Today we have, for your enjoyment, another piece of short Gallow fiction. Publishing in two weeks, GALLOW: THE CRIMSON SHIELD is a fast-paced and exhilarating new fantasy from Nathan Hawke.
The End of Farri Moontongue Part 2
Location – The Ice Mountain Sea
“I really don’t know. But by the end of my looking it was the Moontongue I came to understand. They say the Moontongue stole the Crimson Shield as a gift to Neveric the Black of the Marroc, that he meant to betray his brother and his king and that Neveric betrayed him in turn, but Moontongue had a sea more ambition to him than that. When I understood, Aulian, for a moment I was in such awe of him that I forgot to breathe. The Moontongue stole the Crimson Shield for himself, not for some Marroc. He believed he would see the future, know all things before they came to pass, and with that knowledge he would crush Yurlak and grind his brother to dust and lead a conquest the like of which the world hasn’t seen since the glorious days of Aulia. He wasn’t killed by some renegade Marroc.”
The Marroc ship of Neveric the Black trailed in the wake of the Lhosir for two days before Farri Moontongue changed his course to meet them. There was a storm coming and he thought it best to get this over with before it arrived. The two ships eased up close to one another and the crew threw ropes and hauled on them until they were lashed tight together. The Moontongue kept his warriors away from their axes and their shields, not wanting to give away his intent. There was a wariness to the Marroc crew too, an uneasiness that said they weren’t here for the peaceful bargain they claimed. When they were done tying fast the ships, the Moontongue stood on the middle of his deck, waiting for the shout that would kick off the fight, but it didn’t come. Instead Neveric the Black came out and stood by his mast as the Moontongue stood by his own. The Marroc looked this way and that, almost anywhere but at the Moontongue and his men, as though he really didn’t want to be here. As though he’d already lost.
“Well then Neveric, what is it?” shouted the Moontongue.
“We had a bargain,” called the Marroc, looking back at the Moontongue and meeting his eye at last. “I promised you King Tane’s gold for the shield. I’ll honour that promise if you will honour yours.”
The Moontongue laughed back at him. “I made no such promise. Two days on our tail, though. Persistent, I’ll give you that.”
The Marroc looked away and then looked back. “It’ll go easier on you, forkbeard. I’ve not come for a fight but I’ll give you one if I must.”
The Moontongue still laughed. “Will you now? So here’s what I think: since you’re trying so very very hard to give it to me, I’ll have your gold then, but I’ll be keeping your precious shield.” His hand fell to the axe on his belt and everywhere on both ships men saw and tensed and reached for their own; but before he could draw it, more figures came out onto the decks of the Marroc ship – but these were no Marroc. The dark iron of their armour was almost black under the grey skies. Their iron boots clanked against the hard wooden deck and the Marroc kept well away from them, nervous and fearful. The grin stayed fixed on the Moontongue’s face but the laughter died. Fateguard. Twelve iron devils to go with the the thirty Marroc fighters. Changed things a bit, that did.
The iron devil who took the lead was missing a hand. The iron mask he wore was bent and misshapen and split along one side, exactly as though someone had buried an axe its side. So there couldn’t be any doubt, the ironskin took something from his belt and threw it from one ship to the other so it landed at the Moontongue’s feet. His axe. The one he’d left in the Hall of Fates.
“Yours, Moontongue,” grated a voice from whatever mouth lay hidden behind the mask. “Now return what you took.”
The Moontongue picked up the axe and looked at it and yes, three nights earlier he’d left it buried in the side of this iron devil’s head. He stared at it a little more and then nodded and picked up the Crimson Shield of Modris from where it sat propped against the mast. He strapped it onto his arm. “This?” He held it up so everyone would see. “You want this? Then you’ll have to come and take it.” He walked steadily to the where the two ships ground against one another and raised his axe and brought it down on the nearest of the ropes that held them together. “Cut the ropes!” he cried.
Both ships erupted into sound and movement. The Lhosir warriors around him snatched up their shields and drew out their axes and ran for the ropes. The iron devils launched themselves at the rails, leaping across the narrow gap of sea between the two ships as thought they were acrobats, not men carrying their own weight in metal. They crashed down among the Lhosir, swinging their swords left and right. The Lhosir met the blows with their shields and their axes.
Baldi Heronhand slipped away as soon as the fighting started. He stood in the Moontongue’s cabin, looking at the iron-bound chest that Svarn Bloodaxe had taken from the Temple of Fates. None of them had seen how to open it and the Moontongue hadn’t allowed Svarn to take his axe to it, but now it seemed to Baldi that the Moontongue’s orders were less important than they’d been a few hours ago. So he took his axe to the hinges and shattered the first in two blows and the second in one. The box fell off the Moontongue’s table and landed on the floor. The lid came half off and a pale brown grainy sand spilled out – no, not sand, salt. He picked up the box and put it back on the table and finished ripping the lid away. Salt? Was that all? But then he saw the glint of something golden.
The Moontongue caught the blows from the Fateguard easily. The Crimson Shield moved with a will of its own, anticipating each strike before it came. He faced the one-handed iron devil and parried blow after blow, turning each one and every time his own axe bit back at the iron armour. He struck the devil in the thigh and the hip and the arm, each time scoring a deep mark in the Fateguard’s iron skin, but nothing seemed to slow it. Around him his men were falling, one by one, and though the Fateguard lost a hand here and there and maybe a foot and Moontongue saw one with his iron masked caved in and one missing half his arm, still they kept coming. The Marroc, he saw, had stayed on their ship and they were cutting the ropes as fast as they could. They just wanted to get away.
Heronhand pulled out the golden thing from within the box. It was a tube, an exquisite map tube, but small – hardly even the length of his forearm. Each end was stoppered with an ornate golden cap that slid reluctantly off when he tugged. The fitting was perfect. He took it in his shield hand, picked up his axe and ran back to the fight. One of the iron devils had its back to him. He took out is knee with one massive swing and dodged past as it buckled and toppled backwards. He looked over to the Marroc ship, already starting to move away, and at the Lhosir he’d known and fought with for a dozen years who now lay dead scattered around the fury of the Moontongue. Two of the iron devils were too crippled to stand but even those were still moving. The rest fought on, relentless. He saw one Lhosir warrior drop his shield and pick up a massive axe as long as his leg and use it to cut one of the iron devil’s arms clean off and probably shatter half his ribs too, and the devil kept on. The last of the Lhosir were mostly in a circle now, shields locked together, fighting as best they could against an enemy that refused to die. At the far end of the ship, one man cut off from the others ran and leaped over the side, launching himself at the Marroc ship, but he fell short and landed in the sea and vanished at once, sucked down by waves and the weight of his mail.
Someone fired an arrow from the Marroc ship into the melee. Then another, and then Heronhand saw they were bringing up a brazier, ready to set their arrows aflame. They were still close though, very close. Close enough. He ran and jumped onto the rail of the Moontongue’s ship and hurled himself across the churning water between the two ships and almost made it. He hit the side of the Marroc ship and grabbed at it, slid, dropped his axe and caught hold of the rail with one hand. He swung his other arm, still with his shield strapped to it and still holding the golden case, and hooked his arm over the rail. He started to haul himself over when he found himself staring up at a Marroc with a spear aimed at his face. The spear jabbed him right under the nose, hard enough to break two of his teeth and rip half his upper lip.
“Stay on your own ship, forkbeard.” The spear drew back and then paused as the Marroc saw what he had in his hand. He dropped the spear and picked up an axe instead. “Give it, forkbeard. Give it and I’ll let you live.
The Lhosir shook his head. The Marroc grinned and brought the axe down on Heronhand’s arm, breaking it through the mail. Baldi Heronhand screamed. As he fell, he felt the golden case torn out of from his fingers; and then the freezing water of the Ice Mountain Sea swallowed him and he sank like a stone.
No one saw the Moontongue fall and lived to tell of it. Maybe he never did. The Marroc set fire to his ship and sailed away and left it adrift and maybe the fire took him before the Fateguard could bring him down, or maybe they were still fighting when the storm broke some hours later and sent them all to the bottom. But either way, that was where it ended, out in the Ice Mountain Sea, with Farri Moontongue, the Crimson Shield of Modris and twelve of the Fateguard all sent to the bottom of the sea together. And some years later, if one of the Fateguard was seen to come to the temple in Nardjas with a misshapen mask split open at the side by a fierce blow from an axe and smelling faintly of the sea, there was no one left from that day who might have noticed and started to wonder.