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

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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

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 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