Bevulf staggered out of the kitchen, walked as far as the budding apple tree, and collapsed with his back against the trunk’s south side so that he could face the sun. Skild was some dozen paces beyond him in the yard, prone on her back in the greening spring lawn, gulping the air as if she hoped to taste the sunlight in it. Bevulf had to admit he didn’t feel much different, though he hoped he was hiding it better. He held up a hand. It trembled ever so slightly. Inside, aftershocks from his ordeal raised his blood and constricted his organs. Never had he felt as powerless as he had just a moment ago, when the idle will of another had frozen him in his tracks, enervated him despite his every nerve and muscle and tendon straining to move. That had been the most terrifying thing; it diminished the force of the images of his dead parents, images of his mother and his father both fallen and frozen on the Field of Winter Blight but, in this nightmare vision, still somehow alive, trapped and frozen as Bevulf had been just a moment before, cursed to remain conscious always and always suffering from cold but somehow never able to move. Bevulf was ashamed that his own misfortune was more terrifying than the imagined ones of his parents.
Eirvit sat beside Skild, her hand lightly resting on her sister’s forehead. The cleric earnestly was saying something to the shield champion, but Bevulf couldn’t quite hear it, nor did he care. His body itched for action. It wanted to move now in defiance of that bogey in the basement, to prove that he was again his own master, to never stop moving, if that’s what proof he needed. Though freed from the immobilizing spell, he felt nevertheless powerless. He wanted to use his sword. He wanted to do something, to warm the blood in his veins, to leave these sorcerous, unsettling feelings behind. He felt somehow infected with sorcery still.
Sorcery. Bevulf hitched around to look back at the kitchen doorway. Hross stood just outside it, next to Nanny and Bera. When Hross noticed Bevulf’s attention, Hross caught Bevulf’s eye and raised his scruffy chin in a gesture that Bevulf couldn’t interpret. Then the sorcerer turned his gaze again to the Aldisdottirs, still in their conclave.
Bevulf glanced away from Hross and found his gaze resting on the newly planted garden to the west. At first he couldn’t focus on it, his mind still full of the fears that the bogey had inspired, but he shook his head to clear them and focused on the feel of the sun’s warmth on his cheeks. Then he looked again on the garden.
Huh, that was funny. It was much too early in the year for garden plants to be growing, and even anything that had been started indoors wouldn’t be transplanted for a few days yet, because Hagreach still wasn’t out of the threat of frost. But something fairly huge – larger than a fully-grown cabbage, even – seemed to be growing in the very center of the garden where the soil seemed richest. Bevulf stood up to get a better look at the growth. What was that?
Perhaps noticing Bevulf’s attention, Bera lurched forward. “Oh, I almost forgot about that, Bevulf.”
Something in Bevulf’s brain told him he should know what that thing was, but he couldn’t quite think it through. “What is it?” It had long vines, like squash vines, creeping out from its bulbous base, above which opened a large, three-cornered yellow flower. The ends of the vines – there appeared to be three of them – seemed weighted with large, spiny burrs. Did one of those vines just move, ever so slightly, in an unreal, sickening motion? There was a breeze, but it didn’t seem strong enough to move something like that. Bevulf was reminded of a snake moving carefully like a spider.
“Some folk call it a weedwhip,” Bera said. “Me, I just call it a pest. The worst kind, though. Its touch is poisonous, and it can be quite lethal. Nain is too old to do aught about it. I suppose it’s up to me or Nanny to try something, but I kind of was hoping, since you were here anyway, that you might give it a go.”
Bevulf knelt and picked up his greatsword from where he had laid it beside the tree. “Happy to.”
“Uh,” Bera said, “we planted the garden before the pest grew out of it – right in the center, too, as if it somehow knew how to make the most trouble. If you could do your best not to upset the soil too much.”
But Bevulf already was stomping away. He was exultant. His blood coursed. He felt like himself again, in his body, in control of his body, of his actions, the master of his own being. Strength coursed through him. The sword felt electric in his two hands.
The strange plant seemed to sense his approach. The vines slithered, coiling about in a circle of defense. Bevulf saw that he would have to contend with those first, before he could get close enough to give the plant anything like a lethal blow. How do you kill something like that, anyway? Would it stop being a threat if he chopped that bulbous base from its roots, or would he succeed by just chopping the flower from the stalk?
As Bevulf neared the edge of the garden, he was distantly aware of a cry behind him. Bera perhaps. And then, unmistakably, Skild: “Wait, you fool!” Bevulf grinned. Perhaps he was behaving rashly, perhaps he should slow down and they should make a plan, be reasonable about this, but he needed his power back. He needed to chop at something. He had to once again feel like he was his own king. So he halted only for a moment at the edge of the garden, surveying the scene.
Now that he was this close to the flower, he became aware of a nauseating stench. It tasted something like vomit, something like fermenting gingko biloba fruit, but so much more powerful than that. He swayed slightly on his feet, then kept down his mead-soaked bile, shaking his head. The shade of the flower was sickly yellow, exuding an aura in the sunlight: odoriferous pollen drifting out of the orange maw between the petals. The flower-head seemed to shift Bevulf’s way, as if it were aware of him.
Bevulf readied his sword. The leather straps on the handle clung to his palms. Many hours of use had formed finger grooves in the hide. The weedwhip tendrils moved ever so slightly, uncurling from their defensive circle: they probably would attack with those mace-like ends, once Bevulf moved, from either side – maybe even the third one, too, which currently rested on the side of the weedwhip’s body opposite Bevulf.
Bevulf held the blade across his body and began lightly loping across the garden. The soil was soft; his boots sunk in deep. He tried not to think about how Bera might be wincing, behind him, as he churned tracks.
The whips whizzed through the air. Bevulf sidestepped the first easily, the next as well, but the third lashed him along the back of the neck, dug under his leathers. Something cold seeped where the thorns clawed up his blood. Ignoring the sensation, Bevulf slashed for the plant’s base, recognizing that it was the most stationary target and hoping to cut the whole thing from its roots.
But the base of the plant suddenly moved, plowing a furrow to one side, and Bevulf’s blade showered soil from where it sank deep.
The tendrils, weighted as if with maces, lashed down again. Bevulf felt one slash across his face. Another thudded with surprising strength into his side.
That was it. The frustrating events of the day flashed in Bevulf’s mind. His vision blurred. He no longer felt his body, but this was a good sensation. This was a proper kind of possession, a possession of white hot rage. Bevulf became his own spectator – but his body still was his own, doing exactly what felt right, doing precisely whatever it wanted, and right now it wanted to kill.
His massive, notched blade swung. His first swing severed all the tendrils and the giant flower-head from the bulb. Almost casually, he brought the sword back around with, somehow, even greater strength and sank it deep into the bulb. The creature again had been trying to move away, but Bevulf clove it completely in half. A yellow-green ichor gushed out of the squash-like body, splashed into his face, darkened the flecks of stinking filth that already had rained on him from his first swing. A retching miasma—the worst yet—again engulfed Bevulf’s consciousness, but again he brushed it away as casually as he smeared the ichor mingled with his own blood out of his eyes and across his face.
He was back in his body. As it always was after these episodes, his body felt so much heavier than it had a moment again. He turned and clumped back out of the garden, only belatedly realizing that he should have exited, in order to do minimal damage to the planting, in his earlier footsteps. Instead he had plowed another furrow right alongside the other.
Hross and Skild stood at the edge of the garden. Hross gaped openly at Bevulf, and Bevulf noticed that the sorcerer held a dagger tightly in the mage’s right fist. So the pretty boy was willing to enter into honest combat, was he? Beside Hross, Skild’s shield was slowly lowering to her side. Both, obviously, had been on their way to assist Bevulf, and then he had finished the job.
Bevulf spit the foul plant juice at Skild’s feet. When her gaze turned into a glare, he immediately felt sorry for it. Her disdain stayed with Bevulf as he moved through the yard and onto the headspring of the dirt road.
Already the exhaustion was falling from his shoulders. The sun was warm, his blade was bloodied – well, it was juiced, anyway – and strength was flowing in his blood and muscles.
“Where are you going?” Eirvit called from behind him.
For a moment, Bevulf thought he might not answer. But the musical tone of Eirvit’s voice prevailed. “Skark’s,” he grunted, not turning back, and then he was far enough away that further conversation was not possible without either him stopping or someone running after him. Let them run, he thought. He was going to do something about this situation. He was going to see what – if anything – that craven Skark had to do with these disappearing children. And Bevulf so hoped that he found something guilty about that cleric. For the first time since that awful Battle of Winter Blight, Bevulf was free to entertain suspicions about just why Skark had been the sole survivor of that battle. If things today went the way Bevulf now hoped they would, Bevulf would have cause to make the list of living Winter Blight survivors now zero.