The night glistened with stars that gazed without caring
upon fiercest battle and the clashing of foes.
The dancing moons looked down on anger and slaughter,
illumined with wan light a scene from the deep hells
as men battled devils, the gaverae of old.
Who knows whence the horned ones, the ancients of the land,
came from in olden times, whether from earth’s own veins
or from across the sea? They were here when man came,
and fought us bitterly on every green island,
on every beach and shore. The works of the ancients
attest to their fury, for they set the frontiers
which even now we hold: the gray boundary stones
keep us within their ward, and mostly keep them out.
We dare not leave our hearths or the safety of home
save in strength and numbers, for fear of those creatures.
I have seen one by chance on a moonlit evening,
atop a cliff, howling, signaling its own kind.
The sound will shiver me to the end of my days.
Oh, the howling monster! Be thankful for your walls,
and mother Ocean’s grace that you never meet one
keep you in safety now and all your life’s long days!
Even from a distance, it was huge and fearsome,
more than twenty spans high, with a long spiky tail,
and three long sharpened horns rising from its flat head
and curving razor spines covered its long forearms.
You have seen the beast’s claws used at sacrifices
according to custom, and made ululation
to hide the death-lowing of red-hided cattle
slain with gaveran knives; how much worse their wielders,
true lords of the islands, the gaverae themselves!
So let me tell you true of the night-long battle
in Wellan’s wide barnyard, where Avren fought bravely
not with fancy word-work, like some skillful swordsmen
who do market-day tricks, or fancy combat-dance
like a troop of actors performs war on the stage
some scene from Inaradd , or Helena’s blood-bath.
No, I know how they fight, not inside paper masks
with costumes of linen and spikes of bright foil,
but with well-polished horn like shaped obsidian
and poison on their fangs, and a taste for man-flesh.
Avren and his shipmates came out of the hall first
without armor or helms, carrying borrowed blades.
What horror they saw then, those strangers on our shores:
the gaverae sat feasting on Wellan’s best milk cows,
their long shaggy brown coats now matted with black blood!
They screamed their defiance, those men from oversea,
and bore down on the fiends with their fullest fury,
rage overtaking sense, as battle-lust filled them.
Was Avren a solider ere he became a priest,
were his men warriors? The truth is lost to us,
but they were swordsmen then, in that terrible night.
Their blades rang on the hides of the old gaverae,
and each of them took one of the beasts for his foe.
Admire such bravery as you mock their foolishness,
for it was most foolish, to take on four at once.
The beasts do not look up from the feasts before them,
the corpses of cattle which they pick clean of meat,
(bloody, dripping, and raw… entrails, marrow and all),
but swing their tails like clubs, and smash their attackers.
Avren’s men go flying, and the beasts keep on feeding.
More men pour from the hall, their weapons at ready,
and this time the fiends look. They rise on their haunches,
and their eyes gleam like pearls reflecting firelight.
Now their eagerness shows, and something like pleasure;
They love their own cruelty, so now they go to work.
They unfold their long claws from paws like spinning wheels,
that make their own thunder when they walk on all fours.
Yet they rise to two legs, plantigrade and stately,
heads above the rooflines, and scream their defiance.
The men bleed from their ears, their eyes roll in their heads.
Down come the long talons: each creature strikes in turn,
and seven men go flying, slapping into stone walls
or impaling themselves on splinters of the barn,
cracked open like an egg for the sweetness with in.
The courtyard is slick now: the blood belongs to men.
The reek from the entrails stuffs up the men’s noses,
their eyes weep in horror from the gaveran shout.
Their own cries go unheard, for no man has his ears.
They make no strategy, cannot turn to tactics
in the sudden silence that follows the shrieking.
Gaveran tails lash out, and fell men like poplars.
the razors of their arms lop away arms and legs,
their claws pierce rib cages and rip out the hearts.
The men are dying now, these friends of Wellan’s house:
Cormac’s neck is broken, he lies on the rooftop
blood leaching from his heart down through the thick thatching
on women in the house hiding in the kitchen.
Mendus loses his head: a gavera eats it
and a fountain of blood leaps from his headless corpse.
Aberan’s chest is crushed by a gavera tail.
Maglus of the Westfold, never thought cowardly,
gets his long spine broken when a gavera sits,
and presses him to earth, shattering the man’s spine.
Jalain’s heart pumps out blood from six sucking chest wounds,
drowns in his own vomit. Padian’s arms are broke,
his knees both shattered. Ovan’s brain is showing.
They fight twenty to four, and still they are losing,
their frail iron weapons ringing on the dark scales
of the gaverae hides. The weapons bounce away.
Then the counter-strike comes, the gaverae claws fall,
blackest obsidian slices man-flesh open,
and searing poison pain fells men like a fever,
the scarlet-eye sickness that makes the blood boil.
Now they are but thirteen, and four men sore wounded:
Althan and Colama, Bramen and Gediran.