A sword and sorcery tale with a supernatural twist. Half-hand’s ragged band have fought their way into a heartless land. Now, they’re exhausted and trapped.
Echoes | Snake Pit
He dreamed. For many it would have been a nightmare but his days were no different to his nights, filled as they were with the gore of grim survival, the desperate slaughter of hopes and good fortune.
This night, Half-Hand lay on a pallet, hiding in the dark corners of a barn, with his exhausted comrades, five of them now, from the original band of twelve. They had been fighting for days, their bodies were bloody, bruised and scarred, and their bellies ached with hunger. Some of them had begin to doubt the nobility of their original purpose, long suffocated as it was in the swamps and pits of their death-dealing.
“Sleep man, you’re so restless!” A whisper hissed from a warrior nearby, and a muscular hand gripped Half-Hand’s arm, bringing both comfort and a warning.
“Aye!” Half-Hand shook off his fellow, and turned deeper into the shadows of the wall behind them. “‘The Dream-eaters. The witch I slew today. Her last words haunt me.”
“You were brave to wade through that nest of black sorcery. The rest of us were already running.”
“I had no choice.” He grunted. “They’d already seen me, I was caught in their infernal snake-pit.”
“Serpents?!” The other man swore.
“Like no others I have seen, longer than a man, and twice as wide. I slew them all and ran. This land is ruled by Baal. Everywhere we come malevolent creatures turn against us.”
“Will you two shut up with your idle reminiscing. The rest of us’re trying to sleep. Tomorrow will be a filthy day.”
Half-hand lapsed into a disgruntled silence. Every day was a filthy day. This company of men, all from the indomitable Northern tribes, were the fiercest band he had served amongst, but even they were struggling with this dark region and its fiendish, daily tortures. They had crossed through the border towns and sought to strike deep within their enemies’ heart, to find the source of the terror that afflicted the fjords and the deep waters of their home, and destroy it within its own lair. So they had roved the mountains, and the valleys, deep into the jungles and back out into these plains. And they found so many enemies, a wall of dark, savage sorcery that had swept across all lands.
“And now, they invade my dreams!” Half-hand drifted to sleep, both welcoming its embrace, and fearing the hours of exposure.
But his restless night-time flirtations soon dissolved into wretched slumber. He wrestled with gigantic tigers, sabre-toothed and eager for the rending of his flesh from his bones, and hordes of dagger-wielding witches that lay their traps in the streams and forest paths of the valleys.
As dawn broke across the land, the sun scattered in fragments through the roof, and pierced the unconscious of the miserable band. Half-hand groaned as he woke. Each in turn the others lifted their battered torsos and wished for a better night’s sleep.
“Ah, so what awaits us today my friends?” Half-hand stretched, pulling his daggers from the beam above his head. He lifted the axe that lay under the pallet and tested his rough check against its cold, soothing surface. “We’ll have to sharpen our weapons today, they’re so blunted by the fighting.
“Oh, always the thinker eh Half-hand?” The sarcasm of Beaker had often offended Half-Hand, but now they all knew it was just a disguise. Inside he possessed the same mix of fear and determination that kept each of them moving.
“Does anyone know where we are?” A small voice from the deepest corner emerged. Her hair was ruffled, she adjusted her thick leather jerkin. Half-hand regarded her. She had proved her worth ten times over in the past few days, and more so than some of the supposedly stronger men. She was fierce, and reckless, qualities he could admire in anyone.
One of the others looked out of the small gap in the roof. “I think we have company.”
Half-hand sighed. He was not the leader of this band, but somehow they looked to him, for his judgement had often proved sound in their survival. “Everyone ready?” Each of the five carried three weapons, one in each hand, and a spare in their belts. They wore no protection on their heads, but their chests and legs were well covered by thick leather garments, now filthy with the slime of battle.
“They’re spreading out, perhaps they’re not coming for us?”
“That’s too much to ask for.” Half-hand drew his finger across his neck, and they all fell silent. He jabbed upwards, and they threaded through to the rotting bails of hay that had cushioned their falls they day before, when they had discovered this barn, amongst the many scattered across the abandoned farmstead.
They crept up, one by one, emerging onto the roof. The sun was still low on the horizon, struggling to illuminate the ghastly landscape, casting long shadows from the hundreds of figures that advanced towards this and all the other buildings nearby.
Half-hand looked around and saw no easy escape. They were too late to run ahead of the attack, for they would be trapped and butchered by the superior numbers. They had to hope that silence would be their best ally, so he flattened himself against the roof, and kept his head down. The others shuffled along, their feet more assured than their minds.
The long, wide line of assailants grew closer to the buildings, the shadows licking at the edges of the walls. Half-hand peered tentatively and saw that they were beginning to separate, to thread their way through the outhouses. He saw a chance to engage just a few of the enemy over by the hills to the west. They had brought horses, although only four. Half-hand looked back at his companions: the odds were against them all surviving were low. He gestured for the others to follow him, as he bent down and shuffled along the roof, leapt quietly onto a balcony then swung across to the next barn. If any of them lost their footing, and fell, they would be lost, but one by one, they landed softly, and leapt ahead, keeping out of sight.
Beaker tripped. His foot crashed through the rotting hay of the roof, and soon he rattled down into the barn, shrieking with fear.
The line of shadows halted, then converged and swarmed round, chargeng into the barn.
“He’s lost! But he has given us our chance.” Quick, we must go!” The remaining four fled, with most of the enemy concentrating on the front of the barn, the desperate band of survivors pelted from the back and ran as fast as hunger and the dwindling desire for survival could allow.
For a moment, they had the advantage. But soon they were spotted, and with a roar, the horde of shadows joined the chased.
One by one, the ragged band was overwhelmed, cut from behind, slain by the long daggers and spears of their enemy, until only one was left, Half-Hand, who reached the desultory trees at the foot of the hills. He ran, his heart erupting though his chest, but still he hurtled on, up the hill, leaping across the boulders, springing over a ravine, tracked still by a long line of dark shapes.
And soon, he leapt again. Just as he scrambled into the air he looked down and saw the severed heads of the snake pit he had left only the night before, and as he landed the teeth of a dying serpent squelched into his calf, crippling his motion. It broke his fall, and then his head, on the rocks nearby.
Later he woke. It was dark. His eyes flickered, and he became aware of long dark hair snaking at his cheek, a nail dragging at the flesh of his lips, and the livid eyes of an ancient woman kneeling over him.
“Oh, your dreams taste so good my young friend.”
Half-hand shook his legs. He was bound.
“Tell us more about your battles when you came here.” The crone smirked.
He tried to bellow, but his own half hand was swiftly shoved into the back of his throat by the bony fist of the sorceress. Gagging and helpless, he realised that he had neither left the snake pit, nor slain the serpents, and soon, the witches would consume his dreams until his brain was hollowed out. Slowly, he felt himself being sucked back into the waters of an intoxicating, choking sleep, surrounded by the receding mockery of the Dream-Eaters.[end]
Text, image, audio © 2014 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam, Elise Wells (for the end credits to podcast links for iTunes and Stitcher), Logic Pro, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, Apogee Condenser microphone, Rotring pens and inks, Daler Rowney acrylic ink, and Alfons Schmidt’s fantastic Notebook app.
More next week…
There are a few more stories in this series:
Here’s a related post, 5 Steps to the SF and Fantasy Podcasts