The following is an excerpt from “All Will Be Righted on Samhain” by Howie K. Bentley and David C. Smith. The full story appears in the Swords of Steel Omnibus.
A slow wind moaned through the endless forest of tall, great trees. Bending strongly, heavy branches beat together and knocked out an unaccompanied nighttime dirge. The argent moon frowned on the Briton forest, watching like an eye as Bunduica weaved her way among the dark, gnarled boles. In her right hand she carried a torch; under her left arm was a wiggling bundle; slung over her back was a sack that contained fresh water and some few provisions.
Trees began to change, and before the young woman’s eyes, as she hurried, the very light of the moon came alive around her. The old druid’s mistletoe concoction, which the girl had drunk before entering this heavy forest, was taking effect. Immediately, everything around her burst alive—and Bunduica was walking in two worlds at once.
Here was the forest, ripe with fearful things and the expectancy of the evil to come, and here was the world alongside it, the sinister prelude of the forest and her immediate surroundings—the original world. Here lakes of blood ran in red waterfalls, and men and women took the forms of written characters—ancient runes—and shape-shifted into horse- and boar-headed chimeras. As Bunduica hurried on, one of these boar-headed men, standing now not far away, looked at her and, lifting his right arm, showed her the decapitated head of a man. He threw back his head, exposing freshly blooded fangs, laughed—and vanished, turned into fog.
The inhabitants of this damned world moved like ghosts free to pass through or pass over time. They shifted and dissolved as scenes of aeons came and went instantly, like the dreams of stars, all around the dazed Bunduica. A flaxen-haired woman, bare-chested, with a well-muscled abdomen but only half-human, slithered through the trees, her head and breasts and arms swaying atop her lower body, which was that of a large serpent. Curling and uncurling, the snake woman moved past a long row of impaled torture victims, some of whom yet lived, writhing and sweating, in the starlit mists. Her head swiveled completely around as she examined these bloody trophies; the back of her head, revealed only briefly as it revolved, was the face of a beast that Bunduica could not identify.
The young woman tried to keep her attention focused on her mission. This other world, she understood, was the result of the druidic potion, and she must not allow it to stand in her way or distract her from her purpose. She had suffered much already, but she was strong. Indeed, she looked like a younger version of her mother, the great Boadicea, with her flaming red hair, taut but feminine physique, alabaster skin, and piercing green eyes—eyes full of haunted memories. But Bunduica had her mother’s iron will, too, so she walked on through the grim forest with complete determination, as if in a trance.
A crunch of autumn leaves beneath a booted foot not far away reminded her that she was not alone. The two boys, one tow-headed and the other red-haired with freckles and a perpetually sour look on his face, watched her through the trees from a distance. They had been following her for some time. Bunduica was aware of them, but they did not know that. Since ingesting Balor’s mistletoe concoction, Bunduica felt as if all of her senses had become heightened to a nearly agonizing level. The boys were undoubtedly following her to spy on her and report back to the Roman officials. Most likely they were of pro-Roman families. It didn’t matter. She knew that tonight there would be a reckoning.
She walked past a tree with a leering skull-like face that had been carved by no human hand. The jaw moved as the face tried to whisper to her. As she went by the skullface, Bunduica began to wonder just how far into the forest she would have to travel before she found the place. Suddenly a sharp voice inside her head said, “Look! There it is. To your left!”
Balor’s voice, or her mother’s? Or her own from deep within her? Bunduica saw a copse of four thick, gnarled old oaks, their tops leaning into each other as if they had grown together in a knot to make a roof. Balor had told Bunduica that when she saw this sign, she would have found the very place where the ritual must be performed.
Now she entered the grove and laid her torch and the writhing bundle on the altar of black stone that sat far beneath the knotted roof. On the sides of this carven block of onyx, strange characters had been chiseled, much like those she had seen in Balor’s book. Had this slab of stone really been brought from another world, as old Balor had said? Bunduica shrugged the pack from her back, removed a flask of spring water, and set about quenching her thirst.
She then closed her eyes and made sure that she could recall the rune sounds and words Balor had taught her from his old tome. He called it the Book of Dead Runes. This grimoire, written on leaves of strange parchment and bound in skin with clasps of iron and bone, had been ancient even when fabled Valusia, the great kingdom, was young, its first trees green, its skies bright. Balor had given Bunduica the book when he decided at last that the child had nothing to live for but the vengeance she craved. She had spent months begging the blind old man for the occult knowledge she needed to take her revenge.
Balor had said to her, as he made his fateful decision, “You will be working in magick and summoning forces the druids have shunned since before the great cataclysms of old.” The powerful magicks within the book were like trickster spirits, he told her; they would likely destroy the user as well as those against whom they were used. He recited the history of the Dead Runes. The fierce grimoire had first been in the possession of the race of Serpent Men, the unhuman creatures that had tried to topple the line of the ancient Great Kings who had reigned before the oceans engulfed Atlantis. It was this race of Serpent Men, some said, that had bound the book in the age-grayed human flesh that now covered it. Much later, it had been held by a sect of sorcerers in a land far to the east, Stygia. The sorcerers of Stygia had used the book to rule that dusky kingdom; with it, they brought down death and terror on all who opposed them. Even these workers of darkness, however, feared to utter spells contained on certain of the book’s leaves. “Stygia long ago collapsed into dust,” Balor told Bunduica, “and the book came to be held by two ancient enemy tribes called the Aesir and the Vanir. Through them, it reached my hands. I can tell you that there is a race to the north of the Briton Isles that will one day wash this land in blood, but not in your lifetime. They use written characters similar to those in this book to divine the future, but their runes are a very mild corruption of the dead runes. Some wise person knew what he was doing when he disarmed such knowledge. This will be the last that men will know of the book.”
Balor had concluded with a dark warning. “This tome may not even have been born on this earth. Some say that it was brought down from the stars or from another world. What we know, Bunduica, is this: our world sits on top of, or passes through, the world as it truly is, not as it appears to be. For there surely are such other worlds beside ours. Bunduica—when you summon the rune forces, it isn’t known whether the dark entities evoked will appear to the human eye, or are invisible demonic entities, or are forces of nature. I myself have not spoken these passages aloud. What I do know, myself, is from the undisputed testimony passed down through druidic tradition since before Atlantis sank. The rune forces are most potent—and utterly dangerous.”
And the key to the living forces of the runes, he emphasized, lay in the proper pronunciation and vibration of the sound that each rune represented. “You must practice each patiently. And know that the ritual formula prescribed herein must be followed to the last letter and sound. There is no room for error. Do you understand?”
She had promised him that she did. And now she wished that his ancient strength were here with her. Old Balor, her mentor and foster father since her mother’s death, had been wise in the ways of all things. He had been tortured and his eyes burned out when Suetonius, during the rebellion, had destroyed the druid sanctuary on Mona.
Taking in a deep breath, Bunduica unraveled the blanket. As the cold autumn air hit the baby, he began to cry. Bunduica clenched her teeth and reached for the athame at her belt. The dagger had a black handle that looked as though it could have been fashioned from the same material that the altar was hewn from. She paused as her hand touched that handle, and her green eyes burned with an unholy light. If those who had known her mother could have seen her at this moment, they would have sworn that Bunduica was Boadicea returned.
She began chanting the incantation in a whisper. The sonorous rhythm of the rune sounds lifted above the trees to pierce the silvery moon and grip the sky of the late October night. The sounds grew louder, and louder still. Even in the chill of the cold autumn night, sweat poured down Bunduica’s face and drenched her back and her breasts as she intoned the malefic words over and over, calling louder each time. At last her chant built to a crescendo, and she screamed in a language that had never been intended for human organs to resonate: “Tree-Micalazoda Yom-Gurd! Deesmees! Jeshet! Bonedose! Feduvema! Enttemoss!” Then, “Open wide the Gates! Manifest Rune Thorn!”
Down her fist slammed, driving the dagger into the crying baby’s heart. The thrust made a thumping sound like that of a bursting melon. Blood spurted in jets, landing on the surface of the black stone altar. Bunduica wiped a dripping stream of blood from her eyes and grinned. She dipped the fingers of her right hand into the blood and drew the Thorn rune on her forehead, then smiled.
Before her on the darkened slab running with crimson lay her own dead child—the bastard son of Catus Decanius.
Read the full story in the Swords of Steel Omnibus.