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Oliver D. Bernuetz's Stories

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The Compassionless Heart

(This story takes place sometime before the Dragonkill War)

Curses and blasphemies blistered the air as Naul Aur attempted to push the dead horse off of his pinned and undoubtedly broken leg. He cursed his horse’s poor luck (if horses could have luck), he cursed the lucky javelin blow that damn Votanki had landed that had slain his horse, and he especially cursed the fate that had led to his ever setting eyes on this foul, stinking, backwater known as Votankiland. He might as well have been trying to move a boulder however. The horse would not budge. Small wonder Naul thought, there probably wasn’t a horse to compare to his dead mount any closer than Dolebury. He’d raised that horse from a colt himself. A pure-bred Carmanian Charger of the same bloodline as Syranthir’s own mount. Twenty hands tall, armoured in bronze barding, swift as the wind, savage as a tiger, brave as a bear...dead as a doornail. Naul pounded on the carcass with his bare hands and roared his frustration to the heavens. He was almost tempted to call on the god to free him but only a fool would squander divine favour on moving a dead horse. However he would not remain pinned under the horse to serve as an object of amusement for Balazar’s followers when they returned from their pursuit of the defeated and fleeing Votanki. Calling upon the power of the bull Naul felt his muscles swell as the dark power of the bull coursed through him. His face darkened and his eyes reddened. With a great heave he pushed the dead horse aside and asked his sword’s spirit, Bane to heal his leg. Bane did so and Naul stood. The power of the bull still coursed through his veins and he felt a great rage at the world. He let the rage take him and he stormed over the battlefield snapping saplings like twigs, heaving rocks around like pebbles, and mutilating the dead. He noticed that one of Balazar’s  men he thought dead was merely wounded and was staring at him in horror.  He went over to the man. "So, light follower you thought you knew what followed Balazar did you?" He picked up the man who bleated in terror and tried to resist. "I think perhaps you have seen too much to live." The man struggled uselessly and begged for his life. Naul casually twisted his neck around and let the now lifeless body drop to the ground. He sighed and let the power of the bull slip from his body. Now how was he going to explain the damage done to the battlefield? It might have been easier if he hadn’t killed one of his injured allies after the last fight as well.

That evening a templar brought word that Balazar Lightson expected Naul Aur to attend him in his tent. Naul went to Balazar’s tent after eating his evening’s meal. The tent was as plain and simple as any of the tents inhabited by the lesser lights in Balazar’s army. The guards made the hazari wait as one ducked inside to tell his lord that Naul Aur was outside. He reappeared quickly and motioned for Naul Aur to enter. He and his mate cast dark looks at each other as Naul Aur entered the tent. Inside the tent glowed with a magical light that was augmented by the glow from Balazar’s gold plated armour.

"Come in, Naul." said Balazar who sat on his camp stool still wearing his armour. Light of the Dawn, Balazar’s long spear rested in its stand near his right hand, glowing with its characteristic rosy glow. Naul did not like the look of this. Balazar gestured for Naul to sit on another camp stool. "May I offer you some refreshment? Perhaps some fruit juice since you do not partake of stronger beverages?" "No thank you my lord." said Naul in his badly accented Votanki, matching the language Balazar spoke. "May we not converse in Pelorian or Carmanian, my lord instead of this barbaric tongue?" "I think not, Naul. To speak in Votanki will remind you of where you are." Naul Aur did not like the sound of that. "Gizzen tells me that something strange happened after the skirmish this morning. They left you pinned beneath your horse when they gave pursuit to the Votanki rebels yet when they returned to the scene of battle there you were free." Naul opened his mouth to speak but Balazar raised a hand forestalling him. "Not only were you freed but something had torn the battlefield apart and one of my men had had his neck wrung for him like a chicken. Gizzen tells me that when asked what had happened you spoke of a large bull rampaging across the battlefield after he and the others had left. A bull that left no spoor not human." Naul opened his mouth to speak but Balazar raised his hand and forestalled him again. "Please Naul, do not speak until I am finished. I would not want to cast any doubts on the word of a Sword of Humakt or a Carmanian hazari so I will not ask you any direct questions." Naul bristled, "Even suggesting obliquely that I may lie is an insult, my lord", he replied icily in Carmanian. "I would not want to lose an important ally like yourself Naul, nor would I carelessly insult a Sword of Humakt but my patience is nearing its end." Balazar replied in the same language. "I am not insulting you right now and I am not challenging you right now though I will kill you if you force me to. You have been a valuable ally and I had thought, a friend as well. But I will tell you this and believe me that I mean what I say. If there are any more suspicious deaths AFTER a battle is over you and I will meet on the field of honour, so help me Yelm and Yemalio and I WILL kill you. Now get out."

Naul turned and stormed out of the tent. As he headed back to his tent he wondered why he didn’t just challenge Balazar and kill him on the field of honour. To sit there and as much as accuse him of slaying the wounded! It puzzled him that Balazar had some kind of hold over him that prevented him from killing him after being subjected to such dire insults. If Balazar had asked him straight out whether he had slain the wounded he would have said yes. They had proven themselves weak and unworthy of being saved.  Anyone with any sense would know that this was true. Unfortunately these Yemalians had no sense. They may worship a god of the Truth rune like Humakt but He was a much weaker deity than Humakt. Only Humakti understood the truths about warriors and even some of the Eastern Humakti seemed deficient in their understanding of Humakt’s Truths. If only suspicion about the death of Shah Haran’s nephew hadn’t made it expedient that he leave Carmania. Why anyone should have cared about that foul, perverted, effeminate little coward was beyond him. But cared they did and questions where asked about where Iffle’s head had vanished to after he was slain in battle. Fortunately there had been a convenient dung heap nearby after Naul had killed Iffle in a duel. It had been easy enough to let the Dara Happans take the blame for the mutilation and for taking the head. Naul still didn’t know how the Shah had learned that it had been Naul who had killed Iffle. Perhaps someone had decided to petition the gods or one of those mercenaries he had bribed had betrayed him. No matter, once Naul had heard that suspicion was being cast at him he had had to leave Carmania. Service to the Shah had been his life’s goal but his strong personal sense of honour could not accommodate the lax morals and weakness of the Shah’s court. Naul entered his tent and lay down to sleep.

The next morning Naul had almost made it out of the tent when he heard the ululations of the Yemalians as they greeted their god’s father. No matter how early he got up they always seemed to be up first. As he ducked out under the tent’s flap he saw the faithful grouped around Balazar and his shield brother Trilus. He headed out past the tents to engage in his own devotions to his god. As usual a small crowd of young Votanki gathered just outside the circle he had drawn in the dirt as he began to practice his sword forms with Bane. If they knew what Naul Aur knew about the sword’s properties Balazar would undoubtedly asked him to relinquish the sword. That would have precipitated the battle between the two that Naul increasingly saw as inevitable. Naul was still uncertain why he hesitated to challenge Balazar. His soul craved a proper challenge and Naul was certain that he could easily slay most of the warriors in the camp without breaking into a sweat. Only Balazar’s inner circle of warriors that he had brought with him from somewhere west of Votankiland (he refused to say from where exactly and Naul’s ignorance of the lands outside of Carmania didn’t help any) would prove any sort of a challenge and that was mostly because they would inevitably fight as a unit. Naul ached to attack the circle of Votanki around him (they would fall like wheat to a peasant he sneered) and then cut his way out of the camp. Part of him wondered at this bloodthirstiness unsuited to a Humakti and a Hazar but that part was a very small part with a very weak voice. A hazari’s proper role was serving a lord and Balazar had been the first he had found after leaving Carmania that seemed to have that certain intensity of purpose and vision that made a lord worth following. He was undeniably a great man but why he wanted to unite this misbegotten land of Votankiland was a mystery. He spoke of establishing a new place where his followers could worship in the fashion they choose. He’d heard some of Balazar’s Votanki followers suggesting that Balazar and Trilus has a different relationship than that of just spearman and shieldman. Naul refused to even consider this possibility as he had no interest in getting into trouble over killing Trilus or Balazar. The possibility did seem to answer the question as to why Balazar was here in Votankiland if you took into account what little Naul knew of the Yemalio cult’s intolerant nature.

This brooding line of thought was interrupted by the arrival in camp of a messenger riding a lathered horse. It was one of Balazar’s men and he was visibly upset. What a weakling to show his feelings so openly thought Naul as he gathered his equipment and moved towards Balazar. "Light Son, Light Son, a message from Elkoi." Balazar gestured for the man to follow him into his tent. He nodded in Naul’s direction to invite him along and gestured in Trilus’ direction as well. Kartas, the Light Priest and Many Skins, the Votanki sinwist, religious leader of Balazar’s Votanki followers were already in the tent. Balazar motioned for all to sit and Trilus offered the messenger some water. The messenger began to speak but Balazar told him to drink first. Once he had finished and had composed himself Balazar asked him what news he had from Elkoi. "My lord, Barranis, may Yemalio shine on him always, offers his greetings and instructed me to tell you that a great evil has befallen the Votanki." This statement was greeted with a surprised murmur. Balazar gestured for silence. "Does Barranis say what the nature of this evil is?" "Yes, milord.", he said hesitating for a moment. "The mothers of the Speckled Rock hearth have broken their oath." A stunned silence greeted this statement. Even Naul was shocked. If what the messenger said was true it meant that the mothers of the Speckled Rock hearth had broken the oath they had sworn on the Styx. No one could know what sort of disaster this would bring but disaster it would bring. Even Balazar had paled at the news and it took him a moment to compose himself. Once he had he asked the messenger to clarify what exactly had happened. The messenger seemed reluctant to speak of such an enormity but when he did he spoke in a whisper.

"What I have to tell you I have heard of from one of the cursed who was there. As with all the hearths that have placed themselves under your leadership, the Speckled Rock hearth swore a mighty oath on the Styx to keep the peace you had made between them. This peace held true and strong until a warrior of the Crimson Sand hearth fell into the hands of the Speckled Rock hearth. This warrior whose name I will not mention had had a history of torturing and killing any and all he considered an enemy. This he had done in secret so as to avoid censure from his own hearth. Since the Crimson Sand hearth and the Speckled Rock hearth were long traditional enemies he preyed especially on those of the Speckled Rock. Shortly before all the members of the two hearths had sworn their mighty oath this warrior came upon two young women and their four children camped alone along a stream. This so-called warrior took them all prisoner and slowly tortured them to death in an unspeakable fashion.  Then he went and swore your oath."

Many Skins interrupted the account to state, "Obviously the spirit of the Old Friend of the Votanki was strong in this one." Naul knew this to mean that the Votanki thought him to have been influenced by the evil spirit they knew as Cannibal. The messenger continued,

"He then returned to the scene of his crime and ate of the remains. Then he found a hole to rest in."

Shocked gasps were heard at this further enormity.

"Returning from swearing your oath the people of the Speckled Rock came upon the torture scene. They were distraught and swore a bloody vengeance on the one who had done this deed thinking it to be an outsider, either a troll or an ogre. Their most skilled trackers found a trail the monster had left and they all followed him to his hiding place. They found him hiding in a cave."

"Just like the Old Friend." muttered Many Skins. Balazar silenced him with a gesture. "Go on," he said. The messenger continued,

"They dragged him out of the cave and were horrified to discover he was of the Crimson Sand. They had just sworn a mighty oath, not to harm one of another hearth and here they had one on whom they wished to enact a terrible vengeance on. They asked him if he had done the horrible deeds they had discovered and believing himself safe under the oath he’d sworn he laughed in their faces and said that he had. The people groaned and the men turned to leave. Wait, shouted the eldest hearth mother, Is this one to escape judgement for his crimes? Are the wrongfully slain to be offered no vengeance? We cannot act replied the senior sinwist present, we have sworn a mighty oath not to break the peace. Cowards and fools spat back the hearth mother. Blood calls to blood and blood demands blood, this one shall not escape his due. No, you cannot replied the horrified sinwist, else you will bring doom upon our people! Better doom than the thought that our blood lies unavenged. If you will not help us then take the children and go! Though horrified the men could not find it in themselves to gainsay the women so they gathered the children and fled. All except one who stayed behind to witness what was to happen. He watched the clearing from a hiding place nearby. The women gave their families a day to travel and put some distance between them before they set to their grim work. It was a quiet group that camped by that cave. The women had all rent their clothing and torn their hair, they smeared ashes in their hair and rubbed soot on their skin. They fasted and they sat and they sung songs for the dead as they saw themselves as already dead. The fleeing men and children too had donned the garb of mourning and lamented their loss. As for the one from the Crimson Hearth he lay curled up in a tight ball within the guarded cave and neither ate nor moved for the whole day. Once the eldest hearth mother judged that the men and children had gone far enough she rose from her place by the cold hearth (for they had extinguished all the fire they carried - Many Skins gasped again at the enormity of this act) and taking her hearth knife she went into the cave. The other women rose from their silence when she did and taking their hearth knives joined her within the cave. The one who told me of said that the screaming lasted for a long time and towards the end it no longer sounded like anything human. After a long silence the women emerged from the cave and stood in silence waiting for their doom. They didn’t have long to wait for as they stood a great buzzing was heard and an enormous cloud of gnats was seen approaching. The women stood their ground and turned towards the sound. The gnats swooped down on the women and began to bite them. The women stood for a while but after a brief time even the strongest could no longer stand it and they began to try and flee the gnats. It seemed as if the gnats were driving the women and they were forced to flee into a swamp where they were all drowned. The men and children traveled to Elkoi and threw themselves on the mercy of Barranis. Lord Barranis asks what he is to do with these people."

Having finished this horrible tale, the messenger sat slumped on his stool and would not meet anyone’s eyes. Many Skins began to chant prayers for the dead and everyone else sat and looked at the ground. Even Naul was stunned by the enormity of the acts he had just heard tell of and no one spoke until Balazar broke the near silence. "The Speckled Rock is no more. Return to Barranis and tell him that the men and children who were once of the Speckled Rock are to be told they no longer belong to the Speckled Rock hearth. They are to be divided evenly among all the hearths both those that have sworn allegiance to me and those that have not. Send the ones meant for those hearths that have sworn allegiance to me to live with those hearths and that henceforth they shall consider themselves to be of that hearth. The rest shall stay at Elkoi until their new hearths have sworn allegiance and then they shall be sent to them. The winter hearth of the Speckled Rock shall be destroyed and its location forgotten to all. Let no one speak of this cursed hearth ever again and hope that this way we avert any greater doom. Leave me now to grieve."

Naul and the rest left and the messenger refusing all offers of aid mounted a fresh horse and rode off barely hanging on to his mount. Naul went off to think about what he had heard and to wonder at the feelings Balazar seemed to have for these people. They had told him that Balazar had braved a dragon to steal an idol of the pig goddess for these people. Naul could not for the life of himself see what value people who did not farm or herd had. Hunting was a proper pursuit of nobles but it was no way to make a living.

November 1999

Last updated September 26, 2016

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