The sun rose, filling the horizon, spreading a scarlet glow over the world. The aftermath of the battle – the earthly remains of two armies – lay silhouetted, stark black against the bloody background. The dust-laden wind moaned as it laid its soft blanket over the newly dead. The muted calling of birds drew his attention to the lack of other, more human sounds. The bitter iron smell of blood mingled with the fetid odours of death and decay. Alaris stared, remembering the bright, joyous army that had marched out of the city gates less than a week earlier. He slipped off Blaze, leaving him snatching mouthfuls of sparse grass in amongst the rocky outcrops, a little way back from the devastation. Blaze was content to rest from the hard riding that had brought them both to this place.
Alaris heard a muffled clink as two stones rolled together, and eased his sword quietly out of its sheath. An old woman and a child slowly picked their way through the jumbled corpses and severed limbs. They passed a lone raven picking daintily at the head of one soldier, plucking strings of raw dripping flesh and jelly from the open staring eye. The raven ignored their passage. The woman and child shuffled on slowly, stepping carefully over, around and through the tangles of mutilated humanity. Every now and again, they stooped to one of the corpses, disturbing crows which rose in raucous murders, beating their wings strongly to lift briefly into the sky before settling back to feast on some other hapless victim.
“Not him, not him, Granny.” The child’s high voice piped.
“He has to be here,” the crone muttered. “I saw him fall in my dream. All our bonny boys fell.” A tear scoured through the grime on her seamed cheeks, splashing onto the earth below.
“Don’t cry, Granny. Maybe you dreamed wrong this time. Maybe he’s safe somewhere else.”
Alaris watched the pair continue their painstaking investigation of the dead. They didn’t see him lurking in the shadows cast by the rocks, and he stood motionless to avoid drawing their attention. He waited to see if they found the one they were seeking. After the tenth or eleventh body had been lifted, considered and discarded, he lost patience.
“Who do you seek?” his low growl echoed out from the rocks.
The crone turned towards the sound of Alaris’s voice and he saw her empty eye sockets. A seer. Damn, I don’t have time for this.
“You come late to the feast. The other carrion eaters have beaten you to the best. Come closer, let me see you.”
Drawn inexorably by her strength of will and his own curiosity, Alaris made his way to her side. Her wrinkled fingers touched his face, learning its contours. She gasped as she felt her way down the scar running from his eyebrow to the corner of his mouth.
“The ruined man. Now I know we have reached the time of change.”
Alaris heard a moan and turned away from the pair, moving toward the sound. One of the battered soldiers clung to life. He rolled the man onto his back, noting the blood-soaked plaid draped across the fighting leathers. It matched the child’s kirtle. And like her, the soldier had red hair, though his was matted over his face and clotted with blood.
“Might this be him you seek?”
The child fell to her knees beside the man, brushing the hair out of his eyes.
“It’s Callum, Granny. An’ he’s still alive.”
Callum’s eyes flickered open. They were the same brilliant blue as the child’s. He looked at the child crouched at his side, and then at Alaris.
“End it now, stranger. I would join my brothers at the feast.”
“No, Callum,” the child said, almost crossly. “Wait for Granny.”
The crone hobbled across and bent slowly, leaning heavily on Alaris. She groped at Callum’s neck, pulling out a medallion. With the child’s help she tugged it over Callum’s head and tucked it into a pocket in her robes.
“Now, Ruined Man, play your part.”
Alaris hesitated. Should he do this? The coup de grace was something ordinary men gave to their fellows. His curse would ensure that if he tried to do it, something would go wrong and it would not end well.
“Do your part,” the crone quavered. “Can’t you see he’s hurting.”
Sighing, Alaris drew his stiletto from his wrist sheath and punched it into Callum’s heart, surprising himself with the cleanness of the kill.
“This is yours by right.”
The crone handed him the medallion. The heavy gold sat snugly in his hand and felt warm to the touch. There was no trace of Callum’s blood on it. He turned it over, peering at the runes incised deeply into the piece.
“What is this?” he began.
“Your proof of the right to lead the tribe to war,” the crone snapped back. “Yours was the kill, so yours is the right and the duty.”
He stared at her, taking in her altered stance. A new sprightliness infused her. Gone was the war-weary crone searching for slaughtered relatives. In her place, a seer confronted him, arms folded, stern of countenance. She waited for him to accept his destiny.
“I have no time for this. My king waits for my report and I must travel far and fast. I can’t saddle myself with a raggle-taggle bunch of tribal foot soldiers. Besides, how can I lead when I have none of the tribe’s blood running in my veins?”
“Did you know your father?” The seer was insistent, he’d give her that.
“I didn’t even know my mother,” he flashed back. “I’m a street rat through and through, but what I do, I do well… or I did until the curse took me.”
“The curse was mine. It wouldn’t have affected you without the blood tie. Blood will out, you know that. I needed you here, in this place, at this time. When you accept the leadership, the curse will lift.”
Alaris hawked and spat. It couldn’t be that simple. He didn’t believe all the misfortunes and bad luck of the last year could be laid at the door of this ancient tribal seer. But she hadn’t finished speaking.
“You will lead. The tribe will accept you when you bring them the token and the next seer.”
“That’s me,” the child piped up. “But I ain’t a seer yet. First you have to take my day sight, so that I can see the futures.”
“Look, I know I’ve done some bad stuff in my king’s service, but even I draw the line at blinding children. Besides, what’s wrong with your Granny carrying on as seer. Your tribe don’t need two seers does it?”
He turned away, heading back to his horse. The brat followed him.
“You can’t escape it. Things will carry on going wrong for you and in the end you’ll just have to come back here and accept it. An’ if you don’t have a new seer, everything will get very bad, very fast.”
“I’ll take that risk,” he tossed the words over his shoulder as he swung into Blaze’s saddle. “Things can’t get any worse than they are already.”
“But you have to take me. What use is a seer without someone to guide?”
Alaris glanced at the child clinging to his stirrup, then looked back at the crone. No longer upright and implacable, she knelt beside the dead tribesman, cradling his head in her lap. She began to croon a lament in a high quavering voice.
“When she finishes singing, she’ll kill herself. The seer follows her leader into the afterlife, but first she has to pass on the leadership. You took the token, but you don’t want to lead.”
The lament ended. Alaris watched incredulous as the blind seer unerringly found the dead tribesman’s sword and plunged it into her breast. She died without a sound. The child looked imploringly at Alaris but said nothing more. He glared at her and dismounted, threw her up into the saddle and remounted, sitting behind her. She wouldn’t add that much to Blaze’s load and he could leave her at the first village they came to.