Authors: James Daniel Ross
I Know Not
The Birth of Fox Crow
James Daniel Ross
Dark Quest, LLC
Other Dark Quest Books Featuring James Daniel
The Defending the Future Anthology Series
Breach The Hull
So It Begins
By Other Means
The Legends of a New Age Anthology Series
In An Iron Cage:
The Magic of Steampunk
Dark Quest, LLC
Neal Levin, Publisher
23 Alec Drive, Howell, New Jersey 07731
Copyright ©2011, James Daniel Ross.
(trade paper): 978-1-937051-10-5
All rights reserved. No part of the contents of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
All persons, places, and events in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, places, or events is purely coincidental.
Interior Design: Danielle McPhail
Sidhe na Daire Multimedia
Cover Art: Russ Akred
To those that are told they can't:
You Can. You Will.
Screams flew like arrows, stabbing into the ground and splashing in pools of blood. Limbs thudded into the earth, hewn from bodies without mercy or thought, creating the drum beat of armies at war. Men died by the dozens underneath a cold sky crowned by a distant moon that watched on and didn’t give a damn. Balanced on the very edge of civilization, the castle was being gutted.
But outside this chaos a poison flowed through the veins of the castle. It cloaked itself in righteousness, but those that saw it pass made signs to ward off evil, for it had lost the mask of civilization. Its eyes burned with madness. Those that knew the name whispered it was a ragman. But no one would survive to warn the outside world. It was made of blades and death. It flew past defenders and turned attackers into disconnected piles of muscle and bone. It laughed as it did so.
The ragman, hands tight on the hilt of his sword, made it to the gates of the main hall. It stood like a rock over the surging crimson surf of bodies. Eyes sharpened by the presence of so much death, he saw his prey bobbing in the fray. Blood fanned into the sky, turning into black droplets that flew and called out with the voices of crows. He tasted the bowel flavored wind and growled like murder incarnate as he sprang into action. He hacked at a living wall of bodies that kept him from his target.
Like the tip of the spear, he created a wake of blood and gore, penetrating into the very heart of the squirming mass. One man, only one hero, managed to turn and meet his fury. But then, a voice in the sky screamed.
The ragman turned, too late.
The Womb I Deserve
Actually that’s really over–simplified. I would rather say: I came to be awake like a spark struck to tinder, sizzling and sliding along from inert to aware. On the other hand, sizzle is probably the wrong word; it denotes far too much speed. It would be better to say I awoke like the tide, a slow but steady progress. There wasn’t any black–fading–to–light part or opening-of-eyes as of yet. In fact, the first thing that struck a cord in any coherent part of my soul was the smell; it reeked of death. Then again, I haven’t even mentioned the pain.
There was a lot of pain.
If any other part of me was severed, I doubt I would have noticed it for the lancet of fire in my head. It was as if someone had ripped out an eye and filled my skull with molten lead.
That’s when the functioning parts of my mind got together and realized that there were pieces missing. In reality, most whatever pieces of me there were supposed to be inside my head were gone. I searched for me and only found this white cottony cloud where I used to be. I know I once knew my name, I once had a family, friends…at least I hope I once did, but it isn’t as if I could know could I? I had inconveniently lost myself as I lay in this perpetually dark place that stinks of rotting flesh and defecation.
My thoughts slipped through my fingers and went on a brief sojourn about the disgusting nature of defecation at death. I knew the last thing any creature does is reveal its last meal through its rectum. To spoil the appetite of whatever is trying to eat it, I’m sure. Kind of a final insult: ‘Go ahead! Try to eat me with that smell following you around!’ It lacks a certain amount of dignity; but I suppose you have to take what victories you can get when you can. I started to giggle, a high pitched, eerie sound that created echoes of pain that ricocheted inside of my skull.
To say I was only ‘nearly’ insane is kind; to say I had totally lost my grip on reality is much more accurate.
Then, very quietly, the darkness began to press inward. I felt it in my brain, past the fuzzy Void that used to be me, two halves. One half was urging me on to madness, wishing to let go of every pain a pressure to the exultation of ennui. The other was dark, sharp and foreboding. It simply stalked forward and seized the reigns of my mind. Without a word as to its identity it wrapped thorny hands around the neck of my weaker self and strangled it determinedly until it shut its festering gob. This murderer in my mind brought me back to the here and now.
It was then I learned a lesson known by precious few men: Sometimes you choose whether you go insane. It’s all a matter of giving up, really. I get the feeling I’m not the giving up type. Now I have confirmed my suspicions, but I am ahead of myself.
I tried to open my eyes, and failed. With monumental effort and not a little confusion I raised my hands to my face and probe my eyes to see if they were still there. I got an image of my fingers exploring empty sockets that had been picked clean by crows and my skin was instantly sheathed in freezing ice. My fingers paused, trembling as they hovered a few fingerlengths away…
I don’t know how long I sat there, frozen in terror at the possibility of permanent blindness, but that dark thing in my head jabbed me sharply. My hands finally moved and found a thick, sticky crust covering both lids. It felt like old paint, mostly dried. I tasted it. It was sweet, metallic, bitter, and sour all at the same time. It was surely old blood, dried over at least a day. Relief eased the ache across my shoulders as I realized my eyes were just gummed shut.
Perhaps I should have been wondering how in hell do I know what old blood tastes like, but I was busy.
I didn’t remember that I was carrying a canteen, but thankfully my hands did. They grabbed it and Left poured it in my eyes as Right scraped at the dry, scabby mess. I sat up shakily and pried my eyes open to finally look upon the cause of the great stench.
I was in a keep, well the courtyard actually. Forget the tales you may have heard of white walls, graceful towers, and airy passages. This building was a weapon of war: Short, squat, dirty, and functional. Of course I noticed that much later than the carpet of bodies that littered every free stride of space. Men and pieces of them lay sprawled out across the parade ground like the vomit of a colossal monstrosity. Faces screamed at me, berating me for drawing breath even as they pleaded for me to remember their names…the Fog circled in to cut me off blocking all but the shallowest parts of me.
I shook my head to clear it and nearly passed out, white light, ghostly noises, and smells attacking in crashing riots as I went to my knees. Long moments passed before the world came back into focus. I heaved once, and spit out a mouthful of stomach acid.
Let’s…let’s not do that again
I agreed with myself and gingerly levered to my feet. Right Hand was thinking on its own again; It had picked up a sword from the bloody soil. I stared at the thing; thick and heavy and crusted with the leavings of its last job. Right tested the balance and I sneered, thinking it was half a water–weight heavy on the blade side. It was less a weapon than a cleaver.
Am I a swordsman, then?
Darker and more powerful voices argued between my ears,
Not now, later. Get safe, and then vivisect your head
Again, I agreed, heartened that I would give myself such good advice. My eyes again drank in the scene, looking for a clear path through the swamp of hewn human flesh. Amidst the broken bodies and shattered bones, I began to pick out vaguely familiar features. A nose here, a shock of red hair there, battle standards, heraldic heater shields lying cleft next to round. The picture clarified very quickly inside my mushy head: I was in a border keep and Westerners had raided the outpost, slaughtering all the Norian Kingsmen inside.
. Left tenderly touched the edges of my spongy wound.
Not for a lack of trying
. I glanced to the corpse of a fat man at my feet.
Better off than you lot, though
Something young and pink inside me squirmed, not at the carnage, but at the fact that could look upon it without feeling ill, or sad, or anything at all. A hundred men had crashed against each other and exploded into a field of gore, yet I felt nothing. My gut was uneasy, but only when I moved too fast. Even now I was forced to stare at the human wreckage just to make sure of my footing and I looked directly at an empty head whose brains had been removed by hammer or mace—
And how did I know that? Had I killed him?
–without even batting an eye. Hundreds of men lay butchered as thoroughly as if they had been forced through a sieve and turned into sausages. I could not remember ever seeing such a horrific scene before, but here I was, every internal weathervane saying I was intimately familiar with the like.
Then, just for a second, I caught sight of a young boy. Nowhere near adulthood, he lay lifeless and still, his torso ending just below his ribcage. He was so small, so lost, his face so surprised in death. I could not see his legs and suddenly nothing was as important as finding them. Something stirred finally, a tightness in my heart, a shadowy reflex of loss. I smelled burning and there were no fires. I heard screaming but I was totally alone.
It was at that moment the dark, sharp thing at the back of my head snapped an arm out of the fog and crumpled thoughts of the murdered child before my mind’s eye. The great emptiness swallowed the bile and sorrow and left a vaulted, hollow cavern inside my chest. The emotion disappeared into the fog so fast, I wondered if it ever had been. I forced myself to look again.
To say I was aghast would have been a normal reaction. It would also be a lie. I was not happy, or sad, or disgusted. I was not even afraid of who I was to see such a scene of valiant defeat and be unmoved. I simply was. I existed, a perfect tool without emotion, obligation, or a hand in sight. It was a long time before I moved.
In the center of the courtyard was a man in his enameled plate armor. From the ornate battle gear he wore he had obviously been a nobleman and probably the master of this castle. Now the only vassals he would feed would be the flies, the defense he would lend would be to the maggots crawling over his corpse. He sprawled, headless, across a man outfitted in metal plate armor that looked like the scales of a serpent. The nobleman on top had lost his head at the instant he had plunged a dagger in the eye of the bearded barbarian beneath. Something called me to them. The Fog, I think, murmuring to me in voices never fully heard. My feet squelched in the bloody soil as I moved him aside to finally reveal a familiar sight.
Its design ambushed me, fitting into a hole in the fog where it once belonged. The elegant blade was a touch too long for inexpert use by one hand, and it flared three quarters up the length to provide extra heft for the strike. The weapon was more black than blue, as if corroded or stained by soot but it terminated in a beautifully ornate handle. It was an angelic silver–plated ghostly figure, ominously hooded, with the gold–plated wings that were spread to make the crosspiece. The feet were lost in the robe that blended into the worn ebon–wood that sandwiched the ten–inch hilt. Set into phantom/angel, over the chest and in pommel were heart–cut cats eye gemstones. They were from the far west; deep in the barbarian lands…I could tell because they were blue, not amber. Within a second I had determined exact price such a stone would fetch.
Who would know that?
I shook my head again and nearly passed out…again.
I thought we agreed you’d stop doing that
? I swallowed more bile.
So we did
A grave silence settled inside me as I contemplated perhaps I had been an attacker here, not one of the defenders. I felt my face, which was just beginning to show growth… meaning I normally eschewed a beard. That weighed the odds in the direction of me as an Easterner, a Kingsman. My head, however, was more inhuman than civilized or barbaric. The left side of my skull was hugely out of proportion. It felt spongy, springy, as if my scalp had been cut open and a half–full leather bag of water slipped between skull and skin. Of course touching it made the world decide to swirl as if The Mad Painter of the Universe had just dipped his canvas in solvent, making the colors run into a kaleidoscope of insane visions.
I could say I sat down and waited for the visions to pass, but then you’d have to believe that I sit on my back, involuntarily, very fast, and completely unconscious, but that would also be a lie…or four.
I opened my eyes again to dusk.
Wasn’t it just noon?
My skin was crawling with sand. I moved to brush it off and the sky above me disappeared in a pestilent cloud full of thousands of tiny wings and sharp feet. The flies flew to join their comrades that had come to feast, carpeting the dead like a living funeral shroud. They moved in pestilent clouds and covered bodies like dead petals shed by a field of corrupted flowers.
It was painfully obvious, perhaps agonizingly obvious, that my deformation was due to a severe head injury. I had survived the onslaught, but my continued state of living was by no means certain. Clumsily, vaguely, I gathered the black–bladed bastard sword to my breast like a sleepy child with a favored toy and crawled across the rotting bodies to the keep. Flies erupted on all sides of me and horrible, smelling fluids covered my entire front as I made progress as I could: on my belly one hand length at a time. I struggled up each stair in turn, and almost passed out as I had to throw a bruised shoulder against the door.
I don’t remember much except a great table set for a banquet, with most of the food tossed on the floor. Someone had made off with the cutlery. I grasped a full clay flagon of warm, watered wine. I downed it, feeling drunken and drowned flies slip down my gullet. The world blurred again and I felt like I was looking at the table through a long tunnel, with swirling darkness and stars on all sides. Gravity shifted and I sprawled backward on the cold stones, sword clattering with an obscenely musical tune. My head grew, or maybe the skin compressed, pressure building in waves that punished me. Right Hand cast out, and found a thin bed of straw held together by a coarse, thin blanket.