Kehr walked until the sight, the sound, and the smell of the pathetic commoners had disappeared into the growing shadows. The barbarian's blood boiled in sullen anger; his fists clenched, knuckles white. Did those fools not know who held their lives in hand? Did they realize how much they had slowed Kehr's journey, how they had cost him days of travel for a pittance of dry bread? How dare they?!
The sun crept quietly behind the mountains, and the barbarian's rage was scoured with bleak frustration. Roaring, he pulled Scorn from his back and, gripping it with both hands, flung it into the darkness.
"Come, Sister! Come and speak of my betrayal! Come with your black tongue and name me!"
He fell to his knees, and the shadows stole around him. Kehr closed his eyes as footsteps drew near. His sister would come whether or not he was protecting half-witted peasants. What use is there in— Kehr's breath froze in his throat.
The footsteps were many, too many, clicking sharply against the Iron Path.
"I am not your sister, but I name you," came a voice, low and thick. Bleating. "I name you fool and prey and, yes, traitor."
Kehr leapt to his feet and was knocked backward. The barbarian rolled and tried to come up, but several goatmen caught him in their fierce grips. He shook two of them off but was then hit from behind, and he lost feeling in his legs. More khazra piled on top of him, and everything started to go black.
"Enough! Bind the man. Bring him here!"
Kehr heard the clinking of chains and felt cold manacles pinch tightly around his wrists, cutting his skin. He was kicked, bitten, pulled roughly to his feet. A rib snapped. Blood ran down his back, his arms. Sounds, pain, anger—they all seemed to come from a distance.
"This road is ours, this Iron Path. You abandoned your sheep too late, barbarian."
Kehr lifted his head, blinked the hot wetness from his eyes. Before him stood a monstrous khazra twice the size of the largest goatman he had ever seen. Despite the haze of blood and pain, Kehr was surprised. This misbegotten thing was an abomination even by khazra standards. Hulking shoulders wound into broad arms that reached the ground with thorny knuckles, gray-violet skin scarred with vile letters, runes, and other characters that writhed across the tortured flesh with ersatz life. Instead of two spiraled horns, four sprouted from the knotted skull, branching forward like thick wooden tendrils and arching around the jutting jaw with an obscenely gentle curve. The horns were heavy, girded with iron, and carved with the same markings that decorated its skin. Dense black hair, matted with blood and crude dyes of green and brown, carpeted the legs down to cloven ebony hooves adorned with rugged nails. The monster raised its head back with a bleating laugh, and Kehr cringed; he saw flat, simian dugs hanging like dried fish, pierced with dull copper rings. This khazra was female.
She reached out, dragging her rough fingers across the top of the barbarian's head, his cheek, and his neck with clumsy tenderness. Kehr choked in revulsion. She chuckled, her fingers catching on his scarred chest.
"I am not the only one marked with godwords, eh?" She spoke in fetid tones that curdled around him, her breath sour and moist. She traced the scored lines running over his heart, marks he had kept hidden beneath his cloak.
"Ha! Do you not read?" And here she stepped back, lifting her arms to display her vibrant scars. "My words bring strength. My words bring command and fire and power from our dark master. He who charged me to take this road scrawled these words across my flesh and made me queen!
"But you?" she chortled. "You bear this? Ha! Ha!"
In the growing shadow, Kehr saw that the matriarch's markings did indeed give off an arcane light, a violet shimmer that danced just outside his blurred focus. She motioned to one of the goatmen behind him.
"Bring the others. Do not kill them yet. I wish for the sheep to see their coward protector!"
There was a mewling reply, and Kehr hung his head. The others? Have the refugees fallen so quickly? This question was followed by another thought, swift and sharp. Of course they have. He had abandoned them. Another betrayal.
More and more goatmen arrived. Two dozen, three. Each showed obeisance to the matriarch, to the vile queen. Some brought bloody sacrifices, unrecognizable and dripping parts of beasts or men, which she sniffed and either stuffed down her toothy mouth or threw back. The smell of filth and goat blood filled the air.
Meanwhile, the khazra holding Kehr's arms hurled him to the ground and dragged him until he was lying at her cracked hooves. She squatted and caressed his body, hissing and dispensing edicts to her fawning subjects while they built a roaring fire in the center of the road. She crooned softly, and her horned nails scratched along his spine. Again, Kehr felt breath hot on his neck.
"You..." she whispered, "you might serve as a satisfying mount for a time. A chained barbarian pet will make a fine trophy for the queen of the Bone clan."
Kehr tried to spit, but his mouth was dry.
There were cries in the distance, horribly familiar. He heard Aron's voice raised in anger, then pain. The khazra parted, and the refugees were herded into view. They were terrified; some were sobbing. Aron was pulled behind them by two goatmen, bloody and unarmed, still struggling. A tall black-horned khazra—one obviously favored by the matriarch—came before her. He carried Aron's axe in his hands.
"This one. He... he fight. He kill some of us." The goatman's words were hard to understand, his speech slurred and slow from using a language not intended for his long bovid jaw and teeth. He lacked his mistress's intelligence, magically induced or otherwise.
The matriarch chuckled.
"Ha! We have found another wolf amongst the sheep! Bring him to me."
Aron was shoved forward, and he stumbled to his knees. Kehr could tell that the woodcutter's arm was broken by the way he held it, and his mouth was trickling blood. Aron dragged himself to his feet, and then his eyes met Kehr's and went wide.
"What? I thought you escaped. How did they—"
"Ha!" cried the gloating matriarch, delighted. "He begins to doubt now."
Aron was staring at the monstrous shape of this khazra queen, but her words shook him. His eyes darted back down to Kehr, where he lay prone at her hooves. She laughed again.
"Your protector? Your savior? This coward, he knew you were doomed. He took your food and then ran when he saw the ambush was upon you. He saw us and threw away his sword!"
Aron drew a shaky breath.
"No. No, he protected us. He... he slayed your—"
"Useless scouts. Weaklings. Drudges I sent to keep you moving on the road. Keep you moving to me."
She reached down to stroke Kehr's shoulder lovingly.
"Your easy faith in this traitor, so like your kind. No wonder these mountains, they cry for my whip, cry to shrug free of these mice infesting every canyon. They beg to be the throne for the Bone clan."
The goatmen cheered, and weapons were raised in unison. The matriarch knew how to stir her people.
Aron was angry, his pain now forgotten. He stepped toward Kehr, fists clenched.
"You starved us for this? You feigned honor and courage for our bread only to run when real danger loomed?"
Aron spit on Kehr in a wet trail of blood and saliva.
"Sultans? Lords? You betrayed our trust for your khazra whore!"
The matriarch guffawed. Kehr struggled to sit upright.
"No. Woodcutter. Aron. I guarded you well... I did not know this—"
The queen grabbed Kehr by the wrists and yanked him to his feet. Her sorcerous tattoos shimmered with vicious light, feeding arcane strength into arms already craggy with muscle. The barbarian gasped as he was lifted into the air, arms stretched tight out to the sides, the long chains dangling from his manacles like metal ribbons.
"Look, little man. Your protector is marked! Ha! You ignorant hill folk had a warning writ clear across his chest. This one is named traitor!"
Aron narrowed his eyes. The woodcutter was trembling with rage. "Kill me if you will, khazra. But I would have this traitor's blood."
Now the matriarch's laughter grew to a howl, and the other khazra joined in with milky chuckles.
"Yes! Yes! Kill this barbarian, little man. Kill him, and perhaps I let you go to spread word of the Bone clan in the lowlands.
"Gherbek!" she called to her favored goatman. "Give the woodcutter his axe. Let him cut us some branches!"
The khazra slunk forward, extending the weapon. "Something for you, weakling," he crooned.
Aron took the axe with his good hand and used it as a cane, limping toward the barbarian. Kehr could see he was gravely wounded; the woodcutter's own blood ran down the shaft and the blade, leaving pools on the ground behind him. The matriarch lowered Kehr into Aron's reach as if she were offering a toy to a child. Aron raised his axe and placed the edge shakily against the barbarian's chest.
"This scar," he growled to Kehr. "Were you marked for a traitor? Tell me true, barbarian. Tell me true this one time."
Kehr dropped his head. His voice was low and heavy with shame.
"Yes. I abandoned my people while they warred with the reavers of Entsteig. I left my duty, and I left to follow a woman—the daughter of a passing merchant. I am a traitor. A coward. Worse, the Stag tribe was brought down with Arreat's fall before I could return and beg forgiveness."
Kehr lifted his face, a face tight with grief.
"When I could not find them, I marked myself a traitor, woodsman. Cut my own flesh. Scored it with a knife white-hot from the fire. Still they curse me for returning; still they reject my penance. My dead sister... she haunts me every night at sundown. They will not forgive. They never will. I do not deserve their pardon."
The barbarian closed his eyes. "And I do not ask for yours."
Aron's expression grew distant. He seemed to hear words from years long past, words that sounded hard and true, that cut through the animal laughter filling the air. Only Kehr heard his whispered response.
"Names have power, Kehr Odwyll. This witch is wrong about mountain folk. Our forefathers were the first to pen the ancient letters you bear on your chest." He leaned forward. "I know your mark, barbarian. I knew it the moment you arrived, but I also saw your courage. And that is another sort of truth."
The woodcutter pushed against the axe, and the blade bit into Kehr's skin. The barbarian gasped.
"This axe is anointed with my own blood," said Aron in a clear, loud voice. The matriarch laughed in surprise. "And with it I change your mark."
The blade drew a red line through the middle of the scar.
"Now it names you brother."
The matriarch hissed and dropped Kehr to the ground. She lunged forward and delivered a sharp kick to the woodsman. Aron flew backward over the bonfire in an arc of blood and torn flesh rent by the nail-studded hoof. He landed in a heap on the other side and struggled to rise.
"Little fool!" growled the goatmen's queen. She was livid that her entertainment had been spoiled. "You think to craft godwords with your simple axe? You think such power can be wrought without terrible cost, without agony, without dark covenants?"
She reached down, lifted the barbarian by the manacles again, and began to pull his arms wide. The colored runes around her own thick arms rippled and danced while Kehr's muscles stretched in taut relief.
"I will pull him apart like bread," she howled, shaking the air, "and choke your people with the pieces!"
There was a crack as bone slid out of joint, and Kehr groaned.
Aron lifted his bloody head and reached to the tortured barbarian.
"You are forgiven, Kehr."
The goatmen laughed. One of them stepped up and drove a spear through Aron's back. The woodsman was still.
Suddenly, a piercing, braying cry tore the night sky. The khazra went silent. Scores of black slit eyes turned to the matriarch.
She stood trembling, her crooked teeth clenched, breath coming in labored, panting moans. She lowered her horns and dug her hooves into the cracked ground, but... she could not move her arms any farther apart. The matriarch hissed as Kehr began to slowly, inexorably bring his arms together, and hers as well. Straining against his efforts, she lifted the barbarian higher.
Kehr curled his hands around to grip the fingers locked around his wrists. Too late, she tried to release her hold on him, but she was caught.
"No!" she whined through bared teeth, spit frothing down her chin. "My... my strength defies yours! You... you cannot do this!"
Her muscles bulged obscenely as he drew her arms together. A shoulder popped, and the matriarch threw her head back with another screeching cry. The barbarian was bending her arms around himself at a vicious angle, and she could not wrench loose from the wringing embrace. The surrounding goatmen milled about nervously as their queen's cries took on a plaintive, pathetic tone. Twisting to free herself, she lurched ahead... and the barbarian found his feet.
Now she was his.
Leaning down, Kehr used the creature's momentum to pull her over his shoulders and into the bonfire with a crash. Panicked, the other khazra scattered as burning branches fell among them. The barbarian roared to the empty sky and flung his arms wide. The manacles snapped from his wrists and dropped to the ground, chains ringing down around him like broken bells.
Squealing, the matriarch staggered upright, a smoldering silhouette black against the flames. The barbarian charged and leapt into the fire, knocking the monster backward and grabbing a hold of her tangled horns. With a cruel twist, he tore them from her head and raised them high. He then swung the curling knot down as a club, beating at her scorched form to the sound of cracking bones.
The night trembled as her wails tempered the writhing smoke with agony. The Iron Path shook in harmony with Kehr Odwyll's blows, and ancient magic resonated through the mountain's spine, accepting the barbarian's fury. Accepting his sacrifice.
It was hours before his rage had ebbed. The sun rose in docile silence, soaking the peaks in red.
Stepping from the pyre, Kehr dropped the gory mass to the ground and scanned the stained stretch of the Iron Path. No khazra remained or would ever return to this place. The refugees were not far off. Kehr saw they were huddled around Aron's stricken figure, motionless with fear.
"Gather what food you can scavenge," the barbarian rumbled. "Our destination is two days distant."