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

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

The Queen of the Forest

“But what do I do if I find her?” I asked.

“Bite your tongue and look the other way.” My grandfather’s response was gruff. I stared into his white pearl eyes as the flames of the campfire caused shadows to dance against his face. He’d found the Queen of the Forest when he was not much older than I was. His face was craggy and his beard green and mossy. Even staring blindly at the fire I could tell that he was entrenched in the memory of his encounter with the Queen.

I lay back on my slab and struggled to find sleep. Doubts ran rampant in my mind. What if I couldn’t look away from her? What if I called out to her as my grandfather had? Would I end up as he did- a crumbling shadow of his youthful pinnacle. Not for the first time this week, I cursed my luck to have been selected to venture into the Queen’s woods to retrieve a piece of the Sacred Stone. Tonight, my grandfather and I kept our camp a good distance away from the trees that broke the flatness of the plain. No sense in angering the Queen with fire before I trespassed into her forest, as Grandfather put it.

I didn’t know how long I slept. I knew exactly when I awoke. The sky displayed all the colors of the rainbow dunes far to the west. Grandfather was already awake, poking at the embers of our firepit. He noticed I was awake and began to unpack breakfast.

“Get up and help me get cooking,” he said as he laid out the victuals next to the glowing charcoal.

“I’m not particularly hungry. I figure I might as well get started with the pilgrimage.” I said.

“Nonsense, you need your strength, stay a bit longer.” I could hear the pleading worry seep through his voice.

“Nah, Grandda, I’m already trespassing into the Queen’s forest. How do you think she would feel if I started retching up my breakfast on account of my nerves?” I quipped. Grandfather chuckled and a grin broke up his stony face. I picked up my rucksack and strapped it to my back. After a potential final embrace with Grandfather, I made the long walk from our camp into the trees.

Stepping over the invisible line dividing the plains from the forest was like entering another world. The early morning sun fought to break through the canopy of leaves overhead. Stray beams of light cascaded down to illuminate drops of dew that had formed on the smaller saplings. The ever constant wind that had accompanied Grandfather and I’s journey dropped to a gentle breeze almost immediately. By the time I had entered a hundred paces the air took on an eerie stillness. The dimness of the light and the unfamiliarity of the air only served to increase my sense of unease.

Just as Grandfather had told me, I sensed the presence of the holy stones toward the center of the forest. I crept through the trees. I paused after each snap of a twig underneath my heavy feet. I half expected the Queen of the Forest to jump out at any moment. I remained disappointed of that expectation. As I progressed, the smooth bark of the younger trees gave way to more gnarled and rough bark. The path I followed grew rough. Several times I was forced to double back as the underbrush proved impossible to navigate. The light the filtered through the leaves above me grew constantly until finally I stumbled on something other than a root.

Nursing my wounded pride, I looked to see that I had stumble upon a block of moss colored stone. I stood up and pressed onward. My reward broke in front of me. A temple built of rocks of that shimmered with iridescence. I had found the holy stones of my people. I made my way into the ruins. Just being present there overcame me with awe. I gathered my wits after several moments and sought out the orb of stone that had been described to me. Finding it at the center of the temple, I stashed it in my sack and prepared to escape from the Queen’s forest. Retracing my previous path, I made good time. I started to believe that I would get out of the woods without having to worry about the Queen. I was wrong.

Just as the trees around me started to shift to the smoother bark of the edges of the forest, I saw her figure. She stood there near the edge of the forest. Her skin the light green of fresh wood. Green leaves that appeared to be ivy covered her limbs and torso and stretched up into a mane covering her head. Her eyes shone like the most beautiful jade. Entranced, my legs locked in place. Grandfather’s advice echoed in my head, but the words rang hollow compared to the beauty I was confronted with. She beckoned me closer, and I stepped toward her, unable to resist.Bite your tongue and look the other way. The sound seemed to emanate throughout the trees.

Grandfather burst into the woods, yelling once more.

“Bite your tongue and look away, boy!”

The Queen’s eyes turned red. She wheeled about to face the intruder. Slackjawed, I remained locked in place. My Grandfather ran up and engaged with her, tendrils of vine wrapping around his hewn features. He continued to yell out his advice and the two of them struggled against the other. I bit my tongue so hard that my blood began to seep out and scorch the plants it dripped on. I tore my gaze away and built up momentum crashing through the trees as they grew sparser.

I waited in vigil well outside the reach of the forest for three days in vigil for Grandfather. He never emerged. It was with a heavy heart that I began the pilgrimage home.


Apropos of: This Prompt

-Crouse

Book Review: The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree by S.A. Hunt

The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree is the first book in the Outlaw King series by S.A. Hunt. It follows the main character, Ross as returns from deployment abroad and eventually ends up in the world that his father wrote some cult classics about before dying at the start of the book. So where do I begin with this? I read it fast. Not the fastest I’ve ever read a novel, but faster than most novels usually take me. This only took me about a week from start to finish. While I was reading it before bed, I would consistently find myself saying, “I have time for just one more chapter…” In other words, the pacing on this is amazing. There was only one portion where it flagged a bit about midway through the book, but it immediately picked back up.

Ross as a character is fully realized. He’s likable. We start off seeing him at a low point. Then it gets a little bit lower. Then he gets sucked into the world of his father’s fantasy novel and he begins his slow upward climb. The first portion of the book reads almost like a modern day thriller while the last portion reads like a fantasy with some elements of New Weird. Interspersing the chapters are little one page excerpts of the fictional novels that Ross’s father wrote that give you a bit of back story on the world. S.A. Hunt manages to avoid massive info dumps like this, which is something I can appreciate.

It’s like a less rambling The Dark Tower with a supporting cast that you root for. Not all of the imagery was spectacular, but none of it was mediocre, and the descriptions contained in the climax of the novel served the book well. So now we’re getting to the point where I give the bottom line.

Who should read this book? If you’re a fan of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, you’ll probably enjoy this book. They share enough in common without The Whirlwind in the Thorn Tree feeling derivative. If you like portal fantasies you should definitely read this book, as it fulfills that type of narrative in spades. If you’re a fan of imaginative fantasy with a slight surreal tint, read this book. Hell, if you trust my judgment in books- Read. This. Book.

Who shouldn’t read this book? If you’re looking for a weird west or fantasy wild west, this probably won’t fit your need exactly.  Sure, it’s got elements of it, but it’s like putting a circle peg in an octagonal slot, it’ll fit inside, but it’s going to rattle around annoying without the proper edges. But you should probably still read this book. I mean, it is good.