“Did you know berserkers’ strength and fighting ability can double or even treble but their cognitive abilities are equally reduced? The reason that not a lot of people know berserkers are as dangerous to their friends as to their enemies is possibly because not many friends survive the experience and thus the information is not as widely disseminated as it should be,” said Graphen, “ have you ever heard of Aestoron of Eartfold? He had presented a paper expounding the Friend's theory to the 7th Prestidigitators Symposium, but sadly the field trials to prove the theory had to be abandoned after Aestoron's untimely death. In the mind of many of his colleagues this actually proved Aestoron's theorem however as he could not present his findings at the 8th Symposium it was dropped from the Register of Research. A great pity if you ask me.”
No-one was in fact asking Graphen. Darkon was more worried by the pain his empty left eye socket was giving. This was only his second job as a freelance Sword-for-hire. On the first he had lost his nose. This time it was an eye. What would it be next time? How many bits of him would he lose if he continued with this job? And how many of his senses would be reduced and to what degree? He shuddered.
Graphen had paused for a while to survey the road ahead. It appeared empty but he was beginning to be aware that appearances could deceptive. “An interesting corollary,” he continued, “is that the Theorem was debated by the 21st Plenary session of the Smoking Philosophers of Karn-ton and he came widely known as the Berserker Paradox.”
Darkon lost it at this point, “Shut up and do something useful instead of spouting nonsense.”
He looked round at Egil who was lying in the back of one of the least damaged wagons. Darkon watched bubbles of foamy blood appear between Egil’s lips as he breathed. He knew his friend was dying, his lungs were filling with blood. He needed help quickly and he reckoned they were two days from Santos, possibly more if they kept the current pace so as not to cause Egil too much discomfort.
The aftermath of the fight had been horrific. Whatever had been in the small barrel had exploded killing nearly everyone in its vicinity. Graphen, miraculously, had not even been scratched, bar a burn mark on his tunic. Darkon had lost an eye and the ringing in his ears had only begun to subside. Egil had not been hurt in the blast as far as they could tell but had been thrown backwards in the collision with the charging berserker. There seemed to be a lot of internal injuries but they were not sure as Egil had been unconscious for most of the time. Any periods, when his eyes were open, they could not make sense of his ramblings. Darkon had made him as comfortable as they could and put him on blankets in the back of the wagon.
Graphen had found the Boss hiding in a ditch. He wasn’t saying much either. Graphen had tied him up and stuffed bits of cloak into his mouth. He had cut his beard and made a slave leash of it, with which he dragged the naked man by the neck behind his horse. They had found Stove tied in the coral with three remaining horses. Two of the horses were hitched to the wagon that Darkon drove. Graphen rode the third bareback except for a blanket thrown over the horses back.
Darkon had briefly wondered about the Boss. For a major Crime-lord, he wasn’t very charismatic, did not appear to be commanding and had stayed out of the way during their travels. Scarface had been the one who had organised the caravan and men. ‘Still,’ thought Darkon, "We’re being paid to bring him back so it doesn’t matter what I think.’
They had only managed to salvage one barrel of Brandy that had not been burned or punctured and two bales of cloth. They might make some profit on the cloth but they had been drinking heavily of the barrel of brandy to numb the horror of the night events and profits were reducing by the hour.
Toward evening they began to look for a defensible campsite. Graphen found a grassy knoll that was surrounded by a copse of Ash trees just off the road. It had a standing stone with no markings on it in the middle of the knoll. Darkon squinted at it with his one good eye. It didn’t feel magic and the only sound were insects going between the flowering plants. It looked peaceful and if Egil was going to die soon, this would be a good place to bury him. He could journey to his otherworld by starting out on the road. It kind of felt symbolic.
Darkon set Egil with his back to the stone so he could watch his friends prepare the camp. He seemed alert but didn’t say anything, his eyes followed movement. Darkon caught him smiling at something unseen and he thought perhaps Egil was thinking of past memories. This was a sure sign he was going to die soon.
Graphen relieved Darkon just after midnight and took his turn at sentry. He awoke Darkon several hours later by gently shaking him.
“Somethings happening and I’m scared,” said Graphen.
Darkon watched as ghostly figures executed a complicated dance around the base of the knoll, weaving in and out of the treeline and with each other. “I think they are doing the Crane Dance,” whispered Darkon almost mesmerised by the intricate patterns made by the dancers, “Close your eyes Graphen, I think this is part of the Mysteries of the Mother that no man should see on pain of death.”
Both sat with their eyes closed for what seemed like hours. They expected death. They knew a Sacred ritual was being enacted and could not shake the feeling there would be a sacrifice at the end of it and the sacrifice would be them.
‘You can open your eyes now,” said a melodic voice.
They both opened their eyes to see a tall woman sitting on the ground watching them with some amusement.
“Thank you, Lady,” said Darkon, inclining his head as a bow.
It might have been a trick of the shadows but the woman’s features seemed to change as she regarded them, oscillating between a middle-aged woman, a young woman and an older one. They chose to say nothing.
“You have sacrificed blood on the Stone of Malloch. What gift do you desire?’” said the three faced woman.
Both were surprised but Darkon recovered quickly. Truth was that he feared that Graphen might ask for something stupid.
“Our friend is gravely ill, Lady. We would desire his health restored, if that is within your gift,” said Darkon adding the ancient formula of the Mother, “It is not my will, but thine we serve.”
The woman smiled, “Your friend is hanging to life by a mere thread that will be shorn shortly. Is this both your desires?”
“Yes, Lady,” they both said in unison.
When they awoke they could hear someone singing
“At last,” said Egil, “I have had breakfast ready for hours and you two are sleeping the sleep of the dead.”