Here are some things you need to know before reading Legion of Bastards to avoid misconceptions about what it is.
1) It is a second-hand fic. I have never read Iron Druid Chronicles and I don't plan on doing so in the foreseeable future. All my knowledge of the books and characters is based upon the brilliant sporking by Juracan on the Impish Idea.
2) The story is mostly original with only loose roots in Iron Druid Chronicles. As such all divergences from canon, out of character actions and interpretations that go against the original books are not a bug, they're a feature.
3) Much thanks to the amazing TMary (also known as StarWriterWG), without whose editor expertise this fic would never get off the ground.
4) This fic was created first and foremost for vicious amusement of myself and people on Impish Idea, who happen to despise Atticus.
Tale of the First
Over the years I have donned many names. So many that I don't even remember which was my original one. But the name I will never forget is the one I should have inherited from my father. The name of the man I have sworn to kill. O Suileabhain.
I have lived a long life, unnaturally so, and much of my memory is blurry. But the day my father left us stands clear in my memory. I can close my eyes and see it as if it was happening again, right in front of me. Once again I am returning from the woods, carrying a bundle of sticks for the fireplace. I trip over the undergrowth, my legs still short, my steps awkward in my haste. And there they are standing at the door of our cottage.
We'd been living in the woods, alone and hidden from everyone, just the three of us. Back then I didn't understand why. I knew that my grandfather had been angry at my mother, so that she and father had had to run. Much later I learned that I was the reason. Children born out of wedlock were frowned upon, and if the father was a landless drifter only borne because of the rights of hospitality, they were frowned upon very much. My mother could have gotten away with having a child despite being unmarried. She was a headsman's daughter after all. But the drifter was so charming and his promises so alluring that she chose to run away with him instead.
It lasted for an entire ten years before that day came. The fall was nearing its end and the days were rapidly growing colder. I walked towards the cottage and saw my mother crying. She clutched O Suileabhain's hand and begged him not to leave.
And he didn't even say a word. He simply turned away and walked into the forest, never sparing me or my mother another look.
You see, he wasn't a normal man. For all the years he'd lived with us he'd never changed, hadn't aged a day. But that wasn't true for my mother. Back when they'd met she'd been a girl of sixteen, full of youth and beauty, and even ten years later traces of that beauty remained in her face, mostly in her eyes. Those lively blue eyes.
But ten years of hard living in the forest, tough work from dawn till dusk, hadn't served her beauty well. She looked older than she was, no longer a delicate innocent flower, but a hardened, working woman, and so she was no longer worthy of father's attention. Knowing him, I'm surprised he stayed as long as he did.
On that day something broke inside Mother. She started growing ever more apathetic, putting less and less heart into the work around the house. It wouldn't have mattered much, even if she was as full of energy as ever. It was O Suileabhain's woodcraft that made living alone in the heart of the woods possible. Oh, we had a stash of smoked meat and a small vegetable garden, but we couldn't hunt. And the winter was fast closing in.
At least Mother didn't starve. Soon after the first snow fell she became ill. She coughed and complained of pain in her chest. And I watched her, unable to help beyond giving basic care and providing her with what little comfort I could. With each minute of her suffering I hated my father more.
And finally one morning when I woke up I was alone.
By that point I wasn't thinking clearly, consumed by hate as I was. I took the sharpest of our cooking knives and put on all the warm clothes I had. From the fireplace I ignited a pile of Mother's clothes and set fire to the cottage itself. It was the only pyre I could provide for her. I didn't know any prayers or last rites, so as the cottage burned I watched silently, promising myself that I would find and kill the man responsible for this.
By this time he was already far away, farther than I could have imagined at the time, but I didn't really think. I just wanted to put the knife into him, and with that purpose I walked into the woods, ready to find him at any moment.
I walked for most of the day, fueled only by my wish for vengeance. I kept moving even after cold, hunger, and fatigue started to slow me down. At that point there wasn't much else that I could have done anyway, and even back then I knew that to stop would mean to die. So I forced myself to continue, step by step, borne forward only by the force of hatred.
By the time the sun set I was reduced to crawling. I knew, even if I refused to admit it to myself, that I wouldn't see the morning. I don't know what stopped me from just curling into a ball and waiting for the cold to end me. But I kept crawling.
I don't know how long it took before I saw a light in the distance. By that point my sense of time wasn't working. I might have been crawling in the darkness for hours or only a few minutes before I saw an orange glow somewhere in front of me, maybe three dozen paces away. It was the sight of that light that gave me strength for the last, desperate attempt. It must be a fire and that meant people, people who could help me.
I wasn't wrong on either account, not exactly. The trees grew more and more sparse and finally I reached a clearing. And there, right in the middle of it, was the fire. I was so focused on its light and warmth that I didn't immediately notice the cauldron or the three women sitting around it. But when I did, I froze in my tracks.
They were a grotesque trio; even as delirious and weak as I was, I had no doubt that they were not human. The middle one commanded the most immediate attention. She dwarfed the other two by a large margin. Every part of her body was utterly, unbelievably fat. Her belly was so big that as she was sitting it was splayed on the ground in front of her, forcing her legs to the side. They themselves were thick and blubbery, with shins so fat they were thicker than my torso and the thighs three times as big. Her hands could only seem small by the contrast to the legs; even then they seemed like giant tubs of lard. Even her face was big and shapeless, its only distinct feature the giant mouth.
The one to her right was her opposite. If the first one was obese, this one was downright skeletal. Her skin was so taut that in places it was almost translucent. As she moved her hand over the cauldron I could see the black lattice of her veins bulging under the paper-thin cover of skin. I don't think her fingers even had skin anymore. They looked dirty-yellow and hard, each bone in plain sight.
Compared to them, the last one seemed almost human in comparison, at least at first glance. Her overlong torso and limbs weren't obvious, bent over the cauldron as she was. And even once she stretched, showing the full extent of her distortion, it was the face that was the most striking. She had no eyes, not even eye sockets. Where they should have been, there was only an expanse of wrinkled, spotted skin. What she lacked in sight she made up in sense of smell, for her nose was unnaturally long and beak-like, her nostrils sucking in the air with a sickening, low-pitched wheeze.
It was she who first reacted to my appearance. She moved on all fours, surprisingly spider-like and quick in the way her limbs worked together. Her fingers closed on my ankle with the force of a vise and she pulled me up in the air, with an ease one wouldn't expect looking at her misshapen frame. She sniffed, taking in my scent. "What an interesting little morsel we have here, sisters."
I was brought towards the cauldron, too weak to scream or even squirm in her grasp. I was certain I'd be added to whatever was already inside. Instead she took another long whiff of me. "He smells of an old blood. Powerful blood." She licked her lips. "And of hate. So much hate in such a little morsel."
The fat one took me from her sister and looked at me carefully. Her mouth opened and before I knew it, she was licking me with her long, serpentine tongue. "Mmm. Yes, he tastes of hate…but also determination."
She dropped me on the ground, right next to the fire. "What do you want, boy? Why were you wandering the forest at night?"
I couldn't even answer. I'm still not sure what held my tongue; was it fear or exhaustion or maybe the shock? But I still remembered what had brought me here. The thought of vengeance on my father woke in my mind. For a moment I didn't even care about what was happening to me. I only wanted to kill him.
"Ah, yes. Vengeance. And what would you give to have it?"
I managed to whisper, "Everything."
I might have lost consciousness for a while, because the next thing I remember is standing over the cauldron, with the three monstrous sisters sitting across from me. The fat one spoke first.
"The one you pursue is no ordinary man. He has lived long and he travels far. One life is not enough to catch up to him, so you will need to live many."
She took a wooden bowl and put it into the cauldron. Even now I dare not think what was inside and what it was made of, but when she offered me the bowl I drank from it. The brew was reddish-brown and murky; it tasted of blood and of iron, of burned fat and of things I can't even name. It was disgusting, but I somehow managed to swallow it all without vomiting.
"You will live for a long, long time. As long as you need to wreak your vengeance. That is my gift."
The skeletal one was next. She put one bony hand on my right cheek and spoke. "The one you pursue is no ordinary man. He commands powers beyond mortal ken. Ordinary skills are not enough to bring him down, so you will need uncanny ones."
As she spoke her hand kept getting hotter and hotter, burning me like fire. I cried with pain and almost collapsed, yet her hand never moved from its spot.
"You will find the power that you need to wreak your vengeance. That is my gift."
The blind sister was last. She took my knife and pulled up my right sleeve. "The one you pursue is no ordinary man. He has allies and lackeys among the powers that shape the world. One person alone won't be able to defeat him."
She started cutting around my arm, in a spiral coiling downwards towards the palm. After the searing pain of mere moments ago I barely registered what she was doing, only aware of what was happening because of the red trail left by the blade.
Finally she cut deeply across my palm. "The blood will call to blood; you will find the others he left in his wake. Have them swear to share in your vengeance and they shall partake of the gifts you bear. That is my gift to you."
I sank to my knees, weakened by blood loss and the shock of what had just happened. They spoke in unison. "Three gifts you were given tonight and three services you will perform in exchange. Thus you are bound, thus is the price you agreed to pay. Never forget that."
After that I must have fainted, because the next time I opened my eyes I was looking at the gray winter sky. I was moving slowly, and whatever I lay on was gently rocking beneath me.
I started at that and tried to sit up, but a large and heavy hand laid on my chest stopped me. "You're very lucky that we found you out here, lad. Honest folk don't move in these parts at this time of year."
I looked in the direction the sound was coming from and found the source of the voice. He was a large man, taller than father and heavy-set. His bald head was marred with scars, but what burned itself most strongly in my memories was the look in his gray eyes. It was measuring, filled in equal measure with curiosity and sympathy.
I opened my mouth to speak, but managed only a croaking whisper before he shushed me. "Lie still. It's a wonder you're even alive" —he spat— "after lying gods know how long in the cold. You'll talk when we get to the camp." There was a hint of suspicion in his eyes. "Aye, I think there's a lot that you'll have to tell us about."
The camp turned out to be a small but deep ravine lost somewhere in the heart of the woods. At the point where its walls met, a large canvas roof was set up, creating a snug pavilion, with the opening blocked by a log palisade. But it was the inside that surprised me the most, because it was much better furnished than one would expect from a hole in the woods. The ground was strewn with furs, and near the walls there was about a score of cots. In the center stood a large brazier, filled with wood just waiting to be ignited. From the rope strung across the length of the ravine a few oil lamps hung, and in the very far corner, in a large, open chest, lay an assortment of coins, jewelry and sundry items of value, all thrown in without much regard.
I kept drifting in and out of consciousness. Afterwards I learned that my life had hung in the balance for three days after I'd been picked up, until finally my fever broke and I started quickly growing stronger. Around this time I managed to learn that the bald man who'd talked to me was called Quintus and he was the leader of the group of brigands that had found me on the way to their winter lair. I still don't know why he decided to pick me up and load me on their cart; he himself always said it was a whim.
Finally one of the idling members of the band noticed that I seemed lucid enough to talk. He went outside, and a few minutes later Quintus came in and sat on the ground by my cot. He gave me an inquisitive look and said, "Tell me, boy, what were you doing alone in the middle of the woods?"
I wasn't certain how to answer. "I…I was trying to find my father. He left some days ago and…and then Mother died."
Thinking about Mother brought unbidden tears to my eyes, and once again I promised myself to kill my father. "I couldn't stay at home, so I went to look for him."
I didn't speak about why I wanted to find him – even then I knew that patricide, however justified, was considered an especially vile and disgusting deed. Neither I did speak about meeting the Crones, which by this point I was sure were noting more than a fever-induced hallucination.
"So you are telling me that you lived somewhere nearby just with your mother and father?" He sounded doubtful.
"Very well. What about the scars then?"
I looked at him, startled. "What scars?"
He pointed to my right forearm and for the first time I noticed a spiral scar snaking around it, downwards towards my hand and deeply across the palm, from the base of the thumb towards my little finger. I cried out in shock.
As the realization that the meeting was real after all hit me, Quintus went towards the loot chest and started rifling through its contents. He returned with a small, silver tray. It was polished well enough that it gave a recognizable, if blurry, reflection, and as I looked at my face in it I saw a large, red stain on my right cheek, reaching almost to the corner of the eye. Even though I couldn't see the details well enough in that makeshift mirror, I knew with certainty that it was an imprint of the skeletal hand, burned crimson into my face.
I swallowed heavily, while Quintus watched me quietly, waiting for my answer. On the one hand I had no reason to trust him, especially now that I understood what he and his men were. On the other, he had saved my life and nursed me back to health, despite having no reason for doing so.
So I told him about what I had thought was a dream. The clearing and the three sisters who for some reason decided to grant me their gifts and demanded three services in exchange. I didn't tell him what the gifts were. I pretended that I didn't understand what the Crones had said. It wasn't that far from the truth. Even though I could recall the Crones' words with perfect clarity, what exactly they meant was a riddle to me, as was the nature of the three services that they were yet to demand.
I think that Quintus knew I understood more of the event than I let on and that I was still hiding something from him, but he didn't seem to care much. He just nodded and then told me to make myself useful, now that I wasn't bedridden anymore.
I suspect there was some grumbling among the band members about me joining, but in a few days I seemed to fit in well enough. I went to check the traps and gather wood with them, I worked on fixing the clothes and keeping the weapons in good repair, I cleaned the snow that gathered on the canvas cover over the camp, and I started learning their trade as well. It was basics in the beginning, how to hold a knife, what kind of strikes were good with a forward grip and what with a reverse grip. They taught me how to move stealthily through the forest and how to hide my presence. I learned more about woodcraft over that winter than my father had ever deigned to teach me during the ten years he spent with us.
By the time the snows had melted and the band started preparing for the raiding season, I was considered a full member. It didn't further my goal, but my winter stay at their camp had given me enough time to cool down and think things through. It was a miracle that I had lived through my first, blind attempt at vengeance. I didn't have much chance of simply running into my father by going off in a random direction, and I had much to learn before I'd be ready to face him. Now that I understood that much, and since I had nowhere to go, Quintus's brigands were as good companions as any, at least for a while. So I let the hate burn cold inside me, remembering the gift of the fat sister and knowing that I could bide my time.
As far as bandits and outlaws go, Quintus's men were pretty decent people. After all this time, I can't actually recall their names or faces, but I remember that they never resorted to unnecessary violence, if they could take what they needed and wanted without much resistance. And even when the occasions presented themselves there were no rapes or undue harassment. This I suspect was mostly Quintus's doing, given how he loved discipline and how he treated banditry with cold pragmatism. But even if they avoided doing the worst for purely practical reasons, like avoiding attention and not inviting the reprisal…well, it helps my conscience, knowing that what we did wasn't as bad as it could have been.
As it turned out, we were somewhere north of the borders of the Roman Empire, near the Amber Road with its merchant traffic going both ways. Quintus himself was actually a former legionnaire. He never spoke about why he had ended up on the frontier as a highwayman, but my personal theory is that he incurred the wrath of a vengeful superior and either had to flee or got himself exiled. Looking at how professionally he ran the band of brigands, I am sure his fall from grace wasn't the result of incompetence. We ambushed merchants with an efficiency that would have made an army unit proud. And more often than not we took only a few choice items and let our victims move on, with their health and the large part of their property intact.
I once asked Quintus why we let the merchants keep so much of their goods. He nodded seriously and said, "You see, lad, if we rob them blind they're either ruined and never come back, or if they do bounce back they come with as many guards as they can and make a fight out of it. But if we take a little from each one, well, that's just a cost of doing business." He smiled knowingly. "And since I made sure that we are the only ones operating round here, why, it's almost like they're paying us for protection!" That got a laugh out of the men.
I stayed with them for five or maybe six years, and when I left it wasn't completely by my choice. You see, through all the time I spent as one of the brigands we only had to fight a few times, and even those were minor scrapes. I'm not proud to say that I took part in them and was probably responsible for some deaths, it was just how life was at the time. Anyway, it was those fights that prompted the events that led to me parting ways with Quintus's band. In one of them I almost got myself cut up by a caravan guard, which led to the decision that I needed to really learn how to fight.
I was instructed by Quintus himself. He taught me how to use a sword and a spear. Everything went well during the winter, which we spent doing drills and forms, with some light sparring with wooden props. Things went south when we moved up to sparring with real weapons in the spring. It was supposed mostly to let me get used to the weight and feeling of them, but that's not how it ended. During one bout, I think it was with a spear, I hit Quintus in the arm with enough force to draw blood.
At first we didn't make much of it; the wound was merely a scratch and barely bled. He simply tied it with a kerchief and we continued practice. It should have been forgotten by the next day, but the wound refused to close. There wasn't a scab nor any sign of it getting better; the cut looked as fresh as the moment I dealt it to him. It never stopped trickling blood, an insignificant amount, barely worth noticing, but constant.
After a week it was obvious to everyone that something was wrong with the wound. Luckily it didn't fester, but neither did it heal at all. Quintus tried to sew it, but that didn't work for long. Neither did an attempt to cauterize it and burn it close with a red-hot knife blade. It would burst open and bleed again. It never stopped bleeding.
It was about this time that the muttering returned and the camaraderie I had had with the men dissipated. The only one mostly unaffected was Quintus himself, who bore the wound with surprising stoicism. Even so, after a few days of visibly growing discontent in the ranks, he finally took me aside.
"Well, I don't know why I didn't expect something like this." His expression grew sour and he looked at the burn on my cheek. "I've known there was something strange hanging about you ever since you told me about those crones." He sighed. "I don't know if you are cursed or blessed. Or maybe both. But as things stand, you can't stay with us any longer."
I knew he was right. The atmosphere in the camp was growing ever more tense and I would have probably left soon on my own. So I only nodded.
"I like you, boy, and it is a shame that this is how it ends, but that's how things are."
I left the next day, before dawn. Quintus did me one last good turn by outfitting me for the road. I took all the gear essential for making it on my own on the frontier, as well as a good spear, a trophy from that last fight with the caravan guards that let to my exile.
It took me till the noon to reach the nearest road, such as it was, and as I stood there, pondering what I should do next, I realized that it was high time to finally work towards finding my father. With that in mind I started towards the nearest settlement. It was as good a place as any to start asking questions and looking for his trail, even if it was long cold.
The period following me leaving Quintus and his band is mostly a blur in my memories. I know I took easily to a drifter's life, wandering from settlement to settlement and doing menial jobs in exchange for food and place to sleep. Sometimes I joined the very caravans we used to rob as a guard, and sometimes I spent winters as someone's guest, paying it off with money or trinkets I earned during the summer. And everywhere I went I asked about a man much like me, a redheaded wanderer who might have passed through. A few times I even ventured south of the border, into the Empire itself. It served to improve the little Latin I had picked up from Quintus, but did little to further my search for O Suileabhain, so I never bothered to stay for very long.
I'm not certain how long it lasted. Not longer than ten years, probably closer to six or seven. Of that whole period, there's only one incident that has stuck with me. I entered a rather large and prosperous village, well on its way to becoming a town, and looked for the headsman in order to ask about my father. Locals pointed me to the village chief. He was an older man; what little hair remained on his balding pate was gray, and he moved with slow deliberation, but his eyes, blue and full of life, betrayed that behind his wrinkled features hid a mind that was still sharp.
From the moment he laid his eyes on me I knew something was wrong, because his features immediately became tense and he kept regarding me with poorly masked suspicion. But he still invited me to dine with his family, as the customs of hospitality demanded. On my part I showed my gratitude by offering him a pouch of salt I'd gotten as a payment from a caravan job, as a tradition demanded from a polite guest. The whole exchange had an air of strained formality, and I couldn't shake the feeling that he didn't like me.
We spent the meal mostly in silence, tension rising the whole time. Despite the headsman and his family remaining civil throughout the meal, I was slowly starting to get ready for violence. The oppressive silence was finally broken when he asked me, "What brings you to these parts, stranger?"
The abruptness of the question and his tone bordered on rudeness, but I didn't mind. It allowed to me to try and get the information I required. "I am actually looking for someone."
I started describing my father in as much detail as I could, but I wasn't given a chance to finish. The headsman rose, his face red and his mouth open in a snarl. "I knew it! You are his spawn, aren't you?! You bastard!"
As surprised as I was with his sudden outburst, I quickly guessed what had happened. I had accidentally stumbled upon the village my mother had run away from all those years ago, and the headsman was my grandfather.
I stood to match him and nodded. "Yes, he is my father. And I intend to kill him." This took him aback about as much as his own revelation had taken me. "That man has killed my mother." It was true, even if he hadn't done it directly. At least it was so in my mind. "And left me to die."
By this time my voice virtually dripped with hatred and my fists were clamped so tight that my knuckles went white. "You may think you hate him for taking away your daughter, luring her away from the home and the family. But you have no idea what hate is. For the last ten years I've spent almost every waking moment of my life thinking about how to find and kill O Suileabhain. What little time I had left I spent learning whatever skill or craft might help me. And so help me gods, if you want to make trouble for me just because I am his son, I swear that it will be the last thing you do!"
I shouldn't have threatened them. Looking back I understand that my anger was directed more at my father than at them, but in the heat of the moment I was ready and willing to hurt every single person in the hut: the headsman, his wife, and their other grandchildren who were at the dinner.
Thankfully I managed to control myself. Knowing my gift, even an otherwise relatively harmless act could have disastrous consequences. Instead I started picking up my packs and left. They didn't try to stop me. Not surprising, given that I had threatened them with death.
I was just leaving the village when I heard light, quick footsteps behind me. I turned and saw a girl, one of the headsman's granddaughters. Or maybe even grand-granddaughter; she was still a child. In her outstretched hand she held a small sack. I took it and looked inside. There was some food inside, bread and bits of cheese and a clay flask that later turned out to be full of wine. I nodded silent thanks to the girl and left. I never returned to that particular village, but it was a good feeling, to know that I had some family out there in the world that I did not hate.