Iron Kingdoms Tales-A Friendly Reminder

A Friendly Reminder

by Matt Goetz

The bloodtrackers yowled, thrusting their javelins at the bloody comet that burned overhead. The whitemane barked and snapped, whirling the blade of his great axe through the leaping flames of the bonfire. Around them, a congregation of snapping, sweaty Tharn writhed in carnal ritual or tore bloody hunks of meat from the severed limbs turning on roasting spits.

As far as feasts went, it was shaping up nicely.

Brighid lifted a wineskin and directed a stream of fermented honey into her mouth, letting the drink warm her stomach and creep into her head. In the light of a smaller cookfire, she saw her brother Caul picking his teeth with a man’s rib bone. He reclined on a large boulder while two huntresses picked nits from his mane. He wore the Wurm’s skin tonight, and his maw quivered with pleasure as the women’s talons raked through his hair.

“Sister,” Caul mumbled as she approached, “Wurm’s eye be upon you.” His transformed mouth made the greeting a half-growl, but she understood him well enough.

“Wurm’s blood within you,” she replied. With a cutting glance, the two huntresses backed away from her brother and receded into the shadows. They did not require a demonstration of Brighid’s limited patience—nor her skill in battle.

Caul sniffed as the females left. “You spoil every feast night for me.”

“If you plan to rut, do it sooner,” she snapped. “I gave you longer than I should have.”

Her brother snatched the wineskin and poured the dregs into his maw. A quarter of the amber fluid spilled between his teeth to drench his scarred chest. “What does she want now?”

“A reminder. The Terth Cearban hunted her waters,” she said.

“Shagul-Kahl. What an idiot,” Caul said, using his oversized axe to push himself to his feet.

“His firstborn just came of age. He wanted a great hunt under the Eye of the Wurm,” she said,
“and nothing less than a great maw would do.”

“When do we leave?”

Brighid looked beyond the firelight. Between two gnarled trees, a blackclad wayfarer stood as motionless as a sentinel, his black robes dappled with the comet’s red glow.

“Now.”

***

Riding the rivers of the Wurm’s blood through the earth by the power of the blackclads always twisted Caul’s stomach. Brighid stood watch as he retched up several pounds of meat and frothy wine into the surf.

She hated the islands, but this one more than most. Dragon-stink clung to every rock, but a deeper and fouler smell lingered in the ruins here. Garlghast was no place for a huntress; the walking dead outnumbered the living, and even fresh meat was made bitter with blight. Even the Tharn here hadn’t escaped its touch. They had always been strange, with their shark-like ways. But the blighted taint aside, she still did not hunger for their fish-tasting hearts.

“How far?” Caul asked, wiping vomit and spit from his maw with the back of his hand.

“One hundred spears. Terth Cearban’s tuath lies in a cove. I will set the pace.” She turned on the wayfarer. “You understand me? Stay hidden and away from the water. Shagul-Kahl’s kin can smell you an island away if you so much as touch the surf.”

The druid acknowledged her with a stiff nod and backed away from the shore. If he didn’t understand Molgur, her posture had still made the message clear enough.

She ranged forward along the shore, a barbed arrow nocked against her bowstring. Moving among the shadows of barnacle-encrusted rocks, her Wurm-bestowed gifts allowed her to blend into the darkness. Caul kept his distance behind her, stalking at a deliberate pace.

She did not have to travel long before the sounds of celebration reached her. North along the island, a pillar of smoke bloomed into the night sky, lit from beneath by a blazing bonfire. The chants and growls of the tuath carried over the island, keeping time with the lap of waves on the shore.

Brighid dropped into a crouch and moved inland, weaving her way up a sloping hill. As she approached its crest, she went down to all fours, slinking, until she could see the cove below.

Amid the huts made of driftwood and sharkskins, the whole tribe was gathered around the fire. There were nearly a hundred Tharn, all showing the strange Wurmskin of Terth Cearban. The men were smooth skinned and grey, with vestigial dorsal fins protruding between their shoulders. Gills on the sides of their necks pulsed as they howled and chanted, revealing multiple rows of arrowhead-shaped teeth. It was at times hard to recall they were also Tharn, strange looking as they were. This was how the Wurm manifested in them.

Hanging from a trestle of driftwood and lashing was the body of a great maw. The shark’s corpse was marked with dozens of harpoon wounds. A shaman had slit open the shark’s belly and was marking the foreheads of a half-dozen youths with its blood, painting runes on them with a web-fingered hand.

Brighid pressed her tongue against her teeth and trilled a short birdsong for Caul. It was one of hundreds of signals they had developed, almost a new language the twins shared. He responded with an owl’s hoot to show he understood. She glanced down at his hulking silhouette and saw him slip into the water.

In the village, Shagul-Kahl advanced from the throng. His black eyes gleamed with pride as he gripped the arm of a youth and yanked his hand aloft.

“Today, my daughter Arach-Kahl has claimed her first great hunt. Her harpoon was the one to stop the great maw’s life. Under the Eye of the Wurm, she will devour its heart and take her place as my heir.”

The throng howled and stamped on the sand, rattled fetishes of seashells and gull bones, as Shagul-Kahl plunged his hand into the shark’s corpse to wrench free its heart. Triumphant, he held the heart aloft, turning so all gathered could see.

Brighid shook her head. Petty kings so often gave themselves over to grandiose displays.

She waited for him to turn away from her, rose from her hiding place, and shot a barbed arrow into his gushing gill.

The arrow tore through Shagul-Kahl’s throat, turning his triumphant prattle into a wet squawk. Red foam sprayed from his gills as he toppled over, the great maw’s heart crushed in the dying twitches of his fingers.

The others cried out in rage. Many turned to search for her, their eyes reflecting the firelight with flickers of amber. Grabbing their weapons, a dozen Terth Cearban ravagers began to surge forth.

The Tharn twins Bríghid and Caul have built their reputation upon a pile of corpses beyond counting. Born to the first generation of Tharn after the Curse of the Ten Ills was lifted and saved their race from extinction, these twins have come to embody a new hope. A skilled hunter, Bríghid has mastered the use of the heavy Tharn bow; when hunting larger game, she uses the bow to cripple and maim an enemy before allowing her brutish brother Caul to finish the prey with his heavy axe. They balance the skills of a hunter with the brutality and savagery of the greatest predatory beasts.

Brighid pursed her lips and let out a piercing whistle. It was loud enough to cut through the barks of the Tharn as it echoed over the cove. With a roar, her brother burst out of the surf. Ropes of seaweed hung from his enormous body and long-hafted axe.

While the enemy Tharn turned to face this new threat, Brighid fired arrow after arrow into the hearts and eyes of the most impressive-looking warriors. She pierced the shaman’s skull and pinned his body to the great maw’s trestle. A haruspex trying to evoke a spell took an arrow in her gut and pitched face-first into the fire.

Meanwhile, Caul waded through the ravagers, splitting open skulls and chopping off limbs. His axe glistened with blood, and the fur of his muzzle was spiked and dripping as he took massive bites out of his opponents.

The twins massacred over a dozen before the Terth Cearban surrendered. Like whipped dogs, they bowed their heads and cast away their weapons. Brighid sprang down from the ridge and moved among the prostrate.

Panting, Caul grabbed a whitemane by his stringy hair and pulled him to his feet. “The Dawnshadow sent us,” he spat.

The whitemane whimpered. The sound was pathetic, so when Caul pressed his talon into the old one’s throat, Brighid thanked him.

A new voice sounded, clear and sharp over the mewling of the wounded and dying. “Tell the Drowner of All, the Mother of Storms, the Dawnshadow, her message has been heard.”

Brighid turned to the voice. Arach-Kahl, her face painted with both the great maw’s blood and her father’s, stood proudly above the bowing horde. Brighid was not familiar with all the titles of the Dawnshadow the young woman had used, but by listing them, Arach-Kahl was offering her mistress the highest respect.

“No Terth Cearban will swim the waters off the Dawnshadow’s island from this day forth,” Brighid said. “Do so, and my brother and I will come finish what we’ve started.”

“I swear under the Eye of the Wurm,” the youth said, “my tuath will obey her command. And if any attempt to disobey, I will give their hearts to the waves.”

Brighid approached Arach-Kahl. She was slender and young, but she held herself with the pride, the strength, of someone much older. Brighid grabbed the torc from the girl’s fallen father and pulled it free, offering it to Arach-Kahl.

“See that you do.”

The girl took the offered torc and placed it around her neck. “Wurm’s eye be upon you.”

“No, little one. On you. And not just his.” Brighid pointed across the dark sea in the direction of Morvahna the Dawnshadow’s secluded island. “But hers as well.”

The young queen did not respond, but the sharpness of her eyes showed that she took Brighid’s meaning.

She left the new queen standing there with her defeated tribe. Taking her brother by the arm, she headed back for the standing stones.

“What now?” Caul growled.

“The sun still slumbers. There is still much feasting for us back home.”

 

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