Pursuit of the Red Horned God, Chapter 5

The guards disposition toward Oren immediately relaxed. One old man with a little knowledge had defused the entire situation. Oren wondered at the thought that so much time had passed that these young guards would have never seen a paladin nor recognize the weapon of one. The younger guards grouped up and clamored among themselves. Oren caught whispered fragments. One man claimed he’d known the Order had been reformed. Another confirming the mans boasts. A third implicated the threat of the Red Horned God necessitated the reformation. A more skeptical guard calling out their bravado for falsehoods. Oren smirked to himself as he led the stallion through the West Gate with a chastised apology from the captain.

The dirt roads that had once comprised all the walkways within The Landing had been paved over in cobblestone. All the outer buildings were comprised of stone. If Oren judged their components correctly, probably from the same quarry as the wall. He followed the path to the inn the guards suggested. The smell of the ocean started to overtake the ripeness that occurs when people live in such confined spaces. Buildings of stone gave way to older structures made from wood. Some of them bore signs of fire damage. The stone buildings were not just aesthetic then, he guessed.

When he arrived at the inn, Oren found it to be non-assuming. A susurrus of noise escaped from the common room into the street- men talking, deep in their drink. Most of them sounded to be sailors or guards. Oren led the stallion around back to the stable. A lone boy sat tossing stones into a bucket. As Oren approached, the boy snapped up to attention.

“You’ll be needing feed and grooming for your horse, sir?” the boy asked without prompting.

“Yes, and stabling for the night.” Oren produced his coin purse and drew out one silver coin. He paused and glanced at the boy then at the coin in silent question. The stable boy coughed with embarrassment and shook his head. He produced three more silvers from the bag before the boy offered a relieved nod. There was no helping the price. Oren resisted the urge to use the letter to demand free stable. The news of cultist activity had him on edge. He produced a fifth silver for the boy.

“For your trouble.” He said.

The boy murmured his thanks and tended to the horse once Oren had relieved it of the personal belongings he wanted to take with him to the inn. Securing the sword about his waist, he entered through the back door, startling a scullery maid. The maid started to curse him off before noticing the sword and thinking better of it. The entry from the kitchen to the common room provided enough shadow for him to survey the room and the people in it. His expectations from what he overheard in the street were met. Guards and sailors sat in clumps apart from each other. He couldn’t see a single man who didn’t have a tankard of ale in front of him.

He made way to a table in the corner where no one sat and claimed it for himself. The keep behind the bar took his time noticing him but bustled over in surprise when he did.

“Are you here just to drink, sir? Or do you need a room for the night as well? Don’t usually get travelers here. Mostly guards or sailors who wander back to the port once they’ve had their fill.” The keep gestured behind him.

“A mug of ale. Dinner. And a room. In that order. I’ve already left my horse with the stable boy outside.”

“Five silver then, sir, and I’ll have your first drink for you.” The man said, leaving the table and not waiting for Oren to fish the money from his purse. By the time the man returned with the ale, Oren had stacked five more silvers in a neat column. The keep swept them into his hand and returned to his station at the bar. The woman he had surprised brought out a bowl of stew with a pitiful butt end of bread for him. She scowled as she left the food for him and returned to the kitchen. Tasting the stew, Oren decided that if the conditions of the room upstairs matched the quality of the food, he should not have paid five copper bits for them.

He sat in solitude enjoying the only good thing the inn had to offer so far, the thick, dark ale. Just as he prepared to retire, the old man who recognized his paladin blade walked through the door with some of the seediest guards that had ever worn a uniform. Oren almost waved him over, but the old guard noticed him first with a look of shocked surprise.

Oren narrowed his eyes as the man spoke something to his comrades and they hustled off to a table as far from him as possible. He reckoned that either the soup was worse than he thought, or he needed to keep an eye on them. He flagged the barkeep for another ale and settled in to wait them out.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

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Pursuit of the Red Horned God, Chapter 4

The stream of merchants and other travelers from the west gate died before the light did. Alek and Bertram had ignored Oren until the guards changed. The fresh guards were more sympathetic to his plight, going so far as to direct him to an inn that charged reasonable rates for a traveling man and didn’t water down its ale too much. As he walked the stallion up to the gate the guards smiled at him with welcome. Bernard, the captain for this watch stopped him at the gate.

“Just a small matter to tend to. We’ve got to inspect your horse for any contraband.” Bernard offered with an apologetic glance. “Mayor’s orders, especially with the increased activity of cultists in the area.” The man waved two guards over who began searching the meager possessions Oren had salvaged in his rush to leave. Oren raised his eyebrows in surprise at the mention of cultists.

“New sect?” he asked the guard captain. Bernard glowered.

“The same unspeakable evil as always. It was all quiet until a couple years ago. Then a couple of murder suicides. Missing livestock. Animal bones with strange runes started showing up. Mayor Thalen is taking it very seriously,” Bernard said.

“Curious though,” said Oren.  Bernard perked up at this and waited for him to continue even as his two men who had performed the search approached.

“Curious how?” the man prompted Oren.

“Why not search the people leaving as well? Just curious that you should look for signs of wrongdoing only on the way in. Couldn’t a cultist just as easily smuggle their tools of darkness into the surrounding countryside?” Oren said. As he finished speaking he noticed, the guard to Bernard’s right was holding Oren’s own blade, still sheathed and waiting for his Captain to acknowledge him. Bernard stood with his brow furrowed, contemplating Oren’s words.

“Sir?” the waiting guard said.

“Yes?” Bernard said, turning to the man.

“Well, sir, per the Mayor’s orders we’re to bring you anything we find that’s suspicious or out of the ordinary…” The man tried to say more, but Bernard cut him off.

“You don’t have to tell me the Mayor’s orders. I’m privy to them as well. All you have to do is show me what you found.” Bernard interrupted.  The chastened guard presented him Oren’s sword.

“What is it? Fake compartment” Bernard asked. He accepted the sword and began examining its sheath. The guard only shook his head and mimicked unsheathing the blade. Oren’s breath hissed in exasperation. Bernard misread his consternation at the situation and drew the sword with a suspicious glance at him. All the guards eyes went wide at the sight of the blade. The metal like black stone with veins of blue arcing throughout. There were quiet murmurs from multiple guards. Some of them backed away in fear.

“You dare bring this witch blade into our city.” Bernard accused Oren. “Guards, detain this man!” Oren adjusted his stance for the inevitable brawl that he felt coming. Just as the first guard started to move toward him an old voice croaked out from the back of the men.

“That isn’t a witch blade.”

The distraction forestalled the guards attempt to arrest Oren. An older guard, obviously a soldier puttering out his twilight years in the company of young men who would have been soldiers in more violent times. The old man approached Bernard and Oren and pointed at the blade.

“That there is a Paladin’s sword,” he said with a wide, toothless smile.


Apropos of: Arathania

Late update because Day Job™ was hectic this week. Enjoy!

-Crouse

Pursuit of the Red Horned God, Chapter 3

The stallions hooves clomped against the cobble stone of the road. Oren noted the recent addition to the path to The Landing. As the steady rhythm lulled him into a half-slumber in the saddle, he wished the founders of the busiest port in the kingdom had possessed the foresight to call their fledgling town something other than The Landing. The name felt lacking as a description for the busiest port on the island. The Landing housed a population only second to that of the capitol itself. A wagon approached on the road, laden with goods from the harbor. The dissonant clatter of the two horses stepping out of time with his own stallion stirred Oren from his reverie.

The owner of the wagon showed no indication of traveling anywhere other than the middle of the road. As the team pulling it drew closer, Oren pulled the reins of his mount trading stone for soft dirt. The old couple sitting on the wagon bench bickered in hushed murmurs. He twisted in the saddle as they passed, eyeing the bed of the wagon. Whatever freight they held lay hidden beneath a heavy tarp. The thought of abusing the power of the writ he carried flitted to mind. He tugged the reins once more, returning the stallion to the paved road. Dismissing the siren call of curiosity, he returned his gaze to the path ahead. The decision proved fortunate as a heavier flow of traffic lay just beyond the old merchants.

Carts and wagons drawn by all manner of livestock clogged the road. The stallion whinnied in annoyance as Oren directed it back to the road’s embankment. The flow of merchants and farmers appeared to be an exodus. They flooded around the bend in the road in a steady stream. Each person laden with wares they secured from their time in the trade center of the nation. Only the lack of urgency belied the banality of their actions. Oren gawped like a country boy getting his first taste of the rest of the world. The Landing had prospered in the eight years he’d been absent from the rest of the world.

The strangeness of being the only traveler heading towards the city bothered Oren. As he rounded the bend, the walls of the city loomed in the distance. The old wood stockade Oren remembered was replaced by a fine expanse of stone and mortar. The flow of traffic stretched all the way to the gate that served as the main entrance. Oren owed the good fortune of having a well trained stallion to his continued progress to the city. He stared dumbstruck at the transformation of a simple port of call into a bustling metropolis.

The closer his approach brought him to simultaneously strange and familiar sights of The Landing, the slower the outbound citizens moved. Some gawked at him. Others kept their eyes forward. Everyone seemed disgruntled. Oren listened closely for whatever snippets of conversation he could glean from the ruckus. No mention of evacuation caught his ear. The sheer amount of people leaving looked abnormal, but the complacency of the participants indicated a sense of routine. A wave of doubt rushed of him.

If The Landing managed to change in such a drastic manner since he had cloistered himself from the world, he expected much greater changes from the rest of it. He thought back to his encounter with the bandits on the outset of his journey to the port. A sense of longing overtook him for the simple violence he enacted in response to them. The fact that his wizard-woven robe had prevented the bandits attack settled his unease. He reminded himself that there were always constants, despite the gray that now speckled his beard.

Lost in his own thoughts, he missed the first attempts of the gate guard to have him halt. The stallion snorted its irritation as he wheeled it to a stop and dismounted.

“You deaf, fop? How many times does a man have to tell you to halt?” The guard in charge groused at him.

“My apologies. It’s been quite some time since I’ve been traveling. The magnitude of the changes that have taken place took me by surprise. I have urgent matters that require I must get to the harbor as soon as possible.” He offered up his most charming smile as he imparted the last bit to the man.

“I reckon it has. That dress you’re wearing hasn’t been in fashion for nigh on five years. You talk all funny too.” The guard punctuated his assertions with a glob of phlegm on the cobblestones. “You can’t get in this gate right now. It’s a…” The guard paused and scratched at the stubble on his chin as he searched for a word. Giving up, he turned and shouted at another guard watching from the gate itself, “Oi, Bertram, what’s that fancy thingy the playwrights is all using for when everyone leaves?”

This question stumped Bertram, he called over a couple more guards. They debated noisily over what words the scribes used. The man detaining Oren appeared content to wait for them to come to a consensus. Oren was not.

“Exeunt Omnes.” He said.

“What?” The guard turned to look at him.

“The term is Exeunt Omnes. That’s what writers use to signal to the actors that they should all leave the stage.” He reiterated.

“Oi, Bertram. Exeunt Omnes sound right to you?” the guard called out to his friend. Bertram and the other guards huddled once more in conference. This time the debate was much shorter before Bertram popped over to Oren.

“Aye, Alek, we decided that sounds right.” He smiled, oblivious to the situation. Alek turned to Oren and smiled as well.

“The gate is Exeunt Omnes…” Oren prompted. Alek’s eyes widened as he remembered the conversation.

“Oh, right. West gate is Exeunt Omnes until nightfall. Only people leaving. You want to get in right now, you’re going to have to circle round to the North gate. Course, that would probably take you until nightfall.” Alek trailed off. He looked genuinely puzzled by the predicament Oren found himself in.

“Well,” Oren said to the guards, “I suppose I’ll just have to wait until nightfall.” He led the horse over to a small patch of grass and settled down to wait out the merchants.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Pursuit of the Red Horned God – Chapter 2

“Your purse, sir.” the leading of the two men snarled at Oren. The way he spat out the word sir indicated he used it opposite of its intended effect. Both of the highwaymen continued to approach, albeit more cautiously now that Oren directed his attention to them. He eyed their daggers, watching for any indication of intent. They still drooped in their hands. The men lacked any concern for their cornered prey. They evinced this through brash maliciousness.

“I’ve naught to give you I’m afraid.” Oren lied. “I’ve just relinquished any claims to my family inheritance for the sake of love.” He affected an air of nonchalant melancholy. The second one, a crony by the looks of him, paused to pass a disgruntled look at his partner. “In fact all the possessions that I own are currently on my horse or my own back. I know you wonder about the paper I was just reading. A note from my beloved. Nothing more.” With that he splayed his hands innocently, half inviting them to charge.

“I told you he ain’t got nothing,” hissed the crony. “Waste of our fucking time, I said.” He punctuated his claims with gesturing stabs of his blade toward the ringleader.

“Well check his horse, moron.” The first man’s annoyance worn like a cap on a man’s head, plain to everyone but himself. The second man scowled and sheathed his blade as he stomped over to the stallion. He muttered half-caught profanities under his breath as he came up on its rear. Oren loosed a sharp whistle through his teeth, catching both men by surprise. The stallion was well trained. Its steel clad hooves lashed out and caught the crony square in the jaw. His bones broke. Loudly.

The remaining highwayman wheeled around in surprise. This presented Oren the opportunity he wanted. He rushed forward, reaching out in an attempt to grapple the criminal from behind. The other man recovered quicker from the shock than Oren was able to move. The deadly piece of metal grasped in his hand swung around and continued toward Oren’s gut. When it reached him, the highwayman had his second surprise of the day. Rather than slicing through the dress robe that Oren wore it managed to push in the cloth. For Oren, the experience was akin to a rude passer-by jabbing their finger angrily into his stomach. The highwayman attempted another stab with results of predictable similarity to the first.

“Witch-woven cloth…” the man murmured as he dropped his dagger.

“Close. Wizard-woven, to be precise.” Oren said. He kept his relief that the magic had not faded from the cloth in all this time secret. “I would love to educate you on the finer intricacies of it, unfortunately, I am pressed for time. And you did try to rob and murder me.”  The bandit gawped at him as Oren brought his hand up in a sharp blow. The man’s neck gave a subtle yet audible crack. Oren watched as his would-be murderer fought for breath, dropping to his knees. When the man started spitting up red froth, he relaxed his stance and checked the tack on his horse. Mounting up and continuing down the road, he thanked Luck that the King’s decree had not ordered him to be surreptitious.


Apropos of: Arathania

So obviously I survived the Hurricane, and I didn’t get a post up on Friday like I had wanted to. But we’re back at it again now, with a trail of bodies following our hero. Thanks for reading.

-Crouse

Hurricane Matthew

So, normally you’d be getting the second part of the new story today. Unfortunately, weather halted that plan. I’ve been spending time hunkering down and getting ready for Matthew to hit. The good news is, providing I still have internet and electricity on Friday, you can expect the next portion of the story then. My apologies for the delay, and thanks for reading. To any readers from areas affected by Hurricane Matthew, stay safe.

-Crouse

Pursuit of the Red Horned God – Chapter 1

The manor he’d spent the last eight years of his life at burned as Oren Cobbe readied the prized stallion in the stables. The horses stamped and whinnied nervously as the wind blew the scent of smoke from the distant home into the stalls. Taking care to double check the straps, lest the horse trick him into riding a loose saddle, Oren’s rote  movements belied the urgency with which he performed them. Before long, the neighboring village would notice the plumes rising over the tree line that ensconced his home away from the rest of the world. Satisfied that the saddle would not slip as he rode it to the nearest seaport, he patted the breast pocket of the robes of office he salvaged from the house before the blaze grew out of control.  The King’s Decree remained safely tucked away. He lashed the ancestral sword rescued from above the hearth to the saddle and mounted up. The horses left were his gift to the villagers who would eventually tend to the smoldering wreckage of the main structure and provide the funerary rites for the four dead men inside it.

The twilight dissipated with the oncoming dawn as he spurred the stallion away from the life he had known and onto a new life. The thrill of riding the open road toward an unknown adventure swallowed his perception as fence posts and trees flew by with the stallion’s galloping strides.  The joy at such freedom dampened as he remembered his noble companion remained dead among the three strangers that had assaulted them. He’d hoped for the king to reassemble the paladin order for eight years. That his closest friend was the cost of having his dreams realized chafed Oren.

After an hour of hard riding, Oren slowed his steed to a canter. After a good distance of the slower speed and several cautious glances around, Oren dismounted and surveyed the land for a pond to water the stallion at. Just as his feet began to ache from his tread upon the uneven ground he found one. Letting the horse drink, Oren perched on a nearby stump and pulled out the parchment to read once more. The lettering betrayed the fact that the entire document had been written by a court scribe. Even the signature was too neat for a King with only three fingers on his dominant hand. The blob of gilded wax indented with the Royal Seal was the only indication of the King’s actual hand in the matter.

Master Cobbe

Dark forces align themselves against the Kingdom. The time has once again returned that the Kingdom has need of the services of the paladins. Go forth and eliminate the corruption that threatens the well being of the realm. It may be beneficent to begin your search in the Arathanian Colonies.

May any who read this letter know that Master Oren Cobbe is on service vital to the survival of the Kingdom and acts with the King’s blessing in all matters. By penalty of death, executed at the hands of the bearer of this note, you are charged to provide him with any an all aid required.

By Virtue of the King’s Hand

His Most Gracious and Benevolent 

King Arathur Z. Drakebane, First of His Name

The rustle of grass and snapping of a twig alerted Oren to the approach of unwanted visitors. He stashed the note and rose. His hand slid to his belt, where the sword conspicuously did not rest. The two men approached him with menacing grins. The points of their daggers dipped low. Oren resigned himself to dealing with them the hard way.


Apropos of: Arathania

Writer’s Update: Those of you who have been following the blog may have noticed that I have been absent. This has been due to a combination of real life issues. The Day Job™ has thankfully died down enough that I don’t feel as if my mental and emotional health has been wrung through the equivalent of an old school laundry press. Back to the regular updates though! This is the first piece of what is going to be a fairly long ongoing tale. Thank’s for reading.

– Crouse

Fresh Meat, Part 5

Ergin’s ax swung in wide arcing loops. Once the momentum was there, it functioned almost as well as having a shield so long as he didn’t find himself surrounded. His arms grew tired with the effort of maintaining the momentum. Two of the savages attempted to circle around him. They dodged back every time the heavy head of the ax loped near them. He placed his steps with care bringing him closer to the more brazen young warrior. A wet thunk sounded as the sharpened blade made contact with the man’s wrist, severing the hand that held the the short knives the natives all favored.

Ergin ignored the man as soon as he fell to his knees gripping the bloody stump. He focused his attention on the other young warrior who seemed stunned by the vicious strike his fellow soldier had received. Ergin seized the presented opportunity. He knew hesitation would make him dead. The ax bit into the other warriors chest cracking the ribs. Ergin swung his foot up and pushed off the dead body. He scanned the fracas before him. He kept his ax ready but took the respite to catch his breath.

He cursed himself for coming back to the battle he knew was coming. He could have been sleeping restlessly well away from the bloodshed he was now a part of. He spotted one of the larger warriors, older by the look, lashing out at two of the young soldiers of the King’s army with the razor sharp knife. Ergin appraised him as the ring leader. “Cut off the head…” he muttered to himself. Hefting his ax, he started a slow trot to the apparent leader of this band of skirmishers.

He covered half the ground before the world rushed up to greet him. Ergin’s head throbbed. His vision blurred. He blinked and fought through the fuzz and pain in his head. He realized there was one of the young warriors sitting astride him repeatedly slashing a knife at his chest. His chain shirt absorbed the brunt of the damage. He wagered there’d be some nasty bruising. He came to his sense and swung the haft of the ax to knock the young man off his chest. They both rose to their feet. Ergin respected the young man. He hadn’t backed off in fear of the blade of the weapon. He shifted his grip higher up the weapon. He knew it would not be as effective in close combat but it was better than nothing.

The young man charged again. Ergin sidestepped and smacked him with the butt of the ax. The warrior wheeled around immediately and lashed out with his blade. The edge caught Ergin’s forearm. The blood soaked into his shirtsleeve. Exhaustion from his earlier exertions weighed Ergin down. He struck at the warrior with his blade. The man dodged, opening some distance between them. Ergin adjusted his grip on the ax once more. He began to swing it in its butterfly arcs. The young warrior realized his mistake a moment too late. Ergin moved forward, intent on ending the encounter.  He felt a blade pierce through the back of his chain. It slid between his ribs. He gasped raggedly as it punctured his lung. The ax fell from his grip.

He looked around. Panic lit his eyes as he saw the rest of the segment of the king’s army falling around him. The warrior who had sneaked up behind him released him and he dropped to the ground. His breathing grew shallower. Ergin closed his eyes and pictured the noodle shop.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse