Gram's Gift

by Steve Goble

She watched him enter the rustic Sildrin temple. He was a hulk moving in firelight and shadow, and the people huddled in those cramped quarters readily moved aside from his path.

Sagra wondered at that; he was big, but he was alone and greatly outnumbered. Then she saw his face -- or lack of one. This stranger was the stuff of legend, one of the Faceless Sons, and his presence in this terrorized village confirmed her dark suspicions. The thing that scared these people, that had chased them into the security of this rustic temple of wood and stone fortified by protective runes, was indeed a demon.

And the Faceless Son was hunting it. That’s all the Faceless Sons did.

The rumors had brought Sagra here, too.

The villagers had been talking freely before the Son entered, more tales of mangled goats and strange yowls in the night. Now the ruckus died down to whispers, so many whispers Sagra could not understand a word. She saw many eyes turn from the Faceless Son to the winged god Iskan carved in wood on the mantel behind her, and noted how fingers fluttered in gestures of prayer.

Sildrin was not her village and Iskan was not her god, so she did not appeal to the carved owl for comfort. Sagra whispered instead an appeal to the world mother Hannahr, and reached within her cloak to feel the reassuring amulet that dangled from her neck. A trail of mysterious sightings, mangled cattle and twisted corpses had led her here. She’d followed that trail for weeks, healing wounds where she could and laying wards to keep beasts at bay. That’s what Gram would have done had she still lived.

At first, Sagra had thought a wolfpack or a rogue bear responsible for the deaths. Of late, though, she’d begun to suspect the truth. No one ever saw the thing fully, or heard it clearly, and Sagra had not yet shared her suspicion with anyone. But she’d studied much witchlore under Gram, and she’d learned enough to believe the beast was one of the seven demons unleashed by Gharan in his High Tower in Brythane almost a decade ago. The Faceless Son’s arrival in Sildrin turned that belief into crystalline certainty.

No ordinary hunter or armed party would end this creature’s ruin; it would be up to her, or so she had thought before the Faceless Son had come.

The amulet she clutched now was her weapon. Would Gram, knowing it was a demon she stalked, leave it to this masked stranger to slay the beast? Or would Gram have gone on? She could almost hear Gram saying, “People will keep dying if I don’t, dear. Who really knows what the Faceless Sons are about? Duty is duty. A witch is mother to all, and sometimes motherhood isn’t pretty.”

Sagra tightened her fingers around the amulet. Its solidity was a comfort to her. Gram had given it to her, and Gram was no longer around to cope with illnesses and sores and predatory beasts. But she had left Sagra this weapon.

The Faceless Son carried a weapon, too. His was a massive warhammer, its head glinting in the hearthlight like the plate armor that covered his shoulders and chest. The Son seemed made entirely of hard muscle, bright armor and bronzed skin, save for the pale mask that hid all of his face except for the eyes. Those were as hard as his armor.

Sagra stood near the hearth, where the aroma of cooking food helped mask the unpleasant scents stirred by hundreds of villagers crammed into a temple after the day’s labors. The Son approached. His gray eyes peered at her, but he said nothing. He leaned the long-hafted hammer against the hearth, then pulled a knife from his belt and cut himself a slice of the spitted hog. Impaling his meat on the knife, he took up the hammer and turned to go.

“Wait,” Sagra said.

He turned.

She drew close to him, rose on the tips of her toes and whispered, so as not to alarm anyone. “There’s a demon out there, true?”

“Somewhere,” he said.

“I can help you,” Sagra said, settling down to her heels again but quickly standing erect because she felt so small next to this massive man. She shook her head to send the straight blonde strands back over her shoulders where they belonged, and stared at him. “I want to help you.”

“Help me? A woman?” His masked face bobbed as he glanced at her booted feet, then slowly raised his gaze to her face again. “And weaponless? You will be of no help, and you will get yourself killed.” He turned to go.

“I am not weaponless,” she said sharply, “nor am I useless. I was apprentice to a witch, and I have tracked this monster for many miles.”

But the Faceless Son continued toward the door, striding through a gauntlet of curious eyes and pointing fingers and hushed words. “A village witch is useless, an apprentice even more so. This burden is mine,” he said. “Not yours.”

Sagra followed him outside, where the pale moon and mist made a ghost of the forested world. “I have magic — strong magic,” she said.

He had lifted his mask to eat. He stood a while, his back to her, and wolfed down most of the morsel. Sagra’s temper flared further at this show of disdain. Finally, he flung the rest of the meat aside and sheathed his knife, then lowered his mask before turning.

“I have magic, too.” He hefted the hammer, then dropped its head into the earth with a thump that sounded as though a tree had fallen. Sagra swore she could feel the blow reverberate in the ground beneath her. “This hammer has forged blades for kings, for centuries, and carries still the touch of magic from every blade it hammered. And it has crushed a demon’s skull once already. I have no need of help, nor would I have you put your life at risk on my account.”

“I am a witch,” Sagra said. “Almost, anyway. Protecting these villages is my duty. I’ve sworn an oath.”

“You cannot protect them from the thing that lurks out there. You are young, and pretty. Go home, and brew love potions and make nostrums and raise babies. This burden is mine.”

Sagra stepped toward him. “Because your father unleashed the demon?”

He stared at her. “I do not speak of it,” he said harshly.

“I know the tale,” Sagra said. “Gram told me of it. Gharan brought forth seven monstrosities to help him supplant the king, but they ripped the wizard apart and ran forth to ravage the world. Gharan’s three sons renounced their names, and now hide their faces from sight of gods and men until they can rid the world of their father’s shame.”

“Mere village folklore,” the Son said, but she could hear his voice strain on the words as he tried to control his anger. He turned toward the woods.

“You have noble blood,” Sagra called, “and think all the world revolves around Brythane and its court. But we have magic here in the hinterlands, too. Look!”

She tugged the amulet from around her neck and held it defiantly as the Faceless Son turned again. “A demon’s eye.” The glazed globe peered at him from within the clutches of a falcon’s severed leg. “Gram, my teacher, made it. It wards demons, and can send them back to their netherworld if they but look upon it!”

The Faceless Son approached, and gently took the amulet from her. He looked upon it a long while. “I know something of magic, woman.”

“My name is Sagra.”

“Sagra, then. I’ve yet to meet a village witch who could do more than ease the sniffles. This amulet is nothing. A witch’s charm, nothing magic in it. The eye came from a bull, I’d say.” He dropped it into her palm.

“That’s not true.”

“It’s a trifle, to make the unlearned sleep easier at night,” he said. “That is its only magic. It has no power over the thing I seek.”

He strode into the woods and vanished.

Sagra fumed. The man’s arrogance galled her, and she wanted to hurl herself on this Faceless Son and pound him with her fists. But she knew bruised knuckles would be the only result.

She stood, shaking with rage, until coming to her decision. She remembered Gram holding the amulet aloft long ago, on a night when demons howled in the woods. The demons would not dare approach it, she’d said. “And if they do, child, I’ll show it to them and they’ll run back to their hell to trouble us no more.”

Sagra now possessed that weapon, and had determined to use it against the demon because that’s what Gram would have done. Now this Faceless Son was here, and tales and songs of these grim masked warriors abounded. The Faceless Son could no doubt handle the demon... but the Faceless Son had disregarded her.

That, Sagra could not tolerate.

She marched into the woods, her ears catching every snap and thunk as the Faceless Son hammered his way through the forest. Branches clawed at her and snagged her cloak. Sagra wondered if the Son had a clear destination in mind, or simply planned to wander until the demon pounced. Were he less of an imbecile, he might ask her for a spell to point the way, she thought.

She could not yet see the Son; he moved swiftly for a man so big. But he left a trail of broken saplings that was clear even in the dim moonlight that fought its way through the branches.

The Faceless Son’s din stopped suddenly, and Sagra held her breath a moment. She expected to hear the sounds of battle -- demon roar, hammer blow, battle cry. But all she heard was her own pounding heart.

An owl broke the silence.

After a pause, Sagra crept forward along the Faceless Son’s mangled trail. The ground was uneven, rolling like waves, and her imagination conjured ambushes all around her. She stopped every few steps to listen, but the unnerving silence filled the night.

She had never heard silence in woods at night. It was wrong; there should be wind rustles, night birds, insects.

She topped a rise, and a bright shimmer below her made her gasp. Then she recognized the moon, reflected from a still pond. The pale orb reminded her of the Faceless Son’s masked face. Of the Son, she saw no sign.

She went to the water’s edge. Deep bootprints in spongy ground and mud told her the Faceless Son had gone around the pond, and she followed. Looking along the pond’s edge, she finally saw his head towering over reeds as he skirted the pond. The massive hammer leaned on his shoulder.

Odors, wet and thick, filled the air. The silence made the scene seem unreal, a fitting place for a demon. She removed the talisman from around her neck, and held it before her like a sword. Moonlight washed the glaze that covered the eye and the raptor leg that gripped it.

A roar ripped the silence, and stopped her breath. Sagra dove behind a tree, and was crouched there even before the horrid cry ended.

She heard another roar, a hammer blow, a scrape of metal. The fury in the roar, and the strength of that hammer blow, promised a quick and bloody end to the fight; either the Faceless Son or his foe had to succumb to such violence. But the thrashings continued, blow after roar after scream. Two voices filled the night, a bestial growl and human cries of very human pain.

Sagra cursed herself for a coward and sped forward, brandishing her amulet. She tripped on a root once, and splashed a boot in the pond, and sank almost to the ankle in mud. But she fought on, rushing to aid the Faceless Son.

She halted, gape-jawed, when she came upon the battle.

She did not yet see the demon. But she saw the Son hurtle through the air, stretched out like a javelin. She gasped as his shoulder hit a slender tree with a force that bent it over. The Faceless Son tumbled in a clatter of armor and a spray of blood, and the hammer that had forged dozens of magical blades vanished in a thick tangle of branches.

Then the demon pounced snarling out of the shadows. It was far larger than the man it had hurled. Broad shoulders gleamed red, and yellow eyes glared from a skull adorned with horns. Its tongue rolled obscenely from a mouth rimmed with shark teeth. Claws stretched toward the Faceless Son as the thing drew near him.

Sagra steeled herself, and leapt toward it. She tried to sound like Gram: “Fiend! Back to your hell! I command it!”

She lifted high the demon’s-eye amulet, holding the falcon’s leg like the hilt of a blade. The demon looked upon the talisman -- and licked its lips.

It turned its full attention upon Sagra, and walked forward with strides longer than Sagra was tall. Its talons groped the air before it, and its nostrils widened like caverns as it sniffed and sighed. Its teeth gleamed wetly in the moonlight, and its breath was steam almost thick enough to obscure the glowing yellow eyes.

Sagra backed away. “Back to your hell! I command it!”

Still, it came.

Sagra’s mind turned upon words of power, something to lend strength to the amulet. She shouted these now, and brandished the eye.

Still, the demon came.

She had said the words properly, she knew. She had used them before, in healing and in blessing crops. But they did nothing now, did not even slow the approach of the foul thing.

Sagra thought to run, but her knees shook and she realized the monstrosity could be upon her in one great leap. She gulped the chilly air, and it tasted like death.

Then a rain of blood sprayed from the back of the demon’s horned skull. Another, and she heard the snap of bone and saw the glowing eyes go dull. The beast spat blood in a fountain that rained hot on Sagra’s face. She wiped away the burning blood with her hand, and felt new blisters on her face and fingers.

The demon stood, silent, twitching, staring at her for long, long, long seconds — until its knees collapsed and it fell in a heap.

Beyond the demon’s corpse stood the Faceless Son.

His armor plates dangled loosely, his chest heaved with effort and his massive warhammer was drenched in gore. Twigs and leaves were caught in the gaps and rents of his armor plates. Demon blood sizzled on his armor, on his bare arms, across his pale mask. Crimson stained the white mask, and the blood-soaked fabric clung to his skin.

Sagra could find no words for many heartbeats, and the Faceless Son merely stared at the demon’s corpse. Finally, she caught her breath and her heart slowed a trifle.

“You were right,” she said quietly, gazing at the amulet. “No magic here at all.”

The Faceless Son looked at her. “I was wrong,” he said.

He walked toward her, stepping on the dead fiend as though it were a bridge. “You have magic, Sagra, but not here.” He took the amulet from her.

She stared past the streams of blood on the mask and into the gray eyes behind it.

“You have magic, indeed,” he said, “but it is here.” He touched the amulet to her breast, over the heart. “Your spell is courage, a rare enough magic. I might have realized that earlier, had I been willing to listen. I am glad you hunted down the demon. If you not been here, I never would have landed the fatal blows.”

“But Gram lied to me,” Sagra said quietly. “The demon was supposed to flee. She told me this bauble had power over demons, even used it once to keep them away when we could hear the yowling at night. I’ve seen her cure the sick, and rid homes of vermin and...”

“You were a child then, when the demons howled and she quelled them with this?”

She looked at him. “Yes.”

“And you were afraid of the howls, no doubt.”

“Of course.”

“Then Gram’s magic worked, and you spent the night unafraid,” he said. “Perhaps she was as frightened as you, but could not show it. She knew you needed her to be strong, and she was. She could not control the demons -- probably wolves, you realize -- but she could ease a worried child’s mind.”

Sagra sighed. Eventually, she smiled wanly. “Perhaps. Maybe, even, she’d have told me the truth of it one day. She’s gone now. Maybe she never got the chance.” Sagra smirked. “Still, I thought she’d given me such an awesome gift.”

She could not see the smile beneath his mask, but it showed in his eyes. “I suspect she’s the one who gave you your courage. And I, for one, am grateful,” he said.

She thought, for a moment, she saw desire in his eyes. She knew men thought her beautiful. But the look vanished quickly, and Sagra wondered if the Faceless Sons denied themselves worldly pleasures as part of their penance.

After a pause, he spoke again. “And I’m grateful, too, for the company of a brave woman. Come, walk with me and tell me more of village witchcraft.”

© Steve Goble 2005, Reprinted With Permission
This story originally appeared in Amazing Journeys Magazine
(Issue #9, Fall 2005, Edited by Edward Knight)
Discuss this story at ResAliens Forum at SFReader.com.

Steve Goble writes fantasy, horror and science fiction, plus some poetry. One of his short stories was an honorable mention in “The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008,” edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant. He has published more than 20 short stories (some featuring the Faceless Sons), a novel, and is beginning a new novel featuring his sword and sorcery protagonist, Calthus. He blogs at Swords Against Boredom.

About the Faceless Sons...
Steve Goble writes:
The Faceless Sons stories revolve around three brothers who have given up their identities and hide their faces behind masks, and will do so until they have slain the demons unleashed by their power-hungry wizard father. It’s pure sword & sorcery, sometimes told with one of the Faceless Sons as the protagonist, and sometimes told with someone else as the point-of-view character. I have a few other tales in the sequence, looking for homes in one nice publication or another.