Richard Lee Byers

The masked witches


Vandar Cherlinka hefted the straw-wrapped earthenware bottle. The lack of weight made it plain that only a few swallows of jhuild remained inside, and he wished he could keep all the tart red firewine for himself.

Only for an instant, though, and then he pushed the thought firmly out of his mind. For no man rose to lead a berserker lodge without training himself to be as generous as he was valorous. He told himself that he never would have felt the selfish urge at all if his traveling companion weren t so uncompanionable.

The problem wasn t that Lady Yhelbruna reputedly the oldest hathran in all Rashemen never removed her brown leather mask and gloves or even pushed back the cowl of her robe in Vandar s view. As curious as the next fellow, he d wondered if at some point during the trek, he might discover if the witch was a magically preserved beauty or a hideously wrinkled crone the only possibilities that gossip and rumor entertained but he hadn t really expected it. No, what rankled was her cheerless taciturnity for mile after hard, clambering mile, the silence broken only by her incomprehensible murmurs to herself and the occasional terse command.

Still, he wouldn t let her haughty aloofness turn him into a bad companion. He pulled the cork, and it came out with a little popping sound. He offered the bottle. Instead of taking it, she suddenly twisted away from him, and the campfire, too, to peer at the black masses of the mountains rising against the night sky. The patches of snow on the peaks were pale smudges in the moonlight.

Vandar s heart beat a little faster. He cast about but saw nothing. Which didn t necessarily mean they were alone on the mountainside. The High Country possessed more than its share of dangers, and it was possible a hathran had sensed what even an experienced hunter couldn t have.

What is it? he whispered.

Be still, she replied in her steely contralto, and you ll hear.

He strained to listen, and after a moment he caught the noise. There was a pounding to the east, farther up the mountain they d been climbing before making camp.

Yhelbruna sprang to her feet, as though still youthful and spry.

Pick up your sword and javelin, she said.

Why? Vandar asked, reaching for the weapons that lay within easy reach of his hand.

Because you need to kill something, and it will be better if it doesn t hear us coming, she replied. So close your mouth and follow me.

Swallowing an exasperated retort, he obeyed.

The High Country could be treacherous even by day. In addition to trolls, kobolds, and other such creatures waiting in ambush, a wayfarer had to be wary of scree that would crumble under a body s weight, and crusts of snow concealing sheer crevasses. But Yhelbruna strode along through the chill autumn air as though such hazards were of no concern. Vandar could only hope that her magic encompassed the ability to see in the dark like an owl.

Maybe it did, for they reached the top of a ridge without coming to grief. They started down the other side into a sort of notch in the mountainside, a long, narrow pocket where snow lay unmelted from winter to winter. The steady beat of the knocking was louder, and Vandar caught the soft chant that accompanied it. He couldn t understand the words, but the power in them twisted his guts and put a metallic taste in his mouth.

Yhelbruna raised her hand to halt his advance. She pointed with her bluewood wand.

Peering, he made out what she was indicating despite the gloom, which was even deeper than on the slope they d scaled to find the little valley. The backdrop of snow helped. A menhir rose from that white carpet, and a cloaked figure was hammering the rock with a crooked staff. A pair of goblins looked on, recognizable by virtue of their stunted frames.

Yhelbruna waved Vandar onward with little flicks of the wand.

He was not averse to going. A berserker leader never shrank from a fight. Still, he gave her a look that asked if, her powers notwithstanding, she intended him to handle all three foes by himself. She responded with a nod.

Typical, he muttered.

Half annoyed and half amused, Vandar skulked on down the slope. As far as he could tell, none of the trio below had a bow, a sling, or anything else to strike a man down from a distance. Yet even so, he might as well sneak in as close as he could.

His approach worked until he reached the snow. Then, despite his efforts to stay silent, his steps made tiny crunching sounds, and eventually the goblins and the cloaked figure pivoted in his direction.

Stealth had pretty much served its purpose. A few more strides would carry him close enough to cast his javelin. Vandar started running, and then an earsplitting screech stabbed into his head.

He knew or a part of him did that the scream only lasted for a moment or two. But it seemed to echo on and on inside his skull, terrifying him and smothering his ability to think. Indeed, it nearly blinded him to anything but his own excruciating sensations.

Nearly, but not quite. He registered the goblins floundering toward him through the snow, and he knew he had to ready himself to fight. Like a drowning man struggling toward the water s surface, he strained to banish fear and confusion, to silence the howl inside his head. After a moment, the phantom noise abated.

When it did, he saw there was something wrong with the goblins. They moved in an awkward, shuffling fashion, and they stank of rot. The yellow gleam in their sunken eyes had nothing to do with the moonlight.

Zombies. Vandar smiled because that didn t scare him. Like every Rashemi warrior deserving of the name, he d fought the legions of Thay the land of necromancers and the undead many times.

He no longer held his javelin. He must have dropped it when he d been staggering and flailing around. With no reason to delay, he visualized the mighty winged totem of Griffon Lodge half eagle and half lion and willed himself to go berserk.

Power blazed through Vandar like a thunderbolt. It was as overwhelming as the shriek had been, full of strength and joy, but most of all fury, a lust to kill.

He screamed his own battle cry, an imitation of a griffon s screech, and sprang to meet the undead goblins. He saw their weapons at last a scimitar and a spear as they struck at him, and he smashed them both out of line with a single sweeping parry. He riposted at the zombie on his right, and his broadsword split its skull. The yellow gleam guttered out in its eyes, and its knees buckled.

Grinning, Vandar tried to jerk his sword free. But it stuck in the wound. Meanwhile, the other goblin s scimitar flashed at him. He leaped back and avoided the stroke, but had to let go of the hilt of his own weapon to do it.

The second zombie advanced and made another cut, pushing Vandar farther and farther away from his own blade. He rushed his foe before it could poise the scimitar for a fourth attack, bulled the reeking creature over, and dumped it on its back. He dropped to his knees on top of its chest and hammered both fists down into its face. Bone crunched, the piss-colored glimmer went out of the creature s eyes, and it stopped moving. A small part of Vandar, the bit not yet transported by the fury, recognized that he, too, might have just hurt himself. He might even have broken a finger bone or two. But for the moment, he couldn t feel it.

He was free to retake his own familiar sword, but his rage begrudged the moment it would take to scramble around and pull on the weapon. Instead, the zombie s scimitar was ready to hand. Vandar grabbed it, leaped to his feet, and whirled toward the cloaked figure.

From a closer distance, Vandar could see that she was one of the womanlike creatures known as hags. She was more humanlooking than some, no taller than he was. And before undeath had claimed her, mottling her leathery hide with decay and kindling a sickly amber glow in her eyes, she could possibly have passed for human as long as she kept her twisted hands with their long talons hidden inside her mantle.

He charged her, and she screamed again. The noise stung his face and chest like a barrage of pebbles, but it didn t addle him. His fury armored him against it.

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