Fresh Meat, Part 4

Ashar waited in at the line where the jungle grew thicker. His knuckles grew white from the tightened grip he clutched his kukri with. He counted his breaths. Other young warriors mimicked his actions beside him. His brother gave them clear directions they must follow before allowing them to join the fray with the blooded warriors. Despite the breathing technique meant to induce a calm, clear head, Ashar felt waves of impatience bearing down on him. The impatience grew as his count came closer to the number his brother had set. Shouting and smoke from uncontrolled flames drifted to the group waiting for their turn to earn a name.

Ashar worried the blooded warriors would not leave any soldiers left for him or his fellow unblooded. The urge struck him to speed up his breathing. He fought it down. Slow in. Slow out. He continued just the way his brother had demonstrated. One of the young warriors waiting broke suddenly from the line and ran for the fighting. Ashar panicked. He wondered if he had lost count. He wanted to follow after. Two other warriors shared his thought as they broke formation, rushing to the action. Ashar moved a foot forward. Stopped.

His brother’s face loomed in his mind. The instructions rang in his mind. He knew he needed to complete them. That was the way to honor. To a name. He wanted to earn a name with honor. Disobeying orders fell from his mind. He closed his eyes and continued to count where he had dropped off. One by one he heard the other unblooded rushing toward the enemies’ camp. Their feet slapped noisily against the ground. He stood straight like a totem. His grip loosened by a fraction. The leather grip of the kukri felt more comfortable in his hand now.

His impatience dissipated. He realized two other unblooded remained with him. Distraction fled. He knew why he had to count now. Focus on the task remained. With slow steps he left the umbrage of the jungle. Measured strides led him to the edge of the camp. His eyes took in the dead bodies. Most of them were enemy soldiers. He recognized one or two of his kinsmen. He headed toward the sound of the fighting. Wended his way through tents made of a thick cloth that now burned unbridled.

Several unblooded were locked in combat before him. He left them to earn their kills. His slunk through the unfamiliar terrain. His eyes scanned for any movement, prepared for a hostile warrior to jump at him from the tents. He spotted Ghost of the Jungle ahead. His brother engaged the white men two at a time. His steps followed the wake of destruction the blooded warriors were making. He knew he could jump into the fight at anytime. His instincts told him to wait. Earlier he might have despaired at the delay. Calm ruled him now. The fracas cleared ahead of him, revealing his brother’s counter part in the foreigner’s army. A grizzled man fighting with ferocity of a cornered elephant bull.  Without thinking his steps guided him toward this ferocious prey. He needed its blood.


Apropos of: Arathania

Side note: I’ve been working 50-60 hours a week at the Day JobTM. That’s the reason why the posts have slowed for the time being. Originally I had wanted to write this section yesterday, but waiting for a couple of hours for a tow truck in the hot, humid Florida afternoon interfered. So here it is, later than I wanted. Next week we’re going to have the conclusion to this arc of fiction. Until then, thanks for reading.

-Crouse

Fresh Meat, Part 3

Ergin glowered dubiously into the shadows the deepened in the jagged tree line that bordered the camp. A wandering buffalo happening upon a large camp of soldiers felt wrong to him. He imagined a herd of buffalo being found along a river, but he knew they were at least a day’s march away from the nearest point of the river they were following south. Those who answered his alarm congratulated the younger watchman on the fresh kill while casting annoyed looks in Ergin’s direction. Looking at all of the men, he noticed he couldn’t place a name to a single face in the crowd. He wondered if all the old timers from when he conscripted were dead or if they had retired. He was old.

The last thought struck him like a bucket full of cold water. Without meaning to, Ergin spent his life fighting a war in foreign lands. The progress the campaign made into said land felt negligible. The value of the conquest diminished more as he weighed it against the things he could have done. Leaving the younger men to the celebrating, he stormed toward the center of the camp. He planned to pack up the small amount of personal effects he had managed to scrape together over the years and head away from the madness he’d spent his life pursuing. He daydreamed about the little village with the noodle shop the army had passed through just after he joined. He remembered the owner’s daughter being quite attractive. He hoped the shop was still there.

Once his belongings were gathered they seemed less than they should. The culmination of his life’s worth sat in a tidy pile on his cot. He stowed them in his rucksack. The night life of the camp dwindled as soldiers headed to their beds. Only disinterested watch keepers and drunkards shambled around the camp. None of them questioned his motive as he passed through, heading the direction the troops had come from with a sack strapped to his back. He decided to stop off by the cooks’ tent. The idea of hunting and foraging for food made him feel tired at this point. He wondered how many gray hairs he actually had on his head. He knew there were more the last time he’d seen his reflection in the river, but now he was thinking an old man’s thoughts.

The camp cooks were all asleep already. They hadn’t even bothered to pack away most of the food. Most of it would be infested or spoiled by morning. He prepared a small amount of victuals to keep him going and left before anyone happened by. Ergin considered skipping off in the morning. He reasoned it might be better to set out well rested. The likelihood of some upstart officer threatening him with a court martial erased the tempting thought of another night in his tent. He set off at a brisk pace, eager to be free from the army and its ineptitude. Just as he reached the edge of the camp, the sound of fighting carried over from where he should be standing watch. Men yelled out alarms. Ergin hesitated.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Fresh Meat, Part 2

Ashar waited in the cover of the jungle. Dark river mud covered the majority of his body. Portions already dried out, flaking and cracking over the still damp soil beneath. The buffalo wandered out, but didn’t approach closer to the encampment of foreign soldiers. His knee shook with nerves. He willed the watchmen to come after the bait. His brother placed a hand on Ashar’s shoulder. At a glance his sibling managed to quiet the jitters that had taken Ashar since they left home with the bait.

Ashar focused again on the two men guarding against the unknown in the jungle. Guarding against them. The younger man took aim and shot at the buffalo. The arrow connected with a gut rocking squelch. Only waiting for the two men to come claim their prize remained. Then Ashar and his clan could take out the foolish sentries and ambush the camp later. The laxity of the foreign army never ceased to surprise him. One of the watchers came running to the fallen livestock. The other turned and ran the opposite direction. Ashar’s brother cursed softly.

He hoped the man had only gone off to find the butcher for such a prize as a fatted buffalo. The terse moments of waiting stretched ever longer. He felt each of his waiting clansmen straining their ears. The telltale ringing of an alarm carried over the din of the amassed soldiers. With jaguar like grace, he and the other warriors melted a good distance back into the trees before scaling to the lower canopy. If the foreigners decided to search the jungle for the source of the animal that had been delivered to them, they would find only ambush from above. It meant more waiting.

Shouting and more bells carried with the wind into the canopy. If Ashar listened close enough he could hear some inept bungling at the very edge of the jungle, but no white skinned men ventured within his view. He could hear shouting. It sounded angry to him. he wished he understood the tongue they spoke in. It seemed the only language common to both Ashar’s people and these invading soldiers was violence. Something brushed against his shoulder.

Ashar shifted with surprise. His kukri half raised in unconscious response to a perceived threat before he realized his brother managed to move from a neighboring tree without being heard. He marveled at the appropriateness of his brother’s warrior name, Ghost of the Jungle. He felt keenly the lack of his own warrior name in that moment. Silently he prayed that their contingent would remain and still attempt the ambush. He acknowledged his brother’s silent indication that they were going to stay put and wait until the clamor caused by the buffalo calmed down. He watched his brother’s fluid motions as he moved to confirm with the other warriors. As Ashar perched in a squat on the vine as thick as his own torso his legs ached. They ached to match his thirst for his first blooding.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Fresh Meat

Nobody warned the recruits that one type of flesh being seared by flames smells much like any other meat cooking over an open fire. Ergin always laughed at the uneasy looks new recruits would cast on their mutton after the company had burnt a village down. Out of all the unspeakable acts they committed, the thought of eating another persons flesh still gave pause. Ergin didn’t know if that meant there was hope for humanity or not. He stalked away from the mess pit with a leg in one hand and a flagon in the other.

He hated sitting with the grunts. None of them paid any respect to the veterans of the King’s campaign. He’d trounced through leagues of Argan jungle fighting off the giant man eating cats and natives alike. The bright eyed upstarts from home thought they would win the war single handed. The memory of his start with the company drifted to his mind. It taunted him. Reminded him the recruits were not much different from himself.

“Not much different if they survive, at any rate.” He muttered to himself, drawing questioning looks from several green soldiers making their bed for the night. He laughed at the puzzling looks he drew, taking a large swig from his flagon and making his way to the watch post. It sat on the edge of the camp, just far enough away from the jungle that alarms could be raised if the people they were trying to conquer decided to attack in the night. A rookie soldier sat there, eyeing the dark between the large draping leaves.

Ergin thumped him on the back, eliciting a startled jump.

“See something out there, boy?” he asked.

“No, sir.” The recruit responded with a crisp salute.

“Put your hand down, you idiot. I’m a sergeant. Not some pompous officer that expects every groveling grunt in the damned company to salute to him.” Ergin snapped out the words in a quiet hiss and settled down for the watch. The encroaching darkness dampened the heat very little. Ergin noticed that the soldier next to him had rivulets of sweat streaming down him and felt the same perspiration afflicting his own face. He took a deep drink from his flagon and proffered it to the recruit who accepted it thankfully and took large gulps of the fresh water.

“I would have thought you’d have wine in there.” The younger man said without an attempt to hide his disappointment.

“Wine gets you drunk and only makes the heat out here worse.” Ergin replied. His lip curled in a sneer as he added, “It’ll also get you dead.”

The recruits attention had already left Ergin. His flagon thumped on the ground and the young soldier knocked an arrow. The man drew and loosed the shaft before Ergin managed to inhale before speaking. His eyes followed the flight of the projectile as it hit a buffalo square in the eye.

“Fresh meat!” The man said, turning to grin at Ergin. He dropped his bow and ran off to butcher his score. Ergin ran to sound the alarm.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

The Slaughtered Calf, Part 3

Corin sipped his water. Not even midday yet, the sun promised miserable heat. His head throbbed from the revelry he partook at the Slaughtered Calf. He forced himself up in the morning, and only now, as the time for his proposed meeting with Garl drew closer, was he starting to feel some semblance of his normal self. Going into business with the soldier from the Republic seemed like a good choice to him. He hoped Garl would see it that way as well. Removing the his scabbard and belt, he relaxed and started to rest his eyes while he waited.

Garl chose that exact moment to make his noisy approach. Corin opened his eyes with an exasperated sigh. The last thing he expected was Garl to show up more punctually than the brief note he left had suggested. The other soldier approached him with caution, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword and eyes casting about for any signs of an ambush. Corin chuckled to himself. The night before meeting well outside of town popped into his head as the best course of action. He saw now how it might seem to someone who had spent the better part of the last decade fighting Imperial soldiers. He stood up off the ground and suppressed the nausea the sudden movement caused him. He let his sheathed sword stay at his feet to put Garl’s mind at ease.

“Lo there, Garl. I wasn’t sure that you’d actually show up,” he called out to the approaching man. He noted that now that he was standing an obviously not a threat, Garl’s posture had  eased and the man actually smiled as he approached.

“Couldn’t miss this opportunity, Corin. Never know when another like it’ll show up,” Garl replied. Corin noted that his new friend had removed his sword hand from the pommel and know rested his off hand on it instead. The tension of the man’s approach deflated and he found a wide grin spreading to his face.

“You’re looking none the worse for the drinking we did. How do you manage that?” Corin asked as they clasped hands in greeting.

“Once you get used to drinking Ogre’s Spit, you never have a hangover. Guessing you’re a bit green to it?” Garl laughed at his own joke and elbowed Corin in the side a bit harder than Corin thought necessary.

“Aye, but you can’t beat the flavor, the hangover is worth it this time around, especially if it means the next one will be less intense.” Corin rubbed his temple after speaking and took another swig of water. His mouth felt much drier than it ought.

“So, what’s our plan of attack then?” Garl asked him. The squat man produced a rolled up piece of what appeared to be hide. “I got my map of the Republic. You got a map of the Empire?”

Corin grinned. Garl was jumping right to business. He wanted a business partner this eager to get to work. Corin pulled out his rolled up piece of vellum and unfurled it. “I figured we’d start in the Empire if that’s all right  with you.” He said and looked at Garl. The other man nodded and stowed away his own map before moving to Corin’s side to peer at the finely inked map of the Empire. Corin spent the half hour detailing the routes he thought they should take and which ones would not produce enough business. Every so often Garl would pipe in with a question about whether or not the town guard or Imperial army wouldn’t be better suited to protecting a given hamlet as opposed to two mercenaries. Corin felt that the partnership was really starting to bloom.

After they settled on a plan of action, Corin rolled up the map again. “You have a horse?” he asked his partner. Garl shook his head.

“I can get one though,” he replied. His grin offered more menace than warmth in that moment. Garl placed to fingers to his mouth and let loose a piercing whistle. Two men came out of the nearby copse. One held a sword at the ready and the other leveled a crossbow at Corin. “Hand over the map, sir.” Garl spat out the honorific at the end with disgust. Corin narrowed his eyes. He didn’t believe these men would be so stupid to break the truce in the neutral town. His gut sank. He’d specified this meeting outside of town. On Republic land.

He dove to his scabbard. The crossbow bolt shattered against the rock near him. A man cursed. He came up with his sword out only to fall to the ground. His throat was wet. His breath refused to flow properly. Garl stood over him holding a sword in his off hand. The blade slicked with blood. Corin swatted at him with his own sword, but the ugly man danced out of the reach of his blade. Everything grew dark as the curse Corin tried to muster for the Republic soldier died on his lips.


Apropos of: The Slaughtered Calf Parts 1 & 2

-Crouse

Hiatus.

The Day Job™ is really kicking my ass this week. On top of that I’m needing some time to decompress more than I’ve allotted myself. To that end, your regularly scheduled free fiction posts are on hiatus until Sunday, 24 July 2016.

In the mean time, if you’re looking for some good free fiction to check out I would recommend either of the following

Aethereal Engines by Jason H. Abbott recently just posted “Tears of the Joyous Mare” which I thought was excellent. He also has several other short pieces of fiction including the piratical Brynesmark piece. You should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

E. H. Graham’s eponymous website has LOTS of short fiction available to read. “Brain Mush” is a novel take on the zombie apocalypse and enjoyable to read. There are also several serials ongoing on the website that would be worth checking out.

Anyway, new fiction next Sunday. Thanks for your understanding.

-Crouse

The Slaughtered Calf, Part 2

Corin swayed in his seat. He glanced at the man who had alternated buying rounds with him for the better part of the day. He thought Garl about as ugly as a man could be without the mother abandoning the baby in the wilderness. He turned around to survey the now bustling common room of the Slaughtered Calf. Townsfolk from Graffe filled in the gaps where a see of blue and dark yellow cloaks now mingled side by side. Only one brawl had broken out all day, and that was between two soldiers from the Republic accusing each other of cheating at cards. He chuckled as he remembered Garl stomping away from the bar to clout to two men and toss them out into the street. He turned to his new friend and asked, “Another round?” Garl drained the remains of his cup and gestured the barkeep in response.

Corin knew why he was getting drunk at the bar today. A lifetime of military service set to end with an honorable discharge. The treaty that had led to the end of conflict with the Republic specified that both nations scale down their standing armies to a mere fraction of what they were. Two of the three soldiers he arrived at the bar with this morning would be returning to work their family farms. The other was overjoyed to be returning to his job as a clerk at the capitol. Corin never picked up a trade other than warfare. He sighed as reality cut through the drunken stupor he attempted to mask it with.

“What do you intend to do, Garl?” he asked. The short, bald man next to him shrugged, nursing the ale that they had switched to after the first cask of Ogre’s Spit. “I’ve got a commendation to look forward to.” Corin continued.  “After that…” He waved his hand in the air. He meant to indicate the open possibilities of the future. Garl sighed as if he understood the truth that lay behind the gesture.

“Least you’ll get a shiny medal.” The man said, slurring throughout. “Luckiest I’ll be is playing guard for some merchant scared of all the men like me who are gonna turn to banditry.” He spat to punctuate just what he thought of his luck at such forthcoming opportunities. Corin scratched the stubble on his jaw. Mercenary work sounded much better than begging for a job working as a stable hand to him.

“You ever consider going into business for yourself?” he asked his drinking companion. Garl narrowed his eyes. Corin could see the man’s mind working to encompass this new concept.

“You mean, starting my own crew? Pah, banditry don’t pay near enough.” The man hocked up a glob of phlegm and added it to the floor. Corin rolled his eyes. The wagon had stopped short of its destination.

“No, I mean…stopping bandits. Two men good with a sword and with a firm grasp of both countries could make a fair purse rooting out bandits before they even have a chance to attack merchants.” He said. He hoped Garl could see where he was leading him now.

“What’s the difference between that and signin’ up with a caravan?” Garl asked, looking at him sideways. Corin thought the man seemed more open to his proposition now.

“We wouldn’t have to travel with them for one. I suspect we could charge more for our services as well, once a reputation is built. We wouldn’t even have to limit ourselves to bandits. We could deal with the goblins that spring up in the north of the Empire from time to time. Travel both countries. See things far from this boring little border.” Corin was prepared to go on but Garl had put up a hand to slow Corin’s speech.

“We could still drop in here for Ogre’s Spit when we wanted though, right?” He asked. The look on his face explained that his willingness to join such a venture hinged entirely on this one point.

“That’s what I’m trying to say.” Corin said with a smile. “We’d write our own dispatches. No more officers telling us which part of the land to guard. We’d make our own rules. And do what we do best.” He found himself looking up with pride as he finished his spiel. Turning to gauge Garl’s interest caused his grin to go flat. The soldier of the Republic had fallen asleep right at the bar. He pulled out the sheaf with his final dispatch from the capitol and managed to draw a rudimentary map on it with some charcoal the barkeep loaned him. He settled up the remainder of the tab he and Garl had accrued and left. If he was lucky, the other man would meet him midday tomorrow.


Apropos of: The Slaughtered Calf

-Crouse