I have a plan, bird.” Barrick Eddon unwound another strand of prickly creeper from his arm, hook by barbed, painful hook. “A very clever plan. You find me a path that doesn’t take me through every single thorn bush in Fairyland…and I won’t flatten your nasty little skull with a rock.”
Skurn hopped down to a lower branch, but prudently remained out of Barrick’s reach. He fluffed his blotched feathers. “It all do look different from up in sky, don’t it?” The raven’s tone was sullen. Neither of them had eaten since the middle of the day before. “Us can’t always tell.”
“Well, fly lower.” Barrick stood up and rubbed at the line of small, bleeding holes, then pulled his ragged shirtsleeve back down.
“‘Fly lower,’ says he,” Skurn grumbled. “Like he were the master and Skurn the servant, ‘stead of equable partners as us’n be by agreement.” He flapped his wings. “By agreement!”
Barrick groaned. “Then why does my…partner keep leading me through all the pointiest bits of territory? It’s taken us a day to go a few hundred paces. At this pace, by the time we bring the…” It suddenly occurred to Barrick that perhaps a dark forest, filled with who knew how many or what kind of listening ears, might not the best place to talk about Lady Porcupine’s mirror, the object he was sworn to carry all the way to the throne of the Qar. “At this pace, by the time we find them even the immortals will have died.”
Skurn seemed to soften a bit. “Can’t see the ground from high because trees be too thick, ‘special them Hartstangle trees. But us daren’t fly no lower. Don’t you see? Silks be strung in the high branches and some even wave above the treetops, just to catch fine fellows like us.”
“Silks?” Barrick began to trudge forward again, using the ancient, corroded spearhead he had found beside the road out of Greatdeeps to clear his way when the undergrowth became too dense. This was not the thickest forest he’d seen since he’d been behind the Shadowline but it was full of stubborn, grasping creepers that made each step hard as wading through mud. Combined with the unchanging twilight of these lands it was enough to make even the boldest heart despair.
“Aye. This be Silky Wood, hereabouts,” the raven croaked. “Where them silkins live.”
“Silkins? What are those?” They didn’t sound particularly threatening, which would be a nice change after dealing with Jack Chain and his monstrous servants. “Are they fairies?”
“If you mean be they High Folk, nay.” Skurn fluttered ahead to another branch and waited for Barrick to make his monotonous, slow way after. “They speak not, nor do they go to market.”
“Go to market?”
“Not like proper fairy-folk, no.” The bird lifted its head. “Hist,” he said sharply. “That sounds like somewhat small and stupid a-dyin’. Suppertime!” The raven sprang from the branch and flapped away through the trees, leaving Barrick alone and bewildered.
He cleared himself a place where the thorny branches seemed thinnest and sat down. His bad arm had been throbbing for hours so he was not entirely unhappy with the chance to rest, but for all the annoyance the bird caused him, Skurn was at least something to talk to in this place of endless shadows and gray skies and forbidding trees hung with black moss. With the bird gone, the silence seemed to close in like a fog.
He put his arms around his knees and squeezed hard to keep from shivering.
Barrick supposed that more than half a tennight had passed since Gyir and Vansen had fallen and he had escaped the demigod Jikuyin’s twisted underground kingdom. It was always hard to guess at time’s passage in the endless Shadowline twilight, but he knew he had slept more than half a dozen times – those long, heavy, but somehow enervating sleeps that were almost all he ever had here. Kerneia had come and gone in the outside world while they had been held underground – Barrick knew that because it had been the monstrous Jikuyin’s intention to celebrate the earth lord’s day by sacrificing Barrick and the others. Since he knew that he and the others had left Southmarch in Ondekamene to fight the fairy armies, that meant he had not seen his home in over a quarter of a year. What could have happened in so much time? Had the fairies reached it? Was his sister Briony under siege?
For perhaps the first time since that terrible day at Kolkan’s Field, Barrick Eddon could plainly see the inexplicable divide in his own thoughts: he still felt an inexplicable, almost slavish loyalty to the majestic and terrifying warrior woman who had plucked him from the field and sent him across the Shadowline (although he still could not remember why, or what she had charged him with) but at the same time he knew now that the dark lady was Yasammez the Porcupine, war-scourge of the Qar, single-minded in her hatred of all Sunlanders…Barrick’s own people. If the Qar were now laying siege to Southmarch, if his sister and the rest of the inhabitants were in danger, or even murdered, it was by that lady’s pale and deadly hand.
And now he had inherited a second mission for Yasammez and the Qar. He could not recall the first, which she had given him the day she spared him on the battlefield: it felt as though Yasammez had poured it into him like oil into a jug, then pushed the stopper in so tight that he himself could not take it out. The other mission he had accepted solely on the word of her chief servant Gyir, who had sworn it was for the good of humans as well as fairies, shortly before the faceless fairy had sacrificed his life for Barrick’s. So now that he was finally free, instead of doing what any sensible creature would do (which would be to make his way as swiftly as possible to the borders of the Shadowlands and back into the light of the sun) Barrick was instead plunging deeper and deeper into this land of mists and madness.
Mists, he could not help noticing, which appeared to be returning. The world had grown colder since the bird had flown away and curls of the stuff were now rising from the ground. Barrick seemed to be sitting in a field of swaying, ghostly grass; in a few moments the mist would be as high as his head. Barrick didn’t like that thought, so he scrambled onto his feet.
The fog was thickening along the ground, swirling around the trunks of the gray trees like water – even climbing the trunks themselves. Soon the mist would be everywhere, below and above. Where was that cursed bird? How could he simply fly off and leave a companion this way – what kind of loyalty was that? When was he coming back?
Is he even going to come back?
The thought was a cold fist clutching his heart in mid-beat. The old bird had not made a pledge to Gyir as Barrick had. Skurn cared little for the desires of either the Sunlanders or the Qar – little for anything, in fact, except cramming his belly with the disgusting things he liked to eat. Perhaps he had suddenly decided it was wasting its time here.
“Skurn!” His voice seemed weak, fluttering out like an arrow from a broken string and disappearing into the eternal, murky evening. “Curse you, you foul bird, where are you?” He heard the anger in his voice and thought better of it. “Come back, Skurn, please! I’ll…I’ll let you sleep under my shirt.” He had forbidden this before when the weather had turned cold: the thought of having that stinking old carrion-bird and whatever lived in its feathers against his chest had been enough to make his skin crawl and he had told the raven so – told him very sternly.
Now, though, Barrick was beginning to regret his bad temper.
Alone. It was a thought he had not dwelt on, for fear of it overwhelming him. He had spent his entire childhood as half of “the twins,” an entity his father and older brother and the servants had spoken of as though they were not two children but one tremendously difficult, two-headed child. And the twins had also been surrounded at nearly all times by servants and courtiers, so much so that they had been desperate to escape and find time alone; much of Barrick Eddon’s childhood had been spent trying to find hiding places where he and Briony could escape and be alone. Just now, though, a crowded castle seemed like a beautiful dream.
“Skurn?” It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps shouting his solitude was not the best idea. They had met almost no other creatures in the past days of travel, but that had been largely because Jikuyin and his hungry army of servants had emptied the area of anything bigger than a field mouse for miles in all directions. But he was far from the demigod’s diggings now…
Barrick shivered again. He knew he should stay in one place, but the mist was rising and he kept thinking he saw signs of movement in the swirling distance, as though some of the pearly white strands moved not by the pressure of the wind but through some choice of their own.
The breeze quickened, chilled. A mournful whisper seemed to pass through the leaves above his head. Barrick clutched the spearhead by its broken haft and began to walk.
The mist limited his vision, but he was able to walk without too much stumbling, although from time to time he had to test with his spear to make sure a dark place in the undergrowth at his feet was not a hole into which he might step and wrench his ankle. But the path before him seemed surprisingly clear, easier to travel by far than the choked and tangling way of the past hours. It only occurred to him after he had traveled a few hundred paces that he was no longer choosing a path, he was following one: because the way was clear, he walked where he was led.
And what if someone…or something…wants me to do just that…?
The question and its implication had only just sunk in when something darted past the edge of his sight. He whirled, but now the space between the trees was empty except for a tendril of mist swirling in the breeze of his own movement; as he turned back something the color of fog flitted across the path in the distance before him, but was gone too quickly for him to make out its shape.
He stopped. Hands trembling, he raised the pitted head of his spear. Things were definitely moving in the mist between the farthest trees, shapes tall as men but pale and maddeningly hard to see. The whisper passed over him again, sounding now less like the wordless voice of the wind and more like the hissing of some incomprehensible, breathy language.
A rustle behind him, the dimmest, softest pad of footfall on leaf – Barrick spun, and for a moment saw a thing that made no sense: the figure was nearly as tall as a man but crooked as a mandrake root, wrapped from head to foot like a royal corpse in threads and tatters white as the mist – perhaps it even was the mist, he thought in superstitious horror, taking on some vaguely human shape. In places the mist-wrappings did not quite cover, and what was beneath them bulged and oozed a shiny gray-black. Although it had no visible eyes the apparition seemed to see Barrick well enough; an instant after he saw it the pale thing vanished back into the mist beside the path. More whispers floated past and echoed above his head. Barrick wheeled toward the front again, fearing to be surrounded, but for the moment the creatures of tangled thread had dropped back into the shrouding fog.
Silkins. That was what the bird had called them, and he had named this poisonous place Silky Wood.
Something thin and clinging as a cobweb brushed his face. He clawed at it but it somehow snarled his arm. Instead of reaching up his other hand to be caught and bound the same way, Barrick ripped at the prisoning strands with the blade of his spear, sawing at them until they parted with a sharp yet silent snap. Another strand floated toward him as though drifting on the wind, but then curled around him with terrifying accuracy. He ripped at it with his spear, felt it snag and grow tense, and looked up to see one of the white-wrapped creatures crouching in the branches above him, dangling silk threads like a puppeteer. With a startled cry of disgust and fear he jabbed at the thing with his spearhead and felt the tip sink into something more solid than mist or even silk thread, but nonetheless not quite like any normal animal or man: it felt as though he had stabbed a bundle of sticks wrapped in wet pudding.
The silkin let out a strange, fluting sigh and scrambled up into the branches where it vanished behind swirls of fog and a pall of silky strands strung between limbs. Barrick risked a look ahead and saw that the path which had seemed so wide and inviting only moments before narrowed now into something scarcely wider than he was, a tunnel of white filaments like the den of a hunting spider. They were trying to force him into this trap, to drive him deeper and deeper until he could not turn back, until his limbs were ensnared and he would be as helpless as a trapped fly.
How had this all happened so fast? Blood pounded in his head. Only moments before he had been sitting, thinking of home – now he was going to die.
Something moved on his left. Barrick swung his spear in a wide arc, desperate to keep the creatures at a distance. He felt a gossamer touch on his neck as another one flung down waving strands from above. Barrick shouted in disgust, flapping his hand in an effort to dislodge the sticky tendrils.
Standing in the middle of the path like this, he knew, would mean his doom. “Get inside a wall or put your back against something,” Shaso had always told him. Barrick abruptly plunged off the path and began kicking his way through the undergrowth. He knew he couldn’t get clear of the trees entirely, but at least he could pick his own spot to make a stand. Dodging the wisps floating toward him, he fought his way through to a small clearing with a single massive tree with plate-shaped, reddish golden leaves and a broad gray trunk at the center of it; the tree’s bark was quirked and knotted as a lizard’s hide. Barrick put his back against it. Whatever he was fighting wouldn’t get up into those branches easily, since the tree did not seem to touch its neighbors on any side.
Mist eddied around his feet, reaching waist-high in places as he peered out into the thickening murk. His crippled arm already burned like fire in the places it had been broken so long ago, but he held his broken spear tightly with both hands, terrified the weapon might be knocked from his grasp.
They were coming toward him out of the murk now, pale, ghostly shapes that seemed little more than mist themselves. These silkins were real enough, though: he had felt it when he pushed the tip of his spear into one. And if they were real enough to stab, they were real enough to kill.
Something tickled his face. Barrick, intent on the shapes moving toward him, unthinkingly reached up to brush it off before he realized what it was and jumped away. Another of the things had crept around behind him to fling its strands of silk, and as he stepped around the wide trunk and confronted it the not-quite-human shape tipped its silk-wrapped, all-but-featureless knob of a head in almost comic surprise, like a dog startled in some forbidden behavior. Barrick thought he saw a hint of wet darkness that might have been eyes peering between swathes of its elaborate tangle of threads. He jabbed hard at the creature’s belly with his spear, shoving in most of the corroded metal of the spearhead. It squelched so deeply into the thing he felt sure he had killed it, but when he yanked it back he almost could not pull the broken haft free, and when it did come only a little viscous, dark gray fluid bubbled from the hole in the silk wrappings. Still, the silkin stumbled back in obvious pain before it turned and scuttled away into the mist.
Barrick turned just in time to find another of the things coming toward him across the clearing, tendrils of silk trailing from its fingers. Barrick ducked and the threads stuck to the bark beside his head, and for a moment the creature was trapped by its own weapon. It jerked back its crooked hand, snapping the silk, but even as it did so Barrick shoved his spear into its chest. He did not have a chance to put his strength into the stab, so the spearhead did not pierce very deeply, but he slid his hand up the handle for a better grip and then dragged the spear downward, tearing at the thing’s midsection and ripping a great, shallow gout from chest to waist. To his astonishment, this time the wound almost vomited gray ooze, and even as the silkin’s silent fellows slunk forward out of the mist, the wounded one slid to the ground and lay twitching like a beheaded snake, wheezing and bubbling.
The things were almost entirely wet inside, like the marrow out of cooked bones. Perhaps the wrappings were not clothing, he thought, but more like a shell or hide – something that kept their soft bodies protected. If so, then a spear was almost the worst way to fight them. He needed something with a long, sharp blade – a sword, or even a knife – but he had neither. If any of the half-dozen coming now caught hold of him, they would quickly drag him down. In only moments after that they would be wrapping him just like a captured insect in a spider’s web…
He thought of Briony, who doubtless believed him dead by now. He thought of the dark-haired girl of his dreams, a vision who might not even be alive herself. How few would miss him! Then he thought of Gyir and of the mirror the brave, faceless fairy had put into his hand, and even of Vansen, who had fallen down into darkness and death in an effort to save him. Would Barrick Eddon let himself be taken, then, like some stupid brute of an animal? Beaten by these…mindless things?
“I am a prince of the house of Eddon.” His voice was quiet and shaky at first but grew louder. He held his spear up so the things could see it. “The house of Eddon!” Then he set it down by the roots of the tree, digging the spearhead into the bark, and stepped down hard, breaking off most of the haft behind the pitted metal. He picked the spearhead up and held it in his good hand like a dagger. “And if you wretched ghosts think a pack of things like you can bring down the house of Eddon,” he cried, his voice rising to a shout, “then come to me!”
And come they did, silks waving. If they had moved on him together, attacking from above as well as the front, he would certainly have died: their movements were swift and silent and the mist made it hard to distinguish them. But they did not seem to have the minds of men and came at him instead like hungry beggars, first one and then another grabbing at him and trying to trap him in clinging silk. Barrick managed to use those sticky tendrils to pull one of the attackers toward him, and then ripped out the silkin’s middle with what remained of his spear. The hideous thing tumbled to the ground near the corpse of the first one he had killed, bubbling gray from its belly and moaning like a distant wind.
The rest of them rushed toward him then. Barrick did his best to remember the lessons Shaso had taught him so long ago – back when the world had still made sense – but the old Tuani master had never taught them much about knife-fighting. Barrick could only do the best he could, struggling to retain his weapon at all costs. He fought as in a dream, with strands of sticky white clinging to his arms and legs and face and obscuring his vision. He grappled with the silkins, holding them with their own threaded, leaf-tangled coverings as he tore at them with his blade. Each time he could throw one down another came forward to take its place; after a while he could see nothing except what was just before him, as if all the rest of the world had gone dark. He slashed and slashed and slashed until every bit of his strength was gone, then he fell down at last into utter senselessness, not certain whether he was alive or dead and not caring.
“Nry nnrd nroo noof?” the voice kept asking him – a question for which he did not have an immediate answer.
Barrick opened his eyes to find himself face to face with a nightmare – a thing like a rotting apple-doll. He shrieked, but the sound barely hissed out of his parched throat. The raven flew up and away with much flapping of wings, then settled down a short distance away, dropping the ghastly thing that had dangled from his beak onto the soft ground.
“Why did you move?” Skurn asked Barrick again. “Told you to stay waiting, us did. Said us were coming back.”
Barrick rolled over and sat up, staring around in sudden panic, but there was no sign of his attackers anywhere. “Where are they, those silky things? Where did they go?”
The raven shook his head as though dealing with a sadly stupid fledgling. “Exactly, just as us said. This be silkin land, and no place for you to go wandering.”
“I fought them, you idiot bird!” Barrick staggered to his feet. He ached in every muscle but his crippled arm felt a hundred times worse than that. “I must have killed them all.” But even the silkin corpses were gone. Did things just evaporate after they were dead, like dew?
Barrick saw something and bent to pick it up on the end of his broken spear. “Aha!” He jabbed it triumphantly in the direction of the raven, even his good arm trembling with weariness. “What’s that then?”
The raven eyed the glob of black goo tangled in broken strands of dirty white. “The dung of somewhat that were sick.” Skurn examined the mess with interest. “That be our guess.”
“It’s from one of those silk-things! I stabbed it – I ripped them open and they bled out this foul stuff.”
“Ah. Then we should get on,” Skurn said, nodding. “Eat this quick-like. Silkins’ll come back with more of their kind soon.”
“Ha! Do you see! I did kill some!” Barrick paused in sudden confusion. “Hold,” he said. “Eat what?”
Skurn nudged at the thing he had dropped on the ground. “Follower, it is. Young one, but cursed heavy to carry.”
The dead Follower was about the size of a squirrel, its round little head dominated by a jagged, wide mouth so that it looked like a melon broken under someone’s heel. The knobs of bone protruding through its greasy fur, hardened into gray lumps on the adult specimens Barrick had seen the day they found Gyir, were still pink and soft on this young one. It did not add to the thing’s beauty. “You want me to…” Barrick stared. “You want me to eat that…?”
“You’ll get no nicer treat today,” the raven said crossly. “Trying to do you a favor, us was.”
It was all Barrick could do not to be immediately and violently ill.
After he had gathered his strength, he got back onto his feet. In one thing, anyway, the raven was undoubtedly right – it would not be wise to remain too long in this place where he had killed silkins.
“If you’re going to eat that horrid thing, eat it,” Barrick said. “Don’t make me look at it.”
“Bring it along, us will, in case you change your mind…”
“I’m not going to eat it!” Barrick raised his hand to smack at the black bird but did not have the strength. “Just hurry up an finish it so we can go.”
“Too big,” said the raven contentedly. “Us has to eat it slow, savory-like. But it’s too big for us to carry far, either. Can you…?”
Barrick took a deep, slow breath. Much as it shamed him, he needed this bird. He couldn’t forget the loneliness that had surrounded him only an hour before when he thought the raven was gone. “Very well! I’ll carry it, if you can find some leaves or something to wrap it in.” He shuddered. “But if it starts to stink…”
“Then you mought get hungry, us knows. Never fear, us’n’ll find a place to stop before then.”
When they had covered enough ground that Barrick felt a little safer they settled into a hollow where he would be sheltered from the worst of the wind and mist by a large rock jutting from the side of the dell. Barrick would have given almost anything for a fire, but he had lost flint and steel in Greatdeeps and he did not know how to make flame any other way.
Kendrick would have been able to do it, he thought bitterly. Father would, too.
“At least we seem to be leaving the silkins’ territory,” he said out loud. “We walked for hours without seeing any.”
“Silky Wood goes a long way,” the raven said at last. “Us doesn’t think we’re even halfway to the middle.”
“Blood of the gods, you’re joking!” Barrick felt despair slide over him like a thundercloud blotting the sun. “Do we have to walk straight through it? Can’t we go around it? Is this the only way to go to…” he wrestled with the throaty, alien words, “to Qul-na-Qar?”
“We could go round the wood, us guesses,” Skurn informed him, “but it would take a long time. We could go sunward of it and then pass through Blind Beggar lands instead. Or withershins, and then we’d be traveling Wormsward. Either way, though, us’ll still find trouble on the far side.
“Aye. Sunward, in the Beggar lands, us’ll have to look out sharp for Old Burning Eye and the orchard of Metal Bats.”
Barrick gulped. He didn’t want to know any more. “Then let’s go the other way around.”
Skurn nodded gravely. “’Cepting that if we go withershins, us’re in a swampy place us heard is called Melt-Your-Bones, and even if we miss the woodsworms we’ll have to look smart so we don’t get caught by the Suck-down Toothies.”
Barrick closed his eyes. He was finding his way back to prayer, he had discovered, although having met the demigod Jikuyin he still had difficulty believing the gods always had his best interests in mind. But with a choice between the murderous silkins, something called Metal Bats, and Suck-down Toothies, it couldn’t hurt to pray.
O, gods…O great ones in Heaven. He tried to think of something to say. Only a few short days ago I discovered I would have to travel across all this fearful, unknown land of demons and monsters with only two companions, a fairy warrior and the captain of my royal guard. Now I still must make that same journey with only one companion – a dung-eating, insolent bird. If you meant to ease my burdens, great ones, you could have done better.
It wasn’t much of a prayer, Barrick knew, but at least he and the gods were talking again.
“Wake me up if something’s going to kill me.” As he stretched out on the uneven ground he could hear the wet sounds of Skurn starting on the dead Follower. Barrick’s ribs ached; his arm felt like it was full of sharp pieces of broken pottery. “No, on second thought, don’t bother waking me. Maybe I’ll be lucky and die in my sleep.”
© 2010 by Tad Williams. All rights reserved
- Shadowmarch Origins: The Online Serial
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