"What's this?" Gillion asked. "A grave?"
Daiza lifted her head. She'd been staring at the ground, focused on her next step, not her surroundings. She was so tired from holding Syll up that she almost would've welcomed the horcha's tongue now.
Gillion was pointing at a small mound beside the path. Without their lantern, it was hard to see what composed it, but the slopes were jagged with what appeared to be rocks.
"Some kind of caern?" she asked in a breathy voice.
"Perhaps they bury their dead outside of town," the little man speculated. "I've seen that before. Some cultures consider corpses unlucky and won't let them in town."
Daiza made no response. She'd seen it, too--but she was too tired to speak.
"Better keep moving," Gillion said. "Those tongue-lashers will be free of that ice any minute now."
They continued their desperate hobble to the lights. More caerns rose up from the ground around them. The trees gave way to a wide dead meadow littered with caerns. A few were marked with sticks and tattered flags, but most were bare rock.
Ahead, they could see the torches better. They sat atop a strange-looking wooden tower. It was about thirty feet high, with a sort of skirt or flare, an outcropping of wood jutting out at a queer angle about ten feet up.
"That's...some...strange...architecture," Gillion huffed between steps.
Daiza squinted at the tower. "I bet...it's so...the horcha can't climb it."
Just then, a stone tumbled into their path.
They stopped and turned to look at a caern.
"That's not creepy," Gillion said in a shaky voice. "Not creepy at all."
With effort, Syll lifted her chin up from her chest. "Anyone hear that?" she asked in a weak voice. "Like a scratching?"
Gillion cocked his head so his pointed ears could listen better. "Yeah...you think rats got in there and are eating the...?"
Daiza stared in horror at the caern. "No, I think there's a horcha in there."
"The things with the tongues. They're--they're a phenomena called horcha. It means
'abomination' or, more accurately, a paradox. It's a sort of magical curse. I don't know the exact type."
"So they buried them in there?"
"What else were they going to do with them?" Daiza asked. "Even for a magus, it's difficult to kill one."
"Helluva a way to treat your women," Syll said.
"What?" Gillion asked.
Syll turned her head so her nose was just inches from his. "Didn't you notice? They were all females that attacked us. Female corpses."
Daiza thought back to the horcha. Shuddering, she could recall nothing but groping nails and fleshy black tongues. "It's just a coincidence," she said. "Fifty fucking percent of the human race is female. We just got lucky." She frowned. "Or unlucky, depending on how you parse it."
"Keep tellin' yourself that," Syll said in a quiet voice. "As for me? I say we don't trust anybody here with a dick."
"Maybe you should walk on your own now," Gillion said testily.
The pale woman swooned in their grasp. When her eyes met Daiza, the girl could've sworn she winked at her. "Still weak..."
Before Gillion could comment, a voice called out from ahead of them: "Who goes there? Are you human or fiend?"
"Human," the diminutive man answered without irony. "Don't shoot!"
"What were you doing in the Goorvould?"
"I don't know what that is," the little man cried. "But we need help."
"Come into the light where we can see you."
"Stay alert," Syll said under her breath, head bobbing as they carried her along.
"You sound like my sister."
Aside from a slight twist of her dark lips, Syll made no answer.
The three of them carefully hobbled into the warm aura of the torches. A tall door stood at the base of the tower, banded in rusty iron. To either side of it were carts overflowing with stones, parked just far enough from the wall that they couldn't be used as a scaling aid.
The three of them paused before the door and looked up.
Over the wooden skirt was a parapet topped in iron hooks and barbs, manned by a dozen soldiers in mail with wide brimmed steel hats. In their mailed fists they held polearms with spear-like tips and long jagged crossbars.
One of the men--he had gray sideburns and a steely gaze, nodded down at Syll. "What's wrong with your companion?"
"We were attacked. She was injured. Now let us in!" Gillion demanded.
"Can't let 'em in if they're ill, cap'n," someone said in a low voice to the gray-hair.
Daiza looked over her shoulder. "Hurry," she pleaded. "I think they're coming."
The captain narrowed his eyes. "Get them in."
Behind the door, the latches and bars groaned. It was thrown open and within seconds, the three wanderers found themselves in the dark confines of the tower.
It reeked of rotting planks and lantern oil. Men surrounded them--they could hear them move as they barred and latched the door. But none of them spoke.
Daiza could feel the tension in them, feel their anticipation...
"Hi," Gillion said. "My name is--"
The door suddenly groaned as a weight pressed against it, followed by the scratching of many filthy nails. Daiza imagined those black tongues, writhing against the wood just inches away...
Standing the dark with nothing but her thoughts, Daiza reflected that the polearms these men used were designed like boar-spears: able to pierce and opponent then hold it--or, if Syll was right, her--at a distance. The process was straight-forward enough: pin the horcha with the weapons then pile stones atop it.
Her theory was born out: a command was shouted from above and the men shoved their new guests in a corner. Throwing the door open, the soldiers charged into the night.
Gillion, Syll, and Daiza waited in the shadows of the corner, listening to the men outside:
"Got 'er. Git that other one..."
"Hold 'er hold 'er hold 'er..."
"Watch it, Zvendi, that's one's fast."
"Hold 'er hold 'er hold 'er..."
"I think...yeah. Now twist and pin."
"Hold 'er hold 'er hold 'er....goooood!"
The rest was all grunts and muttering, with the occasional command from the tower-top. This was the rock-laying phase, as they built a caern over the defeated horcha.
For the first time since she'd seen them, Daiza felt something like pity for the abominations.
"Here we go," Syll whispered.
Light cut through the darkness above. A lantern was held through a trapdoor while the soldier with the gray sideburns descended a ladder there. When he reached the bottom, he waited in the darkness until the lantern was lowered to him by a chain. He held it up and studied the three adventerers.
Two other men joined him.
"Shouldn't a let 'em in," one muttered.
The captain shook his head. "They're outsiders. The master'll want to see 'em..."
"And they're maidenfolk," the officer told him sharply. "You know the rule: all tits go to the master."
Gillion looked over at Daiza. "That's never a good sign."
©2015 Christopher Beats. All Rights Reserved.