Cuana Chapter 10 Entry 11
The Nordheimer was bleeding from at least a dozen places, having been savaged by the wolf while receiving a number of wounds from arrow and wielded weapon alike. My own wounds were nearly as numerous, but I was still in better shape than he, so I knelt beside him and began to stitch a few of his more grievous wounds right there. As I was in the process of closing up one particularly nasty gash, I heard a scream of pure agony from behind me and turned to see the Stygian fall to the ground in a heap, pain contorting his body while he clutched at his shoulder. Xacksmith was quickly by his side to see what had happened to him, so I continued with my task of dressing Tullweim’s wounds. Behind me, Dhak was thrashing about, barking out words in some unintelligible, sinister sounding tongue when he finally went still with a loud sigh of relief. I was about to ask what that was about when I suddenly heard a woman’s voice cry out behind me. I turned just in time to see a woman, hyborean in appearance but dressed in the garb of a Pict, race by me and plunge a spear into the prone Stygian’s side. I began to work faster, fearing that all the work I had done would go unfinished and rendered useless by interruption. The Hyrkanian was up and after her immediately, swinging his blade and knocking her to the ground, where he quickly bound her before she could recover. Groans still issued from within the shaman’s hut, but I was still engaged in patching up Tullweim, so Dhak entered the hut to investigate. A few moments later as I was finishing up my repairs to the Nordheimer’s hide, Dhak emerged from the hut bearing a large clay pot of healing salve. I had already planned on using the small bit of healing salve that I had been carrying with me, for my wounds were nearly as many as Tullweim’s, and this extra that the Stygian bore would be of tremendous help to me. Stripping off my armor, I applied some of the salve to a few of the more serious wounds I had taken, marveling as usual at the speed in which the stuff healed and revitalized. Once it was gone I took the reserve from my pack and applied it as well, feeling a great deal of my strength return as it absorbed into my flesh. Though still bloody and sore from our recent ordeals, I was now in much better shape to continue.
The Stygian told us that the man who lay within the hut, a Ligurean druid, had died after summoning a white stag that we were to follow, and that we were to make all haste in order to catch up with Sagoyaga before he and his savages could reach Villitrium. A white stag eh? I was to the point where nothing in the way of unuaual or hostile wildlife would surprise me and was about to say so when I saw it – a stag, white as the snow that crowns the higher hills of my homeland – standing at the edge of the clearing and regarding us with solemn, intelligent eyes. We quickly gathered together our things, picking up a few usable arrows as well, and fell in behind the beast as it turned and dashed back into the forest.
The trip through the forest as we followed the stag can only be described as surreal. While we ran at a normal pace, the area around us seemed to fly by at impossible speed. The thick undergrowth of the forest did nothing to hamper our steps, and we covered tremendous distance as we followed the mysterious white stag through the wilderness. We soon found ourselves at the bank of the Black River, where several pictish canoes sat ashore where their owners had left them. We quickly climbed into them and set to rowing across the river, continuing to follow the stag, which had plunged into the water as we were boarding the primitive watercraft. Once on the other side, the stag once again plunged into the forest with the rest of us following close behind.
We soon began to see smoke signals – lots of them, up ahead and to either side. The ones directly ahead of us were pretty close, maybe a hundred feet or so ahead through the trees. The Stag halted, gazed at each of us, then stared ahead as if to say that was where we needed to go. Then turning, the stag bolted back into the forest and was gone. We crept forward as quietly as we could manage and soon saw one of what must have been hundreds of groups of the savages, preparing weapons while sending and reading smoke signals. There were somewhere close to thirty of them, a few bearing greatswords, a few that carried Bossonian longbows, others wielding axes or clubs, and a wolf was with them as well. One pict stood out from the others, by both appearance and authority, and we knew we found the one we sought. All we needed to do was stike Sagoyaga with the staff that had been prepared for the task by that demonic worm-thing beneath the Ligurean Grove, so all we needed was to get close enough to strike the shaman with it. The Hyrkanian produced a pair of white feathers that he had taken from the wall of Machk’s hut, explaining that they are used to display a non-hostile posture when requesting a parley. It seemed like a good enough idea to try to use them in order to get close to Sagoyaga, so Xacksmith stood alongside both Tullweim and myself, feathers held out for all to see, with the Stygian and his staff directly behind the three of us. Thus arranged, we stepped out into the clearing and started to approach the cluster of plumed and painted curs.
We made it further than I thought we would – ten paces perhaps – before we were stopped. Infuriated at our brazen appearance, the shaman approached us demanding to know how we dare to come to his camp. Being the only one among us who can comprehend their tribal gruntspeak, I replied ‘we bring important news from Machk’. Sagoyaga glared first at me, then Tullweim, and pointing to the northman replied angrily, ‘he wears Machk’s scalp upon his armor’. That instantly eliminated any change of subtrifuge on our part, so I told the shaman ‘yes, he does. Machk says aaaaarrgggh!’ To no one’s surprise, they attacked.
An incredible melee ensued. Batting aside attacks from two of the warriors, I sliced into one but only staggered him. I saw there were only a few of them between me and where Sagoyaga was, so I lashed out, burying my sword in my opponent’s belly, and killing first a second, then a third of them. Seeing no one between the shaman and myself, I moved to attack him but was intercepted by the wolf, who tried to bite my leg but instead latched onto my boot. The beast was rewarded with a huge gash down its side where my sword nearly opened itcompletely. An arrow found its way through a gap in my armor while the wolf was trying once again to sink its teeth into my leg. Shaking the beast loose and taking a step forward, I hit him squarely with my greatsword, tearing a bloody gash in his side. Without flinching he struck back, hitting me several times, putting a new layer of wounds atop those that the salve had knitted closed. The wolf continued to hary my steps and another arrow hit me, this one in my shoulder. Ignoring both, I swung at the shaman again and struck him twice, this time noting that he was growing unsteady on his feet. If I could maintain this attack, I may well be able to drop the bastard where he stood – or so I thought until I saw the warriors I had just slain begin to rise from the ground and shamble toward the spot where I fought the shaman. Little compares with the dread that assails the senses when the dead rise about you. So overwhelming is it that seasoned warriors can be reduced to little more than frightened children – shrieking, screaming, weeping, or babbling incoherently in fear as they flee like startled jackrabbits. I cried out as I fled, thankful later on that I had at least not wept.
I ran well clear of the horror in the melee, continuing a short way into the forest before halting. Reclaiming my nerves, I assessed the scene that played out in the camp. Many of the Picts were down, but my companions were bloodied and badly wounded, unable to sustain the fight for much longer. Skirting the area from where I was, I found and area where I could return to the fray by coming up unseen from behind. As I was moving back into position to attack, Sagoyaga was felled by an arrow fired by the Stygian. At the sight of their leader lying dead on the ground, a few of the brighter warriors fled. As is often the case, a handful of the dimmer ones stayed to fight, one even charging right at me. I threw every ounce of strength I could muster into the sword stroke that met him, and he fell like a badly butchered ox, spraying me nearly head-to-toe in blood. A second one fell as he came within my reach, nearly a third of his head shorn away and his right arm twitching wildly as clumps of brain slid down upon his shoulder. A warrior that had been a few steps behind those I had just killed fired an arrow into me, but I barely felt it. Stepping up to meet him, I gutted him as a bear does a salmon before turning to strike yet another, feeling immense satisfaction as his befeatherd head toppled from his body and rolling several feet before coming to a halt. Only one remained, and as he turned to flee the northman planted an arrow between his shoulders, piercing his heart, killing him as he fled.
Things were much different throughout the Westermarck. Settlements and fortresses throughout the region were still in ruins and many people were dead, but the fear and desperation of the settlers had been lifted, and while they set about rebuilding during the daylight hours, they celebrated at night. Velitrium had avoided attack, and as a result was filled with many grateful people who nearly vied with one another to please us however they may. There was feasting, drinking, and women – sometimes several of them in an evening – to enjoy. Of the latter, I found myself distracted occasionally by memories of Hema, wondering what may have befallen her and her sister. No one in Velitrium had heard of either of them, and I knew the chances were slim that they had avoided capture or worse as the Picts swept through the settlements slaying and taking captives as they had. I still kept the piece of purple silk she had given me neatly folded in my pack.
It was in the last hours of morning one day when I was awakened by a commotion outside. The sunlight lanced painfully into my brain as I peered out the window, a reminder of the vast quantity of ale and wine I had consumed the night before. For several nights, actually. Soldiers were running about, their commanders hollering orders as their men raced to comply. There was a knock at my door, and standing outside was one of the soldiers of the fortress who told me I was summoned to appear before the King. That took a moment to sink in….the King? of Aquilonia? was he here – all the way out in Velitrium? Were we being hauled back to Tarantia to answer for a few things we did to upset the city in the King’s absence? Reading the confusion in my expression, the soldier told me that we were to be honored, that King Conan of Aquilonia had summoned us, and that he had been sent to bring me to the King. I threw on my breeks and boots and stepped out into the sunlight, wincing once again at its brightness. My companions were in the process of making their way in my direction, looking very much like they felt the same way about the morning’s sunlight as I. We were led into a square where a contingent of Aquilonian soldiers, as well as a number of the King’s Black Dragons awaited. We were led along a column of soldiers to where the King waited near the center of the square. He thanked us for what we had done in helping to repel the Pictish invasion of the Westermarck, and gave us tremendous honor by naming each of us as Knights of Aquilonia. King Conan is the first Cimmerian I have seen since leaving my homeland, and I can say that having met him, I understand why he is King of Aquilonia, and I now believe nearly everything I have heard about the man, no matter how exaggerated the claims may sound. The only thing that surprised me was that I had imagined him to be taller than he was.