanity should the enemy prevail. If you choose to stay, offer the seed to the One Who Rides Through Flame.”

I’d rather live free or perish, he thinks. But what of other men? What choice would they make? He has wrestled with this decision for three months, ever since word first came to them of the Scorch Walker. May the gods forgive me, I must decide for my own selfish reason: To protect Bregissa. I would follow her into Torment if necessary, even if I had to take everyone else along with me.

His decision made, Kerenthos does what he must.

* * *

Bregissa delves deep into the caves beneath The Tower of the Skald. She ventures down here only when the need arises. Her need now is the greatest it will ever be. She must visit the spirit of Orthinn, her father. Her adopted father. A man with a tongue so silver that death refused to take him for 150 years. A man adored by everyone but Bregissa.

There is no one she hates more. Because unlike everyone else, she knows him for who he is. A man who would sacrifice his own wife and child for power and then steal another’s child and proclaim it his own.

From Orthinn, Bregissa learned the arts of the Skald, though she has only a fraction of his power. He knew she wouldn't have much talent. That's why he didn’t fear teaching her. Once grown, she was going to be his pawn to use against men, for he knew she would be beautiful like her mother.

Bregissa killed him on her 18th birthday, after one final day of his brutal instruction in the Art. She had spent years researching a spell that would give her revenge, and her dream: To be a true Skald of the Land. Not for her own gain, as Orthinn had done, but to help people make their lives better.

She opens a locked door and boldly steps into the last cave, a small dome-shaped chamber. Runes cover the floor, radiating out from a pedestal in the chamber's center. Over that pedestal hovers the ghostly spirit of Orthinn. Faded and missing his feet already from previous drawings of power. Dark spots on his chest yet show where she stabbed him repeatedly. Even as a ghost they hurt him. This was her intention.

His sunken eyes flash. “Come to take more of my spirit?”

“All of it.”

He says nothing. She stares back. Finally, he responds, “It won't last. The power will wane in a year or two. They will know you're a fraud, no more talented than dozens of other skalds roaming the land. They will figure out who you are and what really became of me.”

“I have no choice. The Witch-King Khuar-na has returned. The West has already fallen.”

“Truth?”

“Have I ever lied to you?”

“Not even when you said that you would kill me. I just didn’t believe you had it in you.”

“You made me what I am.”

"Can the East stop Khuar-na?”

“We are united, but I have my doubts if it will be enough.”

“I am impressed. Honestly. You took little of my spirit last time. Your skill has improved.”

“I have more confidence. And the Goddess gifted me some power along with a prophecy.”

“That's not a good sign, you know that?”

“I know.”

Bregissa draws forth a metal amulet, savoring the moment as fear flickers along his ghostly face. "True death comes for you at last. Father."

She plunges hand and amulet into his spirit. Orthinn screams.

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