Late summer winds blew across the sea, rippling the waves rolling to the shore. Birds circled overhead, wide-winged creatures with dark plumage tipped at the ends in bright red, giving them a faint scarlet glow in the morning light. Occasionally one would drop down to the water, its talons skimming the surface, returning to the air moments later with a struggling fish. Scales and guts would rain down to the water as the bird tore into the still living meal on the wing, devouring as much as it could before being mobbed by the others swooping in to steal the kill.
“A poet could find all kinds of metaphor from such a sight.” Segovac watched the scene from the bow of the ship. A crutch lay on the railing next to him, but he had little use for it, the would in his leg being all but completely healed. Faint squawks sounds above as the fighting among the birds turned vicious.
“I can only think of one,” said Azaran, standing beside him. He watched the birds without expression, though inwardly he was appalled at their antics.
“And what would that be??” asked Segovac.
“All living things steal from each other.”
“That counts more as an observation than a metaphor, friend Azaran. Now, consider how the first sezoran…”
“Is that what you call them?”
“It is and do not interrupt! Consider how the first sezoran has caught the fish. He spots a potential meal below the water, drops down to seize the opportunity before it returns to the depths. He rises up to enjoy the fruits of his labor, only to have wastrels and parasites descend on him, demanding their share of his labor and seizing it by force.”
“Of course, a man of a different mentality might have a different approach. The first bird refusing to share the wealth with the fellows, is now gaining a lesson in the importance of possessing a generous spirit.”
“Or,” Azaran said, “it’s just a flock of birds, following their natures.”
“As men are fated to do as well?”
“You said it, not me.”
“Ah, Azaran…” Segovac shook his head. “Men are more than beasts. They are bound to their natures, it’s what makes them animals. But men have the choice to defy it…the duty, you might say. It is by defying our natures that men pull themselves up.”
Azaran couldn’t help but think of the brands on his chest. You are a weapon…
“On Tereg,” he said, “there were many men who chose to heed their natures. One of them put an arrow in your leg.”
“They made their choice. It is a sign of their weakness. Men who live as beasts die the same way.”
Then Segovac perked up. “There,” he cried, pointing his hand to the north. A faint green line on the horizon, growing larger with every stroke of the oars.
Azaran peered into the distance. He could just make out low hills covered in forest, tall granite cliffs dropping precipitously into the sea, the sea foaming against them. “Your homeland?”
“The Giants Wall,” said Segovac in a reverent voice. “In the Time of Dreams, before men were even a thought, the giant Ullac warred against Saerec and his servants. Everything they created, he destroyed. They raised mountains and he pulled them down, they filled the seas and he drank them dry. Finally Saerec went before the giant and challenged him. “For every mountain you destroy,” he said, ‘I can create two. For every tree you burn, I will raise three. Face me now, and prove me wrong.’ Ullac took the challenge, striding into the middle of the ancient ocean and daring the One to do his best. Saerec reached down to the heart of the world and raised a great mountain, which UIlac hurled down. Saerec raised two more, Ullac pulled them down. He raised three, four, fifty, and every time the giant shattered them with his fists, crushed them with his feet, wrestled them back into the sea. But as time passed, he grew weary, yet pride would not allow him to stop.
“Finally Saerec raised a mountain so great in side that its summit reached to the Mansion, its roots to the underworld. Ullac, exhausted beyond all measure, pulled it down, but so weakened was he that he could not get away when the mountain fell on top of him, ending his life.
“From his flesh, Saerec and his servants made all creatures that fly, swim or walk on land, air and sea. From the fire burning in his heart, they created the first man and woman. And to mark the victory, they took his bones and placed them in a great stone wall raised from the sea…which men still see today when the arrive from the south.”
By now the Giants Wall was close enough that Azaran could see immense stony bones embedded in the cliff faces. Giant femurs, three times the height of a man, standing out against the rock as if cut by a Celestial sculptor. A giant clawed hand reached to the east, the long fingers splayed out in an eternal plea, a final reach towards life immortalized. No sign of a head, through a half-visible rib-cage large enough to cage a good sized beast suggested one had been there, once upon a time.
Perhaps the gods found a better use for it. Azaran noted the way the sailors watched the cliff face with fear and respect, many making signs of protection over their breasts, perhaps afraid that the bones would come to life and reach down into the ocean, hungry for their flesh.
Though the rocky reefs clustered at the food of the cliffs were reason enough for sailors to be wary. The sea boiled white about them, jagged rocks sending white spume twenty feet into the air. Ancient timbers and driftwood washed up on them told their own story of ships that got too close and paid the price.
They turned eastward. An hour before dusk the ship pulled up beside a small rocky islet rising up from the sea like a fist. A small beach covered in rocky shingle faced off to the south. The crew ran the galley ashore, two men jumped ashore with lines and tying them down to a pair of stone pillars thrust into the ground. Years of wear and tear told of countless other crews doing the same over the years.
The isle was less than fifty yards across. Away from the beach the ground was covered in sparse tufts of tough grass and a few spindly bushes. A single tree grew near the center, where there was just barely enough soil for it to take root. Set in the ground before it was a square lump of rock, the corners rounded from wind and rain. Images of men in procession were cut into the sides. At the top was a perfect spiral circling out from the center, the outer reaches fading away until it disappeared.
The crew set up a rough camp, lighting a small fire and cooking their dinner, well enough away from the ship so sparks wouldn’t reach it. Segovac didn’t join them. Instead he went to the stone, kneeling down before it and closing his eyes. He placed a hand on the spiral, fingers tracing the spiral from the center out, his eyes half closed as he entered a trance. Azaran remained apart, as did the others, leaving the Eburrean to whatever wisdom his gods chose to impart. When he finally rose and came down to join them, his face was troubled and he said little for the rest of the evening.
In the morning the wind shifted to the north. Once the crew pushed the ship free of the beach they pulled in the oars and raised the single sail. The sea foamed beneath the prow as they angled towards the northeast. The Giants Wall passed alongside, the cliffs eventually dropped down in height, replaced by a beachy shoreline, with hills and fields covered in deep summer green beyond. Segovac watched it all pass with eyes filled with a joy long forgotten. “Eburrea,” he said.
A hour past noon, the captain called for the sail to be pulled in. Oars extended out and the ship turned to the shore. To Azaran the shore beyond looked much the same as the next patch a mile down, but Segovac must have seen something he did not. “We approach the lands of the Colamnac clan,” he said. “Once they were my clan.”
“Once?” Azaran asked.
“Rhennari abandon all old loyalties. We belong to all clans and to none. But I still hold a fondness for them in my heart.”
“They will give us shelter?”
“Well…” And here Segovac’s face turned troubled. “We will see. I have been away a long time. And the news has not been good the last few years.”
The ship ran ashore. A rope ladder dropped over the side. Segovac made his farewells to the captain and crew and climbed down, stumbling a bit as he dropped onto the sand. Azaran climbed down after, watching his friend stumble up the beach to the green turf beyond, then drop to his knees. He bent down and killed the grass, then rose back up and hollered, “By Saerec and his servants, may the lightening strike me dead if I ever leave this green land again!”
The sailors tossed down two packs filled with rations, along with a healthy measure of gold and gifts from Tavarus. Azaran also had his sword strapped to the side, kept high to avoid tangling his feet. A decent weapon, plucked from the hoard left behind by the pirates. He waved good by to the captain and crew. They pushed off the beach, oars stroking leisurely along the water as they headed back out to sea.
Azaran joined Segovac, who still knelt on the grass, eyes closed and lips moving in prayer. A pair of tears trailed their way down his cheeks. He waited patiently until the man’s eyes opened again.
“Feeling better?” Azaran asked.
“Better than I have in years.” Segovac rose to his feet. He took his back and slipped it across his shoulders. “This land is in my blood and bones. A tree dies when it it taken away from the soil that holds its roots. Here I am alive again.”
For a moment Azaran felt a twinge of jealously. He had no such place to call his own…at least as far as he knew. “So, where do go from here?” he asked, more to stave off the melancholy than to hear the answer.
“North.” Segovac looked about, getting his bearings. A line of trees began not far from the beach.. To the west green fields could be see. “Through the forest. A friend of mine lives close by. He’ll put us up for the night. And I can find out how things stand among my clan.”
“North it is.”
They found a trail headed away from the beach. The trees enveloped them, the late afternoon light turning dappled. Tall oaks and beech, a far cry from the small pines of Tereg. Squirrels with dark green tails and chittering voices scrambled among the branches. Azaran spotted signs of deer, stepping nearly around a pile of scat. Birds flashed through the leaves and branches.
He didn’t see the first dead body until Segovac almost tripped over it. The man uttered a number of very unpriestly oaths, “Bloody tree roots…oh, never mind.”
Not a tree root. An arm bone, reaching out from under a small bush. More bones could be seen beneath, including a grinning skull looking upwards. Moss clung to exposed surfaces, making the skeleton difficult to spot.
Segovac knelt down and pushed the bush aside. “Not right,” he murmured, “leaving the dead like this.”
“There’s another one over there.” Azaran pointed a pile of branches beside an oak that turned out to be another skeleton, curled into a ball and half-covered in dead leaves and dirt.
“There will be more.” Segovac stood, holding a broken arrow pulled from the ribs. “Looks like an ambush.”
“Were they your clan?” Azaran asked.
“Hard to say.” Segovac tossed the arrowhead aside. “Makes no difference in the end. Dead is dead.”
They continued on, leaving the site behind them. The trees thinned and they emerged from the forest into a wide field marked at the edge by rough stone wall. The space beyond was covered with bramble and weeds. On the far side were two houses, the roofs open to the sky, the walls scorched by flames. Crows perched on the top watched them pass by. Azaran peered through one of the broken doors and saw a shattered table, cracked in half from some terrific blow. From the amount of dirt and dead leaves piled up against the walls, this had happened a while ago.
They didn’t linger. The wall running along the northern end of the farm was shattered, large gap torn in the center large enough for three men to ride through abreast. A pair of rabbits sat in the gap, nibbling on strands of grass. They fled as the two men approached. More abandoned farms lay on the other side, most no more than an acre or two in size. Weeds choked the fields. Bones of cattle and sheep lay open to the elements, weathered by wind and sun and long ago picked clean of any meat. Houses were scorched by fire, many pulled down until the stone walls were piles of rubble. No sign of the folk who lived here. Their homes were plundered, the broken walls filled only with dust and debris. War had come through this place, consuming all in its path like an ever-hungry fire.
“Who did this?” Azaran asked as they passed by yet another broken farm house.
“Ganascorec,” was Segovac’s reply.
Azaran looked around. “I know nothing of farms or their tending,” he said. “But it seems a strange thing, to leave good land like this empty. Wouldn’t he replace the dead with new folk to work it?”
“Leaving it empty is the entire point. There was rebellion here. He put it down, cleared the land of its people and left it empty as a warning to others. And there is that.”
Segovac pointed to a pile of stones heaped near the house. At first glance it looked like any other heap. But painted on the wall above it was a faded symbol, almost gone from the wind and rain. Azaran could still make out a triangle, with three open eyes placed before each point. In the center was the figure of a woman, arms out, one hand holding a knife, the other a severed head.
“The mark of the Ghelenai,” said Segovac. “They likely did the killing, after the battle was over. Men, women and children….move those stones and you’ll find a pit with their bones in it. Killed for a sacrifice. The land is cursed, no one will live here.”
“Are they warriors?” Azaran asked.
“No.” Segovac shook his head. “They are…it’s hard to explain. And best not done here.” He hurried on, leaving the site behind as fast as he feet would carry him.
Eventually they reached another patch of woodland. A wide trail went through the trees, ancient hoof marks still impressed into the dried mud. “Cetam lives in the trees,” Segovac said. “He’s a woodcutter. His wife gathers herbs. I’ve known both since we were children.”
Unspoken in his voice was the question if his friend was alive. Azaran didn’t have it in him to ask.
They followed the trail for about a mile. It was getting late, dusk wasn’t far away. The trail narrowed until it was little more than a track. Tree stumps bearing ax marks appeared, mingled in with younger saplings. A rusty ax head was embedded in the trunk of a tree, the handle broken off half a foot below.
The land rise sightly to a low hill. A long stonewalled house stood near the top, surrounded by smaller sheds. Segovac cupped his hands and placed them to his lips. “Cetam!” he called out. “Hello the house!”
“Cetam!” Segovac called out again. He lowered his hands. The look on his face said enough. They would find no one here.
“Here too,” he whispered.
“Maybe they fled,” Azaran suggested. “You’re friends might be waiting on the other side, talking of the day when Segovac returns in glory.”
“Maybe the rain will turn to wine as well.” Segovac replied. He stepped towards the house, headed up the hail. “Come on. Best get this over with.”
They went up the hill. Vines clustered the sides of the house. The thatch roof was half-gone, wide holes open to the elements. The place was filled with an eerie quiet, with not even the birds chirping in the neighboring trees. Despite the warmth of late summer, a chill seemed to hang over the place, a cold as much of the spirit as the flesh. Azaran’s hand drifted to his sword, the back of his neck prickling with each step. Something terrible had happened here and the land remembered. The trees remembered. The earth cried out with each step.
Cetam’s home was clustered around an open area in the center, with the house on the southern side and sheds to the north and east. The doors to the house were broken, hanging off their hinges. A pen for livestock was trampled to splinters. In the center of the open area was a well around which five stakes were driven into the earth. Impaled on them were the heads of pigs and dogs, the flesh little more than leather strips dried by the sun, their eye sockets dark pits.
A large hole was dug in the ground some distance away from the well. Placed on the ground before it was a long flat stone, with the symbol of the Ghelenai carved into the top. Dried blood still cling inside the grooves and lives carved into the stone. The woman cut in the center stared out at the world with eyes lit by madness.
Segovac walked over, face pale with fear and sorrow. He glanced into the hole then look away, closing his eyes. “Cetam,” he whispered. “And his family.”
Azaran looked into the hole. It was full of bones. Human bones.
Find out what happens next!
SHADOW OF THE GHOST BEAR,