The barking of dogs broke the stillness of the forest. He Who Was Teshok stopped walking, listening in the dark as they raised the alarm. He smiled and turned toward the sound, moving unhurriedly between the trees, caring not that the edge of his cloak rustled the carpet of dead leaves which lay thick beneath his feet, announcing his presence to any with ears to hear.
In this place, dogs mean men. Men are useful.
The baser creatures always sensed his approach, but only dogs were too stupid to fly before him, trusting in their pack of two-legged masters. And men; they sensed nothing even when they looked into his eyes, blind sheep that they were.
He saw campfires as he drew nearer to the clearing, and tents arranged in a circle. Men silhouetted against the fires dashed about, drawing swords and bows, ready to receive him. A band two or three dozen strong, by his estimate, with a few horses tethered on the far side of the camp, that had become spooked by his approach and pulled at their reins. The dogs thrashed on their leashes, though now the barks were mingled with yelps of fear.
The men formed two lines before the camp, with bows or swords and shields at the ready. He Who Was Teshok stepped into the clearing so they could see him, hands high above his head. Two arrows pierced the ground a foot in front of him.
“Keep walking and you’re dead!” said one of them.
“I have no quarrel with you,” said He Who Was Teshok, his voice gravelly. “I seek shelter for the night, and I can tell you about the road ahead.”
“How do you know where we are headed?” asked another of the men, a tall, fearsome looking warrior with a long scar down his face. He wore a hauberk of chainmail, unlike the others that wore an assortment of leather, ring mail and chain shirts. About his shoulders a dark cloak was held in place by gold clasps shaped as wolves’ heads.
He Who Was Teshok pushed back his hood and smiled, letting them see his hideously scarred face. The wounds had healed only in the last few days of his long journey here.
He remembered the priests’ ritual knives as they pierced the skin all over his body, Teshok’s sweet agony as they summoned him, coaxing him to take this body for his own, before turning him into their slave.
One of the warriors cursed at the sight. They would be no strangers to butchery, he knew, but they would rarely have seen a man living after such work. Even the dogs fell silent and cowered near the fires, though their handlers tugged at their leashes and cursed them.
As the men watched, He Who Was Teshok closed his eyes and let the distance between him and the tall warrior melt, as though they stood face to face.
A cruel man, this one, and those with him. He is a strong leader. He will do.
“You were heading west, Askalder,” he said. “Where else would you be going but to Voltarn and on to the Westmarch, to fight the invaders?”
“Do I know you?” growled the big man.
“I know you,” said He Who Was Teshok. “Is this how you greet a friend?”
He opened his eyes and looked at Askalder with a leaden, hypnotic gaze that drew Askalder in.
I am your friend. I walk always at your side. I dance upon the edge of your sword and take away those that displease you. In your red dreams and in the heat of battle you call to me. I am here.
The warrior’s eyes widened. “Come inside,” he said.
He Who Was Teshok pulled up his hood again. He smiled and walked into the camp as the other men lowered their weapons, confused.
The smell of roasting goat made his mouth water. Out in the long dark he had forgotten such base pleasures. Better though, the taste of raw flesh, still pulsing with life. Only days ago he had tasted it, when someone tried to oppose him. It was not as easy as it should have been to take the young man, but it was just a matter of time before his full strength returned. Cornered, his prey fought with a strength that belied his size, though his arms and ribs and face were broken. He Who Was Teshok had questions for him, and the boy sang his answers to the sky, in the end. Those answers brought him here.
What was his name? It did not matter.
The dogs were there, before him, agitated; unsure whether to prostrate themselves or try to run. They were large beasts, with stout, muscular bodies and thick jaws. A man had tied their leashes to a stake and stood watch over them, glowering at the newcomer.
He Who Was Teshok raised a hand to the dogs, and within a moment their demeanour changed. They sat obediently and were quiet. He stepped closer and let them lick his hand, then walked on, following Askalder to his tent. Three other warriors were with him, beneath a canopy open on one side, illuminated by the flickering flames. Grim looking men stood on either side of him with their hands on their sword hilts. He Who Was Teshok looked at Askalder, who waved a hand to dismiss them.
“Go,” he said.
One turned to him. “Will you not introduce us to your new friend? Walking all alone in the Velderwood without so much as a torch? He’s either stupid or…”
He staggered, choking on his own blood. He looked down in shock at the dark stain that spread over his armour, at the knife hilt deep in his chest. Askalder pushed him away and he dropped to the ground, fumbling to remove the blade. Then he stopped, and the tent was quiet.
“Get him out of here,” growled Askalder. “Make sure we are not disturbed.”
The other two nodded and grabbed their companion by his hands and feet and carried him out into the camp, leaving a dark smear across the grass. As they withdrew to the other side of the fire, Askalder turned to a small keg of ale and poured some into a drinking horn. His hand shook.
“You want one?” he asked his guest.
“I do not drink. I already have too many vices.”
Askalder turned to face the scarred stranger again. “What do you want?”
He Who Was Teshok smiled. “The same as you,” he said. “You care little for gold, though you tell your men you do. You love to bring death, to surrender yourself to the ecstasy of battle, killing, raping, plundering. To lose yourself. I know the voices you hear.”
“How do you know?” said Askalder, narrowing his eyes.
The young woman wept at his feet, trapped, whimpering like some injured animal. She had no power to refuse him, and he had done whatever he wanted. Now he drew his sword. She stared up at him with wide blue eyes, so paralysed by fear that she did not even beg when he placed his sword tip at her throat and pushed, ever so gently. As the sword slid in, Askalder closed his eyes. It felt good, this power of life and death.
Askalder reeled back, one hand on his sword hilt. He threw the horn of ale away. “Who are you? Are you a devil?”
“I am one of those voices,” said He Who Was Teshok. “Some call us devils, but what is a name? I want to show you things you have never seen. Help you do the things you want to do.”
He gestured outside into the night. “The night hides a multitude of sins. Many dark deeds are done under its mantle. What if it lasted forever? Men like you would thrive. That is what I want,” he said. “I am here to put out the light. You just need to do as I tell you.”
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