Branded

The Valen Free Company wound its way across the Grass Sea like a snake twisting in coals. Their passage tore up grass and dug ruts into the soft loam, the rain from the day before making hoof and wagon wheel all that much easier to rip the earth.

Vivec rode side to Hinson, the big man’s eyes shifting constantly, keeping a lookout for the things lurking in the tall grasses, head snapping from one side to the other at the slightest rustle. It wasn’t until they reached the main road Hinson finally relaxed, tension bleeding from his shoulders.

Vivec punched him on the arm. “Wound tighter than a bandicat there, old man,” he said jovially.

Hinson grimaced. “You remember Donnic, don’t you?”

Donnic had died six days ago to one of the big borer beetles that made their homes in the stands of birch scattered across the plain. It had crept into his bag at night and crawled into his ear, making short work of the sweet meat of the man’s brains. No one had heard a thing.

Vivec nodded, solemn now. He made the shape of the Brand, an X with a mark at the top of the cross.

“That’s why we don’t let our guard down.”

They fell into silence for some time. The prairie rolled by, one clump of grass quite like another in its passage. It wasn’t until a structure loomed ahead that Hinson spoke again, nudging Vivec from his torpor.

“See that, boy?”

Vivec leaned forward, trying to make out details. The building was of stone, a rarity on the plains. Conical and foreboding, it bore sculptures over a door blocked by several logs. The stones had been carved in the shapes of terrifying beasts, men on their knees before them. The logs in turn had been carved with Hunska warning and warding runes.

Vivec leaned back and let out a low whistle.

“Never seen something like that.”

“Pray you don’t again. That’s the House of Logos.”

“Logos?”

“Sst. Best you not speak it again. Unholy. He’s best-off dead, as are his people. Still, better safe than other drawing his attention.”

“You said he was dead.”

“Aye. But there’s the lottery for a reason. To appease. To bleed. To atone. It’s said that which dies does not always stay dead,” Hinson said.

They rolled on. Vivec risked one glance back. A beetle the size of his fist crawled languorously up one wall. He shuddered.

“Logos,” he whispered. No one heard, or he thought so. Hinson remained impassive beside him. Besides, what was the worst that might happen?

The thought tore around his head like a reckless boar as the caravan rolled into a waystation, the shacks there cleaned out, rushes beat, snake and grass scorpion chased away. Finally, Vivec bedded down for the night, letting the worry go along with the tension in his muscles.

Hinson came to check on him before the last of the light bled from the land.

“Sleep well. Tomorrow’s a long day,” the man said, forming a silhouette against the orange and red sky. Hinson shut the door tight and blacked out the dying fire.

Vivec counted to fifty, listening to the cooling shed creak in the night, the crack and groan of tack as the teams shifted. He thought again, of men on their knees in the grass, behemoths of nightmare towering over, life in supplication.

He was asleep before he hit forty, despite the visions.

A dream of writhing grasses and smoking ruins was shattered as the first shouts split the night.

“Grab him!”

“Hold the bastard!”

They came in the night, brands glowing red-hot against the backdrop of the stars.

Too many to fight, they kicked in Vivec’s front door with a crash and splinter, wood shattering like glass. They rushed into the tiny room, yanking him from under a thin sheet. He tried to snag his knife as they bore him to the floor, but someone stepped on his fingers and kicked the blade away. His hand made an ugly crunching sound under the weight of a grown man’s boot, pain flaring like a nova. He screamed, clutching his hand to his chest, but only for a moment. They grabbed his wrists and turned his arms behind him, shoulders straining until it felt they might snap from their sockets. Pain flared through him, a field of purple and black poppies.

Hinson strode through the door, stout in the chest and shoulders, with a nose pushed to one side, as if it’d been broken and never set. He cut the shirt from Vivec’s chest, taking no care to not cut the boy as he did so. The betrayal hurt more than the knife, if the boy was honest.

Hinson leaned in, breath smelling like stew and drink, one hand on the back of Vivec’s head. “It’s easier this way, lad.”

The brand touched flesh. The room filled with the scent of scorched pork. A skirling scream escaped Vivec’s lips as the steel, so hot as to feel like ice, ripped into his flesh, leaving its mark.

Vivec thrashed and cursed and wept, but Hinson had him tight, elbows on his shoulders, arms locked around Vivec’s neck, hands on the back of his head.

Then it was over, and the men filed out, weaving a little under the influence of the spirits giving them courage. Hinson stayed a little longer. He put pressure on Vivec’s neck, as if it were a mercy.

“Shh, shh,” he whispered.

Vivec gasped. Black and yellow stars swam behind his eyes. Pain. Lungs heaving. The world went black. His last conscious thought was of the House of Logos and the lottery.

Voices in the dark. The thud of hoof on mud. The scream of the wind in the grass.

 Vivec woke on a damp patch of grass, muddy tracks all around. The camp had moved on. Most of the hovels of the waystation had been left erect, but no smoke poured from the holes in the roofs, no creak of harness or clatter of cookware came to him.

His back ached. His hand followed in sympathy, a rhythmic spasm of pain in time to his heartbeat. They’d left him a dagger, as if it mattered. As if he could wield it now. He rolled onto his side, then pushed himself up, wounds protesting. Skin taut with the burn stretched and snapped, pus leaking down his spine.

A packet of grasses lay nearby, and he pulled them to him. He chewed a little willowgrass and a length of goodroot, then waited. When he felt strong enough to stand, he scooped up the dagger and the grass and found his feet.

The ground was torn up by the passage of the caravan. Wheel ruts and tracks moved to the north, a parade of life. The horizon was empty.

He sat again, heavily, and chewed a little more willowgrass, letting it ease his aches.

The lottery. Had to be. He hadn’t seen it coming. Was too wrapped up in the journey. Gone to bed like any other night, and when they woke him—he’d been chosen. He thought he’d had more time. Maybe more days left between him and the end. Arrogance of man, he supposed, rationalizing his panic away.

He stood once more and started moving north. Maybe there was still time. If he could catch them, they might take him back. Choose another. The Hunska were not without mercy. Just… set in their ways. Besides, just because they’d never seen a branded come back didn’t mean they were dead. Maybe they’d taken on with another caravan. Maybe they’d found their fortune in one of the cities ringing the Grass Sea.

Maybe.

He took halting steps up the path, following ruts marked out as clear as any navigator’s map. In the distance, clumps of trees waved in the constant breeze, and the grasses nodded in agreement. Somewhere to the north, great black birds circled something dead and rotting in the grasses

He’d never come this way on foot. Beneath his tread, cricket and snake jumped and slithered away. The caravans had always been tight, mounted. There were things in the grass you needed to outrun. Sometimes animal, sometimes not. Vivec imagined them creeping in. His heart hammered, and he quickened his pace, head on a swivel as he’d seen Hinson do so many times before.

He walked for hours. Wore out his supply of willowgrass as the sun rose, baking the burn on his back to a crisp red circle. His neck and hand hurt still, though he didn’t think anything was broken now the swelling had gone down. Experimentally, he tried the knife, and while a little clumsy, he was able to hold it.

Just past the light’s zenith, Vivec stopped, cupped gritty water from a rut and drank it down. His guts rumbled and he shat in the grass shortly after, taking care to dig a hole and bury his spoor. Wouldn’t do to have a grasscat or a tarrsque catch his scent.

Hunger boiled in his guts as he moved, and he did his best to occupy himself. Hinson. Hinson had taught him a game.

They’d played with bits of bark carved with the runes of the southern tribes—six and one was seven, seven and five was twelve, and twelve and twelve was twenty-four. The numbers of the caravans, safety in lucky numbers. You wanted those. Eight and five and three were bad. One was the worst. One could lose you the whole game.

A rustle to the right of him snapped his thoughts from play and into the world. Something moved through the grass, rippling as it came. Vivec tensed, lowered his center of gravity. If it was a boar or a grasscat, he’d need to stay low in order to get the knife in. He’d seen what happened when men didn’t—Elias last summer, opened at the groin, guts falling out of him like sweets from those balls the easterners made from mud and dried grass.

The thing in the grass stopped moving. Snuffled. Once, twice. Then something further away, the other side of it, bolted—perhaps a hare or a thrush—and the thing spun, tearing a path toward its prey.

Vivec breathed a sigh of relief and straightened, then hurried his pace. Overhead, clouds moved in, black and lowering, threatening another storm. He’d have to find shelter soon. Head down, he moved on, legs aching with the journey already.

The first drops of rain fell like hammer blows. They slammed grass to the ground and splashed against the wound in his back like an angry benediction. Ahead, a shape loomed from the dark. Lightning cracked the sky, revealing an old stone structure, standing in defiance of the Sea.

Rain fell in earnest, and Vivec broke into a run. The rain would drive all manner of beast from their dens and warrens, and he didn’t want to be caught on the trail when it happened. He sprinted toward the building, barely making it as another blast of lighting scorched the earth not a hundred yards from him. The blast raised the tiny hairs on his arms and the back of his neck.

Inside, it was chill but dry. The floor, coated by a dozen ages of silt and broken by the roots of the Sea, rose and fell like stone waves. Carvings decorated all but one wall, against which an altar stood. A temple, then.

He wandered the floor, coming to sit with his back to the altar. Dark brown stains coated its base and the floor around it, were splashed against the walls. Something horrid had happened here in ages past. The feel of the dark around him twisted his guts.

Thoughts of the lottery filled his head. Five men. One chosen. One chosen. He was the one.

He stood, panic flitting through him like a starling, causing his breath to come short. The doorway framed rain and lightning. If he stayed here, he was trapped. If he could find his caravan, they could choose another. Surely, they’d choose another!

He broke from the cover of the temple, sprinting along the path. Ahead, black shapes wheeled in the sky. Behind, the grasses rustled as the prairie came to life.

The mud sucked at his heels, threatened to pull him into the embrace of the ruts and never let go. The wound on his back burned, the brand marking him as chosen weeping pus and rainwater.

What a thing, to be sacrifice!

He tripped, going down into the mud. It shoved filthy fingers up his nose, into his eyes, his mouth. He came up spitting, wiping his face. Something squirmed on his cheek, and he brushed it away. Blinked his eyes clear.

He’d come down atop a horse, its head ripped free. Its blood washed into the mud, rider nowhere to be seen. He scrambled back as he saw another and another. To the side, a broken wagon, a half-wheel sunk into the mire. A tarrsque had caught them, then. Only it could do this sort of damage. The beasts were merciless, ever hungry. He paused, listening. If the monster had been here, it had already moved on, taking what meats it could. Did something frighten it off? He shuddered to think of what might frighten such a predator.

One of the massive black shapes above swooped down and landed on the horse carcass. It eyed him with gimlet yellow eyes, then opened a wicked beak.

CAW, it screamed.

Vivec flinched, threw an arm up, but the bird was no more interested in live flesh than a whore in wooden coin.

He took a cleansing breath, let it out. Stood. Around him, carnage. Ahead, no more tracks. He wandered from corpse to corpse once he found the first one, a yard from the track, dragged into the grass. It was missing an arm and a leg.

Not Hinson.

Not Hinson.

Not Hinson.

Hinson.

The man had been flung into the Grass Sea like a discarded toy, his limbs wrapped in all the wrong positions. His eyes were still wide, his mouth open. He bled from a hundred cuts. His chest rose and fell in staccato hitches. Vivec leaned in and cradled the man’s head.

“Lied,” Hinson rasped out. “No lottery. Not you,” the words came from him like the rustle of paper flowers in the wind.

“Take it back, take it back,” Vivec said.

Hinson stared at the carrion birds with insensate eyes. His chest hitched again, and a froth of blood spilled from his lips. He keened, low and pathetic.

“Who will take it back now?” Vivec asked.

He slipped the dagger between Hinson’s ribs like a lover’s tongue parting lips. A mercy he was not afforded.

One last gasp, muscle protesting, back arched like a cat. Then Hinson collapsed in on himself, free from pain. Free from worry and preoccupation. A good death after a near bad one.

Lightning again, like a cracked grin from a broken sky.

Shadows writhed. Hinson was moving after all. Perhaps Vivec had missed the heart, glanced off a rib.

No.

Again, panic. Vivec stabbed the man again and again. Knife like a cock thrust into the man, opening him pink and deep.

The loathsome movement continued, Hinson’s limbs boiling with life, his eyes rupturing as the things in the Sea took him. Beetle and maggot, centipede and worm burst from his flesh. They scurried away, found another corpse and another, their numbers swelling as flesh grew swollen and tore.

Behind him, heavy tread of foot on the path.

Terror seized Vivec and he scurried away from Hinson’s remains and crawled deeper into the grasses. Here was the thing he’d been branded for, catching up.

Lightning a fourth time. It illuminated a thing that should not be. Nine feet tall, wrought from cast-off limb and torso. Hands grasped the air as it came, eyes in its chest sought even as the skull held in an arm where a neck should be swept the grass. When it spoke, it was with the rot of ages behind it.

“Here, little man. Here. Let Logos feed.”

As it moved, more of the ruptured bodies joined it, grafting to its pallid skin, stitched by centipede and nightcrawler.

Vivec trembled. The skull swung his way, paused.

“Ah, the brand. I see you. Come. Come into the dark.”

The thing waded through the ruins of men to reach him. The brand on his back pulsed, ached, crawled. He felt maggots in the wound, heard the buzz of flies.

“Do you know they killed me?” Logos asked. “Your father’s fathers. They killed me in the temples, and they killed me in the plains. This is their curse.”

It came on, the stench like a charnel house.

Vivec rose to his knees. The lottery. He’d won the lottery. The caravan should be away. Still, the Grass Sea had taken his family as it would take him. He clutched his dagger, waited. The thing came close, so close he saw the rippling of its flesh, the putrid life in its limbs. With a cry, he lashed out. The dagger caught the thing in the skull, lodging in its hollow eye socket. It drew back. Chuckled.

“Oh, little one.”

It grabbed him with four of its limbs, their grip like iron. Its breath was like Hinson’s. Stew and drink, had they sat hot and wet a thousand years.

“It’s easier this way, lad,” it said, and tore him limb from limb.

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