Cuana Chapter 10 Entry 8

Leaving the swamp behind, we continued to travel north to the Ligurean Grove. The stitches from my recent field dressings were holding well, the incessant itching from the wounds was an assurance that I was healing quickly. The salve provided by the witch had worked quite well too, and combined with a full night of rest the effect had me feeling nearly as good as new. With the trails bare as they were, picking our way though the forest was both arduous and time consuming, but we were able to push our way slowly northward through the reeking tangle of thickets, trees, and vines. I kept to the rear of the procession in order to keep an eye out for any possible sneak-attacks from roving Picts or forest creatures. All remained quiet until my attention was drawn to a commotion up ahead. One of Gasparus’ retainers was being hauled back to his feet, but was unable to stand without support from his fellows. One look at him and it was plain that the lad had been taken by a fever. Whats more, the Aesir looked nearly as bad, swaying a bit as he stood on the trail, sweat nearly pouring off of him. Aresawe looked at each briefly and stated that they had contracted a fever from an insect bite, and that she could help to heal them both if she could get to a place where she could properly perform whatever administrations she had in mind. A short way ahead was a fork in the trail which if the left path was taken, would lead to a deserted Pictish village where we could lay our two sick comrades out for her to try to heal them of their fevers.

Just as our guide had said, after making our way a short distance up the path the forest cleared back from the trail and in the large clearing stood a village that bore a striking resemblance to the Wildcat village where we rescued Coelia and fled the giant ghost snake. The place looked completely deserted, but no ruins were evident, implying that the people had simply left and had not been overwhelmed in a raid by another tribe. You only need to see the result of one successful Pictish raid to know that there would be bloodstains visible on everything that hadn’t been burned to the ground had these villagers been driven out by a rival tribe. Plus, there were no blackened, crumbling bodies lying about to indicate plagues brought on by an unholy miasma such as we had seen devastate the countryside in weeks past. My guess was that this entire village had joined with other tribes in a unified effort to lay waste to the entire Westermarck in an effort to drive the Aquilonians out once and for all.

The daylight was fading to evening as we were settling into the deserted village, setting up a camp outside one of the larger huts. The Hyrkanian agreed to accompany me into the forest to hunt or snare a deer, which the witch said would be needed as a sacrifice in order for her healing magic to work. We built one somewhat sorry-looking trap and wound up chasing a deer right past the thing, so we built a better snare, tried driving a second deer toward that one but still came up empty handed. Eventually Xacksmith chased down a deer on his own, which I helped to haul back to the camp where everyone was awaiting our return by the hut. Tullweim and Gasparus’ retainer had already been prepared and lie waiting inside. An assortment of herbs and berries had been collected and given to our guide to use in the healing ceremony, and when she emerged from the hut she wore nothing but tribal patterns painted across her body, carefully crafted with the juice from the berries. Swaying forward in an alluring, serpentine manner, she beckoned the rest of us to enter the hut and join her in the ceremony. Both Dhak and Xacksmith readily accepted the offer, and were told to strip off their garments and follow her into the hut. I had no desire to watch or otherwise be involved in any kind of sorcerous activity, especially sex magic conducted by a subhuman enchantress. Declining the offer, I settled with my back to the wall of the hut in an effort to relax and ease some of the soreness of travel from my muscles. Almost immediately the sound of chanting sounded from inside the hut, first by the witch, then joined by the others. The chant had a definite hypnotic quality about it that was difficult to ignore. Perhaps he felt it as well and was trying to remain unaffected by focusing his mind elsewhere, because Gasparus suddenly felt like talking to me. He spoke of how his family had been wronged, how their land had been stolen, and how he planned to regain the estate that was rightfully his. He even went so far as to offer me employment, but why he should think I would be interested in serving him is a testament to either his stupidity or his arrogance, possibly both. I have seldom met a noble that was deserving of my respect, and Gasparus was as far down on that list as any I could think of, treating his servants and retainers as if they were dogs and even rivaling that fool Baron Timeon in his inflated, perceived self-importance. He went so far as to say that nowadays even a Cimmerian could do well for himself in Aquilonia, that one even sits upon the throne in Tarantia. His words seemed to have a slightly bitter edge as he spoke the last – I have learned first hand that Cimmerians are still regarded with extreme suspicion in Aquilonia, and I am certain that there are plenty in Tarantia who would gladly see their Cimmerian king overthrown in favor of a pureblood Aquilonian. I replied simply that I already have plans of my own, essentially telling him thanks, but no thanks. He shrugged as if to say ‘suit yourself’ and lapsed into silence as the chanting from the hut continued.

The ceremony continued for some time, the chanting raising and lowering in pitch as one voice would trail off into rhythmic moaning while another would cease its moaning and return to chanting, all the while the lone female voice struggling to keep chanting between animal grunts and panting breath. I couldn’t even imagine rutting with a Pict when there was a real woman sharing the camp with us, and I found myself glancing over toward Lady Coelia several times during the ceremony, but she was alternately resting or otherwise preoccupied, so I did my best to clear the carnal thoughts from my head and relax. I could wait until this mission was done anyway, and if nothing else there was an attractive little lass awaiting my return to the refugee camp. If I did make it back and found Hema was still there, she would be in for a busy night indeed.

Eventually all was quiet within the hut and the participants emerged and donned their clothing. Tullweim and the knight’s retainer looked weary but well, and everyone prepared to settle in to sleep. I volunteered to take the first watch and chuckled to myself as Arisawe once again donned her beaver skin loincloth, since her scant garment was made out of a material that shared the same name with that which it covered. Everyone quickly fell asleep and I spent a quiet two hours of uneventful sentry duty before I laid down to take my turn at rest.

We continued north after breaking camp, eventually reaching a point where the forest began to give way to wooded hills, small at first but growing larger and steeper as we followed our course. To continue much further would take us straight to the border of my homeland, a potentially hostile place to all in our group, and possibly – depending on which clan we encountered – to me as well. Provided we were going in the right direction, we would be coming upon the Ligurean grove some time soon.

As I had expected, we had not far to go. We were stopped on the trail by several men dressed in white robes, one in the middle of the path and several among the trees to either side of the path. The one in the trail spoke to us in Pictish, and being the only one of our group besides our guide that could speak the tongue at all, I parleyed with him, explaining the reason for our presence and requesting their aid, if in no other form, then just to be allowed to continue to the grove. They assented, allowing us to continue but with a warning to keep to our business and following along to keep an eye on us. The land ahead took on a much stronger aspect of the lands where I spent my youth – the forest became less of a tangle, the humidity began to lessen, and the trees became more of the variety that towered over the landscape and were excellent sources of timber. Here and there, great stone monoliths arose from the forest, some standing alone and others arranged in circular patterns that suggested temples or other such things. Arriving at the grove, we were faced with having to move a massive stone slab in order to access a downward passage. It took quite a while and a lot of effort, but we managed to get the slab pushed back far enough to get a good look at a narrow pit approximately fifteen feet deep. I climbed down to the bottom where there was a small opening at the base of the wall, barely large enough for me to squeeze into. A dank, earthy smell wafted out of the hole, such as you smell when tearing a particularly large stump out of the earth, or digging a grave in moist, fertile soil. We attempted to contrive a torch from a piece of tree branch, but the wetness of the pit and the breeze it exuded prevented us from getting the damned thing lit. I tried, but was unable to squeeze my shoulders past the opening. To my mounting irritation, I realized that I was going to have to shed my hauberk in order to squeeze into this thing. Damn! I hate going without my armor – I even sleep in it most of the time. I quickly climbed back up, removed the hauberk, climbed back down again, and crawled on hands and knees into the dank, sodden opening.

The passage was extremely tight, so much so that I began to wonder if I was going to fit through the damned thing after all – you can only get so close to the ground when crawling on hand and knee before you’re simply pushed flat onto your belly and unable to move, and I found myself dangerously close to that a few times along the way. Making my way through the pitch black by groping ahead of me with my hands, I was able to make steady progress through the tunnel. Muffled curses behind me told me that my fellows were either starting to make their way through the cramped, earthen tunnel or stating their dismay at the prospect of entering the thing. I paid little heed to the voices, focusing instead on getting to a place where I might be able to stand and walk upright. The passage was crawling with insects – I could feel them skitter across the back of my hands, hear the crunch of chitinous shell as they were crushed under my weight as I crawled further along through the darkness. Something, likely one of the large spiders I had seen scuttle away upon my initial inspection of the opening, stung me between my shoulder blades as my back scraped the ceiling of the passage. Thankfully, if the creature’s bite had been venomous, none of the poison seemed to have entered into the wound for there was none of the burning sensation that normally accompanies a poisonous sting. I soon began to feel a faint breeze on my face and the smell of wet soil became apparent, but much stronger than it had been previously. A few more feet of crawling, and my back no longer scraped along the ceiling, so I rolled my weight back onto my haunches, kneeling upright and knuckling the cramps out of the muscles of my lower back. Slowly, I made to stand upright, but was unable to fully do so, forced to bend forward at the waist and crouching uncomfortably. The muttered curses and clatter from the passage behind me grew louder, and within moments my companions were entering the chamber as well. Still black as pitch, I groped about blindly in search of a wall so that I could try to get a feel for the size of the chamber and allow room for the others to stand. As my hand came to rest on a wall just a few feet away from the entrance to this area, an angry hissing sound arose from a few feet away, and as we looked toward the sound we saw eyes in the dark – lambent, red, and evil, staring in our direction. A chorus of hellish voices, like the hiss of pit of angry serpents, raised in challenge at our presence in this place. Stooped forward awkwardly as I was, I had to take care in drawing my blade, and as it slid from its scabbard I saw the eyes moving forward to attack.

It is utterly impossible to describe the melee that ensued other than to say that I swung my blade a lot, missing almost every time due to their size, speed, and the complete and total darkness in which we fought. I cannot even say with certainly if the creatures used blades, sharpened bits of stone, or something else, but I was struck at least a dozen times. When I did strike one it would emit a gurgling hiss and then scramble out of reach. Sounds of struggle came from every direction, as the others were plainly engaged in combat the same as I. Blood was running down my sides and legs from the many gashes I had taken, and the mounting frustration from the cramped quarters and utter blackness threatened to set me into an uncontrollable frenzy. Finally we began to see that we had gained some footing, because the creatures, now much fewer in number, began to pull back in retreat to the far side of the chamber. Another moment and they appeared to be gone – I could see none of those infernal red eyes up ahead. We took a moment to regroup, the Stygian doing his best to stitch a few of my wounds, despite the complete darkness in which he was forced to work. Desiring nothing more than to get that staff recharged and be the hell away from this sodden pit, we continued forward into the dark, following the direction in which we the creatures had retreated.

We had not far to go, for after feeling our way along for just a few feet, we felt the walls open up again and saw more – many more – of those glowing red eyes. I was about to lunge forward with my sword when I was halted by a ghastly voice that slithered through my head. So, my staff has come home after all these long aeons, it said in an unearthly, gurgling rasp that made the swamp devil sound like a poet by comparison. I had to force down the urge to turn and flee for my life, possibly my soul. It was more than the Aesir could bear, his falsetto shriek fading into the distance as he put as much distance between him and the voice as possible. And who could blame him? It felt as if the voice poured itself into my mind, flowing through my being like a cancerous tentacle that sought to putrify my soul with its dark caress. The owner of the voice continued, naming himself as a demon known as the Lord of the Worms and offering to charge the staff for us. In exchange for his doing so he said that we must bring him either a virgin maiden or a mighty warrior to be sacrificed, offer him the gift of fate, effectively giving up any good fortune that may be in store for us in the near future, or to enter into a pact with him. The last thing I planned to do was make a deal with a demon, so I announced to the others that I was going after Tullweim. The Hyrkanian said that he would come with me, so we both began to feel our way back in the direction from which we had come. Keeping our voices low, we were discussing the possibility of trying to attack the demon and force him to charge the staff when the Aesir reappeared. He said that he had gone back to the pit we had descended in order to climb up, tell the others what we had found, and try to get some help. When he got there he found the rope had been withdrawn and had called out to have it lowered. At that point, Gasparus had appeared, asking if Tullweim had the staff. The Nordheimer spoke in incredulous tones, saying that he knight demanded the staff before he would lower the rope. I was furious at learning of that idiot’s treachery and told the others that I would go climb up and lower the rope to them myself. My anger mounting by the second, I crawled back through that damnable tunnel and emerging into the pit, I began to climb. Gasparus appeared at the edge of the pit demanding to know about the staff, but I simply ignored him, paying attention to securing hand-holds among the roots and soil that lined the pit. As I reached the top of the pit, I reached out with my left arm to get a hold of the turf and haul myself up, and that traitorous bastard brought his blade straight down onto my forearm.

Pain lanced straight up my arm, into my shoulder, and right down my spine. I was dimly aware of my surprise at not falling back down into the pit, but I was now moving too fast to think about anything except burying my sword in that swine’s throat and liberating his head from his shoulders. A quick look around showed the Ligurean Druids all lying on the ground, blood seeping from open gashes, and Lady Coelia lying in a crumbled heap off to the other side. The retainers and the she-savage were still on their feet, each watching wide-eyed as I threw myself at Gasparus, fully intent on spilling his guts out across the sward. He took a step back from me as I bore down on him, and I had the satisfaction of hearing his shreik of pain as my sword tore into his shoulder. He attempted to counter, but his blade did little but score a shallow scratch on my hide. Again, I hammered into him with my greatsword, gouts of blood spewing forth from a massive tear down his side. He was able to strike me once again, but it was nothing that had much effect on me, and I could see pure terror in his eyes as I moved in to try to finish him off. From off to my right I heard the witch begin to speak, and before it even occured to me what she might be doing, I was immobilized, struck by pain such as I have never experienced before. My blade dropped from my hand as my back arched wildly, pitching me backwards onto he sward, where the spasms of pain pulled me into a fetal ball of pure, agonizing pain. A sound like a tremendous rush of wind roared in my ears, through which I heard the booted footsteps of the knight coming toward me, but I was powerless to move. Helpless, wracked with spasms of pain, I felt a sensation like a bolt of white hot fire penetrate straight through my shoulder blades, and I knew Gasparus had buried his sword straight into my back. Rage and fury gave way to frustration, then to resignation, and I relaxed. The roaring wind grew distant, fading to nothing as all my pain slowly ebbed away and a warm, comforting darkness settled over me.

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