The Slaughtered Calf

The Slaughtered Calf had traditionally been the drinking establishment of choice of which ever nation occupied the border town of Graffe. Originally, a wooden sign of a calf painted gold had adorned the front of the building. During one of the many shifts of national control over the city, the calf lost its head. The Gilt Calf turned into the Slaughtered Calf. This suited the soldiers just fine. Over time, multiple soldiers deep in their cups found themselves dispatched by men from the other nation who took the city in the night. A visitor to Graffe could always tell which nation held it by the regimental banner hanging outside the door.

On the armistice day, both the blue banner of the Empire and the gold banner of the Republic fluttered in the midsummer breeze. Garl sat at the bar, seven tankards in. Three of his squad mates threw dice at a nearby table.They luxuriated in their first chance to visit the Slaughtered Calf in months. Garl waited patiently for the barkeep to haul up a fresh cask of Ogre Spit. His squad’s laughter died as the door to the bar banged open flooding the room with afternoon light. The barkeep, pony keg securely ensconced in his arms, entered the room and immediately dropped the precious liquid on the floor. The crack of wood and sloshing of liquid filled the silence that accompanied the new arrivals. The barkeep cursed. Garl spared a glance over his shoulder to see who had delayed the enjoyment of his favorite beverage.

A squad of blue cloaks stood glowering at the occupants of the room. A tall man with a shaved head and a puckered scar running from his temple to just past his ear pushed past his comrades to enter. Garl whistled low and to himself with appreciation. The thorn in the side of the 6th Company of the Grand Republic had just walked through the door. Garl wanted to kill Corin more than he wanted to taste Ogre Spit again. He savored the satisfaction of his daydream before the reality of the inevitably resultant court marshal quashed his thoughts.

“A round of your finest ale for my men, Horace. And one for our new, peaceful neighbors from the east. And a flagon of Ogre Spit for myself.” Corin called out as he made his way to the bar, taking a seat two away from Garl. The rest of the blue cloaks shuffled in and set up around the dart board, well apart from Garl’s friends. Horace muttered something indistinct to himself in the surliest manner before barking out, “Don’t break anything!” He then called into the kitchen, “Martha, six ales. I got to get another cask of Ogre Spit.” The barkeep then disappeared down into the cellar.

Before tensions rose up between the dice players and the dart throwers, the barkeep’s wife came out with six tankards with too much foam on the head and hastily served them to the men before returning to the recesses of the kitchen. Garl grunted with displeasure and began spinning an Imperial Talent on the bar.

“Queer. Isn’t it.” Corin spoke to him. Garl grunted without conviction. Corin sidled over to the seat next to him.

“It’s Garl, not Kweer.” Garl said. He slapped the coin down revealing the face of the Empress. He spun it again and it wobbled until it landed on the face of the Emperor. Corin, not dissuaded by Garl’s less than plesant demeanor, smiled and pulled out one of the blue paper notes of the Republic.

“I know you Garl. Those soldiers at the darts have cursed your name more often than not. I just mean it’s strange. This peace.” The imperial held the paper note in between his hands. It bore the marks of multiple transactions. The corners appeared frayed and the ink indicating it as a single note rubbed off to the point of near illegibility. Garl grunted again. Corin continued, “I mean, if this were yesterday, we’d all be trying to kill each other. But here we are, we’ve each got money that’s really only valuable in this town and the other’s nation. We’ve both got reputations and-”

“And we’re both waiting for our fuckin’ Ogre Spit,” Garl interrupted. As if summoned, the barkeep thumped back into the room, another keg of the liquor in his possession. His eyebrows raised in surprise that no one had killed anyone else. Settling the keg behind the bar, he tapped it and filled two tankards with a more than generous proportion of the viscous fluid before placing them in front of Garl and Corin.

Both men took a deep draught of the strong alcohol. They exchanged looks out of the corner of their eyes. Garl began to gulp his down in larger swallows. Corin followed suit. Both Garl and Corin slammed their empty mugs down on the bar top and gasped for air at the same time. Their men looked up from their respective pursuits; one or two of them placed a hand on their weapons. Any concern of a struggle vanished at once when both of the haggard veterans began to laugh.

“Aye, it’s queer, Corin, drinking with a man you called enemy, but I’ll be thrice-damned if I don’t respect a man who can down Ogre Spit like that,” Garl said. A grin split his face and he offered his hand out to the opposing sergeant. A small smirk played at the corner of Corin’s mouth and reached out. The men shook hands, and Garl turned back to the barkeep, “Horace, another Ogre Spit for me and me friend here!”


Apropos of: This Prompt

-Crouse

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Influence of the Red Horned God

Brand cursed when he realized he’d lost track of the damned useless watchman. If he was lucky, he’d find the man back in the comforts of the town. He stood on the path they had been following listening for a snap of a twig under the clumsy oaf’s foot or a cry indicating where he was. Silence reigned. Brand blamed himself. Allowing the Arndt to stop and rest or tuck into some food would have prevented the ordeal of losing the man in the woods. Brand remained uncertain of the watchman’s role in the infernal events of the little town. He needed to find the bastard. Standing around lost its appeal. He headed deeper into the forest.

What little heat from the sun there was quickly dissipated as light tapered off into the evening. Brand paused to rub his sore knee. He promised himself he would take a position out of the field once this investigation was over. The sound of a voice drew his attention away from the pain in his leg. Straightening up he followed the source of the sound. Only one person spoke audibly, but they paused and responded in perfect rhythm for there to be another participant.  He paused at the edge of a break in the trees scanning the open area for the speaker. Brand glowered when he saw it was the watchman.

The one sided conversation softened. Brand strained his hearing but only managed to catch a few words. Paladin. Help. Wife. The naive assumption that Arndt was talking to himself about how Brand was helping him occurred and dissolved as swiftly as the beating of the paladin’s heart. He judged the matter of the charred remains and the carcass in the clearing to be malevolent. He drew his sword and allowed blue flame run the length of its blade at once. Whatever violation of the natural order dwelt in this place, he planned to extinguish it. He broke from his cover in the trees and approached the watchman with caution.

“Arndt, who are you talking to?” the Paladin called out. He advanced on the man with deliberate steps and held his weapon in a low guard. “Did you find something?” The watchman mumbled to himself and gesticulated wildly. As Arndt wheeled around and waved one hand out in front of himself wildly, Brand noticed what was clenched in the man’s grasp. The deer’s antler looked impossibly white. The watchman’s eyes widened when he saw Brand’s flaming sword.

“He was right.” The man muttered. “Of course he was right. He told me you were luring me out to kill me. Just like you killed her.” At this the watchman gestured to what Brand assumed was an animal carcass earlier. Brand stopped his approach to glance at it. The obvious details of a human woman remained on the disfigured body. The rib cage looked to have been pried open. A charnel scent wafted in the air this close to the remains.

“Arndt, I didn’t kill her.” Brand adjusted his stance, preparing for the man to charge him with the antler. “That’s the work of the devil that your wife worshiped, not a paladin alive could tear open someone’s chest like that, nor would they.” His palms began to feel damp and his arm grew tired with the effort of keeping the sword ready. He tried to remember the last time he had engaged in combat. It seemed as if a life time had passed since he’d had to fight in earnest. He watched Arndt and waited for him to initiate.

The man seemed at odds with himself. The fist the clutched the dagger rose up to the watchman’s head. His palmed rubbed at his forehead in apparent consternation. Brand stepped forward, wary of any sudden movements on Arndt’s part. He estimated a few more steps ought to bring him within striking distance. Could he use the flat of the blade or would he need to strike to kill?

Something grasped him from behind, arresting his ability to move forward. Brand looked down to see arms white as sun-bleached bone. The hands that curled up onto his shoulders looked like unfinished porcelain dipped in the Carjillien scarlet wine. He moved to strike behind him with his blade, but faster than his eye could follow one hand released him and rapped his wrist before resettling on his shoulder. He heard his wrist snap and sharp pain bloomed up as his sword dropped to the leaves at his feet. Its flame dissipated. He struggled against his captor. The preternatural strength kept him immobile.

Arndt shook his head. Paused. Began nodding. The watchman crept forward. Leaves and brush shuffled as the man’s feet slid closer to Brand.

“Fight it Arndt. You have to reject its influence.” Brand shouted. Arndt paused. Shook his head again. His advance resumed. Brand offered up a silent prayer. He felt the antler grind against his cloth. The enchantment imbued on his robes suspended the advance of the weapon. Arndt began murmuring in what sounded like Old Vargothian. The antler began to glow. Slowly it pushed into Brand’s gut. The next stab came faster. One after another, puncture wounds opened up his gut. The last thing Brand saw was Arndt walking away in the company of a man. A man with a jet black goat skull where his head ought to be. The horns shone like a cardinal in the snow.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Tools of the Red Horned God

Arndt watched from a distance as the Paladin, Brand, interrogated the blacksmith. He knew it was an interrogation and not just a friendly conversation as his erstwhile companion had implied based off the apoplectic expression on the blacksmith’s face. People passing by in the early morning hours sped their gait to pass the scene in progress out front of the smithy. Arndt wished he was one of them.

After an extended bout of shouting on the part of the blacksmith which left the man’s face redder than the fire he had been stoking, Brand turned heel and headed back to where Arndt loitered across the street. The old paladin produced a pipe from his dark blue robe and proceeded to pack it. Arndt hazarded a glance to where the smith still stood fuming.

“We should move,” he said. The paladin harumphed as he proceeded to light his pipe with all the leisure of a couple out for a midsummer stroll. Arndt’s gaze darted around as he attempted to look everywhere but where his fellow townsman remained glaring. He trotted to catch up to Brand when he noticed the paladin was no longer standing right beside him.

“Where are we going?” he asked. Brand removed his pipe and used the stem to gesture in a vague manner toward the forest beyond the village. Arndt’s stomach grumbled, reminding him that the only thing he given it in the past day had been sour beer which he had summarily vomited up.

“Should we get some food first?” he asked the paladin, dejection tinging the request.

“For the Crown’s sake, man, we’re investigating. It’s not a merry picnic.” Brand huffed with indignation. Arndt sighed. The day began to look very long from his point of view. He wondered if they might pass by the old blackberry patch that he and Jiselle used to frequent. The thought of his wife turned his stomach more than the rancid swill he bought last night. The fresh wound stung all the sharper for the memories. He pushed thoughts of blackberries from his mind.

~~~

Despite the cool air and the shade of the forest, Arndt found himself soaked through with sweat as the sun began to show signs of slowing its ascent. Hunger gnawed at his stomach, and his surroundings lacked a familiarity that gave him any hope of finding food to abate his hunger. Arndt knew Brand had not eaten either and envied the man his indefatigable resolve. He stopped to catch his breath. Brand disappeared into the forest up ahead. Arndt cursed and wiped the sweat from his brow before lurching into a disjointed stride to catch up.

Despite the brevity of Arndt’s respite, the paladin evaporated into the forest like a morning fog in the sun. The man should have been just past the moss covered trunks Arndt had noted when he paused, but the path ahead revealed empty air.  He wheeled around, hoping that Brand had turned unexpectedly. There was no sign of the midnight blue robe through the gaps of brown and green that surrounded him. Arndt carried on, hoping that the paladin had noticed he’d fallen behind and waited for him up ahead.

The path he followed ended abruptly. Ahead lay a clearing in the copse he’d been wandering for the better part of the day. A burned out pile of wood sat at its center along with the torn up carcass of some animal. Arndt walked slowly toward the charred sticks. A sense of unease permeated him. The idea that this would be as good a place as any to wait for Brand crossed his mind unbidden. He stared at the fire, noticing a piece of wood that remained unaffected by the fire that consumed the rest. He retrieved it to find that instead of wood, it was an antler. He wanted to remember something about antlers, but his thoughts felt like so much fog competing for space. A strong desire for Brand to see the antler overcame him. He needed to show Brand the antler when the paladin found him here.


Apropos of: Arathania

-Crouse

Decisions

Brand sat in another man’s home, warming his feet at another man’s hearth. The accusation he leveled at the man was not a light one. If one spouse was guilty of consorting with the red-horned god, the other’s guilt proved true like a cock crowing at the sun. Brand could have ran the watchman through just off his wife’s culpability. As he had investigated the man, Arndt, things did not add up as they had in his other investigations. Brand smirked at the thought of being proven wrong for the first time in his career as a paladin. He noticed that Arndt had not moved since he had spoken. Were it not for the lack of a thump, Brand would have assumed the main had fainted.

“You’re here to kill me,” Arndt said. His words fell out with the trepidation of a child.

“No,” replied Brand.

“You killed my wife?” Arndt said. Brand sensed the anger building up in the other man. He stood up, marveling at aches he had not experienced a decade ago. With stiff knees he turned to face the disheveled and disgraced watchman.

“Also no,” he said.

“Then why? Why come here?” Arndt asked, his voice straining and cracking.

“Your wife was a cultist, Arndt. And she disappeared,” Brand paused before adding, “Without you. I’ve been dealing with followers of pagan gods for a long time now. Never seen a pair of spouses who weren’t in it together. You’re a damned curiosity. That’s why I’m here.”

“You’re not sure.” The watchman did not elaborate. Instead, he staggered over to the wash basin and bent over to splash the week old water onto his face.

“I’m not, and the way I see it you’ve got two options. First you can help me find your wife.” Brand resisted the urge to rub his knee.  He assumed there must be a terrible storm rolling in from the throbbing of it. The watchman turned and regarded him with blurry eyes. The ‘or’ hung unspoken in the room. Silence gathered in pregnant expectation. Brand stared at Arndt’s dripping countenance, willing him to speak. Arndt let loose a long, low breath. Brand slowly inched his hand toward the hilt of his sword.

“I guess that settles it,” the watchman said. Brand clenched his sword and prepared to cut the man down as he attacked.

“When do we start?” asked Arndt. The only sign of surprise Brand showed was a slight uptick of his brow. He slid his hand off the sword as casually as a child played in a puddle after a summer storm. He gave the watchman a once over.

“In the morning. You’re no use drunk.” He said before turning and heading out the door. Any further questions Arndt may have asked were ignored. As Brand walked back to his commandeered room, he glowered darkly. The watchman had proven him wrong twice in one day. The thought that he may be growing two old to perform field duty as a paladin briefly flitted into his mind accompanied by a twinge in his knee. Brand ignored the thought and the twinge.


Apropos of: Arathania

-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

The Tusk Tribes

For The Eyes of His Most Royal Majesty Only

Your Grace,

It is my intent with this report to deliver unto you an honest and reputable report of the indigenous tribes that populate the Arathanian continent. Colloquially, many of the men have taken to simply referring to them as the Tusk Tribes. Although a harmless name for the peoples of this land, I find it for the most part erroneous despite the fact that some men seem to use it almost like an honorific.

In our survey of the coast, our crew has not found a suitable harbor that was not also inhabited by tribesmen, either sparsely or densely the latter being a more frequent occurrence. Along the southern coast the tribes tend to be more packed. This is no doubt due in part to the mildness of the clime. Unfortunately, these tribes, apparently having had contact with any one of our neighboring kingdoms due to the presence of steel in their possession, have become hostile to outsiders. My predecessor learned of their hostility first hand when he debarked from the ship in order to make contact. No sooner had he set foot on shore than a group of men, for that is all they were, mere men, albeit of a darker complexion and much more savage than any of the Gods fearing men that one might find within your illustrious kingdom.

Our expeditionary force lacked both the men and armaments to risk a further incursion into those wilds and it is my abject opinion that we leave the area, hospitable as the environment appears to either the Carjilliens or Vargoths. May they have much luck in taming such a savage land. Judging it the best course of action, we followed the coastline northerly.

The crew was still stricken by the mildness of the winter as we progressed further north. True, there was a bite of chill in the air that had not been present along the coast in the south, however the temperature remained such that none felt the need to huddle over a burning fire to ward off illness. Viewing the coastline as we progressed, I was able to spot several settlements of the tribal natives and can confirm that they are not the monsters that have been made out to be such larger than life foes by previous expeditions.

By the time we had progressed to about 43 Bars North the weather became much more like the winters the men were accustomed to. I granted the men extra rations of brandy to keep up morale as I tried to find the truth behind the rumors of the Tusk Tribes. I’m pleased to say that my diligence in the matter paid off spectacularly. In the northern portion of the continent, there are indeed upright walking beasts that dot the coast in small tribes. They resemble nothing so much as the beasts of burden traditionally by the savages in our colonies in the Argan Peninsula.

By my best estimates, these beasts, while lumbering on their hind legs, stand half again as tall as the tallest human. They possess muscles that hint at their brutish strength. Their tusks appear to be made of ivory and grow to great length. Where they differ in over all appearance from the Argan cousins is the shaggy fur that covers them from head to toe. I find it immediately obvious where the misnomer of the “Tusk” tribes began when I espy these beasts. They don’t appear to have a general intelligence from what I could spot through my spyglass. It is my firm belief that we could subjugated them given the proper manpower and they would serve as an excellent workforce in growing the economy in the Arathanian colonies.

I’ve sent this letter ahead, so that you might consider my assessment before I return to your glorious court. It is my hope that you will grant me more ships, men, and weapons in order to tame this land from the 38th Bar North to the northernmost tip of the continent. Until I may return, I remain your faithful and humble servant.

In Honor of the Gods,

Capt. Cornelius Franck


Apropos of: Arathania

Decided to try a little epistolary format this time around. Hopefully it works.

-Crouse

Freckles

Sean watched as Jill traced her fingers along the freckles that speckled his arms. They were sitting in the back seat of the station wagon that Kyle had borrowed from his father. Their now empty burger wrappers lay on the floorboard. Up front, Kyle and his boyfriend Chris were munching on stale popcorn and the audio from a decades old horror film pumped through the radio, slightly out of sync with the film projected on to the enormous drive-in screen.

Sean didn’t particularly enjoy horror movies, and he started to think that Jill didn’t either. He had asked her out at Kyle’s urging, and now they mostly ignored the gore being projected into the night and paid attention to each other while keeping a respectful silence for Chris and Kyle, who were both major horror fans. Jill’s brow furrowed as she retraced the freckles on his arm once more. Sean raised an eyebrow at her in question, and she shrugged and smiled at him in response.

It wasn’t until after the movie that Sean remembered he’d wanted to ask her about it. They were sitting in the vinyl striped seats of the Steak N’ Shake booth waiting on their dairy confections. Kyle sat with his arm draped around Chris’s shoulder. Sean turned to Jill as their waitress deposited three shakes at the table.

“I wanted to ask you what seemed to bother you while you were tracing my freckles during the movie,” he said as he plunked his straw through thick ice cream.

“It’s cancer. She saw a malignant melanin on your arm when she should have been watching the movie,” Chris interjected with a grin.

“Melanoma,” Kyle said.

“What?” asked Chris

“It’d be a malignant melanoma, not a malignant melanin,” Kyle responded.

“What’s the difference?” Chris said.

Sean tuned them out. He focused on Jill instead. Jill took the opportunity that the other couple’s bickering had provided to sip on her own milkshake. She blushed as Sean redirected his attention to her.

“It’s nothing,” she said, “I just thought it seemed like there were some letters written in the freckles.”

Sean’s face contorted in bewilderment. Jill sighed and slumped her shoulders before digging into her purse and pulling out a sharpie. She uncapped it and gestured at him for permission to start doodling on his arm. Chris and Kyle stopped discussing the finer merits of vocabulary long enough to watch this new development.

“Draw a penis!” Chris offered as a suggestion.

Sean watched with gratitude as Jill began to trace the outline of freckles on his arm rather than taking Chris’s direction. Slowly a small, cramped scrawl of text began to take form. She outlined some of the freckles on the inside of the shapes she had traced on standing clear and vibrant as the noon day sun were words. Inspected by: Jacob D.; Department 4.

“The hell…” Kyle said.

“What does that even mean?” Chris asked the group.

“How did you even notice that,” Sean half-whispered.

“I don’t know,” said Jill, “it’s just like…pareidolia, or something.”

“Look at the brains on Sean’s girlfriend,” Chris teased, “Maybe you should date her instead of me, Kyle.”

The group conversation drifted away to more standard topics, but Sean couldn’t shake the feeling of terrible wrongness that had settled in the pit of his stomach on seeing the words. He barely touched his shake.


Apropos of: This Prompt

-Crouse