Andrew Offutt: When Death Birds Fly

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Andrew Offutt When Death Birds Fly
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    When Death Birds Fly
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Andrew J. Offutt


When Death Birds Fly

Kieth Taylor

“The Roman empire is beheaded; in the one City, the whole world dies… All things are doomed to die… every work of man is destroyed by age… but who would have believed that Rome would crumble, at once the mother and tomb of her children. She who enslaved… is herself a slave.”

– St. Jerome, A.D. 415

“Gaul was lost to the Empire. If the ruling class of Auvergne held out against Euric the Visigoth… it was for the sake of the new-won independence rather than from loyalty to Rome. Further north, Syagrius, son of Aegidius, animated by the same spirit, became a de facto ‘king’ of Gaul between the Somme and the Loire.”

-Larousse Encyclopedia of Ancient and Medieval History

Prologue:


The Black Owl

“For these are the birds of death; the Owl, a predator of the night, and the Raven, presider over battlefields.”

-Alexandros of Chios

Sorcerous evil swooped above Nantes on broad black wings. Hate and Evil slept fitfully in the nighted city below. Those two dark forces called to each other as land to restless sea. Black wings slanted downward, riding the wind. The warm summer’s night seemed to shiver around the ragged edges of swooping night-wings spreading broader than a man’s height.

Sigebert of Metz, more lately called Sigebert One-ear, stirred in his bed and muttered. Much strong wine without water had gone down his throat earlier this evening, more than one cup drugged by his physician, a man tight-lipped against his patient’s cursing. The wine brought Sigebert no peace, him most men would have said deserved no peace.

A recent sword cut had caught and torn one corner of his sensuous mouth, plowed messily along his cheek, and shorn off the ear on that side of his head. The raw pain of it came into his dreams even through the fiery fumes of drugs and drunkenness. Even so, in Sigebert the hate was stronger than the pain. Through his villainous brain burned visions of a sinewy, tigerish Gael of Eirrin and a huge ax-wielding Dane.

“Death for them,” he mumbled, and he panted. “By Death itself-death, death for them! Death slow and awful! Death!”

Sigebert awoke to the drumbeat of his pain.

His skin was cold with fevered, nightmare-induced sweat. The coverings of his bed pressed suffocatingly on his limbs and athletic form. Was difficult for him to be certain whether he slept or woke, and in truth Sigebert hardly cared. He lay gasping and sweating, hating.

Of a sudden he went rigidly still. Eyes invaded his chamber. Eyes-yellow as topaz, lambent, blazing-were fixed on him from the foot of his bed. Something-not someone-was there, staring.

Am I awake? Surely this too is dream…

His horror-stricken gaze could discern no more than a blocky and indistinct shape that was like a short thick log, or a man’s head and limbless torso. Black as the heart of midnight it was, indistinct in the darkness of Sigebert’s draped nightchamber. Yet it gave a strong, foul impression of deformity and, distortion; or perhaps that was in Sigebert One-ear’s mind, weighted by pain and alcohol.

In his terror he thought that some goblin or hellish fiend had come for his soul, which was admittedly damned.

The thing moved. Grotesquely, it seemed to shrug and expand. Vast wings flexed and their tips reached nigh from wall to wall. Their spread was more broad than the height of a tall man. Black feathers ruffled.

The thing spoke… or did it speak? Sigebert heard words… or did he feel them?

Do not cry out, Sigebert of Metz. An you do, I shall be gone, the which will be to your detriment. I bring news of your enemies.

Night-spirit, Sigebert thought wildly. Some demon in the form of a gigantic bird

“Who are you?” he said, and heard his own voice croak.

I am the soul of Lucanor Magus the Physician. Far-

Something surged in Sigebert. Relief, preternaturally sent? Blinking and with sudden hope he said, “Physician?”

Aye. And mage, Sigebert of Metz, and mage!

“You-have you come to help me in my agony?”

Sigebert received an impression of mirth, which angered him even while it despoiled his shaky foundation of hope. Against your enemies, he was told. Is not your hatred for them as much a part of your agony as your physical hurts?

This time Sigebert was unable to speak, and the bird continued, voicelessly.

Far to the south, in a village of the seafaring Basques, my fleshly body sleeps. All of me that is significant has winged hither, to aid you to destroy those you hate whom I also hate-yea, and for greater reasons than yours! Yet it is known to me aforetime that you will not heed my advice… this time. On the morrow, in day’s bright light, you will believe this was merely a dream, gendered by your hate and pain. You will ignore it.

Sigebert’s thoughts moved in slow, murky channels. Already he had gone from fear to disbelief to fear to hope to shattered hope and wonderment-and curiosity. Half drugged and but partly wakeful, he yet put a shrewd question.

“You know this? Then why trouble to come to me, physician, mage… creature?”

For reasons that you will learn from your folly, and heed me when again I come to you. You know those enemies I refer to; you well know them and their inhuman prowess and luck! They are Cormac mac Art and Wulfhere the Skull-splitter of the Danes-those bloody devils of the sea!

At those names Sigebert came wide awake, and hatred pulsed in him more strongly than the pain that rode his heartbeat. “Ah.”

They live, and thrive. They have taken refuge in the Suevic kingdom, ruled by Veremund the Tall, that whispery voice went on, that was not a voice. He now employs them. Even now they prepare to leave Hispania, those bloody pirates. They undertake a mission to the land of the Danes for this same Veremund. Once I served him. I, Lucanor Magus, served him, and served him well. Now he has exiled me and, could he lay hands on me, would have me die slowly. They are to thank for this-Cormac mac Art and Wulfhere the Dane of their ship Raven. May they be accursed and accursed to world’s end and Chaos to come, and the Black Gods of R’lyeh devour them!

Sigebert One-ear laughed hoarsely. “I know not your gods, mage. But I share your wish!”

Then attend. Three days from this, these pirates leave the port of Brigantium in Galicia, and will sail east. For a short time they will lie to in a sheltered bay below the Pyrenees. Though they know it not, I await them in that same region. I shall incite my… hosts to slaughter them, for these Basques are a folk who love outsiders not at all.

An I am successful in this, you will not set eyes on me again, Sigebert One-ear, for I shall have no need of you. Should the Basques fail me, these pirate scum will doubtless run by night up the western coast of Gaul. Past Burdigala, past the Saxon settlements-and past your own city of Nantes. Beyond that lies Armorica, called Lesser Britain. There they two have friends and can find a measure of safety. An you are vigilant, you may entrap them ere they reach that haven. In your hands will it lie then, agent of Kings!

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