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Work about the Usgar encampment increased that surprisingly warm late-summer day, as the tribe prepared to make the move to their winter sanctuary. While most of the creatures living on the huge mountain would sleep the winter in deep holes, or would migrate down further to the plateau, the Usgar tribe moved opposite, climbing to the mountain heights as winter neared. There, on the small meadow beyond the pine grove that housed their winter camp, they would be protected from the cold winds and deep snows by the warmth of Usgar, the Crystal God.
The winter was the time of peace for the tribe, when the hunters and warriors could rest, when all the world about them slept under a thick blanket of unrelenting snow.
But now of course was the time of preparation, filling stores and packing the tents to prepare for the great trek up Fireach Speuer’s steep trails. Many years in this season, the tribe would launch a large raid upon the villages on the lakeshore below, but not this year, particularly not after the events of the previous night.
“It does not explain,” said Mairen, the Usgar-righinn, or Crystal Maven, of the tribe, who led the Coven of witches and so was considered the most powerful woman among the Usgar.
“It is all the explanation you need,” replied the warrior, Aghmor, mustering all the strength he could to show confidence in his impertinent reply. He had been summoned to Mairen’s tent immediately upon his return to the encampment, taken by the arm by the witch Connebragh and tugged along unceremoniously before the eyes of many onlookers.
For all his anger at the indignity of being paraded about by a mere woman, though, Aghmor was well aware of the power of the one now standing before him. It didn’t seem a wise thing to him to deceive, and to insult, the Usgar-righinn, after all, who was powerful in the ways of Usgar magic.
But it seemed more foolhardy still to cross Tay Aillig, the Usgar-laoch, the War Leader, and the cruel man’s instructions had been clear.
“Elder Raibert is soon to arrive,” Aghmor announced.
“You disturbed the Usgar-forfach?” Connebragh asked with a gasp.
Mairen held her hand up before the other woman to bid her to silence.
“What do you know of Ralid, who is not in the camp, and rumored to be wandering about the lower hills of Fireach Speuer?” Mairen asked.
Aghmor just shook his head.
“What do you know of Aoleyn, who is not in the camp this morning?” she asked more sharply.
Again, he shook his head, and this time he lifted his palms helplessly.
“Why were they out on the night of Iseabal’s bloody face?” Mairen asked, referring to the goddess associated with the red moon, the Blood Moon.
“We do not know why,” Aghmor replied.
“If you know so little, then why did you travel to the sacred plateau to speak with the Usgar-forfach?”
“I … I…”
When he had felt cornered earlier, Aghmor had thought himself quite clever in invoking the Usgar-forfach, the tribe’s Elder who was once the Chieftain, who remained in the winter encampment all through the year. In truth and tradition, Mairen ranked below all the men of the tribe. In practice, however, only a handful of Usgar men dared cross her.
Aghmor had to hope that the fact that he had gone to fetch Raibert at the behest of Tay Aillig would be a warning to Mairen that she should take great care in scolding him. He was not acting on his own, but with the apparent blessings of the two most important and powerful men in Usgar.
“Where are they and why were they out of the camp?” Mairen asked evenly, her face a stern mask, unyielding and unbending and so unlike the other women of Usgar.
“We’re not knowing that they’re out of the camp at all,” Aghmor lied, and stammered, feeling as if he was standing on muddy ground indeed.
Mairen nodded and put on a pensive face. She turned to Connebragh and asked, “Sister, how long would it take you, do you think, to get to the winter plateau?”
Aghmor began nodding, too, his mind immediately beginning to calculate the hours for such a journey up the mountainside. As soon as he had started that mental task, however, he caught on to Mairen’s true question here, and he was sure that his subsequent gulp was heard quite clearly.
“Half the night,” Connebragh replied, both she and Mairen looking to the warrior.
“Not quite as long to return, unless one took care in the dark, don’t you think?” Mairen asked, and it was unclear as to whether she was speaking to Connebragh or Aghmor—not that it mattered, in any case, for the point of the question was certainly aimed at her knowing target.
“I am swift,” Aghmor stuttered under the weight of those two gazes. “That is why Tay Aillig asked…”
“The sun is recently up above the wide shoulders of Fireach Speuer. The noon hour is only just passed,” Mairen interrupted. “You went up the mountainside to speak with Elder Raibert as soon as we were done with Tay Aillig this morn.”
“But how could he know then where Ralid might be?” Mairen asked, and when Aghmor didn’t immediately respond, she went at him more forcefully. “You, too, were out last night, under Iseabal’s bloody face. The night of the demon fossa. You were out—you were all out.”
“I was with the Usgar-laoch,” Aghmor stuttered, not wanting to admit anything, not sure where all of this was going. “He is War Leader. I cannot question…”
“Where?” Mairen said directly, and poor Aghmor swallowed hard.
Whispers sifted through the Usgar encampment that day, as news began to spread that members of the tribe were missing—although of the actual number being reported absent Usgar found a wide range indeed among the gossiping men and women, and particularly the children, who carried the news from one group to another, from the workers bundling supplies to the many guards posted this day, seemingly on every high rock jag and in the branches of all the tallest trees.
The warrior Aghmor had been rumored to be dead throughout most of the morning, and the whispers of his demise persisted even after he had returned. Ralid, too, was missing and rumored killed—some said it was a bear that had finished the poor young warrior, but those who believed they knew better insisted that it had to be the demon fossa. “For didn’t you see the Blood Moon last night?” went the refrain whenever whispers of a more mundane death, like the notion of a bear, were spoken.
Whatever might be transpiring on the slopes of Fireach Speuer outside the camp, emotions were certainly running high within. The Usgar-laoch, Tay Aillig, was also missing, and although many had seen him leave earlier that very morning and he had apparently made no secret of his departure, the rumors were stubborn things. By early afternoon, most of the camp was certain that he’d been eaten by the fossa during the Blood Moon the previous night.
Gradually, though, the known truth had begun to win out, but that truth, too, did not inspire ease in the camp. The great Tay Aillig, the Usgar-laoch of the tribe, had been chased home after a losing battle with a great mountain bear, it was said, a defeat that had left a promising warrior, the missing Ralid, fending for himself on the lower slopes.
It was confirmed, too, that another of the tribe was missing as well: that headstrong young woman who had been named to enter the Coven, and who had been claimed as wife of Tay Aillig.
“Usgar-laoch is out searching for her,” many claimed.
“He is desperate to find her!” others agreed.
“But he was out last night, too, I’ve heard,” some chimed in, and with an edge of suspicion to the words. And the whispers grew, hinting that Tay Aillig had been angry with Aoleyn.
The gossip grew even more intense and suspicious-sounding when word came down that the great Usgar-forfach, Elder Raibert, was coming down from the high plateau this day, something that had not occurred in the memory of half the tribe.
Like most people in an environment as harsh as Fireach Speuer, the Usgar survived through ritual and tried tradition. So many anomalies in so short a time caused great stress among them, for the credo of life in a land unmerciful and with dangers unrelenting went along the lines of: “I did this yesterday and so I am alive today. If I do it again today, I will be alive tomorrow.”
Adding to all of that tension, yet another very recent incident already had many people unsettled, for Aoleyn’s expected ascent to the Coven had been facilitated by a tragic accident that had killed another witch, the poor woman fumbling with her magical crystals, her spell failing, leaving her to plummet to her death from a cliff. And of course, the previous night had seen the Blood Moon, the night of the demon fossa. The Usgar were the most powerful warriors in the region, feared by all.
But they, too, remained humbled by the demon fossa, and when the full moon shined red, when Iseabal showed her bloody face, they wisely cowered.
Not the previous night, however, not for all of the tribe, at least, and now they feared that they had suffered more losses. The Usgar were not numerous, less than three hundred strong, and every loss was painful.
The palpable nervousness wafting about the encampment showed itself in the fast-turned heads and gasps when a cry went out from a sentry on a high rocky jag further up the mountain. All the whispers began coalescing around that call, and all eyes moved to the indicated trail, winding down from higher up Fireach Speuer, beside some huge stones to the southeast of the camp.
A lone figure came into view soon after, far away, but a human figure, surely. From this point to the top of the great mountain was Usgar territory, where no lakemen ventured, and so the first murmurs spoke of Elder Raibert, the only tribesman known to be higher up the mountain at that time.
But no, it was a woman, walking not in the shaky gait of an elderly Usgar, but with confidence in her stride.
The calls and alerts and the cries for “arms!” died out quickly when the sentry who had first spotted the arrival called out that it was Aoleyn of the Usgar.
Nervous whispers became those of relief for many, of consternation against the young woman—how dare she go out on the night of the Blood Moon?—for many others. Aoleyn’s reputation was already that of a free spirit, and that was no compliment. She was constantly battling against the leaders of the tribe, and against the dedication to order that had sustained Usgar as the dominant force on the plateau beyond the memories of any living man.
And still she had been chosen by Usgar-righinn Mairen to join the Coven, and more remarkably still, by Usgar-laoch Tay Aillig to be his wife!
The gossip flew on, growing in strength and salacious detail, when the distant figure dipped out of sight, below a bend in the trail.
The people in the camp could no longer see her, but a pair of sentries in a blind beside the trail east of the camp noted her clearly enough to see that Aoleyn was covered in blood, her hair matted with the stuff, her shirt torn ragged, her shoes crusted.
So much blood! And though her gait was determined and steady, she was leaning a bit to one side, where much of her clothing had been fully torn away.
“Go fetch Tay Aillig,” one of the watchers said.
“He is not to be found,” answered his partner. “He departed camp soon after speaking with the Usgar-righinn.”
The other man nodded. “Then fetch Mairen,” he decided. “The Crystal Maven can heal the girl, if there be great wounds beneath the shreds.”
“Aye, and decide what’s to be done with the lass, leaving like that,” said the other. “She can’no enter the camp—none can, on Tay Aillig’s word.”
The other man nodded, and the sentry ran off to fetch Mairen.
The remaining man shifted uncomfortably. He didn’t know this unusual young woman very well—unusual both in temperament, if the rumors were true, and in appearance, as he could see by his own eyes. She was curvy and quite short, the top of her raven-haired head barely touching the chin of most Usgar women. And while dark hair was not unheard of in the tribe, it was not typical, and Aoleyn’s was as dark as a moonless midnight.
As were her eyes, black eyes, eyes that seemed to look through him, he thought, and would surely see through any lies or foolishness. And that crooked smile she so often wore—he had seen it many times from across the camp. Perhaps it was an honest smile, but to him it seemed one rooted in Aoleyn’s belief that she knew things others did not.
“Loving the look of herself,” he whispered, and aye, that was it. For to his thinking, this young Aoleyn wore upon her a confidence few warriors might match, and that no woman should even attempt.
If all of that wasn’t imposing enough to the warrior, he reminded himself that this was Tay Aillig’s wife, for some reason no one seemed to understand.
Now he was tasked with stopping this headstrong lass who had the ear and thrall of Tay Aillig.
“On word of the Usgar-laoch himself,” he said to himself, but not as quietly as he had intended, when he dropped down from the blind to block the path.
“What word?” she asked, stopping short with obvious surprise.
“You can’no go in,” the sentry explained. “None are to be entering the camp.”
Aoleyn put her hand on her hip and gave him that crooked smile of hers, and the sentry hoped she didn’t hear him gulp.
“Truly?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said, and he looked up and down at the bloody woman, and thought he noticed something shiny through one of the tears in her shirt, near to her belly button, which remained tantalizingly out of sight. “Are you hurt, then? How can ye not be?”
“No,” Aoleyn replied, and now she seemed suddenly uncomfortable, and she shifted a bit and brought an arm across her belly, covering up. “And should I tell my husband of your wandering eyes?”
The sentry swallowed hard again and looked up at her, shaking his head vigorously.
“I am returning from th’Way,” Aoleyn explained. “I need to change my clothes and wash.”
“Wash the blood, aye. And how, then, you can’no be hurt?”
The woman snorted and started past, but the sentry could not ignore the commands of the Usgar-laoch, orders which offered no compromise here. He held out his spear sidelong to block the trail.
“You can’no go any more.”
Aoleyn stepped back and fixed him with a stare. “So are we to stand out here and stare at each other through the rest of this beautiful day? They’re packing for the journey up the mountain. I’ve chores…”
“By word of Tay Aillig,” the man said. “I’m not to go against those words. Are you?”
“I haven’t yet decided,” she replied.
“I can’no let you.”
“You can’no stop…” she started to reply, but she paused, looking past him. Following that gaze, the sentry was truly relieved when he glanced back to see his partner returning, along with a pair of women.
“Where have you been, foolish child?” the Crystal Maven scolded, but the timbre in her voice changed and her eyes went wide when she took a good gander at Aoleyn. Connebragh spoke the surprise for both of them.
“What happened to you? By Usgar, are you hurt?”
Aoleyn flashed that smile of hers again, her dark eyes sparkling in the afternoon sun. “It’s a long story,” Aoleyn replied. “Might I change my clothes and wash before I tell it?”
“No,” came Mairen’s uncompromising reply.
Things had not been going well for him, but young Egard held faith that his uncle, the great Tay Aillig, would spin the disaster of the previous night into something worthwhile. Egard, Tay Aillig, and Aghmor had been down there, on the lower slopes of the mountain. They had tried to bait the demon fossa by tying a man they had captured to a tree.
They had gotten a bear instead, a great and huge mountain bear, full of rage. It had driven them away, three at least, after flinging poor Ralid aside.
Tay Aillig always had a plan, Egard reminded himself, but he shook his head at that notion, still trying to come to some understanding of why his powerful uncle, who could have any unwed woman in the tribe, and probably more than a few of the married ones, had settled upon Aoleyn.
Aoleyn! She was much nearer to Egard’s age than to that of Tay Aillig. And she was an obstinate creature, disobedient and unaware of her place in Usgar hierarchy. Many times had younger Egard and Aoleyn locked horns, once even physically—and that had not ended well for the mighty young warrior. He had been but a boy, he reminded himself, but he winced at the mere thought. For no, he had been a young man, something driven home pointedly when Aoleyn’s knee had risen forcefully into his groin.
Egard shook away the thoughts of that long-ago fight, and of Aoleyn altogether. He couldn’t afford to be distracted here. Not now. Too much was at stake, though he wasn’t even sure of what that might be.
He looked to the sun, beginning its descent over the huge, rectangular lake that marked the northwestern base of the great mountain of Fireach Speuer. Egard and his search party, seven other Usgar warriors, were low on the mountain now, much nearer at least two of the lakemen villages than they were to the Usgar camp, as they searched for Ralid.
There would be no Blood Moon this night, so the demon fossa was not a concern, he knew, but still, being this far down the mountain with so small a force could lead to great catastrophe.
That thought, too, he shook away. These were pitiful lakemen, and no threat to the great Usgar warriors, no matter the odds.
He cupped his hand beside his mouth and gave a series of yips, like a coyote’s call, two short yelps and then three more. This was a universal call among the Usgar for occasions when parties got separated hiking the many jags and chasms of the mountain peaks, or to bring lost fellows back together in the white blindness of winter storms.
Others in the war party answered in the prescribed cadence, one yip from the first man, then two from the second, then one and two more from a third, and all done with perfect imitation of a coyote pack.
If the missing man heard the call, he would know to answer with a long howl.
Of course, Ralid wouldn’t hear it, Egard knew painfully well, being fairly certain that Ralid was dead. The bear had hit him hard with its swatting paw, hurling him into the thick trunk of a tree. Egard could still hear the sickening crack of Ralid’s shattering bones. The warrior grimaced as he pictured again his friend’s body broken against the trunk, as he recalled the fight, where he, Aghmor, and mighty Tay Aillig himself had been chased away.
They had been forced to leave their prisoner behind, as well, the one Tay Aillig was using to bait the fossa.
That man—a lakeman, they supposed, though his skull was not misshapen, as was customary among the villagers who called Loch Beag their home—was also almost certainly dead, for they had left him tied up helplessly, and with a ferocious bear rampaging about the area.
Egard started another coyote call, for he had to keep up appearances. He saw another of his band coming over a low ridge to the side, and the man just shook his head. So Egard gave a sharp caw, the sound of a crow, the universal Usgar signal that a lost man was not yet found. The searcher near him similarly cawed.
Five other crow calls followed closely, and Egard snorted in frustration. They were in the area, and spread out wide enough that one of them should be very close to Ralid’s body.
Then came a long howl from the eighth searcher, and Egard sucked in his breath. He steadied himself and headed for the caller, not really wanting to see Ralid’s corpse. He was certain his friend was dead, but seeing it seemed as if it would somehow make it all too real. He had work to do here, he reminded himself. Tay Aillig had not sent him down here to fail. His hand went reflexively to his pocket, to some fabric he had stolen from a particular tent.
The eight men converged on a trail that Egard recognized, descending steeply to a clearing—to the clearing, he knew, where they had strung up the prisoner, where they had fought the mountain bear, where Ralid had been killed.
A heavy flap of wings greeted them when they came down onto the edge of that flatter and clearer area, as a host of buzzards flew off. Others remained, their wings out wide imposingly, crowing over their feast.
Usgar spears drove them off, revealing the gory meal: a huge pile of half-eaten guts.
“Ralid?” one of the searchers gasped, looking as if he was about to vomit.
“No Usgar,” said another. “That’s the belly of a beast, not a man, and most likely the guts of a bear.”
“The buzzards eat fast,” another remarked. “A bear ripped to … that?”
“Dressed,” the man who had identified the pile clarified when he bent over the fly-covered remains. “Not eaten. The bear was dressed, skillfully so.”
“Ralid!” Egard cried, trying to sound surprised and convincing, and when the others all looked at him, he pointed across the clearer area, to a large tree on the north side. It was hard to make out from this distance, and Egard would not have recognized it had he not known what to expect, but following his lead, the others, too, were able to make out the form of a leg, wrapped awkwardly around the bottom of the tree, bending in a way that a human leg should not.
Egard waved them by, and six fanned out and moved across the clearing to identify their friend, while the seventh continued his inspection of the gory pile of bear guts, noticing, too, to the side, the severed animal’s head.
“Uamhas,” one of the men approaching Ralid’s body said, using the Usgar’s derogatory name for the lakemen. He stopped and pointed to the ground. Two other Usgar joined him to help sort out the riddle of some tracks the man had noticed.
Egard wondered if those were his tracks, and those of his companions, but it seemed too far afield from where they had battled the mountain bear. No matter, though, for all the party was distracted then, so the man moved his hand into his pocket and looked for his opportunities.
“They leave deep tracks,” the man inspecting the area remarked. “Burdened.”
“With the prize of the dressed bear?” asked another at the scene.
Egard and two others arrived at Ralid’s body. He was surprised that the uamhas hadn’t taken the corpse, or desecrated it at least. Certainly, he would have pissed on the bodies of any uamhas he came across. He looked across the flat area to his friends inspecting the tracks, and figured that the uamhas hadn’t even seen Ralid when they encountered, and apparently killed, the great bear.
No matter, he thought.
“Take him,” he bade the others near him. “With all honor and care.”
When the two lifted Ralid and began moving off, Egard began directing the others, sending three to follow the blood trail and see if the uamhas were still near, and moving the other two about the area to see if they could better discern all that had happened here.
He, too, went about that task, except instead of searching for clues, he planted some, then made sure that he directed the others properly so that they might find them.
“Who granted you passage out of the camp under the light of Iseabal’s bloody face?” Mairen demanded when she and Connebragh got Aoleyn away from the sentry, far to the side and into the shallows of a rocky overhang where they would not be seen or heard.
Aoleyn stuttered for an answer.
“You’re to join the Coven, girl,” Mairen scolded. “Does that mean nothing to you?”
“Of course…” Aoleyn started to reply.
“Shut up,” Mairen interrupted. “For once in your days, listen, girl, and do’no speak!”
The Usgar-righinn launched into a tirade then, scolding Aoleyn repeatedly, telling her of all the things she would need to change if she was truly to join the sacred Coven, warning her that her marriage to Tay Aillig would not protect her in this sacred endeavor, as the Coven was none of his concern. That he could not protect her even if he should one day ascend to become the Usgar-triath, the Chieftain of the entire tribe.
Aoleyn heard little of it, though she was wise enough to appear engaged. Instead, her thoughts were sorting out the fabrication she would tell of her ordeals of the previous night, and her great victory over that most awful demon fossa, one that would forever change the ways of the Usgar and their safety on Fireach Speuer.
Wouldn’t Mairen feel foolish then?
“Usgar-righinn,” she began respectfully, head bowed.
“Why do you believe you have anything to tell me?” Mairen snapped back.
Aoleyn lifted her head and stood strong against Mairen’s withering gaze. “But I do,” she insisted. “And when you’ve heard, aye, but you’ll understa…”
“Shut up, girl,” Mairen replied. “There’s not a word you might be…”
“I killed the fossa!” Aoleyn blurted before she could be interrupted.
For a moment, nothing, then Connebragh gasped and Mairen’s face screwed up strangely, the middle-aged woman falling back a step.
“Well, not killed,” Aoleyn said before the others could recover. “But destroyed it, truly. It was a spirit thing, possessing a cloud leopard, rotting the poor creature…”
Mairen hit her, slapped her across the face, and it was no ordinary slap, but one enhanced by magic, by a burning, biting, shocking sting of lightning. Aoleyn flew backward, crashing against the rocky wall and cracking her head in the process, adding wet blood to the dried. She fell to the ground, hard, and rolled over onto her back, clutching her head, stunned.
“What is that?” she heard Mairen say, but it seemed like the woman was, far, far away.
Aoleyn felt hands on her, about her belly, and her eye focused just enough for her to realize that Connebragh was inspecting her. She felt a slight tug on her navel, and that brought her sensibilities flooding back to her.
Aoleyn gulped and tried to cover up. They had found her secret: her belly ring set with the magical gemstones she had extracted from the sacred crystals! She threw her arms across her abdomen, pushing Connebragh’s hands away. She started to sit up, but Mairen was there, suddenly, kneeling heavily on her chest, pinning her back and pulling her arms aside.
“What is that?” Mairen asked her repeatedly, but all the desperate and dazed Aoleyn could answer was a frantic cry of “Leave me alone!”
The two women had her fully pinned, then, and Mairen drew out a crystal, one tinged with dark red flakes. Aoleyn knew the magic of this item, and she began struggling mightily as Mairen fell into the magical item and sent her vision through the crystal. Aoleyn had to beat her to the draw, but she could not, as Connebragh, recognizing her attempt at spellcasting, slapped her hard and repeatedly across the face, defeating her concentration.
Aoleyn knew she was doomed, for now the Usgar-righinn could see the emanations of magic, not just the items. Now Mairen understood the gems set in Aoleyn’s belly ring, and the young woman’s earrings, too, became quite clear to her, Aoleyn could tell by her gasp. Mairen tore them out viciously, then grabbed Aoleyn’s wrist and pulled the pinned young woman’s hand up before her eyes, shaking her head as she studied Aoleyn’s ring, wound in magical wedstone wire and set with an enchanted ruby and serpentine stone. Mairen nearly broke Aoleyn’s finger in wrenching that ring from her.
“Strip her!” the Usgar-righinn instructed Connebragh, and with the other woman’s help she yanked and tugged and tore at Aoleyn’s clothes, and punched Aoleyn hard whenever she resisted.
They found the anklet she had woven into her skin, one set with the blue stone of frost, and bars that could create lightning.
“What does it mean?” Aoleyn heard Connebragh say.
She felt Mairen’s hand go to her belly, then a slight pulling sensation.
“It means,” the Usgar-righinn replied, and she gave a sudden yank, tearing the belly ring from Aoleyn’s flesh, “that our little Aoleyn has done a grave heresy here.”
Aoleyn went limp. She just lay back helplessly and did not resist, barely whimpered, as Mairen pulled the anklet from her flesh. She thought, but only briefly, to try again to fall into the magic and jolt the woman away, but no, she was defeated. What point was there in even resisting now? For they knew.
They didn’t even bother dressing her when they called the sentries over, instructing the men to take Aoleyn to her tent in the campground, and to empty it of everything but a simple blanket. “Bind her, hands and legs,” Mairen ordered them. “And watch over her. She is not to leave, to have no visitors, and to have…” she looked right into Aoleyn’s eyes as she finished, “nothing.”
Copyright © 2019 by R. A. Salvatore