The Widow’s Pilgrimage
By Joel Tagert
Art by Ali Hoff
Published Issue 105, September 2022
Bears of Umbre! Soon you’ll step foot on the Red Shore. Why “red”? Blood and gold, that’s why! Look at those Widows. Eight of ’em, each dripping with treasure, ripe for the taking. The fortune of a lifetime, and all that stands between us and them are some Niroan cunts. So gnash your teeth! Bite and claw! Tear out their throats, hack off their balls, spit in their eyes! Umbre, fuel my rage! Maka, lend me your thirst! Ogin, whet my axe! Blood and gold! Blood and gold! Blood and gold!
Perhaps before a fight your blood is racing. Your bowels are loose, your head is hot, your hands are cold. This is just your small self, the little child in you. In truth there is nothing to lose or gain: no one to die, no one to kill. Breathe in this knowledge. Feel it in your bones. Breathe the air, smell the salt of the sea. No one to die, no one to kill. Knowing this, you are free. Your sword is one with sea and sky. It swings like the gull soars, it finds the vitals of your enemy like wind moving through the trees. Fighting like this, in the Emperor’s name, we cannot be stopped. We prevail like the tide.
Scarce had Nemdahl and his mates leapt from the longboats when the sky was rent by red lightning, the bone-clap of thunder rocking them in their tracks. A great bloom of eldritch flame flowered from the shoulders of the nearest Widow, like a demonic extension of the trees growing from the elemental’s body. As the huge creature split open and began to break apart they watched with all the astonishment one accords a floating mountain crumbling in slow motion, their jaws on the ground. “They’re killing them,” said Josfur.
“Worse,” said Nemdahl. “They’re harvesting them.”
It was well-known that the Widow’s bodies extruded treasures: gold nuggets especially, but also emeralds, rubies, rare woods. The elementals were large as hills, but they moved slow, slow, on their rare pilgrimages down from the peaks of the Ondus to the ocean. Someone daring, and skilled, could climb up their rough bodies and gather those riches for themselves, much as a diver sought pearls in the watery depths. For centuries the Umbral peoples had profited in this way, but the thought of actually killing a Widow seemed as absurd as killing the mountains themselves.
But the Niroan mages were known to embrace all kinds of unnatural rituals, consorting with demons and unclean spirits. Even so, the Bears of Umbre would not tremble. Nemdahl turned back to his men. “Did I say ‘treasure’? I meant a fucking king’s ransom for each and every one! Umbre!”
“Blood and gold!” they chanted in return, lifting their axes, and began to jog across the scrubland.
They’d had less time to prepare than Fenac had hoped, the Umbrals slipping in near shore with the morning fog. That fog was lifting now, and giving the Imperial Legion a good look at the fight to come.
Six longboats, stuffed with men: say thirty to a boat, or a hundred and eighty men. The Niroans had two centuria with eighty men each, plus their commanders, Fenac and Ladanus. An even fight then, especially given that the Legion had had a day to dig trenches and place stakes. Admittedly he did not like the look of the Umbrals’ icebreaker, eight or nine feet tall, with armor to fit an elephant and a sword longer than a man. A cyclops, most certainly, recruited from some godforsaken island in these desolate seas. He had his adjutant, Gimmus Anka, summon over two squad leaders. “Do what you can to drive the giant away from the main fray and toward the ditches. Use your pikes to trip him up if you can. Get him on the ground at all costs, understand?” They nodded grimly.
He turned again to his adjutant and gestured toward the circle of three mages, who as before were standing on a hill with arms spread and red light seeping from beneath their closed lids. “Think they’ll be any use once the fighting starts?”
“Melgur said they’d be like that all day once they started.”
Fenac nodded. “Form up.” As the men took their positions he breathed deep, settling into the still point, allowing his body to loosen, his senses to open. No one to die, no one to kill.
Nemdahl roared as Omakju fell to one knee, greave hooked by a long polearm. The cyclops was their edge, breaking formations like a boulder through a field of straw, scattering Niroans like chaff, but the silver-helmeted Legion was adept at reforming, always seeming to find their squadmates to fight back-to-back once more. Now eight soldiers leapt toward the cyclops to find any gap in his monstrous armor.
Yelling to his men to follow, Nemdahl bowled through a weak spot in the Niroans’ line with shield at shoulder, swinging his mace but not waiting to see the result. Then he was through, and the first imperial he encountered, wheeling away from a wildly swinging Omakju, had his helm crushed by Nemdahl’s steel, dropping like a stone. Nemdahl shot left, keeping his momentum going, hoping the cyclops wouldn’t accidentally cut his commander in half in his fury, and found an officer facing him, sword and shield ready. Nemdahl saw the lunge, leapt to the side and swung hard with the mace, connecting on the man’s visor. He rolled, saw the officer wobbling before Josfur cut half through the centurion’s neck with his two-handed axe, blood spraying.
Periodically a great rumble would sound as one of the pieces of the fallen Widow struck the earth, still falling eerily at half-speed. The giants had only just begun to turn their bushy heads toward their murdered sister.
Fenac saw Ladanus fall (his friend of twelve years), felt himself grow cold. The Third was in tatters, blown apart by that cyclops, who had regained his feet and was helping the black-furred Umbrals hack down the survivors. “Dormod’s Spear!” he called to the bugler behind him, naming the formation.
The men formed a triangle with their commander at the point and advanced at a near-run, leaving half the centuria behind to cover their backs. A risky move, dividing the unit, but in seconds they were upon the cyclops, who at least looked to be bleeding heavily down one leg. At the warning of his comrades the cyclops turned, that monstrous sword whistling through the air. Fenac dove to his stomach, feeling more than seeing his adjutant fall headless. The cyclops spun, continuing the momentum of its weighty weapon, but its wounded leg made it slow: and staying crouched low, Fenac took two powerful strides and thrust his sword into the back of the giant’s unwounded knee. The creature bellowed in pain and fell to the ground. Immediately the squad leapt upon him, Liam and Hemegus using the spikes on the backs of their axes to penetrate his black mail.
It was bad, seeing Omakju overwhelmed, cowering on hands and knees while the Imperials swung and swung. But all was not lost: those on the cyclops were in disarray, and Nemdahl laughed as the Umbres joined the melee. Seeing the gold sun of an officer’s breastplate gleaming through a film of muck, he leapt to the attack, mace swinging: but quick as a snake, the man whirled, sword flicking to lay a gash along Nemdahl’s neck, an inch away from ending him. Nemdahl charged with his shield — the Niroan had lost his — but something tripped his feet (a wooden stake) and down they fell. Nemdahl swung with the mace, but his own shield was in the way and he couldn’t land a proper blow. Meanwhile the devil had found a knife somewhere and reached around to stab him in the leg. Screaming, Nemdahl threw down the mace and seized the top of his shield to hammer down its point into the Imperial’s torso.
Fenac knew he had dealt a deadly wound to the screaming Umbral chieftain, given time: but that pointed shield had driven deep into his own side. He gave up trying to stab the man and raised his arms before him in the most basic kind of defense, knowing the barbarian would weaken given enough blood loss.
The man’s blows faltered. He wobbled, hissed something in Umbral, and fell. I should finish him off, Fenac thought, but he did not seem able to stand. He heard men groaning, screaming with pain, metal striking wood like someone knocking insistently at an oaken door. He reached up with one hand and loosened the strap of his helmet. Foolish to take it off, but breathing was growing difficult. He wanted to see the sky properly.
Ah, there. Stippled gray clouds flowed slowly, tranquilly above the battlefield, full of pearlescent light. Gulls were circling. He smelled human shit, unwashed men, the sea. His eyes drifted right and stopped, arrested. One of the Widows had completed the turn of her head to gaze down at the carnage and now seemed to be looking directly at him: her hair a copse of pines, her cheeks flecked with gold, her mossy eyes overflowing with dew.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.