Author: Nate Davis Volsungassonnr PM
An empire fighting for lebensraum. A people fighting for freedom. A dying race fighting for survival. In the middle of it all stands Jared MacCleod, hunter, trapper, tradesman, mercenary. Rated T for gratuitous violence and non-descriptive sex.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Western - Chapters: 2 - Words: 2,545 - Reviews: 2 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 10-24-11 - Published: 03-29-11 - id: 2903187
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Prologue: Children of the Night
"The North is full of tangled things, and texts, and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise."
It was midday, but the tangled hawthorn forest was as dark as a moonless night. Nine men, their wrists bound with strips of rawhide, were being led down a deer-trail through the trees. Fifty men had set out from the Borderlands two weeks ago; nine had survived the ambush.
Eight of the men were clean-shaven and dressed in identical blue wool uniforms, but the ninth had a full beard and wore a suit of fringed buckskin. He stood almost seven feet tall and was as lean as a bean pole, with sharp blue eyes glaring out of the wild shock of brown hair that completely enshrouded his head.
Their captors, twelve in all, were diminutive, knock-kneed brutes with wild blue-black hair and no beards. Their narrow eyes were grey or crystal-blue, and their leathery bronze skin was covered head to toe in blue tattoos, as well as a thick layer of grime. They carried bronze axes, long spears with bronze heads, and heavy yew bows with quivers of stone-tipped arrows.
"Well this is quite a pickle we've gotten ourselves in, boys," one of the uniformed men said. "What do you suppose they'll do with us?"
"Y'all will be tortured to death," said the tall man calmly, "All but one. They'll leave one alive to tell the story."
"You don't seem worried."
"I ain't. Y'all are fucked, but I'm gonna get outta this without a scratch."
"You mean you're the one they'll leave alive?"
The tall man's answer was a deep laugh that carried an air of dramatic irony.
After a while the procession broke out of the woods into a village, if it could be dignified with that name. A few rude wattle-and-daub huts formed a circle around a massive, ancient, gnarled old oak tree, and several corpses in various states of decomposition hung from its branches.
Under the tree was a throne, a monstrous relic of another age. It was carved from a single chunk of limestone and decorated with human skulls. More skulls sat on spikes all around it, and upon it sat a woman.
She was short, knock-kneed, and gaunt, like the other savages, with a scanty buckskin kilt about her waist and a rawhide thong securing her heaving breasts. Her wild, blue-black hair was plaited and decorated with strings of lead minè balls. A massive steel sword was slung over her shoulder, and a flintlock long rifle lay across her knees. She couldn't have been older than 19.
The prisoners were brought before the throne, and the tall man in buckskins—to the astonishment of the soldiers—immediately dropped to one knee and said something in the tongue of the savages. The dark queen answered. They carried on a dialogue for a few minutes, and the dark queen motioned to one of her attendants, who untied the tall man, grinned, and clapped him on the back. He approached the throne, kneeled down again, took her hand and kissed it. As he rose, another savage walked up and returned the gear that had been taken from him after his capture: A flintlock long rifle, a hatchet, a basket-hilt saber, a powder horn, pouches and haversacks of supplies.
Unbeknownst to the bewildered soldiers, the exchange between the tall man and the dark queen had gone something like this:
"Shadow Queen, are you Sinead Macmor, daughter of Brian?"
"The same, Outlander."
"My name is Jared MacCleod. I was a friend of your father's. He was a fine man."
"And now you ask my mercy in his name."
"I do, Shadow Queen."
"Gods help me, I believe you. A friend of my father's is a friend of mine, and let no man say that Sinead Macmor is inhospitable. You, there! Untie this man and give him back his cargo."
After Jared's captured gear had been returned, he turned to the prisoners and gave them a wide, mocking grin. One of the savages grabbed his arm and led him out of the village.
"You're one lucky bastard, Outlander," the Pict said.
"And don't think I don't know it."
"I should kill you myself, cut your skin off and make it into a funny hat."
"But Sinead wouldn't like that very much."
"No, she wouldn't."
They said nothing more until Jared was safely back across Black River.
Sinead snapped her fingers, and the first of the prisoners was brought up and tied to the tree. The painted queen picked up her rifle, pulled the hammer back, aimed, and fired. The lead ball landed just under the man's armpit, tearing his uniform. The Picts cheered.
"What the hell is going on?", whispered one of the prisoners.
"It's a game," said another. "She'll shoot as close to him as possible without hitting him, and every time he stands there without flinching he gets a point. If he gets enough points, they'll grant him a quick and painless death. Right now they're saluting him for his bravery."
"The Pictish Marches are a mean, ugly little place full of ugly little mean people."
The game went on for several hours, and in the end only three men were judged brave enough to be worthy of a quick death. The rest—all but one—were lashed to wooden tanning-racks and had their skin flayed off with hot bayonets, the Picts making a game of who could keep his prisoner alive and in agony the longest. One man was left unharmed, but was forced to watch until the very last of his comrades had blacked out. This took almost nine hours.
The painted queen stepped down from her cyclopean throne and walked up to the lone survivor who was shaking visibly. She walked with her head held high, and even though she wasn't quite five feet tall the prisoner still felt like he was looking up at her. She glared at him and said in Common, "As long as Lord Tarleton keeps sending men west of Black River, we'll keep killing them. We'll torture them until they squeal like little girls. We'll drink wine out of their skulls. This is our land, and if it comes to it we will fight down to the last child. What you've seen here isn't even a taste of what the Children of the Night are capable of. I've left you alive so that you can tell your people what fate awaits them if they keep moving west across Black River. Go now, and may the blessings of the Goddess go with you."
She snapped her fingers and another warrior grabbed the poor man and led him east into the woods. Turning to another of the assembled men, she said, "Brule, all this has got me feeling a little frisky. Fancy a hump?"
He took her by the hand and led her into one of the huts. She knew that Brule was sweet on her and she felt a little guilty about playing with his emotions, but he was good for a hump. Just about any man is good for a hump, she thought, but a queen has to keep up appearances. Brule was a fearless man and a strong man, but that didn't make him special; every Pict man was strong and brave. It was in their blood. He loved her with all of his heart, but other than the occasional shag she really didn't care for him. He was a good enough man, but . . . unremarkable. Definitely not High King material.
Even as Brule bent her over and pounded her from behind, Sinead couldn't stop thinking about the Outlander, Jared. He was so tall, nearly two feet taller than she, and he was the only man—in truth the only person—she had ever met who wasn't intimidated by her. There is steel in him, she thought, I heard it in his voice. Now that man looked like he has the makings of a shadow king.
She banished the thought from her head, shocked at herself. She was Sinead Macmor,
Shadow Queen of the Picts! Taking an Outlander into her bed would almost be bestiality.
Still, I bet he's at least as good a hump as Brule.