A Tale of Silence and Sortilege

Simon Whitechapel

Plant a seed in the dark, plant a seed in the light,
   Curse the one growing ill, bless the one growing right:
Folk of flesh are as seeds and they grow where they fall;
   After light, after dark, dumb Gwior gathers all.
Tarah Mneëh-Kfior (“The World is the Garden of Gwior”) (extract).

In the dying days of summer the comet Ngamm re-appeared as the wizard Vrao-Msuhh had prophesied, rising with the Crab to trail its rutilant tresses across the star-cankered black flesh of the heavens; and in autumn, as the air turned damp and chill and the first leaves began to fall, a horseman rode hard out of the west, tumbling from his steaming horse to bring the long-feared news to the city of Eudh-Ab. The wall that had held back the barbarian tribes of the wastes for so long was breached at last, and an invading horde was a day, at most, behind him. Trumpets took up the tale from the city walls, blaring a call to shelter to the peasants and woodcutters of the surrounding fields and forests, who streamed through the city gates long into the night. On the mid-morning of the following day, trotting their ponies through a thin ground-mist, the first barbarians appeared, squat, iron-helmeted men in coats of shaggy fur; and many carried atop their spear-points the heads of new-slain countryfolk, which they cast down in a rising heap before the closed city gates. Next, signaled for long minutes by the trembling of the very earth, the main horde was there, encircling the city like a tide; and the bravest heart sank to see the extent of the fires that burned that night, seeming a heaven of stars fallen through autumnal cloud to blaze on the face of the earth.

For two days the horde camped and made no stir, while the pyramid of heads blackened and rotted at the gates; then trundling in its hoof-prints came the siege-gear of tower and trebuchet, drawn by oxen raw-backed with whip-strokes. With it, packed into iron cages atop squeaking carts, were carried some dozens of the priestesses of the death-goddess Gwior, gathered from the shrines and temples the horde had sacked on its way and as yet but lightly molested. When the cages were emptied and the captives marshaled in sight of the city gates, arrows were fired in tall parabolas over her walls. These proved, on recovery, to have rolled sheets of birch-bark tied round their shafts with horse-hair; but none could decipher the degenerate characters scrawled thereon in charcoal. Accordingly, the sheets were brought to the wizard Vrao-Msuhh, who puzzled over them a moment, then pronounced them written in an abandoned syllabary in an extinct tongue of the west, and offering the priestesses' lives for the surrender of the city.

But the goddess Gwior was no favorite in the city of Eudh-Ab, and when Vrao-Msuhh advised against acceptance of the offer, knowing the cunning and perfidy of the barbarian, the arrows were fired back, having first been soaked in naphtha and touched aflame as the bowstring was drawn. Thereat the barbarian chieftains forced the priestesses to cast lots; and when twenty-one had thrown a fatal score, their heads were lopped from their slender necks and set into the baskets of trebuchets, to be cast over the walls of Eudh-Ab, hair trailing blonde or red or black like the comets of a nightmare uranoscopy.

And the heads, horrid to relate, flew screaming blasphemies against the gods of Eudh-Ab and threats against her folk, for barbarian shamans, cloaked in the winter fur of bears, whispered to them as they were set to the trebuchet baskets, casting spells over the fast-cooling brains of the priestesses, that these might direct dead tongues and lips in the shaping of supernatural breath. Nor, when they landed, did the heads leave off their blaspheming and threats till Vrao-Msuhh, hurrying from site to site, silenced them with spells of his own, that they might be gathered and wrapped in cere-cloth for burial.

No further heads were lopped and thrown that day, but nefandous feasts began to steam in iron pots and the re-caged remnant of the priestesses were drawn up close beneath the city walls, that their wailing prayers and pleas for life might strike at the minds and hearts of the city through the night and succeeding morning. At midday thirteen more were selected by lot for decapitation before the city gates, ere their heads were hurled in audible and eerie re-animation over her walls. As before Vrao-Msuhh hurried to silence each for burial, as he did for the eight hurled on the next day, and the five hurled on the next, and the three on the next, and the two the next, and the one on the seventh day of the siege.

Hereat the inhabitants of the city, heartsore at all they had seen and heard but more convinced than ever of the bestiality of their foe, thought the supply of priestesses exhausted and the barbarians ready to undertake a more conventional assault; but no, on the following day, a final priestess was brought forth from an ox-cart for decapitation. She, unlike those that preceded her, uttered no sound during the procedure, and she had plainly disdained prayer or plea on that final night of her captivity. Nor, when her head was lopped and hurled high over the city wall with streaming tresses of coppery red, did the silence lapse, despite the two shamans that had whispered to the head, one into the left ear, one into the right.

When Vrao-Msuhh was told of the silence that had accompanied each stage of this final slaying, he asked that the head be brought to him for inspection. When it came, swung by its coppery hair, all observers saw him blanch and stagger to see the dead face, cognizable yet despite the seeping blood and bruises of its fall, though neither then nor later did the wizard vouchsafe what he read therein. Recovering from his horror, he begged indulgence whilst he fetched a certain tripod from his chambers, whereon the head might be set; and when the tripod was fetched and the head set thereon, he burnt nostril-searing spices before it, clapped his hands loudly once, twice, thrice, and began to chant a spell of necromancy. In time, though the eyes remained sealed in death, the bruised lips began to twitch, breaking the blood with which they were crusted; and ere the cloud-paled sun had descended halfway to dusk they were writhing fluently in speech, responding to his questions in sibilant whispers of an unknown tongue that drove all within earshot to shivering flight.

Presently Vrao-Msuhh strode forth for the city walls, the priestess's head lifted high with honor before him by its hair; and when he arrived he set it in a machiolation, facing outward over the camps of the barbarians, whence shouts and threats were now rising as these prepared to make their first true assault on Eudh-Ab. But Vrao-Msuhh bent his mouth to the left ear of the head and whispered, and an eldritch shriek cut sword-like through the barbarian clamor, flung from the dead lips of the priestess.

And now the head began to chant, calling a spell into the siege that came clearly to all ears within the city, seeming to stab the brain with knives of ice and drive therefrom all remembrance of time and place and humanity. But while the inhabitants of Eudh-Ab recovered with greater or lesser speed when the spell was ended, rising wet-eyed and slack-lipped from their huddled, ear-palmed terror, those that ventured first to look over the city walls saw that the barbarians lay in tangled heaps where invoked Gwior had scythed them down as they fled, though here and there a bear-cloaked shaman still rolled on the earth with blunt-fingered hands pressed with futile force to his ritually notched ears, as though the head chanted on into the thick-fallen autumnal silence

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